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Warfare in the Age of Napoleon:
The French Revolution &
The War of the First Coalition   1789-1797


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A great romance started surrounding Napoleon Bonaparte that built up to the level of a cult even before he was obliged to relinquish power. While he was undoubtedly the most hated man in Europe during his heyday, he had also achieved the status of what we would now call a superstar. Part of this no doubt has to do with his brilliant military campaigns that he led over much of Europe. Tactics had finally caught up with the use of gunpowder, which now dominated the battlefield, but it was Napoleon’s outstanding ability in the art of maneuver that brought him his most memorable victories.

The French Revolution in which this period starts, did not only change the leadership of France; by replacing the monarchy with a republic they challenged the very foundation of European power. Many of the ideals of the revolution were carried forward in the Napoleonic code that systematized tolerance, and prized ability over status of birth. This doctrine that challenges notions of class has also ensured Napoleon’s place in history. While each nation’s approach to this narrative may differ, Napoleon as a myth is now recognized worldwide including nations that never knew of him during his lifetime. The fact that these years are best characterized through the actions of a single man separates this period from all that came before and after it.



The French Revolution   1789


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With the Church and nobility of France being exempt from paying taxes, the peasants alone carried the burden of supporting the government. This tenuous situation reached the breaking point when this source of revenue alone could no longer finance Louis XIV’s many wars, and the Empire fell into serious debt. When crop failures hit France in the 1780’s the price of bread rose dramatically, and it became impossible for most to quench the hunger in their stomachs and that of the demands of the crown at the same time. As widespread feelings of injustice grew, attempts were made to tax the nobles but this was met with much resistance.

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The King summoned the Estates General to work out a solution to the Empire’s financial problems. Discussions quickly broke down along class lines, and when voting rules favoring the nobles and the Church were installed, the common men of the Third Estate declared themselves the true representatives of the people and formed a National Assembly. When troops were sent to Versailles to break up the Assembly in 1789, the working class of Paris stormed the Bastille fortress and seized its cache of weapons. This violent outburst caused the nobles to panic and they began to flee for their lives. Within a year the Assembly abolished feudalism, confiscated Church land, and published the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which created a nation of free individuals protected equally by law under the principal of universal human rights. When the King’s attempt to escape France failed he was forced to accept a new constitution in 1791 in which his power would be shared with that of an elected National Assembly.

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The liberal republicans of the Assembly (Girondins) led by Georges Danton, who wanted to export the ideals of the Revolution, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity throughout Europe, thought they found an ally in the King Louis when he proposed to wage war against Austria and Prussia. The King’s actual motive was to regain his lost popularity through a victorious war, from which he might regain all his power. When his string of victories led to rumors that he was conspiring to seize power, a mob to attack the Tuileries Palace and the King was arrested. In 1792 the monarchy was abolished and a republic declared with the National Convention assuming legislative power, and the Committee of Public Safety serving as the executive. The following year Louis XIV was executed but the Girondins still held the most influence over national affairs.

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Since Medieval times the Swiss cantons bound their citizens to serve in a militia where they were well trained and equipped. With few opportunities for employment in their homeland, these soldiers often hired themselves out both individually and in large units organized by the cantons. They gradually built up a good reputation as skilled disciplined warriors, and by the 15th century they were greatly sought after as mercenaries. A regiment of these mercenaries had continually served the monarchs of France as bodyguards since the 17th century. After King Louis XVI was forced out of Versailles in 1792 he took up residence in the Tuileries Palace along with his Swiss Guards. By this time he was already sharing power with the new National Assembly but when Austrian and Prussian troops approached the borders of France threatening to restore the full monarchy, revolutionary fervor was aroused. Eventually a large armed contingent from the new insurrectionary commune attacked the Tuileries on the 10th of August. The King fled but the guards were not given any orders so they stood their ground and were nearly all killed.

