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1792-1797 - War of the First Coalition

The French Revolution is conveniently dated from the meeting of the States-General in 1789. The Third Estate, representing the middle class, and the liberal nobles and clergy had assembled with the determination to secure far-reaching reforms and to establish a "constitution. A sharp contest, with a brief period of anarchy, left power in the hands of these liberal elements, where, despite some attempts at counterrevolution and some danger of mob predominance, it remained for two years. Further changes were inevitable; but, if France had been left to herself, they might have come about as quietly as these first ones. Instead, foreign war gave the movement a new character. War was inevitable.

Emigrant nobles gathered their forces on the Rhine under, the protection of German princes. The emperor, Leopold, brother-in-law of Louis of France, called upon the sovereigns of Europe to recognize the cause of Louis as "the cause of kings," and demanded from France such changes in her government as should protect Europe against the spread of revolution. This presumptuous dictation in their internal affairs roused a tempest of righteous wrath in the French nation; and in 1792 war began between "the cause of kings" and "the cause of peoples." For 23 years Europe was engaged in strife, upon a greater scale than ever before in history.

France was girdled with foes. The empire, Prussia and Sardinia, were at once in arms, Naples and Spain joined the coalition. Sweden and Russia both offered to do so, if needed. Ere' long England and Holland were added to the enemies who expected to partition France. Vast armies invaded France; and the French forces were demoralized by treachery of officers and by fear of Royalist plots. If France was to be saved, it could not be done by halfmeasures, nor with a king in secret alliance with the enemy. Control fell to extremists; and, while the mighty Danton roused and organized the national energies, the frenzied mob, unhindered, answered the victories and boastings of the invaders by the attack on the Tuilenes and the Massacres. In September 1792, the Convention established the French Republic with extreme democratic features and with manhood suffrage.

Then revolution within revolution transferred power to more and more radical factions. The defeated Girondists raised the provinces against the capital; and for a time Paris and a score of central departments faced the remaining three-fourths of France and united Europe. Out of this crisis, in 1793, grew the great Committee of Public Safety, which ruled France for a year with despotic power. The Revolution now became constructive, and never has the French genius for organization shown itself more triumphantly. The Committee deliberately adopted a policy of "Terror" to crush plots and dissension and to secure united action. Revolt was stamped out. A million soldiers were sent to the front. The invaders were rolling back in rout, and the ragged but devoted French armies swarmed victoriously across all the frontiers, to sow civil liberty over Europe with fire and sword.

The French had already learned something of skirmishing tactics from their Red Indian allies in the wars of North America, and the troops who were sent to assist the revolted Colonists had a further lesson of the same kind. In France, on the eve of the Revolution a drill-book modelled on that of Frederick the Great had been adopted. The essence of the Prussian drill was the march in open column of companies, with the wheel into line and the fire fight in three-deep formation, followed by the bayonet attack. But French soldiers understood the advantage of covering the opening movements of the battle with a screen of skirmishers, and the skirmisher played a very prominent part in the wars of the French Revolution.

The first result of the Revolution in France was to disorganize the old Royal Army, recruited by voluntary enlistments, and the provincial militias raised by a limited conscription. The Paris Government substituted for these a so-called regular army formed of the remnants of the old royal regiments, reinforced with volunteers, and a National Guard raised at first by voluntary enlistment and then by conscription. After an ineffectual effort to bring the army up to full strength by the transfer of men from the National Guard a general system of forced conscription was introduced. But when the war with the European Powers began, the Revolutionary Government had only an improvised army, composed of various elements, and only half trained and disciplined.

If the Allies had shown even moderate intelligence and energy this army would have been utterly useless against their veteran troops. Even as it was, easy victories were won at the outset over so-called armies that rapidly became disorderly mobs. It was the failure of Brunswick's march on Paris—a failure due more to bad arrangements of every kind than to any effective resistance by the French—that encouraged the Republican Government to look for eventual success.

