During the French Revolutionary Wars, many states in Europe created alliances to resist French expansionary ambitions. The French Revolution had ended in 1799, but the Revolutionary Councils and Assemblies in their different forms had continued in the name of the Revolutionary people and Napoleon Is’ Grand Armee. Those elements sympathetic to the monarchy and its restoration became a French internal civil conflict of its own.
Europe and the Holy Roman Empire were in resistance to French internal politics being exported to their kingdoms, less likely was the acceptance of the Enlightenment and the French attitude to those they thought to be contrary to the Revolutions ideology, the use of capital punishment by any means and for any conceived misdemeanor using The Terror, was reasons enough to resist French belligerence in Central Europe.
The Napoleonic Wars(1803-04): Peninsula Wars and the Fifth Coalition
Also Read: The Seven Wars of the Coalitions: France and Central Europe
At the conclusion of the Third War of the Coalition, Austria had surrendered again with the Treaty of Pressberg signed with France splitting apart the British, Russian, Sicilian and Portuguese, coalition members. Once again France would keep all the gains Napoleon and his generals had made, but Austria was in no further economic nor military position to stop further French territorial demands. The Coalition of the Rhine would protect France better than it protected states of the Holy Roman Empire.
Politics of the Revolution
France seemed to be content with the successes of the Grand Armee and Napoleons seemingly irrefutable leadership in the field. Having won nearly all his campaigns, made himself Grand Consul and with a better French economy, no notice was taken of Napoleon I’s ignorance of the Revolutions fundamental principles which he betrayed by his actions. Whist in contrast, French personalities of lesser recognition were tried and executed for the most trivial of counter Revolutionary charges.
Personal political ambitions were very rife as was the purge of Royalist sympathisers. The monarchy was not dead, Napoleon I as Emperor of France was testimony of France’s political indecisiveness at the time, even one sidedness. So too the coronation of Louis XVIII in 1814, some years later.
The Royalist rebels themselves attacked those they presumably considered Republican, conducting kangaroo courts and summary executions. As French Revolutionary politics followed radical approach to governance, its allegiance was controlled by Napoleon I. The Third War of the Coalition would follow on from 1803 – 1806, there was to be no peaceful period after the signing of the Pressberg treaty.
The Fourth War of the Coalition(1803-1807)
The Fourth Conflict of the Coalitions were fought against the undefeated French Empire, no longer considered a Revolutionary force by name or association, but a direct reference to Napoleon I, Emperor, and overall commander of the Grand Armee of the First Empire of France.
Prussia now joined as a belligerent against the French Confederation of the Rhine, Austria was out, Great Britain, Russia, Saxony and Sweden were the opposing coalition members. The War would once again be won by Napoleon and the sister states that supported his Confederation, The Continental System. The Continental System with its defeated member states under French control, were an anti-British alliance.
The Fall of the Holy Roman Empire
After late 1805, the situation for the Holy Roman Empire was overshadowed by the Continental System and the French Confederation of the Rhine. The end of the Empire came via de facto application, by the abdication of Emperor Frances II on 16 August 1806. The decisive Battle of Austerlitz, the expansion of the Confederation of the Rhine which included states that had been part of the Empire, fundamentally ended the Holy Roman Empires influence in Central Europe.
Frances packed up all administrative structures of the Empire prior to his abdication, officially nullifying its existence after August of that year.
Prussia’s Allegiance to the Allied Coalitions
Prussia’s entry on 9th October 1806, was via her declaration of war on France on this date, being also in response to Austria’s defeat. States in the fourth coalition had already been fighting Napoleon since the Third Coalition. The prospect of France ceding Hanover to Britain was further provocation for Russia and Prussia to enter the Coalition, a supposed exchange for peace.
Napoleon advanced towards Prussia without haste and decisively defeated the Prussians at the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt in October 1806. The Prussians could not have learned from the Austrian experience as the Prussian army now retreated in disarray, being unable to defend Prussia effectively, Napoleon occupied Prussia and captured Berlin.
The Russian force in the meantime faired little better as they were pushed to the Russian border. Napoleon advanced all the way to East Prussia, Poland, and the Russian frontier. There followed an inconclusive battle between the two belligerents at the violent Battle of Eylau in early February 1807.
