French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars (1789–1815)
French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars (1789–1815)
After enjoying success as a military commander during the French Revolution, Charles François Dumouriez (1739–1823) suffered a grievous blow to his reputation when he betrayed his nation to enter into a treasonous agreement with Austria.
Before the Revolution
As a young man, Dumouriez pursued an education at the college of Louis-le-Grand, and in 1757 he entered military service as a volunteer in the campaign of Rossbach. He performed with distinction, earning a commission and later serving in campaigns during the Seven Years War in Germany.
With the suspension of hostilities, he retired as a captain. Through his travels, Dumouriez developed an interest in the Mediterranean. His writing on Corsican affairs earned him a position on the staff of the French expeditionary corps, and he was sent to the island at the rank of lieutenant colonel. A staunch royalist, Dumouriez became actively engaged in diplomatic political affairs.
Dumouriez then joined Louis XV’s secret service, and in this capacity he traveled on a mission to Poland to assist pro-French organizations. Upon the fall of the powerful state minister Étienne François, duc de Choiseul, Dumouriez was recalled to France and eventually imprisoned, not gaining his full release until the accession of Louis XVI in 1774. He married his cousin Mademoiselle de Broissy upon his release, but the union was unhappy and the two eventually separated.
A substantial pamphlet Dumouriez penned regarding the security of Normandy gained him a posting as commandant of Cherbourg in 1778. He proved to be an able administrator and made a number of civic improvements, which kept him in place for the next ten years. However, he felt his career was stagnating and so began looking for fresh opportunities.
The outbreak of the Revolution provided the chance he was seeking, so Dumouriez traveled to Paris and joined the initially moderate Jacobin Club. Dumouriez was promoted to the rank of lieutenant general, and he offered his services to King Louis XVI. In March 1792, he became minister of foreign affairs in a ministry that included several Girondists who sought war with Austria.
Dumouriez contributed to the decision to declare war against Austria, and his deliberations fashioned the campaign plan to invade the Low Countries. With a change in cabinet members in June 1792, he briefly became the minister of war. But when King Louis failed to reach an accommodation with the Assembly, Dumouriez left Paris to join the army of Marshal Luckner.
In August, as the Prussians and Austrians took to the offensive against France, Dumouriez, as commander of the “Army of the Centre,” took decisive action and scored several important victories for the Revolutionary government. In September, his subordinate, General François Christophe Kellerman, inflicted a defeat on the Prussians at Valmy, and in November, Dumouriez surprised the Austrian army in winter quarters near Jemappes. Dumouriez’s 45,000 Frenchmen, who outnumbered his enemies by three to one, routed the Austrians and subsequently captured Brussels.
When Dumouriez returned to Paris, he enjoyed many accolades, but the radicals in power did not favor him. He was too deliberate and his passion not extreme enough for the ruling Jacobins. Dumouriez recognized that a defeat in battle would not only ruin his career but endanger his person.
That defeat came at Neerwinden in the winter of 1793. To stave off what he felt was the inevitable censure and sacking, he arrested the commissioners sent by the Convention that spring to investigate his performance. Dumouriez passed his captives to his enemies as a token of his sincerity of his new allegiance but failed to convince his army to march against the Revolutionary government in Paris. Left with no other choice but flight, Dumouriez—along with the duc de Chartres (afterwards King Louis-Philippe) and his brother the duc de Montpensier—fled into the hands of the Austrians.
Dumouriez spent his remaining years without a national homeland, finally serving the British government and trying to justify his record. In 1804 he settled in England and received an annual pension of 1,200 British pounds. During the Napoleonic Wars, Dumouriez secretly advised the British War Office about French military affairs. He solicited a marshal’s baton from Louis XVIII but the French monarch refused to grant the honor.
Dumouriez was an avid writer, especially of political pamphlets. His memoirs were first published in 1794, while a second, larger edition, La Vie et les mémoires du Général Dumouriez , was published in Paris in 1823, the year of his death.
François Christophe Kellermann, Duke of Valmy and French Marshal of the Empire (1735–1820), achieved fame for saving the French Revolution by winning the Battle of Valmy. In reality a military commander of modest accomplishment, he spent his later years demonstrating thoroughly successful administrative skills in the armies of Napoleon.
A Soldier’s Life
Kellerman entered military service as a cadet in the Lowendahl Regiment in 1752. Four years later he was a captain of dragoons and saw service in the Seven Years War, distinguishing himself at Bergen in April 1759 and at Freidberg in Hesse in August 1762. In 1771, Kellerman served with Baron de Viomeuil in the Franco-German expeditionary force sent to Poland. During the withdrawal from Cracow, Kellerman displayed his talent by capably managing his formation during difficult conditions. In 1780 he earned a promotion to lieutenant colonel, and in 1784 he became a brigadier.
Promoted to major general, Kellerman embraced the Revolution and commanded the Department of Alsace, where the steps he took to train and organize his forces earned him yet another promotion, to lieutenant general. He was commander in chief at Neukirk in early 1792, and in the summer he transferred to command the Army of the Moselle.
Kellermann’s most notable achievement came at the Battle of Valmy on September 20, 1792. There, he took a blocking position that thwarted an anti-Revolutionary invasion force composed of Austrians, Hessians, and Prussians under the Duke of Brunswick. Kellermann largely held his infantry in place while unleashing a magnificent cannonade that compelled Brunswick’s Prussians to withdraw with little maneuvering. This action was credited with saving the Revolutionary government and preserving the integrity of France.
As a reward, Kellermann was given command of the Army of the Alps, but due to political intrigues he was arrested in June 1793. He spent thirteen months imprisoned before rejoining the armies in Italy. He was relieved in October 1795 and made inspector general of cavalry.
Gradually passed by younger, more aggressive generals in Napoleon’s service, Kellerman’s steady hand and organizational abilities were still sought for other duties. He became a senator and then president of the senate, later becoming the first of four senators to be named Marshal of France. He commanded the III Corps of the Army of Reserve on the Rhine in 1803, and in 1806 he commanded the Rhine Army of Reserve.
In 1808, Kellermann commanded several observation and garrison armies, and in 1812 Napoleon tasked him with the reorganization of the National Guard. In the wake of the invasion of Russia, Kellerman again commanded the Rhine Observation Corps. Subsequently he commanded the Second, Third, and Fourth Military Divisions.
In 1814, King Louis XVIII made Kellermann a peer of France, and in 1815 Napoleon also made him a peer. He died in Paris in September 1820.
Kellermann’s prominence was due in large measure to his moment of glory as the hero of Valmy. Although not a large battle in military terms, the fight preserved the Revolution at a tenuous moment when Paris was vulnerable to attack by the other powers of Europe. Throughout his career, Kellermann remained faithful to France, and his significant administrative skills and long experience with French military affairs were valued and sought after by both the Revolutionary and Napoleonic governments.
Jean-Baptiste Jourdan (1762–1833) was a Marshal of France who compiled a career of successful, if not particularly distinguished, service spanning the period from the American Revolution through the end of the Napoleonic era. He was a tradition-bound, unimaginative, but steady commander.
Two Continents, Two Revolutions
While still an adolescent, Jourdan enlisted as a private soldier for service under the great Marquis de Lafayette in the American War of Independence. Departing military service upon his return to France, Jourdan again volunteered upon the outbreak of the French Revolution. He enjoyed the support of politicians within the Republican government in Paris who were in dire need of proven military leaders, and so he earned quick promotion. He soon found himself at the head of division, and then was appointed commander in chief of the Army of the North, winning against an Austrian force at Wattignies in northern France in October 1793. The battle itself was unremarkable, yet any victory by the still raw troops of Republican France was heralded.
After a period of political uncertainty during which his enthusiasm for the Revolution came under suspicion by the political masters in Paris, Jourdan returned to the army, and in June, at the Battle of Fleurus, he earned a substantial victory for the Revolution and achieved his most important triumph as a military leader. At the head of a new combined force of more than 75,000 men known as the Army of the Sambre and Meuse, Jourdan marched against the city of Charleroi, located some six miles southwest of Fleurus. On June 12, the French force invested the town, but the siege was short-lived. On June 16, an Austrian-Dutch force counterattacked with more than forty thousand troops, inflicting several thousand casualties and prompting Jourdan to fall back. Two days later Jourdan counterattacked, this time successfully compelling the city’s surrender.
The same day, the Austrian commander General Josias Saxe-Coburg, at the head of a fifty thousand man force, struck the flanks of Jourdan’s army, gaining ground on each side. However, the Austrian and Dutch troops were unable to budge the French center, thus the assault stalled. Although Saxe-Coburg had inflicted greater casualties than his army had suffered, he lost his confidence and ordered a general retirement, soon marching beyond the Meuse. Jourdan’s “triumph” prompted the Allies’ withdrawal from Belgium, which French forces exploited by marching into the Netherlands, taking Brussels on July 10 and entering Antwerp on July 27.
The year 1795 saw Jourdan campaigning with little effect along the line of the Rhine, and in 1796 he was again leading a wing of the French army. The Directory in Paris replaced appointed General Jean Victor Moreau and designated that he and Jourdan lead a combined offensive. The Austrian commander in chief, Archduke Charles, blunted Jourdan’s advance, but Moreau was able to maneuver behind the Austrian army, compelling Charles’ retreat beyond the Danube. Jourdan attempted to exploit the French success, but at Amberg on August 24 and again at Wurzburg on September 3, Charles stopped Jourdan’s thrusts. Thus the campaign season along the Rhine front ended with little accomplished.
Career Under the First Consul
Once more embroiled in political affairs for a time, Jourdan returned to active service but was defeated again by Archduke Charles at the battle of Stockach in 1799. After initial opposition to the assumption of power by Napoleon, Jourdan gradually came to support the new regime and accepted from the new First Consul the position as inspector-general of cavalry and infantry. Napoleon, seeking the support of the senior military leaders of the Revolution, designated Jourdan as Marshal of France.
Thereafter Jourdan was assigned as commander of the Army of Italy, a post he held until September 1805. In 1806, he was governor of Naples, and in 1808, he was transferred to Spain as chief of staff of the French army fighting Wellington in the Peninsular War. The following years found him performing a number of duties: governor of Madrid in 1811, and chief of staff to King Joseph during the battles of Salamanca in 1812 and Vitoria in 1813.
After a brief retirement, he was recalled to largely administrative commands before switching his allegiance to the Bourbons upon the monarchy’s return to power. Although he once more pledged loyalty to Napoleon during the Hundred Days, Jourdan spent his final decades serving the Bourbon government.
Napoleon I (1769–1821), Emperor of France, was an extraordinarily gifted and dynamic statesman, reformer, and military leader. Napoleon tempered the excesses of the French Revolution only to plunge Europe into more than two decades of broader conflict. A military giant who established the largest empire in Europe since Roman times, Napoleon symbolizes both the apogee of battlefield success as well as the hazards of imperial ambition.
During the Revolution
As a young man, Napoleon distinguished himself in geometry, science, and mathematics, and assiduously studied military history and theory. He entered the École Militaire in 1784 and a year later earned a commission in the artillery. He joined the La Fère Artillery Regiment and came under the tutelage of the commandant, who encouraged Bonaparte to develop his military skills.
Napoleon became involved in Corsican nationalist politics and gradually rose in rank, earning notice for his talented employment of the artillery at the Siege of Toulon in 1793 that forced the British to withdraw. For his efforts, he gained promotion to brigadier general. Napoleon’s star seemed to be rising, but he was arrested and imprisoned after the fall of Robespierre, the famous French revolutionary.
Napoleon was contemplating emigration when the politician Paul Barras ordered him to defend the Convention (the legislative body formed during the Revolution) from the mobs. For doing so with such efficiency, Bonaparte was rewarded with command of the Army of the Interior, and in 1796 he was given command of the Army of Italy. His deft maneuvering and leadership in battle earned victories that convinced the Austrians to conclude the Peace of Campo Formio (1797), allowing France to turn its hostilities to Britain.
A Stop in Africa on the Way Up
In 1798, Napoleon was given command of an army that sailed across the Mediterranean, capturing Malta and landing in Egypt. After he defeated a Mameluke force at the Battle of the Pyramids, Bonaparte seized Cairo. The French position was jeopardized by destruction of the French fleet skillfully conducted by the British Admiral Nelson. Napoleon’s invasion of Syria in 1799 failed to turn around French fortunes, so he departed, leaving his army to its fate.
A skillful public relations campaign kept Napoleon’s standing high with the public. As a result of a coup in 1799, he was made one of three Consuls, soon becoming the First Consul and consolidating his authority. The following year Bonaparte launched a campaign against Austrian forces in Italy, leading to victory at Marengo. As a result, Austria signed the Treaty of Luneville, terminating the Second Coalition against France. Britain, too, sought accommodation, and the Peace of Amiens brought peace to France and the opportunity for domestic reform.
Ever a pragmatist, Napoleon sought to gain efficiency at all levels of government. His Concordat with the Papacy brought a general reconciliation with Rome, while economic reforms—including the establishment of the Bank of France and ensuring a metal-based currency that fixed the price of the franc—served to calm social anxieties. Furthermore, French law was codified and the education system was reoriented to prepare capable young people from the middle layers of society for opportunities for public service and entry into the professions. These modernizations all enhanced Napoleon’s reputation, and a plebiscite made him Consul for life.
The Autocrat Alters Europe’s Armies
Napoleon viewed himself as the successor to Charlemagne and hence promoted the creation of an Empire of France. Another plebiscite duly proclaimed him Emperor, and his coronation occurred in December 1804. In 1805 he added the title of King of Italy.
While Napoleon’s reforms proceeded apace at home, Britain had resumed hostilities in 1803 and would orchestrate another four coalitions against France. Napoleon ultimately would find himself in a long strategic war of attrition, but he struggled mightily to avoid this kind of conflict by seeking to achieve what had eluded European military leaders for centuries: the decisive battle.
Napoleon’s military system changed the nature of war in Europe, as he substantially altered the way armies were organized and employed. Formerly, armies assembled on an ad hoc basis, with each arm (infantry, cavalry, and artillery) cooperating on the field of battle but otherwise not fully integrated. Napoleon’s armies consisted of divisions and brigades that were semi-permanently task organized and capable of rapid massing on the battlefield. On the march, each of his corps was capable of independent maneuver, allowing the French army the ability to advance on parallel but separate axes. This freed Napoleon’s forces from the system of magazines and depots that had constrained previous generals. Now the French corps could live off the land more readily as they foraged separately. The result was that Napoleon could bring to the battlefield larger numbers of troops who could then mass for decisive effect.
France vs. Everyone Else
Once again at war in 1805, Napoleon moved his Grande Armée toward the Rhine, encircling an unprepared Austrian army at Ulm and forcing its surrender before marching to occupy Vienna. After two months of difficult but inconclusive maneuvering, Napoleon sprung a savage attack on a Russian army at Austerlitz on December 2. This sent the Russians fleeing and prompted the Austrians to sue for peace. Prussia was sufficiently alarmed at the French threat, yet suffered defeats in October 1806 at Jena and Auerstadt. Within a month of brilliant campaigning, Napoleon swept Prussia’s forces from the field and, for the time being, eliminated it as a power.
In early 1807, a winter campaign culminated in the battle of Friedland and the death of nearly half of the Russian army. The Tsar, convinced that further conflict would cost Russia even more dearly, conceded by the Treaty of Tilsit to become Napoleon’s ally.
Unable to strike Britain directly, Napoleon tried to close Europe to British trade through the Continental System, an embargo never completely realized. In Spain, Napoleon’s involvement passed from distraction to ulcer as a civil war erupted and the arrival of a large British army cost the French army tens of thousands of casualties in an unprofitable theater of war.
Subsequent campaigns against a revived Austria led to the invasion of Russia in 1812, which ended disastrously. Napoleon reached Moscow only to see the city burn around him without a Russian surrender. During the return march to central Europe, Russian Cossacks and roving infantry decimated French ranks.
A Last Hurrah
After this disaster, Napoleon’s star began to plummet. The armies of the Sixth Coalition (Britain, Austria, Prussia, Russia, and others) were victorious at Leipzig, and their forces invaded France in 1814, securing Napoleon’s abdication and restoring the Bourbons.
