The Battle of Valmy was the first major victory by the army of France during the Revolutionary Wars that followed the French Revolution. The action took place on 20 September 1792 as Prussian troops commanded by the Duke of Brunswick attempted to march on Paris.

The Prussian government looked with favourable interest on the Paris events of 1789. Far from shunning the rebels, the Prussian envoy in Paris spent the autumn and winter of 1789–90 establishing friendly contacts with the various factions. The idea – so familiar to later generations – that the Revolution hinged on a fundamental choice between obedience and rebellion, between the ‘providence of God’ and the ‘will of man’, played as yet no part in Berlin’s interpretation of events.

There were essentially two reasons for this indulgent response to the French upheaval. The first was simply that, from Berlin’s perspective, the Revolution represented an opportunity, not a threat. The Prussians were concerned above all with diminishing Austrian power and influence in Germany. Tensions between the two German rivals had risen steadily during the 1780s. In 1785, Frederick II had taken charge of a coalition of German princes opposed to the annexation of Bavaria by the Habsburg Emperor Joseph II. In 1788, the Emperor had gone to war against the Turks, prompting fears that massive Habsburg acquisitions in the Balkans would give Austria the upper hand over her Prussian rival. But in the summer and autumn of 1789, as Austrian forces pushed back the armies of Sultan Selim III, a chain of revolts broke out across the peripheral territories of the Habsburg crown – Belgium, Tyrol, Galicia, Lombardy and Hungary. Frederick William II, a vain and impulsive man who was determined to live up to the reputation of his illustrious uncle, did his best to exploit the discomfort of the Austrians. The Belgians were encouraged to secede from Habsburg rule and the Hungarian dissidents were urged to rise up against Vienna – there was even talk of an independent Hungarian monarchy to be ruled by a Prussian prince.

Seen against this background, the revolution in France was welcome news, for there was good reason to hope that a new, ‘revolutionary’ French administration would put an end to the Franco-Austrian alliance. As the Prussians well knew, the alliance – along with its dynastic personification, Queen Marie Antoinette – was deeply unpopular with the Austrophobe patriots of the revolutionary movement. Berlin therefore courted the various revolutionary parties in the hope of building an anti-Habsburg ‘party’ in Paris. The aim was to reverse the diplomatic realignment of 1756, isolate Austria, and put an end to the expansionist plans of Joseph II. When a fully fledged revolution broke out in the prince-bishopric of Liège, a strip of territory right in the middle of Belgium, the Prussians supported the rebels there too, in the hope that the upheaval would spread to the adjacent Austrian-controlled areas.

There was also an ideological dimension to this tentative support for revolutionary upheaval. In 1789, a number of the leading Prussian policy-makers, including the minister responsible for foreign affairs, Count Hertzberg – were personally sympathetic to the aspirations of the revolutionaries. Hertzberg was a man of the enlightenment who deplored the incompetent despotism of the Bourbons in France. He saw Prussian support for the insurrection in Liège as entirely in keeping with the kingdom’s ‘liberal principles’. The envoy entrusted with handling Prussia’s affairs in the prince-bishopric, Christian Wilhelm von Dohm, was an enlightened official and intellectual (not to mention author of the famous tract supporting the emancipation of the Jews); he was a critic of the episcopal regime in Liège and favoured a progressive, constitutional solution to the dispute between the prince-bishop and the insurrectionists of the Third Estate.

It was above all the threat of a Prussian-backed revolution in Hungary that persuaded Joseph’s successor, Leopold II, to seek an understanding with Prussia. Leopold, a wise and temperate figure, saw at once the folly of pursuing new conquests in the Ottoman Balkans while his hereditary possessions disintegrated behind his back. In March 1790, he despatched a friendly letter to Berlin, opening the door for the negotiations that culminated in the Convention of Reichenbach of 27 July 1790. The two German powers agreed – after tense discussions – to pull back from the brink of war and put their differences behind them. The Austrians undertook to end their costly Turkish war on moderate terms (i.e. without annexations) and the Prussians promised to stop fomenting rebellions within the Habsburg monarchy.

