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

Capture of the Dutch fleet by the French hussars

Unprecedented size demanded unprecedented organization, support, and tactics. Throughout 1792 the French armies had consisted of the diminishing remnants of the old line army, National Guard units assigned to the front, and, sometimes overlapping with the latter, battalions of volunteers. Each tended to hold the others in some suspicion and contempt, and they were differently paid, organized, clothed, and equipped. On 21 February the Convention voted to end this situation by introducing the principle of amalgamation (amalgame). The idea was to blend each line battalion into two volunteer units to form a demi-brigade, a principle already tried in the field, with considerable success, by Dumouriez. The new formations were to have identical pay, procedures, uniforms, and equipment. Implementation proved slow, and did not become general until after a new decree in January 1794. Even then it was a two-year process. But the end result was to streamline and simplify the Republic’s military organization, expunge the chaos of its beginnings, and increase the whole army’s sense of being a new, superior force—a citizen army utterly unlike the mixture of mercenaries and reluctant serf conscripts sent against them by the German despots. It was unlike them too in being much harder to equip and supply. For most of the war food and shelter were found by pitiless requisitioning and billeting, and until the Republic’s armies began to operate once more on foreign territory in the latter half of 1794, the burden was mostly borne by France’s own frontier districts. Provision of arms and munitions was expanded by thirty new workshops established between August 1793 and July 1794, and metal supplies were supplemented by melting down railings, church bells, and ornaments. A massive drive was implemented to recover saltpetre from cellars and caves, and thus avoid dependence on imports from the east for the main component of gunpowder. The war effort of 1793–4 was a triumph for ruthless makeshift action, meeting demands, however roughly and readily, never before seen; and showing incidentally how much proper, more formalized organization might achieve later. Equally suggestive of the future were the tactics deployed by the young Republic’s monster armies. There was no possibility of quickly training so many new recruits in the precise and formal drill and manoeuvres of the eighteenth-century battlefield. But weight of numbers, driven on by the patriotic enthusiasm first seen at Valmy and Jemappes, also made that unnecessary. The French could overwhelm their enemies with human waves; and although commanders facing them were at first appalled by their disregard for human life, they soon learned how effective it was. Citizen soldiers felt no restraints, particularly when defending their homeland, as in 1793. They reintroduced into warfare a ferocity and lack of quarter unknown, in western Europe at least, for well over a century.

Even so it took some time before the full force of these efforts was brought to bear. Much of the autumn of 1793 was absorbed in quelling and mopping up the various centres of revolt within France. The only striking success after Wattignies was partly such an operation. On 19 December Toulon was recaptured and the British fleet driven out, the key role in the expulsion being played by the 25-year-old commander of the artillery, Napoleon Bonaparte. His rise began here, and within two months he was a general, planning a march into Italy. But the main front was still in Flanders, and here the coalition hoped to advance along the whole line for the spring campaign of 1794. Emperor Francis II even made the journey from Vienna to inspire his troops and flatter his Belgian subjects, who had never before been visited by their Austrian sovereign. But he did not impress them, nor they him, and he had gone back east, alarmed by news from Poland, when the first major battle occurred. At Tourcoing on 17–18 May the French stopped a numerically superior coalition army from threatening key fortresses. Six weeks later, on 26 June, the Austrians retreated after a bitterly fought confrontation at Fleurus. Even on the sea, against the reputedly invincible British, the French held their own. Over the winter Carnot’s colleague on the Committee of Public Safety, the ex-Protestant pastor Jeanbon Saint-André, had worked to restore the debilitated and demoralized Brest fleet. In mid-May it put to sea in order to escort a major grain convoy from America into port. In what the British chose to call the ‘Glorious First of June’ the French were seriously mauled, losing 13 ships; but the victors themselves were so exhausted that the convoy eluded them unharmed. Fleurus, however, was much the most important engagement. In fact it marked the turning-point of the whole war. From that moment the French went on to the offensive, and they scarcely looked back until all their continental opponents had been knocked out of the conflict, and even the British were desperate to make peace.

