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Napoleonic Europe

A Background to the Napoleonic Wars

by Peter Kessler, 1999

Part 1: 1769-1808

The sheer amount of data available to a new student of the Napoleonic Wars can be daunting and confusing.

A brief glance at the historical background to the wars, from the middle of the eighteenth century right up to the defeat of Napoleon and his exile to St Helena, is an excellent starting point in understanding what it was all about.


Part 1: 1769-1808
Part 2: 1809-1821


Wellington and Napoleon were both born, one in Ireland as Arthur Wesley, the other in Corsica. Also born this year were the later General Sir John Moore, and Marshals Ney, Lannes and Soult.


Napoleon emerged as a junior artillery officer from Brienne Military Academy.


The French revolted against their aristocrat overlords. On 14 July the Bastille was stormed, primarily for ammunition for captured muskets.


The First Coalition was formed against Revolutionary France by Austria and Prussia and their troops were mobilised.


In February, Britain, Spain and Holland (the United Provinces) declared war on France. In May the Holy Roman emperor's armies besieged Mainz.

By October imperial and Prussian troops had stormed the 'Weissenburg Lines' and secured the Rhine frontier for the winter. Captain Bonaparte earned whirlwind promotion to général de brigade within three months of his spectacular conduct at the siege of Toulon in December, where he dislodged the Anglo-Spanish fleet. At the same time, between 18-22 December, the French attacked and broke through the Rhine border defences.


The French Revolution's 'Terror'
The French revolutionary 'Reign of Terror' reached its peak between 5 September 1793 and 27 July 1794, with civil war mixing into desperate armed conflict with several hostile states, forcing the Revolutionary government to make terror the mainstay of its rule

The Jacobin revolution

The year was 1793. It had become clear that the king of France was on the side of the enemy, Austria and Prussia. If the revolution was overthrown, he would recover control of the state. As a consequence the king was tried and executed. Now France was a true republic, governed by the people, and the task given to the people was to win the war.

The people at the bottom of the heap were now the guardians of the revolution, and they had most to hope for from 'Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality'. In Marseilles, for example, the battle hymn of the Army of the Rhine was first sung in public as a back-street 'anthem'.

In 1792 the poor were still poor, the price of bread was still rising, and the war was being lost. The people thought that the revolution was being betrayed by the rich and powerful. In Marseilles, the Jacobins seized power early in the year; they were working-class groups of political extremists directly opposed to royalty and the monarchy and all its trappings, in which they thought the new republic's leaders were being caught up. The 'dangerous classes' had come to power to save the revolution.

In Lyon, too, the revolution of 1789 had been led by the propertied middle classes and professional men. Here, too, they lost the confidence of working class Jacobins. The urban poor were not going to let the revolution be taken away from them. The industrial workers of Lyon stormed down on the city, demanding stern emergency measures.

As in Marseilles, the Jacobins took control. The Jacobin club in Paris was the centre of a national network, and Robespierre had become its leading figure. He called for France to be purged of traitors in the army and the government, who were betraying the revolution.

Each piece of news about the war seemed to show that there were such traitors and that France's greatest enemies were within. On 2 March 1793, the French abandoned La Chapelle. On 5 March they abandoned Liége. Six days later, armed insurrection broke out in the Vendé. On 21 March, Général Dumouriez, defeated by the Austrians, denounced the revolutionary government and went over to the enemy. Four days after that the Prussians besieged Mainz.

In Paris, all through the month of March, there were food riots, and shortages throughout the rest of the country. In the capital the sans culottes were even more radical in their demands than elsewhere.

In April the 'Committee of Public Safety' was set up to detect, try, and execute traitors. The more radical a deputy was, the more support he received from the Paris crowd. In the ensuing confusion, Robespierre and his followers took control. The radicalism of Paris, and the arrest of elected deputies led to a backlash outside the capital. The merchants and professional gentlemen of Lyon, Bordeaux, and Marseilles staged counter-coups against the radicals. The dangerous classes were put back in their place and out of power.

By June 1793 France seemed doomed. The leading Jacobin of Lyon was executed. Marseilles was negotiating with the English. Bordeaux, too, renounced the authority of the revolutionary government. In a few weeks sixty-two of the eighty-eight departments of France had declared themselves part of a federation of independent regions. Faced by federalism and invasion, the revolution was disintegrating, and Paris had been cut off from most of its food supply.

By mid-June 1793, Paris was the only large city still run by working-class radicals, and in their eyes they were the people who would have to save France from destruction. Despite his protests, and by popular demand, Robespierre was elected onto the 'Committee of Public Safety'.

