French Revolutionary Wars and Napoleonic Wars

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war of the first coalition, 1792–1797
war of the second coalition, 1798–1801
napoleon's conquest of europe, 1805–1808
maintaining the empire, 1809–1812
the fall of napoleon's empire, 1813–1815

The French Legislative Assembly declared war upon the king of Bohemia and Hungary (later the emperor of Austria, Francis I) on 20 April 1792. The conflict was not precipitated by actions of the European monarchies seeking to limit the extent of Revolutionary influence, but by the Revolutionary government wishing to divert attention emanating from domestic political, economic, and social crises by creating a foreign crisis. This act inaugurated twenty-three years of war between Revolutionary, and later Napoleonic, France and the rest of Europe. The War of the First Coalition (1792–1797) eventually placed France against an alliance of Austria, Prussia, Piedmont, Naples, Spain, England, and the Holy Roman Empire.

war of the first coalition, 1792–1797

French war aims were initially limited to traditional and historic interests, such as challenging Habsburg possession of Belgium and extending French influence along the west bank of the Rhine within the Holy Roman Empire, and to the Italian Alps. An invasion of Belgium in April 1792, however, met with disastrous results. The Duke of Brunswick also invaded France with a Prusso-German army during the summer. The defeat in Belgium, followed by the Prussian offensive, led to increased radicalization of the revolution and the overthrow of the monarchy on 10 August 1792, and the founding of the French Republic.

On 20 September 1792 the Duke of Brunswick engaged two French armies at Valmy. The battle was short, halted by Brunswick before a general advance was made. With his supply lines over-extended and the French determined to stand, Brunswick withdrew to the frontier. A small French army on the Middle Rhine captured Speyer, Worms, and Mainz by mid-October, then crossed the Rhine and seized Frankfurt shortly thereafter. The French invaded Belgium once more, decisively defeating the Austrians at Jemappes on 6 November 1792.

By the opening of 1793 French armies had made significant territorial gains. The reluctant performance of Prussia following Valmy, and the apparent weakness of Austria, encouraged the republican government to expand its objectives. War was declared upon Great Britain and Holland on 1 February 1793. Not wanting to be restrained by resources or economy, the revolutionaries made war on Spain on 7 March 1793, after King Charles IV refused to entertain a French alliance.

French military exploits began to erode by the spring of 1793. France's invasion of Holland in mid-February was initially successful, but an Austrian counteroffensive into Belgium completely smashed the French army there and jeopardized the French position in Holland. At Neerwinden in mid-March the French were again defeated. A Prussian army besieged Mainz the following month, and the Spanish crossed the Pyrenees into Roussillon by the summer. The Italian front, opened in 1792 by a French invasion of Piedmont, was stalemated. Insurrection was fomenting in the Vendée and southern France. Compound crises led to the emergence of the Committee of Public Safety as the guardian of the Revolution. Its response was the levée en masse, general conscription of all French males and the mobilization of French resources.

Although 1793 presented the coalition with the greatest opportunity to defeat France, it lacked coordination. Political interests and differences among the allies prevented them from pressing advantages in Belgium and southern France. French victories in Belgium at Hondschoote and Wattignies turned the tide in the north. A Prussian victory at Kaiserslautern stalled French efforts on the Lower Rhine, but there was substantial success against the Austrian and imperial forces on the Upper Rhine by the end of the year.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the French war effort in 1793 was the appointment of Lazare Carnot, former captain of engineers and current member of the Committee of Public Safety, as minister of war. France now had a singular military authority who established a clear grand strategy. He continued the main effort in Belgium and along the Rhine, while holding the Alps and containing the Spanish in Perpignan.

The war turned in 1794 with French offensives on virtually every front. At Fleurus on 26 June 1794 the Austrians were defeated, opening the way for the complete conquest of Belgium by summer's end. This was followed by an invasion of Holland in the autumn. Spanish forces already overstretched were forced back over the Pyrenees and assumed a defensive posture as the French crossed into Catalonia. The rebellious cities of Lyon, Marseille, and Toulon fell to republican armies. It was in the siege of the latter city that a young captain of artillery, Napoleon Bonaparte, first made his mark.

