The French Revolutionary Wars / War of the First Coalition

War Scene Between French and Other European Factions
French soldier drags off wounded comrade during war of the first coalition fought by France against Prussia and Austria, 1792. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

The French Revolution led to much of Europe going to war in the mid-1790s. Some belligerents wanted to put Louis XVI back on a throne, many had other agendas like gaining territory or, in the case of some in France, creating a French Republic. A coalition of European powers formed to fight France, but this ‘First Coalition’ was just one of seven which would be needed to bring peace to the majority of Europe.

The early phase of that mammoth conflict, the war of the First Coalition, is also known as the French Revolutionary Wars, and they are often overlooked by the arrival of a certain Napoleon Bonaparte, who transformed them into his conflict.

The Start of the French Revolutionary Wars

By 1791 the French Revolution had transformed France and worked to tear down the powers of the old, nationally absolutist, regime. King Louis XVI was reduced to a form of house arrest. Part of his court hoped that a foreign, royalist army would march into France and restore the king, who had asked for help from abroad. But for many months the other states of Europe refused to help. Austria, Prussia, Russia and the Ottoman Empires had been involved in a series of power struggles in Eastern Europe and had been less worried about the French king than their own jostling for positions until Poland, stuck in the middle, followed France by declaring a new constitution.

Austria now tried to form an alliance that would threaten France into submission and stop the eastern rivals from fighting. France and the revolution had thus been sheltered while it progressed but became a useful distraction with land which could be taken.

On August 2nd, 1791 the King of Prussia and the Holy Roman Emperor seemed to declare an interest in war when they issued the Declaration of Pillnitz.

However, Pillnitz was designed to frighten the French revolutionaries and support the French who supported the king, not start a war. Indeed, the text of the declaration was worded to make war, in theory, impossible. But the emigres, agitating for war, and the revolutionaries, who were both paranoid, took it the wrong way. An official Austro-Prussian alliance was only concluded in February 1792. The other Great Powers were now looking at French hungrily, but this did not automatically mean war. However the emigres – people who had fled France – were promising to return with foreign armies to restore the king, and while Austria turned them down, German princes humored them, upsetting the French and provoking a call for action.

There were forces in France (the Girondins or Brissotins) who wanted to take pre-emptive action, hoping that war would enable them to oust the king and declare a republic: the king’s failure to surrender to constitutional monarchy left the door open for him to be replaced. Some monarchists supported the call for war in the hope foreign armies would march in and restore their king. (One opponent of the war was called Robespierre.) On April 20th France’s National Assembly declared war on Austria after the Emperor helpfully tried another careful threat.

The result was Europe reacting and the formation of the First Coalition, which was first between Austria and Prussia but was then joined by Britain and Spain. It would take seven coalitions to permanently end the wars now started. The First Coalition was aimed less at ending the revolution and more on gaining territory, and the French less as exporting revolution than getting a republic. More on the Seven Coalitions

The Fall of the King

The revolution had wrought havoc on the French forces, as many of the officers had fled the country. The French force was thus an amalgam of the remaining royal army, the patriotic rush of new men, and conscripts. When the Army of the North clashed with the Austrians at Lille they were easily defeated and it cost the French a commander, as Rochambeau quit in protest at the problems he faced.

He fared better than General Dillon, who was lynched by his own men. Rochambeau was replaced by the French hero of the American Revolutionary War, Lafayette, but as violence erupted in Paris, he debated whether to march on it and install a new order, and when the army wasn’t keen he fled to Austria.

France organized four armies to form a defensive cordon. By mid-August, the main coalition army was invading mainland France. Led by Prussia’s Duke of Brunswick it had 80,000 men drawn from central Europe, it took fortresses such as Verdun and closed on Paris. The Army of the Centre seemed like little opposition, and there was terror in Paris. This was largely due to the fear the Prussian army would flatten Paris and slaughter the residents, a fear caused largely by Brunswick’s promise to do just that if the king or his family were harmed or insulted. Unfortunately, Paris had done exactly that: the crowd had killed their way to the king and taken him prisoner and now feared retribution. Massive paranoia and a fear of traitors also fuelled the panic. It caused a massacre in the prisons and over a thousand dead.

The Army of the North, now under Dumouriez had been focusing on Belgium, but marched down to aid the Centre and defend the Argonne; they were pushed back. The Prussian king (also present) gave orders and entered into a battle with the French at Valmy on September 20th, 1792. The French won, Brunswick being unable to commit his army against a larger and well defended French position and so fell back. A determined French effort might have shattered Brunswick, but none came; even so, he withdrew, and the hopes of the French monarchy went with him. A republic was established, in large part due to the war.

The rest of the year saw a mixture of French successes and failures, but the revolutionary armies took Nice, Savoy, the Rhineland and in October, under Demouriez, Brussels, and Antwerp after swamping the Austrians at Jemappes. However, Valmy was the victory that would inspire French resolve over the next years.

The coalition had moved half-heartedly, and the French had survived. This success left the government to hurriedly come up with some war aims: the so-called ‘Natural Frontiers’ and the idea of freeing oppressed peoples were adopted. This caused further alarm in the international world.

1793

France began 1793 in a belligerent mood, executing their old king and declaring war on Britain, Spain, Russia, the Holy Roman Empire, most of Italy and The United Provinces, despite roughly 75% of their commissioned officers having left the army. The influx of tens of thousands of passionate volunteers helped strengthen the remains of the royal army. However, the Holy Roman Empire decided to go on the offensive and France was now outnumbered; conscription followed, and areas of France rebelled as a result. Prince Frederick of Saxe-Coburg led the Austrians and Dumouriez rushed down from the Austrian Netherlands to fight but was defeated. Dumouriez knew he’d be accused of treason and had had enough, so he asked his army to march on Paris and when they refused fled to the coalition. The next General up – Dampierre – was killed in battle and the next – Custine - was defeated by the enemy and guillotined by the French. All along the borders coalition forces were closing in – from Spain, through the Rhineland. The British managed to occupy Toulon when it rebelled, seizing the Mediterranean fleet.

