Stories of the French Revolution - Walter Montgomery

The Enemy at Bay

Dumouriez, now the leader of the French armies, was a brave and able soldier. On the night of August 28 he assembled a council of war at his lodgings at Sedan, and spread a map of France on the table. He heard all that his officers had to say; most of them advising him to retreat to Paris, where something might happen for his advantage. Dumouriez thanked them all, and wished them a good-night; then he called to his private room a certain young officer named Thouvenot.

"See there," said he to Thouvenot, as he pointed to the map of France; "that is the forest of Argonne, a long stretch of rocky mountain and wild wood, with but five, or perhaps only three passes through it. Might we not seize them?"

On the 29th Dumouriez left Sedan for the forest, and did seize those passes forthwith.

The month of September was one of the wettest on record; and the country through which the army of Brunswick toiled toward Paris—a difficult country at all times—was made much more so by reason of the bad weather. The long chain of the Argonne forest stretching forty miles, with but five passes at the most, all occupied by French soldiers, presented a natural rampart which the invaders could not break through. Each pass was blocked with felled trees, and held by desperate men; and how to surmount that obstacle the Brunswickers knew not. They tried several times, but failed always. The weather continued wretched, the wood was too green to burn, the sour grapes brought on dysentery, and the peasants of Champagne were, as was likely, very unfriendly, and killed a Brunswicker whenever they could. There was only one way left by which the duke could get to Paris, and that was by going round the end of the mountain chain; and this he did, after losing twenty-five days in trying to force a way through the passes. He now brought his men face to face with the French. Dumouriez had much trouble with his raw recruits. Once there was a panic and a mutiny, as was very natural among young fellows who had just come from Paris. The general had to rate them very soundly, as not worthy of being called soldiers, but scoundrels. Yet these very men were being rapidly manufactured into the best soldiers of that age,—men who, under the orders of the famous captains of the Republic, were ready to go anywhere and do anything.

In the camp of the Duke of Brunswick there was a certain great author named Goethe. He came with a small body of men from Weimar, and he has left behind him his opinions of cannon-balls and such-like things. He likens the sound of cannon-balls to that of the humming of tops or the whistle of birds; and he says that under fire you feel as if you were in some very hot place.

On the 20th of September Kellermann, the second in command under Dumouriez, engaged the Brunswickers in a battle, which raged near the mill of Valmy till seven o'clock. Kellermann's horse was killed, and a powder-magazine blown up, and the enemy thought it a good time to attack; but the "little rascals" of Paris, raw and ragged though they might be, stood like rocks, and shouted, "Vive la Patrie!" and the well-drilled and well-armed foe had to retire in great surprise.

Wooden Horse


There was a place beyond Metz called Thionville, which at the same time was fiercely battered and besieged, but the people there were equally brave and determined. They made a wooden horse and set him on the battlements of their city, and they hung a bundle of hay before his nose, and they wrote an inscription in large letters, so that the enemy could read it afar off: "When I have eaten my hay, then you will take Thionville."

On the day of the battle at Valmy the new National Convention met in the "Hall of the Hundred Swiss" at the forsaken Tuileries, and proceeded to decree that same afternoon some revolutionary decrees, one of which was this: "Royalty from this day is abolished in France." When the news of this decree reached the French soldiers in Argonne, they stuck their caps on their bayonet-points and shouted "Vive la Republique!" till the welkin rang again with the noise. The Brunswickers and their allies now retired from the contest, and raised the sieges of Thionville and Lille. At the siege of the latter place the queen's sister, an Austrian archduchess, was present; and the artillery officers, being eager to oblige her with a sight of what great guns can do, overcharged some mortars, which burst and killed thirty men. The Austrians rained balls and bombs on Lille, the latter being filled with oil of turpentine; and they aimed their fire chiefly at the houses of the poor, and spared the rich quarter as much as they could. Many houses in Lille were set on fire, but the poor people nimbly ran about with pails of water helping one another. A certain barber of ready wit caught up a fragment of a splintered bomb, made a shaving-dish of it, and shaved fourteen people on the spot.

Lille would not yield, nor Thionville, nor would the raw levies be driven from their posts in the Argonne mountains. Goethe, who, as we have said, was with the invaders, has left us a history of this campaign, from which it seems that on the 11th of October the invading army retreated from Verdun. The poet says: "It was like Pharaoh going through a red sea of mud; for here also lay broken chariots, and riders and foot seemed sinking around." His own carriage could not move, because of an unbroken column of sick-wagons which trod the town streets into a morass. The wet weather and the bad food had laid many low with dysentery and fever. At last Goethe's servant managed to shove his master's carriage into a row of wagons, and they went on, though at a funeral pace. Outside the town there was a narrow road with a ditch on the right and left. Just before him there was an ammunition wagon drawn by four horses. One horse fell, and the drivers cut the traces and let it lie. As the other three horses could not drag the ponderous machine along, they also were cut loose, and the wagon was overturned in the ditch. Goethe's carriage was driven right over the poor fallen horse, and he says, "I saw only too well how its legs, under our wheels, went crashing and quivering."

The meadows were "rained to ruin," and the footpaths everywhere lost sight of. In the ditches and fields were dead horses enough, and sometimes they were flayed and the fleshy parts cut away,—sad tokens of the distress the army was in.

At Estain, which Goethe reached at noon, there was an endless tumult in the market-place. "All sorts of walkers, soldiers in uniform, marauders, sorrowing citizens and peasants, women and children, crushed and jostled one another amid vehicles of all sorts." While the Duke of Brunswick was thus retreating with dishonor from the task he had set himself to do, the lucky Dumouriez went to Paris to announce his success to the National Convention. He was a wiry man, of that iron cast we sometimes see, a man who was never tired,—"The creature of God and my sword," as he styled himself. He had once been foreign minister, but threw up his seal of office when Louis set his veto on the two decrees; and when Lafayette, seeing the king's cause lost, rode over the marches into Holland, the command was given to Dumouriez. He was well received in Paris, as he deserved to be, and was feasted by the citizens in grand style.

One night, however, as he was in the drawing-room of Talma, the great actor, Marat came to him unbidden and said, "I have come from the Jacobin Club to ask you why you did not pursue Brunswick with more energy."

The general turned his eyes coldly on the lean, wretched-looking Jacobin, and said with disdain, "Ah, you are he whom they call Marat!"

The very name made the company shudder; for Marat was known to be a man who had advised the murder of all the aristocrats, in France, and who would have hired assassins to butcher Talma, or Dumouriez, or any of the guests there assembled, had he thought their removal needful for the rolling on of the great Revolution to the place he had fixed in his own mind.