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The battle of valmy is the first military victory of the French revolutionary army, won against an Austro-Prussian army (reinforced by French emigres) on September 20, 1792. Against all expectations, after a strong cannonade, a beautiful harangue by Kellermann near the famous mill of Valmy, a few brief skirmishes and a demonstration of the Prussian infantry which did not shake the resolution of the French lines, the allies withdrew from the battlefield. Valmy will become a founding symbol, the first victory of revolutionary France against the coalition of European monarchies.
Revolutionary France goes to war
In 1792, three years after the storming of the Bastille and the night of August 4 abolishing privileges, France is still a monarchy framed by the Constitution of 1791, but the king's flight to Varennes where he was recognized (the June 21) will trigger a series of events leading revolutionary France to war against the threatening monarchies of Europe: declaration of war on Austria in April, in August suspension of the king followed by the entry into the territory of 160 - ten thousand allied and emigrated to France on the 18th.
Held to counter the Austro-Prussian counter-revolutionary power, France declared war on Emperor Francis II on April 20, 1792. The country was then crossed by the same impetus towards a common cause: the defense of the homeland and the country. Revolution. Exalted by its recent liberation (the fall of Louis XVI and the monarchy on August 10, 1792), part of the people vibrate in unison with patriotic speeches on the infallible victory of the Nation. In the areas of contact with the enemy, volunteers were numerous, especially from July 1792, after the Assembly proclaimed the homeland in danger.
But, in spite of this momentum, France, is on the brink of civil war and its ill-prepared army suffers the war. Longwy and Verdun are taken. The enemy armies penetrated in depth, invading Lorraine in mid-August 1792. In Paris, the population was seized with a psychosis of treason and royalist plots. at the beginning of September, bands of killers acting under the authority of the Commune commit massacres in prisons or are piled up with suspects. The survival of the revolutionary government no longer depends on the fate of arms.
The battle of Valmy: a simple "cannonade"
In September, despite the slowness of the coalition invasion, the situation seemed catastrophic and the French army, resulting from the difficult amalgamation between the old royal army and the new volunteers, unable to oppose it. of dysentery and victims of an incessant rural guerrilla warfare, the Austro-Prussian troops decide to cross the rugged and wooded region of Argonne (natural border between Lorraine and Champagne), beyond which there is no longer any no natural obstacle before Paris. Determined to stop this advance on the road to Chalons, General Dumouriez, commander of the French army, established a line of defense in the mud of the Argonne. Joined by Kellermann on September 19, 1792 near Saint-Menehould, he awaited the Duke of Brunswick.
Brunswick's intermediate victory at Croix-au-Bois forces the French troops to fall back around the Saint Sauve mill on the famous plateau of Valmy to counterattack. After a long exchange of artillery, the Austro-Prussians mounted the assault. To their astonishment, the French, outnumbered and counting in their ranks many inexperienced volunteers, resist the assault, the song of the "Marseillaise" and the cries of "Vive la nation". General Kellerman galvanizes his troops: “Comrades, this is the moment of victory; let the enemy advance without firing a single shot, and charge him with bayonets! ”.
The Austro-Prussians expected to disperse the adversary easily from the first shot. Surprised by the good performance of the French lines, they stop and retreat. Realists, the French generals are careful not to pursue them.The battle of Valmy, which made "only" five hundred victims, was a simple cannonade. If the military dimension of the battle is limited, the psychological effect of its outcome will be considerable and rarely an armed confrontation has had such immediate and tangible results for such a low human cost.
Valmy: a symbolic victory
For the French revolutionaries, Valmy shows that the army, raised in haste, ill-equipped, where volunteers, federates and soldiers of the Ancien Régime live together, is united, united in supporting the Revolution. The victory allowed the First Republic - founded the day after the battle, on September 21, 1792 - to be born under favorable auspices, in a climate of relaxation, despite the September massacres. At the call of Danton and Robespierre, the convention proclaims "the Republic one and indivisible" on September 25th. In the victorious euphoria, the young republic won a more decisive victory at Jemmapes, in November 1792.
In the longer term, the resistance of the Valmy mill, the image of Kellermann launching the assault with clear saber and that of the soldiers charging with cries of "Vive la Nation!" "By singing the Song of the Army of the Rhine (the future Marseillaise) have become so many emblematic images which inscribe Valmy in revolutionary and republican legend. The battle of Valmy, the first in a long series, has become a key date in French history.
Bibliography on Valmy
- Valmy: Democracy in arms, by Jean-Paul Bertaud. Archives Collection, 1993.
- Valmy, the homeland in danger, by Arthur Chuquet. Editions Laville, 2010.