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XXI: The European War - John Emerich Edward Dalberg, Lord Acton, Lectures on the French Revolution (LF ed.) 
Lectures on the French Revolution, ed. John Neville Figgis and Reginald Vere Laurence, with a foreword by Steven J. Tonsor (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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The European War
The French Revolution was an attempt to establish in the public law of Europe maxims which had triumphed by the aid of France in America. By the principles of the Declaration of Independence a government which obstructs liberty forfeits the claim to obedience, and the men who devote their families to ruin and themselves to death in order to destroy it do no more than their duty. The American Revolution was not provoked by tyranny or intolerable wrong, for the Colonies were better off than the nations of Europe. They rose in arms against a constructive danger, an evil that might have been borne but for its possible effects. The precept which condemned George III. was fatal to Lewis XVI., and the case for the French Revolution was stronger than the case for the American Revolution. But it involved international consequences. It condemned the governments of other countries. If the revolutionary government was legitimate, the conservative governments were not. They necessarily threatened each other. By the law of its existence, France encouraged insurrection against its neighbours, and the existing balance of power would have to be redressed in obedience to a higher law.
The successful convulsion in France led to a convulsion in Europe; and the Convention which, in the first illusions of victory, promised brotherhood to populations striking for freedom, was impolitic, but was not illogical. In truth the Jacobins only transplanted for the use of oppressed Europeans a precedent created by the Monarchy in favour of Americans who were not oppressed. Nobody imagined that the new system of international relations could be carried into effect without resistance or sacrifice, but the enthusiasts of liberty, true or false, might well account it worth all that it must cost, even if the price was to be twenty years of war. This new dogma is the real cause of the breach with England, which did such harm to France. Intelligent Jacobins, like Danton and Carnot, saw the danger of abandoning policy for the sake of principle. They strove to interpret the menacing declaration, until it became innocuous, and they put forward the natural frontier in its stead. But it was the very essence of the revolutionary spirit, and could not be denied.
England had remained aloof from Pilnitz and the expedition under Brunswick, but began to be unfriendly after the 10th of August. Lord Gower did not at once cease to be ambassador, and drew his salary to the end of the year. But as he was accredited to the king, he was recalled when the king went to prison, and no solicitude was shown to make the step less offensive. Chauvelin was not acknowledged. He was not admitted to present his new credentials, and his requests for audience were received with coldness. Pitt and Grenville were not conciliatory. They were so dignified that they were haughty, and when they were haughty they were insolent. The conquest of Belgium, the opening of the Scheldt for navigation, and the trial of the king, roused a bitter feeling in England, and ministers, in the course of December, felt that they would be safe if they went along with it. The opening of the Scheldt was not resisted by the Dutch, and gave England no valid plea. But France was threatening Holland, and if out of English hatred to the Republic, to republican principles of foreign policy, to the annexation of the Netherlands, war was really inevitable, it was important to get possession at once of the Dutch resources by sea and land.
The idea of conciliating England by renouncing conquest, and the idea of defying England by the immediate invasion of the United Provinces, balanced each other for a time. By renunciation, the moderate or Girondin party would have triumphed. The Jacobins, who drew all the consequences of theories, and who were eager to restore the finances with the spoils of the opulent Dutchmen, carried their purpose when they voted the death of the king. That event added what was wanting to make the excitement and exasperation of England boil over. Down to the month of January the government continued ready to treat on condition that France restored her conquests, and several emissaries had been received. The most trustworthy of these was Maret, afterwards Duke of Bassano. On the 28th of January Talleyrand, who was living in retirement at Leatherhead, informed ministers that Maret was again on the way to herald the approach of Dumouriez himself, whose presence in London, on a friendly mission, would have been tantamount to the abandonment of the Dutch project. But Maret came too late, and Dumouriez on his journey to the coast was overtaken by instructions that Amsterdam, not London, was his destination.
The news from Paris reached London on the evening of the 23rd, and the audience at the theatre insisted that the performance should be stopped. There was to be a drawing-room next day. The drawing-room was countermanded. A Council was summoned, and there a momentous decision was registered. Grenville had refused to recognise the official character of the French envoy, Chauvelin. He had informed him that he was subject to the Alien Act. On the 24th he sent him his passports, with orders to leave the country. Upon that Dumouriez was recalled. On the 29th Chauvelin arrived at Paris, and told his story. And it was then, February 1, that the Convention declared war against England. With less violent counsels in London, and with patience to listen to Dumouriez, the outbreak of the war might have been postponed. But nothing that England was able to offer could have made up to France for the sacrifice of the fleet and the treasure of Holland.