In August, the convention - now controlled by the radicals - declared total war on its enemies. One million people were soon under arms, ready to impose unity: their slogan was 'Liberty or Death'. They immediately set upon Marseilles for negotiating with Britain, on the Prussians and Austrians who were occupying many French cities, and on Lyon, which was denying the authority of Paris. Lyon was decimated, and over two thousand people were executed.

By the opening of 1794, France was virtually wholly united behind the committee. All enemies of France had been expelled, but the stage was now set for Robespierre's fall from power. His fellows on the committee began to worry over his incorruptibility. The time of Napoleon's rise to power was drawing close...

Napoleon at the Battle of Rivoli
Napoleon commands at the Battle of Rivoli, 14-15 January 1797, the first French campaign in Italy against Austria, and the start of Bonaparte's highly successful command of the French forces in Italy



The duke of York led a failed expedition to Flanders. Arthur Wesley, now Lieutenant-Colonel Wesley, commanded the 33rd Regiment of Foot and a brigade of infantry in the British retreat from the Netherlands.

The Austrians were defeated at Fleurus, near Ligny. On 23 May, the Prussians had more success, winning a victory at Kaiserlautern.

More successful clashes were at Friedelsheim (28 August), Battenburg (5 September), Herzheim (13 September), Monsheim (16 October), and Zell (17 October). By 19 October, Prussia was ready to conclude a separate peace with France.


On 5 October Napoleon rescued the French directory from sudden rebellion in Paris and was promoted to général de division.


Bonaparte married Josephine de Beauharnais, widow of a noble who had been of Merovingian descent. Napoleon was soon given command of the Army of Italy, primarily because of Josephine's influence with the politician, Paul Barras.

His office of commander of the army came into effect on 11 March, after the battle of Lodi on 10 May and, by mid-November, he fought across the Arcola Bridge and re-possessed Verona from the Austrians.


In the summer the Austrians and French signed the Treaty of Campo Formio, giving France possession of Belgium and the Rhineland and virtual control of northern Italy.


On 2 March the French fought at Fribourg. In this year Napoleon also campaigned in Egypt, setting sail in May, and destroying the ruling Fatamid dynasty there. A small-scale French invasion of the west coast of Ireland was defeated.


The Wesley family had returned to the older form of their name; Wellesley. Colonel Arthur Wellesley, now in India with his brother, put down Tipoo Sultan's uprising at Siringapatam.

Back in Europe, the Second Coalition had been formed, and in March the Austrians entered Milan and took back northern Italy with Russian support. More Russians invaded Switzerland.

Another Austrian army was advancing towards France through the Black Forest. Napoleon landed at Fréjus, France in October after abandoning his troubled Army of Egypt. In Paris the coup d'état de Brumaire took place (9-10 November), and Napoleon emerged as one of the three consuls, a few months later becoming first consul and ruler of France.


In the culmination of a campaign against the Austro-Russian armies, Napoleon's French forces defeated them in two battles, one at Marengo to re-secure northern Italy, the other at Hohenlinden. During the campaign, on 27 June, the French also fought at Oberhausen.


The English Egyptian expedition was conducted under Abercromby. On 8 March the landing took place under heavy fire from French infantry. Major-General Hutchinson commanded, with General Moore leading the reserve, which incorporated 23rd and 28th Foot, 42nd Highlanders, and the 58th Foot. The flank was made up of 1st & 2nd/40th and a local unit, the Corsican Rangers. They were aided by the Guards and the 90th Regiment.


Napoleon was created consul for life.


Wellesley emerged as victor in the Maharatta War with India with successes at Assaye and Argaum. Napoleon planned an invasion of England, and set up a permanent camp at Bolougne for his army.


On 18 March, Napoleon was proclaimed emperor of the French.

Napoleon's coronation

Napoleon's coronation was a great affair, with the emperor typically grabbing the crown and placing it on his own head in his impatience to get things done


In May, Napoleon was crowned king of Italy in Milan. The Third Coalition was formed against France. In a swift campaign, Napoleon marched east and, in October, the outnumbered Austrian army of General Mack surrendered to 172,000 French without battle at Ulm in Bavaria.

The French went on to occupy Vienna.

On 2 December, 86,000 Austrians and Russians were defeated by 72,000 French at Austerlitz, and the coalition lay in ruins. 18,600 Russians and 9,000 French died deciding the issue.

At sea, the Battle of Trafalgar proved once and for all Britain's supremacy, pounding the French and their Spanish allies in a crushing defeat. Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson died during the action which had so valiantly been led by him.


In September, too late to aid the Austrians, the Prussians formed the Fourth Coalition with England, Russia, and Saxony, and campaigned against the French, but in October they suffered a double defeat, first at Jena, and, when the French attacked massed Russian and Prussian forces, at Auerstädt too.

