The French Revolution (Belloc)/Chapter 5

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The Revolution would never have achieved its object: on the contrary, it would have led to no less than a violent reaction against those principles which were maturing before it broke out, and which it carried to triumph, had not the armies of revolutionary France proved successful in the field; but the grasping of this mere historic fact, I mean the success of the revolutionary armies, is unfortunately no simple matter.

We all know that as a matter of fact the Revolution was, upon the whole, successful in imposing its view upon Europe. We all know that from that success as from a germ has proceeded, and is still proceeding, modern society. But the nature, the cause and the extent of the military success which alone made this possible, is widely ignored and still more widely misunderstood. No other signal military effort which achieved its object has in history ended in military disaster—yet this was the case with the revolutionary wars. After twenty years of advance, during which the ideas of the Revolution were sown throughout Western civilisation, and had time to take root, the armies of the Revolution stumbled into the vast trap or blunder of the Russian campaign; this was succeeded by the decisive defeat of the democratic armies at Leipsic, and the superb strategy of the campaign of 1814, the brilliant rally of what is called the Hundred Days, only served to emphasise the completeness of the apparent failure. For that masterly campaign was followed by Napoleon’s first abdication, that brilliant rally ended in Waterloo and the ruin of the French army. When we consider the spread of Grecian culture over the East by the parallel military triumph of Alexander, or the conquest of Gaul by the Roman armies under Caesar, we are met by political phenomena and a political success no more striking than the success of the Revolution. The Revolution did as much by the sword as ever did Alexander or Caesar, and as surely compelled one of the great transformations of Europe. But the fact that the great story can be read to a conclusion of defeat disturbs the mind of the student.

Again, that element fatal to all accurate study of military history, the imputation of civilian virtues and motives, enters the mind of the reader with fatal facility when he studies the revolutionary wars.

He is tempted to ascribe to the enthusiasm of the troops, nay, to the political movement itself, a sort of miraculous power. He is apt to use with regard to the revolutionary victories the word “inevitable,” which, if ever it applies to the reasoned, willing and conscious action of men, certainly applies least of all to men when they act as soldiers.

There are three points which we must carefully bear in mind when we consider the military history of the Revolution.

First, that it succeeded: the Revolution, regarded as the political motive of its armies, won.

Secondly, that it succeeded through those military aptitudes and conditions which happened to accompany, but by no means necessarily accompanied, the strong convictions and the civic enthusiasm of the time.

Thirdly, that the element of chance, which every wise and prudent reasoner will very largely admit into all military affairs, worked in favour of the Revolution in the critical moments of the early wars.

With these points fixed, and with a readiness to return to them when we have appreciated the military story, it is well to begin our study by telling that story briefly, and upon its most general lines. In so doing, it will be necessary to cover here and there points which have already been dealt with in this book, but that is inevitable where one is writing of the military aspect of any movement, for it is impossible to deal with that aspect save as a living part of the whole: so knit into national life is the business of war.


When the Revolution first approached action, the prospect of a war between France and any other great Power of the time—England, Prussia, the Empire, or let us say Russia, or even Spain—was such a prospect as might have been entertained at any time during the past two or three generations of men.

For pretty well a hundred years men had been accustomed to the consideration of dynastic quarrels supported by a certain type of army, which in a moment I shall describe.

I have called these quarrels dynastic; that is, they were mainly quarrels between the ruling houses of Europe: were mainly motived by the desire of each ruling house to acquire greater territory and revenue, and were limited by the determination of all the ruling houses to maintain certain ideas inviolate, as, for instance, the sacredness of monarchy, the independence of individual States, etc. Though they were in the main dynastic, yet in proportion as a dynasty might represent a united nation, they were national also. The English oligarchy was in this respect peculiar and more national than any European Government of its time. It is also true to say that the Russian despotism had behind it, in most of its military adventures and in all its spirit of expansion, the subconscious agreement of the people.

Still, however national, the wars of the time preceding the Revolution moved within a fixed framework of ideas, as it were, which no commander and no diplomatist dreamed of exceeding. A, the crowned head of a State, would have some claims against B, the crowned head of another State, with regard to certain territories. C, the crowned head or Government of a third State, would remain neutral or ally himself with either of the two; if he allied himself, then, as a rule, it was with the weaker against the stronger, in order to guarantee himself against too great an increase on the part of a rival. Or, again, a rebellion would break out against the power of A in some part of his dominions; then would B, somewhat reluctantly (as the almost unlimited right of an existing executive was still a strong dogma in men’s minds), tend to ally himself with the rebels in order to diminish the power of A.

Human affairs have always in them very strongly and permanently inherent, the character of a sport: the interest (at any rate of males) in the conduct of human life is always largely an interest of seeing that certain rules are kept, and certain points won, according to those rules. We must, therefore, beware of ridiculing the warfare of the century preceding the Revolution under the epithet of “a game.” But it is true of that warfare, and honourably true, that it attempted limited things in a limited manner; it did not attempt any fundamental change in society; it was not overtly—since the Thirty Years’ War at least—a struggle of ideas; it was conducted on behalf of known and limited interests for known and highly limited objects, and the instruments with which it was conducted were instruments artificial and segregated from the general life of nations.

These instruments were what have been called the “professional” armies. The term is very insufficient, and, in part, misleading. The gentry of the various Powers, mixed with whom were certain adventurers not always of gentle blood, were the officers that led these forces; and for the major part of the gentry in most European countries, the military career was the chief field of activity. The men whom they led were not a peasantry nor a working class, still less a civic force in which the middle class would find itself engaged: they were the poorest and the least settled, some would have said the dregs of European life. With the exception here and there of a man—usually a very young man whom the fabled romance of this hard but glorious trade had attracted—and with the exception of certain bodies that followed in a mass and by order the relics of a feudal lordship, the armies of the period immediately preceding the Revolution were armies of very poor men, who had sold themselves into a sort of servitude often exciting and even adventurous, but not, when we examine it minutely, a career that a free man would choose. The men were caught by economic necessity, by fraud, and in other ways, and once caught were held. No better proof of this could be found than the barbarous severity of the punishments attached to desertion, or to minor forms of indiscipline. So held, they were used for the purposes of the game, not only in what would make them serviceable instruments of war, but also in what would make them pleasing to their masters. Strict alignment, certain frills of parade and appearance, all that is required in a theatre or in a pretentious household, appear in the military regulations of the time.

I must not in all this be supposed to be belittling that great period between 1660 and 1789, during which the art of war was most thoroughly thought out, the traditions of most of our great European armies fixed, and the permanent military qualities which we still inherit developed. The men so caught as private soldiers could not but enjoy the game when it was actively played, for men of European stock will always enjoy the game of war; they took glory in its recital and in its memories; to be a soldier, even under the servile conditions of the time, was a proper subject for pride, and it is further to be remarked that the excesses of cruelty discoverable in the establishment of their discipline were also accompanied by very high and lasting examples of military virtue. The behaviour of the English contingents at Fontenoy afford but one of many examples of what I mean.

Still, to understand the wars of the Revolution we must clearly establish the contrast between the so-called professional armies which preceded that movement and the armies which the Revolution invented, used, and bequeathed to the modern world.

So also, to revert to what was said above, we must recall the dynastic and limited character of the wars in which the eighteenth century had been engaged; at the outbreak of the Revolution no other wars were contemplated by men.

Had you spoken, for instance, at any moment in 1789, to a statesman, whether of old experience or only introduced to political life by the new movement, of the position of Great Britain, he would at once have discussed that position in the terms of Great Britain’s recent defeat at the hands of France in the affair of the American colonies. Had you discussed with him the position of Prussia he would at once have argued it in connection with Prussia’s secular opposition to Austria and the Empire. Had you asked him how he considered Spain, he would have spoken of the situation of Spain as against France in the light of the fact that Spain was a Bourbon monarchy allied in blood to the French throne. And so forth. No true statesman imagined at the time, nor, indeed, for many years, that a war of ideas, nor even, strictly speaking, of nations, was possible. Even when such a war was actually in process of waging, the diplomacy which attempted to establish a peace, the intrigues whereby alliances were sought, or neutrality negotiated, were dependent upon the older conception of things; and the historian is afforded, as he regards this gigantic struggle, the ironic satisfaction of seeing men fighting upon doctrines the most universal conceivable and yet perpetually changing their conduct during the struggle according to conceptions wholly particular, local and ephemeral, and soon to be entirely swept away by time.

Napoleon himself must needs marry an Austrian archduchess as part of this old prejudice, and for years brains as excellent as Danton’s or Talleyrand’s conjecture the possibility of treating now England, now Prussia, as neutral to the vast attempt of the French to destroy privilege in European society!

One may say that for two years the connection of the revolutionary movement with arms had no aspect save that of civil war. True, whenever a considerable change is in progress in society the possibility of foreign war in connection with it must always arise. Were some European State, for instance, to make an experiment in Collectivism to-day, the chance of foreign intervention would certainly be discussed by the promoters of that experiment. But no serious danger of an armed struggle between the French and any of their neighbours in connection with the political experiment of the Revolution was imagined by the mass of educated men in France itself nor without the boundaries of France during those first two years. And, I repeat, the military aspect of those years was confined to civil tumult. Nevertheless, that aspect is not to be neglected. The way in which the French organised their civil war (and there was always something of it present from the summer of 1789 onwards) profoundly affected the foreign war that was to follow: for in their internal struggles great masses of Frenchmen became habituated to the physical presence, millions to the discussion, of arms.

