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The Napoleonic Wars: The War of the Sixth Coalition


The sixth in a long line of anti-French coalitions (First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth) was formed in June 1812 by Russia, Britain, Spain and Portugal, but when Napoleon destroyed his army on the ill-fated invasion of Russia later in the year the rest of Europe saw a chance to strike back and secure their independence. Some Russians opposed removing Napoleon, fearing France would collapse and shift the balance of power, but the Tsar wanted him gone.

The Prussian armies were now operating independently of their king, making neutrality agreements with the Russians, until the King was forced to join Russia; he worried failure would mean the end of Prussia. It is crucial to point out that the measures taken in Prussia to field an army - cancelling all exemption from conscription, forming units of volunteers, the creation of militias - had very little, almost nothing, to do with German nationalism - which was restricted to the intelligentsia - and everything to do with the idea of serving the king and Prussia, and getting their humiliations avenged. Soon Prussia had 270,000 men. Austria was less convinced, offering Napoleon discussions about restructuring Europe and remaining neutral. Bizarrely, for a while there where two anti-Napoleonic coalitions - Britain / Spain / Portugal and others; Prussia, Russia and others - which weren't co-operating. It took time and diplomacy to get them together.

Napoleon Tries to Strike Back

That Napoleon had raised a new army of 170,000 by the start of the 1813 campaign season was remarkable, even if they were generally inexperienced troops with inexperienced officers, boosted by a core of specially transferred veterans; they had little ability to live off the land, little equipment, and no stamina to perform Napoleon's marches, but they had good morale, and over the next year he was to show some of the flair that characterized his early years.

True to form, Napoleon intended to advance into Germany and defeat his enemies before they could link up, and he managed to take Dresden and defeat the allies first at Lützen and Bautzen, where a war damaged Ney let the allies escape; Napoleon's raw force could not strike decisively. The armistice of Pläswitz allowed the emperor to try and further drill his inexperienced force. But his enemies were also gathering, (they had accepted the offer for the same reason) and soon he was opposed by large forces. More importantly, Austria had found Napoleon unwilling to negotiate and entered the coalition. This was the first time Napoleon found himself at war with all his enemies at once, a situation he had worked to avoid. Furthermore, the coalition was now a full alliance with defined goals and a unified purpose.

The War of German Liberation

The Coalition planned to defeat Napoleon's subsidiary armies and knock the props out from under the Emperor, avoiding him until necessary, with 240,000 under Schwarzenberg, 120,000 under Bernadotte, 95,000 under Blucher and 60,000 under Benningsen. Bernadotte and Blücher beat Oudinot and Macdonald, and when Napoleon managed to defeat Schwarzenberg he was again too out of sorts to catch and finish them off, while the other coalition armies were pushing on. As Napoleon tried to engage Blücher the latter refused, while Bernadotte now defeated Marshal Ney. As more former Napoleonic states switched to the coalition the three enemy armies surrounded Napoleon, who was delaying and slow.

The resulting Battle of Leipzig, otherwise known as the Battle of the Nations, involved 570,000 people and saw Napoleon try and hold off three coalition armies over three days, but although he managed to escape, an accident destroyed a vital causeway and many troops were stuck behind; it was a massive victory for the coalition, and stripped Napoleon of all remaining allies. He now had to retreat back to the Rhine, fighting his way through a battle at Hanau. Esdaile believes that if Napoleon had won at Leipzig, or been able to make a full withdrawal, he would have boosted his support and been able to seriously challenge the coalition, but he failed, and his support began to ebb away.

The Invasion of France

By the end of 1813 Germany and the rest of central Europe had been liberated from French domination. But the coalition was willing to talk peace, with many members equally afraid of Russia dominating the continent instead of France - it was the Tsar who wanted to invade France and remove Napoleon - and offered a remarkably generous deal which would have reduced France's borders back to the Rhone and the Alps. But Napoleon, a man whose government was founded on military victory, and a man whose mind was used to successful conquest, refused fearing he would lose power.

The allies then prepared to fight on, Napoleon accepted the terms, the allies refused to go back to them, and Napoleon branded them traitors. By now the British were fighting through the Pyrenees, and the three coalition armies, now under Bernadotte, Blücher and Schwarzenberg, were invading from across the border to try and link up in Paris. Napoleon tried to ease a peace deal by restoring Ferdinand VII in Spain and releasing the Pope; it didn't work. The allies discussed what they wanted: a strong France was needed to balance Russia, but who to lead it? A regency for Napoleon's son was too Austrian, a kingdom under Bernadotte feared too Russian, but the return of the French monarchy under Louis XVIII seemed right.

Napoleon's campaign in 1814 has been described as desperate, but he did have some success. He won a string of victories against Blücher, pushing him back, then turned to fight Schwarzenberg, winning at Montereau, then back to Blücher who was close to Paris. But Schwarzenberg managed to defeat Macdonald, and the shock of defeats forced the increasingly divided coalition to redouble their efforts and find some unity. Furthermore, it became apparent to everyone that Napoleon could not be in two, or the necessary three or four, places at once, and there were just too many coalition armies for him to deal with, no matter how much of his old talents were showing themselves.

Napoleon wanted to continue the fight for better terms, but he had run out of time and resources, and the French people had now clearly had enough of the conscription, the war and the drain on finance. Blücher and Schwarzenberg made it to Paris, which Napoleon had left under a theoretical mass mobilization order which failed and Marshall Marmont defected. As Napoleon prepared to march up to save it the defenders gave up as Mashal Mortier surrendered, and Paris was taken by the coalition. Napoleon ordered his army north to retake it, but his Marshals refused.

Napoleon Abdicates

The Senate, for so long just a puppet of Napoleon, was organised by Talleyrand into deposing the emperor and the male members of the Bonaparte family, and with the leaders of his army losing the last of their faith, Napoleon decided he had no choice but to abdicate, and he did so on April 6th, handing the command of France to his under-age son. However, the coalition refused and decreed they would not deal with any Bonapartes, and Napoleon was forced to abdicate unconditionally soon after. Beauharnais had managed to retain Italy, but also abdicated upon hearing about his step-father. Napoleon was exiled to Elba, France had the borders of 1792 restored, as well as the Bourbon monarchy. But Napoleon had one more act left.
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