In 1791, the nervous monarchies of Europe finally declared war on the Revolutionary France to restore the Bourbon monarchy and prevent the spread of liberte, egalite, and fraternite (liberty, equality, and brotherhood) to their lands. The War of the First Coalition started well for the monarchies, as a large mixed army of Austrians, Prussians, Hessians, and French emigres under the Duke of Brunswick seized several French fortresses and brushed aside any French revolutionary resistance.
By the end of the summer 1792, Brunswick was deep into French territory and advanced on Paris through the Argonne Forest. Brunswick was shadowed by the French Army of the Center under Francois Kellermann. At the time, Revolutionary France’s Army of the North under Charles Dumouriez was invading Austrian Netherlands. But with the threat to Paris, Dumouriez turned south and joined Kellermann. Dumouriez and Kellerman appeared behind Brusnwick and along his lines of communication eastward back to Prussia. Though the French were outnumbered 54,000 to 84,000, morale was high, a good portion of the army were professionals from the old Royal Army, and even though Paris was exposed, the cautious Brunswick would never leave an enemy army to his rear. They were right.
The Napoleonic idea and practice of advancing forward to the objective while foraging off the land was still a decade in future, and Brusnwick’s Army was tied to its depots in the German states. Brunswick could have easily seized Paris but instead turned his army east and attacked the French at Valmy.
In the driving rain, the two armies lined up at opposite ends of the field of battle and commenced an artillery duel. Unlike the bulk of the infantry in the French Army, which were made up of raw but passionate volunteers, the artillery still consisted of the professional gunners from the old Royal Army. For decades, the French artillery was considered the best in Europe. Unlike Brusnwick’s gunners, they kept their powder dry, and a steady stream of accurate fire pounded Brunswick’s lines. Furthermore, Brunswick’s artillery got the worst of the exchange, which demoralized the rest of the army, who would soon have to advance into the teeth of the French cannon. As Brunswick’s Army began to advance, the infantry assault was checked by French fire. And though there was a brief panic after a French ammunition wagon exploded, Kellermann was quickly on the spot, and cried out “Vive’ le Nation!”, which spurred the volunteers to break out into loud and enthusiastic renditions of “Ca Ira” and “La Marseillaise”. Brunswick couldn’t exploit the brief opportunity and broke off the assault completely because he felt the position was too strong and he could fight elsewhere. His army withdrew east away from Paris, never to return.
German poet Wolfgang von Goethe who was present at the battle, told his retreating comrades, “Here and today, a new epoch in the history of the world has begun, and you can boast you were present at its birth.”
Valmy provided a much needed boost to the French Revolution. In 1792, the French Revolution was beginning to collapse as increasing amounts of control was taken by radical elements, which alienated many French citizens (Lafayette being the most famous). Upon the news of the victory at Valmy, the French Legislative assembly formally abolished the monarchy and formed the National Assembly. The French Republic was born. The Battle of Valmy was the best chance the monarchies of Europe had to snuff out the French Revolution. It would take more than two decades, six more “Wars of the Coalition”, and Napoleon’s defeat, for the monarchies of Europe to get that close to Paris again.