Remembering the Vende

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by Sophie Masson by Sophie Masson

The fact that the Vende revolt was a popular one called into question the very nature of the Revolution, with its middle-class and aristocratic leaders. 

Only very recently has the Republic of France begun to acknowledge the horrors of what can be seen as perhaps the first modern genocide.

The Atlantic Ocean is gentle along this long coast.  It rolls in sinuous unfoldings, not pounding as it does further north, along the rugged grey cliffs.  Along its shore are scrubby pine forests and further in, deep deciduous woods, slow rivers, marshes, small fields, deformed menhirs standing on the side of remote paths.  The sky is huge here, embracing this flat, secret, remote land with a pearly blue haze, and along the beach we find the footprints of an impossibly ancient past, thousands of amnonite fossils embedded in the soft rock.  The villages and towns are small, tucked in on themselves, with their churches of grey, unspeaking stone, not carved, but inside, there are painted wooden decorations of surprising delicacy and charm.  And everywhere, everywhere, the presence of the Chouans; everywhere the memory of the terror, the memory of the dead, the names, in endless rows. 

I want to tell you a story, a story you may feel is familiar…

Once, there was a rich and beautiful and remote land, a land of secrets and songs and story; a land of ocean and forest and river; of quiet marsh and deep paths.  Its people lived as they had always lived, in their land and with it, in the depths of their culture which they had not named but which they knew in every fibre of their beings.  When the new ways came, at first the people did nothing.  They were curious, they reserved judgment.  But very soon, they realised what the corning of the new men and the new ideas meant.  A violation of their land, their beliefs, their culture, their very soul.  They would not stand by and see that happen.  They would resist, forever if need be.  The intruders, for their part, thought they were bringing progress, enlightenment, improvement, release from superstition, liberty, for heavens sake.  Equality, fraternity.  They would drag these benighted savages into modern times, even if it cost them some battles.  But it would be easy; these savages, these half-humans, would soon be a dying race. 

But it wasn’t easy.  The people resisted fiercely.  Sometimes they won.  Sometimes the intruders grew very worried indeed.  But soon, the lack of arms, the superior technology, and also, it must be said, the independence of the people who found it difficult to band together in total unity, saw reason win over their courage and faith.  Theirs was not a warlike culture; they longed for their former peace.  It was then, in the defeat of the people, that the most terrible revelation came to the spirit of the intruders.  This dying race of savages could be helped on its way.  And so the genocide began. 

The atrocities multiplied, the exterminations systematic and initiated from the very top, and carried out with glee at the bottom.  At least 300,000 people were massacred during that time, and those of the intruders who refused to do the job were either shot or discredited utterly.  But still the people resisted.  Still there were those who hid in the forests and ambushed, who fought as bravely as lions but were butchered like pigs when they were caught.  No quarter was given; all the leaders were shot, beheaded, or hanged.  Many were not even allowed to rest in peace; the body of the last leader was cut up and distributed to scientists; his head was pickled in a jar, the brain examined to see where the seed of rebellion lay in the mind of a savage. 

That was two hundred years ago; but at the recent bicentenary celebrated by the intruders, not a mention was made of the dead.  Not a mention was made of the genocide.  It was the people themselves who remembered.  For that is what the intruders did not take into account: memory.  The people still tell the tale, vividly, with pain.  But their pain is not that only of victims.  It is a glowing, rich thing, a thing that paradoxically enabled them to survive.  Paradoxically, it united them in a way that could never otherwise have been possible.  At least half of the people of that secret, remote and beautiful land died during that hideous time, but their memory is still there.  They live forever in the minds of their descendants but also in the land itself.  For they did not give away their land, their soul.  And now that things are changing, a little, now that the descendants of the intruders are discovering the truth about their glorious past, now the people are beginning to tell their stories, out loud, out where it can be heard.  Still, there is a long way to go.  Still, there are many who refuse to believe, who attempt to discredit at every turn, who even whisper that it was a pity the job wasn’t done properly.  But there is a beginning.  And what is uppermost in people’s minds now is their astonishing survival, their strength of soul which one day may prove far more durable, far more real, than any pitiful notions of conquest. 

