By Rob Harper

Pen & Sword Books. 376 pages. £25. ISBN 978-1-47386-896-0

Reviewed by Jim Burns

1793 and the fate of the Revolution in France hung in the balance. The newly-established Republic was faced with threats from outside its borders as countries such as Britain, Spain, Prussia and Austria formed a coalition to invade France. Within its borders there was a great deal of dissension as various groups in the provinces opposed policies emanating from Paris, in particular the attempts to conscript men into the army. The Convention in Paris had decreed that 300,000 men were needed and that a system of drawing lots covering all males between the ages of 18 and 40 was to be put into operation. Needless to say, it wasn’t a popular move and riots and other forms of protest broke out around the country.

The most significant reactions to conscription occurred in the Vendée, the area of west-central France with a long Atlantic coastline. Conscription wasn’t the only source of the discontent that simmered in the Vendée. The area was generally pro-Royalist and strongly Catholic, and the actions of the authorities in Paris in executing the King and many members of the nobility, and promoting an anti-religious programme, caused anger and fear.

Open rebellion erupted early in 1793 when 3,000 rebels attacked the town of Machecoul which was defended by a handful of national guards and some gendarmerie. When the town fell around 540 republicans were massacred, thus starting a procedure which was to become a hallmark of the war. Both sides were to indulge in atrocities which even involved the civilian population as the fighting developed. Rob Harper notes that in 2009/10 archeologists discovered a mass grave in the town of Le Mans, the site of a major Vendée defeat. It contained the bodies of 159 men, women, and children who had been butchered by republican forces. And these were only a handful of the total number believed to have been killed, “very few of them fighters”.

It may be relevant, at this point, to say something about the nature of the opposing armies. The Vendée forces including large numbers of peasants. They were poorly armed, often carrying only pikes and clubs, or sharpened farm implements such as scythes and pitchforks. Badly organised, they could easily get out of control, and drunkenness and looting were common factors whenever the Royalists seized a town or village. They could fight bravely, and often had more dedication to their cause because of their religious and pro-monarchist sentiments and the feeling that republican troop were like invaders. However, they lacked discipline and would often only function under local leaders they “respected or trusted”. They could be unreliable in battle and might break and flee under sustained pressure. Harper says that “the Vendéens remained a disparate group of armies, without a clear political or strategic plan other than responding to threats to their territory”.

At one point in the early stages of the war it would have been easy for the Royalists to have marched on Paris. Harper quotes Napoleon as later remarking that “Nothing could have stopped the triumphal march of the royalists. The white flag would have been flying on the towers of Notre-Dame before it would have been possible for the armies on the Rhine to race to the aid of their government”.  A combination of disagreements among the Vendée leaders, and reluctance on the part of the troops to leave their home territory, put paid to the idea of occupying Paris.

With regard to the republican armies involved in the Vendée campaign, they were mostly made up of men who lacked military experience, a fact which applied to many of the officers as well as the rank-and-file. Some men were promoted to the rank of officer simply because they had the backing of powerful groups in the Convention. Harper quotes the example of Francois Muller, a former dancer and comedian, who he describes as a “notorious drunkard”, replacing General Rey, a seasoned soldier who had been in the army since 1783. The troops initially refused to serve under Muller.

The rank-and-file often comprised a mixture of National Guard units and badly-trained conscripts. They didn’t always have the arms and equipment they needed to pursue long-term objectives against the rebels. The Duc de Biron, who was sent to take command of the republican Army of La Rochelle, reported that it was “a rabble of men that it was impossible to call an army”.  There was also the problem that the authorities in Paris insisted on having their representative attached to republican units, and they sometimes intervened in military decisions. But Harper does say that certain representatives “developed effective working relationships with the generals”.

There may have been greater difficulties with the “commissaries” who arrived in the Vendée for the purposes of “inspecting the coastal defences, ensuring ports were secure, checking on the political situation in key towns, watching ‘suspect’ generals, representatives and troops, raising recruits, reporting on the War’s progress, or in their Departments where they would become embroiled in events and remain to stiffen resolve”. 

