Known simply as le quatorze, 14 July is the national holiday of France; a date chosen to celebrate the Revolution. It was on this day in 1789 that the medieval fortress known as the Bastille Saint-Antoine was surrendered to a mob of about a thousand Parisians. It was not concern for the seven prisoners held there that had attracted the mob’s attention but the large stocks of gunpowder stored at this last remaining symbol of royalist power in central Paris. Although not the opening act of the Revolution, this dramatic action came to symbolize the end of France’s ancien regime and the birth of the republic formally established on 22 September 1792.
During the Revolution, large swathes of Brittany and neighbouring Vendée found themselves embroiled in a bitter civil war between the forces of the new Republic and the counter-revolutionary movement loosely known as the Chouannerie.
At first, attitudes to the Revolution seemed rather ambivalent in Brittany but from the summer of 1789, the new National Assembly passed a series of measures that changed the socio-political and religious landscape of France forever. Feudalism was abolished along with the other traditional privileges held by the nobility, as were the special rights enjoyed by some provinces, such as Brittany. The country’s largest landowner, the Church, saw its economic and political power smashed; its properties were confiscated and monasteries dissolved. While the removal of tithes and dues was initially welcomed, the upheavals caused by the draconian decrees issuing from distant Paris saw pro-Church and anti-Revolutionary riots in the city of Vannes at the start of April 1790.
Towards the end of April, the government decided to sell-off Church property and in July, under the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, the Church in France was subordinated to the state; priests being forced to swear an oath of allegiance to the Revolutionary government whose authority now held primacy over the Pope. These measures were not well received in staunchly Catholic Brittany where the majority of priests and bishops refused to become civil servants, subject to the French state. The authorities duly appointed new bishops from among those few priests who had sworn themselves to the government.
In early February 1791, several groups representing a score of parishes around Vannes petitioned the authorities against the rumoured removal of the Bishop of Vannes. To protect the Bishop, some 3,000 peasants armed with clubs and pitchforks marched on the city on 13 February but were routed by a combined force of well-armed National Guards, mounted Dragoons and detachments from Walsh’s Regiment who had last seen action during the American War of Independence.
At the end of June, the government declared its right to deport any ‘refractory’ priests who had refused to swear the oath of allegiance. Thousands of such priests were imprisoned or forced into hiding and, inevitably, there was soon a shortage of clergy and many parishes saw their churches locked but continued to worship clandestinely. Only obedient ‘constitutional’ clergy who had sworn their oath were allowed to carry out any duties but most people refused to attend services celebrated by these priests. In Brittany, they were ridiculed as traitors and cowards and frequently jostled in the streets but they were now public officials and could be protected by the full force of the state.
By the summer of 1791, resentment towards the policies of the revolutionary government had hardened considerably in Brittany and the first serious steps towards an armed counter-revolution were taken by the Marquis de la Rouërie, former hero of the American War of Independence. His experience as a successful military commander in America marked him out as the strongest candidate to lead a revolt and he received backing from the exiled court of the Comte d’Artois for a Breton Association set on defending the monarchy and re-establishing the privileges of Brittany that had been stripped away in 1789. In an echo of his American service, La Rouërie was authorized to place the Association on a military footing, organizing it and initially funding it in a similar manner to the legion he commanded in America.
With disaffection to the revolutionary government rife in neighbouring Normandy and Vendée, La Rouërie planned a coordinated uprising in the West, enforced by a landing of émigré troops in Saint-Malo, for the start of October 1792. This was designed to create a second-front to coincide with a proposed invasion by Austrian and Prussian armies in the East but the French army’s victory over the Prussians at Valmy on 20 September scuppered any chance of success a Breton rising might have then had.
