Jean Jaurès Socialist History of the French Revolution 1901

The Battle of Valmy

Source: Histoire Socialiste de la Révolution Française, Vol. III. Paris, Éditions Sociales, 1968;
Translated: for by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2010.

For a moment the émigrés and the allies had solid reason for hope. When the Croix-aux-Bois passage was forced they thought they were going to surround Dumouriez. But the latter, by a skillful night retreat on September 15, 1792, was able to break off contact. And with admirable calm, instead of rushing to Paris he remained with his lines anchored to the south of the Argonne forest, a bit to the west and to the rear of the route Brunswick would take to go to Châlons. He held this position in such a way as to watch over the enemy and if need be, if he advanced the forward point of his troops, to fall on his rear. And so at the moment when with his harassed army he came out onto the drenched and gloomy plains of Champagne, Brunswick was forced to finally confront Dumouriez’s army, well established on the heights and reinforced by Kellermann.

This was the combat of Valmy, on the right of the road that goes from Sainte-Menehould to Châlons-sur-Marne. It was Kellermann’s troops that the Prussian army met on the morning of the 20th. Dumouriez rushed there during the course of the day to give aid and counsel. The Duke of Brunswick and the King of Prussia worriedly looked out on this strong army on the heights and slopes . But was it possible? Now that the moment for a decisive encounter offered itself were great Frederick’s old soldiers going to hesitate? The attack was decided on, and when the Prussian army knew that its leaders’ resolve had dissipated the glorious memories of the Seven Years War floated above them. Who could defeat these veterans? Mocking the uniforms of the frail volunteers, didn’t they say that with the sweep of a hand they were going to “smash the blue porcelain figures?”

The Prussian artillery, led by Tempelhof, opened fire with its fifty-four pieces. They were placed at the front of the troops, on a plateau facing the mill of Valmy, surrounding it in the form of an arc. The French artillery responded with a power and a precision that surprised the enemy, but didn’t yet cause it worry.

The Prussian infantry slowly advanced, in perfect order but with no élan. With an ordered and firm step it approached the slopes where our army was positioned. A slight hesitation could be seen in the latter, as if past defeats, those of Rosbach and others, weighed on them.

But the shadow of the past played no role here. These were new forces coming to life, a new world that was rising. Let the Prussian army dig among its memories of glory in the way that a miner extracts whatever bit of gold is left from a long-exploited mine. The revolutionary souls bore a virgin treasure of enthusiasm and force.

Kellermann knew this, and at the decisive moment he evoked the grand stirrings of life. Upright and motionless under the bullets raining around him he raised his hat on the tip of his sword and cried out: “Long Live the Nation!” The entire army, from the mill heights to the base of the slopes, cried out: “Long Live the Nation!” And all of the radiant energy accumulated in these words over the past three years was communicated to every heart.

And it ended. The nightmare of the past was dissipated. And just as the sky of Valmy, at first full of clouds cleared up with the thundering of the cannonade, in the same way the shadows of doubt and fear were dissipated in an instant.

It was now that the Prussian army was astonished. The cry resounded in it like the cry of an entire people. Is it an entire nation we must combat? The French artillerymen, despite the ravages it suffered from the Prussian artillery, didn’t fire back on it, concentrating its fire on the decimated infantry.

The Duke of Brunswick took fright. In this uncovered attack would he not lose the best of his army?

At first he had it halt. And then after a few minutes of confused hesitation he pronounced the decisive word: “We won’t fight here.” Hier schlagen wir nicht. And the retreat began. The Prussian army withdrew to the plateau.

According to the ordinary rules of war this was hardly a defeat. Upon setting out to attack an enemy position you realize that it is stronger and better defended than you had thought. You renounce the attack so as not to waste your forces. It’s an incident of no great importance and an easily repaired mistake.

And yet, from that moment the Prussian army’s momentum was decisively broken. Like a man who still maintains the appearance of vigor but whose physical and moral force is internally ruined by a long series of sorrows, fatigues, and trials and who suddenly succumbs to a new disappointment, the Prussian army and its leader, bent under the weight of the burden of sad impressions that had accumulated over the preceding month, became decidedly aware of its total exhaustion at Valmy.

The invader felt that he not only had against him the immense and diffuse force of the revolutionary nation; he saw, he became aware that that nation had been able, in just a few days, to form an organized, mobile, and resistant force, capable of both firmness and enthusiasm.

Upon contact with these new and enthusiastic energies the army of invasion, exhausted, ill, and supported by no ideal, felt its own misery all the more profoundly. And it allowed itself to slide down the walls of an abyss where no outcroppings allowed it to stop its fall and gather itself. It suffered defeat through discouragement and impotence.

Since the defeat was far more in the hearts of the invader than in their ranks, Kellermann and Dumouriez failed at first to grasp the full meaning of that great day. But Goethe, the great and clear-sighted poet who had accompanied the Prussian army, immediately saw the grandeur of the event: “From this place and day are dated a new era in world history.” It was September 20. The same day the National Convention held its first session at the Tuileries.