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THE FRENCH REVOLUTIONARY WARS
 
 


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Encircling a pariah: 1792

In the first year or two of the French Revolution the other European powers observe from a distance what is clearly, however dramatic, an internal upheaval. Moreover the three leading continental powers, Prussia, Austria and Russia, are concentrating their energies elsewhere, to ensure their due share in the coming partitions of Poland.

But during 1791 the situation changes. The danger to the French king and queen is painfully evident after their interception at Varennes, and the queen, Marie Antoinette, is the sister of the Austrian emperor Leopold II. Moreover action against France is now being urged by a new group outside French borders - the émigrés.
 









Émigré is merely the French for emigrant, but in the context of France at this time it has an added implication. Applying specifically to aristocrats and to other victims of the revolution (such as the Non-juring priests), it has a different significance in its French form.

Eventually more than half the officers of the pre-revolutionary French army leave the country, and many of them join the émigré groups living just beyond the country's borders and waiting to march home under arms. Their chances of doing so increase after Austria and Prussia issue the declaration of Pillnitz, in August 1791, declaring a willingness to use force if necessary to protect Louis XVI.
 







The same two rulers issue another circular on 12 April 1792 soliciting allies for future action against France. The republican Convention in Paris responds by declaring war on Austria - the closest hostile power, as ruler of the Austrian Netherlands (modern Belgium), and vulnerable in that region because of a strong local resistance to Austrian rule.

In the event the first major development of the war is an invasion of northeast France by a joint Austrian and Prussian army in August 1792. Their declared intention of marching on Paris heightens revolutionary fervour in the capital and to a large extent prompts the September massacres.
 






Republican victories: 1792-1793

The allies take Verdun on September 2 and advance unopposed until confronted by a republican army at Valmy on September 20. The engagement consists of a massive exchange of cannon fire (40,000 rounds are fired, with the total casualties on both sides fewer than 500), but it is a clear victory for the French. It is followed by the withdrawal of the invading army to the other side of the Meuse.

This unexpected success is soon followed by others. A victory at Jemappes on November 6 enables the French to overrun much of the Austrian Netherlands before turning east to capture Aachen.
 









Meanwhile another republican army is making great strides east of the Rhine. In the autumn of 1792 the towns of Worms, Mainz and, for a while, even Frankfurt are captured.

These successes somewhat overexcite the radical politicians in Paris. In November France promises assistance to any people rising against their oppressive rulers. This is followed in December by the announcement that the French revolutionary reforms will be introduced in all territories occupied by French armies. And there begins now to be talk of France insisting upon her 'natural frontiers' - the Pyrenees, the Alps and the Rhine.
 







These are broad and threatening claims, involving much territory west of the Rhine belonging to other nations. But the French republic now makes rapid strides towards putting their demands into effect. By the end of March 1793 the territories occupied by French troops include Belgium (part of the Austrian empire), the Rhineland (consisting of various German principalities west of the Rhine), and Savoy and Nice (territories to the southeast of France belonging to the king of Sardinia).

These astonishingly rapid successes owe much to the desire for reform by many people in the annexed regions, and to the nature of the new French armies.
 






Volunteer armies and mass conscription: 1792-3

The French military euphoria of 1792-3 derives to a large extent from the unprecedented nature of the nation's armies. The volunteers signing up for the regional National Guards are both more numerous and more passionate than the professionals who make up all other 18th century regiments.

But the French armies can draw on conventional forces as well. The victory at Valmy is won with the expertise and weapons of the regular soldiers of the ancien régime.
 









From 1793 there is another element bringing advantage to the republican armies. France becomes in August of that year the first country to attempt national conscription. The men directly called to arms are limited to those without immediate dependents (bachelors and childless widowers between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five). But everyone is to be involved. Carnot, the distinguished general organizing the conscription, drafts the necessary decree as a clarion call for an entirely new concept - a Nation at war.

His inspirational tone is a political necessity. In the previous few months virtually the whole of Europe has followed Austria's lead in waging war against republican France.
 






The war on land: 1793-1796

During the summer of 1793 alliances against France are made between Britain, Russsia, Prussia, Austria, Portugal, Spain, Sardinia (meaning the region of Piedmont between France and Italy, together with the island of Sardinia) and Naples (the whole of southern Italy together with the island of Sicily).

The French republic is literally ringed with an alliance of enemies, known to historians as the First Coalition. But the new policy of conscription enables France to keep large armies in the field, facing in every hostile direction. They become known by their regions - the armies of the North, of the Ardennes, of the Moselle, of the Alps, of Italy and of the Pyrenees.
 









