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The other French revolution: Transcript

Updated Wednesday, 8th June 2005

The French Revolution might be recalled as a time of fraternity, but Michael Portillo discovered a more violent side to the story.

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The traditional view: the guillotine Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: BBC

MAN IN THE STREET, Paris
So this was originally Place Louis XV, and it had that big statue of Louis XV right in the middle, a big proper statue, like we said during the Revolution, they took this big copper statue, they melted it down and actually made coin out of it, made…

MICHAEL PORTILLO
According to an old joke, when Mao Tse Tung was asked what had been the consequences of the French Revolution, he replied that it was too early to tell.

I want to go a stage further in this programme and ask whether two centuries after that bloody revolution we’ve yet sorted out even what actually happened, let alone what it led to.

I’m standing in the heart of Paris, in la Place de la Concorde, surrounded by tourists who have probably not come here to remember the fact that in this vast square the guillotine was erected claiming the heads of, amongst many others, King Louis the Sixteenth and his wife Marie Antoinette. Think about the French Revolution, think about the accounts by British writers Edmund Burke, Thomas Carlyle and Charles Dickens in his novel A Tale of Two Cities...

MUSIC IN

...and you’ll inevitably think of Paris and the reign of terror.

MUSIC OUT

READING
Along the Paris streets the death carts rumble, hollow and harsh. Six tumbrels carry the day’s wine to La Guillotine. All the devouring and insatiate monsters imagined since imagination could record itself, are fused in the one realisation, Guillotine.

MICHAEL PORTILLO
Pitting his voice, as I am against the traffic noise here in the centre of Paris, is William Doyle, Professor of History, in the University of Bristol.

These images we have of the tumbrils rolling forward with the victims for the guillotine these are quite accurate impressions are they not?

WILLIAM DOYLE
They are accurate impressions of a particular time in the Revolution, but they certainly don’t encapsulate all that it was about, and they only take place generally up to four years after the Revolution begins, so there’s a lot going on before the tumbrils start to roll.

MICHAEL PORTILLO
Why was it then that this impression of what happened here at la Place de la Concorde became so riveted in the minds, I think not just of English people but of people looking at the French Revolution in general?

WILLIAM DOYLE
Well it’s very spectacular. Paris was the centre of civilisation of the whole of Europe, and people were very shocked to start with that it could degenerate into such vengeful chaos, as it appeared from the outside. Then you have to look at the sort of people who are victims, Kings, Queens, Nobles, spectacular glitterati of the later eighteenth century, and people were particularly shocked to see them executed in this way, which was actually a very spectacular way of executing anybody, because when the head comes off blood spurts four feet out from the neck of the victim, and it’s well recorded that people found themselves paddling in blood.

MUSIC IN

READING
In Paris thick as brown leaves in autumn rustle and travel the suspects, shaken down by revolutionary committees, they’re swept thitherward as into their storehouse to be consumed. La Guillotine ne va pas mal, the guillotine goes not ill.

MUSIC OUT

MICHAEL PORTILLO
Here in Paris, how many people - approximately - lost their heads to the guillotine?

WILLIAM DOYLE
We are looking at about 1,500 in Paris, but the thing that we overlook about the terror all the time is its greatest impact was away from Paris in the provinces.

MICHAEL PORTILLO
So if it were our ambition to find the bloodiest part of the French Revolution, if it’s not Paris, where would we look for that?

WILLIAM DOYLE
There’s no doubt at all that it is in the Vendee, the area along the Atlantic Coast, inland from the coast, south of Nantes, north of La Rochelle; this is the area where large numbers of the peasantry rebel against the Revolution in favour of the King and the Church, they would like to have those restored.

MICHAEL PORTILLO
The French Revolution was not a single event, but a series of violent and chaotic occurrences. Power transferred to an assembly in Paris called the Convention, within which factions known as Girondins and Jacobins wrestled for control. In late 1793 France’s leaders, and particularly the dominant figure Robespierre, unleashed the so called reign of terror...

MUSIC IN

But in this programme I am looking at what happened in the Vendee, and according to Alan Forrest, of the University of York, the uprising in that province, which came at a time when France was at war with its neighbours, posed such a strategic threat that any political authority in the capital would have felt compelled to crush it.

ALAN FOREST
By the summer of 1793 France is engaged in a war on virtually all its fronts, so an uprising in the West would appear at that time not just to be a particularly serious deflection for its troops, but a deflection of troops - who otherwise should be fighting for the motherland on the frontier - to put down a peasant insurrection at home. That creates very bad blood and is I think one of the reasons for the anger within the Army and the acceptance of extremely vicious measures of repression.

