Saturday, September 18, 2010

Decisive Battles: The Cannonade of Valmy 1792

Valmy Date: 20 SEP 1972

Forces Engaged: Kingdom of France - roughly 50,000 all arms. The French force engaged at Valmy consisted of two "armies", the Armee du Nord, under GEN Dumouriez and the Armee de Centre, under GEN Kellermann. The breakdown of troops has been very difficult for me to determine. Kellermann;s entry in "Napoleon's Marshals" (Chandler, ed., 1987) states that the Army of the Center had a total of 23 battalions of infantry. Assuming a nominal strength of 500 per battalion we get a strength of about 11,000 for the infantry of the Center. Assuming that the Armee du Nord was similar in organization we arrive at a total of about 22,000 foot, or about half the total. So let's guess that the French force consisted of roughly 45-50 battalions of infantry (about 25,000 troops). If the remaining 25,000 were equally divided than 12,000 cavalry is roughly 26 squadrons; 12,000 gunners are 120 batteries, or roughly 720 cannon.But this is clearly too many artillerymen. The French artillery was the quality arm of the Army, and the quantity of artillery tended to increase when the quality of the infantry declined. For example, in 1805 at Austerlitz the ratio was 2 guns to 1,000 men. At Wagram four years later the ratio was 4 guns to 1,000 men (without the guns on Lobau Island), while by 1812 at Borodino the ratio was 4.5 guns to 1,000 men. The Revolutionary infantry were bad, but even then the notion of more than 4 guns per 1,000 seems unlikely; the Revolutionary logistic train couldn't have supported it.

Given the size of the force and the poor quality of the Revolutionary infantry it's likely that something closer to 3.5 guns per thousand is realistic for Valmy. That produces a total of 175 cannon, which at 6 guns per battery produces a total of about 3,500 cannoneers. Add in another, say, 1,500 assorted odds and sods (battalion staff, artificers, support troops and the like) and you get more like 5,000 artillery.

So: Roughly 25-26,000 infantry, 20,000 cavalry, 5,000 artillery, 150-200 guns under the combined command of GEN Dumouriez and Kellermann.

Allies of the First Coalition (Allied): The force engaged at Valmy represented only the advanced element of the roughly 80,000-strong Allied force tasked to invade northern France and restore the Bourbon monarchy.

Of this total the Kingdom of Prussia provided roughly 40,000 troops, the Dual Monarchy (Austria) about 30,000, the principality of Hesse supplied 5,000 and a congeries of between 8,000 and 15,000 French émigrés of indifferent quality made up most of the cavalry force.

The force at Valmy on 20 SEP would consist of about 20,000 Prussians and 14,000 Austrians under Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel. We're told that Brunswick had less than 50 cannon (36 is the figure I've seen) which means that only about 600-1,000 of the force were gunners, than assuming a fairly strong cavalry contingent; say 10,000 or about 10 squadrons, that leaves something between 24,000 and 28,000 infantry, or about 45 battalions. About half of these appear to have been Clerfayt's Austrian corps, the remainder the Prussian point element under the army commander himself.

So about 25,000 infantry, 10,000 cavalry, 1,000 artillerymen and 36 guns under Field Marshal the Duke of Brunswick.

The Sources: The Battle of Valmy was fought by literate men on both sides, so we have the usual collection of first person accounts in letters and memoirs. Official documents are comprehensive for the defeated; in 1904 the Austrian General Staff produced a monumental history of their participation in the French Revolutionary wars. The Krieg gegen die Französische Revolution 1792-1797 is probably the single most reliable primary work on the subject. Valmy is covered in Feldzug 1792, V. 2. The Prussian documents are collected in Geschichte der PreuBischen Armee vom 15Jahrhundert dis 1914, a 4-volume set published in the 1920's. The personal memoirs of COL von Massenbach, Memoiren zur Geschicte des preuBischen Staats, contains an eyewitness account of Brunwick's staff during the fight, and is said to be the basis for most of the other German-language accounts.

