The War of the First Coalition, 1792–1797

The Battle of Valmy was a decisive victory for the French revolutionary army.

The French Revolutionary Wars are customarily defined as the struggles between France on the one hand and the First and Second Coalitions on the other, between 1792 and 1802. The First Coalition initially pitted Austria and Prussia, with the partial engagement of the Holy Roman Empire, against France in 1792, but by the spring of 1793, it had embraced Britain, the Netherlands, Spain, Piedmont-Sardinia, Naples, and Portugal. The coalition had fallen apart by October 1797 after one ally after another was either overrun by the French, or made a separate peace to secure the best possible terms, leaving only the British to fight on alone. Yet there was no respite for the continent, for in the summer of 1798 the war was reignited, the very geographic scale reflected in the membership of the Second Coalition, embroiling the Ottoman Empire and Russia alongside Britain, Austria, Portugal, and Naples. After its early victories, this alliance also broke apart. So exhausted were both sides that even France and Britain made peace in 1802 at Amiens, a treaty marking the end of the French Revolutionary Wars.

In the opening campaign in 1792, the calculations of the Austrians, that the French armies were a rabble, seemed to be borne out: the poorly trained volunteers broke and ran at the first encounter with the disciplined fire-power of the Austrians. As Prussia joined the war on 21 May, well might King Frederick William II’s aide-de-camp, Johann von Bischoffwerder, have reassured some officers that ‘the comedy will not last long. The army of lawyers will soon be crushed and we shall be back home by the autumn.’ The Austro-Prussian armies began their slow but relentless advance into France in the summer, provoking the first major political crisis in the French Revolution linked to the war. The sans-culottes, the popular militants of Paris, rose up and, supported by National Guard units (the citizens’ militia created in 1789), overthrew Louis XVI on 10 August 1792, a republic was proclaimed on 22 September 1792, and the King was guillotined on 21 January 1793. ‘They threaten you with Kings!’ thundered the great revolutionary orator Georges-Jacques Danton. ‘You have thrown down the gauntlet to them, and this gauntlet is a king’s head.’ Yet the reality was that, for all the incandescent rhetoric on both sides, the more traditional impulses driving the war were revealed after the first French victory at Valmy on 20 September 1792.

The French army made its stand against the Prussians astride the road to Paris, a hundred miles from the capital. Fought on muddy ground, sometimes knee-deep in places, Valmy was primarily a lethal artillery duel, in which some 20,000 cannonballs were fired. The ragged French volunteers just held their nerve, a resistance that persuaded the Prussians, ravaged by dysentery, to retreat. In the despondent gloom later that evening, the great German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe gave some Prussian officers cold comfort by telling them that ‘From this place, and from this day forth, begins a new era in the history of the world, and you can all say that you were present at its birth.’ At first, Goethe’s predictions seemed to come true: a second French victory, over the Austrians at Jemappes on 6 November, left Belgium open to French invasion. Intoxicated by this sudden reversal of fortune, the National Convention, the new republican assembly in Paris, issued the Edict of Fraternity on 19 November. This declared the Convention’s intent to export the French Revolution, promising ‘fraternity and help’ to ‘all peoples who wish to recover their liberty’, meaning the overthrow of the existing order.

Yet, as French armies surged across the Low Countries, poured into the Rhineland, and, in the south, swept into Savoy (a duchy ruled by Piedmont-Sardinia which, with unfortunate timing, declared war on France the day after Valmy), the revolutionaries quickly set their principles aside. The occupied countries were too tempting a source of supplies and money for the French armies to leave simply to their own destinies. On 15 December, the Convention abolished the old regime in these territories, but in return the population were told to pay for the military costs of their liberation. The exploitation of conquests to fuel the French war effort was thus established at the very start, but such a ruthless policy could neither continue forever, nor resolve the problem of the people’s political future. The revolutionaries soon articulated their objective: a defensible frontier, particularly in the north. It was Danton again who found the rhetorical flourish in January 1793: ‘The limits of France are marked out by nature, we will reach them in the four corners of the horizon: the Rhine, the Ocean and the Alps.’ On the suggestion of Dutch radical exiles in Paris, those territories overrun beyond these ‘natural frontiers’ would be converted into ‘sister republics’, exploitable satellite states allied to France.

