The History of Warfare: The Napoleonic Wars

For the purposes of this article, the French Revolutionary Wars became the Napoleonic Wars with the end of the Treaty of Amiens.

In 1802, the War of the Second Coalition, which pitted France and its puppets against a pan-European coalition, ended in a French victory, as the Treaty of Luneville gave France even greater territory in Italy at Austria’s expense, and Britain grudgingly recognised France’s conquests by the Treaty of Amiens. This uneasy truce was unsound, however. France was angered by Britain’s refusal to actually evacuate Malta, as had been agreed, while Britain was furious about having to turn over all of the territory it had taken from France. This led Napoleon to continue his invasion preparations against Britain, which in turn declared war again on May 18th, 1803. Almost immediately, Napoleon’s expedition to crush the Haitian Revolution failed utterly. This convinced him to give up on North America, which resulted in his decision to sell everything France had there to the nascent United States. A short Phony War persisted from the declaration of war in May 1803 to December, 1804, when Britain concluded an agreement with Sweden to use Swedish Pomerania as a base to attack French-occupied Hanover, the homeland of the British monarchs. Sweden had already cut diplomatic relations with France after Napoleon had had executed a Swedish nobleman on dubious charges of conspiracy to assassinate him. Britain put together the Third Coalition over the course of 1805, with Russia coming on board in April of that year. Austria joined after Napoleon crowned himself King of Italy, a traditionally Austrian sphere of influence. During this time, Napoleon was assembling the invasion army for Britain at Boulogne. This highly disciplined, centralised, well-trained force would grow into the Grande Armee after Trafalgar. Conversely, the Austrian and Russian armies were inefficient and ineffective. The first major campaign of the War of the Third Coalition was the Ulm Campaign. Taking the Austrian army by surprise by marching through neutral Prussian territory, Napoleon surrounded the main body of the Austrian forces and defeated them in a succession of battles, culminating in the Battle of Ulm, in which the entirety of an Austrian field army was defeated, largely by the efforts of Marshal Murat, and its general forced to surrender in October, 1805.

The Battle of Ulm.

The Battle of Ulm.

Napoleon’s fortunes then took a turn for the worse with the Battle of Trafalgar. Hoping to lure the Royal Navy out of the Channel and thereby make possible an invasion of Britain, Admiral Villeneuve broke out of the British blockade and made a run for the West Indies; Admiral Horatio Nelson followed him. Villeneuve eventually tried to return to Europe to relieve the British blockade of Brest, but this was unsuccessful, and he went South to Cadiz, where Nelson caught up with him. The resulting Battle of Trafalgar is one of the most decisive naval battles in history, as Nelson annihilated a combined Franco-Spanish fleet for the loss of not one of his own ships, putting an end to Napoleon’s dreams of invading Britain. This strategic failure came to resemble a setback within a few months though, as Napoleon won his greatest victory at Austerlitz. The retreating remnant of the Austrian Army had met up with its Russian ally and set up camp, intending to give battle. When the French army caught up, it proceeded to inflict an absolutely devastating defeat upon its adversaries. On December 2nd, 1805, Napoleon inflicted 36,000 casualties and totally disintegrated the enemy armies for the cost of only 9,000 of his own men. Vienna was occupied by the French army. At the beginning of 1806, French forces occupied the Kingdom of Naples, before Austria signed the Treaty of Pressburg, by which Austria had to pay France an indemnity, and cede lands to France’s German puppets.

The Battle of Trafalgar.

The Battle of Trafalgar.

The Battle of Austerlitz.

The Battle of Austerlitz.

Napoleon used his enhanced predominance in Germany to abolish the ancient and moribund Holy Roman Empire, replacing it with the Confederation of the Rhine, a collection of French client states. Fearing Napoleon’s inroads into Germany, Prussia stupidly declared war in 1806. Napoleon almost immediately defeated them at Jena-Auerstadt in October, and occupied Berlin. This resulted in the Berlin Decree, creating the Continental System, which prohibited French allies and clients from trading with Britain. France continued to advance Eastward, all the way to the Russian border, where the Russian Army was defeated at Friedland. With Prussia and Russia beaten, Napoleon was free to dictate terms. Russia was largely let off the hook by the Treaty of Tilsit, and merely had to join the Continental System. Prussia, though, was treated badly. It had to give up its Western territories, which were merged with the French-controlled Kingdom of Westphalia, and some lands in the East, which were given to the similarly aligned Grand Duchy of Warsaw.

