Thursday, 9 February 2023

An encounter with David's "Bara"

An interesting perspective on David's Death of Bara was provided by the exhibition of the painting  held in  Avignon in 1989 as part of the bicentenary commemorations. Jean-Clément Martin described his reactions in an essay of 1990, updated for his 2012 book La machine à fantasmes.

EXHIBITION:  La mort de Bara.  De l'évenement au mythe.  Autour du tableau de Jacques-Louis David.  At Avignon, 18th January to 15 March 1989.  

J.-C.M. remarks that he remembered illustrations of Bara from his earliest schoolbooks and was confident and well-informed about the historical figure.  The exhibition was held not in the Musée Calvet, where David's picture is normally display,  but in the former Jesuit chapel in the rue de la République, now a Lapidary Museum.  Despite the busy main street outside, the church, with its Baroque facade, was an effective venue; the atmosphere of a silent grandeur encouraged a mood of contemplation and reflection. (The effect was only slightly marred by the prominence of an expanse of red netting under the roof.)

David's painting took central stage, enthroned in the middle of the chapel, on what was once the site of the altar.  Although he was very familiar with the image, Jean-Clément found himself taken by surprise:

Monday, 6 February 2023

Joseph Bara [cont.]


Early representations of Bara

The Spring of 1794 saw a veritable outpouring of prints and engravings on the subject of  Bara.  Among the prints from Year II are a number of ambitious narrative scenes, which recreated the specific circumstances of his death in as much detail as possible.  Of necessity, they rely on the testimony of Desmarres: the feisty soldier-boy  is depicted standing; he resists the bayonets of the rebel band which surrounds him. As well as his youth and virtue, the accompanying captions emphasise his martial qualities.  They usually repeat the dying words furnished by Robespierre,  although Desmarres's more robust version can sometimes be found.  Homage is also invariably paid to his support of his mother, a conventional virtuous act by the good Republican soldier. No-one seemed quite sure how old Bara really was - some versions (as the one below) have him as young as eleven.

"Death of the Young Barat" - anonymous print of 1794.

"This young Republican was surprised by Rebels. When called upon to cry "Long live the King", he replied only  "Long live the Republic!" and was stabbed multiple times by the brigands. This child of eleven, provided for his mother from his wages, and subsisted himself only on bread.
The Assembly, when it heard this reported, accorded him the honours of the Pantheon.

Drawn and engraved by Philibert-Louis Debucourt, Paris, year II.

"Dedicated to Young Frenchmen
The entire army witnessed with astonishment Joseph Barra, equipped as a hussar, scarcely thirteen years of age, confront danger everyday, at the head of the cavalry; it once saw this young hero throw to the ground and take prisoner two brigands who had dared to attack him.  This generous child, surrounded by rebels, preferred to perish rather than surrender, and relinquish the two horses that he was leading. 

During the entire time that he had served in the armies of the Republic, he spent money only on absolute necessities, and sent to his large and indigent family all that he could save."  

Wednesday, 1 February 2023

Joseph Bara - Republican hero


Aquatint by Angélique Briceau, c.1794  
British Museum collections

The heroic death of the soldier-boy Joseph Bara has long been a familiar part of French Revolutionary tradition.  His story was particularly promoted during the Third Republic, when his image featured in the salles d'honneurs of regiments,  and he was the subject of numerous official statues, poems, plays and paintings.   Jean-Joseph Weerts's huge canvas, La Mort de Bara,  commissioned by the state in 1880, adorned a salon in the Élysée Palace during the Universal Exposition of 1889.  In schoolbooks "Bara's drum" was part of Republican collective memory for many decades, right down to the 1960s and '70s.  

Even today, Bara is still celebrated, at least in his native town of Palaiseau where in 1979 his name was given to the local school. As recently as September 2008, the Souvenir Chouan de Bretagne was moved to send a letter of protest to Palaiseau on the occasion of an exhibition of comic-book images: [Il était une fois Joseph Bara en BD]

The life and death of Joseph Bara

The legend of Bara is untrammelled by much in the way of biographical details.  The archives record only two events from his short life. The first is his birth, in Palaiseau on 30th July 1779,  the third son of François Bara, a gamekeeper on the local estate, and his wife Marie Anne Leroy (Bara was the ninth of their ten children; his younger brother is described as an invalid). The boy is recorded as having been born at the château. The second is his death, recounted in a letter to the National Convention dated 8th December 1793, from General Demarres, his commanding officer in the Vendée.  Between these two dates almost nothing is know. 

