War in the Vendée

War in the Vendée
War in the Vendée
Part of the War of the First Coalition
GuerreVendée 1.jpg
Henri de La Rochejacquelein at the Battle of Cholet in 1793 by Paul-Emile Boutigny, (19th C.), Musée d'art et d'histoire de Cholet, Cholet, France.
Date March 1793 – March 1796
Location Maine-et-Loire, Vendée, Loire-Atlantique, Deux-Sèvres, in France (Anjou, Poitou, Britanny)
Result Victory of the French Republic
France French Republic Kingdom of France Vendéens
Kingdom of France Chouans
Kingdom of France Émigrés
 Great Britain
Commanders and leaders
France Lazare Hoche
France Jean Baptiste Carrier
Kingdom of France Francois de Charette
Kingdom of France Henri de la Rochejaquelein 
Casualties and losses
30.000 killed 130.000 killed

The War in the Vendée (1793 to 1796; French: Guerre de Vendée) was a Royalist rebellion and counterrevolution in the Vendée region of France during the French Revolution. The Vendée is a coastal region, located immediately south of the Loire River in western France. The uprising was closely tied to the Chouannerie, which took place in the area north of the Loire. Initially, the war was similar to the earlier Jacquerie peasant uprising, but quickly took on counterrevolutionary themes. The nature of the uprising has been heavily disputed by historians since the nineteenth century. Reynald Secher popularized the view that the killing of Catholic Vendeans by the anticlerical French state at the end of the war was the first modern genocide,[1] but this claim has been widely discounted.[2]

History of France
French Revolution
National Assembly
Storming of the Bastille
National Constituent
(1, 2, 3)
Legislative Assembly
and fall of the monarchy
French First Republic
National Convention
and Reign of Terror
War in the Vendée
Related: Glossary,
Timeline, Wars,
List of people,
First Empire
July Monarchy
Second Republic
Second Empire
Third Republic
Fourth Republic
Modern France



Class differences were not as great in the Vendée as in Paris or in other French provinces. In the rural Vendée, the local nobility seems to have been more residential and less bitterly resented than in other parts of France.[3] The conflicts that drove the revolution were also lessened in this particularly isolated part of France by the 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.[4][5][6]

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.[7] Persecution of the clergy and the faithful was the first trigger of the rebellion; the second being conscription. Nonjuring priests were exiled or imprisoned.[7] Women on their way to Mass were beaten in the streets.[7] Religious orders were suppressed and Church property confiscated.[7] On 3 March 1793, virtually all the churches were ordered closed.[8] Sacramental vessels were confiscated by soldiers and the people were forbidden to place a cross on their graves.[8]

The March 1793 conscription requiring Vendeans to fill their district's quota of 300,000 enraged the populace,[4][5] 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."[9]

Outbreak of revolt

Colored painting showing soldiers, women, and children embroiled in a fight near a church
Chouans in the Vendée

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 northwest in early March was particularly pronounced with large scale rioting verging on insurrection. By early April, in areas 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 insurrection led by priests and the local nobility.[10]

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.[11]

The Republic's response

General Louis Lazare Hoche

The Republic was quick to respond, dispatching over 45,000 troops to the area by the end of March.

The first pitched battle was on the night of 19 March. 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 22 March, another Republican force was routed near Chalonnes.

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 Vendean 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 Vendeans then turned to a protracted siege of Nantes.


On 1 August 1793, the Committee of Public Safety ordered General Jean-Baptiste Carrier to carry out a "pacification" of the region by complete physical destruction.[12] These orders were not carried out immediately, but a steady stream of demands for total destruction persisted.[12] Under orders from the Committee of Public Safety in February 1794, the Republican forces launched their final "pacification" effort (named Vendée-Vengé or "Vendée Avenged"): twelve columns, the colonnes infernales ("infernal columns") under Louis Marie Turreau, marched through the Vendée.[13] 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.[12] In response, the Committee of Public Safety ordered him to "eliminate the brigands to the last man, there is your duty...".[12]

The Republican army was reinforced, benefiting from the first men of the levée en masse and reinforcements from Mainz. The Vendean army had its first serious defeat at the Battle of Cholet on 17 October; 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 the thousands. The force was defeated in the last, decisive battle at Savenay on 23 December.

