The French Revolutinary Wars Essay

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The French Revolutinary Wars




THE FRENCH REVOLUTIONARY WARS: 1787-1802

The French Revolutionary Wars: 1787-1802, by T. C. W. Blanning, is a super

Work of historiography. Far more ambitious than its modest title suggests, it is the

history of the French Revolution as well as a military and diplomatic history of
Europe from 1787 to 1802. Blanning enriches our understanding of the
Revolution by placing it in its European context, by showing how it affected and
was affected by France's neighbors. He is especially well placed to take on this
task. Not only has he written extensively on the French Revolution; he has
written a book on Mainz under the Old Regime and the revolutionary republic,
another on the French occupation of the Rhineland, and two biographies of the
Habsburg Emperor Joseph II. [1] He is one of the few historians who can move
comfortably from France to Germany to the vast Habsburg empire stretching
from Belgium to the Balkans, and he has filled in the remaining gaps with
extraordinarily vast reading. Among the thousand or so footnotes in The French
Revolutionary Wars are references to works in German, Italian, Spanish, and
Russian, as well as French and English. Yet this book is more than a tour de
force of erudition. It is a richly textured, engaging narrative punctuated by cogent,
often brilliant analysis.

Blanning begins by arguing that French defeat in the Seven Years' War (1756-63)
stimulated reforms in the army which are normally associated with the
Revolution: the breaking up of armies into smaller, more flexible divisions; the
use of columns in addition to lines; an increasing reliance on light troops; and the
use of artillery. More controversial, however, were the reforms introduced in
1787 and 1788, which slashed the number of officers in an army that was, in
Blanning's words, "absurdly over-officered" (p. 19). These reforms, coinciding
with the revolt of the parliaments, added fuel to the fire of the aristocratic
revolution by alienating many of its leaders, who were not only parlementaires
but army officers. They guaranteed that the army would not serve the king when
he needed it to suppress the insurrection in Paris in July 1789, and indeed pushed
the officers to make common cause with the Third Estate. Thus Blanning
provocatively but convincingly claims, "In part at least, the French Revolution
was a military coup" (p. 28). In addition to the hated military reforms, Blanning
argues that an unpopular alliance with Austria contributed to the discrediting of
the monarchy and that, more directly, the crown lost its legitimacy when it failed,
ostensibly due to bankruptcy, to respond to the Prussian invasion of the United
Provinces and the suppression of the pro-French Dutch Patriots in 1787.

The narrative continues with an account of the first two years of the Revolution,
when Russia, Prussia and Austria were preoccupied with Poland--which they
would soon partition out of existence--and therefore relatively uninterested in
developments in France, despite some occasional counter-revolutionary sabre-
rattling. Yet this period of "deceptive isolation from the European states-system"
(p. 42) ended in the spring of 1792, when an unlikely coalition of Girondins and
monarchists (including the king himself) provoked war against the equally
unlikely coalition of Prussia and Austria, countries that had been at war for
more than fifty years. Blanning tells the dreadful story of war and revolution
from September 1792, when thousands of suspected traitors were butchered in
Parisian prisons, to August 1793, when the revolutionary Convention declared
"total war" against external and internal enemies alike. He describes the terrible
process by which the war escalated both beyond and within French borders:
republican victories in the autumn of 1792 brought Britain and the Dutch
Republic into the war. To fight against this growing coalition, the revolutionary
government was forced to adopt conscription, and conscription, more than any
other single issue, provoked and fuelled the revolt of the Vendee and the civil war
which according to Blanning killed some 400,000 people.

The author goes on to describe the spectacular series of revolutionary victories
from August 1793 to the spring of 1795, by which time France had nearly
reached its "natural frontiers" through the conquest of Belgium, the Dutch
Republic, and most of the left bank of the Rhine. He explains these victories
largely in terms of French numerical superiority, but also emphasizes the
government's power to requisition vast quantities of arms and to execute
commanders judged insufficiently aggressive on the battlefield. In addition to
indigenous factors, Blanning cites the allies' infighting and lack of commitment to
the war with France as crucial to French victory. Next Blanning describes the war
under the Directory government, when the post-Terror regime made an official
policy of "nourishing war by war" and making the armies live off the land they
invaded. This policy entailed the "pillaging of Europe", as the French looted
everything from grain and clothing to gold, art treasures, and rare books and
manuscripts. It gave the lie to any liberationist rhetoric and guaranteed repeated
resistance and uprisings from Belgium to Calabria. Following a rich description of
the naval conflict between Britain and France, Blanning ends the story of the
revolutionary wars with an account of the War of the Second Coalition
(1799-1802), in which France faced a massive alliance that in the author's view
was bound to fall apart under the weight of mistrust and conflicting interests.

Central to the French Revolutionary Wars is the notion of the primacy of
foreign policy. Blanning sees foreign policy in general and war in particular as
decisive both in causing the Revolution and determining its trajectory. He is
careful to avoid reductionism, i.e. the dismissal of the complexity of causal
factors in favor of a single preferred cause, and gives credit to a variety of
factors--from economics and social strains to revolutionary political culture--but
his main emphasis is on foreign affairs. He observes that the monarchy's failure
to respond to the Prussian invasion of the Dutch Republic in 1787 was crucial to
its de-legitimization and downfall and that "virtually all of the great journeys--10
August 1792, the September Massacres [1792], 31 May and 2 June 1793 and
18-19 Brumaire [Year VIII]-- were essentially responses to failure in war" (p.
269). Yet though Blanning cites Francois Furet's claim that "the war conducted
the Revolution far more than the Revolution conducted the war" (p. 267), he
gives ample evidence of the Revolution conducting the war as well. Indeed, he
suggests that the war be largely provoked by domestic politics. He notes that
after the Champs de Mars massacre in July 1792 the "lid" had been "crammed
back on the popular cauldron", but only " for the time being." He continues:

To create a brew so explosive that no amount of legislative weight could contain
its pressure, an issue even more combustible than the royal flight was needed.
The aftermath of [the king's abortive flight to] Varennes [in June 1791] made it
clear that it could not be domestic in origin. If the attempted flight of the king
could not finally delegitimate the monarchy, then only the gravest charge that can
be made against a sovereign would suffice--high treason. For that, war was
needed (pp. 55-6).

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