Napoleonic Wars

Napoleonic Wars
   A period of more or less continuous conflict between France and shifting coalitions of the other Great Powers of Europe, finally ending with Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo and the inauguration of the Congress system of European diplomacy. The War of the First Coalition properly belongs to the French Revolutionary period, the ascent of Napoleon Bonaparte to the position of first consul in November 1799 marking the beginning of the Napoleonic era. There were six anti-French coalitions in all, a seventh only if the Anglo-Prussian combination that fought Napoleon at Ligny, Quatre Bras, and Waterloo between June 15 and 18, 1815, is included. The First Coalition (1792–1797) opposed Revolutionary France with Austria and Prussia, later joined by Britain, the Netherlands, Spain, Naples, the Papal States, and Piedmont-Sardinia. The Second Coalition (1798–1801) confronted Napoleonic France and Spain with Austria, Britain, Naples, Portugal, Russia, and Turkey. The Third Coalition (1805–1806) allied Britain with Austria and Russia, and the Fourth Coalition (1806–1807) added Prussia. The Fifth Coalition (1809) corresponded with Napoleon’s creation of the Continental System and the prosecution of the Peninsular War. It combined Austria and Britain with Portugal. The Sixth Coalition, also known as the Grand Alliance, was orchestrated by Lord Castlereagh in 1812–1813 and brought Britain into alliance with Austria, Prussia, Sweden, Russia, and the smaller German states of Bavaria, Saxony, and Württemberg. It ended with Napoleon’s abdication in April 1814. The Congress of Vienna ’s labors to establish a post-Napoleonic Europe were already underway when Napoleon escaped from exile to begin the campaign of the Hundred Days that Waterloo ended. After more than 20 years of rolling conflict, European diplomacy looked to recover its equilibrium, a task made newly complicated by revolutionary and Napoleonic upheaval. This was particularly true in light of nature and consequences of the wars just concluded. The Napoleonic revolution in warfare began on August 23, 1793, with a decree of the revolutionary government that until such time as French territory had been cleared of foreign armies, all Frenchmen would be on permanent requisition for military service. With the reorganization of French army and the establishment of planned national war economy by Lazare Carnot, the French republic looked to defend itself by prosecuting war on an unprecedented scale. During the period of the Terror at home - roughly November 1793 to July 1794 - this vastly larger army was additionally used to reflect the spirit of the regime by fighting with patriotic zeal and annihilating ferocity. France’s new tool of war might nevertheless not have saved it from humiliating defeat at the hand of the professional armies of the European powers arrayed against the revolution, had it not come into the hands of an aggressive military innovator.
   Napoleon Bonaparte was without peer or precedent in the use of combined arms - infantry, cavalry, and artillery deployed flexibly, both in combination and in sequence, as demanded by circumstance - to strike an opposing army with sudden and overwhelming force at its weakest point. He first demonstrated this at the head of the Army of Italy against a succession of Austrian and Piedmontese generals at Millesimo, Mondovi, and Lodi in 1796–1797. Napoleon demonstrated both strategic vision and a dangerous degree of recklessness with his early and ill- conceived expedition to Egypt in 1798. A British fleet commanded by Horatia Nelson destroyed the French fleet in Aboukir Bay and stranded Napoleon’s army in Egypt. At that time, all of Napoleon’s major victories were yet to come, but the episode at Aboukir Bay testified to a British determination to check Napoleonic ambition with repeated and spectacular setbacks.
   The storied triumph at Marengo in Italy during the war against the Second Coalition was in fact a near disaster, but Napoleon was saved by the action of General Louis Desaix. This was in part a product of Napoleon’s leadership, insofar as he promoted soldiers on the basis of demonstrated merit, encouraged them to take initiative, and often entrusted his ablest generals with enormous responsibilities. With this ability to recognize talent and harness it, Napoleon combined a comprehensive reorganization of France’s army, especially between 1801 and 1805, along the lines that became the norm for European armies for the next century and a half. The army was divided into army corps, each of which contained two or three divisions of infantry and cavalry of about 8,000 men supported by mobile field artillery. Each division had two brigades, each brigade two regiments, and each regiment two battalions.
   When campaigning, Napoleon typically dispersed his corps for the purpose of masking his intentions. He would bring them together again to converge on any enemy army at a place and time of his choice. This required an intuitive understanding of maps, distance, and terrain in order to coordinate the movement of hundreds of thousands of troops from several directions to confront an enemy at the point of convergence with an assault of stunning intensity. The most basic ingredient of the enterprise, impatience, was supplied by Bonaparte himself. He infused his generals with the imperative for speed. His infantry undertook long and fast marches, often under appalling conditions, for the reward of crushing victory and plunder that Napoleon repeatedly delivered in engagements large and small. This formula smashed a combined Austrian and Russian army at Austerlitz in 1805 and demolished a Prussian-Saxon force at Jena-Auerstädt in 1806. After a rebuke by the one Russian army at Eylau in February 1807, the Grand Armée destroyed another at Friedland the following June. This compelled from Tsar Alexander I the Treaty of Tilsit. Victory over the Fourth Coalition found Napoleon at the apex of his success, a situation flawed only by the destruction of the combined French and Spanish fleets off Trafalgar by Nelson in October 21, 1805. This freed Britain and the implacably anti-Napoleonic government of William Pitt from the fear of invasion and enabled it to continue its support for continental coalitions against France.
   The war of the Fifth Coalition in 1809, which included the Peninsular War in Spain, began the slow process of Napoleon’s defeat. The Sixth Coalition, occasioned by his disastrous invasion of Russian in June 1812 and subsequent retreat of Moscow, completed it at the Battle of Leipzig in October 1813. Bogged down in Spain by British regulars and Spanish guerrillas even as he threw an army of 600,000 against Russia, Napoleon’s forces were overextended, undersupplied, and more than ever frequently confronted by enemy armies that had mastered his art of war. At Leipzig, otherwise known as the Battle of the Nations, three allied armies totaling 335,000 men converged on 190,000 French. After Wellington’s victory at Vitoria in Spain in June 1813, France itself was under invasion from the north and south. The Hundred Days that led to Waterloo represented the last hurrah of Napoleonic pluck and little more. After 1809, Bonaparte’s destruction was ever more probable because Britain and Russia - one the world’s greatest sea power, the other a great land power - could not be subdued. The other powers he had also repeatedly humiliated ultimately added their weight to the overwhelming coalition against him. Finally, the most humiliated among them, Prussia, had been driven by Napoleonic arms to initiate the social and military reforms and, at the direction of Carl von Clausewitz, make its own contribution to the Age of Total War.
   See also <>; <>; <>.
    Bell, David A. The First Total War. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007;
    Blanning, T.C.W. The French Revolutionary Wars, 1987–1802. London: Arnold, 1996;
    Esdaile, Charles. The Wars of Napoleon. New York: Longman, 1995;
    Gat, Azar. War in Human Civilization. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006;
    Howard, Michael. War in European History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976;
    Johnson, Paul. Napoleon. New York: Viking, 2002;
    Rothenberg, Gunther E. The Napoleonic Wars. London: Cassell, 1999.

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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