Modern history


What do cannonballs sound like? “The humming of tops, the gurgling of water, and the whistling of birds,” according to Goethe. On the twentieth of September he made these experimental observations on the wooded hills of the Argonne, the same landscape through which a year earlier Louis XVI had botched his escape. Goethe’s patron, Duke Karl-August of Weimar, had been given command of a regiment in the Prussian army. When it began its plodding advance into France in the late summer, his poet-philosopher followed, more out of a sense of scientific curiosity than political enthusiasm. He had as little use for Romantic egalitarianism as for archaic legitimacy, seeing both revolution and counter-revolution as brutal interruptions of the reign of reason. But a campaign of siege and march offered a fresh dramatic experience which Goethe found impossible to resist. He was deep in the reflections that would lead to his important work on the theory of color, the Farbenlehre, though Karl-August found it bizarre that during the bombardment of Verdun he should have been observing the scene to discover, if possible, what were the hues of war.

At Valmy, on a ridge looking down on the French artillery drawn up in an arc, he saw red. As balls burst around him, throwing up scorched dirt and smoking autumn leaves, “it appeared as if one was in an extremely hot place and at the same time penetrated by the heat of it so that one felt quite at one with the element in which one was. The eyes lose nothing of their strength or clarity but it is as if the world had a kind of brown-red tint which makes the situation as well as the surrounding objects more impressive. I was unable to perceive any agitation of the blood but everything seemed swallowed up in the glow.”

At the end of the day, this “fever,” as Goethe called it, cooled off within him and he rode back, unscathed, to the Prussian lines. There he found soldiers in a state of moral collapse. “That very morning they had thought of nothing short of spitting the whole of the French force and devouring them… but now everyone went about alone, nobody looking at his neighbor, or only to curse or swear.” In fact, the Prussians had hardly been defeated, and on a strict accounting of casualties might even be said to have got the better of the day since they had suffered little more than a hundred killed or gravely wounded to about three times that number for the French. But the general recognition, from Brunswick’s high command down to the rank and file, that the Prussian advance had received a fatal wound, was correct. The laborious pace of their army had been unable to prevent a junction of the forces of Dumouriez and Kellermann on the nineteenth. The French divisions then stood behind the Prussian army with their backs to the east. Hypothetically Brunswick could have tried to force an accelerated advance west towards Paris through the Marne, but he would have left himself vulnerable to being cut off in the rear by a large, well-positioned force. It was vital, then, to see that threat off before going further, especially since his army was already badly lamed by sickness, and the foul weather of September was slowing its progress to a muddy crawl.

For the French, a stand at what Dumouriez had already called their “Thermopylae” was all that stood between the Prussians and Paris. The General’s strategy all along had been to arrest the Prussian advance by a counter-strike into the Austrian Netherlands, but this had been called off on the orders of the Executive Council in Paris until the immediate threat from Brunswick’s army had been turned back. On the twentieth, Kellermann’s troops, for the most part regulars rather than volunteers, took up position below a great windmill on the heights of Valmy. There they held their ground, first under intense bombardment, then returning heavy artillery fire at the Prussian soldiers. Marching steadily uphill in thin line order, Prussian style, the grenadiers heard, over the whistle and crash of the fire, the French singing the “ça Ira” and shouting “Vive la nation!

Unable to dislodge the French gunners, Brunswick called off the action rather than attempt a frontal charge. Both sides were suffering badly from sickness and food shortages, and each army lay athwart the other’s lines of communication to the rear. Sensibly, Dumouriez had Kellermann withdraw further to Sainte-Menehould (where the King had been recognized by the postmaster) and gave orders for roads and fields to be wasted should the Prussians attempt a further breakthrough. But it never came. With his army halved by attrition, Brunswick decided on a protective retreat, thus completing the dissolution of its morale. It was, as Goethe immediately understood, a critical turning-point in both the war and the Revolution. Late at night, he sat with despondent soldiers in a circle, attempting to kindle a stubbornly damp fire, and was asked, as the resident Wise Man, what he thought of the day. “I had been in the habit of enlivening and amusing the troop with short sayings,” he recalled in his journal of the campaign. But what he came up with, while irreproachably impartial, must have been cold comfort. “From this place and this time forth commences a new era in world history and you can all say that you were present at its birth.”