 There was paranoia in Paris as the Girondists were ousted from the Convention, the Paris Commune, which was dominated by the sans-culottes, exerted its influence, and Robespierre and his cronies took control. The period known as The Terror came into play. Depending on the reports from commissaries, it was not unusual for a commander to be summoned to Paris after a republican defeat and accused of treason. Some were found guilty and guillotined.

The result was that people who may have been well-qualified prospective leaders were reluctant to take on the responsibilities of overall command. That seems to have been the case with Jean-Baptiste Kléber, one of the republican army’s more-competent officers, who wisely declined promotion to the role of general commander.

The republican soldiers could be just as unreliable as their Royalist counterparts when it came to their steadiness in battle, and their general attitude towards discipline. Refusing to obey orders was not uncommon. The few units from line-regiments that were ordered to participate in the Vendée campaign were among the exceptions to the general lack of order and preparedness among republican troops.

Harper provides detailed accounts of just about every key engagement that occurred between Royalist and republican forces. Most were relatively small and involved a few thousand troops on each side. The Vendée troops frequently had an advantage in that they were fighting on their home territory. They knew the lanes and landscape, the rivers and hills, the woods and hedgerows. Ambushes were not unusual. A kind of guerrilla warfare evolved alongside the pitched battles. In addition, as the war drew to a close, the Royalist troops sometimes fought fiercely, knowing full well that defeat would lead to massacres of them and the refugees who had hoped to be protected by the Vendée armies.

The Royalists had been led to believe that some sort of assistance, in the form of supplies and possible intervention through a military invasion, had been promised by the British. And there was a half-hearted attempt to carry out such a plan which failed when the British commander came to the conclusion that the Royalists had been unable to secure a suitable port at which troops and equipment could be landed.

The Vendée forces began to fall apart as their leaders argued about tactics and such matters. Among the rank-and-file rumours spread about the reasons for heading towards the coast. Was it so that the officers could abandon their men and take ship for England? Some units mutinied, though order was eventually restored.

With defeat and disease affecting morale it was evident that the rising in the Vendée was nearing its end, though the Royalists still managed to inflict a major defeat on the republicans in November, 1793. However, republican forces now vastly outnumbered the Royalist army which was soon said to have only 6,000 men. It was winter, they had limited supplies of food and armaments, and dysentery was rife among the troops. In addition, they were encumbered by the large number of refugees and consequently limited in their movements. Only two effective leaders remained to try to maintain any kind of order among the rebels, and one of them, the young and charismatic Henri de La Rochejaquelein, was killed in a skirmish in January, 1794. The other, Francois-Athanase Charette de la Contrie, who Harper describes as “the most celebrated of all the leaders in the Vendée”, was finally captured and executed in 1796.

The rising had effectively petered out long before 1796, and throughout 1794 the republicans were engaged in mopping up activities and exacting revenge on the rebels. Some of the actions of the republicans were clearly designed to eliminate any future opposition by killing men, women, and children, and the methods used so vicious, that there have been allegations of genocide.  By 1795, with the extremists in Paris ousted, the government offered peace terms which guaranteed freedom or religion and exemption from military service. There was an upsurge of violence in the region in 1799, and it’s interesting to note that, in 1815, when Napoleon attempted to make a come-back, the Vendée as a region remained loyal to the Crown.

Fighting the French Revolution has much to recommend it, though some readers looking for a broad history of the 1793 events may find the closely-detailed accounts of the various battles and sieges a little exhausting at times. They point to some solid research by Harper, but I wonder whether or not they will interest the general reader? A lot of the fighting boiled down to one or other of the opposing sides eventually breaking and fleeing after some initial shooting and a charge. They were not what might be called significant military engagements beyond the framework of the war in the Vendée. Saying that doesn’t lessen the overall value of Harper’s book.