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Wars of the Vendée 1793-96

Before starting on the details of the wars of the Vendée here are a few facts that may influence your understanding of this traumatic period of the History of the Vendée. The Vendée only came into existence after the Revolution; it was officially declared on February 28th 1790 and took over much, but not all of the former Bas Poitou. The wars that followed were in essence those of that region, it started outside of what is now the Vendée. The Vendéen’s originally embraced the revolution in the hope that a better life would follow. It was only with the introduction of jurist priests (those that swore allegiance to the revolution) that disquiet started and one would need to ask if the simple farmers which made up the vast majority of the population were not conduced by the priest who saw their livelihood being taken away. Even with this disquiet it was not until compulsory conscription to fight in the new Revolutionary army was imposed, that all out hostilities broke out. It is also interesting to note that even today the French Government refuses to acknowledge the war, and the history of the war is not taught in the country’s general curriculum. It is only taught in the schools of the Vendée and the surrounding departments that were involved, even though 300,000 Vendéens and possibly even more government troops were killed. The story therefore tends to be told from one side’s point of view, The towns of Les Sables d'Olonne and Luçon refused to join the revolt and stayed staunchly revolutionary. Carl Marx in his writings uses the word Vendéen to mean counter revolutionary and in essence that is what the war of the Vendée was. The Vendée was Staunchly Royalist, this being where Richard the Lion Heart had his main castle at Talmont St.Hilaire. Richard's Mother Eleanor of Aquitaine was born at Nieul-sur-l'Autise just outside of Fontenay le Comte in the South of the Vendée. This is Plantagenet country, and during the Revolution the Vendéens found themselves on the losing side.

Napoleon called it “This War of Giants", it involved 21 major battles and more than 700 lesser engagements.

When the Memorial de la Vendee was open on the 25th September 1993 the address  was given by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. His take on these events in can be read here


Differences in class were not as great in the Vendée as in the other French provinces, or Paris. In rural Vendée, the local nobility seem to have been more residential and less resented than in other parts of France. In this particularly isolated part of France the conflict that drove the revolution was lessened by strong adherence of the populace to the Catholic Church. There were outbreaks of anti-Republican violence in 1791 and 1793. It was not until the social unrest combined the Civil Constitution of the Clergy (1790) and the Conscription (or "Levy") Decree (1793) that the region truly erupted. The Civil Constitution required all clerics to swear allegiance to the Republic and to the anti-clerical National Constituent Assembly. The Vendéen clergy almost to a man refused to swear the oath and were replaced by the Revolutionary authorities with ”Jurors”, who were disliked and condemned as intruders. Nonjuring priests declared the new civic ceremonies worthless, and in response gangs of Republicans came from the cities into the countryside, closing and vandalizing the churches of nonjuring priests.

Outbreak of revolt

Vendéen peasants initially supported the revolution, but they rebelled against the injustices of the Republic on March 7th, 1793. In the Vendée there were few troops to control them, whereas the more serious riots that occurred in Brittany were quickly broken. There were spontaneous (and) riots on March 10-13 in many of the towns and villages. The representatives of the Republic were singled out for attack and murder. In the bloodiest outburst, in Machecoul on March 11, forty men were beaten and stabbed to death on the streets, and another four hundred were gathered up and arrested. The men were taken out in 'rosaries' (tied in a line with rope around the chest), made to dig ditches and shot. Their bodies then tumbled into the grave that they had dug. The crowds moved from the smaller to the larger settlements, Cholet in the north and Fontenay-le Comte in the south fell to the rebels. Local Nobles were approached, d’Elbee, Sapinaud de Verrie and Charett became the leaders of their local force. The clergy were also fairly active in rallying the people. The main force of the rebels operated on a small scale, using guerrilla tactics supported by the insurgents' local knowledge and the good-will of the people.

