History is an odd thing: sometimes you become distracted by one event, which then triggers hours/days/weeks of further reading into a different historical era. For me, this recently happened regarding the French Revolution. Every so often I return to this era, and all it seems to take is the curiosity of a person to reignite this interest. Whilst recently reading into the Revolution I considered the French Republic’s first war and decided that this would be an interesting one to include in the War Zone series.
The context of this war is wrapped up in the vast political and social upheaval that took place in France in 1789, the famous year of the French Revolution. The ancien regime and power of Louis XVI was at first downgraded, before being completely removed, thereby giving birth to a republic. The reasons for toppling of the monarchy are numerous, but they mostly concern themselves with the high level of governmental debt (being linked to their heavy expenditure during the American revolutionary wars) and in their inability to provide much-needed reforms. The events of 1789 clipped Louis’ wings and his own failure to thwart further danger ultimately led to him losing his head.
This new French Republic was viewed with deep suspicion by the surrounding states of Europe. The main fear was the spread of republicanism: if it had brought about the downfall of one monarchy, it could easily do the same for those in Vienna and London. This ultimately brought about the outbreak of the War of the First Coalition, when in 1792 several European powers came together to stem the flow of democratic ideas.
Hyped up on a wave of revolutionary enthusiasm, the French declared war on the Habsburgs of Austria in 1792; the French feared the Austrians aiding the counter-revolutionaries, what with the French Queen – Marie Antoinette – being of Austrian descent. Despite some early success in the French taking control of the Belgian region (under Habsburg control), the republican forces were pushed back into their own territory during the year. The republican government faced other internal revolts, notably in the Vendee region, and when the Austrian and Prussian armies invaded France it was feared that the regime would fall.
However, in 1793 the French were able to push through a law that allowed them to call up mass numbers to military service (flouting more powers than Louis XVI himself had been able to do during his reign!). This new force repelled the invasion and led to further successes, despite the expansion of the coalition to include Britain, Spain, and the Dutch.
In 1794 the French obtained a strategic victory at the Battle of Fleurus, which granted them control of Belgium and the Rhineland. Although Britain maintained control of the sea (and threatened colonial bases in the West Indies), the coalition started to collapse when Prussia withdrew from the war by the year’s end (with the official recognition of France’s control of the Rhine). Extension of control of the lowland region was increased with the capture of the Netherlands, leading to the formation of a new puppet state under French ownership: the Batavian Republic.
The continued success of France was seen on the campaigns in Italy during 1796-97, which established the name of Napoleon Bonaparte. It was clear that the French were supreme on the battlefield, eventually leading to the signing of peace treaties with various state. The most notable was the Treaty of Campo Formio with saw the Habsburgs officially ceding control of the Austrian Netherlands (modern-day Belgium) and control of northern Italy. All of this meant that by the end of 1797 Britain was the only remaining member of the coalition, continuing the war against France alone.
The war is a confusing one, mostly for the comings and goings of nations. Across the duration of hostilities the French faced the Habsburgs of the Holy Roman Empire, Austria, Prussia, Britain, Spain, the Dutch Republic, Portugal, and the Italian states of Naples and Sardinia (as well as France’s own internal rebels). To survive – and thrive – during the turmoil of the changes within the Revolution is simply incredible. In many ways, we can put this success down to the revolutionary belief of the French and their ability to conscript a large army, but failure is also due to the inability of the coalition to work together effectively to defeat the French. However, this would not be the end of this series of war, for 1798 saw the outbreak of the War of the Second Coalition, and ultimately the triumphant rise of Napoleon Bonaparte.