While La Rouërie’s plans for his 10,000 men had been postponed to the following year, a smuggler known as Jean Chouan (a nickname derived from the owl-call that his men used to recognise each other) was actively organising guerrilla-style attacks against government agents in eastern Brittany. The west of the region had seen a series of major uprisings throughout the summer of 1792 but, with the exception of the 10 September attacks on the garrisons at Lannion and Pontrieux, these had been uncoordinated revolts.
Emboldened by the retreat of the invading armies, the constitutional monarchy was abolished and replaced by the First Republic on 22 September 1792. The calendar was reset with 1792 becoming ‘year one’ and Louis XVI being executed four months later. One of the key repercussions of this regicide was that it now set the kingdoms of Europe, many of whom were tied by blood to the King of France, against the new republic. To meet this challenge, the government decided to conscript 300,000 men to help defend the nation although Republican leaders, municipal bureaucrats and government officials were all exempt from the military draft and it was even possible for the wealthy to pay for a replacement in order to escape the call of duty.
Unsurprisingly, the potential loss of so many young men needed to work on the farms and fishing boats provoked strong reactions in Brittany and Vendée, particularly following so soon after the loss of their nobles and priests and the mass sale of Church property, whose proceeds had been siphoned away to Paris. Revolutionary rhetoric about the freedom of men sounded hollow to the peasants of the region who rose up in armed rebellion in early March 1793.
On 14 March, the recruiting commissioners and their National Guard escort were killed in the central Brittany town of Pluméliau and the recruitment lists burnt before the assembled crowd. Joined by people from neighbouring parishes, 3,000 anti-Republicans then converged on the town of Pontivy. Negotiations to abandon recruitment failed and the town was assaulted in the early afternoon. Despite early advances by the insurgents, they were repulsed by the town’s garrison and finally dispersed by Republican reinforcements from Guémené and Loudéac. Losses to the Republicans were said to have been 30 dead while their protagonists lost over one hundred dead and a further 53 taken prisoner; a dozen of whom were guillotined a fortnight later to serve as an example to others. Further south, the towns of La Roche-Bernard and Rochefort-en-Terre were taken by the anti-Republicans on 15/16 March.
In the west of the region, riots in Saint-Pol-de-Léon and several other towns over 18/19 March left three soldiers dead and saw the authorities deploy elements of General Canclaux’s Army of the Coasts of Brest. Faced with cannon fire, backed-up by 1,200 troops, the demonstrators soon dispersed but they did not disappear. Instead, in order to split the Republicans’ lines of communication, they destroyed the bridge at Kerguidu; the local Revolutionary Surveillance Committee being convinced this was a precursor to an attack on the city. On 23 March, 400 soldiers from the city’s garrison, reinforced by men from the National Guard of Morlaix, set out for Kerguidu where they were ambushed by a thousand rebels. Heavily pressed, the soldiers formed square atop a small hill. After two hours of fighting, their cannon were spent and cartridges low but they were saved by the appearance of Canclaux at the head of a column of a thousand fresh troops. Once again, cannon fire proved decisive and caused the rout of the insurgents who are said to have suffered 250 dead, against half a dozen wounded in the Republican ranks.
At around the same time, beginning with the capture of Machecoul on 11 March, coordinated attacks on officers of the National Guard were staged across Vendée. As in Brittany, riots erupted in many towns and mobs began to ransack and set alight Revolutionary offices whose officials were often forced to seek refuge in wealthy bourgeois enclaves. Here, a number of anti-Republican forces coalesced to form the Catholic and Royal Army whose total membership fluctuated between 45,000 and 65,000 men; rural peasants and artisans with no military experience, uniforms or even boots. Some possessed hunting rifles but the majority were armed with only pitchforks and scythes.
Despite these limitations, the insurgents inflicted several notable defeats upon the professional soldiers of the Republic, seizing control and holding many key towns for several months. While the uprising in Brittany was effectively suppressed by April, that in the Breton Marches and Vendée gathered increased momentum and the government moved to put down the revolt, Determined to make an example of the rebels, tens of thousands of troops were deployed to augment local forces and the Army of the Coasts of La Rochelle. Its commander, General Beysser, wrote to his predecessor: “A man’s death is soon forgotten but the memory of burning down his house lasts for years.”