Sunday, 30 October 2022

Videos from the Vendée

The Institut national de l'audiovisuel (INA) has an archive of short videos, "Regard sur la Vendée", which includes a collection on historical themes, introduced by Jean-Clément Martin. The clips on the Wars in the Vendée, some of which date from the 1970s, cast an illuminating light on the development of historiography and commemoration in the region over the last decades.

Olonne-sur-mer : regard sur la Vendée - Histoire de la Vendée (


The Vendée militaire

Video of 6th November 1974

The local historian, Valentin Roussière, outlines the contours of the Vendée militaire on a map and movingly evokes the landscape of his native region.

Regard sur la Vendée (INA video collection): Les Lucs-sur-Boulogne

Introduction by Jean-Clément MartinIn 1974 French television broadcast a series on "The Great Battles of the Past", produced by Daniel Costelle and Henri de Turenne...  One of the episodes featured the Battle of Cholet, which took place on 16th December 1793....The film included both reconstructions of the conflict and interviews with historians.  Valentin Roussière (1910-1983), who features in this clip, was a native of Les Herbiers.  He was a photographer and journalist with the newspaper Le Phare de la Loire.  Between 1935 and 1939 he took thousands of photographs of the Vendée, which constitute an important documentary record.  He was a friend of the Martel brothers [well-known sculptors from the Vendée] and published several books on the contemporary evolution of the region, notably Haut-Pays: les logis de la Vendée and Dieu meurt-il en Vendée? 
TranslationValentine Roussière: This landscape has long been a place of mysteries, as you appreciate when you enter the bocage, with its hedges everywhere.  They give the impression of palisades, as though you are in a Roman camp.  The countryside itself seems rebellious; it seems to watch you, almost to absorbs the people within.  There are oak trees with strange shapes, like gnomes it is said.  The story is told of a bishop who was almost blind. and came across them at nightfall.  He mistook them for his parishioners and, from the door of his carriage, blessed them with grand gestures. Until a few years ago, if they cut back these trees, which are often hollow, they would find skeletons; skeletons with weapons, and  sometimes even with the trace of a sacré-coeur on their coats.  It was clearly here that  the great national drama of our province had occurred, of the Vendée, what they call the Vendée militaire.  What was the Vendée Militaire?  The historical province covered four areas south of the Loire and stretching west to the ocean.  It included the southern part of the departments of Loire-Atlantique and Maine-et-Loire,  the northern part of Deux-Sèvres and the department of the Vendée. That represents a frontier of 100 kilometres; and a population as large as 600,000 inhabitants.

The whole of the documentary on the Battle of Cholet is available on the internet: 

An exhibition of stained glass depicting the War in the Vendée 

Video of 25th January 1994.  

This video gives a short preview of an exhibition on memorial stained glass windows, Mémoire de lumière: Vitrail et Guerre de Vendée, which took place at the Logis de la Chabotterie in 1994.

Regard sur la Vendée (INA video collection): Les Lucs-sur-Boulogne

Introduction by Jean-Clément Martin

From the 1870s onwards, the war in the Vendée was commemorated by stained glass windows in churches throughout the region, not just in the Vendée but also in neighbouring departments, above all in Maine-et-Loire. In the Vendée itself, the windows were generally late in date, from 1914 up to the 1950s; the most important examples, like those in the church of Les Lucs-sur-Boulogne, date from the Second World War.  However, it was as early as 1874 that the chapel at La Tullévrière was decorated with windows illustrating the life of the abbé Ténèbre, who lived through those terrible years.

With the exception of Joan of Arc, warriors are not sanctified.  However, the windows made it possible to present as edifying examples those who fought and suffered for their faith during the Revolution; this has created a form of commemoration which is quite unique in France....The message was both spiritual and political, but it also had a considerable commemorative dimension.   depicted Local episodes were often depicted in order to allow the collective memory to take root.  In terms of aesthetics, the style of the windows evolved considerably: as the exhibition shows, figurative representation gave way to a form of expression influenced by modern art.

