Republican France’s War against Europe, 1792–1797 Part I

General Moreau at the Battle of Hohenlinden, a decisive French victory in Bavaria which precipitated the end of the Revolutionary Wars.

Louis XVI was not the first king to be killed by his subjects in the 1790s. In March 1792 Gustavus III of Sweden, fiercest of France’s crowned critics, was assassinated at a masked ball in Stockholm. His killers were nobles, outraged at a programme of democratic despotism that made the popular gestures constantly being pressed upon Louis XVI by his secret advisers seem tame. But Gustavus with his last words blamed Jacobinism, and the plotters against him sought to divert responsibility by doing the same. So it was axiomatic even before the revolutionary war began that the French hated kings, and their treatment of Louis XVI seemed to prove it. Monarchs not already at war withdrew their ambassadors from France after 10 August. Even the American ambassador agonized whether he should stay. And, in the euphoria of victory after Valmy, the French proclaimed new war aims calculated to alienate and alarm not only monarchs, but the entire social hierarchies upon which their power rested.

Having helped to check the Prussians at Valmy, Dumouriez allowed them to retreat unimpeded by anything but the weather, while he turned north to attack the Austrian Netherlands. Here was the original front, and the original enemy; and besides, decisive victory there could make the general who achieved it the arbiter of France’s future in the political uncertainties of the autumn. On 3 November he crossed the frontier and three days later he routed an Austrian force at Jemappes. In just over a week he was in Brussels and by the end of the month he had overrun the entire Austrian Netherlands, and the bishopric of Liège into the bargain. Meanwhile in the south, Savoy, whose ruler the king of Sardinia had joined the allies the day after Valmy, was invaded by French troops under Montesquiou, and Nice was occupied. On the Rhine, Custine pushed into the ecclesiastical principalities and took Mainz on 21 October, Frankfurt on the twenty-third.

How had the French, seemingly facing defeat in August, managed to turn the tables so dramatically? One obvious advantage was sheer weight of numbers: at both Valmy and Jemappes the enemy was heavily out-numbered. Throughout the decade, in fact, a population rising towards 30 millions would provide far more reserves of able-bodied manpower than any single adversary could muster. The first year of the war, moreover, saw much enthusiastic volunteering, providing 180,000 patriotic recruits determined to defend the new order established since 1789. And although it was true that the old royal army had been severely decimated by desertion, mutiny, and wholesale emigration of officers, those who had remained with the colours were arguably the most committed and professional soldiers France had, and capable NCOs soon filled most of the gaps in the officer corps. And the artillery, the deciding factor in both the key battles, had been the least affected of all the army’s units by upheavals since the Revolution had begun, and even at the height of patriotic volunteering had only accepted recruits with previous military experience. All this meant that French forces were not as incompetent or ill prepared as the allies imagined.

Nor were inadequate numbers, over-confidence, poor intelligence, and wishful thinking the only disadvantages of the German powers. They were also increasingly distracted by ominous Russian activity in their rear. In April 1792 Polish nobles discontented with King Stanislas’s reforming, centralizing constitution of 3 May 1791 formed themselves, with collusion from St Petersburg, into a confederation at Targowica. They then appealed for help to Russia, recognized since the partition of 1772 as the guarantor of the traditional Polish constitution. A month later, Russian troops invaded the country, and by the end of August, despite a spirited campaign led by the American war veteran Tadeusz Kosciuszko, the country was overrun and the king surrendered. The French viewed the Poles’ resistance as a struggle parallel to their own, and on 26 August the Legislative Assembly acclaimed Kosciuszko a French citizen. But the turnabout in their own fortunes might not have been so spectacular had he succeeded. For the Russian triumph brought the virtual withdrawal of Prussian troops from the western front as Frederick William concentrated them in the east in order to secure the prize he had dreamed most of since his reign began: a second partition of Poland that would give him the port of Gdansk, and whatever else Catherine II might be prepared to concede.

