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

The armies of the Revolution at Jemappes in 1792. With chaos internally and enemies on the borders, the French were in a period of uncertainty during the early years of the Revolutionary Wars. By 1797, however, France dominated much of Western Europe, conquering the Rhineland, the Netherlands, and the Italian peninsula while erecting a series of sister republics and puppet states stretching from Spain to the German heartland.

The expansion of revolutionary France.

It was not even as if all was well at home. The massive surge of loyalism that had helped to carry the country into war lost momentum as the prospects of a swift victory dimmed. By the end of 1793 the corresponding societies, stunned into silence momentarily when their French inspiration became the enemy, had recovered their verve and were campaigning against the war in favour once more of radical parliamentary reform. In Scotland two national conventions of reform societies had been held despite the onset of war, while in Ireland an unprecedented convention of representatives of the majority Catholic population called for full civil and political equality with Protestants. Aware that the Irish Catholics, who knew what had happened to their Church in France, were worth conciliating, Pitt forced a reluctant Irish Parliament to concede them all except seats in the legislature early in 1793. But after that there were no more concessions to reformers. One did not, declared Pitt, try to mend the roof in a hurricane. An overwhelming majority in Parliament agreed with him. Ever since Burke had come out against the Revolution in 1790 the opposition Whigs had been falling apart, and in the summer of 1794, urged on by Burke, a number of leading Whigs joined the administration. Fox and the opponents of the war were left in a helpless minority, protesting in vain as publishers of Painite propaganda were prosecuted for sedition. Scottish judges were soon sending organizers of conventions to Botany Bay, and the Irish Parliament banned them entirely. The very name ‘convention’ now smacked of treason, and in 1794 treason was the charge brought in England against Hardy and other leading British ‘Jacobins’. The move followed the revelation that that spring the French had sent an agent through England to Ireland in order to report on the prospects for a pro-French uprising. Before his arrest in Dublin he had made contact with leaders of the United Irishmen, a non-sectarian group of parliamentary reformers founded in Belfast in 1791 and dedicated to weakening British control over Ireland. The English, on the other hand (he had reported), were not ripe for pro-French rebellion; but Pitt feared otherwise. When, in a triumph for the jury system, all those accused of treason were acquitted (December 1794), he turned to outright alteration of the laws. Habeas Corpus had already been suspended in May 1794, and in November the next year, in the notorious ‘Two Acts’, the scope of treasonable practices was widened, while magistrates were empowered to prevent the monster meetings which the reform societies had come to favour over the summer. An attack on George III’s coach as he drove to open Parliament in October triggered these new measures, whose application those affected soon labelled Pitt’s reign of terror. In Ireland, meanwhile, the United Irishmen had been dissolved and their founder Wolfe Tone, suspected of encouraging French intervention, went into exile rather than face prosecution. He made his way to France, where from the spring of 1796 he began a lonely but persistent campaign to persuade the Directory that a French invasion of Ireland would bring an uprising so serious that Great Britain would be knocked out of the war.

The Directory’s prime target for 1796, however, was Austria, now facing France without the support of any major continental ally. The plan was to strike through Germany in massive numbers at the Austrian heartland, distracting her meanwhile in the rear by a smaller force sent against her territories in northern Italy. At the last minute Bonaparte, the victor of Toulon and since then remarkably sure-footed in domestic politics, was appointed to command the army of Italy. Compelled to improvise for lack of adequate supplies and equipment, he moved with quite unexpected speed, forced the Austrians to retreat, and during their confusion knocked Sardinia out of the war in a series of lightning battles. This was just a month after he had taken command. In the subsequent peace a few weeks later (15 May) Victor Amadeus III accepted the loss of Savoy and Nice. But by then Bonaparte had descended from the Alps into the Lombard plains and had reached Milan. In all this time the armies in Germany had scarcely advanced at all. The Italian theatre had become the main one, and there was talk of dividing the command. Bonaparte made it clear that he would not tolerate such an affront, and his victorious troops were already so loyal to him personally that the Directors shrank from testing their authority. Yet they failed to reinforce him, too; while the Austrians, holding their own on the Rhine with surprising ease, were able to renew their Italian armies from their reserves. Thus although the French, by a threatening southward march, were able to scare Naples and Parma into abandoning the coalition, they were too weak to take Mantua. Between August and January 1797 the Austrians sent no fewer than four armies down the Alpine passes to relieve it, each repulsed by Bonaparte in brilliant but increasingly desperate manoeuvres. But after the last of these relief columns had been turned back at Rivoli (14 January 1797), Mantua at last surrendered. Soon afterwards the long-promised reinforcements arrived and, unthreatened from the rear, Bonaparte turned north and began to advance towards Vienna.

