Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Out of the Depths, Part VII: Le Armée Catholique et Royale

Accepted mythology about the French Revolution is that the people were oppressed to such an extent that, finally, they could no longer take it and rose up against the tyrant, or "Veto" as Louis XVI was called. The problem with such popular mythology is that, while it may be rooted in fact, it manages to give exactly the wrong idea of what happened.

Contrary to popular belief, the French Revolution was not a popular uprising. The image of bloodthirsty peasants rounding up and executing the detested "Aristos" (except for those rescued by the Scarlet Pimpernel or Sidney Carton) is extraordinarily misleading, to say the least. Most people guillotined during the Terror were ordinary people, some executed for nothing more than "insufficient revolutionary fervor."

The Unreactionary Reaction

Nowhere was this character of the Revolution more apparent than in the Bocage ("the Hedges"), the area known as the Vendée in the former Duchy of Normandy. Contrary to the accepted idea of conditions before the Revolution, there were no extremes of either wealth or poverty. The condition of the region was such that most peasants and nobles could gain a comfortable income through reasonable effort. Great fortunes, however, are not built up from modest agricultural holdings, nor is poverty as endemic in a rural setting as it would be in a metropolitan center such as Paris. In the country, people generally look after their neighbors themselves, while city dwellers are more comfortable leaving responsibility (and power) in the hands of the State.

Contradicting the usual stereotype that the city dweller builds up of his country cousins, the peasants and other inhabitants of the Bocage were not illiterate dirt grubbers. Literacy was higher than in many other parts of France, but people preferred the old classics to the new ideas of Voltaire and Rousseau. The ideas of these "Philosophers of the Revolution" tended to appeal more to the genuinely oppressed or, more usually, those with a little power who wanted more — the two groups that made up the solid core of the Revolution. The relatively equitable distribution of wealth in the Bocage meant a more stable and democratic society, as well as a basic contentment with the existing order.

By March 3, 1793, the Revolutionary government had revealed itself as completely antithetical to everything that meant peace and prosperity to the Vendeans. The Civil Constitution of the Clergy had been promulgated. This was an attempt to turn the hitherto independent French Church into an arm of the State. In effect, the Revolutionary government created an "established" church, with doctrine and liturgy to be determined by the State, just as England had done a few centuries previously under Henry VIII Tudor. The Revolutionary government also duplicated Henry VIII's debasement of the currency by printing large quantities of worthless paper money, resulting in devastating inflation.

An almost fatal blow, however, was the execution of Louis XVI. In the eyes of ordinary French subjects, particularly the country folk, the king represented the only defense they felt they had against the rapacity of the nobility, the distant bureaucracy, the tax collector, and even, as the living symbol of the people and the nation, the vicissitudes of nature.

The straw that broke the camel's back, however, was the edict announcing the first conscription for military service in foreign lands in the history of France. With the new Revolutionary government declaring war against everyone imaginable, there was a severe shortage of manpower as genuine volunteers failed to put in the expected appearance. The lottery was set for most of the towns in the Bocage for March 12, 1793. That gave the inhabitants two weeks to gather and discuss the implications of this final insult. One of the more lively issues was the fact that all government officials and members of the National Guard were exempt from the draft.

Spontaneous Counter-Revolution

When the day came for the drawing of lots, a crowd of about two-thousand peasants appeared in the market square of Saint-Florent-le-Vieil, a small town about forty kilometers from Nantes. Armed with sporting guns and other makeshift weapons (including the traditional scythes and pitchforks), they were led by a few artisans. Significantly, they openly displayed the white cockade, the royal symbol.

Just before the lottery began, someone fired a shot from the crowd and killed one of the speakers assembled to inspire the people with appropriate revolutionary fervor. The National Guard returned fire, killing four people and wounding ten times as many. Without hesitation, the crowd charged, shouting Vive le roi! ("Long live the king") and Vive les bon prêtres! ("Long live the good priests"). The revolutionary soldiers, who had only expected to cow timid peasants into the army as cannon fodder, were faced with a completely different situation. They turned tail and fled.