Our ministers may have been wanting in many qualities of negotiators, and the dismissal of Chauvelin laid on them a responsibility that was easy to avoid. They could not for long have averted hostilities. It is possible that Fox might have succeeded, for Fox was able to understand the world of new ideas which underlay the policy of France; but the country was in no temper to follow the Whigs. They accused Pitt unjustly when they said that he went to war from the motive of ambition. He was guiltless of that capital charge. But he did less than he might have done to prevent it, perceiving too clearly the benefit that would accrue. And he is open to the grave reproach that he went over to the absolute Powers and associated England with them at the moment of the Second Partition, and applied to France the principles on which they acted against Poland. When the Prince of Coburg held his first conference with his allies in Belgium, he declared that Austria renounced all ideas of conquest. The English at once protested. They made known that they desired to annex as much territory as possible, in order to make the enemy less formidable. Our envoy was Lord Auckland, a man of moderate opinions, who had always advised his government to come to terms with the Republic. He exhorted Coburg not to rest until he had secured a satisfactory line of frontier, as England was going to appropriate Dunkirk and the Colonies, and meant to keep them. George III., on April 27, uttered the same sentiments. France, he said, must be greatly circumscribed before we can talk of any means of treating with that dangerous and faithless nation. In February Grenville definitely proposed dismemberment, offering the frontier fortresses and the whole of Alsace and Lorraine to Austria. It was the English who impressed on the operations, that were to follow, the character of a selfish and sordid rapacity.
The island kingdom alone had nothing to fear, for she had the rest of the maritime Powers on her side, and the preponderance of the naval forces was decisive. The French began the war with 76 line-of-battle ships. England had 115, with 8718 guns to 6002. In weight of metal the difference was not so great, for the English guns threw 89,000 lbs. and the French 74,000. But England had the Spanish fleet, of 56 ships-of-the-line, and the Dutch with 49—the Spaniards well built, but badly manned; the Dutch constructed for shallow waters, but with superior crews. To these must be added Portugal, which followed England, and Naples, whose king was a Bourbon, brother to the king of Spain. Therefore, in weight of metal, which is the first thing, next to brains, we were at least 2 to 1; and in the number of ships 3 to 1, or about 230 to 76. That is the reason why the insular statesmen went to war, if not with greater enterprise and energy, yet with more determination and spirit, than their exposed and vulnerable allies upon the Continent. The difference between them is that between men who are out of reach and are 2 to 1, and men whose territories are accessible to an enemy greatly superior to themselves in numbers. Therefore it was Pitt who from his post of vantage pushed the others forward, and, when they vacillated, encouraged them with money and the promise of spoil. The alliance with the maritime states was important for his policy, but it accomplished nothing in the actual struggle. The Dutch and the Spaniards were never brought into line; and the English, though they owed their safety at first to their system of alliances, owed their victories to themselves. And those victories became more numerous and splendid when, after two years of inefficacious friendship with us, the Spaniard and the Dutchman joined our enemies. England was drawn into the war, which it maintained with unflagging resolution, by the prospect of sordid gain. It brought increase of rents to the class that governed, and advantage to the trader from the conquest of dependencies and dominions over the sea.
The year 1793 brought us no profit from the sea. We occupied Toulon on the invitation of the inhabitants, and there we had in our possession half of the naval resources of France. But before the end of the year we were driven away. The French dominions in India fell at once into our hands, and in March and April 1794 we captured the Windward Islands in the West Indies, Martinique, Santa Lucia, and at last Guadeloupe. But a Jacobin lawyer came over from France and reconquered Guadeloupe, and the French held it with invincible tenacity till 1810. They lost Hayti, but it never became English, and drifted into the power of the negroes, who there rose to the highest point they have attained in history. In the summer of the same year, 1794, Corsica became a British dependency, strengthening enormously our position in the Mediterranean. We were not able to retain it. Our admirals did nothing for La Vendée. So little was known about it that on December 19 there was a question of sending an officer to serve under Bonchamps, who at that time had been dead two months.
