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French Revolutionary Wars

The French Revolutionary Wars occurred between the outbreak of war between the French Revolutionary government and Austria in 1792 and the Treaty of Amiens in 1802. It is usually divided between the First Coalition (1792-1797) and the Second Coalition (1798-1801), although France was at war with Britain continuously from 1793 to 1802.

Marked by French revolutionary fervour and military innovations, the series of campaigns characteristically saw France facing a series of opposing coalitions yet expanding its area of effective control.

Hostilities ceased with the Treaty of Amiens (1802). For military events thereafter see Napoleonic Wars. Both conflicts together constitute the Great French War.


Context of the wars

François Mignet remarks that "The French revolution was… to terminate the strife of kings among themselves, and to commence that between kings and people… They sought to suppress the revolution, and they extended it; for by attacking it they were to render it victorious." History of the French Revolution from 1789 to 1814 He characterizes the situation of Europe on the eve of the wars as follows:

"Austria, England, and France had been, from the peace of Westphalia to the middle of the eighteenth century, the three great powers of Europe. Interest had leagued the two first against the third. Austria had reason to dread the influence of France in the Netherlands; England feared it on the sea. Rivalry of power and commerce often set them at variance, and they sought to weaken or plunder each other. Spain, since a prince of the house of Bourbon had been on the throne, was the ally of France against England. This, however, was a fallen power: confined to a corner of the continent, oppressed by the system of Philip II., deprived by the Family Compact of the only enemy that could keep it in action, by sea only had it retained any of its ancient superiority. But France had other allies on all sides of Austria: Sweden on the north; Poland and the Porte on the east; in the south of Germany, Bavaria; Prussia on the west; and in Italy, the kingdom of Naples. These powers, having reason to dread the encroachments of Austria, were naturally the allies of her enemy. Piedmont, placed between the two systems of alliance, sided, according to circumstances and its interests, with either. Holland was united with England or with France, as the party of the stadtholders or that of the people prevailed in the republic. Switzerland was neutral.
"In the last half of the eighteenth century, two powers had risen in the north, Russia and Prussia. The latter had been changed from a simple electorate into an important kingdom, by Frederick-William, who had given it a treasure and an army; and by his son Frederick the Great, who had made use of these to extend his territory. Russia, long unconnected with the other states, had been more especially introduced into the politics of Europe by Peter I. and Catherine II. The accession of these two powers considerably modified the ancient alliances. In concert with the cabinet of Vienna, Russia and Prussia had executed the first partition of Poland in 1772; and after the death of Frederick the Great, the empress Catharine and the emperor Joseph united in 1785 to effect that of European Turkey.
"The cabinet of Versailles, weakened since the imprudent and unfortunate Seven Years' War, had assisted at the partition of Poland without opposing it, had raised no obstacle to the fall of the Ottoman empire, and even allowed its ally, the republican party in Holland, to sink under the blows of Prussia and England, without assisting it. The latter powers had in 1787 re-established by force the hereditary, stadtholderate of the United Provinces. The only act which did honour to French policy, was the support it had happily given to the emancipation of North America. The revolution of 1789, while extending the moral influence of France, diminished still more its diplomatic influence.
"England, under the government of young Pitt, was alarmed in 1788 at the ambitious projects of Russia, and united with Holland and Prussia to put an end to them. Hostilities were on the point of commencing when the emperor Joseph died, in February, 1790, and was succeeded by Leopold, who in July accepted the convention of Reichenbach . This convention, by the mediation of England, Russia, and Holland, settled the terms of the peace between Austria and Turkey, which was signed definitively, on the 4th of August, 1791, at Sistova ; it at the same time provided for the pacification of the Netherlands. Urged by England and Prussia, Catharine II. also made peace with the Porte at Jassy, on the 29th of December, 1791. These negotiations, and the treaties they gave rise to, terminated the political struggles of the eighteenth century, and left the powers free to turn their attention to the French Revolution.
"The princes of Europe, who had hitherto had no enemies but themselves, viewed it in the light of a common foe. The ancient relations of war and of alliance, already overlooked during the Seven Years' War, now ceased entirely: Sweden united with Russia, and Prussia with Austria..."

