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Wars of the French Revolution: Battle of Valmy

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Battle of Valmy - Armies & Commanders:

The Battle of Valmy was fought September 20, 1792, during the War of the First Coalition (1792-1797).

Armies & Commanders

French

  • General Charles François Dumouriez
  • General François Christophe Kellermann
  • 47,000 men

    Allies

  • Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick
  • 35,000 men

  • Battle of Valmy - Background:

    As revolutionary fervor wracked Paris in 1792, the Assembly moved towards conflict with Austria. Declaring war on April 20, French revolutionary forces advanced into the Austrian Netherlands (Belgium). Through May and June these efforts were easily repulsed by the Austrians with the French troops panicking and fleeing in the face of even minor opposition. While the French floundered, an anti-revolutionary alliance came together consisting of forces from Prussia and Austria, as well as French émigrés. Gathering at Coblenz, this force was led by Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick.

    Considered one of the best generals of the day, Brunswick was accompanied by the King of Prussia, Frederick William II. Advancing slowly, Brunswick was supported to the north by an Austrian force led by the Count von Clerfayt and to the south by Prussian troops under Fürst zu Hohenlohe-Kirchberg. Crossing the frontier, he captured Longwy on August 23 before advancing to take Verdun on September 2. With these victories, the road to Paris was effectively open. Due to revolutionary upheaval, the organization and command of the French forces in the area was in flux for most of the month.

    This period of transition finally ended with the appointment of General Charles Dumouriez to lead the Armée du Nord on August 18 and the selection of General François Kellermann to command the Armée du Centre on August 27. With the high command settled, Paris directed Dumouriez to halt Brunswick's advance. Though Brunswick had broken through the fortifications of the French frontier, he was still faced with passing through the broken hills and forests of the Argonne. Assessing the situation, Dumouriez elected to use this favorable terrain to block the enemy.

    Defending the Argonne:

    Understanding that the enemy was moving slowly, Dumouriez raced south to block the five passes through the Argonne. General Arthur Dillon was ordered to secure the two southern passes at Lachalade and les Islettes. Meanwhile, Dumouriez and his main force marched to occupy Grandpré and Croix-aux-Bois. A smaller French force moved in from the west to hold the northern pass at le Chesne. Pushing west from Verdun, Brunswick was surprised to find fortified French troops at les Islettes on September 5. Unwilling to conduct a frontal assault, he directed Hohenlohe to pressure the pass while he took the army to Grandpré.

    Meanwhile, Clerfayt, who had advanced from Stenay, found only light French resistance at Croix-aux Bois. Driving off the enemy, the Austrians secured the area and defeated a French counterattack on September 14. The loss of the pass forced Dumouriez to abandon Grandpré. Rather than retreat west, he elected to hold the southern two passes and assumed a new position to the south. By doing so he kept the enemy's forces divided and remained a threat should Brunswick attempt a dash on Paris. As Brunswick was forced to pause for supplies, Dumouriez had time to establish a new position near Sainte-Menehould.

    The Battle of Valmy:

    With Brunswick advancing through Grandpré and descending on this new position from the north and west, Dumouriez rallied all of his available forces to Sainte-Menehould. On September 19, he was reinforced by additional troops from his army as well as by the arrival of Kellermann with men from the Army du Centre. That night, Kellermann decided to shift his position east the next morning. The terrain in the area was open and possessed three areas of raised ground. The first was located near the road intersection at la Lune while the next was to the northwest.

    Topped by a windmill, this ridge was situated near the village of Valmy and flanked by another set of heights to the north known as Mont Yvron. As Kellermann's men began their movement early on September 20, Prussian columns were sighted to the west. Quickly setting up a battery at la Lune, French troops attempted to hold the heights but were driven back. This action did buy Kellermann sufficient time to deploy his main body on the ridge near the windmill. Here they were aided by Brigadier General Henri Stengel's men from Dumouriez's army who shifted north to hold Mont Yvron (Map).

    Despite the presence of his army, Dumouriez could offer little direct support to Kellermann as his compatriot had deployed across his front rather than on his flank. The situation was further complicated by the presence of a marsh between the two forces. Unable to play a direct role in the fighting, Dumouriez detached units to support Kellermann's flanks as well as to raid into the Allied rear. Through the morning fog plagued operations but my midday it had cleared allowing the two sides to see the opposing lines with the Prussians on the la Lune ridge and the French around the windmill and Mont Yvron.

    Believing that the French would flee as they had in other recent actions, the Allies began an artillery bombardment in preparation for an assault. This was met by return fire from the French guns. The elite arm of the French army, the artillery had retained a higher percentage of its pre-Revolution officer corps. Peaking around 1:00 PM, the artillery duel inflicted little damage due to the long distance (approx. 2,600 yards) between the lines. Despite this, it had a strong impact on Brunswick who saw that the French were not going to break easily and that any advance across the open field between the ridges would suffer heavy losses.

    Though not in a position to absorb heavy losses, Brunswick still ordered three assault columns formed to test the French resolve. Directing his men forward, he halted the assault when it had moved around 200 paces after seeing that the French were not going to retreat. Rallied by Kellermann they were chanting "Vive la nation!" Around 2:00 PM, another effort was made after artillery fire detonated three caissons in the French lines. As before, this advanced was halted before it reached Kellermann's men. The battles remained a stalemate until around 4:00 PM when Brunswick called a council of war and declared, "We do not fight here."

    Aftermath of Valmy

    Due to the nature of the fighting at Valmy, the casualties were relatively light with the Allied suffering 164 killed and wounded and the French around 300. Though criticized for not pressing the attack, Brunswick was not in a position to win a bloody victory and still be able to continue the campaign. Following the battle, Kellermann fell back to a more favorable position and the two sides began negotiations regarding political issues. These proved fruitless and the French forces began extending their lines around the Allies. Finally, on September 30, with little choice, Brunswick began retreating towards the border.

    Though the casualties were light, Valmy rates as one of the most important battles in history due to the context in which it was fought. The French victory effectively preserved the Revolution and prevented outside powers from either crushing it or forcing it to even greater extremes. The next day, the French monarchy was abolished and on September 22 the First French Republic declared.

    Selected Sources

  • History of War: Battle of Valmy
  • Battle of Valmy

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