Megalomaniac and Loser

Norman Hampson

  • Beyond the Terror: Essays in French Regional and Social History 1794-1815 edited by Gwynne Lewis and Colin Lucas
    Cambridge, 276 pp, £22.50, October 1983, ISBN 0 521 25114 1
  • Chouannerie and Counter-Revolution: Puisaye, the Princes and the British Government in the 1790s by Maurice Hutt
    Cambridge, 630 pp, £60.00, December 1983, ISBN 0 521 22603 1
  • Britain and Revolutionary France: Conflict, Subversion and Propaganda edited by Colin Jones
    Exeter, 96 pp, £1.75, June 1983, ISBN 0 85989 179 8

Recent news from the French Revolutionary front is mostly about people who, for one reason or another, regarded the whole business as a disaster. No doubt as we approach 1989, things will change, and a chorus of pious commemoration will drown the irreverent voices of those who express their reservations about the quality of the Emperor’s tailors. This is as it should be: historians, however scrupulous and dispassionate, usually derive from the present the incentive to persevere in their arduous exploration of a past whose significance depends to some extent on the angle from which it is illuminated. If they were to stop changing their minds and disagreeing with each other, we should know that they were all dead.

The volume of essays, edited by Gwynne Lewis and Colin Lucas in honour of Richard Cobb, deals mostly with the later years of the Revolution, between the fall of Robespierre and the advent of Bonaparte. The period has always been rather an embarrassment to historians who are looking for patterns. If the Terror represented some kind of proto-socialist ideal society, one has to explain how it can have been destroyed by a civil war within the Committee of Public Safety and the execution of half a dozen deputies. If Thermidor and the Directory marked the triumph of a (never defined) bourgeoisie, why were the new men such incompetent actors of their historical roles? When politics had at last been brought into line with the economic base, why did the new ruling class so quickly abdicate in favour of a military adventurer? If one looks at the period from above one is very likely to find it a rather messy mystery. The Lewis/Lucas team, true to the man they invoke as their friend and guide, go for the grass roots. Their concern is with the provinces, the peasants and the poor.

Seen from this angle, the whole experience of the Revolution takes on a different colouring. What mattered was not the ideology, the sense of making all things new, but the way the Revolution affected age-old habits and the daily preoccupation with making a living or at least staying alive. From this point of view fine words, almost literally, buttered no parsnips, and good intentions, even if they could be understood by those who were very slow to learn the new language, were something for Sundays or, in 1793-94, for Décadis. Colin Jones shows how the noble intention of the revolutionaries to substitute a national policy of bienfaisance for the erratic charity of the Ancien Régime fell victim to the consequences of expropriating the Church and the insatiable demands of total war. This confirms the findings of Alan Forrest in his recent book, The French Revolution and the Poor. Forrest’s contribution to the present collection of essays looks at the war from the viewpoint of those who would have preferred not to take part in it: a far cry from the patriotic bombast of Brissot or the icy abstractions of Saint-Just.

The two editors of the volume concentrate on the peasantry in the South of France. Although national politics could intrude on the village, usually as a result of the activities of royalist agents, the Revolution tended to be seen mainly in local terms. Those who had profited from it in ways that offended traditional ideas about what was right and proper, became the objects of a resentment that might flare up in isolated acts of violence or more general disorder as local circumstances permitted or dictated. In a thought-provoking essay Colin Lucas presents such violence as a defence of local interests and traditional values against the consequences of applying a new revolutionary ideology which villagers found alien and incomprehensible. What to townsmen, the educated and the heirs of the Philosophes, looked like a more enlightened way of ordering things took on a very different appearance when it was a matter of enforcing vertu by requisitioning grain or putting an end to practices that were not supposed to exist but always had done. Anyone who might be tempted to interpret such conflicts in terms of ideology or class legislation can find a useful corrective in Peter Jones’s demonstration of the almost infinite variety of local circumstances. What suited the wealthy in one village might work to the advantage of smallholders in the next. In a situation like this, any policy of innovation at the centre was bound to have wholly unintended consequences when it was put into practice and the motives of the revolutionaries meant nothing to the peasant who was outraged by what happened to him – which he was only too likely to see as the product of someone’s malevolence.

Donald Sutherland’s recent study, The Chouans, has spelled out in detail just how this worked out in the Ille-et-Vilaine. Tenant farmers had gained very little from the Revolution and lost more as a result of increased taxation. They were particularly incensed when outsiders messed about with their priests. As Sutherland puts it, ‘the liberal-humanist revolution had ended up by attacking the sense of humanity it had long professed to help.’ As the peasants saw it, they were driven to resort to violence in self-defence: ‘Ideologically, chouannerie was a protest against the destruction of the moral unity of the peasant community.’ It was also a protest against the heavy-handed intervention of the towns and their National Guards against people whom the local authorities in the Maine-et-Loire insisted on referring to as their administrés, when authorities elsewhere were more inclined to call them concitoyens and to speak up in their defence.