Attitudes towards the peasant army were hardening; official propaganda now referred to the anti-Republicans as common brigands. Local authorities began to organise offensive patrols to scour the countryside in search of suspected rebels; mere suspicion was enough to see men brutally beaten and imprisoned but many were summarily executed. Properties were ransacked and looted, often burnt-down as a means of terrorising the neighbourhood but also to deny the rebels potential safe havens.
General de Salomon of the Army of the Coasts of La Rochelle, bruised from the humiliating defeats at Montreuil-Bellay and Saumur on 8/9 June, announced: “This is a war of brigands and calls for us all to become brigands. We must forget all military regulations; fall upon these criminals and hound them mercilessly. Our infantry must flush them out from the thickets so our cavalry can trample them on the plain.” Clearly and ominously, there would be no clemency shown to the anti-Republicans.
With the notable exception of failing to overcome General Canclaux’s well-organised defence of the Breton port of Nantes at the end of June 1793, the Catholic and Royal Army enjoyed a very successful campaign throughout the summer. However, plans to take the offensive further north into Brittany and Maine seem to have been thwarted by division amongst the Army’s leadership. Planning was also not helped by the tendency of their volunteers to return home to work their farms immediately after the defeat or retreat of the Republican forces confronting them.
By the end of August, Republican forces in the region had been further reinforced by the Army of Mainz, 15,000 strong, commanded by General Kléber. However, the counter-revolutionaries continued to inflict stinging defeats over the forces ranged against them, notably at the battles of Tiffauges and Montaigu towards the end of September 1793.
At the start of October, the three Republican armies operating in Vendée were merged to form the Army of the West and immediately launched a new offensive, retaking the important rebel town of Cholet on 15 October. Two days later, the rebels launched their counter-attack but an estimated force of up to 40,000 men failed to dislodge 27,000 well-entrenched soldiers who were able to outflank the attackers whose ranks were decimated by grapeshot. An estimated 2,000 Republicans and 8,000 rebels were killed or wounded during this bloody battle; General Kléber wrote that: “the fields and roads bordering Cholet were strewn with corpses.” He also noted the massacre of 400 injured rebels but other sources suggest the figure was actually twice as high.
Routed, the majority of the rebel army crossed the Loire and marched towards Normandy with the aim of capturing a port that would allow them to obtain aid from Great Britain, against whom France had declared war that February. At this stage, it numbered about 30,000 combatants and 30,000 to 60,000 non-combatants including children. As they crossed Brittany, their ranks were augmented by about 8,000 Breton rebels, including future luminaries Jean Chouan and Georges Cadoudal, but after capturing several cities en route, the rebels were ultimately unable to capture the port of Granville on 14 November. Sick of fighting and ravaged by hunger and dysentery, the men pressed their commanders to return southwards, towards home.
While the rebel ranks were thinning thanks to disease and wounds, the Republican forces were reinforced with 6,000 men from the Army of the Coasts of Cherbourg and 10,000 men from the Army of the North. Having captured Le Mans on 10 December, the rebels’ chaotic defence saw their positions overwhelmed just two days later. A retreat to Laval ensued but thousands of rebels, mostly non-combatants, remained stuck inside the town and were massacred. According to the government’s Committee of Public Safety, 5,000 Vendéens died in Le Mans, while Republican losses totalled 30 dead but some claim that as many as 15,000 were killed in Le Mans and during the harassed flight to Laval.
Now numbering just 6,000 to 7,000 combatants, with about the same number of non-combatants, the remains of the Royal and Catholic Army took refuge in the Breton town of Savenay on 22 December. The next day, Republican forces attacked and took the town with the loss of only 30 men. The rebels’ losses were estimated at over 3,000 dead and a similar number summarily executed; a few thousand non-combatants were taken to the prisons of Nantes to await their fate.
