Advance and Retreat

Hello, and welcome to Revolutions.

As I mentioned at the beginning of last week’s episode, the reason the National Convention was able to spend so much time focused on the King’s trial was that out on the frontiers, the French armies were not just successfully holding off the Allies, they were positively steamrolling the Allies. 

After the victory at Valmy, French forces went on the offensive and enjoyed an unbroken string of successes between November 1792 and March 1793 that not only allowed the Convention to emphatically end 1,000 years of monarchy by waving Louis’ severed head around, but also to make a bold new set of claims about what the war was about. No longer was this about a quick punch to the Austrians nose to prove a point. This was now about burning down the old Europe so that a new revolutionary Europe could rise from the ashes. 

After the Allied army abruptly turned around following the Battle of Valmy in September 1792, the victorious General Dumouriez made no effort to interfere with the retreat. Instead, he followed at a safe distance and then sent emissaries to the Prussian leaders asking if they wanted to cut a deal. 

Dumouriez was of the opinion that France and Prussia were natural allies, given their mutual hatred of the Austrians. But the Prussian king, Frederick William II, said that before any negotiations could take place, King Louis would have to be restored to the French throne. 

Now, as you’ll recall, Dumouriez was himself a constitutional royalist. He abhorred the insurrection of August 10 and the just announced abolition of the French monarchy. But for the moment, there was nothing he could do about any of it. So negotiations with the Prussians never got off the ground. 

After talks broke down, Dumouriez then returned to his original plan: a bold invasion of the Austrian Netherlands. Preparations had obviously been put on hold while he marched down to block the Allied advance. But with the Allies in retreat, Dumouriez redoubled his efforts to get the army of the north in shape for an invasion. 

In the weeks after Valmy, that army of the north absorbed tens of thousands of utterly raw volunteers. It was all those enthusiastic Sans-culottes, who had joined up in the wake of the September Massacres. These guys clearly had a lot of heart, but didn’t know the first thing about soldiering. So Dumouriez spent October drilling his new recruits. He had no illusions about turning them into some well oiled machine, but he could maybe teach them to all charge in roughly the same direction at roughly the same time.

By early November, Dumouriez judged his forces ready enough to cross the frontier into the Austrian Netherlands, which, for simplicity and clarity’s sake, I’m just going to start referring to as Belgium, because that’s basically what we’re talking about here. 

Dumouriez had a very good reason for being confident about his chances, even if his troops weren’t professionals. The army he commanded now numbered about 32,000 infantry, 4,000 cavalry, and boasted about 100 heavy guns. The Austrians, meanwhile, had just 20,000 troops total garrisoning the entire length of the frontier. So when Dumouriez ordered his army to cross the border on November 3, there was just no Austrian force large enough to stop him. As long as his new volunteers didn’t run away at the first sign of trouble, the weight of their numbers would be irresistible. 

On November 6, Dumouriez’s army encountered the first concentrated Austrian defenses and they did not run away. The Austrians had stationed just shy of 14,000 men along a five mile ridge running between the fortified city of Mons and the town of Jemappes. With his massively superior forces, Dumouriez divided his army up into two columns and sent them on a double flanking move to surround the Austrian defenders. But after a morning spent fighting, the uncoordinated waves of French infantry just couldn’t dislodge the professional Austrians. 

So around noon, Dumouriez switched things up. He ordered one giant column to form in the middle and said, “Just force your way up there.” This time, the onslaught was too much for the Austrian defenders. The French captured the middle of the ridge and then managed to dig in and hold it. With the Austrian army now divided, another French column managed to flank the Austrian right at the town of Jemappes. And the Austrians were forced to withdraw all their forces back to Mons.

The victory at the Battle of Jemappes, like the victory at Valmy, was immediately seized on as a great victory for the new citizen army of revolutionary France, proof that the old regimes of Europe couldn’t possibly withstand the might of a fully mobilized nation.

