Chapter 55: The War — The Invasion Beaten Back

Submitted by GrouchoMarxist on April 28, 2012

Reorganisation of republican army — Horrors of war — Girondist generals replaced — The war — Difficulties of republicans — Condition of France — Hopes of allies — Their successes and delays — Republicans gain courage — Victory over Austrians — Surrender of Lyons — Toulon recaptured — Vengeance of republicans

After the betrayal of Dumouriez and the arrest of the Girondist leaders, the Republic had to accomplish anew the entire work of reorganising its army on a democratic basis, and it was necessary to re-elect all the superior officers, in order to replace the Girondist and royalist generals by Jacobin republicans.

The conditions under which this great change was accomplished, were so hard that only the grim energy of a nation in revolution was capable of bringing it to the desired end in face of the invasion, the internal disorders, and the underground work of conspiracies which was being carried on all over France by the rich, for the purpose of starving the sans-culotte armies, and handing them over to the enemy. For nearly everywhere the administration of the departments and the districts had remained in the hands of the Feuillants and the Girondins, and they did their best to prevent ammunition and provisions from reaching the armies.

It needed all the genius of the Revolution and all the youthful audacity of a people awakened from its long sleep, all the faith of the revolutionists in a future of equality, to persist, in the Titanic struggle which the sans-culottes had to carry on against the invaders and the traitors. But how many times the exhausted nation was on the point of giving in!

If to-day war can ruin and devastate whole provinces, we can guess what were the ravages of war a hundred and twenty years ago, amongst a population much poorer then. In the departments adjoining the seat of the war, the harvests were cut, mostly unripe, as forage. Most of the horses and other beasts of burden were pressed into service, either on the spot or for one of the fourteen armies of the Republic. The soldiers, in common with the peasants and the poor of the towns, lacked bread. But they lacked everything else as well. In Brittany and in Alsace, the commissioners of the Convention were driven to ask the citizens of certain towns, such as Brest or Strasbourg, to take off their boots and shoes and to send them to the soldiers. All the leather that could be obtained was requisitioned, as also were all the cobblers, to make footwear but this was still insufficient, and wooden shoes had to be distributed to the soldiers. Worse than this, it became imperative to form committees to requisition from private houses “kitchen utensils, cauldrons, fryingpans, Saucepans, buckets, and other articles of brass and pewter, and also any pieces of broken brass or lead.” This was done in the districts of Strasbourg.

At Strasbourg, the commissioners of the Convention and the municipal council were obliged to ask the inhabitants for clothes, stockings, boots, shirts, bed-clothes, and old linen, with which to clothe the ragged volunteers. They had also to beg for beds in private houses, where the wounded might be nursed.

But all this was insufficient, and from time to time the commissioners of the Convention found it necessary to raise heavy revolutionary impositions, which they levied chiefly from the rich. This was especially the case in Alsace, where the great landowners would not give up their feudal rights, in defence of which Austria had taken up arms. In the South, at Narbonne, one of the members of the Convention was driven to demand the services of all the men and women of the town to unload the barges and load the carts which were to transport provisions for the army.[268]

Little by little, however, the army was reorganised. Girondist generals were eliminated; younger men replaced them. Everywhere appeared new men, for whom war had never been a trade, and who came into the army with all the ardour of the citizens of a nation deeply stirred by revolution. They soon created, too, new tactics, which were later attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte, the tactics of rapid marches, and of great masses crushing the enemy in its separate armies, before they had time to effect a junction.

Miserably clothed, often in rags and barefoot, very often hungry, but inspired with the holy flame of the Revolution of Equality, the volunteers of 1793 were victorious where defeat had seemed certain.

At the same time the commissioners of the Convention displayed fierce energy in finding the means to feed, clothe and move the armies. For the greater part, equality was their principle. No doubt there were amongst these commissioners some black sheep, like Cambacerès, a future dignitary, under Napoleon. There were a few fools who surrounded themselves with display, such as became later the undoing of Bonaparte, and there were also a few not above bribes. But all these were very rare exceptions. Nearly all the two hundred commissioners honestly shared the hardships and the dangers with the soldiers.

These efforts brought success, and after a very dark period of reverses in August and September, the republican armies gained the upper hand. The tide of the invasion was stemmed in the beginning of the autumn.