It is, as we have seen in another part of this book, a repeated and conspicuous error to imagine that the first revolutionary outbreaks were not met sufficiently sternly by royal troops. On the contrary, the royal troops were used to the utmost and were defeated. The populace of the large towns, and especially of Paris, proved itself capable of military organisation and of military action. When to this capacity had been added the institution of the militia called the National Guard, there were already the makings of a nation wholly military.

Much in this exceptional and new position must be ascribed to the Gallic character. It may be said that from the fall of the Roman Empire to the present day that character has been permanently and of its own volition steeped in the experience of organised fighting. Civil tumult has been native to it, the risk of death in defence of political objects has been equally familiar, and the whole trade of arms, its necessary organisation, its fatigues and its limiting conditions, have been very familiar to the population throughout all these centuries. But beyond this the fact that the Revolution prepared men in the school of civil tumult was of the first advantage for its later aptitude against foreign Powers.

It is always well in history to fix a definite starting-point for any political development, and the starting-point of the revolutionary wars may easily be fixed at the moment when Louis, his queen and the royal children attempted to escape to the frontier and to the Army of the Centre under the command of Bouillé. This happened, as we have seen, in June 1791.

Many factors combine to make that date the starting-point. In the first place, until that moment no actual proof had been apparent in the eyes of European monarchs of the captivity of their chief exemplar, the king of France.

The wild march upon Versailles, in the days of October 1789, had its parallel in a hundred popular tumults with which Europe was familiar enough for centuries. But the rapidly succeeding reforms of the year 1790, and even the great religious blunder of 1791, had received the signature and the public assent of the Crown. The Court, though no longer at Versailles, was splendid, the power of the King over the Executive still far greater than that of any other organ in the State, and indefinitely greater than that of any other individual in the State. The talk of captivity, of insult and the rest, the outcries of the emigrants and the perpetual complaint of the French royal family in its private relations, seemed exaggerated, or at any rate nothing to act upon, until there came the shock of the King’s attempted flight and recapture. This clinched things; and it clinched them all the more because more than one Court, and especially that of Austria, believed for some days that the escape had been successful.

Again, the flight and its failure put the army into a ridiculous posture. Action against the Revolution was never likely, so long as the discipline and steadiness of the French army were believed in abroad. But the chief command had hopelessly failed upon that occasion, and it was evident that the French-speaking troops could not easily be trusted by the Executive Government or by their own commanders. Furthermore, the failure of the flight leads the Queen, with her vivacity of spirit and her rapid though ill-formed plans, to turn for the first time to the idea of military intervention. Her letters suggesting this (in the form of a threat rather than a war, it is true) do not begin until after her capture at Varennes.

Finally, coincident with that disaster was the open mention of a Republic, the open suggestion that the King should be deposed, and the first definite and public challenge to the principles of monarchy which the Revolution had thrown down before Europe.

We are, therefore, not surprised to find that this origin of the military movement was followed in two months by the Declaration of Pillnitz.

With the political nature of that Declaration one must deal elsewhere. Its military character must here be observed.

The Declaration of Pillnitz corresponded as nearly as possible to what in the present day would be an order preparatory to mobilising a certain proportion of the reserve. It cannot with justice be called equivalent to an order calling out all the reserves, still less equivalent to an order mobilising upon a war footing the forces of a modern nation, for such an action is tantamount to a declaration of war (as, for instance, was the action of the English Government before the South African struggle), and Pillnitz was very far from that. But Pillnitz was certainly as drastic a military proceeding as would be the public intimation by a group of Powers that the reserves had been warned in connection with their quarrel against another Power. It was, for instance, quite as drastic as the action of Austria against Servia in 1908. And it was intended to be followed by such submission as is expected to follow upon the threat of superior force.

Such was the whole burden of Marie Antoinette’s letters to her brother (who had called the meeting at Pillnitz), and such was the sense in which the politicians of the Revolution understood it.

All that autumn and winter the matter chiefly watched by foreign diplomatists and the clearest of French thinkers was the condition of the French forces and of their command. Narbonne’s appointment to the War Office counted more than any political move, Dumouriez’ succession to him was the event of the time. Plans of campaign were drawn up (and promptly betrayed by Marie Antoinette to the enemy), manifold occasions for actual hostilities were discovered, the Revolution challenged the Emperor in the matter of the Alsatian princes, the Emperor challenged, through Kaunitz, the Revolution in a letter directly interfering with the internal affairs of France, and pretending to a right of ingérence therein; and on the 20th of April, 1792, war was declared against the Empire. Prussia thereupon informed the French Government that she made common cause with the Emperor, and the revolutionary struggle had begun.

The war discovered no serious features during its first four months: so slow was the gathering and march of the Allies; but the panics into which the revolutionary troops fell in the first skirmishes, their lack of discipline, and the apparent breakdown of the French military power, made the success of the Invasion in Force, when it should come, seem certain. The invading army did not cross the frontier until more than a week after the fall of the palace. Longwy capitulated at once; a week later, in the last days of August, the great frontier fortress of Verdun was summoned. It capitulated almost immediately.


On the 2nd of September Verdun was entered by the Prussians, and a little outside the gates of the town, near a village bearing the name of Regret, the allied camp was fixed. Rather more than a week later, on the 11th, the Allies marched against the line of the Argonne.

The reader will remember that this moment, with the loss of the frontier fortresses Longwy and Verdun, and the evidence of demoralisation which that afforded, was also the moment of the September massacres and of the horrors in Paris. Dumouriez and the mixed French force which he commanded had been ordered by the Ministers of War to hold the line of the Argonne against which the Allies were marching. And here it is well to explain what was meant in a military sense by this word “line.”

The Argonne is a long, nearly straight range of hills running from the south northward, a good deal to the west of north.

Their soil is clay, and though the height of the hills is only three hundred feet above the plain, their escarpment or steep side is towards the east, whence an invasion may be expected. They are densely wooded, from five to eight miles broad, the supply of water in them is bad, in many parts undrinkable; habitation with its provision for armies and roads extremely rare. It is necessary to insist upon all these details because the greater part of civilian readers find it difficult to understand how formidable an obstacle so comparatively unimportant a feature in the landscape may be to an army upon the march. It was quite impossible for the guns, the wagons, and therefore the food and the ammunition of the invading army, to pass through the forest over the drenched clay land of that wet autumn save where proper roads existed. These were only to be found wherever a sort of natural pass negotiated the range.

Three of these passes alone existed, and to this day there is very little choice in the crossing of these hills. The accompanying sketch will explain their disposition. Through the southernmost went the great high road from the frontier and Verdun to Paris. At the middle one (which is called the Gap of Grandpré) Dumouriez was waiting with his incongruous army. The third and northern one was also held, but less strongly. The obvious march for an unimpeded invader would have been from Verdun along the high road, through the southern pass at “Les Islettes,” and so to Chalons and on to Paris. But Dumouriez, marching down rapidly from the north, had set an advanced guard to hold

Belloc French Revolution map 158.PNG

Sketch Map, showing the turning of the positions on the Argonne and the Cannonade at Valmy, September 1792.

that pass and was lying himself with the mass of the army on the pass to the north of it at Grandpré. Against Grandpré the Prussians marched, and meanwhile the Austrians were attacking the further pass to the north. Both were forced. Dumouriez fell back southward to St. Menehould. Meanwhile Kellermann was coming up from Metz to join him, and all the while the main pass at “Les Islettes,” through which the great road to Paris went, continued to be held by the French.

The Prussians and the Austrians joined forces in the plain known as the Champagne Pouilleuse, which lies westward of Argonne. It will be seen that as they marched south along this plain to meet Dumouriez and to defeat him, their position was a peculiar one: they were nearer the enemy’s capital than the enemy’s army was, and yet they had to fight with their backs to that capital, and their enemy the French had to fight with their faces towards it. Moreover, it must be remarked that the communications of the Allied Army were now of a twisted, roundabout sort, which made the conveyance of provisions and ammunition slow and difficult—but they counted upon an immediate destruction of Dumouriez’ force and after that a rapid march on the capital.

On September 19 Kellermann came up from the south and joined hands with Dumouriez near St. Menehould, and on the morning of the 20th his force occupied a roll of land on which there was a windmill and immediately behind which was the village of Valmy; from this village the ensuing action was to take its name. It must here be insisted upon that both armies had been subjected to the very worst weather for more than a fortnight, but of the two the Prussian force had suffered from this accident much more severely than the French. Dysentery had already broken out, and the length and tortuousness of their communications were greatly emphasised by the condition of the roads.

