The Seven Wars of the Coalitions: France and Central Europe

To understand the Wars of the Coalitions, an explanation must be made of the composition of the states that were involved in creating the conditions for the start of the First War of the Coalition. The French Revolutionary Wars were inclusive of this period as one of its main belligerents, an indivisible part in the conflicts with all the Coalitions as they formed over the years, dating from 1792 at the start of the French Revolution.

Many states were involved, which paved the way for the other wars which stemmed from there onwards, a period from September 1792-1797. Each association of states would follow on from the initial start of the Wars of Coalition, so coalitions were formed, defeated or victorious, would end and another state coalition would form either during or after any conflict. France and the Holy Roman Empire were at war in a nutshell until the start of the Napoleonic wars of 1804.

The association and relations between the French Republic, the Revolutionaries and other European monarchies had deteriorated in the late 1700’s, after the Declaration of Pillnitz in August 1791. We will look at France and central Europe.


The Seven Wars of the Coalitions: France and Central Europe

The Seven Wars of the Coalitions: France and Central Europe

Also Read: Napoleon Bonaparte and France Post-Revolutionary Politics

The Declaration of Pillnitz was a five-sentence agreement signed on the 27th August 1791 at Pillnitz Castle, near Dresden Germany. Frederick William II of Prussia and Leopold II Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, brother to Marie-Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI, declared support from the Empire for the king of France against the Revolution in his country. Since 1789, Leopold had become concerned about the safety of his sister in France, but conceded that to interfere in French internal politics would further endanger Marie-Antoinette’s position.

France’s belligerence and expansionist ambitions amongst the Holy Roman Empire states, through the wars that were declared against her, and in turn the French First Republics declarations of war against the Empires states, would lead to Wars of the Coalitions.

Several wars that the French won having been drawn into war, and in turn France’s own declarations of war in central Europe would ultimately lead to the downfall of Emperor Napoleon I’s First French Empire and his eventual abdication of the throne after defeat in the Seventh War of the coalition in 1815.

The Constitutional Kingdom of France and the later Republic of France that succeeded it were at war with states within the Holy Roman Empire, Austria, Prussia, Bavaria, Russia, and Great Britain. Many foreign countries would attack by sea and land hoping to annex chosen provinces in parts of France, of course these goals were never achieved.

The coalitions were loosely associated during their declarations of war, but not fully organised when declaring war. The Austro-Prussian alliance attacking France from the Austrian Dutch territories, and the Kingdom of Great Britain supporting uprisings amongst the Royalists in provincial France, with the siege of the port of Toulon in October 1793.

When France declared war on Austria in July 1792, Austria joined forces with Prussia, Prussia in turn declaring war on France in June 1792. There was initial success by the Austro-Prussian alliance across the French border, capturing the fortresses at Verdun and Longwy. Reaction on the news from Verdun in Paris was received with alarm.

The Committee of Public Safety initially under the directorship of Maximillian Robespierre, whose control of the Committee harassed ‘rogues in any places’ but was also instrumental as the Committee, in creating a type of military National service of male potential soldiers between 18 - 25 years of age, providing the French Army with fresh battalions to meet the foreign threat.

The French people were at heart very patriotic citizens to the cause and country, many joined the French military during the Revolution to protect the land and Revolution from the threat of invasion by foreign powers as the Committee would label it, many however had other motivations, escaping The Terror was one of these.

The news of Austro-Prussian coalition forces crossing of the French border, resulted in the September Massacre on 2nd - 4th September, by the sans culottes Revolutionaries. During the massacre, groups of the sans-Culottes, the federes, guardsmen and other Revolutionary sympathisers activated by the Legislative Assembly, and Georges Danton in particular, encouraged those gathered, to attack the prison system, hospitals, and religious vestries in several parts of Paris.

