Thursday, 20 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 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.  

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.

Monday, 12 September 2022

Saint-Florent-le-Vieil (1)

 On the way back from Nantes to Dieppe we stopped off at Saint-Florent-le-Vieil, one of the key "places of memory" of the War in the Vendée. The little town, to the north of Cholet, occupies a strategic promontory over the Loire at the entry to the Mauges, later the heartland of the Army of Anjou.  It was here that the war is traditionally said to have begun, on 12th March 1793.

 It was only a flying visit - just enough time to take in the atmosphere and see the famous tomb of Bonchamps  sculpted by David d'Angers.  





12th March 1793:  The War in the Vendée begins


John Haycraft visited Saint-Florent in 1989 in the company of the local historian and ardent Royalist Dominique Lambert de La Douasnerie: 

When we asked Dominique about the start of the insurrection, he took us to the little town of St-Florent-le-Vieil, which is not far south of Angers.  Approaching it from the north bank of the Loire, we could see the houses jostling up the hill to a picturesque church with a spire.  Most of St Florent was burnt in 1793.  However, it was rebuilt shortly afterwards, and still looks much like old prints, standing beyond the flat islands in the river, on which tall poplars stand, their small leaves rustling in the breeze.

We stopped beyond the suspension bridge on the Place Maubert.  "It was here," said Dominique, dramatically, "that the war started."

He looked round at the old houses in the little square. "On Sunday March 12th, 1793, on this spot, the municipal authorities announced that lots would be drawn for conscription, as there were insufficient volunteers for the army.  Hitherto, the Vendeans had accepted the Revolution passively, but they were certainly not prepared to leave their farms and fight on distant frontiers for ideals they detested.  They resented, too, that the municipal authorities and the National Guard were exempt from conscription, and that the burden therefore fell mainly on them.  Protesting, the crowd jostled the officials and several young men were arrested and taken to the local jail.

The Place Maubert  - nowadays truncated by the D752 as it enters the town via a suspension bridge

"The following Tuesday," continued Dominique, "more than 2,000 peasants marched into the town, wearing white royalist cockades.  As the confronted the municipality and shouted to them to suspend the drawing of lots, the National Guard panicked and fired.  The crowd then surged forward, and the Guard fled down the slope, just there, to the river."  We walked through a narrow passageway between an old chapel, now a museum, and an ugly, rectangular cinema, and descended a cobbled path through trees to the banks of the river.  Before us, the Loire flowed swiftly past.   "The National Guards took refuge there, on those islands, and the town was in the hands of the insurgents."

Thursday, 8 September 2022

The Vendée - Noirmoutier

 

 

In January 1794 the Vendéen general d'Elbée was executed by Republican Troops in the square outside the castle on the "presqu'île" of Noirmoutier.  The memorable painting by Julian Le Blant evokes a scene of almost infinite remoteness and desolation. 

In real life Noirmoutier is not like that. It might not be "always sunny" as the tourist website claims, but in late August it is certainly busy; the cars and camper vans were nose to tail along the main road as we drove in.  Fortunately, as it was late afternoon, even more were pouring out in the opposite direction. We did not dare to stop, even to photograph the picturesque salt pans, and it was with some relief that we secured a parking space and abandoned the car.

Wednesday, 7 September 2022

The Vendée - La Chabotterie

 

While the soul of the Vendée is believed to rest at the Memorial of Les-Lucs-sur-Boulogne, its spirit is said to exude from La Chabotterie.  It is the most important site of memory in the département, since it is the place where Charette was taken after his capture, which event marked the end of the Vendée War of 1793.

The presence of the most famous general of the "Great War" haunts this modest, austere-looking manor house, even though he never resided there.  It is impossible to stifle one's emotions when contemplating the scullery table on which the "King of the Vendée" lay wounded, and where we was to spend one of his last nights before being executed by firing squad.  
Philippe de Villier, quoted in the preface to the English guide to the Logis de la Chabotterie.


We started our second day in the Vendée at the Logis de la Chabotterie, a beautifully restored  manor house at Saint-Sulpice-le-Verdon, about 40 minutes drive south from Nantes.  It was in the nearby woods of La Chabotterie on 23rd March 1796 that Charette, the last of the Vendéan leaders, was finally arrested.  He was then held briefly in the house before being taken to Nantes for execution.

Tuesday, 6 September 2022

The Well at Clisson

 


It was a bright sunny afternoon when we visited  Clisson, thirty kilometres south of Nantes.  Thanks to the sculptor Frédéric Lamot, who took up residence there, the little town was attractively rebuilt in the early 19th-century in an Italianate style.  On a warm August day in the holidays, the atmosphere was relaxed and happy, the views over the river picture-perfect.  It was hard to imagine the dark times of Revolutionary conflict.

It was in the cold early months of 1794 that the "infernal column" commanded by General Cordelier reached Clisson. Almost all the buildings were destroyed, the great medieval castle was ruined and much of the population reduced to sheltering in the surrounding woods.  Only the two ancient bridges across the Sèvre and its tributary the Moine were spared, together with the old covered market which served the Republican troops as a barracks.  

Monday, 5 September 2022

The Vendée - Massacre at Les Lucs

 The chapel


After visiting the Mémorial, we crossed the little river and followed the "chemin de la mémoire" up to the 19th-century commemorative chapel, which stands close to the site of an ancient feudal motte.  There is a great sense of peace here on a bright late summer afternoon. 





It was in February to March 1794 that more than 500 people were slaughtered in the surrounding area by detachments of the "infernal column" under the command of General Cordelier.

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