France’s Revolutionary Ordre Profond Revisited

His ‘300 Spartans’ unfortunately ran away[1]

            General Dumouriez breathed in the fall air.  The cannonade had begun early that morning – November 6th, 1792 – and the deafening boom of the guns had continued for several hours but produced no results. The Austrians, lined on a hill at the end of the plain, sat content in their redoubts and trenches, undisturbed by the French artillery.[2]  Resolute, Dumouriez instructed his soldiers, waiting on the plains of Jemappes with their bayonets affixed, to begin the advance.[3] Dumouriez and the Duc of Chartres – later known as Louis-Philippe, King of France – arranged the centre of the army into columns and began slowly forward, maintaining a steady front.[4] Then the Austrians began to fire. Bullets pounded the columns of French soldiers, many of whom had never fought in battle before. Bodies crashed to the ground and the noise of the screams combined with the noise of the “incessant fire” from the Austrians.[5] The soldiers could not maintain their march forward. Due to their formation in column, the French troops were unable to effectively return fire.[6] Consequently, the columns collapsed, some soldiers retreating as fast as they could, others taking cover, and others still running towards the trenches in an effort to avoid the advancing Austrian cavalry.[7] “Cut to pieces” by fire and fearing Dumouriez to be dead – his horse having been shot beneath him – the French soldiers went into a state of blind panic.[8]

Yet all was not lost. Still alive, Dumouriez ordered an artillery barrage on the Austrian cavalry, sending them into retreat. He then positioned his veterans, bayonets affixed, behind the chaos where his columns once stood, ordering the veterans to kill any French soldier who retreated.[9] Suffering immense casualties in the advance, but faced with no other choice, the mass of soldiers pressed forward against the hill. Two hours later, the battle was won. Roughly 300 Austrians lay strewn across the battlefield. Almost 2000 French soldiers lay with them, dead or wounded.[10] The next day, Dumouriez – a hero of Valmy – allegedly had the bodies of several hundred French soldiers thrown into a pit, and reported to the Government in Paris that he had only lost a few hundred men during the victorious charge of his columns.[11] France celebrated its first major battle victory of the Revolutionary Wars.


The French Revolutionary Wars are much studied, yet the success of the Revolutionary armies often overshadows the brutal reality of the battlefield. Many have examined the inspiration of the Revolutionary troops on the battlefield, their commander, the army logistical organization, and the propaganda.[12] However, battlefield tactics have been given comparatively little attention. Why did Dumouriez and the Duc of Chartres deploy their soldiers in column at Jemappes? Why, when they knew they had an advantage in firepower and in artillery, and while they knew the Austrians had well entrenched artillery and a strong cavalry force, did they not deploy in line or square, formations which would take advantage of French firepower and/or better defend against cavalry?[13] Moreover, why, in later descriptions of the Battle of Jemappes, were orderly columns of soldiers celebrated instead of the French cavalry and artillery, which had actually held the day? For many scholars the deployment in column at Jemappes was only natural. According to this line of thought, the French Revolution marks the dawn of modern warfare – a resurrection of the inherently successful principles of western warfare.[14] Inspired by the armies of antiquity, Revolutionary tacticians supposedly redesigned the entire shape of the battlefield, allowing troops to deploy in more flexible and progressive formations. These changes, it has been claimed, were the direct result of the political shift of the French Revolution. For example, Hans Delbruck, in seminal study The Dawn of Modern Warfare, states that the Revolutionary military system was “based on new political ideas and conditions.” [15] John Lynn, a leading expert in the Early Modern French Army, provides a similar example, announcing that aspects of the “Western Way of War” appeared “after an absence that stretched back to ancient Rome.” [16] The Western Way of War he refers to is a concept promoted by Victor Davis Hanson, a scholar of Greek hoplite warfare,[17] who likewise notes that these new modern armies, “free of religious fanaticism and subject to civilian control,” were successful due to the “dominance of infantry,” a practice which Hanson suggests dates back to the Greeks, and “alone win[s] wars” decisively.[18] However, this argument leaves much to be desired.

[1] Paddy Griffith, regarding Dumouriez’s failed attempt to model his campaign in Valmy after the battle between the Spartans and Persians at Thermopylae. Paddy Griffith, The Art of War of Revolutionary France, 1789-1802 (London: Greenhill Books, 1998), 203.
[2] “Battle of Jemappes: Fought on the 6th of November, 1792, between the Austrian and French Armies,” in Essays on the Theory and Practice of the Art of War: Including the Duties of Officers on Actual Service, and the Principles of Modern Tactics, Chiefly Translated from the best French and German Writers, vol. 2, ed. “The Military Mentor,” (London: Richard Philips, 1809): 77.
[3] Dumouriez, quoted in “Battle of Jemappes,” 78.
[4] John A. Lynn, “The Battle of Jemappes,” in Historical Dictionary of the French Revolution, 1789-1799, ed. Samuel F. Scott and Barry Rothhaus (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1985), 77-78.
[5] “Battle of Jemappes,” 78.
[6] David G Chandler, Dictionary of the Napoleonic Wars (London: Arms and Armour Press, 1979), 214.
[7] Ibidem; M.A. Theirs, The History of the French Revolution, vol. 2., trans. Frederick Shoberl (Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1844), 8.
[8] “Battle of Jemappes,” 79.
[9] Ibidem; Thiers, 9.
[10] Chandler, 214.
[11] Ibid., 81; Thiers, 9.
[12] The reader should be aware that because the terms Revolutionary (in reference to the Revolutionary Wars or Revolutionary Period in France) and revolutionary (signifying ground-breaking or innovative) must necessarily be used frequently throughout this paper, the former will always be capitalized (Revolutionary) while the latter will remain in lower case (revolutionary) in order to avoid confusion.
[13] Thiers, 8.
[14] Hans Delbruck, The Dawn of Modern Warfare, trans. Walter J Renfroe Jr. (London: University of Nebraska Press, 1985),  395; John A. Lynn,  Battle: A History of Combat and Culture from Ancient Greece to Modern America (Cambridge, MA: Westview Press, 2003), 184; Victor Davis Hanson,  The Wars of the Ancient Greeks: and their invention of Western Military Culture,  ed. John Keegan (London: Cassell, 1999), 20, 24.
[15] Delbruck, 395.
[16] John A. Lynn, Battle: A History of Combat and Culture from Ancient Greece to Modern America (Cambridge, MA: Westview Press, 2003), 184.
[17] Warfare based on the hoplite warrior, the heavily-armed foot soldier of classical Greek armies, and the phalanx, the column-style unit containing these soldiers.
[18] Hanson, The Wars of the Ancient Greeks, 24.

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