Adapted from Chuquet, Les Guerres de la Révolution, Vol. II: Valmy; Six, Généraux et Amiraux Français de la Révolution et de l'Empire (1792-1814); and Tranié, Les Guerres de la Révolution.
Born at Cambrai, in Flanders, on 26 January 1739, Charles-François du Perrier was descended from a family with roots in Provence. His father was a military contractor and sometime poet. Having studied under the Jesuits at the College of Louis-le-Grand and accompanied his father on military business in Hanover, Dumouriez enlisted as a volunteer in the d'Escars cavalry regiment at the age of 19. He soon received an appointment as Cornet (21 October 1758), justified by his extraordinary bravery. He served under Fischer, France's best light-forces commander of the 18th Century. At Warburg, he rallied two hundred riders around his regimental standard and covered the army's retreat. On 15 October 1760 he was attacked by Prussian Hussars and abandoned by his escort; he fought furiously and surrendered only after putting five enemy troopers out of action, his face black with powder, his forehead lacerated, his arm shattered. Young Dumouriez had suffered 19 wounds. A carbine bullet nearly killed him, but was stopped by a book in his breast-pocket.
Brought as a prisoner before the enemy commander, Prince Charles-Ferdinand of Brunswick, Dumouriez thoroughly won-over the Prince by his courage and wit. Brunswick, deeply impressed by this spirited young man, sent him freely back to Marshal de Castries, with a glowing letter of recommendation. Neither of the young officers could have foreseen that this letter, which made its way to Marshal de Belle-Isle, would make the fortune of the young Frenchman, and that the two of them would meet again as opposing commanders in Champagne, thirty-two years later.
Dumouriez was promoted to Captain on 7 March 1761, at age 22. He received the Order of Saint-Louis on 1 February 1763.
Retired to Paris on half-pay in 1763, Dumouriez formed a close friendship with Jean-Louis Favier, one of the chief agents of Louis XV's secret service. "Favier," Dumouriez later said, "taught me everything I know about politics."
Chafing in idleness, the restless young officer set out across the world, leading the life of a bold adventurer seeking to turn every circumstance and each acquaintance to his advantage, sometimes as a mercenary with sword in hand, sometimes as a spy, always energetic and resolute. He learned much about the strengths and weaknesses of each nation, but the taste he acquired for conspiracy and underhanded dealing, and his shedding of all scruples, could be said to have ruined his character.
He offered to fight for Genoa against Paoli, then for Paoli against Genoa. Rejected by both the Republic and the Corsican patriot, he fell in with Costa, chief of a faction hostile to Paoli, and led a raid on Bonifacio. In 1763-67 he travelled extensively in Iberia, spying out the defenses of Portugal for the Spanish government, but also reporting to Paris. In the French expedition to Corsica in May 1768, he boldly proposed his own plans, quarreled with his chief, captured several redoubts, attempted with a handful of men to seize the port of Ile Rousse, and forced the surrender of Gorte Castle.
In 1770, Dumouriez was sent to Poland to organize the infantry of the Confederation of Bar. He used his contacts to recruit the cream of France's adventurers as well as army deserters, bought muskets from every possible source, and established a headquarters in Landskron Castle. Recalled to France in 1772, he predicted that the Poles, "Europe's Asians," would soon lose their independence.
In 1773, Dumouriez was dispatched on a deeply undercover mission to Hamburg to recruit a corps of seven thousand men to fight for Sweden against Russia. The plotting was so obscure that different segments of the French secret service were unaware what the others were doing; the affair went badly and Dumouriez was imprisoned for six months in the Bastille.
Transferred to the Fortress of Caen, Dumouriez was released upon the accession of Louis XVI. Promoted to Colonel in 1775, Dumouriez became commandant of the Fortress of Cherbourg on 23 February 1778. Assistant chief-of-staff of the Army of Brittany (1 June 1779), commander of an infantry brigade (5 December 1781), promoted to Maréchal de Camp (Brigadier-General) on 9 March 1788, he lusted for greater power, as Minister of War or an Army Commander. He watched avidly for a turn of events that could open to him new opportunities. One day in the Autumn of 1788, walking with a friend along the Cherbourg waterfront, he remarked, "Do not think that I will long remain vegetating here. Tremendous changes are about to happen in Paris. I'm going to be there and make my fortune."