Summary:   Thierry Heckman, later director of archives for the Vendée, explains how the themes depicted differed over time.  The earlier windows, in Maine-et-Loire, celebrated the Christian virtues of the Vendean chieftains; history was the history of leaders.  In the 20th century, when the war came to be seen as an affair of entire communities, highly localised events were preferred, often difficult to interpret for those from outside the immediate area. 

The exhibition featured six authentic windows which were dismantled and temporarily reinstalled at La Chabotterie:  

Thierry Heckmann presents examples:

Main illustration: The parishioners of Saint-Mars-la-Réorthe are taken to Noirmoutier to be shot. Their expressions are serene;  they have hope despite the approaching execution.  

Window from the  chapelle du Boistissandeau at Ardelay near Les Herbiers:  In 1794 the the Hillerin family, who owned the local château,  was massacred in its entirety.  In this window, the death of Madame de Hillerin, an old lady of eighty, is depicted.  

For the windows at La Tullévrière mentioned by J.-C.M, see  Chemins secrets [blog], post of 21.08.2013.  In February 1794 Alexandre Ténèbre, curé at Croix-de-Vie, took refuge from Republican soldiers at La Tullévrière, not far from Les Lucs-sur-Boulogne.  Twenty-two villagers who had hidden  in the nearby woods were massacred, but those who stayed with the abbé Ténèbre were miraculously spared.

Remembering Charette

Video of 27th June 1989

A character sketch of Charette broadcast in 1989 for the bicentenary of the Revolution.  Presented by Jean-Joël Brégeon.

Regard sur la Vendée (INA video collection): Les Lucs-sur-Boulogne

Introduction by Jean-Clement Martin:  François Athanase Charette de la Contrie (1763-1796) was one of the most famous leaders of the war in the Vendée.  After some years of service in the French Royal navy, this petty nobleman had retired to his manor in the north of the Vendée when he was called upon, against his will, to take up a command in the insurrection. He was a bold and independent general who did not integrate well into the group of leaders.  After the great defeats of Autumn 1793, he showed his worth, by brilliantly defying the Republican armies in the south of the Loire-Atlantique and in the department of the Vendée.  His resistance was so effective that at first he defied all repression: in February 1795 the Republic was obliged to sign a peace treaty with him at the château de La Jaunaie, not far from Nantes. However,  when war recommenced six months later rapidly, the situation began to work against Charette, who was isolated from his troops, captured, and shot on 29th March 1796. This history is retraced through  emblematic locations, which are still honoured and recognised in both Vendean and national history. The portrait presented here emphasises the character trait  most commonly identified with Charette: refusal of authority and independence, whether with regard to the Revolutionary state or the other Vendéan leaders. This characteristic also identifies the region of the Vendée itself.

Les Lucs-sur-Boulogne

Video of 6th November 1974

This  video is a second clip from the 1974 documentary on the Battle of Cholet. The late Father Marie-Auguste Huchet, former Capuchin monk and historian of the Vendée, sings a locally composed lament for the dead of Les Lucs.  In the introduction,  J.-C. M. admires Father Huchet's careful scholarship. 

Regard sur la Vendée (INA video collection): Les Lucs-sur-Boulogne

"La complainte des Lucs" was composed by Brother Gabriel-Marie Gauvrit in 1944.

Introduction by Jean-Clement Martin:  Father Marie-Auguste Huchet exemplifies the type of  local scholarship which is renewing the history of the Vendée. He is a native of Les Lucs-de-Boulogne, custodian of its collective memory and one of its historians.  As a Capuchin he was a missionary in Africa for many years before joining the Cisterians at the Abbey of Notre-Dame de Sept Fons in the department of Allier.  As a child he performed in the commemorative plays put on in his local parish. He would even take the part of the curé Voyneau, who had been killed by the Infernal Columns in February 1794.

The events at Les Lucs have been been known since the end of the 19th century, but were given new prominence  after the Second World War by the publication of Gaëtan Bernoville's book Un Oradour révolutionnaire.  This work  has since given rise to bitter debate.  In a more classic spirit of scholarship, Father Huchet has devoted himself to establishing precise facts and transmitting their memory.   After several articles, in 1983 he published a work which listed all those killed in Les Lucs and presented the archival sources in their full complexity. But as the video shows, he was could also be moved to sing the lament which is still transmitted in the parish.

