Jourdan’s movement on Liége.marches, to prevent any transfer of troops to Belgium, and lastly to seek an occasion for giving battle, for cutting off his convoys and for seizing his magazines.” So much for the purpose. The method of achieving it is defined as follows. “General Hatry, in order to attain the object of these instructions, will have with him the minimum of wagons. He is to live at the expense of the enemy as much as possible, and to send back into the interior of the Republic whatever may be useful to it; he will maintain his communications with Longwy, report every movement to me, and when necessary to the Committee of Public Safety and to the minister of war, maintain order and discipline, and firmly oppose every sort of pillage.” How the last of these instructions was to be reconciled with the rest, Hatry was not informed. In fact, it was ignored. “I am far from believing,” wrote the representative on mission Gillet, “that we ought to adopt the principles of philanthropy with which we began the war.”
At the moment when, on these terms, Jourdan’s advance was resumed, the general situation east of the Scheldt was as follows: The Allies’ centre under Coburg had captured Landrecies, and now (May 4) lay around that place, about 65,000 strong, while the left under Kaunitz (27,000) was somewhat north of Maubeuge, with detachments south of the Sambre as far as the Meuse. Beyond these again were the detachment of Beaulieu (8000) near Arlon, and another, 9000 strong, around Trier. On the side of the French, the Army of the Moselle (41,000 effectives) was in cordon between Saargemünd and Longwy; the Army of the Ardennes (22,000) between Beaumont and Givet; of the Army of the North, the right wing (38,000) in the area Beaumont—Maubeuge and the centre (24,000) about Guise. In the aggregate the allied field armies numbered 139,000 men, those of the French 203,000. Tactically the disproportion was sufficient to give the latter the victory, if, strategically, it could be made effective at a given time and place. But the French had mobility as a remedy for over-extension, and though their close massing on the extreme flanks left no more than equal forces opposite Coburg in the centre, the latter felt unable either to go forward or to close to one flank when on his right the storm was brewing at Menin and Tournai, and on his left Kaunitz reported the gathering of important masses of the French around Beaumont.
Thus the initiative passed over to the French, but they missed their opportunity, as Coburg had missed his in 1793. Pichegru’s right was ordered to march on Mons, and his left to master the navigation of the Scheldt so as to reduce the Allies to wagon-drawn supplies—the latter an objective dear to the 18th-century general; while Jourdan’s task, as we know, was to conquer the Liége or Namur country without unduly stripping the cordon on the Saar and the Moselle. Jourdan’s orders and original purpose were to get Beaulieu out of his way by the usual strategical tricks, and to march through the Ardennes as rapidly as possible, living on what supplies he could pick up from the enemy or the inhabitants. But he had scarcely started when Beaulieu made his existence felt by attacking a French post at Bouillon. Thereupon Jourdan made the active enemy, instead of Namur, his first object.
The movement of the operative portion of the Army of the Moselle began on the 21st of May from Longwy through Arlon towards Neufchâteau. Irregular fighting, sometimes with the Austrians, sometimes with the bitterly hostile inhabitants, marked its progress. Beaulieu was nowhere forced into a battle. But fortune was on Jourdan’s side. The Austrians were a detachment of Coburg’s army, not an independent force, and when threatened they retired towards Ciney, drawing Jourdan after them in the very direction in which he desired to go. On the 28th the French, after a vain detour made in the hope of forcing Beaulieu to fight—“les esclaves n’osent pas se mesurer avec des hommes libres,” wrote Jourdan in disgust,—reached Ciney, and there heard that the enemy had fallen back to a strongly entrenched position on the east bank of the Meuse near Namur. Jourdan was preparing to attack them there, when considerations of quite another kind intervened to change his direction, and thereby to produce the drama of Charleroi and Fleurus—which military historians have asserted to be the foreseen result of the initial plan.
The method of “living on the country” had failed lamentably in the Ardennes, and Jourdan, though he had spoken of changing his line of supply from Arlon to Carignan, then to Mézières and so on as his march progressed, was still actually living from hand to mouth on the convoys that arrived intermittently from his original base. When he sought to take what he needed from the towns on the Meuse, he infringed on the preserves of the Army of the Ardennes. The advance, therefore, came for the moment to a standstill, while Beaulieu, solicitous for the safety of Charleroi—in which fortress he had a magazine—called up the outlying troops left behind on the Moselle to rejoin him by way of Bastogne. At the same moment (29th) Jourdan received new orders from Paris—(a) to take Dinant and Charleroi and to clear the country between the Meuse and the Sambre, and (b) to attack Namur, either by assault or by regular siege. In the latter case the bulk of the forces were to form a covering army beyond the place, to demonstrate towards Nivelles, Louvain and Liége, and to serve at need as a support to the right flank of the Ardennes Army. From these orders and from the action of the enemy the campaign at last took a definite shape.
When the Army of the Moselle passed over to the left bank of the Meuse, it was greeted by the distant roar of guns towards Charleroi and by news that the Army of the Ardennes, which had already twice been defeated by Kaunitz, was for the third time deeply and unsuccessfully engaged beyond the Sambre. The resumption of the march again complicated the supply question, and it was only slowly that the army advanced towards Charleroi, sweeping the country before it and extending its right towards Namur. But at last on the 3rd of June the concentration of parts of three armies on the Sambre was effected. Jourdan took command of the united force (Army of the Sambre and Meuse) with a strong hand, the 40,000 newcomers inspired fresh courage in the beaten Ardennes troops, and in the sudden dominating enthusiasm of the moment pillaging and straggling almost ceased. Troops that had secured bread shared it with less fortunate comrades, and even the Liégois peasantry made free gifts of supplies. “We must believe,” says the French general staff of to-day, “that the idea symbolized by the Tricolour, around which marched ever these sansculottes, shoeless and hungry, unchained a mysterious force that preceded our columns and aided the achievement of military success.”
Friction, however, arose between Jourdan and the generals of the Ardennes Army, to whom the representatives thought it well to give a separate mission. This detachment of 18,000 men was followed by another, of 16,000, to keep touch with Maubeuge. Deducting another 6000 for the siege of Charleroi, when this should be made, the covering army destined to fight the Imperialists dwindled to 55,000 out of 96,000 effectives. Even now, we see, the objective was not primarily the enemy’s army. The Republican leaders desired to strike out beyond the Sambre, and as a preliminary to capture Charleroi. They would not, however, risk the loss of their connexion with Maubeuge before attaining the new foothold.
Meanwhile, Tourcoing and Tournai had at last convinced Coburg that Pichegru was his most threatening opponent, and he had therefore, though with many misgivings, decided to move towards his right, leaving the prince of Orange with not more than 45,000 men on the side of Maubeuge-Charleroi-Namur.
Jourdan crossed the Sambre on the 12th of June, practically unopposed. Charleroi was rapidly invested and the covering army extended in a semicircular position. For the fourth time the Allies counter-attacked successfully, and after a severe struggle the French had to abandon their positions and their siege works and to recross the Sambre (June 16). But the army was not beaten. On the contrary, it was only desirous of having its revenge for a stroke of ill-fortune, due, the soldiers said, to
- Each of the fifteen armies on foot had been allotted certain departments as supply areas, Jourdan’s being of course far away in Lorraine.