But again, like Valmy, the glory of Jemappes was maybe a bit overstated. With supporting reinforcements, the French threw over 40,000 men at a ridge held by just 14,000 defenders. Yes, it was impressive that the French volunteers kept charging up the hill. And, yes, it was impressive that the French were able to muster that many men to begin with. But the actual victory really came down to a numbers game. If those same French forces had only outnumbered their opponents a helpful two to one instead of an overwhelming three to one, would they still have been able to win? How about a battle between equal forces? That real test still lay ahead. 

In the aftermath of the Battle of Jemappes, it became clear that the Austrians, though, were not prepared to effectively defend Belgium. The forces that had just retreated back to Mons surrendered the city the next day, leaving behind the heavy guns in exchange for safe passage. A few days later, the French marched out of Mons and the remaining Austrian forces just got out of their way. Dumouriez entered Brussels on November 14 without firing a shot. Then, as the French fanned out across the countryside, the Austrians just withdrew from the territory back east towards Cologne, where they would spend the winter regrouping. By the end of November, the French were in complete control of Belgium

Now down south, the French enjoyed a similar run of success after facing even less resistance than Dumouriez had faced up in Belgium. Along the Mediterranean coast, the old independent feudal territory of Savoy was invaded in September and the capital Nice was captured. Then, up along the Rhine, all those little independent German principalities on the west bank of the river found themselves utterly exposed to an attack. When the main Allied army had retreated after Valmy, they just kind of kept going until they were back safe and secure on the east side of the Rhine, which left literally no one protecting those little German principalities on the west side of the Rhine from the advancing French – a steady stream of aristocrats, high church officials and wealthy families packed up everything they owned and fled east as the French accepted the wide open invitation to move on in. 

So how do we explain the sudden turn in the fortunes of war? In less than six weeks, the French had gone from certain annihilation to capturing Belgium, Savoy and the constellation of principalities along the Rhine. It was an impressive about face and it shocked the rest of Europe. So how do we explain it? 

Now the big overarching explanation is clearly that the Allies had underestimated just how resilient the French would be. The Austrian impression strategy had basically been to invade France, blow through the disorganized French armies, and take Paris – should take a few weeks at the most. So at the outset, the Allies simply weren’t prepared to actually fight. And that does explain a lot of this. But that does not explain why the French were able to give them a fight. So what does? 

Well, first of all, there was the fact that the whole new concept of every citizen, a potential soldier, was working exactly the way it was supposed to. 180,000 Frenchmen volunteered for service in 1792 alone. As we just saw, the raw manpower available to the French was an order of magnitude beyond what the Allies were currently putting together with their traditionally small professional armies. But who was going to lead all those enthusiastic volunteers? Well, I’ll tell you! A French officer corps that was now becoming an advantage rather than a liability. 

By this point, every disaffected officer who was going to desert their post had already deserted their post. That meant that those who stayed behind were true believers, emotionally committed to the Revolution. And those guys were soon joined by experienced NCOs, promoted from within the ranks to fill all the vacant officer spots. This reconstituted officer corps was not secretly hoping the Austrians and Prussians would win. They wanted to spend every waking moment making sure that the Austrians and Prussians got their teeth kicked in. So by the time the French army started pushing out after Valmy, their officers were experienced, dedicated and passionately committed to the cause. That combination of a hyper committed officer corps leading a huge mass of regular soldiers was a lethal combination. And if the Allies wanted to defeat it, they were going to have to start taking this all a bit more seriously. 

With all these sudden victories on their hands, the National Convention then started getting a little giddy. And in between debates over the fate of the King, their whole conception of the war began to change. On November 19, they issued the Decree of Fraternity, which basically said, we will offer aid to any oppressed people looking to recover their lost liberties.