TranscriptThe narrator tells us that Turreau gave the Infernal Columns the mission of searching out and burning forests, villages, towns and farms.  All the inhabitants were considered to be rebels; orders were carried out to the letter.  On 26th February 1794, the column of General Cordelier was attacked by Charette's men, near the little town of Les Lucs.  Two days later, in reprisals, a quarter of the population was massacred.

Father Huchet remarks that the massacre at Les Lucs was only one among 100 or more actions carried out by the Infernal Columns.  There were many victims in all the neighbouring parishes  - Legé, Saint-Sulpice, Mormaison, Saint-Colomban, La Limouziniere. Touvois, to say nothing of parishes further afield.


Several videos concern aspects the commemorations in the Vendée which took place during the bicentenary of the Revolution. Jean-Clément Martin's careful introductions criticise the Right-wing view of events in the Vendée and appeal for a more nuanced interpretation.  

A proposal for the legal recognition of the "genocide" in the Vendée

Video of 14th January 2008

In 2008 nine French deputies, among them Hervé de Charette, asked the National Assembly to  acknowledge formally the genocide in the Vendée.  The clip shows an interview with Reynald Sécher, the chief proponent of the  genocide thesis.

Regard sur la Vendée (INA video collection): Les Lucs-sur-Boulogne

Introduction by Jean-Clement Martin:  In 1985 Reynald Secher, in his thèse d’Etat, maintained that the Vendée was the victim of a genocide ordered by the Revolutionary state.  At the time of the bicentenary this idea struck a chord, and provoked a controversy that, thirty years down the line, had lost little of its immediacy  - as this televised debate from 2008 shows.  At this time a group of deputies proposed a law which would oblige France to recognise the genocide.

Reynald Secher's opponent in the debate is Alain Gérard, then director of the Centre vendéen de Recherches historiques. Supported by archival sources, Gérard argues that there may have been war crimes, even crimes against humanity, committed in 1794, but the term "genocide",  coined after the Second World War, was not appropriate.

The issue at stake since the 1980s is whether the Revolutionary government  ordered the extermination of the "Vendeans" or whether the massacres were committed by the armies on the ground, with the collusion of generals like Turreau, and of certain Representatives on Mission, such as Carrier.  The complexity of the situation is compounded by the fact that the law of 1st August 1793 expressly demanded that women, children, and old men should be protected, and that  refugees from the Vendée were given support for a number of years.   Other "brigands" were also threatened with destruction, throughout the west, but also in Lyon, Toulon, Marseilles, to say nothing of the Basques, several thousand of whom were deported as suspects in 1793-1794.

A Polish Cardinal visits the Vendée (1989)

Video of 10th July 1789

In 1789 a party from Poland visited Les Espesses in the Vendée and attended a commemoration at the Puy-du-Fou amusement park. 

Regard sur la Vendée (INA video collection): Monseigneur Glemp au Puy-du-Fou

Introduction by Jean-Clement Martin: In 1989 Cardinal Glemp, the primate of Poland, was invited by the General Council of the Vendée to an imposing ceremony at the Puy-du-Fou.  As France celebrated the bicentenary of the Revolution, this venue consecrated the Vendée as the seat of Christian resistance.

The event assimilated the Vendée's opposition to the Revolution of 1789 to Polish resistance to the Revolution of  1917 - both were in defence of the people and religion. This vision was expressed by Monseigneur Glemp against the background of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the legalisation of Solidarity.  In 1984 Jean-Paul II, himself a Pole, had  beatified 100 martyrs from the Vendée and in 1996 had paid a brief visit to the Vendée at the invitation of the religious authorities.

History and memory in the Vendee thus chimed with wider national and international politics.  The signature at this time of cultural conventions between urban and regional communities in France and Poland reinforced the image of the Vendée as a symbol of resistance to the Revolutionary state.

Le Mémorial des Lucs-sur-Boulogne

Video of 22nd September 1993.

