Hello, and welcome to Revolutions.
So, welcome to the final stretch drive of the French Revolution. Mrs. Revolutions is getting more and more pregnant by the day, so I have eight weeks to get to the Coup of 18 Brumaire. So no sense wasting time. Let’s get right into it.
To start today, we need to circle back around to the dying embers of the insurrection in the Vendée. There was so much talk last time about Italy that I couldn’t make it back around to the west. But that was partly because there isn’t much left to get back around to. When we last left the region, Lazare Hoche had just crushed the Quiberon Bay expedition back in July 1795, and then marched south into the Vendée. There he was joined by the army of the Pyrenees. No longer required to man the Spanish frontier, these troops marched north to support the final pacification of the west. Under Hoche’s direction, these two armies pinned the last Vendée rebels against the Atlantic coast.
Now the Comtes d’Artois, the younger brother of Louis XVI, and thus younger brother of the now self proclaimed Louis XVIII, and himself, the future Charles X, held out hope that the insurrectionary west would still be the great launching pad for restoration, and he landed with a small emigrate force in late 1795. But by then there was no further support from the British and the rebels were hopelessly outnumbered. Most everyone else in the Vendée had settled into grudging acceptance of the Republic, as long as they were left alone to live and worship how they pleased. So d’Artois got back on his boat and sailed away.
General Hoche then spent the next few months advancing methodically, locking down territory, giving the rebels nowhere to go, nowhere to get supplied from. There was no way in, there was no way out. In early 1796, the final act played out. Hoche finally cornered and captured the last Vendée General in February 1796 and had him shot by a firing squad the following month.
Three years after the insurrection began, in response to the revolutionary attacks on the Catholic Church generally, and then the levée of 300,000 particularly, the war in the Vendée was over. It had been a vicious, bloody and bitter struggle that killed somewhere on the order of 250,000 people. The Vendée uprising is very little known today, but it was by far the most destructive and deadly part of the whole French Revolution. Compared to what happened in the Vendée, the couple of heads rolling into a few baskets in Paris seems positively humane.
The final victory in the Vendée left the Directory with an interesting question. Between the army of the west and the army of the Pyrenees, it now had tens of thousands of republican soldiers freed up to do whatever. What do we do with them all?
The obvious answer was marched east to reinforce the armies of Jourdan, Moreau and Bonaparte, who were all preparing to invade Austrian territory. But depending on how you did the math, the army’s massing against Austria now numbered 200,000 to 300,000 already. So maybe we can use the men in the west to open up a new front in the war. So while some men were transferred east, many more stayed behind to take part in the Directory’s big new fancy plan: invade Ireland. This is going to turn out to have been a horrible idea.
But besides the coming disastrous invasion of Ireland, the victory in the Vendée also created an unexpected political problem for the Directory. Finally abandoning hope of restoring the monarchy by force of arms, Royalists inside France turned their attention to the ballot box to achieve their ends. If the monarchy could no longer win in the field, maybe they could win the next election and then dismantle the hated Republic from the inside.
So despite their flame out in the west, the political Right was actually feeling pretty good about their position in the summer of 1796. The Directory’s crackdown on the Leftist following Babeuf’s aborted Conspiracy of Equals meant that the right was being treated pretty leniently these days. Their papers operated without harassment. They met with each other out in the open. Then the Conservatives got a further boost in September 1796, after the Director arrested Babeuf and his associates, the conspirators were held at the army garrison at Grenelle, that is right off the Champ de Mars outside of Paris. The remaining rump of left wing Jacobins got it into their head that they could incite a mutiny of this garrison, free Babeuf and ride the momentum all the way into power.
It was well known that the garrison in Paris was getting antsy. It used to be pretty awesome to be stationed in the capital, safe and secure and well away from the front lines. But now that the French armies had gone on the offensive, especially the army of Italy, word was coming back that their comrades were out there, bathing in riches and glory, while the Paris garrison sat bored and underpaid in the capital. But as the Jacobins soon found out, that did not mean that they were ready to overthrow the government on behalf of some left wing lunatics.
