Military Subjects: Battles & Campaigns


The Eye of the Cyclone at the Fall of the XVIIIth Century:  The Ill-Fated Helvetic Republic (1798-1803)

By Dr. Gabriel Vital-Durand

Introduction

Events of the two last years of the XVIIIth century may go unnoticed in the middle of more prominent military campaigns and dramatic political developments alike. The French Directory was struggling with political and financial challenges in 1799. On the international front, the fate of the French Republic did appear rather grim, with four major powers leagued against it, armies stretched from Friesland to Calabria, a navy in shambles, its best general stuck in Syria...

During that period, a corner of the world that is usually very quiet underwent a series of memorable events. The three initial participants in the 1291-Pact had crystallised around them a Confederation that had managed to emerge virtually unscathed from the disastrous episodes attached to the Reformation, the Thirty-year War and the emergence of France as a dominant nation at the expense of Flanders, Lorraine, Burgundy, Franche-Comté and Savoy. The old Confederation had actually preserved a number of antiquated practices that worked to the benefit of oligarchic parties at the expense of ordinary people. Little wonder that France would soon seize the opportunity of replicating itself in the form of the ill-fated Helvetic Republic (1798‑1803).

At the same time, the 2nd Coalition of allied powers had formed three large armies, one in Holland under command of the Duke of York, one in Southern Germany under Archduke Charles and one in Italy directed by Field‑Marshal Count Suvorov. The French Army of Italy was led by Generals Moreau and Championnet. These otherwise capable commanders happened to lose every major engagement with the Russian Cossacks brilliantly conducted by the 70‑year-old, once a favourite of Catherine II of Russia. By the end of the 1799 campaign, Suvorov had conquered all of Northern Italy and was on the verge of invading the South of France. He had been made Prince Italskii in testimony to his successes. At this particular moment, the Aulic Council in Vienna came about moving armies along the Alps... General Brune heading the French Army of Holland was considered a threat to the poorly co-ordinated Anglo-Russian forces once intended to overthrow the Batavian Republic. In September of 1799, Archduke Charles was ordered North to support these. Meanwhile, Field-Marshal Suvorov was to march across the Tessin region North of Milan, slip through the Saint Gothard Pass and reach central Switzerland to contain the French. General Masséna was quick to seize the opportunity, and ordered General Oudinot eastwards across the Limatt River at Zurich on 25 September. Austro-Russian positions under Generals Korsakov and Hotze were taken by surprise and overrun. The allied troops soon had to retreat towards the Vorarlberg Province of Austria to the East.

During that time, Suvorov had given up any hope of receiving the mules that had been committed to carry guns, equipment and forage across the Alps. The Cossacks had little choice but to give up their horses and march up to the Saint Gothard Pass (2,108 m) against heavy fire from the overwhelming French entrenchments. Notwithstanding, they managed to cross the pass on 24 September and rush further North across Devil’s  Bridge into the Schöllenen Gorges. Two days later, their chance of boarding boats to cross the Four-Cantons-Lake had vanished and Suvorov was left to head eastbound across the Chinsig (2,073 m) and the Pragel (1,515 m) Passes towards Glaris and Austria. They reached there only to realise that the French troops had settled in Glaris and the only opportunity yet available to them was to retreat southwards across the Panix Pass (2,407 m) towards the Anterior Rhine River. By now, hunger, bitter cold, and heavy snow had combined with tiredness and despair against the unfortunate Russians who had lost up to their shoes... On 6 October, the old yet indomitable Field-Marshal managed to cross that pass with whatever was left of his once-successful army. The troops would eventually reach Chur before marching back to Austria and Russia. The unfortunate Suvorov, upon meeting to the Tsar, was to fall in disgrace, become ill, and die soon afterwards. Nevertheless, locals in Switzerland and soldiers in Russia still remember the amazing resilience and stubbornness as displayed by the Cossacks during the fall of 1799.