The video shows the final preparations for the inauguration of the Mémorial by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, which took place before 40,000 invited guests in September 1993.

Regard sur la Vendée (INA video collection): Les Lucs-sur-Boulogne

Introduction by Jean-Clément Martin:  If the commune of La Gaubretière was the "Pantheon of the Vendée" in the 19th century, it is the commune of Les Lucs-sur-Boulogne which became the Vendée's symbolic town of martyrdom a century later. The massacre of February 1794 committed by the infernal columns, was rediscovered during the Second Empire and commemorated by a chapel built on the banks of the Boulogne.  The names of the victims, as listed by the curé Barbedette, were recorded in the chapel, whilst stain glass windows in the town church evoked the slaughter.  In 1993 the memory was reinforced by a walkway with commemorative steles at the entrance to the town, and above all by the Mémorial built at the foot of the chapel, on the opposite side of the river.  The  Mémorial recalls the aesthetic of the monumental memorials of Berlin.  The conceptual aim is to take the visitor on a journey which underlines the universal and spiritual dimensions of the war in the Vendée.  It makes sober use of regional elements, such as the archives of the time, to offer a stylised evocation of the massacres.  At the same time the specificity and complexity of the war are recalled by the scythes and felt hats of the Vendean peasantry; also by the Declaration of 1st October 1793 which called for the destruction of the "rebels of the Vendée". The lesson, of universal relevance, presented by the memorial is amplified by the rooms devoted to the events of 1793 to 1796 in the neighbouring Historial.

The video features some clear footage of the interior of the memorial, plus comments by Dominique Souchet, from the department of the Vendée, and by the designer of the monument, Philippe Noir.  They explain that the Mémorial is a place of commemoration rather than a museum.  Contemporary works of art and original music express a historical and a spiritual reality.  Philippe Noir in particular emphasises the religious aspects of the wars, which addressed the problem of faith and the right to practice religion.  The architecture is intended to reflect this spirituality.  

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in the Vendée (1993)

Video of 26th September 1993   

 A clip from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's inauguration speech at Les Lucs in September 1993.

Regard sur la Vendée (INA video collection): Alexandre Soljenitsyne en Vendée  

Introduction by Jean-Clément Martin:  The presence of Solzhenitsyn enlarged the idea of resistance to the French Revolution into a principled refusal of the idea of Revolution as a whole.

The Russian writer, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, was the author of an important body of work in which he denounced  the Soviet system.  In his speech at Les Lucs he reaffirmed his anti-Revolutionary convictions. The French Revolutionary principles of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity were impossible to attain and represented a contradiction in terms.

Here is a copy of Solzhenitsyn's speech in English

Friday, 28 October 2022

The skull of Stofflet

... An unpleasant relic from the War in the Vendée

When I came across this macabre image by chance, I was rather shocked to learn that the skull on display is that of the much-respected Vendean general Jean-Nicolas Stofflet. This  is not some downmarket Ripley's; it is the flagship Musée d’Art et d’Histoire in Cholet.  With all the dialogue around history and memory in the Vendée, it seems strange to find so disrespectful an exhibit.  (I suspect part of the explanation is that the skull is on loan to the museum - the family who owns it are said to take an active interest in its display and study.)

Unsurprisingly, there have been protests. In 2015, during a visit by the organisation Souvenir Vendéen  to  Barthélémont, in Lorraine, the birthplace of Stofflet, the mayor Serge Husson, who is  himself a distant descendant of the general, declared his desire to see an end to this "indecent situation".  He wanted to see the skull buried or deposited,  either in Barthélémont  itself or in the memorial chapel near Maulévrier.  

Tuesday, 25 October 2022

David d'Angers's veterans


During his stay in Saint-Florent for the inauguration of the monument to Bonchamps in 1825, David d'Angers made a series of sketches of veterans of the Grande-Armée d'Anjou who had gathered for the occasion. His original album of 1825, Portraits de Vendéens par David d'Angers, is preserved in the Musée des Beaux Arts in Angers. The Archives de la Vendée website tells us he planned to create a series of bas-relief, but, if so, the project was never begun.  Each of the 62 drawings is carefully annotated with biographical details, either by  David himself, or in a second hand, probably that of his former drawing master Jean-Jacques Delusse (1758-1833). The result is a rare visual record of a passing generation. 