Exiled to the island of Elba in the Mediterranean, Napoleon engineered a return, landing in France in March 1815. He gathered a new army and launched the Hundred Days Campaign that ended in defeat at Waterloo and a second abdication and exile. Napoleon died on the British island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic in 1821.
Courageous, creative, and charismatic, Napoleon inspired utter devotion in his subordinates, and he propelled France to the front rank of nations. His aggressive style of war unleashed the furies of nationalism and patriotism, thereby empowering the central state and forcing his adversaries to adapt or perish.
British naval officer and national hero, Admiral Horatio Nelson (1758–1805) won a number of signature victories over Franco-Spanish fleets during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. His greatest achievement was his triumph at the battle of Trafalgar in 1805, which sealed British naval superiority and ended Napoleon’s ambitions for threatening Britain from the sea.
Out to Sea at an Early Age
The son of a clergyman, Viscount Horatio Nelson joined the navy in 1770. He served as a midshipman aboard the HMS Raissonable under the command of his uncle, Captain Maurice Suckling, serving with Suckling aboard the HMS Triumph the next year. After voyages to the West Indies and Arctic between 1771 and 1774, Nelson sailed aboard the HMS Seahorse to the East Indies.
Nelson became a lieutenant on HMS Lowestoft in 1777 and soon earned command of HMS Badger , a brig. Two years later, Nelson was promoted to captain of the frigate Hinchinbrook .
Fighting the French
After a period of illness and convalescence, Nelson received several minor commands and duties. Upon the outbreak of war with France, he was appointed captain of the sixty-four-gun HMS Agamemnon in February 1793, serving in the Mediterranean under Admiral Hood. During this period while serving at Naples, Nelson met Lady Emma Hamilton, wife of the British Ambassador, a woman with whom Nelson would engage in a notorious liaison despite his own marriage from 1787 to Frances Nisbet.
Nelson completed operations in the waters near Corsica and around Calvi Bay and was wounded in 1794, losing sight in his right eye. He subsequently fought under Admiral Hotham at the Battle of Genoa in March 1795 and continued to operate along the Italian coast, attempting to interrupt the French army’s operations, but to only modest effect. When Spain entered the war alongside France, Nelson commanded two frigates in late 1796 and early 1797 that evacuated the British garrison from the island of Elba.
Nelson was promoted to commodore and distinguished himself by contributing to British Admiral John Jervis’ victory off Cape St. Vincent on February 14, 1797. Ignoring standing orders, Nelson turned out of line and lead boarding parties that captured two Spanish ships and blocked the escape of part of the Spanish fleet. For his achievement, Nelson was made rear admiral and knighted.
He next blockaded Cadiz in the spring of 1797 and in July attacked Santa Cruz de Tenerife in the Canary islands, an action that cost him his right arm. When recovered he rejoined Jervis off Gibraltar in the spring of 1798 and went near Toulon to scout French naval activities. Nelson’s ship the HMS Vanguard lost its mast during a storm in May. After its repairs were complete, the French were absent. Joined by Commodore Troubridge and ten more ships of the line, Nelson aggressively searched the Mediterranean waters for the French fleet. He found them anchored in shallow water at Aboukir Bay, sheltering there after transporting Napoleon’s army to Egypt. Nelson surprised the French in an audacious attack on August 1, 1798. Although suffering nine hundred casualties, Nelson captured or destroyed most of the French ships, effectively stranding Napoleon’s army and ensuring British mastery of the Mediterranean.
Nelson, now Baron Nelson of the Nile, sailed to Naples in September to support operations against the French there, being compelled to evacuate the royal family to Palermo in January 1799; he maintained a blockade until Allied fortunes improved allowing the royals to be returned in June. Nelson was promoted to vice admiral on January 1, 1801, and appointed second in command to Admiral Sir Hyde Parker’s Baltic Fleet.
Invincible at Sea, but Not Immortal
At the Battle of Copenhagen, Nelson again ignored orders—this time theatrically placing his telescope to his blind eye and claiming he could not see any signal—before plunging into the action and earning another bloody victory. He took command of the Baltic Fleet after Parker’s return to England in May but went home as well in June, suffering from ill health. Nelson spent the next year recuperating, not returning to active duty until the termination of the Peace of Amiens in May 1803. Given command of the Mediterranean Fleet, he instituted a blockade off Toulon in June.
Using poor weather to shield his actions, Admiral Pierre Charles Villeneuve led out the French fleet and escaped from Toulon in March 1805. Convinced that his adversary had sailed for the West Indies, Nelson sailed there and back but was unable to locate the enemy. Only in late summer did he find the Franco-Spanish ships at Cadiz. When Villeneuve sortied on October 18, Nelson pounced. At the Battle of Trafalgar on October 21, he gained the single greatest naval victory since the defeat of the Spanish Armada more than two centuries prior.
Nelson, in command aboard HMS Victory , abandoned the traditional line-ahead tactics to lead a column of twelve ships to break the center of the enemy fleet; concurrently and to the south, Vice Admiral Collingwood struck with another column. In the resulting melee Nelson effectively destroyed the Franco-Spanish fleet as an offensive threat, thereby crushing Napoleon’s plans to threaten Britain from the sea. Thereafter, Bonaparte would have to be content with conquests in central and eastern Europe. However, Nelson was mortally wounded by a sharpshooter while engaging Villeneuve’s flagship and died several hours after the battle.
Nelson was a masterful naval leader whose victories in combat secured British naval superiority during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. He was aggressive, decisive, brave, innovative, and mercurial, and he was adored by his sailors and officers. Nelson trusted and empowered his subordinates, thereby gaining their fierce loyalty and ensuring that they were willing to execute his bold tactical maneuvers. His many successes and expansive ego ensured that he was a notorious figure in life; his heroic death confirmed for Nelson a legacy as one of history’s greatest sea captains.
Arthur Wellesley, First Duke of Wellington
Intelligent, talented, and hard-working, Wellington (1769–1852) would prove himself one of the greatest military commanders of any age by leading Anglo, Portuguese, and Spanish armies during successful campaigns in India and Spain, as well as the final campaign in Belgium against Napoleon. Wellington earned the distinction of never losing a battle at which he was present.
Falling into a Career
Arthur Wellesley was born into an aristocratic Anglo-Irish family. The second son of the Earl of Mornington, the young Wellington showed no particular military promise. However, he needed a place to make his fortune, so when he reached the age of seventeen his mother and brother purchased a commission for him.
Wellesley served initially as an aide-de-camp and was shortly promoted to lieutenant. He was elected an independent member of Parliament for his family’s seat of Trim and continued to gain rank. By 1790 he was a captain, and in 1793 he was able to purchase a majority and lieutenant colonelcy in the Thirty-Third Regiment.
Between 1794–1795, Wellesley was with the Thirty-Third in Flanders campaigning against the French, and in 1796, now a colonel, he sailed for India. His brother was appointed governor-general; after being given a command, Wellesley fought in several campaigns and was made governor of Seringapatam and Mysore. In 1803 he beat the Marathas at Assaye, losing 1,500 of his 7,000 men but earning distinction for courage in battle as two of his horses were killed under him. Wellington also won an important battle at Argaum and seized the fortress of Gawlighur.
Returning home in 1805, Wellington was made a Knight of the Bath. He led a brigade on a brief Anglo-Russian expedition to the Elbe in northern Germany, and then took a command to Denmark in 1807, earning promotion to lieutenant general. Meanwhile he was elected as a Tory member of Parliament and was appointed chief Secretary of Ireland, a position he held for two years.
In the spring of 1808, Wellington led a small force to Portugal. He defeated the French at the Battle of Vimeiro but his superior, Sir Harry Burrard, granted the French army safe passage. Wellington was recalled to face a Board of Enquiry but was cleared. He returned to Portugal in 1809 and quickly secured Porto, within a month driving French troops from Portuguese soil; his reward was a peerage for himself. Alongside his Spanish allies, he pursued the retreating enemy into Spain. The War on the Peninsula had become important to Britain, as it was recognized as the best place to bleed France of men, money, and material.
With Austria making peace, Napoleon moved to quiet his southern flank by sending reinforcements to Spain, so Wellington withdrew into Portugal. In September 1810, Wellington’s forces blunted the French Marshal Masséna’s attack at Busaco, but the French continued to press. Wellington moved into his extensive fortifications, the Lines of Torres Vedras, finally halting the French advance. Starved of resources and unable to dislodge Wellington’s army, Masséna withdrew from Portugal in March 1811.
In early 1812, Wellington assaulted Ciudad Rodrigo by storm. He then proceeded to attack Badajoz in April with heavy loss of life, and in July he executed a brilliant campaign to defeat Masséna’s successor, Marmont, at Salamanca. For leading British armies to so many victories at a time when triumphs over Napoleon’s marshals were yet rare, he was given an earldom by the grateful monarchy.
The spring of 1813 found Wellington again on the move, advancing back into Spain to confront Napoleon’s brother, Joseph. At the Battle of Vitoria, Wellington led a force numbering about eighty thousand. He held the French center in place while delivering a devastating flank assault that sent the French reeling. The result was another British victory as Joseph barely escaped, losing his personal baggage and more than 150 cannons. For this achievement, Wellington earned a field marshal’s baton.
Wellington next stormed San Sebastian and then entered France in October. He defeated the French army under Marshal Soult at the Battle of Toulouse. Word of Napoleon’s abdication soon brought an end to fighting. Made a duke, Wellington returned home to extravagant praise.
Curtain Call at Waterloo
In March 1815, Wellington learned of Napoleon’s escape from exile on the island of Elba. Wellington was appointed commander in chief of British and Dutch-Belgian forces in the Low Countries, arriving in April to begin preparations for the Hundred Days Campaign. He was attending a ball in Brussels when he heard of Napoleon’s offensive and rushed his army to meet the French threat.
Wellington reached Quatre Bras on the morning of June 16 and then rode eastward to confer with the Prussian General Blücher near Ligny. Although Wellington repulsed Napoleon’s forces under Ney, Blücher was beaten. Rather than fall back, however, Blücher moved his army to a junction with Wellington, who had established a position near Waterloo. The long, bloody contest on June 18 was undecided until late in the afternoon. Wellington repulsed the final French assault as the Prussians struck the French right flank, leading to an Allied victory.
Wellington returned home in 1818 to become Master General of the Ordnance with a seat in Lord Liverpool’s cabinet. He was appointed commander in chief in 1827 but resigned. As a rising Tory leader, he became prime minister in 1828. His chief accomplishment was the Catholic Relief Act of 1829. His government fell in 1830, terminating his two uncomfortable years in office. When the Tories again assumed power in 1834, Wellington served temporarily as the prime minister once more and then as Foreign Secretary. He was reappointed commander in chief in 1842, and died a decade later.
Throughout his brilliant career, Wellington demonstrated a superior grasp of tactics and an outstanding ability to maneuver armies in the face of adversity. He was a diligent and attentive administrator who laid out detailed orders for his subordinates, tolerating very little divergence from his direct command. Wellington’s campaigns in India and in Portugal and Spain demonstrated a keen eye for the importance of logistics and a willingness to take risks but never to gamble with the fate of his men. Always out front, his immediate presence on the battlefield gave his troops tremendous confidence in his judgment. By triumphing over Napoleon at Waterloo in one of the most famous battles in military history, he defeated the greatest military leader of the age and signaled his own and his nation’s preeminence for the nineteenth century.
Marshal Mikhail Illarionovich Kutuzov (1745–1813) was a Russian military leader and governor who served gallantly during the Russo-Turkish War (1768–1774), but he earned notoriety for successfully opposing Napoleon during the French invasion of Russia in 1812.
Career Before Napoleon
The son of a general in the Russian army, the young Kutuzov followed in his father’s footsteps and attended an engineering and artillery school in 1757, earning a commission as an artillery officer in 1761. He fought in Poland from 1764 to 1769, then transferred to the Crimea in 1770. In combat against the Turks, Kutuzov lost an eye.
Despite this physical loss, rapid promotions followed. As a general, Kutuzov served under Field Marshal Alexander Suvorov, and at the capture of Izmail in 1790, he commanded one of the assaults. A modest tactical innovator, Kutuzov gradually came to favor column formations based upon study of the French Revolutionary armies.
Leaving active field service, Kutuzov subsequently held a variety of administrative posts, including ambassador to Constantinople, governor of Finland, ambassador to Berlin, governor of Lithuania, and military governor of St Petersburg.
In 1802, Kutuzov retired. However, in 1805, he was recalled to active duty as a part of Russia’s military preparations to wage war against France as a member of the Third Coalition. He was sent to confront Napoleon in central Europe, but the Austrians surrendered at Ulm before his army could effect a junction with them.
The Russian army still adhered to outdated methods of organization, training, and doctrine. While the individual Russian soldier was tenacious, junior officers had difficulty executing battlefield maneuvers, decision-making by commanders was tedious, and other than the artillery arm, weapons and equipment were lacking in terms of both quality and quantity. It was with these kinds of limitations that Kutuzov encountered Napoleon and the French Army at its peak of fighting performance in December 1805 at Austerlitz. The result was a tremendous French victory that virtually destroyed the Third Coalition. Tsar Alexander I, who held Kutuzov responsible for the defeat, banished him to a series of assignments far from the primary theaters of the Napoleonic Wars.
Although not in favor, the general was still capable. Kutuzov was the military governor of Kiev in 1806, and then of Vilnius in 1809. He led the Army of Moldavia against the Turks in 1811, scoring a significant triumph at Ruschuk that led to the Treaty of Bucharest on May 28, 1812, whereby Russia gained Bessarabia. When Napoleon invaded Russia, Tsar Alexander again turned to Kutuzov, appointing him as commander in chief.
A Hard Winter for the French
Joining the army, Kutuzov found a military force that was reeling from defeat. Reluctant to confront Napoleon in a major battle, public and political pressure convinced Kutuzov that he must stand and fight to defend Moscow. The result was the Battle of Borodino on September 7. Commanding 120,000 Russian troops, Kutuzov chose ground about seventy-five miles west of Moscow to contest the advance of Napoleon’s 130,000 men. The battle, which led to about one-third on each side killed and wounded, was indecisive, but Kutuzov halted Napoleon’s momentum and struck a grievous wound to the morale of the French army. Furthermore, along with the barren occupation of Moscow, the battle robbed Napoleon of the strategic initiative. Thereafter, Kutuzov turned to guerrilla-style, hit-and-run operations to attrit (destroy) the French ranks.
Promoted to field marshal for expelling the French invader, Kutuzov attacked Napoleon’s depleted army again at Krasnoye and the Berezina River, and finally through Poland and into Prussia in January 1813. Suffering from exhaustion, he was replaced by General Peter Wittgenstein. Kutuzov died at Bunzlau in Silesia on April 28.
Kutuzov was a competent general and military administrator who earned the respect of his soldiers. His career, while successful, was typical of many Russian commanders until he grappled with Napoleon. Thereafter, the memory of the defeat at Austerlitz was replaced by the achievement of the attritional warfare and partisan tactics he promoted to destroy the French army in the winter snows as it retreated from Moscow.
Valmy, September 20, 1792
At Valmy, French troops defeated a Prussian-Austrian army that was threatening to advance on Paris and expel the Revolutionary government. The leader of the French forces, François Christophe Kellermann, named Duke of Valmy and French Marshal of the Empire, earned a lifelong reputation as a hero of France for his battlefield victory there.
New Republic, Green Troops
Prior to Valmy, the performance of French troops in battle had been uneven. Insufficiently trained and not yet organized or equipped in modern methods of warfare, they often refused to stand and fight. Such incompetence imperiled the Revolution as it emboldened the monarchical powers of Europe. For the sake of the Revolution, France needed to demonstrate military capability to survive amongst the hostile powers of Europe who were eager to extinguish the revolutionary fervor brewing in Paris.
