Monday, 9 February 2015

"La Correspondence:" Espionage and Insurgency in the French Revolutionary Wars

I have written elsewhere of the character of Philippe d'Auvergne, a British spymaster of the French Revolutionary Wars, and a character in my novel, Omphalos.

Philippe d'Auvergne, Prince de Bouillon by adoption. (image is in the Public Domain).

Mont Orgueil Castle, Jersey, by Henry King Taylor (image is in the Public Domain).

The network of spies and counter-revolutionary agents that d'Auvergne operated from his headquarters at Mont Orgueil Castle, in Jersey, came into being almost by accident. A Jerseyman with a distinguished career in the Royal Navy behind him, d'Auvergne had been approached by the civil authorities of Jersey at the beginning of 1794, to put together a flotilla to protect the island against the threat posed by Revolutionary France (the fears of the islanders were well-founded - an army of 20,000 infantry, 200-300 cavalry and 200 artillery was assembling at St-Malo for the specific purpose of invading the Channel Islands).

By June of that year, d'Auvergne had assembled a flotilla of three gunboats, the Bravo, the Seaflower and the Plumper, and he had also obtained permission to hire and arm three privately owned vessels, the Daphne, the Aristocrat and the Royalist.

An armed cutter of the type used by the Royal Navy at the time of the French Revolutionary Wars (National Maritime Museum - image is in the Public Domain). They were often privately owned, their captains sailing as privateers under Letters of Marque.

In a letter written some years later, d'Auvergne described the roles of his flotilla:

  • To command a division of armed vessels to cover these islands
  • To open communication with the continent, so as to obtain early information of the hostile movements of the enemy
  • To maintain communication with the insurgents in the western provinces.
  • To distribute aid to lay French emigrants in these islands.
He was not, of course, doing all of this at the behest of the civil authorities on Jersey. His controller in London was Sir Evan Nepean, Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department with responsibility for naval and military intelligence. "La Correspondence," as the network became known, thus operated outside of the usual chain of command, and d'Auvergne could run its operations as unconventionally as he saw fit, much to the alarm of the Admiralty, and the military authorities represented, on the islands, by the Lieutenant-Governor.

The islands were, at the time, home to many Royalist refugees from France and, as well as distributing aid to this community, using funds channelled through Nepean, he recruited many of his agents from amongst them. These agents made clandestine landings in France, delivering weapons and counterfeit money, and collecting messages from agents operating within France.

As Royalist insurgencies raged throughout much of western France, their leaders, men such as Georges Cadoudal in Brittany, and Louis de Frotte in Normandy, were supplied from Jersey, and made visits to d'Auvergne at Mont Orgueil and, less frequently, to Nepean in London.

A Chouan guarding a church in Brittany, by Charles Loyeux. Collection du Musee d'Art et d'Histoire de Cholet (image is in the Public Domain).

Since the operations of "La Correspondence" were, by their nature, secret, with d'Auvergne and Nepean burning most of their correspondence once it had been read, the historian cannot easily reconstruct these operations. We know the code-names of various agents (l'hermite, le vigoreux, Picard, Voltige), and the location of some of the offshore reefs where supplies were landed, but only occasionally can we see beyond this.

A Breton chasse-maree, the Corentin. Vessels such as this probably conducted clandestine operations between the Channel Islands and France. Photo: Rene Jouan (image is in the Public Domain).

We do know, for example, of a Frenchman named Jacques Destouches (codenamed Auguste), a Chouan (Royalist insurgent) based in Coutances, who was arrested and condemned to death, but was released by some of d'Auvergne's agents and brought to Jersey. Unfortunately, however, he had been tortured beyond the limits of endurance, and spent the rest of his life in asylums, first in London and then, having been pardoned, in Caen.

The Couer Chouan, a symbol of the French Royalist insurgency. Photo: Rama (image is in the Public Domain).

We also know of a Jerseywoman named Marie Le Sueur (also a character in Omphalos) who, despite a six-month spell in a French prison in 1793, continued her work, receiving, in 1799, a payment of 566 livres (an average skilled labourer at the time would have earned around 500 livres per year, but we don't know what period of time is covered by this payment to Marie).

The Royalist cause had taken a heavy blow, however, in 1795, when a British-backed invasion attempt at Quiberon Bay fell apart, largely because its French aristocratic leaders could not agree among themselves either on matters of strategy (some argued for an invasion further south, in the Vendee) or on matters of policy (some favouring constitutional monarchy, others a return to the Ancien Regime). Cadoudal and de Frotte fought on, but many of their comrades in arms, feeling let down by those they had looked up to as their social betters, simply put down their weapons and returned to their farms.

When Napoleon Bonaparte came to power in 1799, he brought to an end the persecution of Catholics that had fuelled the Royalist insurgencies. Many of those who had taken refuge on the Channel Islands returned to France. With the Peace of Amiens in 1802, the rationale for "La Correspondence" largely disappeared, although it seems that d'Auvergne continued to liaise with agents in France until 1815. His highly unconventional and largely amateur network of spies and secret agents, however, had kept the Channel Islands safe as "peculiars" of the British crown, and had undoubtedly saved many French lives during the Revolutionary Terror.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.

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