The French Revolutionary Wars are customarily defined as the struggles between France on the one hand and the First and Second Coalitions on the other, between 1792 and 1802. The First Coalition initially pitted Austria and Prussia, with the partial engagement of the Holy Roman Empire, against France in 1792, but by the spring of 1793, it had embraced Britain, the Netherlands, Spain, Piedmont-Sardinia, Naples, and Portugal. The coalition had fallen apart by October 1797 after one ally after another was either overrun by the French, or made a separate peace to secure the best possible terms, leaving only the British to fight on alone. Yet there was no respite for the continent, for in the summer of 1798 the war was reignited, the very geographic scale reflected in the membership of the Second Coalition, embroiling the Ottoman Empire and Russia alongside Britain, Austria, Portugal, and Naples. After its early victories, this alliance also broke apart. So exhausted were both sides that even France and Britain made peace in 1802 at Amiens, a treaty marking the end of the French Revolutionary Wars.
In the opening campaign in 1792, the calculations of the Austrians, that the French armies were a rabble, seemed to be borne out: the poorly trained volunteers broke and ran at the first encounter with the disciplined fire-power of the Austrians. As Prussia joined the war on 21 May, well might King Frederick William II’s aide-de-camp, Johann von Bischoffwerder, have reassured some officers that ‘the comedy will not last long. The army of lawyers will soon be crushed and we shall be back home by the autumn.’ The Austro-Prussian armies began their slow but relentless advance into France in the summer, provoking the first major political crisis in the French Revolution linked to the war. The sans-culottes, the popular militants of Paris, rose up and, supported by National Guard units (the citizens’ militia created in 1789), overthrew Louis XVI on 10 August 1792, a republic was proclaimed on 22 September 1792, and the King was guillotined on 21 January 1793. ‘They threaten you with Kings!’ thundered the great revolutionary orator Georges-Jacques Danton. ‘You have thrown down the gauntlet to them, and this gauntlet is a king’s head.’ Yet the reality was that, for all the incandescent rhetoric on both sides, the more traditional impulses driving the war were revealed after the first French victory at Valmy on 20 September 1792.
The French army made its stand against the Prussians astride the road to Paris, a hundred miles from the capital. Fought on muddy ground, sometimes knee-deep in places, Valmy was primarily a lethal artillery duel, in which some 20,000 cannonballs were fired. The ragged French volunteers just held their nerve, a resistance that persuaded the Prussians, ravaged by dysentery, to retreat. In the despondent gloom later that evening, the great German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe gave some Prussian officers cold comfort by telling them that ‘From this place, and from this day forth, begins a new era in the history of the world, and you can all say that you were present at its birth.’ At first, Goethe’s predictions seemed to come true: a second French victory, over the Austrians at Jemappes on 6 November, left Belgium open to French invasion. Intoxicated by this sudden reversal of fortune, the National Convention, the new republican assembly in Paris, issued the Edict of Fraternity on 19 November. This declared the Convention’s intent to export the French Revolution, promising ‘fraternity and help’ to ‘all peoples who wish to recover their liberty’, meaning the overthrow of the existing order.
Yet, as French armies surged across the Low Countries, poured into the Rhineland, and, in the south, swept into Savoy (a duchy ruled by Piedmont-Sardinia which, with unfortunate timing, declared war on France the day after Valmy), the revolutionaries quickly set their principles aside. The occupied countries were too tempting a source of supplies and money for the French armies to leave simply to their own destinies. On 15 December, the Convention abolished the old regime in these territories, but in return the population were told to pay for the military costs of their liberation. The exploitation of conquests to fuel the French war effort was thus established at the very start, but such a ruthless policy could neither continue forever, nor resolve the problem of the people’s political future. The revolutionaries soon articulated their objective: a defensible frontier, particularly in the north. It was Danton again who found the rhetorical flourish in January 1793: ‘The limits of France are marked out by nature, we will reach them in the four corners of the horizon: the Rhine, the Ocean and the Alps.’ On the suggestion of Dutch radical exiles in Paris, those territories overrun beyond these ‘natural frontiers’ would be converted into ‘sister republics’, exploitable satellite states allied to France.
In an effort to rebuild the armed forces, the Revolutionary government began to establish a new army. A call for recruits went out in the summer of 1791. The resulting 100,000 men were known as the Volunteers of 1791, and would prove to be some of the best recruits the revolutionary armies received; many had prior military service in the army or the National Guard. But even with these volunteers, the army was far short of the numbers required for national defence. Indeed, it was not yet near its pre-Revolutionary levels by the beginning of 1792. That spring, with the threat of war looming on the horizon, a levy for additional troops yielded 200,000 men, the Volunteers of 1792. These men did not have the military experience of their compatriots from the previous year, but they were soon supported by the addition of some 20,000 !ederes, politically reliable men who were to represent the National Guards from the various departments (administrative regions) of France.
Even this considerable influx of men did not meet the military needs of the Republic, which would soon be fighting in no fewer than six separate theatres of operation. This included the need for troops to fight counter-revolutionaries within the borders of France itself. In February 1793 came an additional levy, calling for an additional 300,000 men but yielding only half that number. This call was followed by the famous levee en masse legislation of August 1793, which established universal conscription and mobilized all of the resources of the Republic for the war effort.
