La Guerre des Demoiselles – The War of the Maidens

This is one war that you are unlikely to find in the history books. It took place in the Ariege Department of France in the 19th century but was at its height in 1829-32.

Map of the Ariege

In 1827 the government brought out a new forestry code to be applied by 1829. This code prohibited what local people regarded as their long-established traditional rights in respect of how they accessed and used the forests around them. They used wood for building, collected firewood, hunted, fished and gathered food and used parts of the forest for pasturage for their small herds and flocks.

The implementation of this code was a disaster for them and anyone caught breaking the new laws was subject to a heavy fine and/or imprisonment.

To make matters worse growing industrialisation also created a need for charcoal and deforestation started to take place on a grand scale. The charcoal burners, the forge masters and the forest wardens (known as ‘the salamanders’ because of their yellow and black uniforms) became the most hated classes of men among the mountain people.

Les Demoiselles (the Maidens) made their first appearance in Saint-Lary in May 1829. Twenty forest guards found six trespassing shepherds and their flocks and tried to seize them. They were quickly surrounded by around a hundred Demoiselles who hurled insults, threats and stones until the forest guards were forced to beat a hasty retreat. Other bands of Demoiselles formed and from this point a type of guerrilla war broke out, confined at first to the Couserans and western parts of the Ariege but eventually spreading throughout the Department.

The name Demoiselles derived from the disguises the groups of men adopted – blackened or masked faces, a sheepskin or veil over their heads, long white shirts worn over their trousers like a dress. They commanded huge local support and communications between groups were sent either by horn toots or by smoke signals.

The king and his government marched in thirteen companies of infantry and eight brigades of gendarmes to quell the uprising but to little effect. The Demoiselles knew the terrain and the soldiers did not. Of those Demoiselles who were arrested most were quickly released as there were no witnesses to speak against them. The ineffectiveness of these measures prompted the government to increase fines substantially and make them payable on the spot and for good measure there was also a huge increase in taxes.

Nothing daunted the Demoiselles continued their resistance and from 1830 they marched and protested – these protests turning increasingly more violent. They targeted in particular the forge masters who took wood in great quantities to feed their forges.

Finally a Commission was established to find a solution. In 1831 a ministerial decree restored the grazing rights to the people and a second decree followed cancelling the code of foresters which started the war in the first place. As an additional act of benevolence, the government gave a general amnesty to all imprisoned and called a halt to any further judicial proceedings.

Over the next thirty years the rebellion appeared to die away but every now and again the Demoiselles would rise again to harass charcoal burners and forge masters. However the arrival of the railway and the discovery of iron ore in the area reduced the need for charcoal, put the brakes on deforestation and the Demoiselles disappeared quietly back into the forests

The Stories Behind the Stories

The Siren and Other Strange Tales – my first foray into writing fiction is a collection of short stories with a supernatural element. The stories were inspired as I suppose all stories are, by a mixture of experiences, events, reading, people I have met and places I have lived or visited, all helped along with a dollop of imagination and occasional dark humour. I thought you might like to know a little about the stories behind the stories. The photos are just teasers related to the content of the stories.

That Cat is a story sparked off by a newspaper clipping about a stray cat that visited a care home to sit with the dying.

The character of Mandy is a figment of my imagination. Thankfully, the staff of the care home where my mother spent the last years of her life provided a loving, respectful environment. However, from time to time scandals do emerge. Further elements came from a story my mother told me. When I was a baby she put me in my pram in the garden. As she was hanging out the washing our next door neighbour’s big black cat crept up onto the pram and snuggled down, almost on my face. She was scared of cats and had to get the neighbour to come an remove it!

Toussaint – set in France where I live.

The bones of the story come from two sources – an Australian report of a car accident where the driver of a passing car is said to have picked up, telepathically, the cries for help from the driver of a car that had skidded off the road. The second element was my meeting at a gallery exhibition with the wife of the featured artist. After several glasses of Chablis, she had a lot to tell me about life with an artist.

Sukie – This is a story based on some of my experiences when, at fifteen, I went on an exchange holiday to France. On my own for the first time, without the security of family around me, I found it a daunting experience but, with hindsight, a formative one. However, my early life bore no resemblance to that of Sukie’s except that I did love my Granny Grapes and the eyebrow raising trick did irritate my mother.

Ste. Maxime is near St. Tropez on the Cote D’Azur and, when I was there, it teemed with the overspill of the young and beautiful who couldn’t quite swallow the cost of being seen in that celebrated town. There was a Sean Connery look-alike but alas he had no eyes for a gauche teenager teeming with a heady mix of hormones and unrequited lust.

The Boy with a Harmonica is loosely based on an incident that happened in a village near me during WWII.

This part of France was known as the Free zone and governed by the Vichy government on behalf of the occupying Germans. The Maquis were very active in this Zone and in my area there are numerous tales of derring-do and heroism.

The character of the Boy has elements of a child I knew, labelled “autistic” by the medical profession. He had a remarkable ear for music and could pick out and create the most beautiful melodies on the piano. Clearly a piano was of no use to me in this story but an old guy playing the harmonica outside a cafe in Toulouse gave me the instrument that up until then had eluded me.

The Last Word


My parents together with my Aunt and Uncle held regular Sunday Canasta nights. Their play, just as in the story, would be punctuated with cries of “Why did you play that card?” or “Freda, you’ve frozen the pack again.” I used to like to watch and listen to the interplay between these four.

