Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes back guest historian Bill Backus
The American Revolution ultimately set in motion a chain of events that transformed not only society in the Americas but also back in the Old World. Six years after the United States gained independence, revolution broke out across France. While Americans focused on building a new nation, across the Atlantic the French Revolution sparked a series of wars subsequently known as the French Revolutionary Wars. Eventually after many years of combat and political chaos, a young army officer named Napoleon Bonaparte emerged as the new Emperor of France. Led by the Emperor the French army and nation embarked on a series of new wars that spread from Spain to Russia. From the beginning of the French Revolution to the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, Europe was at war for nearly 26 years, or nearly the entire lives of people born during the American Revolutionary period.
While Napoleon’s French Empire is widely known on both sides of the Atlantic, the wars that allowed Napoleon’s ascent to power are less prominent. Concerned that revolution could spread to the rest of continental Europe, Revolutionary France found itself engaged fighting the European status co intent on restoring the Bourbon monarchy in France. Over the course of years war and peace ebbed and flowed in Europe, with war sometimes sparked by the French in hopes of unifying a splintered public. In “European Armies of the French Revolution, 1789-1802”, historian Frederick Schneid has organized a study exploring the role of some of the prominent European armies in this period. Collaborating with noted scholars in their respective fields, the essays explore the armies of the nation-states of France, Prussia, Austria, Russia, Great Britain, Spain, and the Ottoman Empire, along side the various German principalities and the armies of the Italian states.
Regrettably the editor assumes that the average reader is already familiar with the French Revolutionary Wars. The introductory chapter explores the historiography of the armies of the time period. While it may have been determined that a brief overview of the French Revolution and its subsequent wars was beyond the scope of the work, most Americans are unfamiliar with this time period in general and in the Revolutionary Wars in particular. A brief overview of the various wars would have provided more contextualization of the challenges and successes that faced the diverse number of armies. In some of the chapters, such as the section dealing with the French army, the author describes a particular battle to highlight a change in tactics or a successful act of generalship. Without a brief overview of the wars, it can be hard to fully appreciate the points that some authors are trying to make.
The other structural issue with this collection of essays is the lack of a uniform structure. Some authors delve more about how leadership and tactics in a particular army changed over time while other authors examine more structural features such as logistics. While making the essays more uniform may have been deemed to be too formulaic, without any a similar format the essays on the various armies becomes somewhat of an exercise comparing apples to oranges.
The best sections in this book cover the armies of Prussia, Austria, Russia, and Great Britain. Dennis Showalter, the dean of German military history in the United States authored the essay on the Prussian Army. The foundation of a strong military legacy that extended from the French and Indian War to the Second World War, the Prussian army was one of the most influential armies that ever existed. The traditional census among historians holds that within a generation the Prussian Army transformed from one of the best armies on the planet after the Seven Years War to a shadow of its former self that was easily swept away by Napoleon in 1806 at the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt. Many historians have long viewed the Prussian army in the Revolutionary Wars as a decaying institution revealing in past glories to the determent of planning for future conflicts. Taking a contrary view of this generally accepted view, Mr. Showalter instead argues that Prussia’s foreign policy and the conduct of its army probably produced the best results open to a relatively small state located in Central Germany. Beset by rivals on all sides and lacking any natural defensive barriers forced Prussian military thinkers to plan short, sharp wars that could be quickly fought and won before an enemy’s larger resources could be mustered into the war effort. Joining coalitions against France, fighting a few battles, and then making peace made Prussia “a valuable ally, an undesirable enemy.” Unable to cope with long drawn-out wars against Revolutionary France, this policy made sense at the time, although it did indeed lay the groundwork for Prussia’s later defeat by Napoleon when a massive French army invaded Germany.
The Austrian army ultimately proved to be the main adversary to both Revolutionary France and Napoleon. Historian Lee Eysturlid explores how an army that initially had trouble fighting the French transformed into a more effective fighting force. The ultimate reforms in the Austrian Army were resisted by the Hapsburg monarchy itself. Presiding over a large multicultural empire in Central Europe military reforms potentially opened the door to political reforms, which necessitated that only the minimal amount of change was tolerated in Austria. Austria’s Eastern neighbor Russia typically has a reputation of a traditionally reactionary power. In her essay on the Russian army, Janet Hartley argues that Russian generals fighting against Revolutionary France proved to be more forward thinking and aggressive than commonly accorded.
Edward Coss’s essay on the British army explores the challenges to that institution from the end of the American Revolutionary War to the end of the French Revolution. Popularly remembered as fielding the most power military force in the world during the 1770s (which may or may not be true), by the time war broke out on the continent the British army was one of the smallest armies fielded by a European country. Be that as it may, discipline and reforms molded the army into the instrument the Duke of Wellingtion used to finally defeat Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo.
The collection of essays collected in “European Armies of the French Revolution” are a great introduction into the various national armies that found themselves fighting for nearly a generation. Anyone interested in the either the French Revolutionary or Napoleonic Wars will find this book to be useful.