Thus they began to reap the rewards of a year of desperate, frenzied activity. Yet, as in 1792, not all their success was attributable to their own efforts. Once again the Poles distracted enemies at the crucial moment. Encouraged by the sympathy with which his campaign against the Russians had been viewed in 1792, Kosciuszko made his way to Paris in January 1793 and spent six months trying to interest the new Republic in supporting a renewed Polish insurrection. He received little more than fair words, and in August rejoined his fellow émigrés massing in Leipzig and plotting a rising. Even though the French were offering no tangible help, their enemies were the same, their apparent ability to generate mass enthusiasm was an inspiration, and the language of liberty, national rights, and representative government still had seductive echoes in traditional Polish political rhetoric. Kosciuszko was anxious to avoid a premature rising, but resentment at the Russian occupation within what was left of Poland was growing. In the spring of 1794 his hand was forced by a mutiny within the army, which the Russians were attempting to cut down from the 50,000 to which it had grown during the Four Years Diet, to a mere 15,000. The Russians could not be allowed, in putting the mutiny down, to decimate the force on which the plotters planned to rely. On 24 March, accordingly, Kosciuszko arrived in Cracow and proclaimed an insurrection. A fortnight later he defeated a Russian force sent against him at Raclawice (4 April) and news of this success triggered uprisings against occupying garrisons in Vilno and, above all, Warsaw. Tricolour cockades sprouted everywhere, Polish translations of the ‘Marseillaise’ and ‘Ça ira’ appeared, and a ‘Society of Friends of the National Insurrection’, which everyone recognized as a Jacobin club, was established. The Russians withdrew from the capital after losing half their men to popular fury in an episode twice as bloody as the Paris September Massacres of 1792. There were also popular reprisals against those associated with national betrayal in the Targowica confederation. Kosciuszko dreamed of a Polish levée en masse to drive out foreign invaders and, fearing ‘lest the noble ardour of the people grow cold’, on 7 May he issued a proclamation granting peasants personal freedom, diminishing the burdens owed to lords, and hinting at further freedoms to come.

Not all the insurgent leaders, most of whom belonged to Poland’s teeming nobility, thought such promises wise. Certainly they only confirmed the most visceral prejudices of the partitioning monarchs and their advisers. Poland was clearly in the grip of international Jacobinism, and the influence of what Frederick William II called ‘that diabolical sect’ would not be stamped out until the whole of Poland was completely controlled by the forces of order. Determined to take a lead in this, and make further gains into the bargain, the Prussians marched into Poland in May with the encouragement of Catherine II. They did not know that she was also secretly urging the Austrians to intervene in the south. They beat the Austrians to Cracow, and joined forces with the Russians to besiege Warsaw; but in September they were forced to withdraw to deal with a revolt in former Polish territory annexed in 1793. The Austrians now took the opportunity to occupy large stretches of south Poland, while the Russians decided to reduce Warsaw single-handed. To do this they sent general Alexander Suvorov, a veteran campaigner from savage Balkan wars, who, having defeated Kosciuszko at Maciejowice at the beginning of October, advanced on the capital with overwhelming force. On 4 November he stormed Praga, its suburb beyond the Vistula, where the Russian troops took pitiless revenge for their treatment six months previously. Anything between 10,000 and 20,000 Poles died that day, when, as Suvorov proudly reported, ‘The whole of Praga was strewn with dead bodies, blood was flowing in streams’. Watching the most destructive one-day massacre in this entire decade of appalling carnage, the inhabitants of Warsaw realized that their only hope was to negotiate surrender. Within days it was agreed. By the end of 1794 the last convulsion of independent Poland was over, and Kosciuszko was a prisoner in St Petersburg. The surrounding powers had decided to partition the country out of existence long before the fighting was over. They spent much of 1795, however, haggling over precisely how the spoils were to be carved up, and for several months in the spring it looked as if Prussia would fight the other two for a larger share. In preparation for this eventuality, she concluded an armistice with France in November 1794 and began to negotiate a definitive peace. In practice she had already played no part in the war in the west for over eighteen months.

