21.7.10

Paydrets! The battle of Torfou, or an Episode from the War in the Vendée

In the west of France in southwestern Brittany there is a culture which dates back to before the Romans. During the time of the Ancien Regime there was an close knit agrarian society here, known simply as “du Pays de Retz”, the land of the Retz. Half marshland and half bocage, the devout but sometimes unruly inhabitants are known as simply as Paydrets.

These Paydrets along with their neighbors to the north in Marais called Maraichins formed the greater part of the Army of Charette. Indeed after the other Royalist Armies had surrendered or were destroyed these intrepid warriors continued to fight alone into 1796. While they were renowned for their bravery and fighting spirit, and feared by the “Bleus”, they were undisciplined and less inclined to show mercy to those who had persecuted their families and laid waste to their homes and farms.

In the beginning of the republic the leaders realized that the nation would be attacked by the countries surrounding France, specifically the Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia from the east. A “levee en masse” was proclaimed. National Guard battalions were formed around the nucleus of a regiment of the ancient regime. Two national guard battalions to one old regiment created what was then called a Demi-Brigade. The ancient names were discontinued and a number identified each Demi-Brigade.

This brigading together of battalions served a two fold purpose, first; it strengthened the resolve and steadied up the national guard battalions in battle and infused a sense of republican fervour into the battalions from the ancient regime. Due to the rapid expansion of the army however, the formerly royal regiments continued to wear the white uniform of a royalist France while the national guards wore blue.(1) New recruits into the Ancien Regime regiments adopted the swagger, and manner of the older soldiers while adopting the ancient regimental customs.

One of these Demi-Brigades was known as the Mayençais because they captured the Electorate of Mainz (Mayence)during the campaign of 1792 and defended it in 1793 from the Prussians to whom they finally capitulated. The Prussians noting their bravery allowed them the honours of war. (2) They promised not to fight in the line for a year. This promise however did not prevent them from making war on the Vendeans.

Among the Mayençais, there was one Jean Baptiste Kléber. Born in Strasbourg (Alsace) he obtained a commission in the Austrian army, but resigned it in 1783 on finding his humble birth an obstruction in the way of his promotion. He returned to France. As many of the officers of the Ancien Regime emigrated, he was quickly promoted to lieutenant-colonel due to his military knowledge gained in the service of Austria. At the battle of Mainz he distinguished himself though the garrison was disgraced by the defeat by the Prussians. In August 1793 he became a general of brigade, and was transferred to the Vendée.

The national convention which had replaced the General Assembly wished to put an end to the Vendéan War quickly so that attention, and troops could be focused on other fronts. The decision was made to send Kléber and the Mayençais whom he had commanded at Mainz. Arriving in Nantes on 5 September 1793 they set out to find the Catholic and Royal Army. On 19 September these forces met a a place called Torfou.

Leaving half the men in reserve, Kléber attacked the town with two battalions.

The town was defended by the Paydrets of Charette, who firing from windows, doorways, rooftops, and garden walls repulsed Kléber's bleus. The Paydrets were used to shooting game in their native land and had little trouble defending themselves from infantry.


Rebuffed, Kléber next regrouped and attacked with his reserves, supported by artillery. The Paydrets gave ground in good order, conducting a fighting retreat, firing at the bleus from behind every tree, hedges, bank, and bush. It was not enough. Coming on in good order of the period Kléber's troops swept the Paydrets aside using bayonet. Singing the Marseillaise and marching to the beat of the drums the whole of the Mayençais advanced, and the result was not in question.

The Paydrets fled. The flight became a route, and then a miracle happened which rivals that of the Marne over a century later. The Paydrets encountered another irrisistable force; for praying at a Calvary were the wives, daughters and sweethearts of the Paydrets. They were outraged by what they considered cowardice of the men, not knowing they had been fighting a lopsided struggle for 4 hours. The men had encountered the finest troops of the republican army and had fought them virtually to a standstill before succumbing to a superior force.

The women blocked the route of escape. They flung themselves at the men attacking them not only verbally but with their fists, sticks and rocks. They were called shameless. It was decided that if the men of the Pays de Retz would not fight the women would. Honour would be upheld even at the cost of their lives. The men turned and headed back to the battle.

To Kléber the battle seemed over. With the Paydrets fleeing he believed he had only Charette to deal with. It was at this time that the Vendeans were reinforced by the Army of Anjou. The Angevins had arrived. The Paydrets returned to the fight, and the battle which only moments before Kléber had though over and won was a smashing defeat.

The Mayençais who had never retreated left the field, some saying in disorder, some say in good order. No matter. The day was won. The Honour of the paydrets was restored. The Battle of Torfou was over.

Dieu Le Roy!
Brantigny

(1). The white uniform would make a reappearance in the French Army during the Empire of Napoleon in 1806, when a shortage of blue dye required that uniform coats were left undyed, allowing the natural drab of the wool as the colour. The natural drab, although of different shades appeared white when worn on the field. It was not uncommon to see some troops wearing white and some wearing blue in the same company of soldiers.

(2). The Honours of War, was a form of universal parole, whereby a regiment or Army would be spared imprisonment as a POW if that unit through it's commander swore they would not come to arms for a given length of time. They also swore that they would not fight against the enemy who captured them. The troops granted these honours of war would surrender a citadel, city or fortress, and when leaving were allowed to march out flying their colours, beat their drums, fix bayonets and march out. This parole removed the necessity of guarding a prisoner, feeding the prisoner, and assured that the soldier would be removed from the war. It is a crime listed in the Code of Honor for the American military to accept parole if captured.

Painting, Défense de Rochefort-en-terre, 1885, Conservatoire départemental du patrimoine, conseil général du Morbihan Défense de Rochefort-en-terre, Alexandre Bloch(?)

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