Lazare Nicolas Marguerite Carnot, 1753-1823

Lazare Carnot (1753-1832) was the French politician and general most responsible for the creation of the armies that saved the infant French Republic, won the War of the First Coalition and that were used to great effect by Napoleon. Carnot was the son of lawyers from Burgundy, but rather than follow his father into the law the young Carnot entered the army. By 1783 he had reached the rank of captain in the Engineers, and before the revolution he was the author of a number of treatises on military affairs.

Carnot was an early supporter of the Revolution. In 1791 he was elected to the Legislative Assembly. His military background meant that he was one of the first wave of deputies send out to purge the armies, in his case going to the Army of the Rhine in August 1792. In September 1792 he was elected to the Convention, and in January 1793 he voted for the execution of Louis XVI, a move that would make him eligible for high office later in the revolution.

Carnot's most important achievements came in the second half of 1793. In August 1793 he became a member of the Committee of Public Safety, combining the roles of Minister of War and Commander in Chief of the French armies, raising them, equipping them and directing their campaigns.

This appointment came at a time of crisis for the French Republic. Early in 1793 General Dumouriez had set out to invade the Netherlands, but the Allies launched a counterattack into the Austrian Netherlands. The French were forced to retreat back towards Brussels, before suffering a major defeat at Neerwinden (18 March 1793). In the aftermath of this defeat the Allies reoccupied Brussels. Dumouriez was now becoming disillusioned with the increasingly radical government in Paris. In early April he attempted to lead his army back into France to restore order, and when the army refused to support him he went into exile with the Austrians. Over the next few months the Allies captured a series of fortifications on the French border, including Condé (10 July 1793) and Valenciennes (28 July 1793). The Allied army then split in two. The British moved north-west to attack Dunkirk while the Austrians, Dutch and Prussians besieged Maubeuge

The key to Carnot's success was his endless energy. A week after he was appointed to the Committee of Public Safety the levee en masse was announced. Every male in France was conscripted, giving the Republic a virtually unlimited pool of manpower. Carnot's next task was to find a way to turn the vast number of enthusiastic new recruits into an effective army. The answer was to combine one regular battalion with two new battalions to form a demi-brigade. This wasn't Carnot's idea, but he had the task of implementing the scheme.

The new massive French armies soon restored the situation on the French border. On 8 September 1793 General Houchard defeated the forces covering the siege of Dunkirk (battle of Hondschoote), but his campaign in western Flanders failed and he was executed. General Jourdan took over the Army of the North, with orders to relieve the siege of Maubeuge. Carnot joined Jourdan, and both men were present and played an important role in the victory at Wattignies (15-16 October 1793).

Carnot was responsible for the French plan for 1794. He decided to attack on both flanks of the Allied army in the Austrian Netherlands. One force was to attack Maritime Flanders, while in the east a second army advanced to the Sambre and attempted to capture Charleroi. Carnot's plan had been much criticized. The key to the Allied position was in the east, and if the French had concentrated their efforts on the capture of Charleroi and a push north from there then they would have cut most of the Allied supply lines, which ran east into Germany.

In Carnot's defence the campaign in Flanders west did force the Allied commanders to move their forces west. An Allied attempt to destroy the French Army of the North failed at Tourcoing (18 May 1794), but a French counterattack was also a failure (Tournai, 22 May 1794). In the east the attack on Charleroi had turned into a stalemate. Carnot moved General Jourdan north to reinforce the army attacking Charleroi, and the combined French armies finally captured the city (25 June 1795). On the following day Jourdan defeated the Allies at Fleurus (26 June 1795) and the Allied position in the Austrian Netherlands began to unravel.

Despite these successes Carnot came under constant attack in Paris. He had been closely associated with Robespierre, but by July 1794, when Robespierre fell, he had argued with him, and survived the end of the terror. Carnot was particularly hostile to Robespierre's cult of the Supreme Being. In March 1795 he resigned from his remaining political posts, but he was only out of office for a few months. In November 1795 he was one of the first Directors, in the government that replaced the Convention. Once again he took up command of France's armies.

