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By James Burbeck
In 1789, growing discontent with France's feudal government suddenly exploded into an open revolt which drew the attention of all the nations of Europe. The ensuing violence and international involvement triggered more than two decades of nearly continuous warfare as various competing empires sought to reimpose their own views of balanced power. So many related military campaigns were fought over such large areas by so many different factions, that this era has wryly been called the first true world war.

The era itself can be split into two periods; The French Revolution, and the Napoleonic Empire. The Revolution and ensuing republic saw the toppling of the old French monarchy and its replacement by a series of sporadically violent civilian administrations. At the peak of the violent period, known as "The Terror," the former king and queen were cruelly put to death. This act galvanized the other nations of Europe against France, and guaranteed that no matter what improvements might be made later, the resulting nation would never enjoy the cooperation of Europe's other leaders.

The events which followed were typical in the history of revolutions; an army general seized control of the government. This general however, named Napoleon Bonaparte, was of unusual intelligence and charisma, and he had seized control of what today would be called a superpower. The presence of this charismatic military genius as the head of France vastly complicated Europe's political landscape and broadened the atmosphere of confrontation which was destined to continue until one of the two sides was defeated. Napoleon himself was not of a disposition to resist playing the same power games as those around him, and so not until 1815 did the wars end with the battle of Waterloo and the return of a monarch to Paris.

1792 - 1795

The nations of Europe had already begun moving against revolutionary France before the execution of King Louis and his queen took place. In August, 1792, a joint Prussian-Austrian army invaded Northeastern France, and slowly marched toward Paris. They were met at Valmy by a hybrid force of French regular army troops and revolutionary volunteers. The day was won for the French by their regular army artillerists who effectively cannonaded the invading troops to a bloody halt. This was followed by gains in the Netherlands, where other French forces pushed back the Austrian army at the Battle of Jemappes.

In January 1793, the revolutionary government in Paris issued the infamous orders to execute King Louis and Marie-Antoinette. This act fundamentally changed the nature of the greater conflict by raising the stakes against the other monarchs of Europe to intolerable levels. Great Britain especially was transformed at a stroke from a concerned meddler (if was they who helped destabilize the French monarchy to begin with) into an implacable foe of the revolution and anyone associated with it.

France however, became paralyzed yet again by terror and open revolt and new Allied armies soon made gains on all fronts. They were only repulsed when a national levee en masse gradually allowed the gutted French command corps to stabilize the situation. Over the next two years the Austrians were driven from the Netherlands, and The United Provinces (Northern Holland) were annexed. By 1795, Prussia, Spain, Hanover and Saxony had all opted out of the coalition, leaving Britain and Austria to continue the fight against France's revolutionary government.

1796 - 1800

Austria was now fighting a lone war on the continent, and despite local gains she increasingly found herself faced by a new French army general of unusual ability. In Germany, their own youthful Archduke Charles continued to outmaneuver French generals Joubert and Moreau. But in Italy, 26 year old General Napoleon Buonaparte, a relatively young artillery school graduate, expelled the combined Austrian armies from Northern Italy in a lightning campaign. Within a year of hard fighting, the French Army of Italy decisively secured the entire Po River Valley. It then joined up with Joubert's troops marching out of Southern Germany and advanced on Vienna, forcing the Austrians to sue for peace.

With a generous defensive buffer now protecting France, both the latest administration in Paris and General Bonaparte now cast their eyes outward toward the Middle East. The resulting 1798 Egyptian campaign was a strategic failure. Neither its goal of threatening British interests further east nor of establishing a permanent French colony ever materialized. The campaign's famous tactical victories were to supply many years worth of romantic stories, but little else would come of it. Back in Europe, a joint Austrian-Russian army under the famous General Suvarov managed to wrest most of Northern Italy away from French generals Moreau and Joubert, killing Joubert in the process. By the end of 1799, half of the earlier French territorial gains had been lost, although the Russian offensive ground to a halt soon after due to internal problems.

The Corps
A new formation employed for use in the French Army at this time was the Corps. Previously, armies had rarely used formations larger than brigades and divisions, many of which were maintained only for the duration of a war. The new French corps were permanent formations with semi-permanent commanders. The benefits of this system were many; members of each corps could identify with their formation, raising morale in the process; also, a corps contained its own combined arms formations, allowing greater flexibility in combat. France's enemies were slow to realize the dramatic effect these and other doctrinal changes were to have on the battlefields of the near future!