His position was not as strong as it looked. His lines of communication were dangerously extended; and there was unrest behind him in Venetian territory where, despite the republic’s neutrality, much of the campaign had been fought and the French forces, as everywhere, were now living off the land. Nevertheless, he was now within a hundred miles of Vienna and there was panic in the imperial capital. Unknown to him, the French forces in Germany had at last crossed the Rhine. So when he offered peace talks, the Austrians were ready to accept almost any terms he might suggest. To their surprise, the preliminaries of Leoben, which they accepted on 18 April, were not as demanding or as damaging as they might have expected. That they were asked to accept the loss of Belgium came as no surprise. They had already written it off three years beforehand in practice. They also willingly recognized whatever French frontiers the laws of the Republic laid down, since whether that meant the left bank of the Rhine remained unclear. And although Bonaparte was not willing to give back Milan, he was prepared to acknowledge that Austria was entitled to some compensation for her losses, and he now proposed that she should take it at the expense of Venice. The revolts in Venetian territory proved the ideal excuse, and so now the ancient republic was carved up like Poland. The city itself, and all its territory east of the Adige, went to Austria, giving her an extensive Adriatic coastline. The French held on to the rest, which Bonaparte incorporated a few months later into a puppet Lombard state, the Cisalpine Republic.

None of these terms was authorized from Paris. They came to the Directory, and to the generals now at last making progress along the Rhine, as a fait accompli. And in fact they totally contravened the instructions Bonaparte had been given at the start of the Italian campaign, and the clear war aims that the Directors had been pursuing. He had been told to take Austrian territory and hold it as a bargaining counter for ultimate peacemaking. Opinion in the Directory was divided about what it should be bargained for: most favoured an Austrian recognition of a French frontier along the Rhine, although others, including Carnot, thought that a formula for endless future conflict. But nobody had foreseen, much less authorized, the carve-up of neutral states, or indeed the creation from French conquests of new ‘sister republics’. Such arrangements left nothing to bargain with, whereas on the matter of the Rhine frontier the Leoben terms were extremely ambiguous. The generals on the Rhine, no less than the Directory, were understandably furious; but the conclusion of peace preliminaries on his own authority was only the culmination of months of independent action by Bonaparte. In December 1796 he had prompted French sympathizers in cities freed by French arms from Modenese and papal rule to form themselves into a Cispadane* Republic, itself absorbed in June 1796 into the equally factitious Cisalpine one. By January the civil commissioners normally attached to commanders in the field to ensure their compliance with government policy had been recalled, leaving him a completely free hand. After the fall of Mantua he had, as the Directors had long hoped, invaded the Papal States and extracted territorial concessions from the Pope. But so far from treating Pius VI as the irreconcilable enemy of the Republic and seeking to dethrone him, in the treaty of Tolentino (19 February) he merely underwrote the secession of the Cispadane cities, assuring the pontiff otherwise that he would find the French Republic, of all places, ‘among the truest friends of Rome’. Successful generals had dreamed of pursuing their own aims and ambitions ever since Dumouriez: but now one of them had won the entire war, and he felt perfectly entitled to dictate the terms of peace as well.