Yet these conquests ensured that the war spiralled outwards. ‘Natural frontiers’ meant the annexation of Savoy, the Rhineland, and Belgium, plus a southern slice of Dutch territory. The logic of this last point meant war with the Netherlands, but the French invasion of the Low Countries also tensed to breaking point France’s relations with the British, already strained by the overthrow of Louis XVI and by the Edict of Fraternity, which politicians feared might be applied to Britain, where there was an articulate and organized radical opposition. The French reopening to shipping of the River Scheldt, closed by treaty since 1648, also posed a direct strategic threat to the British Isles. If the French were to overrun the Netherlands, with its long North Sea coastline and boasting the fourth largest fleet in Europe, then the Royal Navy’s capacity to defend home waters would be severely stretched. It was the French who actually declared war on both Britain and the Netherlands on 1 February. To make matters more desperate, they also opened hostilities against Spain on 7 March, effectively formalizing a rupture which already existed in fact: the Spanish had mobilized their forces in August 1792 (wisely pulling back from the brink after Valmy), but had then vigorously denounced the execution of Louis XVI (King Charles IV of Spain was also a Bourbon). The immediate consequence of the French victory in Europe was therefore to bind together one crisis—in relations between France and the German powers—with another long-term problem: the maritime rivalries of the western European powers, ensuring that the war would have a global impact across the world.

The most important of such repercussions were felt in the Caribbean, particularly Haiti. This, the most prosperous of all of France’s colonies, burst into flames when its African slaves rose up in August 1791, well aware that government authority and the racial hierarchies of the French Empire had been fatally weakened by the Revolution. With the European conflict now engulfing the overseas empires, the Haitian Revolution became part of the global struggle: Spanish officials in neighbouring Santo Domingo immediately began supporting the insurgents as auxiliaries, while the British chose instead to back the white planters, who promised to submit to British authority in return for a restoration of slavery and protection against the insurrection. The French response was momentous: recognizing the reality that the Haitians had effectively liberated themselves, the Republic’s commissioners in Haiti proclaimed the abolition of slavery, an act confirmed for the entire French Empire by the Convention in Paris on 4 February 1794. Slowly, cautiously, the Haitian revolutionaries, including one of their most charismatic leaders, Toussaint L’Ouverture, came over to the French side. The Spanish and the British, who invaded Haiti in September 1793, were driven back, the latter evacuating in 1798.

Back in Europe, the French Revolution was on the brink of collapse under the combined weight of the allied powers by the early spring of 1793. France was invaded across every frontier, north, east, and south. The Convention took the fateful step of imposing conscription, provoking open counter-revolution in western France in March, most notoriously in the Vendée, where, in a brutal civil war which did not end until 1800, the number of dead on both republican and royalist sides may have reached a horrifying 400,000. To war and counter-revolution were piled on the pressures of hunger, inflation, and the looming threat of popular insurrection in Paris. Overwhelmed, the Girondins were toppled by their Jacobin opponents in a coup d’état on 2 June 1793. France exploded into civil war, which the Jacobin government in Paris managed to crush and exact bloody retribution, but not before the French rebels in Toulon—the home of France’s Mediterranean fleet—handed over their port to the British in August 1793. The young Napoleon Bonaparte commanded the artillery which finally drove them out in December. The Jacobins were able to master this intense crisis only through Terror, involving the arrest of ‘suspects’; the trial and execution of people accused of treason; the summary execution of people found openly rebelling against the Republic; strict economic controls, backed up by draconian penalties; and, above all, the empowerment of the government to prosecute the war to the utmost. The levée en masse of 23 August requisitioned all adult males and all the country’s resources in the first modern attempt to wage ‘total war’: there were close to a million Frenchmen under arms by the end of 1794, of whom perhaps three-quarters were combat-effective.

