War in the Vendée

The War in Vendée (1793 to 1796) was a civil war in Vendée between Royalists and Republicans during the French Revolution. Vendée is a coastal region, immediately south of the Loire River in west central France.


Class differences were not as great in Vendée as in the capital Paris and the other French provinces. In rural Vendée, the local nobility seems to have been more residential and less bitterly resented than in other parts of France. The conflicts that drove the revolution were also lessened in this particularly isolated part of France by strong adherence of the populace to their Catholic faith. In 1791 two "representatives mission" informed the National Convention of the disquieting condition of Vendée, and this news was quickly followed by the exposure of a royalist plot organized by the Marquis de la Rouerie. It was not until the social unrest combined with the external pressures from the Civil Constitution of the Clergy (1790) and the introduction of a levy of 300,000 on the whole of France, decreed by the National Convention in February 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. All but seven of the 160 bishops refused the oath, as did about half of the parish priests. Persecution of the clergy and the faithful was the first trigger of the rebellion; the second being conscription. Nonjuring priests were exiled or imprisoned. Women on their way to Mass were beaten in the streets. Religious orders were suppressed and Church property confiscated. On March 3, 1793, virtually all the churches were ordered closed. Sacramental vessels were confiscated by soldiers and the people were forbidden to place a cross on their graves.

The March 1793 conscription requiring Vendeans to fill their district's quota of 300,000 enraged the populace, who took up arms as "The Catholic Army", "Royal" being added later, and fought for "above all the reopening of their parish churches with their former priests."

Outbreak of revolt

There were other levy riots across France, when regions started to draft men into the army in response to the Levy Decree in February. The reaction in the north west in early March was particularly pronounced with large scale rioting verging on insurrection. By early April, north of the Loire order had been restored by the revolutionary government, but south of the Loire in four departments that became known as the Vendée Militaire there were few troops to control rebels and what had started as rioting quickly took on the form of a full blown insurrection lead by priests and the local nobility

Following the initial outbreak, 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. The bloodiest outburst was in Machecoul on March 11, where forty men were beaten 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 guerrilla tactics, supported by the insurgents' unparalleled local knowledge and the good-will of the people.

Republican response

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 being raw young recruits: barely trained, badly equipped and 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, but 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 Marcé, moving from La Rochelle to Nantes, was intercepted north of Chantonnay at Pont-Charrault (La Guérinière), 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 Vendée (Marais, Bocage Vendéen, Collines Vendéennes), part of Maine-et-Loire west of the Layon, and the portion of Deux Sèvres west of the River Thouet. Having secured their pays, the deficiencies of the Vendéan army became more apparent. Lacking a unified strategy (or army) and fighting a defensive campaign, from April onwards the army lost cohesion and its special advantages. Successes continued for some time: 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 1793 the Committee of Public Safety ordered General Jean-Baptiste Carrier to carry out a "pacification" of the region, by complete physical destruction. The orders for "pacification" were not carried out immediately, but a steady stream of demands for total destruction continued. Under orders from Committee of Public Safety in February 1794 the Republican forces launched their final "pacification" (Vendée-Vengé or "Vendée Avenged"): twelve columns, the colonnes infernales ("infernal columns") under Louis-Marie Turreau, were marched through Vendée. General Turreau inquired about "the fate of the women and children I will encounter in rebel territory", stating that if it was "necessary to pass them all by sword" he would require a decree. In response, the Committee of Public Safety ordered him to "eliminate the brigands to the last man, there is your duty..." .

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 for the rebels, their 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 defeated in the last, decisive battle at Savenay on December 23.

A massacre of 6,000 Vendée prisoners, many of them women, took place after the battle of Savenay, along with the drowning of 3,000 Vendée women at Pont-au-Baux and 5,000 Vendée priests, old men, women, and children killed by drowning at the Loire River at Nantes in what was called the "national bath" - tied in groups in barges and then sunk into the Loire.

The campaign was ordered as such by the Comité de Salut public:

"The committee has prepared measures that tend to exterminate this rebellious race of Vendéeans, to make their abodes disappear, to torch their forests, to cut their crops."
The orders to Turreau were:
"Exterminate the brigands to the last man instead of burning the farms, punish the fleeing ones and the cowards, and crush that horrible Vendée. Combine the most assured means to exterminate all of this race of brigands."

With these massacres came formal orders for forced evacuation; also, a 'scorched earth' policy was initiated: farms were destroyed, crops and forests burned and villages razed. There were many reported atrocities and a campaign of mass killing universally targeted at residents of the Vendée regardless of combatant status, political affiliation, age or gender.

After the defeat at Savenay regular warfare was at an end, the French general Francois Joseph Westermann penned a letter to the Committee of Public Safety stating “There is no more Vendée. It died with its wives and its children by our free sabres. I have just buried it in the woods and the swamps of Savenay. According to the orders that you gave me, I crushed the children under the feet of the horses, massacred the women who, at least for these, will not give birth to any more brigands. I do not have a prisoner to reproach me. I have exterminated all. The roads are sown with corpses. At Savenay, brigands are arriving all the time claiming to surrender, and we are shooting them non-stop... Mercy is not a revolutionary sentiment.

According to historian Simon Schama, “Every atrocity the time could imagine was meted out to the defenseless population. Women were routinely raped, children killed, both mutilated. . . . At Gonnord . . . two hundred old people, along with mothers and children, [were forced] to kneel in front of a large pit they had dug; they were then shot so as to tumble into their own grave. . . . Thirty children and two women were buried alive when earth was shoveled onto the pit.”