Their first victories were won by armies that outnumbered their opponents heavily, and used against them an improvised battle order that was the result less of choice on the part of the leaders than of the necessities of the case. To attempt to manoeuvre in line against the Austrian and Prussian regulars would have been to court disaster. In their first victories the French used the tactics of irregulars. Dense lines of skirmishers were pushed forward, those who volunteered for this service being some of the best of the men and officers. These drove in the few light troops in the enemy's front. The strong skirmishing or " tirailleur" line of the Revolutionary armies was sometimes very like the modern firing line.

Opponents trained on the older methods found that, after their skirmishers had been driven in, they had in their front an irregular swarm of sharpshooters spread out in groups and scattered lines, hiding behind every available scrap of cover, suffering little loss, giving way before an attack only to rally again, and masking by its activity and the smoke clouds that drifted over it the supporting troops behind it. On rare occasions a cavalry charge not only routed the skirmishers, but carried their panic flight into the ranks of the formed troops behind them. But many of the battles were fought in comparatively close country where cavalry could not easily act, and as the war went on the Republicans learned to form square rapidly while the enemy's horse were driving in the advanced line, and squares were not often broken by a charge.

Where the Republicans were victorious, the success was won not by bringing up the supports to carry forward the firing line as in the battles of to-day, but by sending a mass of men, or several such masses, in roughly formed columns to dash through the skirmish line and advance with the bayonet. With the troops of the half-trained armies of the earlier campaigns such a column would have been destroyed by the volleys of the enemy if it had to cross any wide space of ground. It was able to get into the hostile position without serious loss because it suddenly pushed forward through a firing line not more than a hundred yards from the point of attack, and could cross the danger zone in a minute.

With such tactics the battle line was no longer formed by the Republicans, and the attack was made by the advance of several independent columns, often with wide gaps between them. The Allies were so badly led that they hardly ever took advantage of this to divide the Republicans and beat them in detail. Many of the oldfashioned generals were too puzzled at the irregular methods they had to meet to do more than attempt a passive defence on a wide front, which was weak everywhere.

Gradually in the hard school of war a real army was formed. It was no longer necessary to attempt to win battles by mobbing an enemy with five- or sixfold numbers, and there was no longer the imminent peril that a first check to an attack would end in a panic-stricken rout. Officers of the old army, who had thrown in their lot with the Republic, and men of courage, energy and talent who had fought their way up from the ranks, were the leaders of the new army of France, which had a nucleus of veteran troops, the survivors of more than one campaign, to stiffen the ranks and form a cadre for recruits. With such materials it was possible to maneuver and to meet an enemy with merely equal numbers with good hope of success. It was no longer necessary to risk everything on the rush of a column that was little more than a moving crowd.

The French infantry battalions could now deploy from column into line to use their weapons in ordered volleys, and on the drill grounds a new fighting order was practised which was soon used with success on the battlefield. Under the Empire it was known as the mixed order. A battalion or several battalions deployed in the threedeep line provided a front of fire, and on the flanks other battalions formed in column were ready to push home an attack, and meanwhile could rapidly form front to right or left to stop a cavalry charge on the flank of the firing line. The skirmishers were still used to cover the advance, but no longer in large numbers. They drew off to clear the front for the fire of the ordered lines that were now the real fighting front.

In the second stage of the Revolutionary war, when the tide of victory turned in favor of France, the battle leading of most of the Republicans was good. They showed a dash and enterprise that made them more than a match for the aged generals opposed to them, whose title to command was usually that they had served under or against Frederick the Great. But in most of the campaigns the general conduct of the operations was equally bad on both sides. Armies were frittered away in detachments to guard every point that might be attacked under probable or improbable contingencies. Campaigns were planned on the basis of widely separated corps carrying out different tasks that had no necessary relation to each other. There was so little of real combination that there were times when the opposing generals on one part of the frontier made a truce with each other that lasted for weeks, while the war went on elsewhere. Sometimes the capture of a minor fortress was made the sole object of a campaign. Everyone seemed to have the idea that victory meant the occupation of this or that stretch of ground, not the destruction of the opposing army.