Meanwhile, General Brune had routed the English expeditionary force in Castricum (Holland) on 6 October. Unexpectedly, General Bonaparte had abandoned his army back in Egypt and reached Paris to prepare a coup (18 Brumaire Year VIII – 9 November, 1799). He was to quickly reassert law and order, reach the appropriate compromise with the aristocracy in exile and the Catholic Church alike, hence actually combining the benefits of both worlds, the old and the new. Eventually, the determination of his archenemies – Pitt the Younger and Admiral Nelson – was to force the soon to be emperor into ever-continuing wars with all European powers of the time. The Year 1814 was the last time that Switzerland would have to stand foreign soldiers on its soil. The hesitancy of many Swiss citizens of this day to join into either European or other international commitments may well have something to do with the events of that time.


General Bonaparte in Egypt
(British cartoon, 1798)

The 1798-99 period is highlighted by the fascinating Campaign of Egypt, during which General Bonaparte managed to secure the support of a fading French Navy, conquer the imposing fortress of Valetta on the Island of Malta, escape the British Navy all the way through to Alexandria prior to conquering Egypt. Even though Vice-admiral Nelson had soon made sure the French could not sail back and thus greatly reduced the benefits of such a venture, Bonaparte eventually made his way back to Fréjus and Paris where he was to take power on the 18th of  Brumaire, Year VIII (9th November, 1799).                                          

One may wonder why such an apparent waste of valuable resources is often pictured as a remarkable military and political achievement. A possible reason for such view is that the French Directory (government) of the time was exhausted in many respects, its armies spread around across Italy, Switzerland, Rhineland and the Law Countries to try and contain those of the 2nd Coalition (all European powers apart from Spain and Prussia).

It might be of interest to actually have a look at those events, which occurred then in Rhineland, Switzerland and Italy, since those are the places where France was to sustain the ominous forces of Austria and Russia, a power that has not yet been involved in Western Europe and was actually not to return until this day.

The French Directory and Its Enemies across Europe at the end of 1797

Whereas some of the traditional competitors of France had initially welcomed the Revolution since it was to lessen the might of the kingdom, all European powers were soon to realise how threatening to their regimes the resulting social unrest had become by the end of 1791. Consequently they reacted to the declaration of war of the Convention to the “King of Bohemia and Hungary” (the Emperor of Austria) by a military alliance to be referred to as the 1st Coalition. The leading powers of the time were Austria, Prussia, the United Kingdom, and Russia where the aging Tsarina Catherine I was extremely vocal against what she referred to as a “lair of bandits”. Contrary to all expectations, the republican army managed to contain the allies at Valmy (20 September 1792) and they subsequently invaded Rhineland, Belgium and Northern Italy where they encountered some support in the population. A “sister-republic” was instated in Mayence (17 March, 1793), Savoy and the Austrian Low-Countries (Belgium) were annexed in 1792-94.

After the Directory had replaced the Convention and the Treaty of Basle (1795) had concluded peace with Spain, hostilities were to continue in the Low-Countries, Germany and Italy, not to mention the high seas. So-called “sister-republics” were now in place all around the “Grand Nation” – Batavian, Cisrhenanian, Ligurian, Cispadanian and Transpadanian to be later united as Cisalpine, and soon to be Roman, Parthenopean and Helvetic Republics…

On top of such exposure, the Directory was facing uprising in France (War of Vendée, riots in Provence, and secession in Corsica), in Santo Domingo, which had been acquired from Spain, having to compensate for the emigration of the aristocracy, which was adding to the poor condition of the navy. Nevertheless the war cabinet set up two expeditionary forces in succession bound to Ireland and a delegation to Tippo Sultan fighting the East Indian Company in the Deccan (Southern India). Ithers were engaging into reforming society down to the roots (metric system, state schooling, secularisation of society, universal granting of civil rights, abolition of slavery…). The Campaign of Egypt was mounted against all odds in early 1798, to have General Bonaparte conquer the Island of Malta where the Knights of Saint John had been ruling for 250 years, prior to landing at Abukir near Alexandria. Not only did the campaign bring little benefit, it also resulted in pressing both the sultan of Constantinople and the tsar of Russia entering the coalition against France.

