Remembering the Vendée
by Sophie Masson
fact that the Vendée revolt was a popular one called into question
the very nature of the Revolution, with its middle-class and aristocratic
recently has the Republic of France begun to acknowledge the horrors
of what can be seen as perhaps the first modern genocide.
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...
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
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 Vendée.
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 Vendée and Brittany
during the French Revolution, a story of both great hideousness
and great heroism. Out of the ashes of Vendée, rose Vendée
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 Vendée 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 Vendéen 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 Vendée (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 Vendéen people, the spirit of 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. Vendée 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.
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.
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 Vendée, in Brittany, in Normandy, but the centre
of the revolt was Vendée 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 Vendée 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 Vendéens 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'Elbée, 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
émigré 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 . . .
to appear in Chouan ranks, as leaders with strong egos fought with
each other, the English and the French émigrés (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 Vendée did not predispose the Republic to
mercy. In early 1794, the Convention decided to exterminate
the Vendéens, to the last man, woman and child. And they found
plenty who were happy to carry out these orders.
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.
aristocrat Turreau de la Linières took command of what are known
in Vendée 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 Vendée,"
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 Vendéen
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 Vendée
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 Vendéens
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 Vendée. 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 Vendée was all but dead, though Brittany, under
the leadership of the remarkable Georges Cadoudal, continued to
fight for many years to come.
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 Vendée, 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'état at the end of 1799 that anything approaching peace came
to the once rich and peaceful, but now moribund province.
had much respect for the Chouans and their leaders; he called their
war Le Combat des Géants. As an officer in the republican
army, he had opted for a post fighting on the frontiers of France
rather than being sent to Vendée. He understood, too, that
the Vendéens' 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 Vendée 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 Vendée 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."
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 Vendée 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 Mémorial
de la Vendée 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 Vézins, 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 Vendée 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 Vendéens
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 Vendée Memorial at Les Lucs by Alexander
Solzhenitsyn was attended by thousands of people, but was sniffily
ignored by much of the mainstream media...
left wing, centre in France have never been able to deal with the
legacy of Vendée. 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 Vendée 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 Vendée costs votes. Vendée 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.
in Vendée 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 Vendée do not hate. They only wish to remember.
I was at school," my uncle from Central France says, "they
never told us these things. They never told us. They
live without lies," Solzhenitsyn told the crowd at Les Lucs,
"for otherwise we are not free."
us these dead as a legacy," the poet Pierre Emmanuel wrote,
"we have become the fathers of our dead."
Georgia," our friend Nino tells me, "we often had two
portraits in government offices, side by side: Stalin and Robespierre.
not killing the innocent as an innocent which dooms a society,"
wrote the Breton poet Chateaubriand, "it is killing him as
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 Vendée 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 République";
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 Vendée is finally leaking out from beyond
its borders. But what does it mean? If the French Revolution
was the first modern ideology, were the Vendée 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
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.
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
published in Quadrant magazine, Melbourne, Australia, in
© Sophie Masson, 1996