In Paris, even before the outcome of Valmy was known, that new era was given an official designation. From September 20, the day of the opening session of the National Convention, all state documents were to bear the date “Year One of French Liberty.” The Republic, which was formally declared on the twenty-first, was, then, a new beginning of historical time. With the King and his family imprisoned in the medieval citadel of the Temple, inanimate memories of royalty were being obliterated around Paris. The day after the seizure of the Tuileries, a great crowd of volunteers helped topple the statue of Louis XIV from his pedestal in the place des Victoires. Now, a month later, the Sovereign People had their own military prowess to celebrate. In fact, Valmy was overwhelmingly a victory of the old royal army, rebuilt by Guibert and Ségur, though strengthened by troops that had enlisted since the Revolution and with a sprinkling of volunteers. But as soon as stories of Kellermann’s soldiers singing the “Marseillaise” and the “Ça Ira” circulated it was represented as the triumph of the citizen-in-arms over the armed flunkeys of despotism.

Dumouriez was far from being swept away by the rhetoric of invincibility. He was, in fact, pursuing a strategy of level-headed pragmatism. He had inherited two of Lafayette’s tactical goals: the detachment of Prussia from the Coalition and the consolidation of military force to be used, if necessary, against insurrectionary Paris. Valmy was an opportunity to approach the Prussians when they were at their most vulnerable. Once news of the declaration of the Republic reached the front, however, King Frederick William stiffened his negotiating position, demanding the restoration of Louis XVI to the throne before the tenth of August as a precondition of any peace. In response, the French refused to consider further negotiations until the Prussians had completely evacuated the country. Discussions abruptly broke off, and followed rather than seriously harassed by the French, the Prussian army limped ingloriously back, first across the frontier, and then across the Rhine.

This left a group of little imperial states directly exposed to the advance of General Custine, who was Biron’s field commander in the center. (Kellermann had been posted to Metz, while Dumouriez’s army now swung north towards Belgium.) At the end of October, carriage trains bearing the persons and property of prince-bishops, electors, imperial knights and chancellors all departed from cities on the left bank of the Rhine like Speyer, Worms and Mainz. With them went chamberlains, judges, Kapellmeisters, postilions, masters of the hunt – the whole retinue that had sustained these pumpernickel principalities in the rococo style to which they had been indispensably accustomed.

In marched the French, cheered principally by the handfuls of intellectuals, journalists and professors who were promptly installed as the custodians of liberation. While proclamations went up promising the local population “liberty” from “despotism” or “slavery,” what they invariably got was merciless requisitioning and steep indemnities imposed as the price of freedom. This was to be the pattern of French occupation for the next twenty years, but on the first encounter it was a brutal surprise. His compatriots would have been less cruelly deceived, the hitherto pro-French Mainz librarian Georg Forster complained to Custine, “if they had been told from the start ‘We have come to take everything.’”

With French forces on the offensive, not just in Germany but in Savoy, where Chambéry and Nice had been “reunited” with la Nation, Dumouriez persuaded the Convention to advance against the Austrians in the Netherlands. There he fully expected to be supported by a resumption of the uprising against Habsburg rule which, in 1789, had briefly created an independent Belgian state. But the decisive factor was less indigenous enthusiasm for seeing the Austrians off (warm though that was) than the heavy preponderance of military force Dumouriez could bring to the engagement. In both men and artillery he outnumbered them almost two to one. On November 6 he attacked their high-ground position at Jemappes, just north of the city of Mons, by advancing on abroad front while sending another offensive wheeling round far to the right to cut off a retreat. Counter-attacked by the Austrian cavalry, especially where volunteers made the line unsteady, French positions themselves nearly caved in but each time managed a restorative rally. When the Austrians suddenly saw French troops in their rear, convoyed across the river in boats, Jemappes was evacuated, leaving about a third of the army, some four thousand men, dead or gravely wounded on the field. Mons opened its gates to the French on November 8 and a week later Dumouriez’s victorious troops marched across the place Royale in Brussels.