After some allegedly careful planning, 300 or 400 armed Jacobins mustered on September 9 and marched on the Grenelle garrison. They thought they had made good contacts inside the garrison and that they were about to trigger a mass uprising. But the Jacobin ranks were absolutely riddled with informance, and the Directory knew all about everything well in advance. When the Jacobins arrived, they were greeted by a regiment of fully loyal troops. The whole thing collapsed in a couple of minutes. Most of the Jacobins got away, but the army rounded up about 130 of them, and of those, 30 would be executed a month later by firing squad.
This semi delusional spasm of left wing radicalism only helped further legitimize the Conservatives. But as it was turning out, the Conservatives were not a unified bloc. On the one hand, you had arch conservative absolutists. For them, the goal was nothing less than the full restoration of the monarchy, with all its ancient rights and privileges. On the other, were constitutional monarchists, guys who had been revolutionaries in good standing until the insurrection of August 10 pushed them all out. They believed in trying to restore something like the Constitution of 1791, with a few adjustments to make it more stable.
And one of the biggest differences of opinion amongst these Royalists was, when we say, “Bring back the king”, who do we mean? For the absolutist, this was obvious: Louis XVIII. But the constitutional monarchist gagged on this idea. Louis XVIII had shown himself to be a belligerent reactionary. Restoring the French monarchy was going to be hard enough without trying to build it on the back of some arrogant pratt who spit on everyone who didn’t have Royal blood. So the constitutionalists looked to the junior branch of the royal house and pushed for Louis-Philippe, the son of Philippe Egalité, and now the new Duke d’Orléans. Chances were good that the average French citizen would be far more willing to accept the moderate Duke d’Orléans as King than the reactionary Louis XVIII. But despite their differences, the two sides tried to forge a political coalition that would help them win the spring elections, elections that we’re going to talk about next week. And then they would all start working to restore the monarchy. What that restored monarchy would actually look like was a fight for another day.
Now, as the Conservatives gathered strength, though, general Napoleon Bonaparte was doing his best to make the legitimacy of the Directory ironclad by continuing to kick the snot out of the Austrians in Italy. But though his victories reflected well on the Directory, it was also clear that young Bonaparte was very much his own man.
In the lull between the second Austrian attempt to relieve Mantua in September 1796, that’s what we ended with last time, and the coming third attempt to relieve Mantua in November 1796, that’s what we’ll get to in a second, Bonaparte consolidated French holdings in north Italy, but he did so without instructions, orders, or, frankly, the authority to do so. The Kingdom of Sardinia would remain the Kingdom of Sardinia, defeated and under French occupation. But further to the east, Bonaparte experimented with creating independent French aligned republics out of the mishmash of northern Italian duchies, provinces and city states.
On October 16, he called together representatives from four of these territories and proclaimed them to be the Cispadane Republic, Cispadane being the old Roman designation for territory south of the Po River – a river they called the Padus. With a capital in Bologna, the government of this new republic was modeled on the French Directory: a five man executive committee governing in conjunction with a bicameral legislature.
From Bonaparte’s perspective, the primary responsibility of the new republic would be to clamp down on any local insurrections against French occupation and then keep the French army supplied. And he’s so glad you agree with him about those responsibilities!
A month later, Bonaparte would organize the territories that had been the Duchy of Milan into the Transpadane Republic with a nearly identical administrative apparatus and responsibilities. But by the time that the Transpadane Republic was being proclaimed, Bonaparte was in the middle of getting beat and very possibly losing all that he had just acquired in Italy.
By the end of October 1796, both of the French armies that had invaded across the Rhine River had been chased back into France by Archduke Charles. So while Charles kept an eye on the Rhine frontier to make sure the French didn’t leave winter quarters, the Austrian high command was able to dispatch nearly 50,000 men for a third attempt to relieve Mantua. And Mantua was badly in need of relief.