There was a brief interval of something like real war leadership when Carnot, as Minister of War, drove the Allies from the northern frontier by a concentration of superior strength against the divided forces that were trying simultaneously to reduce several of the border fortresses. But having established his reputation by this exploit, he relapsed into the planning of elaborate campaigns with divided forces that might have been the work of a War Minister of the seventeenth century.

But then the course of history was suddenly changed by the advent of a man who really understood war, a young soldier of surpassing genius whose study of military history had led him to grasp the principle that great results are obtained in war only when the plan of campaign leads up to a decisive battle fought, not to cover a siege or occupy a district, but to destroy the main field army of the opponent. Bonaparte came to the front at a fortunate time for his future eminence.

The French Republican armies had passed through the difficult years of reshaping under the stress of war, and were now efficient fighting machines, with plenty of veterans in the ranks and reliable officers to lead them. Napoleon had convinced the Paris Government of the folly of frittering away their resources in divided efforts on several frontiers, and had persuaded them that France could be best defended from the Austrian army in northern Italy not by defensive operations along the Alps, but by an offensive campaign.

With conclusion of the Treaty of Basel of 1795, Prussia withdrew from the war against France. France was still at war with England, Austria, and Sardinia. England was no longer a factor in the military situation on the Continent; Austria had been attacked only in southern Germany, while on the Italian frontier France had done nothing except to make intermittent attacks on Sardinian territory. Italy was made up of patches of Austrian territory and of petty states under Austrian influence, which offered a rich spoil for the conqueror.

The main body of the Austro-Sardinian army was at Montenotte, occupying the pass between the Maritime Alps and the Apennines at the headwaters of the Bormida and the Tanaro, two affluents of the Po. A successful blow would compel the Sardinians to retreat on their capital, Turin, and the Austrians on Milan, their headquarters in Italy, without hope of reuniting their forces. This army of 52,000 men was somewhat scattered and could not be used in full force at any one point, and many of the men were sick. The French Army of Italy was no better off. There were 42,000 poorly equipped, worse clad, and unpaid men scattered in detachments along the Riviera from Nice to Savona.

Their new commander, Bonaparte, showed the Directory that they had no ordinary general to deal with. He did not wait for orders. He did things and then reported; he preferred no requests, but presented demands coupled with an ultimatum. Three successive attacks compelled the Sardinians under Colli to retreat towards Turin, while the Austrian commander, Beaulieu, fell back towards Milan. Bonaparte pressed on against Colli, and, though he had no power to negotiate, compelled him to sign the armistice of Cherasco (28 April 1796), which gave France military control of Piedmont Bonaparte pursued the retreating Austrians and defeated them at the bridge of Lodi, across the Adda, on May 10. After this battle it is said the troops gave Bonaparte the endearing name of the Little Corporal.

When in the early summer of 1796 he marched into the Genoese Riviera at the head of 40,000 ragged veterans he had a comparatively easy task. The Austrians were conducting the defence of the Genoese Apennines on the obsolete system of detachments everywhere, with the result that they were strong nowhere. The young Republican General fell upon their divided forces with united and superior numbers, turned them out of their mountain positions by combined frontal and flank attacks, separated their Sardinian allies from them and frightened the King of Sardinia into a separate peace, and then turned his attention to the expulsion of the Austrian army from northern Italy, an operation to be followed by a threat against Vienna through the eastern Alps. He refused to be diverted to minor operations.

When the Directory ordered him to divide the command with Kellermann and make a dash at Rome and Naples, he replied by threatening to resign his commission, pointed out that the defeat of Austria in the north would secure possession of all Italy without frittering away his force on minor enterprises while the main issue was undecided, and finally declared that a divided command meant failure, saying he held that "one bad general was better than two good ones." After this he was given a free hand.