 

Series presenter Michael Portillo
READING
South-westward, in remote patriarchal La Vendee, the loyal warmth of a simple people is blown into flame and fury by theological and seigniorial bellows, so that there shall be fighting from behind ditches, death-volleys bursting out of thickets and ravines of rivers, huts burning, feet of the pitiful women hurrying to refuge with their children on their back, seed fields fallow, whitened with human bones.

MICHAEL PORTILLO
Thomas Carlyle, writing in the 1830s, and ensuring that events in the Vendee didn’t go unnoticed in Britain at the time.

MUSIC OUT

But nowadays our thoughts about the Revolution do focus on Paris, and to broaden out from that restricted view I felt I must actually visit the towns and villages of the mid West, of the Vendee.

Before I set off Bill Doyle was keen that I should understand Carlyle’s reference to theological bellows, meaning that I should grasp the importance of the split between the revolutionary government and the Catholic Church which had happened as early as 1791.

MICHAEL PORTILLO
So Bill, what was your purpose in bringing me to Notre Dame?

WILLIAM DOYLE
Well the quarrel with the Church went so deep that you have a movement in the summer and autumn of 1793 of dechristianisation, and eventually they close down all churches; they try and strip them of furnishings of one sort or another, and here in Notre Dame, the most famous church in Paris, they hold a Festival of Reason and they have a goddess in, a, a woman embodying reason, who sits in the place where the high altar was. And this, of course, was extremely shocking to all Catholics, desecration of the most important church in Paris, and [so] they say we are for church and King and we want to restore our old priests and we want to restore the altars and get rid of this godless regime.

MUSIC – Festival of Supreme Being

MICHAEL PORTILLO
Although the Vendee rising was already well under way by the time of the Festival of Reason and the subsequent Festival of the Supreme Being, for which this hymn was composed, it’s easy to imagine how reports of them fanned the counter-revolutionary flames.

MUSIC OUT

ALAN FORREST
The status of the priest, of the curé in the West, was much higher than in many other areas, it was a kind of thing that the sons of reasonably well-off families would seek to do, and many of the priests were local people. So there was a bond between them and their congregations which may not have existed in other places, so I think all these things mean that it is to some degree a cultural rising that you have in the West.

MICHAEL PORTILLO
Well to pursue this question of what happened in the provinces I’m now on the TGV train on my way to Poitiers to consult one of the French historians who has done the most to bring to our attention what actually happened in the Vendee, and while I make that journey I’m delving into an extraordinary archive. These are the letters of General Turreau, who was sent by the Revolution to suppress the rebellion in the Vendee, and his letters demanded exact orders so that he would have cover for the very brutal acts that he was about to commit. And he writes here, mon intention et bien de tous…

 

Rural France today Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: BBC READING (Translation)
My intention is to burn absolutely everything and to protect only the places where we need to establish safe quarters which will enable us to annihilate the rebels, but these extreme measures must be taken under your command.

MICHAEL PORTILLO
The historian I’d come to meet, Jean Clement Martin, picked me up in his car near Poitiers station, where poring over a road map he outlined our itinerary.

JEAN CLEMENT MARTIN
Today we are driving from Poitiers to Cholet, crossing the invisible border of what is called La Vendee Militaire. In Cholet a huge battle occurred in October 1793, and the little town of Cholet was destroyed.

MICHAEL PORTILLO
Although religion was at the heart of the uprising in the Vendee, it was actually sparked off by the government’s conscription of three hundred thousand men from all over the country to fight the wars on France’s borders. According to Alan Forrest the Vendeans weren’t alone in objecting, it was their insurgency that set them apart.

ALAN FORREST
Unlike other areas of peasant revolt this one developed very quickly into armed conflict in which essentially peasant armies, led by local notable figures, were in armed revolt against the soldiers of the government. They committed atrocities too, let’s be quite clear. They captured stragglers, they tortured, in some cases very horribly - there are stories of Republican soldiers being burned in vats of boiling water, for instance.

MICHAEL PORTILLO
En route to Cholet, Jean Clement wanted to show me the remains of the once proud Chateau de Durbelliere, the ancestral home of Henri Larochejacquelin, one of the leaders of Les Blancs, the counter revolutionary army.