Napoleon would halt briefly to replenish his army and prepare for the coming continuation of his advances against the Russian army. The Battle of Friedland on 14th February, was Napoleon I’s victory decisively defeating Russian forces, Emperor Alexander I reluctantly sued for peace three days after the battle started. Napoleon would include Poland as part of a new sister state.
The Swedish Coalition campaign was primarily protective of Swedish Pomerania, Napoleons dispatched army under Brune, defeated Swedish forces at Lubeck under Johan Christopher Toll. Withdrawal to the fortifications at Stralsund, gave the Swedes an opportunity to blunt the French attack effectively, which they did, clearing all French forces out of Pomerania.
A truce was signed between both sides, but the provisions of the armistice that expected Sweden to join the Continental system, Sweden refused. Another attack on 24th August was made by Brune on Stralsund, this time Swedish forces were forced to evacuate and retreat from Rugen which was abandoned as well. Swedish Pomerania was now in French hands.
At the end of the Fourth Coalition War Napoleon would only have his old foe, Britain and Sweden standing against him by early September. Russia here would agree to join the Continental system after Napoleon had conquered most of continental, Central and Western Europe. Napoleon’s army thus would be very involved in Spain and Portugal when the Austrians forces moved into Bavaria.
Spain, Portugal, and Austria remained unconquered, but Napoleon would sign a pact with Spain to attack Britain, leaving the small Portuguese state virtually alone on the Iberian Peninsula. Prussia was particularly hard hit by the provisions of Tilsit as in it, Napoleon demanded much of Prussia, all the territory on the lower West part of the Rhine, West of the Elbe, including what was the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. These acquisitions were incorporated into the new Kingdom of Westphalia, which Napoleon gave the governorship to his brother Jerome.
The Duchy of Warsaw was created as a new Polish client state under Frederick Augustus the I of Saxony. A peace would again be short lived as a combined Spanish-Franco alliance would attack Portugal an ally of Britain, during the Peninsula (Iberian) Campaign.
The passing away of Britain’s prime minister, William Pitt did not deter the parliamentary Whig’s from staying committed to ending French expansion ambitions and stopping Napoleon’s free reign in Europe. A fifth coalition would be formed in later 1809, which Austria joined, consisting of Great Britain, Spain, Sardinia, and Sicily. Sicily and Sardinia taking no part in the conflict.
The Peninsula Wars(1809)
Napoleon had removed 108,000 troops from the German client states to bolster his armies in Spain and later Portugal, Napoleon was believed to have stationed a total force of over 250,000 troops on the Iberian Peninsula, which would keep his army committed for several years. Napoleon now controlled much of the Spanish mainland and Northern Portugal. Napoleons brother Joseph was made ruler of Spain after the Spanish King had been removed.
Napoleon tried to force Portugal to join the Continental System, which was being used as an embargo on dealings with Britain. Napoleon had warned states supporting Britain, as Portugal was, on matters of trade and diplomacy with Britain, placing their sovereignty under threat. The Portuguese Prince Regent John ignored him and continued the alliance. Napoleon summonsed Marshall Junot to conduct a campaign to invade Portugal in 1807 from Spain, starting the six-year Peninsula War.
Napoleon had up until this time had a strong alliance with Spain, but this was very quickly broken when Napoleon saw his chance to lay claim to much of Spain on the Peninsula, he immediately reneged on an agreement that was only two weeks old, by removing the Spanish king. The ‘coup de tat’ was basically bloodless as French military forces were already encamped in Spain.
The Spanish would rise with a joint military and civilian militia fighting against Napoleons de facto occupation. The Spanish Generals Costanos and Von Reding had defeated a French army under General Pierre Dupont De L’Etang, at the Battle of Bailen, an open field victory for the Spanish in Southern Spain. Joseph heard the news with alarm in Madrid and announced a general retreat to the Ebro river.
The defeat was cheered amongst the rest of the powers in Europe as a fortuitous reversal against the seemingly invincible French Army. The courage of the Spanish militia would inspire the Austrians to take up arms further against French tyranny. This would facilitate Napoleon Bonaparte arrival to take personal control of all French forces and systematically redressed the situation by mobilizing the Grand Armee for an invasion of Spain. In a series of devastating blows he defeated Spanish and British coalition forces, then returned to France.
