Chapter 44: The War — The Rising in La Vendee — Treachery of Dumouriez

Submitted by GrouchoMarxist on April 28, 2012

Need of volunteers — Forces ordered — Money required — Lack of trustworthy generals — Dumouriez — His connection with Girondins and Montagnards — France and England — War declared — Treachery of Dumouriez — Counter-rcvolutionary movement in Brittany — Rising in La Vendée — Danton recalled from Belgium — Volunteers enlist — Terrible situation — “Mountain” tries to allay panic — Revolutionary tribune — Peasants urge clergy to rise — Savage hunt for republicans — Dumouriez in Belgium — Danton tries to check Dumouriez — Dumouriez outlawed — Committee of Public Welfare created — Danton becomes leading spirit — Fall of Girondnis inevitable

In the early part of 1793, the war began under very unfavourable circumstances, and the advantages obtained during the previous autumn were not maintained. Great reinforcements were necessary in order to enable the army to take the off offensive and the free enlistments were far from giving the necessary numbers.[219]

It was estimated in February 1793, that it would take at least 300,000 men to fill tip the gaps in the army and to bring up its effective force to half a million, but volunteers were no longer to be counted on. Certain departments (the Var and the Gironde) willingly sent their battalions — nearly whole armies — but other departments did nothing of the sort.

Then, on February 24, the Convention was compelled to order a forced levy of 300,000 men, to be raised among all the departments, and in each department by the districts and communes between them. These latter had first to call upon volunteers; but if this appeal was not answered by the required number of men, the communes had to recruit the remainder, in whichever way they considered best — that is to say, either by lot or by personal nomination, with the right, however, of finding a substitute in both cases. To induce men to enlist, the Convention not only promised them pensions, but it also undertook to enable the pensioners to buy portions of the national estates, by paying for them in instalments with their pensions, a tenth part of the total cost of the land or estate purchased to be paid every year. Government lands to the value of 400 million francs were assigned for this purpose.[220]

Meanwhile money was badly wanted, and Cambon, an absolutely honest man, who held an almost absolute power over the finances, was forced to make a new issue of 800 millions in paper-money. But the best estates of the clergy (which were the guarantee for these notes) had already been sold, and the estates of the émigrés did not sell so easily. People hesitated to buy them, fearing that the purchased estates might he confiscated when the émigrés would return to France. Therefore the Treasury, under Cambon, found it Increasingly difficult to meet the ever-growing needs of the armies.[221]

However, the greatest difficulty of the war was not this. It lay in the fact that nearly all the generals belonged to the counter-revolution, and the system of the election of officers by the soldiers themselves, which the Convention had just introduced, could furnish superior officers only after the lapse of a certain time. For the present, the generals did not inspire confidence, and in fact the treachery of Lafayette was soon followed by that of Dumouriez.

Michelet was perfectly justified in saying that when Dumouriez left Paris to rejoin his army a few days after the execution of Louis XVI., he was already meditating his treachery. He had seen the triumph of the “Mountain,” and he probably understood that the execution of the King was the beginning of a new phase in the Revolution. For the revolutionists he felt nothing but hatred, and he no doubt foresaw that his dream of re-establishing the Constitution of 1791 in France, with a Duke of Orléans on the throne, could only be realised with the help of Austria. From that day he must have decided on his treachery.

At this moment Dumouriez was closely connected with the Girondins, and even on intimate terms with Gensonné, with whom he remained in communication till April. However, he did not break with the “Montagnards” either, who already mistrusted him — Marat treated him frankly as a traitor, but did not feel strong enough to attack him. The victories of Valmy and Jemmapes had been so much glorified, and the real facts concerning the retreat of the Prussians were so little known, that the soldiers, especially the rank and file, adored their general. To attack him in these circumstances would have been to risk rousing the army, which Dumouriez could have led against Paris and the Revolution. Consequently there remained nothing for the “Mountain” to do but to wait and watch.

In the meantime France was entering into a war with England. As soon as the news of the execution of Louis XVI. had reached London, the English Government returned his passport and papers to the French Ambassador, ordering him to quit the United Kingdom. But it goes without saying that the execution of the King was only a pretext to break off relations with France. It is in fact now known, through the Count de Mercy, that the English Government felt no affection for the French royalists, and that it was not in the least anxious to strengthen them by its support. England simply considered this the right time to get rid of a maritime rival that had helped the Americans to obtain their independence, to take from France her colonies, and perhaps even some great military port — at any rate, to weaken her sea power. The English Government simply made the most of the impression produced by the execution of the King to press the war.

