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The art of war can only be truly learned in the field, andthe officers of the French army had such an experience ashad never fallen to the lot of any other nation since thedays of the Thirty Years' War. With continuous fighting[xiv]winter and summer, on every frontier, military knowledgewas easily gained by those who had the ability to acquireit, and the young generals of brigade, with but three years'service in commissioned rank, had gone through experienceswhich seldom fall to the lot of officers with thirty years'service. The cycle of war seemed unending. From theday on which, in 1792, France hurled her declaration ofwar on Austria, till the surrender of Paris, in 1814, with theexception of the year of peace gained at Amiens, war wascontinuous. It began with a light-hearted invasion ofFrance by Austria and Prussia in September, 1792, whichended in the cannonade of Valmy, when Dumouriez andKellermann, with the remnant of the old royal army,showed such a bold front that the Allies, who had neverexpected to fight, lost heart and ran home. The Austro-Prussianinvasion sealed the King's death-warrant, andFrance, in the hands of republican enthusiasts, went forthwith a rabble of old soldiers and volunteers to preach thedoctrine of the Equality of Man and the Brotherhood ofNations. But the sovereigns of Europe determined to fightfor their crowns, and the licence of the French soldiers andthe selfishness of these prophets of the new doctrine ofEquality soon disgusted the people of the Rhine valley;so the revolutionary mob armies were driven into France,and for two years she was busy on every frontier striving todrive the enemy from her soil. It was during these yearsthat the new French army arose. The volunteers werebrigaded with the old regular battalions, the ranks werekept full by calling out all fit to bear arms, and the incompetentand unfortunate were weeded out by the guillotine.By 1795 France had freed her own soil and had forged aweapon whereby she could retaliate on the Powers who hadattempted to annex her territory in the hour of her degradation.[xv]The Rhine now became her eastern frontier. ButAustria, whose Archduke was Emperor of the Holy RomanEmpire, would not give up the provinces seized from her;so from 1795 to 1797, on the headwaters of the Danube andin Italy, the representative of the Feudal Ages fought thenew democracy. It was the appearance of the great militarytalent of Bonaparte which decided the day. On the Danubethe Austrians had found that under the excellent leading ofthe Archduke Charles they were fit to defeat the bestFrench troops under capable generals like Jourdan andMoreau. But the military genius of Bonaparte overboreall resistance, and when peace came, practically all Italyhad been added to the dominion of France. Unfortunatelyfor the peace of Europe, the rulers of France had tastedblood. They found in the captured provinces a means ofmaking war without feeling the effects, for the rich pillageof Italy paid the war expenses. But, grateful as the Directorswere to Bonaparte for thus opening to them a means ofenriching themselves at the expense of Europe, they rightlysaw in him a menace to their own power, and gladly allowedhim to depart on the mission to Egypt. From EgyptBonaparte returned, seized the reins of government, andsaved France from the imbecility of her rulers, and, by thebattle of Marengo, assured to her all she had lost in hisabsence. Unfortunately for France the restless ambition ofher new ruler was not satisfied with re-establishing theEmpire of the West and reviving the glories of Charlemagne,but hankered after a vast oversea dominion, toinclude America and India. Hence it was that he found inGreat Britain an implacable enemy ever stirring up againsthim European coalitions. To cover his failure to wrest thedominion of the sea from its mistress, Napoleon turned hiswrath on Austria, and soon she lay cowed at his feet after[xvi]the catastrophe at Ulm and the battle of Austerlitz. Austria'sfall was due to the lethargy and hesitation of the courts ofBerlin and St. Petersburg. But once Austria was disposedof, Prussia and Russia met their punishment for havinggiven her secret or open aid. The storm fell first on Prussia.At one fell swoop on the field of Jena, the famed militarymonarchy of the great Frederick fell in pieces like a potter'svessel. From Prussia the invincible French legions penetratedinto Poland, and after Eylau and Friedland the forcesof Prussia and Russia could no longer face the enemy inthe field. The Czar, dazzled by Napoleon's greatness, threwover his ally Prussia and at Tilsit made friends with thegreat conqueror. In June, 1807, it seemed as if Europe layat Napoleon's feet, but already in Portugal the seeds ofhis ruin had been sown. The Portuguese monarch, theally of Great Britain, fled at the mere approach of a singleMarshal of the Emperor. The apparent lethargy of theinhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula and the unpopularityof the Spanish Bourbons tempted Napoleon to establishhis brother on the throne of Spain. It was a fatal error, forthough