Preliminary knowledge of this kind is a useful introduction if one is to make the most of Maurice Hutt’s immensely detailed study of Puisaye’s role in the Breton counter-revolution. His subtitle, ‘Puisaye, the Princes and the British Government in the 1790s’, gives a more accurate indication of the contents of his book than the title itself. His concern is not with counter-revolution in the west, which he disposes of in a brief introductory chapter, or with chouannerie as a social phenomenon. He refers to its sporadic nature, which he contrasts with the more general insurrection in the Vendée, but he does not go on to investigate the reasons for the difference, nor does he offer any explanation of why, within Brittany itself, the Finistère should have been so loyal to the Republic. He says that he is not writing a biography of Puisaye either, which allows him, in his conclusion, to jump in one sentence from 1808 to Puisaye’s death in 1827, without any indication of what his subject did with the last twenty years of his life. His subject, then, is Puisaye’s activity in support of the Chouans and his treatment of it is exhaustive. While no history can be regarded as ‘definitive’ it is difficult to imagine anyone else wanting to go over the ground which Maurice Hutt has mapped out with such overwhelming erudition and dispassionate judgment. Whether or not the subject merited the deployment of so much talent and patience is another matter, but if it was worth doing at all, it is hard to see how it could have been done better.

Puisaye was one of history’s most consistent losers. As a young nobleman he entered the army at 19, only to be made redundant almost at once. In 1792 he commanded the ‘federalist’ army at the ‘battle’ of Brécourt or Pacy-sur-Eure, an engagement remarkable in military history for the fact that there were no casualties on either side. Puisaye may have given the necessary orders for the posting of sentries but his failure to check that anyone was doing anything about it allowed his little force to be surprised and routed. When the revolt in Normandy collapsed he made his way west and became one of the leaders of the counter-revolution in Brittany or, as he would have put it, the leader. Tireless in organising his forces – on paper – and drawing up elaborate plans, there does not seem to be much evidence for his having been personally responsible for doing the Republic much harm. His dreams of a concerted rising of the entire province depended on a supply of arms and money from England. Puisaye therefore came to London in 1794 to win British support. This took him the best part of a year but at last, in June 1795, a British squadron did put him ashore in Quiberon Bay with a small force of émigrés and substantial supplies of muskets. The landing was unopposed and the émigrés were welcomed by large numbers of local Chouans. For the time being, the Royalists enjoyed overwhelming numerical superiority over such Republican troops as happened to be in the vicinity and they could rely on a good deal of sympathy from the local population. They failed to take advantage of their opportunity, Puisaye himself, so far as one can see, doing virtually nothing. When Hoche’s Republicans took the offensive, they surprised the fort that controlled the Quiberon peninsula – it was Pacy-sur-Eure all over again – and Puisaye was one of the first to escape to the British frigates. Back in Brittany soon afterwards, he busied himself with his paperwork while Hoche battered most of the Chouans into seeking peace. In 1797 Puisaye came to England again. Out of his depth amongst all the intrigues of the exiled Royalists, he was manoeuvred into resigning his Breton command. In 1798 he left for Canada with an ambitious scheme for creating a French military colony there. That proved to be a non-starter and by 1802 he was back in England. For a moment, in 1807, it looked as though he might regain the favour of the Princes and British support. Disappointed in both, he then concentrated his energies on the memoirs that were to vindicate his career and demolish his numerous enemies, but when the crucial Volume Six appeared, the exposure of his credulity in accepting palpably false evidence left him totally discredited. His one success was in survival: when he died he was 72. If one thinks of his life in the Breton underground, of the fate of so many royalist leaders and of his own narrow escapes, longevity itself seems no mean achievement.

Much of all this was his own fault. He was supposed to be a military man but on the two occasions when he led forces against the Republicans he did not seem to know what to do with them. Even more than most of the soldiers of the period, he was something of a megalomaniac, obsessed with his own infallibility and quick to blame whatever went wrong on intrigue and treachery. His political skills were rudimentary and his strategic vision unrealistic. One has to acknowledge all the same that he found himself in a situation where success was probably impossible. Brittany was not the Vendée and it had no equivalent to the ‘Royal and Catholic Army’. In circumstances where there were no spectacular victories to be won, it was very hard for the leader of any of the Royalist bands to impose his authority over the rest and Puisaye does seem to have been acknowledged by most of them as their leader, even if that did not mean much in practice. Royalist politics were a labyrinth from which no one emerged with much of a reputation. The two brothers of the dead Louis XVI could not even agree between themselves; aristocratic émigrés despised plebeian Chouans; some of the Royalist peasantry were devoted to their former seigneurs, others were not. Some hoped to restore the monarchy by political means and deprecated armed risings that might frighten the moderates; others believed that seeming to play the Republican game would dishearten insurgents. Constitutional monarchists could not agree on the kind of constitution they wanted, and all of them were beyond the pale as far as pure Royalists, who wanted no constitution at all, were concerned. The pure, in turn, were divided between absolutists and partisans of a more aristocratic regime – which might but need not include Breton autonomy. Most of them suspected the British Government – on whom their hopes of supplies in the west depended – of wanting a constitutional monarchy in France, or even of trying to perpetuate a civil war that would complete the destruction of the hereditary enemy. The British must have had the impression at times that the embittered factions were more concerned to fight each other than the Republicans.