In the spring of 1792, Austria and Prussia became allies, and soon war with France returned. The Duke of Brunswick commanded an Allied invasion force during the late summer. He expected to successfully penetrate the French frontier and move on Paris, but the response of the French high command blunted his advance. French General Charles-François Dumouriez marched elements of his Army of the North to bottle Brunswick in the Argonne Forest. This gave Kellermann sufficient time to move his Army of the Centre to Valmy. By the time Brunswick emerged with his 30,000 men, Kellermann blocked his path with a force numbering more than 35,000.
The battle involved relatively little tactical maneuvering. Kellermann kept the main body of his infantry in place while unleashing an artillery barrage that soon bested the Allied guns. Brunswick sent forward Prussian infantry, but the effort was half-hearted, and the force turned back in the face of the French artillery. Lacking the will to order a major assault, and likewise unwilling to risk his army, Kellermann also declined to undertake the offense. Hence, the battle ended in a face-off. Ultimately, Brunswick withdrew, yielding the field and the strategic momentum of the campaign to the French. The Allies were unable to make any further sustained threat to the heart of France for the duration of the campaign season.
The Infant Republic Lives
Within France, the Battle at Valmy was viewed as the moment when French arms were proved superior and the Revolution was assured. As a reward for his triumph at Valmy, Kellermann was given command of the Army of the Alps, but he never achieved another major battlefield win. His career thereafter was unremarkable, although he demonstrated administrative skills as one of Napoleon’s generals and served France until his death in 1820. Brunswick went on to fight against the French in Germany in 1793, notably at the Siege of Mainz. In 1806, he again commanded a Prussian army, but suffered defeat and was mortally wounded in battle by French troops of Napoleon’s Marshal Davout at the battle of Auerstadt.
Jemappes, November 6, 1792
Fought in Hainaut, Belgium (near Mons), the Battle of Jemappes was a French victory over a smaller Austrian army. The battle served to protect the French Republic and provided notice to France’s enemies that French military ability was growing more confident and capable.
The Revolution As Plague
The traditional monarchies of Europe were appalled by the events that unfolded within France after 1789. Rightly seeing a threat to their own legitimacy, they marshaled their military forces to quell the revolutionary ideology. In the War of the First Coalition (1792–1797), which pitted Austria, Prussia, and several other smaller states against France, the Allies expected to invade France and easily defeat the amateur Republican armies.
When active hostilities began in April 1792, France hastily deployed its armies to its borders. Unfortunately, the overall quality of French troops was substandard. Poorly equipped, insufficiently trained, and lacking sufficient artillery, French formations would have to rely upon their enthusiasm to make up for their inadequate organization.
In the north, two armies consisting of about fifty thousand men each under Generals Rochambeau and Lafayette protected the northern coast and the approaches to the Ardennes Forest. A more compact army under General Luckner guarded the Rhine frontier, and yet another force under General Montesquieu watched the country’s southern border.
Major combat ensued when Prussia and Austria launched an invasion of France that aimed directly for Paris in the summer of 1792. Initially, the Allied force led by the Duke of Brunswick marched against little opposition into France, casually seizing the fortresses at Longwy and Verdun. Shifting forces to meet this threat, the French Army of the Centre under General François Kellermann was joined by elements from the Army of the North under General Charles Dumouriez. On September 20, in an evenly matched contest, the French won a major victory at Valmy, prompting Brunswick to retire and saving Paris and the Revolution.
Fortune Favors the Bold
The immediate threat to France was not yet removed, however. Moving north, Dumouriez’s advance prompted the Austrians to lift their Siege of Lille, as the campaign season was drawing to a close. The Austrians entered their winter camps at Jemappes, on the Belgian side of the frontier.
With forty thousand men and one hundred guns, Dumouriez launched a surprise offensive that caught the smaller Austrian force of thirteen thousand men by surprise. The French troops charged the Austrian lines and won a victory. French losses were about two thousand killed and wounded, while Austrian casualties numbered approximately 1,500. French troops followed the battle by seizing Brussels ten days later and laying Siege to Antwerp.
The battle, although not large in terms of forces engaged, was important because—as had occurred at Valmy—the French Republic was preserved. After Jemappes, French armies would demonstrate a sustained capacity to take the offensive to the nation’s enemies.
Toulon, September–December, 1793
During the Seige of Toulon, royalist forces within the city, heavily augmented by foreign troops, were eventually defeated by troops supporting the Revolution. This victory kept the French fleet at Toulon in the hands of the Republic, and it also made a name for a young artillery captain named Napoleon Bonaparte.
Revolution in Chaos
In 1793, four years after the Estates General convened and the Paris mob stormed the Bastille, signaling a comprehensive political upheaval in France, the Revolution faced dire threats, both internally and from abroad. After the arrest of radical Girondist deputies and uprisings in Paris in late May, revolts spread through major French cities, including Lyon, Avignon, Nimes, and Marseille.
By September, the time known as the Terror would proceed; over the next ten months, thousands would meet their end at the guillotine, with radicals justifying all violence as a necessity to restore order and secure the Revolution. As might be expected, the Terror contributed to the ongoing political instability, economic dislocation, and administrative ineffectiveness of both local and national governance. The civil distractions accompanying the Terror also imperiled the French armed forces at a time when external threats to France were gathering momentum.
From the southwest, Spain was capable of launching an offensive across the Pyrenees. Eastward, Italian and Austrian troops were making offensive preparations. To the north, an Anglo-Hanoverian expedition under the Duke of York was on the march in Flanders, where it would lay siege at Dunkirk and link forces with Habsburg troops. In addition, a hostile Allied army of more than 120,000 men was assembling along the Rhine frontier after capturing Mainz.
To meet these dangers, the Revolutionary government of the Convention in Paris oversaw an army theoretically of about 270,000 troops, but the number of men reporting to duty was much lower. Morale was low, pay was intermittent, and training was poor. Overall, the effectiveness of army formations was widely inconsistent.
France Crowns a King
Within the important port city of Toulon, the Revolutionaries lost their foothold to royalist factions who, seeking protection, summoned assistance from an Anglo-Spanish fleet nearby. British Admiral Samuel Hood committed more than ten thousand British, Spanish, and Allied men to the royalist cause. On October 1, under the protection of the British navy and its garrison, the adolescent Louis XVII was proclaimed as the new King of France.
The French fleet, still anchored at Toulon was also at grave risk of being destroyed or at least lost to the cause of Revolution. Republican forces recognized this direct challenge to their legitimacy and quickly mobilized in response.
To assault the city, the six thousand men of the Alpine Maritime Army, having recaptured Avignon and Marseille and then Ollioules on September 8, arrived at Toulon under the command of General Lapoype to link up with the troops sent by the Convention and led by General Jean François Carteaux. They were reinforced by Admiral de Saint Julien and some three thousand sailors from the invested—and forcibly anchored—French fleet in harbor. Their first objective was to seize the forts guarding the eastern approaches to the city.
A young captain named Napoleon Bonaparte commanded the Convention’s French artillery under the Chief of Artillery, General Elzéar-Auguste Cousin de Dommartin. A thorough reconnaissance revealed to this impetuous cannoneer that the most rapid means of distressing Toulon’s defenders was to cut their lines of supply with the ships in port. Bonaparte thus devised a plan to seize the forts of l’Eguillette and Balaguier, which would bisect passage between the port’s harbors.
The Royalists Reinforce
Napoleon could not convince his superiors of his plan’s utility, and hence when a modest French force made the attack on September 22, it was repulsed without achieving its objective. Now recognizing the threat in this sector, the Allies constructed Fort Mulgrave, a bastion augmented by supporting works named Saint-Philippe, Saint-Côme, and Saint-Charles. Given its extraordinary strength, this complex was named “Little Gibraltar.”
A series of back-and-forth actions over the coming weeks characterized the battle. Not pleased with the limited reach of his cannons, Napoleon directed that his battery be moved from the height of Saint-Laurent to the shore of Brégallion. This position placed increasing pressure on the British, but Hood’s men were unable to silence it.
In early October, after another French sortie failed, Napoleon was ordered to fire against the substantial Fort Malbousquet. Concentrating all available guns into a grand battery of several hundred cannon and newly promoted to Chief of Battalion, Napoleon began operations. After further assaults still failed to carry the British lines, the Republican commander in chief, General Jean François Carteaux, was replaced on November 11.
Another Napoleon Plan
Bonaparte now believed that success could be achieved by encircling the British and placing ever-increasing fire upon the defenders. He presented this scheme to his new commander, General Jacques François Dugommier, who received the plans favorably. Fresh batteries were emplaced around the city. The guns were sighted both to oppose the Allied works as well as to disrupt the ability of the Allies to bring ships near the shore to bombard French positions.
Now pressured day and night by Napoleon’s guns, the Allies assaulted the French battery named the “Convention.” In response, Dugommier and Napoleon led a counterattack that captured the British General, O’Hara. With the tide turning in favor of the besiegers, Napoleon—who was promoted again, this time to colonel—participated in a major nighttime assault against the works of Little Gibraltar on December 16.
Napoleon suffered a bayonet wound in the thigh during the attack, but the assault was successful. In the morning, French artillery was advanced to directly strike l’Eguillette and Balaguier, which the British evacuated without confrontation on the same day. Other attacks by the Convention’s troops also made progress so that the Allies saw little recourse but to yield the city and evacuate aboard ship.
When the city fell to revolutionary forces on December 19, the consequences for the remaining defenders were severe. Almost two thousand prisoners were shot or were stabbed by bayonet, and depredations against property were widespread.
Napoleon was treated for his injuries and promoted to brigadier general on December 22. His conduct during the siege and battle of Toulon marked his entrance upon the national scene in France. He would shortly go on to command artillery and then French forces in Italy to even greater acclaim, in the process making himself indispensable to the leaders of the revolutionary government in Paris.
Fleurus, June 26, 1794
A contest of the French Revolutionary Wars, the Battle of Fleurus pitted French troops led by Marshal Jean-Baptiste Jourdan against an Austrian army commanded by General Saxe-Coburg. A decisive French victory, the battle expelled the Allies from the Low Countries and greatly relieved the external military pressure on the Revolutionary government in Paris.
The Revolution Rearms
By 1794, the perilous military situation facing France during the previous year had been alleviated through battlefield successes, most notably at Toulon. Domestically, government reforms were beginning to take positive effect; universal conscription, the levée en masse , had brought more than 1,500,000 men into the armies of France. This massive influx of troops meant that major offensives could be contemplated to throw back the Allied cordon that had previously threatened the nation from all directions. Keeping large army formations away from Paris, while at the same time forcing communities located far from the capital—and ideally beyond France—to maintain the soldiery, was also advantageous.
The nation now could boast of more than a dozen armies in the field totaling almost 800,000 men. In the northeast, the armies of the Ardennes and the North were readying themselves with 300,000; along the Rhine frontier were another 200,000; 120,000 troops defended at the Pyrenees and the Italian border; and the Army of the Interior counted a final 80,000.
While the ranks of French formations were increasing, the Allies were finding it increasingly difficult to keep their units manned. The strength of Allied forces was only slightly more than half the French total. As a further distraction, diplomatic jostling among the Allies was prompting the monarchies to reconsider their commitment to war with France. One such concern was the appearance of republican ideology throughout their realms, a scourge attributable to France, but one not easily remedied.
Onward and Outward
Setbacks over the course of the year compounded the precarious Allied military position. The Duke of Brunswick, still stinging from defeat at Valmy more than a year prior, resigned as commander on the Rhine in January. Although not conducting any major assaults, French troops took advantage of the situation to seize territory on the west bank of the river. The commander of the Army of the North, General Jean-Charles Pichegru, led French troops to victories at Courtrai on May 11 and at Tourcoing on the 18th. Seeking to exploit the withdrawal of the combined Austrian, Hanoverian, and British force under Saxe-Coburg, a French army struck near Tournai on May 23, but the battle was inconclusive.
In June, the French General Jourdan marched at the head of a new combined force of more than 75,000 men known as the Army of the Sambre and Meuse; their objective was the city of Charleroi, located some six miles southwest of Fleurus. On June 12, the French force invested the town, but the siege was shortlived. On June 16, an Austrian-Dutch force counterattacked with more than forty thousand troops, inflicting several thousand casualties and prompting Jourdan to fall back. Two days later Jourdan counterattacked, this time successfully compelling the city’s surrender on June 26.
The same day, Saxe-Coburg was present near Charleroi with fifty thousand Austrian and Dutch troops, but they could not attack in time to save the city. The Austrians struck the French flanks, gaining ground on each. However, they were unable to budge the French center, thus the assault stalled. Although Saxe-Coburg had inflicted greater casualties than his army had suffered, he lost his confidence and ordered a general retirement. The following day the Allies retired beyond the Meuse.
The French triumph prompted the Allies’ withdrawal from Belgium, which French forces exploited by marching into the Netherlands, taking Brussels on July 10 and entering Antwerp on the July 27. The Austrians were not able to reassert control over the Low Countries, which is why the Battle of Fleurus marks a watershed victory for the French Revolution.
At the Battle of Arcole, Napoleon demonstrated his penchant for aggressive and energetic tactical maneuver. The clash showcased the emerging French way of warfare that empowered Napoleon’s key generals to make decisions in support of their commander’s intent, and it also highlighted the growing vigor, training, and capability of the individual French soldier.
Bonaparte Heads to Italy
When the campaign of 1796 opened, the critical front was neither in the Low Countries nor along the Rhine, but to the south in Italy, where Habsburg defenses remained powerful and important to the Austrian Empire. The Directory government in Paris appointed Napoleon, at the young age of 26, as commander of the French Army of Italy. His instructions were to secure French interests in that region.
The army he was sent to command, like most French armies of the period, was not yet a capable fighting force. It numbered about 45,000 men, but they were undisciplined and lacking sufficient equipment. Napoleon, however, quickly set about reforming the army’s organization and overseeing every aspect of preparation for the approaching operations.
Within weeks, he had instilled in his troops a renewed sense of purpose and confidence. By the late spring, Napoleon had entered Milan and inflicted sharp defeats on two separate Austrian forces, in the process ejecting the Austrians from almost all of Lombardy. The exception was the fortress city of Mantua with its garrison of thirteen thousand defenders.
On June 4, Napoleon laid siege to Mantua while the Habsburgs rushed additional troops to the area. Three major enemy columns began to diverge on Napoleon’s position. General Peter Quasdanovich led 18,000 troops headed for the French support positions around Brescia; meanwhile, General Dagobert Wurmser marched through the valley of the Adige with 24,000 men with the purpose of relieving the French siege at Mantua; and finally, another 5,000 men were on the move through the Brenta Valley. Napoleon knew he must act decisively to meet these threats before they could consolidate against him.
Attack in Detail
Napoleon lifted the siege at Mantua and gathered all available French troops, numbering about 47,000 men. In August, he struck the separate columns in turn, inflicting losses on each in sharply fought engagements. With the Austrian advance blunted, he then resumed his investment at Mantua, fighting again when Wurmser’s relief column attacked. While Napoleon captured an entire Austrian division before Wurmser’s force made it inside the Austrian defensive lines, the garrison inside the city was now increased to 28,000.
In the autumn, the Austrians again sought to relieve the city. This time General Paul Davidovich advanced down the valley of the Adige with 16,000 men, while General Baron Joszef Alvintzi and his 27,000 troops moved to meet Davidovich at Verona.
Once more seeing the Habsburg threat marshaling, Napoleon detached forces to watch Davidovich and sent 18,000 men to strike Alvintzi’s advance guard at Caldiero on November 12. Although Davidovich’s force was able to inflict damage against Napoleon’s covering formations, the Austrians did not capitalize on their opportunity.
While Alvintzi—who was stunned by the violence of the French assault against his army—paused to ponder Napoleon’s next move, Napoleon continued to advance. The French commander hit the Austrians again only three days later. Bypassing Alvintzi’s main body by marching to the south, Napoleon crossed the Adige, turned northward, and attacked at Arcole on November 15.
The Engagement at Arcole
Napoleon was personally in the midst of the fighting, inserting himself into the assaults that attempted, but failed, to carry the bridge over the Alpone. Although frustrated by heavy losses and the inability to cross the bridge, the French troops continued to press their offensive.