It was not only in the aftermath of battle that prisoners were shown no mercy. In Nantes, the Committee for Public Safety’s representative, Jean-Baptiste Carrier, oversaw an emptying of the city’s many prisons between November 1793 and February 1794 by means of what he called “vertical deportation.” The Civil Commissioner of Maine-et-Loire, described it thus: “Here we use a whole different way to get rid of this bad brood. We put all these rascals in boats that we sink to the bottom. This is called ‘sending to the water tower.’ In truth, if the brigands have sometimes complained of starving to death, they will not be able to complain that they are being made to die of thirst. About 1,200 have been taken to drink today.”
There are no precise figures for the number of people killed during these organised drownings but several historians agree a figure of around 4,860 men, women and children. The first drownings targeted refractory priests; 90 of whom were taken out into the middle of the Loire estuary in a specially adapted barge and drowned. Despite the cold water, three priests survived long enough to be rescued by a nearby warship only to be returned to the civil authorities and drowned the following night.
Eye-witness accounts of the drownings indicate that the prisoners were commonly stripped of all clothing and possessions at the quayside; an indignity applied to old blind men as well as breastfeeding mothers and their babies. We will never know why Carrier decided to despatch these enemies of the Revolution in this fashion although cynics have suggested that it was to conserve ammunition after having already executed, by firing squad, about 3,600 people suspected of disloyalty; a further 200 were guillotined.
Much has been made in recent years of the severity with which the new Republic crushed those who opposed it; excesses were often glossed-over by earlier generations of historians. Some even questioned the authenticity of General Westermann’s infamous declaration to the Committee for Public Safety: “Citizens, there is no more Vendée. She has died beneath our sword of freedom, with her women and children. I have buried her in the marshes and woods of Savenay. By your orders, I have crushed her children under the hooves of my horses and massacred her women who will give birth to no more brigands now. There is not a prisoner who could criticise me; I have exterminated all.”
While the Royal and Catholic Army had been destroyed as a fighting force, elements that did not participate in the march north, following the defeat at Cholet in October, remained active in Vendée where they defiantly held sway over large parts of the countryside. The isle of Noirmoutier finally fell to Republican forces on 3 January 1794 when the rebels negotiated their surrender to General Haxo who promised to spare their lives. The entire garrison of 1,800 men, including the former chief of the Royal and Catholic Army who had been wounded at the battle of Cholet, were executed; unable to stand due to his wounds, Generalissimo d’Elbée was shot slumped in a chair.
The Committee of Public Safety were now convinced that restoring calm to the Vendée could only be achieved by bringing out the innocent citizens, exterminating the rest and repopulating it as soon as possible with Republicans. To this end, the Commander of the Army of the West, General Turreau, and General Haxo systematically crossed the region with tens of thousands of troops organised into mobile columns adopting a scorched earth policy. Their orders were simple, to “eliminate the brigands to the last man” and between January and May some 25,000 to 50,000 people were killed, without any pretence of judicial process, by these “Infernal Columns.” Writing from Nantes, Carrier urged General Haxo “to burn down all the rebel houses, to massacre all the inhabitants and to take away all their subsistence.”
Sadly, these orders were, more often than not, carried out with alacrity and hundreds of villages were set ablaze by troops who displayed a barbarity, in this Age of Enlightenment, not seen in France since the Hundred Years War of the 14th century. Houses and churches were looted and burnt, crops and livestock destroyed. Rape and torture was commonplace, none were spared; old women and children fell to the bayonet but others were crushed under presses, thrown down wells or even into lighted bread ovens. There are accounts of bodies being flayed in order to tan their skin and of women being burned to collect their fat, “a thousand times more pleasant than lard.” Such outrages and the indiscriminate massacring of the population helped keep the anti-revolutionary flame alive in the region.
