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Our Lady Collegiate church in Vernon
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Vernon half-timbered houses
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The Old Mill in Vernon
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Monet's house and garden at Giverny
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The XIIth c. castle keep in Vernon
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Visits, indeed, but there are so many other things to do in Vernon
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Walking and cycling around Vernon
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Museums in Vernon (paintings by Monet) and Giverny
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A walk in the streets of Giverny
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The water lily pond at Giverny
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Tourelles castle in Vernon
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Vernon, the Ardèche rgionand the 1870 Franco-Prussian war

 

The 1870 Franco-Prussian war … an old story almost completely forgotten, even by most French people. A fairly short war (six months), relatively few victims (compared with the massacres of the last two World Wars). But this episode of French history, the memory of which is fading away, has not been forgotten in Vernon. Ask the locals what the Monument aux Mobiles de l'Ardèche is (Monument to the Militia from Ardèche - Ardèche being an administrative region in the south of France) and why there is an Avenue de l'Ardèche and you will be surprised to note that the memory of this war, which took place over 130 years ago, still lingers here.


Ardèche Avenue around 1920
In the back of the avenue, one can make out the monument to the Militia from Ardèche. The level-crossing gates that can be seen in the middle ground belong to the Vernon - Pacy railway line (here near the Vernon station) , along which took place the fighting that will be described below.


First, we must recall a few facts : the war originates from the concern that the growing power of Prussia was causing in France and from Bismarck's determination to create a united German nation under the supremacy of Prussia.
France declared war on July 19, 1870, but as early as August 4, the French army was retreating. Then came the surrender of Sedan in early September (a major military defeat, but also a terrible political and psychological blow), coming as a prelude to the invasion of France. Paris was besieged on September 19, on October 27 general Bazaine capitulated in Metz, thus letting the German armies free to increase their pressure on all fronts so that in November they were in Normandy. (Rouen was taken on December 4, 1870.)
Here is a brief account of the end of the war before coming back to local events: in December, the Loire valley is crossed and general Chanzy must retreat behind the river Mayenne. In January1871 in northern France, general Faidherbe beats a retreat towards the North Sea after battles at Bapaume and Saint Quentin.
In the east, Bourbaki's army is routed and has to flee to Switzerland at the end of January 1871.
Paris, starved and shelled, has already surrendered (January 28, 1871)


In his book, Pierre Nozière, the early 20th century writer and novelist Anatole France describes Vernon at length and in particular he writes :
"Near the park, at the end of a long tree-lined avenue, with the last houses of the city on one side and vineyards and apple-trees on the other side, there rises a granite pyramid, a kind of geometric prehistoric standing stone, looking both heroic and funereal. It is indeed a glorious tomb. On the monument are engraved the coats of arms of Vernon and Privas [a town in Ardèche] with this inscription : AUX GARDES MOBILES DE L'ARDÈCHE - Vernon, 22-26 novembre 1870 " (To the militia from Ardèche - Vernon, November 22 - 26, 1870)


The apple-trees and vineyards no longer exist, but the monument still rises there and it reminds us of a particular battle - in which the French took the better, which was very rare!- even though it was not important enough to change the general course of events.

The Prussians had appeared for the first time near Normandy in early October 1870 but they did not intend to occupy this territory, being satisfied with protecting the troops that were besieging Paris and with raiding Vexin (the region just North from Vernon) for food supplies.
As to the French, there had been troops around Vernon as early as late September.. A local 'Mobile' (militiaman) noted on October 1: "Were are leaving the barracks in Vernon at 7 am and are going too camp in Bizy Forest , near the village of Blaru, 5 kilometres away from Vernon. "

'A Mobile' from Eure, is written. What military unit is this?

The 'National Mobile Guard' had been created by a law in February 1868. At this time, there was no general conscription, but a drawing of lots for conscription (i.e. a kind of lottery to decide who would be conscripted [or drafted] or not). This law, dated February 1868, created a kind of general reserve, by automatically bringing into the strength all the young men who had not already been drawn for military service. They were supposed to be given basic military training - which was rarely the case however - so as to form an auxiliary army of 400,000 that would be organised on the administrative basis of the 'Départements' and that would be in charge of defending fortresses, coasts and boundaries.

These 'Mobiles' who were to defend Normandy (in our case) were mainly coming from Normandy, but also from farther away areas, from Charente Maritime (West), Puy-de-Dôme (Centre), Landes (South West ), Pyrénées Atlantiques (South West) but also from Ardèche (South of Lyon, in the Rhone valley) and this story is concerned with them. One can wonder why men from Ardèche or from the Pyrenees were fighting in Normandy when these troops were supposed to stay in their own Département and defend it. Mr Baboux ( a local historian, see note 2 and bibliography) explains: "If it is logical to see men from Vexin defending their own department, why the devil did Louis Fortineau, together with the 2,000 troops of the 6th Battalion from Loire Inférieure (South-western France) [1] come to Normandy ; what is the reason why men from Ardèche were sent here? I don't know, some people in charge may have put their head and soul into organising the troops locally and since the forces were ready, they were sent where they were needed." [2]


We can now follow Anatole France's narrative of the fighting around Vernon.
"The invasion was progressing. Evreux had fallen into Germans' hands. Four companies of the 2nd and 3rd Ardèche battalions, with a total strength of 1,500, left Saint-Pierre-de-Louviers (note: about 30 km away) on November 21 at 11pm. They has been ordered to protect Vernon, which was about to be attacked the following day. The train they were in went slowly with no light showing. It stopped towards 3 am, it was dark and rainy, about a league away from the city. The troops immediately alighted and took up position in Bizy forest, which covers Vernon on the side of Pacy, where important enemy forces had arrived the night before."

