Episode 30: Setbacks and Remedies

Charles Francois Dumouriez 

Image of Charles Dumouriez
Charles-François du Périer Dumouriez (26 January 1739 – 14 March 1823)

With the resignation of the War Minister Narbonne in March 1792, King Louis found himself on the precipice of war while simultaneously lacking not only a war minister but an entire ministry. The man the King turned to was a soldier named Charles-Francois Dumouriez. Although installed as the new foreign minister, it was Dumouriez who would champion the French war effort in the early months of the revolutionary war.

Described by many as brave, talented and intelligent, he was, above all else, ambitious, and his military plans reflected as such.

“The ablest of the Girondist ministers was the extraordinary man who took the foreign office. Many types of human character were exemplified by the men of the Revolution : pedants, enthusiasts, heroes, at least three statesmanlike intellects, at least one first-rate theorist, and many egoists, and very tragic fools. Dumouriez is the adventurer. Very clever and very resolute, but almost entirely without principle, he had spent a youth and early manhood in the sort of diplomacy that requires an agent who can be quickly disavowed ; he had come to be regarded by respectable officials as an inveterate meddler and mar-all, and by others as a genius in search of a job ; he had seen a little war in the days of Frederick the Great, his unscrupulous hero, and had spent a short time in the Bastille under Louis xv ; now, as Sorel says, he saw in the Revolution ” not a regeneration of humanity but a career.””

– Historian Henry Packwood Adams

“You will not only have a war, with Austria, but a general European war; it shall, however, only end in bringing us glory, profit and extended dominion.”

– Charles-Francois Dumouriez

Dumouriez’s Military and Diplomatic Plans

Dumouriez favoured an aggressive approach, reasoning that a long and protracted war was not in French interests. As a result, Dumouriez adopted a simple and aggressive approach. France would seek to occupy what Dumouriez referred to as her ‘natural boundaries’. From these natural boundaries, France could more easily defend herself against the growing coalition of European crowns.

A map of Dumouriez's military plans for the French Revolutionary War of 1792.
A map showing the rough locations of Dumouriez’s four key armies on the outbreak of war in 1792.

Dumouriez’s plan was to occupy the Duchy of Savoy in the southeast, and Belgium and Liege in the north. From these positions, Holland and the smaller states of the Holy Roman Empire would be within striking distance. Furthermore, the possession of Belgium (which was then the Austrian Netherlands) would be significant leverage at any negotiating table.

Diplomatically, Dumouriez also attempted to keep both Prussia and Great Britain neutral.

The French Army

That centrepiece of Dumouriez’s plan was the French Army. On paper, the army numbered approximately 150,000 men. These regular troops were further augmented by 169 volunteer battalions composed primarily of national guardsmen. These battalions numbered approximately another 100,000 additional men.

Dumouriez carved these troops into four distinct armies.

  1. General Montesquieu led the Army of the South
  2. Marshal Rochambeau led the Army of the North
  3. Lafayette led the Army of the Centre
  4. Marshal Luckner led the Army of the Rhine

With such esteemed leaders placed in command, and with sizeable forces at their disposal, some within the French were confident of their future success. However, these plans on paper had some significant flaws.

A portrait of the Comte de Rochambeau
A portrait of the Comte de Rochambeau

A portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette
A portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette

A portrait of Nicolas Luckner

The French Army was ill-organized, ill-equipped, and ill-disciplined. Furthermore, thousands of well-trained officers had deserted the Royal Army, fuelling poor relations between the soldiers and their commanders. Tensions also existed between the common soldiers (the whites) and the volunteer battalions (the blues).

Initial Defeats

On the 29th of April, an officer named Dillon was ordered to attack the Austrian garrison of Tournai. Historian Simon Schama describes the assault as a pathetic fiasco. After the briefest of skirmishes with Austrian forces, Dillon’s men broke and fled. In the chaos that followed, some Frenchmen believed this seemingly inexplicable setback to be the work of treasonous officers, including Dillon himself. Despite being hostile to the emigres and the Old Regime, Dillon was seized by retreating soldiers and murdered as a counter-revolutionary. He was spared a beheading, but his body was flung onto a giant bonfire once his troops reached the town of Lille.

