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Napoleonic Wars

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The Napoleonic Wars lasted from 1804 until 1815. They were a continuation of the conflicts sparked by the French Revolution and covered the duration of the First French Empire.


The First and Second Coalitions

For a more detailed account see the French Revolutionary Wars.

The First Coalition (1792-1797) of Austria, Prussia, Great Britain, Spain and Piedmont against France had been the first attempt to crush republicanism. It was defeated by the French efforts - levée en masse (general conscription), military reform, total war.

The Second Coalition (1798-1801) of Russia, Great Britain, Austria, The Ottoman Empire, Portugal, Naples and the Papal States against France was no more effective. Napoleon Bonaparte had come to control the French state since 1796. But he was unable to invade Great Britain directly. In Admiral Jervis's famous phrase, I do not say, my Lords, that the French will not come. I say only they will not come by sea. Instead, the French offered a double threat, invading Egypt in the summer of 1798 and mounting another expedition to Ireland. The French fleet was defeated by Horatio Nelson in the Battle of the Nile (August 1) at Aboukir (Abu Qir) and the Irish problem was quickly contained. Napoleon was trapped in Egypt and the old members of the First Coalition, excluding Prussia, quickly took advantage of this lapse. Early victories in Switzerland and Italy were promising, but Russia withdrew; the British declined to engage, and the Austrians were left to face the returning Napoleon at Marengo (June 14, 1800) and then at Hohenlinden (December 3). The bloodied Austrians temporarily left the conflict after the Treaty of Lunéville (February 1801).

The Treaty of Amiens (1802) resulted in peace between Britain and France, and marked the final collapse of the Second Coalition. However, the treaty was never likely to endure: neither side was satisfied by it and both sides dishonoured parts of it. Hostilities were renewed on May 18, 1803. The conflict changed over its course from a general desire to restore the French monarchy into an almost manichean struggle against Bonaparte.

Suppression of Robert Emmet's Irish rising of July, 1803

Bonaparte declared the empire on May 28 and was crowned Emperor at Notre-Dame on December 2, 1804.

The Third Coalition

The Third Coalition (1805) of Austria, Britain, Russia and Sweden against France.

William Pitt the Younger, back in office.

Napoleon planned an invasion of England, and massed 150,000 troops at Boulogne. However, he needed to achieve naval superiority to mount his invasion, or at least to pull the British navy away from the English Channel. The main Franco-Spanish fleet, under Pierre de Villeneuve, was blockaded in Cádiz. It left for Naples on October 19, but was caught and defeated at Trafalgar on October 21 by Lord Nelson. By this time, however, Napoleon had already all but abandoned plans to invade England and turned his attention to enemies on the Continent once again. The French army left Boulogne and moved towards Austria.

In April of 1805, Britain and Russia signed a treaty to remove the French from Holland and Switzerland. Austria joined the alliance after the annexation of Genoa and the proclamation of Napoleon as King of Italy. The Austrians began the war by invading Bavaria with an army of about 70,000 under Karl Mack von Lieberich, and the French army marched out from Boulogne in late July, 1805 to confront them. At Ulm (September 25 - October 20) Napoleon managed to surround Mack's army by a brilliant envelopment, forcing its surrender. With the main Austrian army north of the Alps defeated (another army under Archduke Charles maneuvered inconclusively against André Masséna's French army in Italy), Napoleon occupied Vienna. Far from his supply lines, he was faced with a superior Austro-Russian army under the command of Mikhail Kutuzov, with the Emperors Francis and Alexander personally present. In what is normally considered his greatest victory, on December 2 Napoleon crushed the joint Austrian-Russian army at Austerlitz in Moravia. After Austerlitz, Austria signed the Treaty of Pressburg, leaving the coalition. This required the Austrians to give up Venetia to the Kingdom of Italy and Tyrol to Bavaria.

With the withdrawal of Austria from the war, stalemate ensued. Napoleon's army had a record of continuous unbroken victory on land, but England's navy was equally unchallenged at sea.

The Fourth Coalition

The Fourth Coalition (1806-1807) of Prussia, Saxony and Russia against France.

