Battle of Valmy Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This first battle of the wars of the French Revolution might have also been the last had a hastily assembled French army succumbed to a large Prussian-led invading force. Though a minor skirmish, Valmy is considered an important political turning point in history, because a French defeat might have ended the French Revolution.

Summary of Event

In the issuance of the Declaration of Pillnitz Declaration of Pillnitz (1791) in August, 1791, Austria and Prussia defined their own monarchical interests to be directly related to those of King Louis XVI of France. One year later, it was evident that both the position of Louis and the general international situation had dramatically worsened. In August, 1792, the French royal family was brought to the Temple prison to be kept under guard. In addition, France was in its fourth month of a declared war on Austria Austrian-French conflicts[Austrian French conflicts] French-Austrian conflicts[French Austrian conflicts] Prussian-French conflicts[Prussian French conflicts] French-Prussian conflicts[French Prussian conflicts] over Austrian refusal to cease being a haven for counterrevolutionary French nobles (émigrés). French armies were unsuccessfully attempting to invade the Spanish Netherlands, Spanish Netherlands Netherlands;Spanish which served as an émigré base. These events caused the Prussian military commander, the duke of Brunswick, to threaten to occupy Paris if any further disrespect should befall the French royal family. [kw]Battle of Valmy (Sept. 20, 1792) [kw]Valmy, Battle of (Sept. 20, 1792) Valmy, Battle of (1792) French Revolution (1789-1796);first battle[battle] French-Prussian conflicts[French Prussian conflicts] Prussian-French conflicts[Prussian French conflicts] [g]France;Sept. 20, 1792: Battle of Valmy[3040] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Sept. 20, 1792: Battle of Valmy[3040] Kellerman, François Christophe de Dumouriez, Charles-François Brunswick, duke of Clerfayt, count von

In command of an army composed of thirty-five thousand seasoned Prussian infantry and forty-two thousand Austrian, Hessian, and émigré troops, Brunswick invaded France on August 18, 1792. Adding stature to the venture, Brunswick was accompanied by the Prussian king, Frederick William II. Brunswick was assured by leading émigrés that much of France would welcome him as a liberator and that the undisciplined raw recruits populating the French army were a mere rabble that would run from the initial salvos of battle. Such had been the case in the French invasion of Belgium during previous months.

Meanwhile, French officers, many of whom sprang from aristocratic backgrounds and were disgusted with the increasing radicalization of the French Revolution, were leaving the army in great numbers. By September, 1792, two-thirds of French army officers had either quit or deserted to the émigrés. In a French army composed of a merger of remaining regular army units, national guardsmen, and recent volunteers, the places vacated by the officers had to be taken by noncommissioned officers. In contrast, Prussian officers and infantry were considered to be the best in Europe and capable of instilling fear in any opposing force.

Although heavy August rains slowed Brunswick’s invasion, he was able, by September 3, easily to capture the French fortresses at Longwy and Verdun. In despair at the performance of his raw troops, the French commander of Verdun, Lieutenant Colonel Nicolas François Beaurepaire, Beaurepaire, Nicolas François shot himself. Brunswick was now in position to move through the Argonne Forest to Paris. Although his troops encountered problems getting supplies, circumstances seemed to point to a “parade march” to Paris. However, marching through Argonne was the Army of the North, commanded by General Charles-François Dumouriez. Although heavily saturated with recent recruits, the Dumouriez’s army had gained experience in the Belgian campaigns in addition to benefiting from Dumouriez’s own extensive military training.

Dumouriez was able to move his forces down from Sedan, behind the Argonne, beating Brunswick to the strategic pass of Les Islettes, on the road to Paris. There, he entrenched defensive positions and awaited the arrival of reinforcements from the Army of the Center, marching from Metz under the command of François Christophe de Kellerman. Serving under Kellerman in command of his right wing was a young army officer, Louis-Philippe, Louis-Philippe (Louis XIX) who would later become the last king of France (r. 1830-1848). Dumouriez was able to keep at bay an Austrian and émigré force moving from the west under the command of the count von Clerfayt, who was attempting to prevent the two French armies from meeting. The tables were turned, however, as Austrian forces would be checked by Dumouriez throughout the upcoming battle.

The Battle of Valmy was touted as a first step in the wars of the French Revolution, as in this poster exhorting French citizens to buy war bonds “so that France will be victorious as at Valmy!”