When it became obvious that the Egyptian campaign was stalled, Napoleon and some of his staff returned to France, where the latest civilian administration was tottering on the verge of collapse. The ensuing seizure of power by Napoleon and his political allies effectively brought the French Revolution to an end. After a short period of intense consolidation, a fresh French army led by the new French First Consul Napoleon defeated Austrian General Michael Melas at the Battle of Marengo in Italy. By the end of 1800, French generals Moreau, Brune and Macdonald were repeating the earlier drive east through southern Germany and so finally the Austrian government sued for peace, officially bringing the French Revolutionary Wars to a close in early 1801.

1805 - 1807

Although the intervening years had seen little in the way of land warfare, the period from 1801 through early 1805 did not experience total peace. During this time, Great Britain remained openly hostile to any non-monarchical French government and for all but 14 months of that time, the Royal Navy maintained a tight commercial blockade of the continent. In 1801, British Admiral Horatio Nelson took matters into his own hands and attacked the Danish fleet in their own anchorage at Copenhagen. The Russian fleet probably would have been next had not the anti-British Tsar been killed and replaced by his son, who quickly came to an agreement with England.

While Great Britain maintained every sort of pressure on France and any country who traded with her, France in turn planned an invasion of England. Numerous newly formed French army corps were stationed in an enormous series of training camps along the English Channel. The invasion plans were finally brought to a close however, when Austria and Russia again declared war and invaded southern Germany.

In one of history's most famous military maneuvers, Napoleon responded by force-marching his Grande Armee into Germany and surrounding the central Austrian army then occupying Bavaria. Thus outmaneuvered, the Austrian commander, General Karl Mack, surrendered his entire force. With their strategic center breached, the Austrians were unable to prevent the French occupation of Vienna, and in December of 1805 the remaining Allied army catastrophically lost the Battle of Austerlitz to Napoleon, knocking Austria out of the wars for several years. In the Atlantic, the French and Spanish Navies were caught by the British Fleet after their attempt to secure the English Channel for Napoleon. The resulting naval battle off Cape Trafalgar was one of the greatest in history for its time and resulted in the destruction of both the French and Spanish fleets, but at the cost of British Admiral Nelson's life.

The French and British flagships at the Battle of Trafalgar : 1805
Click to view painting

Alarmed at the sudden ascendancy of France's influence in Germany, Prussia yet again sided with Great Britain and declared war against France in 1806. The Prussians had payed little attention to the previous decade of French strategic and tactical behavior, and so they also quickly fell, being decisively beaten at the twin battles of Jena and Auerstadt that October. By the winter of 1806/1807 only Britain and Russia could still stand up to France. After bloodily halting the French Army at the winter battle of Eylau, the Russians lost nearly their whole field army at the Battle of Friedland later that summer. This eventually led to the Treaty of Tilsit, which placed both Russia and Prussia out of the conflict for several years to come.

1807 - 1811

In 1807 France dramatically increased her involvement in Spanish/Portuguese affairs. Contrary to popular belief, the impending French interference in Iberian affairs was not rooted in Napoleon's concern over the Continental system, although that was the superficial impetus at the time. Portugal had long been an ally of Great Britain, triggering repeated French and Spanish attempts to reduce the resulting British influence on the continent. The upcoming armed intervention in Iberia was but the latest in a long series of French affairs in the region.

By 1807, Spain's government had sunk to an abysmal state, deeply corrupt and under the questionable leadership of King Charles IV. With the Spanish King's permission, a French army under General Andoche Junot crossed Spain into Portugal, chasing off the Portuguese Royal Family and occupying Lisbon by December. In March, 1808, another large French army entered Spain, this time bound for Madrid. Under threat of French arms, the Spanish king and his son were removed from power and replaced by Napoleon's brother Joseph. As news of this affront to their national pride spread, Spain's population exploded into a spontaneous revolt. It climaxed when a large French force under General Dupont was forced to surrender in August, further isolating Junot's troops in Portugal.