The Peninsula Wars would plunge the Iberian Peninsula into a protracted guerrilla and military war in Spain and Portugal with the aid of the British and Portuguese militia under Arthur Wellesley. The resistance to French control would remain a protracted affair tying down the French occupation with no end.
The disastrous Russian winter campaign of 1812 and the now unenviable conditions on the Iberian Peninsula, Napoleons Armies became entrenched on two battle fronts. The British-Spanish-Portuguese coalition would draw huge resources from France in a war of attrition on the Peninsula, eventually forcing out the L’Armee d’Espagne through a protracted guerrilla war of attrition, and conventional tactics, which forced his army out of the Iberian Peninsula exposing the southern borders of France opening the country to invasion by 1814.
The Fifth Coalition(1809)
The Fifth War of the Coalition would be fought against France as part again of the Napoleonic Wars. Austria had taken three years to reorganize and re-equip their army in anticipation of meeting Napoleons expansionist Army. Napoleon I was supported by the Kingdom of Italy, the Confederation of the Rhine and the Duchy of Warsaw.
The Austrian military, feeling very capable, crossed the Bavarian border, a French client state, whose capital Berlin was controlled by the French was over 10,000 men. Austria hoped that the Prussians would join in the coalition, but the Prussians declined.
On 10 April, Archduke Charles met Louis Alexander Berthiers French forces who were in some disarray at the time, whilst trying to cross the Danube. The Austrians repelled Berthiers forces on 21-22 May at the Battle of Aspern-Essling. Aspern-Essling’s defeat for Napoleon was his first reversal in 10 years on campaign, the French casualty rate being very high.
Napoleon would arrive in mid-April to redress the situation, regrouping his military, attacking again in July the same way. He hoped to take an attacking force around the Austrian left flank, assaulting the Archdukes line of retreat in the rear. This time his effort was a decisive victory.
Charles forces crossed the Danube at Regensburg retreating East, his goal was to reach Vienna before the French did which failed. The Battle of Wagram that followed, was a decisive victory for Napoleon again, against Austria. Austria was forced to sign the Treaty of Znaim. Austria’s Italian territories were also seized by Napoleon after the Austrian’s were cleared from Italy.
Austrian invasions of the Duchy of Warsaw and Saxony, supported by the Black Brunswickers, which would form part of the Austrian assault, a unit of the Duke of Brunswick, were defeated. Britain tried to assist Austria with a landing to take Antwerp, in an effort to relieve pressure on the Austrian side of the coalition, with intentions to set up a new front. It did not succeed and the Commander Sir John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham, was forced to withdraw from his landing site at Walcheren on the Batavian, Dutch coast.
The area became well known for the decease, popularly known as ‘Walcheren Sickness’, that was prevalent in the region at the time, there were more deaths from sickness than from actual combat. In a twist of irony, the landing at Walcheren came too late to provide assistance to Austria, as Austria had already capitulated.
Napoleon’s coastal forces on the Batavian Dutch coast, would lose 80 percent of its manpower to decease over time. At the time of the British attack, the French defenders would be heavily re-enforced around Antwerp, which the British force could not reach and were later withdrawn from the campaign.
The Treaty of Schonbrunn was signed with the defeated Allied coalition members , Austria was harshly treated losing all of her Mediterranean ports and twenty percent of its population. Austria becoming a French ally. Napoleons victories did indicate that his armies were not invincible, as he had been checked at Aspern-Essling. Anti-French sentiment fomented causing the Italian Tyrolean and the 1809 Gottscheer rebellions.
The Treaty of Wagram again pushed Austria and Prussia out of military contention against Napoleon’s Grand Armee and his Rhine coalition. With Austria second military collapse, the Fifth War of the Coalition effectively ended. French influence and its territorial possessions were maintained. The Italian territorial possessions too were kept and increased, after Wagram.
Napoleons position was weaker than before by 1812, which would create problems during his Russia campaign during the Sixth and Seventh coalition. The Peninsula War was not going his way, his coalition with his Spanish ally was ended in quick succession and most of Spain occupied. The Allied Coalitions saw Napoleon as untrustworthy on every level, in his negotiations.