Following the rebels’ defeat at Le Mans, Jean Chouan returned to Ille-et-Vilaine; Georges Cadoudal returned home to Morbihan a short time later, after the defeat at Savenay. While the counter-revolutionary movement became popularly known as the Chouan revolt, Chouan himself was killed in action near La Gravelle in July 1794 but his anti-revolutionary spirit did not perish with him. In Morbihan, Cadoudal set about organising companies of insurgents in each parish, commanded by a captain elected by his men. Sometimes acting alone or in concert with others, these groups fought a classic guerrilla war, striking at Republican targets or ambushing military patrols before retreating back into the shadows.
The death of La Rouërie in 1793 had robbed the counter-revolutionary movement in Brittany of a clear leader but eventually Chouan commanders accepted the authority of Joseph de Puisaye who was installed as Commander of the Catholic and Royal Army of Brittany in October 1794. By this time, Morbihan was effectively controlled by the Chouans, believed to number over 15,000 strong; government authority only really existing within sight of its military garrisons and bayonets.
One of the greatest exploits of the Morbihan Chouans was the capture of the arsenal at Pont-de-Buis, south of Brest, on 17 June 1795. Here, some 300 men, alongside 200 reinforcements who had joined during the 130km march across Brittany, seized more gunpowder than they could carry; eight barrels were loaded onto carts but the majority of the precious powder was thrown into the nearby river. The Chouans all returned home, having successfully evaded the pursuing troops.
The strength of the Chouans in Morbihan was one of the reasons why the region was selected for the landing of an army of Royalist émigrés, some 3,500 strong, under the command of de Puisaye on 27 June 1795. The landings at Quiberon serve as a catastrophic example of the damage unchecked egos can do to undermine a common enterprise. The British warships transporting the émigrés and supplies for 40,000 men arrived off Quiberon on 23 June but rather than disembark immediately to maximise the element of surprise, de Puisaye suddenly found his deputy, the Comte d’Hervilly, claiming authority to command the expedition and urging extreme caution. D’Hervilly also considered the Chouans undisciplined and unreliable; a haughty attitude voiced by other émigré officers. Cadoudal’s Chouans had meanwhile overthrown the garrisons at Auray, Carnac and Landévant thus giving the Royalists control over these key coastal towns. However, the delay in linking the émigré army with the 15,000 Chouans spread along the coast did not help foster a spirit of trust.
At this stage, General Hoche, commanding the Army of the Coasts of the Ocean, was in Vannes with only 2,000 troops at his disposal but the Royalists’ inaction and their failure to properly liaise with the Chouans resulted in his being able to march against Auray and Landévant on 5 July with a force of over 13,000 men. Hoche pressed his advantage and tightened the noose around the Quiberon peninsula, while the Chouans defending this neck of land were hampered by thousands of refugees fleeing the fighting; a situation made worse by d’Hervilly’s reluctance to commit his troops to the fray.
On 10 July, the Royalists resolved to break Hoche’s stranglehold; sending 6,000 men, mostly Chouans, to be landed in two columns behind enemy lines so as to attack the besieging forces from the rear. However, the first column dispersed after being overwhelmed at the battle of Pont Aven on 16 July and the second was preparing its attack when a messenger, claiming to represent the Royalists, ordered them to disengage from the south coast and instead head north to support a new landing near Saint-Brieuc. Cadoudal, mindful of the use of Faux Chouans (Republican agitators who posed as Chouans in order to infiltrate their ranks to betray or undermine them), suspected a ruse but was overruled by the émigré officers. The column crossed the breadth of Brittany; taking Josselin, Quintin and Châtelaudren before reaching the coast on 24 July where it discovered no northern landings and heard of the total defeat of the southern ones. Disgusted, the Chouans, once again led by Cadoudal, dispersed and headed for their homes.
