‘The Soldiers are Dressed in Red’: The Quiberon Expedition of 1795
and the Counter-Revolution in Brittany
Helion & Company Limited (2022)
Images: 15 colour & 12 b/w illustrations, 8 maps, 2 diagrams, 29 tables
Following the excellent regimental study of the Damas Legion, For God and King, by Hughes de Bazouges and Alistair Nichols. Helion Publishing has continued to bring the often-overlooked story of the French Royalist émigrés in the service of the British Army, back from obscurity. In this latest book, ‘The Soldiers are Dressed in Red’, Nichols examines the turbulent and ultimately disastrous, British backed expedition of French émigrés to Quiberon Bay, Britanny in 1795 and the counter-revolution it was intended to back.
Nichols’ account begins with examining the counter-revolutionary forces in Britanny and the Vendée, with a particular focus on the Breton Chouannerie. This is because, much of the drive for a British backed expedition would come from Joseph de Puisaye (1755-1827), a prominent leader amongst the chouans – the name given to the supporters of the Chouannerie. From this context, Nichols introduces the reader to the strategic imperatives and reasoning for William Pitt the Younger’s (1759-1806) government to outfit an expedition composed of several regiments of French émigrés to Britanny. Nichols’ shows that despite misgivings amongst some of Britain’s decision makers, including the Marquess Cornwallis (1738-1805), Puisaye’s inflated figures for the counter-revolutionary forces and insistence that an armed demonstration could secure a much larger rising eventually persuaded Pitt and his cabinet to commit to the expedition.
Following this strategic context, the author discusses the preparations for the regiments and landings in the Morbihan, at Quiberon Bay. Nichols’ clear description enables the reader to follow the twists and turns of the campaign, and the animosity that built between the officers of the regular, or white cockade émigrés regiments, led by Louis Charles, Comte d’Hervilly and Puisaye and the chouans. However, this is not just a story of egos amongst the counterrevolutionaries and the author includes a great deal of information on the role of the Royal Navy, especially John Borlase Warren, 1st Baronet (1753-1822), who would play a crucial role in supporting the counterrevolutionaries, in Britanny. His squadron assisted with landing troops and bombarding the shoreline to keep republican forces away from the exposed Quiberon peninsula. Finally, he attempted to evacuate the royalists from the peninsula as the soldiers of the republican General Lazare Hoche (1768-1797) broke through the royalist defences and brought the campaign to a close.
As the account draws to its ignominious close, Nichols examines the treatment meted out to many of the counterrevolutionaries. He demonstrates how republican reprisals compounded the failure of the campaign and encouraged men like Puisaye to save their reputations by committing their ‘story’ to the page. Nichols’ goes past these works of spin and through his thorough use of primary materials, helps to highlight where accounts have been coloured by Puisaye’s memoirs. The range of materials includes first-hand accounts, some have not been previously translated from the original French, and a host of archival materials from both the UK and France.
This book is an excellent examination of the failed landings at Quiberon, drawing on a range of perspectives to reach past the subsequent spin and invective produced during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). Whilst much of this spin can still be found in some of the current literature on the counter-revolutionary movement to this day, Nichols’ book challenges many of these entrenched assumptions and places the landings in their contemporary context, which brings this overlooked episode in the English-speaking historiography to the fore.