So throughout the autumn the French armies surged eastwards into enemy territory, meeting little serious resistance. The men who had launched the war with claims that the Revolution’s principles would make them invincible still dominated French public life in the Convention, and now they saw their predictions justified they were prepared to expand their ambitions. On 19 November, in a famous decree, the Convention declared, ‘in the name of the French Nation, that it will accord fraternity and help to all peoples who wish to recover their liberty’. A month later (15 December) generals were authorized in all occupied territories to introduce the full social programme of the French Republic. All existing taxes, tithes, feudal dues, and servitudes were to be abolished. So was nobility, and all types of privilege. The French motto would be, declared some deputies, War on the castles, peace to the cottages! In the name of peace, help, fraternity, liberty, and equality, they would assist all peoples to establish ‘free and popular’ governments, with whom they would then co-operate. But all those connected with, or sympathetic to, the old order would be excluded from power, and the main task of the new authorities would be to see to the provision of ‘equipment and supplies necessary to the armies of the Republic, and to cover the expenditure they have incurred or will incur during their stay on their territory’. The meaning was clear: occupied territories, however welcoming and fraternal, would be expected to bear the cost of the French presence, and puppet administrations would be responsible for arranging the unpleasant details. On 15 December it was also decreed that the assignats should be introduced into occupied territories. Nor were these the only ominous signals coming from Paris as 1792 drew to a close. Some territories were not even to be given the option of setting up free and popular governments under French protection. In their case, the nation that had renounced conquest only two years beforehand was increasingly turning its thoughts towards annexations.

Admittedly the idea did not originate in France. The moment French troops crossed the Savoyard frontier in September, calls were heard from local groups for incorporation into France. They cited the precedent of Avignon. Throughout the autumn isolated German voices advocated the annexation of the Rhineland into the Republic, too. The Rhine was France’s natural frontier anyway, argued the leader of those who collaborated with the invaders in Mainz, the librarian and publicist Georg Forster. The Convention’s initial reaction to such arguments was cautious. Avignon, an enclave deep in French territory, whose distant ruler had no armed forces, was a different proposition from the strategically important lands across the frontier now occupied by the Republic’s troops. Annexation might prolong and widen the conflict, and complicate later peacemaking, especially if it was applied to the most spectacular of all the new conquests, Belgium. Some 2,500 exiles driven out by the Austrian reconquest of 1790 followed Dumouriez’s advance on Brussels. They expected the French to help them re-establish the independent state snuffed out by Leopold II. Dumouriez, who dreamed of setting up a principality of his own, favoured their plans to elect a national Convention. Support for such independent action, however, was soon on the wane in Paris. ‘I can tell you’, Brissot wrote to him on 27 November, ‘that there is one opinion which is spreading here: namely that the French Republic must have the Rhine as its frontier.’ And Danton, who spent December and part of January 1793 on mission to the armies in Belgium, declared on 31 January that: ‘The limits of France are marked out by nature. We shall reach them at their four points; at the Ocean, at the Rhine, at the Alps, at the Pyrenees.’ Belgium should therefore be incorporated, he argued. But the Rhine was not even the Belgian frontier. Whole stretches of the Dutch Republic lay to the south of it. And any permanent French presence in the Netherlands was bound to be opposed by the British.

Pitt’s government undoubtedly disliked the French Revolution and what it stood for. But they had no intention of going to war against it. In February 1792 Pitt declared in Parliament that never had fifteen years of peace seemed more likely. Certainly he wished the allies well once war began on the Continent, but he refused to become actively involved, even after 10 August. No vital British interests seemed at stake, and France’s invaders seemed destined for a quick victory. It was the invasion of Belgium that changed matters, for British policy throughout the century had hinged on keeping the low countries out of French hands. And when, on 16 November, the French declared the Scheldt open, they flouted what had been the official policy of the Dutch Republic since its foundation, and breached the peace of Westphalia into the bargain. The threat was conscious and deliberate; French generals and planners in Paris were now talking openly of reversing the Dutch settlement of 1788, guaranteed by the British and the Prussians, and they were urged on by the ‘Batavian Legion’ put together over the summer from patriots exiled in France since then. At the end of November the terrified Stadtholder William V appealed formally to London for help, and the British began to mobilize their fleet.

The trial and execution of Louis XVI precipitated the final break. The bloody scenes in Paris on and after 10 August had already done much to alienate even onlookers whose goodwill had survived the shock of royal humiliation after Varennes. Although in England the successes of the French armies encouraged the corresponding societies, who deluged the Convention with congratulatory addresses, exhortations, and even collections of boots (for soldiers presumed still to be clad in wooden shoes), it also sent the propertied classes scurrying into the government-sponsored Association for the Preservation of Liberty and Property against Republicans and Levellers. Founded by John Reeves late in November, within months it had 2,000 branches and far exceeded the corresponding societies in membership. So when Pitt asked Parliament for funds to organize war against a nation preparing to murder its king, and now publicly committed to helping sympathizers abroad whenever they called for it, he knew he had massive public support and that the legislature would reflect it. His divided Whig opponents were routed. Secret negotiations to avert a final break continued into January, but as soon as Louis XVI was dead the British broke them off. It was the French who actually declared war, by a unanimous vote of the Convention, on 1 February 1793. In the same session, they also declared war on the Dutch Republic.

