France: The Napoleonic Wars

by Kathleen O’Reilly (a 2001 Write Byte edited by Nora Armstrong)

Europe in the closing years of the eighteenth century was in a dynamic state. Countries were flexing their muscles, acquiring new territories, expanding their influence. The French Revolution put fear in the hearts of many monarchies across Europe and caused them to clamp down on wayward uprisings. Out of the bloodshed in France arose a dominant leader, Napoleon Bonaparte, the man who would shape the next twenty years of European history. It’s a testament to his military skills that a whole series of wars is named after him.

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The Napoleonic Wars actually covered the years 1805-1815, with the Peninsular Wars lasting from 1808-1815. However, to fully understand what was going on it helps to start a little earlier, with the Revolutionary Wars (1792-1801). The entire 23 years of warfare, from 1792 to 1815, can be divided into seven coalitions termed, for easy reference, First Coalition, Second Coalitions, etc. (the coalitions referring to the forces joined in opposition to Napoleon). The political geography of Europe at the beginning of this era was somewhat different from today, with Prussia being a dominant military power and Austria ruling over what was then known as the Holy Roman Empire. Italy was a series of small kingdoms. See this map of Europe in 1789 to understand more (this is a “jump” link that will open a new window in your browser).

First Coalition (1792-1797)

During the French Revolution (1789-1799), Austria and Prussia took advantage of the political turmoil in France by declaring war on that country. They began a land-grab against the tenuous revolutionary government. The French army was in poor shape in the early 1790s, and some military leaders were given their pink slips after less than stellar results (the guillotine was used for generals responsible for serious losses). When Louis XVI was guillotined in 1792, the other monarchies in Western Europe took notice: Great Britain and Spain joined forces with Austria and Prussia against the radical revolutionary French government that was preaching worldwide liberté.

The Dutch Republic and Sardinia also joined the allies fighting against the French republic. France’s closest neighbors Austria and Prussia, however, were the only major players during the First Coalition. Most other allies took their losses and went home fairly quickly. A dynamic general named Napoleon Bonaparte made his name by securing Paris against royalist rebel armies within France and – equally as important – by securing a victory against the Austrian armies in Italy in 1797. By 1797, when the War of the First Coalition ended, France had gained control of the Austrian Netherlands (present-day Belgium) and Northern Italy. France was firmly in control of Europe and Napoleon’s ambitions were growing.

The Second Coalition (1799-1802)

The leaders in Paris took note of Napoleon’s quick and decisive victory and gave him marching orders: Go to Egypt. To be honest, they felt a little threatened with Bonaparte so visible and powerful in Paris. In his absence, the political situation in Paris destabilized and the Directory (the ruling government) was in a shambles. All the territory that France had won in Italy was lost in Napoleon’s absence. Egypt was a bad idea all-round as Napoleon lost against the Ottoman and English armies. When he returned to France in 1799, Napoleon took advantage of the political chaos and declared himself First Consul.

Still, the French were quite full of themselves, and their actions began to alarm many other European countries. In opposition to Napoleon’s growing power, Russia took the lead in forming a coalition: Russia, Austria, Britain, Turkey, Portugal, and Naples. But the French army was nearly unstoppable. They beat the Russians in Switzerland, took over Naples, defeated the Austrians in Italy, and drove back the allied armies from Germany. The French renamed Italy the Cisalpine Republic. Rome became the Roman Republic and Switzerland became the Helvetic Republic. Each country was nominally a republic with its own constitution, but all were subject to France.

Out of all the allies, only the British were somewhat successful against France. Britain had superior naval power and in addition to driving the French out of Egypt, British forces were also able to defeat them in Malta. However, the British saw no more reason to fight and in 1802 they signed a treaty with France, known as the Peace of Amiens, which signaled the end of the Second Coalition. According to the terms of the agreement, most of the territory that Britain had won was returned to France. In return, Napoleon agreed to stay his empire-building ways. Also, the French government designated Napoleon First Consul for Life.

