Battle of Valmy
Arc de Triomphe: VALMI
September 20, 1792
Intending to halt the French Revolution and restore French King Louis XVI's power, in July of 1792 the Duke of Brunswick issued the Brunswick Manifesto, threatening the destruction of Paris. Less than a month later he invaded France at the behest of the First Coalition with an army comprised of Prussians, Austrians, and French royalists. Largely unopposed as his army crossed a chaotic and disorganized France, what little resistance Brunswick and his army did meet quickly crumbled before them. Inner turmoil gripped the French revolutionary government and the defection of a large number of French officers of the nobility had led to leadership crises within the French army. While patriotic volunteers had filled the ranks, many were unproven and ill-equipped, and they had acquired a reputation for fleeing at the first shot.
As panic began to reach new heights in the French capital and the Prussians neared, French General Dumouriez commanding the Army of the North moved his army south to cut the lines of communication of Brunswick's army. Meanwhile, Dumouriez ordered General Kellermann commanding the Army of the Center to join him in the hopes that their combined forces would be able to halt the enemy advance. Brunswick's communication and supply lines were now cut as the French armies moved in behind him, and he stopped his advance on Paris to send a sizable force of Prussian soldiers to brush aside the French and reopen his lines of communication.
On the morning of September 20th, the two opposing armies met at Valmy as a misty fog covered the battlefield. The Prussians launched an attack early on, forcing Kellermann to shift the positions of his troops to near a notable windmill. As the fog dissipated around noon, the artillery of both sides began a cannonade against each other. The Prussians had expected the French volunteers to break and flee under the artillery fire, but the French held strong. Seeing the lack of effect of their artillery, the Prussians next launched their infantry forward, but they received so much fire that they were halted after only a few hundred yards. Emboldened by their success, the French began to chant, "Vive la Nation!"
Suddenly around one in the afternoon a lucky Prussian shell hit an ammunition wagon behind the French lines, causing a huge explosion. Three French regiments broke and ran, but Kellermann galloped up, riding amongst the panicked men and rallying them. Meanwhile Dumouriez quickly sent reinforcements to the weakened area to ensure it would hold, and Brunswick did nothing to exploit the temporary panic.
Brunswick was unwilling to engage in battle against a force that offered anything more than token resistance, and he stated, "We do not have to fight here" and began to withdraw his army.1 Dumouriez and Kellermann were not interested in the destruction of Brunswick's army, given that they had completed their goal of deterring his advance on Paris, so they did not actively pursue him. Within a month Brunswick's army was in full retreat and Paris and the fledgling French Republic had been saved.
The writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was present at the battle as a Prussian soldier and wrote, "From this place and from this day forth commences a new era in the world's history and you can all say that you were present at its birth."2
- David G. Chandler, Napoleon's Marshals, (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1987), 187.
- Raymond Horricks, Military Politics From Bonaparte to the Bourbons: The Life and Death of Michel Ney, 1769-1815, (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1995), 19-20.
- Chandler, David G. Dictionary of the Napoleonic Wars. New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1979.
- Chandler, David G. Napoleon's Marshals. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1987.
- Smith, Digby. The Greenhill Napoleonic Wars Data Book. London: Greenhill Books: 1998.
Updated July 2014
© Nathan D. Jensen