We are now about to witness the offensive action of the first Prussian army trying to move around and away from Paris by crossing the Seine half way between Paris and Rouen. There were altogether 3,700 'Mobiles' garrisoned between these two towns and the encounter was to last from October 1870 until March 1871.

"Having received information from spies, they [the Prussians] knew that the French were holding the forest. Then, they realized that how critical their position was and their only concern was to retreat safely. Cavalry immediately took up a position ahead in order to reconnoitre the passages and explore those that could be free. By dint of searching, they managed to find small unguarded ways. They hastily removed their artillery using these pathways while the infantry, heading towards the main road, was trying to fight their way through. After a an hour-long heavy fire, they broke into a rout and and scattering in all directions through the woods, they headed towards Pacy. During the fight and during their confused retreat they lost a hundred and fifty soldiers as well as several officers and they abandoned twelve wagons full of food and ammunition."

The enemy, who had retreated, did not move for three days, which gave the last 'Mobiles' from Ardèche time to move to Vernon.

" In the morning of the 26th, the 6th company of the 3rd battalion that was on guard in advanced posts 200 metres before the forest , on the Ivry road in the hamlet of Cantemarche [3], was suddenly attacked by a 800-strong storming column. In spite of the assault being so unexpected and the number of enemies ,the 'Mobiles' showed a bold front. But when they realised that their position was about to be turned, they beat a retreat back to the edge of the woods. There, they sheltered behind the earthwork of the railway line [4], they sniped at the enemy until their ammunition was over. Captain Rouveure then shouted: "Charge with bayonets, children !" He surged forward and was immediately shot to death."

We must not forget Lieutenant Leydier and eight other men from Ardèche who were killed in action in order to defend our town. Their names are engraved on the monument Anatole France tells about.

The 'Mobiles' from Ardèche who fell while fighting for Vernon

The small troop rushed at the enemy who fell back. This is when two reinforcement battalions arrived and, hidden by the woods, fired furious volleys at the Germans who brought several field guns into action. But towards 4 pm, they retreated, leaving two hundred dead soldiers on the ground. Eight 'Mobiles' had been and another twenty wounded and Captain Rouveure's body remained in the hands of the German , who paid him the last funeral honours. A picket of cavalry, under the orders of a field officer, brought back his mortal remains in coffin crowned with laurels. "

Monument to the memory of Captain Rouveure, erected at the edge of the forest near the place where he was killed.
One can read:
In memory of Captain Rouveure, of the Mobiles from Ardèche. Former student of Polytechnique school. Born in Annonay in 1847, mortally wounded at the head of his company on November 27, 1870.

Anatole France concluded saying : "When the news came that Rouen had capitulated, the Mobiles from Ardèche were ordered to leave the city of Vernon which they had so generously defended. Such are the memories that the Bizy monument recall."

In order to commemorate the defence of the town and the Ardèche people's sacrifice, the city of Vernon decided erect a monument - the one that can be seen today - on November 1873. Two years earlier, the City council had decided to call Avenue de l'Ardèche the street lined with lime-trees that goes up to the forest and to Blaru, where the fighting took place. In 1872, sub-lieutenant Louis de Pazanan, one of the Ardèche Mobiles, wrote when he came again in Vernon :" I can tell you that Ardèche has here [Vernon] a tremendous reputation. {…] the City council has dubbed an avenue "Avenue de l'Ardèche". We are all very proud and happy to come from Ardèche."



On the left, the monument in 1915 with a reserve section manoeuvring in Vernon

Jal, architect of the town and J.Decorchemont, sculptor.


[1] Ce département s'appelle la Loire-Atlantique.
[2] Ces informations sur les Mobiles sont tirées de la conférence de Monsieur Baboux, donnée le 16 octobre 2004, salle de la Rotonde à Louviers : La guerre de 1870-1871 dans le département de l'Eure et dans la région de Louviers
[3] Anatole France est mal renseigné, il s'agit du hameau de Courcaille.
[4] Cette ligne de chemin de fer de Vernon à Pacy sur Eure est fermée depuis 1942, date à laquelle les Allemands démontèrent les voies dont ils avaient un besoin urgent en Russie.

[1] This 'département' is now called Loire-Atlantique.
[2]The pieces of information about the Mobile Guard come from Mr Baboux's lecture given on October 16, 2004 in Louviers and entitled : The 1870-71 war in the Eure département and around Louviers.
[3] Anatole France has a wrong information: the hamlet is called Courcaille.
[4] The Vernon - Pacy sur Eure railway line was closed since 1942, when the Germans took away the rails which they urgently needed in Russia.


Bibliography
* Lecture by Mr Baboux :http://perso.wanadoo.fr/sedlouviers/confetextes/confjbaboux.htm
* Pierre Nozière by Anatole France : http://www.gutenberg.org/files/10160/10160.txt
* A propos de Vernon, les Mobiles de l'Ardèche", an article signed Gérard Prat, in Le Dauphiné Libéré (a regional newspaper) (mai 2005)

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