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The French Revolutionary Wars

In early 1792, three armies were stationed on the northern frontier: the Army of the North (commanded by Marshal Rochambeau), the Army of the Centre (commanded by the Marquis de Lafayette), and the Army of the Rhine (commanded by Marshal Luckner). King Louis commanded the Army of the North, which invaded Belgium from bases in Lille, Valenciennes, and Dunkirk.

The 2,300-man column from Lille led by Théobald Dillon was intercepted and routed by Austrian hussars 10 miles into its march on the 28th. He was executed by his troops for ‘treachery’. The 15,000-man column from Valenciennes led by the Duc de Biron headed for Mons. His force faced off an Austrian force in Hainaut. On the evening of the 28th, rumours of an Austrian attack resulted in two regiments of cavalry routing. Biron returned to Valenciennes after an 18-mile advance. The column from Dunkirk marched to Veurne on the 30th, found no resistance, and returned to base.

The shameful failure of the first actions of the war caused Rochambeau to resign. Marshal Luckner replaced him temporarily.


The second invasion of Belgium occurred in early June 1792. On the 9th, Luckner led 20,000 men across the border. He had taken Menin and Courtrai by the 19th . An Austrian counter-attack under Johann Peter Beaulieu repulsed Luckner, who returned to Lille on 30 June.

News of the Belgian defeats angered the public. Parisians blamed the King and made him wear a cap of liberty to prove his loyalty to the Revolution. Lafayette left the front to protest against this. Lafayette moved his army closer to Paris by switching with Luckner and made his men swear loyalty to ‘nation, law, and King’. On 2 August, after setting up a chain of regiments to Paris, Lafayette offered asylum to the King in his camp. Louis declined.

On 11 July, after news of the Duke of Brunswick’s advance towards Paris reached the city, the Legislative Assembly published the Patrie en Danger decree and summoned 100,000 fédérés — republican volunteers to the National Guard — to Paris. The levy was vetoed by Louis but was enforced regardless. On 1 August, the Brunswick Manifesto reached Paris. It read: ‘If the least violence be offered to their Majesties the King, Queen, and royal family, and if their safety and their liberty be not immediately assured, [the German army] will inflict an ever memorable vengeance by delivering over the city of Paris to military execution and complete destruction.’


Marshal Luckner

By Auguste Couder, from wikimedia commons (source)

This failed to intimidate Paris. Instead, it rallied most Parisians behind the radicals in government. On 10 August, a crowd chanting La Marseillaise marched on the Tuileries Palace. At 8 a.m., the fédérés faced off against 900 Swiss guards inside the palace. After 45 minutes, despite signs of peace from both sides, the tension broke into gunfire. The Swiss guards chased the fédérés out of the palace until reinforcements forced the Swiss to retreat into the building. After attempting to flee the palace, 600 Swiss guards were massacred. A further 60 of them were paraded to the statue of Louis XVI and put to death there. Most of the 300 survivors were arrested and slaughtered in the September Massacres. The King was placed in custody and in September a National Convention convened to draft a republican constitution.

Brunswick’s army of 86,000 men reached Coblenz on 19 August and invested Verdun on 29 August; it surrendered on 2 September. The armies of France kept manoeuvring to check Brunswick’s slow approach to Paris. By 20 September, a foggy day, Brunswick’s army had passed Valmy on the road to Chalons when it engaged the French forces. It turned away from Paris to engage Lieutenant-General François Kellerman’s forces, which were composed largely of veterans from the Royal Army. Its left flank was situated on the road Brunswick had marched down, its centre on a hill south of Valmy and its right flank on the highlands north of Valmy.


Artillery fire was exchanged until 1 p.m., when Brunswick formed a line and advanced. Kellerman advanced his centre forces to meet it. He raised his hat on his sabre, touting its tricolore cockade and crying ‘Vive la Nation!’ His troops replied ‘Vive la France! Vive notre Général!’ and played ‘Ça Ira’ on fife and drum. French artillery inflicted such damage on Brunswick’s advance that it withdrew. Artillery duelled once more until the Prussian artillery exploded three French ammunition wagons, crippling Kellerman’s battery. Brunswick sent another line forward to exploit the chaos, but a new French battery moved up and again repelled the German advance. The artillery duelled again until dark when torrential rain prompted Brunswick to withdraw from the battlefield.


The casualties totalled between 300 and 500 Frenchmen and 180 Germans. Wolfgang von Goethe, who was attached to Brunswick’s army, remarked on the defeat of the legendary Prussian regulars by ‘ragtag’ French volunteers: ‘Here and today begins a new epoch in the history of the world.’ In reality, veteran artillery officers had won the day, but the battle was symbolic. It was referenced in 20th century French president Charles de Gaulle’s speeches and its legacy is still felt today. Valmy was the volunteers’ first major engagement and first major victory. It was the first step in a long journey towards forging the regulars of Napoleon’s armies.


Charles François Dumouriez, from wikimedia commons


On 22 September, Dumouriez agreed to allow Brunswick to retreat unhindered to the frontier. Lieutenant-General Adam-Philippe Custine de Sarreck used the newly created Army of the Vosges to stop Brunswick reinforcing Belgium.

The Army of the Vosges advanced and captured Speyer on 29 September. Splitting at Heimbach, two columns attacked Speyer head-on while one took the fortress of the town from the rear. He advanced through the Rhenish Palatinate with ease, taking Worms, Philippsbourg, Mainz, and Frankfurt by 31 October (only the latter resisted). Historians attribute his lack of opposition to disagreements between Prussia and Austria over the partition of Poland.


Dumouriez, meanwhile, made another advance into Belgium towards Mons with the new 70,000-man Army of Belgium, supported by the 20,000-man Army of the Ardennes (the Flanders Campaign). This resulted in the Battle of Jemappes on 6 November against 12,000 men under the Duke of Saxe-Teschen — a French victory. Once more, the veteran artillery had secured a successful outcome, but Paris again hailed the supremacy of the nation in arms.


Brussels fell on 14 November, followed by Liège on 30 November. At this time, the Army of the North, led by Francisco de Miranda, was investing Antwerp. With Belgium all but conquered, Dumouriez turned his eyes towards Holland (despite his diminishing army; only half of his forces remained, many annual contracts having expired).

Brunswick retook Frankfurt on 2 December. On 21 December, much later than anticipated as a result of organisational upheaval, 36 vessels of the French Mediterranean Fleet arrived off Cagliari. France felt the surrender of the island was important as it would weaken the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, which controlled Nice and Savoy. The delays had allowed the Sardinians to assemble an army of 4,000 infantrymen and 6,000 horsemen to defend their island. A gale blew the French fleet westward. Count-Admiral Laurent Truguet took the islands of San Pietro and Sant’Antioco without resistance.


By the end of 1792, France had advanced on all fronts, occupying the vast majority of Belgium and crossing the Rhine at Mainz and Worms. It had also launched an ambitious but ultimately disastrous expedition against the island of Sardinia in December. This set the stage for the escalation of the conflict in 1793.

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