The Spanish and Portuguese people had stood up to French tyranny, making Napoleon and Jerome Bonaparte accountable every day for the occupation of the Iberian Peninsula. The states in central Europe applauded the tenacity of the Iberian states in their successful resistance to Napoleons occupation, nations which Napoleon himself had derided as weak.
In 1813 Arthur Wellesley , Duke of Wellington finally moved his Anglo Portuguese forces into a position of advantage, finally clearing the French forces from Spain and pursuing them into the Pyrenees mountains during May, the very able French Marshall Soult was put in charge of the French Armee, and won two of the engagements with Wellingtons forces at the Battles of Maya and Roncesvalles.
Soult would be checked at the Battle of Souroren, after being put on the defensive by the British Army and Portuguese allies, lost momentum and retreated further into the Pyrenees Mountains. The Battle of the Pyrenees followed where Wellington found himself with extended supply lines, but used maneuver, shock and hounding tactics to win the day against the French.
The Wars of the Sixth coalition of 1813 – 1814, were called the Wars of Liberation in Germany. A coalition of Great Britain, Spain, several German States, Russia, Prussia, Portugal and Sweden, defeated Napoleon. The War of the Sixth Coalition saw major battles at Lutzen, Drautzen and Dresden take place on German soil, the largest of which was at Leipzig, was considered the largest battle in Europe up until that time and the largest before World War 1. Having recuperated on his return to France after Russia, he vowed to build an army equally as big as he had at the start of the Russian campaign.
He quickly built his forces from an initial 13-30,000, eventually ending with a force of 400,000 troops, cavalry, and cannons. During the battles in Germany, Napoleon had inflicted 40,000 casualties on the Prussian and Russian forces during the Battles of Lutzen and Bautzen. French forces were 10,000 killed and wounded.
The French Invasion of Russia
When Napoleon advanced his army to cross the Russian border, his expectations were the defeat of Emperor Alexander I in the field as always, and the signing of a new treaty that would force Alexander to join the Continental system, but also to annex new territory and subdue Moscow.
Under these conditions his conquest of both West and Eastern Europe, would prevent Austria and Prussia from entertaining any idea of forming another coalition. Napoleon had left a major portion of his army in the Iberian Peninsula by June 1812. He did however believe enough in his own ability to lead another large French Army into Russia.
His forces were half French manned divisions, with 100,000 Poles from the Duchy of Warsaw and the rest from other client states. Alexander did not decisively win the initial engagements against Napoleon but decided to preserve his forces strength and draw the French onto Battle grounds of his choosing over the vast plains in Russia. His plans to stand and fight Napoleon would happen at the Battle of Borodino.
By this time the French army consisted mainly of a replacement French conscription force and more foreign units. The old professionals of the Grand Armee, were now replaced with inexperienced conscripts and troops from the client nations.
The size of his army had also become larger but more difficult to command effectively at will. Trust and morale of troops in units would drop compared to the old professional veterans over the years. The bloody battle at Borodino resulted in an inconclusive outcome, although Napoleon had the better of alexander tactically.
Napoleon used to the rapid follow up of his enemies, pursued Alexander who withdrew his forces further north, heading towards Moscow, nationally declaring the war with the French a ‘Patriotic Russian War’. Napoleon did take Moscow by 14th September, but found it deserted by its population and on fire. Alexander regrouped his army and refused to surrender to the French invaders, his army having also suffered many casualties. Winter had set in and Napoleon realizing that the usual armistice would not be signed by the Russian Generals, ending the war, decided to pull out of Moscow, heading west, back to his starting point.
Napoleon would start the disastrous Great Retreat, with no way forward and the chances of Alexander surrendering almost impossible. He hoped to draw the Russians into battles along the way, to reverse his army’s negative position. Alexander though had thought ahead and appointed one of his ablest commanders in Mikhail Kutuzov. Having lost too many men, Alexander and Kutuzov reverted to clandestine attacks by weather seasoned troops such as the Cossack cavalry.
The French army was left in the open on the March, troops, horses and wagons were lost along the way, winter temperatures plummeted, with troops dying from hunger and exhaustion. There was no opportunity to set up winter quarter as the Russians could surround and destroy encampments at will.
Of the initial 650,000 troops sent into battle, 400,000 were lost in the terrible retreat, 200,000 being captured. Eventually only 27000 fit troops remained, making their way across the Berezina River in Belarus. Napoleon left his army to return to Paris to prepare a defence from a Russian invasion.
