La Commune de Paris (1871). Vue de la place Vendôme © Parisienne de photographie
After the armistice with the Germans in January 1871, Paris continued to be in a state of high political excitement. The newly elected National Assembly was in the process of moving to Bordeaux from Versailles (several miles south-west of Paris), having decided that the capital city was too turbulent for them to meet there. Their absence created a power vacuum in Paris as well as suspicion about the National Assembly’s intentions, as it had a large royalist majority.
As the Central Committee of the National Guard adopted an increasingly radical stance and steadily gained authority, the government felt that it could not indefinitely allow it to have four hundred cannon at its disposal. So, as a first step, on March 18, 1871, Thiers ordered regular troops to seize the cannon stored on the Butte Montmartre and in other locations across the city. The soldiers, however, whose morale was low, fraternized with National Guards and local residents. The general at Montmartre, Claude Martin Lecomte, who was later said to have ordered them to fire on the crowd of National Guards and civilians, was dragged from his horse and later shot, together with General Thomas—a veteran republican now hated as former commander of the National Guard—who was seized nearby.
Other army units joined the rebellion, which spread so fast that the head of the government, Thiers, ordered an immediate evacuation of Paris by as many of the regular forces as would obey, by the police, and by administrators and specialists of every kind. He fled ahead of them to Versailles.