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Overview of the

Coalition Wars

The Coalition Wars were a series of conflicts between 1793 and 1815 that featured a number of alliances between varying European powers against France, first with it under the control of the revolutionary government, and then under the consulship of Napoleon Bonaparte.

War of the First Coalition

The War of the First Coalition took place between 1793 and 1797, and began as an attempt to destroy the French army after the revolution in 1789. The war was triggered by the execution of King Louis XIV, which prompted Spain, The Netherlands, Austria, Prussia, Great Britain and Sardinia to form a military coalition in 1793, with each nation declaring war on France. During this period France was governed by the Directory, which responded to the threat of invasion by announcing the Levée en Masse (conscription).  The result was that the revolutionary army was far more driven than the Coalition forces, which helped to facilitate an overall French victory.


The Coalition suffered early defeats in 1793 with the Austrian forces being defeated at the Battle of Wattignies in October, which paved the way for their early peace negotiations with the French in 1795. This had been preceded by a British defeat at the Battle of Hondeschoote in September of that year. Naval warfare however was still dominated by the British, which resulted in a Coalition victory at the Battle of the Glorious First of June in 1794, the largest naval battle of the French Revolutionary wars. Here the French navy lost seven ships, six of which were captured and one sunk, while the British lost none.  This success in naval warfare continued with the Battle of Camperdown 1797, in which the British navy took on the Dutch, which had been a French client state renamed the Batavian Republic since 1795. Again the British suffered no losses of ships, but inflicted heavy damages on the Dutch, successfully capturing 11 boats.


The First Coalition began to unravel early on, in 1795 when the revolutionary army successfully drove Spanish forces back across the Pyrenees, compelling the Spanish to sign the Peace of Basel in July of that year with the French. They were followed in 1797 when Austria signed the Treaty of Campo Formio, which agreed to a peace between the two nations and transferred a number of Austrian territories into French hands. The result of these two peace treaties was that Great Britain was the only power still fighting the French, and so the War of the First Coalition ended.


War of the Second Coalition

The War of the Second Coalition took place between 1799 and 1801, and followed the 1798 Battle of the Nile, in which the British navy led by Admiral Nelson had defeated Napoleon. Sensing Napoleon’s weakness the English decided to form a Second Coalition with Turkey, Russia and Austria, in another attempt to defeat revolutionary France.


There were initial successes on the part of the Coalition, with the Austrian forces successfully driving the French out of the Rhine, the British forcing the revolutionary army out of the Netherlands, and a combined army of Russian and Austrian troops succeeding in driving the French out of Italy in 1799. Following these victories the Coalition planned a three pronged attack, with Russia, Austria and Britain marching on the France from three different directions, via the Helvetian Republic (Switzerland), Italy and the Netherlands respectively.


However, following his defeat at the Battle of the Nile Napoleon had returned home to France in October 1799. In his absence the Directory which governed France had been following an aggressive military policy, occupying Switzerland, attacking the Kingdom of Naples and annexing Piedmont-Sardinia. It was on his return that Napoleon staged a coup to take over the government and become First Consul, declaring that the Directory was incompetent.


Following his accession to power Napoleon began to gain victories against the Coalition, and succeeded in defending France against the three pronged attack. In June 1800 Napoleon defeated the vast majority of the Coalition forces at the Battle of Marengo, namely the Austrian troops as both Britain and Russia had only sent token forces. This combined with the Austrian defeat at the Battle of Hohenlinden in December 1800 at the hands of the French army led by General Moreau effectively doomed the Second Coalition.


The Austrian forces made peace with France in 1801, signing the Treaty of Lunéville in February. The result of this was that they surrendered all of their lands south of the Rhine and in Northern Italy to the French. Russia had also left the Coalition in 1800, not as a result of a military defeat but because of the admiration held by Tsar Paul I for Napoleon, and who refused to fight against him. This left Britain alone fighting France for a second time, and so in 1802 England agreed to negotiate the Peace of Amiens, which brought stability to Europe for the next 14 months.