The Third Coalition

Peace was a short-lived condition. Many in Great Britain were unhappy with the terms of Amiens and watched Napoleon closely to see if he would follow the treaty. According to the terms, Napoleon would pull out of Switzerland and Great Britain would pull out of Malta. Neither side trusted the other, and the situation across Europe was still destablized in the smaller countries. Napoleon annexed Elba and Piedmont into France (these had been newly acquired “independent” republics until then). After a Swiss uprising against the new government, Napoleon sent troops back in. And Great Britain never pulled completely out of Malta. Both sides tried to negotiate peace, but it was not be. In 1803, when French armies and ships were amassed off Calais (within spitting distance from England) and French invasion was a very serious threat, Great Britain declared war on France and shored up its land-based defenses along the English coast.

By 1805, the Third Coalition was formed – Britain, Prussia, Austria, and Russia. Quite interestingly, a nervous Britain paid off several members of the coalition to participate. Spain, not wanting to lose again, sided with France. Anxious about where Napoleon would invade next (i.e., England), the coalition decided to strike first. They would organize four major offensives. In the North, Britain planned to liberate French upstart Hanover, who had voted in a free election for British King George III as ruler. The Austrians would retake Bavaria and invade Northern Italy with a huge amount of troops, and then send a smaller contingent to retake Malta. Sadly, the Austrians lost again, and Napoleon occupied Vienna. The Austrians surrendered and lost much of their German and Italian territories. The Russians went home. And Hanover? Napoleon, that cheeky monkey, gave the disputed territory to Prussia, which enraged the British, who immediately declared war on Prussia. Prussia became a very nervous ally of France, in a short-lived arrangement.

The only bright spot was once again the British Navy. Under the command of Admiral Lord Nelson, ships kept watch in the Mediterranean seas; when they noticed a suspicious gathering of French ships near Toulon (a port in southeast France), they went in to investigate. Napoleon had an elaborate plan to divert the superior British naval forces to the Mediterranean (where the Spanish Armada would join in) and then, after a grand triumph, his fleet would invade Britain. Although the French did slip the blockade, Nelson was hot on their trail. On September 21, off the coast of Trafalgar, Spain, the English destroyed the French and Spanish Navy. Nelson died a hero that day, securing a great naval triumph for his nation.

And one more note: in 1804, The First Consul for Life declared himself Emperor.

For a visual look at the region at this time, look at this map of Europe in 1804 (this is a “jump” link that will open a new window in your browser).

Some term this the Fourth Coalition, but historians aren’t necessarily in agreement

Prussia was getting a little nervous watching Napoleon’s conquests reaching closer and closer. By 1806, Napoleon had conquered most of the German states in what was then the Holy Roman Empire and renamed them the Confederation of the Rhine. That was the end of the Holy Roman Empire. The Emperor of the HRE, Francis II, saw the writing on the wall and gave up his crown. That didn’t mean a lot, because the German territories were individual sovereign states run by their own princes, but it was enough to galvanize the Prussians into arming themselves once more. In 1806, they formed a Fourth Coalition, along with Russia and Saxony. Almost immediately Napoleon invaded Prussia. In a bit of bad luck for the Prussians at Jena (just east of Frankfurt), a group of Napoleon’s troops happened upon them and trounced them soundly. For the next step in his campaign, Napoleon captured the Prussian capital of Berlin.

Napoleon fought Russia in Eylau in the Northern tip of Prussia, in a very close and bloody battle fought in freezing conditions. Napoleon won – barely – and waited until the weather subsided before meeting the Russians again in the eastern Prussian province of Friedland. Russia lost and signed on as France’s new ally. With new friend and ally Russia (Napoleon made a lot of promises to those he defeated), the Emperor took on Sweden and won. He reasoned that if he couldn’t beat the British on the high seas, then he’d beat that “nation of shopkeepers” economically. He called in markers on all his conquests and formed a “Continental System.” All the continental European countries were forbidden to trade with Britain. But Britain didn’t need all the other countries for trade; for the time being at least, they had the good old US of A.