On the third day of combat, Napoleon’s subordinates found solutions that ultimately won the battle. French General Pierre Augereau crossed the Alpone farther south on a trestle bridge, while the attacks led by General André Masséna at Arcole finally made headway against weakening Austrian opposition. When a detachment of French cavalry forayed behind the Austrian main line, the Austrians—fearing encirclement—fled the battlefield, leaving the French in possession. Napoleon’s forces had earned another hard-fought victory.
Napoleon was unable to prevent Alvintzi from extracting his army, but he had inflicted about six thousand casualties upon the Austrians and again denied the relief of Mantua. French losses were slightly less, and Napoleon had once more demonstrated the flexible command and control abilities of his army, which enabled the French forces, even when outnumbered, to fight effectively against superior forces.
In the wake of the fight at Arcole, Napoleon maintained his record of success. While the year’s campaigns stretched French resources, his battlefield victories imperiled the Habsburg position in Italy. In January 1797, Napoleon won again at the Battle of Rivoli, and in February, Mantua finally surrendered. Shortly thereafter, the Austrians sought a peace settlement. Napoleon’s status as a conquering hero was further enhanced, and his political power reached new heights in Paris.
Cape St. Vincent, February 14, 1797
The maritime Battle of Cape St. Vincent was one of the great naval actions of the French Revolutionary period. While France earned important victories on land in 1796 at the battles of Arcole and Rivoli in Italy under Napoleon’s direct leadership, French ambitions for an invasion of Britain suffered a setback when Admiral John Jervis inflicted severe damage on a Spanish fleet under José de Córdoba that he intercepted off the Portuguese coast. The British victory demonstrated the growing capabilities of the Royal Navy and brought Admiral Horatio Nelson, the most famous British seaman of the Napoleonic Wars, to prominence.
France and Spain Combine Forces
When Spain declared war on Britain and Portugal in October 1796, British interests in the Mediterranean were directly threatened. The Royal Navy, with only a modest fleet of slightly more than a dozen ships of the line, supervised evacuations of British garrisons in Corsica and Elba and prepared for the inevitable action against the much larger Franco-Spanish fleet, which boasted nearly forty ships.
Early in 1797, a Spanish fleet of about thirty ships of the line sailed to link up with a French convoy at Brest. Cordóba led his vessels from Cartagena on February 1 for what should have been a simple voyage. When strong winds pushed his fleet farther into the Atlantic than he intended, he was forced to tack back eastward.
Jervis, meanwhile, was attempting to intercept the Spanish ships before they reached the safety of the French harbor. He was an experienced, stern, and capable seaman who had served alongside Captain James Cook and General Wolfe at the Siege of Quebec in 1759 before service in the War of American Independence. Jervis only had ten ships with him until February 6, when these were augmented by five ships from the British Channel Fleet under Rear Admiral William Parker.
On February 11, the British frigate Minerve , under the command of one of the Royal Navy’s most audacious young leaders, Commodore Horatio Nelson, spotted the Spanish fleet. Because of fog, however, he was unable to ascertain his enemy’s size and composition. By February 14, Jervis had located the Spanish and realized that his fifteen ships of the line (with 1,232 guns) faced twenty-seven enemy counterparts (carrying 2,308 cannon). Nonetheless, Jervis was determined to attack and prevent his enemies from combining their fleets. He knew that his sailors were more skilled and his gunners had greater professional training than the large number of landsmen and soldiers constituting the Spanish crews.
Sailing Between the Lines
The Spanish fleet was formed into two groups, and Jervis decided to exploit this disposition by sailing between the two enemy divisions, allowing his ships to fire in both directions and minimizing the damage that the Spanish could inflict in return. As Jervis closed to attack, the Spanish began maneuvering to close their formation.
Nelson observed the Spanish response, and fearing that they would successfully unite their divisions before the British could strike, he ordered the seventy-four-gun Captain (which he was now on) to break from the British line and block the advance of the Spanish van. This was a completely unconventional and unusual action for a British sea captain; if it had not succeeded, Nelson would have been severely punished.
Observing this development, Jervis ordered the last ship in line, the Excellent , to close across the Spanish line as well. By then, the Captain was taking fire from as many as six Spanish ships, of which three were 112-gun three-deckers and a fourth was Cordóba’s 130-gun flagship, the Santísima Trinidad .
With the Captain ’s rigging in tatters and the ship unable to maneuver effectively, Nelson ordered his crew to nudge it alongside the Spanish eighty-gun San Nicolás and send boarding parties to capture the enemy vessel. Meanwhile, the Excellent had pounded the Spanish 112-gun San José so that it became entangled with San Nicolás , allowing British boarding parties to capture both ships.
After the Battle
The British ultimately seized four Spanish ships and drove off the enemy fleet at a casualty cost of seventy-three killed and about four hundred wounded. The Spanish losses were approximately one thousand men killed or wounded. While the successful British tactics at Cape St. Vincent had been concentrated against only a portion of the Spanish fleet (mainly the vessels of Córdoba’s group), the general superiority of British gunnery and seamanship was evident.
Jervis was elevated to the peerage as Earl St. Vincent. Nelson was knighted as a member of the Order of the Bath, and his promotion to Rear-Admiral was officially published. After the battle, Jervis imposed a blockade of the Spanish fleet at Cádiz.
Despite the British triumph, the Royal Navy faced internal challenges requiring Jervis’ attention. Between April and June, significant mutinies broke out aboard the fleets at Spithead and the Nore, indicating substantial dissatisfaction with the poor food, inadequate pay, and harsh discipline of ship captains. Jervis would address these concerns, and the Royal Navy would go on to win most of the battles at sea until Napoleon’s final abdication.
The Egyptian Campaign, 1798–1801
The French expedition to Egypt was a grandiose scheme endorsed by Napoleon that would reveal the glories of Islamic culture to Europeans on a broad scale and result in long-lasting consequences for both the residents of the Middle East as well as the peoples of Europe. In the short term, although the French army in Egypt ultimately capitulated, Napoleon’s reputation as a military hero of France was burnished.
Paying the Pharaohs a Visit
Upon the end of his Italian campaign, Napoleon recognized that a direct invasion of England was not feasible, and a broader European war was in France’s immediate interest. However, the occupation of Egypt offered a number of benefits to France: trade and diplomatic influence would be enhanced; the opening of a trade route through the Red Sea could directly challenge Britain’s longer trade route around the Cape of Good Hope; and, if successful, a French army in the Levant could launch a subsequent attack against British India. At the same time, Napoleon intended to undertake an extensive cultural survey of the lands his troops conquered.
In May 1798, Napoleon, accompanied by forty thousand troops and a large contingent of government administrators, scientists, and academics, set sail aboard the ships of the Toulon fleet. British Admiral Horatio Nelson eagerly pursued, but initially the French armada escaped him. Seizing Malta en route, Napoleon’s army reached Egypt safely and dropped anchor in Aboukir Bay on July 1, quickly moving ashore to occupy Alexandria.
However, Napoleon’s position was not secure until he ended the threat posed by the Mamelukes, the Islamic troops loyal to the Islamic caliph of the Ottoman Empire. When on July 21 French forces defeated a Mameluke army at the Battle of the Pyramids, he thus ensured his control of lower Egypt.
On August 1, Napoleon’s position became much more tenuous as Nelson, who located the French fleet still sheltering in shallow waters in Aboukir Bay, launched a daring attack that effectively destroyed the French armada. Napoleon’s line of communications, as well as any hope for reinforcement, was now severed.
In September, the Ottomans, as nominal rulers of Egypt, declared war on France. Seeking to protect his gains in Egypt and forestall a Turkish offensive from Syria, Napoleon invaded Palestine in February 1799. His Siege of Acre failed when he encountered more substantial fortifications than he had expected, and the tenacity of the defenders finally overwhelmed the French attackers’ ability to sustain the operation. An outbreak of bubonic plague and ongoing British naval pressure further diminished Napoleon’s chances for success. Although the French repulsed a Turkish landing in Aboukir Bay, Napoleon could see that he was isolated in Egypt, and his army was overextended and increasingly vulnerable.
When the Directory requested Napoleon’s return to France, he eagerly accepted for a number of reasons. A new coalition was coalescing to oppose France even as a Russo-Austrian army was pressing French forces in northern Italy; fighting was breaking out from Germany to the Netherlands; and Britain’s blockade had tightened. Thus, Napoleon correctly calculated that there was nothing further to gain from his continued presence in the Middle East. Although many of his subordinates felt betrayed, Napoleon slipped away in a frigate and sailed for France in August 1799.
Commanding the French army now was General Jean Baptiste Kléber. In January 1800, an initial agreement (the Convention of El Arish) was reached with British Rear Admiral Sir Sidney Smith by which the French army would be repatriated to France, but differences ensued and the Convention was set aside. Kléber’s assassination in June meant that command passed to Jacques François Menou. A convert to Islam, Menou married an Egyptian and changed his name to Abdullah. Convinced that Egypt should be a colony of France, he drafted legislation to encourage Egyptian commerce and agriculture. Nonetheless, the Egyptian populace opposed him and continued to resist French rule.
The British government insisted that France must not be allowed to govern Egypt, and with the French army isolated and Napoleon gone, only the complete destruction of the French army would suffice. In March 1801, Sir Ralph Abercromby conducted an assault landing in Aboukir Bay with 14,000 men and defeated Menou at the Battle for Alexandria. In conjunction with the Turks, the British demanded and obtained the surrender of the demoralized French garrison in Cairo. British troops then laid siege to Menou in Alexandria. The French capitulated in September.
The Egyptian campaign, while a military defeat for France in the short term, served to lift Napoleon’s stature at home. He returned to France as a conquering hero and went forward to further consolidate his influence and power. The campaign also elevated Admiral Nelson to prominence and served to restore British confidence. In a broader sense, the European penetration of the Islamic homelands fostered a century-long competition among European powers for control of Middle Eastern territories. Islam was also exposed to the pressures of Western ideas and technologies, a dynamic still affecting international relations today.
Marengo, June 14, 1800
The Battle of Marengo, fought between French forces under overall command of Napoleon Bonaparte and an Austrian army led by General Michael von Melas, was a closely contested French victory that blunted an Austrian offensive in northern Italy and served to secure Napoleon’s stature as a military leader of extraordinary genius. The campaign earned notoriety from Napoleon’s epic march across the Alps to fall on the Austrian army’s rear echelons.
While the Cat’s Away …
While Bonaparte was occupied in Egypt in 1798, the monarchies of Europe were engaged in diplomatic efforts to raise a new coalition to oppose France. An alliance consisting of Britain, Russia, Austria, Naples, Portugal, and a host of lesser German states sought to take advantage of France’s internal turmoil to finally contain the French Revolution. However, France’s ruling Directory also had plans for military offensives to secure the state.
Upon Napoleon’s return to France, a publicity campaign concealed the military failures of his Egyptian campaign, and he received a hero’s reception. After leading a coup, the French Republic was dissolved and Napoleon emerged as First Consul. To solidify his rule and divert attention from domestic contention, Napoleon sought a military victory. The Second Coalition had effectively driven French forces back to the natural boundaries of the state along the Rhine and Alps. Yet units of the French army still held key positions in Switzerland, and it was south and east towards Italy that Napoleon chose to lead a new offensive.
Napoleon directed General (later to be named Marshal) Masséna to take remnants of the French Army of Italy along the Riviera coastline to fix an Austrian army commanded by Michael von Melas near Genoa. Meanwhile, the French Army of the Rhine would act as a diversion while Napoleon struck south with the fifty-thousand-man Army of the Reserve across the Alps into northern Italy. When Masséna became invested in Genoa in early May, Napoleon knew that he would have to move aggressively.
Like Hannibal, but No Elephants This Time
After calling up all available troops and supplies, Napoleon pushed his army across the Great St. Bernhard Pass and over the Alps, dragging horses, men, and guns with heroic effort. He expected Melas to continue to focus on the French forces trapped in Genoa, thereby giving him the chance to pounce behind the Austrian army and roll it up from the rear. For days, Melas was indeed confused as to which advancing French column constituted the primary threat to his position.
Emerging from the Alpine passes, Napoleon consolidated at the head of the Po Valley and then turned east, entering Milan on June 2 and seizing the Austrian supply base there. Next, he moved south across the Po.
When Masséna finally yielded at Genoa, an Austrian force turned to meet Napoleon but was defeated by General Lannes on June 9. Napoleon still believed that Melas was trying to avoid a contest, but in fact the Austrian general had decided to fight his way through the gathering French concentration. On June 14, Napoleon sent one division north of the Po River and another division east to the Scrivia River in search of the Austrians. Taking advantage of the French dispositions, the Austrians attacked.
Down But Not Out
Napoleon suddenly found himself outnumbered and with little recourse to rectify the situation. The Austrians pressed the flank of the French forces and drove them back several miles. With the battle seemingly won, Melas took the time to regroup. Napoleon seized this last chance to urgently summon reinforcements. General Louis Charles Desaix marched his division to Napoleon’s aid, and with these fresh men, Napoleon rallied his troops and led them on a counterattack that hit the surprised Austrian advance guard.
Animated by this favorable turn of events, the French army pressed its advance and seized a victory from what had appeared to be certain defeat. Nearly half of the men in the Austrian army became casualties or prisoners. The French suffered about seven thousand casualties but seized some forty guns and owned the field of battle.
Napoleon’s victory at Marengo demonstrated the extraordinary operational and tactical flexibility of the French way of warfare. When his subordinates understood his intent, they could respond with alacrity to nearly any kind of battlefield circumstance. However, this system relied upon a veteran force that was thoroughly trained, well supplied, and with high morale. As long as Napoleon could maintain these qualities in his armies, he would prove to be nearly invincible. At Marengo, he was just good enough to score another remarkable victory.
Ulm, October 1805
The Ulm campaign, one of Napoleon’s finest hours, demonstrated the superiority of the Grand Armée and revealed profound military weaknesses in the old monarchies of Europe. By rapid and decisive maneuver in the fall of 1805, Napoleon isolated and then captured an Austrian army, effectively eliminating one of France’s enemies in a single stroke.
Trouble with the New Neighbor
Among the European monarchies, Austria faced an especially challenging strategic situation and was characteristically reluctant to open a war with France. The Habsburg Empire was a polyglot state, consisting of peoples with varying languages and cultural allegiances. The Habsburgs had expanded their holdings and now sought to maintain them in traditional fashion: by persistent diplomacy backed up with a judicious force of arms. Their strategic policy was to engage in limited conflicts that were waged only for slices of territory or key strongpoints. Major battles, heavy loss of life, and aggressive military action were considered too hazardous to the status quo. Furthermore, Napoleon had already defeated Austrian armies, so the Habsburg appetite for further confrontation was diminished.
However, when Napoleon, as First Consul, promoted a bill introducing the French Empire, and was subsequently coronated at Notre Dame in December 1804, the direct threat to the monarchical order of Europe was clear. After Napoleon added to his titles the crown of the King of Northern Italy in March 1805, Emperor Francis of Austria knew that he must respond before France grew so powerful that its aspirations could not be contained in Western Europe—Napoleon would begin looking eastward for more conquests.
A Stagnant Military
Unfortunately for Emperor Francis, the Austrian army was in poor condition and still reeling from losses suffered in the wars of the First and Second Coalitions. Its artillery arm had traditionally performed well all the way back to the Seven Years War (1754–1763), but now both its guns and its tactical doctrine were outdated. The infantry mirrored the diverse makeup of the empire itself and hence faced problems of language and unity. The cavalry showed spirit in small actions but was unable to mass in main engagements, and it showed little propensity to gather intelligence or coordinate with the rest of the army. In all the branches, the officer corps was hidebound and hierarchical; too few rewards were offered for competence and initiative, too many as the privileges of patronage.
The titular Austrian commander in the field was the Archduke Ferdinand, brother of Emperor Francis, but most day-to-day decisions were made by General Karl Mack von Leiberich, a veteran staff officer who had experienced much campaigning in Germany and Italy, but who had never shown much imagination.