Between 1117 – 1614 were murdered during the 4 days, which included, 117 priests, many nuns, women in care facilities, civil servants, and several Swiss Guards, guarding prison inmates. The French army swelled its ranks to one million men at arms during the 1790’s. With the greater French Army now able to push back the Austro-Prussians from Paris, culminating in the final battle of Valmy, a French victory through a stalemate agreement. The Republican French forces going beyond their own borders.

Both Austro-Prussian armies attacked France with the intent of marching on Paris, capturing it and assigning a peace Treaty agreement that would prevent Paris from attacking sovereign states over its own borders. Austro-Prussian intent further, was to seize selected French provinces, including them as part of their own territories.

The campaign failed eventually for the Austro-Prussians under the command of the Duke of Brunswick, where both forces fought to a stalemate during the Battle of Valmy, the Austro-Prussian forces thought a sustained follow through to victory too costly, withdrawing across the French border, to save their armies. The French artillery arm had distinguished itself during the battles, giving the Republican army time to regroup during the stalemate at Valmy.

France would suffer military reversals none the less at the Battle of Neerwinden in March 1793, and the internal the ‘civil war’ of the Vendee, consequently applying draconian measures to prevent further Royalist uprisings across France. The Wars of the Vendee were internal conflicts in parts of France.

A Republican army of twelve columns led by Louis Marie Turreau attacked the Royalist Anti-Revolutionary population south and west of the river Loire. A royalist ‘Catholic and Royal Army’ was formed to attack and take Paris, intent on taking down the Revolutionary councils and destroying the Revolutionary activists on its streets.

Turreau was no accomplished military officer having had no campaign experience at the time of the Vendee wars, he had commanded the internal Guardes Francaise in Paris as an officer of higher rank.

He had personally vowed that his Republican ‘infernal columns’- collones infernales, would destroy the Royalist rebels in the Loire Valley. He informed the war minister of the National Convention, that, ‘we will burn down and destroy all vestiges of the ‘rebels”- on behalf of the Revolution. His forces killed anywhere between 16 - 40000 mostly unarmed civilians during the first quarter of 1794 during the wars. The Wars of the Vendee still generate heated debate today, described by some historians as the Franco-French genocide.

Turreau, having won over several towns in command of the Republican Infernal columns, and the overwhelming power of the  of the Republican Army of Mainz, set upon the Catholic Royal Army of the Royalist rebels, destroying rebel opposition at the towns of Mans and Savenay, ending any hope they had of reaching Paris and the violent repression of the Revolution in their communities.

During the same period 1793-4, the cities of Nantes and Angers came under siege, whose population too, were subjected to shooting, drowning and the guillotine by the Republican forces sent to crush the rebels uprising during the Revolution, resulting in the deaths of 15000 inhabitants. The execution of Louis XVI on 17 February 1793 drew shock reaction across Europe especially in Austria. The execution led to the unification of many monarchies against Revolutionary France.


French Army Campaigns

Having driven the Austro-Prussian forces out of France, and the occupation of the low countries, annexing the Netherlands and Belgium, and reaching the Rhine, the Revolutionary First Republic was keen to add further states in the Holy Roman Empire to the French Republic. The capture of the Netherlands was renamed the Kingdom of Batavia, a sister republic of France.

Prussia also recognised French control of the left bank of the Rhine, by the signing of the first Peace of Basel. Napoleon would some years later call it the Confederation of the Rhine after his very successful Battle of Austerlitz and the later Battle of Jena against an Austro-Prussian alliance. Ideological differences between the French Revolutionaries and the Monarchical powers of the Holy Roman Empire, continued over the status of imperial states in Alsace.

In 1796 after the Archduke Charles of Tesschen had redressed the military situation North of the Alps, Napoleon Bonaparte swept all before him in Sardinia and Northern Italy near the Po Valley, including Austrian forces who were defeated during the campaigns of 1796-97, culminating in the Peace of Leoben.