Remember, at the end of the last episode, the Austrian army that was supposed to have relieved the fortress wound up trapped inside, overcrowded and with dwindling supplies to draw on conditions inside the city were terrible. Within the first month, 4,000 men died from wounds sustained in the recent battles or disease. The only bright side to all this misery was that there were now fewer mouths to feed.
As was their custom, the Austrians divided their forces into two. The main army of about 28,000 circled around and entered Italy from the east, while a second army of 19,000 came straight down from the north. Bonaparte, meanwhile, had a little over 35,000 men at his disposal. But he had to disperse them in four divisions of about 8,000 to 10,000 men each to cover all the approaches to Mantua, to say nothing of the siege itself, which required 8,000 men to maintain. So really, he’s only got about 28,000 men available for his field army.
Now, this latest campaign, which is going to go pretty bad for the French until the very end, naturally got off on the wrong foot. Bonaparte was badly misinformed about the size of the force approaching from the north. The Austrians had taken pains to conceal their deployment, and the army that started marching south at the end of October was literally twice as big as Bonaparte expected. That’s why he posted just one of his 10,000 man divisions to cover the past 19,000 Austrians were now marching down.
Not realizing the extent of the danger to the north, Bonaparte concentrated the rest of his forces to deal with the army coming in from the east. One of his divisions had been stationed in the town of Bassano along the Brenta River. But with the bulk of the Austrian army approaching, this outnumbered division left Bassano and its river crossing to the Austrians and rendez-voused with Bonaparte, who was coming up with 83,000 men to try to stop the Austrians from crossing the river.
Now, by the time the French arrived back at Bassana with 19,000 men on November 6, most of the 28,000 Austrians were already on the west side of the river. Bonaparte ordered an attack to try to drive them back, and an all day battle ensued that saw heavy casualties on both sides. But at the end of the day, Bonaparte had failed to push the Austrians back and he ordered a retreat. The Austrians attempted to pursue him, but Napoleon had his armies moving faster than anything on earth these days, and they pulled away and regrouped at Verona, about 80 miles to the southwest, also, incidentally, where the two converging Austrian armies planned to link up.
The Battle of Bassano was the first time Napoleon Bonaparte had been beaten in the field. Of course, he sent a dispatch back to the Directory reporting a great victory, because, you know, of course, he did.
While the main armies were battling over Bassano, the action in the north saw the Austrians just push the outnumbered French back. The French made a valiant stand over November 6 and 7th at Calliano. But when the Austrians snuck some guys around behind them, some of the French troops panicked and fled, which broke down the whole line. The running battles over the last week had taken its toll on both sides. The Austrians had lost 3,500 killed, captured or wounded. The French had lost 4,400, almost half of their total forces, and they retreated all the way back to Rivoli.
Meanwhile, not too far to the south now, an advanced Austrian force of about 12,000 approached Verona on November 12 and took position on a ridge north of the town of Caldiero. On a totally crappy, hail-filled day, Bonaparte dispatched 13,000 men to cope, push the Austrians off the ridge. The French started to make a little progress, but then a second Austrian force arrived and the French had to retreat again.
So this is not going well for Bonaparte at all. His armies were getting beat on all fronts. They were outnumbered and there was no relief in sight. The two Austrian armies were now dangerously close to linking up, and if they did, their combined weight would be too much to overcome. Napoleon came very close to abandoning the siege of Mantua and pulling back to Milan right then and there.
But then he got lucky, which is one thing all great commanders have in common. From time to time, they just get lucky.
Austrian communications and intelligence during the campaign were horrible. The army approaching from the north believed that the French troops in Rivoli had been reinforced by another 10,000 men, so they halted their advance. No one told them that those men had actually been fighting at Bassano and were now in Verona with Bonaparte. Then the main Austrian army coming in from the east slowed their advance, rather than pushing down hard. This moment of hesitation led Bonaparte to say, “Screw it, let’s just go for the jugular and see if we can win this thing.”