In France, it was Jemappes, rather than Valmy, which transformed the war from an agitated defensive action into the “crusade for universal liberty” that Brissot had promised. In contrast to the rather subdued reaction of the printmakers to the first battle, a great outpouring of prints celebrated the victory over the Austrians. The Montansier troupe of actors, who under the old regime had regularly performed at Versailles, now specialized in patriotic drama, reenacting heroic scenes from the Revolution to bolster morale in Paris. After Jemappes, they took their tour right onto the battlefield to entertain the troops with a dramatic version of the engagement with cannon and suitably terrified white-uniformed Austrians fleeing from the scene. Having given the soldiers a sense of the historical significance of their action by framing it in dramatized rhetoric, they then returned to the capital to perform The Battle of Jemappes to cheering audiences in the capital.

The Convention was not immune to this heady atmosphere of invincibility. Though Robespierre had been against the war and was suspicious that Dumouriez wanted to use an independent Belgium as a base from which to march on Paris, he was unable to prevail against the great tide of martial enthusiasm washing over the deputies in the aftermath of Jemappes. Letters had been received from the little principality of Zweibrücken asking for French protection, and in response to this, on the nineteenth of November, the Convention made the dramatic gesture of promising assistance to “all those wishing to recover their liberty.” Like all the utterances which issued from the Convention, this first so-called “propaganda decree” operated on two levels. Rhetorically, it was the first manifesto of revolutionary war in European history. But it should always be borne in mind that the French Revolution had in large part been caused by the wounds inflicted to national amour-propre and the need to reinvigorate the tradition of French patriotism. So that while the presence of étrangers, amis de la révolution like Etienne Clavière in the government might seem to signify a commitment to a proselytizing, ideological war, it was almost always outweighed by much more pragmatically defined interests of state. When Brissot, on November 26, warned, “We cannot be calm until all of Europe is in flames,” what he had in mind was a strategic expansion that would create either allied satellites or frontier buffer zones behind which the Revolution could be adequately protected.

Was an independent Belgium to be such a zone? By late November, several deputies among the Convention were anxious lest it be turned into a military fief of Dumouriez, who, it was known, was conducting virtually his own foreign policy, promising, for example, to protect the property of the Catholic Church in return for a voluntary loan. To counteract this, the Convention passed on December 15 what seemed to European opinion to be a decree of much more radical significance since it required the French military authorities to execute the principal legislation of the Revolution – including the destruction of the feudal regime – in the occupied territories. Just as the “rights of man” were now deemed to be a universal possession grounded in nature, so a similar axiom of nature was to determine the territorial limits of the Revolution. Dumouriez and Danton both agreed that those limits were self-evidently provided by geographical barriers: the Pyrenees, the Alps, the Rhine, the Channel and the Mediterranean. This already meant that a policy of “liberation” was blurring into one of annexation, euphemistically known as réunion, in regions like Porrentruy on the Swiss border, which became the Department of Mont-Terrible, and Savoyard Nice.

The mere declaration of “natural frontiers,” however, did not imply that French arms would be confined within them. On the contrary, as long as they were threatened by coalitions of kings, or (as the propaganda decree now authorized) as long as they were summoned by peoples groaning under the yoke of despotism, the French would feel free to take the fight to the enemy, wherever he was. Nor did the means of this offensive have to remain orthodox. The ci-devant Marquis de Bry offered to found what was, in effect, the first organization of international terrorism, the Tyrannicides – twelve hundred committed freedom fighters despatched to assassinate kings and the commanders of foreign armies wherever they could be nailed down.

It was, indeed, as Goethe warned, a new moment in the history of the world.

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