The Revolution erupted; Dumouriez was ecstatic. As soon as the disturbances began, he had no other thought than to make himself, as the contemporary expression went, master of the dance. He adopted the cause of reform not by passion but by calculation and for the furtherance of his ambitions, much as young Napoléon Bonaparte was doing at the same time. To him the Revolution was an unexpected and glittering opportunity to thrust himself forward to the high destiny he craved.
He did not seek the destruction of royalty. He was comfortable enough with monarchic goverment, so long as he could do as he wished. He was a soldier, and believed that the state, like the army, needed discipline, order, and strong central authority. A man of vigor and action, he disdained revolutionary rhetoric, detested fanaticism, and sought to stamp out anarchy.
Dumouriez joined the Society of Friends of the Constitution, allying himself with Mirabeau, Lafayette, and the Girondins. At the same time, he courted the royalists. In early 1789 he presented Louis XVI with a plan (not adopted) to prevent the capture of the Bastille. He suggested himself as a potential commander at Lyons, or ambassador to Mainz. Finally he promised, if admitted to the Ministry, to save the monarchy by infiltrating the Jacobin clubs and destroying them from within. After some hesitation, Louis XVI agreed to use Doumouriez' services; he was brought to Paris, promoted to Lieutenant-General (6 February 1792) and assigned to advise Foreign Minister Delassart.
The Girondin party, as well as the royalists, favored Dumouriez for a high position in the Ministry; like them, he professed hatred of Austria and called for war. Named Minister of Foreign Affairs on 15 March 1792, Dumouriez quickly engineered a declaration of war against Austria. He was convinced that the great diversion of an external war would be useful for the monarchy; military success would give the royalists enhanced prestige, authority, and an effective army. War would, not incidentally, raise his own importance above that of his ministerial colleagues, and give him a popular following.
Dumouriez did not last long as a Minister. He had hoped to steer the Revolution and bend France to his will. He overlooked certain factors: Louis XVI had his own secret plans, and while appearing to yield to the popular will, was requesting foreign intervention; he underestimated the potency of the émigrés; finally, like most of his contemporaries, he failed to grasp the real extent and the fanatical, almost religious spirit of the Revolution.
Dumouriez broke with the Girondins, had three Ministers sacked, and took over the Ministry of War. He boldly presented his outline for a new government in a tumultuous session of the Assembly, shrugging off the shouted threats and cat-calls of his opponents. However, Louis XVI vetoed Dumouriez' proposals; the general, undercut by the King, was forced to resign from the Ministry on 18 June 1792.
Dumouriez moved to the Army of the North, where he assumed command of the camp at Maulde. He appeared to have alienated every party. Dumouriez, though, was a keen judge of changes in the political wind. On 20 June he made himself prominent (and highly visible) in the mob filling the Tuileries gardens, making threatening gestures toward the Royal Palace. He was convinced that the monarchy was about to fall. While training his troops and winning their affection by sharing their hardships, he paraded his revolutionary zeal; he was insubordinate to his superior, Luckner, and railed against Lafayette. He became a leading figure in the Jacobin club at Lille, publicly embraced Robespierre, and spoke fervently for the dethronement of Louis XVI. The leading Jacobins were impressed by his show, and by the sight of his soldiers flocking around the general, cheering and calling him their "father." One of the leading northern Jacobins wrote to his colleagues in Paris,
I was prejudiced against him at first, as were all patriots, but his conduct since rejoining the Army has reconciled us, and I believe he is quite indipensible; the camp at Maulde is the epicenter of patriotism and liberty.