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Karl Pfyffer von Altishofen, an officer of the Swiss Guards who had been away on leave, missed the fight wanted to honor his fallen comrades. After raising the needed funds he approached the Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen to design an appropriate monument The result was carved into a high wall of a sandstone quarry near Lucerne by Lukas Ahorn in 1821. It features a giant lion impaled on a spear with the motto Helvetiorum Fidei ac Virtuti (To the loyalty and bravery of the Swiss). This is one of the most widely reproduced monuments to be found on postcards. These fallen soldiers, whose crime was their loyalty, became martyrs and as such their monument resounds loudly in its poetry.

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In 1792 Claude Joseph de Lisle wrote a song entitled Chant de guerre pour l’Armée du Rhin. It was popular among the revolutionaries of Marseille, and after they marched on Paris, it gained the nickname the Marseillaise. It was a patriotic song, espousing the ideals of the Revolution and how the French would stand up to their enemies then gathering around them. The French National Convention would adapt it as the Republic’s anthem in 1795, but its lyrics were too unsettling when Napoleon began establishing order and he banned it. The song however remained popular and later became the anthem of the international revolutionary movement. It was restored as the national anthem of France in 1879. During World War One the body of Lisle was reentered at Les Invalides as a hero of the Republic.

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The anti-despotic spirit is often represented by an allegorical figure of Liberty, which became a popular symbol in France. By the time of the French Revolution of 1789, the virtues of liberty and reason had merged with that of the new republic to create a new personification. She wore the traditional flowing robes and a Phrygian cap but she now carried a lance representing revolution. Though this symbol was chosen as the seal of the First French Republic, she was replaced in 1793 by a bare-breasted woman leading men into battle while holding the tricolor flag of France. To make here more relatable her robes were eventually replaced by common dress and her lance replaced with a rife. The Marseillaise is often alluded to on numerous French patriotic postcards depicting Liberty.

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The female incarnation of Liberty dates at least as far back as the third century BCE, and she can be found on postcards in various incantations depicting revolutionaries fighting on the barricades to those showing her inspiring troops to attack the Kaisers solders during World War One. In France this figure took on the popular name of Marianne around 1848. She has since become one of the world’s most iconic figures, and her red Phrygian cap continues to be a symbol of revolutionary struggle.

(See Liberty, dated May 17, 2015, in the archive of the websites Blog section for more information on this subject)

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Many historical incidents of the French Revolution were reproduced on postcards, though most of these cards are French and most are based on much earlier prints. Perhaps the single most popular image depicts the storming of the Bastille, which may yield clues to the lack of more modern representation. Though one might say that the French Revolution ended in failure, it did break the absolute power of the monarchy and the Church in France for good, and it also helped to spread the ideals of democracy and human rights. Its greatest achievement was to become a symbol of equality through violent revolution throughout the world, where absolute power could be replaced by a classless cooperative society. By the time postcards came into production the world was still divided between democratic republics and absolute monarchies to which this message was anathema. Even in democratic societies the association of violence with politics was not very welcome, and so the edge was taken off of revolutionary imagery until there was a need to express it in a negative light.

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Neurdein Freres was an old Parisian photo studio that later became a prolific publisher of postcards, often concentrating on art reproductions. They produced an extremely large set of about 600 cards entitled Napoleon and his Era (Napoleon et son Epoque) that is based on earlier black & white engravings. They are the most comprehensive representations of the Napoleonic period covering everything from the Revolution to his death.