A sketch showing the murder of Théobald Dillon on 29 April 1792 at Lille
A sketch showing the burning of Théobald Dillon on 29 April 1792 at Lille

This military setback was not an isolated innocent. Soon, without any major battles undertaken, the unstoppable armies of the revolution soon found themselves at a standstill. The famed Marshal Rochambeau resigned, while other officers and regiments mutinied. By the 18th of May, less than a month after the declaration of war, the French Commanders personally recommended to King Louis that France should seek an immediate peace. Lafayette wrote to the former Austrian Ambassador, the Comte de Mercy-Argenteau, and secretly asked de Mercy for a cease-fire. Lafayette was willing to contemplate a coup against the radical of Paris in order to salvage the revolution.

A portrait of the Comte de Mercy-Argenteau
A portrait of the Comte de Mercy-Argenteau

Reaction in Paris

In Paris, news of the multiple military setbacks shocked the capital. The Feuillants, the Brissotins, and the Montagnards descended into bitter accusations and personal denunciations. The rumor mills of Paris warned of impending disaster.

“For the political leadership the miserable performance of the army in the first weeks of the war was profoundly shocking….  All the old anxieties about conspiracy and the threat of internal enemies striking from within reemerged with a vengeance. Rumors of all kinds swept through the city: that the king was about to flee again and that the crown had already been sent to Germany, that a palace official was seen burning papers, that the king’s private guard included a number of refractory priests in disguise, that plans were afoot to kill the Revolutionary leaders.” 

– Historian Timothy Tackett

It was in this environment of fear and panic that Jacques Brissot and his associates denounced the source of the nation’s woes. According to the Brissotins, a gigantic conspiracy was actively working to overturn the revolution. When asked what evidence they had of this conspiracy, the Brissotins noted that no physical evidence existed, but also claimed that it shouldn’t exist. As one contemporary put it, “What do you wish us to prove? Conspiracies cannot be written down”.

Consumed by trepidation and angst, it’s here that Historian Francois Mignet states that the Assembly entered upon a new career. A career of war. Henceforth, Mignet asserts that the National Legislature would regulate its conduct far more with reference to the public safety than with regard to the mere justice of the case.

Radical Solutions

Comforting a new crisis of their own making, the leading figures of the Brissotin faction sought to remedy the situation with radical measures. While some historians argue that the Brissotins adopted radical solutions to deliberately undermine the King, others argue they did so out of desperation.

“The Girondins saw no choice but to fall back on the policy of intimidation which had brought them to power.”

– Historian George Lefebvre

The legislature:

  1. Legalised the deportation of the non-jury clergy
  2. Dissolved the King’s Constitutional Guard
  3. Summoned a new force of 20,000 volunteers

The summoning of the fédérés proved particularly controversial. It was opposed by the Feulliants, the Montagnards, the National Gaurd, the Parisian Sections, and even Dumouriez.

A petition signed by 8,000 guardsmen forcefully rejected the idea that the guard was unable to protect the capital. One deputation to the Assembly claimed that Servan, “had violated the Constitution, had shown himself the vile instrument of a faction that rends the kingdom.”  

“The minister Servan, without having received orders from the king, or having consulted his colleagues, proposed, on the occasion of the approaching confederation of the 14th of July, the formation of a camp of twenty thousand federalists, for the protection of the assembly and the capital. It is easy to imagine how eagerly this project was embraced by the majority, composed of Girondists. At this period their power was at its height. They were supreme in the assembly, whore the constitutionalists and republicans were in the minority, and where the pretended neutrals were but pusillanimously indifferent, always becoming more and more submissive as the majority increased in strength. Besides this, by means of Petition, the mayor, who entirely accorded with their views, they were masters of Paris. Their project was to gain dominion over the king, and thwart his suspected designs, which they hoped to accomplish by the formation of a camp; and in this they were actuated, not by personal ambition, but by that of party and opinion. 

As soon as the proposition of Servan was made public, Dumouriez, in full council, demanded by what authority he had presumed to make it. He answered, by his own personal authority. “In that case,” replied Dumouriez, “the title of minister of war must not in future be affixed to the name of Servan” and the dispute between them became so animated, that, but for the presence of the king, blood would certainly have been shed in the council-room. Servan offered to withdraw his motion; but that would have been useless, for the assembly had already adopted it, and the king would have gained nothing by such a step but the appearance of violently constraining his minister. Dumouriez therefore opposed it with all his might.”

– Historian Adolphe Thiers

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It's revolutionary stuff!