Dumouriez was thus sure that he would return to center-stage, and that the Revolution, needing a captain, would turn to him. He sent letter upon letter to the Committee of Twenty-One, proposing himself as commander-in-chief of the Army of the North in place of Dillon. He flouted the orders of D'Abancourt, the new Minister of War; when reprimanded for failing to report to Luckner at Metz, he replied:
I receive your letter in the midst of a crisis which permits no second-guessing. I am under the command of Dillon, I admire and like him, he is my senior, I will obey him without repugnance. However, some day the nation will judge whether it is advantageous, under these circumstances, that I should be subordinated to him. You propose, instead, to place me under the command of Lafayette. That proposal is out of the question, and I predict that it will be reversed either by circumstances or by the wisdom of the National Assembly. I dare say that I have had occasion, in my revolutionary career, to learn that it is always great dangers, great faults, or great misfortunes that save the people and set them on the right path, against all probability....With perseverance, I shall have the joy of being one of the saviors of my country, whatever obstacles are raised against me by my personal enemies.
This letter was dated 5 August; five days later, the throne fell and Lafayette called on all troops in the North to swear allegiance to the now-overthrown constitution. Dumouriez immediately wrote to the Assembly that he would remain faithful to the nation, that he would never recognise any sovereign other than the French people, and that he applauded "without hesitation and unconditionally the catastrophic changes of 10 August, which were only what could be expected of a nation that had been deceived, betrayed, and exasperated beyond all possible bounds."
The provisional executive council made Dumouriez commander-in-chief of the Army of the North. The very Ministers he had purged a few months before praised him lavishly and promised him their firm support.
Dumouriez arrived at Sedan, headquarters of the Army of the North, late on 28 August, and on the next day conducted a general inspection. A large portion of the army was ill-inclined toward the new general; he was regarded as a pen-pusher who had spent his career in ministerial posts and petty commands, and many suspected him of having ruined Lafayette by back-stabbing intrigues. Everywhere, he met only grim and hostile faces. There were no shouts, no cheers, only a sullen and restless silence. One grenadier dared to say aloud, "That's the bastard who had war declared." Dumouriez heard, and retorted, "Did you expect to win liberty without a fight?" Another yelled out, "Down with the general!" He ran up to the battalion from whence the insult had come. Drawing his sword, he bellowed: "Let that poor excuse for a soldier step out here and fight me, man-to-man!" Nobody moved. "My friends," he continued, "that man is a coward, unworthy to stand among you." The insolent soldier was beaten-up by his comrades, and the general was applauded.
Dumouriez was keen to implement his own scheme for an invasion of the Austrian Netherlands (Belgium). However, he bowed to the government's urgent imprecations to "Save Paris!" Executing a daring flank-march under the noses of Clerfayt's Austrians, the Army of the North occupied the defiles of the Argonne, astride the Allied line of communications. Brunswick's army turned ponderously east to dispose of this irritant before resuming its march on Paris.
On 20 September 1792, by the village and windmill of Valmy, the forces of Dumouriez and Kellermann confronted the Prussians. After about an hour's cannonade, the Prussian assault columns advanced. After covering about 200 meters, faced with heavy French fire and no sign of the expected French collapse and rout, the Prussians halted and turned back. This seemingly trivial encounter (there were barely 300 French casualties, 180 Prussian) was to have the most profound consequences: The Allied invading force withdrew into Germany. French morale soared. Dumouriez and Kellermann were celebrated as the saviors of the nation, and indeed their inspiring leadership had much to do with the new-found steadiness of the troops.
With the momentum of the war shifting dramatically in favor of the French, Dumouriez invaded the Austrian Netherlands. At Jemappes, just west of Mons, on 6 November 1792, Dumouriez attacked and decisively defeated the Austrians. It was a crude and clumsy victory, due as much to numerical superiority (40,000 to 14,000) as to good generalship, but the troops performed well, and it was France's first real victory in the Wars of the Revolution. In short order, Dumouriez had conquered all of Belgium and was threatening Holland.
Returning to Paris briefly in December 1792, Dumouriez had a fateful falling-out with the Jacobin party, and switched his allegiance to the Girondins. In the aftermath of the execution of Louis XVI (21 January 1793), Dumouriez returned to the army and between 2 February and 10 March took Breda, Klundert, and Gertruydenberg. Transferred to the Army of the Ardennes on 11 March 1793, he delivered a politically-risky speech in Brussels, criticizing the all-powerful Convention.