It was on the British that Puisaye depended and he had some justification for thinking that they let him down. They never provided as much, in money or arms and munitions, as they led him to expect, and what they did send arrived much later than he expected or they intended. Here again, Hutt’s book should be set in the context of other recent publications. The second volume of John Ehrman’s monumental biography of Pitt gives him the appearance of a first-rate ship of the line lumbering into action, a little slow perhaps, not very good at beating against the wind, but a majestic fighting machine all the same. This is not the impression given by Michael Duffy in his brisk and lively contribution to Britain and Revolutionary France, a volume of essays edited by Colin Jones and published by the University of Exeter. Duffy accuses Pitt and the government he led of squandering inadequate resources in the pursuit of too many policies that frequently got in each other’s way. On the whole, Hutt is on Duffy’s side rather than Ehrman’s. Different British ministers had different priorities: reinforcing the Dutch, taking advantage of the opportunity to annex Sugar Islands, or helping Frenchmen to overthrow their republic. The last of these objectives risked committing the British to a Bourbon restoration, and whatever ideologists like Burke might say, ministers were reluctant to bind themselves to a policy that might prevent their striking a favourable bargain with whatever government the Revolution might throw up. In practice, though, their failure to do more for Puisaye owed more to incompetence than to divided counsels. They were understandably reluctant to commit substantial numbers of their own troops until the Chouans had proved their ability to seize and retain a port of some consequence, something that they were never able to achieve. On the basis of Hutt’s evidence about the military potential of the Chouans – the Vendée was perhaps another matter – this looks more like a sensible decision than a missed opportunity. Once the landing of a British expeditionary force had been excluded, Puisaye’s demands for muskets and money were relatively modest and meeting them in full would not have materially weakened the British effort in other theatres, especially since the muskets were of French calibre that the British Army could not use.

One can sympathise with Puisaye’s predicament in London, forced to keep pestering the various government departments to get them to agree to help, only to find that the promises he had extracted with so much effort produced precious little in the way of actual deliveries. In all probability – although Puisaye himself would never have admitted it – it did not make very much difference in the end. When the Chouans eventually received substantial supplies at Quiberon they did not make much use of them. If Hutt’s book has a hero, it must surely be neither an Englishman nor a French Royalist, but the Republican general Hoche, who knew how to pacify an area and to defeat a rebel army. When the émigrés landed at Quiberon they and their Chouan allies mustered almost twenty thousand men: Hoche had four to five thousand. By D + 6 he had increased this to ten thousand. Three days later he had bottled up the Royalists on the Quiberon peninsula and when he launched his offensive on D + 23 everything was over in a matter of hours. Against professionalism of this quality the British were wise not to risk their own troops.

Although Hutt himself is more concerned with what Puisaye did than with why he did it, the latter’s more or less accidental commitment to Royalism is a reminder that for him, as for so many of his contemporaries, politics could be more a matter of circumstances than of settled principles. Elected to the Constituent Assembly in 1789, he had been one of the more liberal nobles; he did not protest against the King’s suspension after his flight to Varennes and he accepted the constitution of 1791. In the following year he was elected commander of one of Evreux’s two National Guard battalions. The overthrow of the monarchy in August 1792 does not seem to have shaken his allegiance. He would probably have liked a seat in the Convention and when he failed to get it he offered his services to the Minister of War. It was chance that determined that his place in history should not be as a Girondin or a Republican army officer, although he would probably not have made a very good one. If he found himself fighting the Parisian forces in July 1793, that was because his National Guard unit came from Evreux. If it had been based in Nantes he would have been defending the Republic against the Vendée. Defeated at Pacy-sur-Eure, he made his way to the Breton border. Hostility to the Montagnards and to Paris, in a Breton context, meant Royalism. His experiences with the Chouans seem to have confirmed him in views that were very different from those he had held in 1791. When he proposed to found his military colony in Canada he demanded an ‘unrestricted’ feudal regime, with the right to confer fiefs on his vassals! One cannot imagine how such a man ever settled down in Regency London and it is rather cruel of Dr Hutt to tell us nothing of his later years. This is a fine work of professional scholarship, however, which treads as clear a path as is humanly possible through a jungle of partial, biased, incomplete and contradictory evidence. It should put to rest a good many myths – if myths can ever be destroyed by reasoned argument. The book is handsomely produced, but so it should be: at almost 10p per page it must be one of the most expensive pieces of recent scholarship, and the quality of the proof-reading is no credit to a university press.