War of the First Coalition

See also: First Coalition


See also: French Revolutionary Wars: Campaigns of 1792

As early as 1791, the other monarchies of Europe looked with concern at the developments in France, and considered whether they should intervene, either in support of Louis XVI or to take advantage of the chaos in France. The key figure was Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II, brother to Marie Antoinette, who had initially looked on the Revolution with equanimity, but became more and more disturbed as the Revolution became more radical, although he still hoped to avoid war. On August 27, Leopold and King Frederick William II Prussia, in consultation with emigrant French nobles, issued the Declaration of Pilnitz, which declared the interest of the monarchs of Europe in the well-being of Louis and his family, and threatened vague but severe consequences if anything should befall them. Although Leopold saw the Pillnitz Declaration as a way of taking action that would enable him to avoid actually doing anything about France, at least for the moment, it was seen in France as a serious threat and was denounced by the revolutionary leaders.

In addition to the ideological differences between France and the monarchical powers of Europe, there were continuing disputes over the states of Imperial estates in Alsace, and the French were becoming concerned about the agitation of emigré nobles abroad, especially in the Austrian Netherlands and the minor states of Germany.

In the end, France declared war on Austria first, with the Assembly voting for war on April 20, 1792, after a long list of the above grievances presented by foreign minister Dumouriez. Dumouriez prepared an immediate invasion of the Austrian Netherlands, where he expected the local population to rise against Austrian rule. However, the revolution had thoroughly disorganized the army, and the forces raised were insufficient for the invasion. The soldiers fled at the first sign of battle, deserting en masse and in one case, murdering their general.

While the revolutionary government frantically raised fresh troops and reorganized its armies, a mostly Prussian allied army under the duke of Brunswick assembled at Koblenz on the Rhine. In July, the invasion commenced, with Brunswick's army easily taking the fortresses of Longwy and Verdun. Brunswick then issued a proclamation, written by the emigré Prince de Condé, declaring their intent to restore the King to his full powers and to treat any person or town who opposed them as rebels to be condemned to death by martial-law. This had the effect of motivating the revolutionary army and government to oppose them by any means necessary, and led almost immediately to the overthrow of the King by a crowd which stormed the Tuileries Palace.

The invasion continued, but at Valmy on September 20, they came to a stalemate against Dumouriez and Kellermann in which the highly professional French artillery distinguished itself. Although the battle was a tactical draw, it gave a great boost to French morale. Further, the Prussians, finding that the campaign had been longer and more costly than predicted, decided that the cost and risk of continued fighting was too great, and they decided to retreat from France to preserve their army.

Meanwhile, the French had been successful on several other fronts, occupying Savoy and Nice in Italy, while General Custine invaded Germany, several German towns along the Rhine, and reaching as far as Frankfurt. Dumouriez went on the offensive in Belgium once again, winning a great victory over the Austrians at Jemappes on November 6, and occupying the entire country by the beginning of winter.


See also: French Revolutionary Wars: Campaigns of 1793

On January 21, the revolutionary government executed Louis XVI after a trial. This united all Europe, including Spain, Naples, and Holland against the revolution. Even Great Britain, initially sympathetic to the assembly, had by now joined the First coalition against France, and armies were raised against France on all its borders.

France responded by declaring a new levy of hundreds of thousands of men, beginning a French policy of using mass conscription to deploy more of its manpower than the aristocratic states could, and remaining on the offensive so that these mass armies could commandeer war material from the territory of their enemies.

France suffered severe reverses at first, being driven out of Belgium and suffering revolts in the west and south. By the end of the year, the new large armies and a fierce policy of internal repression including mass executions had repelled the invasions and suppressed the revolts. The year ended with French forces in the ascendant, but still close to France's pre-war borders.


See also: French Revolutionary Wars: Campaigns of 1794

1794 brought increased success to the revolutionary armies. Although an invasion of Piedmont failed, an invasion of Spain across the Pyrenees took San Sebastian, and the French won a victory at the Battle of Fleurus and occupied all of Belgium and the Rhineland.


See also: French Revolutionary Wars: Campaigns of 1795

After seizing the Netherlands in a surprise winter attack, France established the Batavian Republic as a puppet state. Further, Prussia and Spain both decided to make peace, ceding the left bank of the Rhine to France and freeing French armies from the Pyrenees. This ended the main crisis phase of the Revolution and France proper would be free from invasion for many years.

Britain attempted to reinforce the rebels in the Vendée, but failed, and attempts to overthrow the government at Paris by force were foiled by the military garrison led by Napoleon Bonaparte, leading to the establishment of the Directory.

On the Rhine frontier, General Pichegru, negotiating with the exiled Royalists, betrayed his army and forced the evacuation of Mannheim and the failure of the siege of Mayence by Jourdan.


See also: French Revolutionary Wars: Campaigns of 1796

The French prepared a great advance on three fronts, with Jourdan and Moreau on the Rhine, and Bonaparte in Italy. The three armies were to link up in the Tyrol and march on Vienna.

