Battles of the Fluvia, (April-May 1795)


Barthélemy-Louis-Joseph Schérer (1747-1804)

The battles of the Fluvia made up the opening offensive in the 1795 French campaign in the eastern Pyrenees. They constituted the last major attempt by the French to invade Spain before peace was signed between the two countries during the summer.

Following the battles of Figueras in November 1794, General Dominique-Catherine Pérignon and his Army of the Eastern Pyrenees had the opportunity to push farther into northeastern Spain. The opposing Spanish forces were disorganized and short of equipment. Their commander had been killed at Figueras, and a new general had assumed command. However, instead of pushing on to Gerona and Barcelona, Pérignon allowed himself to become involved in a siege of the small fortress at Rosas. The siege dragged on until 3 February 1795. Most of the garrison managed to escape, thanks to Spanish command of the sea. The delay allowed the Spanish to rebuild their army, call up militia units, and transfer regular units from other fronts. The spring of 1795 also saw the formation of volunteer units whose members fought out of patriotic and religious motives.

Disease and desertion had reduced the French Army of the Eastern Pyrenees. Animosity between Pérignon and General Pierre-François-Charles Augereau, his most successful commander, also hampered operations. The French government decided to replace Pérignon with a commander unacquainted with French forces in Spain. General Barthélemy Louis Joseph Schérer was thus transferred from command of the (French) Army of Italy to Spain during the spring of 1795. He was ordered not to take the offensive unless he believed he would achieve victory in any ensuing battles. Admonished by these orders, Schérer nevertheless decided to open an offensive at the end of April.

On 25 April Schérer launched his army against Spanish lines along the Fluvia River. One French column moved against the Spanish left to attract its attention and tie down the Spanish reserves. Schérer, personally leading the main body in two columns against the Spanish center, ran into two Spanish divisions conducting a reconnaissance in force north of the Fluvia. Fighting was heavy; the Spanish fought bravely and with some skill. Schérer managed to push them back but failed to force his way across the Fluvia that night. He resumed the attack the following morning, when his men managed to cross the Fluvia under fire before clearing both the northern and southern banks of the river during the morning. The Spanish responded with a heavy counterattack led by their cavalry against the French left. The French were particularly weak in that arm and were badly shaken. A follow-up attack by a Spanish division stopped any further advance by the French left. By the middle of the afternoon Augereau, on the right, had been halted by the Spanish reserves. During the evening, seeing no prospect of further progress, Schérer ordered his army to retire north of the Fluvia to his new base of operations at Rosas.

Final operations took place at the end of May, when Schérer decided to undertake a reconnaissance against the Spanish positions. The Spanish concentrated against the weak French center and nearly broke through, with only the arrival of reinforcements from the right under Augereau saving the day. Further operations by the French were hampered by the outbreak of malaria in the sickly atmosphere of the region. Both sides settled down to await the outcome of peace negotiations at Basle.


War of the Pyrenees, Eastern Theater.

Treaties of Basle, (5 April, 22 July 1795)

The Treaties of Basle (Basel), concluded between France and Prussia (5 April 1795) and between France and Spain (22 July 1795), were crucial diplomatic gains against the First Coalition fighting France during the Revolutionary Wars.

The First Coalition against France was established when Britain, Holland, Piedmont, and Spain joined Austria and Prussia in response to the execution of Louis XVI on 20 January 1793, a Revolutionary decree giving all peoples their liberty, the September Massacres of 1792, and France’s contravention of the international Treaty of Westphalia (1648) by opening the Scheldt estuary. France declared war on Prussia and Austria on 20 August 1792, on Holland and Britain on 1 February 1793, and on Spain on 7 March 1793.

The French Revolutionary forces suffered defeats in their initial battles, but their perseverance turned the tide of war by 1794. The levée en masse of August 1793 mobilized France’s massive human resources, and the new recruits brought eagerness, fresh tactics, and unabated patriotism that decided the outcome of many battles in 1793-1794.