On the morning of that day, the 20th of September, a mist impeded all decisive movements. There was an encounter, half accidental, between an advanced French battery and the enemy’s guns, but it was not until mid-morning that the weather lifted enough to show each force its opponent. Then there took place an action, or rather a cannonade, the result of which is more difficult to explain, perhaps, than any other considerable action of the revolutionary wars. For some hours the Prussian artillery, later reinforced by the Austrian, cannonaded the French position, having for its central mark the windmill of Valmy, round which the French forces were grouped. At one moment this cannonade took effect upon the limbers and ammunition wagons of the French; there was an explosion which all eye-witnesses have remembered as the chief feature of the firing, and which certainly threw into confusion for some moments the ill-assorted troops under Kellermann’s command. At what hour this took place the witnesses who have left us accounts differ to an extraordinary extent. Some will have it at noon, others towards the middle of the afternoon—so difficult is it to have any accurate account of what happens in the heat of an action. At any rate, if not coincidently with this success, at some moment not far removed from it, the Prussian charge was ordered, and it is here that the difficulties of the historian chiefly appear. That charge was never carried home; whether, as some believe, because it was discovered, after it was ordered, to be impossible in the face of the accuracy and intensity of the French fire, or whether, as is more probably the case, because the drenched soil compelled the commanders to abandon the movement after it had begun—whatever the cause may have been, the Prussian force, though admirably disciplined and led, and though advancing in the most exact order, failed to carry out its original purpose. It halted halfway up the slope, and the action remained a mere cannonade without immediate result apparent upon either side.

Nevertheless that result ultimately turned out to be very great, and if we consider its place in history, quite as important as might have been the result of a decisive action. In the first place, the one day’s delay which it involved was just more than the calculations of the Allies, with their long impeded line of communications, had allowed for. In the next place, a singular increase in determination and moral force was infused into the disheartened and ill-matched troops of the French commanders by this piece of resistance.

We must remember that the French force upon the whole expected and discounted a defeat, the private soldier especially had no confidence in the result; and to find that at the first action which had been so long threatened and had now at last come, he could stand up to the enemy, produced upon him an exaggerated effect which it would never have had under other circumstances.

Finally, we must recollect that whatever causes had forbidden the Prussian charge forbade on the next day a general advance against the French position. And all the time the sickness in the Prussian camp was rapidly increasing. Even that short check of twenty-four hours made a considerable difference. A further delay of but yet another day, during which the Allied Army could not decide whether to attack at once or to stand as they were, very greatly increased the list of inefficients from illness.

For a whole week of increasing anxiety and increasing inefficiency the Allied Army hung thus, impotent, though they were between the French forces and the capital. Dumouriez ably entertained this hesitation, with all its accumulating dangers for the enemy, by prolonged negotiations, until upon the 30th of September the Prussian and Austrian organisation could stand the strain no longer, and its commanders determined upon retreat. It was the genius of Danton, as we now know, that chiefly organised the withdrawal of what might still have been a dangerous invading force. It is principally due to him that no unwise Jingoism was permitted to claim a trial of strength with the invader, that he was allowed to retire with all his guns, his colours and his train. The retreat was lengthy and unmolested, though watched by the French forces that discreetly shepherded it but were kept tightly in hand from Paris. It was more than three weeks later when the Allied Army, upon which Europe and the French monarchy had counted for an immediate settlement of the Revolution, re-crossed the frontier, and in this doubtful and perhaps inexplicable fashion the first campaign of the European Powers against the Revolution utterly failed.


Following upon this success, Dumouriez pressed on to what had been, from the first moment of his power at the head of the army, his personal plan—to wit, the invasion of the Low Countries.

To understand why this invasion failed and why Dumouriez thought it might succeed, we must appreciate the military and political situation of the Low Countries at the time. They then formed a very wealthy and cherished portion of the Austrian dominions; they had latterly suffered from deep disaffection culminating in an open revolution, which was due to the Emperor of Austria’s narrow and intolerant contempt of religion. From his first foolish policy of persecution and confiscation he had indeed retreated, but the feeling of the people was still strongly opposed to the Government at Vienna. It is remarkable, indeed, and in part due to the pressure of a strongly Protestant and aristocratic state, Holland, to the north of them,

Page Belloc French Revolution map 164.png
Sketch Map of towns occupied by French in 1792 and evacuated in March 1793, with sites of battles of Jemappes and of Neerwinden, and of Dumouriez’ treason.

that the people of the Austrian Netherlands retained at that time a peculiar attachment to the Catholic religion. The Revolution was quite as anti-Catholic as the Austrian Emperor, but of the persecution of the latter the Belgians (as we now call them) knew something; that of the former they had not yet learnt to dread. It was, therefore, Dumouriez’ calculation that, in invading this province of the Austrian power, he would be fighting in friendly territory. Again, it was separated from the political centre of the empire; it was, therefore, more or less isolated politically, and even for military purposes communication with it was not so easy, unless, indeed, Austria could count on a complete co-operation with Prussia, which Power had been for now so long her ruthless and persistent rival.

Favourable, however, as the circumstances appeared for an invasion, two factors telling heavily against the French had to be counted: the first was the formation of their army, the second the spirit of rebellion against any anti-Catholic Government which had given such trouble to Joseph II.

Of these two factors by far the most important was, of course, the first. If the French forces had been homogeneous, in good spirit, and well trained, they might have held what they won; as a fact, they were most unhomogeneous, great portions of them were ill trained, and, worst of all, there was no consistent theory of subordinate command. Men who imagined that subordinate, that is, regimental, command in an army could be erected from below, and that a fighting force could resemble a somewhat lax and turbulent democracy, marched alongside of and were actually incorporated with old soldiers who had spent their whole careers under an unquestioned discipline, and under a subordinate command which came to them they knew not whence, and as it were by fate. The mere mixture of two such different classes of men in one force would have been bad enough to deal with, but what was worse, the political theories of the day fostered the military error of the new battalions though the politicians dared not interfere with the valuable organisation of the old.

The invasion of the Low Countries began with a great, though somewhat informal and unfruitful success, in the victory of Jemappes. It was the first striking and dramatic decisive action which the French, always of an eager appetite for such news, had been given since between forty and fifty years. The success in America against the English, though brilliantly won and solidly founded, had not presented occasions of this character, and Fontenoy was the last national victory which Paris could remember. Men elderly or old in this autumn of 1792 would have been boys or very young men when Fontenoy was fought. The eager generation of the Revolution, with its military appetites and aptitudes, as yet had hardly expected victory, though victory was ardently desired by them and peculiarly suitable to their temper.

It may be imagined, therefore, what an effect the news of Jemappes had upon the political world in Paris. The action was fought just below the town of Mons, a few miles over the frontier, and consisted in a somewhat ill-ordered but successful advance across the River Haine. Whether because the Austrians, with an inferior force, attempted to hold too long a line, or because the infantry and even the new French volunteer battalions, as yet untried by fatigue, proved irresistible in the centre of the movement, Jemappes was a victory so complete that the attempts of apologists to belittle it only serve to enhance its character.

Like many another great and apparently decisive action, however, it bore no lasting fruit. Both the factors of which I have spoken above appeared immediately after this success. Belgium was, indeed, over-run by the French, but in their over-running of it with something like eighty thousand men, they made no attempt to spare the traditions or to conciliate the sympathies of the inhabitants. Hardly was Jemappes won when Mons, the neighbouring fortified frontier town, was at once endowed with the whole machinery of revolutionary government. Church property was invaded and occasionally rifled, and the French paper money, the assignats of which we have heard, poured in to disturb and in places to ruin the excellent commercial system upon which Belgium then as now reposed.

Jemappes was fought upon the 6th of November, 1792. Brussels was entered upon the 14th, and throughout that winter the Low Countries lay entirely in the hands of the French. The Commissioners from the Convention, though endowing Belgium with republican institutions, treated it as a conquered country, and before the breaking of spring, the French Parliament voted its annexation to France. This annexation, the determination of the politicians in Paris that the new Belgian Government should be republican and anti-Catholic, the maltreatment of the Church in the occupied country and the increasing ill discipline and lack of cohesion in his army, left Dumouriez in a position which grew more and more difficult as the new year, 1793, advanced. It must be remembered that this moment exactly corresponded with the execution of the King and the consequent declaration of war by or against France in the case of one Power after another throughout Europe. Meanwhile, it was decided, foolishly enough, to proceed from the difficult occupation of Belgium to the still more difficult occupation of Holland, and the siege of Maestricht was planned.

The moment was utterly ill-suited for such a plan. Every Executive in the civilised world was coalescing openly or secretly, directly or indirectly, against the revolutionary Government. The first order to retreat came upon the 8th of March, when the siege of Maestricht was seen to be impossible, and when the great forces of the Allies were gathered again to attempt what was to be the really serious attack upon the Revolution: something far more dangerous, something which much more nearly achieved success, than the march of the comparatively small force which had been checked at Valmy.

For ten days the French retreat continued, when, upon the 18th of March, Dumouriez risked battle at Neerwinden. His army was defeated.

The defeat was not disastrous, the retreat was continued in fairly good order, but a civilian population understands nothing besides the words defeat and victory; it can appreciate a battle, not a campaign. The news of the defeat, coming at a moment of crisis in the politics of Paris, was decisive; it led to grave doubts of Dumouriez’ loyalty to the revolutionary Government, it shattered his popularity with those who had continued to believe in him, while the general himself could not but believe that the material under his command was rapidly deteriorating. Before the end of the month the army had abandoned all its conquests, and Valenciennes, in French territory, was reached upon the 27th. The dash upon Belgium had wholly failed.

