Sunday, May 1, 2011

War in the Vendée (1793 to 1796)!

For some reason as of late I've become tremendously interested in the "Early French Revolutionary War Era" with a particular interest in the "Wars of Vendee", otherwise commonly referred to as "Part of the War of the First Coalition, (1792–1797). Frankly what amazes me most about this whole episode is the amount of French troop losses as well as Vendeen losses and the later influences from 1813-15!

The history of the Vendée Wars was not written by the victors, it was completely written out of French history, and until recently denied by the French government, it is still not part of the school history curriculum, but is well documented. When Solzhenitsyn opened the official Vendée Memorial at Les Lucs-sur-Boulogne in 1993 the event was ignored by central government, as well as by most of the mainstream French media.

Henri de La Rochejacquelein at the Battle of Cholet in 1793 by Paul-Emile Boutigny, (19th C.), Musée d'art et d'histoire de Cholet, Cholet, France.
The War in the Vendée (1793 to 1796) was a Royalist rebellion and counterrevolution in the Vendée region of France during the French Revolution. The Vendée is a coastal region, located immediately south of the Loire River in western France. Reynald Secher and his associates considers the killing of Catholic Vendeans by the anticlerical French state at the end of the war to be the first modern genocide, but this claim has been widely criticized and is generally discounted.



Class differences were not as great in the Vendée as in Paris or in other French provinces. In rural Vendée, the local nobility seems to have been more residential and less bitterly resented than in other parts of France. The conflicts that drove the revolution were also lessened in this particularly isolated part of France by strong adherence of the populace to their Catholic faith. In 1791 two "representatives mission" informed the National Convention of the disquieting condition of Vendée, and this news was quickly followed by the exposure of a royalist plot organized by the Marquis de la Rouerie. It was not until the social unrest combined with the external pressures from the Civil Constitution of the Clergy (1790) and the introduction of a levy of 300,000 on the whole of France, decreed by the National Convention in February 1793, that the region erupted.

The Marquis de la Rouerie

The Civil Constitution required all clerics to swear allegiance to it and by extension to the increasingly anti-clerical National Constituent Assembly. All but seven of the 160 bishops refused the oath, as did about half of the parish priests. Persecution of the clergy and the faithful was the first trigger of the rebellion; the second being conscription. Nonjuring priests were exiled or imprisoned. Women on their way to Mass were beaten in the streets. Religious orders were suppressed and Church property confiscated. On March 3, 1793, virtually all the churches were ordered closed. Sacramental vessels were confiscated by soldiers and the people were forbidden to place a cross on their graves.

The March 1793 conscription requiring Vendeans to fill their district's quota of 300,000 enraged the populace, who took up arms as "The Catholic Army", "Royal" being added later, and fought for "above all the reopening of their parish churches with their former priests."


Outbreak of revolt

Insignia of the Vendean royalist insurgents. Note the French words 'Dieu Le Roi' beneath the heart-and-cross, meaning 'God the king'.

Chouans in the Vendée

There were other levy riots across France, when regions started to draft men into the army in response to the Levy Decree in February. The reaction in the northwest in early March was particularly pronounced with large scale rioting verging on insurrection. By early April, in areas north of the Loire, order had been restored by the revolutionary government, but south of the Loire in four departments that became known as the Vendée Militaire there were few troops to control rebels and what had started as rioting quickly took on the form of a full insurrection led by priests and the local nobility.

Within a few weeks the rebel forces had formed a substantial, if ill-equipped, army, the Royal and Catholic Army, supported by two thousand irregular cavalry and a few captured artillery pieces. The main force of the rebels operated on a much smaller scale, using guerrilla tactics, supported by the insurgents' unparalleled local knowledge and the good-will of the people.


The Republic's response

General Louis Lazare Hoche

The Republic was quick to respond, dispatching over 45,000 troops to the area by the end of March.
The first pitched battle was on the night of March 19. A Republican column of 2,000, under General de Marcé, moving from La Rochelle to Nantes, was intercepted north of Chantonnay at Pont-Charrault (La Guérinière), near the Lay. After six hours of fighting rebel reinforcements arrived and routed the Republican forces. The rebels advanced as far south as Niort. In the north, on March 22, another Republican force was routed near Chalonnes.