The period of Valmy was the apogee of confusion for the French Revolutionary armies, and the official documentation for this time is perhaps the thinnest of all the Napoleonic records. There appears to be no official history of the period, at least not widely circulated. A secondary source, Les Guerres de la Revolution (Chuquet, 1887), appears to be the most respected French language source for the Valmy campaign.

Among the English language secondary sources the usual "Decisive Battles" literature (Creasy, et. al.) are useful, and the account in Napoleon's Marshals (Chandler, ed., 1987) in the section covering Kellermann (p. 184-188) is serviceable.

Let me know if you ever manage to get your hands of a copy of "The Thunder of Valmy". It looks like a hoot; I'll bet there are heaving bosoms in there somewhere. Not considered authoritative.

The Wiki entry for Valmy appears to be better sourced and written than many. There is a nice photoessay on Valmy at the "Battlefields of Europe" website.

The Campaign: The Valmy campaign took place in the second year of the war that would consume Europe for the next 23 years. The wars began, as even those of us who think of history as the last result on Monday Night Football know, with the "French Revolution", the foundations of which were laid well back in the middle of the 18th Century. But it was the summer of 1789 that truly precipitated the crisis, when the French royalty, nobility and upper gentry went chest-to-chest with the lower gentry, the middle classes and the canaille and lost.Most of the other powers, including the papacy and the hereditary monarchies in Europe (particularly Prussia and Austria) responded with threats that began with the Declaration of Pillnitz in August of 1791. The threat of the hovering monarchies helped foment the rise of radical deputies in the new revolutionary congress, the Legislative Assembly. Even more threatening, Austria and Prussia signed a formal treaty of alliance in February of 1792, while the radicals in the Assembly continued to argue for war.

Finally in April the Assembly declared war on Austria. The Revolutionary armies invaded Hapsburg Belgium eight days later. The invasion was a disaster, exposing the "armies" of the revolution for what they were; badly-led, poorly-trained, ill- or, more often, unsupplied rabble.

The Allied armies (of what would come to be called the "First Coalition") commanded by the Prussian Field Marshal Karl Wilhem Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, were first presented as the authority for the "Brunswick Manifesto", a document that purported to warn the French revolutionaries of the consequence of harming their Bourbon rulers;
"The city of Paris and all its inhabitants without distinction shall be required to submit at once and without delay to the king, to place that prince in full and complete liberty, and to assure to him, as well as to the other royal personages, the inviolability and respect which the law of nature and of nations demands of subjects toward sovereigns...Their said Majesties declare, on their word of honor as emperor and king, that if the chateau of the Tuileries is entered by force or attacked, if the least violence be offered to their Majesties the king, queen, and royal family, and if their safety and their liberty be not immediately assured, they will inflict an ever memorable vengeance by delivering over the city of Paris to military execution and complete destruction, and the rebels guilty of the said outrages to the punishment that they merit..."
but managed instead to infuriate the rebels; word of the Manifesto reached Paris on 1 AUG 1792 and the Paris mob threatened the Tuileries ten days later. The royals cravenly fled to the Assembly for safety.

The sad bastards of the Swiss Guard, who, good troopers that they were, obeyed the last orders given and remained guarding the now-worthless palace, were then attacked by the mass of National Guardsmen which included artillery, and a townie mob, held out through most of the day before surrendering and were butchered.The events of 10 AUG shattered the strange little sort-of-constitutional-monarchy that had followed the revolt of the Assembly. A week or so of chaos followed before a "Convention" was demanded. The king and his family were actually arrested (a step that even the revolutionary Assembly had not dared to take, even after the flight to Varennes). And on the 19 AUG the Allied Armies crossed the northeastern border into France.

Brunswick's plan was to invade France from his marshalling areas around Coblenz, capture the border fortresses of Longwy and Verdun, and then advance towards Paris via Châlons. His observation of the bad joke that was the Belgium campaign in April had convinced him that the military force of the French rebels was insignificant. He moved fairly slowly, in traditional 18th Century fashion, but Longwy fell on 23 AUG and Verdun on 2 SEP.