Following the law of 14 Frimaire, in December alone over 6,000 prisoners were executed, a number in what was called "the Republican baptisms" or the "national bath": tied in groups in barges and then sunk into the Loire. Initially, these mass drownings were confined to priests and took place by night, but before long they became habitual and occurred in broad daylight. Those attempting to escape by jumping in were sabered in the water. Estimates of those who were dispatched in this manner range from 2,000 to 4,800;

Although regular warfare was now at an end, Turreau and his "infernal columns" still continued to scour the disaffected districts to pacify the country. The Convention issued conciliatory proclamations allowing the Vendeans liberty of worship and guaranteeing their property. General Hoche applied these measures with great success. He restored their cattle to the peasants who submitted, "let the priests have a few crowns," and on 20 July 1795 annihilated an émigré expedition which had been equipped in England and had seized Fort Penthievre and Quiberon. Treaties were concluded at La Jaunaie (February 15, 1795) and at La Mabillaie, and were fairly well observed by the Vendeans; and nothing remained but to cope with the feeble and scattered remnant of the Vendeans still under arms, and with the Chouans. On the 30 July 1796 the state of siege was raised in the western departments.

By July 1796, the estimated Vendean dead numbered between 117,000 and 500,000, out of a population of around 800,000.


During Napoleon Bonaparte's Hundred Days in 1815, some of the population of Vendée remained loyal to King Louis XVIII, forcing Bonaparte – who was short of troops to fight the Waterloo Campaign – to send a force of 10,000 under the command of Jean Maximilien Lamarque to pacify the region.

Genocide debate

In 1986 Reynald Secher wrote a controversial book entitled: A French Genocide: The Vendée, in which he argued that the actions of the French republican government during the revolt in the Vendée (1793–1796), a popular Royalist uprising against the Republican government during the French Revolution, was the first modern genocide. Secher's claims, in addition to his political and religious affiliations, caused a minor uproar in France amongst scholars of modern French history, as mainstream authorities on the period—both French and foreign—published articles refuting Secher's claims (see below). In the rebellion, initially the Vendée rebels gained the upper hand, so on August 1 1793 the Committee of Public Safety ordered General Jean-Baptiste Carrier to carry out a pacification of the region. The Republican army was reinforced and the Vendéan army was eventually defeated. Under orders from Committee of Public Safety in February 1794 the Republican forces launched their final "pacification" (the Vendée-Vengé or "Vendée Avenged")—twelve columns, the colonnes infernales ("infernal columns") under Louis-Marie Turreau, were marched through the Vendée, and, according to Secher, killed both rebels and civilians indiscriminately. When the campaign dragged to an end in March 1796 the estimated dead, both Republican and Royalist, numbered between 117,000 and 500,000, out of a population of around 800,000.

Secher's allegation of genocide, Claude Langlois (of the Institute of History of the French Revolution) derides as "quasi-mythological". Timothy Tackett of the University of California summarizes the case as such: "In reality... the Vendée was a tragic civil war with endless horrors committed by both sides—initiated, in fact, by the rebels themselves. The Vendéeans were no more blameless than were the republicans. The use of the word genocide is wholly inaccurate and inappropriate." Hugh Gough (Professor of history at University College Dublin,) considers Secher's book an attempt at historical revisionism that is unlikely to have any lasting impact. Peter McPhee roundly criticizes Secher, including the assertion of commonality between the functions of the Republican government and Communist totalitarianism. McPhee does this by pointing to what he considers to be a number of dubious assumptions and flawed methodology on Secher's part. Other scholars who have published against Secher's thesis include: Julian Jackson (professor of history modern at the University of London), and professors of modern history and related fields François Lebrun of the University of High-Brittany-Rennes II, and of the University of Paris, I-Pantheon-Sorbonne, Paul Tallonneau Claude Petitfrère, and Jean-Clément Martin.

Peter McPhee says that the pacification the Vendée does not fit either the United Nations' CPPCG definition of genocide or that of Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn ("Genocide is a form of one-sided mass killing in which a state or other authority intends to destroy a group, as that group and membership in it are defined by the perpetrator") because the events happened in a civil war. So it was not a one-sided mass killing and the Committee of Public Safety did not intend to exterminate the whole population of Vendée as parts of the population were allied to the revolutionary government. However in Genocide and Gross Human Rights Violations Kurt Jonassohn writes "The reason we consider this a case of genocide is that exterminatory intent was clearly stated in the orders of several generals as well as in the several decrees passed by the government". Further support for Secher come from Adam Jones, who wrote in Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction a summary of the Vendée uprising, citing Secher and others, supporting the view that it was a genocide, and Pierre Chaunu, a professor of history at Paris IV-Sorbonne university. Other historians have employed the term "genocide" to describe the massacres made during the civil war in the republican camp, such as Jean Tulard. Stéphane Courtois, a Director of Research at the CNRS who specializes in the history of Communism, tells of how Lenin compared the people of Vendée to the Cossacks, and expressed joy at subjecting them to the program Gracchus Babeuf, "the inventor of modern Communism", characterized as "populicide" in 1795 against the people of the Vendée. British historian Ruth Scurr states that the actions of the revolutionaries, such as mass executions by grapeshot fired from cannons and group drownings in the Vendée, constitute crimes against humanity that they would today be held accountable for under the European human rights legislation they themselves pioneered.

Secher attracted further controversy in 1991 with his publication Jews and Vendeans: From One Genocide to Another, comparing the fate of Royalist Vendeans with Jews in Nazi Germany.

See also


  • 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) ISBN 2226025243
  • Davies, Norman Europe: A History Oxford University Press; (1996)

Search another word or see exterminatoryon Dictionary | Thesaurus |Spanish
Copyright © 2015, LLC. All rights reserved.
  • Please Login or Sign Up to use the Recent Searches feature