And Portugal – never underestimate Portugal. Portugal was Britain’s last foothold on the continent. Napoleon gave the Portuguese an ultimatum, which they defied, and then he declared the Portuguese royal family “deposed.” Nobody was very happy about that, especially Portugal, and thus began Napoleon’s own Vietnam. He sent troops into Portugal, alarming France’s nervous ally Spain. The Spaniards’ squawks of alarm reached Napoleon, and he ordered 100,000 men into Spain to “restore order.” Britain decided now was the time to step in and assist the Spaniards against the French. Thus began the Peninsular Wars.

The Peninsular Wars (1808-1815)

When Sir Arthur Wellesley (coincidentally, born in 1769, the same year as Napoleon) led the British army into Portugal, he was given 20,000 troops. The British were heavily outnumbered, but the French had three fronts to guard. Wellesley’s method of advance/retreat caused many lengthy years of war, but it enabled the British to secure a victory by eventually wearing down the thinly spread French forces. Here’s a map of Spain and Portugal during the Peninsular Wars (this is a “jump” link that will open a new window in your browser).

1808, the British “Victory” at Vimeiro

Wellesley’s first task was to clear Portugal of the French troops. In 1808, he surprised the French contingent at Vimeiro on the western side of Portugal, and the French lost the battle. However, Wellesley’s officers arranged a truce with the French General Junot, a treaty known as the Convention of Cintra. British troops and even the British navy were to escort French troops, their weapons, and all their belongings back to France. The British government was incensed at the terms the English battlefield generals had negotiated and undertook a full inquiry. Wellesley, Burrard, and Hew Dalrymple were ordered back to London for questioning. Sir John Moore assumed command of the British forces fighting in Spain. Expecting reinforcements from the Spanish army, Moore pushed the British army deep into Spanish territory.

The French Alliances Wearing Thin

While Napoleon began to worry about victory in Spain, Austria was accumulating troops in his rear. Napoleon needed help. He turned to Russia and courted Tsar Alexander as if his life depended on it. A quote from Napoleon: “If Alexander were a woman, I would make him my mistress.” The Russians played the coquette. They took land from Finland and Moldavia and didn’t interfere with France’s presence in Spain, but they refused to commit further. Also, the Russians had a very comfortable timber trade with Britain, and the Continental System was soon forgotten as they flagrantly breached the French blockade and traded with the British. All the news looked bad for Napoleon: Russia wasn’t cooperating, Austria was raising its armies at his back, Britain was winning battles, and even Napoleon’s wife Josephine was turning into a nag.

The only bright spot from the Emperor’s perspective was the disarray of the Spanish army. Napoleon turned his full attention to the conflict in Spain. After the defeat at Vimeiro, he went to Spain to take charge of his armies. He took 130,000 troops and marched downward toward Madrid, pushing his men in the bitter cold. On December 4, 1808, he marched into the city, looked about the empty streets, declared victory over Spain, and reinstated his brother on the Spanish throne.

1808, Moore’s Retreat

General Moore was in trouble. In the middle of this harsh winter, when he had no reinforcements, he learned of the fall of Madrid. Instead of planning an immediate retreat, he attacked French troops under Marshal Soult just west of Burgos, about 150 miles north of Madrid. This action drew Napoleon’s attention. Moore headed for the far northwestern port of Corunna in order to escape, and the French army followed. This led them into rugged terrain and freezing cold weather. Moore did a valiant job of keeping the troops’ morale high, but he lost a significant number of men – nearly 5,000 – to the weather and his French pursuers. When they finally reached the port of Corunna, the British were forced to fight one more battle before boarding the awaiting ships. Mortally wounded in the battle, Moore was ridiculed at home, but his efforts allowed approximately 27,000 men to reach safety. The glory that he had hoped for was later restored to his name; in 1817, Irish poet Charles Wolfe wrote a poem describing Moore’s burial. It ends with the following refrain:

Slowly and sadly we laid him down,
From the field of his fame fresh and gory;
We carved not a line, and we raised not a stone,
But we left him alone with his glory.