In all this chequered and inglorious history there is one day to be remembered. On April 11, 1794, 130 merchantmen, laden with food-supplies, sailed from Chesapeake Bay for the ports of France. Lord Howe went out to intercept them; and on May 16 the French fleet left Brest to protect them. Howe divided his force. He sent Montagu to watch for the merchantmen, and led the remainder of his squadron against Villaret Joyeuse. After a brush on May 28, they met, in equal force, on the 1st of June, 400 miles from land. The French admiral had an unfrocked Huguenot divine on board, who had been to sea in his youth, and was now infusing the revolutionary ardour into the fleet, as St. Just did with the army. The fight lasted three hours and then ceased. Villaret waited until evening, but Lord Howe had several ships disabled, and would neither renew the battle nor pursue the enemy. The French had lost seven ships out of twenty-six. The most famous of these is the Vengeur du Peuple. It engaged the Brunswick, and the rigging of one ship became so entangled with the anchors of the other that they were locked together, and drifted away from the line. They were so close that the French could not fire their lower deck guns, having no space to ram the charge. The English were provided for this very emergency with flexible rammers of rope and went on firing into the portholes of the enemy, while the French captain, calling up his men from below, had the advantage on the upper deck. At last the rolling of the sea forced the unconquered enemies to part. The Brunswick had lost 158 out of a crew of 600, and 23 of her guns out of 74 were dismounted. She withdrew out of action disabled, and went home to refit. The Vengeur remained on the ground, with all her masts gone. Presently it was seen that she had been hit below the water-line. The guns were thrown overboard, but after some hours the Vengeur made signals that she was sinking. English boats came and rescued about 400 men out of 723. Those of the survivors who were not wounded were seen standing by the broken mast, and cried “Vive la république,” as the ship went down. That is the history, not the legend, of the loss of the Vengeur, and no exaggeration and no contradiction can mar the dramatic grandeur of the scene.
The battle of the 1st of June is the one event by land or sea that was glorious to British arms in the war of the first Coalition. The ascendancy then acquired was never lost. Our failures in the West Indies, at Cape Verde Islands, in the Mediterranean, and on the coasts of France, and even the defection of our maritime allies, did not impair it. And later on, when all were against us, admirals more original and more enterprising than Howe increased our superiority. The success was less brilliant and entire than that which Nelson gained against a much greater force at Trafalgar, when France lost every ship. Montagu did not intercept the French merchantmen, and did not help to crush the French men-of-war. Villaret Joyeuse and the energetic minister from Languedoc lost the day, but they gained the substantial advantage. Under cover of their cannon, the ships on which the country depended for its supplies came into port. Although during those two years the French fought against great odds at sea, their loss was less than they had expected, and did not weaken their government at home. They had reason to hope that whenever their armies were brought to close quarters with Spain and the Netherlands, the fortune of war at sea would follow the event on land.
The war with which we have now to deal passed through three distinct phases. During the year 1793, the French maintained themselves with difficulty, having to contend with a dangerous insurrection. In 1794 the tide turned in their favour; and 1795 was an epoch of preponderance and triumph. The Republic inherited from the Monarchy a regular army of 220,000 men, seriously damaged and demoralised by the emigration of officers. To these were added, first, the volunteers of 1791, who soon made good soldiers, and supplied the bulk of the military talent that rose to fame down to 1815, and the like of which was never seen, either in the American Civil War, or among the Germans in 1870. The second batch of volunteers, those who responded to the Brunswick proclamation and the summons of September, when the country was in danger, were not equal to the first. The two together supplied 309,000 men. At the beginning of the general war, in March 1793, the Conscription was instituted, which provoked the rising in Vendée, and was interrupted by troubles in other departments. Instead of 300,000 men, it yielded 164,000. In the summer of 1793, when the fortresses were falling, there was, first, the levy en masse, and then, August 23, the system of requisition, by which the levy was organised and made to produce 425,000 men. Altogether, in a year and a half, France put 1,100,000 men into line; and at the critical moment, at the end of the second year, more than 700,000 were present under arms. That is the force which Carnot had to wield. He was a man of energy, of integrity, and of professional skill as an engineer, but he was not a man of commanding abilities. Lord Castlereagh rather flippantly called him a foolish mathematician. Once, having quarrelled with his former comrade Fouché, and having been condemned to banishment, he had this conversation with him: “Where am I to go, traitor?” “Wherever you like, idiot.” As an austere republican he was out of favour during the empire; but his defence of Antwerp is a bright spot in the decline of Napoleon. He became Minister of the Interior on the return from Elba, and his advice might have changed the history of the world. For he wished the emperor to fall upon the English before they could concentrate, and then to fight the Prussians at his leisure. One night, during a rubber of whist, the tears that ran down his cheek betrayed the news from Waterloo.
