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The Maquis history of Cévennes

View of a rocky cliff overlooking densely wooded hills and valleys in the Cevennes area

Recently a little-known mountainous region in southern France became headline news. The Cévennes National Park being the scene of a double murder. A huge manhunt was subsequently launched to find Valentin Marcone, the 29 year old man suspected of having shot his boss and a colleague at a sawmill in the small village of Plantiers. The National Gendarmerie Intervention Group (GIGN) and more than 300 gendarmes were employed in the search, using thermal cameras, dogs, helicopters and even several armoured vehicles. Before giving himself up, Marcone, clad in green fatigues and camouflage jacket, evaded capture for four whole days. This won’t come as a surprise to anybody even slightly acquainted with the area’s history and geography. Marcone, like the Maquisards – armed resistance fighters of Second World War – took advantage of abundant foliage  and the area’s rugged isolation. This tragic episode, however, is a reversal of the morality one usually assigns to the hunter and hunted. History’s baddies, on the whole, more likely to be doing the hunting.

Across the Cévennes is an underground world of lairs and hideaways. An aid in forming resistance to oppressive invaders. No marauding band of assassins – be they soldiers of the Sun King (Louis XIV) or rampaging German Stormtroopers – have ever had it all their own way. It is as if the topography of the region engenders a spirit of rebellion. One that the Maquis, fighting German troops in WW2, inherited from the 18th century Camisards who fought against the King’s Army for their Protestant beliefs. The insurrection captured the imagination of Robert Louis Stevenson and is a major theme of Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes.

Difficult not to have a romanticised picture of the Maquis on some lonely hilltop, cognac heat in the blood, singing rebellion into deed. The Cévennes’ rich tradition for resistance was explicitly harnessed by men like Jacques Poujol, a Maquisard who on 10 May 1944 composed the following ditty:

Les fiers enfants des Cévennes
Réfractaires et maquisards
Montrent qu’ils ont dans les veines
le sang pur des Camisards

The brave children of the Cévennes
Objectors and Maquisards
Show what they have in their veins
The pure blood of the Camisards

Mandagout à mon gout!

I became interested in Cévenol history after my in-laws moved to Mandagout several years ago. The first time we came to stay we took a steep and winding road from Le Vigan (la sous-préfecture de le Gard), leading us through woodlands of sweet chestnut and pine. Houses perched on the hillside in clusters, roofed in ubiquitous rosé terracotta, a tile whose shape and colour has stood the test of time, unchanged since the Middle Ages. On we drove until, like stumbling into a secret valley, the main village of Mandagout’s commune was suddenly unveiled.

Beaulieu lies at a height of 500 metres and has its own school, a Temple, a Catholic Church, a village square. Surrounded by hilly woods the village makes for an idyllic setting. Blessed by its topology (sun soaked slopes), Mandagout à mon gout. Great groves of sweet chestnut enfold mini orchards of apple, pear, cherry and even quince. Christina Rosetti’s masterpiece, Goblin Market comes to mind. ‘Come buy. Come buy,’ cry out the goblins, enticing people with a seemingly endless list of orchard fruits. Not forgetting nature’s free food, the wild strawberries and figs of Mandagout with which you may too ‘fill your mouth.’

Time and Leisure

Man, though, cannot live on fruit alone, especially in winter. Fortunately there is a village shop, which triples as café and post office, thus lessening the inconvenience of rural remoteness. I understand why the in-laws upped sticks and moved here from Montpellier, only fifty miles away in distance but so much further in terms of the general pace of life. There is little conventional prosperity in the village, but I came to associate it with the twin luxuries of time and leisure. In the shadow of the church is the village square, instantly transformable into the village boulodrome. Generous shots of pastis relax the mood of players who, nonetheless, remain competitive, tape measures always at hand to settle any disputed distances between jack and boule. In the shade of a large linden tree gather spectators to chat desultorily. At the edge of the village square spring water flows uninterruptedly into a stone basin, and it is to here that cycling posses of lycra clad sexagenarians who, having roamed the surrounding hills for much of the day, gravitate. So as to quench their thirst for strangers may refresh and rehydrate bodies a volonté. In such a haven of tranquillity it is easy to forget that Mandagout has endured considerably darker times.

