Revolutionary war

revolutionary war
A depiction of the Battle of Valmy, a turning point in the Revolutionary War

The first three years of the French Revolution were free of war. That changed in April 1792, when Girondinist deputies instigated a revolutionary war with France’s neighbour Austria. Some claimed that war was necessary to ‘save the revolution’ from external threats; others wanted to ‘export’ the revolution and challenge absolutist monarchies outside France’s own borders. Whatever their motives, the French Revolutionary Wars had a profound effect on the new society. They would also the course of European history, France’s wars rolling one into the other and lasting for a decade (more than two decades if one counts the Napoleonic Wars that followed). At various times the Revolutionary Wars involved almost every significant European power: Britain, Austria, Prussia, Spain, Holland, Russia, the Italian states and others. Inside France, the new regime was constantly at war and thus constantly defined by war.

The French Revolutionary Wars had many parents: anti-revolutionary paranoia in Europe, agitation and sabre-rattling by French émigrés, foreign concerns about the fate of Louis XVI, the king’s personal agenda, belligerent propaganda and the internal politics of the new regime. When the French Revolution erupted in 1789, the crowned rulers of Europe watched it with a mixture of scorn, excitation and fear. Some considered it little more than a localised insurrection that was destined to burn out. Others watched the French Revolution more cautiously, concerned it might spark a similar uprising in other kingdoms. The most pivotal figure outside France was Leopold II, brother of Marie Antoinette and newly crowned ruler of the Holy Roman Empire. More progressive than his fellow princes, Leopold admired the Enlightenment and its concepts of constitutional government and natural rights. He was initially sympathetic to the French Revolution, believing the formation of a constitutional monarchy in France might prolong his brother-in-law’s tenure on the throne.

revolutionary war
Leopold II, the Austrian king, Holy Roman Emperor and Antoinette’s brother

Leopold II spent his first months on the throne batting away the pleas of French émigrés and trying to avoid a military entanglement in France. He became more interested in France in the summer of 1791, after Louis XVI’s ill fated attempt to flee Paris left the French king in a more precarious position. In July 1791 Leopold instigated the Padua Circular, an open letter to the leaders of Prussia, England, Spain, Russia, Sweden and other nations, calling for a European military coalition to invade France and reinstall the monarchy. The Padua Circular was followed by the Declaration of Pillnitz (August 27th 1791), a joint statement by Leopold and Frederick William II, the king of Prussia. This declaration was both a rallying cry to European princes and a warning to the French revolutionaries. It was more bluff than challenge, however, since Leopold still had no desire for war with France, nor did his European allies. The Pillnitz declaration did not garner much attention in France either – at least not until the rise of the pro-war Girondinist faction.

“According to convention, France went to war in 1792 in a bid to save the Revolution by exporting her principles to the rest of Europe. In reality, such an explanation is at the very least inadequate… nothing was easier for the Brissotins [Girondins] than to cultivate a war they believed would republicanise France, redoubled by the belief that the ancien regime’s armies would flee in terror, that war could be restricted to Austria alone, and that a war would ease France’s numerous economic problems.”
Charles J. Esdaile

Historians have long debated why the Girondins wanted war in 1791-92. The consensus now is that they wanted to militarise the revolution, to provide it with direction and impetus, to distract from domestic economic problems and to consolidate their own power. A war with Austria would, they hoped, ignite French patriotism and reinvigorate revolutionary sentiment. It would also test the loyalty of the king. Could France win such a war? It certainly could, the Girondin deputies believed. Austria was weak and her leader was new to the throne and reluctant to fight. Prussia was a rival of Austria, they assured the Legislative Assembly, and was unlikely to join a coalition. Britain, Russia and Sweden had their own problems and would not involve themselves in a war against France. Some Girondins also believed that a revolutionary war would become a “crusade for universal liberty”, as Jacques Brissot put it. “Each soldier will say to his enemy: ‘Brother, I am not going to cut your throat. I am going to free you from the yoke under which you labour. I am going to show you the road to happiness’.”

