The detainees of Verdun

He says: “Madame, permittez me, to pay my profound esteem to your engaging person! & to seal on your divine Lips my everlasting attachment!!!” A cynical and sensual grin indicates the character of his advances. She smiles with coy complacency, saying, “Monsieur, you are truly a well-bred Gentleman! – & tho’ you make me blush, yet, you Kiss so delicately, that I cannot refuse you; tho’ I was sure you would Deceive me again!!!” Above their heads are oval bust portraits of Napoleon (left) and George III (right), the two men extending their arms as if to shake hands; the King scowls, Napoleon regards him with brooding suspicion. The frames are bordered by olive branches and palm-branches. 1 January 1803

Even before the Peace of Amiens was officially signed in March 1802, people from England came flooding back into France. The country had been closed to them for ten years. Many had property in France they wanted to check on, others came as tourists or on business or to visit family.

Most came and went during the eighteen months of the peace. Some were trapped when, on 23 May 1803, Napoleon signed an edict to detain every male Briton between the ages of 16 and 60. The orders were carried out quickly and efficiently. At first, women and children were allowed to go, but soon every Briton, of whatever age, male and female (even British spouses of French citizens), found themselves prisoners of France for the next 11 years.

At first, they could remain where they were, but soon Napoleon ordered them to various cities, notably Verdun.

It was a sizeable town a long way from the sea, and the influx of (usually) wealthy English was welcomed. John Goldsworth Alger, in his 1904 account of the detentions, says a French newspaper compared the detainees to sheep enclosed in a fold to manure the soil.

The English were able to hire lodgings (at extortionate prices) and live much as normal, though if they could not afford living costs, or if they misbehaved in any way, they were liable to be imprisoned.

Verdun was a walled town, and within its walls the detainees lived much as they would have lived in London, though paying double the normal price for food and everything else.

Some behaved badly. One was sent to prison for seducing a townsman’s wife. Another struck a gendarme who reprimanded him for behaving indecently with his French mistress at the theatre. Still more gambled, insulted the French, and fought with the townspeople and one another.

Others occupied themselves with hobbies or work, or social activities, or raising subscriptions with which the wealthier detainees sought to help the poor.

General Virion was in charge of the detainees and the prisoners of war who soon joined them. The detainees made many complaints about his extortionate practices. One man, a regular social contact of the General, reported he had leave to go out into the country on a day that all leave was recalled. He was heading back into the town when two gendarmes stopped him and told him the order didn’t apply to him. Later, when he did return, he was arrested and faced with a choice: pay a huge fine or be imprisoned.

The general was summoned to Paris in 1810 to explain himself to a commission appointed by Napoleon, but shot himself before the investigation could begin. His successor was likewise asked to explain himself, but blamed all extortion on a subordinate. This man also shot himself, leaving a note that said he was innocent, but — having been blamed by the boss — he could not face dishonour.

I’m finding some wonderful stories and hints of stories about people caught up in the detentions; not just in Verdun but in other towns. As I continue to research for Concealed in Shadow, I’ll share some here.




3 thoughts on “The detainees of Verdun

  1. Of course, when England declared war on France on 18 May 1803, It seems quite understandable–and logical–that First Consul Bonaparte would issue the appropriate edicts with regard to Englishmen still in France. After the declaration of war they had become the enemy.

    Looking forward to your book, however, Francophile that I am!

      • My sources had a story about two Englishmen with a valet from the United States who persuaded him to be the gentleman and they travelled out of France as his servants.

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