‘Of course, you had to be able to afford the meat. Most couldn’t. Mothers chose which of their children to let die, and which to give what little food they had left.’ [‘Orphan Rock‘, Transit Lounge, forthcoming March 2022]
What Josette is describing in the above quote is a time when Prussia surrounded Paris, hoping to starve it into surrender.
For two years after the Spanish Revolution of 1868, which deposed Isabella II, Spain was ruled by a provisional government until a new monarch could be found. The German Prince Leopold – a relative of King Wilhelm I of Prussia – was offered this throne. But French Emperor Napoleon III and his government expressed concern, worried that this extension of Prussian influence into Spain would threaten France. As a result, the offer to Prince Leopold was withdrawn on the 12th of July 1870. The following day, the French ambassador to Prussia, Count Benedetti, approached King Wilhelm, who was vacationing at the spa town of Bad Ems, to request an assurance that no member of King Wilhelm’s family would again be a candidate for the Spanish throne. The king politely refused Benedetti’s demand, and their discussion ended.
The next day, King Wilhelm sent an internal dispatch to Berlin, to Otto von Bismarck – chancellor of the North German Confederation – to notify him of the conversation. Bismarck edited the King’s version of the dispatch before releasing it to the press. This edited version omitted the courtesies the two men had shown each other, making it seem that each man had insulted the other, resulting in demands for war from both France and Prussia. As a result, on July 19, 1870, France declared war.
By the 2nd September, Napoleon III was captured while fighting on the front lines in Sedan, and the Prussians were close to the French capital. The French Minister of Agriculture anticipated a siege, and gathered all the produce, fuel and livestock that could be found in surrounding departments, and soon cattle, sheep and pigs blanketed the park at the Bois de Boulogne. Bismarck wanted a quick surrender, and so wanted to shell Paris, but Wilhelm knew an all-out attack would be costly as the city was well fortified. He ordered Bismarck to surround the capital instead, cutting off all supply lines and food shipments into the city. As telegraph lines were cut and trains stopped, German forces tightened the noose around Paris. By the 18th of September, all roads around the city were occupied and the city was totally under siege.
An American doctor – Robert Lowry Sibbet – was holidaying in Paris at the time, and found himself trapped there for the duration of the siege. He later wrote of his experience in a book titled The Siege of Paris by an American Eye-Witness [1892, Meyers Printing and Publishing House: Harrisburg, PA]. He notes that the first signs things were not well with supplies was on the 10th of October, when the city opened its markets to horse meat, so as to decrease the number of sheep and cattle killed each day. To encourage hesitant Parisians to try this meat, the Central Sanitary Commission organised a dinner highlighting horse meat. There was horse-broth soup with toast, braised horse flank, boiled horse with cabbage, horse haunch à la mode, roast fillet of horse, and beef and horse cold cuts. Between September 1870 and January 1871, around 65,000 horses were killed for food, including two of Napoleon III’s stallions. But even introducing horse meat was not enough. By November, cafés were closing everywhere, to be replaced by government canteens to feed the poor, and rationing was introduced – 100 grams of fresh meat or fish per person per day. Parisians began looking for other sources of meat.
On the 12th of November 1870, on the Rue Rochechouart, a stall began selling dog, cat and rat meat. All were properly cleaned and dressed. Cat and dog meat ranged from between 20 and 40 cents for 500 grams, but surprisingly rat was the most expensive, with a ‘plump rat’ costing 50 cents. Pigeon meat also appeared in butcher shops where people queued for hours for scraps of these meats. The government decreed anyone trying to pass off dog or cat as beef or venison would be arrested, and all meat was to be labelled as of its origin. People reported that dog tasted something like mutton, and cat was a good substitute for rabbit.
In a letter to his wife during the siege, French painter Édouard Manet wrote:
‘There are cat, dog and rat butchers in Paris now, we eat nothing but horse when we can get it at all.’
The siege continued and still the people starved. The animals at the Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes – Paris’ zoo and the second oldest in the world – were next to be sacrificed, including Castor and Pollux, the zoo’s hugely popular elephants. Only the monkeys, tigers, lions and hippos were spared. The meat was sold to butchers and restaurants, and on Christmas day, the great Parisian chef, Alexandre Étienne Choron, working at Voisin on Rue Saint Honoré [one of Paris’ fanciest restaurant] offered a menu that included Tête d’Ane Farcie [stuffed donkey’s head] as an hors d’œuvre, followed by Consommé d’Éléphant [elephant broth], then a choice of Goujons Frits – Le Chameau rôti à l’Anglaise [roasted camel nuggets], Le Civet de Kangourou [kangaroo stew], Côtes D’Ours rôties sauce Poivrade [bear ribs with pepper sauce] as entrées. Then came Cuissot de Loup, sauce chevreuil [haunch of wolf with venison sauce], or Le Chat Flanqué de Rats [cat flanked by rats]. Some historians have argued that this menu was Chef Choron’s way of demonstrating his opinion on the absurdity and pointlessness of war.
In January, when it became obvious the Parisians were not about to surrender, Bismarck got his way. To break Parisian morale, some 12,000 shells were fired into the city over 23 nights. Over four hundred people perished or were wounded by the bombardment. Paris surrendered, and a harsh peace treaty was implemented. The Franco-Prussian War officially ended with the Treaty of Frankfurt on the 10th of May 1871. Germany annexed Alsace and half of Lorraine – giving birth to modern Germany – and France was occupied until a large indemnity was paid.
But while treaty negotiations had been in progress, on the 18th of March 1871 far-left socialist members of the National Guard had successfully seized government buildings and armaments. Together with the workers of Paris, they’d seized the city and set about re-organising society in their own interests. But their success was short-lived. Beginning on 21st May 1871, the army retook the capital and massacred tens of thousands of Parisians, including women and children – it became known as La Semaine Sanglante [The Bloody Week]. Thousands more were taken prisoners and many were executed, and by the 28th May 1871, the Paris Commune was no more.
In the aftermath of the war, and once the bombed buildings had been repaired, the Paris zoo received many animal consignments from friendly nations to help it rebuild, including animals from Melbourne, Australia. #Paris #OrphanRock #FrenchHistory #zoos #ParisHistory