The origins of the Napoleonic Wars Napoleon has often been called a warmonger, but he did not start the great conflict that bears his name. Europe had been at war seven years before he took power in France in 1799, and at least some of the conflict's origins go back over a century. In the long term, these wars were the last round in a long struggle for power between Britain and France, which stretched back to the late 17th century. In the short term, it was a continuation of the war between the French revolutionaries and the other European states, begun in 1792. Napoleon inherited these two conflicts, neither of which he had provoked, but he had to deal with them quickly, for France faced defeat in 1799.
Napoleon triumphs, 1799–1807 Napoleon fought his first campaign as leader of France with the tired, weakened armies he inherited from the revolutionaries. In 1800 he defeated an Austrian army in northern Italy at the battle of Marengo, and knew he was lucky that the war ended quickly. All the great powers were exhausted by this time, France as much as the rest, and a general peace was soon agreed, rounded off in 1802 by the Treaty of Amiens with Britain. Britain and France returned to war after only eighteen months, but the fighting was confined to naval warfare, and the continent was at peace until 1805.
While the other European rulers only toyed with projects for reform, Napoleon used these years of peace to reform France in ways that made it better able to wage war. He trained a massive army to high standards of military efficiency, and placed it under several dynamic generals. Morale and tactics were the key, for the Napoleonic army's weapons were little different to those of its opponents. It was raised to invade England, but all hope of this was ended on 21 Oct 1805 when the British, under Admiral Nelson, defeated the French navy at the Battle of Trafalgar.
Napoleon's years of preparation were not wasted, however. When he crowned himself ‘Emperor of the French’ in May 1804, it seemed only a provocative gesture to the rest of Europe; but the great military victories of the next three years made his title a reality. In 1805, incited by Britain, both Russia and Austria declared war on Napoleon. Had they known the new power of his army, they may not have been so easily led. Napoleon shattered their armies at the battles of Ulm and Austerlitz, and a humiliating peace was imposed on Francis II, the Holy Roman and Austrian Emperor. Napoleon then reorganized Italy and West Germany as he pleased, bringing many German princes – and their armies – under his command.
Prussia had kept out of the wars since 1795, but in 1806 Britain bullied her into fighting Napoleon. Promises of help from Russia came to nothing, and Prussia went to war almost alone. Napoleon feared the Prussian army, but he swept it aside at the twin battles of Jena and Auerstadt on 14 Oct. Then, Russian help finally arrived. In 1807 this led Napoleon into a bitter, inconclusive campaign against the young tsar, Alexander I. After two battles, at Friedland and Eylau, Napoleon and Alexander decided they could not defeat each other, and virtually declared themselves joint overlords of Europe. Napoleon then persuaded Alexander to join his economic blockade of Britain. Victory seemed complete, but the blockade soon led Napoleon into a new round of wars.
From triumph to disaster, 1808–1812 When squabbling broke out within the Spanish royal family in 1808, Napoleon replaced them with his brother Joseph. This led to a widespread popular revolt, which soon developed into a ‘guerrilla’ war against Napoleon – the first time this military term was used. When he tried to do the same to the Portuguese, a small British army led by Arthur Wellesley – the future Duke of Wellington – came to the rescue.
The resistance in Spain gave the Austrians new heart, but Napoleon defeated them at Wagram in July 1809. The Austrian foreign minister, Metternich, saw that alliance with France was his only option, and this was sealed by Napoleon's marriage to Marie-Louise, the daughter of Francis II. No one could stop this, but neither could Napoleon defeat Britain. Nor could he get Alexander to enforce the blockade. In 1812, still fighting in Spain, Napoleon assembled a massive army from all over Europe and prepared to invade Russia.
The defeat of Napoleon: the Great Alliance of 1812–1814 Although Napoleon was able to defeat the Russians in battle, the price was high, as at Borodino where his losses were horrific. As he advanced on Moscow, deep into Russia, Cossack cavalry and Russian peasants plundered the supply bases he had set up for his planned retreat. When winter came, Napoleon's army, already weakened, was caught without supplies.
This should have been the end of Napoleon, but the Russians hesitated to push west and the Austrians still feared him. While they waited, Napoleon raised a new army, reinforced from Spain. Metternich saw he could not persuade Napoleon to discuss peace, and Austria joined the war. By 1813, the Prussians had reformed their army; led by Blucher and Yorck it was a much more formidable opponent than in 1806. Napoleon was defeated by a combination of the Prussian, Austrian, and Russian armies at the ‘Battle of Nations’ at Leipzig in Oct 1813. He was driven back to France, and his German allies turned on him. Wellington swept a weakened French army from Spain, and France was invaded from the east and the south.
Napoleon waged a brilliant defensive war to save France, but he was now outnumbered, and Britain promised almost unlimited funds to continue the war. He abdicated in April 1814, and was exiled to Elba. Louis XVIII was restored to the throne, and the allies met at Vienna to discuss how best to dismantle Napoleon's empire. In March 1815 Napoleon returned from exile and seized power in France, but his recovery was short-lived – Wellington and Blucher defeated him at Waterloo, Belgium, in June of the same year. The ‘Napoleonic adventure’ was over.
Napoleon's legacy Napoleon's military career was dazzling, but France was not strong enough to support his wars for long. Good organization could not compensate for a declining population or a largely rural economy. Britain was more industrialized and had the ability to finance the other powers' wars against Napoleon; Russia and Austria had larger populations; Prussia created an army equal in quality to Napoleon's. Talleyrand resigned as Napoleon's foreign minister in 1807, because he believed that the blockade could not work and that Napoleon's power was overstretched. He was right. After 1815, France was never again the greatest military power in Europe, although Napoleon had shown how a state could organize itself for major war, and how armies should wage such wars. In the end, Napoleon's lasting achievement was not his victories but the effective systems of administration and law that he laid down, and which helped to bring Europe into the modern era.
Francis II (of Austria)
Waterloo, Battle of
Alexander I (of Russia)
Nations, Battle of the
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