Mack was convinced that Napoleon would advance through the defiles of the Black Forest region in southern Germany. He assumed that France would not dare to offend Prussia by moving through central Germany, especially while talks were underway to convince Bavaria to align itself with the Allies.
His concept for the upcoming operation was to move along the south bank of the Danube as far as the Iller River, allowing time for Austrian envoys to parlay with the Bavarian elector. Mack would husband his strength and await the arrival of a Russian force marching westward. The combined armies could then march in the direction of Strausburg, taking the war directly to France. Before that union occurred, major battle was to be avoided.
A key to Mack’s plan was the city of Ulm, situated on the border of Bavaria and Wurttemberg. There, fortified positions on the Michelsberg heights rose above the town, and Mack believed that this position was virtually impregnable.
Military Flexibility Aids the French
On September 2, 1805, Mack set his army in motion, but problems immediately arose. Austrian troops were accustomed to drawing supplies from a system of depots and magazines along their route. As these were not available, Mack ordered his men to live off the country. However, they were not practiced at this, which led to confusion and delay as Austrian commanders tried for the first time to maneuver and provision themselves simultaneously.
Meanwhile, Napoleon astutely took Mack’s measure as a cautious leader and correctly assessed that his French armies could move boldly with little risk. On September 25, the Third and Sixth Corps crossed the Rhine and moved to Stuttgart and the Danube. Napoleon’s scheme of maneuver was to send the Grande Armée to make a feint to confirm Mack’s suspicions, while the French main forces conducted a sweeping march to strike the Austrians from the north.
Napoleon aggressively digested intelligence that came to his headquarters and adjusted his orders accordingly. While the French commanders sometimes complained and jostled for resources, they kept their formations moving independently and could capably respond to Napoleon’s directives. In contrast, Mack was largely paralyzed due to dated information and an army that was struggling to deploy. He continued to expect the French army to emerge from the Black Forest from the west, even as Napoleon’s men were closing off all of his routes as far east as Munich.
When Bavaria chose to ally with France, Mack realized that his situation was dire. On October 8, portions of the Fifth Corps and Marshal Murat’s cavalry struck an Austrian column and defeated it at the Battle of Wertingen. The next day, units of French Marshal Ney’s corps carried the bridge at Gunzburg against stiff but ineffective Austrian opposition.
Ulm Not As Impregnable As Mack Thought
Napoleon found it hard to believe that Ferdinand and Mack were waiting at Ulm, but when a French division came upon Mack’s main force in the city’s suburbs, the French force, although outnumbered, held off the Austrian foray long enough to convince Napoleon to concentrate his army against his isolated enemy.
Mack finally grasped at one chance to cut the French supply line on October 13. He sent two columns out of Ulm; the first marched toward Elchingen to secure a bridge there, while another moved farther north. Yet the next morning found Marshal Ney and his corps at the bridge. After flushing the Austrian skirmishers, Ney ordered a direct assault that shocked the Austrian defenders and earned Ney the title of Duke of Elchingen.
Other French units now scattered the remaining Austrian detachments operating beyond the city of Ulm, prompting Archduke Ferdinand to conclude that he had seen enough. With a contingent of Austrian cavalry, Ferdinand fled back to Vienna.
When men from Ney and Lannes’ corps arrived opposite the Austrian defenses at Michelsberg late in the day on October 15, Napoleon ordered the position taken by assault. Near the top of the heights the French infantry charged, dispersing Mack’s men after hand-to-hand fighting. Now the Austrian’s were completely trapped.
With no succor in sight, negotiations for the Austrians’ capitulation opened on October 17. Three days later, Mack agreed to surrender. The French victory was complete. The Austrians lost more than 60,000 of the 72,000 men with whom Ferdinand and Mack had opened the campaign. Napoleon not only sacked an entire Austrian army, but he also created the ideal conditions to face Kutuzov’s advancing Russians.
Defeating the enemies of France one at a time was Napoleon’s best means of preserving and expanding the French Empire, and at Ulm his skills were at their highest. Once again, Napoleon had demonstrated the superiority of the Grand Armée’s way of war.
Trafalgar, October 21, 1805
The naval Battle of Trafalgar was one of the greatest victories in British military history. Although Napoleon had determined by the time of the battle to take his army from the Channel coast to confront Austrian and Russian forces in central Europe, the conflict confirmed British naval superiority, a fact that would play a decisive role in the remaining years of warfare with France.
The Enemy Across the Waters
Napoleon’s style of warfare was predicated upon fast-marching armies that could quickly mass in the face of an enemy to wage a decisive contest. French armies were highly trained, well led, and the perfect weapons to implement Napoleon’s aggressive and offensively oriented military strategy on land. Time and again, Napoleon and his marshals proved themselves superior to their enemies. French armies consistently defeated the armies of the continental monarchies, but Napoleon faced a challenge waging war against Britain because he could not bring the United Kingdom to a decisive battle.
The lifeblood of Britain, an island nation, was overseas trade, and the country’s navy was the guarantor of the nation’s commerce. Napoleon’s armies on the Continent could not directly challenge Britain’s naval strength, and so he sought other ways to strike at Britain proper. He attempted to interrupt British trade by closing Europe’s ports along the North Sea coast as well as throughout the Mediterranean. While somewhat effective, this was a slow and uncertain process and not in accord with Napoleon’s personality. Therefore, he sought to invade Britain and compel his enemy to yield to the French army, a strategy involving landpower and a formula to which he was well accustomed.
When war between Britain and France resumed in May 1803, France had only fourteen ships of the line capable of getting underway. Even these were of limited utility because the British navy imposed a blockade on the important French ports of Boulogne, Brest, and Toulon. Napoleon directed that one hundred vessels be ready for sail from Dunkirk by mid-August, but when that date arrived, barely twenty were ready. Any notions of invasion were therefore tabled until 1804.
Napoleon determined that an army of a hundred thousand men would require at least thirteen hundred transport craft. By the spring of 1804, about nine hundred were available, and the threat of a French invasion seemed to be growing. However, French preparations were incomplete and again the invasion was postponed.
His Admirals Were Not Like His Generals
In 1805, Napoleon once more resolved to cross the Channel. He ordered Admiral Villeneuve to lure the British fleet to the West Indies and then sail at speed back to France. While the British fleet was still searching for the French armada, Napoleon would lead his army into England. He required naval supremacy only long enough for his invasion barges to safely make the passage from the Grande Armée’s camps at Boulogne to the English landing beaches.
While Villeneuve successfully reached the Indies with British Admiral Horatio Nelson conducting a tardy pursuit, the French admiral lost his courage upon his return. After a skirmish off Cape Finistere in July, he abandoned Napoleon’s directive to return to Brest and instead sailed south to the safety of the Spanish fleet and shelter in Cadiz.
Frustrated that his naval strategy had unraveled, and preoccupied with diplomatic developments in central Europe, Napoleon turned his attention there. He marched his army eastward to confront a growing Austrian and Russian force, an action that would culminate in several victories, including Austerlitz that winter. But the British fleet was not forgotten, and Napoleon ordered Villeneuve to seek battle even though the original invasion scheme was no longer at issue.
The combined Franco-Spanish fleet included several powerful warships, but years of enforced inactivity under British blockades had eroded the skills Villeneuve’s officers and sailors. Nonetheless, Villeneuve dutifully sallied forth on October 20 with thirty-three ships of the line. He anticipated that Nelson would abandon traditional tactics and seek to break the French line; therefore, he placed his faster ships in the rear so they could identify the British attack and then sail quickly forward to close any gaps that Nelson might create.
However, when Villeneuve reversed sailing direction shortly before the engagement, he threw his own line into confusion by not placing his fast ships in the van and slower ships in the rear. In the subsequent battle, Nelson aggressively attacked, striking in two columns that devastated the French order of battle.
The outcome was a decisive British victory. For the remainder of the Napoleonic Wars, the British navy sailed largely unhindered. The French navy was reduced to patrolling, coastal actions, and minor actions in the colonies. British losses were 449 killed and 1,214 wounded out of about 18,000 engaged on twenty-nine ships. The casualty toll among British leaders was very high: Nelson himself was killed, as were 22 percent of the British captains and 19 percent of the lieutenants. Carnage among the Franco-Spanish fleet was also high. Napoleon lost thirty-three ships of the line and suffered 2,218 dead, more than 1,100 wounded, and 7,000 captured.
Austerlitz, December 2, 1805
Also known as the Battle of Three Emperors, the Battle of Austerlitz was one of Napoleon’s finest moments. His complete victory unhinged the Allied Third Coalition by compelling Austria to sue for peace and driving the Russians far to the east, where they were unable to muster a response until the following year.
Actions in Central Europe
In the autumn of 1805, Napoleon confronted the combined armies of Austria and Russia. The former was under Emperor Francis II, and the latter was led formally by Tsar Alexander of Russia but was under the command of the veteran general Kutuzov.
In October, Napoleon bagged an entire Austrian army under Mack at Ulm. When Kutuzov learned of this loss, he dismayed his Austrian ally by deciding to pull back, hence allowing the French to occupy Vienna. His scheme was to maneuver north of the Danube and gather strength. This was accomplished when a reinforcing army, which included the Tsar, arrived at Olmütz on November 24. This newly combined army consisted of more than 55,000 Russians and about 15,000 Austrians.
Kutuzov adopted a broad view of the strategic situation, and knowing that winter was about to set in, he argued that the Allied army should continue to retreat, drawing the French after them. In time, diminishing supplies would weaken the French invader, and it was possible the Prussians would eventually add their strength to the Coalition. However, the Tsar saw an opportunity to command the army that defeated Napoleon and put an end to the cancer of the French Revolution, and so he ordered his generals to seek battle.
Napoleon, in characteristic fashion, wanted to accommodate the Allies by seeking a decisive battle. He knew that defending his lengthy lines of communication through southern Germany from France would be difficult. Ever sensitive to any weakness that might be appropriated by his political adversaries in Paris, Napoleon wanted to crush the Russians just as he had recently inflicted a crippling defeat on the Austrians at Ulm. He was also already contemplating war with Prussia, so he needed to confront the Russian host while it was within reach.
Ordering his dispersed formations to concentrate, Napoleon moved north. His Grande Armée numbered slightly more than seventy thousand. The 85,000 Russians and Austrians outnumbered him, but Napoleon believed that he could yet use the terrain to create an advantage. He ordered his troops to the Austerlitz battleground, dominated in the center by a pronounced swath of high ground known as the Pratzen Heights.
Napoleon did not fortify the heights, instead feigning weakness by withdrawing and deliberately showing a vulnerable right flank to his enemy. He fortified only the Santon Hill on his left. His plan was to lure the Russians to assault his right, and while his opponents were moving to the attack, he would launch his own grand assault in the center to break his enemy into two pieces, each which he could attack and defeat in detail.
Some Plans Are Better Than Others
The Russian plan—which was overly complex because it required precise timing and near-perfect communications—neatly accommodated Napoleon’s deception. The Russians and Austrians intended to attack with five large columns, totaling nearly sixty thousand men, against Napoleon’s right flank, thereby cutting off the French from their line of retreat to Vienna. A secondary assault would hit the French left to prevent Napoleon from sending reinforcements to the other side of the battlefield. Finally, the Allies would deliver a crushing below against the French middle, terminating the battle and annihilating the French defenders.
In the early morning mist, the Russian and Austrian columns launched their attacks on the small village of Telnitz. The fighting was intense, but the weight of the Russian numbers soon told, and the French right grudgingly gave way. Slightly to the north was the village of Sokolnitz. Another Allied column struck here, soon joined by a third column. Again, after difficult combat, the French infantry slowly yielded.
Watching this action unfold, and seeing that the masses of Allied infantry—despite their progress—were jumbled and losing cohesion, Napoleon ordered his main assault up the Pratzen to seize the high ground and hit the Allied flank. Just as the French infantry began their ascent, the sun broke through the clouds and fog. The Tsar spotted Napoleon’s attack and rushed a column of troops to repel the French. Savage combat ensued until, with their ammunition nearly exhausted, a final French bayonet assault carried the position. To the north, further French attacks also carried the heights after successive and bitterly contested assaults.
Realizing that the loss of the Pratzen would entail the loss of the battle, the Grand Duke Constantine, the Tsar’s brother and commander of the Russian Imperial Guard, launched a counterattack in an attempt to restore the situation. His Guard fusiliers initially pushed back the French, but were then repulsed themselves. Next, the Grand Duke sent forward his horsemen, who crashed into the French ranks. Napoleon responded by throwing his own Guard cavalry into the fray, which sent the Russian horsemen reeling. The tables turned again when Constantine dispatched his final reserve formations, the Guard Cossacks and Chevalier Guard. Once more, the Russian assault bore fruit and the French found themselves hard pressed. Napoleon likewise committed his final reserves, ordering into the attack his personal guard troops. Only when fresh French infantry, moving by a different route, struck the exposed Russian flank did Napoleon gain the upper hand. Given room to maneuver, his Guard horse artillery unlimbered and raked the faltering Russian formations with heavy fire, shattering the Russian ranks.
Another Decisive French Victory
With his center successful, Napoleon ordered new assaults in the south. The Russians fought determinedly, but successive French attacks ultimately put them to flight. Their retreat became a rout as many thousands who fled across the frozen ponds in the area fell through the ice of the Satschan lakes and drowned. The Allies lost 182 guns, forty-five standards, and about 25,000 men dead, wounded, and captured. The French counted 8,500 casualties and the loss of a single standard. Napoleon had won the decisive battle he sought.
On December 4, Austria capitulated in the form of an armistice that was made formal on December 27 when that nation exited the war by the Treaty of Pressburg. Tsar Alexander moved his forces eastward, unmolested by Napoleon. The Grande Armée repositioned from Moravia to the west and southern Germany.
Beyond the immediate political benefits of securing France’s strategic position and splitting the Allied coalition, the French triumph demonstrated the superiority of Napoleon’s training and organizational initiatives. He showed as well that he was a brilliant tactician who could depend on a cadre of aggressive officers to implement his directives. Napoleon’s formula of dominant maneuver, combined arms, and hard-fighting troops would continue to change the nature of war in Europe for generations to follow.
Jena, October 14, 1806
The battle at Jena, and its simultaneous twin at Auerstädt, affirmed once more the supremacy of Napoleon’s aggressive style of warfare. As a result of these French victories, Prussian military power was shattered and the Prussian state entered a period of intense recrimination and re-examination. French influence, meanwhile, reached a new pinnacle of authority in continental Europe.
A Long Time Since Frederick the Great
In the late summer of 1806, Prussia found itself at war with France but undecided about the course of action to pursue. The Prussian General Staff was indecisive; the Prussian army, while enjoying a proud reputation from its famous campaigns of the Seven Years War a half-century earlier, had failed to adapt to the changing ways of war brought on by the French Revolution.
More than 150,000 French troops were stationed in southern Germany, and while the Prussians could muster an equal number of men, their army was insufficiently trained and not organized for rapid movement. The Prussians, led by King Frederick William III and his principal commanders, Prince Hohenlohe and the Duke of Brunswick, rationalized their hesitation on the belief that Napoleon would give them time to respond.
Although Napoleon did want peace to be maintained (at least for a time), by mid-September French diplomats and spies were informing him that open conflict was fast approaching. On September 18, he issued orders to his corps to begin consolidating and to ready themselves for an active campaign. Bonaparte’s scheme was to march through the hills and forest of the Thuringerwald and into the valley of the Saale River, thereby placing his army between the main Prussian force and the capital of Berlin. If the Prussians advanced, he would be in position to strike their flank; if they retired, he was confident that he could pin them against one of the interceding river lines.
The French Invade
In typical Napoleonic fashion, the French army moved with tremendous alacrity, crossing the Saxon frontier on October 8 with 180,000 men organized into three columns, each within mutual supporting distance. The left column consisted of Lannes’ Fifth Corps and Augereau’s Seventh Corps. In the middle were Bernadotte’s First Corps and Davout’s Third Corps, both supported by cavalry. Soult’s Fourth Corps, Ney’s Sixth Corps, and a Bavarian force made up the right.