Jourdan and Moreau advanced rapidly into Germany, and Moreau had reached Bavaria and the edge of Tyrol by Spetember, but Jourdan was defeated by Archduke Charles, and both armies were forced to retreat back across the Rhine.

Napoleon, on the other hand, was completely successful in a daring invasion of Italy. He separated the armies of Sardinia and Austria, defeating them in detail, and forced a peace on Sardinia while capturing Milan and besieging Mantua. He defeated successive Austrian armies sent against him under Wurmser and Alvintzy while continuing the siege.

The rebellion in the Vendée was also finally crushed in 1796 by Hoche, but Hoche's attempt to land in Ireland was unsuccessful.


See also: French Revolutionary Wars: Campaigns of 1797

Napoleon finally captured Mantua, with the Austrians surrendering 18,000 men. Archduke Charles was unable to stop Napoleon from invading the Tyrol, and the Austrian government sued for peace in April, simultaneous with a new French invasion of Germany under Moreau and Hoche.

Austria signed the Treaty of Campo Formio in October, ceding Belgium to France and recognizing French control of the Rhineland and much of Italy. The ancient republic of Venice was partitioned between Austria and France. This ended the War of the First Coalition, although Great Britain remained in the war.

Napoleon in Egypt


See also: French Revolutionary Wars: Campaigns of 1798

With only Britain left to fight and not enough of a navy to fight a direct war, Napoleon conceived of an invasion of Egypt in 1798, which satisfied his personal desire for glory and the Directory's desire to have him far from Paris. The military objective of the expedition is not entirely clear, but may have been to threaten the British dominance in India.

Napoleon sailed from Toulon to Alexandria, landing in June. Marching to Cairo, he won a great victory at the Battle of the Pyramids. However, his fleet was destroyed by Nelson at the Battle of the Nile, stranding him in Egypt. Napoleon spent the remainder of the year consolidating his position in Egypt.

The French government also took advantage of internal strife in Switzerland to invade, establishing the Helvetian Republic and annexing Geneva. French troops also deposed the Pope, establishing a republic in Rome.

War of the Second Coalition

See also: Second Coalition

Britain and Austria organized a new coalition against France in 1798, including for the first time Russia, although no action occurred until 1799 except against Naples.


See also: French Revolutionary Wars: Campaigns of 1799

In Europe, the allies mounted several invasions, including campaigns in Italy and Switzerland and an Anglo-Russian invasion of the Netherlands. Russian general Aleksandr Suvorov inflicted a series of disasters on the French in Italy, driving them back to the Alps. However, the allies were less successful in the Netherlands, where the British retreated after a stalemate (although they did manage to capture the Dutch fleet), and in Switzerland, where after initial victories a Russian army was completely defeated at the Second Battle of Zurich.

Napoleon himself invaded Syria from Egypt, but after a failed siege of Acre retreated to Egypt, repelling a British-Turkish invasion. Hearing of a political and military crisis in France, he returned, leaving his army behind, and used his popularity and army support to mount a coup that made him First Consul, the head of the French government.


See also: French Revolutionary Wars: Campaigns of 1800

Napoleon sent Moreau to campaign in Germany, and went himself to raise a new army at Dijon and march through Switzerland to attack the Austrian armies in Italy from behind. Narrowly avoiding defeat, he defeated the Austrians at Marengo and reoccupied northern Italy.

Moreau meanwhile invaded Bavaria and won a great battle against Austria at Hohenlinden. Moreau continued toward Vienna and the Austrians sued for peace.


See also: French Revolutionary Wars: Campaigns of 1801

The Austrians negotiated the Treaty of Lunéville, basically accepting the terms of the previous Treaty of Campo Formio. In Egypt, the Ottomans and British invaded and finally compelled the French to surrender after the fall of Cairo and Alexandria.

Britain continued the war at sea. A coalition of non-combatants including Prussia, Russia, Denmark, and Sweden joined to protect neutral shipping from Britain's blockade, resulting in Nelson's surprise attack on the Danish fleet in harbor at the Battle of Copenhagen.


In 1802, the British signed the Treaty of Amiens, ending the war and recognizing French conquests. This began the longest period of peace during the period 1792-1814, and the crowning of Napoleon as emperor is an appropriate point to mark the transition between the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars.

The French First Republic, starting from a position precariously near occupation and collapse, had defeated all its enemies on the continent and produced a revolutionary army that would take the other powers years to emulate. With the conquest of the left bank of the Rhine and domination of the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Italy, they had achieved nearly all the territorial goals that had eluded the Valois and Bourbon monarchs for centuries.

Further reading

Last updated: 09-12-2005 02:39:13