In June, after the treachery of Dumouriez, the army of the North was completely disorganised — its generals being ready to fight each other — and it had against it four armies representing a total of 118,000 men, English, Austrians, Hanoverians and Dutch. Forced also to abandon its entrenched camp, and to take refuge behind the Sarpe, leaving the fortresses of Valenciennes and Condé in the hands of the enemy, this army had left open the road to Paris.

The two armies which defended the Moselle and the Rhine numbered 60,000 fighting men, and they had against 83,000 Prussians and Austrians, together with a cavalry of about 6000 émigrés. Custine, whose devotion to the Republic was very doubtful, abandoned the positions taken in 1792, and allowed the Germans to occupy the fortress of Mayence, on the Rhine.

In Savoy and near Nice, where 40,000 Piedmontese, supported 8000 Austrians, had to be headed off, there was only the pine Army and the Army of the Maritime Alps, both completely deprived of all means of transport, in consequence of the royalist risings in the Forèz, at Lyons, and in Provence.

In the Pyrenees, 23,000 Spaniards entered France, and were opposed by only 10,000 men, who had no cannon and no provisions. With the help of the émigrés, this Spanish army took several forts, and threatened the whole of the Roussillon region.

As to England, she inaugurated in 1793 the policy which was followed later on during the Napoleonic wars. Without coming forward too much herself, she preferred to subsidise the allied Powers and to profit by the weakness of France taking her colonies and ruining her maritime commerce. June 1793, the English Government declared the blockade all the French ports, and English vessels, contrary to the custom of international law of those days, began to seize all neutral vessels bringing provisions to France. At the same time England helped the émigrés, smuggled in arms and bundles of proclamations to stir up Brittany and La Vendee, and prepared to seize the ports of Saint-Malo, Brest, Nantes, Bordeaux and Toulon.

The interior affairs of France were no better. Brittany was in a ferment through the intrigues of the émigrés and the agents of England. In La Vendée, a hundred thousand peasents, influenced to fanaticism, were in open revolt. In the great commercial cities, such as Nantes, Bordeaux and Marseilles, the middle classes were infuriated because their business affairs had been brought to a standstill. Lyons and Provence were in the full swing of an insurrection. In the Forèz the clergy and the émigrés were busy sowing discord and in Paris itself all who had grown rich since 1789, impatient to see the end of the Revolution, were preparing a fierce attack upon it.

Under these conditions, the allies felt so certain of being able soon to re-establish royalty, and of placing Louis XVII on the throne, that they considered it a question of but a few weeks. Fersen, the confidant of Marie-Antoinette, was already discussing with his friends of whom should the Council Regency be composed, whilst the scheme for placing the Count d'Artois at the head of the malcontents in Brittany was agreed upon between England, Spain and Russia.[269]

If the allies had only marched straight against Paris, they would certainly have reduced the Revolution to serious staights. But either from the fear of a new September 2, or because they preferred the possession of the fortresses won from France to a siege of Paris, they chose to stop in their advance to take Valenciennes and Mayence.

However, Mayence fought, and surrendered only on July 22. The fortress of Condé had surrendered a few days earlier, after holding out for four months; and on July 26 Valenciennes, after an assault of the allies, capitulated in its turn amidst the applause of the bourgeoisie who, during the siege, had been in close communication with the Duke of York. Austria took possession of these two fortified towns.

In the North, the road to Paris was open since August 10, 1793, and the allies had more than 300,000 men in all between Ostend and Bâle. What was it then that once again held back the allies and prevented them from marching against Paris, to deliver Marie-Antoinette and the Dauphin? Was it really the desire only to take first those fortresses which would remain theirs, whatever might happen in France? Was it the fear of the fierce resistance which Republican France might offer? Or was it — and this seems to us the most probable — considerations of a diplomatic nature? As the documents which might throw light on the French diplomacy this period are not yet published, we are reduced to conjectures. We know, however, that during the summer and autumn of 1793, the Committee for Public Welfare was treating with Austria about the liberation of Mariie-Antoinette, the Dauphin and his sister, and their aunt, Madame Elisabeth. And we know also that Danton carried on secret negotiations with the English Whigs till 1794, to stop the war with England. From day to day people were expecting in England to see the leader of the Whigs, overthrow Pitt, the Tory leader, step into power; and twice — at the end of January 1794 during the discussion of the answer to the speech from the throne, and on March 16, 1794 — it was hoped that the English Parliament would declare itself against a war with France.[270]

At any rate, the fact remains, that after their first successes, allies did not march against Paris, but began to besiege fortresses. The Duke of York began the siege of Dunkirk and the Duke of Coburg besieged Le Quesnoy.

