French Revolutionary Wars

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French Revolutionary Wars, wars occurring in the era of the French Revolution and the beginning of the Napoleonic era, the decade of 1792–1802. The wars began as an effort to defend the Revolution and developed into wars of conquest under the empire. The peace obtained in 1801–2 is generally considered to divide the French Revolutionary Wars from the Napoleonic Wars, but the character of the conflict changed only gradually.

The Origins of the Wars

The French Revolution aroused the hostility of foreign monarchs, nobles, and clergy, who feared the spread of republican ideas abroad. Émigré intrigues led the Austrian and Prussian rulers to make the declaration of Pillnitz (Aug., 1791), stating that, if all the powers would join them, they were willing to restore Louis XVI to his rightful authority. French public opinion was aroused. When the Girondists obtained control of the ministry (Mar., 1792) and Emperor Francis II acceded in Austria, war became almost inevitable. It was desired by many of the revolutionists—with the notable exception of Robespierre—who believed that war would insure the permanence of the new order and propagate revolution abroad, and by the royalists, who hoped that victory would restore the powers of Louis XVI.

War with Austria

On Apr. 20, 1792, France declared war on Austria. The French armies lacked organization and discipline, and many noble officers had emigrated. The allied Austrian and Prussian forces under Charles William Ferdinand, duke of Brunswick, quickly crossed the frontier and began to march on Paris. The duke issued a manifesto threatening to raze Paris should the royal family be harmed. This manifesto angered the French and contributed to the suspension of the king (Aug., 1792). The comte de Rochambeau, commanding the northern sector, and the marquis de Lafayette, commanding the center, resigned. Their able successors, the generals Dumouriez and Kellermann, turned the tide when they repulsed the invaders at Valmy (Sept. 20). Dumouriez advanced on the Austrian Netherlands (Belgium), and he seized it after the battle of Jemappes (Nov. 6), while Custine captured Mainz and advanced on Frankfurt.

First Coalition

Late in 1792 the Convention issued a decree offering assistance to all peoples wishing to recover their liberty. This decree, the execution of Louis XVI (Jan., 1793), and the opening of the Scheldt estuary (contrary to the Peace of Westphalia) provoked Great Britain, Holland, and Spain to join Austria and Prussia in the First Coalition against France. Sardinia had already declared war after France had occupied Savoy and Nice (Sept., 1792). On Feb. 1, 1793, France declared war on Britain and Holland, and on Mar. 7, on Spain. Things rapidly turned against France. Dumouriez, defeated at Neerwinden (Mar. 18) by the Austrians, deserted to the enemy; revolt broke out in the Vendée; and Custine lost Mainz to the Prussians (July 23).

In the emergency the first Committee of Public Safety was created (Apr. 6), and a levée en masse (a draft of able-bodied males between 18 and 25) was decreed in August. The Committee, inspired by the leadership of Lazare Carnot, raised armies of approximately 750,000 men; revolutionary commissioners were attached to the commands; defeated generals, like Custine, were executed "to encourage the others."

By the end of 1793 the allies had been driven from France. In 1794 the new French commanders, Jourdan and Pichegru, took the offensive. Jourdan, after defeating the Austrians at Fleurus (June 26, 1794), moved along the Rhine as far as Mannheim; Pichegru seized the Low Countries. On May 16, 1795, Holland, transformed into the Batavian Republic, made peace. Prussia on Apr. 5, 1795, signed a separate peace (the first Treaty of Basel), ceding the left bank of the Rhine to France; Spain made peace on July 22 (second Treaty of Basel).

Warfare against Austria and Sardinia continued under the newly established Directory. France gradually evolved a plan calling for a three-pronged attack: Jourdan was to advance southeastward from the Low Countries; Jean Victor Moreau was to strike at S Germany; and Napoleon Bonaparte was to conquer Piedmont and Lombardy, cross the Austrian Alps, and join with Moreau and Jourdan. During 1795 the French defeated the allies on all fronts, but in 1796 the new Austrian commander, Archduke Charles, took the offensive, defeating first Jourdan, then Moreau, both of whom had retreated to the Rhine by Sept., 1796.

On the Italian front, where an ill-supplied French army had been engaged in desultory and defensive operations until Bonaparte's arrival in 1796, one victory followed another (for details of the Italian campaign, see Napoleon I). Sardinia submitted in May, 1796, and in Apr., 1797, the preliminary peace of Leoben with Austria was signed by Bonaparte, just as Moreau had resumed his offensive in Germany. The armistice was confirmed by the Treaty of Campo Formio (Oct., 1797). Britain, however, remained in the war, retaining naval superiority under such able commanders as Samuel Hood, Richard Howe, John Jervis, and Horatio Nelson. Bonaparte's plan to attack the British Empire by way of Egypt was doomed by Nelson's naval triumph at Aboukir in Aug., 1798.

Second Coalition

Meanwhile, France again aroused the anger of the European powers by creating the Cisalpine Republic and the Roman Republic and by invading Switzerland, which was transformed into the Helvetic Republic. Under the leadership of Czar Paul I a Second Coalition was formed by Russia, Austria, Britain, Turkey, Portugal, and Naples. France defeated Naples and transformed it into the Parthenopean Republic (Jan., 1799), but in N Italy the Austrians and the Russians drove out the French, and in Aug., 1799, General Suvorov crossed the Alps into Switzerland, where Archduke Charles had already won (June 4–7) a victory at Zürich over Masséna. However, disunity between the Austrians and the Russians resulted in disastrous defeats in Switzerland, and Suvorov, after a masterly retreat through the Alps, returned to Russia (Sept.–Oct., 1799).

At this juncture Bonaparte returned from Egypt and by the coup of 18 Brumaire became First Consul (Nov., 1799). The coalition was weakened by Russia's withdrawal, and Napoleon feverishly prepared a campaign to recoup French losses. The campaign of 1800 was decisive. In Italy, Napoleon, after crossing the St. Bernard Pass, crushed the Austrians at Marengo (June 14); in Germany, Moreau crossed the Rhine and demolished allied opposition at Hohenlinden (Dec. 3, 1800). With the Peace of Lunéville—a more severe version of the Treaty of Campo Formio—Austria was forced out of the war (Feb. 9, 1801).

Great Britain, however, continued victorious, taking Malta (Sept., 1800) and compelling the French to surrender in Egypt (Aug., 1801). When Denmark, encouraged by France, defied British supremacy of the seas, Lord Nelson destroyed the Danish fleet in the battle of Copenhagen (Apr. 2, 1801). Nevertheless, the British were war-weary and, after Pitt's retirement, consented to the Treaty of Amiens (Mar. 27, 1802), by which all conquests were restored to France. But the absence of a commercial agreement and Britain's refusal to evacuate Malta was to lead to the resumption of warfare in 1803. Peace had already been made with Naples (Mar., 1801) and with Portugal (Sept., 1801), and in Oct., 1802, France signed a treaty restoring Egypt to the Ottoman Empire.


See T. C. W. Blanning, The French Revolution in Germany (1983); G. Lefebvre, The French Revolution (2 vol, tr. 1962–64); J. H. Rose, William Pitt and the Great War (1911, repr. 1971).

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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).

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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.