On October 13, Napoleon reached the town of Jena, where reports from Lannes’ corps in the lead indicated that a large Prussian force was assembled on the large Landgrafenberg plateau across the French front. While a dense fog prevented a thorough reconnaissance, Napoleon believed he was encountering the main Prussian army. Not wanting his adversary to escape, he prepared to attack.
While Lannes’ troops passed through Jena and ascended the heights, Napoleon ordered Marshals Soult and Ney, along with the Imperial Guard infantry and two divisions of cavalry, to march to the scene in support. He would open the assault with only about 25,000 men, but by nightfall could expect another 100,000 to arrive.
The morning of October 14, 1806, dawned with the fog still masking the Prussian troop dispositions. Nonetheless, Napoleon needed space atop the plateau to align his oncoming formations, and confident of his army, he ordered Lannes to advance. The men of the Fifth Corps moved ahead, firing blindly into the fog and making slow but steady success.
The Prussian commander, Prince Hohenlohe, did not believe that Napoleon wanted a general battle. His mission was to serve as a blocking force while the Duke of Brunswick attempted to maneuver the main body of the Prussian army between Berlin and the French columns. The French attack atop the plateau, however, offered Hohenlohe little choice. He decided to hit back with his forty thousand troops and throw the French off the Landgrafenberg plateau.
The initial Prussian assaults blunted Lannes’ advance and bought time for the Prussians to reposition. Soon thereafter, the leading elements of Soult’s corps, who were seeking room to maneuver to the right of Lannes flank, encountered troops of Prussian General Holtzendorff. Prussian cavalry charges failed to penetrate the French infantry, and the French advance continued.
By mid-morning, there was a lull in the fighting as each side aligned reserve units. Marshal Ney’s corps arrived, and eager to prove himself in battle to Napoleon, Ney rashly ordered an attack that broke against the Prussian infantry, prompting Lannes and French cavalry to counterattack to restore the situation.
Around 11:00 a.m. , Hohenlohe ordered an attack to retake the village of Vierzehnheiligen. The Prussians seized the village but were unable to counter massed French guns assembled on the village’s far side, so they set the buildings afire and withdrew. The French sent infantry from Lannes’ corps to the north, where they encountered Prussian and Saxon cavalry and were thrown back, but again French batteries blunted the Prussian success.
South of Vierzehnheiligen lay the village of Isserstadt. The town changed hands several times as troops of Augerau’s corps assaulted its Prussian defenders. While neither side seemed to be gaining a tactical advantage, the arrival of fresh French troops applied increasing pressure. With the Prussians entirely committed, Napoleon ordered Marshal Murat’s cavalry forward. This final attack by eleven mounted regiments ruptured the Prussian line.
A general French advance followed, which unhinged Hohenlohe’s men. As the Prussian forces lost cohesion, only scattered units offered further resistance. A final Prussian attack by General Ruchel’s newly arrived division quickly broke down.
Napoleon’s victory was seemingly complete. At a cost of six thousand casualties, the French had inflicted more than twenty thousand dead, wounded, and captured on their Prussian adversary, while also seizing thirty standards and three hundred guns. Yet a surprise waited the Emperor.
Unknown to Napoleon during the day’s fighting, the Prussian troops streaming from the Landgrafenberg plateau were only a blocking force. The main Prussian army was located some twelve miles to the north, near the town of Auerstädt. Led by the King of Prussia and Duke of Brunswick, the Prussian force of more than sixty thousand had fought a bloody contest with Marshal Davout’s corps.
After a tremendous battle, Davout was triumphant at the expense of about one-third of his men. Both Davout’s and Bernadotte’s French corps had been operating north of Jena with orders to swing to the west and fall upon the rear of the enemy Napoleon was fighting at Jena. However, before they could reach their objective at the town of Apolda, they encountered the Prussian force. The two French marshals detested one another, and in the event Bernadotte refused to aid Davout while the battle raged, leaving Davout’s men to fight unsupported. Nonetheless, French arms won the day, achieving victory by the skill and determination of the French soldier.
The double victories at Jena and Auerstädt knocked aside Prussian military might. Prussia would soon yield, leaving only Russia as a major threat to Napoleon’s ambitions in central and eastern Europe.
Wagram, July 5–6, 1809
At the Battle of Wagram, the Austrian army under Archduke Charles was defeated by Napoleon in the final stages of the contest, but before this occurred they demonstrated that the non-French armies of Europe were learning to fight more capably. In the near term, Wagram led to Austria’s capitulation, but the French army suffered enormous casualties, and for the first time, one of the monarchical armies of Europe had denied Napoleon an outright victory in a major battle.
Defeat Spurs Reforms
The French victory at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805 clearly demonstrated the superiority of Napoleon’s armies. Emperor Francis’ brother, Archduke Charles, was the Austrians’ best general, and by 1809 he had undertaken some reforms, although the Austrian military culture was slow to change. Between 1806 and 1808, the Habsburgs debated a resumption of war with France. Charles declared that he needed more time to complete army reforms, but by the end of 1808, the war party gained the upper hand when Francis and his advisors interpreted Napoleon’s difficulties fighting the British in Spain as an opportunity to strike France in the east.
To wage the war, Charles planned to advance westward with his army along the south side of the Danube to the Inn River on the Bavarian border. On other fronts, Archduke Ferdinand would lead a corps against Napoleon’s Polish allies in Galicia, while Archduke John took two corps to attack the French and Northern Italian army commanded by Napoleon’s stepson, Prince Eugene de Beauharnais. The Austrians’ goal was to exert broad pressure on a wide front to deny Napoleon’s ability to mass effectively. Charles’ army, however, was the Austrian main effort. He would have to beat Napoleon in the field if the Austrians were to succeed.
Napoleon arrived near the front at his Donauworth headquarters on April 17, 1809. He was largely blind to Austrian dispositions as the Austrian cavalry had effectively screened their army’s initial movements. Napoleon ordered his corps to concentrate, and over the next week he conducted a series of rapid marches for which Napoleonic armies were famous. French arms blunted the Austrian offensive in Bavaria, scoring victories at a number of sharp engagements: Teugen-Hausen, Abensberg, Landshut, and Eckmühl. French progress forced Charles to flee via Regensberg, and although the Austrian army escaped, Napoleon seized Vienna in mid-May.
Seeking the Decisive Battle
Surveying the situation, Napoleon knew that his line of communication back through Germany was vulnerable, and while three of his corps guarded key crossing sites along the Danube, Charles’ army was still a threat. For the moment, Napoleon had lost contact with the Austrians’ force and was again forced to remain on the defensive until he had better intelligence about his foes. He assumed that his enemy had fled to the east and north, but he was mistaken. Charles’ main body was occupying high ground only a few miles east of the Danube, near the town of Wagram.
The Danube east of Vienna consisted of a number of channels interposed with numerous marshes and only a limited number of islands that would permit the transit of an army. Napoleon selected Lobau Island, about seven miles to the southeast, as the point at which his army would conduct a crossing. Starting on May 18, French engineers erected bridges from the island to the northern bank of the river. Napoleon sent out diversions to mask this effort, but Charles observed the preparations and recognized it as the French principal effort. On May 21, Napoleon began sending over his main body. These forces pushed back the Austrian units near the shore and reported only slight resistance.
Ambush on the Danube
Late in the day, Charles sprung his trap. From upstream the Austrians sent adrift barges, logs and debris—much of which was set afire—that crashed into the French pontoons, destroying them and isolating the French divisions already ashore. Charles then launched upwards of 100,000 men against the small villages of Aspern and Essling, which the French were occupying. After two days of heavy fighting, Napoleon was forced to withdraw his battered formations back to Lobau Island. Each side lost more than twenty thousand killed and wounded. It was a serious setback for the French, but Napoleon resolved to continue the battle.
With reinforcements, the French army had grown to nearly 190,000 men, while Charles’ force was reduced to about 140,000. Napoleon’s plan now was to place bridges to the east of the island and swing around to the Austrians flank from the south and east, driving them away from the Danube and thereby securing his bridgehead. During the night of July 5, he launched his offensive, transporting the corps of Davout, Masséna, and Oudinot (later reinforced by Bernadotte’s corps) across the river and against the Austrian positions.
Charles had anticipated this action and had drawn back his lines, so Napoleon’s initial thrusts failed to strike the Austrian’s main positions. When Napoleon did identify Charles’ defenses late in the day, the resulting attack died out without making serious gains.
Charles’ scheme for the next day, July 6, was to execute an ambitious double-envelopment that would send both wings of the Austrian army forward to strike each French wing and drive the French left away from the Danube. Charles’ hope was to isolate the French army and cut it off from reinforcement, thereby inducing panic and leading to its destruction.
Initially, the plan seemed to be working. The Austrian right surged forward, driving the French defenders all the way back to the ruins of Essling, and threatened to move across the French bridgehead on the river’s northern bank. However, Napoleon shifted reinforcements from his center, and French resistance stiffened. On the Austrian left, little headway was made against Davout, who responded with attacks of his own that shattered Charles’ formations. By the end of the day, Napoleon’s units were advancing everywhere and while the fighting was bitter along the front, there was little doubt that the French had gained the upper hand.
Both Sides Bloodied
Losses on both sides were staggering: about forty thousand killed, wounded, and missing from each army. As evidence of the severity of the fighting, the French lost five generals killed and thirty-eight wounded, and the Austrians suffered four generals lost and thirteen wounded.
Neither side was ready for another fight. After the battle, Charles pulled back from Wagram while Napoleon reorganized his army. With his army shattered, Charles decided that a cessation of hostilities was inevitable, so on July 12, the Austrians reached a truce with Napoleon. The Austrians briefly hoped that a British attack in the direction of Antwerp would cause Napoleon difficulties and buy them a second chance, but when that assault was repulsed, French dominance of the forthcoming negotiations was assured.
Despite French military supremacy, Prince Metternich, who led the Austrian delegation, largely achieved his goal: preservation of the Habsburg empire. Napoleon mistakenly believed that once he was militarily victorious he could obtain a permanent settlement with the traditional monarchies of Europe. However, the monarchies considered periods of peace to be merely opportunities to renew their strength. Hence, the Habsburgs never ceased to view Napoleon as a usurper and the ideas of political liberty inherent in the French Revolution as dangerous to their rule. There could be no co-existence with a republican France, and eventually war between Austria and France would resume. In the meantime, Napoleon was sensitive to the fact that tension with Tsar Alexander was building, and so he turned his attention to planning an invasion of Russia.
Eylau, February 8, 1807
At the battle of Eylau, which was fought in a driving snowstorm, Napoleon’s Grand Armée earned an inclusive victory over a Russian army commanded by General Levin, Count von Bennigsen. The battle, noted for its fierce weather and high casualty toll, also featured one of the largest cavalry charges of the Napoleonic Wars.
Last Stop Before Asia
Napoleon’s decisive defeat of the Prussian army at Jena in October 1806, left Russia as France’s chief adversary. In late November, Napoleon issued the Berlin Decrees, implementing his Continental System that sought to isolate Britain from European trade markets. For his economic embargo to be effective, Napoleon needed to subdue Russia. Thus, after mopping up the remaining Prussian garrisons, he called for fresh recruits and reorganized his army for renewed conflict against Tsar Alexander’s forces.
The Tsar, like most European leaders, had been surprised at the swiftness of the Prussian collapse and needed time to ready his forces. Both the French and Russian armies moved to gain secure areas in which to prepare for the upcoming campaigns. Muddy roads, difficult communications, and poor intelligence about the enemy hampered both sides. French troops entered Warsaw on November 28, forcing Bennigsen to the right bank of the Vistula River. A final Russian counteroffensive on Christmas failed, with high casualties and much suffering on both sides.
With winter approaching, there seemed little prospect of further fighting. Napoleon ordered his troops into camp, and Bennigsen reported that the situation was favorable with the French contained in their current positions. However, one of Napoleon’s commanders, Marshal Ney, moved his corps northeastward, extending his lines to secure greater range for foraging and provisions for the winter. Ney also cast his eye toward the East Prussian city of Königsberg, a rich prize that would bestow much glory on the French general who could seize it.
Bennigsen saw an opportunity to snatch a quick victory from the French and sought to pounce on Ney’s isolated formation. His cavalry skirmished with Ney’s men on January 18, alerting Napoleon to this new threat. Napoleon’s plan was to maneuver his Third, Fourth, and Seventh corps from the south to pin the Russians against the coast and his First and Sixth corps. This plan was interrupted when the Russians captured a French staff officer carrying Napoleon plans.
Clash at Eylau
Bennigsen moved to thwart the French scheme, but without decisive effect. After several sharp fights, the two armies found themselves nearing the town of Eylau on February 7. By dawn of February 8, Napoleon’s forces numbered almost 45,000, with Ney’s ten thousand marching quickly to the scene and Marshal Davout’s six thousand en route as well. Napoleon’s plan was to fix the Russians in place with his main army and allow his reinforcements to strike the flanks of Bennigsen’s 67,000 men.
The Russians opened the battle with a barrage by a grand battery of more than one hundred cannon. Napoleon had only half as many guns, and his ranks began suffering from the onslaught. To relieve the pressure and make room for Davout’s approach, Napoleon ordered Marshal Nicolas Soult to strike the Russian northern flank. This attack was repulsed, sending Soult’s battered units back to the French main line. Another French assault by Marshal Augereau’s corps against the center of the Russian line encountered fire from all sides, and Napoleon’s men were left confused and reeling.
Bennigsen seized this opportunity to order a charge with a combined force of infantry and cavalry. The Russian troops advanced relentlessly, nearly reaching Napoleon himself, and only halted when the Emperor threw his Imperial Guard into the breach. Napoleon next sent Murat’s cavalry, more than ten thousand men in eighty squadrons, in a massive counterattack. These fresh waves of French horsemen stabilized the battle and allowed the rest of Napoleon’s army to regroup.
Davout’s corps finally arrived and hit the Russian flank, but was stalled by Prussian units fighting alongside their Russian allies. Ney’s men arrived late as the combat was winding down. Yet this arrival of the French reinforcements and final push convinced Bennigsen to yield the field. Throughout the day’s fighting, the snow and freezing temperatures had hindered each side’s ability to understand and respond to events as they unfolded. Each side fought tenaciously, but both Napoleon and Bennigsen had been compelled to largely throw units into the fight piecemeal.
French casualties numbered about 25,000, and the Russians and Prussians lost nearly that many. Bennigsen ordered a retreat, and Napoleon’s bloodied and exhausted men did not pursue. While each side claimed a victory, little was achieved. Napoleon realized that the Russian foe was a resilient enemy who would tax France’s fighting abilities. For the time being, then, the war waited for the spring.
Peninsular War, 1807–1814
The Peninsular War of 1807 to 1814—which pitted Napoleon’s French regulars against the British army and allied Portuguese, Spanish, and partisan forces in the Iberian Peninsula—cost Napoleon about 250,000 casualties and served to weaken the French Empire. Even so, Napoleon refused to cut his commitment to the theater, remaining determined to seize victory there. Yet the longer the Allies contested Napoleon successfully, the more encouragement they drew from the effort. Over time, the campaign became a referendum on Napoleon as military leader of Europe.
One Continent, Under France
At the time of the Treaty of Tilsit, which brought peace with Russia in 1807, France was the dominant political and military power on the European continent. Napoleon had defeated the three Continental Great Powers (Austria, Prussia, and Russia), and French power extended in every direction. To the south lay France’s ally, Spain. In the southeast, Italy was composed of states dependent on France. In the north, France had already absorbed Belgium and indirectly ruled Holland. Eastward, the German states of the Confederation of the Rhine were vassals.
When Napoleon sent an army to the Iberian Peninsula in 1807, his goal was to secure the Portuguese ports through which British trade was entering Europe. It soon became clear, however, that the vast distances involved, the rugged terrain of the countryside, and the large population who were unwilling to subscribe to France’s revolutionary ideals had created a new kind of warfare.