the Spanish people might despise their King, theywere intensely proud of their nationality. For the first timein his experience the Corsican had to meet the forces of anation and not of a government. The chance defeat of aFrench army at Baylen was the signal for a general risingthroughout the Peninsula, and not only throughout thePeninsula, but for the commencement of a national movementagainst the French in Austria and Germany. Englandgladly seized the opportunity of injuring her enemy andsent aid to the people of Spain. Austria tried anotherfall with her conqueror, but was defeated at Wagram.Wagram ought to have taught the Emperor that histroops were no longer invincible as of old, but, blind to[xvii]this lesson, he still attempted to lord it over Europe andtreated with contumely his only friend, the Czar. Consequently,in 1812, while still engaged in attempting toconquer Spain, he found himself forced to fight Russia.The result was appalling; out of half a million troops whoentered Russia, a bare seventy thousand returned. Prussiaand Austria at once made a bid to recover their independence.Napoleon, blinded by rage, refused to listen toreason, and in October, 1813, was defeated by the Alliesat Leipzig. Even then he might have saved his throne, buthe still refused to listen to the Allies, who in 1814 invadedFrance, and, after a campaign in which the Emperor showedan almost superhuman ability, at last by sheer weight ofnumbers they captured Paris. Thereon the French troopsrefused to fight any longer for the Emperor. Such is abrief outline of what is called the Revolutionary andNapoleonic Wars, the finest school the world has yet seenfor an apprenticeship in the trade of arms.
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After Leoben the conqueror of Italy employed his trustyfriend on numerous diplomatic missions in connectionwith the annexation of Corfu and the government of theCisalpine republic. Meanwhile he was in close communicationwith him in regard to the proposed descenton England and the possible expedition to the East. ToBerthier, if to any one, Bonaparte entrusted his secretdesigns, for he knew that he could do so in safety. Accordingly,in 1798, finding an invasion of England impossibleat the moment, he persuaded the Directory to sendBerthier to Italy as commander-in-chief, his object beingto place him in a position to gather funds for the Egyptianexpedition. From Italy Berthier sent his former commanderthe most minute description of everything ofimportance, but he found the task difficult and uncongenial,and prayed him "to recall me promptly. I much preferbeing your aide-de-camp to being commander-in-chiefhere." Still he carried out his orders and marched onRome, to place the eight million francs' worth of diamondswrung from the Pope to the credit of the army. FromRome he returned with coffers well filled for the Egyptianexpedition, but leaving behind him an army half-mutinousfor want of pay; his blind devotion to Bonaparte hid thisincongruity from his eyes.
During the early months of 1797 he commanded a columnat Bologna, and was present at the capitulation of Mantua.Thereafter he commanded the advance guard of Victor'sarmy which invaded the Papal States. In front of Anconahe met with a characteristic adventure. Making a reconnaissancewith two or three officers and half a dozentroopers, he suddenly found himself in the presence of threehundred of the enemy's cavalry. Their commander at onceordered his men to draw their swords preparatory to a charge.Whereon Lannes rode up to him and told him to order hismen to return their swords, dismount, and lead their horsesback to their headquarters. The officer obeyed. By sheerforce of character Lannes thus dominated the situation andsaved the lives of himself and his escort. After the preliminariesof peace at Leoben, Bonaparte employed him onseveral confidential missions, in which his impetuosity ledhim at times into difficulties, and the commander-in-chiefwas forced to write to the French Minister at Genoa, "I haveheard the reply that Lannes made to you. He is hot-headed,but a good fellow, and brave. I must write to him to tellhim to be more civil to a minister of the Republic."
The period between Tilsit and Erfurt gave Lannes thelast peaceful days that he ever spent, for from Erfurt he washurried off again to war, this time to Spain. As usual whenthere was hard fighting in prospect, Napoleon knew that hecould ill afford to do without his most trusty and ablelieutenant. But Lannes had but little enthusiasm for theSpanish War. His reputation stood so high that there waslittle chance of enhancing it, and by now the fire-eatingrepublican soldier was settling down into a quiet countrygentleman, who preferred the domestic circle and thepleasure of playing the grand seigneur before an audienceof friends to the stir of the camp and the pomp of the court.But he was too well drilled in soldierly instincts to refuse toserve when summoned by his chief, and accordingly, muchagainst his will, he set out on what he expected to be ashort inglorious campaign of a couple of months againsta disorganised provincial militia.