The size of the French armies, combined with the failure of the allies to cooperate effectively, means that the issue is evenly matched. The years 1793 to 1795 are spent in inconclusive operations in the regions around France's borders, seized by the republic in 1792-3.

The two most significant developments are on the Atlantic coast. In 1795 the French invade the United Provinces of the Netherlands. They meet little resistance, because the Dutch are by now disenchanted with the rule of the Orange dynasty. The result is a treaty enlisting Holland in the war on the French side.
 







A similar process happens in relation to Spain, which has been at war with France since 1793. A succession of French victories over Spanish armies leads to the treaty of San Ildefonso in 1796, by which Spain changes sides and becomes an ally of France.

Thus, in 1795-6, Britain finds herself at war with her three leading rivals in the imperial struggle for overseas territories and markets. It is a significant development, for the war at sea is the only one which Britain considers intimately linked with her national interests.
 






The war at sea: 1793-1796

The renewal of war between Britain and France in 1793 is a continuation of a century-long conflict between the two most aggressive imperial powers. In recent engagements the results have favoured Britain, particularly in Canada and India during the Seven Years' War.

In the new conflict the first arena of war is another rich colonial region, the West Indies. During 1794 the British seize several of the smaller French islands in the Caribbean, at an extremely heavy cost in terms of troops dying of yellow fever. On 1 June 1794 (the Glorious First of June in British accounts) Richard Howe destroys a French squadron in the Atlantic - but fails in his primary purpose of harming the rich convoy being accompanied on its journey from America to France.
 









More significant developments result from the Dutch and the Spanish entering the war on the side of the French in 1795-6. The British take the opportunity of seizing four prizes of great value - from the Spanish the islands of Minorca in the Mediterranean and of Trinidad in the Caribbean, and from the Dutch Sri Lanka and the thriving Cape colony at the southern tip of Africa.

By the time this happens, most of the allies of 1793 have either changed to France's side (the United Provinces and Spain) or lapsed into neutrality (Russia and Prussia).
 






Two strategies against Austria: 1796-1797

By 1796 the only enemies still at war with France are Britain, Austria, Sardinia and Portugal. The British navy is able to prevent any French initiative at sea. The natural avenues open to France are a drive east towards Austria north of the Alps, and a piecemeal campaign south of the mountains against the kingdom of Sardinia (meaning in this context the area round Turin) and the Austrian territories in north Italy.

Of these two strategies, the Directory in Paris puts much greater faith in the northern option.
 









The bulk of the available resources in 1796 are given to two armies poised on France's eastern frontier, each an amalgamation (they are known by this stage as the armies of Sambre-and-Meuse and of Rhine-and-Moselle). Together they number about 150,000 men. But their excursions eastwards across the Rhine during 1796 make little lasting headway against the Austrians.

By contrast the armies of the Alps and of Italy are weak, under-equipped and expected to achieve little. But on 2 March 1796 the command of the army of Italy is given to the 26-year-old Napoleon Bonaparte. The result is astonishing.
 






The Italian campaign: 1796-1797

When Napoleon joins his army in March 1796, he finds himself in command of 37,000 men who are demoralized, badly fed and unpaid. During April he leads them in a series of rapid victories which vastly raise the soldiers' spirits and hold out the promise of rich loot under this energetic young commander.

The allies facing Napoleon are the Austrians, committed to defending their extensive territory around Milan - and the Sardinians whose realm extends from Savoy and Nice west of the Alps to Piedmont, with its capital at Turin, on the Italian side. (They are called Sardinians because the duke of Savoy is also the king of Sardinia, a senior title.)
 









Napoleon's strategy is to divide and to surprise his enemies. Instead of taking the obvious route along the coast, he leads his army through Alpine passes to catch the Austrians unaware at Montenotte on April 12. It is the first of a rush of victories against Austrians and Sardinians separately. The allies are successfully prevented from joining forces against their fast-moving opponent.

At the end of the month Napoleon issues a proclamation to his men, using a certain degree of hyperbole to trumpet their achievements: 'Soldiers! In fifteen days you have gained six victories, taken twenty-one colours and fifty-five pieces of artillery, seized several fortresses and conquered the richest parts of Piedmont.'
 







By April 28, in the armistice of Cherasco, the king of Sardinia is ready to make peace with France and to cede his territories of Savoy and Nice - both in practice already occupied, since 1792, by French republican forces.