The Political Scene in Switzerland during the latter Part of the XVIIIth Century

Switzerland was born in the Middle Ages as a result of increasing demand for transportation across the Alps. The construction of a stone-bridge on the tumultuous Schöllenen torrent allowed access to the Saint Gothard Pass, thus attracting traffic to an area that had been neglected in Roman times, albeit transalpine traffic had then been flourishing. Raising taxes on the traffic soon created local wealth and political ambition. The Duke of Habsburg did not succeed in his efforts to keep in control of affairs, as a result of which the cantons attempted at overseeing access to the pass from the South as well as from the North. Whilst they largely succeeded in their venture, the kings of France were clever enough to make alliance with the Swiss powers against Burgundy and Austria from that early period.

Towards the end of the XVIIIth Century however, the Swiss cantons were amounting to 13, all of them German speaking, and had secured treaties with local vassals and other entities alike, thus called their allies. Although they were extremely jealous of their independence, they also used to send deputies to a Diet sitting in Solothurn, which was devoid of any real power. The cantons had thus retained their own banners, separate armies, currencies, and tax-systems. Although economic fundamentals were generally rural and conservative in nature, several cities to the northwest of the Confederation had actually achieved prosperity through weaving and clock-making as well as banking across Europe.

While J-J. Rousseau had been picturing the Swiss Confederation as a democratic model, reality was somewhat grimmer. A small number of aristocratic families had made sure political power remained in their hands in the major towns (Basle, Zurich, Berne, Lucerne). Apart from the 13 cantons, large regions had been acquired through conquest and subjected, and those had been in effect reduced to the condition of colonies. A number of popular uprisings occurred during the latter part of the XVIIIth Century as a consequence of the Enlightening movement. These were brutally suppressed.

At the same time, economic prosperity had resulted in a better education and intellectual climate. Many of the brilliant thinkers of the time actually resided in Switzerland, e. g. mathematicians Bernoulli and Euler, physicians Haller, Tissot, Tronchin as well as Rousseau, Pestalozzi, Constant, Bonstetten, Fellenberg, Bonnet, Candolle, Pictet, Saussur.

Whilst many in the lower classes were forced into emigration to secure a living, others in prominent families were also led to seek their fortune abroad, sometimes as far away as America, Russia, and India. Not only soldiers, but also architects, engineers, men of letters, and artists often gained prominence away from their original country. Paris was possibly the most famous city of the world, and the Swiss community was particularly prosperous there.

The United Kingdom had gained much power during the century, and family scions indulged into the habit of travelling across Europe to accomplish their Grand Tour. Writers, such as Rousseau, had promoted subjects of nature and the young Goethe was to further develop that trend by reporting on his travels in Switzerland. Whilst Gibbon lived in Lausanne and felt enthused by the local system, other political thinkers were quick to point to its limitations (Casanova, Voltaire). Talking of Switzerland, Goethe observed: “Liberty is but a fairy tale preserved in alcohol ”, and the Russian traveller Karamzine: “Prosperity has made citizens selfish and thereby caused moral decadence of the people.” Even more ominous, a deputy from St Gallen was to state: “Issuing a bill to state that it will be snowing in winter should require more than a dozen deliberations !”

It may come as little surprise that such a conservative society would be shaken by the tremendous sequence of events soon to occur in Revolutionary France. Many radical thinkers of the time, like Constant, La Harpe, Ochs, Germaine de Staël, were adamant at precipitating dramatic changes in the social and political fabrics of society. Furthermore, Switzerland had escaped war on its soil for some three hundred years, and no one considered military invasion other than an adventurous speculation.

 

 

Placed on the Napoleon Series: January 2004

 

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