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The War of the Second Coalition 1799 – 1801


Napoleon might have won a string of victories in Italy and dictated a settlement which left much of Europe notionally at peace, but the defeated First Coalition of the French Revolutionary Wars didn’t accept this. However, Russia, Prussia and Austria all had reasons to delay acting in order to secure their eastern gains and regroup, and were only prodded into action by France’s provocations, such as France invading Switzerland and the Papal States, and encouraging Polish rebellion. During late 1798 and early 1799 a ‘Second Coalition’ of forces was formed. Britain and the Ottomans allied after Nelson destroyed the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile, and Russia, Austria and others joined. Russia was angry over the French seizure of Malta – the Tsar considered himself protector of the island’s knights - and the new challenge to Russian pretentions in the east: Tsar Paul believed that only a military solution would stop France and Polish rebels. Austria just wanted the land they had already lost back, and all were growing worried by the ring of puppet republics France was creating.

However, it was not a strong unit, being a set of separate alliances with no overall strategy or commitment to stay together until a joint peace had been agreed. The coalition would be fractious until it broke up, and relations soured over their own rivalries, such as Austria’s suspicion of British interests in the Netherlands, or Britain and Russia’s disagreements over the future of Malta. Britain wanted to destroy the revolution in France, others wished to keep the eighteenth century model of warfare by making limited gains and then agreeing a settlement. France was able to play on these divisions, and keep the allies apart, even with their star commander, Napoleon, trapped in Egypt.

An early action by a Neapolitan army captured Rome in November 1789, but for little more than a fortnight, before being routed at Civita Castellana. Nevertheless, when the coalition readied itself to attack, France decided to counter attack.

The coalition planned a threefold strike. Britain’s Duke of York would lead a coalition of British and Russian forces in the Netherlands; Alexander Suvarov was to lead a coalition of Austrian and Russian forces Italy; and Archduke Charles was to lead his Austrian forces in the centre. On the other hand, the French army was weakened as troops had returned home and conscription was still causing upset, so they had far fewer forces with which to respond. Although France had around 430,000 men, only around 250,000 were free to defend the new frontiers from the planned attack by 430,000 coalition troops. The French were working to a plan thought up by the Directory, while Archduke Charles’ plan for the coalition - he wanted a central commander and attack - was being ignored.

Suvarov rolls up Italy

French forces took Naples, turning it into the Parthenopean Republic. An attempt to beat the Austrians before the Russians arrived failed, as Charles beat Jourdan twice – at Ostrach and Stockach – and destroyed the French plan. Jourdan resigned, but Charles didn’t follow pursue and the French escaped. Suvarov was now able to take command in Italy. He won a series of victories against an evolving set of French generals and armies. A counter attack by Joubert cost him his life and a fair chunk of the French forces in Italy, and Suvarov pushed them right back. However, he was then ordered to assist the situation in Switzerland, as part of an Anglo-Russian plan where Russia would invade central France without Austrian support. The Austrians wanted rid of Suvarov because he wasn’t listening to their views on dividing Italy. Command was given to the Austrian Melas, amd he kept the victories going with one at Genoa. The coalition had recaptured almost everything Napoleon had won during his recent Italian campaign, aided by the local populace rising up and murdering collaborators, and liberated Italy.


French General Jourdan led his Army of Mayence to attack the Archduke in Germany, but was stopped and driven back to the Rhine, where he quit. French General Massena, who had paused his initially successful campaign in Switzerland to monitor Jourdan, took over the latter’s forces and formed an Army of the Danube. This tried to defend Zurich but was beaten and tried to retake Zurich but were beaten again. With Suvarov on the way to help, a decision was taken to send the successful Archduke to the Netherlands. However, with coalition commanders travelling, Massena attacked and won a major victory at Zurich. Suvarov did his best when he’d arrived, but the nature of the situation in Switzerland – French armies conquering, lack of supplies, dubious allies - meant he could do little, just save his army and retreat; his reward for such an excellent campaign was to be sacked by the Tsar.

By the time Archduke Charles arrived in the Netherlands the war there was practically over. The British had landed and linked up with the Russians - another part of their plan to attack without the Austrians, who they suspected of being ready to settle for land rather than attack into France - but were halted by a mixture of French and Batavians at Bergen. Although York won the second Battle of Bergen, he was halted soon after at Castricum, and the army – ill and arguing - left. While Suvarov had managed a coalition army succesfully, in the north the relationship between the two allies was poor, their resources inadequate, and when they managed to seize the Batavian navy, York withdrew and signed the Convention of Alkmaar.

Changes in Command

The Tsar could have viewed the success in Italy as a major positive, but the failures in Switzerland and the Netherlands affected his morale – he believed the Austrians would settle with just receiving their land back and that Britain was now leaning this way too - so much he quit the coalition. Meanwhile a new figure arrived: Napoleon Bonaparte had seized power as First Consul.

1800: Napoleon takes Command; Luck at Marengo

Napoleon decided to attack in Italy via Switzerland after having his first choice of theatre, Germany, rebuffed by Moreau, but before he could arrive the remaining French presence in the region was ended: Massena was besieged in Genoa (he had to surrender on June 4th 1800) and other forces routed; Napoleon would have to begin again. Napoleon advanced in May 1800, marching through the Alps via the Great Saint Bernard pass (albeit on a much smaller animal than immortalised in David’s painting,) and into Lombard on a bitter, risky route, arriving in the enemy’s rear. One enemy General, Melas, decided to sit around Alessandria as his route back to Austria had just been severed, and link up with another Austrian army, that of Ott, who had been successful at Genoa but then forced back by a French force. The result was that 40,000 Austrians were at Alessandria, a detail which was unknown to Napoleon who believed Melas to be at Turin. Consequently, Napoleon’s force was marching and spread out when they arrived at Marengo on June 14th, a mile outside Alessandria, and bumped into the entire Austrian force.

Despite having only 18,000 soldiers on the field – the rest were spread out - Napoleon decided to try and keep his army in the field until other corps could arrive and swing the situation; Melas decided to attack. The Austrians used their overwhelming numbers well, and appeared to be on the verge of victory, and Napoleon wasn’t moving fast enough and operating on poor reconnaissance (bridges he thought had been destroyed were allowing Austrian forces to move). In fact, so confidant was Melas that he left his position and handed command over to a junior. But crucially for Napoleon, French General Desaix managed to march to the battle with two divisions and joined the fray. He was killed, but his counter routed the Austrians, and Melas had to surrender the next day, his army destroyed. Defeat here would probably have cost the new ‘First Consul’ his position; victory secured it. Napoleon wasn’t keen to share the plaudits of victory, but as Desaix was dead he wasn’t the same level of threat, and so Napoleon acknowledged the role Desaix had played.

The Other Fronts

Elsewhere, Moreau’s French won a string of victories against the Austrians before an armistice, whereupon Archduke Charles took over the latter’s forces. However, Moreau beat him too and advanced on Vienna. Now Austria was being threatened from multiple directions, and so the Austrians opened peace negotiations on Christmas Day. By February 1801 the Treaty of Lunéville was confirmed. It was nothing less than total French victory. Austria conceded to France Belgium, the left bank of the Rhine, the newly created satellite states and yet more land.

An Anglo-Ottoman force liberated Egypt, but it caused the Ottomans to drop out of the war. After a struggle against the League of Armed Neutrality, Britain and France finally agreed to peace with the Treaty of Amiens on March 27th 1802. They recognised France’s ‘natural’ frontiers and the satellite republics, and would return colonial land in return for France withdrawing troops from the satellite states. There then followed the only full year of peace in the string of turn of the nineteenth century wars.

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