There is a name, now, for that culture which resisted – and that name is Vende.  Perhaps not the name you were expecting.  But that is the narrative I grew up with.  It is the narrative of the terrible history of the people of western France, particularly Vende and Brittany during the French Revolution, a story of both great hideousness and great heroism.  Out of the ashes of Vende, rose Vende itself.  It is a story which until very recently was suppressed and denied.  Generations of lies have meant that most French people never knew it.  Only the people of Vende and Brittany themselves kept it alive, through never forgetting.  It is only in the last two years that major memorials have been put up to the Venden martyrs, and then only by local government, never by the central one; only very recently that the Republic of France has begun to acknowledge the horrors of what can be seen as perhaps the first modern genocide.  I was brought up with it because one side of my father’s family came from Vende (the other came from the South); we were taught the stories, the songs of resistance, we felt the pain and horror and, yes, hate and yet also the astonishing surviving spirit of the Venden people, the spirit of the Chouans. 

The Chouans! I was brought up on their names, their stories, stories that were for so long suppressed, but that stayed in the hearts, the minds, the words of their descendants.  Once, to even mention them would be to invite fashionable scorn, ridicule, contempt and even hate.  "Superstitious savages"; "obstacles to progress"; "deluded fools" – these were just some of the gentler terms.  It is easy to see why.  For to look at their real stories, to peel away the generations of lies, is to invite some very uncomfortable reflections indeed. 

In 1789, the French Revolution began, a revolution that at first was full of optimism, of the genuine wish for reform; a revolution that was not even opposed by King Louis XVI himself.  This was the Enlightenment.  Humanity was to be trusted to behave well.  Liberty, equality, fraternity.  Who could argue with that? Very few did, least of all the peasants of western France, who welcomed many of the changes – the abolition of compulsory labour, the gradual abolition of privilege.  The revolutionaries produced a passionate and idealistic document, the Declaration of the Rights of Man.  Some of those rights were the right to freedom of religion; the right to live peacefully, without tyranny or arbitrary rule; the right to discuss.  Alas! While Desmoulins and Danton debated and wrote passionately, Robespierre bided his time.  That time came all too soon. 

In 1790, the first cracks began to appear.  Provincial assemblies were abolished, stripping people of their local governments.  The clergy was to be stripped of its property and would be appointed by lay people, not the church.  In practice, this meant that the bourgeois of the cities now had the right of imposing chosen priests on peasant communities.  Vende and Brittany and Normandy began to stir at this; they were greatly attached to their own priests and resisted the imposition of others.  A year later, the King was arrested.  Riots erupted in Brittany.  In 1792, the extremist Jacobins under the leadership of Robespierre took power and formed the now infamous Convention.  And then the horrors began in earnest. 

Madame Guillotine was fed many times, soon taking Danton and Desmoulins and many of the earlier revolutionaries, who, too late, had seen the monster they had unleashed.  But it was not till 1793 that two events happened which precipitated France into a terrible civil war; the consequences of which are still very much felt today. 

Those events were the execution of Louis XVI, the subsequent pre-emptive declaration of war by France on the rest of Europe, and, as a consequence, the forced conscription of 300,000 men – the revolutionaries wanted the peasants of France to pay for their murderous folly! There was immediate revolt in Vende, in Brittany, in Normandy, but the centre of the revolt was Vende itself.  This was a completely popular uprising; it was the peasants themselves who took the initiative and who only later persuaded some of their native nobles, who had been army officers, to lead some of their armies. 