As you drive north from Poitier the landscape changes. There’s an almost English roll to the countryside…

MUSIC IN

…and a lattice work of hedgerows, known locally as Brocage. In this terrain a limited counter revolutionary force was able to operate effectively against the first government troops pitted against it.

In Henri Larochejacquelin they found an inspirational leader.

As we pulled up in front of the ruins of the chateau, Jean Clement quoted the speech that he’s supposed to have made on taking over as leader of Les Blancs.

If I advance follow me, if I die avenge me, and if I retreat kill me.

JEAN CLEMENT MARTIN
Ten minutes, okay

MICHAEL PORTILLO
Yes, yes, I’ll get the bus.

MUSIC OUT

MICHAEL PORTILLO
We walked through what are now farm outbuildings, to the moated remains of the chateau itself.

MICHAEL PORTILLO
It obviously was built on a great scale, we’re standing by a tower which has been shorn off, but with a very substantial piece, we’re looking at some very elegant windows, there’s only the, the frames that are left now, there’s no woodwork or anything like that, and looking into the distance we can see further rounded towers. It’s obviously a very large estate, these were rich people.

JEAN CLEMENT MARTIN
Yeah, and Le Marquis de Larojacquelin was very influent in this region, in the beginning of 1793 his son Henri de Larojacquelin lived there, um was built on the head of a little peasant army on après the 1793.

MICHAEL PORTILLO
So the peasants and the aristocrats came together to make this army?

JEAN CLEMENT MARTIN
Yeah, and then on October 1793 Henri Larojacquelin became Generalisim.

MICHAEL PORTILLO
How old was he?

JEAN CLEMENT MARTIN
Twenty-one.

MICHAEL PORTILLO
And so with aristocrats at their head this peasant army fought against the Revolution, with some success?

JEAN CLEMENT MARTIN
Oui, with some success because they fight against very bad Revolutionary troops in front of them.

MUSIC IN

MICHAEL PORTILLO
The response from the Revolutionary government came in the form of General Turreau, and what became known as his Colonnes Infernale, the infernal columns of soldiers. As we’ve heard the idea was to establish safe areas, and from there to march out to devastate towns and villages known to have supported the uprising. On the nineteenth of January 1794, Turreau wrote to the Committee for Public Safety in Paris.

READING
Je le repete citoyens Representants, je regarde comme indispensable la mesure de bruler villes…

 

Michael Portillo Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Production team READING (Translation)
Citizen representatives, I repeat that I regard the burning of towns, villages and small holdings as an indispensable measure if we wish finally to bring an end to this terrible war in the Vendee. Without it I will not be able to annihilate this band of brigands who each day seem to increase in number.

ALAN FORREST
I think what you’re getting from Turreau is an honest assessment of how he can reduce the Vendee to submission. They’re being ambushed, very often by men not in uniform. They don’t really know who is a combatant and who is a non-combatant, and I think that always makes an army - well we’ve seen it more recently I suppose in Iraq, it puts that army on a kind of permanent key vivre, they can never relax properly and it makes them angry.

The people who very often were the intermediaries for terror at local level were the deputies on missions sent out from Paris. Now, unfortunately for the West, one of the two deputies in Nantes, Jean Baptiste Carriér, was a particularly violent man. We have descriptions of the executions … including things which, I suppose, one would have to call examples of rather bloodthirsty Jacobean humour, in tying together young men and women, staking them in boats in the middle of the Loire with its dangerous sandbanks, pulling the bottom out of the boat and watching them drown in the river obviously gave the…

MUSIC IN

…the more sadistic Jacobeans, like Carriér, a certain amount of pleasure and satisfaction. But I should stress that this was not the norm.

MICHAEL PORTILLO
Norm or no, it’s intensified bitterness on both sides and made for a situation quite as dramatic as anything in Paris conjured up by Dickens or Baroness Orzy, and to my great surprise there was one English writer who set a novel in the initial period of the Vendee uprising, indeed Anthony Trollope’s The Vendeans describes the very chateau I was visiting with Jean Clement Martin.

READING
By degrees the daylight faded away, and for the last time they watched the sun sink down among the cherry trees of Durbelliere, and the Marquis, seated by the window, gazed in to the West ’til not a streak of light was any longer visible. He knew that Durbelliere would be destroyed, and it never could be anything to him how the sun set or rose in any other place.

MICHAEL PORTILLO
What actually happened to the chateau?

JEAN CLEMENT MARTIN
The chateau was destroyed in the winter of 1793 by a colonne infernal, infernal column sent to destroy the so called Brigands de la Vendee.