On 18 March 1793, at Neerwinden, 23 miles northwest of Liège, Dumouriez fought his last battle, leading 45,000 men against 40,000 Austrians under the young Archduke Charles, who was commanding for the first time. The French attack was poorly organized. The Austrians suffered 3,000 casualties but held the field; the French lost 4,000 killed and wounded and no less than 10,000 deserters and prisoners.
This was the great crisis of Dumouriez' career. He had hoped to return to Paris in triumph as the invincible conqueror of the Netherlands, to overawe the Assembly and perhaps set himself up as a dictator, with a figurehead Louis XVII under his thumb. Instead, the Convention called him to stand trial. Dumouriez was all too aware that the guillotine was becoming the final destination of unsuccessful generals; he was not about to submit tamely to that ignoble fate.
Dumouriez contacted Austria's Colonel Mack to begin negotiations for defection. When the representatives of the Convention, headed by War Minister Beurnonville himself, arrived at Dumouriez' headquarters at Saint-Amand to place him under arrest, the general had his loyal Bercheny Hussars seize them; he turned them over to the Austrians as prisoners.
Hoping to march on Paris like a modern Caesar, Dumouriez harangued his troops. He had lost nothing of his eloquence, but the news that he had been outlawed by the Convention turned most of the men against him, and the army melted away. Accompanied by only 458 infantry and 424 cavalry, Dumouriez crossed the lines on 5 April 1793 and delivered himself to the Austrians.
Dumouriez was not warmly received by his erstwhile enemies. He was ejected from the territory of the Elector of Cologne, and found no welcome in Stuttgart. He travelled through Switzerland, Italy and England under an assumed name. He offered his services to Tsar Paul of Russia, and was rejected. He finally settled in England, receiving a pension of £1200 per year from the British government in 1800. In his most useful work for the Crown, he used his extensive knowledge of Iberia to advise Wellington on strategy for the Peninsular War. Dumouriez died at Turville Park, Buckinghamshire, England on 14 March 1823, aged 84, having never been allowed to return to his native France.
Dumouriez was something of a stranger in the Revolutionary world. He had an instinctual feel for the new system of warfare; he invented or at least was the first to employ the new tactic of deploying skirmishers in a large swarm; on he slopes of Jemappes he won the first victory carried off by the Republican army. Still, his military talents never equalled his diplomatic skills. When he invaded Belgium in November 1792, he was incapable of keeping his army concentrated. After the victory at Jemappes, he was lax in pursuing the enemy rear-guards. He had experienced large-scale warfare only in the disastrous campaigns pitting Marshal de Broglie against Frederick of Brunswick. Just as he was always something of a secret agent in his politics, he was always a soldier-of-fortune, a leader of a Corsican gang or a Polish insurgent band in his warfare. His direct combat experience had been in wild Hussar escapades and irregular warfare, and this shaped him forever.
However, he possessed that self-confidence which inspires confidence in others. He knew how to lead Frenchmen, and soldiers. Despite his fifty-three years in 1792, he had the fire, the force, and the military flair which seduces and activates troops; he knew how to give heart to an army and set it ablaze with fervor. His audacity and boastfulness, his speech always sparkling with gallic wit, and his tranquil demeanor in the midst of confusion and danger cheered everyone around him and inspired confidence. Dumouriez, better than any other general of his time, knew how to retore the men's morale by appealing to, as he called it, the national vanity.
Essentially, he was a cynic who cared for nothing but his own welfare and glory. He had his flashes of brilliance, but lacked the persistence and determination necessary to a great man. He was always impatient and volatile, ruining his own schemes by indiscreet talk or impulsive moves. He counted too heavily on luck and improvisation. He epitomized the characteristic vice of an 18th-Century Frenchman: recklessness. As Ferson wrote, "He was a true Frenchman, full of spirit but lacking in judgment; his plans failed due to his excess of self-confidence."
There was one glorious moment which compensates for all that was petty and contemptible in his later career. Though he outlined campaign plans for Napoleon's enemies, supported foreigners against his nation, begged for charity from Louis XVIII and lived on an English pension, he repelled the invasion in September 1792. This atones for his treacheries, great though these were.
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