A satirical depiction of Europe if the revolutionary wars succeeded

These fine words won the day. In March 1792 Leopold II died suddenly and the Austrian throne passed to his 24-year-old son. Seizing the moment, the Girondin ministry began preparing and agitating for war. On April 20th 1792 Louis XVI attended a session of the Legislative Assembly and sat through speeches calling for a preemptive war. The king then rose and formally declared war against Austria and Emperor Francis II, the nephew of his wife. It is likely the king wanted war for his own reasons, perhaps hoping that combined Austro-Prussian and émigré forces would invade France, expel the revolutionaries from power and restore his monarchy. The Marquis de Lafayette also wanted war; he believed it would restore the course of the revolution, strengthen the king’s position and recover his own prestige.

The plunge into war was initially disastrous. France’s armed forces had been compromised and weakened by the revolution. The events of 1789 created poor discipline and insubordination in the ranks of the army. Enlisted soldiers established ‘political committees’ to protect their rights and became more surly and defiant. Experienced officers, many of whom were already frustrated by the events of the revolution, despised this breakdown of discipline in the ranks. Many officers fled France as émigrés or abandoned the military altogether. The officers who stayed tried to restore discipline with harsh punishments, chiefly detention and floggings, which only made matters worse. In the spring and summer of 1790 the royal army was beset by a series of mutinies. In August 1790 the garrison in Nancy mutinied, a protest against the National Constituent Assembly’s decision to prohibit political committees in the army. The government sent a 4,500-strong force to crush the mutiny and two dozen of its ringleaders were executed.

La Patrie en Danger, a depiction of the call to military service in 1792

By the time the Legislative Assembly declared war in April 1792, the national army was in a parlous state. France’s leading military commanders – including Lafayette, Count Rochambeau and Marshal Lucker – had little confidence in the army and its capacity for war. The first engagements seemed to confirm this. General Charles Dumouriez hastily organised an offensive against Austrian-controlled Belgium in late April. It ended in disaster, with French revolutionary troops fleeing the battlefield and murdering one of their own generals. By the start of summer a combined force of Austrians, Prussians, Hessian mercenaries and émigrés was gathering along the Rhine and preparing to invade France. On July 25th the Prussian commander, the Duke of Brunswick, issued his famously provocative manifesto, threatening Paris with destruction. Four weeks later the Allies crossed the French border, overran Longwy and Verdun, and prepared to march on Paris. These events caused panic in the capital and contributed to the journée of August 10th and the massacre of prisoners in early September.

revolutionary war
A bust of General Charles Dumouriez, the military hero of 1792

Just as Paris and the revolution looked hopelessly lost, Dumouriez instigated a daring but effective manoeuvre to halt the advance. A series of flanking moves, followed by the formation of defensive lines, slowed the Allied progress. On September 20th a French force exceeding 30,000 men engaged the invaders at Valmy, halfway between Paris and the border. Amid drenching rain and thick mud, the French outmanoeuvred and outfought Brunswick’s coalition force, which by the following day was in retreat. Within two weeks the Allied army had withdrawn from French territory and the revolution appeared to have been saved. Dumouriez was hailed as a hero and the new National Convention – which had assumed the reins of government on September 20th, the day of the battle at Valmy – moved to abolish the monarchy. But while Valmy marked a turning point in French military fortunes, the war continued to shape France’s relationship with Europe and the progress of the revolution.

revolutionary war

1. War played a significant role in shaping the French Revolution. War with Europe was declared in 1792 and continued for the rest of the revolution and beyond.
2. The Girondins agitated for a revolutionary war for a variety of reasons. They hoped to militarise and energise the revolution, gain public support and consolidate their own power.
3. France’s adversary Austria was led by Leopold II, who was initially sympathetic to the revolution and reluctant to initiate a long and costly war with France.
4. The Girondins eventually declared war in April 1792, however the first months of the war were disastrous, due to poor discipline and unrest in the army during the course of the revolution.
5. The French suffered some humiliating defeats but managed to stem the tide in September 1792, defeating the Austrians and Prussians at Valmy and forcing them to retreat from French territory.

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This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn and S. Thompson, “Revolutionary war”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date],