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In 1744 King Louis XV made a vow to St. Genevieve, the savior of Paris, promising to replace her dilapidated abbey should she restore him to health. When his prayers were answered, he directed the commissioner for public buildings, Jacques-Germain Soufflot, to begin construction. The structure was near completion when the Revolution broke out in 1789, but anti-Catholic sentiment in the new National Assembly prevented it from opening as a church. It was re-consecrated as the Pantheon to be used as a mausoleum for exceptional Frenchmen. The remains of the National Assembly president Comte Honoré Gabriel Riqueti de Mirabeau were the first to be interred there in 1871. The remains of the well known revolutionary, Voltaire later followed. The bones of St. Genevieve that had been held there were put on trail for the propagation of error, and subsequently thrown into the Seine. In 1920 a large monument to the National Convention inscribed with the words, Live Free or Die was placed inside the Pantheon. The large number of view-cards representing such monuments reinforces the high esteem these revolutionary values are still held in.

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For some the French Revolution has become less famous for its accomplishments than for the huge numbers killed in the Reign of Terror. It has been said that the Parisian Catacombs were created during the Revolution to hold all the corpses that were overflowing the cemeteries. This however is a half truth for while the Catacombs opened during the Revolution and no doubt held many of its victims, its existence is largely a consequence of urbanization. Traditionally the dead were buried in consecrated ground within the city’s churchyards. As they filled, the bones of the long dead were dug up and placed into storage to make room for the newly deceased. As the Population of Paris grew, this ancient system could not handle the volume and began to become a health hazard. In 1870 new burials were forbidden in Paris, the dead sent off to suburban cemeteries. The bones of those stored in Paris would begin bing moved in 1785 to the abandoned limestone mines that once sat outside the city but now lay beneath the growing city’s streets. Their haphazard placement began to be set into order by Louis-Etienne Hericart de Thury who headed the Mine Inspection Service. He placed the bones into decorative patterns enhanced by surviving cemetery markers. By 1814 the last of the bones were interred, and the renovated catacombs began attracting visitors. The story tying the dead to the Revolution had much appeal to tourists, and this myth of the Empire of the Dead was widely promoted on postcards.



The War of the First Coalition   1792-1797


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Fearful of the breakdown of the natural order in France, the monarchies of Europe began forming a coalition to rid this upstart republic of its revolutionaries. The Austrians and Prussians were the first to form an alliance and move their armies to the French border with the Sardinians joining later. As various factions within republic vied for power, they each saw it in their best interest to gain popularity by engaging in wars abroad; so under this foreign threat to their liberty, France declared war on Austria in 1792. With the French army purged of royalists, the ability of the new citizen army to defend French borders looked unlikely. Their initial advance into the Austrian Netherlands was quickly pushed back, and the Austro-Prussian army under the Duke of Brunswick had already taken many French cities to the north. The Allies proclaimed insistence on the restoration of the Bourbon Monarchy was disagreeable to Brunswick, and he only made a halfhearted effort to engage the French when they met at the Battle of Valmy in September 1792. Seeing he had no popular support among the citizens of France, Brunswick withdrew to the Rhineland.

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King Vittorio Amedeo of Savoia, who ruled the Kingdom of Sardinia, was a harsh critic of the French Revolution and provided soldiers to aid in its downfall. In February the French launched an attack aimed at capturing Cagliari that included the participation of a young Lieutenant Colonel, Napoleone di Buonaparte. He soon found himself at odds with his less ambitious superiors who after being repelled at Cagliari only managed to seize the small outer islands of San Pietro and St. Antioco. This still put the British naval base there at risk and by May a Spanish fleet forced the French garrisons to surrender. Napoleon had by this time already moved on to the fighting around Toulon.

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With the Army of Brunswick neutralized the French army was able to descend on Flanders by winter, defeating the Austrians at Jemappes in November 1892. After this victory they continued to advance to capture Brussels and besieged Antwerp. The execution of Louis XVI in early 1793 brought more allies together to oppose them. France countered by expanded the ongoing conflict by declaring war on Britain, Holland, and Spain. While often seen as liberators, popular support for exporting revolution was not as strong as they believed. The offensive against the Allies in the Austrian Netherlands by their ill-trained citizen army was defeated.