Napoleon's conquest of Piedmont is repeated, in similar piecemeal fashion, in other regions of Italy. He defeats the Austrians at Lodi on April 10 and enters Milan five days later. Subsequent campaigns lead rapidly to armistices with the dukes of Parma (May 9) and Modena (May 17) and with the pope, Pius VI, on June 23. Ancient and enfeebled Venice is unable to offer any opposition to the conqueror. In May 1797 Napoleon deposes the last of the doges and sets up a provisional democracy.
 







In all these subdued territories Napoleon has been energetically imposing the new French ways, often with the enthusiastic support of locals as impatient as the French with the remnants of feudalism. Northern and central Italy is reorganized as the Cisalpine Republic, while the territory of Genoa becomes the Ligurian Republic.

During the winter of 1796-7 there are prolonged and complicated engagements between French and Austrian forces round Mantua, but by April Napoleon is secure enough to move northwards against Vienna itself. He is just two days' march away from the city, at Leoben, when the Austrian emperor agrees an armistice.
 







By the terms of the peace, signed at Campo Formio in October, Austria cedes to France the Austrian Netherlands and all her territory in northern Italy. In return, as a sop, Napoleon gives the emperor Venice.

All this is negotiated by the young general on his own initiative. The Directory, busy with the coup d'état of Fructidor, is in no position to control him in his triumph. Moreover, like Napoleon's troops, the government can hardly be indifferent to the material result of his success. A steady stream of booty, both of money and art, makes its way back to France (including, looted once again, the famous bronze horses from St Mark's in Venice). Exported French republicanism may be a blessing, but it does not come cheap.
 






Plans to invade England: 1797-1798

The terms agreed by Napoleon at Campo Formio are displeasing to the Directory in one important respect - they fail to secure conclusive French possession of the German areas west of the Rhine. This is accepted by the Austrians in principle (and for part of the region only), but it is to be discussed further at a congress of German princes at Rastatt. However Campio Formio has one widely popular result. It restores peace to continental Europe for the first time in five years.

Now the only nation still at war with France is her traditional enemy, Britain. Napoleon is appointed commander of an army to be assembled for an invasion across the Channel. In Paris in December he settles down to detail.
 









Sixty specially designed gunboats and 250 fishing vessels are to convey an army of about 25,000 men from a dozen different embarkation points. Wolfe Tone, eager to arrange another French invasion of Ireland, is involved in the discussions. In February 1798 Napoleon sets off for a tour of the coast, from Normandy to Belgium, to inspect the preparations. What he sees, in the motley flotilla being assembled, convinces him that this is a most risky undertaking - both in itself and for his own reputation as a commander, invariably associated until now with success.

He tells the Directory that it is unwise to launch an attack on Britain until such time as France has command of the seas.
 







Napoleon finds it difficult to get out of this dangerous command without tendering a resignation which would in itself be damaging. The situation is only resolved when he proposes a much more exotic course of action. He argues that Britain is best attacked in the region of her underlying strength, that of the overseas empire. He suggests that a French seizure of Egypt would harm British communications with India and would add a rich and strategically placed colony to France's own empire.

In March 1798 the Directors, perhaps welcoming the chance to send this popular and ambitious general far from the centre of power, approve his plan - as yet to be kept a closely guarded secret.
 







During the next two months, while troops continue to assemble on the Channel coast to conceal the change of plan, Napoleon puts together an invasion force against Egypt which is intended to have a glamorous profile. In addition to the regiments of troops he will be accompanied by distinguished scientists, academics and artists to study and report on this ancient oriental civilization. They cannot as yet be allowed to know where they are going. Even so, 150 of France's most distinguished men of science accept Napoleon's invitation.

Surprisingly soon, everything is ready. On May 19 some 400 vessels sail from Toulon and four other ports on their dangerous journey east.
 






The Egyptian campaign: 1798-1799

The voyage is dangerous because the British prime minister, William Pitt, aware that something other than the invasion of Britain is being planned, has sent a strong naval squadron under Nelson into the Mediterranean. If Nelson chances upon the unwieldy French fleet, with its vulnerable cargo of infantry and cavalry (some 38,000 men in all), horses, artillery and scientists, the result is likely to go heavily against the French. But Napoleon is lucky. The ships get out of their various harbours unobserved. Once at sea, they will be hard to find.

The five French fleets meet up in early June at their first target - Malta, headquarters of the Knights of St John.
 