Carried away by their own success and rhetoric, they now bade defiance to the whole of Europe. ‘They threaten you with kings!’ roared Danton to the Convention. ‘You have thrown down your gauntlet to them, and this gauntlet is a king’s head, the signal of their coming death.’ ‘We cannot be calm’, claimed the ever-bombastic Brissot,4 ‘until Europe, all Europe, is in flames.’ In token of this defiance, annexations were now vigorously pursued. Savoy was incorporated into the Republic as early as 27 November 1792, following a petition from the self-styled ‘Sovereign National Assembly of the Allobroges’. Nice followed on 31 January 1793. In February elections were held on the left bank of the Rhine, and although boycotted by most of the population they produced a Convention of beleaguered collaborators with the invader which duly petitioned, under the leadership of Forster, for incorporation into France. Meanwhile the Belgians had also been offered the chance to pronounce on the question in a plebiscite, and throughout February and early March clear majorities for incorporation were recorded among the tiny minorities of the population who could be persuaded to cast their votes in the various occupied territories. One by one throughout March they were annexed. Dumouriez by now had marched into the southern provinces of the Dutch Republic. The French could be forgiven for thinking they were unstoppable.

But they were not. They had, in fact, assumed a hugely expanded range of commitments, and gratuitously taken on new enemies, at the very moment when the old ones were recovering the strength to counter-attack. Two days after Louis XVI’s head fell, for example, the Polish question was settled. Rather than fight the Prussians, Catherine of Russia proposed a new partition in which she took the lion’s share of territory and population, but Prussia acquired Gdansk and a vast wedge of territory linking up Silesia and the Baltic provinces. Austria was excluded, much to the fury of the Emperor, who dismissed his leading ministers. The Austro-Prussian alliance against France still held together, however, and could now turn its attention again westwards. The Prussians, indeed, recaptured Frankfurt as early as 2 December 1792, and at the beginning of March 1793 Austrian troops marched once more into the southern Netherlands. On the eighteenth they met Dumouriez at Neerwinden and defeated him decisively. It was the beginning of a disastrous year for the new Republic.

Even before they formally entered the war, the British had begun to engineer a grand anti-French coalition. In the last days of 1792 they approached Spain for an alliance, knowing that before Valmy the junior branch of the House of Bourbon had already been on the verge of joining the expected Austro-Prussian military promenade to restore Louis XVI to his throne and prerogatives. News of the king’s execution produced widespread expressions of revulsion in Spain, and the French envoy was expelled. On 7 March France retaliated by declaring war, and soon afterwards Spain agreed to co-operate in a British blockade of the French Mediterranean coast. On 25 March the British also persuaded Catherine of Russia to commit herself to the anti-French struggle. A month later, a subsidy was offered to the king of Sardinia, while in July Portugal and Naples were also drawn into the conflict by British diplomacy. Minor German states, meanwhile, were more prepared than ever to hire out troops to paymasters in London. No general treaty bound this coalition together. Nevertheless, within months of Louis XVI’s execution, most of the states of Europe were openly committed to fighting France.

Nor, by then, did victory seem far off. Neerwinden, when the defeated French troops fled headlong from the field, suggested that after all Valmy and Jemappes had been lucky flukes. Dumouriez made no attempt to regroup. Instead, he asked the Austrians for an armistice, and promised in return to co-operate with the allies by marching what was left of his army on Paris, where he would release the queen and the dauphin from captivity, and proclaim the latter Louis XVII. But when he ordered the march on Paris, his men refused to move, and on 5 April he followed the example of Lafayette and defected to the Austrians. Meanwhile the French had also been driven out of the Rhineland, leaving 20,000 of their men cut off in Mainz; while in France itself armed insurrection had broken out in the Vendée. In April Danton, the leading voice on foreign policy in the Convention’s newly established Committee of Public Safety, began to use the language of conciliation, deflecting a ferocious motion from Robespierre that anybody advocating negotiation with the enemy should be executed; and persuading the Convention to abandon its open-ended commitment to help anybody calling for French support. He also made a number of clandestine approaches to coalition powers—which only proved to them how close to defeat France was.

Everything that happened over the summer pointed the same way. By June much of the country was violently rejecting the Convention’s apparent subjection to Paris in the ‘Federalist’ revolt. By July, the French forces had been entirely expelled from Belgium (to great popular jubilation) and the Austrian General Coburg had once more crossed on to French soil, taking the fortress of Condé on the twelfth. A few weeks later, Valenciennes went the same way, and an Anglo-Hanoverian army laid siege to Dunkirk. On the German front, the Mainz garrison capitulated on 23 July, after sustaining 7,000 casualties. In the south, the Spaniards invaded Roussillon and routed its defenders at Mas d’Eu on 18 May. Most humiliating of all, on 27 August rebels at Toulon, the great naval harbour of the Mediterranean coast, turned the port, its arsenal, and fleet over to the British.

