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The Soldiers of the French Revolution
By Alan Forrest
Duke University PressCopyright © 1990 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
THE REVOLUTION AND ITS SOLDIERS
ON APRIL 20 1792, THE FRENCH GOVERNMENT DECLARED war on Austria and brought to an end a long period of uneasy coexistence between revolutionary France and the monarchies of Europe. It was to prove a momentous decision, affecting the domestic history of the French Revolution almost as crucially as it affected international relations throughout Europe. However confident contemporaries might be in predicting a speedy and successful outcome, this would not turn out to be a short war, to be won in a single glorious campaigning season. Hostilities were to last, virtually continuously, throughout the remainder of the decade, consuming an increasing part of the effort and resources of revolutionary governments and, in the process, changing the character of the Revolution itself. With the war came economic controls and special taxes, forced loans on the rich, requisitions of food and livestock, extensive recruitment, and finally annual conscription. Winning the war became, unavoidably, the major political priority of the day, with the result that other measures were dropped or distorted in order to provide for the armies. New levels of constraint and compulsion entered everyday life, often justified by military necessity or introduced as emergency expedients that must be endured for the duration of the war. Even political terror could be explained and popularized as an exceptional measure needed to ensure the success of French arms. In the process, the army itself gained new authority and status until, under the Directory, it came to represent an alternative focus of power to the constitutional government of the day and allowed Napoleon Bonaparte to launch his successful challenge on 18 brumaire.
This book is not the place to consider in detail the military history of these years; others have done so, often at very great length. A general picture of the progress of the war is perhaps necessary, however, if only to provide a context for the social and political discussion that follows. The declaration of war in April 1792 was made in an atmosphere of some confusion, after months of saber rattling by both sides and amid bitter political disunity in France. Nor did the early news from the battle zones do anything to dispel that confusion. The first encounters were ominously unsuccessful for the French, deepening the political divisions within the country and increasing the levels of fear and panic that already existed among the population. Military defeats and indecisive campaigning during these early months convinced many that the Revolution was being deliberately undermined, that ministers and generals were betraying the trust placed in them, and that France was being projected on a path that would lead to humiliation and political chaos. A war that had been declared against Austria was extended to include the Prussians by early July; on July 11, the patrie was declared en danger; and during August French territory was invaded from both the North and the East. The revolutionaries who had launched the war with such confidence and bravado just a few months before were fighting for their very survival.
Toward the end of 1792, it is true, the French armies staged a spectacular recovery, chased their enemies out of France, and were everywhere on the offensive—in the South they entered Nice and Savoy, in the East they attacked Mainz and Frankfurt, and in the North they had Brussels and Antwerp at their mercy. Two famous battles marked what many at the time saw as a great turning point in the war. At Valmy on September 19, the forces of Dumouriez and Kellermann used massed artillery to turn back the Prussians; and at Jemmapes on November 6, Dumouriez's army inflicted a further defeat, this time on the Austrians, which showed the quality of French infantry and cavalry in hand-to-hand combat. But these successes were soon eclipsed, and by the spring of 1793 the Revolution was again threatened.
Tormented by serious outbreaks of rural counterrevolution in Brittany and the West, the French were faced with the combined strength of the First Coalition, which included not only the military power of the major land armies of Europe, but also the naval strength of Britain and Spain. In time, this crisis, too, passed. Under the Jacobins the French armies recovered from their early setbacks, turning back Austrian and Prussian advances in the East and pushing the Spaniards across the Pyrenees into Spanish Catalonia. Morale inevitably improved. Whereas early victories like Valmy and Jemmapes could justifiably be regarded as the outcome of a certain good fortune, the armies of 1794 were able to hold their own against the best professional armies of Europe. By June of that year, following victory over the Austrians at Fleurus, the north of France was liberated and the French found themselves once again in a position to attack Belgium. And with both the Prussians and the Austrians seeking peace, the First Coalition was effectively over. The key settlement was the Treaty of Basel, signed with Prussia on April 5, 1795. By its terms Prussia abandoned her allies, recognizing French claims to the left bank of the Rhine if France would agree to the neutralization of North Germany. This in turn allowed the French to impose the Treaty of the Hague on the Dutch on May 16 and to prepare for the permanent annexation of Belgium. Spain made peace two months later. The Republic had been saved, national pride had been restored, and the reputation of the citizen army—the myth of "les soldats de 1'an II"—was born.
The treaty proved, however, to be little more than a short respite from fighting, and again it was the French who opened hostilities, taking advantage of the apparent weakness of their enemies. Austria and Prussia remained disunited, their mutual antagonism fueled by the question of Polish partition. And Britain's ill-fated landing at Carnac in June 1795 to help the royalist rebels in Brittany—the three thousand British and émigré troops were quickly cornered on the Quiberon Peninsula by a French army under Hoche—served only to confirm French suspicions of English perfidy and to harden their own political resolve. But the principal change in the conduct of the war, as Georges Lefebvre noted, was that until Basel France was largely on the defensive, seeking to defend herself against enemies who believed her cause lost. In this second phase of the war, the French government launched itself into conflict in an offensive mood, intent on holding onto gains in Holland and the Rhineland and on taking advantage of divisions and weaknesses among her opponents. Ranged against the French was a renewed coalition, which included many of the north German states but in which only England and Austria could be counted as serious belligerents. This was not a war to protect "la patrie en danger," to defend the French people against invasion and the gains of the Revolution against destruction.