ALAN FORREST
If you are a brigand, or worse still if you’re a wild beast, a wild animal, slinking back into the bocage, to your lair, and these words are literal translations of the language that Republicans used at the time, then you’re dehumanised and if you’re dehumanised then, rather like a wolf, you can be eliminated with less compunction than if you are a human being.

MICHAEL PORTILLO
Alan Forrest.

Dehumanisation of the victims is something I associate with genocide, and historians have debated whether what happened in La Vendee should be described as genocide.

I put that to Jean Clement Martin.

JEAN CLEMENT MARTIN
No, because there were never orders to destroy specific populations. What the orders said exactly was to destroy les brigands de la Vendee, and to put in safety women, children and older people.

MICHAEL PORTILLO
Have you any idea how many people might have been killed in la Vendee at that time?

JEAN CLEMENT MARTIN
Two hundred thousand people were killed or disappeared from one or another reason at the time in the Vendee.

MICHAEL PORTILLO
Two hundred thousand people…

JEAN CLEMENT MARTIN
Two, two hundred, yeah.

MICHAEL PORTILLO
Killed or disappeared?

JEAN CLEMENT MARTIN
Yeah.

MICHAEL PORTILLO
Over what period of time?

JEAN CLEMENT MARTIN
From 1791 to1796.

MUSIC IN

MICHAEL PORTILLO
Even allowing for many thousands fleeing to neighbouring provinces, that figure is still shockingly high.

The Revolution was about the rights of the common man, but while we’ve retained a clear image of a few hundred aristocrats guillotined in Paris we’ve largely forgotten the thousands of peasants slaughtered in the Vendee.

To try and make sense of all this, and particularly the way we in Britain have forgotten to remember the Vendee, Bill Doyle had taken me to the Louvre Museum in Paris.

MUSIC OUT

MICHAEL PORTILLO
We’re looking at the painting by Eugene Delacroix of Liberty leading the people, painted shortly after the Revolution of 1830, but clearly meant to represent an image of the French Revolution that’s really founded on the Revolution of 1789.

WILLIAM DOYLE
That’s absolutely right. Here is Liberty, an allegorical figure wearing the cap of Liberty and carrying the tricolour, the standard of Liberty, which was first adopted by the French in 1789.

MICHAEL PORTILLO
Now at the time of this picture the British had a very different view of what had happened in the French Revolution, but in the early twenty-first century we would in general approve of Liberty. In some ways then we’ve adopted the principles of the French Revolution - when did that happen?

 

Mitterand and Thatcher Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: BBC WILLIAM DOYLE
Well there’s a sense in which we have, but when the French Revolution breaks out the first instinct that many British people have before Edmund Burke forced us to think about it was the French were catching up with us. The phrase that was used by British radicals, we were men when they were slave

DR ROSEMARY ASHTON
"Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive but to be young was very heaven", is almost the most famous thing said about the French Revolution in this country I think.

MICHAEL PORTILLO
Rosemary Ashton, Professor of English at University College London, quoting from William Wordsworth’s long autobiographical poem The Prelude.

DR ROSEMARY ASHTON
Interestingly that phrase about it being bliss to have been alive at the time of the French Revolution comes in a part of the poem where Wordsworth has already described having gone to France after the Revolution full of hopes - in 1791 in fact - full of hopes that he would find there all the things that the French Revolution was supposed to be about, and all the things that he felt he missed at home - liberty, equality, improvement for the poor and so on - and of course he found things were not quite as idyllic as that. So even when he writes about it having been bliss to be alive, he’s already writing with a certain weary wisdom that it wasn’t to be, that it was not ultimately successful, that the French Revolution went sour.

MICHAEL PORTILLO
Let it be said that at the time of the second centenary of the French Revolution, when Margaret Thatcher was our Prime Minister, she actually resisted the invitation to participate in celebrations of the Revolution, she recalled it still as a bloody mob, so Dickens and others obviously still exerted their influence on her, at least.

WILLIAM DOYLE
That’s true, and she took a bound copy of the Tale of Two Cities to give to Francois Mitterand, but she also said, we, the British, or maybe the Greeks, she said, invented liberty, not the French.