It was ironic that, until it was almost over, the French refused to think of helping a Polish uprising that looked to France for inspiration, copied the French revolutionary style and language, was identified by its opponents as plainly Jacobinical, and did so much to take pressure off France while she confronted her internal problems. But fraternity and assistance to foreign sympathizers was a Girondin policy. The Montagnards who held power in 1793 and 1794 were more interested in securing the Revolution in France than exporting it to others. Thus it was not until November 1794, when Warsaw had already fallen (although they did not yet know that), that policy-makers in France began to think seriously about the Poles, and by then the success of the French armies was exporting the Revolution anyway.

After Fleurus the Austrians abandoned Belgium, and by the end of the summer the French had reoccupied the whole of it. Thugut declared openly that recovering it was not worth the effort. Once more, too, the French moved into the southern provinces of the Dutch Republic, reawakening in the defeated patriots of 1787 all the hopes and expectations so abruptly dashed in 1793. Clubs of patriots, thinly disguised as ‘reading societies’, mushroomed north of the Rhine mouths, and as the Prussians began to negotiate with the French the Stadtholder saw his chief bulwark since 1787 begin to melt away. He remained strong enough in the autumn to destroy a premature pro-French conspiracy, but with the onset of one of the coldest winters of the century the rivers froze and thereby destroyed Holland’s main line of defence. The French poured across, and such were the depredations of what was left of York’s British army retreating before them, that it was not only long-standing Dutch patriots who welcomed them. On 18 January William V embarked for England as groups of patriots ousted his minions from power in town after town across the country. The transfer of power was remarkably bloodless, perhaps because it happened before, rather than after, the invaders actually arrived. The patriots believed, and encouraged others to believe, the sincerity of French promises before the invasion that once that stooge of the British and Prussians, William V, had been dislodged from power, the Dutch would be left free to organize themselves and pursue policies as they wished. In this, however, they deluded themselves. The true French view was trenchantly expressed by one of their generals:

Holland has done nothing to avoid being classed among the general order of our conquests. It was the ice, the indefatigable courage of our troops and the talents of the generals which delivered her and not any revolution. It follows from this that there can be no reason to treat her any differently from a conquered country. With very few exceptions the patriots of this country are all timid adventurers led by ambitious intriguers, avid speculators who never dared to take up arms in our favour.

Throughout the century the French had always believed the Dutch to be fabulously rich, and the temptation to mulct their assets for French purposes was irresistible. So the peace treaty signed at The Hague in May was punitive. The Batavian Republic (as it now officially became) was required to pay a war indemnity of 100 million florins, and lend France 100 million more at concessionary rates of interest. It was compelled to cede various southern territories, including control of the mouth of the Scheldt, and pay for the upkeep of a French occupying army of 25,000 men. Finally it was forced to conclude an alliance with the French Republic whose chief attraction was to place the supposedly formidable Dutch navy in the balance against Great Britain. This, then, was what the fraternity and help of the French Republic actually meant: total subordination to French needs and purposes. It was an awful warning to other French sympathizers elsewhere in Europe—although entirely confirming the expectations of their far more numerous opponents. Nor did the full implications for the Dutch become apparent at once. What was very clear by May 1795, however, was that the coalition of 1793 was rapidly breaking up.