It would be difficult, indeed, to claim that the wars of the Thermidorians and the Directory were in any real sense ideological in inspiration. Rather, they resembled the traditional wars of conquest fought by the kings and princes of the eighteenth century, conducted with the single-minded aim of acquiring territorial advantage. To secure its conquests, but also to feed its armies, the Directory ordered the invasion of the German states and of Italy. Its military ambition, indeed, seemed limitless. By 1797, France had set up a series of buffer states to protect her military acquisitions—dependencies like the Batavian Republic in Holland, the Helvetic Republic in Switzerland, or the Cisalpine and Ligurian republics in Italy, while a victorious French army had ignored papal sensibilities and had entered Rome. The Treaty of Campio-Formio, imposed on the Austrians by Bonaparte on October 18 with only the most cursory reference back to his political masters in Paris, demonstrated both the extent of France's imperial aspirations and the degree of independent authority which the military had obtained. In these circumstances any thought of a permanent peace could be little more than self-deception; Campio-Formio was rightly interpreted, both in Paris and in Vienna, as little more than a lull in the fighting. By the end of the year Napoleon would be preparing the Egyptian campaign, and the Second Coalition would be born. Far from being a temporary expedient, war had become an integral part of the politics of the revolutionary state. The power of the army was already a political reality, as was volubly demonstrated by the journée of 18 fructidor, when the military overthrew the Constitution and brought Bonaparte to power. The army was no longer a passive onlooker, no longer a mere instrument of the government of the day. It had a professional interest in the pursuit of victory and in the continuation of hostilities.
There is no clear consensus about the essential character of the revolutionary wars. The traditional interpretation, at least in France, has placed great emphasis on ideology, seeing the wars as the clash of two opposed and mutually intolerant political systems. The French, according to this rather apocalyptic vision of foreign policy, were motivated by much more than the simple desire for conquest. They were not simply imitating the ambitions of their predecessors, seeking to take advantage of the weakness of others to grab a slice of the Rhineland or to seize the trading cities of the Netherlands. Nor was war to be explained by a desire to establish natural frontiers—perhaps the most traditional of all French foreign policy aims under the monarchy. Nationalism and a sense of dedication to the cause of the patrie made this a war of principle in which the rational assessment of gains and losses gave way to a much more emotive gut reaction, that of protecting the territory and culture of the French people against the depredations of others. During the revolutionary decade, when so much was politicized and expressed in ideological terms, that "culture" was, of course, predominantly a political culture. Geographical and political expressions—France, patrie, Revolution, and ultimately Republic—came to be used interchangeably and almost without distinction. The country and its political institutions, the people and their collective morality, all were easily assimilated into a common good. The war, like the Revolution itself, was presented as a cause that involved the interests of all the people. It was an ideological war between two irreconcilable forces, a war which, many believed, could end only in complete victory or in total defeat. And the prospect of defeat could not be contemplated because defeat would involve the reimposition of the Bourbons and the destruction of all that had been achieved since 1789.
This vision of war as the inevitable clash of two mutually antagonistic political systems finds ample illustration in the speeches and tracts of the period. The French Revolution combined nationalism with a sense of missionary zeal which many other European governments regarded as a threat to their own values and institutions. From the very earliest months the revolutionary leaders preached to the French people that their cause was the cause of all humanity, that of Reason and Enlightenment against the forces of social reaction and monarchical absolutism. For many among them the logic of war was inescapable. They saw their enemies on all sides—not just in foreign courts and foreign capitals, but in such French citizens as might be in foreign pay, like aristocrats and émigrés, army officers and refractory priests. Military mutinies and the defections of generals, financial panics and the collapse of markets, noble and clerical emigration, the vacillation and bad faith of Louis XVI, the treasonable correspondence of Marie Antoinette and her Austrian coterie, royalist insurgencies like that which drew some twenty thousand Catholic peasants to the Camp de Jalès in the Ardéche in 1790—it was little wonder that the Revolution developed a paranoia about national security, or that a war party came into being long before the formal declaration of hostilities. Indeed, it could be argued that from the very outset the French Revolution, almost necessarily, was placed on a war footing.