DR ROSEMARY ASHTON
It is odd that the counter revolution in the Vendee hasn’t really entered into the simple story, at any rate, that we like to tell ourselves about the French Revolution. I suppose because revolution’s more exciting than anti- or counter-revolution. It’s a fact, because Paris obviously attracted worldwide attention in a way that the Vendee would not, and the breaking down of the Bastille as a concrete symbol of the metaphorical idea of the breaking down of cruelty and tyrannical laws, was really compelling at the time and still is. There were of course some hot-headed people who wished for revolution in this country, but most people I think, including most of the people who’ve written about the French Revolution, the poets and the writers and the philosophers and politicians of the time, most of them I think cherry picked what they liked about what they knew of the French Revolution while setting aside the less palatable elements, or perhaps just saying 'well, that’s the French way'.

MICHAEL PORTILLO
Professor Rosemary Ashton.

The last stop on our brief trip through the Vendee Militaire was in Cholet, the small town sacked by one of General Turreau’s Colonnes Infernale. It now houses a substantial tribute to the Guerre de la Vendee in its elegant museum, where Jean Clement introduced me to the Deputy Mayor, Roger Massee.

JEAN CLEMENT MARTIN
Michael Portillo.

INTRODUCTIONS AND SHORT CONVERSATION IN FRENCHMICHAEL PORTILLO
Monsieur Massee conceded that even in France the Vendee War doesn’t feature strongly in revolutionary history.

ROGER MASSEE
SPEAKING IN FRENCH

MALE (Translation)
I think, alas, that the enormous majority of French people have only a very confused recollection of the War of the Vendee, of this Civil War, because that’s what it was a Civil War. Perhaps it’s because it remains something shameful in the collective history of France.

MICHAEL PORTILLO
In this museum at the heart of the Vendee we see many examples of the atrocities that were committed, but what is the first hand evidence for these atrocities, were there eyewitness accounts?

ROGER MASSEE
Yeah it is possible to, to give some testimony coming from a woman, a very young woman, who fight in the white army.

SPEAKING IN FRENCH

FEMALE (Translation)
The uprising by the Royalists in the Vendee in seventeen ninety-three, attracted in to our land a Republican army who ravaged and massacred absolutely without pity. I saw forty-two of my relations perish, but it was the death of my father that was committed right in front of my very eyes that transported me with rage and despair. From that very moment I resolved to sacrifice my body to the King and to offer my soul to God, and I swore that I would continue to fight until death or victory.

MICHAEL PORTILLO
It’s a very moving account isn’t it? It’s a sort of thing that we are almost used to from other civil wars, but the violence, forty-two of her relations being killed, her father murdered in front of her eyes, and of course her reaction, which is that she then will fight to the death.

MUSIC IN – Marseillaise

She then becomes radicalised.

No wonder Margaret Thatcher was reluctant to celebrate seventeen eighty-nine.

For several generations the population figures in the Vendee betrayed the savage losses, and Jean Clement Martin maintains that a strong sense of independence still characterises the region.

Shortly after the execution of Robespierre and the end of the terror, General Turreau was put on trial, his letters making clear that he’d massacred the Vendeans not on his own initiative but as the agent of the Convention saved him. He went on to serve Napoleon, and you can find his name engraved on the Arc de Triomphe.

Henri Larojacquelin died coming to the aid of a Republican soldier.

Nowadays the Marseillaise stirs even British hearts, an international hymn to liberty.

MUSIC OUT

It’s never been easy for the British to be objective about the French Revolution, and we’ve swung from one extreme to another. Burke condemned it in 1790, and set the tone for generations thereafter, but with the passage of time our memory’s been reshaped. As Britain became steadily more democratic we tended to look back on events in France…

MUSIC IN

… as the forerunner of democratic and egalitarian change across Europe and beyond. Maybe that’s why the British generally forget to remember the bloodletting in the Vendee.

Alan Forrest and Jean Clement Martin caution against glamorising any revolution if it means forgetting the many thousands who perish in the name of setting the people free.

ALAN FORREST
I think anyone seeking liberation or seeking freedom and liberty in the twentieth or twenty-first century who looks back to the French Revolution as a model will find inside the French Revolution moments of encouragement, general ideas and principles, which are very, very precious, which are progressive and which are at the root of our freedoms today. The problem is taking the Revolution as a single unmitigated whole and accepting all of it with its implications.

MUSIC OUT

JEAN CLEMENT MARTIN
For many revolutionaries in the world the French Revolution was considered as the model and for many counter revolutionaries in the world French Revolution is also considered as the model of the atrocities committed on the behalf of ideals, but I think that when we are studying a little La Guerre de Vendee it is possible to understand how the French Revolution was not a model but was just the result of internal struggle and civil wars. It is the lesson of the Vendee.

 

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