(Library of Congress)

Kellerman headed an army of forty-seven thousand infantry, composed mostly of regular army units and containing experienced heavy artillery batteries. France had long been the rival of Prussia as the leading power in artillery technology and tactics. The two French generals met at Sainte-Menehould, a protected marshland area, on September 19, 1792. They both knew that they were all that stood between Brunswick and Paris. Also on September 19, a third French general, the marquis de Lafayette, Lafayette, marquis de deserted to join the émigré forces. For him, the French Revolution was spinning out of control. Hysteria about treason in the wake of the invasion of France had just caused Parisian mobs to round up and often gruesomely execute more than twelve hundred prisoners in an event known to history as the September Massacres September Massacres (1792) (September 2-11).

By the evening of September 19, Brunswick’s forces had marched through the upper passes of the Argonne, having successfully made a flanking movement to attack French forces from the East. The Prussians deployed on the heights of La Lune, opposite the high ground held by Kellerman. In response, Kellerman moved his left wing toward the heights of Valmy with artillery positioned near the large Valmy windmill. Ironically, the Prussian positions were further along the road to Paris than the French positions. Had he chosen to, Brunswick could have rapidly moved west through the Marne to Paris. However, the threat of a large French army to his rear and uncertainties in his fore made such a gambit too risky to attempt.

The battle opened on the foggy and overcast morning of September 20 with an intense Prussian barrage intended to take out French cannon positioned near the windmill. Splinters flew from shot smashing into the windmill, becoming shrapnel and forcing the French to tear down the building in the midst of battle. As Prussian infantry and cavalry swarmed up the heights, they were met with intense and well-placed French artillery fire. French infantry forces held their lines, shouting “Vive la nation!” (long live the country) and other revolutionary slogans at the Prussians.

Faced with continuing artillery barrages and determined resistance from French forces, the Prussian lines stopped and withdrew, first downhill then back uphill, to reach their camp on La Lune. The Prussians left 184 dead on the battlefield, while the toll of French dead numbered about 300. The confrontation was not about body count, however: The allied effort to take control of Paris and restore Louis XVI to power had been checked. A demoralized Prussian army, plagued from the beginning by inadequate food supplies, disease, and injury caused by heavy, late-summer rainstorms, limped out of France and back to Prussia.

The Austrian army under the count von Clerfayt arrived near Valmy on the evening of September 20, many hours after the battle had ended. They too reversed course and headed out of France. Had Clerfayt and Brunswick managed to meet up before the battle, or had Clerfayt succeeded in preventing Dumouriez and Kellerman from combining forces, the outcome at Valmy might have been very different. As it was, a Prussian army of thirty-five thousand had faced a French army more than twice its size.

Significance

On the same day as the Battle of Valmy, the newly created National Convention National Convention (France) met for the first time. Emboldened by news of the French victory, the convention created the First French Republic the next day. Thus, a millennium of monarchy in France came to an end. September 21, 1792, would become day one of year one in the new revolutionary calendar. For one of Germany’s greatest poets, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von who had witnessed the battle from Brunswick’s camp on the heights of La Lune, the French victory at Valmy began a new era in human history.

Historically, Valmy stands as the first significant French victory in the wars of the French Revolution. It is also regarded as a historical turning point, because an Austrian-Prussian victory most likely would have brought the French Revolution to an abrupt end. Instead, the radical development of the revolution continued to accelerate over the next two years, reaching a climax in the Reign of Terror. Reign of Terror (France) The wars of of the French Revolution continued for twenty-three years after Valmy. Volunteerism and conscription continued to fill the army’s ranks, as green recruits became seasoned veterans. The once-feared Prussian military machine was replaced by that of the French. French revolutionary armies went on to change the face of Europe and the course of world history.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Doyle, William. Oxford History of the French Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. An excellent background to the French Revolution and the wars fought to contain it.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Price, Munro. The Fall of the French Monarchy: Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and the Baron de Breteuil. New York: Pan Macmillan, 2002. A graphic narration of the events leading to the fall of Louis XVI from power, including an excellent description of the Battle of Valmy. Index and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Scott, Samuel F. From Yorktown to Valmy. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2003. A study of the training and performance of the French army from the American Revolution to the beginning of the French revolution. Index and bibliography.

Louis XVI Calls the Estates-General

Oath of the Tennis Court

Fall of the Bastille

Early Wars of the French Revolution

Execution of Louis XVI

War in the Vendée

Fall of Robespierre

Napoleon’s Italian Campaigns

Napoleon’s Egyptian Campaign

Napoleon Rises to Power in France

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