On view in the church at Saint-Florent

David, it seems, had no political agenda. He was moved by the emotion of the occasion and by his empathy for these tough proud old men.  His interest in the fashionable science of physiognomy underlay his desire to record their features.  According to Victor Pavie, the men responded readily, crowding to his door, eager to share their reminiscences. Years later, Pavie tried to explain how David, a man of convinced Republican views, had come to feel drawn to the veterans:

The Vendean peasants who gathered around the tomb in Saint-Florent in 1825 constituted a people.  David understood this.  As a child from a different school, almost a soldier from another camp,  he could not embrace the Vendée in all its radiant unity - the sanctity of the cause, the martyred devotion.  But he recognised generous and worthy opponents of  Kléber and Marceau. The era of the War in the Vendée was coloured for him with the same Homeric prestige that Gros's brush had lent to the battles of the Empire, but with the resonance of religion and home.  He preferred to call his native province by the name "Vendée". Two days at Saint-Florent, under a sun which lit up the wide vistas and splendid serenity of his homeland, sufficed to bring him in intimate contact with the survivors of the Grand Army.  These brave men posed and chatted to him with a frankness which was both noble and familiar.  Not one aspect  escaped him.  To see him so keen to record with the same crayon, their stories and their features,  they would easily have mistaken him for a partisan - he was indeed an unreserved  admirer of their pride in combat and simplicity in glory.
Oration of M. Victor Pavie, for the inauguration of the bust of David, Angers, 12th March 1863

Monday, 3 October 2022

The monument to Bonchamps at Saint-Florent


My father was one of the five thousand prisonners in the church at Saint-Florent, for whom Bonchamps commanded pardon on the point of dying.  In executing this monument I wanted to repay, as far as I could, my father's debt of gratitude.
Note of David d'Angers on an engraving (quoted Jouin, David d'Angers, p.150-151)

Here are a few additional notes on David d'Angers's famous monument to Bonchamps in the Abbey church at Saint-Florent.

The Father

David d'Angers always maintained that he executed the monument in recognition of Bonchamps's humanity, as personally experienced by his father.  Pierre-Louis David (1756-1821) had been a successful decorative sculptor in Angers. He was an enthusiastic patriot and volunteered in the Republican army in 1793.  In a notice written in 1838, David recalled that his father was a daring soldier, who was often entrusted with dangerous missions.  Having been wounded and captured at the Battle of Torfou (19th September 1793), he found himself among the prisoners liberated at Saint-Florent on the orders of Bonchamps. He subsequently retired from active service to a post in army administration, but remained a lifelong ardent supporter of the Revolution, an allegiance which he handed on to his son.

Sunday, 2 October 2022

Bonchamps spares the Republican prisoners


Bonchamps "from a contemporary  portrait",
reproduced in Baguenier-Desormeaux,
Bonchamps et le passage de la Loire (1896)
We must not deceive ourselves; - we must not aim at worldly rewards - they would be below the purity of our motives and the sanctity of our cause.  We must not even aspire to human glory;  civil wars give not that.
Words of Bonchamps, reported in the Memoirs of his wife p.7-8.

The Retreat to Saint-Florent

On 17th October 1793 the Grande Armée Catholique et Royale attacked Republican troops at Cholet.  After a terrible battle that lasted thirty-six hours, the Republicans were left masters of the field.

The two Vendean generals, D'Elbée and Bonchamps, had both been seriously wounded.  They were evacuated from the battlefield in full view of their demoralised troops.  D'Elbée, despite sixteen wounds, was carried away by his brother-in-law Duhoux d'Hauterie on horseback.  The faithful soldiers of Bonchamps took turns to bear by stretcher their beloved chief, who had been hit by grapeshot in the belly.  One of their number Louis Onillon, carried beside them the flag of the division of the Bords de la Loire (See Deniau, p. 57According to the eye-witness account of  Poirier de Beauvais, Bonchamps spent the night at Beaupréau, in the house of a Madame de Bonnet, arriving about nine o'clock in the evening. D'Elbee, who had preceded him there, was taken by ox-cart to a neighbouring farm and subsequently evacuated to Noirmoutier. Bonchamps too stayed only a short time in Beaupréau since by early  morning on the 18th October he was in Saint-Florent-le-Vieil, at the house of Mme Duval in the lower town.    

