James Tissot & Tommy Bowles Brave the Siege Together: October 1870

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Tommy Bowles [Thomas Gibson Bowles, 1841 – 1922)] at 29 had met the challenge of establishing the Society magazine, Vanity Fair, which was now a profitable business.  On Tuesday, September 6, 1870, he was cruising in his yacht up the Southampton Water, fishing on the Cornwall coast, when he went ashore and read about Napoleon III’s surrender in the newspapers.  A republic had been established, and with or without the emperor, France was at war with Prussia.  Tommy took the first train to London, obtained a passport, and soon was busy in Paris as a war correspondent for the Morning Post.  “I know a considerable number of people here,” he wrote, “but I find that they have one and all fled.  Lodging is naturally extraordinarily cheap.”  He found a “splendid suite of apartments – some ten white-and-gold rooms” with a long balcony overlooking the boulevard, for just six francs a day.

Because there were not enough French troops, a National Guard – a volunteer militia independent of the regular army – was forming to defend Paris.  On Friday, September 9, Tommy was surveying the scene of Garde Mobile squads drilling or wandering around along the avenue de l’Impératrice [near James Tissot’s sumptuous villa at No. 64], “when my hand was suddenly seized, and I found myself talking to one of my smartest Parisian friends [James Tissot] who had donned the blue uniform like everybody else.  He was delighted to see me.”  Tissot promised that if there was a sortie, he would make sure that Tommy had the chance to see some action.  [Tissot scholar Willard E. Misfeldt learned that James Tissot actually had enlisted in the Garde Nationale de la Seine, the Fourth Company of the Eighteenth Battalion, in 1855 – as soon as he had arrived in Paris at age 19.]

Ten days later, on September 19, 200,000 Prussian troops encircled Paris in attempt to starve the French into submission.  No food could enter the city; all communication between the French capital and the outside world was cut off.  The Siege of Paris had begun.

French soldiers in the Franco-Prussian War, 1870-71 (Wikimedia.org)

By September 28, Paris residents were erecting a barricade on the straight, short and splendidly wide avenue de l’Impératrice (Empress Avenue), which led to the recreational grounds at the Bois de Boulogne.  It soon would be renamed avenue Uhrich after the hero of the Siege of Strasbourg, General Uhrich.

On October 3, Tommy Bowles recorded an unexpected guest in his luxurious rented lodgings:

France

James Tissot, self-portrait, 1865 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“A friend [James Tissot] has turned up in a promiscuous, beleaguered sort of way, and has come to share my lodgings and to relieve with his society the tedium of waiting for the bombs.  We neither of us have got any money left, but we propose to support each other by our mutual credit, to fish each other out of the prison that yawns in the mouth of every Garde Nationale, and to share our last rat together.  Meantime we are not greatly to be pitied.  Our joint domestic, Jean, one of those handy creatures yet to be invented in England, makes our beds, scrubs the floor, brushes the clothes, cooks like a cordon bleu, and is, as we believe and fervently hope, capable of producing any explanation or invention that may be required by persons in search of payment.  He has been especially successful as regards meat.”

The British journalist and the French painter shared a mischievous sense of humor – and strong survival instincts.  After nine days together, on October 12, Tommy noted:

“We are all being put upon rations, and are to share and share alike the meat left, according to the number in each family.  My friend and I have returned ourselves as two families, and if our supply runs short we mean to make a touching appeal for our starving children and wives.  We have also brought our birthdays into the present month, and we expect our friends in Paris to give us at least a leg of mutton each as presents.”

Elihu B. Washburne (Wikimedia.org)

By that same day, October 12, the military operations had driven even Elihu Washburne (1816 – 1887), the United States Minister to France, out of his house at No. 75, at the end of the former avenue de l’Impératrice near the Porte Dauphine, the gate in the city wall opening into the Bois de Boulogne.  The avenue was filled with troops.

The lush woods of the Bois de Boulogne, planted only fifteen years ago when Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann began turning Paris into the showpiece of Europe, was nothing but pointed stumps for a hundred yards.  The gilded ornamental gates of the Porte Dauphine at the western end of the avenue had been removed and thrown off on the ground, replaced by a rough wooden drawbridge leading to a thirty-foot mound of earth.  On it stood two rows of palisades, and from openings in the rampart, cannons pointed down upon any Prussian troops attempting to enter Paris from the west.

By October 22, the eastern end was blocked — entry from the city to what was now called the avenue Uhrich was cut off by a barricade at the Arc de Triomphe.

But by then, James Tissot was armed and fighting on the front line – as well as saving lives as a Red Cross stretcher-bearer.

© 2013 Lucy Paquette.  All rights reserved.

Oil on canvas

L’Attaque (Attack!) by Étienne-Prosper Berne-Bellecour (1838 — 1910). (Photo: Wikipedia)