Republican response

The Republic responded quickly, sending (in March) over 45,000 troops into the area. The “Bleu’s” were young, badly trained and equipped with low morale and were dispersed in small groups throughout the region, limiting control to a few urban centres, and providing many weak garrisons as targets. The first battle was on the night of March 19th. A Republican army of 2,000, under General de Marcé, moving from La Rochelle to Nantes was intercepted north of Chantonay at Pont-Charrault near the Lay. After six hours of fighting rebel reinforcements arrived and routed the Republican forces. The rebels advanced as far south as Niort. On March 22nd, and another Republican force was routed near Chalonnes in the north leaving their equipment for the grateful Vendéans. The Vendéen Army covered the area between the Loire and the Lay, part of Maine-et-Loire west of the Layon, and the portion of Deux Sèvres west of the Thouet. Successes continued for some time, and Thouars was taken in early May and Saumur in June, but the Vendéens then turned to a protracted and wasteful siege of Nantes.


On 1st August the Committee for public safety ordered General Jean-Baptiste Carrier to perform a ruthless pacification. The Republican army was reinforced, and the Vendéen army had its first serious defeat at Cholet on October 17th and the army was split. In October 1793 the main force, commanded by Henri de la Rochejaquelein and numbering some 25,000 crossed the Loire, headed for the port of Granville where they expected a British fleet and an army of exiled French nobles. Granville was surrounded by Republican forces, but with no British ships in sight they failed to take the city. During the retreat they fell prey to Republican forces, and suffering from hunger and disease they died in their thousands. The final battle at Savenay on December 23rd was decisive. Claims of genocide were levelled at the revolutionary forces as the government in Paris enacted stern measures. The Reign of Terror seen elsewhere in France, was extraordinarily brutal in the Vendée. Following the Law of 14 Frimaire, in December alone over 6,000 prisoners were executed, a number in what was called the "national bath" were tied in groups loaded onto barges which were then sunk in the Loire. Among them were 400 children whom Carrier hated especially, seeing in them "brigands to be”. From February 1794 the Republican forces launched their final "pacification" (the Vendée-Vengé or "Vendée Avenged"), twelve columns, the colonnes infernales ("infernal columns") under Turreau were marched through the Vendée, indiscriminately targeting not only the remaining rebels and the people who had given them support, but the innocent as well. Beyond this massacre there were formal orders for forced evacuation and 'scorched earth' where 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 their combatant status, political affiliation, age or gender.
Extracts from the committee read: "The committee has prepared measures that intend to exterminate this rebellious race of Vendéens, to make their abodes disappear, to torch their forests, to cut their crops”

The orders to Turreau were: "Exterminate the brigands to the last man instead of burning the farms, punish the fleeing ones and the cowards, and crush that horrible Vendée. Combine the most assured means to exterminate all of this race of brigands”. The campaign dragged to an end in March 1796. Historians have since estimated the dead to number between 117,000 and 500,000, out of a population of around 800,000, while others have disputed the figures.

A solution was hammered out in the end whereby the Vendéens would stop fighting and pay their taxes and in exchange the churches were allowed to reopen. Napoleon who admired the Vendéens’ stance was later, to take the seat of power away from Fontenay le Comte which had been the capital of the Bas Poitou region and move it to a small village of just a few houses called "Le Roche sur Yon" so that the region could be better controlled from a central location, hence was created the first Napoleon town built on a grid system now copied in so many towns and cities in America. The Emblem of the Vendée is the two inter-linked hearts with a cross on top, symbolizing the twin love of their country and of the church.

When I first came to live in the Vendée 19 years ago there was still a strong hatred of Parisiennes to the extent that if one was to move into a house in the area he could expect to be burgled in the first week, it was a matter of duty, but with the recent explosion in population this seems now after more than two hundred years to be dying out .

Sites on the Wars de la Vendee

Return to find more articles on the Vendée
Insignia of the Vendean royalist insurgents. Note the French words 'Dieu Le Roi' beneath the heart-and-cross, meaning 'God (and) the King'
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.
Memorial de la Vendee Wars, Les Lucs sur Boulogne
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