In the meantime, the defeated Vendean forces began to gather in Saint-Florent, where it had been Bonchamps intention to cross the Loire.  In the absence of the senior commanders, the marquis de Donnissan,  president of the Supreme Council,  took charge of operations and, seconded by the Chevalier des Essarts, sent orders to surrounding parishes to assemble. Estimates have it as many as sixty thousand ragged soldiers gathered in the town, with perhaps twenty thousand women and children.  With them arrived several thousand Republican prisoners under the guard of Cesbron d'Argonne, a fierce veteran of almost 60, until recently the royalist governor of Cholet. The prisoners were shut up in the Abbey buildings or assembled in the surrounding town. They clearly posed an acute dilemma, since they could neither be taken across the river, nor simply left behind to rejoin the enemy forces. The third alternative was clearly to kill them.

Wednesday, 28 September 2022

Lescure crosses the Loire

 Jules Girardet (1856–1946).

General de Lescure, wounded, crossing the Loire from Saint-Florent with his defeated army

Oil on canvas, signed and dated 1882. 152 cm x 249 cm.

Williamson Art Gallery and Museum, Birkenhead

Here is a striking image of the conflict in the Vendée to be admired in an unexpected location! 

Girardet's canvas captures the moment when the stricken general Lescure was ferried across the Loire from Saint-Florent, with his wife, daughter and father-in-law.  

Lescure had been shot in the head by a musket ball and seriously wounded at  La Tremblaye on  15th October 1793, just prior to the decisive Royalist defeat at Cholet.  He had opposed the crossing  and declared his wish to die in the Vendée, but in the end he had little choice.  He was carried slowly and painfully by his men on the long retreat of the Vendéan army, to die finally at Laval on 2nd November.  His passage across the Loire is described vividly in the Memoirs of his widow, the Marquise de La Rochejaquelein: 

Wednesday, 14 September 2022

Saint-Florent-le-Vieil (2)

 [continued from previous post]


17th-19th October 1793:  The Army of the Vendée crosses the Loire

If Saint-Florent saw the beginning of the conflict in the Vendée, in October 1793 it was to  witness its critical turning-point, as the Royalist forces crossed the Loire and turned West at the start of the Virée de Galerne.  

On the evening of 16th October at Beaupréau, Bonchamps's plan to extend the war to Brittany had been reluctantly agreed by the Royalist leadership.  A detachment under the orders of Autichamp, Bonchamps's aide-de-camp, successfully secured the commune of Varades on the north bank, directly opposite Saint-Florent, and the way now stood open.   However, the catastrophic defeat at Cholet on 17th October, meant that the crossing took place under chaotic conditions. Both  D'Elbée and Bonchamps had been gravely wounded.  The mass of dispirited troops retreated in disarray first to Beaupréau, then in the evening to Saint-Florent.  On the same night, 17th October, the crossing began.  It continued throughout the next day, principally from Saint-Florent, and Cul-de-boeuf a short distance upstream.  Due to the shortage of boats, huge numbers of Vendeans found themselves crowded together on the riverback. Several thousand Republican prisoners who had been brought into the town were famously liberated by order of  Bonchamps, who was taken across the Loire and died at the village of Meilleraie on the evening of the 18th.

The site of the crossing can be surveyed evocatively from the steep hill of Saint-Florent, surmounted by the Abbey church and the wide expanse of the Place d'Armes.  Below, the Loire is broad and shallow, with a flat bank, which must have been far too small to accommodate the press of people gathered on it. According to Mme de La Rochejaquelein there were only twenty or so boats, though there were doubtless other improvised rafts.  A first branch of the river, with dykes and low water levels, could be forded on foot "with water to half-way up the body".  In the centre was the Ile Batailleuse and then the second branch of the river, whilst at the foot of the hill of Varades, yet a third branch had to be negotiated. The horsemen swam across with their horses. The weather was reported to be cold, but without wind to make waves on the river;  elsewhere it was described as "calm" but with a cold wind.There is record of only one woman ,plus  three horses, drowning.

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