Germany, Confederation of the Rhine. Hanseatic towns. Prussians declared war alone. Defeated by Napoleon at Jena and by Davout at Auerstädt (October 14 1806). Napoleon in Berlin 27th.

Russians, 1806. Stalemate at Eylau (February 7-8), but routed at Friedland (June 14). Alexander I and Naopoleon made peace at Tilsit (July 7, 1807). Congress of Erfurt (1808). Napoleon and Tsar Alexander I agreed that Russia should force Sweden to join the Continental System, which led to the Finnish War and the division of Sweden through the Gulf of Bothnia. The eastern part became the Russian Grand Duchy of Finland.

The Fifth Coalition

The Fifth Coalition (1809) of Britain and Austria against France.

Britain alone, again. British military activity was reduced to a succession of small victories in the French colonies and another naval victory at Copenhagen (September 2, 1807). On land only the disastrous Walcheren Expedition (1809) was attempted. The struggle then centred over economic warfare - Continental System vs. naval blockade. Both sides entered conflicts trying to enforce their blockade - the British the Anglo-American War (1812-1814) and the French the much more serious Peninsular War (1808-1814); Portugal, Bayonne (April), guerillas, Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington).

Industrial Revolution.

1809 Austria attacks into Duchy of Warsaw. Defeated at Battle of Radzyn April 19 1809. Polish army captures West Galicia . Austria attacks into Bavaria. Defeated at Wagram, July 5-6. Treaty of Schönbrunn (October 14, 1809).

1810 French empire reaches its greatest extent. Napoleon marries Marie-Louise. As well as the French empire, Napoleon controlled the Swiss Confederation, the Confederation of the Rhine, and the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. Allied territories included: the Kingdom of Spain (Joseph Bonaparte); Kingdom of Westphalia (Jerome Bonaparte); the Kingdom of Italy (Eugène de Beauharnais, son of Joséphine (Napoleon was king)); the Kingdom of Naples (Joachim Murat, brother-in-law); Principality of Lucca and Piombino (Felix Bacciochi, brother-in-law).

The Sixth Coalition

See Napoleon's invasion of Russia

The Sixth Coalition (1812-1814) of Britain and Russia, Prussia, Sweden, Austria and a number of German States against France and the United States.

In 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia to compel Emperor Alexander I to remain in the Continental System. The Grande Armée, 600,000 men (270,000 French and many soldiers of allies or subject powers), crossed the Niemen River June 23, 1812. Russia proclaimed a Patriotic War, while Napoleon proclaimed a Second Polish war, but against the expectations of Poles that consisted 30% of his army he avoided any concessions toward Poland having in mind further negotations with Russia. Russia maintained a policy of retreat and scorched earth. The Russians stood and fought at the Borodino (September 7), bloody but indecisive. By September 14, Moscow was captured and largely burned. Alexander I refused to capitulate. Failing to achieve his political objectives by the occupation of Moscow, Napoleon began a disastrous Great Retreat, with 275,000 casualties, and 200,000 captured. By November only 10,000 fit soldiers were among those who crossed the Berezina River. Napoleon returned to Paris in December.

Meanwhile, in the Peninsular War, at Vitoria (June 21, 1813) the French power in Spain was finally broken by Arthur Wellesley's victory over Joseph Bonaparte. The French were forced to retreat out of Spain, over the Pyrenees.

Seeing an opportunity in Napoleon's historic defeat, Austria and Prussia re-entered the war. France had small victories at Lützen (May 2) and Bautzen (May 20-21) over Russo-Prussian forces. At the Battle of Leipzig in Saxony (October 16-19, 1813), also called the "Battle of the Nations", 195,000 French fought 350,000 Allies, and the French were defeated and forced to retreat into France. Napoleon fought a series of battles, including theBattle of Arcis-sur-Aube, in France, but was steadily forced back against overwhelming odds. Treaty of Chaumont (March 9). Allies enter Paris, March 30, 1814. Napoleon abdicated April 6. Treaty of Fontainebleau . Congress of Vienna.

Napoleon was exiled to the island of Elba, and the Bourbon kings were restored under Louis XVIII.