Now, since the beginning of the war, Brissot’s rhetoric had hinted at the larger ideological themes of a war with Austria, that spreading the gospel of the Revolution would be a pretty awesome thing to do. But really, until now, this had just been a lot of talk. But now that it looked like revolutionary France might actually have the power to seize territory from the old European powers, the ideological side of the war began to be talked about more seriously. This shift in focus culminated with a further decree on December 15 that revolutionary principles would be instituted in all the quote unquote “liberated territories”. Clerical and aristocratic lands were to be confiscated, tithes and feudal dues abolished. New taxes would be imposed on the rich. All local state functionaries must swear an oath of allegiance to these revolutionary principles. The Revolution was now on the march

Robespierre of course, as usual, was a big stick in the mud about all of this. And he pointed out that this might not all work out the way everyone expected. That the French army’s imposing French principles might not be wholeheartedly embraced by the citizens of the occupied, excuse me, “liberated” territories. And he said that liberty can never be founded by the use of foreign force

But as ideology came to play a larger role in the French desire to liberate territory from their enemies, there was a much simpler national interest at stake. An interest that was also now being openly discussed: France securing its natural borders. If you look at a relief map of Europe, it’s easy to tell what those natural borders ought to be. The Alps in the southeast, the Mediterranean in the south, the Pyrenees in the southwest, the Atlantic Ocean to the west, the English Channel to the north, and the Rhine River to the east. Of those six, only the west bank of the Rhine remained to be secured. And with the German principalities now stormed and Belgium in hand, it was really down to whether the French could peel off the requisite Dutch territory to complete the natural circuit. Which, of course, brings us to the British, who had done so much to remain neutral so far and who now could not avoid getting into the war. 

The provocation of the British began the minute Dumouriez crossed into Belgium. You’ll recall that the only reason the Austrians held that territory in the first place was because the British didn’t want the French to control it. And indeed, all through the 18th century, British foreign policy had been all about keeping the Low Countries in their sphere of political and economic influence and away from the French sphere of political and economic influence. So, despite Prime Minister William Pitt’s fervent desire to remain neutral, the French invasion of Belgium put him in a major bind. 

The first officially provocative action came on November 16, when the French declared freedom of navigation on the Scheldt River, which the Dutch had held an exclusive claim to since the end of the 30 Years War, way back in 1648. Now, access to the river in and of itself wasn’t actually a huge deal, but the flagrant disregard for a century and a half old treaty obligation certainly was. 

Shortly thereafter, the Austrians evacuated Belgium and French forces were able to advance all the way to the borders with the United Provinces. The Dutch then started jumping up and down and begging London for assistance, assistance that now looked like the British were going to have to provide, unless they wanted to wake up in a few days and discover that revolutionary France now controlled, like, the entire coast of the continent, facing the British Isles. 

Now, luckily for Pitt, the slow turn towards war was generally supported at home. Now, many liberty loving Brits had cheered on the revolution when it first got going. Thomas Paine’s radical The Rights of Man had outsold Edmund Burke’s conservative reflections on the revolution in France at like a ten to one clip. Even those who were opposed to the Revolution did not see any reason to get involved with the madness currently unfolding on the continent. But the insurrection of August 10 and then most especially the September Massacres, turned public opinion in Britain decisively against the Revolution. So Pitt knew that if he now decided to take the country into war, that he was on firm political footing at home. Pitt’s emissaries continued to negotiate with the French to avoid war. But when the National Convention executed Louis, the British stopped talking. Believing their position to be nearly invincible, the National Convention responded by preemptively declaring war on Britain on February 1, 1793

But of course, the French position was not nearly as invincible as the National Convention now believed, especially since they had just poked the British in the eye with a sharp pointy stick. It did not take long for British diplomats to draw a hostile circle around France. Soon enough, Spain, Portugal, Sardinia and Naples would all join the anti-French coalition. And also, soon enough, British money would be going to pay for German mercenaries to grow the ranks of the Allied forces. So far, the French had enjoyed the advantage that comes with being underestimated, but that was not a mistake their enemies would continue to make. 

