The ‘White Terror’

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The ‘White Terror’

Jean Cottereau, leader of the 'Chouans' / en wikipedia.org

Jean Cottereau, leader of the ‘Chouans’ / en wikipedia.org

It is a common misconception that the French Revolution (q.v.), the ‘Terror’ and the fall of Robespierre and other leading Jacobins, led immediately to the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte in France, and his very nearly successful bid to make that country supreme in Europe, by waging war on almost everybody else. But the fact is that in 1794 revenge became briefly sweet for those whose lives and properties had been seriously affected by the Revolution.

The so-called ‘White Terror’ was an attack launched against the terrorists, and all who could properly be accused of doing well out of the French Revolution. White was a Bourbon colour, and some historians have taken this as indicating the movement for revenge as a royalist adventure, but this is not strictly true. Very few wanted a restoration of the old régime; they simply wanted to settle old scores. Clever men had taken advantage of the Terror, grabbing land and property by force and murder, including Church lands. Many had appointed themselves as government officials, with powers emanating from the awful force of the ‘Terror’ itself.

This revenge uprising did not involve all France, but was restricted to the Loire countryside and areas south of Lyon, arguably France’s second city. In Paris itself the avengers mostly came from the upper-middle and noble classes, or what was left of them after the ‘Terror’ had burnt itself out. These youths wore extravagent clothing and wore their thick hair long and tied up at the back to remind the populace of the practice during the Revolution of knotting back the hair of those about to face the guillotine. The young men were formed by their leaders into squadrons whose task was to root out actual or ex-Jacobins and Girondins, who were then beaten black and blue or worse, but though this is surprising, there was apparently little bloodletting, though God knows there was motive enough.

While in Paris the outbreak of violence against the rank and file of the French Revolutionaries was mild, in Brittany, inspired and led by Jean Cottereau, the movement was taken seriously enough for the leaders to seek help from England. It seems that in 1795 more than 3000 royalist troops landed at Quiberon Bay, where they were joined by thousands more ‘Chouans’ (the followers of Cottereau). The uprising failed because General Hoche (who had been warned beforehand) was ready with Government soldiers, who cut off the Chouans: nearly a thousand of them were shot.

In the South of France the authorities did not consider the small murder gangs of the White Terror much of a threat, and little action was taken against them. This was a mistake, as a massive and bloody revenge movement swept across Provence and Var. In the jails judicial murder no different from the Revolution’s September Massacres was rife, though this time the victims were the Jacobins themselves. At least two thousand were eliminated in the south-east in 1795, more in 1796 and 1797. By then Bonaparte had sorted things out and re-directed the energies and bloodlust of the French against the rest of Europe and, eventually, Russia.

By | 2015-07-14T09:59:08+00:00 July 14th, 2015|French History|0 Comments

About the Author:

‘Dean Swift’ is a pen name: the author has been a soldier; he has worked in sales, TV, the making of films, as a teacher of English and history and a journalist. He is married with three grown-up children. They live in Spain.

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