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As the Allies renewed their push into French territory, panic ensued and the more radical Jacobins took power. The new Committee of Public Safety called all eligible men to arms and the response was dramatic. Minister of War, Lazare Carnot organized these men into the quickly trained but functional French Revolutionary Army. During 1793 they were thrown into battle at Hondschoote, Menin, and Wattignics where they suffered high casualties but managed to win the day. This lifted the siege of Maubeuge, and by the end of the year the Allies had been expelled from France.

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As the growing number of political fractions in France divided loyalties, the more radical Jacobins seized power through a parliamentary coup in 1793. The Committee of Public Security, now under Robespierre, then launched a Reign of Terror against counterrevolutionary loyalists that killed many innocent people in the process and hampered military operations. This growing aura of suspicion helped erode their popular support and Robespierre himself was soon deposed and executed.

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Traditionally the officer class of the French Army was drawn from the aristocracy, as was the case in other European armies where rank was determined by the amount of payment to the crown. Many of these officers were imprisoned or executed during the Reign of Terror, which caused many others to flee France. While this helped secure the French Revolution from monarchists, it depleted the ranks of experienced military men that were so desperately needed once armed coalitions were formed against them. Once Lazare Carnot was promoted to the Committee of Public Safety in 1793, he exploited the growing devotion to the Revolution to raise volunteers for the Army. Discipline and organization were quickly imposed but there was not enough time for proper training. This would be made up for in sheer numbers after conscription was imposed. The mixing of veterans with recruits helped alleviate the inconsistency in experience but their weapons and uniforms remained diverse. Veterans wore the old uniforms of the monarchy while recruits were often in civilian clothes topped with a red Phrygian cap or a tricolor cockade. The Revolutionary Army would perform with mixed results but their generals such as Jourdan, Massena, Moreau, and Bonaparte would play important roles in the years to come.

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Not all military cards were meant to serve as propaganda, at least in the traditional sense. There was always a large audience among hobbyists and armchair generals for military subjects on cards, and the added romanticism that surrounded the Napoleonic era only added to their appeal. This wasn’t necessarily based on nationalistic urges for there was usually the desire to have all sides represented to complete a whole. During the golden age of postcards before the horrors of World War One were felt, warfare was surrounded with a playful aura that was an important element in assigning gender roles. Men happily collected images of soldiers on postcards the same way that children play with toy soldiers; only with great attention payed to the details of uniforms and regiments.

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By 1792 most French naval officers had been purged leaving their navy almost inoperable. This made it easy for an Anglo-Spanish fleet under Admiral Hood to sail into the port of Toulon and capture half the French navy and their great arsenal in August 1793. The French laid siege to the city with little result until they adopted a plan by Napoleone di Buonaparte, promoted to Captain of artillery after his attack on Sardinia. After the French recaptured Toulon in December, Napoleone was promoted to General.

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The Italian artist Domenico Mastroianni was well known for his unique high relief narrative sculptures. Many of these pieces were fanciful or of a religious nature but he also produced many depicting Napoleonic battles and commemoratives of Napoleon’s life. These largely seem to come from his studio in Arpino just prior to World War One. These pieces were made in clay, photographed, and then destroyed so the clay could be reused for the next piece. The Parisian publisher A. Noyer reproduced many of these photographs on postcards that were termed sculptogravure.

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At the age of thirteen, Joseph Bara was too young to fight for the Revolution, but he joined a military unit as a drummer boy. In December 1893 he was confronted by Brenton royalists who killed him while trying to seize the horses in his care. His death was exploited by Robespierre who elevated him into a national hero claiming he preferred to die supporting the Republic that praise the King. This narrative was translated into many painting through the 19th century that were eventually reproduced on postcards.