Thinking the British army was done for, Napoleon left Soult to clean up and went home to Paris. In April 1809, however, Wellesley returned to Portugal and resumed command. Less-than-reliable Spanish forces joined up with British troops and marched toward Spain. The Battle of Talavera took place on a hot July day, and the fighting was fierce. The French retreated under cover of night that evening, leaving the British in possession of the battlefield. It was for this victory that Wellesley earned the title of Viscount Wellington (later victories would elevate him to Earl, then Marquess, and finally Duke of Wellington). The British victory was short-lived, however. Wellington learned of advancing French troops under Soult, and rather than risk more casualties, he decided to retreat to Portugal to fortify his position.

In order to secure the British position and the city of Lisbon, Wellington spent nearly a year building the Lines of Torres Vedras. The terrain was scraped to give the British and Portuguese armies the advantage. Troops dammed rivers and built forts. Wellington was now ready.

1809, the Fifth Coalition and War with Austria

While Napoleon was busy chasing the British army in Spain, Austria took advantage of his absence and formed a Fifth Coalition with Britain. Although the British promised only a small amount of troops, the biggest support came in the form of their gold. Austria attacked Bavaria, a key French ally in Germany. The French army was in trouble, and help arrived in the form of the Emperor himself. The opponents fought several rather indecisive battles along the banks of the Rhine, and both sides suffered severe causalities, Napoleon losing one of his most valuable marshals, Jean Lannes, without garnering the great victory that he had intended. Passive Austria pulled back, and Napoleon, feeling aggressive, advanced his army toward Vienna. The French captured the city, but Napoleon learned that Archduke Charles of Austria was approaching with a force of 115,000 men. In late May Napoleon retreated to the island of Lobau on the western side of the Danube; Charles, rather than trying to annihilate the French army, sat on his heels and let the French troops depart. He assumed Napoleon would accept a negotiated peace. He was wrong.

Napoleon had learned his lesson this time. When he advanced into Austria several weeks later, he took with him 188,000 men and significant artillery. He achieved his victory, but the cost was great – nearly 40,000 men – and the victory nowhere nearly as magnificent as his earlier triumphs. Britain, and the rest of Europe, took note.

1810-1811, Wellington Digs In At Portugal

In 1810, Marshal Andre Massena took charge as the newest French commander in the Peninsula. His orders were to take Portugal, but in each of his skirmishes with British and Portuguese troops, his opponents would fight, inflict damage, and then retreat behind the safety of the Lines of Torres Vedras. Finally, in early 1811, frustrated and hungry, Massena and his troops fell back into Spain. Napoleon, unhappy that Massena had failed him, appointed Marshal Marmont as his replacement.

In 1811, change was in the air. Britain began to see victories in Spain, first at Barrosa in Andulasia, just south of Spain, and then at Fuentes de Oñoro. There were many bloody battles, but 1811 was a turning point in favor of Britain and Portugal – for Napoleon was about to have his toughest year yet.

1812, Invasion Into Russia

The blockade against Britain was starting to backfire in Paris. There were shortages of goods, taxes were high, and the people were starting to get nervous. Napoleon, ever resourceful, turned to invasion to raise morale. Russia was the target, because of their flagrant thumbing of their noses at the French blockade, with British ships showing up at St. Petersburg and other ports. Napoleon assembled 400,000 troops (some French, but the majority from France’s “allies”) and began a fateful march towards Moscow. With each step, the troops were drawn farther and farther away from their supply lines. And condemning them further, the Russians retreated to the north, burning the countryside in their wake and leaving nothing for the French to confiscate or eat. Before any battles were fought, the Grande Armée had been reduced to 150,000 men. And while the fight for Russia continued, French troops in Spain were on the decline. On September 14, Napoleon occupied Moscow, but this was no prize: the city had been put to the torch, and fresh Russian troops were only a short distance away. Too late, Napoleon realized his mistake. By December of 1812, the French troops started back to France; only 10,000 men of the original 400,000 returned alive.