At this moment came one of those political acts which so considerably disturb any purely military conspectus of the revolutionary wars. Dumouriez, at the head of his army, which, though in retreat and defeated, was still intact, determined upon what posterity has justly called treason, but what to his own mind must have seemed no more than statesmanship. He proposed an understanding with the enemy and a combined march upon Paris to restore the monarchical government, and put an end to what seemed to him, as a soldier, a perfectly hopeless situation. He certainly believed it impossible for the French army, in the welter of 1793, to defeat the invader. He saw his own life in peril merely because he was defeated. He had no toleration for the rising enthusiasm or delirium of the political theory which had sent him out, and, even before he had reached French territory, his negotiations with Coburg, the Austrian commander, had begun. They lasted long. Dumouriez agreed to put the frontier fortresses of the French into the hands of the enemy as a guarantee and a pledge; and on the 5th of April all was ready for the alliance of the two armed forces.

But just as the treason of Dumouriez is, in the military sense, abnormal and disturbing to any general conspectus of the campaign, so was the action of his army.

The doubtful point of a general command which is political in nature, and may be unpopular with the rank and file, lies, of course, in the attitude of the commanders of units, and these unanimously refused to obey the orders of their chief. It was known that Dumouriez had been summoned to the bar of the Convention, which body had sent commissioners to apprehend him. He had arrested the commissioners, and had handed them over as hostages and prisoners to Coburg. So far from Dumouriez upon the critical day handing over his force to the enemy, or constituting it a part of an allied army to march upon the capital, he was compelled to fly upon the 8th of April; all that disappeared with him, counting many who later deserted back again to the French colours, was less than a thousand men—and these foreign mercenaries.

The consequence of this strange passage upon the political history of the time we have already seen. Its consequence upon the military history of it was indirect but profound. The French forces, such as they were, were still intact, but no general officer could in future be trusted by Paris, and the stimulus which nations in the critical moments of invasion and of danger during foreign war seek in patriotism, in the offering of a high wage to the men and of honours and fortunes to their commanders, was now sought by the French in the singular, novel and abnormal experiment of the Terror. Command upon the frontier throughout 1793 and the first part of 1794, during the critical fourteen months, that is, which decided the fate of the Revolution, and which turned the tide of arms in favour of the French, was a task accomplished under the motive power of capital punishment. A blunder was taken as a proof of treason, and there lay over the ordering of every general movement the threat of the guillotine.

What we have now to follow is somewhat over a year of a struggle thus abnormally organised upon the French side, and finally successful through the genius of a great organiser, once a soldier, now a politician, Carnot. The French succeeded by the unshakable conviction which permitted the political leaders to proceed to all extremity in their determination to save the Revolution; by the peculiar physical powers of endurance which their army displayed, and finally, of course, by certain accidents—for accident will always be a determining factor in war.

The spring of 1793, the months of April and May, form the first crisis of the revolutionary war. The attack about to be delivered is universal, and seems absolutely certain to succeed. With the exception of the rush at Jemappes, where less than thirty thousand Austrians were broken through by a torrent superior in numbers (though even there obviously ill-organised), no success had attended the revolutionary armies. Their condition was, even to the eye of the layman, bad, and to the eye of the expert hopeless. There was no unity apparent in direction, there were vast lesions in the discipline of the ranks like great holes torn in some rotten fabric. Even against the forces already mobilised against it, it had proved powerless, and it might be taken for granted that by an act more nearly resembling police work than a true campaign, the Allies would reach Paris and something resembling the old order be soon restored. What remains is to follow the process by which this expectation was disappointed.

The situation at this moment can best be understood by a glance at the sketch map on p. 178. Two great French advances had been made in the winter of 1792-93; the one a northern advance, which we have just detailed, the over-running of Belgium; the other an eastern advance right up to the Rhine and to the town of Mayence. Both had failed. The failure in Belgium, culminating in the treason of Dumouriez, has been read. On the Rhine (where Mayence had been annexed by the French Parliament just as Belgium had been) the active hostility of the population and the gathering of the organised forces of the Allies had the same effect as had been produced in the Low Countries.

It was on March 21, 1793, that the Prussians crossed the Rhine at Bacharach, and within that week the French commander, Custine, began to fall back. On the first of April he was back again in French territory, leaving the garrison of Mayence, somewhat over twenty thousand men, to hold out as best it could; a fortnight later the Prussians had surrounded the town and the siege had begun.

On the north-eastern front, stretching from the Ardennes to the sea, a similar state of things was developing. There, a barrier of fortresses stood between the Allies and Paris, and a series of sieges corresponding to the siege of Mayence in the east had to be undertaken. At much the same time as the investment of Mayence, on April 9, the first step in this military task was taken by the Allies moving in between the fortress of Condé and the fortress of Valenciennes. Thenceforward it was the business of the Austrians under Coburg, with the Allies that were to reach him, to reduce the frontier fortresses one by one, and when his communications were thus secure, to march upon Paris.

It is here necessary for the reader unacquainted with military history to appreciate two points upon which not a little of contemporary historical writing may mislead him. The first is that both in the Rhine valley and on the Belgian frontier the forces of the Allies in their numbers and their organisation were conceived to be overwhelming. The second is that no competent commander on the spot would have thought of leaving behind him the garrison of even one untaken fortress. It is important to insist upon these points, because the political passions roused by the Revolution are still so strong that men can hardly write of it without prejudice and bias, and two errors continually present in these descriptions of the military situation in the spring of 1793, are, first, that the Allies were weakened by the Polish question, which was then active, and secondly, that the delay of their commanders before the French fortresses was unnecessary.

Both these propositions are put forward with the object of explaining the ultimate defeat of the enemies of the Revolution: both, however great the authority behind them, are unhistorical and worthless. The French success was a military success due to certain military factors both of design and accident, which will appear in what follows. The Allies played their part as all the art of war demanded it to be played; they were ultimately defeated, not from the commission of any such gross and obvious error in policy or strategy as historians with too little comprehension of military affairs sometimes pretend, but from the military superiority of their opponents.

It is true that the Polish question (that is the necessity the Austrian and Prussian Governments were each under of watching that the other was not lessened in importance by the approaching annexations of further Polish territory with the consequent jealousy and mistrust that arose from this between Austria and Prussia) was a very important feature of the moment. But it is bad military history to pretend that this affected the military situation on the Rhine or in the Netherlands.

Every campaign is conditioned by its political object. The political object in this case was to march upon and to occupy Paris. The political object of a campaign once determined, the size and the organisation of the enemy are calculated and a certain force is brought against it. No much larger force is brought than is necessary: to act in such a fashion would be in military art what paying two or three times the price of an article would be in commerce. The forces of the Allies upon the Rhine and in the Netherlands were, in the opinion of every authority of the time, amply sufficient for their purpose; and more than sufficient: so much more than sufficient that the attitude of that military opinion which had to meet the attack—to wit, the professional military opinion of the French republican soldiers, was that the situation was desperate, nor indeed was it attempted to be met save by a violent and, as it were, irrational enthusiasm.

The second point, the so-called “delay” involved in the sieges undertaken by the Allies, proves, when it is put forward, an insufficient acquaintance with contemporary conditions. Any fortress with a considerable garrison left behind untaken would have meant the destruction of the Austrian or Prussian communications, and their destruction at a moment when the Austrian and Prussian forces were actually advancing over a desperately hostile country. Moreover, when acting against forces wholly inferior in discipline and organisation, an untaken fortress is a refuge which one must take peculiar pains to destroy. To throw himself into such a refuge will always stand before the commander of those inferior forces as a last resource. It is a refuge which he will certainly avail himself of ultimately, if it is permitted to him. And when he has so availed himself of it, it means the indefinite survival of an armed organisation in the rear of the advancing invaders. We must conclude, if we are to understand this critical campaign which changed the history of the world, that Coburg did perfectly right in laying siege to one fortress after another before he began what every one expected to be the necessarily successful advance on Paris. The French despair, as one town after another surrendered, is an amply sufficient proof of the excellence of his judgment.

We approach the military problem of 1793, therefore, with the following two fields clear before us:—

1. In the north-east an advance on Paris, the way to which is blocked by a quadrilateral of fortresses: Mons, Maubeuge, Condé, and Valenciennes, with the subsidiary stronghold of Lequesnoy in the neighbourhood of the last. Mons has been in Austrian hands since Dumouriez’ retreat; Condé is just cut off from Valenciennes by Coburg’s advance, but has not fallen; Valenciennes and the neighbouring Lequesnoy are still intact, and so is Maubeuge. All must be reduced before the advance on Paris can begin. Behind these fortresses is a French army incapable as yet of attacking Coburg’s command with any hope of success. Such is the position in the last fortnight of April.

2. Meanwhile, on the Rhine the French garrison in Mayence is besieged; Custine, the French commander in that quarter, has fallen back on the French town of Landau, and is drawing up what are known in history as the Lines of Weissembourg. The accompanying sketch map explains their importance. Reposing upon the two obstacles of the river on the right and the mountains on the left, they fulfilled precisely the same functions as a fortress; and those functions we have just described. Until these lines were carried, the whole of Alsace may be regarded as a fortress defended by the mountains and the river on two sides, and by the Lines of Weissembourg on the third.

