|However, since the nobility were paid to do
it, it was time for them to fulfil their side of the bargain. But the aristocrats - or at
least those who had not fled the country - took a good deal of persuading.At the beginning
of the insurrection no one realised how big the movement was, and the Vendeans' rising
seemed suicidal. Thus Charette - the "knight" who was to enter into legend - had
to be pulled by overexcited local peasants from his hiding-place beneath a bed. D'Elbée,
Bonchamps, Sapinaud, La Rochejaquelin and Lescure showed little more enthusiasm.
All that the Vendeans had in the way of arms were a few hunting guns and their farm implements, just as they had used in earlier peasant uprisings. Mounted like bayonets, at right-angles to the normal position, scythe blades became deadly weapons. Thus armed, the Vendeans invaded the Republican villages, immediately overpowering the National Guard, who had no military experience whatever. One by one, towns began to fall to the Vendeans: Bressuire on 2 May, Thouars on the 5th, Fontenay on the 25th, Saumur on 9 June, Angers on the 18th. With these victories the Vendeans acquired thousands of guns and dozens of cannon. Their Catholic and Royalist Army numbering 50,000 men was beginning to take form. Jacques Cathelineau, a simple pedlar, was elected General-in-Chief.
|Among the new arrivals in the region
was General Westermann, whose later exploits would earn him the title of "butcher of
the Vendée". In a daring raid, he surprised the royalists and recaptured Bressuire
and Mauléon before being beaten. A fresh victory for the Vendeans followed on 14 July, at
Vihiers, but August proved a less fortunate month. The Vendeans failed to capture the town
of Luçon, which was heroically defended by the garrison and the inhabitants.
Encircled by the garrisons of Niort, Nantes, La Rochelle and Angers, the Vendeans were everywhere. Five days later they beat the best of the Republican troops - the "Mayençais" (so-called because they had kept up a terrible siege in the town of Mainz) - and such illustrious leaders as the talented military commanders Kléber. This army, now sent to the Vendée, had forced the Prussians to leave the city with arms and standards, on condition they never again took up arms in the East. The Convention was confident that soldiers of this calibre would soon put down the unruly département. However, Kléber and his Mayençais were overcome at Torfou on 19 September 1793. Though not routed, the army of Mainz was forced to retreat. The same happened again, twice during the following week.The turning point came on 17 October, at Cholet. Kléber himself admitted that the Vendeans had been wrong to accept an engagement outside the town. The battle raged until nightfall, with victory seeming certain first for one side and then the other.
Two Vendean chiefs, Bonchamps and d'Elbée, were gravely wounded. As at Nantes, it was the signal for flight. The Catholic and Royalist Army fled towards the river Loire. Men, women and children - 80,000 in all - managed, with only one reported casualty, to cross the wide river in small boats and on rudimentary rafts. Napoleon later admitted to a deep admiration for such a logistical exploit, which implied an unusual level of discipline among civilians.
At St Florent le Vieil, near the river's sandy shores from which the crossing began, the dying Bonchamps ordered the lives of 5,000 Republican prisoners to be spared. Furious at their own defeat and at the losses they had sustained, the Vendeans had been eager to shoot their captives.