The spontaneity of the uprising is demonstrated by the fact that it was another two days before those who became the leaders finally joined what eventually began calling itself Le Armée Catholique et Royale, "The Catholic and Royal Army." The anger of the people against the Revolution is graphically demonstrated by the brief career of Jacques Cathelineau, an itinerant peddler, who on March 13, 1793 found himself in command of a group of twenty of his neighbors.

Setting out in revolt against the revolutionaries, he saw his platoon grow to a brigade, and then to a regiment. By the end of his first day as commander, Cathelineau had captured four towns, two cannon, defeated two detachments of National Guard, and secured half of the new "Department" of Maine-et-Loire. Years later, Napoleon Bonaparte would pay him the tribute of saying that Cathelineau had possessed the first and essential quality of a man of war: never resting either as victor or vanquished.

Over the next couple of months, Le Armée Catholique et Royale carried out a campaign crowned with astonishing success. Had their supply base consisted of something other than captured revolutionary material and makeshift weapons, and had they received any kind of foreign assistance, it is quite possible that the Revolution would have come to an end before October 1793. Louis XVII, or what was left of him (the Sans Culottes made special efforts to corrupt both his health and his morals), would have been crowned king. England, however, was at the time only vaguely aware of the rising in the Vendée, although they would supply most of the arms for the guerilla activity that was to follow — long after the possibility of real success had evaporated. The European powers assembled in coalition against the dangers represented by the Revolution heard only a few rumors, if that, about what was going on.

Typical of loyalist tactics was the assault on the town of Fontenay (not to be confused with Fontenoy) in May of 1793. After the initial attack failed with the loss of most of their ordinance, Cathelineau took over from the nobleman who had led the first assault. The former peddler carried the town in one hour with a force a large proportion of which was still armed with clubs and scythes. In addition to a large quantity of military stores, they also captured food, clothing and, especially, shoes.

The counter-revolutionary forces were by this time in rags and barefoot. The wooden sabots they habitually wore in the swampy country were completely unsuitable for a military campaign. Even so, one of the Revolutionary generals charged with suppressing the rebellion later excused his temporary failure by stating, "Those devils in wooden shoes fight better and shoot straighter than any of our troops." Of great economic (and numismatic) significance, they also captured a large quantity of revolutionary assignats.

Financing the Counter-Revolution

The single largest problem facing any guerrilla organization apart from purely military considerations is money. As demonstrated by the various issues of the Confederate raiders in the American Civil War and the U.S. troops who broke up into guerrilla bands in the Philippines after the fall of Bataan, one of the first things such an operation does is issue its own scrip to finance operations. This aspect of a campaign had so far been ignored or forgotten by Le Armée Catholique et Royale.

Even with the capture of the virtually worthless paper money of the revolution, the only plan they came up with at the time was to hold on to it. It was apparently not until August that someone had the idea of using the Revolutionary paper against the Revolution. They endorsed what probably amounted to about a million Livres of paper money in low denominations, Au nom du Roi bon pour [denomination] — "In the name of the King good for [amount]."

These were all handwritten and dated August 2, 1793, some months after the battle of Fontenay. The denominations are all in Livres and Sous. Such was the enormous quantity of assignats printed by the Republic that collectors can acquire the captured and re-endorsed notes for reasonable prices. Unlike the specifically Republican issues, however, uncirculated specimens appear to be unavailable. The notes were desperately needed for financing, and it was unlikely that any would be saved or stockpiled for future use. Possession of the notes might also have been dangerous as evidence of collaboration with traitors.

Depending on how one looks at it, there were either two or three issues of assignats issued by the Armée Catholique et Royale for its own use instead of employing recycled Republican issues. In November 1793, a full series of notes was issued for use by the counter-revolutionaries. While undated, the notes came in denominations of Five, 10, 25 50 and 100 Livres. The notes bear a vague resemblance to the Republican issues of mid-1792. A border composed of some simple geometrical designs and a legend lets the holder know that the note is an issue of the Armée Catholique et Royale and the denomination, e.g., "cinq livres."