When my mother moved into a care home I visited her regularly and nearly always found a group of residents playing whist. One of them, Alice was a passionate but rather ineffectual player. As I passed by the lounge where they sat I would often hear her girlish giggle as she cried “I’ll beat you all yet, if it’s the last thing I do.” She was a lovely lady and I wrote this story for her.

The Siren was inspired by the landscape of the Holderness Coast in East Yorkshire – a 32 mile stretch from Flamborough Head to Spurn Point, it is a fragile, sometimes desolate landscape subject to regular cliff falls through erosion. With the cliff falls come stretches of gloopy mud and fossils.


A snippet in the local newspaper about a young girl becoming stuck in one of these mud patches as the tide came in and the efforts to rescue her sparked off the idea of the story and my imagination supplied the rest.

So there you have it – the weird convolutions of a writer’s mind.

My Baby’s Left Home

The Launch of “The Siren and Other Strange Tales” today, 8 May.

Exciting times but rather anxious too. Will anyone buy it? Will anyone like it? Is my baby going to sink or swim?

Time will tell.

PS If you are kind enough to purchase the book it would be great if you could leave a short review on Amazon. It assists other potential purchasers and helps me with my sales ranking.

Show -don’t Tell

I spent last week back in England as a witness in a dispute over a right of way to the property I used to live in some thirty years ago. Given a choice between having a tooth pulled out and appearing as a witness I think, in future, I would opt for the visit to the dentist.

I had recently read “The Emotion Thesaurus” by Angela Ackerman and Becca Pulgisi in an attempt to cure myself of the habit of infecting my writing with bland adjectives – of telling “he was angry”, rather than showing. So this experience provided me with an opportunity to observe and watch for cues – what poker players call “tells”, as to how each witness was feeling, all set within the context of the courtroom.

The following are some of the notes I made on these lines during the proceedings. But first a brief description of the courtroom to give you some context.

Square room, bland cream and grey décor; wooden chairs set out with an aisle between them – protagonists to the left, antagonists to the right. As we trooped into the courtroom, the court usher bent forward and quietly asked each of us “Appellant or Objector? Take your seat on the right/left.” I couldn’t help but think of the scene from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” – “Crucifixion, one cross each, on the right.”

One thing that could not be ignored in the room was the dais with the long bench behind which the judge sat in solitary splendour. Raised up above where we minions were seated it said, unequivocally to us – control, power, authority, I’m in charge.

Okay so on to the witnesses. I’ve given just three examples from my notes. They all relate to witnesses for the protagonists whom the counsel for the antagonists was cross-examining.

Witness One

Male, early fifties, the only male witness wearing a suit and tie. Took the oath in a steady, clear voice. Chose to stand rather than sit to give evidence; very upright, shoulders back. Listening to counsel’s questions he cocked his head slightly to one side, then straightened up again. Long, long pauses between question and his response.

My thoughts: calm, unruffled by situation. Did the “head cock” mean he was listening carefully? Perhaps he is slightly deaf? Did long pauses before responding mean he was choosing his words carefully; an unwillingness to answer; concocting a porky?

Witness Two

Female; early sixties; very chic. Strode to the witness stand; shoes squeaked on lino floor. Hands trembled a little as she held the paper on which the oath was printed; her voice quavered over a few words. Gave evidence standing up. Voice steadied as she gave her testimony. When challenged hard by counsel a faint pink flush spread up her neck, voice trembled again. Played with a necklace she was wearing as she spoke.

My thoughts: nervous to start with but steadied herself. However, perhaps she was shivering and a bit cold? The necklace twisting – sign of nerves or fidgety and a tad impatient? The flush and wobbly voice – was she flustered; getting angry; embarrassed?

Witness Three

Female; late forties; smart/casual. Took a couple of visible deep breaths before reading oath. Gave evidence seated. Only witness to check, when asked, that the written statement previously provided was hers and that all the pages were present when given to her. When dealing with challenges by counsel her voice dropped a tone and a Yorkshire brogue became more apparent. Sounded abrupt, a little brusque but very definite about her evidence. Made good eye contact with judge rather than counsel when giving answers. Gestured with hands quite a bit.

My Thoughts: No-nonsense person. Meticulous? Confident? Hostile towards counsel? Used the time to look through her written statement as a means of steadying herself?

So, as a writer what did I learn from all this?

It reinforced something I’ve always known – that one swallow doesn’t make a summer. That is, to show emotions through body language we need to have a cluster of cues rather than just one and context is everything.
It is possible to be sneaky and use a character’s body language to mask or mislead. I learned afterwards for example that Witness Two was in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease which caused her hands/voice to tremble.
The observation and interpretation of body language as an indicator of emotions is highly subjective.Would readers have the same interpretation?
I would hate to be called for jury service!

So tell me, what would you have made of the three examples above?

The Future is Out There Somewhere

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I’m feeling a bit like a dried-up sandwich – all curled up at the edges – after a tumultuous few days. There is so much out there, good, bad and downright ugly, that I have no intention of adding to it all except to post this poem by W B Yeats – The Second Coming which an infinitely more accomplished author than I, Kate Mosse, posted on Twitter today. For me, it sums up our ever-shifting situation.

THE SECOND COMING

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

There are and will continue to be, winners and losers from events this week (including English football) – no-one ever promised that life would be fair but the potential lies within all of us to make it as humane, decent and caring as we are able. Winners take note; Losers take heart.