Unfortunately, the French politicians did not see how inevitable from the English point of view was this war. Not only the Girondins — especially Brissot, who plumed himself on knowing England — but Danton also, still hoped that the Whigs, of whom a party were enthusiastic supporters of the ideas of liberty, would overthrow Pitt and prevent the war. In reality, the greater part of the British nation was soon united on the question of war when its mercantile advantages were understood. It must also be said that the English diplomatists managed to make very clever use of the ambitions of the French statesmen. They made Dumouriez believe that he was the man for them — the only one with whom they could treat; and they promised to support him, to re-establish a constitutional monarchy. Danton they persuaded that the Whigs might, very possibly, return to power, and they would then make peace with Republican France.[222]

On the whole they managed to put the onus on France when the Convention declared war with Great Britain on February 1.

This declaration changed the whole of the military situation. To take possession of Holland, to prevent the English from landing there, became an absolute necessity. But this was precisely what Dumouriez, either because he did not consider himself strong enough, or because he had no mind to, had not done during the autumn, although he had been urged by Danton to do it. He had taken up, in December, his winter quarters in Belgium, and this of coarse did not dispose the Belgians in favour of the French invaders. Liége was his chief military depôt.

Up to the present we do not yet know all about Dumouriez' treachery. Very probably, as Michelet said, he had already made up his mind to betray, when he returned to his army on January 26, 1793. His march at the end of February, against Holland, when he took Breda and Gertruydenberge, seems to have been already a manoeuvre agreed upon with the Austrians. At any rate, this march served the Austrians admirably. They took advantage of it to enter Belgium, on March 1, and took Liége, where the inhabitants had in vain begged Dumouriez for arms. The patriots of Liége were forced to fly, the French army was completely routed and disbanded; the generals refused to help each other, and Dumouriez was far off in Holland. It was impossible to do the Austrians a better turn.

This news produced a tremendous effect in Paris, especially as it was followed by other news, equally grave. On March 3 it became known that a counter-revolutionary movement was about to begin immediately in Brittany. At the same ,time, at Lyons, the reactionary battalions of the fils de famille (wealthy young men) made a move against the revolutionary Commune — just at the time when the émigrés, who had gathered in numbers at Turin, were crossing the frontier and entering France in battle array, backed up by the King of Sardinia. To crown all, the department of La Vendée rose on March 10. It was quite evident that these various movements were, as in 1792, parts of one great counter-revolutionary scheme. And every one in Paris suspected that Dumouriez was won over by the counter-revolutionists, and was working for their advantage.

Danton, who was at that time in Belgium, was recalled in all haste. He arrived in Paris on March 8 and pronounced one of his powerful calls to unity and patriotism — an appeal which made hearts thrill all over France. The Commune hoisted once more the black flag. Again the fatherland was declared in danger.

Volunteers enlisted hurriedly, and on the evening of the 9th a civic feast, at which masses of people assisted, was organised in the streets, on the eve of their departure. But it was no longer the youthful enthusiasm of 1792. A sinister energy goaded them on. A lowering anger gnawed at the hearts of the poor of the faubourgs at the sight of the political struggles tearing France asunder. “A rising in Paris is what is needed,” Danton is reported to have said, and indeed one was needed to rouse the people and the sections from the torpor into which they were sinking.

To ward off the difficulties, truly terrible, which beset the Revolution, to provide for the immense expenditure imposed on France by the counter-revolutionary leagues without and within, the Revolution had to find resources by levying taxes upon the fortunes which were then being amassed by the middle classes, owing to the Revolution itself. But this was exactly what the governing class refused to admit, partly on principle, the accumulation of large private fortunes being considered the way to enrich the nation, and partly from the fear with which a more or less general rising in the big towns, of poor against rich, inspired them.

The horror of the September days — especially the 4th and 5th at the Châtelet and the Salpêtrière — was yet fresh in their memories. What would happen then if a whole class rose against another — the poor against the rich, against all wealthy? It meant civil war in every town. And this, with La Vendée and Brittany rising in the West, supported by England, by the émigrés in Jersey, by the Pope, and all the clergy — with the Austrians in the North, and the army of Dumouriez ready to follow its general and march against the people of Paris!

Therefore the leaders of opinion of the “Mountain” and the Commune did their utmost first of all to allay the panic, pretending that they considered Dumouriez a trustworthy republican. Robespierre, Danton and Marat, constituting a sort of triumvirate of opinion, backed up by the Commune, made speeches to this effect, and they all worked at the same time to rouse courage in the people's hearts, so as to be in a position to repel the invasion, which wore a far more serious aspect than it had in 1792. All worked to this end, save the Girondins, who saw but one thing — “the anarchists,” who were to be crushed and exterminated!