Within weeks a British army under General Arthur Wellesley landed in Portugal and defeated Junot's main force. Wellesley however was prevented from administering the coup-de-grâce by his newly arrived superiors who arranged a truce and the repatriation of Junot's men. While Wellesley and his superiors returned to London to explain their actions, peninsular command devolved to Sir John Moore, who promptly invaded Spain. He was unfortunately denied vital support promised by his new Spanish allies, and faced by the main French army under Napoleon, Moore was forced into a long retreat to the Atlantic coast. He held his force together long enough to rendezvous with the Royal Navy at Corunna, but was killed during the final fighting.

Wellington returned to Portugal and in May, 1809, defeated French Marshal Soult, who had been left in overall military command of French forces in Spain. By this time, the French had systematically taken apart the Spanish Army, and only Wellington's force in western Portugal remained to offer organized resistance.

In central Europe, the Austrian war council had again decided the time was ripe to resume hostilities with France. The resulting 1809 campaign began with a surprise attack into Bavaria with the main Austrian Army under Archduke Charles. The Archduke moved too slowly to take advantage of the temporary French disorder, and so with the aid of veteran officers such as Davout and Macdonald, Napoleon was able to counter the various Austrian incursions with a newly raised force of French recruits. By May the French had pushed all the way back into Vienna for the second time in five years. The battle of Apsern-Essling which followed was a sharp reverse for Napoleon's green French troops, but another few weeks of unprecedented preparation allowed them to push back the Austrians at the sprawling battle of Wagram.

The peace which followed was not satisfactory to the French Army, who felt that Napoleon had let the Austrians "off the hook" by agreeing to relatively forgiving peace terms. Napoleon however, was increasingly aware of the negative effects of the ongoing warfare which threatened stability at home and he hoped to encourage Austrian neutrality by preventing the sort of resentment which usually accompanied severe war reparations.

Through the rest of 1810 and 1811, the only land action was in Spain, where the French and English engaged in a two year sparring match with little to show for the French efforts to pacify the situation. By the beginning of 1812, Wellington had developed a base from which to operate and took the offensive. These events were to be eclipsed by the coming Russian campaign which would be second in fame only to Waterloo.


By 1812, Czar Alexander of Russia was becoming weary of the punishing effects of the English blockade on his country's economy. This blockade was imposed as a result of Russia's participation in Napoleon's "Continental System" which itself had been created as a counter to Great Britain's own economic warfare. Economically powerful Great Britain eventually prevailed, and when Russia was successfully pressured into withdrawing from the Continental System, France was again virtually in the same position as it had been during the Revolution. If Russia were to successfully pull out, Britain would again be able to browbeat the other nations of Europe into taking part in the economic strangulation of France. Napoleon's solution was to invade Russia in an attempt to deliver a knockout blow which everyone would remember.

The invasion of Russia itself was not obviously the foolhardy expedition it might have seemed. Napoleon's French Army was logistically the most sophisticated since ancient times and had shown itself capable of operating as far east as western Russia. In the past, the Russians had been in the habit of giving up as soon as they lost a major field army. And since all their existing commanders had been personally beaten several times by Napoleon, it was expected that with extra men and planning, the same would occur again.

The invasion officially began with the crossing of the Niemen River on June 24, 1812. For Napoleon's combined army of over 500,000 men the campaign got off to a poor start due to the massive loss of horses in the hot weather and the refusal of the Russians to give battle. By the time the invading army fought its first major battle at Smolensk, it had shrunk by half due to detachments, death and desertion. When the Russians finally gave battle at Borodino in September, the French, including Napoleon himself, were no longer the idealistic battle hungry men who had begun the year. The battle itself was tactically unimaginative, with the French battering themselves against the Russian defenses and the Russians obligingly taking the punishment without much attempt to maneuver for position.

After the bloody stalemate at Borodino, the Russians evacuated Moscow, allowing it to fall into French hands. When the French actually entered the city, groups of Russians torched every building they could reach, ironically forcing French troops to fight to save the Russian city from its own men. Napoleon remained in Moscow in the belief that an armistice would soon be offered, but none was forthcoming, and after a month of waiting he realized that the situation had become serious. If he remained in Moscow for the winter, the political climate back in France could destabilize. If he withdrew, it would be seen as a defeat, which could result in the economic strangulation of France and the ultimate return of a monarchy. The only choice was to try to move closer to France without actually abandoning the campaign. This required that the army move as soon as possible back into western Russia, Poland and East Prussia, where there were large, well stocked French depots to support his men through the winter.