The next great campaign would last all the way until 1814. In 1807, Spain and France had jointly invaded and defeated Britain’s ally, Portugal, but the Spanish people were dissatisfied with King Charles IV, who was by all accounts an incompetent moron. Unrest ensued in Napoleon’s ally, making him uneasy. His eventual decision was to invade Spain, which would become an ulcer of a campaign which he could never really win. Although he took the major cities and installed his brother on the Spanish throne, guerrilla resistance continued for years, helped by the arrival of British regulars in Portugal and the resultant long campaign by the Duke of Wellington. By that time, however, Napoleon had other problems.

Napoleon's Peninsular War nemesis, the Duke of Wellington.

Napoleon’s Peninsular War nemesis, the Duke of Wellington.

In 1809, Austria attacked France, beginning the War of the Fifth Coalition. Following the disaster at Austerlitz, Austria had reformed its army, and this showed when combat began. Austria put up a much better fight this time around, but it had no real allies. Prussia had intended to join in, but decided not to at the last moment, and Britain was occupied in Portugal, contributing only an ineffectual landing in Holland to no effect. Austria put up much stiffer resistance, but was eventually beaten at Wagram, and was subjected to the Treaty of Schonbrunn, by which it lost one fifth of its population, as France took its Dalmatian provinces, Warsaw the area of Galicia, and Bavaria Tyrol.

Napoleon at Wagram.

Napoleon at Wagram.

Napoleon remained at war with Britain, but neither side could do much more than glare angrily across the channel at each other. Otherwise, France was the master of Europe, but it wasn’t to last, for Russia broke from the Continental System, leading to a French invasion. French forces advanced steadily, until the brutal but indecisive Battle of Borodino, but Russian strategy throughout consisted of retreating while burning anything which might be of use to France. When the Grande Armee reached Moscow, it found nothing to sustain itself, and had to trudge back to Poland in the depths of the Russian winter. The great majority of his men died, and Napoleon’s aura of invincibility was broken. The Prussian General Ludwig York von Wartenburg signed an unauthorised armistice with the advancing Russians and changed sides, bringing the Sixth Coalition into being; Sweden also re-entered the war on the side of the Allies. Napoleon fought the Allies to draws at Lutzen and Bautzen, but at the gigantic Battle of Leipzig in October 1813, he was decisively defeated by the combined forces of the Coalition. Napoleon’s armies were now broken, but the Allies were prepared to offer a generous peace by which he could stay Emperor of France. Convinced that the tide would turn in his favour, Napoleon refused, and the Allies swept Northward through Spain and Westward through Germany to enter France proper. At this point, Napoleon’s marshals mutinied, and he was forced to abdicate. The Allies exiled him to Elba, in the Mediterranean, but he quickly came back to lead the so-called Hundred Days. By this time, all of Europe was against him, and Britain and Prussia decisively defeated him at Waterloo in 1815. Napoleon was re-exiled to St Helena in the South Atlantic, and the Bourbon Dynasty restored in France.

Napoleon aboard the ship to exile.

Napoleon aboard the ship to exile.

The Napoleonic Wars had momentous consequences for Europe and the world. Napoleon’s armies had spread the ideals of the French Revolution throughout Europe, and the conflict between these and the forces of the governments would eventually erupt in the Revolutions of 1848. These ideas fundamentally changed Europe, and the Wars resulted in more tangible results as well. The Balance of Power entered as a more concrete concept, which the statesmen of Europe would spend the next several decades trying to maintain until German unification in 1871. Finally, the British Empire became a world hegemon, as it entered the Industrial Revolution sooner than its rivals and was left with unchallenged naval supremacy after Trafalgar. Much as the World Wars made the United States, and the 20th Century, the Napoleonic Wars made the 19th Century and the British Empire.

Advertisements