The Wars of the French Revolution 1792-1795

The year's 1792 to 1815 saw almost continuous war but the ones before Napoleon Bonaparte made his mark as commander in chief in Italy usually receive short shrift.

A Map showing Europe's Great Powers as of 1792.

A map showing Europe's Great Powers in 1792.

Note: Great Britain shown without Hanover which was under same crown, while
Austria is shown with Tuscany which was also only under the same crown and that only for a short period.

It's Politics All the Way Down

Looking back we tend to see the start of the French Revolutionary Wars as the beginning of a great Manichean struggle between good and evil. Perhaps between Liberty and Tyranny, maybe between Civilization and Barbarianism, the rule of the disorderly mob. This was very much a minority view in 1792. The peoples and leaders of most of Europe had other concerns.

The French mostly wanted liberty, in particular liberty from want. The British wished to be left alone to persue wealth. Their leaders didn't want the Lowlands in the hands of any hostile power. The Austrians, Russians and Prussians were all eyeing Poland. If that constitutionally impotent country was to be divided up they wanted their share. The Austrians and Russians had similar postures regards the Ottoman Empire.

The Poles, Turks, and other smaller powers, wished to avoid becoming the victims of the greater powers. Some wished to regain their former Great Power status. All of them wished to strengthen themselves without having to change too much.

To some considerable extent the rebellion in France was treated as a positive development. Some hoped it meant a day of greater liberty in that country. Most saw it as lessening the threat an aggressive France had posed to the rest of Europe.

So if the behavior of both sides in the early 1790s seems strangely half-hearted, tentative, and incompetant it's largely because the leadership at that time was not as committed to the stuggle as we in retrospect may think they should have been. They saw things differently. They had other priorities.

Even those who saw something new in the world, or were trying to create that something new, weren't sure what it was or what its nature would be.

Both ends and means were muddled.

It complicates the composition of a coherent narrative. Such a narrative is bound to be inherently misleading.

This post will avoid addressing the social and economic forces at work. It will mostly avoid internal politics except in cases where they had a direct immediate impact on events in the field.

The political imperatives field commanders had to work under will be mentioned but that's all.

For the most part the to and fro of military events will be detailed and that's all.

Still it should be remembered they did not occur in a vacuum.

In 1792 the French Declare War on the Crowned Heads of Europe.

Relations between France and the rest of Europe deterioated through out 1791. It should be remembered though that despite this that these relationships were not the main concern of any of the actors.

The French and English were both more consumed by internal issues. The French leadership saw external war as a way of diverting the public from internal economic problems. With the English it was the opposite. Still trying to pay for the costs of the last war with France, the war Americans know as their war of independence, and not wishing to increase taxes they wanted to avoid war. The Prussians, the smallest of the Great Powers, wanted to increase their holdings in Northern Germany. If Poland was to be divided they wanted their share. Austria also did not want to be left out of any division of Poland. The Russians actively wished to expand at the expense of both Poland and the Ottomans.

If Catherine the Great of Russia egged on the heads of Prussia and Austria against the French it was as much because she wanted to divert their attention from Poland as because she disapproved of rebellion against monarchs.

These facts remained true throughout this period until the final partition of Poland in 1795.

Map showing lesser powers of Europe in 1792

A map showing Europe's Lesser Powers in 1792.

Note: The thin red line is the border of the Holy Roman Empire. Spain is yellow, Venice light mustard, and Saxony is dark mustard in color. Piedmont is olive, Portugal, Poland and the Ottoman Empire are all shades of green. The Papal States are purple and Bavaria is brown. The Netherlands are bright orange, the Two Scilies a darker orange. Denmark is teal and Sweden is tan. Hanover being under the British crown is red.

The Ottoman Empire, Poland, Sweden and Spain are all former great powers but at this point in history are weaker than any of the five Great Powers. Poland has already gone through one partition and will disappear completely as an independent state in a few years. The Ottoman Empire is being eyed by both Russia and Austria and only the distraction posed by the French allows her to remain intact in the following years. All the remaining powers with the exception of Denmark and Sweden will be occupied by the French sometime in the next decade and a half.