The Holy Roman Empire was forced to concede the Austrian Netherlands and parts of Northern Italy to France, which were turned into several  French sister states. The First Coalition collapsed leaving Britain alone in the continued struggle with France, after the signing of the Treaty of Campo Formio.

After the subduing of the Netherlands and Austrian Netherlands, the new Batavian Republic as it was named, had a French dominated Government. All Dutch territory was signed over to France south of the river Rhine as part of the agreement. A Peace Treaty was signed in close proximity between Spain and France. The Treaties also ensured that France would not be attacked by further coalitions for some time.

Military matters however did not end there as the British prime minister, William Pitt saw an opportunity with a plan to capture the French port of Dunkirk in the Autumn of 1793 as a future landing base for military incursions during the Siege in Flanders campaigns.

The Siege of Dunkirk under the command of Prince Frederick, Duke of York consisted of a mixed coalition force. The Hessian-Hanoverian, Hesse Kassel and Austrian coalition, supported by the British Royal Navy, attacked the fortified port. Louis Lazare Hoche was tasked to command a Republican army force during the campaign, following another defeat for a coalition force at the Battle of Hondshoote, the coalition was forced to withdraw further north. The Royal Navy were not able to give support to Prince Frederick but came out of the siege intact.


The Battles of Quiberon and Mainz

Britain attempted to land French Royalist troops in support of the Royalist rebels in the Vendee, at Quiberon. Napoleon was too strongly organised and supported, and his generals were able to defeat the incursions. This led to the establishment of the Directory in Paris.

On the Rhine frontier General Pichegru betrayed his command by negotiating with exiled French Royalists, forcing the evacuation of Mannheim, and the siege of Mainz under General Jean Baptist Jourdan that followed, which became a failure for the French. Napoleon I, stationed in Northern Italy and having been promoted, planned a major offensive with a large French army at his disposal, from the Rhine and beyond in Western Europe.

In 1796, the French prepared an army that would advance on three fronts commanded by Jean Baptist Jourdan, Duke of Jourdan, and Jean Victor Marie Moreau. They were to merge at Tyrol Italy with the final objective being a march on the city of Vienna Austria. At this time no new alliance emerged to meet the threat posed by the French generals.

The Rhine Campaigns during 1796 - 97, saw Austria and Bavaria fighting individually against the French Commanders including Napoleons campaign in Italy. Jourdan and Moreau advanced from the Rhine, entering the states of Germany, Jourdan approaching Amberg and Moreau entering Bavaria, reaching the edge of Tyrol Italy, from August to September. The Austrians under Archduke Charles, Duke of Taschen defeated Jourdan’s army forcing both French armies back across the Rhine.

Napoleon in his daring attack of Italy, saw him splitting the forces of Sardinia and Austria. His resourceful command during the Montenotte Campaign defeated each separate force in turn, forcing the Peace of Sardinia. His army captured Milan and prepared for the Siege of Mantua.

Napoleon would defeat successive Austrian-Habsburg commanders, among them Johann Peter Beaulieu, Dagobert Wormser and Józef Alvinczi. Although Napoleon was held up for a short while by the fortifications at Mantua for a few months, the Austrian forces defending Mantua and elsewhere eventually surrendered. Eighteen thousand Austrian soldiers were captured.

Napoleons own famous maxim, ‘the side that stays within its own fortifications is beaten’ was probably coined after Mantua. Napoleon I French Revolutionary armies would eventually control all of Austria by late 1798.

The mostly successful campaigns after the Rhine and Italy also saw the end of Royalist resistance in France with the conclusion of the Rebellion of Vendee, Louis Lazare Hoche as commander then tried to land forces on the Irish coast at Munster to assist the Irish nationalists there but this failed.


The Second War of the Coalition: Egypt(1798/9 – 1801/2)

The Second War of the Coalition was the second war on the French Revolution, by the Monarch states of Europe which involved Britain, Austria, including Naples and Portugal, the Ottoman Empire, and various German monarchies. The Prussian state was not involved. Spain supported the French Republic.