A reader unacquainted with military history may ask why the obstruction was not drawn upon the line of the Prussian advance on Paris. The answer is that the presence of a force behind fortifications anywhere in the neighbourhood of a line of communication is precisely equivalent to an obstacle lying right upon those lines. For no commander can go forward along the line of his advance and leave a large undestroyed force close to one side of that line, and so situated that it can come out when he has passed and cut off his communications; for it is by communications that an army lives, especially when it is marching in hostile country.

Page Belloc French Revolution map 178.png
Strategic situation in early summer of 1793. Mayence besieged, Condé and Valenciennes about to be besieged. Conditions of the double advance on Paris.

Custine, therefore, behind his Lines of Weissembourg, and the besieged garrison in Mayence, correspond to the barrier of fortresses on the north-east and delayed the advance of the Prussians under Wurmser and Brunswick from the Rhine, just as Condé, Valenciennes, and Maubeuge prevented the advance of Coburg on the north-east. Such in general was the situation upon the eastern frontier at the end of that month of April, 1793.


Let us first follow the development of the northern position. It will be remembered that all Europe was at war against the French. The Austrians had for allies Dutch troops which joined them at this moment, and certain English and Hanoverian troops under the Duke of York who also joined them.

At this moment, when Coburg found himself in increasing strength, a tentative French attack upon him was delivered and failed. Dampierre, who was in command of all this French “Army of the North,” was killed, and Custine was sent to replace him. The Army of the North did not, as perhaps it should have done, concentrate into one body to meet Coburg’s threatened advance; it was perpetually attempting diversions which were useless because its strength was insufficient. Now it feinted upon the right towards Namur, now along the sea coast on the left; and these diversions failed in their object. Before the end of the month, Coburg, to give himself elbow room, as it were, for the sieges which he was preparing, compelled the main French force to retreat to a position well behind Valenciennes. It was immediately after this success of Coburg’s that Custine arrived to take command on the Belgian frontier, his place on the Rhine being taken by Houchard.

Custine was a very able commander, but a most unlucky one. His plan was the right one: to concentrate all the French forces (abandoning the Rhine) and so form an army sufficient to cope with Coburg’s. The Government would not meet him in this, and he devoted himself immediately to the reorganisation of the Army of the North alone. The month of June and half of July was taken up in that task.

Meanwhile, the Austrian siege work had begun, and Condé was the first object of its attention. Upon July 10 Condé fell. Meanwhile Custine had been recalled to Paris, and Valenciennes was invested. Custine was succeeded by Kilmaine, a general of Irish extraction, who maintained his position for but a short time, and was unable while he maintained it to do anything. The forces of the Allies continually increased. The number at Coburg’s disposal free from the business of besieging Valenciennes was already larger than the force required for that purpose. And yet another fifteen thousand Hessian troops marched in while the issue of that siege was in doubt. This great advantage in numbers permitted him to get rid of the main French force that was still present in front of him, though not seriously annoying him.

This force lay due south-west of Valenciennes, and about a day’s march distant. He depended for the capture of it upon his English and Hanoverian Allies under the Duke of York, but that general’s march failed. The distance was too much for his troops in the hot summer weather, and the French were able to retreat behind the line of the Scarpe and save their army intact.

The Duke of York’s talents have been patriotically exaggerated in many a treatise. He always failed: and this was among the most signal of his failures.

Kilmaine had hardly escaped from York, drawn up his army behind the Scarpe and put it into a position of safety when he in his turn was deprived of the command, and Houchard was taken from the Rhine just as Custine had been, and put at the head of the Army of the North. Before the main French army had taken up this position of safety, Valenciennes had fallen. It fell on the 28th of July, and its fall, inevitable though it was and, as one may say, taken for granted by military opinion, was much the heaviest blow yet delivered. Nothing of importance remained to block the march of the Armies of the Allies, save Maubeuge.

At about the same moment occurred three very important changes in the general military situation, which the reader must note if he is to understand what follows.

The first was the sudden serious internal menace opposed to the Republican Government; the second was the advent of Carnot to power; the third was the English diversion upon Dunquerque.

The serious internal menace which the Government of the Republic had to face was the widespread rebellion which has been dealt with in the earlier part of this book. The action of the Paris Radicals against the Girondins had raised whole districts in the provinces. Marseilles, which had shown signs of disaffection since April, and had begun to raise a local reactionary force, revolted. So did Bordeaux, Nîmes, and other great southern towns. Lyons had risen at the end of May and had killed the Jacobin mayor of the town in the period between the fall of Condé and that of Valenciennes. The troop which Marseilles had raised against the Republic was defeated in the field only the day before Valenciennes fell, but the great seaport was still unoccupied by the forces of the Government. The Norman march upon Paris had also failed between those two dates, the fall of Condé and the fall of Valenciennes. The Norman bark had proved worse than the Norman bite; but the force was so neighbouring to the capital that it took a very large place in the preoccupations of the time. The Vendean revolt, though its triumphant advance was checked before Nantes a fortnight before the fall of Condé, was still vigorous, and the terrible reprisals against it were hardly begun. Worst of all, or at least, worst perhaps, after the revolt of Lyons, was the defection of Toulon. Toulon rose two days before the fall of Valenciennes, and was prepared to hand itself over (as at last it did hand itself over) to occupation by the English fleet.

The dates thus set in their order may somewhat confuse the reader, and I will therefore summarise the general position of the internal danger thus: A man in the French camp on the Scheldt, listening to the guns before Valenciennes fifteen miles away, and hourly expecting their silence as a signal that the city had surrendered, would have heard by one post after another how Marseilles still held out against the Government; how the counter-attack against the successful Vendeans had but doubtfully begun (all July was full of disasters in that quarter); how Lyons was furiously successful in her rebellion and had dared to put to death the Republican mayor of the town; and that the great arsenal and port at Toulon, the Portsmouth of France upon the Mediterranean, had sickened of the Government and was about to admit the English fleet. His only comfort would have been to hear that the Norman march on Paris had failed—but he would still be under the impression of it and of the murder of Marat by a Norman woman.

There is the picture of that sudden internal struggle which coincides with this moment of the revolutionary war, the moment of the fall of Condé and of Valenciennes, and the exposure of the frontier.

The second point, the advent of Carnot into the Committee of Public Safety, which has already been touched upon in the political part of this work, has so preponderating a military significance that we must consider it here also.

The old Committee of Public Safety, it will be remembered, reached the end of its legal term on July 10. It was the Committee which the wisdom of Danton had controlled. The members elected to the new Committee did not include Carnot, but the military genius of this man was already public. He came of that strong middle class which is the pivot upon which the history of modern Europe turns; a Burgundian with lineage, intensely republican, he had been returned to the Convention and had voted for the death of the King; a sapper before the Revolution, and one thoroughly well grounded in his arm and in general reading of military things, he had been sent by the Convention to the Army of the North on commission, he had seen its weakness and had watched its experiments. Upon his return he was not immediately selected for the post in which he was to transform the revolutionary war. It was not until the 14th of August that he was given a temporary place upon the Committee which his talents very soon made permanent. He was given the place merely as a stopgap to the odious and incompetent fanatic, Saint-André, who was for the moment away on mission. But from the day of his admission his superiority in military affairs was so incontestable that he was virtually a dictator therein, and his first action after the general lines of organisation had been laid down by him was to impose upon the frontier armies the necessity of concentration. He introduced what afterwards Napoleon inherited from him, the tactical venture of “all upon one throw.”

It must be remembered that Carnot’s success did not lie in any revolutionary discovery in connection with the art of war, but rather in that vast capacity for varied detail which marks the organiser, and in an intimate sympathy with the national character. He understood the contempt for parade, the severity or brutality of discipline, the consciousness of immense powers of endurance which are in the Frenchman when he becomes a soldier;—and he made use of this understanding of his.

It must be further remembered that this powerful genius had behind him in these first days of his activity the equally powerful genius of Danton; for it was Danton and he who gave practical shape to that law of conscription by which the French Revolution suddenly increased its armed forces by nearly half a million of men, restored the Roman tradition, and laid the foundation of the armed system on which Europe to-day depends. With Carnot virtually commander-in-chief of all the armies, and enabled to impose his decisions in particular upon that Army of the North which he had studied so recently as a commissioner, the second factor of the situation I am describing is comprehended.

The third, as I have said, was the English diversion upon Dunquerque.

The subsequent failure of the Allies has led to bitter criticism of this movement. Had the Allies not failed, history would have treated it as its contemporaries treated it. The forces of the Allies on the north-eastern frontier were so great and their confidence so secure—especially after the fall of Valenciennes—that the English proposal to withdraw their forces for the moment from Coburg’s and to secure Dunquerque, was not received with any destructive criticism. Eighteen battalions and fourteen squadrons of the Imperial forces were actually lent to the Duke of York for this expedition. What is more, even after that diversion failed, the plan was fixed to begin again when the last of the other fortresses should have fallen: so little was the English plan for the capture of the seaport disfavoured by the commander-in-chief of the Allies.

That diversion on Dunquerque turned out, however, to be an error of capital importance. The attempt to capture the city utterly failed, and the victory which accompanied its repulsion had upon the French that indefinable but powerful moral effect which largely contributed to their future successes.