All of these factors made it extremely difficult to develop an effective method of fighting for the armies of the new Republic. In particular, there was a dearth of experienced officers at certain levels. Junior ranks such as lieutenant and captain, however, were easily filled with experienced noncommissioned officers; indeed, some 60 per cent of captains had prior service and 55 per cent had been corporals. Some of these men would eventually reach the highest ranks. For example, 14 Marshal Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte (1763-1844) and Andre Massena (1758-1817) had both held the rank of sergeant-major in the royal army. Such men provided a valuable cadre for training recruits in the basics of military drill but were less likely to have expertise at manoeuvring larger bodies on the battlefield. That duty fell to officers of field grade and higher, but there were few in the army of the Republic since many had fled as a result of the Revolution.
Another problem was the influx of such a large number of recruits, initially volunteers and later conscripts. Many of these men had little or no prior experience and yet had to be trained and made battle ready in a short time. It has been suggested, however, that the raw numbers do not tell the whole story, especially for the volunteers who arrived between 1791 and early 1793. Many of the Volunteers of 1791 did, in fact, have some experience, and even the later volunteers had the advantage of being sent to the army in entire battalions. Many of these units therefore had the time to train or even do garrison duty before being asked to take part in major combat operations, sometimes as long as a year. This was clearly considered more than long enough – Napoleon would later say that infantry should be able to manoeuvre well and be able to withstand enemy fire after only three months of training. Training began as soon as the men were mustered into the army and continued while the new recruits were marching to their depots and again when the unit moved to join an army in the field. Such training clearly made the men competent at a certain level or drill, such as the ‘school of the soldier, basically, the manual of arms and the basics of marching’ and the ‘school of the peloton (platoon)’, which dealt with close order drill in ranks and files, and the manoeuvres and firing scheme of an individual platoon.
The platoon was the smallest tactical unit of the battalion, and each platoon usually drew its men from one of the nine administrative companies although this was not always the case. This was similar to the earlier practice of platoon fire, which had been adopted by most European armies by the 1720s. The French had retained the earlier fire by rank system, but had gradually adopted platoon firing as well.
It is less clear how effective such training was at the level of the ‘school of the battalion’, which dealt with manoeuvres of the entire battalion and even the regiment. The fragile nature of French armies during the Revolutionary Wars, particularly in the dark days of late 1792 and early 1793, is demonstrated by how often French armies were panicked and broken – with the exception of the Battle of Valmy, fought on 20 September 1792. This must be due, at least in part, to the lack of cohesion at the higher levels such as battalion, regiment and beyond, which is probably a reflection of insufficient training at those levels. It may also be due to the varied nature of the recruits, some with significant military experience and others with virtually none.
Organization of the New Armies
Given the bewildering variety of units and sources of manpower, it became necessary to impose, at least in theory, a uniform organizational structure for the armies of the Republic. By 1793, there were regiments of regulars from the royal army – the blancs, so called because of their white Bourbon uniforms – as well as battalions of volunteers, or federes, and conscripts, or bleus, who were clothed, at least in theory, in the blue coats of the National Guard.
According to an ordinance of August 1793, battalion organization was to remain similar to that of the royal army prior to the Revolution, namely eight companies of line infantry, fusiliers and one company of grenadiers numbering 777 men.
Under the Amalgame of 21 February 1793, new units called demi-brigades were created to replace the older regiments. Each demi-brigade was to be formed from one battalion of blancs and two of bleus. There would be other Amalgames and organizational realignments over the next few years, and the number of demi-brigades would fluctuate between 94 and 205, eventually settling in at 100. Unlike earlier formations that were identified either by territorial names (Flanders, for example) or by personal names (the King’s), all units were now given a number instead. The Amalgame also created 14 independent light infantry battalions; once again, the number varied, rising at one point to 35 and eventually being established at 30. The light infantry battalions were organized like their counterparts in the line, but their regular companies were known as chasseurs and their elite company as carabiniers.
Given the size of the French Army, it was also important for the armies of the Republic to have a higher level of organization. The French had been experimenting with larger combat organizations dating back to the 1740s and these reemerged during the Seven Years War. By the 1780s, the French Army created 17 permanent territorial divisions, each of which had a number of regiments permanently assigned to it. In time of war, these could serve as the basis for large combat organizations. In 1791, this system was replaced with 23 military divisions that oversaw recruiting as well.
Drawing upon this tradition, the Revolutionary armies routinely formed divisions, often made up of all arms. As early as 1792, French campaign regulations required that an army move in separate columns. When comprised of infantry, cavalry and artillery, this provided significant operational flexibility. A number of factors contributed to the development of this system. Firstly, the large number of troops required to fight on so many fronts meant that such an organizational structure provided a great degree of flexibility.
Moreover, concentrating the large number of troops gave the French a real advantage over their enemies, who were often spread out in an effort to defend key towns and fortresses. Such large numbers, however, also caused severe logistical problems for the French, especially since their logistic system could not support such troop concentrations for any length of time. The divisional system allowed the logistical burden to be spread out over a larger area, with troops concentrated only when battle was imminent.