Ninety-three/3.1.5

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Ninety-three by Victor Hugo
Their Life in Time of War.

CHAPTER V.

THEIR LIFE IN TIME OF WAR.

Many of them had no arms but pikes. They had plenty of good fowling-pieces. Their were no more skilful marksmen than the poachers of the Bocage and the smugglers of Loroux.

They were strange, frightful, fearless warriors. The decree to raise three hundred thousand men caused the tocsin to sound in six hundred villages. The crackling of fire burst from every point at once. Le Poitou and Anjou exploded the same day. We may say that the first peal of thunder was heard before 1792, the eighth of July, a month before the tenth of August, on the moor of Kerbader. Alain Redeler, to-day forgotten, was the forerunner of La Rochejaquelein and Jean Chouan. The royalists compelled all able-bodied men to march, under pain of death. They requisitioned horses, wagons, and provisions. Immediately, Sapinaud had three thousand soldiers; Cathelineau, ten thousand; Stofflet, twenty thousand, and Charette was master of Noirmontier. The Viscount de Scépeaux roused Haut Anjou; the Chevalier de Dieuzie, l'Entre-Vilaine-et-Loire; Tristan-l'Hermite, the Bas-Maine; the barber Gaston, the town of Guéménée; and the Abbé Bornier, all the rest. A little thing was enough to raise these multitudes.

In the tabernacle of a priest who had taken the oaths, a préte jureur as he was called, they placed a large black cat which jumped out suddenly during the mass. "It is the devil!" cried the peasants, and the whole canton rose in revolt. A breath of fire came from the confessionals.

For attacking the Blues and for leaping ravines, they had a long stick, fifteen feet in length, the ferte, a weapon and an aid to flight. In the thickest of the conflict, when the peasants were attacking the Republican squares, if they met a cross or a chapel on the battlefield, ail would fall on their knees, repeating their prayers under fire; as soon as their beads were told, those who were left jumped to their feet and rushed on the enemy. Alas, what giants! They loaded their guns as they ran, that was their talent. They could be made to believe anything; some priests showed them other priests whose necks they had reddened with a drawn cord, and said to them: "These are the guillotined brought back to life." They had their fits of chivalry; they honored Fesque, a republican ensign, who let himself be sabred without dropping his flag. These peasants jested; they called the married priests Republicans: des sans-calottes devenus sans-culottes.

At first, they were afraid of the cannons; afterwards they jumped on them with their sticks and took them. To begin with, they took a fine bronze cannon, which they named the Missionary; then another dating back to the Catholic wars and on which were engraved the arms of Richelieu and a figure of the Virgin; they called it Marie-Jeanne. When they lost Fontenay, they lost Marie-Jeanne, around which six hundred peasants fell without flinching; then they recaptured Fontenay in order to recapture Marie-Jeanne, and they brought it back under the flag embroidered with a fleur-de-lis, covering it with flowers, and made the women kiss it as they passed by. But two cannons were very little. Stofflet had taken Marie-Jeanne; Cathelineau, jealous, left Poir-en-Mange, besieged Jallais, and took a third cannon; Forest attacked Saint Florent and took a fourth. Two other captains, Chouppes and Saint-Pol, did better; they represented cannons with trunks of trees and gunners with manikins, and with this artillery, which they laughed about heartily, they drove back the Blues at Mareuil. This was the period of their greatness.

Later, when Chalbos routed La Marsonnière, the peasants left thirty-two cannon, with the arms of England, behind them on the dishonored battlefield. Then England paid the French princes, and they sent "the funds to Monseigneur," Nantiat wrote, the tenth of May, 1794, "because Pitt had been told that it was proper to do so." Mellinet, in a report the thirty-first of March, said: "The cry of the rebels is: 'Long live the English!'"

The peasants lingered behind to plunder. These devotees were robbers. Savages have vices. It was through these that civilization captured them later. Puysaye says, Vol. II., page 187: "I have several times saved the town of Plélan from pillage." And further on, page 434, he abstains from entering Montfort: "I made a circuit to prevent the pillage of the houses of the Jacobins." They plundered Cholet; the sacked Challans. After having missed Granville, they pillaged Ville-Dieu. They called the countrymen who joined the Blues, "the Jacobin crowd," and they made an end of these sooner than any others. They loved carnage like soldiers, and massacre like brigands. To shoot the "Patauds" that is the bourgeois, pleased them; they called it "se décarémer or unrelenting. At Fontenay, one of their priests, the Curé Barbotin, struck down an old man with his sabre. At Saint-Germain-sur-Ille,[1] one of their captains, a nobleman, shot the attorney of the Commune dead, and took his watch. At Machecoul, they cut down the Republicans regularly, at the rate of thirty a day for five weeks; each chain of thirty was called "the rosary." They placed the chain in front of a ditch and shot the men; as they were shot they fell into the ditch sometimes alive, but they were buried all the same. We have already seen this custom. Joubert, president of the district, had his hands sawed off. They put sharp-edged handcuffs, forged for the purpose, on the prisoners of the Blues. They put them to death in the public square, to the sound of war cries. Charette, who signed: "Fraternity; Chevalier Charette," and who, like Marat, wore a handkerchief on his head, tied above his eyebrows, burned the city of Porni and the inhabitants in their houses.

