OriginsWhen the French revolution overthrew the monarchy of Louis XVI and declared new forms of government, the country found itself at odds with the rest of Europe. There were ideological divisions - the dynastic monarchies and empires opposed the new, partly republican thinking - and family ones, as relatives of those affected complained. But the nations of central Europe also had their eyes on dividing Poland between them, and when in 1791 Austria and Prussia issued the Declaration of Pillnitz - which asked Europe to act to restore the French monarchy – they actually worded the document to prevent war. However, France misinterpreted and decided to launch a defensive and pre-emptive war, declaring one in April 1792.
The French Revolutionary WarsThere were initial failures, and an invading German army took Verdun and marched close to Paris, promoting the September Massacres of Parisian prisoners. The French then pushed back at Valmy and Jemappes, before going further in their aims. On November 19th 1792, the National Convention issued a promise of assistance to all people looking to regain their liberty, which was both a new idea for warfare, and the justification to create allied buffer zones around France. On December 15th, they decreed that the revolutionary laws of France – including the dissolution of all aristocracy – were to be imported abroad by their armies. France also declared a set of expanded ‘natural borders’ for the nation, which put the emphasis on annexation rather than just ‘liberty’. On paper, France had set itself the task of opposing, if not overthrowing, every king to keep itself safe.
A group of European powers opposed to these developments were now working as the First Coalition, the start of seven such groups formed to fight France before the end of 1815. Austria, Prussia, Spain, Britain and the United Provinces (Netherlands) fought back, inflicting reverses on the French which prompted the latter to declare a ‘levy en masse’, effectively mobilising the whole of France into the army. A new chapter in warfare had been reached, and army sizes now began to rise greatly.
The Rise of Napoleon and the Switch in FocusThe new French armies had success against the coalition, forcing Prussia to surrender and pushing the others back. Now France took the chance to export the revolution, and the United Provinces became the Batavian Republic. In 1796 the French Army of Italy was judged to have been underperforming, and was given a new commander called Napoleon Bonaparte, who’d first been noticed in the siege of Toulon. In a dazzling display of manoeuvre, Napoleon defeated Austrian and allied forces and forced the Treaty of Campo Formio, which earned France the Austrian Netherlands, and cemented the position of the French-allied republics in North Italy. It also allowed Napoleon’s army, and the commander himself, to gain large amounts of looted wealth.
Napoleon was then given a chance to pursue a dream: attack in the Middle East, even on into threatening the British in India, and he sailed to Egypt in 1798 with an army. After initial success, Napoleon failed in a siege of Acre. With the French fleet seriously damaged in the Battle of the Nile against British Admiral Nelson, the Army of Egypt was greatly restricted: it could not get reinforcements and it could not leave. Napoleon soon left – some critics might say abandoned – this army to return to France when it looked like a coup would take place.
Napoleon was able to become the centrepiece of a plot, levering his success and power in the army to become First Consul of France in the Coup of Brumaire in 1799. Napoleon then acted against the forces of the Second Coalition, an alliance which had gathered to exploit Napoleon’s absence and which involved Austria, Britain, Russia, the Ottoman Empire and other smaller states. Napoleon won the Battle of Marengo in 1800. Along with a victory by French general Moreau at Hohenlinden against Austria, France was thus able to defeat the Second Coalition. The result was France as the dominant power in Europe, Napoleon as a national hero and a possible end to the warfare and chaos of the revolution.
The Napoleonic WarsBritain and France were briefly at peace, but soon argued, the former wielding a superior navy and great wealth. Napoleon planned an invasion of Britain and gathered an army to do so, but we don’t know how serious he was about ever carrying it out. But Napoleon’s plans became irrelevant when Nelson again defeated the French with his iconic victory at Trafalgar, shattering Napoleon’s naval strength. A third coalition now formed in 1805, allying Austria, Britain and Russia, but victories by Napoleon at Ulm and then the masterpiece of Austerlitz broke the Austrians and Russians and forced an end to the third coalition.
In 1806 there were Napoleonic victories, over Prussia at Jena and Auerstedt, and in 1807 the Battle of Eylau was fought between a fourth coalition army of Prussians and Russians against Napoleon. A draw in the snow in which Napoleon was nearly captured, this marks the first major setback for the French General. The stalemate led to the Battle of Friedland, where Napoleon did win against Russia, and ended the Fourth Coalition.
The Fifth coalition formed and had success by blunting Napoleon at the Battle Aspern-Essling in 1809, when Napoleon tried to force a way across the Danube. But Napoleon regrouped and tried once more, fighting the Battle of Wagram against Austria. Napoleon won, and the Archduke of Austria open peace talks. Much of Europe was now either under direct French control, or technically allied. There were other wars – Napoleon invaded Spain to install his brother as king, but instead triggered a brutal guerrilla war and the presence of a successful British field army under Wellington – but Napoleon remained largely master of Europe, creating new states such as the German Confederation of the Rhine, giving crowns to family members, but bizarrely forgiving some difficult subordinates.