This gave a moment of respite to the Republic, and allowed Bouchoote, the Minister of War who had succeeded Pache, time to reorganise the army which had been reinforced by a of 600,000 men, and to find republican officers for it. Carnot, at the same time, in the Committee of Public Welfare, tried to make the generals act together with more accord, while the commissioners of the Convention carried the flame the Revolution to the armies.

Thus passed the month of August, during which the reverses frontier and in La Vendée revived the hopes of the royalists and filled with despair a good many of the republicans. However, from the first days of September 1793, the armies the Republic, spurred by public opinion, took the offensive in the North, on the Rhine, and in the Pyrenees. This new move was crowned with success in the North, where the Duke of York, furiously attacked by the French at Hondschoote, was forced to abandon the siege of Dunkirk; but elsewhere the results were for the time indecisive.

The Committee of Public Welfare at once took advantage of the first military successes to demand and obtain from the Convention almost dictatorial powers — to be retained “as long as peace is not concluded.” But what helped most in arresting the advance of the invasion was that, seeing everywhere where new leaders, openly republican, rise from the ranks, and reach the highest positions in a few days, and seeing also the commissioners of the Convention marching themselves sword in hand at the heads of attacking columns, the soldiers were inspired with fresh courage and achieved wonders of valour.

On October 15 and 16, in spite of very heavy losses, they gained at Wattignies the first great victory over the Austrians. This victory was won, we may say literally, by the bayonet, for the village of Wattignies changed hands as often as eight times during the battle. As a result of this defeat, the Austrians raised the siege of Maubeuge, and the victory won at Wattignies had the same influence on the course of events as the victory of Valmy had had in 1792.

Lyons, as we saw, was forced to surrender in October, and in December Toulon was retaken from the English, after an assault which was begun on the 8th Frimaire of the Year II. (November 28, 1793), and lasted till the 26th Frimaire (December 16), when the “English redoubt” and the forts of Eguillette and of Balagnier were taken by assault. The English squadron set fire to the French vessels harboured in the port, as well as to the arsenals, the docks and the powder magazines and, leaving the roadstead, abandoned the royalists, who had delivered Toulon to them, to the vengeance Of the republicans.

Unhappily this vengeance was terrible, and left deep traces of hatred in many hearts. One hundred and fifty persons, mostly naval officers, were shot in batches, after which came the detailed vengeance of the revolutionary courts.

In Alsace and on the Rhine, where the armies of the Republic had to fight the Prussians and the Austrians, they were forced from the beginning of the year's campaign to abandon their line of defence round Wissernburg. This opened the road to Strasbourg, where the bourgroisie was calling on the Austrians and pressing them to come and take possession of the town in the name of Louis XVII. But the Austrians had no desire to strengthen royalty in France, and this gave time to Hoche and Pichegrue, aided by Saint-Just and Le Bas, who represented the Convention, to reorganise the army and take the offensive themselves.

However, winter was already approaching, and the campaign of 1793 ended, without there being any new successes to record on either side. The Austrian, Prussian, Hessian, Dutch, Piedmontese and Spanish armies remained on the French frontiers, but the energy of the allies was spent. Prussia even wished to retire from the alliance; and England had to bind herself at The Hague (April 28, 1794) to pay the Prussian King a sum Of 7,500,000 francs, and to send in a yearly contribution of 1,250,000 francs, before Prussia would agree to maintain an army of 62,400 men to fight France.

The following spring, therefore, the war was to recommence but the Republic could now struggle under far more favourable conditions than in 1792 and 1793. Thanks to the enthusiasm with which it had inspired the poorest classes, the Revolution was freeing itself little by little from those external enemies who had sought to crush it. But at what a price when we consider the sacrifices this entailed — the internal convulsions, he alienation of liberty, which in the end killed this very same Revolution and delivered France up to the despotism of a military “saviour.”