Now, just so you know, this whole series of campaigns from 1792 to 1797 will collectively come to be known as the War of the First Coalition, to be followed subsequently by the War of the Second Coalition and then the War of the Third Coalition, bridging the transition from the revolutionary era into the Napoleonic era. But though the War of the First Coalition is dated to the declaration of war between France and Austria in the spring of 1792, it is really here, approaching the spring of 1793, that the First Coalition really takes shape as a pan European effort to fight revolutionary France

Now, speaking of that pan European effort, we cannot forget the special role somehow played by Poland in all of this. One of the reasons the Prussians had been so quick to pull out of France after Valmy, was because the Russians had gone into Poland and Frederick William II prioritized his eastern flank over his western flank. But as aggressive as Catherine the Great was, she was not super interested in going ten rounds with the Prussian army now massing on the Polish border. So in January 1793, she proposed to Frederick William II a second partition of Poland. This partition was signed January 23 and saw Russia claim the lion’s share of Polish territory, with the Prussians receiving a strategically helpful slice that really shored up their eastern borders. The Polish Commonwealth, meanwhile, was left just one third the size that it had been before the first partition back in 1772, which we discussed back in Episode 3.6. The upshot of the second partition for us is obviously, that the Prussians can now turn their full attention back to the French. So come the spring of 1793, basically, all of Europe will be arrayed against France, and the fortunes of war will soon turn again. 

Now, the other thing that really helped turn the tables against the French was that it turned out Robespierre had been absolutely right. Liberty can never be founded by the use of foreign force. All the people in all those territories that had so recently been liberated quickly discovered that their liberation looked an awful lot like a regular old occupation. 

The French soldiers, now in their mitts, made themselves right at home, taking what they wanted, drinking what they wanted, sleeping where they wanted. Remember those idealistic decrees about how French armies would always respect the natural liberties of other people’s and that they would always protect the lives and property of those people? Yeah, neither do the soldiers of the French armies. 

Nowhere was this more apparent than in Belgium. Dumouriez’s men had spread themselves across the countryside and were acting as if every farmhouse was their own personal supply depot. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the National Convention’s December 15 decree that imposed revolutionary principles meant that when the damned French soldiers showed up in your town, they not only took everything that wasn’t nailed down, they also desecrated churches, seized property, and generally spit on every traditional community institution they could find. And remember, the Belgians had gone into revolt against the Austrians just a few years earlier, not to overthrow all those institutions, but to protect them. So relations between the local Belgians and the occupying French got testy in a hurry. 

Recognizing that things weren’t going super smoothly up in Belgium, the Convention dispatched no less a man than Danton himself up to Brussels to try to get a handle on things. His departure to the front in December 1792 is the reason he played almost no part in the main debate over King Louis’s fate. 

Now, one of the other reasons that the great Danton was personally dispatched was because doubts were starting to creep in about the true loyalties of General Dumouriez. Sure, his success in the field was undeniable and publicly celebrated, but it was pretty clear he had his own long-term agenda. He was known to not be really happy about anything that had happened in Paris over the past year: the insurrection of August 10, the September Massacres, the trial of the King. After he ran the Austrians out of Belgium, the Convention started getting troubling reports about Dumouriez’s activities. He was apparently aligning himself with local conservatives, talking openly about raising an army of Belgium, composed of local volunteers and funded by grants from the local Catholic Church. This all looked an awful lot like Dumouriez was about to turn Belgium into some personal little power base from which he might do God knows what. So Danton was sent up to assist with the occupation, and by assist we mean, Jesus, please make sure Dumouriez doesn’t set up some kind of personal little power base to do God knows what. Dumouriez chafed under the supervision, leading to still further resentment about the course of the Revolution. 

Despite the supreme confidence the National Convention now seemed to have the inevitability of French victory, they did recognize they could not just rest on their laurels. For one thing, now that the immediate emergency of Paris possibly being sacked had passed, a ton of those volunteer soldiers assumed that they had now done their bit to save the nation and just went home. So day by day, France was losing that overwhelming numerical advantage. 