Switzerland, Baden, Wurttemburg, Parma, Modena, etc are all smaller states that I chose not to show. Switzerland at least despite attempts to remain neutral was an important field of operations in the late 1790s.

All that said the monarchs of Europe did have some common interests and the Queen of France was the Austrian Emperor's sister, they were concerned by and disapproving of developments in France. This concern had mounted throughout 1791. In August of that year it had resulted in the Declaration of Pillnitz. The Prussians and Austrians would intervene in France given certain conditions. The conditions being that all the sovereigns of Europe would agree on the need it was something never likely to happen in reality everything else equal.

Despite this the Declaration served the purposes of propaganda on both sides and smoothed the road to actual war.

On the 20th of February 1792 the French Assembly declared war on Austria. On the 15th of May it declared war on the Kingdom of Sardinia (Piedmont).

On the 26th of June 1792 the First Coalition was formed.

"On July 11th ... [the French] Assembly, itself assuming the government, declared the government in danger and called on every able-bodied citizen to defend the frontiers."

Prussia was playing a double game but had since February been part of a defensive alliance with Austria. Despite this she continued secret negotiations with the French. By July, however, Prussia had been bribed into joining the war on France in earnest. A combined Prussian-Austrian force was placed under the Duke of Brunswick and made ready to advance into France through the Rhineland.

The 20th of September 1792 saw the battle of Valmy . Barely more than a half hearted artillery skirmish it proved decisive. The Duke of Brunswick and his hungry demoralized Prussians turned back. They retreated to Germany. The Revolution was saved.

"On the 24th October rough old Custine - 'General Moustache' - captured Mainz and, striking terror into the Rhineland, advanced swiftly on Frankfurt. Four days later Dumouriez, sweeping back the Austrians from the long-beleagured fortresses of the north, entered Belgium [then the Austrian Netherlands] at the head of more than 70,000 men."

In the south "Montesquieu marched into the Piedmontese posssessions of Savoy and Nice".

The 6th of November 1792 saw the battle of Jemappes near Mons. The Austrians better disciplined and on the defensive were beat by a French army twice their size. The Austrian Netherlands were lost to the French under their General Dumouriez. Dumouriez had done much to incite the war seeing it as both a distraction from internal issues and a chance for personal advancement. He over estimated the effectiveness of the new large and enthusiastic armies the revolution had made possible. He also overestimated the appeal of the Revolution to other peoples in Europe and underestimated the strength of the Ancien Regieme in places other than France.

For the time being, however, he and his French Revolutionary Army of the North were victorious. A week after Jemappes they were in Brussels.

On the 16th of November 1792 the French Convention declared the navigation of the Scheldt (waterway leading to Antwerp) open. On the 28th Antwerp fell to the French.

"Pitt [England's Prime Minister] was thus faced with the fact that the war he had struggled so hard to avoid was inevitable unless the Convention relinquished its design on Holland. The retention of the Dutch coastline and the great achorages of the Scheldt in friendly hands was a vital British interest: the Dutch alliance the keystone of his foreign policy. He could not abandon them at the dictates of frenzied demagogues and of an imaginary 'Law of Nature' enforced by French guns. No such canon of law - let alone the exclusive right of French politicians to interpret it - was recognized by his country"

This threatened a war that most of the leadership of Britain and France did not want. Nevertheless throughout the balence of 1792 they prepared for it.

On January 10th 1793 "the French Executive Council ordered General Miranda to prepare for the immediate invasion of the United Netherlands."

"On January 20th, 1793, the [British] Cabinet opened overtures for concerted action with Austria and Prussia."

On January 21st 1793, Louis XVI, the French King was executed.

On January 24th 1793 the British government requested that the French representative in London leave the country.

"[O]n 31 January the Convention ... declared war on Britain and Holland in response to their moves to secure Antwerp from French aggression, whilst, in part thanks to the general horror at the fate of Louis XVI, relations with most of the other states of Europe began to worsen very rapidly. In the face of this situation, the state of the army could not be neglected for any longer. On 24 February, then, the Convention voted for a levy of 300,000 men."