Two thousand more émigré soldiers were landed at Quiberon on 15 July under the command of the 24 year old Marquis de Sombreuil, but their offensive the next day was heavily defeated with d’Hervilly himself now added to the Royalist death toll of over 1,500. Hoche launched a major assault on 20 July which was greatly assisted by the desertion of former Republican prisoners of war who had been serving with the Royalists. To limit the extent of the Royalist defeat, de Puisaye now ordered his men to re-embark and 2,225 émigré and Chouan troops, along with 890 civilians were hurriedly taken off the beaches; a scene de Sombreuil described as “cowardly and deceitful.”
The following day, de Sombreuil sued for terms and agreed to surrender against a promise that his men would be spared and treated as honourable prisoners of war. Some 6,300 émigré and Chouan troops were captured; most of the Chouans were eventually released against ransom, along with about 5,000 civilians but the émigrés were imprisoned in conditions that saw 400 quickly perish. The Marquis de Sombreuil and almost 750 of his companions were subsequently shot by firing squads.
Despite this major setback, the chouannerie did not wither away. Cadoudal quickly rebuilt his forces but his relationship with de Puisaye was seriously fractured, causing the formation of two distinct forces; the Catholic and Royal Army of Morbihan led by Cadoudal and the Catholic and Royal Army of Rennes and Fougères led by de Puisaye whose influence also extended into neighbouring Maine and Normandy. Both armies continued to successfully attack and harass the troops and institutions of the Republic but did not maximise their impact by working together.
Having been given total command over all Republican forces in the west in December 1795, General Hoche changed tactics; punitive mobile columns scoured the countryside in pursuit of rebels while amnesties were offered to those willing to give up their arms. Resistance in Vendée effectively crumbled after the capture and execution of key rebel leaders in March 1796. With the pacification of the Breton Marches, the Chouans in Brittany, tired of years living in hiding, begin to discuss the possibility of peace. Cadoual eventually agreed to submit on 22 June but de Puisaye refused and went into exile.
However, open rebellion against the Republic broke out again just three years later when the region’s anti-Republicans, including Cadoudal, agreed to launch a new uprising on 15 September 1799. Cadoudal was quickly able to muster 18,000 men while 26,000 were raised in neighbouring Départments; although the Chouans managed to briefly capture several key cities such as Le Mans, Nantes, Sarzeau and Saint-Brieuc in October, they were repulsed at Vannes and Vire.
In 24 January 1800, at Loc’h bridge near Grand-Champ, 8,000 Chouans fought against 4,000 Republican troops who had taken the town to plunder the reserves of grain and food stored there. After a battle lasting several hours, the Republicans managed to withdraw in good order but the reported casualty figures vary so widely between protagonists as to be unhelpful; it was clearly a Chouan victory but not the decisive victory that they perhaps should have gained. This was the last major action of the chouannerie.
The coup d’état of 9 November 1799 that brought Napoléon Bonaparte to power carried significant changes in its wake. Bonaparte introduced a policy of pacification that offered religious freedom and the suspension of the military draft in exchange for the immediate submission of the Chouans; overtures that were reinforced by the presence of the highly effective General Brune and 30,000 experienced troops. Peace overtures with the Chouan leadership began to bear fruit, some commanders submitted to the new Consulate in December but it was not until 14 February 1800 that Cadoudal and his Chouans agreed to set aside their arms. Their surrender effectively brought the organised chouannerie to an end although isolated acts of rebellion would still be noted until the restoration in 1814.
As you might expect, two of the key figures involved in the counter-Revolution and its suppression suffered very different fates. Georges Cadoudal did not live long enough to see the restoration of the Bourbons; he was beheaded in Paris on 24 June 1804 and so lived just long enough to see Bonaparte assume the throne of France for himself. General Turreau, whose ruthless Infernal Columns forever altered the landscape of western France, served as Ambassador to the USA for eight years and was granted a hero’s place on the Arc de Triomphe. The careers and principles of these men were very different but both died convinced that they were true patriots of France.