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Napoleonic Wars

Napoleonic Wars 1803-1815

The Napoleonic Wars were a continuation of the French Revolutionary Wars led and dominated by Napoleon Bonaparte since 1796 and kick-off the start of the 19th Century. There had been a short-lived peaceful interlude following the collapse of the 2nd coalition and Peace of Amiens but anxieties and suspicions were arouse as Bonaparte annexed Piedmont and Elba together with his occupation of Switzerland and refusal to evacuate from Holland his forces. The British feared his designs were set on the Mediterranean and therefore refused to honour commitments they had made and withdrew British troops from Malta. It was on 18 May 1803 that hostilities were resumed and the Napoleonic Wars commence. Bonaparte for the British had become a personal issue as he was perceived as the personification of tyranny and deceit.

Pitt and Napoleon vicious cartoons featured during the Napoleonic Wars

Peace of Amiens 1802

Treaty agreed between Britain and France officially ending the French Revolutionary Wars. Britain suffering from the unimpressive leadership of Addington had conceded too much for relatively little reward. For more on the Treaty of Amiens click here.

  • return all maritime conquests except Trinidad (taken from the Spanish) and Ceylon (taken from Dutch control) and the Cape of Good Hope was returned to the Dutch.
  • France to evacuate Southern Italy and Malta and Egypt which was to be returned to the Ottomans
  • Britain was left with no power base in the Mediterranean except Gibraltar
  • Amiens made no provision for the respecting of boundaries of existing European states

The British had been seeking a lasting peace, the French under Napolean were simply setting the scene for their complete dominance of the area and did not renounce their aspiration for expansion into the Eastern Mediterranean and the Americas. This was far from an effective treaty from the British perspective.