With this 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.[14]

A black cross supported by a heart
Insignia of the Vendean royalist insurgents. Note the French words 'Dieu Le Roi' beneath the heart-and-cross, meaning 'God (and) the King'.

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 (15 February 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 30 July 1796 the state of siege was raised in the western departments.[4]

Estimates of those killed in the Vendean conflict – on both sides – range between 117,000 and 450,000, out of a population of around 800,000.[15][16][17]

Later revolts

According to Theodore A. Dodge,[18] the war in Vendée lasted with intensity from 1793 to 1799, when it was suppressed, but later broke out spasmodically especially in 1813, 1814 and 1815. 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.[19]


The historiography of the War in the Vendée is deeply rooted in conflicts between different schools of French historiography, and as a result, writings on the uprising are generally highly partisan, coming down strongly in support of the revolutionary government or the Vendéen royalists.[20] This conflict originated in the 19th century between two groups of historians, the Bleus, named for their support of the republicans, who based their findings on archives from the uprising and the Blancs, named for their support of the monarchy and the Catholic church, who based their findings on local oral histories.[21] The Bleus generally argued that the Vendée was not a popular uprising, but was the result of noble and clerical manipulation of the peasantry. One of the leaders of this school of thought, Charles-Louis Chassin, published eleven volumes of letters, archives, and other materials supporting this position. The Blancs, generally members of the former nobility and clergy themselves, argued (frequently using the same documents as Chassin, but also drawing from contemporary mémoirs and oral histories) that the peasants were acting out of a genuine love for the nobility and a desire to protect the Catholic Church. [22]

This conflict was popularized in the English-speaking world in 1986, when Reynald Secher wrote a controversial book entitled: A French Genocide: The Vendée. Secher argued that the actions of the French republican government during the War in the Vendée was the first modern genocide.[23] Secher's claims caused a minor uproar in France amongst scholars of modern French history, as mainstream authorities on the period — both French and foreign — published articles rejecting Secher's claims.[24][25][26][27][28] Claude Langlois (of the Institute of History of the French Revolution) derides Secher's claims as "quasi-mythological".[29] 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 Vendeans were no more blameless than were the republicans. The use of the word genocide is wholly inaccurate and inappropriate." [30] Hugh Gough (Professor of history at University College Dublin) called Secher's book an attempt at historical revisionism unlikely to have any lasting impact.[31] Peter McPhee roundly criticizes Secher, including the assertion of commonality between the functions of the Republican government and Communist totalitarianism. Historian Pierre Chanu expressed support for Secher's views,[32] describing the events as the first "ideological genocide"."[33]

Criticism of Secher's thesis has largely been centered on a number of dubious assumptions and flawed methodology on Secher's part. McPhee cited these errors as follows: (1) The war was not fought against Vendeans but Royalist Vendeans, the government relied on the support of Republican Vendeans; (2) the Convention ended the campaign after the Royalist Army was clearly defeated - if the aim was genocide, then they would have continued and easily exterminated the population; (3) Fails to inform the reader of atrocities committed by Royalist against Republicans in the Vendée; (4) Repeats stories now known to be folkloric myths as fact; (5) Does not refer to the wide range of estimates of deaths suffered by both sides, and that casualties were not "one-sided"; and more.[34]

Peter McPhee says that the pacification of 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 during a civil war. He states that the war in the Vendée was not a one-sided mass killing and the Committee of Public Safety did not intend to exterminate the whole population of the Vendée; parts of the population were allied to the revolutionary government.[34] In Genocide and Gross Human Rights Violations Kurt Jonassohn himself wrote "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".[35]