The new, the First Republic reacted immediately.  This would be a fight to the death, for it was a tussle for the very spirit of revolution.  The fact that the Vende revolt was a popular one called into question the very nature of the Revolution, with its middle-class and aristocratic leaders.  More than that, it dared to oppose the "despotism of liberty."  Republican armies led, more often than not, by ci-devant ex-nobles and princes were sent into the rebellious province.  But the Vendens proved difficult nuts to crack.  To the contemptuous surprise of the Paris grandees, the armies of the Chouans, as they became known (because of their rallying call, which imitated the call of the screech owl, or chat-huant in French), were well-disciplined and highly effective, and unusual in that the men had an input into decisions, not just the leaders (some of course later saw that as a weakness).  They fought with a combination of regular and guerilla tactics and had a number of brilliant leaders – Cathelineau, La Rochejacquelein, Charrette, d’Elbe, Stofflet, Lescure.  The Bretons, under Cadoudal, Jean Jan, Jean Cottereau and others, joined them at several points. 

In the first year, they were remarkably successful, and their armies swelled to more than 150,000 men, none of whom had been coerced or conscripted.  They captured towns and villages, made tentative links with the English, who were horrified by the fate of the King, and with the migr nobles who had escaped to England already.  It seemed that not only the liberation of western France, but also of the whole of France from the tyranny and terror of the Convention was at hand.  Alas . . . 

Division began to appear in Chouan ranks, as leaders with strong egos fought with each other, the English and the French migrs (many of whom scorned this "peasant army") proved to be of no help whatsoever, and the Republic spared no expense of finance or soldiers’ lives to crush the rebels.  The crushing defeat of the Chouan armies at the end of 1793 in Vende did not predispose the Republic to mercy.  In early 1794, the Convention decided to exterminate the Vendens, to the last man, woman and child.  And they found plenty who were happy to carry out these orders. 

"Not one is to be left alive." "Women are reproductive furrows who must be ploughed under." "Only wolves must be left to roam that land." "Fire, blood, death are needed to preserve liberty." "Their instruments of fanaticism and superstition must be smashed."  These were some of the words the Convention used in speaking of Vendée. Their tame scientists dreamed up all kinds of new ideas – the poisoning of flour and alcohol and water supplies, the setting up of a tannery in Angers which would specialise in the treatment of human skins; the investigation of methods of burning large numbers of people in large ovens, so their fat could be rendered down efficiently.  One of the Republican generals, Carrier, was scornful of such research: these "modern" methods would take too long. Better to use more time-honoured methods of massacre: the mass drownings of naked men, women, and children, often tied together in what he called "republican marriages," off specially constructed boats towed out to the middle of the Loire and then sunk; the mass bayoneting of men, women and children; the smashing of babies’ heads against walls; the slaughter of prisoners using cannons; the most grisly and disgusting tortures; the burning and pillaging of villages, towns and churches. 

The ci-devant aristocrat Turreau de la Linires took command of what are known in Vende as the douze colonnes infernales (the twelve columns of hell), which had specific orders both from his superiors and from himself to kill everyone and everything they saw.  "Even if there should be patriots [that is, Republicans] in Vende," Turreau himself said, "they must not spared.  We can make no distinction.  The entire province must be a cemetery." And so it was.  In the streets of Cholet, emblematic Venden city, by the end of 1793, wolves were about the only living things left, roaming freely and feeding on the piles of decomposing corpses. 

People in Vende still tell the stories of the colonnes infernales and the unspeakable things they did.  There was not even any pretence of discriminating between fighters and civilians; documents of the time, still kept in army records in Vincennes, tell their hideous, chilling story, a story which has tolled repeatedly in our own terrible century.  The generals speak coolly of objectives achieved, exterminations nicely done, "ethnic cleansing" carefully carried out, of genocide systematically and rigorously conducted.  There were those, too few, alas, who refused to take part; but they were summarily dealt with. 

But the Vendens were not completely beaten.  Full of hate now, they fought back, sporadically but ferociously. Their "chouan" rallying cry became a source of terror for republican stragglers in the deep remote country of the marshes and forests of Vende.  And the Bretons fought, attempting to come to the aid of their brothers, but it was difficult to maintain resistance in the face of such full-scale assault.  One by one, the charismatic leaders were killed or hunted down like wild beasts.  Within two years, Chouan resistance in Vende was all but dead, though Brittany, under the leadership of the remarkable Georges Cadoudal, continued to fight for many years to come. 