Carnot owed his success to two things—arbitrary control over promotion, and the cheapness of French lives. He could sacrifice as many men as he required to carry a point. An Austrian on the Sambre, one thousand miles from home, was hard to replace. Any number of Frenchmen were within easy reach. Colonel Mack observed that whenever a combatant fell, France lost a man, but Austria lost a soldier. La Vendée had shown what could be done by men without organisation or the power of manoeuvring, by constant activity, exposure, and courage. Carnot taught his men to win by a rush many times repeated, and not to count their dead. The inferior commanders were quickly weeded out, sometimes with help from the executioner, and the ablest men were brought to the front. The chief army of all, the army of Sambre et Meuse, was commanded by Kléber, Moreau, Reynier, Marceau, and Ney. Better still, on the Rhine were Hoche, Desaix, and St. Cyr. Best of all, in the Apennines, the French were led by Bonaparte and Masséna.
All these armaments had scarcely begun when the victory of Neerwinden and the flight of Dumouriez brought the Austrians up to the Belgian frontier. Carnot was not discovered, the better men had not risen to command, the levy en masse had not been thought of. The French could do nothing in the field while the Prince of Coburg, supported by the Dutch, and by an Anglo-Hanoverian army under the Duke of York, sat down before the fortresses. By the end of July Condé and Valenciennes had fallen, and the road to Paris was open to the victors. They might have reached the capital in overwhelming force by the middle of August. But the English coveted, not Paris but Dunkirk, and the Duke of York withdrew with 37,000 men and laid siege to it. Coburg turned aside in the opposite direction, to besiege Le Quesnoy. He proposed to conquer the fortified towns, one after another, according to Grenville’s prescription, and then to join hands with the Prussians whom it was urgent to have with him when penetrating to the interior. The Prussians meanwhile had taken Mentz, the garrison, like that of Valenciennes, making a defence too short for their fame. But the Prussians remembered the invasion of the year before, and they were in no hurry. The allies, with conflicting interests and divided counsels, gave the enemy time. Some years later, when Napoleon had defeated the Piedmontese, and was waiting for them to send back the treaty he had dictated at Cherasco, duly signed, he grew excessively impatient at their delay. The Piedmontese officers were surprised at what seemed a want of self-restraint, and let him see it. His answer was, “I may often lose a battle, but I shall never lose a minute.”
The French put to good account the time their enemies allowed them. Carnot took office on August 14, and on the 23rd he caused the Convention to decree what is pleasantly called the levy en masse, but was the system of requisition, making every able-bodied man a soldier. The new spirit of administration was soon felt in the army. The forces besieging Le Quesnoy and Dunkirk were so far apart that the French came between and attacked them successively. The Dunkirk garrison opened the sluices and flooded the country, separating the English from the covering force of Hanoverians, and leaving the Duke of York no means of retreat except by a single causeway. On September 8 the French defeated the Hanoverians at Hondschooten and relieved Dunkirk. The English got away in great haste, abandoning their siege guns; but as they ought not to have got away at all, the French cut off the head of their victorious commander. Jourdan, his successor, turned upon the Prince of Coburg, and, by the new and expensive tactics, defeated him at Wattignies on October 16. Carnot, who did not yet trust his generals, arrived in time to win the day by overruling Jourdan and his staff. And every French child knows how he led the charge through the grapeshot, on foot, with his hat at the end of his sword. From that day to the peace of Bâle he held the army in his grasp. He had stopped the invasion. No one in the allied camp spoke any more of the shortest road to Paris; but they still held the places they had conquered. Two months later, Hoche, who had distinguished himself at Dunkirk, took the command in the Vosges, and stormed the lines of Weissenburg at the scene of the first action in the war of 1870. By the end of December the Prussians were shut up in Mayence, and Wurmser had retired beyond the Rhine. By that time, too, La Vendée, and Lyons, and Toulon had fallen. The campaign of 1794 was to be devoted to foreign war.
During that autumn and winter, Carnot, somewhat unmindful of what went on near him and heedless of the signatures he gave, was organising the enormous force the requisition provided, and laying the plans that were to give him so great a name in the history of his country. He divided the troops into thirteen armies. They call them fourteen, I believe, because there were cadres for an army of reserve. Two were required for the Spanish war, for the Pyrenees are impassable by artillery except at the two ends, where narrow valleys lead from France to Spain near San Sebastian, and by a strip of more open country near the Mediterranean. What passed there did not influence events; but it is well to know that the Spaniards under Ricardos gained important advantages in 1794, and fought better than they ever did in the field during their struggle with Napoleon. A third army was placed on the Italian frontier, a fourth on the Rhine, and a fifth against the allies in Flanders. Carnot increased the number because he had no men who had proved their fitness for the direction of very large forces. He meant that his armies should be everywhere sufficient, but in Belgium they were to be overwhelming. That was the point of danger, and there a great body of Austrians, Dutch, English, and Hanoverians had been collected. The Emperor himself appeared among them in May; and his brother, the Archduke Charles, was the best officer in the allied camp.