French victory was as much a result of the collapsing coalition as it was a consequence of the increasing size and experience of French armies. Prussia opened secret negotiations with the republic toward the end of 1794. On 5 April 1795 Prussia acceded to the first Treaty of Basel, concluding Prussian participation in the coalition. In May the Dutch surrendered to France, and by the summer Spain and Hesse-Cassel became signatories of the second Treaty of Basel. In short, within a year of the end of the Terror, Belgium, Holland, and Germany west of the Rhine were solidly under French occupation. Only the Upper Rhine and Italian front remained active, and Carnot could dedicate substantial forces to those theaters.

The War of the First Coalition culminated in Italy in 1796 and 1797. General Napoleon Bonaparte took command of the small, ill-equipped, but highly experienced French Army of Italy at the end of February 1796. Outnumbered more than two to one by Austro-Piedmontese forces, Bonaparte broke across the Alps from Genoa, dividing the Piedmontese from the Austrians. Defeating the former at Montenotte and Dego in mid-April, he pressed on to Turin, where the Piedmontese signed an armistice at Cherasco on 28 April. Austrian attempts to push Bonaparte out of Italy through the autumn of 1796 met with defeat. In 1797 Bonaparte invaded Austria from Italy. With his army less than 240 kilometers (150 miles) from Vienna, Austria signed an armistice at Leoben in April, later formalized by the Treaty of Campo Formio in October 1797.

war of the second coalition, 1798–1801

The victory over the First Coalition was short lived, as Austria and England brought Russia into a Second Coalition by 1798. The War of the Second Coalition (1798–1801) succeeded in undoing much of what Bonaparte had done. Austrian and Russian armies overran the French in northern Italy, while the English and Russians landed expeditionary forces in Holland. The Austrians engaged the French along the Upper Rhine and were supported by a Russian offensive into Switzerland in August 1799.

The French responded by expanding the conflict, sending expeditions to Ireland and Egypt to strike at the British. Bonaparte commanded the Egyptian expedition, defeating the Mamluks at the Battle of the Pyramids in July 1798. In February 1799 Bonaparte advanced into Palestine, seizing Jerusalem and laying siege to Acre. Failing to take the city, he returned to Egypt in June. The following month he returned to France to participate in a coup against the government.

The coup d'état of 18 Brumaire (9 November) resulted in Bonaparte's assumption of power. Fortunately for Napoleon, arguments among the coalition resulted in the withdrawal of Russian troops from central Europe. Taking command of the Army of Reserve in late spring 1800, Bonaparte crossed the Alps into Piedmont. At Marengo on 14 June, Bonaparte defeated the Austrians and turned the tide in Italy. His triumph was followed six months later by General Victor Moreau's decisive victory over the Austrians at Hohenlinden in Germany. Austria's failure led to negotiations at Lunéville, which were concluded in February 1801.

Britain was isolated. Its heavy-handed policies seeking to suppress overseas commerce with France led to the formation of the League of Armed Neutrality, sponsored by Tsar Paul I of Russia and included Prussia, Sweden, and Denmark. Fearing the League of Armed Neutrality would unite their navies, forcing the English from the Baltic, the Royal Navy raided Copenhagen decimating the Danish fleet and breaking the league's will.

Bonaparte exacted further pressure as Spain made common cause against Portugal, a British ally. He reaffirmed the Franco-Spanish alliance initially established at San Ildefenso in 1796. Negotiations, stalled through 1801, now moved with earnest as Britain sought to extricate itself. The Treaty of Amiens was concluded in March 1802 effectively ending the wars of the French Revolution.

Amiens was the product of British exigency. Few in Parliament were confident that Bonaparte would honor his agreements. Distrust between the signatories was apparent before the ink had time to dry. Within six months of the agreement war between England and France appeared imminent, and in May 1803 it broke from London. The specific issue was Britain's refusal to hand Malta to France, as required by Amiens, however the root cause was a decided lack of trust between the two states.

napoleon's conquest of europe, 1805–1808

The War of the Third Coalition (1805–1807) was the product and extension of the renewed Anglo-French conflict. Spain joined France in January 1805. The specter of a French invasion of England returned, and William Pitt, the Younger, the British prime minister, attempted to cultivate a Continental alliance against France, but was initially unsuccessful. The foreign policy of the now Emperor Napoleon in Italy and Germany, however, did much to disturb Austria and Russia. Tsar Alexander I proposed an alliance to Austria and Prussia. Frederick William III rejected the overture, but Emperor Francis I eventually accepted and negotiated jointly with England. On 9 August 1805 the Third Coalition was established by treaty. Sweden and Naples joined officially in October and November respectively. The war began with an Austrian invasion of Bavaria, a French ally. Napoleon turned his Grande Armée from the Channel coast to the Rhine to meet this threat. Another army in Italy squared off against an Austrian army under the Archduke Charles. In a dramatic and decisive maneuver, Napoleon surrounded and defeated the Austrian army in Germany at Ulm, while his forces in Italy fought Charles to a draw.

At the moment Napoleon's victory in Germany was achieved, the combined Franco-Spanish fleet was destroyed at Trafalgar by Admiral Horatio Nelson's British fleet. The naval victory saved only England, as Napoleon invaded Austria in November and seized Vienna three weeks later. On 2 December 1805 he won his greatest victory, over the Russo-Austrian army at Austerlitz. The abject defeat of Austria forced Francis to accept the Treaty of Pressburg, which stripped Austria of territory in the Tyrol, Italy, and Dalmatia. Napoleon elevated his allies in Bavaria and Württemberg to the royal dignity and Baden to a grand duchy. His Kingdom of Italy was enlarged and his control of the Italian peninsula was completed with an invasion of Naples in February 1806. Prussia concluded a treaty of friendship with France in return for Hanover.

In 1806 Napoleon restructured Europe, consolidating his gains of 1805. During the summer of 1806, the Holy Roman Empire was abolished and much of Germany reconfigured into the Confederation of the Rhine, with Napoleon as its protector. In the process, Napoleon offered Hanover to England in return for peace. Prussia was made aware of this by England and declared war on France in October 1806. The campaign against Prussia was incredibly brief. On 14 October the Prussian army was destroyed in two battles at Jena and Auerstedt.

Frederick William III and the remnants of his forces retreated into Prussian Poland where they were joined by Tsar Alexander's Russian army. Napoleon moved into Poland and on 8 February 1807 won a Pyrrhic victory at Eylau. In the late spring Napoleon attacked the Russians and defeated them on 14 June 1807 at Friedland. His victory led to direct negotiations with Alexander at Tilsit, and the meeting of the two emperors in July led to an alliance.

During the course of 1806 to 1807, Napoleon issued the Milan and Berlin decrees. They established a Continental blockade of English goods from Portugal to Russia. Concomitant with his desire to block English markets, Napoleon directed an invasion of Portugal. French victory was ultimately shattered by the deployment of a British expeditionary force under General Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington.

Spain's French alliance wore thin by 1806, and Charles IV and his prime minister, Manuel de Godoy, secretly negotiated with Britain. Napoleon became aware of Godoy's machinations and turned on his ally in the spring of 1808, committing one hundred thousand French troops to the occupation of the Iberian kingdom. The throne was given to Napoleon's elder brother Joseph.

The war in Spain became problematic for Napoleon. Although British military support was insignificant at this time, there was growing resistance from Spanish regulars and guerrillas. French troops became bogged down and even met local defeat at the hands of the Spanish. Napoleon led a second invasion in October 1808 to secure Spain. The French emperor remained in Madrid until January 1809 when he returned to Paris to meet a potential threat from Austria.

maintaining the empire, 1809–1812

With French attention focused on Spain, Austrian Emperor Francis I directed his brother, the Archduke Charles, to make war on Napoleon. He was directed to strike into Germany and Italy, to reestablish the status quo ante circa 1792. A reluctant Charles obeyed and in April 1809 launched an offensive into Bavaria, while his younger brother John invaded Italy. Napoleon's army in Germany was reduced because of his Spanish commitment, but his German allies provided substantial forces to supplement the imperial army. Napoleon successfully outmaneuvered Charles and defeated him at Abensberg-Eckmühl in April. Charles then retreated into Bohemia while Napoleon advanced upon Vienna. In Italy, John was initially successful, but driven back in May.

Napoleon entered Vienna in mid-May and attacked Charles across the Danube at Aspern-Essling. The battle marked Napoleon's first defeat, as he was thrown back across the river with heavy losses. Napoleon, however, called his dispersed corps to Vienna, and affected another crossing in early July. The Battle of Wagram (5 and 6 July) was the largest engagement to date of the Napoleonic Wars. This time Napoleon defeated Charles and within two weeks elicited his surrender. Austria was compelled by treaty to give up its Illyrian Provinces to France and the Trentino to the Kingdom of Italy.