In 1793 Everyone Fumbles

All sides appear to have begun 1793 over confident and dismissive of their enemies' strength. The politicians of France thought numbers and revolutionary fervor would sweep all before them. The bickering Allies with their divergent goals thought they were still fighting an eighteenth century war in which training and careful methodical maneuver would prevail. In the event they were all disappointed.

On February 16th 1793 General Dumouriez invaded Holland.

On the 9th of March the Convention declared war on Spain.

March 18th 1793 saw the battle of Neerwinden . The French under Dumouriez are routed by the Austrians. Coburg was in command but Mack and the Archduke Charles were key in obtaining the victory. The Austrians regain the Lowlands but are slow to push on into France.

On April 5th 1793 Dumouriez fearing for his life after his defeat defects to the Austrians.

On May 1st 1793 Coburg commanding the Allies in the Lowlands advances with 100,000 men, half of them Austrians. In the meantime the Prussians beseige Mainz with again 100,000 men. These figures were aspirational and don't seem to count sick or garrisons. The numbers present for any given battle were lower.

In August 1793 Carnot is appointed to the Committee of Public Safety and proceeds to make the "Nation in Arms" a reality. It's a military revolution.

In August 27th 1793 the Jacobins re-take Marsailles, but appalled by the slaughter there the people of Toulon, the great naval base nearby, go over to the Allies.

In a battle called Wattignies that took place over the 15th and 16th of October the French under Jourdan managed to defeat the Allies under Coburg. This relieved the seige of Mauberge. The French position in northern France had been preserved. The Allies despite great efforts and losses had achieved little.

The French retake Toulon in December. A young artillery officer, Napoleon Bonaparte by name, gains a reputation for his part in the struggle.

1794 Sees France, the Nation in Arms, Resurgent

1794 saw the British entertaining themselves mainly by taking islands in the West Indies from France. They did send a contingent to the Allied forces in the Lowlands.

In Flanders on the 24th of April the French Army of the North under General Charles Pichegru attacked the Allies under Coburg. Pichegru and his subordinate Souham achieved a series of victories over Coburg and his subordinate Clairfeyt.

Jourdan with the new Army of the Sambre and Meuse then proceded to beat Coburg at the battle of Fleurus .

To quote Bryant: "Early in June the reconstituted army of Sambre et Meuse crossed the Sambre, and after a series of desperate engagements invested Charleroi. When a fortnight later Coburg, with his main force, moved to the relief of the fortress it was too late. During an undecided action at Fleurus on the 26th the old German learnt that Charleroi had fallen. He called off the battle and retreated leaving the Republicans masters of the field and, though no one knew it, the next two decades of European history."

" Early in September, having replenished his supplies from the fortresses and harvests of the Low Counteries, Pichegru resumed the offensive in overwhelming force."

The winter of 1794/1795 was unusual in more than seeing the Austrians and Dutch oligarchs defeated. It was extremely cold. The water barriers that had proved a last defense for Holland so often before now froze over.

"By the New Year the frozen flood had ceased to be a barrier. Breaking every canon of eighteenth century warfare and trusting for supplies to a barren and ice-gripped countryside Pichegru and Moreau crossed the river."

"On January 20th [1795] the French entered Amsterdam and proclaimed a Revolutionary Republic."

In a famous incident the French forces even managed to take the Dutch fleet frozen in place with land forces moving over the ice.

It was a disaster for the Allies. The British contingent of the Allies stumbled back with heavy losses to Bremen in northern Germany where the remaining infantry was evacuated to Britain, and the cavalry and artillery remained behind to help defend Hanover.

1795 the Allies Crumble, but Austria Holds in Germany

1795 saw a series of defections from the Allied cause.

Prussia made peace. " On April 5th a treaty was signed at Basle by which France retained all German lands west of the Rhine until a general peace."