The situation was not as dire as he may have thought, as the Russian army was also deleted, losing over 400,000 men, but the Russians were in a better position to resupply their armies from shorter supply lines in quicker time, than the French who had longer distances to receive resupply.
The disastrous French campaign in Russia, which Prussia and Austria were forced to join as part of the Continental system, defeated Napoleon and forced him into exile from his country, being held captive on the island of Elba. Prussia and Austria would, after their defeat with Napoleon in Russia, join the Sixth allied Coalition.
Wellington and the French Mainland Battles
On the 7th of October 1813, Wellington received notice of the re-opening of hostilities in Germany. His coalition forces crossed into France, fording the Bidasoa River. Napoleon found himself beleaguered without any counter attacking options, he called a truce and an end to hostilities signing a peace with the Spanish, the Treaty of Valencay on 11th of October. In it, Napoleon agreed to release the deposed and imprisoned King Ferdinand II. The Spanish accepted but did not trust Napoleon and continued the conflict further into France.
Wellington and the Iberian allies must have been fully aware that if efforts were not taken to continue the war directly into France, taking on the French home army and defeating them, Napoleon, and his army would remain dangerously intact.
Arthur Wellesley now known as The Duke of Wellington, moved his Peninsula army through the Southwest of France. Battles at Vera Pass, Nivelle and Nive near Bayonne, 10-14 Dec 1813, the Battle of Orthez, 27th February 1814, and the Battle of Toulouse on 10 April.
Napoleon’s Army was pushed out of Germany fighting a series of battles against overwhelming Allied coalition forces. At the Battle of Arcis-sur Aube in France he realized he was heavily outnumbered, and issued a decree for the requisitioning of 900,000 fresh conscripts, only a fraction would ever be drafted of 250000.
Napoleon would fight his Six Days Campaign, winning several battles against superior forces on the route to Paris. He would only however have less than 80,000 men under his command, against a Coalition force of 370,000-405,000 engaged in France. The Treaty of Chaumont on the 9th of March would ensure that the Allied coalition would remain intact until Paris was captured, and Napoleon completed defeated.
The French forces defending Paris were defeated on 31st March with the Allied Coalition entering the city under the command of Tsar Alexander I and the King of Prussia. On the 2nd April the French Senate deposed Napoleon with the official Acte decheance de l’Empereur.
Napoleon in person at this time was not captured and was determined to carry on the fight proposing a French force march on Paris. His soldiers and regimental officers were keen to fight on but the Senior army Generals and Marshals mutinied, refusing to fight any further, led by Marshal Ney. Napoleon abdicated on 11 April 1814 ending the war shortly thereafter, although some fighting continued until May.
The Treaty of Fontainebleau was signed on 11th April 1814 between Napoleon and Austria, Russia and Prussia. The follow up Treaty of Paris was signed on 30 May between France and the Great powers including Britain. The victors exiled Napoleon to the Island of Elba, restoring the Bourbon monarchy under Louis XVIII. Peace celebrations were held in June in London, before moving to the Congress of Vienna between September 1814 to June in 1815, to redraw the map of Europe.
The 100 days War of the Seventh Coalition
Napoleon would escape from Elba after 11 Months of exile, returning to Paris on 20th March 1815, and the second restoration of King Louis XVIII 08 July 1815, a period of 110 days. This period would usher in the Seventh Battle of the Coalition at Waterloo. Napoleon returned while the Congress of Vienna was in sitting on the 13th March, seven days before he reached Paris, declaring him an outlaw, and on the 25th March the Great Powers of Austria, Prussia, Russia and Great Britain pledged to put an army of 150,000 men each in the field to finally end his rule.
This would be the set stage for the last battle of the Napoleonic Wars and the Battle of Waterloo, the second restoration of the French kingdom and the exile of Napoleon to the far-off island of St. Helena where he would die in May 1821.
Battle of Waterloo(1815)
The Battle of Waterloo was fought close to the farm at Hougoumont and the nearby villages such as Planchenoit near Waterloo in Belgium on 18 June 1815. Napoleon Bonaparte thought to restore French hegemony and perhaps even resurrect the Confederation of the Rhine if he could win here and go on further to defeat the Austrians and Russians in turn in the Seventh War of the Coalitions.
