CONQUERING THE NATURAL FRONTIER: FRENCH EXPANSION TO THE RHINE RIVER DURING THE WAR OF THE FIRST COALITION, 1792-1797
Jordan R. Hayworth, M.A.
After conquering Belgium and the Rhineland in 1794, the French Army of the Sambre and Meuse faced severe logistical, disciplinary, and morale problems that signaled the erosion of its capabilities. The army’s degeneration resulted from a revolution in French foreign policy designed to conquer the natural frontiers, a policy often falsely portrayed as a diplomatic tradition of the French monarchy. In fact, the natural frontiers policy – expansion to the Rhine, the Pyrenees, and the Alps – emerged only after the start of the War of the First Coalition in 1792. Moreover, the pursuit of natural frontiers caused more controversy than previously understood. No less a figure than Lazare Carnot – the Organizer of Victory – viewed French expansion to the Rhine as impractical and likely to perpetuate war. While the war of conquest provided the French state with the resources to survive, it entailed numerous unforeseen consequences. Most notably, the Revolutionary armies became isolated from the nation and displayed more loyalty to their commanders than to the civilian authorities. In 1797, the Sambre and Meuse Army became a political tool of General Lazare Hoche, who sought control over the Rhineland by supporting the creation of a Cisrhenan Republic. Ultimately, troops from Hoche’s army removed Carnot from the French Directory in the coup d’état of 18 fructidor, a crucial benchmark in the militarization of French politics two years before Napoleon Bonaparte’s seizure of power. Accordingly, the conquest of the Rhine frontier contributed to the erosion of democratic governance in Revolutionary France.