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Many aristocratic officers and generals had been purged from the French army during the Revolution but now their replacements were rising on merit. The French army had also gained much from experience and reorganization. In June 1794 parts of the Army of the Moselle and the Army of the North were combined with the Army of the Ardennes to form the best known revolutionary force, the Army of Sambre-et-Meuse. While the Allies attempted to destroy this French army, they not only managed to survive but under the leadership of Jean-Baptiste Jourdan forced the Austrians out of Flanders after a victory at Fleurus. By 1795 Jourdan had marched further occupying Holland, which they turned into an ally as the Batavian Republic.

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From the start of the war both British and French navies had been active in the Bay of Biscay seizing each others merchant vessels. In May 1794, the commander of the British fleet, Admiral Howe stepped up operations by attempting to intercept a large convoy transporting grain from the United States. A running fight with the French Atlantic Fleet ensued for a couple of days, but little was accomplished because of fog. On The Glorious First of June both fleets met to conduct the first major naval battle of the French Revolutionary Wars. Howe surprised the French by his use of unusual tactics, but lack of coordination prevented a decisive victory. The convoy managed to make safe passage but the French Fleet was too badly damaged to engage the British again. Both sides claimed victory, and the battle was romanticized through propaganda. Postcards depictions usually follow the romantic narrative, leaving out messy details to provide a patriotic message.

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Royer & Co. produced a large set of cards, Nos Gloires Navales, depicting great moments in French naval history. One card honors the warship Vengeur du Peuple (Avenger of the People) that took part in the Glorious First of June. After being disabled in battle, the ship sunk with half its crew as the British tried to save survivors. A much different story was propagated through folk tales in which the crew sang the Marseillaise while defiantly refusing to surrender until all were lost to the sea. Although the tales surrounding the ship were first discarded by eye witnesses and then historians, the more dramatic and heroic version persisted in popular culture. By the time this postcard was published, most written histories had conveniently forgotten the facts to present a more patriotic storyline. This was a common trend when postcards first began to be published, and one must always be wary of accepting the narratives on them as fact. Postcard publishers were not historians but businessmen playing to public desires and expectations.

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A new French constitution would be drafted in 1795 putting executive power in the hands of five directors appointed by parliament (the Directoire), but they were not accepted by loyalists or Jacobins and violent decent continued. This would lead to an outright rebellion; and while the British backed Armée catholique et royale was defeated, the new republic was threatened by a royalist uprising in Paris. On the 5th of October (13 Vendémiaire) Napoleone di Buonaparte, a republican officer assigned to the Bureau of Topography, took charge of the situation and defeated the royalists. Through these actions he became an immediate hero throughout the republic. While surviving written orders given to Napoleon remain important as historic documents, their presence on postcards is a good indication of the cult that grew around him.

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Napoleon first used his newfound fame, not for military or political opportunity, but to write a romantic novella in 1795 entitled Clisson et Eugenie. It was a story about a revolutionary soldier and his lover that many believe is based on his own relationship with Désirée. While this is only a minor episode in Napoleon’s life, the fame he eventually procured insured that all aspects of his life would eventually be enshrined. The narrative of this tale would find itself embraced by the new media of postcards. Many more postcard sets relating to Napoleon’s personal life and family were published but they will not be discussed here as the fall outside of the military theme to this guide.

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Under the direction of Minister Carnot, France opened a two front offensive campaign against Austria in 1796, but their failure to work together doomed the campaign. Jourdan’s Army of Sambre-et-Meuse quickly advanced through the Rhineland through the summer, defeating the Austrians under Archduke Charles at the Battles of Ettlingen and Neresheim. The French Army of the Rhine under the command of Moueau also crossed the Rhine to the south of Jordan, but once checked, reinforcements were sent north to help Charles. The larger Austrian army was now able to defeat the Army of Sambre-et-Meuse at the battles of Amberg and Wurtburg before turning on the Army of the Rhine. Though greatly outnumbered, the French managed to escape back over the Rhine, but they lost their bridgeheads and everyone was back to their starting points.