The Vendée Militaire covered the area between the Loire and the Lay - covering Vendée (Marais, Bocage Vendéen, Collines Vendéennes), part of Maine-et-Loire west of the Layon, and the portion of Deux Sèvres west of the River Thouet. Having secured their pays, the deficiencies of the Vendean army became more apparent. Lacking a unified strategy (or army) and fighting a defensive campaign, from April onwards the army lost cohesion and its special advantages. Successes continued for some time: Thouars was taken in early May and Saumur in June; there were victories at Châtillon and Vihiers. But the Vendeans then turned to a protracted siege of Nantes.

Bataille d'Entrammes Mort du général Beaupuy, peinture d’Alexandre Bloch, 1888



On 1 August 1793, the Committee of Public Safety ordered General Jean-Baptiste Carrier to carry out a "pacification" of the region by complete physical destruction. These orders were not carried out immediately, but a steady stream of demands for total destruction persisted. Under orders from the Committee of Public Safety in February 1794, the Republican forces launched their final "pacification" effort (named Vendée-Vengé or "Vendée Avenged"): twelve columns, the colonnes infernales ("infernal columns") under Louis Marie Turreau, marched through the Vendée. General Turreau inquired about "the fate of the women and children I will encounter in rebel territory", stating that, if it was "necessary to pass them all by sword", he would require a decree. In response, the Committee of Public Safety ordered him to "eliminate the brigands to the last man, there is your duty...".

The Republican army was reinforced, benefiting from the first men of the levée en masse and reinforcements from Mainz. The Vendean army had its first serious defeat at the Battle of Cholet on October 17; worse for the rebels, their army was split. In October 1793 the main force, commanded by Henri de la Rochejaquelein and numbering some 25,000 (followed by thousands of civilians of all ages), crossed the Loire, headed for the port of Granville where they expected to be greeted by a British fleet and an army of exiled French nobles. Arriving at Granville, they found the city surrounded by Republican forces, with no British ships in sight. Their attempts to take the city were unsuccessful. During the retreat, the extended columns fell prey to Republican forces; suffering from hunger and disease, they died in the thousands. The force was defeated in the last, decisive battle at Savenay on December 23.

With this came formal orders for forced evacuation; also, a 'scorched earth' policy was initiated: farms were destroyed, crops and forests burned and villages razed. There were many reported atrocities and a campaign of mass killing universally targeted at residents of the Vendée regardless of combatant status, political affiliation, age or gender.[14]

The Convention issued conciliatory proclamations allowing the Vendeans liberty of worship and guaranteeing their property. General Hoche applied these measures with great success. He restored their cattle to the peasants who submitted, "let the priests have a few crowns", and on 20 July 1795 annihilated an émigré expedition which had been equipped in England and had seized Fort Penthievre and Quiberon. Treaties were concluded at La Jaunaie (February 15, 1795) and at La Mabillaie, and were fairly well observed by the Vendeans; and nothing remained but to cope with the feeble and scattered remnant of the Vendeans still under arms, and with the Chouans. On 30 July 1796 the state of siege was raised in the western departments.

Estimates of those killed in the Vendean conflict - on both sides - range between 117,000 and 450,000, out of a population of around 800,000.


Later revolts

According to Theodore A. Dodge, the war in Vendée lasted with intensity from 1793 to 1799, when it was suppressed, but later broke out spasmodically especially in 1813, 1814 and 1815. During Napoleon Bonaparte's Hundred Days in 1815, some of the population of Vendée remained loyal to King Louis XVIII, forcing Bonaparte – who was short of troops to fight the Waterloo Campaign – to send a force of 10,000 (according to other sources 20,000) under the command of Jean Maximilien Lamarque to pacify the region.

Le Massacre de Machecoul, huile sur toile de François Flameng (1856-1923) réalisée en 1884.

Accusation of genocide

In 1986 Reynald Secher wrote a controversial book entitled: A French Genocide: The Vendée, in which he argued that the actions of the French republican government during the revolt in the Vendée (1793–1796), a popular mostly Catholic uprising against the anti-clerical Republican government during the French Revolution, was the first modern genocide. Secher's claims, in addition to his political and religious affiliations, caused a minor uproar in France amongst scholars of modern French history, as mainstream authorities on the period — both French and foreign — published articles rejecting Secher's claims (see below). Claude Langlois (of the Institute of History of the French Revolution) derides Secher's allegation of genocide as "quasi-mythological". Timothy Tackett of the University of California summarizes the case as such: "In reality... the Vendée was a tragic civil war with endless horrors committed by both sides — initiated, in fact, by the rebels themselves. The Vendeans were no more blameless than were the republicans. The use of the word genocide is wholly inaccurate and inappropriate."  Hugh Gough (Professor of history at University College Dublin,) considers Secher's book an attempt at historical revisionism that is unlikely to have any lasting impact.Notwithstanding those criticisms, a number of scholars, as noted below, support Secher's assertion. Indeed, as also noted below, a whole literature on the subject of this alleged genocide is developing.