On March 10, a renewal of the September days was feared in Paris. But the public anger was turned upon the journalist friends of Dumouriez, and a band betook themselves to the chief Girondin printing offices of Gorzas and Fiévé, and smashed their presses.

What the people, inspired by Varlet, Jacques Roux, the American, Fournier, and other Enragés really desired was a purification of the Convention. But the more common demand for a revolutionary tribunal had been substituted for this in all the sections. Pache and Cahumette came to the Convention on the 9th, to demand such a tribunal. Where-upon Cambacérès, the future “arch-counsellor” of the Napoleonic Empire, proposed that the Convention should renounce the current ideas on the division of legislative and judicial power and seize the latter as well, so as to be able to establish a special tribunal for the trial of traitors.

Robert Lindet, a lawyer of the old monarchist school, proposed later on to institute a tribunal consisting of judges nominated by the Convention, and bound to judge those whom the Convention would send before them. He insisted upon having no jury in this new tribunal, and it was only after long debates that it was decided to reinforce the five judges, nominated by the Convention, by twelve jurymen and six assistants, taken from Paris and the adjoining departments, and nominated every month by the Convention.

And so, instead of measures calculated to reduce stock-jobbing and place the necessaries of life within reach of the people, instead of a purification of the Convention, which would have eliminated the members always opposed to revolutionary measures, instead of taking military steps rendered imperative by the already almost confirmed treachery of Dumouriez, the insurrection of March 10 obtained nothing beyond a revolutionary tribunal. The creative, constructive spirit of a popular revolution, which was feeling its way, was now confronted by the spirit of police management, which was soon to crush it.

After appointing this tribunal the Convention was going to adjourn, when Danton rushed to the tribune, and stopped the members as they were leaving the hall, to remind them that enemy was on the frontiers of France, and that nothing had yet been done.

The same day the peasants in La Vendée, urged on by clergy, rose in insurrection and began to massacre the Republicans. The rising had long been prepared, chiefly by priests, at the instigation of Rome, and there had already been an attempt at starting it, in August 1792, when the Prussians had entered France. Since then, Angers had become the political centre of the malcontent priests, the Sisters of the Sagesse Order and others serving as emissaries to the appeals to revolt, and to awaken fanaticism by stories about supposed miracles.[223] The levy of men for the war, promulgated on March 10, became the signal for a general rising. The head council of the insurrection, dominated by the priests, and having at its head the priest Bernier, established at the demand of Cathelinau, a mason and sacristan of his parish, who had become one of the most audactious chiefs of the bands.

On the 10th the tocsin rang in several hundred parishes, and about 100,000 men left their work to begin the hunting down of the republicans and those priests who had sworn allegiance to the Constitution. It was an actual hunt, with a ringer who sounded the “view halloo,” says Michelet, a hunt of extermination, during which the captives were subject to the most terrible tortures: they were killed slowly, or were left to be tortured by the women's scissors and the weak hands of the children who prolonged their martyrdom. All this, under the leadership of the priests, with tales of miracles to incite the peasants to kill the wives also of the republicans. The nobles, with their royalist amazons, only came after. And when these “honest folk” decided at last to appoint tribunal to try the republican prisoners, this tribunal, in six weeks, sent 542 patriots to be executed.[224]

To resist this savage rising, the Republic had nothing but 2000 men scattered all over the lower part of La Vendée, from Nantes to La Rochelle. It was not till the end of May that the first organised forces of the Republic arrived. Up to then the Convention had only been able to oppose decrees: death penalty and confiscation of property for the nobles and priests who had not left La Vendée at the end of a week! But who was there with the necessary force to carry out these decrees?

Matters were no better in Eastern France, where the army Custine was retreating; while in Belgium, Dumouriez was in open rebellion against the Convention since March 12. He sent them from Louvain a letter, which he at once made public, and in which he reproached France with the crime of having annexed Belgium, of wishing to ruin that country by introducing paper-money and the sale of national properties. Six days later he attacked the superior forces of the Austrians at Neerwinden, allowed himself to be beaten by them, and on March 22, supported by the Duke de Chartres and some Orléanist generals, he entered into direct negotiations with the Austrian, Colonel Mack. These two traitors promised to evacuate Belgium without resistance, and to march against Paris to re-establish there the constitutional monarchy. In case of need, they would call on the Austrians to support them, and in the meantime the Austrians occupied Condé, one of the French fortresses near the frontier, as a guarantee.