At the end of April Coburg took Landrecies, the fourth of the line of fortresses that had fallen. On May 18 the French were victorious at Tourcoing, where the English suffered severely, and the Duke of York sought safety in precipitate flight. There was even talk of a court martial. The day was lost in consequence of the absence of the Archduke, who suffered from fits like Julius Caesar, and is said to have been lying unconscious many miles away. For a month longer the allies held their ground and repeatedly repressed Jourdan in his attempts to cross the Sambre. At last, Charleroi surrendered to the French, and on the following day, June 26, they won the great battle of Fleurus. Mons fell on July 1, and on the 5th the allies resolved to evacuate Belgium. The four fortresses were recovered in August; and Coburg retired by Liége into Germany, York by Antwerp into Holland. In October Jourdan pursued the Austrians, and drove them across the Rhine. The battle of Fleurus established the ascendancy of the French in Europe as the 1st of June had created that of England on the ocean. They began the offensive, and retained it for twenty years. Yet the defeat of Fleurus, after such varying fortunes and so much alternate success does not explain the sudden discouragement and collapse of the allies. One of the great powers was about to abandon the alliance. Prussia had agreed in the spring to accept an English subsidy. For £300,000 down, and £150,000 a month, a force of fifty to sixty thousand Prussians was to be employed in a manner to be agreed upon with England,—that meant in Belgium. Before Malmesbury’s signature was dry, the whole situation altered.
The Committee of Public Safety had created a diversion in the rear of the foe. Kozsiusko, with the help of French money and advice, had raised an insurrection in Poland, and the hands of the Prussians were tied. The Polish question touched them nearer than the French, and all their thoughts were turned in the opposite direction. The Austrians began to apprehend that Prussia would desert them on the Rhine, and would gain an advantage over them in Poland, while they were busy with their best army in Flanders. Pitt increased his offers. Lord Spencer was sent to Vienna to arrange for a further subsidy. But the Prussians began to withdraw. Marshal Moellendorf informed the French in September that the Austrians were about to attack Treves. He promised that he would do no more than he could help for his allies. On the 20th, Hohenlohe, who was not in the secret, having fought Hoche at Kaiserslautern and defeated him, the commander-in-chief sent explanations and apologies. In October, Pitt stopped the supplies, and the Prussians disappeared from the war.
The winter of 1794–95 was severe, and even the sea froze in Holland. In January, Pichegru marched over the solid Rhine, and neither Dutch nor English offered any considerable resistance. The Prince of Orange fled to England; the Duke of York retreated to Bremen, and there embarked; and on the 28th the French were welcomed by the democracy of Amsterdam. A body of cavalry rode up to the fleet on the ice, and received its surrender. There was no cause left for it to defend. Holland was to be the salvation of French credit. It gave France trade, a fleet, a position from which to enter Germany on the undefended side. The tables were turned against Pitt and his policy. His Prussian ally made peace in April, giving up to France all Germany as far as the Rhine, and undertaking to occupy Hanover, if George III., as elector, refused to be neutral. Spain almost immediately followed. Manuel Godoy, lately a guardsman, but Prime Minister and Duke of Alcudia since November 1792, had declined Pitt’s proposals for an alliance as long as there were hopes of saving the life of Lewis by the promise of neutrality. When those hopes came to an end, he consented. The joint occupation of Toulon had not been amicable; and when George III. was made King of Corsica, it was an injury to Spain as a Mediterranean Power. The animosity against regicide France faded away; the war was not popular, and the Duke of Alcudia became, amid general rejoicing, Prince of the Peace.
We saw how the first invasion, in 1792, brought the worst men to power. In 1793, the Reign of Terror coincided exactly with the season of public danger. Robespierre became the head of the government on the very day when the bad news came from the fortresses, and he fell immediately after the occupation of Brussels, July 11, 1794, exposed the effects of Fleurus. We cannot dissociate these events, or disprove the contention that the Reign of Terror was the salvation of France. It is certain that the conscription of March 1793, under Girondin auspices, scarcely yielded half the required amount, whilst the levies of the following August, decreed and carried out by the Mountain, inundated the country with soldiers, who were prepared by the slaughter going on at home to face the slaughter at the front. This, then, was the result which Conservative Europe obtained by its attack on the Republic. The French had subjugated Savoy, the Rhineland, Belgium, Holland, whilst Prussia and Spain had been made to sue for peace. England had deprived France of her colonies, but had lost repute as a military Power. Austria alone, with her dependent neighbours, maintained the unequal struggle on the Continent under worse conditions, and with no hope but in the help of Russia.