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Zedler & Vogel of Darmstadt, Germany was an established printer and publisher of postcards when they produced a fine tinted collotype set in 1907 depicting historical regiments. Some of these cards cover the Napoleonic period. They also produced monochrome continental sized regimental cards of Prussian units that fought in Napoleonic battles.

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Much further to the south, General Napoleone di Buonaparte was given command of the French Armée d’Italie in March 1796, and charged with opening a new front against the Austrians and their Sardinian allies holding the north of Italy. It was at this time that he changed his Italian name to the French Napoleon Bonaparte. This campaign was only to be a secondary front but his movements clearly demonstrated his early mastery of maneuver as he consistently managed to separate the forces his numerically superior opponents, and then quickly concentrate his army against them. Napoleon attacked first forcing Piedmont out of the war and the Austrians to retreat. After taking Lombardy, Napoleon caught up with the Austrians at Lodi where he defeated their rearguard. Advancing further he besieged Mantua, but in September the Austrians finally counterattacked to relieve the city. Though the Austrians were only narrowly defeated at Arcola, Napoleon’s reputation soared. All of the Po River Valley was now in French hands.

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In May 1796 at the battle of Lodi, the stiff Austrian resistance was finally overcome when Napoleon personally took charge of a faltering attack leading a bayonet charge over the Adda River Bridge. From this incident he earned the affectionate nickname Little Corporal from his soldiers, but it also gave him confidence in his own intuition that would lead to many victories to come. Seven months later at the Battle of Arcola, Napoleon picked up a flag and led a charge across the Alpone Bridge in hope of breaking the stalemate. This time the attack failed but he eventually won the battle. These events were highly publicized in his own day to demonstrate his bravery, and reproductions on postcards abound.

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The French in particular produced many hand colored real photo postcards with models posing as Napoleon in both a stately manner and in more lighthearted narratives. One narrative in particular, Napoleon and the Sentry, was very popular. It tells the story of a young General Napoleon finding a sentry asleep on duty after the Battle of Pont d’Arcole fought in 1796. He then takes up the soldiers arms and performs his task. When the sentry awakes and sees what has happened he expects to be punished but he is greeted with forgiveness instead. When the story was first reproduce as a print it was meant to convey Napoleon’s empathy with his soldiers, which was a radical idea in an age of extreme class distinctions.

In 1907 this story was turned into a play, which created a greater demand for these cards with this narrative but the message now had added purpose. In much of Western culture, the world is presented in black and white terms, so it is difficult for some to separate the man they look up to and admire from the bloodshed he was responsible for. These cards showed the more human side of Napoleon that helped to dissipate his negative associations. It didn’t matter if this was an accurate portrayal of his true character, only that it helped sell more cards.

After 1901 when the Pathe Brothers began focusing their business on film production, they also began to see the usefulness in using postcards to publicize their productions. Many film stars were placed on their cards, and in 1907 a large set of movie stills featuring Rex Charlier as Napoleon were produced as hand colored real photos. Rex Charlier should not be confused with the photo house of REX that also produced many hand colored real photo cards depicting Napoleon.

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In January 1897 the Austrians made another attempt to relieve Mantua, which was besieged by Napoleon, but they were badly defeated at Rivoli and driven into Tyrol. Mantua surrendered the next month leaving all of northern Italy in French hands. After joining with the French army operating in the southern German states, Napoleon took the war to Austria pushing their army back toward Vienna. Before the capital was taken, the Austrians sued for peace. Before the war ended, Napoleon struck out taking the Republic of Genoa and part of Venice.

In the Treaty of Campo Formio, Austria was forced to recognize the legitimacy of the French republic, and its lands west of the Rhine including the Austrian Netherlands (Belgium) were ceded to France. Switzerland and most of Italy were also recognized as sister republics to France. With the collapse of the First Coalition, only Great Britain was left to oppose the French republic. Unaware of the treaty, Jourdan’s Army of Sambre-et-Meuse won a victory over the Austrians at the Battle of Neuweid, but it counted for nothing.




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