Brunswick's personal burden was the Prussian King, Frederick William, who insisted on accompanying the armies but refused to take command, instead "advising" his commander of his desires. In September his desire was particularly to speed up, as reports from Paris suggested that Louis XVI was in danger of getting the chop.

What passed for a government in Paris responded by directing the commander of the Armee du Nord, GEN Dumouriez to break off his advance into the Low Countries and move southeast to meet the Coalition armies.

Dumouriez marched his force - largely composed of the volunteers of the new government - and blocked the main passes through the Argonne. But the usual poor staff and reconnaissance work ignored the road through Croix-aux-Bois, which was only picketed and then forced by an Austrian corps.

Dumouriez, at this point, had to choose between falling back to the north or retreating west; he chose the latter and dropped back to near the towns of Valmy and Sainte-Manehould, on the western side of the Argonne Forest. From here he could still block the best road back across the Argonne to Germany and the Allied supply depots.

Meanwhile Kellermann's Armee de Centre moved north and joined Dumouriez late in the day of 19 SEP 1792. Kellerman arrived on several roads west of Dumouriez's positions near Sainte-Manehould and deployed on the heights of La Lune, a ridge or series of hilltops that stretch obliquely from southwest to northeast, west the high ground which Dumouriez held, and also west from the position which Dumouriez had intended the Armee de Centre to defend.

The Allied army had passed through the Croix-aux-Bois and turned south to confront the French armies. So the battle of Valmy was thus fought with the Allies attacking towards the east, with their backs towards Paris, and the French facing west, between the Allies and Germany.

Chandler (1987) states that Brunswick's plan was to maneuver to the northwest of Dumouriez, destroy him on the plains between the Brionne and Auve, and then force Kellermann to retire. Brunswick saw what he perceived to be a fatal mistake in the dispositions of the French armies; the disjunction between Kellermann's position on the Valmy plateau and the forces of Dumouriez to his rear and across the Auve River. But the King of Prussia overruled him and ordered him to cut the road to Châlons.So early in the morning of 20 SEP the Austrian and Prussian troops began forming up in the watermeadows west of the low hills between the sleepy little towns of Somme-Bionne and La Capelle where Kellermann's men had spent the night.

The Engagement:
Despite their early wakeups, the two sides were stymied by the autumn fog at dawn. The Prussian advance guard, two brigades of mixed horse, foot, and artillery, moved off about 6:30 am, and made contact with the French picquets around eight o'clock. French artillery began ranging them, at which point a large force of Prussian cavalry shoved up onto a portion of the heights of La Lune, cutting up and driving back the French force holding the Châlons road.

His position was now untenable, and with the road in Prussian hands there was no reason for Kellermann to continue to hold La Lune. He moved about half a mile to his rear (east), occupying the heights there and preparing for a general Allied assault.At the point when the haze burned off - reported at different times between ten a.m. and noon - the Allied commanders saw a line of French infantry posted along the hills that ran northwest from the village of Orbeval to Valmy and from thence northeast parallel to the Bionne. More infantry held the low ground that ran down to the south of Orbeval to the Auve and the small town of Gizaucourt.

This position was fairly strong, with the flanks pinned to the rivers to the north and south and the high ground for the French center and right. A commander who was taking his opponent seriously might have merely demonstrated before Kellermann while sending out reconnaissance parties to attempt to find a ford or bridge across the rivers. Or, concluding that an attack was inevitable, might have chosen to mask the forces on the heights, load up his right wing and smash through the low ground between Orbeval and Gizaucourt. Brunswick, his contempt for the revolutionary rabble assured, had no such intent. He formed his troops on the heights of La Lune and intended a straightforward frontal assault to sweep the guttersnipes away.

One factor may well have been the weather. September, 1792, had by all reports been atrocious, with heavy rains and unseasonal cold. Most of the troops that formed up that morning had some combination of illnesses ranging from colds and flus through immersion foot and dysentery to a moderate or worse form of hypothermia. The officers, although better off than the footsoldiers, were aware of their troops' fragility and probably preferred to risk the hazards of assault then the fatigues of continued marching. And these were only ragamuffin rebel volunteers, after all!

