Victims, Authority, and Terror: The Parallel Deaths of d'orlaeans, Custine, Bailly, and Malesherbes

By George Armstrong Kelly | Go to book overview

7. Revolutionary War in the East

In late 1791 France prepared hesitantly for war. Conflicting ambitions brought a solution by arms closer as the year turned: royalists who hoped for coup d'état, patriots who dreamed of the expansion of liberty.1 Despite propagandistic impulses, all parties hoped that in some sense the conflict would remain limited. Both the radicals and the ultras agreed on Austria as the preferred target of hostility, although the famous Declaration of Pillnitz of 27 August 1791 had already suggested the outlines of coalition and had further served to inflame public opinion against all the dynasties. The isolation of France was not a new theme; it had preoccupied Montmorin, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, at the beginning of 1789: "Holland has escaped us. Denmark is in Russia's pocket. Sweden no longer deserves our confidence; besides, she could be of only limited ability on the main continent. Prussia has joined forces with England and become our enemy. The empire is only a puzzle of unrelated pieces (un composé sans rapports); besides, its principal members are allied to Prussia...."2 But this gloomy view was thrust aside by the "Brissotins," who accepted the opinions and blandishments of radical refugees from abroad with little discernment. As Isnard proclaimed: "The French people will issue a great summons and all the other peoples will reply to its voice."3

The aristocracy wavered: by the end of the Revolution almost ninetenths of the military nobility would pass to the Coalition.4 This was not an instantaneous, but a steady drainage, especially from a once-swollen reservoir of general officers. Biron, assuming command of the Army of the Rhine in the late summer of 1792, wrote to his minister: "I haven't any lieutenant-generals; M. de Custine and myself are almost the only ones."5 Still, in the words of Carré, "the Revolution retained under arms enough capacity (éléments vivaces) to assemble a military force that could withstand an attack from abroad."6

The War Ministry of Louis de Narbonne attempted not only to staunch the wounds of attrition but to create, reluctantly, a new model of military service. Paths of reform had already been more radically traced, as early as 1789, by Dubois-Crancé, who declared, "I establish as an axiom that in a free country every citizen should be a soldier and every soldier a citizen"; and by Servan, a bourgeois officer and future War Minister, in his scathing polemic La Seconde aux grands.7 Narbonne created new

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