Popular opinion, especially in Paris, remained highly sensitive to the threat posed by the monarchies of Europe, by the much-feared machinations of "Pitt-Cobourg," the mythical two-headed monster which, in revolutionary propaganda, represented the unbridled fury of counterrevolution. But such fears were not restricted to the capital. In the countryside, too, the Grande Peur—the waves of rural rioting which had swept uncontrollably across wide tracts of agrarian France during 1789, linked to popular belief in an aristocratic conspiracy—left a legacy of insecurity that would prove difficult to eradicate. The move to form National Guard units in provincial towns and cities during the months that followed reflected the degree of unease which lingered on. By 1792, the level of fear and suspicion was considerably heightened as a result of the international situation. The flight of the king to Varennes the previous summer had confirmed the worst suspicions of those who believed that constitutional monarchy could never be made to work with a Bourbon on the throne. The Declaration of Pilnitz and the Brunswick Manifesto, both issued in August 1791, had demonstrated the undying hatred of the Austrian court for the Revolution and its liberal reforms. At Pilnitz, the emperor and King Frederick-William of Prussia promised to use force to reestablish a monarchical system of government in France; in his manifesto, the Duke of Brunswick threatened that those Frenchmen captured in battle would be treated as rebels and held the people of Paris collectively responsible for the continued safety of Louis XVI. Both documents were intended to spread fear and panic among the civilian population in France, and they provided clear evidence, if such evidence was needed, of the degree of influence enjoyed by French émigrés with Leopold and his advisers and showed how openly committed the Austrian Empire still was to the return of the Bourbon monarchy. As a result, many Frenchmen became convinced that war was no longer a simple policy option, but was necessary if the Revolution was to be saved from destruction at the hands of its enemies.
In 1792, this view was most closely identified with the Girondins, the group in the Assembly which most consistently advocated war against Austria if the Revolution were to be saved. While Robespierre and his supporters among the Paris Jacobins warned that war would only distract the French people from their real enemies within, Roland, Brissot, and other leading Girondin politicians insisted that there was no necessary contradiction between internal surveillance and external conflict. Brissot even went so far as to claim that he did not see a war policy as being in any sense dangerous because French troops would be welcomed in countries they invaded as liberators and missionaries of liberty. But it was Vergniaud who put the Girondin case most succinctly in a major speech to the Legislative Assembly on January 18, 1792.
France, Vergniaud argued, could not afford to ignore the effects of its revolution on other countries or the fear it had caused among the crowned heads of Europe. Nor could it overlook the political consequences of that fear. The Revolution had provided a glorious example not only of a government based on liberty, but also of the destruction of that very despotism which supported and maintained monarchies. It was therefore unavoidable that despots should detest the French constitution and work to undermine it because "it makes men free, whereas they want to rule over populations of slaves." Vergniaud went on to demonstrate that the Austrian emperor, far from remaining aloof from French internal politics, was already engaged in a three-pronged campaign against the Revolution, a campaign against which France was ill-equipped to react as long as she remained at peace. The emperor had at his disposal three "armies of reptiles," each dedicated to the destruction of the Revolution and its achievement—an army of intriguers and slanderers who undermined the regime from within; an army of seditious priests who spread discord in the name of a God of peace; and an army of greedy financiers who speculated shamefully in human suffering. Vergniaud warned that only by taking up arms could the French people defend their liberty and give hope to the rest of the human race.
Even within the Assembly Vergniaud's analysis was hotly contested. Robespierre spoke for many deputies when he queried the wisdom of spreading France's commitments too widely, or of risking the uncertainties of foreign war when there were enemies to be rooted out at home. He saw the war option as foolhardy and dangerous, plunging France into a European conflict which could only play into the hands of the court faction. But it was one thing to criticize the war policy when it came up for discussion in the Assembly or at the Jacobin Club; it was quite another to continue an antiwar crusade once hostilities had been declared. By this time, French soldiers were engaged in fighting on the frontiers, patriotic propaganda had stressed the level of shared danger France faced, and the mobilization of men and resources had brought the war into every village in the land. To counsel prudence might seem dangerously like defeatism; to advocate peace might be mistaken for cowardice or treason. Besides, popular panic and the fear of an Austrian invasion were everywhere in evidence. Radical pamphleteers and sectional leaders rivaled one another in their patriotism and their commitment to destroy the last vestiges of despotism. Radical journalists whipped up emotive anger and sought scapegoats for failure. And theirs were no longer lone voices. They were guaranteed a ready audience in the teeming streets around the Paris markets and in those popular faubourgs in the capital—like Saint-Antoine and Saint-Marcel—where a radical tradition was developing. Here news of French setbacks gave rise to fear and consternation, as Parisians prepared themselves for invasion and for the bloody repression they expected at the hands of the Austrians; the extent of their fear became chillingly apparent only in September when alleged aristocrats and counterrevolutionaries were hunted down and massacred in Paris jails. By then all French politicians were agreed that the war had to be pursued vigorously, and if the Jacobins continued to attack the Gironde's war policy, it was not the principle of war but the inefficiency of their management which provoked criticism. By 1794, Billaud-Varenne could claim that the success of the war and the pursuit of the Revolution were in no sense conflicting policies. Rather, he argued, the war which at one time had appeared to threaten France with ruin had inspired the people with patriotism and with a sense of their common achievement. The war had increased the political consciousness of the French and had made them aware of the common dangers they faced. And he called for a stabilization of the political system in France to prepare a sound basis for military victory.
Excerpted from The Soldiers of the French Revolution by Alan Forrest. Copyright © 1990 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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