Key dates and events of the Napoleonic Wars

  • 1803
    • Bonaparte reinstates Slavery in Saint Dominique (modern Haiti)
    • Britain easily puts down the Robert  Emmet rising in Dublin and prevent  the French from interfering in India
  • 1804 Haiti forms, Pitt returns to Government
    • Saint Dominque declares independence under the leadership of Jean-Jaques Dessalines
    • Pitt the Younger returns to office , having resigned in 1801, almost at the same time as Bonaparte arrogantly proclaims himself as Emperor of France. Pitt creates his 3rd Coalition whilst Bonaparte sets about planning and instigating an invasion of England.
    • French Army of 150,000 men assembled at Boulogne with a fleet of transports ready to cross the Channel. Bonapartes arrogance and confidence knew no ends he had struck medals already to celebrate the conquest of England. Before a single ship had sailed.
  • Britain strengthens its fleet and recruits 300,000 volunteers. French and Spanish fleets plans to convoy the transports to England having lured Nelson to proceed towards Egypt and the West Indies.
  • 1805 Admiral Villeneuve eludes the English naval blockade at Toulon and sails for the West Indies. He evades Nelson’s pursuit and returns to Europe for an indecisive encounter with Calder of Cape Finisterre. He puts into Cadiz uniting with the Brest Fleet as planned but the chance to seize control of the Channel has gone. Nelson has returned.
  • Battle of Trafalgar 21st October 1805 ended any possibility of a French invasion and seriously destroyed any effective naval power from France. It cost the Royal Navy the life of its greatest Admiral Horatio Nelson, who was on his flagship HMS Victory, which a must see visit in dry dock in Portsmouth Hampshire. See here for more on HMS Victory.
  • Russia and Britain collude by Treaty:  to drive the French from Switzerland and Holland. Napolean annexes Genoa and makes himself King of Italy which turns Austria towards the Coalition which they join.
  • Napolean strikes at the Austrians defeating the force of 30,000 under the lead of Austrian Mack, Vienna capitulates.
  • A crushing defeat of the Austrians and Russians at Austerlitz: dashes the hope that had grown from the victory of Trafalgar.
    • Treaty of Presburg cedes Venetia (Venice) to the French controlled Italy and he states of the Lower Rhine become the Confederation of the Rhine as a French dependency.
    • Napoleon recognises the electors of Bavaria and Wurtttemberg as Kings independent of Austria for a heavy war contribution of some 40 million francs.
  • Pitt dies in 1806:  he has failed to quell Napoleon, his 3rd coalition has failed, Napoleon is in the ascendancy.
  • With the Rhine Confederation in his control, Napoleon turns his attention to Northern Germany.  proclaiming himself Protector of the Hanseatic towns. Hanover had been dangled as a prize for Frederick William III to secure Prussian neutrality during the Austrian campaign but the French now offer it to the English as part of peace negotiations. By Oct the exasperated Prussians have gone to war and been humiliated at Jena less than 2 weeks later, Napolean marches into Berlin in triumph.
  • By 1807 Napolean crushses the Russians at Eylau and Friedland, Europe is at his feet.  He meets with Tsar Alexander I to divide-up East and Western Europe.
    • Britain alone remained defiant, sound familiar? The Royal Navy bombards the Danish fleet at Copenhagen to prevent it from being used by Russia or France.
  • 1809 British Army cannot match the Naval successes: disaster strikes at Walcheran Expedition. Both sides were now seeking increasingly to use economic leverage to seek to break the deadlock. War was demanding a heavy price from both sides by 1812 when it was finally abandoned it had dragged Britain into further conflicts, namely the Anglo-American War and the Peninsula War with France.
  • Napolean continued to refine and perfect his Continental System:  intervening in Spain, deposing the Monarch and replacing hi with his own brother Joseph. It was the consequential resistance from Spain and the diversion of his own resources that led to his own downfall. His ambitions were stretching his abaility to deliver too far.
  • Napoleon’s campaign with Russia having fallen-out with his allies by by 1812 made him determined  to exercise a decisive blow. He committed 650k troops to set out on route for Moscow. In the indecisive battle of Borodino France lost 40k men and as they entered Moscow they proceeded to set it to burn but the Russians would not surrender. Russian ability to deal with the attrocious winter conditions and their ferocious resistance nullified the force of the French. France had to start the long march home and 500k men lost their lives in the retreat. Hardly the outcome of a great general.
  • 1813 Encouraged by the realisation that Napolean was not invincible the Prussians and Austrians rise-up and throw off the oppression of French domination. Leipzig proves to be decisive. Napoleon’s force suffer 110k casulties in just 3 days. 
  • 1814 The French are Crushed, the Allied Invasion of France proceeds, Napoleon is defeated at Arcis-sur-Aube: the allies enter Paris on 31 March 1814.
  • 1815 Banished to Elba Napoleon escapes his captors and lands in Cannes on 1 March 1815.  To this very day the landing is reenacted every year on the beach. Astonishingly the allied occupation and domination over France enables Napoleon to regroup he raises a force of some 280k more troops and a reserve of 150k men.
    • The allies plan to attack France from the South West through Alsace and Lorraine. Napoleon decides to attack the extreme right flank in Belgium before Wellington and Blucher’s forces can join together near Liege.
    • The Prussians are defeated in June at Ligny and retreat to Wavre on 16 June 1815. The same day Wellington resists Ney’s attacks at Quartre Bras, withdrew successfully and prepares with reinforcements for the final onslaught.
    • The Battle of Waterloo: Napoleon was on the defensive. Attacked by the British and Prussians by nightfall of the 18th June Napoleon is defeated and in flight.  This famous victory deserves more attention as we approach another anniversary, but more to follow and our collection of posts follows and will grow over time.

Napoleonic Wars the outcome and conclusion

23 years of war against the French Revolution and the Napoleonic episodes had been colossally expensive for all in terms of lives lost and sheer expense. Britain lost proportionately more men in this period than during WW1. It left Britain in a a dire economic state, it had costs an unprecedented sum of more than £1,500 million by way of taxes and loans raised by the government.  Arguably the war held-up progress and delayed the Industrial Revolution but in the longer term overseas trade would benefit hugely to the detriment of France.

For more on Wars and Conflict related to British History take a look at out Major events selection here




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