Jumping forward to a relatively small, but immensely important clash of the late 18th century.
Name: The Battle of Valmy, sometimes known as The Cannonade of Valmy
The War: The War of the First Coalition, the first of the many French Revolutionary Wars.
When: 20 September 1792
Where: Just outside the village of Valmy, Northern France, in the modern-day Marne department.
Force/Commanders: 47’000 French Revolutionary soldiers under Charles Dumouriez and Francois Kellerman against 35’000 troops of the First Coalition (mostly Prussian and Austrian) under Charles Ferdinand, the Duke of Brunswick. Assorted cavalry and cannon on each side.
“From this place, and from this day forth begins a new era in the history of the world, and you can all say that you were present at its birth.”
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
“Vive la Nation!”
– Francois Kellerman
The new France of the revolution was in bad shape, at war with all their neighbours and invasions on all sides. The new army had yet to achieve anything resembling a significant victory.
A large Allied army under the Duke of Brunswick began advancing towards Paris in Autumn 1792. Two French armies, only recently put under the command of Charles Dumiouiez and Francois Kellerman, went out to meet them. Through a series of maneuvers, the French wound up near Valmy, arranged in order near the village’s mill, while the Allies attacked from the south (during the manoeuvres, the French ended up facing Paris, a not uncommon occurrence in war).
Kellerman had been ‘blooding’ his inexperienced army through a series of small, mostly inconsequential engagements. His aim was to get his men more disciplined, more willing to stand.
On the 20 September, Brunswick attacked towards Valmy. Kellerman advanced his line to meet him. The French cannon and army opened up, the famous Cannonade. Kellerman rallied his troops with the his famous cry of “Vive la Nation!”, a shout taken up by the entire army.
The first attack, not able to make any headway against the suddenly immovable French, broke off. A second attack failed a while later. Unable to shift the French, facing an enemy that was seemingly unimpressed by Prussian military might, Brunswick retired his army. Casualties were light on both sides, but that wasn’t the point.
Why It’s Decisive – Impact On That War
It’s impact was that the war continued. The French Monarchy was abolished the following day bringing into being a new Republic. The Prussians withdrew from French territory. Kellerman and his army were heroes of the revolution. Valmy began a serious of French successes, as they drove their many enemies back. Over the following five or so years, the French proved themselves a very real power in Europe, invading Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria and Italy.
The War of the First Coalition ended in French victory, though the Republic faced eventual overthrow and defeat.
The French army utilized a new system of artillery, the Gribeauvel system, the primary difference of which was the manufacturing of the guns. Previously, cannon were made by pouring molten iron around a cylinder. In the Gribeauvel system, the lead was formed into a single large cylinder, before the bore was drilled by a machine. The new guns were better, lighter and had a longer life expectancy. They gave the French a far greater accuracy than other conventional armies, with lighter guns maintaining previous ranges.
The other aspect worthy of note is Kellerman’s training and preparations. He came into command of an army that couldn’t even stand and fight when the enemy attacked. Through careful cycling of units in smaller, less decisive engagements, by ordering his troops to parade and drill in the face of the enemy, by appealing to the armies new-found sense of patriotism when the cause was in peril, he turned the state of the French military around. Turning the Prussians away was not the important part. Getting the French to stand was.
If Napoleon turned them into an all-conquering force, Kellerman turned them into an army.
If Brunswick had defeated Kellerman at Valmy, its likely that the French Revolution would have ended within the year with the monarchy fully restored to power. That would have meant no Robespierre, no Napoleon, no Empire, no Waterloo, no inspiration to much of the rest of Europe (including Ireland). While French revolutionary feeling would hardly have gone away, the status quo would have been the immediate victor.
In National Consciousness
The French Republic (and subsequent Empire) was the major state of European military and diplomatic affairs for most of the next thirty years, and the Great French Wars have become one of the continents defining conflicts. Valmy became a symbol of that success, of an army driven by nationalism and the ideals of citizenship. Valmy has entered the consciousness of France as the death knell of the period of absolute monarchy in the face of a free army winning through sheer force of will.
For more of NFBs Decisive Battles check out the index here.