BATTLE OF VALMY
20 September 1792
The Battle of Valmy is commonly regarded as the battle that saved the French Revolution. Three years after the overthrow of France’s absolute monarchy in summer 1789, large Austrian and Prussian armies were advancing on Paris to overthrow the revolutionary regime and restore the old social order. The Prussians were met by an army of French levies raised, they were told, to save the new nation and the liberty of its people. In truth the battle was little more than a modest exchange of fire, but the Prussians withdrew and Paris was saved. The revolution entered its more radical phase, and four months later the French king, Louis XVI, was executed.
The horror stories spread abroad by émigré Frenchmen of the violence and depravity of the revolutionary leaders and the mobs they led fuelled the ambition of the crowned heads of Europe to try to extinguish the new system before its seditious infection touched them, too. An army of around 30,000 was gathered together by the Prussian King, Frederick William II, under the command of the Duke of Brunswick, widely regarded as one of the finest commanders in Europe. Alongside some 32,000 Austrians to the north and the south, the Prussian army moved forwards through
Luxembourg and eastern France in August and early September, capturing one city after another to reach and cross the River Meuse. In Paris, the fright of invasion sped up the search for counter-revolutionary suspects and the subsequent September Massacres accounted for more than 1,000 grisly deaths, among them priests, aristocrats and a much larger number of common prisoners who were an easy target, but largely guiltless.
The main French force, commanded by General Charles-François Dumouriez, arrived to the west of the river to occupy a ridge of hills and strong points. Dumouriez told the minister of war that he would defend to the death, like the Spartans at Thermopylae, but the first strongpoints soon fell to determined Prussian and Austrian attack. Dumouriez retreated south, where he was joined by 10,600 men under General Pierre de Beurnonville and 16,000 troops brought from Metz by General François-Christophe Kellermann. Brunswick was confident that his well-trained Prussians would sweep aside what he regarded as a revolutionary rabble, but his 30,000 soldiers were now faced by as many as 36,000 French, with 28,000 in reserve some distance away, a half-and-half mixture of veterans from the armed forces of the king and new National Guard levies raised to defend the revolution.
Although discipline was lax, and the reliability of former royal officers unpredictable, it was commitment to the new national cause, rather than military spit-and-polish, that shaped the force, just as it had encouraged Washington’s irregulars in America a decade before.
The Prussian king, travelling with Brunswick, insisted that the French would continue to retreat and encouraged him to move forward to cut off their line of escape and destroy them. On the night of 19 September, the Prussians prepared to march. At 6 a.m., the advance guard moved forward through thick rain and fog until, to their consternation, they were shelled by Kellermann’s invisible artillery, drawn up on the slopes of Mont Yron, around which Dumouriez had placed his guns and long lines of infantry, a total front-line force of 36,000 men. The artillery was manned by the old regular army and was regarded as among the most proficient in Europe. The Prussians continued to move forward, more hesitantly now until they had captured the first French guns at the inn of La Lune, where the king and his staff could also shelter. Brunswick then drew up his army in battle array opposite the hills and the village of Valmy, the artillery lined up in front of the 34,000 soldiers he had brought this far. What he lacked was a clear operational plan.
Only when the fog lifted at noon could the Prussians see, not a revolutionary mob, but line upon line of uniformed and disciplined soldiers, well-established at the summit of an awkward slope. He ordered his infantry to form columns and advance against the French line. It was at this moment that Kellermann rose to his role as commander of the revolutionary troops. He stood up in the saddle, placed his hat with its red-white-and-blue cockade on the end of his sword, and, raising it on high, called out ‘Vive la Nation!’ It was the first battle-cry of a new age of national wars. His troops echoed back with cries of ‘Vive la Nation!’ and ‘Vive la France!’ and prepared to fight the Prussians singing the new revolutionary anthem, La Marseillaise. This was war for a modern cause, not to satisfy dynastic ambition.
The story of Kellermann’s rallying call may have become embellished in the telling, but all witnesses recall it. Whether it was this that perturbed Brunswick, or simply the growing evidence that he was greatly outnumbered by men who could, after all, fight effectively, he hurriedly recalled the columns. An artillery duel continued until dusk when torrential rain brought the desultory conflict to an end. Though no real battle had occurred (300 French casualties, 184 Prussian), Valmy was treated as the first major victory of the revolution. The next day, the monarchy was abolished and the First French Republic proclaimed. Brunswick and Frederick William prudently withdrew back to the Rhineland, leaving the French free to deploy an impressive total of around 450,000 men for adventures in Savoy and Belgium. There were to be more than twenty years of war before the disruptive effects of the new revolutionary order were tempered by defeat and the restoration of a monarchy. The Prussian Carl von Clausewitz, in his reflections On War, saw the revolutionary victory as the start of a new age, in which war became the business of the whole body of citizens: ‘nothing,’ he wrote, ‘now impeded the vigour with which war could be waged.’ Kellermann could not know that his flamboyant gesture, enough to turn the cautious Prussians back, would open the way to total war.