Concerning the controversy, Michel Vovelle, a specialist on the French Revolution, remarked: "A whole literature is forming on "Franco-French genocide", starting from risky estimates of the number of fatalities in the Vendean wars: 128,000, 400,000... and why not 600,000? Despite not being specialists in the subject, historians such as Pierre Chanu have put all the weight of their great moral authority behind the development of an anathematizing discourse, and have dismissed any effort to look at the subject reasonably."[36] Roger Price writes in a similar manner: "Some historians like Pierre Chanu, supported by the conservative media... frequently exaggerating the number of deaths they have described the repression of counter-revolutionary movements in the Vendée as heralding Nazi genocide. This essentially ahistorical, and indeed hysterical approach, can only be understood as a feature of the politics of the reactionary right of our own time."[37] Ferenc Féhér comments that Secher draws conclusions "on the basis of almost no evidence".[38]

Despite widespread opposition to Secher and Chanu's assessment of the war, some American scholars have cited Secher's claims in their own work. Adam Jones, cited Secher in his summary of the Vendée uprising in Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction.[39] Mark Levene, an historian who specializes in the study of genocide,[40] cites Secher in describing the Vendée as "an archetype of modern genocide".[41]

Debate over the characterization of the Vendée uprising was renewed in 2007, when nine right-wing deputies introduced a measure to the Assemblée nationale to officially recognize the republican actions as genocidal.[42] The measure was strongly denounced by French historians as an attempt to use history to justify political extremism.[43]