The accompanying sketch map will explain the position. Valenciennes and Condé have fallen; Lequesnoy, the small fortress subsidiary to Valenciennes, has not yet been attacked but comes next in the series, when the moment was judged propitious for the detachment of the Anglo-Hanoverian force with a certain number of Imperial Allies to march to the sea.

It must always be remembered by the reader of history that military situations, like the situations upon a chess board, rather happen than are designed; and the situation which developed at the end of September upon the

Page Belloc French Revolution map 187.png
Showing condition of the frontier fortresses blocking the road to Paris when the expedition to Dunquerque was decided upon. August 1793.

extreme north and west of the line which the French were attempting to hold against the Allies was strategically of this nature. When the Duke of York insisted upon a division of the forces of the Allies and an attack upon Dunquerque, no living contemporary foresaw disaster.

Coburg, indeed, would have preferred the English to remain with him, and asked them to do so, but he felt in no sort of danger through their temporary absence, nor, as a matter of fact, was he in any danger through it.

Again, though the positions which the Duke of York took up when he arrived in front of Dunquerque were bad, neither his critics at home, nor any of his own subordinates, nor any of the enemy, perceived fully how bad they were. It was, as will presently be seen, a sort of drift, bad luck combined with bad management, which led to this British disaster, and (what was all-important for the conduct of the war) to the first success in a general action which the French had to flatter and encourage themselves with during all that fatal summer.

The Duke of York separated his force from that of Coburg just before the middle of August; besides the British, who were not quite 7,000 strong, 11,000 Austrians, over 10,000 Hanoverians and 7,000 Hessians were under his command. The total force, therefore, was nearly 37,000 strong. No one could imagine that, opposed by such troops as the French were able to put into line, and marching against such wretched defences as those of Dunquerque then were, the Duke’s army had not a perfectly easy task before it; and the plan, which was to take Dunquerque and upon the return to join the Austrian march on Paris, was reasonable and feasible.

It is important that the reader should firmly seize this and not read history backward from future events.

Certain faults are to be observed in the first conduct of the march. It began on the 15th of August, proceeding from Marchiennes to Menin, and at the outset displayed that deplorable lack of marching power which the Duke of York’s command had shown throughout the campaign.[1] From Marchiennes to Tourcoing is a long day’s march: it took the Duke of York four days; and, take the march altogether, nine days were spent in covering less than forty miles. In the course of that march, the British troops had an opportunity of learning to despise their adversary: they found at Linselles, upon the flank of their advance, a number of undisciplined boys who broke the moment the Guards were upon them, and whose physical condition excited the ridicule of their assailants. The army proceeded after this purposeless and unfruitful skirmish to the neighbourhood of the sea coast, and the siege of Dunquerque was undertaken under conditions which will be clear to the reader from the following sketch map.

The date of the 20th of August must first be fixed in the mind: on that date the army which was to take Dunquerque was separated

Page Belloc French Revolution map 190.png
Operations round Dunquerque. September 1793.}}

into its two component parts. The first, under the Duke of York, was to attack the town itself; the second, under the aged Austrian general, Freytag, was to watch the movement of any approaching enemy and to cover the force which was besieging the town. Two days later, the Duke of York was leaving Furnes, which he had made his base for the advance, and Freytag had with the greatest ease brushed the French posts—mainly of volunteers—from before him, and was beginning to take up the flanking positions south and east of Bergues which covered the siege of Dunquerque.

Two days later again, on August 24, Freytag had occupied Wormhoudt and Esquelbecque, capturing guns by the dozen, doing pretty well what he would with the French outposts, and quite surrounding the town of Bergues. Wilder was his headquarters. On the same day, the 24th, the Duke of York had with the greatest ease driven in the advanced posts of the French before Dunquerque, and shut up the enemy within the town, while he formed his besieging force outside of it, entrenched in a position which he had chosen beforehand, reposing upon the sea at his right, his left on the village of Tetteghem. He was then about 3,000 yards from the fortifications at Dunquerque.

Such was the situation upon the dawn of the 25th, when everything was ready for active operations. And here the reader must look upon the map for what ultimately proved the ruin of the situation.

Supposing Freytag round Bergues in the position which the map shows; the Duke of York in front of Dunquerque as the map also shows him; the two forces are in touch across the road and the belt of country which unites Bergues and Dunquerque. The covering army and the besieging force which it covers are each a wing of one combined body; each communicates with the other, each can support the other at the main point of effort, and though between the one and the other eastward there stretches a line of marshy country—the "meres" which the map indicates—yet a junction between the two forces exists westward of these, and the two armies can co-operate by the Bergues-Dunquerque road.

A factor which the Duke of York may have neglected was the power of flooding all that flat country round the road which the French in Dunquerque, being in possession of the sluices, possessed. They used it at once: they drowned the low lands to the south of Dunquerque, upon the very day when the last dispositions of the attacking force were completed. But more important—and never yet explained—was the Austrians' abandonment of Coudequerque. By this error, the main road itself, standing above the flood, was lost, and from being one strong army the force of the Allies became two weak ones. Communication was no longer possible between the Duke of York's and Freytag's territories, and it was of this separation that the French, in spite of their deplorable organisation and more deplorable personnel, took advantage.

They took advantage of it slowly. Houchard gathered altogether forty thousand men near Cassel, but it was ten days before they could be concentrated. It must again be insisted upon and repeated that, large as the number was—it was four times as great as Freytag's now isolated force—Houchard’s command was made up of men quite two-thirds of whom were hardly soldiers: volunteers both new and recent, ill-trained conscripts and so forth. There was no basis of discipline, hardly any power to enforce it; the men had behaved disgracefully in all the affairs of outposts, they had been brushed away contemptuously by the small Austrian force from every position they had held. With all his numerical superiority the attempt which Houchard was about to make was very hazardous: and Houchard was a hesitating and uncertain commander. Furthermore, of the forty thousand men one quarter at least remained out of action through the ineptitude and political terror of Dumesny, Houchard’s lieutenant upon the right.

It was upon the 6th of September that the French advance began along the whole line; it was a mere pushing in of inferior numbers by superior numbers, the superior numbers perpetually proving themselves inferior to the Austrians in military value. Thus, the capture of old Freytag himself in a night skirmish was at once avenged by the storming of the village near which he had been caught, and he was re-taken. In actual fighting and force for force, Houchard’s command found nothing to encourage it during these first operations.

The Austrians in falling back concentrated and were soon one compact body: to attack and dislodge it was the object of the French advance, but an object hardly to be attained.

What happened was not only the unexpected success of this advance, but the gaining by the French of the first decisive action in the long series which was to terminate twenty years later at Leipsic.

The army of Freytag fell back upon the village of Hondschoote and stood there in full force upon the morning of Sunday, the 8th of September. Houchard attacked it with a force greatly lessened but still double that of the defenders. So conspicuous, however, was the superiority of the Austrian regulars over the French raw troops and volunteers that during this morning of the 8th the result was still doubtful. By the afternoon, however, the work was done, and the enemy were in a retreat which might easily have been turned into a rout. A glance at the map will show that Houchard, had he possessed the initiative common to so many of his contemporaries, might at once have driven the numerically inferior and heavily defeated force (it had lost one-third of its men) to the right, and proceeded himself to cut the communications of the Duke of York and to destroy his army, which lay packed upon the waterless sand dunes where the village of Malo-les-Bains now stands. Houchard hesitated; Freytag escaped; the Duke of York, abandoning his siege-pieces to the number of forty and much of his heavy baggage, retreated precipitately through the night to Furnes, right across the front of the French army, and escaped destruction.

The Battle of Hoondschoote, therefore, as it is called, raised the siege of Dunquerque. It was, as I have said, the first successful decisive action which the Revolution could count since the moment of its extreme danger and the opening of the general European war. But it was nothing like what it might have been had Houchard been willing to risk a hardy stroke. Houchard was therefore recalled, condemned to death, and executed by the Committee of Public Safety, whose pitiless despotism was alone capable of saving the nation. He remains the single example of a general officer who has suffered death for military incompetence after the gaining of a victory, and his execution is an excellent example of the way in which the military temper of the Committee, and particularly of Carnot, refused to consider any factor in the war save those that make for military success.

Carnot and the Committee had no patience with the illusions which a civilian crowd possesses upon mere individual actions: what they saw was the campaign as a whole, and they knew that Houchard had left the armies opposite him intact.

Perhaps his execution was made more certain by the continuance of bad news from that more important point of the frontier—the direct line of Austrian advance upon Paris. Here, already, Valenciennes had fallen two months before, and Condé also. Lequesnoy, the third point of the barrier line, capitulated on the 11th of September, and the news of that capitulation reached Paris immediately after the news of Hondschoote. No fortress was now left between the Allies and the capital but Maubeuge. Coburg marched upon it at once.

Not only had he that immense superiority in the quality of his troops which must be still insisted upon, but numerically also he was three to one when, on the 28th of September, at dawn, he crossed the Sambre above and below Maubeuge, and by noon of that day had contained the French army in that neighbourhood within the lines of the fortress.

The situation was critical in the extreme: Maubeuge was ill prepared to stand siege; it was hardly provisioned; its garrison was of varied and, on the whole, of bad quality. In mere victuals it could stand out for but a few days, and, worst of all, it had behind it the continued example of necessary and fatal surrenders which had marked the whole summer. The orders of the Committee of Public Safety to its commander were terse: "Your head shall answer for Maubeuge." After the receipt of that message no more came through the lines.

