The Royal Death That Sparked A Revolution
By Chris Oakley
Adapted from material originally posted at Othertimelines.com
Summary: In the first three chapters of this series we recalled unlikely string of events that led to Queen Marie Antoinette’s installation as ruler of France; the outbreak of the subsequent rebellion against her; her departure into exile; and the political turmoil that rocked the post-revolutionary French government in the early years after her overthrow and eventual death. In this final episode of the series we’ll look at the downfall of the Robespierre regime, the beginning of the Napoleonic era, and how the events of the French Revolution are continuing to shape the world today.
Emperor Franz Joseph had just one aim in mind when he began his second war with France: avenging his sister’s death. Although publicly he insisted Austria was acting to protect itself against Napoleon’s punitive raids into Austrian-occupied territory, in his heart of hearts all he cared about was settling the score with the country he blamed for destroying Marie’s life. The minor detail that Marie herself had created most of the circumstances which led to her exile and eventual death didn’t seem to cross his mind-- or if it did, he dismissed it rather quickly. As far as he was concerned, the fault for his sister’s troubles, and his own, lay entirely with the French people and he was intent on making them pay through the nose for it.
Throughout the late summer and early fall of 1795 the Austrian Army had been steadily increasing its troop strength in Belgium in preparation for an invasion of northern France which Franz Joseph meant to commence before November 1st. He sought to smash the French army, burn as many of France’s major cities as he could to the ground, and put the entire senior French political leadership to death; in short, his battle plan was guided more by hatred for the French than by practical military considerations.
Austrian garrisons in Italy were also gearing up for battle, in this case a diversionary thrust across the Franco-Italian border into the French Alps. Here at least, if nowhere else, Franz Joseph showed sound strategic judgement; a perceived threat to France’s southern territories would prompt the Robespierre government to shift troops down there to meet that threat, thus weakening the French army’s northern defenses. A senior Austrian general told Franz Joseph that if everything went according to plan, they could force the French government to sue for peace before Christmas.
However, the diversionary phase of the plan had forgotten to take some small but important details into consideration-- France’s heavily armed navy, for starters. In numerous wars with Great Britain, the French had demonstrated their naval captains and their warships could stand up against even the most powerful of foreign adversaries; at the slightest hint of an invasion of southern France, the Republic had planned for its warships to retaliate with offshore bombardment of as many enemy coastal bases as they could get within range of their guns.
Furthermore, the French army rigorously patrolled the Franco-Italian border to deter would-be invaders or smugglers, and they had written as well as verbal permission from the Robespierre government to shoot on sight if so much as a draft horse tried to illegally cross France’s southern frontiers. And when the time came, no matter what they might think of Robespierre personally, every French soldier would fight to his last musket ball to thwart Austrian aggression. If not fully on board with Robespierre’s political agenda, they were to a man fiercely loyal to the French nation; the same held true for their brethren in the French navy, whose sailors swore to kill an Austrian, Dane, or Dutchman for every Frenchman that fell in battle.
And last but not least, there was Napoleon Bonaparte; the man who for years had been unflatteringly nicknamed "the little corporal" by his critics was showing himself to be quite an outstanding strategist and field commander, and as the Austrians were about to be reminded he was not one to meekly accept defeat...
By the second week of October, 1795 nearly all of the pieces were in place for Austria and its allies to strike at the turmoil-plagued French Republic. All that remained was for Franz Joseph to give his troops the "go" signal to begin their attack. Great Britain, although officially neutral in the impending showdown between the French and the Austrians, had unofficially given Franz Joseph secret hints that it would not be entirely displeased to see the Robespierre regime in Paris toppled; King George III and his prime minister William Pitt the Younger both viewed Robespierre as a menace not just to the British Empire but to the peace of Europe as a whole, and in all segments of the British political spectrum Robespierre had increasingly come to be viewed as an oppressor worse than Marie Antoinette even dreamed of being.
Ordinarily, Charles Dumoriez, the Republic’s leading general during the French Revolution and the first Franco-Austrian war, would have also been responsible for directing French army strategy in the second conflict with Austria. But Dumouriez had been unceremoniously sacked by war minister Antoine Louis de Saint-Just shortly before the Jacobin Society headquarters raid under-- to say the least --highly strange circumstances. In Dumouriez’ absence, Saint-Just had assumed personal command of the army; it was a decision that nearly cost France the war and her very existence to boot, because though Saint-Just might have been an expert in regard to military theory, he had practically no real combat experience in the field, and he would make a series of ghastly mistakes in the early days of the second Franco-Austrian war.
Not the least of those mistakes was reassigning Napoleon from his Paris garrison to a fortress along the Franco-Spanish border. Saint- Just’s explanation for the transfer was that he needed Bonaparte to deter Spain from mounting a sneak attack on France while she was defending herself against the Austrians. However, Bonaparte disagreed vehemently with the decision-- he told the French war minister that the risk of Spanish attack was minimal and that he should retain his command in Paris so that he could co-ordinate the defense of the French capital. Privately, Bonaparte suspected that the transfer order had less to do with fears of a Spanish attack than with professional jealousy on Saint-Just’s part.
