La Marseillaise is France's national anthem, and it was composed on the eve of her most spectacular conflict. On April 20, 1792, Louis XVI read the declaration of war against Austria in the French National Assembly. These were the years just after the Revolution of 1789, which would soon see France facing the armies of the First Coalition. Having vanquished absolutist monarchy at home, armies of free Frenchmen now faced the armies of tyranny on the field of battle. The campaigns of the French Revolutionary Wars were marked by military innovation and French fervour, but the first battles of 1792 were difficult. Many cadavers were required to make the bed for liberty to lie on.
When the French marched into battle, they would have a stirring march to bind them together. The armies of the First French Republic were extremely disorganised and "democratic", which is to say they lacked discipline. They would sympathise with their ideological children, the Red Army soldiers who linked arms and danced into death on the Eastern Front in World War II. But unlike these poor souls, their comradeship and flexibility proved to be a distinct asset in facing the enemy. These armies established a new Empire from the River Vistula in Poland to the Atlantic Ocean, and they did it while listening to La Marseillaise.
When the armies of the Coalition invaded France in August of 1792, France's armies were in a state of disrepair. Not all of the old Royal units remained loyal to the revolutionary government, and so many new troops had to be trained quickly. There was neither the troop levels nor the degree of training among the troops to allow for the practicing of standard military doctrine. Since in the War of the Austrian Succession Maria Theresa had employed small groups of "skirmishers" so effectively, every army in Europe had been forced to adopt them - although Frederick the Great dismissed them as "Vagabonds" without "Discipline". The French armies fought mainly in this style for lack of proficiency. For a group of people defending their homeland against tyranny, it worked rather well. The well-motiviated and ill-disciplined troops made up for their deficiency with fervour and bravery, and cries of "á la baionnette!"
La Marseillaise was written by an artillery officer from the old royal army, Rouget de Lisle. It was the old artillery that saved the Revolution on 20 September 1792, with the famous Cannonade of Valmy. Valmy is a small village which was inbetween the invading armies and Paris and the French artillery here delivered a salvo that forced the combined armies commanded by Frederick the Great back from whence they came, and set the ball rolling for the conquest of most of Europe by the French armies. The French artillery had proved its reputation as the best in Europe and one of its officers, Rouget de Lisle, proved his reputation as a writer of stirring songs.
La Marseillaise was written on the night of the fifteenth-sixteenth of April by Rouget, who was fortified by champagne and the intoxication of the coming battle. He was in the garrison in Strasbourg on the border with Württemberg, where amidst the banqueting that greeted the war he was asked to compose a new tune for the armies of liberty. Strasbourg lies on the Rhine river, the banks of which have seen as much bloodshed as those of any other in Europe. It was hence natural enough that Rouget originally called his new composition Chant de Guerre de l'Armée du Rhin (Song of the Rhine Army).
It eventually got its name when it reached Paris. A group of fédéré Guards marched through Marseille on their way to Paris (they were going to an encampment there having left Montpellier), and they were greeted as heroes in the capital. They took their marching anthem with them and it came to be identified with them and their deeds, and came to be named after them. On July 14th 1792 it became the official national anthem of France. This date had significance.
July 14th is the national holiday of Fête Nationale (Bastile Day) in France, and July 14th 1789 is the day Parisians stormed the Bastille expecting to find hundreds of prisoners of absolutism languishing in awful conditions. In fact, they found only nine people and they were in tolerable conditions. The Bastille had been constructed as a defence against English invasion many centuries ago, but had since become a state prison. People could be imprisoned there by the King without any judicial process, and it became a symbol of this deprivation of the most fundamental of rights. As many prisoners were writers (ironically they were the best provided for of all prisoners), books were inevitably published about conditions in the fortress. Myths spread, and they continued to be believed right up until the fortress was stormed. Marquis de Sade, incarcerated therein at the start of July, made periodic shouts of impending executions from the windows to reinforce the myth of its evil right to the end.
The men who had marched to Paris from Marseille, and who came to symbolise the assault on tyranny, took part in the start of the descent into violence that began in 1792. On the tenth of August they assaulted the Tuileries, slaughtering the King's Swiss guard while he sat in the National Assembly awaiting his fate. The Guards fought bravely but hopelessly due to sheer weight of numbers. The King would share their fate in January of the next year. Ironically, although the men from Marseilles marched to the Tuileries singing his song, Rouget de Lisle himself refused to take the oath of allegience to the new Constitution and Republic. He himself barely escaped the guillotine while in captivity as the Revolution increasingly became a violent affair.
Revolutions might mainly be about violence, but their symbolism is very important if we are to understand what was in the hearts and minds of people at the time. La Marseillaise does this perfectly. All the main themes of the Revolution - fatherland, blood, soil - are captured and explored, and done so in a way that illuminates even the brutality that is the main theme of almost any revolution. It was stirring and emboldening for citizens-in-arms marching into war together to defend "cherished freedom" alongside fellow enfants de la patrie (children of the fatherland). Aux armes, citoyens!
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La Marseillaise was not just an inspirational song for one people at one point in their history - it has become a symbol of the modern age itself, and especially modern revolution. Napoleon Bonaparte himself banned it, Louis XVIII banned it after the Second Restoration, and Napoleon III banned it again after the 1848 Revolution. It was reinstated in 1879 and then banned again during World War II under the Vichy regime. It was most notably sung by anti-racist protestors against Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002, but in this sweep of French history it has not passed the rest of the world by.
In Russia after the February Revolution it became the national anthem of that country, with heavily modified lyrics. It was very quickly replaced by The Internationale, which is a symbol of worldwide socialist revolution rather than a specifically national one. This served political purposes until 1944, when this was replaced by the more nationalist Hymn of the Soviet Union. Although La Marseillaise enjoyed only this brief time in the spotlight in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, it had been popular in the dissident movement alongside the Communist anthem. People also sung it in the Revolutions of 1848, and when they proclaimed the new Spanish Republic in 1931. La Marseillaise might sound brutal and crude, but it has come to symbolise freedom in its fight against the constant deprivations of tyranny.
Michael Howard, War in European History (Oxford, 1976)
Modern Internet History Sourcebook
Simon Schama, Citizens (Penguin Books, 1989)