Britain and Russia maintained a strategy of preventing French expansion further East in Europe and the restoration of the monarchy in France. Austria too wished to come out of the First Coalition conflict stronger, weakened by the financial debt of the first conflict and the opportunity to recover its financial status, primarily to come out of the conflict and recover it position stronger than it had entered.

The coalition was not combined amongst the three major powers on a cohesive strategy, differing on political goals. The Second Coalition thus failed to overthrow the revolutionary regime, allowing France to retain its territorial goals of 1793.

The Austrian-Franco Treaty of Luneville, signed between Emperor Frances II and France confirmed the status of the retained territories to it, and included new lands in Tuscany, Italy. Austria was granted the Dalmatian Coast and Venetia, in February 1801. Other powers such as Britain signed the Treat of Amiens with France in March 1802. The Ottoman Empire signed again with the Republic in February 1802, all of which would bring a pause in hostilities for several months.

The formation of the Second Coalition took a little while, with Naples joining Austria (19th May) and Russia (29th November. Britain had an ad hoc association with Austria, being financially indebted during the First War to Britain, as would Britain’s subsidy later to Austria, the association would be without a formal loan agreement on these terms instead. The French had taken notice of the topographical details in Germany and the routes from Switzerland to Italy, useful in planning direction for military campaigns.

It was a considered view that Armies controlling these routes could prevent passage to other forces and siege Northern Italy itself in turn which was much in French ambitions. The French General Jourdan directed his command of the Observation battalions to the Alps, who were posted close to the passes, more as a force to protect France’s northern borders than an attacking force. In Europe the allies conducted several invasions in 1799, including campaigns in Italy and Switzerland and an Anglo-Russian invasion of Northern Batavia (Holland).

The Anglo-Russian invasion of the Batavian Republic was less successful after a reversal at Costricum. The alliances of the Austro-Russians were also a failure in Switzerland at the second Battle of Zurich, both alliance allies had initially been successful, but could not take advantage further and were defeated.

The Anglo-Russian Invasion of Northern Holland of the Batavian Republic, to clear French Republican control of Holland on 19th November 1799, at first met with success at Callantsoog and Krebbendam. The campaign was reversed after the subsequent battles at Castricum.  The Duke of York the supreme commander was forced to retreat strategically to the extreme north returning to their initial bridgehead.

An agreement was negotiated with the joint French-Batavian force under General Guillaume Jean Marie Anne Brune, allowing the Anglo-Russians the option to disembark unmolested from the bridgehead. The Alliance campaign though, was partially successful with the seizing of a substantial part of the Batavian Naval fleet. The October agreement of Campo Formio left Austria and France in  suspicion of each other, but without further conflict in 1798-99. The French in time started demanding more territory not covered in the Treaty.

The ally’s campaign in Switzerland for the Austrians started well during the First Battle of Zurich. Archduke Charles of Austria had managed to push the Republican French General Andre Massena out of Zurich, but he would consolidate his forces and fortify his positions during the Second Battle of Zurich breaking the stalemate of the First Battle, defeating the Austro-Russian coalition at Limmat, a Battle that occurred on both banks of the river there. The Russian commander on this occasion Alexander Korsakov, assistant to the renowned Alexander Suvorov, having to accept the surrender to Brune. The British insistence thereafter that all shipping in the Baltic Sea be searched, forced Russia to withdraw from the coalition.

Napoleon himself invaded Egypt and Syria in 1799, but retreated after the failed siege of Acre, repelling a British-Turkish invasion. The defeat was his third in his military career. He received communications from Paris regarding the military and political crises in France, so departed for Paris leaving his armies behind in Egypt.

Due to his military success and popularity, he mounted a coup of the Consul, that made him First Consul, effectively making him head of government. In 1800 Napoleon sent Moreau to campaign in Germany whist he prepared to meet the Austrians, this time he raised an Army at Dijon, marching across Switzerland attacking the Austrian rear in Italy.

