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The War of the Second Coalition

Origins and Italy

The war of the second coalition lasted between 1799 and 1801, and was inspired largely following the French defeat at the Battle of the Nile in 1798. Sensing the weakness of the revolutionary forces Great Britain decided to form a second coalition with Turkey, Austria and Russia in order to make another attempt to overthrow the French government.

In March 1799 the allies launched an invasion of Italy, which was under French control. The revolutionary army suffered early defeats when they twice failed to defend the city of Verona against Austrian forces, and then on the 5th of April they were defeated at the Battle of Magnano. This forced the French into a retreat, all the way back to Milan. The successes held by the coalition so early on into the campaign proved that the French general in charge, Schérer, was in a situation beyond his capabilities, and so he was replaced by General Moreau. The misfortunes of the French were increased when Field Marshal Suvorov added his Russian troops to the allied army in mid-April, and bringing with him years of experience as a commander as well as increasing the number of men opposing Moreau to over 50,000.


On the 27th of April the allies attacked Moreau’s army at the Battle of Cassano. Three divisions had worked through the night to build a bridge that would allow them to cross the River Po, to reach the French army on the opposite bank. The arrival of Field Marshal Suvorov allowed the coalition forces to push Moreau’s men back, re-commencing the retreat back to Milan. The battle had cost the French over 2,500 men in addition to the 5000 taken prisoner, compared to the 2000 men lost by the combined coalition forces, and it laid the way for the surrender of Milan on the 24th of May.

William, Prince of Orange
By William Salter

Over the summer of 1799 further blows were made to French military confidence when Britain and Russia conducted an invasion of the Batavian Republic (the Netherlands). On the 27th of August British troops successfully landed at Callantsoog, with the Royal Navy having inflicted heavy damage on the Dutch fleet, thus prompting their commander Daendels to abandon the fortresses at Den Helder, and unwittingly providing the allies with a fortified base.

The successful landing created a sense of optimism, and encouraged the Prince of Orange to ally himself with the British forces in the hope of creating local support. However, his call to arms was met with indifference or outright hostility, and did not benefit the allied cause. On the 13th September Russian troops led by General von Fersen arrived, increasing the size of the coalition forces to over 35,000 men. However, although the allies were now numerically greater than the French, many of their troops were now exhausted, and so it provided a limited practical advantage. On the 19th of September the coalition forces attacked, with the Russians successfully capturing the town of Belsen. However, the Russians were now truly exhausted, and suffered significant losses as a result of a French counter attack.

Two weeks later on the 2nd of October the British won another victory at the Battle of Alkmaar, forcing the French to flee from the city, abandoning it. It was to be the last coalition victory of the campaign, with the Battle of Castricum on the 6th of October permanently reversing the allied fortunes. It had become increasingly difficult to provide the army with supplies, and so by the 6th of October the allied forces were severely diminished in number. The Duke of York ordered an advance, but it was broken by the French counter-attack, forcing the coalition forces to retreat in disorder. The outcome of the battle was a complete withdrawal of all British and Russian forces from the Batavian Republic following severe casualties totalling around 2500 men, as well as the abandonment of two field hospitals. Both sides agreed to an armistice, and by the 19th of November all troops had been removed from the Batavian Republic.

Meanwhile Napoleon had been pursuing a campaign in Egypt, attempting to establish a foothold so that the French empire could expand east. This he managed with muted success, and so in August 1799 Napoleon decided to return home to France. The Directory had ruled over France since 1795, and this period had been marked by economic stagnation and high unemployment. As such many were discontented with the government, and so this gave Napoleon the perfect opportunity to try and seize control of power. He arrived back in Paris in October, where with the help of his brother Lucien, the former minister of foreign affairs Tallyrand and director Sieyès he planned a successful coup, ending the rule of the Directory and making himself First Consul. This marked the beginning of Napoleon’s journey to becoming emperor, and ended the revolutionary experiment in France.

Up Next: Napoleon's Coup

Background image: J.M.W. Turner, "Martello Towers near Bexhill, Sussex", 1811, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, from here

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