The reversal of the French fortunes was spectacular. It caused much paranoia and contributed to momentous political upheavals in Paris. Many attributed it to treason and collusion with the enemy, an impression that Dumouriez’s defection did nothing to dispel. And after that even the most patriotic generals were reluctant to take the risk of over-bold action, aware that if they failed they were all too likely to end up on the guillotine. Two (Custine and Houchard) certainly did so. But in some ways the defeats of 1793 stemmed directly from the victories of 1792. The French had become over-confident when the armies of their despotic enemies retreated before them, and in fact by the end of the year thousands of volunteers who had enlisted for a single campaign to meet the emergencies of 1792 were returning home, and being allowed to return, in the belief that the job was done. By February there were only about 230,000 men under arms; so that diminishing forces had to confront the explosive growth in the number and resources of the Republic’s enemies, external and internal, during the first half of 1793. It is scarcely surprising that things went so badly.

Even more surprising, however, is how little relative advantage her enemies took of France’s weakness. Their incursions into French territory never penetrated far beyond the periphery, and there was next to no concerted action by the coalition as a whole, or even groups of its members. Nor did most of them even share common aims. All were notionally committed to the restoration of the French monarchy, but with the king a sickly child in republican hands the project was harder to focus on than when wronged Louis XVI still lived. The British wanted Belgium back in Austrian hands—although they were quite happy to commit troops to seizing France’s troubled Caribbean islands while a state of war gave them the opportunity. The Austrians wanted Belgium back, too, and yet were again toying with an old idea of exchanging it for Bavaria once it was securely theirs again. It had, after all, brought them nothing but trouble since 1786, and as soon as they were re-established they found their Belgian subjects just as awkward to deal with as before, and unwilling to make any extra sacrifices to the war effort. Besides, the new Austrian minister, Thugut, was determined to reserve his strength for intervention in Poland in case of further upheavals there. He did not intend to be excluded from any further share-out. Prussia and Russia too were uncertain that the latest partition would hold, so that Prussian armies on the French front moved sluggishly and were not reinforced, and Russia confined her coalition contribution to harassing such French trade as got to the Baltic past the blockade, which was the first British action in any war with France. When the British declined to pay her a subsidy, Catherine bluntly refused to commit any troops at all to the coalition. Many coalition statesmen clearly expected France to collapse without any special effort on their part. As Pitt wrote: ‘If we distress the enemy on more sides than one, while their internal distraction continues, it seems hardly possible that they can long oppose any effectual resistance.’

But resist they did, and with increasing success. Between 6 and 8 September a muddled, indecisive battle at Hondschoote raised the siege of Dunkirk and forced its British besiegers, under the (Grand Old) Duke of York, to withdraw. More spectacularly, at another three-day battle, between 15 and 17 October Jourdan defeated the main Austrian army on French territory at Wattignies, despite inferior numbers, and pursued it across the frontier. Jourdan, a 31-year-old veteran of the American war whose republicanism was far more sincere than that of Dumouriez or Custine, fought the battle under the eye of Lazare Carnot, the member of the Committee of Public Safety now most concerned with military matters. Carnot’s efforts over the subsequent year would earn him enduring fame as the organizer of victory.

Already on 24 February a levy of 300,000 conscripts had been decreed. It triggered off the Vendée revolt and met with massive resistance throughout the west and parts of Normandy, but by the summer the official number of men under arms had risen to 645,000. And in August the Convention went on to declare a programme of national mobilization on a scale never before seen anywhere: the levée en masse. Originating among the sansculottes of the Paris sections, the idea of putting the entire resources of the nation at the disposal of the war effort was urged in a series of petitions lodged between 12 and 16 August. Practically Carnot’s first act on joining the Committee of Public Safety was to draft the decree promulgated on the twenty-third, under which, until the moment ‘when enemies have been driven from the Republic’s territory, all the French are permanently requisitioned for the service of the armies’. All unmarried men between 18 and 25 were to present themselves for military service; others were to serve in manufacture, food production, and transport; women were to make clothes and staff hospitals, children make bandages, and even old men should ‘have themselves carried to public places to excite courage in the warriors, hatred of kings, and the unity of the Republic’. All horses and publicly owned buildings were to be drafted into service; a massive expansion of munitions manufacture was proclaimed, and the government generally given powers to do whatever it thought necessary to win the war. These measures produced an army of 1,169,000 by September 1794. It was true that only about 750,000 were fully equipped and trained for battle, but that still made the Republic’s armed forces the largest ever seen in the history of Europe.

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