Early Wars of the French Revolution

During the French Revolutionary Wars, the French government, which was committed to spreading antiaristocratic principles, fought against conservative European powers that supported traditional social inequalities and royalist institutions.

Summary of Event

The French Revolution, which began in 1789, horrified monarchs, nobles, and conservatives throughout Europe, for they feared the spread of republican and antiaristocratic ideas. French émigrés, mostly from the privileged classes, did their best to persuade foreign governments to oppose the revolution. In June, 1791, after King Louis XVI of France failed in his attempt to flee, his execution appeared likely. In August, the Austrian Austrian-French conflicts[Austrian French conflicts]
French-Austrian conflicts[French Austrian conflicts]
Prussian-French conflicts[Prussian French conflicts]
French-Prussian conflicts[French Prussian conflicts] and Prussian monarchs, hoping to help Louis’s chances, issued the Declaration of Pillnitz, Declaration of Pillnitz (1791) which threatened military intervention if joined by the other European powers. Instead of having a sobering effect on the French radicals, however, the prospect of a foreign invasion pushed the revolution in an even more radical direction. [kw]Early Wars of the French Revolution (Apr. 20, 1792-Oct., 1797)
[kw]Revolution, Early Wars of the French (Apr. 20, 1792-Oct., 1797)
[kw]French Revolution, Early Wars of the (Apr. 20, 1792-Oct., 1797)
[kw]Wars of the French Revolution, Early (Apr. 20, 1792-Oct., 1797)
French Revolution (1789-1796);early wars
Revolutionary wars, French
[g]France;Apr. 20, 1792-Oct., 1797: Early Wars of the French Revolution[3030]
[g]Europe;Apr. 20, 1792-Oct., 1797: Early Wars of the French Revolution[3030]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Apr. 20, 1792-Oct., 1797: Early Wars of the French Revolution[3030]
[c]Government and politics;Apr. 20, 1792-Oct., 1797: Early Wars of the French Revolution[3030]
Louis XVI
Napoleon I
Napoleon I;French Revolution
[p]Dumouriez, Charles-François
Carnot, Lazare
Custine, comte de
Brunswick, duke of
Jourdan, Jean-Baptiste
Charles, Archduke
Pichegru, Charles
Moreau, Jean

In the French Legislative Assembly, Legislative Assembly (France) many of the revolutionaries, especially members of the Girondin Party, Girondins wanted a foreign war, because they believed it would rally the nation to their cause. On April 20, 1792, the Assembly declared war on Austria. Prussia joined the Austrian side, as did Sardinia Sardinia somewhat later. The French army, however, was disorganized and unprepared for warfare. When French forces marched into the Austrian Netherlands, they were quickly pushed out by better-trained imperial forces.

In July, 1792, a large army of fifty thousand Austrian and Prussian troops, led by the duke of Brunswick, crossed the frontier and marched toward Paris. On July 25, Brunswick issued a manifesto threatening to annihilate Paris if the royal family were harmed. This unwise threat rallied much of the French population and contributed to the suspension of the king in August. French prospects improved as bad weather slowed Brunswick’s movement, which allowed two outstanding commanders, Charles-François Dumouriez and François Christophe de Kellerman, to join forces and meet the invaders at Valmy. Valmy, Battle of (1792) After an inconclusive battle on September 20, Brunswick, now outnumbered, withdrew his forces to the Rhine.

With the imminent thread to Paris eliminated, Dumouriez returned to the Austrian Netherlands. Austrian Netherlands
Netherlands;Austrian On November 6, by surprising Austrian troops at Jemappes, Jemappes, Battle of (1792) he won an overwhelming victory, which allowed him to capture the capital city of Brussels. Meanwhile in Germany, the comte de Custine captured Mainz and advanced toward Frankfurt. Late in 1792, the revolutionary Convention, National Convention (France) reflecting a new confidence, offered assistance to all people wanting to “recover their liberty.” This international decree, followed by the execution of Louis XVI in January, 1793, provoked Britain, Spain, and the Netherlands to join with Austria, Prussia, and Sardinia in a war alliance called the First Coalition. First Coalition (France)

The first part of 1793 was disastrous for the French cause. On March 18, Dumouriez was defeated by the Austrians at Neerwinden, and he defected to the other side. Then Custine was forced to retreat from the Rhine, leaving behind twenty thousand troops in Mainz. Conservative French peasants Peasantry;France and royalists revolted in the provinces of the Vendée and Brittany. Royalists took control of the French cities of Toulon and Lyon. At this time, the allies probably could have defeated France, except that Austria, Prussia, and Russia were preoccupied with the partition of Poland.

A British cartoon of 1798, in which French soldiers declare “We explain de Rights of Man to de Noblesse,” as they pillage the House of Lords.

(Library of Congress)

On April 6, 1793, the Convention, in a state of panic, established the dictatorial Committee of Public Safety. Committee of Public Safety (France) In August, the Convention ordered a draft Drafts;French military of all able-bodied men, called a levée en masse. Supervised by Lazare Carnot, the draft soon produced a huge revolutionary army of some 700,000 troops. The Committee attached revolutionary commissioners to each commander. Under the Reign of Terror, Reign of Terror (France) unsuccessful officers suspected of disloyalty, such as General Custine, were sent to the guillotine “to encourage the others.”

Republican forces gained firm control of France in late 1793. On October 9, they captured Lyon from the royalists. On December 19, Napoleon Bonaparte’s strategy of bombardment convinced the British to withdraw their fleet from the harbor of Toulon, and republican troops entered the city. Napoleon was promoted to brigadier general. On December 23, the royalist revolt in the Vendée was crushed in the Battle of Savenay. Savenay, Battle of (1793) That month, moreover, allied troops retreated east of the Rhine.