Danton, staking his head on it, rushed to Dumouriez' camp, to prevent this treason and to attempt to bring back Dumouriez to the Republic. Having failed in persuading two Girondins, Gensonné, a friend of Dumouriez, and Gaudet, to go with him, he left alone, on the 16th, for Belgium, running the risk being accused himself of treason. He found Dumouriez full retreat after the Battle of Neerwinden, and understood that the traitor had already made up his mind. He had indeed already given his word to Colonel Mack to evacuate Holland without fighting.

Paris was seized with fury when, Danton having returned on the 29th, Dumouriez' treason was established as a certainty. The republican army, which alone might have repulsed invasion, was perhaps already marching against Paris to re-establish royalty! Under such conditions, the Committee of Insurrection, which had then been meeting for some days at the Bishop's palace, under the leadership of the Enragés won over the Commune. The sections began to arm and seized the artillery; they probably would have marched against the Convention, had not other counsels prevailed to prevent a panic. On April 3, confirmatory news of Dumouriez treachery was received. He had arrested the commissioners sent to him by the Convention. Happily, his army did follow him. The decree of the Convention, outlawing Dumouriez and ordering the arrest of the Duke de Chartres had reached the regiments, and neither Dumouriez nor the Duke de Chartres succeeded in winning over the soldiers. Dumouriez was forced to cross the frontier, as Lafayette done, and to seek refuge among the Austrians.

On the following day he and the Imperial generals issued a proclamation, in which the Duke of Coburg made known to the French that he was coming to restore to France her constitutional King.

At the height of this crisis, when the uncertainty about the attitude of Dumouriez' army jeopardised the security of the Republic itself, the three most influential men of the “Mountain” — Danton, Robespierre and Marat — in agreement with the Commune led by Pache, Hébert and Chaumette, acted with complete unanimity, to prevent the panic and the sad consequences it might have entailed.

At the same time the Convention, in order to avoid the lack of unity which had hitherto hampered the general management of the war, resolved to take the executive power into their hands, as well as the legislative and judicial powers. They created a Committee of Public Welfare (Comité de Salut public) with very extensive powers, almost dictatorial — a measure which was evidently of an immense importance for the subsequent development of the Revolution.

We have seen that after August 10 the Legislative Assembly had founded, under the name of “Provisory Executive Council,” a body of ministers invested with all the functions of the executive power. Besides, in January 1793, the Convention had created a “Committee of General Defence,” and, war being at that moment the most important matter, this committee obtained control over the Provisory Executive Council, and thus became the chief machinery of the administration. Now, to give the Government more unity, the Convention created “Committee of Public Welfare” (Comité de Salut public), elected by it and renewable every twelve months. This committee was to supplant both the Defence Committee and the Executive Council.

In reality it was the Convention itself supplanting the Ministry, but little by little, as was to be expected, the Committee of Public Welfare overruled the Convention and acquired in all the branches of administration a power which it shared only with the Committee of Public Safety (Comité de Sûreté générale), entrusted with the control of the State police.

In the middle of the crisis which was developing in April 1793, Danton, who had until then taken a most active part in the war, became the leading spirit of the Committee of Public Welfare, and he retained this influence until July 10, 1793, when he retired.

Finally, the Convention, which had sent, since September 1792, several of its members to the provinces and to the armies, with the title of Commissioned Deputies (Représentants en mission), armed with very extensive powers, decided to send eighty more deputies to rouse enthusiasm in the provinces and to supervise the war. And, as the Girondins generally refused to accept this function, they willingly agreed to appoint members of the “Mountain” on these difficult missions, perhaps with the idea of having a freer hand in the Convention after their departure.

It was certainly not these measures of reorganisation of the Government which prevented the treachery of Dumouriez having the disastrous effect it might have had, if the army had followed its general. There was a higher force in action. For th French nation the Revolution possessed a charm, and give it a vigour, which it was not possible for a general to destroy at his will and pleasure. On the contrary, this betrayal had the effect of giving a new character to the war — that of a popular, democratic war. But every one understood that Dumouriez alone would never have dared what he did. He obviously had strong support in Paris. It was there that the root of the treachery lay. “The Convention betrays,” said the address of the Jacobin Club, signed by Marat, who presided that night.

Henceforth the fall of the Girondins and the removal of their leaders from the Convention became inevitable. The treachery of Dumouriez gave the final impetus to the insurrection which broke out May 31.