French Revolutionary Wars: First Coalition

Late in 1792 the Convention issued a decree offering assistance to all peoples wishing to recover their liberty. This decree, the execution of Louis XVI (Jan., 1793), and the opening of the Scheldt estuary (contrary to the Peace of Westphalia) provoked Great Britain, Holland, and Spain to join Austria and Prussia in the First Coalition against France. Sardinia had already declared war after France had occupied Savoy and Nice (Sept., 1792). On Feb. 1, 1793, France declared war on Britain and Holland, and on Mar. 7, on Spain. Things rapidly turned against France. Dumouriez, defeated at Neerwinden (Mar. 18) by the Austrians, deserted to the enemy; revolt broke out in the Vendée; and Custine lost Mainz to the Prussians (July 23).

In the emergency the first Committee of Public Safety was created (Apr. 6), and a levée en masse (a draft of able-bodied males between 18 and 25) was decreed in August. The Committee, inspired by the leadership of Lazare Carnot, raised armies of approximately 750,000 men; revolutionary commissioners were attached to the commands; defeated generals, like Custine, were executed to encourage the others.

By the end of 1793 the allies had been driven from France. In 1794 the new French commanders, Jourdan and Pichegru, took the offensive. Jourdan, after defeating the Austrians at Fleurus (June 26, 1794), moved along the Rhine as far as Mannheim; Pichegru seized the Low Countries. On May 16, 1795, Holland, transformed into the Batavian Republic, made peace. Prussia on Apr. 5, 1795, signed a separate peace (the first Treaty of Basel), ceding the left bank of the Rhine to France; Spain made peace on July 22 (second Treaty of Basel).

Warfare against Austria and Sardinia continued under the newly established Directory. France gradually evolved a plan calling for a three-pronged attack: Jourdan was to advance southeastward from the Low Countries; Jean Victor Moreau was to strike at S Germany; and Napoleon Bonaparte was to conquer Piedmont and Lombardy, cross the Austrian Alps, and join with Moreau and Jourdan. During 1795 the French defeated the allies on all fronts, but in 1796 the new Austrian commander, Archduke Charles, took the offensive, defeating first Jourdan, then Moreau, both of whom had retreated to the Rhine by Sept., 1796.

On the Italian front, where an ill-supplied French army had been engaged in desultory and defensive operations until Bonaparte's arrival in 1796, one victory followed another (for details of the Italian campaign, see Napoleon I). Sardinia submitted in May, 1796, and in Apr., 1797, the preliminary peace of Leoben with Austria was signed by Bonaparte, just as Moreau had resumed his offensive in Germany. The armistice was confirmed by the Treaty of Campo Formio (Oct., 1797). Britain, however, remained in the war, retaining naval superiority under such able commanders as Samuel Hood, Richard Howe, John Jervis, and Horatio Nelson. Bonaparte's plan to attack the British Empire by way of Egypt was doomed by Nelson's naval triumph at Aboukir in Aug., 1798.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: Wars and Battles