In the Prussian retreat, that army fought expert rearguard actions at Halle, on 17 October, and Altenzaun, on 26 October, but for the most part it collapsed completely. Napoleon reached Poland by December, still harrying the Russians. The 'Confederation of the Rhine' was proposed and agreed, giving France a zone of buffer states between it and its most difficult enemies.

Prussians at the Battle of Jena in 1806
The once-formidable army of Frederick the Great was thoroughly beaten in just a month of campaigning by Napoleon Bonaparte, losing the descisive battle of Jena (shown here) and surrendering Stettin to just eight hundred French troops, making it necessary to overhaul Prussia's entire army after 1806


'The Rifles', the British 95th Regiment, took part in the Copenhagen expedition, in a land action which was commanded by Wellesley. The British later seized the town of Flushing, and in February the battle of Eylau (East Prussia) was fought to a draw between Prussians and Russians against France. The allies retreated in good order, but both sides had suffered heavy casualties.

In mid-June the Allies were soundly defeated at Freidland. On 25 June the Treaty of Tilsit was drawn up between France, Prussia, and Russia, after Napoleon's Poland campaign. Soon after that, looking to uphold his 'Continental System' against Britain, Napoleon invaded Portugal.


Despite the protests of the Spanish people and the mysterious abdication of the king of Spain, Napoleon transferred the Spanish crown to Joseph Bonaparte. A British expedition left Britain on 12 July headed for the mouth of the Mondego, landing in Spain with twenty thousand men (against 120,000 French).

Half of this force was sent to Cadiz under Spencer, the other half to the Tagus under Lieutenant-General Wellesley, who, after a couple of early victories, was suddenly displaced in command by the incompetent Sir Harry Burrard, who was himself shortly displaced by Sir Hew Dalrymple. The first skirmish took place on 15 August, the 95th taking part. On 17 August, Roliça was fought for a British victory.

On 21 August, Vimiero was fought, in which the French attacked but were driven off by the superior British arms. It was at this point that Wellesley was displaced as commander.

In this year was born Charles-Louis-Napoleon, youngest of two sons of Hortense and Louis Bonaparte, and later to be Emperor Napoleon III, and also, by virtue of his mother's blood line, a direct descendent of the Merovingian kings.


The 1808 expedition

Once Wellesley had been temporarily displaced as commander of the British force in the Iberian peninsula, and the new commander had signed the 'Convention of Cintra' which allowed the defeated French to leave Portugal via British ships, the three generals were recalled to London to face an enquiry. Wellesley was exonerated and returned to Portugal later in the year.

In the meantime, Major-General Sir John Moore was placed in command of the British forces, which included Craufurd's Light Brigade (of Rifles). It comprised of 43rd Light Infantry, 52nd Light Infantry, and 95th Rifles, who were trained in orthodox movements but with the extra capacity to skirmish, hold outpost lines, and generally act as a cover and screen for the main force, whether at rest or moving.

It is doubtful that any British general ever conceived and executed a more audacious stroke of soldiership than Sir John Moore, when he made his daring strike at Napoleon's lines of communication, and spoiled the emperor's plans for the conquest of southern Spain, bringing him and his far-scattered columns hurrying to the north-west corner of the peninsula.

Napoleon had assumed in person the command of the French armies in Spain, and had 300,000 veterans under his eagles. He had shattered the Spanish armies, was in possession of the Spanish capital, and was on the point of marching to overwhelm the rich provinces as yet unravaged by war to the south.

Moore, with 24,000 men under his command, resolved to strike boldly behind Napoleon, arresting the southward march of the French. When, in this manner, he had disrupted the strategy of the French, Moore calculated he could outmarch all the converging columns rushing to destroy him, and escape. But he was accepting a terrible risk.

Moore's generalship, though it was followed by the tragedy of the retreat to Corunna, and his own death at the battle in that place, was perfectly successful. He wrecked Napoleon's strategy, and yet escaped his counter-stroke. He secured a breathing space for the Spanish nation. The 2/95th joined Moore's forces at Sahagun, and the great retreat began almost immediately afterwards.

On 24 December Moore turned his columns westward for their march to his sea base at Corunna. It was a march of some 355 kilometres, through rugged and mountainous country, with the French hanging in the rear or pushing past his flank. At Astorga, Moore divided his army, and part, under General Craufurd, took the road to Benevento and Vigo, managing to make a prisoner of General Levebvre along the way.

The retreat lasted for eighteen days, and some 4,000 men fell from the ranks, slain by hardship and exposure. But the British did not lose a flag or a gun in retreat, and when they reached Corunna they proved that neither their discipline nor their fighting power had been the least impaired by their suffering.

Britannia between Death and the Doctors
Britannia between Death and the Doctors shows an ailing Britannia being approached by Death in the guise of Napoleon, while her politicians squabble (LC-USZC4-8794)




Text copyright © P L Kessler. An original feature for the History Files.