The rest of the face of the notes consists of a handwritten series and identification number, and an authorizing signature, along with the legend, DE PAR LE ROI and Bon commerçable de [cinq] livres pour objets fourmis l'Armée, remboursable à la paix, "Good in commerce for military supplies, redeemable after the peace."

What may be another issue, also from November 1793, or a more elaborate note of the same issue because of the higher denomination, is a 500 Livre note bearing a portrait of the Dauphin, by this time considered Louis XVII by loyalists. The portrait was obviously copied from some keepsake bearing a royal portrait in miniature, as was popular until photography came of age.

The border of the note identifies the issuer as the Armée Catholique et Royale de Bretagne. The serial numbers and signatures are handwritten, but the promise has been changed to read, BON DE 500 LIVRES, Remboursable au Trésor Royal, "Good for 500 Livres, payable at the Royal Treasury." The denomination is repeated obliquely in each corner of the note, next to a fleur de lis. The rest of the border invokes the blessing of God on the cause: DIEU ET LE ROI, "God and the King."

A small and final issue of notes for small change was authorized in 1794, probably early in the year. There are only two denominations known, 10 and 15 Sous. Except for minor differences, these notes are nearly identical to those of the second issue. The notes, however, are extremely rare, probably due to the rapidly declining fortunes of the Catholic and Royal Army, by this time pretty much having an existence in name only.

A cautionary note is in order. As the forces of Revolution were having a great deal of trouble defeating their under-equipped and poorly supplied enemies, they apparently resorted to economic warfare as well. Large numbers of counterfeit assignats virtually identical to the genuine issues were printed and distributed to destroy whatever meager ability the Armée Catholique et Royale had to finance itself. These counterfeits were so widespread that there is no certain method of determining which notes are genuine, and which are false. This is similar to the insulting situation which existed during the latter days of the American Civil War, when Northern counterfeits of Southern currency were accepted throughout the Confederacy while authentic notes, poorly printed on low quality paper, were refused.

A Near-Run Thing

Meanwhile, in the summer of 1793, the campaign of the Catholic and Royal Army was reaching its high water mark. In June came the most crucial decision of the rising. Jacques Cathelineau had been elected commander in chief of the army. He was faced with deciding whether to march on Paris and attempt to free what remained of the Royal family, or to assault Nantes and forge an alliance with other counter-revolutionary forces in Brittany and other regions in the west. The western regions of France were to be perennial thorns in the side of the Revolution and, later, Napoleon. Having no way of knowing the real weakness of the Revolutionary government in Paris, Cathelineau made what seemed the best decision at the time: march on Nantes, take the city, and build a stronger force before attempting the capital.

It was the wrong decision. True, it was one that far more experienced commanders would have made. It is hard to blame a man who had had no inkling of military tactics and strategy four months before. Years later Napoleon commented,
If, profiting from their astonishing success, Charette [another commander] and Cathelineau had drawn together all their forces in order to march on the capital after the taking of Machecoul, the Republic would have been finished; nothing could have stopped the triumphant march of the Royal Army. The white flag would have flown over the towers of Notre Dame before it would have been possible for the armies of the Rhine to come to the aid of their government.
Obviously it would have been far better to adopt the French version of "On to Richmond," and take Paris at all cost. Considering the indefensible position of the capital city compared to fortified Nantes, and the numbers of sympathizers and those just tired of the new tyrants who had raised themselves up, this would have been the strategically superior move to make.