This once mighty order of knights puts up little resistance. After just one day, and with only three French casualties, Napoleon is master of an island from which he removes vast quantities of treasure. He expels the knights and spends five days reorganizing Malta along republican lines before sailing on eastwards (see the Knights of St John).

The French fleet (narrowly missed one night by Nelson, passing close in the dark) reaches Egypt unobserved at the end of June. Alexandria is taken. The army then marches south, in appalling conditions of midsummer heat and drought, through the desert towards Cairo.
 







It is a profoundly demoralized invading force which finally confronts the Mameluke army at Giza on July 21. But the French are arranged by Napoleon on the open terrain in solid six-deep divisional squares, and their fire-power slices with devastating effect through the wild charges of the Egyptian cavalry. Victory in the Battle of the Pyramids delivers Cairo to Napoleon.

While emphasizing his respect for Islam, Napoleon sets about organizing Egypt as a French territory with himself as its ruler, assisted by a senate of distinguished Egyptians. All is going according to his plan. His team of scientists can now begin to look about them (in the following year, 1799, a French officer finds the Rosetta stone).
 







But there is already a major snag. Some ten days after Napoleon's victory, Nelson finally comes across the warships of the French fleet - at anchor in Aboukir Bay, near the western mouth of the Nile. On August 1, in the Battle of the Nile, he destroys them as a fighting force (only two French ships of the line survive).

Napoleon, master of Egypt, is stranded in his new colony. He has no safe way of conveying his army back to France. Moreover he has provoked a new enemy. Turkey, of whose empire Egypt is officially a part, declares war on France in September 1798. In February news comes that a Turkish army is preparing to march south through Syria and Palestine to attack Egypt. Napoleon moves first.
 






The Syrian campaign: 1799

Napoleon's Syrian campaign is the first unmitigated disaster in his career. It is a military failure and it provides another dire example of European brutality in Palestine, in the bleak tradition of the crusades. Marching north in February 1799, Napoleon is irritated by the resistance put up by ancient garrison towns along the coast. He is delayed first at El Arish, then at Gaza and again at Jaffa.

At Jaffa the 3000 defenders in the Ottoman garrison are promised by a French officer that their lives will be spared if they submit. But once inside the city, Napoleon orders them all to be executed.
 









To conserve ammunition, the instruction is given for the condemned to be either bayonetted or drowned. The gruesome scene, reminiscent of Mongol customs but also of Richard I's atrocity at Acre in 1191, is one which even Napoleon's presentational skills later fail to justify. This event is rapidly followed by plague in the French army, and by the famous moment of flamboyant courage when Napoleon, to reassure his men, visits and touches the sick in the plague hospital at Jaffa.

Later in the campaign Napoleon wins several victories against the Turks, but Acre withstands a French siege of two months. By early June the French army is making a bedraggled and desperate retreat south through the Sinai desert.
 







Naturally Napoleon enters Cairo on June 14 as if returning from a triumph, and in July he recovers his reputation with a brilliant victory over a Turkish army which has landed at Aboukir. But by now he has other matters on his mind.

News, arriving late and unreliably from France, suggests that a crisis is approaching. The political situation in Paris is increasingly unstable, with the Directory distrusted and discredited. And recent events have rekindled the European war, bringing a new alliance of nations back into the field against France. It seems that this may be Napoleon's last chance to make a bid for power.
 






The Second Coalition: 1798-1799

In the peace after the agreement of Campo Formio the behaviour of the French republic is well calculated to alarm the other powers. In the follow-up congress at Rastatt, the French demand more of the Rhineland than has been previously discussed; and they resist proposals to compensate the German states.

Meanwhile the rest of Europe is alarmed by French interference in Swiss and Roman affairs in the imposition, along French republican lines, of the Helvetic and Roman republics. Further south, Napoleon's seizure of Malta has given the Russian emperor (the recently appointed grand master of the Knights of St John) a welcome excuse to send a fleet into the Mediterranean. And his invasion of Egypt has prompted the Turks to take up arms.
 









By early 1799 Russia, Turkey, Naples and Austria have joined Britain in a Second Coalition against France. The initial results are dramatic. During that year the French lose all the Italian territory won by Napoleon in 1796 except for a narrow strip of coast around Genoa. Similarly the French gains in the Netherlands, along the Rhine and in the Alps are under threat. Some French victories in the autumn reverse this trend. But they are too late to save the reputation of the Directory, tarnished by the earlier losses and the danger of an invasion of French territory.

However by mid-November the situation in Paris is transformed. There is an all-powerful first consul at the helm. The French revolutionary wars evolve into the Napoleonic wars.
 






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