Only Great Britain was now left fighting, and long before Leoben she too had been exploring the possibilities of peace. There were no victories in 1796, merely mounting difficulties met by rising war taxation and over-extending impressment and conscription. In October, after months of provocation from both sides, Spain joined France and declared war on the tyrant of the seas; Catherine of Russia, a stalwart anti-Jacobin even if an inactive one beyond eastern Europe, died in November; and the defeat of Austria was now acknowledged even by Pitt and George III to be merely a matter of time. An official peace mission was sent to Paris. The Directory strung it along, but by now France was putting together a plan even bolder than the thrust into Italy. Jealous of Bonaparte’s meteoric success, another young military prodigy, Lazare Hoche, who had pacified the Vendée and destroyed the Quiberon invasion force, was desperate for some further triumph to sustain his own prestige. He was thus ready to be persuaded by Wolfe Tone’s repeated assurances that Ireland would rise against British rule if the French invaded in reasonable force. The Directory, too, particularly Carnot, relished the idea of stirring up domestic subversion in the British Isles in the way the British had done in the rebellious French west. Accordingly, in December 1796, peace overtures were suddenly rebuffed and a major expedition of 46 ships and almost 15,000 men set sail for Ireland. By the time they sighted their destination, however, Hoche’s ship had been blown far out into the Atlantic, and they limped back to France without making a landing. Nor was it likely that, despite feverish preparations by the now underground organization of the United Irishmen, the sort of mass rising the French had been led to hope for on landing would have occurred. They arrived too soon, and at the wrong end of the country. Nevertheless the landlords of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy were terrified, as was the government in London. February 1797 saw a serious run on the Bank of England, reflecting market anxieties about years of lending huge sums to unsuccessful allies like the Austrians, but triggered by an emergency loan to Dublin for the strengthening of Irish defences. With the combined naval strength of Spain and the Dutch to support them, it seemed certain that the French would soon be back. The panic subsided—although payments from the Bank in gold remained suspended—with the news at the end of the month that the Spanish fleet had been crippled at St Vincent. But only a few weeks later the country was faced with the ultimate catastrophe: mutiny in the Royal Navy. Between March and June the fleets at Spithead and the Nore were immobilized by sailors demanding better pay, conditions, and rations. The Nore mutineers even blockaded the mouth of the Thames. They swore that should the French put to sea they would happily put aside their dispute to fight them, and indeed no serious evidence of subversion in the fleet has ever been found. As soon as the government conceded the sailors’ main demands the trouble subsided, and less than two dozen ringleaders were hanged. But many suspected the influence of French agents or—worse—United Irishmen; and faith in the willingness and ability of the navy to protect the country was only fully restored in October, when the Dutch fleet was destroyed at Camperdown, largely by vessels and crews involved in the mutinies.

But long before that happened the setbacks and narrow escapes of the spring had led Pitt to renew peace proposals to the French. Britannia might more or less rule the waves, but the Republic, however Godless and Jacobinical, undoubtedly dominated the land. The war was plainly stalemated. Subversion might be under control in England, but Ireland, where the appearance of the French boosted United Irish hopes and recruitment, was a different matter; and everywhere there was obvious war-weariness. Accordingly, in June 1797 plenipotentiaries from the two sides began peace talks in Lille. Pitt was agreeably surprised by the polite welcome his approaches received; but the spring elections in France had returned many royalists, who hoped an equitable settlement with the Bourbons’ most determined supporters might smooth the way to a restoration. They pressed for similar give-and-take in the negotiations for a final settlement with the Austrians. Carnot, never a believer in immoderate gains, was prepared to go along with them. Bonaparte, however, was not; and he willingly co-operated in a plot to purge the ruling councils (and the Directory) of royalists and moderates. On 4 September troops commanded by Bonaparte’s envoy Augereau stood by while Carnot and the leaders of the new batch of deputies were expelled from public life in the coup of Fructidor. The French stance in negotiations with both Austria and Great Britain immediately hardened. The Austrians recognized that there was little point now in prolonging discussions about the finer points of their capitulation. By the peace of Campo Formio, therefore (18 October), the war begun in 1792 was at last brought to an end. The terms were roughly those of Leoben, and as then Bonaparte largely dictated them. Venice disappeared, partitioned between the Austrians and the Cisalpine Republic. France took her Ionian islands: the general was already dreaming of imperial schemes in the eastern Mediterranean. Austria now also explicitly recognized France’s Rhine frontier, but pointed out that this action could not commit the Holy Roman Empire, at whose expense most of the Rhineland conquests had been made. To secure agreement there, there would have to be massive compensatory redistributions of territory, and the complexities were left to a later congress fixed to meet in Rastadt. The ‘sister republics’ of Italy (the Cisalpine had now been joined by the Ligurian, formerly Genoa) were also recognized, and the loss of Belgium once more acknowledged.