The Seventh Coalition

See: War of the Seventh Coalition

The Seventh Coalition (1815) of Britain, Russia, Prussia, Sweden, Austria, The Netherlands and a number of German States against France.

The period known as the Hundred Days began after Napoleon left Elba and landed at Cannes, March 1, 1815. Travelling to Paris, picking up support as he went, he overthrew the restored Bourbon Louis XVIII. The allies immediately gathered their armies to meet him again. He raised 280,000 men which were divided into several armies.

Map of the Waterloo campaign
Map of the Waterloo campaign

Napoleon took about 130,000 men of the Army of the North on a pre-emptive strike, to attack the Allies in Belgium. His intention was to attack the Allied armies before they combined, in the hope of driving the British onto the sea and the Prussians out of the war. His march to the frontier achived the surprise he had planned. He forced the Prussians to fight at Ligny on June 16 and the defeated Prussians retreated in some disorder. On the same day the left wing of the Army of the North, under the command of Marshal Michel Ney, succeeded in stopping any of Wellington's forces going to the aid of Blücher's Prussians by fighting a blocking action at Quatre Bras. With the Prussian retreat, Wellington was forced to retreat as well. He fell back to a previously reconnoitered position on an escarpment at Mont St Jean , a few miles south of the village of Waterloo. Napoleon took the reserve of the Army of the North, and recombined his forces with those of Ney to pursue Wellington's army, but not before he has ordered Marshal Grouchy to take the right wing of the Army of the North and stop the Prussians reorganising. Grouchy failed and although he engaged and defeated the Prussian rearguard under the command of Lt-Gen. von Thielmann in the Battle of Wavre (18-19 June), the rest of the Prussian army "marched towards the sound of the guns" at Waterloo. The start of the Battle of Waterloo on the morning of June 18 1815 was delayed for several hours as Napoleon waited until the ground had dried from the previous night's rain. By late afternoon the French army had not succeeded in driving Wellington's Allied forces from the escarpment on which they stood. When the Prussians started to arrive and attack the French right flank in ever increasing numbers, Napoleon's strategy of keeping the Allied armies divided had failed and his army was driven from the field in confusion, by a combined Allied general advance.

On arriving at Paris three days after Waterloo, Napoleon still clung to the hope of a concerted national resistance; but the temper of the chambers and of the public generally, was not in his favour so Napoleon was forced to abdicated again on June 22, 1815. The Allies exiled him to the remote South Atlantic island of Saint Helena.

Political effects of the wars

The Napoleonic Wars had two great resounding effects upon the face of Europe. 1) France was no longer a dominating power over Europe as it had been since the times of Louis XIV. 2) A new and potentially powerful movement had been sprung; Nationalism. Nationalism was to re-shape the course of European History, forever. It was the force that spelled the beginning of some nations, and the end of others. The map of Europe was to be re-drawn in the next hundred years following Napoleon's wars, not based on fiefs and aristocracy, but on the basis of human culture, origin, and ideology.

Military legacy of the wars

The Napoleonic Wars also had a profound military impact. Until the time of Napoleon, European states had employed relatively small armies with a large proportion of mercenaries that sometimes fought for foreign states against their native countries. However, military innovators in the mid-eighteenth century began to recognize the potential of a "nation at war".

Napoleon was an innovator in the use of mobility to offset numerical disadvantages, as he brilliantly demonstrated in his rout of the Austro-Russian forces in 1805 in the Battle of Austerlitz. The French Army reorganized the role of artillery in warfare, forming independent and mobile artillery units as opposed to the previous tradition of attaching artillery pieces in support of other troop units. Napoleon standardized the cannonball sizes to ensure easier resupply and compatibility among his army's artillery pieces.

With the fourth largest population in the world by the end of the eighteenth century, (30 million, as compared with England's 12 million and Russia's 35-40 million) France was well poised to take advantage of the 'levée en masse.' Because the revolution and Napoleon's reign witnessed the first application of the lessons of the 18th century's wars on trade and dynastic disputes, it is often falsely assumed that such ideas were the fruit of the revolution rather than ideas which found their implementation in it.

See also

Last updated: 02-02-2005 23:11:51
Last updated: 03-18-2005 11:16:12