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. 

Today 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 Villiers, 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 an Italianate style in the early 19th-century.  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.

Sunday 4 September 2022

The Mémorial de la Vendée

After leaving the Historial, we visited the  Mémorial de la Vendée, just a few minutes from the museum, but oddly detached from it.   The experience proved strangely disturbing, especially as we were entirely alone at this point.  

Saturday 3 September 2022

Historial de Vendée - Picture Gallery


In order to ensure a balanced interpretation, the Historial has elected  to separate its presentation of the events of the war in the Vendée from its collection of depictions by later artists.  A gallery, mostly of 19th-century paintings, provides a context to analyse the later "war of the painters".

Whilst David and other artists were propagandists for the Revolution, the Vendée produced almost no contemporary representations of the war.  The insurrection was only celebrated later, by the Restoration, which sought chiefly to glorify the leaders.  Under the influence of Romanticism, Vendeans and Chouans were confounded and presented as Christian knights, ferocious warriors in the midst of grandiose decors.  On the other side, the inheritors of the Revolution, exalted the heroism of Joseph Bara, a symbol of Republican innocence victim of the "fanaticism" of the Vendée.
After the end of the 19th century, with the decline of historical painting, the  Vendéen inheritance was celebrated predominantly in church windows. The region became a stronghold of Catholicism. 

Thursday 1 September 2022

Historial de la Vendée


This summer we spent three days visiting some of the sites of the war in the Vendée, using an airport hotel on the Nantes periphérique as our base.  Our first stop was the departmental museum, the Historial de la Vendée, which is situated about an hour's drive away, in the commune of Les Lucs-sur-Boulogne.

We stopped in a semi-deserted carpark on the edge of an area of parkland which featured several odd grassy hillocks.  The first two, we later found out, were ancient feudal mottes; the third was the roof of the eco-friendly, state-of-the-art museum complex.  You descend down some steps into a massive hall which resembles a multiplex cinema, with seven separate exhibition spaces corresponding to different periods of history, plus a shop, cafe and children's museum.


The Historial was opened in 2006 at the substantial cost of 14 million euros for the museum building alone - though apparently this is only half the average cost of a new museum in France (see Dominique Poulot, 2011).  The architects were Plan 01, a collective of four Parisian firms. The museum is modelled, both physically and conceptually, on the ultramodern Canadian Museum of History in Quebec, with an emphasis on audiovisual and interactive technology. 

The term "Historial" is intended to combine "History" and "Memorial", the idea being that the museum should provide not just a historical narrative but a reflection on the development of collective memory.  This is of course particularly fraught for the war in the Vendée:  Les Lucs, where the museum is located, is the scene of a notorious massacre by Republican troops and the site of the Mémorial de la Vendée built in 1993 under the rightist inspiration of Philippe de Villiers.

What follows is a brief description of the section of the museum devoted to the war.  The lighting was very subdued so excuse the poor quality of the photographs!
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