Leaving skeleton crews to man both Mantua and Rivoli dangerously exposing both his flank and his rear to attack, Bonaparte cobbled together 18,000 men to go attack the 23,000 Austrians arrayed against him east of Verona. Revisiting the maneuver he had used when he came down out of the Piedmont, Bonaparte marched his men southeast out of Verona on November 15, following the southern bank of the Adige River. His plan was to march underneath the Austrians, cross the river in their rear, and then come at them from behind, hopefully capturing their baggage and cutting them off from their line of supply and retreat.
What followed turned out to be a three day extravaganza called the Battle of Arcole, that if I described in all its back and forth and regular bridges here and pontoon bridges over there, multiple columns moving in multiple directions across and beside two different rivers and marshy country that limited everyone to using causeways and dyked off dry ground, it would take me a whole episode to get through it all, so we’re not going to do that.
By far, the most famous incident in the battle came on the first day of fighting. With his men pinned down, trying to get across a bridge to take the town of Arcole, hence the name of the battle, Bonaparte got a little carried away trying to rally his men. He grabbed a flag, strode out into the open, waving it and urging his men to attack. Now, this famous scene is inevitably depicted as Napoleon standing on the bridge waving the flag. But the official report says the French hadn’t gotten that far yet and he was actually 55 paces back. Still, pretty gutsy stuff. Eventually, his staff was able to hustle him back to cover without getting shot.
The French eventually took Arcole late that night, then lost it the next day, then nearly got pushed all the way into full blown retreat, before regrouping at the end of the third day and taking the city back for good. With the French now poised to cut them off, the Austrians retreated to protect their line.
The Battle of Arcole decided the campaign. The Austrian army coming down from the north finally recognized how weak the Rivoli garrison was and drove them out of the city on November 17, but that was the same day that the main Austrian army was getting beat at Arcole, and they were now in retreat. With basically no hope now of linking up, the northern army retreated back up into the mountains. The Austrians tried to recoordinate their offensive, but the communication lines were too drawn out and they couldn’t get anything going. By the very skin of his teeth, Bonaparte had staved off the third attempt to relieve Mantua.
With the Austrians hold in Italy slipping away fast, at the end of 1796, the Directory moved forward with its plan to open up a new front in the war against the British. That new front being Ireland. So as Bonaparte battled the Austrians, general Hoche prepared his army for an invasion of the British Isles.
Now, we don’t have the time to get into all the comically horrible details of the Irish expedition, so here is the quick and dirty version of it:
When the revolution got going in France in 1789, Irish patriots were inspired to form political clubs to espouse revolutionary principles and hopefully get the ball rolling on independence from the English. These clubs were tolerated until the British declared war on France in 1793. After that, the clubs were forced underground. But by then, they had built up a pretty good patriotic network and had agents in Paris trying to secure French assistance. Obviously, the French were busy all through 1793 and 1794 and 1795, but by 1796, the Directory was suddenly open to the idea. France’s armies were on offense against the Austrians, so why not go on offense against the British? Irish patriots promised that if the French could land 15,000 regular soldiers and plenty of supplies, that they could raise 250,000 patriotic Irishmen. Together, they could all push the English out of Ireland and leave revolutionary France with a gun pointed at England’s exposed ribcage.
Hoche built up an invasion force of 15,000 to 20,000 men, and gathered arms and equipment for the Irish rebel army. But the French navy stationed in Brest was kind of a mess. They had been getting kicked around by the British Navy for a while. What officers they had were second rate, and the crews were men pressed into service. None of them had any experience doing what they were about to try to do.
As the invasion fleet started to come together over the fall of 1796, Hoche sent them out on a practice run. It was botched so horribly that it threw the logic of the whole operation into doubt. The invasion was planned for December to catch the British off guard. But on the eve of the launch, Hoche himself was so pessimistic about the operation that he wrote to the Directory saying, I would rather lead this army anywhere but Ireland. When he received no reply from his superiors, he led 44 ships out of Brest on December 15. The next day, the order arrived from the Directory canceling the expedition.