Napoleon’s successful campaigns in central Europe had been achieved by French forces who were able to conduct rapid marches to concentrate against conventional armies. French troops were trained to live from the land and so did not require stationary depots and long wagon trains. But in the Peninsula, Napoleon’s men found a different kind of war. The rural peasantry, who were deeply conservative, rejected French revolutionary political ideals and hence opposed the French invader.
Two levels of war, one conventional and one unconventional, therefore emerged. The French could not depend on reliable sources of supply from the countryside, and at the same time they were forced to defend themselves routinely against guerrilla attacks. The British, meanwhile, found the local population to be much more supportive, while at the same time they enjoyed almost unfettered control of the sea and hence benefited from regular resupply.
A General Worthy Of Napoleon Arrives
While guerrillas, as well as local Portuguese and Spanish army forces, fought extensively and attrited the French army in the Peninsula, the course of the war was dictated by the progress of the British army under its commander, Sir Arthur Wellesley, First Duke of Wellington. When the British government decided to resume active operations in Portugal in 1809, Wellington received the command.
Wellington’s plan was both simple and effective. His strategy was to hold Portugal as his base of operation while drawing as many French army troops as possible to his front, thereby compelling the French to contend with long lines of communication across Spain. With never more than about sixty thousand men to deploy at once, Wellington tied down many times that number of French forces. He judiciously timed advances and sieges against French strongpoints, correctly reasoning that the French could not be strong everywhere.
The turning point on the Peninsula occurred between 1810 and 1811. Subsequent to his difficult victory over the Austrians at Wagram, Napoleon ordered Marshal Masséna to Spain to quell the lingering conflict. Increasingly focused on diplomatic maneuvers with the main Continental powers and a resumption of hostilities with Russia, Napoleon wanted matters in Spain brought to an end. By that point, the number of French troops in Spain exceeded 350,000 and so Masséna should have been able to mass his army to decisively defeat Wellington. However, the deteriorating military situation across the countryside meant that he had to keep the majority of his men busy conducting security operations.
Nonetheless, with the fifty to sixty thousand he could consolidate, Masséna gradually pushed back British forces, launching a major assault at Busaco in September 1810. Wellington repelled the French attack and then retired behind his entrenched defenses, the Lines of Torres Vedras.
The Lines safeguarded the port and extensive British garrison and depot at Lisbon. For almost five months, Wellington’s command remained safely in their defensive position, while Masséna’s troops, harassed by partisans, became increasingly desperate for food and forage for their animals. During March 1811, after he failed to convince Marshal Soult to aid him, Masséna lifted the siege and pulled back. Henceforth, Wellington and his allies were able to dictate the terms of the campaign.
By besieging Badajoz and Ciudad Rodrigo, Wellington placed Soult and Marmont (who relieved Masséna) in desperate situations. In 1812, Wellington defeated Marmont at Salamanca, and in June 1813, he scored a decisive triumph at Vitoria, which largely cleared southern and central Spain of French troops and paved the way for a British offensive across the Pyrenees and into France itself. In April 1814, days after Napoleon abdicated in Paris, Wellington’s army chased the remnants of Soult’s once-proud army into Toulouse, compelling the French to seek surrender terms.
For the nations of Portugal and Spain, there was little comfort in victory. The war wreaked havoc across the peninsula. Farms and towns alike were ravaged not just from destruction of battle, but also from the burdens of depravations of marauding forces—friend and foe alike—whose search for sustenance relentlessly reached far and wide. Political and civil instability lingered for decades.
For the British and their Allies, the expulsion of French armies from the peninsula meant an end to France’s empire and signaled the irrevocable diminishment of French influence in Europe. Only the Hundred Days campaign and the final battle at Waterloo stood between the Allies and the end of the Napoleonic era.
Effects of the Peninsular War
The Peninsular War did not directly cause Napoleon’s downfall, nor did it end France’s empire in Europe, but the lingering conflict did weaken France, draining vast resources that Napoleon could ill afford to expend. Over the course of the war, more than 600,000 men were deployed to the peninsula, in effect creating a second front whose losses nearly equaled the magnitude of the defeat the French army experienced during its disastrous invasion of Russia.
In contrast to Wellington’s steady leadership, French commanders who operated without Napoleon’s direct supervision frequently placed petty rivalries and professional jealousy ahead of military necessity. Hence marshals such as Masséna, Marmont, and Soult were at times their own worst enemies. The resulting division of effort led to predictable failures.
When French troops marched into Spain en route to Portugal in October 1807, Napoleon was master of the European Continent. He had defeated the armies of Austria, Prussia, and Russia, and the British army—still suffering from its loss in the American War of Independence and uneven performance during the French Revolutionary Wars—could make no headway against French arms. Yet seven years later, Wellington’s troops were victorious in southern France and the Allies had occupied Paris. The attritional combat of the Peninsular War bled France for men and materiel and gave hope to the peoples and leaders of Europe that Napoleon could finally be defeated.
Leipzig, October 16–18, 1813
In terms of numbers engaged, the Battle of Leipzig (also known as the Battle of the Nations) was the largest conflict of the Napoleonic Wars. The campaign, which ended in a French defeat, marked a severe blow to Napoleon’s fortunes and set the stage for the Allied invasion of France and first abdication of the French emperor.
Every Coalition Has a Silver Lining
Napoleon faced numerous military challenges in 1813, but in typically optimistic fashion, he viewed the situation as one of opportunity. The enemies of France (the Allies) were initially disunited. Tsar Alexander was isolated and dreamt of liberating Europe, a vision not shared by other monarchs. Austria was for the moment neutral, and Prussia was yet weak. Great Britain remained a threat, but to date this threat was primarily in Spain.
Although the French army had been devastated by the Russian invasion and long, bitter retreat, Napoleon set in motion measures to build a new army. To fill his ranks he extended conscription, transferred troops from other theaters, and drafted National Guardsmen into regular units. He began deployment of approximately 120,000 men from positions at the Main River, consisting of four corps plus the famous Imperial Guard. Elsewhere, more than 55,000 men were in garrisons at the Salle, Marshal Davout was at the head of 20,000 more west of Hamburg, and 14,000 were stationed along the lower Elbe.
In Poland and East Prussia, Napoleon’s position remained fragile. In command was Marshal Joachim Murat, but he had fewer than 40,000 men. When Russian General Mikhail Kutuzov occupied Warsaw in February, Murat was too weak to oppose him and withdrew, passing command to Eugène de Beauharnais, Napoleon’s stepson. Eugène also recognized the dire situation and marched still farther west, seeking a junction with the corps of Marshal Gouvion Saint-Cyr. France’s prospects deteriorated further when on March 13, 1813, Frederick William of Prussia declared war, adding momentum to the formation of a Sixth Coalition against France. Following that statement, a combined Allied force moved on Dresden, occupying that city by the end of the month.
In April, Prussian General Gebhard Blücher and Russian General Peter Wittgenstein marched beyond the Elbe and passed eastward, trying to strike elements of the French army before Napoleon could concentrate his forces. The Allies attacked a French wing at Lützen, but heavy fighting resulted in a French victory, in some measure restoring French morale and serving to remind the Allies that Napoleon was still a formidable opponent.
Napoleon likewise needed to forestall the union of Allied forces. On May 20 and 21 at Bautzen, about thirty miles east of the Elbe, a French force numbering approximately 150,000 defeated 96,000 Prussians. Again the Allies retreated and then sought a temporary armistice, which Napoleon surprisingly granted. Napoleon cited extreme shortages of cavalry, as well as inadequate artillery and a lack of supplies, but the Allies put the truce to good effect by using the time to devise a strategy that would heal, at least temporarily, the political divisions between them.
A United Front (Against Napoleon)
While the armistice held, the French army lay between the Austrian army in Bohemia and the Prussians in Silesia. Napoleon was essentially surrounded, with his advance elements against the Oder, the main French force in Saxony quartered among an increasingly hostile populace, and gathering enemies on each flank. Recognizing these dangers, Napoleon chose to hold Saxony and the Elbe River line, locating a central reserve near Dresden, a position from which these forces could march to counter threats in northern Prussia, Silesia, or Bohemia as events dictated.
The final Allied strategy was that each army would advance and seek to strike Napoleon in combination. The Austrian army in Bohemia would receive reinforcements to create a main force of more than 200,000 men. This force would advance into Silesia, Saxony, or Bavaria as the Silesian army moved against the French in the direction of the Elbe.
The Allies were organized into four main armies: Blücher led the Army of Silesia, composed of 95,000 Prussians and Russians south of Breslau; former French marshal but now Prince of Sweden, Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, commanded the Army of the North, consisting of 110,000 Prussians and Swedes at Berlin; the Austrian Prince of Schwarzenberg held overall command and was at the head of 230,000 Austrians of the Army of Bohemia, then massing near the upper Elbe; and 60,000 Russians, known as the Army of Poland, were being organized in the rear by General Bennigsen.
The truce ended on 16 August after Austria formally declared war. The Allied armies were soon in motion, and when Napoleon’s next offensive move towards Berlin failed, he was compelled to withdraw his forces around Leipzig to safeguard his supply lines and prepare a defense against the gathering Allied armies. His army had been depleted until he had only slightly more than 200,000 men remaining.
Leipzig was a difficult location to establish a mobile defense as Napoleon envisioned. Five rivers and streams came together in the vicinity, and the terrain to the west of the city was marshy with few bridges across it. Napoleon arranged his army around Leipzig, but concentrated his force from Taucha through Stötteritz (where he placed his command). The Prussians advanced from Wartenburg, the Austrians and Russians from Dresden, and the Swedes from the north.
On October 16, Napoleon attacked and inflicted heavy losses on Schwarzenberg’s Army of Bohemia in the south, while holding off Blücher for a time in the north. Ultimately though, the weight of numbers told, and Blücher’s forces entered Leipzig’s outskirts, prompting Napoleon to begin withdrawing on October 18. The next day, under the protection of a strong rear guard, French troops began to cross the Elster River.
The Allies, seeing the French pull back and sensing victory, pressed their attack. When a French sergeant prematurely blew the one remaining bridge, Napoleon’s army was cut in two and French defeat was assured. More than 35,000 French soldiers were stranded as well as thousands of wounded and most of the French artillery. In addition to these losses, Napoleon suffered more than 30,000 dead or wounded. Allied casualties were at least 50,000, but the French threat to central Europe was eliminated.
The battle of Leipzig was one of the most decisive engagements of the Napoleonic Wars. The campaign demonstrated that the Allies had learned from years of warfare and were growing more professional and resilient at a time when Napoleon and his marshals were strained and not at their peak performance. In the wake of the battle, French armies beat a hasty withdrawal to the frontiers of France, undermining their influence in Germany and setting up a final campaign for the fate of the French homeland.
Ligny, June 16, 1815
Preceding the Battle of Waterloo by two days, the Battle of Ligny set the stage for that climactic encounter of the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon’s incomplete defeat of a Prussian force led by Marshal Blücher failed to disrupt the convergence of the Allied army led by the Duke of Wellington with Blücher’s Prussians, hence denying Napoleon’s chief strategic objective.
Napoleon’s Hundred Days
On February 26, 1815, Napoleon escaped from his exile on the island of Elba and triumphantly returned to power in Paris. Beginning with a small and disorganized force, he rapidly rebuilt the French army. He knew that he faced long odds and thus he wasted no time devising an ambitious offensive plan. On paper, the Allies could muster 450,000 troops to oppose Napoleon’s 280,000, so it was urgent that he strike before this huge host could assemble. His plan was straightforward and mirrored the strategy he had employed in Italy almost two decades previously: he would defeat his enemies in detail.
The Russian army was turning around from its marches eastward and the Austrians would not be ready to deploy from the Rhine until later in the summer, so the British-led force under Wellington and the Prussian army under Blücher would be the first French targets. Wellington’s line of communications ran to the north through Brussels to Antwerp, while Blücher’s lay east through Liege. If Napoleon could fight and defeat these armies, they should be compelled to fall back in opposite directions.
As late as June 1, Napoleon’s Army of the North was yet spread over a range of 150 miles. At his urging, however, it had concentrated behind the Sambre River within two weeks and was ready to take the offensive.
Napoleon appointed Marshal Ney to command the left wing of his army and to march against Wellington’s right flank near the town of Quatre Bras. Ney was to tie down Wellington’s army and inflict as many casualties as possible. Napoleon would seek out the Prussian force still located to the east of Wellington.
Blücher was aware of the French concentration but at first did not believe Napoleon would attack him. Wellington likewise failed to appreciate the urgency of the French threat and, other than ordering a slight southeastward shift of his army from their positions west of Brussels, paid little heed to Napoleon. Fortunately for the Allies, Napoleon had encountered difficulties massing his army for their strikes, and on June 15, some divisions were still crossing the Sambre River and were yet marching to the area of operations. Nonetheless, Napoleon was determined to adhere to his plan.
Against the Prussians
On the morning of June 16, French cavalry reported Prussian formations marching west from Namur. Upon receiving this intelligence, Napoleon decided to attack at once to prevent their junction with Wellington’s men. The Prussian chief of staff, General August von Gneisenau, was now aware of the proximity of the French. He informed Blücher but remained cautious about offering a battle. Only two of the four Prussian corps had reached their assigned positions, and the Prussian right flank was vulnerable to envelopment. After a conference with Wellington, who promised his support without fully understanding the dispositions on the field, the Prussians agreed to stand and fight.
Shortly after noon on June 16, the Prussian army (minus Bulow’s corps) was formed for action. Napoleon errantly believed that the Prussian host was only half the strength of his own force. He ordered a general assault with two French corps to attack in line against the Prussian center. The combat gathered intensity as the French infantry gradually began to gain the upper hand. Observing the battle near a windmill south of Ligny, Napoleon prepared to deploy his final assault to break through the defenders when confusion overcame the French high command.
Napoleon did not hear any sounds of gunfire from the direction of Ney’s location. He therefore assumed that Ney had taken Quatre Bras and was between Wellington and Blücher. He thus ordered Ney to strike Blücher’s right flank and rear to complete the destruction of the Prussian army. However, Ney was in fact fighting, and his rear corps, commanded by d’Erlon, became disoriented and mistakenly moved in the direction of Ligny. Late in the day, Napoleon’s staff spotted a moving mass of men on their own flank, and not sure if the unit was friendly or enemy, required time to sort out the situation. Once it was determined to be d’Erlon’s corps and hence no threat, Napoleon proceeded with his assault. By then, however, the opportunity for a total victory had largely passed.
French artillery pounded the Prussian line and Napoleon ordered forward his Guard infantry to break the Prussian defenses. Blücher himself was killed in a final cavalry charge, but Gneisenau withdrew northward and not eastward, therefore keeping the Prussian army within supporting distance of Wellington’s force. For this reason, the Prussian army would be able to reach the battlefield at Waterloo in time to save the Allied cause.
Although Napoleon won a tactical triumph and inflicted about twenty thousand casualties while suffering only half that many, the French victory was barren of strategic benefit. He had failed to divide his enemies, and when he offered a major battle two days later, he was unable to overcome the solid defensive generalship of the Allies and, most importantly, the weight of their numbers.
Waterloo, June 18, 1815
The Battle of Waterloo was the climactic encounter of the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon’s defeat by an Anglo-Dutch-Belgian army (Allies) led by the Duke of Wellington and a Prussian force under Marshal Blücher sealed the fate of Napoleon’s return to power during the Hundred Days and set the stage for final settlement of the Congress of Vienna, which would shape the political landscape of Europe for nearly a century.
Emperor Tops Monarch
Napoleon escaped from his exile on February 26, 1815, and made a triumphal return to Paris. French monarch Louis XVIII quickly found himself without support and fled the city, leaving the government to Napoleon, who with characteristic energy set about to build a new army. Beginning with no more than fifty thousand troops, the French army required a massive reorganization as well as all types of equipment.
Realizing the long odds he faced, Napoleon wasted no time devising an ambitious offensive plan. His army would consolidate and march north from Paris to engage and knock out the gathering enemy armies one at a time. The Russian army was turning around from its marches eastward, and the Austrians would not be ready to deploy from the Rhine until later in the summer. On paper at least, the Allies could muster 450,000 troops to oppose Napoleon’s 280,000. It was urgent that he strike before this huge host could assemble. The British-led force under Wellington and the Prussian army under Blücher would be the first French targets. Napoleon’s goal was to drive a wedge between the Prussian and British forces, pushing them back in separate directions and preventing their union.