Even so, like Waterloo two decades later, the battle for Nantes was extraordinarily close, and very nearly a victory for the Armée Catholique et Royale. The city was heavily defended, and under the command of one of the more effective Revolutionary generals. The number of the defenders is estimated at 12,000 to Cathelineau's 10,000. This was not good. The defensive position is considered to multiply by several factors the strength of the available forces. Fortunately, the Revolutionary general was not with his force, still recovering from wounds suffered in the spring campaign. As a result, an attack early in the day by the defenders was not pressed home. This allowed the Royal Army a chance to regroup and push forward its own assault on the trenches and breastworks surrounding the city.

The assault plunged through the earthworks and forced the Revolutionary forces back to the city. The retreat was far from a rout, the defenders fighting the whole way. Breaking into the city, the Catholic and Royal Army fought its way to Viarme Square in the heart of the city. At that moment, Cathelineau fell with a musket ball in the lungs, a sentence of slow death in the days before modern surgery. The attack ground to a halt as word spread quickly through the attacking force that their general was dead, although he would actually linger on for another two weeks. The second in command took over after the attack had already petered out, and ordered a withdrawal.

From then on, the Vendean forces concentrated on attempting to hold on to the territory they held, and repelling the forces of Revolution as army after army was sent against them. Having lost the initiative, however, it was only a matter of time before the cause was lost entirely.

One final misfortune put the seal on the fate of the Armée Catholique et Royale. The coalition forces had finally forced the surrender of the city of Mainz and its ten thousand defenders. In accordance with custom, these soldiers were released upon giving their parole never to bear arms against the coalition. Unfortunately, the forces of the coalition did not include the Catholic and Royal Army. These battle-hardened troops and their brilliant commander, Jean-Baptiste Kléber (afterwards second in command to Napoleon during the Egyptian campaign, and the general who had made the comment about the "Devils in wooden shoes") were put to work suppressing the rebellion in the Vendée.

On October 17, 1793, Kléber out-fought and out-generaled the Armée Catholique et Royale in a battle in which most of the leaders of the counter-revolution were killed or put out of action. The next day a large part of the population of the Bocage, almost 100,000 men, women and children, began a march to northern France to escape the Revolutionary army. The counter-revolutionaries were holding about 6,000 prisoners. Many people thought they should be executed, but they were spared, and the Völkswanderung began.

In January 1794, General Turreau issued orders as commander in the Vendée to lay waste to the region and kill everything human that could be found. The final defeat of the Vendeans as an army had already come at Savenay on December 23, 1793. Although guerrilla activity continued, such measures were completely unnecessary except as an act of gratuitous terror. Sporadic resistance continued until 1796 when the last remaining leaders were captured and guillotined.

The Vendeans did not issue any coins, but other royalist groups issued a small series of Six Deniers and 30 Sols (Sous) in bronze in the name of Louis XVII. These saw little if any circulation. The obverse of the Half-Sol (Six Deniers) features the bust of the Dauphin surrounded by the legend, LOUIS XVII ROI DES FRANÇOIS ("Louis XVII, King of the Franks"), while the reverse displays Genius (usually described by Americans as an angel) under the legend, REGNE DE LA LOI, "Rule of Law." The 30 Sols also has a bust of Louis XVII on the obverse, but the reverse has a simple value within a wreath. Most authorities consider the pieces either souvenir issues or patterns for a possible restoration coinage.

With the failure of the Armée Catholique et Royale to continue effective resistance, the victory of the Revolution was secure. The subsequent rise of Napoleon was guaranteed, as was twenty years of war throughout Europe. Ironically, it was at Waterloo that the Vendeans assured victory to the Allied forces. With the Emperor lacking ten thousand men who had been sent to put down yet one more rebellion in the Bocage, the "near-run thing" went in favor of the Iron Duke, not the Corsican upstart.

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1 comment:

lara77 said...

Thank you for this wonderful article; the victors write the history books and we learn things through a one sided prism. The French Revolution was in so many ways a myth; a fairy tale handed down to this day in our history books. I did not know about the troops needed in France to quell opposition; troops Napoleon did not have at Waterloo. Thanks be to God he lost and the Vendee had the last laugh!