1812, Wellington Takes Charge

Realizing the opportunity in front of him, Wellington used Napoleon’s diversion in Russia to go on the offensive. Moving up from the south of Portugal, he first captured Ciudad Rodrigo in January, and then Badajoz in April. The Spanish lines now lay open to Britain, and Wellington marched onward, taking victories first at Salamanca and then at Madrid. However, the ever-present Marshal Soult rattled his saber, and with winter approaching, Wellington chose to retreat and wait for reinforcements.

1813, Wellington Takes Charge, Part Deux

The French were funneling troops into the battles on the eastern front. In the Peninsula Napoleon’s brother Joseph and Marshal Jourdan (then head of French Peninsular troops) were driven to an increasingly defensive position. In June, at the Battle of Vittoria, Wellington’s forces trounced the French, and Joseph Bonaparte fled to France. In October, Wellington crossed the Pyrenees onto French soil.

1813, the Sixth Coalition and Germany’s Freedom

With Napoleon’s star on the wane, the Coalitions against France grew larger, the allies more confident. The Sixth Coalition was comprised of Great Britain, Russia, Prussia, Austria, Sweden, and the German States. Although Napoleon won several victories in Saxony, a bigger battle was brewing. In October, in the Battle of Nations at Leipzig (a city in the Kingdom of Saxony, then part of the Confederation of the Rhine), the allies defeated Napoleon.

1814, the Allies in Paris

Napoleon was cornered on all sides by his foes. He fought bravely, but on March 31st, the allies marched on Paris. The French Senate declared the throne forfeit, and on April 6th, Napoleon abdicated – for the first time.

The last battle of the Peninsular Wars was fought on April 10th. Wellington, ignorant of Napoleon’s abdication, cleared Marshal Soult’s army from Toulouse in the South of France, securing the port city for Britain’s use.

1815, the Seventh Coalition and Waterloo
Napoleon was loosely exiled to the island of Elba, in April 1814; life as an “ordinary man,” however, soon bored him. On February 26 of the following year, he escaped from Elba and returned to Paris, ready to reclaim his throne. This was the start of the One Hundred Days. News of Napoleon’s escape and return to France galvanized his former foes into action. Hearing that the allies were planning to attack France, Napoleon reverted to his old ways and began an invasion on the border between France and the Kingdom of the Netherlands (what is present-day Belgium). Just as before, though, the allies were prepared. Over the course of several bloody, muddy, brutal days the armies met in the Belgian countryside near the village of Waterloo. On June 18th, Wellington handed Napoleon his final defeat. The armies were so well matched, and the outcome so uncertain until the very end of the battle, that after his victory Wellington is reported to have said, “It was a near-run thing, the nearest-run thing you ever saw.” Napoleon abdicated again on June 22nd and was exiled to the remote island of St. Helena, where he died six years later, alone and embittered. The Emperor was no more.

While some Regency and Regency-historical romances feature soldiers as heroes, the Napoleonic Wars themselves are a little-explored aspect in these books. On both sides soldiering was not considered the noble occupation it is today. Most soldiers came from the lower classes; they were uneducated, and often criminal. Napoleon used his army to create a fierce pride in France that had been missing for quite some time. As for Wellington, the thorn in the Emperor’s side, he turned the army under his command into a source of British pride, a pride that has lasted until today.

Link here for a map of the region in 1815 (this is a “jump” link that will open a new window in your browser).


  • Dictionary of the Napoleonic Wars, David G. Chandler, Macmillan Publishing, 1979.
  • The Times Atlas of European History, Harper Collins, 1994.
  • One Hundred Days, Napoleon’s Road to Waterloo, Alan Schom, Oxford University Press, 1992.
  • How Far from Austerlitz? Napoleon 1805-1815, Alistair Horne, St. Martin’s Press, 1996.
  • Wellington: The Years of the Sword, Elizabeth Longford, Harper & Row, 1969.
  • Burke’s Peerage and Baronetage, 106th ed., Burke’s Peerage (Genealogical Books), Ltd., 1999.


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