What the Prussian officer was unaware of was that Kellermann was an unusual Revolutionary officer. Born in 1735, he had been promoted from subaltern to major general under the old regime, and was an excellent tactical commander, drillmaster, and organizer. He was no fan of the "new Army", either; of his 23 battalions present at Valmy 19 were regular units of the old Army, and of the remaining 9 he posted 6 of the volunteers in support positions where their instability under fire would be less dangerous. All of his artillerymen were veterans.The French artillery had long been considered a bourgeouis career for a soldier. So whereas the infantry had lost much of its commissioned leadership (such as it was) from the Bourbon wars and the cavalry nearly all, the artillery was still well led in 1792. Moreso; the French "système Gribeauval" had produced a suite of gun systems that were the most technically advanced of their time; light, accurate, and hard-hitting. Pretty much all the commentators, including those of the time, agree that the French artillery was the best in Europe from the late 18th into the early 19th Centuries. And it was this arm that Brunswick was going forward to meet on the morning of Valmy.

So at ten o'clock, we have Brunswick, with his Prussians, on the hills of La Lune, about 2,500 yards to the west of Kellerman's position on Valmy heights. Brunswick has about 35,000 troops all arms, his Prussians in the front with the Austrian army corps in reserve. Kellermann's Armee de Centre, with about 35,000, is posted across Brunswick's front with Dumouriez' 18,000-some Armee du Nord in reserve along the high ground around Barux-St.-Cohiere.The Allies first attempted to put the French troops to flight with artillery. This was unsurprisingly vain; the French had the better gunners. After some time - probably an hour or so - Brunswick ordered an advance. This turned out to be a bluffed attack - he seems to have still been expecting the French infantry to run at the sight of the landsers of Fredrick the Great coming at them. Kellermann's guys stood firm and Brunswick, who might have been an optimist but was no butcher and realized that sending infantry against unshaken infantry support by artillery was murder, called his boys back and resumed shooting.

At some point, probably in the early afternoon, one of the Prussian gunners got lucky; his cannon shot caused massive secondary explosions in the French ammunition train. Several wagons full of projos went up, and some troops nearby decided that discretion was the better part of valor and beat cheeks; as many as three infantry regiments and another ammo section ran for it. Brunswick sent his infantry forward, Kellermann arrived and rallied his troops, and although the Prussian attack reached within 650 yards of the French when the French gunners began to hit the attack columns hard Brunswick called his guys back.The cannonade resumed, with, again, the Prussian batteries doing significantly less execution than their French opposite numbers. The watery sunlight was fading, the troops were sick and tired, and the the battle was proving much more difficult and irritating that the Duke of Brunswick had expected.

Sometime between 3:30 and 4 p.m Brunswick is said to have muttered "Hier schlagen wir nicht." - "We're not fighting here." - and ordered his infantry to stand down. The artillery battle continued into the rainy evening as the troops on both sides tried, probably unsuccessfully, to find a dry place to sleep. The battle sputtered out in the rainy darkness; supposedly the miserable Prussian troopers tried to stay warm by cutting down and burning every poplar tree along the roads leading west from Valmy.

It must have been a pretty rotten night.

The Outcome: Minor tactical French victory, but with major strategic implications (see "The Impact", below)

The Impact: The effect of Valmy turned out to be orders of magnitude greater than the engagement itself. For the price of several hundred lives - 300 is the figure I'm seen most often - and the cost of 200 or so invaders the combination of the stand at Valmy, the resulting strategic imbalance it left the Allied army (it was now on the wrong side of an existing French force that controlled its supply line to central Germany), and the increasingly wretched autumn weather convinced the Allied leadership that northeastern France in the fall of 1792 was indeed "no place to fight". They negotiated a withdrawal agreement with Dumoiriez (who, by the way, was the real architect of the defense of France in 1792 - Kellermann just got all the good press), marched back to Koblenz and went into winter quarters. Dumoiriez' troops then returned to the attck in the Low Countries and whipped the Austrians badly at the battle of Jemappes.Meanwhile, other Revolutionary armies were learning the hard trade of war, and quickly; GEN Custine's forces won victories in central Germany, and French forces seized parts of Austrian north Italy.