Peter McPhee roundly criticizes Secher, including the assertion of commonality between the functions of the Republican government and Communist totalitarianism. McPhee does this by pointing to what he considers to be a number of dubious assumptions and flawed methodology on Secher's part. Namely, (1) The war was not fought against Vendeans but Royalist Vendeans, the government relied on the support of Republican Vendeans; (2) the Convention ended the campaign after the Royalist Army was clearly defeated - if the aim was genocide, then they would have continued and easily exterminated the population; (3) Fails to inform the reader of atrocities committed by Royalist against Republicans in the Vendée; (4) Repeats stories now known to be folkloric myths as fact; (5) Does not refer to the wide range of estimates of deaths suffered by both sides, and that casualties were not "one-sided"; and more. Other scholars who have published against Secher's thesis include: Julian Jackson (professor of modern history at the University of London), and professors of modern history and related fields François Lebrun of the University of High-Brittany-Rennes II, and of the University of Paris, I-Pantheon-Sorbonne, Paul Tallonneau Claude Petitfrère, and Jean-Clément Martin.

Peter McPhee says that the pacification of the Vendée does not fit either the United Nations' CPPCG definition of genocide or that of Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn ("Genocide is a form of one-sided mass killing in which a state or other authority intends to destroy a group, as that group and membership in it are defined by the perpetrator") because the events happened in a civil war. So it was not a one-sided mass killing and the Committee of Public Safety did not intend to exterminate the whole population of the Vendée as parts of the population were allied to the revolutionary government. However in Genocide and Gross Human Rights Violations Kurt Jonassohn himself writes "The reason we consider this a case of genocide is that exterminatory intent was clearly stated in the orders of several generals as well as in the several decrees passed by the government". Further support for Secher come from Adam Jones, who wrote in Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction a summary of the Vendée uprising, citing Secher and others, supporting the view that it was a genocide: "the Vendée Uprising stands as a notable example of a mass killing campaign that has only recently been conceptualized as 'genocide'" and that while this designation "is not universally shared . . . it seems apt in the light of the large scale murder of a designated group (the Vendéan civilian population)." Pierre Chaunu describes it as the first "ideological genocide"." Mark Levene, an historian who specializes in the study of genocide", considers the Vendée "an archetype of modern genocide".

Other scholars who consider the massacres to be genocide include R.J. Rummel, Jean Tulard and Anthony James Joes. In his essay "Reorganization of the Party, " V.I. Lenin referred to the Vendée in the context of paralyzing reactionary counter-revolutionary policies. British historian Ruth Scurr states that the actions of the revolutionaries, such as mass executions by grapeshot fired from cannons and group drownings in the Vendée, constitute crimes against humanity that they would today be held accountable for under the European human rights legislation they themselves pioneered.

Concerning the controversy, Michel Vovelle, a specialist on the French Revolution, remarked: "A whole literature is forming on "Franco-French genocide", starting from risky estimates of the number of fatalities in the Vendean wars: 128,000, 400,000... and why not 600,000? Despite not being specialists in the subject, historians such as Pierre Chaunu have put all the weight of their great moral authority behind the development of an anathematizing discourse, and have dismissed any effort to look at the subject reasonably." Roger Price writes in a similar manner: "Some historians like Pierre Chaunu, supported by the conservative media... frequently exaggerating the number of deaths they have described the repression of counter-revolutionary movements in the Vendée as heralding Nazi genocide. This essentially ahistorical, and indeed hysterical approach, can only be understood as a feature of the politics of the reactionary right of our own time." Ferenc Féhér comments that Secher draws conclusions "on the basis of almost no evidence".

Secher attracted further controversy in 1991 with his publication Jews and Vendeans: From One Genocide to Another, comparing the fate of Royalist Vendeans with Jews in Nazi Germany.


See also

DateMarch 1793-March 1796
LocationVendée, France
ResultVictory of the French Republic
Commanders and leaders
Casualties and losses

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