During 1794-1795, French forces were usually victorious. Marshal Jean-Baptiste Jourdan won a decisive victory against the Austrians at Fleurus and took control over much of the Rhineland, including Cologne. General Charles Pichegru Pichegru, Charles was even more successful in the Netherlands. After he captured Amsterdam in early 1795, the Dutch, now reconstituted into the Batavian Republic, agreed to peace in the first Treaty of Basel, Basel, Treaty of (1795) signed on April 5, 1795. Later that year, Prussia and Spain also withdrew from the First Coalition.

France was now able to concentrate on fighting Austria and Sardinia. The newly formed Directory Directory (France) approved a three-pronged attack: Jourdan would march southeastward from the Netherlands, General Jean Moreau Morea, Jean would attack southern Germany, and Napoleon was to capture strategic parts of northern Italy and then cross the Alps into Austria. Initially, the French were successful on all fronts. In 1796, however, the outstanding Austrian commander Archduke Charles outmaneuvered Generals Jourdan and Moreau, both of whom were forced to retreat to the Rhine by September, 1796.

In the Italian campaign, Italian campaigns of Napoleon meanwhile, Napoleon was amazingly successful with his strategy of using speed and surprise attacks by small units. In May, Sardinia agreed to enter into a separate peace. After major victories at Lodi, Arcole, and Rivoli, Napoleon entered Mantua in February, 1797, but as he began to cross the Alps, he faced the possibility of being outflanked by the Austrians, and he decided to negotiate a settlement.

In mid-October, 1797, Napoleon, ignoring the Directory’s instructions, signed the Treaty of Campo Formio, Campo Formio, Treaty of (1797) which recognized French possession of Belgium, Savoy, Nice, most of the west bank of the Rhine, and the Ionian islands. In return, Austria obtained additional lands in northern Italy and the Balkans. Given Napoleon’s great popularity, the Directory had little choice but to ratify the treaty. Napoleon then began to devise strategies to defeat Britain.


The early French Revolutionary Wars profoundly affected the societies of Western Europe. Many thousands of soldiers and civilians died in every country involved. Although no accurate statistics are available, it is known that more soldiers died in hospitals than on the battlefield. The violent fighting also destroyed farms and disrupted international commerce. Economic conditions deteriorated almost everywhere, and countless Europeans lacked the basic necessities of life.

Even though thousands of conservative Frenchmen actively opposed the revolution, most historians agree that the majority of French soldiers, coming primarily from the peasantry and the lower classes of the cities, supported the aims of the revolution. Thus, French soldiers often fought harder and were willing to endure greater hardships than the First Coalition’s troops. The nationalistic spirit of the French army anticipated important characteristics of military organizations under democratic governments in later centuries.

As a result of the revolutionary wars, the boundaries of France expanded significantly. By 1797, France had annexed almost all of the regions that earlier French expansionists had considered their “natural borders.” Although French revolutionaries believed that they were bringing “liberation” to the places they annexed, many of the affected people looked upon the French as foreign occupiers. In all these lands, nevertheless, the French instituted progressive reforms, such as the abolition of seigniorial dues and special privileges of the nobility. Thus, the wars helped diffuse the democratic ideas of the French Revolution—powerful ideas that would resonate into the next centuries.

Further Reading

  • Asprey, Robert. The Rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. New York: Basic Books, 2000. Includes highly detailed accounts of the Siege of Toulon, the Italian campaign, and the Treaty of Campo Formio.
  • Banning, T. C. W. The French Revolutionary Wars, 1787-1802. New York: Arnold, 1996. Emphasizes the devastation inflicted by the revolutionary armies and the negative, destructive aspects of the French Revolution.
  • Bertaud, Jean-Paul. Army of the French Revolution: From Citizen-Soldiers to Instruments of Power. Translated by Robert Palmer. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989. Highly respected book that emphasizes the major changes within the French army during the period.
  • Cobb, Richard. The People’s Armies. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1987. A scholarly work about the civilian forces that were an instrument of the Reign of Terror, emphasizing the clash between reluctant rural peasants and urban revolutionaries.
  • Fremont-Barnes, Gregory. French Revolutionary Wars. Botley, England: Osprey, 2001. A balanced introduction in ninety-six pages.
  • Gardiner, Robert. Fleet Battle and Blockade: The French Revolutionary War, 1793-1797. London: Chatham, 1997. From a British perspective, tells how the Royal Navy in 1793 embarked on an almost unprecedented era of victories at sea.
  • Griffith, Paddy. Art of War in Revolutionary France, 1789-1902. London: Greenhill Books, 1998. Award-winning account of how the French won decisive victories because of a combination of competent leaders and revolutionary morale by citizen-soldiers.
  • Hague, William. William Pitt the Younger. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. Excellent source of information about the prime minister’s strategic and military policies.
  • Lynn, John A. Bayonets of the Republic: Motivation and Tactics of Revolutionary France, 1791-94. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984. Argues that the French triumphed because they created a new kind of army with a spirit of patriotic devotion.
  • Palmer, Robert T. Twelve Who Ruled: The Year of the Terror in the French Revolution. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988. Dramatic narrative of the leaders and policies of the Committee of Public Safety, from a pro-revolutionary point of view.

Louis XVI Calls the Estates-General

Oath of the Tennis Court

Fall of the Bastille

Battle of Valmy

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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