The war’s dysfunctional pendulum finally swung back the other way on 26 June 1794, with a decisive French victory over the Austrians at Fleurus. A crushing British naval triumph over a French fleet in a battle remembered by the British as the ‘Glorious First of June’ could not dampen the renewed French impetus on the continent. With the tide of war turning, the Jacobin dictatorship was overthrown on 27 July 1794 (the Thermidor coup) and the Terror was over. Over the following year, the Convention drafted a new constitution, creating the Directory, which would govern France from October 1795: Bonaparte, still an artillery officer, prevented the Directory from being still-born, since his ‘whiff of grapeshot’ helped crush a royalist insurrection in Paris that month. He would destroy the same regime four years later.

Capture of the Dutch fleet by the French hussars.

Meanwhile, French armies had surged forward on all fronts, pouring into Belgium, the Rhineland, and northern Spain. In the deathly cold winter of 1794–5, the blue-coated hordes even managed to sweep into the Netherlands, since the waterways which usually provided the country’s natural defences were frozen solid. So thick was the ice that in January the French cavalry thundered across the frozen sea to capture the Dutch fleet anchored at Texel: ‘the first and last time—it can safely be assumed—that a naval engagement has been won by cavalry,’ writes Tim Blanning. The balance of forces was tilting in France’s favour. Prussia signed a peace treaty at Basel in April 1795, the Netherlands was turned into France’s first ‘sister republic’ in May, and Belgium was formally annexed by France in October. Spain signed a peace treaty, also at Basel, in July 1795 and then this devoutly Catholic monarchy went so far as to enter an alliance with the godless French in August 1796. Spain, always caught in the crossfire in the Franco-British rivalry, saw in France the best hope of security for its extensive overseas empire. The French could now combine their fleets with those of the Dutch and the Spanish, while French control of the entire coastline from the Frisian Islands to Galicia strained the capacities of the Royal Navy. The British moved quickly to neutralize the most dangerous of these threats: the Dutch colony on the Cape of Good Hope, which was, the British commander who led the assault explained, ‘a feather in the hands of Holland, but a sword in the hands of France’, since it was the pivot of the sea route between India and Europe.

Yet the French were approaching a high-water mark in their success against Britain. In December 1796, an attempted invasion of Ireland was foiled when the French fleet was scattered by a storm. In February 1797, the danger still seemed so serious that there was a run on the Bank of England. The panic was becalmed that month when Admiral Sir John Jervis intercepted and destroyed a numerically superior Spanish fleet off Cape St Vincent as it was trying to link up with the French Atlantic fleet at Brest. The crisis was not over: in March, the French managed to land a motley band of deserters and adventurers on the Pembrokeshire coast. Although this, the last invasion of mainland Britain, was quickly mopped up, March and June saw mutinies break out in the Royal Navy at Spithead and the Nore, primarily over pay, rations, and conditions. These were suppressed with a mixture of executions and concessions, but it illustrated just how precarious Britain’s situation was. The French and their allies tried to combine again in October 1797 when the Dutch fleet put to sea, but ran into Admiral Adam Duncan’s ships off Camperdown: the dogged Dutch resistance only broke after nine ships of the line were taken. France’s problems were compounded when the struggle for the sea spiralled into an undeclared naval war with the United States.

