War in the Vendée

After a few sporadic outbreaks, the general flare-up happened between 10 and 13 March 1793. Two-thirds of the Vendée rose up in arms (the Plain and the south coast areas remaining Republican), and with them the western part of Maine-et-Loire (known as Les Mauges), the south of Loire-Atlantique département and the north of Deux-Sevres. The rebellious region was bounded on the north by the river Loire, from Angers to the sea, and on the east by a line from Angers to Parthenay.The movement's leaders were men of the people. They sought out real military officers from among the local nobility. After all, the privileges of these aristocrats had originally been accorded in return for the promise to provide protection for their underlings. Though, since the Middle Ages, the price that the peasant population paid for this notional service had become exorbitant


"Chouans preparing to ambush", late-19th-century painting
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.
In Paris, dismay reigned. Troops sent to overcome these "clog-shod soldiers" were routed. Reinforcements were sent. It was obvious to the Vendeans that they could not carry on alone, but their capture of the city of Nantes brought them the added strength of the "chouans", from Brittany, as well as a large port through which they could have dealings with England.The attack on Nantes took place on 29 June. In spite of problems synchronising the different Vendean armies and of the Republicans' desperate attempts to defend the city, Cathelineau reached the centre of the town.
But in Place Viarme he fell, mortally wounded. In spite of their efforts, the other Vendean leaders could not manage to conceal the General's death from their followers. Though the city was in their hands, the Vendeans pulled back.Soon the Republic had lined up 60,000 men against the Vendée. The numbers may seem fairly even, but the Republican? had the advantage of a permanent force of soldiers, while those of the Vendée never followed up their victories - preferring to hurry home and look after their crops. The "Blues" [Republicans] could wait, but haymaking or harvest couldn't.
"Mayence Army" soldier
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.

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Chronicle of a Genocide
Letter to the Great Turk
The Vendée Wars retold for the grandchildren of the Republic
Alain Decaux: a turncoat
The Vendée Wars - 1998
A comic-strip about the Vendée Wars
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