The Convention looked innocuous, but it was more significant than it seemed. The era of bitter Prusso-Austrian antagonism that had structured the political affairs of the Holy Roman Empire since the invasion of Silesia in 1740 was now over, at least for a time, and the two German powers could pursue their interests in concert, rather than at each other’s expense. Following an oscillatory pattern that recalled the days of the Great Elector, Frederick William II abandoned his secret efforts to secure an alliance with Paris and switched to a policy of war against revolutionary France. Foreign Minister Hertzberg and his liberal views fell into disfavour; he was later dismissed. An important role in the new diplomacy went to Frederick William’s trusted adviser and confidant, Johann Rudolf von Bischoffwerder, an exponent of war against the revolution, who was despatched to Vienna in February and June–July 1791. The resulting Vienna Convention of 25 July 1791 laid the foundations for an Austro-Prussian alliance.

The first fruit of the Austro-Prussian rapprochement was a remarkable piece of gesture politics. The Declaration of Pillnitz, issued jointly by the Austrian Emperor and the Prussian king on 27 August 1791, was not a plan of action as such, but rather a statement of principled opposition to the Revolution. It opened by stating that the sovereigns of Prussia and Austria took the fate of their ‘brother’ the King of France to be ‘an object of common interest to all the sovereigns of Europe’, and demanded that the French king be placed as soon as possible ‘in a position to affirm, in the most perfect liberty, the basis of a monarchical government’. It closed with the promise that Austria and Prussia would ‘act promptly’ with ‘the necessary forces’ to obtain ‘the proposed and common goal’. For all the fuzziness of its formulations, this was an unequivocal statement of monarchical counter-revolutionary solidarity. Yet the additional secret articles attached to the Declaration revealed that the dark waters of power politics were still running in their accustomed courses. Article 2 stated that the contracting parties reserved for themselves the power to ‘exchange for their benefit several of their present and future acquisitions’, always in mutual consultation, and article 6 promised that the Emperor would ‘employ willingly his good offices towards the Court of Petersburg and the Court of Poland in order to obtain the cities of Thorn and Danzig [for Prussia]…’

The Declaration fanned the flames of political extremism in the French Assembly, strengthening the hand of the Brissotin faction, who favoured war as a means of restoring French fortunes and furthering the Revolution. During late 1791 and early 1792, the pressure for war accumulated in Paris. In the meanwhile, the Prussians and Austrians defined and agreed their objectives. The plan – under the terms of an alliance concluded on 7 February 1792 – was to launch a chain of enforced territorial transfers on the western periphery of the Holy Roman Empire. The allies would first conquer Alsace, handing one part of it to Austria and the other to the Elector Palatine, who would in turn be forced to yield Jülich and Berg to Prussia.

Whether and from what precise moment the allies seriously intended an invasion of France is unclear, but a military conflict became inevitable on 20 April 1792, when the French government formally declared war on the Austrian Emperor. As they prepared for an invasion, the Prussians and the Austrians assumed the mantle of ideological counter-revolution. On 25 July, the Prussian commander and joint commander of the allied forces, Charles William Ferdinand Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg, issued the declaration that came to be known as the Brunswick Manifesto. This inflammatory document, based on a draft composed by vengeful French émigrés, claimed (somewhat mendaciously) that the two allied courts ‘had no intention of enriching themselves by conquest’, promised that all those who submitted to the authority of the French king would be protected, and threatened captured revolutionary guards with draconian punishments. The declaration closed with a note of menace that further radicalized the mood in Paris:

Their said Majesties declare, on their word of honour as emperor and king, that if the Chateau of the Tuileries [where the captive king and his family were housed] is entered by force or attacked, 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, they will inflict an ever memorable vengeance by delivering over the city of Paris to military execution and complete destruction, and the rebels guilty of the said outrages to the punishment that they merit.

Accompanying the Austro-Prussian force as it lumbered into France in the late summer of 1792 was a small army of émigrés led by Louis XVI’s brother, the Count of Artois. These proved to be more trouble than they were worth: they were deeply unpopular with the French population and ineffective as a fighting force. Their chief function was to reinforce the counter-revolutionary credentials of the invaders. French peasants and townsfolk from whom food and livestock were requisitioned received promissory notes in the name of Louis XVI together with haughty assurances that the restored king would ‘pay them back’ once the war was over.