The reader, if he be unaccustomed to military history, does well to note that in every action and in every campaign there is some one factor of position or of arms or of time which explains the result. Each has a pivot or hinge, as it were, upon which the whole turns. It was now upon Maubeuge that the revolutionary war thus depended. At risk of oversimplifying a complex story, I would lay this down as the prime condition for the understanding of the early revolutionary wars: had Maubeuge fallen, the road to Paris lay open and the trick was done[2]—and here we must consider again the effect in the field of Carnot's genius.

In the first place, he had provided numbers not on paper, but in reality; the Committee, through a decree of the Assembly, had despotically "requisitioned" men, animals, vehicles and supplies. The levy was a reality. Mere numbers then raw, but increasing, had begun to pour into the northeast. It was they that had told at Hoondschoote, it was they that were to tell in front of Maubeuge.

Secondly, as the Committee supplied the necessary initiative, Carnot supplied the necessary personality of war. His own will and own brain could come to one decision in one moment, and did so. It was he, as we shall see, who won the critical action. He chose Jourdan, a man whose quaint military career we must reluctantly leave aside in so brief a study as this, but at any rate an amateur, and put him in Houchard's command over the Army of the Northern Frontier, and that command was extended from right away beyond the Ardennes to the sea. He ordered (and Jourdan obeyed) the concentration of men from all down that lengthy line to the right and the left upon one point, Guise. To leave the rest of the frontier weak was a grave risk only to be excused by very rapid action and success: both these were to follow. The concentration was effected in four days. Troops from the extreme north could not come in time. The furthest called upon were beyond Arras, with sixty-five miles of route between them and Guise. This division (which shall be typical of many), not quite eight thousand strong, left on receiving orders in the morning of the 3rd of October and entered Guise in the course of the 6th. The rate of marching and the synchrony of these movements of imperfect troops should especially be noted by any one who would understand how the Revolution succeeded.

A second division of over thirteen thousand men followed along the parallel road, with

Page Belloc French Revolution map 199.png

The rapid eight days’ concentration in front of Maubeuge. October 1793.

a similar time table. From the other end of his line, a detachment under Beauregard, just over four thousand men, was called up from the extreme right. It will serve as a typical example upon the eastern side of this lightning concentration. It had been gathered near Carignan, a town full fourteen miles beyond Sedan. It picked up reinforcements on the way and marched into Fourmies upon the 11th, after covering just seventy miles in the three and a half days. With its arrival the concentration was complete, and not a moment too soon, for the bombardment of Maubeuge was about to begin. From the 11th to the 15th of October the army was advanced and drawn up in line, a day's march in front of Guise, with its centre at Avesnes and facing the covering army of Coburg, which lay entrenched upon a long wooded crest with the valley of the Sambre upon its right and the village of Wattignies, on a sort of promontory of high land, upon its left.

The Austrian position was reconnoitred upon the 14th. Upon the 15th the general attack was delivered and badly repelled. When darkness fell upon that day few in the army could have believed that Maubeuge was succourable—and it was a question of hours.

Carnot, however, sufficiently knew the virtues as the vices of his novel troops, the troops of the great levy, stiffened with a proportion of regulars, to attempt an extraordinary thing. He marched eight thousand from his left and centre, over to his right during the night, and in the morning of the 16th his right, in front of the Austrian left at Wattignies had, by this conversion, become far the strongest point of the whole line.

A dense mist had covered the end of this operation as the night had covered its inception, and that mist endured until nearly midday. The Austrians upon the heights had no hint of the conversion, and Wattignies was only held by three regiments. If they expected a renewed attack at all, they can only have expected it in the centre, or even upon the left where the French had suffered most the day before.

Initiative in war is essentially a calculation of risk, and with high initiative the risk is high. What Carnot gambled upon (for Jourdan was against the experiment) when he moved those young men through the night, was the possibility of getting active work out of them after a day's furious action, the forced marches of the preceding week and on top of it all a sleepless night of further marching. Most of the men who were prepared to charge on the French right as the day broadened and the mist lifted on that 16th of October, had been on foot for thirty hours. The charge was delivered, and was successful. The unexpected numbers thus concentrated under Wattignies carried that extreme position, held the height, and arrived, therefore, on the flank of the whole Austrian line, which, had not the effort of the aggressors exhausted them, would have been rolled up in its whole length. As it was, the Austrians retreated unmolested and in good order across the Sambre. The siege of Maubeuge was raised; and the next day the victorious French army entered the fortress.

Thus was successfully passed the turning-point of the revolutionary wars.

Two months later the other gate of the country was recovered. In the moment when Maubeuge was relieved, the enemy had pierced the lines of Wissembourg. It is possible that an immediate and decisive understanding among the Allies might then have swept all Alsace; but such an understanding was lacking. The disarrayed “Army of the Rhine” was got into some sort of order, notably through the enthusiasm of Hoche and the silent control of Pichegru. At the end of November the Prussians stood on the defensive at Kaiserslautern. Hoche hammered at them for three days without success. What really turned the scale was the floods of men and material that the levy and the requisitioning were pouring in. Just before Christmas the enemy evacuated Haguenau. Landau they still held; but a decisive action fought upon Boxing Day, a true soldiers’ battle, determined by the bayonet, settled the fate of the Allies on this point. The French entered Wissembourg again, and Landau was relieved after a siege of four months and a display of tenacity which had done not a little to turn the tide of the war.

Meanwhile the news had come in that the last of the serious internal rebellions was crushed. Toulon had been re-captured, the English fleet driven out; the town, the harbour and the arsenal had fallen into the hands of the French largely through the science of a young major of artillery (not captain: I have discussed the point elsewhere), Bonaparte, and this had taken place a week before the relief of Landau. The last confused horde of La Vendée had been driven from the walls of Granville in Normandy, to which it had erred and drifted rather than retreated. At Mans on the 13th of December it was cut to pieces, and at Savenay on the 23rd, three days before the great victory in Alsace, it was destroyed. A long peasant-and-bandit struggle, desperate yet hardly to be called guerilla, continued through the next year behind the hedges of Lower Brittany and of Vendee, but the danger to the State and to the Revolution was over. The year 1793 ended, therefore, with the complete relief of the whole territory of the Republic, save a narrow strip upon the Belgian frontier, complete domination of it by its Caesar, the Committee of Public Safety; with two-thirds of a million of men under arms, and the future of the great experiment apparently secure.

The causes of the wonder have been discussed, and will be discussed indefinitely. Primarily, they resided in the re-creation of a strong central power; secondly, in the combination of vast numbers and of a reckless spirit of sacrifice. The losses on the National side were perpetually and heavily superior to those of the Allies—in Alsace they had been three to one; and we shall better understand the duel when we appreciate that in the short eight years between the opening of the war and the triumph of Napoleon at Marengo, there had fallen in killed and wounded, on the French side, over seven hundred thousand men.


The story of 1794 is but the consequence of what we have just read. It was the little belt or patch upon the Belgian frontier which was still in the hands of the enemy that determined the nature of the campaign.

It was not until spring that the issue was joined. The Emperor of Austria reached Brussels on the 2nd day of April, and a fortnight later reviewed his army. The French line drawn up in opposition to it suffered small but continual reverses until the close of the month.

On the 29th Clerfayt suffered a defeat which led to the fall, or rather the escape, of the small garrison of Menin. Clerfayt was beaten again at Courtray a fortnight later; but all these early engagements in the campaign were of no decisive moment. Tourcoing was to be the first heavy blow that should begin to settle matters, Fleurus was to clinch them.

No battle can be less satisfactorily described in a few lines than that of Tourcoing, so different did it appear to either combatant, so opposite are the plans of what was expected on either side, and of what happened, so confused are the various accounts of contemporaries. The accusations of treason which nearly always arise after a disaster, and especially a disaster overtaking an allied force, are particularly monstrous, and may be dismissed: in particular the childish legend which pretends that the Austrians desired an English defeat.

What the French say is that excellent forced marching and scientific concentration permitted them to attack the enemy before the junction of his various forces was effected. What the Allies say is (if they are speaking for their centre) that it was shamefully abandoned and unsupported by the two wings; if they are speaking for the wings, that the centre had no business to advance, when it saw that the two wings were not up in time to co-operate.

One story goes that the Archduke Charles was incapacitated by a fit; Lord Acton has lent his considerable authority to this amusing version. At any rate, what happened was this:—

The Allies lay along the river Scheldt on Friday, the 16th of May: Tournay was their centre, with the Duke of York in command of the chief force there; five or six miles north, down the river, was one extremity of their line at a place called Warcoing: it was a body of Hanoverians. The left, under the Archduke Charles, was Austrian and had reached a place a day's march south of Tournay called St. Amand. Over against the Allies lay a large French force also occupying a wide front of over fifteen miles, the centre of which was Tourcoing, then a village. Its right was in front of the fortress of Courtrai. Now, behind the French, up country northward in the opposite direction from the line of the Allies on the Scheldt was another force of the Allies under Clerfayt. The plan was that the Allied right should advance on to Mouscron and take it. The Allied centre should advance on to Tourcoing and Mouveaux and take them, while the left should march across the upper waters of the river Marque, forcing the bridges that crossed that marshy stream, and come up alongside the centre. In other words, there was to be an attack all along the French line from the south, and while it was proceeding, Clerfayt, from the north of the French, was to cross the Lys and attack also.