From that point on, it was a month of pure hell for everyone. The weather in the North Atlantic in December is never good, but December 1796 laid down some of the worst storms ever recorded. As soon as they left port, the fleet was scattered. Ships that sank in the storms with no hope of rescuing the crews. The flagship containing Hoche, the commanding French admiral and all the senior officers, was blown away from everybody else, and they were never able to link back up. Deprived of their senior officers, the 30 or so ships who managed to link back up decided to keep going forward and sailed for Bantry Bay. But when they finally got there, the weather turned even worse. Even more ships were blown away, destroyed or sunk. The remaining officers tried to launch a landing, but the weather was just too horrible. Then more boats blew away or sunk. The crews and their passengers either drowned or wound up on the overcrowded ships remaining. With all hope of success drained out of the expedition, the officers left in charge called it off on December 29 and sailed back to France.
The return voyage was no better. The weather got even worse, and by now the British finally had ships of their own launched from winter dock and were harassing the well past beleaguered French. Two weeks later, whatever ships were going to make it back, finally made it back. I cannot find hard counts on the total losses, but back of the envelope math says at a minimum, a third of the men who embarked on December 15 did not return. From start to finish, the expedition was a complete and total failure. Not one French soldier set foot on Irish soil.
Now, just so I don’t get yelled at by my British fans out there, I will throw in one little epilogue to this tragic misadventure. A month after the debacle, a separate phase of the already failed invasion of Ireland inexplicably went forward. Equipped with British guns seized at Quiberon Bay, 1,400 French landed at Fishguard in Wales on February 22, 1797. This landing was originally supposed to be a diversionary measure to distract the British from the main landing in Ireland. But since the invasion had already failed spectacularly, I’m not really sure what these guys were doing. After two days of random skirmishing with the locals, including and I’m not making this up an angry Welsh woman with a pitchfork, the invaders surrendered en masse on February 24. The Battle of Fishguard is traditionally recognized as the last time a foreign army set foot on Great Britain.
Back in Paris, the Directory absorbed the news of the disaster, but they had neither the time nor the inclination to dwell on it. They had much bigger things on their plate, because just as the scope of the failure in Ireland was being relayed from the west, the opposite news was coming in from the east. Bonaparte had just scored a major victory against the Austrians and was now poised to drive all the way to Vienna itself.
The near success of the third attempt to relieve Mantua encouraged the Austrians to give it one more try. So as 1796 gave way to 1797, they organized another 50,000 men for yet another attempt at relief. Their plan was to basically come at the French from the same directions as last time, but with two differences. First, this time, the main army of 28,000 would be the ones marching straight down from the north, while the flanking army of 18,000 took the road in from the east. Second, these armies would operate independently of one another. The attempt to coordinate had been a fatal weakness of the third attempt, so this time, the Austrian Generals were told to handle their own business and not worry about what the other guy was doing. They knew where Napoleon had stationed his forces and also knew that the French were down to maybe 30,000 men, split over three 10,000 man divisions, one manning the northern approach at Rivoli, one holding the middle at Verona, and one manning the eastern approach out around Vicenza. So both the 28,000 Austrians coming down from the north and the 18,000 coming in from the east would surely have the numerical advantage in their respective spheres.
Both Austrian armies converged on the French divisions in the second week of January 1797. The flanking Austrian army of 18,000 easily passed through the 10,000 French troops, strung out like a net around Vicenza. One of the Austrian columns then hit Verona on January 12, but were repulsed. The rest of the Austrians, though, just passed right on through and headed for Mantua. So far, so good.
Meanwhile, up north, 28,000 Austrians were descending on just 10,000 French manning the high plateau north of Rivoli. Napoleon waited until he understood the relative sizes and dispositions of the two armies coming at him before he determined what to do. When it was confirmed that the northern army was indeed the main army, Bonaparte made a quick and decisive decision. On January 13, he ordered the 8,800 man division in Verona to abandon the city and forced march overnight for Rivoli. He gave the same order to a 4,000 man reserve force. Then he himself mounted a horse with a few of his staff and raced up to take personal command of the coming battle.