For another thing, though the armies had fought pretty well, this new kind of national army was going to need a structural overhaul to really work properly. The potent mixture of adrenaline and enthusiasm had temporarily carried the revolutionary armies forward. But if they were going to keep moving forward, they were going to have to get better organized. So shortly after the declaration of war with Britain in February 1793, the military committee of the National Convention reported back a reorganization plan known as the Amalgame. The thrust of the Amalgame was simple: make sure new volunteers are paired with permanent troops of the line, rather than keeping them separate, as was currently the standard practice. Specifically, brigades would be organized on the principle of one veteran battalion for every two battalions of volunteers. This would ensure quick assimilation of the new recruits into the daily realities of military life and ensure that there were always no nonsense veterans around to keep the newbies in line and in shape. And then, of course, once the battle began, the presumably less fidgety veterans would be interspersed with the rookies to prevent mass panic from ever sweeping the lines. These reforms would eventually be implemented to great effect, but unfortunately, they would not be implemented fast enough to stave off the coming disasters of the spring of 1793. 

To make up for the steady loss of troops, a big new recruitment push was announced on February 24 the so-called Levée of 300,000. This is exactly what it sounds like. We need 300,000 new soldiers, and we need them right now. But critically, though the convention wanted these 300,000 to join up voluntarily, they recognized that that might not happen. So they authorized impressment into service when and where necessary. So the historical significance of the Levée of 300,000 has less to do with its impact on the French war effort than its impact on a region that did not feel much like volunteering for service. And we’re not about to sit back and let bullies from Paris force them into joining. I speak, of course, the Vendée [Ven-day] region of the west, which I’ve been calling the [Ven-dee] region. That’s just because the French have this short vowel sound that my barbarian ears just refuse to recognize. 

So we’re going to be talking a lot about the outbreak of the uprising in the Vendée  next week, because it is a major part of how the revolution will play out over the next few years. But just so you know, the people of Vendée are pretty super Catholic and have been pretty super pissed off at anti clerical Paris for quite a while now. So the Levée of 300,000 was just a match that lit the giant pile of gasoline soaked rags.

Getting back to the war. Unfortunately for the French, none of their military readiness and reorganization efforts were going to kick in fast enough to help them once the fighting recommenced. Still supremely confident, Dumouriez took the declaration of war with Britain as a sign that he ought to get going with the next phase of his grand plan: invade the United Provinces. 

But unfortunately, this focus on advancing north led Dumouriez to ignore an opportunity to combine with the French armies along the Rhine to push the Austrians, who had evacuated from Belgium, completely across the river. This missed opportunity meant that the Austrians could continue to gather in force outside Cologne on the west bank, from which they would be able to stage a counter invasion of Belgium. But with the French armies in Belgium now numbering something like 120,000 total men, it is likely that Dumouriez simply believed the Austrians would never be able to push their way back in. So on February 16, he personally led an army of about 20,000 up into Dutch territory. 

Marching almost due north, Dumouriez attacked Breda on February 21 and took it on February 24. He then quickly captured a string of smaller fortresses before getting ready for the big push that would take him to Rotterdam, The Hague and then on to the big prize, Amsterdam. 

While Dumouriez made this run up the coast, his eastern flank was supposed to be supported by another French army about 10,000 strong, who were ordered to capture Maastricht and then move up to join him. But Maastricht managed to resist the initial attacks after the French arrived on February 21. And no one likes a prolonged siege, especially new recruits who have never done it before, especially in the middle of a Dutch winter. So the French volunteers started deserting in droves. You know, I signed up to charge headlong at Austrians, not freeze to death getting heckled by the Dutch. So the siege of Maastricht had to be abandoned March 3. And that was just the beginning of the bad news for the French. 

The siege of Maastricht was abandoned, in part because that Austrian army that had gathered near Cologne had finally started marching west, and they were now something like 40,000 strong. They smashed a much smaller French army at Aldenhoven on March 1 and were looking deadly serious about retaking Belgium. 