A month before the Dutch accepted the French terms, Prussia had finally withdrawn. By the treaty of Basle signed on 5 April, she left France a free hand along the entire length of the Rhine’s left bank (including occupation of Prussian territories) in return for a recognition of Prussian hegemony in north Germany and that region’s neutralization. The agreement came too late to free Prussia to pursue all she wanted with her full strength in Poland, but it left the Rhenish princes and electors at the Republic’s mercy. French occupying troops set about systematically exploiting this hitherto prosperous region to fund the French war effort. Then in July peace was also made (again at Basle) with Spain. By the end of 1794 the Spanish forces had been driven out of Roussillon and the French were advancing into Catalonia and the Basque provinces. They met a population far more resolute in its resistance to the Godless invaders than on other fronts, but the court of Madrid was obsessed by fears of pro-French subversion. ‘In the taverns and in the fashionable salons … ’, wrote a Madrid priest, ‘all one hears is battles, revolution, convention, national representation, liberty, equality. Even the whores ask you about Robespierre.’ In February 1795 plans for a republican uprising were uncovered. The conspirators, a group of teachers and lawyers led by an educational theorist called Picornell, were condemned to death but reprieved on French insistence when peace was concluded. This plot, and rumours of others, had been enough to scare Godoy, the queen’s feckless favourite who dominated the government, into seeking terms. And France, not really threatened by Spain but anxious to transfer troops east for use against the Austrians, was prepared to be magnanimous. In Europe, she demanded nothing more than Spanish good offices in bringing Portugal and minor Italian states to the conference table. Overseas, Spain ceded the eastern part of Saint-Domingue, but with the French west in chaos and the Caribbean dominated by the British, France was in no position to take much immediate advantage of the gain. The real importance of peace with Prussia and Spain was to free French resources for a knock-out blow against what was left of the coalition. By August 1795 that meant Portugal, Sardinia, a number of minor Italian states, and above all Great Britain and Austria.

Austria looked by far the most vulnerable. Distracted in the east, abandoned even by the grand duke of Tuscany, the Emperor’s own brother, in February, she sustained her war effort only by borrowing from a suspicious Great Britain. She also had her own internal dissidents. Amid a general and increasing war-weariness and a wave of public sympathy for the beleaguered Poles, especially in Hungary, police spies identified a group of ‘Jacobins’ who had sent a peace mission to Paris and who held regular meetings to discuss the overthrow of the government. Between July and September 1794, 25 conspirators were arrested in Vienna and 34 in Hungary. The treasonable activities revealed at the trials of the Viennese amounted to little more than planting a liberty tree and taking rash oaths; but the leader of the Hungarian plotters, the ex-priest Martinovics, had plans for a republic, an attack on the Church, and concessions to the serfs similar to those proclaimed by Kosciuszko in May 1794. These ideas cost Martinovics his life in May 1795, along with six other convicted plotters. All except six of the rest were given long terms of imprisonment after show trials designed to deter further toyings with Jacobinism. But the inspiration of the conspirators had been far more the memory of the reforming emperors Joseph and Leopold than a desire to ape France, and what they most feared—the abandonment of the changes introduced since 1780—now came about much more quickly thanks to the fright they had given Emperor Francis. Aware that, despite thwarting internal enemies, the threat from France was growing ever more serious, he sanctioned discreet peace feelers over the summer of 1795; but on 1 October France showed its disdain for anything short of total victory when it declared once again that occupied Belgium was now French territory. Its former ruler was offered no compensation, and so resolved to fight on. The same uncompromising annexation guaranteed continued commitment to the war on the part of the British.

Pitt, too, in fact, had been putting out peace overtures after the breakup of the coalition. He continued to hope until the spring of 1796 that a new and uncertain government in France might yet offer concessions on Belgium. That would enable him to withdraw honourably from a struggle which was proving more costly, in every sense, than he had ever dreamed. Since the end of 1793 almost everything had gone wrong. Toulon had been lost, York’s army in the Netherlands had performed dismally, and the coalition had come apart. In June 1795 an ambitious amphibious operation to land 3,300 men, mostly émigrés, on the Brittany coast at Quiberon Bay, there to link up with thousands more royalist chouan guerrillas, ended in fiasco. After that Pitt concentrated British efforts on the West Indies. French planters in Saint-Domingue were desperate for British protection against rebellious blacks, and a small force had been sent there in 1793. When the Spaniards gave up their part of the island to France, the attractions of a more sustained British occupation grew. Imitative slave uprisings swept the British West Indies, too, early in 1795, while republican privateers operated from Guadeloupe. Besides, there were obvious commercial advantages in trying to make the Caribbean a British lake. Thus a huge expedition was sent there in November 1795, and eventually it made the British islands secure and captured others. But it never subdued Guadeloupe or Saint-Domingue, and in 1795, meanwhile, Pitt had to content himself with vaunting consolation prizes, like taking the Cape of Good Hope after the Dutch changed sides, as triumphs.

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