In any case, there was little Napoleon could do to change Saint-Just’s mind: the war minister had more political influence in the Robespierre government than Bonaparte, and so the general went to his new assignment on the Spanish border under protest. When word of the transfer reached Vienna, it was all the incentive Franz Joseph needed to begin his invasion; on October 18th, 1795 he gave his army the green light to attack.
The initial Austrian assault caught the French army largely off- guard. In the first hour of the invasion alone the Austrians captured over five thousand French prisoners; within 72 hours of the attack Lille had fallen and Austrian regiments backed by Danish cavalry and Hessian grenadiers were besieging Cambrai. Robespierre was incensed by the Austrians’ actions and ordered Saint-Just to lead an immediate counterattack to expel the invaders from French soil. Unfortunately for the French war minister, that proved easier said than done and his counterattack was swiftly routed, in the process of which Saint-Just was fatally shot through the head by Austrian snipers.
Panic engulfed the French countryside as word of Saint-Just’s defeat and death spread; nowhere was that panic more severe than in Paris, where ordinary citizens fearfully braced themselves for the worst and Robespierre’s surviving inner circle traded recriminations with each other over where the fault lay for the disaster that was overtaking France. The diversionary thrusts out of Italy only made matters worse, and there was talk that the country might be on the brink of its second revolution in less than a decade. Ignoring the gloom-and-doom predictions he was hearing from some elements of the civilian authorities, Napoleon Bonaparte rallied his troops to march forth against the Austrian regiments fighting to push their way into southern France.
Bonaparte’s regiments engaged the Austrian invasion force and its Italian auxiliary contingent on November 2nd, 1795 east of the French Alpine town of Grenoble; the ensuing battle would last two days and see both sides incur huge casualties, with the Italian auxiliaries sustaining the heaviest losses. And Bonaparte didn’t let up once the battle for Grenoble was over; he harried the remnants of the invasion force for weeks afterwards, chasing them all the way to the Piedmont provincial capital of Turin and recruiting his own bands of auxiliary troops from areas of Italy hostile to the Austrians.
Napoleon’s success in turning back the Austrian assault on southern France was a marked contrast to the disorganized rout being inflicted on the French army up north. Like the Mongols had done many centuries earlier and the Nazis would do nearly 150 years later, Emperor Franz Joseph’s regiments in northern France routed most of those who opposed them and sacked several towns and cities in the path of their advance. Back in Paris Robespierre found himself in the same spot which the late Marie Antoinette had been in eight years earlier-- with growing numbers of the French masses denouncing his rule and calling for his exile or death.
Disenchantment with Robespierre in general and his handling of the second Austrian war in particular came to a head on December 9th, 1795 when Austrian artillery leveled the Oise River town of Compičgne and killed most of its inhabitants. After word of its destruction reached Paris, Parisians’ already highly ragged nerves completely snapped and the French capital exploded in an orgy of hate and rage that exceeded even the worst civil unrest of the last days of the Bourbon era. Burning and looting became the order of the day and Paris was transformed into a battleground whose level of violence rivaled any skirmish between the Austrians and the French regular army.
As he had so many times in the past, Robespierre turned to his oratorical talent as a means of rallying the people to his side. But this time it would prove a fatal mistake: on December 14th, as he was addressing an open-air rally in St.-Germain, a Norman peasant girl named Charlotte Corday, whose parents had been jailed the previous year by Robespierre’s security forces, shot him through the head at point-blank range and killed him instantly. She made no effort to hide what she’d done; in fact, as Robespierre’s troops were hauling her off to prison, she shouted to the crowd, "I killed one man to save thousands!" As it turned out, she hadn’t merely killed a man, she’d hammered the last nail in the casket of the Robespierre government; with Robespierre dead, his cabinet divided against itself and France was rudderless at a critical moment in her history.
Desperate to save their country from total anarchy, the Estates- General sent for Napoleon Bonaparte, whom they believed to be the one man in France strong enough to unite the various quarreling factions in the government and win the war. For better or worse, Bonaparte proved them right. Arriving in Paris five days after Robespierre was assassinated, the general formed what he called an "emergency council" with himself as its chairman to assume the duties of the executive branch of the French government and recalled Charles Dumouriez from retirement to take over command of the beleaguered armies defending northern France.
He also ordered that Charlotte Corday be publicly hanged for her crime in murdering Robespierre; while he had little personal affection for the late president of the Republic, Bonaparte felt that it was important to remind the French people that France was still a nation governed by law and not assassin’s bullets. To those who objected that Corday hadn’t received a trial yet, Bonaparte pointed out that she hadfreely boasted of her deed when arrested.
Though some might have quarreled with Bonaparte’s methods for turning his country’s fortunes around, no one could dispute their effectiveness: calm was restored in Paris-- at least in the short term --and the French army’s northern regiments rallied from their early setbacks to mount a head-on counteroffensive against the the Austrians and their Danish and Hessian allies. By February of 1796 the Austrian army had been forced to yield most of the territory it had captured during the October 1795 invasion and the rest of that territory was a hive of anti-Austrian guerrilla activity. In Italy, pro-Bonaparte volunteer regiments in that country joined forces with the French regular army to eject the Austrians from the Italian mainland.