At this time, Carrier was frightful. Terror answered to terror. The insurgent Breton had almost the same appearance as the insurgent Greek, with his short jacket, gun slung over his shoulder, leggings and wide breeches similar to the Greek fustand; the peasant boy resembled the Greek klephth. Henri de la Rochejaquelein, at the age of twenty-one, set out for this war with a stick and a pair of pistols.

The Vendéan army numbered a hundred and fifty-four divisions. They made regular sieges; they held Bressuire blockaded for three days. One Good Friday, ten thousand peasants, cannonaded the town of the Sables with red hot balls. They succeeded in destroying fourteen republican cantonments, from Montigné to Courbeveilles, in one single day.

On the high wall at Thouars, this superb dialogue was heard between La Rochejaquelein and a peasant boy,—

"Carl!"

"Here I am."

"Let me climb up on your shoulders."

"All right."

"Your gun."

"Take it."

And la Rochejaquelein leaped into the town, and the towers which Dugueselin had beseiged, were taken without ladders.

They preferred a cartridge to a louis-d'or. They wept when they lost sight of their own belfry. To flee seemed easy to them; then their chiefs would exclaim: "Throw away your sabots, but keep your guns!" When ammunition gave out, they told their beads and took powder from the ammunition wagons of the Republicans; later d'Elbée demanded powder from the English. When the enemy drew near, if they had any wounded, they concealed them in the tall wheat or among the virgin ferns, and after the affair was ended came back to get them.

They wore no uniforms. Their clothing was in tatters. Peasants and noblemen were dressed in the first rags they could find. Roger Mouliniers wore a turban and a cloak taken from the wardrobe of the theatre of La Fleche; the Chevalier de Beauvilliers wore an attorney's robe and a woman's hat over a woollen cap. All wore the white scarf and belt; the different ranks were distinguished by knots. Stofflet had a red knot; La Rochejaquelein, a black knot; Wimpfen, a semi-Girondist, who never left Normandy, wore the brassart of the Carabots of Caen. They had women in their ranks; Madame de Lescure, who became Madame de Rochejaquelein later; Thérese de Mollien, La Rouaire's mistress, who burned the list of the parish chiefs; Madame de La Rochefoucauld beautiful, young, sword in hand, rallying the peasants at the foot of the great towers of the castle of Puy-Rousseau; and Antoinette Adams, called Chevalier Adams, who was so courageous that after her capture when she was shot, they stood out of respect.

This epic time was cruel. The people were mad. Madame de Lescure purposely made her horse walk over the disabled republicans lying on the ground; "dead," said she; perhaps they were only wounded.

Sometimes the men were traitors; the women, never. Mademoiselle Fleury of the Théâtre Français left Rouarie for Marat, but from love. The captains were often as ignorant as the soldiers; Monsieur de Sapinaud did not know how to spell; he wrote "orions" for aurions, "couté" instead of côté.

The leaders hated each other; the captains of the Marais cried: "Down with those of the High Country!" Their cavalry was not very numerous, and difficult to bring together. Puysaye wrote: "A man who would cheerfully give me his two sons grows cold if I ask for one of his horses." Fertes, pitchforks, scythes, guns old and new, hunting knives, spits, cudgels tipped and studded with iron, such were their arms; some of them carried crosses made of dead men's bones.

They made their attacks with loud cries, springing forth suddenly on every hand, from the woods, the hills, the underbrush, hollow paths; they formed crescents, killing, exterminating, blasting, and disappearing. When they passed through a Republican town, they cut down the Tree of Liberty, burned it and danced in a circle around the fire. All their pleasures were at night. This was the Vendéan rule, always to be unexpected. They would go fifteen leagues in silence without bending a blade of grass on their way. When evening came after determining between the chiefs and the war council, the place where they were to surprise the Republican posts the next morning, they would load their guns, mumble their prayers, take off their sabots, and file in long columns through the woods, barefooted, over the heather and moss, without a sound, without a word, without a breath. A march of cats in the darkness.


  1. Puysaye, Vol. II. p. 35.