Fortunately, in Paris, things were changing.  At the end of 1794 Robespierre met the fate he had meted out to so many others, but it was not until 1795 that a peace treaty was signed in Vende, a treaty that was almost immediately broken.  The republicans were never going to allow men like Charrette and Stofflet to make an honourable peace; there was no rest until both were captured and executed.  But Chouannerie was still not dead; it was not until Napoleon Bonaparte’s coup d’tat at the end of 1799 that anything approaching peace came to the once rich and peaceful, but now moribund province. 

Bonaparte himself had much respect for the Chouans and their leaders; he called their war Le Combat des Gants.  As an officer in the republican army, he had opted for a post fighting on the frontiers of France rather than being sent to Vende.  He understood, too, that the Vendens’ sacrifice had been for the preservation of liberty – for the freedom of religion and assembly and culture, and he immediately set about repairing relations with the church.  He concluded treaties with Cadoudal and other Chouan leaders; and it seemed as if things would be better.  But never was it acknowledged that the horror of the genocide in Vende was the responsibility of more than just Robespierre and his murderous cronies and generals.  There was never any examination of conscience, and indeed although one or two scapegoats paid for their crimes with their heads, amongst them the vicious Carrier and Westermann, an Alsacian noble known in Vende as "The Butcher," others were exonerated and even honoured.  Turreau himself, the leader of the colonnes infernales, murderer many times over, turned coat more than once and became first a supporter of Bonaparte and then a born-again royalist under Louis XVIII.  Covered with honours, having taken up his title again, and made an Imperial Baron, he died peacefully of old age in his bed.  His name is up there on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris as one of France’s "heroes."

But Cadoudal and Brittany were not quiet for long.  Eventually, the indomitable Georges relaunched the Chouannerie and twice attempted to assassinate Bonaparte.  Cadoudal had come to regard Bonaparte as a tyrant as dangerous as Robespierre, and as likely to drag the whole country into years of bloodshed.  He was right; but he never saw the fulfilling of his fears, for he was captured and guillotined in 1804.  After his death, his body was cut up and various bits of it given to so-called scientists to study, his head being of particular interest for the "study of rebellion."  It took years for his relatives to finally obtain all the parts of his body for decent burial. 

It took till 1832 for the last gasps of Chouannerie to exhaust themselves completely, for the twin provinces of Vende and Brittany to be completely "pacified."  They had lost; yet they had won, too.  And they would never forget.  The stories of the Chouans, the tales of the dead, the memories of the atrocities, the horrors and the heroism have survived to this day, in people from all walks of life, and all kinds of backgrounds. 

At the Mmorial de la Vende at Les Lucs-sur-Boulogne, site of one massacre, the stained-glass windows of the church tell their own story.  The impassive faces of the republican soldiers, men with wives and children of their own, as they drive bayonets into year-old babies; the silent pleas on the women’s faces; the upturned faces of martyred priests; silence speaks more, the incongruous beauty of the coloured glass making it somehow more poignant…  The memorial field full of crosses and headstones, the parish rolls with their lists of names, of ages, the memorials to the leaders, all so young, none seeing the end of their thirties; in the forest of Vzins, the Chapel of the Martyrs, commemorating the place where 1200 people were slaughtered; the songs telling of despair, hope, faith and tragedy… the birth pangs of Vende which once existed without a name. 

