The First Coalition, 1792-1797
ONE might expect that the outbreak of war would at least restore France's importance in international politics.1 Ultimately this happened with a vengeance, but not for a while; both France and the war against France continued for some time to be international sideshows. One reason for this, as will be seen, was that at first, despite the radical Revolution, France's foreign policy continued along traditional lines. A more important reason was that none of the members of the first coalition fought mainly to overthrow the Revolution, and some were loath to fight at all. Their main reaction to the discovery that it would be more difficult than expected to defeat France and restore order was not to fight harder, but to attempt to end the war, coexist with Revolutionary France, and pursue other goals--which some found possible, others not. The problem is not to explain how the War of the First Coalition started, which is fairly easy, but why it persisted and proved difficult or impossible to end. The basic answer is that the same kind of traditional politics that got both sides into war also kept them from ending it.
It may seem odd to characterize the war begun in April 1792 as a minor affair undertaken without serious thought. Goethe, seeing the French win the Battle of Valmy on 20 September, predicted that it would change the course of history, and he was proved right. The struggle between France and Europe begun in 1792 and continuing almost unbroken for twenty-three years would ultimately become the third largest conflict ever in European history, and by far the greatest to that time. Yet neither side was prepared for war at the outset or took it seriously.
One can hardly talk of France's policy at all. Much of what passed for it was the product of confused struggles within the____________________