The militaries of Britain and Prussia, Holland and Nassau would take on the might of the French army, reformed with over 300,000 troops, not all of which were deployed during the action at Waterloo. Napoleon needed to deploy at least 140,000 troops, infantry, Cavalry and artillery.
Allied commanders under the very capable British Army officer The Duke of Wellington supported by the Prussian General Gebhard Leberecht von Blucher. Both commanders had experience of Napoleons army and tactics during the Iberian Peninsula wars and in central Europe. Napoleons plan was to split the two allied coalition forces in two destroying each separately in turn, with a fully experienced veteran army.
The plan was for Wellington to use his allied army of 110,000 men and absorb the main assault of Napoleon and his Marshals, Soult, Murat, Ney amongst others. Wellington was aware that Napoleons plans would be to use overwhelming force to break through Wellingtons centre, move rapidly to encircle and destroy both his left and right flanks then move straight towards von Bluchers army conducting the assault without rest.
Wellington had requested von Blucher to move his forces consisting of his mobile cavalry units and fresh infantry and artillery to assist later in the day, the insistence of launching his attack at that time after 16h00 would be crucial in keeping the French from advancing later should a complete breakthrough occur in the day.
The battle was started late by Napoleons forces at 11h30- 12h30 in the morning and early afternoon of July 1815. Poor and vague orders were dispersed by Napoleons generals to his battle groups. The attacks were mounted but did not have the desired effect on Wellingtons centre, casualties mounted on both sides causing confusion as orders had to be reissued and units were heavily depleted and even wiped out.
Napoleon by 14h30 was winning the battle, but determined English, Hanoverian and Belgian, Dutch cavalry brigades and infantry squares took their tole on the French forces and officers. Wellingtons lines held but only just, a break-through would have happened if the situation had remained the same by the late afternoon.
Suddenly von Bluchers infantry, cavalry and artillery fell upon the French forces who had just fought out two towns held by Wellingtons supporting unit. The French were taken completely by surprise by the fresh large Prussian force, their tired and depleted infantry, cavalry and artillery were very soon swept aside, the two towns were breached and cleared of Napoleons forces, who broke up into confused groups by the overwhelming Prussian attack. Napoleon was still fighting against Wellingtons force in the centre although pushed back, was still drawing, and fighting off French units onto his positions.
As darkness started to fall the French units discipline broke as troops began to flee in disorder as their situation whilst trying to advance forward become impossible. Napoleon had personally attended on the ground to command his forces. His last option was his reserve Imperial Guard units, 12,000 of his most experienced and well-trained battle veterans, always held in reserve by Napoleon as a last resort if needed.
The assaults of the Guard were directed at certain points on Wellingtons and von Bluchers allied positions to try and conclude a breakthrough but were driven back by Wellingtons and von Bluchers infantry overwhelmingly, causing even more casualties to the confused French forces still on their feet. The Imperial Guard too broke and retreated in disorder.
By about 20h00 hours the French situation became hopeless, with Napoleon sounding a general retreat. Wellington on seeing the remaining French units turn their backs from the point of battle, stood up on his horse stirrups, raised his hat, pointing it in the direction of the retreating French sounding a full Allied Coalition advance. The advance was headed on the route to Paris.
Four days later Napoleon I offered his second abdicated in Paris on the 24th June 1815, with the Seventh Coalition armies entering Paris on 07 July 1815. Napoleon would be exiled for a second time to St. Helena where he would die in 1821. The Bourbon monarchy under Louis XVI was France’s first constitutional monarch.
The Seven wars of the Coalition having started by Revolutionary France by the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, eventually became a war based purely on Napoleon I s’ personal ambitions that superseded the ideology of the Revolution. The Wars that became ever more battles of attrition, would devastate many parts of Europe but most particularly the effects the Peninsula Wars had on the Iberian Peninsula which subjected the Spanish and Portuguese populations to the bloodiness of French traditional direct rule.
The 19th Century would be a period of many conflicts in central Europe as a direct result of the First French Empire and the excesses of Napoleons aggressive wars. French domination in Europe would not end at Waterloo, but during the German Wars of Unification in 1871.