In 1900, the popular Breton singer and songwriter Theodore Botrel performed his new song, "Le Mouchoir Rouge de Cholet" (the red handkerchief of Cholet), about the terrible defeat of the Chouans at Cholet, and the symbolic wearing of the red handkerchief, in front of a massive audience in Cholet itself.  Wearing the red handkerchief on his hat, he declared himself a Chouan at heart.  According to contemporary accounts, there was a near riot as the Vendens cheered, yelled and clapped, but the reverberations in the papers continued for months, with Botrel regarded as a spoiler.  In 1993, the opening of the Vende Memorial at Les Lucs by Alexander Solzhenitsyn was attended by thousands of people, but was sniffily ignored by much of the mainstream media… 

Right wing, left wing, centre in France have never been able to deal with the legacy of Vende.  The left wing has problems with the impugning of the Revolution; the right wing because civil war put France in peril of foreign armies; the centre because, hey, it’s not exactly pretty stuff.  Thirty or so years ago a then-unknown but now infamous Jean-Marie le Pen championed the cause of Vende and Brittany, applauding regionalism and independence, and produced a recording of Chouan songs; now, as the leader of the extreme right Front National, he studiously ignores it all, speaking grandly and opportunistically of the marvellous republic and the great destiny of a centralised France – for Vende costs votes.  Vende is embarrassing, for it shows what the French are capable of doing to the French without any help from immigrant bogeys.  The extreme left, the communists, of course never had any warm feelings for "priest-ridden peasants."  Besides, they understood Robespierre’s "despotism of liberty" only too well. 

Many people in Vende who keep the memory in their hearts refuse to vote at all in general elections, considering that the soul of the republic itself is soiled and flawed.  They find it bitter indeed that the 1989 bicentenary ignored them completely.  There are some who would sanctify all the Chouans, would make of them impossibly perfect heroes.  For them, the "Bleus," the republicans, were devils without any redeeming features.  But it is remarkable how many in Vende do not hate.  They only wish to remember. 

"When I was at school," my uncle from Central France says, "they never told us these things.  They never told us.  They should have."

"We must live without lies," Solzhenitsyn told the crowd at Les Lucs, "for otherwise we are not free."

"You gave us these dead as a legacy," the poet Pierre Emmanuel wrote, "we have become the fathers of our dead." 

"In communist Georgia," our friend Nino tells me, "we often had two portraits in government offices, side by side: Stalin and Robespierre.  Blood brothers." 

"It is not killing the innocent as an innocent which dooms a society," wrote the Breton poet Chateaubriand, "it is killing him as guilty." 

Carrier, defending himself during his trial, cried, "If I am guilty, so are you all! All of you, everything, down to the bell of the President!"

In Vende and Brittany, there are streets bearing Chouan names, but only a few, and only since fairly recently.  The local governments are fairly assiduous in keeping the memory – But in the rest of France, there are endless, endless, "Places de la Rpublique"; there is a suburb of Paris called Robespierre, and Turreau’s name is engraved on the Arc de Triomphe.  No mention of the rebels, the subversives.  This is also the legacy of the Revolution.  In our times, when nationalism is becoming both harsher and more diluted, the story of Vende is finally leaking out from beyond its borders.  But what does it mean? If the French Revolution was the first modern ideology, were the Vende massacres the archetype of the modem genocides? And if that is so, what does it mean for the whole legacy of the Revolution? Can its earlier idealism compensate for the darkness afterwards? Has that darkness lifted from France yet? This is the question asked in many books now, the question more and more loudly asked, more publicly, more often – and not answered. 

The sea rolls over my feet, and as it retreats, I notice it has left me something.  I bend over to pick it up.  A perfect fossil, an amnonite in white stone, beautifully imprinted, so frail-looking, yet so enduring, patiently preserving the memory of something long gone.  And as I look at it in my hand, on this beach where my ancestors once walked, incongruously, tears prick at the backs of my eyes.

Sophie Masson [send her mail] is a French-Australian writer, some of whose ancestors came from Longeville, in Vendée. She also has Southern French, Basque, Spanish, Portuguese, Scottish, and Canadian ancestry. Sophie was born in Indonesia but has lived in Australia since the age of 5. She is a novelist, short-story writer and essayist. Visit her website. First published in Quadrant magazine, Melbourne, Australia, in 1996.

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