War of the First Coalition - Rhine Front 1796
War of the First Coalition
Rhine Front 1796

Carnot was not always a successful strategist. This became most clear during the French invasion of Germany in the summer of 1796. His plan was to attack both flanks of the Austrian position on the Rhine. General Jourdan with the Army of the Sambre-and-Meuse was to cross between Dusseldorf and Mainz, while General Moreau, with the Army of the Rhine-and-Moselle crossed between Mannheim and Strasburg. The two armies were then to advance east into Germany and operate on different lines. Jourdan was to advance up the Main, while Moreau operated on the south bank of the Danube. At the same time Carnot supported Napoleon's request to be given command of the Army of Italy.

Against earlier Austrian commanders Carnot's plan may well have lead to success, for the Austrians would probably have split their armies in an attempt to defeat both French columns at the same time. When Carnot was developing his plan the Austrians had two armies and two commanders on the Rhine – the Archduke Charles with the Army of the Lower Rhine was posted on the west bank of the river close to Mainz, with its right wing stretching north along the east bank, while General Würmser commanded the Army of the Upper Rhine in the area south of Mannheim. This arrangement was disrupted when Napoleon made his dramatic advance into northern Italy. Würmser was moved south with orders to lift the siege of Mantua, and the Archduke was given command of all Austrian forces on the Rhine.

Napoleon achieved his successes in Italy by taking advantage of the Austrian tendency to split their armies into two or more separate columns, operating at a large distance from each other. In Germany Carnot's plan gave the Archduke the chance to do the exact same thing to the French. At first Carnot's plan seemed to be working. Jourdan crossed the Rhine first, at the end of May. The Archduke moved north in response and chased the French back across the river, but that gave Moreau his chance to cross the Rhine, at the start of July. The Archduke returned to the south, but then decided to conduct a fighting retreat on both fronts. Once his armies were close to the Danube he would unite them and fall on whichever French army was most vulnerable.  This plan was a complete success. As the French moved east Carnot's orders prevented Jourdan and Moreau from taking any of a series of chances they had to unite their armies. In mid August the Archduke moved against Jourdan, defeating him at Amberg (24 August 1796) and Würzburg (3 September 1796). Jourdan retreated back to the Rhine, forcing Moreau to pull back from the Danube. After making sure that Jourdan would have to cross back to the west bank of the river, the Archduke moved south and defeated Moreau in two battles between the Rhine and the Black Forest (Emmendingen, 19 October 1796 and Schliengen, 24 October 1796).

Napoleon's campaign in Italy made up for the failure in Germany, but despite being largely responsible for the French victory in the War of the First Coalition Carnot began to fall out of favour. He was seen as one of the conservative members of the Directory. When the moderate and Royalist factions won the elections of 1797 more radical elements carried out a military coup (4 September 1797). Carnot was to be arrested and sent into exile in the colonies, but he escaped from the trap and fled to Switzerland.

Carnot returned to France after another military coup, this time conducted by Napoleon (coup of 18 Brumaire, 1799). At first he was able to work with the new authorities, serving the Consuls at the Ministry of War for six months, but early in 1801, disenchanted with Napoleon's rule, he retired from active public life. He did retain a place on the tribunat, where he voted against Napoleon's appointment as Consul for life and the foundation of the Légion d'Honneur, which like many supporters of the Revolution he saw as elitist. During his period he wrote De La défense des places fortes (1810) for use in French military academies. This book was used as a textbook in most European armies.

In 1814 France was threatened with invasion. Carnot returned to the army with the rank of général de division, and conducted a remarkable defence of Antwerp. When Napoleon returned from exile Carnot served him as Minister of the Interior. After Napoleon's second abdication Carnot briefly headed a provisional government, but the second restoration ended his public career. He was proscribed and spent the rest of his life in exile, spending most of his time at Magdeburg.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (23 February 2009), Lazare Nicolas Marguerite Carnot, 1753-1823 ,

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