All went well with them up to Valmy. The German advance on August 11, 1792, reached Rodemach, and on August 19, the bulk of the Prussian army crossed the frontier at Redagne. On August 20, 1792, Longwy was invested and in three days capitulated. In the camp of the Comte d’Artois “there was not one of us,” wrote Las Casas, “who did not see himself, in a fortnight, triumphant, in his own home, surrounded by his humbled and submissive vassals.” At length from their bivouacs at Saint-Remy and at Suippes the nobles saw in the distance the towers of Chalons.
The panic at Chalons was so great that orders were given to cut the bridge across the Marne, but it was not until about September 2, that the whole peril was understood at Paris. It is true that for several weeks the government had been aware that the West was agitated and that Rouerie was probably conspiring among the Royalists and nonjuring priests, but they did not appreciate the imminence of the danger. On September 3, at latest, Danton certainly heard the details of the plot from a spy, and it was then, while others quailed, that he incited Paris to audacity. This was Danton’s culmination.
As we look back, the weakness of the Germans seems to have been psychological rather than physical. At Valmy the numbers engaged were not unequal, and while the French were, for the most part, raw and ill-compacted levies, with few trained officers, the German regiments were those renowned battalions of Frederick the Great whose onset, during the Seven Years’ War, no adversary had been able to endure. Yet these redoubtable Prussians fell back in confusion without having seriously tried the French position, and their officers, apparently, did not venture to call upon them to charge again. In vain the French gentlemen implored the Prussian King to support them if they alone should storm Kellermann’s batteries. Under the advice of the Duke of Brunswick the King decided on retreat. It is said that the Duke had as little heart in the war as Charles Fox, or, possibly, Pitt, or as his own troops. And yet he was so strong that Dumouriez, after his victory, hung back and offered the invaders free passage lest the Germans, if aroused, should turn on him and fight their way to the Marne.
To the emigrants the retreat was terrible. It was a disaster from which, as a compact power, they never recovered. The rising in Vendee temporarily collapsed with the check at Chalons, and they were left literally naked unto their enemy. Some of them returned to their homes, preferring the guillotine to starvation, others, disguised in peasants’ blouses, tried to reach Rouerie in La Vendee, some died from hardship, some committed suicide, while the bulk regained Liege and there waited as suppliants for assistance from Vienna. But these unfortunate men, who had entered so gayly upon a conflict whose significance they could not comprehend, had by this time lost more than lands and castles. Many of them had lost wives and children in one of the most frightful butcheries of history, and a butchery for which they themselves were responsible, because it was the inevitable and logical effect of their own intellectual limitations.