Belgium had brought Great Britain into the war: but so hopeless did the continental situation now appear that she, too, was prepared to acknowledge it as part of France. In fact Pitt was ready to recognize all France’s conquests in Europe, and to secure peace he was even willing to surrender gains made from France overseas. But the French demanded that he also restore overseas territories won from their Dutch and Spanish allies, including that key to India, the Cape. No compensations whatsoever were offered. The Directors, masters of the Continent, wanted nothing less than total surrender; but Pitt, desperate as he was for peace, was not yet that desperate. Negotiations were broken off, and a few weeks later Camperdown emphasized continuing British strength. The ink was not yet dry on the treaty of Campo Formio, in fact, before Thugut was investigating the possibilities of a second coalition based on Austro-British cooperation. But for the moment, the Continent was at peace for the first time in five years, and Great Britain was left to fight on alone.

The main aim of the French politicians who had launched this great struggle in 1792 had been to force their compatriots to come out clearly for or against the Revolution. In this they succeeded far more thoroughly than they could ever have calculated. But the war also forced that choice on the rest of Europe, belligerent or not, especially after the French began to achieve victories. The withdrawal of the Republic’s open-ended offer of fraternity and help to all sympathizers only four months after it was made passed unnoticed, or unbelieved, abroad. The French seemed intent on revolutionizing and republicanizing all Europe, if necessary by force of arms. Whatever their government said, Frenchmen abroad who were not émigrés openly encouraged their hosts to follow French examples. The ostentatious contempt of French residents in Spain for Church and king throughout 1792, for instance, did much to predispose the government in Madrid towards the war that broke out early the next year; and Jacobins in Naples only came to the surface after a French fleet docked for repairs in the early days of 1793. They advertised their sympathies by founding a club, as did the few Mainzers around Forster who had welcomed the French invaders of the Rhineland several weeks earlier, or the Poles of Warsaw and Vilno who defied the Russians in 1794, or the patriots of the Dutch ‘reading societies’ who eagerly assembled to greet the oncoming liberators the following winter. By 1797, in fact, the year Burke died, still railing against the perils of a ‘regicide peace’, clubs had become the key to a new denunciation of the Revolution that was to become every bit as influential as his great tract of 1790. It was embodied in the Memoirs to Serve for the History of Jacobinism by the ex-Jesuit Augustin de Barruel. An opponent of the anti-clerical Enlightenment since long before 1789, Barruel argued that the whole Revolution had been a conspiracy of anti-Christian, anti-royal, and anti-social freemasons bent on reducing civilization to chaos. The Bavarian Illuminati plot had merely been a rehearsal for the greater conspiracy that followed. Had not the masonic slogan always been Liberty, Equality? The clubs now plaguing Europe were obviously masonic lodges at last openly proclaiming their true purpose. In this way Burke’s hints about philosophic machinations were expanded to cover not just the origins of the Revolution, but its whole, ever more radical course down to the very moment of Barruel’s publication. Those who were hitherto baffled in understanding the bewildering rush of events since 1789 found deep satisfaction in seeing it thus so comprehensively explained. The popularity of Barruel’s ideas proved ominous for all freemasons. They had already been under suspicion everywhere since the upheavals had begun, and the fact that masons were to be found among the leading revolutionaries in France, and among the clubists who welcomed French successes abroad, now seemed more than the coincidence it actually was. Barruel’s allegations never won widespread acceptance in England, where freemasonry had begun; but elsewhere they led to determined repression of masonic activity, and panicky abandonment of the lodges by the respectable, educated members of society who had flocked to join them in the quieter days of the ancien régime.

If masonry was the cause of the French Revolution, that was bad enough. If it was also responsible for its course, even worse. For not only had the revolutionaries visited war and destruction on their neighbours; they had also fought and persecuted each other with vindictive savagery, and allowed the Parisian mob to dictate to the rest of the country, and set about the systematic elimination of everybody who stood in their way through the cold machinery of the guillotine. The prospect of all this drove kings and queens, particularly, to distraction: ‘I should like this infamous nation to be cut to pieces,’ raved Maria Carolina of Naples, the sister of Marie-Antoinette, ‘annihilated, dishonoured, reduced to nothing for at least fifty years. I hope that divine chastisement will fall visibly on France.’ Some argued that it already had. But the scenes which so shocked the rest of Europe in 1793 and 1794 were not the result of a masonic conspiracy, or indeed any other sort. Very largely they were the consequence of the war so thoughtlessly launched in 1792, at a time when the triumphs of 1797 could never have been foreseen.


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