With his army on the move, the National Convention ordered Dumouriez to abandon his ambitious push up into the United Provinces and instead come down south to lead the defense of Belgium. Dumouriez wasn’t happy about being bossed around by the Convention, but for the moment, he did what he was told and he headed south. He arrived outside Brussels on March 11 and took command of the 45,000 or so men who had rendezvoused to face the Austrians. So let’s see what happens when two armies of equal size face off against each other. 

Upon taking command, Dumouriez had two paradoxical thoughts in his head. The first was that his army was invincible and would whip the Austrians easily. The second was that if he ordered any kind of strategic withdrawal, that his invincible army would disintegrate into a panicked flight. So there was only one thing to do: he ordered a bold advanced forward to meet the Austrians head on. 

The two armies met across an extended line that roughly centered around the town of Neerwinden. Dumouriez divided his forces into eight columns and identified the Austrian left as the weak link. At dawn on March 18, he ordered three columns on a flanking maneuver. It took all morning, but the French forces successfully took the main high ground and the town of Neerwinden and even managed to hold off at least one concerted Austrian attempt to retake the ground. But further attacks and bombardments eventually forced the French to withdraw. Then it was the French’s turn to attempt to retake the ground, but their attempt failed and they had to retreat. 

Meanwhile, up on the Austrian right/French left, the day had been spent mostly skirmishing around each other. But late in the day, the Austrians launched a hard cavalry charged at the clearly fatigued French infantry, a charge that turned into an utter route. Dumouriez didn’t find out that his entire left flank had fallen apart until the next morning, and when he did, he was forced to order a general retreat. 

The Battle of Neerwinden finally represented an evenly matched fight, and the French had gotten beat and run on all fronts. Then, to make matters worse, the defeat triggered mass desertions as the men who ran simply did not come back. Within days, Dumouriez was leading just 20,00 men. That remaining army lost another engagement on March 21 to an Austrian army that now outnumbered them two to one. 

But Dumouriez managed to extract himself back through Brussels, though by now he was clearly formulating a completely new conception of what his next move ought to be. As he passed through Brussels, he opened negotiations with the Austrians and his terms were simple. You can have Belgium back if you let me withdraw all my forces unmolested. The Austrians agreed to the terms, even allowing a trapped French army to pass through their lines on their way out of the territory. 

The reason for Austrian leniency was due to the hints Dumouriez dropped about what his next move was going to be: once I’m out of Belgium, I’m going to turn my armies around, march on Paris, break the National Convention and restore the Constitution of 1791. All of which sounded pretty good to the Austrians

When the convention got news of all these disasters, they sent a delegation up to confront Dumouriez and demand an explanation for the loss of Neerwinden and the total evacuation of Belgium. When this delegation, led personally by the Minister of War, reached Dumouriez’s camp on April 1, the General did not mess around trying to pretend like he was still on their side, he arrested the delegation and handed them over to the Austrians. But Dumouriez totally underestimated the loyalty of his officers and his troops. None of them thought highly of the politicians in the National Convention, but as I mentioned, they were all firmly committed to the Revolution and were not about to march on Paris, to, what, restore the monarchy with the blessing of the Austrians? No, we are not going to do that. 

Unable to convince his men to follow him, Dumouriez’s plans fell apart. And like so many before him, it was time to slip across the lines. On April 5, Dumouriez went over to the Austrians, and among those who defected with him was the 20 year old Louis-Philippe d’Orléans, son of Duke d’Orléans and future King Louis-Philippe of France.

So obviously, this is all really bad news for the revolutionaries in Paris, as they were once again now facing an imminent Austrian invasion, which is why they must have been so excited to hear that out west, an armed uprising had just broken out in the Vendée. 

Next time, we will discuss the origins of that major uprising that threatened to destroy the revolution from the inside, just as the European powers were once again threatening to destroy it from the outside.

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