In the event, the allied campaign was a fiasco. Prussians and Austrians had never found it easy to coordinate forces on the western periphery of the Empire; the French campaign of 1792 was no exception. Confusion and conflicting priorities dogged the planning of the invasion from the start and the allied advance was stopped in its tracks at the battle of Valmy on 20 September. Here the invading troops found themselves confronted by an impregnably positioned enemy deployed in a broad arc on raised ground. Both sides let fly with their artillery, but it was the French who had the better of it, scoring hit after hit in the allied ranks, until some 1,200 soldiers had been cut down by cannon balls without their units having been able to make any headway at all against the enemy positions. It was the first time that the army of the Revolution had stood to face its enemies. Discouraged by this unexpected display of resolve, the allied forces withdrew from their exposed positions, leaving the French in control of the field.

The Prussians remained formal members of the coalition after Valmy and even fought with some success against the French in Alsace and the Saar. But they never committed more than a small fraction of their resources to these campaigns, because their attention was focused elsewhere. What distracted the men in Berlin were the prospects opening up in Poland. The pattern of internal turmoil and external interference and obstruction that had produced the first partition continued throughout the 1780s. In 1788–91, while the Russians were bogged down in a costly war with the Ottoman Empire, King Stanislaw August and a party of Polish reformers had taken the opportunity to press ahead with changes to the political system. The new Polish constitution of 3 May 1791 created, for the first time, a hereditary monarchy and the outlines of a functioning central government. ‘Our country is saved,’ its authors announced. ‘Our freedoms are assured; we are a free and independent nation; we have shaken off the bonds of slavery and misrule.’

Neither the Prussians nor the Russians welcomed these developments. The creation of an independent Poland ran against the grain of nearly a century of Russian foreign policy. Frederick William II officially congratulated the Poles on their new constitution, but behind the scenes there was alarm at the prospect of a Polish revival. ‘I foresee that sooner or later Poland will take West Prussia from us…’ Hertzberg told a senior Prussian diplomat. ‘How can we defend our state against a numerous and well-ruled nation?’ On 18 May 1792, Catherine II sent 100,000 Russian troops into the kingdom. Having played with the idea of supporting the Polish opposition to the invasion (in the hope of preventing or limiting Russian annexations), the Prussians decided instead to accept a partition offer from St Petersburg. Under the terms of the Treaty of St Petersburg of 23 January 1793, the Prussians received the commercially important cities of Danzig and Thorn and a substantial triangle of territory that plugged the cleft between Silesia and East Prussia and also happened to encompass the wealthiest areas of the Polish commonwealth. The Russians helped themselves to a gigantic terrain comprising almost one half of Poland’s entire remaining surface area. The agreement was manifestly unequal (in the sense that Russia’s portion was four times the size of Prussia’s) but it gave the Prussians more than they had traditionally aspired to and it freed Berlin from any obligation to compensate Austria in the west.

In March 1794, the uprising launched against the partition powers by the Polish patriot Tadeusz Kosciuszko set the stage for a further and final partition. Although the revolt was directed primarily against Russia, it was the Prussians who first tried to take advantage of it. They hoped, by suppressing the uprising, to stake a claim for further Polish territory on an equal footing with Russia. But with substantial troop deployments still in the west, the Prussians were already seriously over-stretched; after some early successes against the revolt they were forced to pull back and call for Russian help. Seeing their chance, the Austrians, too, joined the fray. After a desperate campaign of mass recruitment, Kosciuszko held off the armies of Russia, Prussia and Austria for nearly eight months, but on 10 October 1794, a Russian victory at Maciejowice to the south-east of Warsaw brought the uprising to an end. The way was now open to the third and last partition of Poland. After bitter quarrels among the three powers, a tripartite division was agreed on 24 October 1795, by which Prussia gained a further tranche of territory encompassing about 55,000 square kilometres of land in central Poland, including the ancient capital of Warsaw, and some 1,000,000 inhabitants. Poland was no more.


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