When the Austrians began their attack on Rivoli on the morning of January 14, they had a nearly three to one advantage. But instead of just ramming down the middle and overwhelming the 10,000 Frenchmen trying to hold a line, the Austrians broke up into six different divisions, who then attacked in three different columns. About 12,000 came right down the middle, 14,000 came around the French right, and one division of 4,500 swung all the way around to the left to eventually come with the French from behind. This was all supposed to be a methodical envelopment, but really it just negated their numerical superiority long enough to allow the French defenders to hold the line until help arrived.
Also lending the French a helping hand was the fact that the center Austrian column coming at them had to approach a very rough terrain. We’re talking goat paths, so they had almost no artillery to speak of. But even then, by around 9:00 a.m., the French left started to buckle. But by then, the division from Verona had completed their forced night march through a snowstorm, and Bonaparte was able to feed them into his weakened line.
But just as the center was stabilizing, the 14,000 Austrians sent to attack the French right flank appeared. But critically, this force was divided between 5,000 dragoons and infantry on the near side of the river and a 9,000 man supporting artillery army on the far side. Plus, they all had to charge out of a steep ravine to reach the French position on the plateau. Bonaparte rejiggered his lines and concentrated heavy fire on the 5,000 men trying to come up out of the ravine, finally repelling them in disarray.
As noon approached, the last piece of the Austrian plan, supposedly, finally reappeared from their wide march around the French left to appear in the French rear. But of course, by then, they were not going to be delivering the final blow, they were just an isolated 4,500 men unit. And that is precisely when the second wave of French reinforcements arrived. And trapped between two enemy armies, all 4,500 Austrians surrendered.
With every line of attack having failed, the Austrians were forced to retreat north. But Bonaparte was not just going to let them get away. The next day, he divided his army into two. Half were ordered to pummel and overwhelm the retreating Austrians, which they did with brutal effectiveness. And by the end of the day on January 16, the French had killed, wounded, or captured 15,000 Austrians. Of the 28,000 who marched south, only 13,000 managed to escape back to the north.
Meanwhile, Bonaparte himself led the other half of the army, mostly the division that come from Verona, to go pin down that other 18,000 men Austrian army, currently headed for Mantua. Bonaparte led this division on a march that carried them 39 miles in 24 hours. And though they weren’t able to get between the Austrians and Mantua, they did something even better: they got around behind them. The Austrians found themselves pinned between the French forces besieging Mantua and this Bonaparte-led Verona division.
Now isolated and surrounded, the Austrian army surrendered on January 16. The Mantua garrison held out for two more weeks. But clearly, it was now futile. On February 2, 1797, the fortress capitulated.
The Battle of Rivoli and the capture of Mantua were debilitating blows to the Austrian fortunes in Italy. Once Napoleon became Emperor and started his urban renewal plans for Paris, one of the new major streets he ordered construction through the very heart of Paris was named after this battle, which is why when you go to Paris today, you always find yourself in and around the Rue de Rivoli. But after capturing Mantua, young General Bonaparte did not even take time to consolidate his position.
Next week, he will set out on an audacious march, aiming straight for the Austrian capital of Vienna. Within two months, the Austrians will be arranging an armistice, setting the stage for the final treaty negotiations at Campo Formio in the fall of 1797. Treaty negotiations that will end the War of the First Coalition, a war that had begun way back in the spring of 1792 and had done so much to determine the course of the French Revolution.
But as we’ll see, while Bonaparte was winning the war for France, the Directory was facing a concerted attack on its very legitimacy. The first round of free elections in the spring of 1797 will be a disaster for the incumbent regime, leading to a six month standoff between Republicans and Monarchists, that was finally ended in September, when the Directory launched the Coup of Fructidor.
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