The war in Europe had strained French relations with the Americans, theoretically allied to France since 1778, when the old regime entered the American War of Independence. The United States, however, declared its neutrality in 1793: its armed forces were tiny and the British were the young republic’s most important trading partner. Moreover, President George Washington was angered by the over-zealous French ambassador, Edmond Genêt, who armed privateers to sail from American ports against British shipping and who tried to whip up American public support for France. Yet the Americans also had grievances against the British: they harassed American shipping as they tried to throttle French commerce and seized sailors whom they suspected of desertion from the Royal Navy. The two countries nearly slid into war, until both sides pulled back from the brink in November 1794, when they resolved their differences in the Jay Treaty (named for the American diplomat involved), which effectively tore up the Franco-American alliance. The aggrieved French immediately launched privateering raids against American merchantmen: by June 1797, they had carried off some 316 ships. Although the two republics never formally declared war, they did exchange plenty of shots in anger on the high seas. An American effort at negotiation fell apart when it was learned in April 1798 that the slippery French Foreign Minister, Charles-Maurice Talleyrand, had tried to extract a bribe from the US envoys, who were approached by three agents known only as ‘XYZ’. The quasi-war raged on.

Napoleon at the Battle of Rivoli, 14 January 1797.

If the French were frustrated at sea, they triumphed on land. A French assault in Germany floundered in 1796, but this was offset by a lightning strike into Italy by Bonaparte, now a general. Piedmont, its army outmanoeuvred and overwhelmed, sued for peace before the month was out. Bonaparte then moved against the Austrians, defeating them at Lodi on 10 May and entering Milan, the centre of Austrian power in Italy, five days later. The French had moved so quickly that they had easily outrun the other French thrust against Austria through Germany, so while waiting to strike northwards, Bonaparte raided central Italy, forcing Parma, Modena, and Tuscany to disgorge their hard currency. The Pope was not spared: the French invaded the Papal States—the Papacy’s territorial domains in central Italy—and, at the Treaty of Tolentino in February 1797, forced the pontiff to yield some of his territory to France’s new Italian sister republic, the Cisalpine, as well as some of his most cherished artworks, which were carted off to France and deposited in the Louvre. Then, having repulsed no less than three Austrian counter-attacks in the north, Bonaparte crossed the Alps and struck into Austria itself, entering an armistice at Leoben in April 1797. The peace treaty was finally signed at Campo Formio in October. The Austrians agreed to the French annexation of the left bank of the Rhine, the hard-won ‘natural frontier’, and recognized the Cisalpine Republic, in return for which Bonaparte, showing an almost casual regression to old regime balance of power ways, allowed Austria to annex Venice. The War of the First Coalition was over.

This was not a peace, but a stalemate: British and French negotiations in the summer of 1797 collapsed when a coup d’état in Paris in September (the Fructidor coup) purged the legislature and the Directory of moderate republicans and of real or suspected monarchists. The coup was a military intervention which set a dangerous political precedent—not least because it was Bonaparte who had provided the troops. The Directory was now led by hard-line republicans determined to pursue the war with more vigour and in this they had the wholehearted support of the generals. In the first months of 1798, the northern French ports saw a build-up of an ‘Army of England’ commanded by Bonaparte for the long-awaited descent on Britain. Yet the French could not control the Channel for long enough: the most they managed was to land 1,000 men in Ireland, in support of an insurrection which had erupted in May against British rule, arriving too late to make an impact.

By then, the war had thundered eastwards and engulfed another long-term challenge, the expansion of Russia. The Russian occupation of Poland in May 1792 and the Second Partition in 1793 naturally provoked Polish patriotism. After trying in vain to secure French support, Tadeusz Kościuszko proclaimed Poland in insurrection in Kraków in March 1794. After some early victories, the uprising crumpled under the sheer weight of Russian numbers. As the Russians closed in on Warsaw, the Prussians disengaged from the war against revolutionary France, which was not the easy ‘promenade’ they had expected, and instead sought a share of the territorial spoils in Poland. Even the Austrians, more committed than Prussia to the war in the west, were determined to have a slice of the conquests: they withdrew 20,000 troops from Belgium for operations against Poland, which both German powers invaded in June. After a slaughter which made the French Terror look amateurish (20,000 Poles were massacred in a single day on 4 November), the Russians took Warsaw. In the Third Partition between Russia, Austria, and Prussia, Poland was wiped off the political map in the New Year.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *