Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars

views updated May 23 2018

Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars (1793–1815). Following its defeat of the Prussians at Valmy in September 1792, revolutionary France announced its expansion to its ‘natural frontiers’ and war against the states of the ancien régime. In response Britain sent an army under the duke of York to Flanders in 1793, joining the Dutch and Austrians in the ‘War of the First Coalition’. After an inept campaign the defeated Dutch made peace and the remnants of York's army were evacuated in March 1795. Expeditions against French colonies in the West Indies 1793–6 met with mixed success, although in 1795 the British seized Cape Town and Ceylon from their former Dutch allies. Naval victories over the French in 1794 (‘the Glorious First of June’), the Spanish at Cape St Vincent in February 1797, and the Dutch at Camperdown in October 1797 confirmed Britain's mastery of the seas.

The British government responded to radicalism and possible revolt at home with repression, suspending habeas corpus in 1794. A French-backed rebellion in Ireland 1797–8 was also violently suppressed, as were naval mutinies at Spithead and the Nore in 1797. The cost of the war, including the creation of an army of 220,000 and 80,000 militia, forced Britain off the gold standard in 1797. A programme of barracks-building was started in 1798 deliberately to isolate soldiers from radicalism.

In 1795 Prussia and Spain made peace with France, and in 1796 Spain re-entered the war on the French side. The defeat of Austria, which made peace by the treaty of Campo Formio in October 1797, ended the first coalition. This was followed by Napoleon's expedition to Egypt in 1798, intended to support Britain's enemies in India, which came to nothing with the destruction of the French fleet at the Nile in August 1798, the defeat of Tipu of Mysore by an Anglo-Indian army under Arthur Wellesley (Wellington) in May 1799, and the elimination of the French in Egypt by Abercromby at Alexandria in March 1801.

Britain formed the ‘second coalition’, including Austria, Russia, Portugal, Naples, and Ottoman Turkey, in autumn 1798, but a renewed expedition to the Netherlands under York in 1799 again achieved little. Austria was defeated by Napoleon at Marengo in June 1800, and made peace by the treaty of Lunéville in February 1801. Russia also made peace, joining with Sweden, Denmark, and Prussia to form the League of Armed Neutrality in 1800. This collapsed after the assassination of Tsar Paul and the destruction of the Danish fleet by the British at Copenhagen in April 1801.

The treaty of Amiens in March 1802 between Britain and France ended the ‘War of the Second Coalition’. But continued French expansion in southern Europe, together with support for Britain's enemies in India, brought a renewed declaration of war from Britain by May 1803, followed by another abortive French-backed rebellion in Ireland in July. The Indian threat was ended by Wellesley's defeat of the Mahratta Confederacy at Assaye in September 1803, leading to a negotiated peace in India by 1806.

On 2 December 1804 Napoleon proclaimed himself emperor of the French, leading to British treaties with Russia, Austria, and Sweden in the ‘War of the Third Coalition’. Despite the failure of Napoleon's plans to invade Britain and the destruction of his fleet by Nelson at Trafalgar in October 1805, he drove Austria out of the war with victories at Ulm and at Austerlitz, leading to the treaty of Pressburg in December. This was followed by Napoleon's humiliating defeat of Prussia at Jena in October 1806. Russia was also defeated at Eylau and Friedland, and accepted the treaty of Tilsit of July 1807, leaving France dominant in central Europe.

Against Britain, his remaining enemy, Napoleon resorted to economic warfare (‘the Continental System’), one by-product of which was the Anglo-American War of 1812–15. Unsuccessful British expeditions were mounted against Buenos Aires 1806–7, Naples 1806 (despite the victory at Maida), and Walcheren island in the Netherlands 1809–10. A French campaign against Portugal, begun in November 1807, was complicated by a Spanish revolt in May 1808, followed by the arrival of a British army under Wellesley in August (the start of the Peninsular War’). The convention of Cintra (also in August) allowed the French to withdraw, and a failed offensive under Sir John Moore in October led to retreat and evacuation through Corunna in January 1809 after Moore's death. In April Wellesley returned to the Peninsula, which became the main British theatre of the war, with victories over the French at Talavera in July 1809 (for which he was made Viscount Wellington), Fuentes de Onoro in May 1811, Badajoz and Salamanca in April and July 1812, and Vitoria in June 1813.

In June 1812 Napoleon attacked Russia, reaching Moscow. Thereafter his army disintegrated through supply problems, disease, Russian attacks, and finally winter. Austria and Prussia rose in revolt, and at Leipzig (‘the battle of the Nations’) in October 1813 Napoleon was again defeated by a combined Russian-Austrian-Prussian force. In February 1814 Wellington crossed into France from Spain, by March the Prussians had reached Paris, and on 20 April Napoleon abdicated, being exiled to Elba.

The final flourish of the Napoleonic wars was the ‘Hundred Days’, Napoleon's escape from Elba on 1 March 1815 and return to power in France, culminating in his decisive defeat by a coalition army under Wellington at Waterloo on 18 June 1815, and his exile to St Helena.

Stephen Badsey


Barnett, C. , Bonaparte (New York, 1978);
Chandler, D. , The Campaigns of Napoleon (1966);
Duffy, M. , Soldiers, Sugar and Sea Power (Oxford, 1987);
Hall, C. D. , British Strategy in the Napoleonic Wars 1803–1815 (Manchester, 1992);
Pimlott, J. , The Guinness History of the British Army (1994).

French Revolutionary Wars

views updated Jun 11 2018

French Revolutionary Wars (1792–1802) Series of campaigns in which the popular armies of revolutionary France fought combinations of their European enemies. Fear and hatred of the French Revolution fuelled the hostility of Austria in particular. The French declared war on Austria and Prussia in 1792, and their success at Valmy and Jemappes provoked other states, including Britain, the Netherlands and Spain, to form the First Coalition (1793). It was no more successful against France's conscript army and soon fell apart with Austria making peace at Campo-Formio. Britain remained at war, and Nelson won significant naval victories, but a Second Coalition was again unsuccessful on land in 1799–1800, Napoleon winning a notable victory at Marengo. Britain made peace at Amiens in 1802, but it marked only an interval before the Napoleonic Wars.

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