Napoleon appointed Marshal Ney to command the left wing of his army and to march on the town of Quatre Bras. The French army would move toward Brussels and sever the Nivelles-Namur highway, the only lateral route by which the Allies could unite.
The French advance caught Wellington and Blücher with their units dispersed, but the enemy acted with alacrity to prepare to meet Napoleon. While Ney struck elements of Wellington’s force, the French Marshal was hesitant and failed to press his attack. Wellington’s men simply pulled back, leaving the operational situation largely unchanged.
Napoleon, meanwhile, had decided to strike the Prussian army at Ligny. Although he won a tactical victory and inflicted several thousand casualties, the Prussians, under the leadership of their Chief of Staff, General August von Gneisenau, withdrew northward to a position from which they could still reinforce Wellington. Thus Napoleon had failed to divide his enemies; nonetheless, he offered a major battle to Wellington’s army two days later. By now, Napoleon could count about seventy thousand effective troops, Wellington’s coalition force numbered slightly less, and the Prussians totaled another sixty thousand nearby.
The Beginning of the End
On June 17, Wellington deployed his army along a shallow, crescent-shaped ridge south of the town of Waterloo. On the left of Wellington’s line stood the village of Papelotte and La Haye. In the center was the La Haye Sainte farm, a fortified compound, and on the right, a bit forward of his main line, was the manor of Hougoumont, which also included several buildings and walls. Allied garrisons occupied each of these. About eighteen thousand of Wellington’s troops were stationed five miles to the west to prevent the French from making an enveloping attack around the Allied flank. Napoleon likewise detached a corps to keep his eye on a Prussian force at Wavre.
Once the ground dried after an overnight rain, a large French infantry force under Prince Jerome Bonaparte attacked Hougoumont at about 11:30 a.m. Napoleon’s intent was to draw off Wellington’s reserves from the center where the main French blow was to fall. Fierce fighting would rage here for the rest of the day, consuming thousands of men from both sides. These were men Napoleon could ill afford to expend on such fruitless assaults.
Shortly after noon, Napoleon’s grand battery of more than eighty guns opened against the Allied center, but the effect was not as great as the French leader had hoped. Wellington had placed many of his men on the reverse slope of the ridge, so the French guns missed their targets. An hour later, Marshal d’Erlon’s corps initiated the main French assault when they marched up the slope to the right of the Brussels Charleroi road to strike Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Picton’s men. As the French troops passed La Haye Sainte, their left came under a crossfire but their right seized Papelotte. Their gains were short-lived, however, as they faced withering close-range fire from Wellington’s massed infantry and artillery. Two heavy brigades of Allied cavalry then counterattacked and penetrated as far as the French artillery before they, too, were cut down. Thus, by 3:00 p.m. , the British line was still holding but was under severe pressure.
Last Roll of the Dice
Around 4:00 p.m. , the French made another attempt to break Wellington’s main defense. Marshal Ney unleashed about forty squadrons of cavalry, but the Allied infantry, formed into squares, repelled the repeated charges until they were called off about 5:30 p.m. Still, Wellington’s position was precarious. About 6 p.m. , the final remnants of La Haye Sainte’s defenders were expelled, further exposing the Allied line. At this critical moment, the arrival of Prussian units on the eastern side of the battlefield changed the battle’s momentum.
Throughout the day, Napoleon had been required to dispatch formations to check the Prussian approach in the direction of the village of Plancenoit. By evening, the Prussian strength was too great for the overstretched French to resist. Now desperate to win the day in a final bold stroke, Napoleon ordered his Imperial Guard forward. Devastated by Allied volley fire, the Guard wavered and then faltered, a sight that stunned the French.
Wellington ordered a general advance, finally breaking Napoleon’s ranks and causing a general French retreat. Wellington’s army was exhausted, but Blücher’s cavalry took up a pursuit. Only remnants of the Guard, who stood in place, protected what was left of the French army as it streamed southward towards Paris.
French casualties numbered about 25,000 dead and wounded, with another 15,000 captured and missing. The Allies suffered about 22,000 lost. With his army beaten, Napoleon had no recourse but to abdicate a second and final time, bringing his rule, and the era he defined, to a close.
Key Elements of Warcraft
Ships of the Line
Just as land armies underwent a “military revolution” beginning in the late Middle Ages, European navies also experienced significant changes. The possession of warships—or ships of the line, as the main war-making vessels were known—was a mark of prestige and power for European states from the Renaissance through the end of the sail era in the nineteenth century.
Ships of the line were square-rigged vessels with three masts and were typically two hundred feet in length with a maximum tonnage of 2,500. The largest carried crews of one thousand men, but most crews numbered hundreds fewer. The number of men in a fleet was far fewer than that of an army, but such a navy still required a substantial investment. A fleet of thirty ships needed about 25,000 sailors. However, a large proportion of these men were highly skilled craftsmen, navigators, gunners, and carpenters.
Types of Warships
By the Napoleonic period, the warships of the major nations were classified into six “rates.” First rate ships featured one hundred or more guns on three decks; second rates had about ninety guns on three decks; third rate ships, the real workhorses of most fleets, had between sixty-four and seventy-four guns on two decks; fourth raters, also called frigates and the smallest of the ships of the line, had fifty cannons on two decks; fifth and sixth rate ships were smaller frigates and carried from twenty-four to forty guns on a single deck. These lower-rated vessels were built for commerce raiding, escort duty, and reconnaissance.
The primary batteries of ships of the line consisted of an assortment of sixteen-, eighteen-, and twenty-four-pound cannon. The ships with more than one deck usually carried the sixteen-pounders on the upper decks, with the heavier guns closer to the water line. The larger ships also featured lighter deck guns for use during boarding or repelling operations.
Life on the High Seas
Living conditions for the crews were generally miserable. Ships of the line often did not have the opportunity to seek reprovisioning in foreign ports, so all food and drink necessary for hundreds of men for up to a year’s cruise had to be maintained in storage. Needless to say, spoilage was widespread, and in any case food was never available in sufficient quantity for men who worked long days and nights. A diet of infested, stale biscuits, foul water, and small servings of rum led to a variety of health problems. To maintain discipline in this arduous environment, ship captains imposed a harsh system of discipline. The smallest infractions could, and often did, result in severe punishment.
Until the mid-eighteenth century, naval tactics remained unimaginative: Opposing fleets, each sailing in a single column on parallel courses, attempted to close with one another, firing broadsides with their guns, ship against ship, until the weaker vessel was sunk or captured.
Individual French vessels tended to be more stoutly built than their British counterparts, but they were almost always fewer in number and hence French ship captains were always reluctant to risk their ships. French admirals typically sought to enter an action on the leeward side of their adversary, which enabled them to escape if the danger grew too intense. Likewise, French gunners learned to direct their fires against their enemies’ rigging and spars, thereby slowing them and giving the French fleet more time to assess the course of the battle.
English commanders on the other hand, trained their crews so that British seamanship was usually superior, and they preferred to enter battle with the “weather gauge,” meaning they were upwind of their enemy so that they could close quickly and try to sink their opponents by firing at the opposing ships’ hulls. Attempts on either side to deviate from these conventions were severely frowned upon by the naval hierarchy of each nation. Ship captains who did experiment could expect to be called before a court martial to answer for their creativity.
Several innovations made European ships of the line far more capable than sailing vessels of other regions and earlier periods. The tiller, a large beam projecting inboard from the rudder and rigged by cables to a steering wheel on the quarter deck, aided maneuverability. Such maneuverability was an important feature in dangerous or shallow waters, and it was definitely critical in combat. Also, copper sheathing overlaying ships’ oak bottoms safeguarded the hulls from deterioration from prolonged exposure to salt water as well as the ravages of barnacles.
Ships of the line were one of European civilization’s most important technological accomplishments. For about four centuries, these vessels ruled the world’s oceans, allowing Europeans to explore and conquer other societies and to make war upon one another.
The wars of the French Revolution and ensuing Napoleonic era changed the way the states of Europe waged war. By integrating military strategy and practice with the passions and loyalties of the general population, especially by animating war through the ideology of nationalism, French leaders conducted war on a scale not seen in Europe for generations, and they laid the foundation for worldwide wars that would be pursued in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
The Army Swells (Involuntarily)
In August 1793, to meet the urgent need for manpower to fill the ranks of the French Republican Army, the National Convention declared a levée en masse , or universal conscription. Calls for volunteers to man the growing army had been issued in 1791 and again in 1792, but the response had been inadequate. Imposed measures of limited conscription also had failed to provide sufficient manpower. The universal scope of the levée en masse , which in practical terms ordered all able-bodied, unmarried males between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five to report for military service, would swell the rolls of the French armies with 300,000 new recruits, giving France nearly a million men under arms.
This constituted a radical departure from the manner in which warfare had been practiced in Europe for hundreds of years prior. Profoundly, the levée placed the entire French nation at war. From that time forward, war would not be waged only between rulers, but between entire populations.
Types of Service
Military service of course was not new to the people of Europe; it had been a feature of European civilization since the Classical era of Greece and Rome, more than two thousand years prior. Service in the armed forces was fundamentally categorized as being performed in one of three ways: as a professional, as a member of the militia, or as a conscript.
Professionals were usually long-serving soldiers (or sailors or marines) who volunteered in expectation of fiscal or civic reward, or because they possessed an interest in a military lifestyle. This category of service typically constituted the smallest percentage of the armed forces.
The militia was a body of soldiers recruited from the civilian population who would not otherwise serve in the regular armed forces, but who were called upon to fulfill a military obligation imposed by a government under specific circumstances. Militias typically mustered in times when communal defense was seen as necessary, and such service was generally viewed as virtuous by the citizenry.
Conscription, or forced recruitment, also had a long history, but the numbers of men impressed for military service was never broad. During the Middle Ages, monarchs demanded service from the nobles who held land from the crown; these nobles in turn required knights in their service to assemble, along with their tenants who would provide footmen and military auxiliaries. The element of coercion in this system, however, was inseparable from the bonds of loyalty and feudal obligation that all parties understood.
During the Renaissance, armies of mercenary troops appeared with greater frequency, especially in Italy, and during the Thirty Years War, these mercenary forces coexisted with monarchical and state armies and were nearly interchangeable. Sizes of armies began to grow also, but over the course of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, governments and their rulers assiduously pursued constrained military objectives, thereby limiting the costs, both human and material, of war. Even when conscription was formalized, such as under Frederick the Great in Prussia, a lack of nationalist ideals that emphasized equality and identity among the conscripts meant that Prussian armies formed to fight their numerous and larger enemies, and then disbanded.
Ripple Effects of the Revolution
When the French unleashed the levée , the other nations of Europe were forced to respond. France was able to sustain large armies that over time came to believe they carried the ideals and values of the nation with them. Conscript armies became a regular feature of European war planning.
Impact of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars
When, in June 1815, Napoleon’s many adversaries compelled his final abdication, the active rule of the Emperor was finished. However, Napoleon’s influence continued to loom over the passage of European and world history. For more than two decades, he had roiled European society. Millions of men had marched as soldiers, either vowing to die for his cause or determined to sacrifice themselves in opposition. All shared the experience of dynamic change that Napoleon relentlessly drove season after season. The constant marching and travel during years of campaigning accelerated the ongoing debate in which all societies engage regarding how to organize social relations, constitute government, and distribute power and wealth.
The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars changed the course of European and world history. The revolutionary ideals of liberty, fraternity, and equality that the soldiers of the French armies carried with them as they marched across the continent directly challenged the conservative values of Europe’s traditional order. What initially began as a struggle for survival by a young and politically radical French Republic became a social and economic revolution, and with the assumption of Napoleon to power, a total European war that transformed the nature of warfare itself.
Napoleon was truly an extraordinary leader because he was a man of action. He was not a democrat by any means and stifled political opposition, but his grasp of civil administration and law allowed the moderate reforms of the Revolution to be enshrined under his regime. His important reforms at home included a concordat with the Catholic Church, the liberalization of school admissions, and the rationalization of the civil code.
While the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars affected the internal nature of the French state, the manner in which Napoleon conducted war served as a catalyst that affected the entire structure of government across Europe. Napoleon channeled national patriotism to the support and service of his armed forces to a degree never before seen. The French people began to view themselves as citizens rather than subjects and hence tied their individual welfare to the health of the central government and the army.
A response to Napoleon and the ideals of the French Revolution his armies carried along could not be ignored. In his wake, the placid waters of the mid-eighteenth century could never be restored. Over the course of the nineteenth century, the leading aristocratic families of Europe made a show of restoring dynastic order to their nations, and for a time the patina of monarchy re-emerged. But after Napoleon, absolutism constituted nothing more than a decayed foundation that would crumble in Italy, Germany, and France, and ultimately across Eastern Europe as well. Not until the guns and carnage of World War I swept across the continent to create yet another kind of order was Napoleon’s reach curtailed. By then, his era had earned a place as one of the most inspiring, terrible, and important periods in the history of the world.
Napoleon stamped his personality on an entire era of tremendous change, especially in terms of military affairs. Until the French Revolution, European war was characterized by set-piece, formal battles fought with linear tactics and frequent sieges. Campaigns were waged frequently but with modest bloodshed, as the goal of generals was to maneuver their enemies into positions of disadvantage to compel territorial or dynastic concessions. Napoleon would have none of this kind of tentative leadership. Displaying a type of behavior that was unique among commanders of his age, he gathered up the passions of the mass armies and tirelessly sought to bring his opponents to a decisive battle. His goal was always to close with and destroy any who dared confront him on the battlefield.
The significance of Napoleon’s thirst for decisive action cannot be underestimated since the culminating, decisive battle is the holy grail of military affairs. In short, Napoleon sought to win every campaign by the outcome of major fighting. Everything he did on campaign was accomplished with the intent of settling the matter in a bloody and massive clash. His style of war meant that France’s empire was at risk in nearly every campaign—but at the same time, the fate of his enemies’ regimes were also at risk. This was a calculation that Napoleon wagered to his favor time and time again.
Napoleon was successful in battle because his ruthless but creative genius allowed him to effectively dominate his enemies in the planning stage of a campaign. He knew exactly the outcome he sought and so operationally maneuvered his armies to achieve the success he pictured in his plan. Yet, he remained flexible and was ready and able to respond to the countermoves of his adversaries. This dynamism allowed French armies to retain the initiative on the march, and they had every confidence that their commander would always place them in position to win when the combat commenced.
Tactically, Napoleon sought to direct his main thrust against an enemy force from the flank while simultaneously assaulting his foe’s front to keep the enemy in place. Alternatively, if circumstances dictated, he would hold on the flanks and deliver a massive frontal attack to break the will of a defending army. In every case, a general confronting Napoleon knew that a one-two punch was on the way, and this knowledge itself was enough to unsettle many a commander.
Napoleon also integrated the best technologies of his time in the pursuit of war. He employed cannon to provide close fires to infantry assaults; he sent masses of well-armed and thoroughly trained cavalry to conduct reconnaissance and to swarm over the enemy’s flanks and rear; he maintained a linear formation of his infantry but instituted attack columns that maximized the effect of the bayonet-mounted flintlock muskets. In brief, Napoleon achieved a maximum battlefield effect with the tools at his disposal. Not until the Industrial Revolution brought rapid-fire weapons, radios, and mechanized maneuver would Napoleon’s system of war be superseded.
Never a formal theorist, Napoleon did not develop a comprehensive body of theory—but every military thinker since attempted to capture the Emperor’s ways of war and teach them to his own national forces. It is interesting to note that today the American army, and every major army of the Western world, formulates contemporary doctrine with the text On War in mind. On War , the work of Karl von Clausewitz, a Prussian officer, is an account of Napoleonic warfare and the timeless lessons to be drawn from the experience. In this respect, the shadow of Napoleon looms over the world’s battlefields even today.
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