During the French Revolution, the 1793-1796 uprising in the Vendée, variously known as the Uprising, Insurrection, Revolt, or Wars in the Vendée, was the largest internal counter-revolution to the new Republic.
The class differences were as great in the Vendée as in the capital and other French provinces, but the class conflicts that drove the revolution were lessened in this particularly rural and isolated part of France by the strong adherence of the populace to Roman Catholicism. There were outbreaks of anti-Republic violence in 1791 and 1792, as the peasants perceived that their position had worsened, not improved since the fall of the ancien régime. It was not until the social unrest combined with the external pressures from the Civil Constitution of the Clergy (1790) and then the Conscription (or "Levy") Decree (1793) that the region erupted.
The Civil Constitution required all clerics to swear allegiance to it and by extension to the increasingly anti-clerical National Constituent Assembly. The Vendean clergy almost universally refused to swear the oath and where replaced by cleary appointed and approved by the Revolutionary authorities, known as jurors, who were almost universally disliked - condemned as intruders. Nonjuring priests declared the new civic ceremonies as false and worthless; in response gangs of Republicans came from the cities into the countryside, closing and vandalizing the churches of nonjuring priests. When mass conscription was added (March 7, 1793) to the already perceived injustices of the Republic, the people struck back. There were other levy riots across France, but in the Vendée there were few troops to control them, whereas the superficially more serious riots in Brittany were quickly broken.
Following the announcement there were spontaneous and uncoordinated riots on March 10-13 in many towns and villages. The representatives of the Republic — mayors, judges, National Guardsmen, educationalists, priests and others — were singled out for attack and murder. In the bloodiest outburst, in Machecoul on March 11 forty men were beatened and stabbed to death on the streets, before another four hundred or so were gathered up and arrested. The men were taken out in 'rosaries' (tied in a line with rope around the chest), made to dig ditches and shot - their bodies then tumbled into the grave they had dug.
The crowds then joined, moving from the smaller to the larger settlements, armed with captured weapons and led by gamekeepers and wheelwrights. Cholet and Chemillé in the north and Fontenay-le-comte in the south, quickly fell to the rebels, their numbers overwhelming the inadequate Republican garrisons. Local nobles were approached, and while many declined, some (d'Elbée, Sapinaud de la Verrie, Charette) became the leaders of their local force, creating a small loyal force for each locality. The clergy were also fairly reticent, but certain prominent members played an important role in rallying the people.
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 guerilla tactics, supported by the insurgents' unparalleled local knowledge and the good-will of the people.
The Republic was quick to respond, dispatching over 45,000 troops to the area by the end of March. Unfortunately for the government, less than one bleu in twenty was adequately trained, the majority were raw young recruits - badly equipped, badly trained, badly fed, scared and with miserably low morale. Worse this force was scattered in "penny packets" of fifty to a hundred men throughout the region, allowing the brutality of the 'invading' bleus to anger many people, limiting control to a few urban centres, and providing many weak garrisons as targets.
The first pitched battle was on the night of March 19. A Republican column of 2,000, under General de Marce, moving from La Rochelle to Nantes was intercepted north of Chantonnay 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, leaving their equipment for the grateful Vendéans.
The Vendée Militaire covered the area between the Loire and the Lay - covering the Vendée (Marais, Bocage Vendéen, Collines Vendéenes), part of Maine-et-Loire west of the Layon, and the portion of Deux Sèvres west of the Thouet. Having secured their pays the deficiences of the Vendéan army became more apparent. Lacking a unified strategy (or army) and fighting a defensive campaign, the army lost cohesion and its special advantages from April onwards. Although successes continued - Thouars was taken in early May and Saumur in June, there were victories at Châtillon and Vihiers. But the Vendéans then turned to a protracted and wasteful siege of Nantes.
On August 1 the Committee of Public Safety ordered General Jean-Baptiste Carrier to perform a ruthless pacification. The Republican army was reinforced, benefiting from the first men of the levée en masse and reinforcements from Mainz. The Vendéan army had its first serious defeat at Cholet on October 17, worse the rebel 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 their thousands, the force was finally shattered in the last, decisive battle at Savenay on December 23.
The government in Paris saw ineptitude, treason and conspiracy in their defeats and enacted stern measures. The Terror, seen elsewhere in France, was extraordinarily brutal in the Vendée. Following the law of 14 Frimaire, in December alone over 6,000 prisoners were executed, a number in what was called the "national bath" - tied in groups in barges and then sunk into the Loire.
From February 1794 the Republican forces launched their final pacification (the Vendée-Vengé or "Vendée Avenged") - twelve columns, the colonnes infernales ("infernal columns") under Turreau, were marched through the Vendée, indiscriminately targeting not only the remaining rebels and the people who had given them support, but the innocent as well. Beyond this massacre there were formal orders for forced evacuation and 'scorched earth' - farms were destroyed, crops and forests burned, villages razed. There were many reported atrocities. When the campaign dragged to an end in March 1796 the estimated dead numbered between 40,000 and 250,000, out of a population of around 800,000.
The actions of the Republic have been condemned as genocide, although this is not the correct use of the term. The actions of the colonnes infernales were indefensible, although there is little evidence to support some of the more gruesome atrocity stories that some have claimed.
- Secher, Reynald A French Genocide: The Vendee Univ. of Notre Dame Press; (June 2003) ISBN 0268028656
- Fournier, Elie Turreau et les colonnes infernales, ou, L'échec de la violence A. Michel; (1985) ASIN: 2226025243
- Davies, Norman Europe: A History Oxford University Press; (1996)