See also


  1. ^ Secher, Reynald (1986). Le genocide franco-francais: La Vendee-Venge. Presses universitaires de France. 
  2. ^ Gough, Hugh (December 1987). "Review: Genocide and the Bicentenary: The French Revolution and the Revenge of the Vendee Review: Genocide and the Bicentenary: The French Revolution and the Revenge of the Vendee". The Historical Journal 30 (4). JSTOR 2639130. 
  3. ^ Schama, Simon (2004). Citizens. Penguin Books. p. 589. 
  4. ^ a b c Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition "Wars of the Vendee"
  5. ^ a b James Maxwell Anderson (2007). Daily Life During the French Revolution, Greenwood Publishing Group, ISBN 0313336830. p. 205
  6. ^ François Furet (1996). The French Revolution, 1770–1814: 1770–1814 Blackwell Publishing, France ISBN 0631202994. p. 124
  7. ^ a b c d Joes, Anthony James Resisting Rebellion: The History and Politics of Counterinsurgency 2006 University Press of Kentucky ISBN 0813123399. p.51
  8. ^ a b Joes, Anthony James Resisting Rebellion: The History and Politics of Counterinsurgency 2006 University Press of Kentucky ISBN 0813123399. p.52
  9. ^ Joes, Anthony James Resisting Rebellion: The History and Politics of Counterinsurgency 2006 University Press of Kentucky ISBN 0813123399. p. 52-53
  10. ^ Donald M. G. Sutherland (2003). The French Revolution and Empire: The Quest for a Civic Order, Blackwell Publishing France, ISBN 0631233636. p. 155
  11. ^ General Hoche and Counterinsurgency
  12. ^ a b c d Sutherland, Donald The French Revolution and Empire: The Quest for a Civic Order p. 222, 2003 Blackwell Publishing ISBN 0631233636
  13. ^ Masson, Sophie Remembering the Vendée (Godspy 2004. First published in "Quadrant" magazine Australia, 1996)
  14. ^ Jones, Adam Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction p.7 (Routledge/Taylor & Francis Publishers Forthcoming 2006)
  15. ^ Three State and Counterrevolution in France by Charles Tilly
  16. ^ Vive la Contre-Revolution!
  17. ^ McPhee, Peter Review of Reynald Secher, A French Genocide: The Vendée H-France Review Vol. 4 (March 2004), No. 26
  18. ^ Napoleon by Theodore A. Dodge
  19. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition Waterloo Campaign.
  20. ^ Jean-Clément Martin, La Vendée et la Révolution. Accepter la mémoire pour écrire l'histoire, Perrin, collection Tempus, 2007, pp. 68-69
  21. ^ Jean-Clément Martin, La Vendée et la Révolution. Accepter la mémoire pour écrire l'histoire, Perrin, collection Tempus, 2007, pp. 70-71
  22. ^ Jean-Clément Martin, La Vendée et la Révolution. Accepter la mémoire pour écrire l'histoire, Perrin, collection Tempus, 2007, pp. 70-71
  23. ^ Secher, Reynald. A French Genocide: The Vendée, University of Notre Dame Press, (2003), ISBN 0268028656.
  24. ^ Stefan Berger, Mark Donovan, Kevin Passmore (dir.), Writing National Histories—Western Europe Since 1800, Routledge, Londres, 1999, 247 pages, contribution by Julian Jackson. (jackson biography published by QMUL ),
  25. ^ François Lebrun, « La guerre de Vendée : massacre ou génocide ? », L'Histoire, Paris, n°78, May 1985, p.93 to 99 et no. 81, September 1985, p. 99 to 101.
  26. ^ Paul Tallonneau, Les Lucs et le génocide vendéen : comment on a manipulé les textes, éditions Hécate, 1993
  27. ^ Claude Petitfrère, La Vendée et les Vendéens, Editions Gallimard/Julliard, 1982.
  28. ^ Voir Jean-Clément Martin, La Vendée et la France, Le Seuil, 1987.
  29. ^ Claude Langlois, « Les héros quasi mythiques de la Vendée ou les dérives de l'imaginaire », in F. Lebrun, 1987, p. 426–434, et « Les dérives vendéennes de l'imaginaire révolutionnaire », AESC, n°3, 1988, p. 771–797.
  30. ^ Voir l'intervention de Timothy Tackett, dans French Historical Studies, Autumn 2001, p. 572.
  31. ^ Hugh Gough, "Genocide & the Bicentenary: the French Revolution and the revenge of the Vendée", (Historical Journal, vol. 30, 4, 1987, pp. 977–88.) p. 987.
  32. ^ Daileader, Philip and Philip Whalen, French Historians 1900-2000: New Historical Writing in Twentieth-Century France, pp. 105, 107, Wiley 2010
  33. ^ Levene, Mark, Genocide in the Age of the Nation State: The rise of the West and the coming of Genocide, p. 118, I.B. Tauris 2005
  34. ^ a b Peter McPhee, a review of Reynald Secher, A French Genocide, published in H-France Review Vol. 4 (March 2004), No. 26.
  35. ^ Jonassohn, Kurt and Karin Solveig Bjeornson Genocide and Gross Human Rights Violations p. 208, 1998, Transaction Publishers, ISBN 0765804174.
  36. ^ Vovelle, Michel (1987). Bourgeoisies de province et Revolution. Presses Universitaires de Grenoble. p. quoted in Féhér. 
  37. ^ Price, Roger (1993). A Concise History of France. Cambridge University Press. p. 107. 
  38. ^ Féhér, Ferenc (1990). The French Revolution and the birth of modernity. University of California Press. p. 62. 
  39. ^ Jones, Adam. Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction, Routledge/Taylor & Francis Publishers, (2006), ISBN 0-415-35385-8. Chapter 1 Section "The Vendée uprising" pp 6, 7.
  40. ^ Dr. Mark Levene, Southampton University, see "Areas where I can offer Postgraduate Supervision". Retrieved 2009-02-09.
  41. ^ Shaw, Martin, What is genocide?, p. 107, Polity 2007
  42. ^ [1]
  43. ^ Française.net


  • Fournier, Elie Turreau et les colonnes infernales, ou, L'échec de la violence A. Michel; (1985) ISBN 2226025243
  • Debord, Guy Panegyric Verso; (1991) ISBN 0860913473
  • Davies, Norman Europe: A History Oxford University Press; (1996)
  • Secher, Reynald A French Genocide: The Vendée Univ. of Notre Dame Press; (June 2003) ISBN 0268028656

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