The first victim of this extraordinary political upheaval was Prussia. After gradually rising to great heights after 1417, Prussia had geographically expanded tenfold by 1795. Despite its eminence following the Seven Years’ War, Prussia had stagnated because of its military absolutism, a government-controlled economy, a highly bureaucratized administration, and economic control of rural areas by the privileged and powerful nobility. Its army was considered the best in Europe, but it suffered several defeats against Revolutionary France. By late 1794 the Prussian king, Frederick William III, realized he could no longer support the war, and he began secret negotiations with the French. The Prussians withdrew from the conflict by signing the Treaty of Basle in Switzerland on 5 April 1795. The treaty included both public and secret articles. The French were obliged to withdraw their troops from Prussian territory on the east side of the Rhine. Although the treaty denied France territory in Belgium, Prussia kept Obergelden and Cleves, and then granted peace to Mainz, Saxony, the Bavarian Palatinate, and the Hessian states. Northern Germany became neutral under Prussia’s protection. Britain, which had subsidized Prussia, was obliged to release its Hessian forces or face an attack on Hanover, its possession.

According to the secret articles of the treaty, France would retain the territory it had already conquered. A secret agreement allowed France the west bank of the Rhine in exchange for financial compensation to Prussia for the lost land. These funds would be raised by the secularization of the land belonging to the ecclesiastical German princes, who were not notified of this development. The demarcation line differentiated between those German states at war with France and those that agreed to the treaty, a distinction that would remain in effect until a peace was made with Austria. The other members of the First Coalition were surprised by Prussia’s betrayal and thereafter scorned Prussia, whom they considered cowardly. However, the ulterior motive behind Frederick William’s signing of the treaty was a desire to concentrate on expanding Prussia’s territory through the Second Partition of Poland in 1795.

Another blow to the First Coalition occurred when Spain signed the second Treaty of Basle with France on 22 July 1795. At that time Spain was a very weak imperial power, stretched beyond its capabilities. Spain was ruled by the ineffective King Charles IV, who in 1792 had placed his government in the hands of his corrupt and unpopular chief minister, Manuel de Godoy.

In 1793, as France descended into a period of radicalism that threatened Europe’s monarchies, Portugal, Spain, and Britain signed treaties of mutual assistance. Portugal contributed 6,000 troops to Spain’s attack on France. However, the French, with reformed and modernized armies, counterattacked in 1794 and took San Sebastian, Bilbao, and Figueras, forcing the Allies to withdraw. French troops then laid siege to Pamplona in the summer of 1795. Consequently, Spain signed the Treaty of Basle and thereafter allied itself with France. These negotiations were accomplished without any consultation with Portugal or the other members of the coalition; all felt completely betrayed.

The Treaties of Basle stipulated that Spain would cede Santo Domingo (the eastern half of the island of Hispaniola) to France. France, however, was in no position either to send troops or to colonize the territory. Spanish troops had to relinquish control of the ports, towns, and other areas they occupied. One of the chief advantages for France was the acquisition of an ally, for in 1796 Spain signed the Treaty of San Ildefonso, allying itself with its erstwhile enemy against Britain, its former ally.

Ultimately the Treaties of Basle were a diplomatic triumph for Revolutionary France, for in time they allowed it to defeat the weakened coalition and gain Holland, Nice, Savoy, Belgium, and the German territories west of the Rhine.

References and further reading Ferval, N. N. 1861. Campagnes de la revolution française dans les Pyrenées-Orientales. Paris: Dumaine. Phipps, Ramsay Weston. 1980. The Armies of the First French Republic and the Rise of the Marshals of Napoleon I. Vol. 3, The Armies in the West, 1793-1797, and the Armies in the South, 1792 to March 1796. London: Greenwood. (Orig. pub. 1926-1939.) Callahan, William J. 1984. Church, Politics, and Society in Spain, 1750-1874. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Herr, Richard. 1989. Rural Change and Royal Finances in Spain at the End of the Old Regime. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. Lynch, John. 1989. Bourbon Spain, 1700-1808. Oxford: Blackwell. Ringrose, David R. 1970. Transportation and Economic Stagnation in Spain, 1750-1850. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. Rose, J. Holland. 1911. The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Era: 1789-1815. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Wende, Peter. 2005. A History of Germany. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

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