In May the new Dutch Republic concluded an Alliance with France.

In June Sweden made peace.

In July Spain did.

" Only Austria, little Piedmont and the Two Sicilies remained lanquidly faithful to the Grand Alliance." Also, of course, Great Britain herself. But despite a great naval victory on June 1st, "The Glorious First of June", Britain's policy was largely ineffectual in its effects on the continient.

In fact although Admiral Howe managed a great victory on June 1st against the French fleet, the French in turn managed to protect a huge convey of ships carrying badly needed grain from America to France. By saving restive Frenchmen from starvation its arrival may have saved the Revolution itself.

A British effort against the Lowlands with the aid of a 12,000 men strong Russian auxillery corps went nowhere.

Another effort in which the British squandered their limited forces was an attempt at a Royalist invasion in the West of France in June. It failed.

The major front in 1795 proved to be along the front with Germany.

Jourdan commanded the French Army of the Sambre and Meuse in the center. Pichegru the Army of the Rhine to the south. They faced Allied armies under Clairfait, Wurmser, and the Prince of Conde.

Little happend in the first part of the year. The French supply and discipline problems were severe.

Nevertheless Pichegru did manage to take Mannheim in May.

The Allies, mostly just the Austrians now, also remained largely inactive for what reason is not obvious. In any event the Fortress of Luxembourg with 10,000 men fell to the French on the 24th of June without any effort to relieve it having been made.

Later early in September with better supply Jourdan crossed the Rhine near Dusseldorf.

Jourdan invested Mayence (Mainz) only to have his seige releived by Clarfait.

Turning south Clairfait and Wurmser retook Mannheim.

In October Pichegru defected to Allies. It wasn't safe to be a Revolutionary general who failed.

The year 1795 had seen a lot of fighting on the German front but in the end not much changed there.

1795 In Other News

Elsewhere the British capped their year by taking the Dutch colony at the Cape of Good Hope in September.

The Poles had a bad year. The final partition of Poland took place over the summer. That's too bloodless a description. A series of Polish revolts against their fate was put down by the combined forces of Prussia and Russia. Polish losses were severe. Warsaw finally surrendered in November. Their own internal dissension, the greed of their neighbors, and the lack of their old French alliance had doomed the Poles.

The French in the meantime had a good year in the south. The Army of the Alps under Scherer but following a plan devised by his erstwhile Chief of Artillery, Napoleon Bonaparte, successfully attacked the Austrians and Piedmontese in the Maritime Alps. The defeated them at the battle of Loano on November the 23rd.

Back in Paris Napoleon Bonaparte had been busy saving the Directory from an attempted insurrection in October by the employment of "a whiff of grapeshot". That is he had deployed artillery against the more numerous but undertrained and equipped insrugents. The Directory was in his debt.

Set for 1796

Bonaparte's reward was command of the step-child of France's armies. That is the Army of Italy. To be fair he also managed to secure it better supplies and even some back pay. He was Italian by origin and had served in the area before. He'd studied past campaigns in the theatre and was personally familiar with the ground. He had a plan.

His success at implementing that plan is why in some ways Italy in 1796 can considered less one of the last Revolutionary War campaigns and more the first one of the Napoleonic Wars.

In Summary

The Revolutionary Wars were a chaotic dogfight that cannot be easily explained.

The old eighteenth century reasons of state did not go away. Geopolitics remained much the same as they had been. On the other hand both the politics of Revolution, the strength of a nation in arms, and the military innovation unleashed by the Revolution changed everything.

At first no one realized this. Even the men, perhaps most of all them, who set the Revolution in train and drove it forward did not understand what they were unleashing and where it would end.

The old leadership of Europe were slow to let go of old fixations and methods.

They failed to strangle Revolutionary France in its cradle while it was still weak.

As a result they were forced to change their own ways and the organization of their states, now become nations, in ways they'd rather not of.

Those necessary adaptions birthed the modern world. A world that in the end had little room for monarchs or aristocracies.

Though it took another hundred years and another series of horrible wars for that to become clear.



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