Moreau invaded Bavaria and fought a decisive Battle against the Austrians at Hohenlinden. The Austrians had their largest military column destroyed in an ambush and retreated in disarray, Moreau advanced on Vienna, the Austrians halted and sued for an armistice instead. Defeat for the Austrians, Moreau’s victory, and Napoleons decisiveness in winning the Battle of Marengo on 14 June effectively ended the Second War of the Coalition, with the signing of the Treaty of Luneval.

Hostilities would be renewed again during the War of the Third Coalition. The conflict spanned a period from 1803 – 1806. During the war, Napoleon I and his client nations fought a coalition of  Great Britain, The Holy Roman Empire, the Russian Empire, Naples, Sicily and Sweden. The coalition came into full fruition in 1804-5, during Napoleons incursion into Italy and Germany, notably the arrest, trial and execution in France of the Duc d’Enghien for treason, an incident which spurred the Austrians and Russians to join with Britain.

Britain had remained the only power to remain at war with France since the Treaty of Amiens. The Government and people stayed under a constant threat of invasion by Napoleon. The British Royal Navy had mastery of the seas and defeated a joint French and Spanish fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Napoleon had assembled a naval coalition of 33 French and Spanish ships to enter and control the English Channel, to afford safe passage for the Grand Armee to land on Britain’s shoreline.

The force set sail from Cadiz Spain but was met by Royal Navy force commander Admiral Horatio Nelson and his fleet of 27 ships set up to deal with the Franco-Spanish attack fleet off the Southwest coast of Spain, off Cape Trafalgar. The battle was a decisive route of the Franco-Spanish fleet by Horatio Nelsons fleet without a single loss of any Royal Navy ships, Pierre-Charles Villeneuve’s command lost 22 ships of the Franco-Spanish fleet. The Royal Navy proved its mastery of the seas, Nelson sadly lost his life to a French musketeer during the battle.

The outcome of the War of the Third Coalition would be decided on the continent, the major land operations that sealed a swift French victory during the campaign at Ulm. The Grand Armee conducted a  large turning manoeuvre from mid-August to October 1805, capturing an entire Austrian Army, and the decisive victory at The Battle of Austerlitz involving Tsar Alexander I’s Austro-Russian army in early December.

On 26th December 1805 the Treaty of Pressburg was signed between Austria and France, effectively taking Austria out of the War and the Alliance, the agreement would also endorse the former Treaties of Campo Formia and Luneville. The Pressberg treaty would confirm Austrian concession of Italian and Bavarian lands to France and to France’s German Allies.

An indemnity was charged to the defeated Habsburgs of 40 million francs. While concluding the particulars, France would allow Russian forces of the coalition to retain their weapons and men, allowing them safe passage through hostile territories back to their own soil.

After Austerlitz, Napoleon was prompted to form the Confederation of The Rhine, controlled by his German client states who also pledged to form an army of 60,000 men to protect the confederation, the confederation was accepted by Napoleon as a buffer zone protecting France.



The Wars of the Coalition may have started with France’s Republican Government’s ambition of a French Revolutionary Empire, a forced attempt to spread the Revolution across Europe with the intent of removing many state monarchies and the Holy Roman Empire itself. The military campaigns achieved their territorial goals for France, the Revolution itself failed in its destructive nature in convincing other parts of Europe of its usefulness. The Revolution had its supporters early on elsewhere in Europe, but the methods of the madness used by the revolutionaries and the Royalist rebel’s resistance in France and in other states supported the restriction of the spread of revolution terror tactics effectively, whilst protecting the other European monarchies.

The Wars of the Coalition does not end here. From 1806 the Fourth Coalition War would be considered the start of the Napoleonic Wars thus ending the French Revolutionary Wars. We will discuss this next phase and the end of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806 in the next project.

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