A royalist military officer on the unrest in Paris (1789)

Victor Besenval, a royalist military commander stationed in Paris, lodged this report on the unrest in Paris in mid-1789:

“The insurrection of July 12th assumed an alarming aspect. Fearing the different cavalry posts detailed to maintain order in the suburbs might be insufficient, or that under provocation they might exceed the orders they had been given, I sent them word to proceed to Place de la Concorde. A strong detachment of Swiss Guards with four pieces of Artillery was already in the Champs-Elysées.

On their way to Place de la Concorde the troops were the target of insulting cries, stone-throwing and gunfire. Several men were severely wounded, but not a single menacing gesture was made by the soldiers – so great was their respect for the order that not a drop of their fellow citizens’ blood was shed.

The disorder increased hourly and with it my misgivings. What decision was I to take? If I engaged my troops in Paris, I should start a civil war. Blood, precious from whatever veins it flowed, would be shed without achieving any result likely to restore calm. The crowds were tampering with my men, almost under my eyes, seeking to seduce them with the usual promises. I received alarming reports concerning their loyalty. Versailles ignored my situation and persisted in regarding a rising of three hundred thousand men as just an unlawful assembly, and the revolution as just a riot.

With all these considerations in mind, I thought the wisest course was to withdraw the troops and to leave Paris to itself.

On the evening of the 13th, the governor brought me deputations from two districts, who came to ask me to leave them the fifty-two thousand muskets stored in the hospital. They expressed alarm, saying that they were surrounded by bandits who threatened their homes with fire and pillage … Though the spokesmen of these deputations had prepared their arguments cleverly, it was easy to see that they had been put up to it and that they wanted the arms rather for the purpose of attacking us than defending themselves.

On the 14th, at five in the morning, a man came into my room. This man, with his fiery eyes, his swift incisive speech, his bold demeanour and rather handsome face, made a striking impression on me. He said, “I must warn you to avoid a useless resistance. Today the defences of Paris will be burnt. I am sure of this and neither you or I can do anything to prevent it. Do not try to do so. You will sacrifice your men without extinguishing a single torch”.”