Afterwards, French General Joseph Westermann wrote to Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety: ‘There is no more Vendee … according to the orders you gave me, I crushed the children under the feet of horses, massacred the women … I have exterminated everyone … Mercy is not a revolutionary sentiment.’ More than 200 years later the Vendee ‘war’ and its aftermath remain the dirty secrets of the French Revolution, still officially ignored – and still capable of arousing furious passions.
The Vendee is in western France south of the Loire, a coastal quilt of slow rivers and deep forests, haphazard fields and scrubby pine enclaves. In 1793 it was deeply royalist and deeply Catholic. Enraged by the Convention’s suppression of their religion and conscription of their men, the peasant farmers of the Vendee and their immediate neighbors revolted. Early success was crushed within the year at Savernay. The remnants of the ‘armies of the Chouans’ split into guerrilla bands across the Vendee and Brittany – and ‘Butcher’ Westermann’s brutal rape of the country, culture and people was taken up early in 1794 by General Turreau’s Douze Colonnes Infemales (Twelve Columns of Hell).
Their scorched-earth policy was a tame beginning to annihilation. These troops had a malevolent genius for new forms of torture and mass execution; and they killed even proven loyalists without discrimination. Long before the Nazis and Auschwitz, they burned their victims in huge ovens; tanned human skins for officers’ saddlery; tied men, women and children naked together for mass drownings (Les noyades) they jokingly called ‘republican marriages’; tossed babies on bayonet points; and dozens of far more disgusting atrocities.
They slaughtered a third of the Vendee’s population – and though the army records of this genocide still exist at Vincennes, the world and most Frenchmen have never heard this terrible scream from history. Conscience demands we all listen now.
When: December 1793 to February 1795
Where: France. The Vendee Militaire included the Vendee itself and parts of Anjou and Poitou. The Convention’s barbarity later extended to include Brittany.
DEATH TOLL: An estimated 300,000 died (of the Vendee’s 800,000) in gruesome circumstances. Some historians reject the term ‘genocide’ because the Chouans fought back; but what else can you call planned, systematic extermination of an entire population?
You should know: Napoleon sought to reconcile the Vendee in 1801 by signing a Concordat with the Vatican that restored Catholicism in France, but the scars have never healed because post-Jacobin French Republics have always wanted to retain pride in a Revolution founded on the Declaration of the Rights of Man and have never acknowledged its ugliest manifestation. The Vendee genocide remains a corrosive canker in French politics.