France’s government now declared a ‘Levée en Masse’, which basically mobilised/conscripted all adult males for the defense of the nation. There was uproar, rebellion and a flood of manpower, but both the Committee of Public Safety and the France they ruled had the resources to equip this army, the organization to run it, new tactics to make it effective, and it worked. It also started the first Total War and began the Terror. Now France had 500,000 soldiers in four main forces. Carnot, the Committee of Public Safety man behind the reforms was called the ‘organiser of Victory’ for his success, and he may have prioritized an attack in the north.

Houchard was now commanding the Army of the North, and he used a mixture of old regime professionalism with sheer weight of conscript numbers, together with coalition mistakes which divided their forces and gave inadequate support, to force the coalition back, but he also fell to French guillotines after accusations doubting his effort: he was accused of not follow up victory quick enough. Jourdan was the next man up. He relieved the siege of Maubeuge and won the battle of Wattignies in October 1793, while Toulon was liberated thanks, in part, to an artillery officer called Napoleon Bonaparte. The rebel army in the Vendée was broken, and the frontiers generally forced back east. By the end of the year the provinces were broken, Flanders cleared, France expanding, and Alsace liberated. The French army was proving fast, flexible, well supported and able to absorb more losses than the enemy, and could thus fight more often.

1794

In 1794 France reorganized armies and moved commanders about, but the successes kept coming. Victories at Tourcoing, Tournai, and Hooglede occurred before Jourdan once more took control, and the French were finally able to successfully cross the Sambre after many attempts, beating Austria at Fleurus, and by the end of June had thrown the allies out of Belgium and the Dutch Republic, taking Antwerp and Brussels. Centuries of Austrian involved in the region had been halted. Spanish forces were repelled and parts of Catalonia taken, the Rhineland was also taken, and the borders of France were now safe; parts of Genoa were now also French.

The French soldiers were constantly boosted by patriotic propaganda and a huge number of texts sent out to them. France was still producing more soldiers and more equipment than its rivals, but they also executed 67 generals that year. However, the revolutionary government didn’t dare disband the armies and let these soldiers flood back into France to destabilize the nation, and neither could the faltering French finances support the armies on French soil. The solution was to carry the war abroad, ostensibly to safeguard the revolution, but also to get the glory and booty the government needed for support: the motives behind the French actions had already changed before Napoleon arrived. However, the success in 1794 had been partly due to war breaking out again in the east, as Austria, Prussia, and Russia sliced up a Poland fighting to survive; it lost, and was taken off the map. Poland had in many ways helped France by distracting and dividing the coalition, and Prussia scaled down war efforts in the west, happy with gains in the east. Meanwhile, Britain was sucking up French colonies, the French navy being unable to work at sea with a devastated officer corps.

1795

France was now able to capture more of the northwest coastline, and conquered and changed Holland into the new Batavian Republic (and took its fleet). Prussia, satisfied with Polish land, gave up and came to terms, as did a number of other nations, until only Austria and Britain remained at war with France. Landings designed to aid French rebels – such as at Quiberon - failed, and Jourdan’s attempts to invade Germany were frustrated, in no small part to a French commander following others and fleeing to the Austrians. At the end of the year, the government in France changed to the Directory and a new constitution. This government gave the executive – Five Directors – too little power over war, and they had to manage a legislature which continually preached spreading the revolution by force. While the Directors were, in many ways, keen on the war, their options were limited, and their control over their generals questionable. They planned a two front campaign: attack Britain through Ireland, and Austria on land. A storm stopped the former, while the Franco-Austrian war in Germany went back and forth.

1796

The French forces were now split largely between operations in Italy and Germany, all aimed at Austria, the only major enemy left on the mainland. The Directory hoped Italy would provide plunder and land to be exchanged for territory in Germany, where Jourdan and Moreau (who both had priority) were fighting a new enemy commander: Archduke Charles of Austria; he had 90,000 men. The French force was disadvantaged as they lacked cash and supplies, and the target region had suffered several years of depredation by the armies.

Jourdan and Moreau advanced into Germany, at which point Charles tried to force them apart, before the Austrians united and attacked. Charles managed to defeat Jourdan first at Amberg in late August and again at Würzberg in early September, and the French agreed an armistice having been pushed back to the Rhone. Moreau decided to follow suit. Charles’ campaign was marked by sending his surgeon over to assist a famed and injured French General. In Italy, Napoleon Bonaparte was given command. He stormed through the region, winning battle after battle against armies who divided their forces.

1797

Napoleon secured control of northern Italy and fought his way close enough to Austria’s capital of Vienna to make them come to terms. Meanwhile, in Germany, without Archduke Charles – who had been sent to face Napoleon – the Austrians were pushed back by French forces before Napoleon had forced the peace in the south. Napoleon dictated the peace himself, and the Treaty of Campo Formio expanded the boundaries of France (they kept Belgium) and created new states (Lombardy joined the new Cisalpine Republic) and left the Rhineland for a conference to decide. Napoleon was now the most famous general in Europe. The only major French setback was a naval battle at Cape St. Vincent, where one Captain Horatio Nelson assisted a British victory over French and allied ships, which were notionally readying for an invasion of Britain. With Russia far away and pleading financial weakness, only Britain remained both at war and close to France.