Bonaparte promptly occupied Milan and there displayed his characteristic qualities. He appealed to the popular enthusiasm, and led the Milanese to believe that he was their deliverer. The young general did not dally. In a few days he was again pushing on against the Austrians, and on 03 June 1796 the siege of Mantua was begun. This strongly fortified town was the key to northern Italy. While the siege was in progress Bonaparte paid his respects to the dukes of Modena and Parma, to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, and to the Pope, each of whom he compelled to buy peace with large sums of money and with treasures of art and literature. The Austrians raised army after army for the relief of Mantua, but in vain. The campaign of 1797 was an act of colossal audacity. With less than 50,000 men Bonaparte drove the Archduke Charles and the Austrians from Italy, forced the passes of the Alps in March, and pressed on directly foj Vienna without waiting for Moreau to cooperate. At Leoben, within 100 miles of Vienna, he signed preliminaries of peace with Austria on April 18.

In this famous campaign Bonaparte relied on three important maxims to which he held fast throughout his career: divide for foraging, concentrate for fighting; unity of command is essential for success; and time is everything. Quickness to divine his enemy's plans, a thorough knowledge of geography which produced combinations that were executed with bewildering audacity, an ability to get a maximum amount of marching and fighting out of an army of young veterans who were poorly shod and clad and ill fed, and the loyal support of his subordinates, Augereau, Massena, Joubert, Lannes, Marmont, Victor, Murat, and Junot, combined to enable Bonaparte to conquer northern Italy for France.

Bonaparte the conqueror began to take wider views of the part he was to play, and played it with a boldness and a skill that dazzled France into complacency. He organized the Italian conquests into the Cisalpine Republic and constituted the Genoese dominions into the Ligurian Republic; he sent Augereau as his secret agent to conduct the military operations of the coup d'etat of the 18th Fructidor; he lived and acted like a monarch in northern Italy; and finally, disregarding the express orders of the Directors, he negotiated with Austria the Treaty of Campo Formio (17 October 1797). Austria gave up her former Belgian possessions and Lombardy, and received most of the territories of the extinguished Republic of Venice.

Bonaparte returned to France from his Italian conquests in 1797, but the Directors were afraid of him and sought to rid themselves of him by dispatching him on some out-of-the-way or hazardous enterprise. It was evident to him that a direct attack upon France's one remaining foe, England, could not succeed, and he suggested instead the campaign in Egypt. The Oriental dream was always before his eyes, and throughout life influenced his policy. He saw in India the source of England's power, and he determined to attack India. He negotiated with Tipu Sultan, a determined foe of the English, and, as the easiest route to India was by the Red Sea, he proposed to conquer Egypt as a stepping-stone to India.

An expedition was fitted out with the utmost secrecy at Toulon, and on May 19, 1798, he set sail with a large fleet carrying 35,000 men. He stopped on the way to capture Malta. On 01 July 1798 he landed in Egypt and occupied Alexandria on the next day. Advancing into the desert, he encountered and defeated the famous Mameluke cavalry in the battle of the Pyramids on July 21, and three days later entered Cairo. Desaix was detached to conquer Upper Egypt, and Bonaparte devoted himself to consolidate his conquests.

On 1-2 August 1798, however, Nelson destroyed his fleet in Abukir Bay, and Turkey declared war and planned to recover Egypt. Taking the offensive at the beginning of 1799, Bonaparte invaded Syria, captured Jaffa, and laid siege to Acre. Junot fought an engagement with the Turks near Nazareth, and Kleber found himself attacked by 30,000 of them at the foot of Mount Tabor on April 15, but was rescued by the opportune arrival of Bonaparte. Returning to Acre, Bonaparte found that he was unable to take the place by storm, and having lost 5,000 men in fighting or from the plague, he ordered a retreat. Arriving in Egypt, he met another Turkish force, which had landed near Alexandria, and defeated it on July 25.

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Page last modified: 13-09-2012 19:13:15 ZULU