The retreat from Russia : 1812
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The move west began on October 19, and went well at first. Some people were joyfully carrying enormous amounts of loot, but the more experienced men were already worried. They knew how long it would take to walk back to Poland, and there simply was not enough time to escape the coming cold. Many people could be seen carrying unusually heavy coats and furs in their baggage. After fighting a fierce battle at Maloyaroslavets, the French were forced back down the path they had marched in, further denying them the luxury of moving through unforaged lands. In the five weeks it took them to rendezvous with fresh troops east of Borisov, increasingly severe cold and privation turned half the main army into a mass of fugitives. The Berezina River crossing which followed was a catastrophe, killing half of the remaining 60,000 troops. Half of those 30,000 survivors died in the following week as temperatures plunged. By the time a few thousand remaining men abandoned their wagons and artillery at the base of an icy hill west of Vilna, the army ceased to be. Survivors of the various contingents simply deserted and walked home or wandered to the closest friendly depots.

1813 - 1815

The Spanish and Russian campaigns killed off most of the experienced men and horses which had formed the French Army of 1805 through 1809. Not only had thousands of long time veterans died, but top grade horses seized from Prussia and Austria during the previous campaigns had also died, never to be replaced. Except for units tied down in Spain and Italy, the French army of 1813 was composed mostly of green, untrained youth formed into provisional infantry units. Very little in the way of cavalry was available to take advantage of continuing allied mistakes.

Ironically, the cultural tables were now turned against the French. During the Revolution, it had been the French who were supposedly fighting the monolithic "system" for the good of citizens. Now, Napoleon's transformation of France into a powerful empire helped to highlight a new German nationalism which viewed France, not Austria or Prussia, as the invader. The 1813 campaign in Germany would accordingly develop nearly religious overtones as eager German volunteers flocked to Prussian service.

The new allied coalition of Great Britain, Russia, Prussia, Spain, Portugal, Austria, and Sweden slowly ground down the remaining French armies. Austria especially had not suffered a truly significant military defeat in eight years, and her relatively intact armies were to form the backbone of the 1813 and 1814 campaigns. Despite victories at the battles of Lutzen, Bautzen and Dresden, the French Army suffered a crushing defeat at the huge three day Battle of Leipzig in October 1813. By 1814 allied armies were advancing into France from every direction and despite continuing French resistance, Paris was surrendered on March 31, 1814. A few days later Napoleon surrendered unconditionally, and was "given" the island of Elba in the Mediterranean on which to live out his days.

By the Spring of 1815, Napoleon had already become restless living in exile far from events. Finally giving in to his urges, he returned to southern France and with his Elba bodyguard, marched toward Paris, drawing most of the army to his side as he approached. The recently installed King Louis XVIII quickly evacuated the capital and Napoleon again took control of the government. Allied countries immediately declared the Seventh Coalition against France and mobilized for war. Napoleon decided to administer a quick and decisive blow by moving against the Anglo-German armies then in Belgium and Holland under the commands of Generals Wellington and Blucher. The campaign did not go according to plan however, and climaxed at the Battle of Waterloo, during which the French Army virtually disintegrated after being improperly employed in a manner disturbingly reminiscent of Borodino. This victory was to be the last required of the allied coalition, and Napoleon was sent to his final exile on the South Atlantic Island of Saint Helena, where he died in 1821.

The last stand of the Guard at Waterloo : 1815
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As with other wars which involved great internal strife, the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars left a rancorous legacy of conflict. After 1815, the Allied victors continued to paint Napoleon as "The Monster" even though the wars had already been in full swing when he came on the scene, and despite their own attacks on countries large and small. Napoleon and his indomitable ego certainly lengthened the wars, and like most other leaders of that era, his actions caused the unnecessary deaths of thousands. In the end though, it is difficult to separate his actions from other leaders of his time. People of that era tended to share romantic views of war which were not abandoned until a hundred years later with the consecutive slaughters of World War One and World War Two, and all can share some of the blame for the years of war which began in 1792 because of the overthrow of a French Monarch.

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Imperial Guard and Russian Retreat images courtesy of The French Army Museum, Paris. Trafalgar image courtesy of The Navy Museum, Paris.