The importance of the Cannonade of Valmy was not that it was decisive in itself, but that through the results of the battle and the resultant collapse of the Allied offensive it staved off invasion for a season and gave the Revolution time to consolidate and, especially, form its armies.

By the spring of 1793 Louis XVI had followed his aristocratic coterie to the grave and the First Republic was unquestionably established. Any hope of accommodation between the Revolution and the monarchies of Austria, Prussia, and much of the rest of Europe went into the gutter with the body of the Princesse de Lamballe and the head of the Bourbon king.Even more importantly the "nation was in arms" and its armies were in the field everywhere - including within France itself - and the ruthless patriotism that would serve to uphold it already advancing against what it saw as its enemies everywhere. The struggle of revolutionary against reactionary, and then of Empire against Coalition, that was the war that would harrow Europe from Gibraltar to Moscow and from Suez to North Cape had begun. The roads to Valmy were narrow and small; the great broad roads from Valmy led to Egypt, Moscow, Waterloo, and St. Helena.And lessons of Valmy are far larger than the engagement itself.

First, perhaps, is that a plan of campaign is no substitute for a strategic objective. Brunswick was a typical man of his age and place; he saw war as an end into itself. Losing valuable soldiers for a meaningless victory in some nowhere place in the Somme valley wasn't in him. He lacked the strategic vision to see over the battles to the larger political objective beyond. But deciding not to fight that day he ceded the Revolution the time it needed to survive, and cost the lives of millions of other men, women, children, and the peace of thousands of cities and nations. He was simply too small to be what he needed to be that day.

Second is the short-lived but important value of technical superiority. The Prussian and Austrian artillery were critically deficient. Under many other circumstances the deficiency wouldn't have been great enough to make a tactical difference. It was that day.

Third, and I use this as a caution, is the overestimation of the moral over the physical, and of tales over facts. The great ideal of revolutionary France was the idea that the citizen was naturally superior to the subject; that the nation in arms, the freedom-loving patriot, would always defeat the slaves of foreign monarchs.

But Kellermann won at Valmy because his troops were mostly old-school regulars. The tale of the patriotic volunteers saving the Revolution is just wrong. The Revolution was preserved, in 1792, for the most part by the hardcase old soldiers of the King, fighting for each other and their pay, and for their regiments.

In the time of Napoleon it became accepted wisdom among the soldiers that their government lied to them; "Pour se trouver comme un Bulletin", "to lie like a Bulletin", they said. The fable about Valmy and the heroic volunteers saving the Republic, and all the patriotic fables and lies, just remind us that in war, probably more than any other human activity, we will often know the truth too late, and too little, and often never know it at all.

Touchline Tattles: It was in the fervid heat of the "patrie en danger" of 1792 that Roguet de Lisle composed the tune that was adopted and is still the national anthem of Republican France. "La Marseillaise" takes a lot of beating as a national hymn; it is moving in a way that many patriotic and anthemic songs, including in my opinion our own, just don't own;But we English-speakers often don't take the time to study the words. They are anything but just the usual tribute to heroes and freedom; "Entendez-vous dans les campagnes/Mugir ces féroces soldats?/Ils viennent jusque dans vos bras/Égorger vos fils et vos compagnes!" can be translated as "Do you hear in the countryside/Those ferocious soldiers roaring?/They come up/To slit the throats of your sons and wives!"

Can you imagine - a crowd at an American baseball game bellowing about slitting throats and roaring enemies?

It just doesn't work.

The throat-slitting reminds us that Valmy occurred in a very unique time and left its impression on France in a way that bombarding forts and burning capitols never did on us. We are all of us often fettered by our pasts, only we are often chained in ways that we ourselves only dimly understand.

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