The French hardly needed much motivation to keep fighting once the last of the Austrian invasion troops had been driven out of France; French soldiers were filled with white-hot rage by the memory of the atrocities committed against their fellow countrymen in the early days of the second Franco-Austrian war, and that rage spurred them to hunt down and kill every Austrian trooper they could find as they entered Belgium and expanded their foothold in Italy. Only the problem of overextended supply lines kept Napoleon from sending his regiments to attempt a thrust up the Brenner Pass into Austria itself.
By the fall of 1797 the Austrian army was down to one-third of its prewar troop strength and Emperor Franz Joseph was hearing the same kind of murmurs of popular discontent that had buzzed in his sister’s ears over a decade earlier. Napoleon’s victory, and place in the history books, were assured.
In March of 1798 the second Franco-Austrian war ended when Emperor Franz Joseph sued for peace, solidifying Napoleon Bonaparte’s reputation as a world-class military commander and his power base as France’s head of state. His triumph in the war also served to reaffirm France’s status as the chief European counterweight to the British Empire-- a fact that would in later years bring Bonaparte into direct confrontation with Britain not only in Europe but also in the Mediterranean.
Bonaparte’s defeat of Emperor Franz Joseph in the second Franco-Austrian war, which modern historians often cite as a contributing factor in the political crisis that forced Franz Joseph’s abdication in favor of his son Ferdinand in 1801, was just the first in a string of victorious wars and campaigns the French ruler would direct during his twenty-year reign. Appointing himself First Marshal of the Legion and Supreme Consul of the French Republic, he personally started a half-dozen successful strategic military offensives between 1799 and 1810, along with scores of effective tactical assaults.
He also displayed genuine skill as a diplomat, negotiating the Louisiana Purchase with the United States in 1802 and establishing alliances with Norway, Denmark, Prussia, and the Grand Duchy of Warsaw(present-day Poland). Perhaps his most notable political accomplishment in foreign affairs came in 1805, when he organized a group of pro-Bonaparte German-speaking provinces in central Europe into the Confederation of the Rhine-- the forerunner of the modern nation of Germany.
But his glorious (if somewhat controversial) tenure as leader of France began to take a severe and irreversible turn for the worse in 1812, when a war against Russia’s Czar Alexander I went sour as the result of a catastrophic defeat of French forces by the Russian army during an attempt to capture Moscow and oust Alexander in favor of a Napoleon-backed puppet regime. The French defeat at Moscow, which resulted in staggering casualties, was the start of a long retreat across Europe for Napoleon’s legions, and by 1813 Bonaparte found himself nearly isolated in Europe as a broad British-led coalition eliminated his continental allies one by one. This military collapse abroad was matched at home by a new wave of protest among the French masses as their patience with Bonaparte’s authoritarian rule at last wore thin.
He met his end in 1815 at the Belgian town of Waterloo, when a sniper’s bullet split his head open while he was inspecting French artillery positions facing the right flank of the British infantry lines near the town. Whether the sniper was British or French is still a matter of conjecture, one fact is indisputable: his death basically meant the end of the Napoleonic regime. By 1820 the French government was entirely under civilian control once more.
The French Revolution has left a great many legacies both for good and for ill. On the positive side it ended one of the most despotic regimes of the 18th century; reaffirmed the validity of the idea that individuals can change the world; spread political power from an elite handful to the downtrodden French masses; and unshackled France’s lower and middle classes from the last restrictions of feudal law that had burdened them since the Middle Ages. On the negative side, the revolution dragged France into over a decade of war with its European neighbors and with itself; allowed bloodthirsty men like Maxillimian Robespierre to spread terror and murder against those who didn’t agree with their ideologies; and fomented political divisions between left and right that still plague France in some degree today.
While its colonial empire, along with Britain’s, is now only a dim memory, modern France is still capable of exerting a sizable degree of influence on the world stage; with that in mind, no one can doubt that the French Revolution will continue serving for generations to come as an example of what a nation’s citizens can done when they are sufficiently incited to seek political and social change. Georges- Jacques Danton, Robespierre’s partner-turned-adversary during the era of the 1787-89 revolution, would live to see new French rebellions in 1830 and 1848; his grandchildren would be heavily involved in the social flux that engulfed Paris during the early 20th century; and as recently as the late 1970s his descendants could be seen in the thick of student and labor protests in the streets of France.
1 Which gave it something in common with those hatched by one of Franz Joseph’s 20th century descendants.
2Though Austria’s navy was of little account, its army operated several powerful coastal fortresses in co-operation with their Italian allies, and Holland and Denmark were both allied with Austria at the time the second Franco-Austrian war started.
3Napoleon’s original title as head of state and government had been ‘Chairman of the Emergency Council of the Nation’; he dissolved the council shortly after the second Franco-Austrian war ended.