On the day of the 17th what happened was this: The left of the Allies, marching from St. Amand, came up half a day late; the right of the Allies took Mouscron, but were beaten out of it by the French. The centre of the Allies fulfilled their programme, reaching Tourcoing and its neighbourhood by noon and holding their positions. It is to the honour of English arms that this success was accomplished by a force a third of which was British and the most notable bayonet work in which was done by the Guards. Meanwhile, Clerfayt was late in moving and in crossing the river Lys, which lay between him and his objective.

When night fell, therefore, on the first day

Page Belloc French Revolution map 207.png
Tourcoing. May 16 to 18, 1794.

The breakdown of the attempt of the Allies to cut off the French near Courtrai from Lille was due to their failure to synchronise. They should have been in line from A to B at noon of the 17th with Clerfayt at C.

of the action, a glance at the map will show that instead of one solid line advancing against the French from A to B, and the northern force in touch with it at C, the Allied formation was an absurd projection in the middle, due to the success of the mixed and half-British force under the Duke of York: a success which had not been maintained on the two wings. A bulge of this sort in an attacking line is on the face of it disastrous. The enemy have only to be rapid in falling upon either flank of it and the bulge can be burst in. The French were rapid, and burst in the bulge was. By concentrating their forces against this one central part of the Allies they fought three to one.

That same capacity which at Wattignies had permitted them to scorn sleep and to be indefatigable in marching, put them on the road before three o'clock in the morning of Sunday, the 18th, and with the dawn they fell upon the central force of the Allies, attacking it from all three sides.

It is on this account that the battle is called the Battle of Tourcoing, for Tourcoing was the most advanced point to which the centre of the Allies had reached. The Germans, upon the Duke of York's right at Tourcoing, felt the first brunt of the attack. The Duke of York himself, with his mixed, half-British force, came in for the blow immediately afterwards, and while it was still early morning. The Germans at Tourcoing began to fall back. The Duke of York's force, to the left of them, was left isolated: its commander ought not to have hung on so long. But the defence was maintained with the utmost gallantry for the short time during which it was still possible. The retreat began about nine in the morning and was kept orderly for the first two miles, but after that point it was a rout. The drivers of the British cannon fled, and the guns, left without teams, blocked the precipitate flight of the cavalry. Their disorder communicated itself at once to the Guards, and to the line.

Even in this desperate strait some sort of order was restored, notably by the Guards Brigade, which were apparently the first to form, and a movement that could still be called a retreat was pursued towards the south. The Duke of York himself was chased from spinney to spinney and escaped by a stroke of luck, finding a bridge across the last brook held by a detachment of Hessians. In this way were the central columns, who between them numbered not a third of the total force of the Allies, destroyed.

Clerfayt had first advanced—but far too late to save the centre—and then retreated. The Archduke Charles, upon the left, was four hours late in marching to the help of the Duke of York; the right wing of the Allies was not even late: it spent the morning in an orderly artillery duel with the French force opposed to it. By five in the afternoon defeat was admitted and a general retreat of the Allies ordered.

I have said that many reasons are given to account for the disaster of Tourcoing, one of the very few in which a British force has been routed upon the Continent; but I confess that if I were asked for an explanation of my own, I would say that it was simply due to the gross lack of synchrony on the part of the Allies, and that this in its turn was taken advantage of by the power both of vigil and of marching which the French troops, still inferior in most military characteristics, had developed and maintained, and which (a more important matter) their commanders knew how to use.

This heavy blow, delivered on the 18th of May, in spite of a successful rally a week later, finally convinced the Emperor that the march on Paris was impossible. Eleven days later, on the 29th, it was announced in the camp of Tournay, upon which the Allied army had fallen back, that the Emperor had determined to return to Vienna. The Allied army was indeed still left upon that front, but the French continued to pour up against it. It was again their numbers that brought about the next and the final victory.

Far off, upon the east of that same line, the army which is famous in history and in song as that of the Sambre et Meuse was violently attempting to cross the Sambre and to turn the line of the Allies. Coburg reinforced his right opposite the French left, but numbers had begun to bewilder him. The enthusiasm of Saint-Just, the science of Carnot, decided victory at this eastern end of the line.

Six times the passage of the Sambre had failed. Reinforcements continued to reach the army, and the seventh attempt succeeded.

Charleroi, which is the main fortress blocking the passage of the Sambre at this place, could be, and was, invested when once the river was crossed by the French. It capitulated in a week. But the evacuation of Charleroi was but just accomplished when Coburg, seventy thousand strong, appeared in relief of the city.

The plateau above the town where the great struggle was decided, is known as

Page Belloc French Revolution map 211.png
Showing effect of Ypres, Charleroi and Fleurus in wholly throwing back the Allies in June 1794.

Ypres captured on June 19 by the French, they march on Oudenarde and pass it on June 25 to 27. Meanwhile Charleroi has also surrendered to the French, and when, immediately afterwards, the Austrians try to relieve it, they are beaten at Fleurus and retire on Brussels.

Thus the English at Tournai and all the Allied Forces at Condé, Valenciennes, Landrecies, and Mons are imperilled and must surrender or retire.

that of Fleurus, and it was upon the 26th of June that the armies were there engaged. Never before had forces so equal permitted the French any success. It had hitherto been the ceaseless requisitioning of men to supply their insufficient training and command, which had accomplished the salvation of the country. At Fleurus, though there was still some advantage on the French side, the numbers were more nearly equal.

The action was not determined for ten hours, and on the French centre and left was nearly lost, when the Reserves' and Marceau's obstinacy in front of Fleurus village itself at last decided it.

The consequences of the victory were final. As the French right advanced from Fleurus the French left advanced from Ypres, and the centre became untenable for the Allies. The four French fortresses which the enemy still garrisoned in that Belgian "belt" of which I have spoken, were invested and re-captured. By the 10th of July the French were in Brussels, the English were beaten back upon Holland, the Austrians retreating upon the Rhine, and the continuous success of the revolutionary armies was assured.

· · · · ·

While these things were proceeding upon land, however, there had appeared a factor in the war which modern desire for comfort and, above all, for commercial security has greatly exaggerated, but which the student will do well to note in its due proportion. This factor was the military weakness of France at sea.

In mere numbers the struggle was entered upon with fleets in the ratio of about two to one, while to the fleet of Great Britain, already twice as large as its opponent, must be added the fleets of the Allies. But numbers did not then, nor will they in the future, really decide the issue of maritime war. It was the supremacy of English gunnery which turned the scale. This triumphant superiority was proved in the battle of the 1st of June, 1794.

The English fleet under Lord Howe attacked the French fleet which was waiting to escort a convoy of grain into Brest; the forces came in contact upon the 28th of May, and the action was a running one of three days.

Two examples must suffice to prove how determining was the superiority of the British fire. The Queen Charlotte, in the final action, found herself caught between the Montagne and the Jacobin. We have the figures of the losses during the duel of these two flagships. The Queen Charlotte lost forty-two men in the short and furious exchange, the Montagne alone three hundred. Again, consider the total figures. The number of the crews on both sides was nearly equal, but their losses were as eleven to five. It cannot be too often repeated that the initial advantage which the English fleet gained in the great war, which it maintained and increased as that war proceeded, and which it made absolute at Trafalgar, was an advantage mainly due to the guns.

The reader must not expect in a sketch which ends with the fall of Robespierre any treatise, however short, upon the effect of sea power in the revolutionary wars. It has of late years been grossly exaggerated, the reaction which will follow this exaggeration may as grossly belittle it. It prevented the invasion of England, it permitted the exasperation and wearing out of the French forces in the Peninsula. But it could not have determined the fate of Napoleon. That was determined by his Russian miscalculation and by his subsequent and consequent defeat at Leipsic.

Upon the early success of the Revolution and the resulting establishment of European democracy, with which alone these pages deal, sea power was of no considerable effect.

  1. Incidentally it should be noted how true it is that this supreme military quality is a matter of organisation rather than of the physical power of troops; in the Napoleonic wars the marching power of the English troops was often proved exceptional, and perhaps the greatest of all feats accomplished by a small body was that of the Light Brigade marching to the succour of Wellington at Talavera.
  2. I must not, in fairness to the reader, neglect the great mass of opinion, from Jomini to Mr. Fortescue's classic work upon the British Army, which lays it down that the Allies had but to mask the frontier fortresses and to advance their cavalry rapidly along the Paris road. Historical hypothesis can never be more than a matter of judgment, but I confess that this view has always seemed to me to ignore—as purely military historians and especially foreign ones might well ignore—the social condition of "'93." Cavalry is the weakest of all arms with which to deal with sporadic, unorganised, but determined resistance. To pass through the densely populated country of the Paris road may be compared to the forcing of an open town, and cavalry can never be relied upon for that. As for the army moving as a whole without a perfect security in its communications, the matter need not even be discussed; and it must further be remembered that, the moment such an advance began, an immediate concentration from the north would have fallen upon the ill-guarded lines of supply. It may be taken that Coburg knew his business when he sat down before this, the last of the fortresses.