Conflict and camisards

In 1702 Mandagout was considered a suspect village whose inhabitants were potentially ‘disloyal’ to Catholicism and regal law. As a deterrent to potential rebels, fifty soldiers were posted here by Le compte de Broglie, Lieutenant General of the King’s army. Their job was also to enforce conversions to the true faith. Small wonder the dragonnades were seen by the Protestants as the work of Satan’s army incarnate. For some people in nearby Aulas there were considerable conflicts of interest. The wool of Causses’ sheep made into the woollen fabric used to clothe the Royal Army. About forty years after the Camisards uprising, silk replaced wool. Sheep usurped by a moth.

The King’s soldiers were sent as a show of force, but couldn’t stop Abric, known as Fidel, coming out of the hills of Mandagout to wreak havoc on Le Vigan’s prominent Catholics. He joined forces with Jean Delenne of Roquedur, a man who never roamed without a rifle slung over the shoulder and at least six pistols on his belt. Both men led a not so merry band of Camisards, burning churches and killing M. Daudé de La Coste, Maire and Royal Judge of Le Vigan. Jacques Daudé had been Basville’s right hand man, responsible for the conversion of Le Vigan Protestants. On June 4 1704 he was assassinated near Le Vieux Pont. His son, Jean Daudé succeeded him as Le Vigan’s mayor.

Le Maquis

In every Mairie hangs a picture of the French President; a legal requirement and something of a moral obligation for those who revere the notion of an elected republic. Mandagout’s town hall is no exception. But along with the President’s photograph, it has a more unusual item – a Maquis flag, frayed and tatty, of a yellow Cross of Lorraine on a black background. It belonged to a former Maquisard who gave it to the Mairie shortly before his death. Alongside the flag, on the wall of la salle de conseil, are photographs of the men who comprised the Maquis Corsaire. There is also a photo of their refuge, an isolated bergerie smothered in summer months by groves of sweet chestnut. The road to Col de Luzette had yet to be built. The mayor’s secretary told me that her father, as a young boy, climbed the hill to La Bergerie de Toureille, with supplies of food. In winter the woodlands of sweet chestnut have a bleak and charred appearance, offering less cover.

A plaque, in front of the Mairie, speaks of this tumultuous period of French history: Le Maquis des Corsaires á été crée a Mandagout le 28 Juillet 1943 par le Pasteur George GILLIER (Lt Gervais).

Gillier seems to have been a multi-faceted force for good. In January 1944 he placed the Jewish family Furst with their two children, aged 5 and 9 months, in the house of Marguerite Creston. This was in La Planque, a hamlet in the commune of Mandagout that overlooks a mountain stream, an agreeable antidote to the suffocating summer heat.

With the complicity of the boss of Le Vigan’s Caisse d’Epargne, George Gillier used a fake Mairie (Nîmes) stamp to fabricate false identity documents. He thus enabled young men to evade what was called the Service du travail obligatoire (STO), the mandatory enlistment and deportation of French workers to Nazi Germany. Prime Minister Pierre Laval had agreed to the STO, supposedly in order to secure the release of French prisoners of war. Many absconded to join the Maquis, a name that derives from the Italian macchia; high ground of Corsica covered in dense evergreen shrubs such as holm oak. For any guerrilla outfit, this equates to year round camouflage. Prendre le Maquis is a Corsican expression, the Island having had no shortage of rebels in the hills.

Patrick Cabanel, a History Professor at Toulouse University and renowned historian of religious minorities, has written extensively on the Cévennes. In Que sais-je? Histoire des Cévennes, he intriguingly implies a free thinking element in the Cévenol psyche, like a liberty gene passed from generation to generation. There were always slightly fewer clergy in the Cévennes parishes than elsewhere in France. From the 15th century onwards, parishioners were leaving, in their wills, more money (77 per cent) to charities than to the parish. Elsewhere in France the percentage was 29. From the 15th century to 1530 the importance of the Virgin Marie fades as does the concept of the Celestial Court.

A cultural predisposition to resistance would merit more serious consideration. Ironically, Claude Lévi-Strauss, in many respects the father of modern anthropology, was no stranger to the area. His parents had a holiday home in Valleraugue, but, as Jews, were forced to flee in 1943. The sad episode recounted by Janet Teissier du Cros in her excellent memoir Divided Loyalties, The Experiences of a Scotswoman in Occupied France.

Bill Rees is a writer/book dealer with a sky-covered book shop in the centre of Montpellier (L’esplanade Charles-de-Gaulle). Open on Saturdays, weather permitting.

His book A Late Return: Table Tennis à la carte published by Parthian (reviewed here) is available from Amazon and online bookstores, book shops (on order) and his own book shop…

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