By the conclusion of 1810 Napoleon's relationship with Tsar Alexander I was strained. He determined to bring Russia directly under his control and began preparations for a massive invasion of Russia. Drawing on the resources of Europe, Napoleon assembled an army of approximately five hundred thousand men, half French, the remainder from his allied and satellite armies. In June 1812 Napoleon invaded Russia. By September Napoleon's main army engaged the Russians at Borodino, 110 kilometers (70 miles) west of Moscow. The Russians were forced from the field and retreated east of the city. Napoleon established his headquarters there, but Alexander refused to negotiate. With winter approaching, and no conclusion to the conflict in sight, Napoleon withdrew from Moscow at the end of October. Alexander and his army shadowed Napoleon, only occasionally chancing military engagement. On 5 December 1812 Napoleon left the army for Paris, giving command to his brother-in-law Marshal Joachim Murat, who continued the retreat to Prussia. The cost of the campaign was enormous. No more than 160,000 troops remained, many having deserted, died of disease, become ill, or been taken prisoner.

The Russian army pursued the French into Poland with the intention of stirring Prussia into an alliance. In March 1813, the French army, now under Napoleon's stepson, Prince Eugène de Beauharnais, abandoned Berlin. Frederick William III joined Russia in another coalition. Napoleon, however, returned to Germany in April with a new and larger army and defeated the Russo-Prussian armies at Lützen and Bautzen in May. Unable to defeat Napoleon, Alexander and Frederick William III agreed to an armistice in June, with the intention of bringing Austria into the coalition.

the fall of napoleon's empire, 1813–1815

Austria did join the Fourth Coalition, which renewed the war in August 1813. The allies were joined by Sweden, whose army was led by Crown Prince Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, one of Napoleon's former marshals. The coalition forced Napoleon's armies in central Europe into Saxony, and from 16 to 19 October the coalition soundly defeated Napoleon at Leipzig. He withdrew from Germany. The coalition offensive into Italy was not as dramatic or successful, and although there were some attempts by Austria to negotiate a settlement with France, the other allies and the French emperor did not take them seriously. As such the Prussian army under Field Marshal Gebhard von Blücher crossed the Lower Rhine and invaded France. The Austrians under Field Marshal Karl zu Schwarzenberg crossed the Upper Rhine.

Napoleon scored several astonishing victories over the allies in January and February 1814, but lacked sufficient strength to capitalize on them the way he had done in earlier years. By March the situation had changed dramatically. While Napoleon had moved to check an Austrian advance southeast of Paris, the Prussians marched on the capital and captured it. Napoleon refused to surrender, but his marshals compelled him to accept the inevitable and he abdicated the throne on 6 April 1814.

Napoleon was exiled to the island of Elba. The following February he left the island with a small contingent of his Imperial Guard and returned to France. Louis XVIII dispatched troops to intercept Napoleon, but they, and most of the French army, defected. France remained ringed by allied armies in the spring of 1815, and the coalition, whose representatives were meeting in Vienna, pledged to make common cause against Napoleon until he was defeated. An Anglo-Dutch army under the Duke of Wellington was in central Belgium, while a Prussian army under General Blücher was in eastern Belgium.

Napoleon seized the initiative and struck north into Belgium, hoping to defeat the Prussians before they could join with the British. On 16 June 1815, Napoleon attacked the Prussians at Ligny, breaking Blücher's army, sending it into full retreat. To the west a second battle was fought between the smaller French left wing under Marshal Michel Ney and the Duke of Wellington at Quatre Bras. The battle was a draw, but Wellington withdrew north toward Brussels. Despite being pursued by the French, Blücher promised Wellington he would swing his army about and join him at Mont-St.-Jean (Waterloo). On 18 June Napoleon attacked the British position. Although hard pressed, the Duke of Wellington held until the Prussian army arrived by the afternoon. The appearance of the Prussian army on Napoleon's flank was decisive. By nightfall the French army was in rout and Napoleon fled to Paris. On 22 June 1815 Napoleon abdicated for a second time. He became a British prisoner and spent the rest of his life on the island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic.

See alsoArmies; Austerlitz; Borodino; Continental System; Holy Alliance; Hundred Days; Napoleon; Napoleonic Empire; Ulm, Battle of; Vienna; Waterloo; Wellington, Duke of (Arthur Wellesley).


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Frederick C. Schneid

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French Revolutionary Wars and Napoleonic Wars

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