The War of the Third Coalition

The War of the Third Coalition took place between 1803 and 1806, this time the Coalition being made up of Prussia, Great Britain, Austria, Russia and Sweden. It was triggered by Napoleon’s invasion of Northern Italy, Switzerland and the Netherlands, which made it clear that he had imperial ambitions within Europe. In 1804 Napoleon planned an invasion of Britain, which had so far been the main funder of resistance and provider of military aid.


The War of the Third Coalition can be divided into two campaigns: the campaign against Britain at sea, and the campaign against Austria and Russia on land. In 1805 Napoleon had gathered an army on the west coast of France in preparation to invade Britain. However, preceding naval defeats meant that the French navy did not have enough ships to safely transport its army across the channel in the face of British defences. A plan was put in place to divert the English fleet away from the channel, by launching a decoy trip to the West Indies to threaten British dominance in the region. However, the trick failed, and the French and Spanish fleet under the command of Admiral Villeneuve were forced to retreat to Spain. Here they engaged with the British navy at Cape Trafalgar, and in the resulting battle the French and Spanish were completely defeated, although they succeeded in fatally wounding the admiral of the British fleet, Nelson. By this stage the Coalition was no longer driven by anti-Republican sentiments, but rather by a desire to rid Europe of Napoleon.


The campaign by Austria and Russia began to disintegrate once the Austrian army invaded Bavaria in August 1905 without waiting for the Russians to arrive to provide back up. Napoleon’s Grand Army encircled the Austrians at the Battle of Ulm, and following negotiations they succeeded in capturing the entire Austrian army of over 50,000 men. The French soon captured the city of Vienna, and then turned their attention to the retreating Russian forces. On the 2nd December 1805 the French army engaged with the Coalition forces at the Battle of Austerlitz, crushing them, and inflicting losses of over 15,000 and capturing 11,000 more. The result of this was that the Russian forces were compelled to retreat back towards Moscow in disarray, thus confirming a French victory.


The War of the Third Coalition ended after the combined allied defeats at Ulm and Austerlitz. The Treaty of Pressburg was signed on the 26th of December 1805 between France and Austria, in which Austria agreed to withdraw from the Coalition, and agreed to hand over a number of territories in Italy and Bavaria. The transfer of these lands enabled the creation of the Federation of the Rhine, which was intended to act as a buffer between France and central Europe, but which also resulted in the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire. The combination of the Treaty of Pressburg and French victories on land ensured Napoleon’s victory during the War of the Third Coalition.

War of the Fourth Coalition

The War of the Fourth Coalition took place between 1806 and 1807, and composed of an alliance between Prussia, Russia and Britain. Unlike between previous wars there was no period of peace, as Britain had never signed a peace agreement following the War of the Third Coalition, and it was triggered by Prussian concern regarding increasing French dominance over the German states.

On the 14th of October 1806 the French army took on the Prussian forces at the Battle of Jena-Auerstadt under the control of Marshal Davout. The result was a resounding victory for the French, and 10 days later they had managed to successfully capture the capital of Berlin. The French army then advanced towards the Russian border, where they came into conflict with Russian forces on the 7th of February 1807 at the Battle of Eylau. Both the Coalition forces and the French were hampered by dreadful conditions, with a heavy snowstorm limiting visibility and communication, and leading to over 40,000 casualties. In the end, the Battle of Eylau was inconclusive, and it was not until the Battle of Friedland in June 1807 that France succeeded in defeating the Russian army. During the battle Napoleon crushed the Coalition forces, with an estimated 20,000 Russian losses.


The effect of the Battle of Friedland was that it forced Tsar Alexander I to sign the Treaty of Tilsit, which confirmed peace between Russia and France, and also caused Prussia to lose significant amounts of its territory in the south. This was used to create the new French client state of Westphalia, and the result of this treaty was that Britain was once again fighting France alone, thereby ending the Fourth Coalition.


Napoleon Bonaparte

by Antoine Gros

War of the Fifth Coalition

The War of the Fifth Coalition took place in 1809, and comprised of Britain and Austria. The Fifth Coalition emerged following improvements to the Austrian army which gave them increased military confidence, and a decision to take advantage of the fact that Napoleon was distracted by the Peninsular War against Spain and Britain. Most of the main events of this conflict featured Austria and France, with Britain having limited involvement.


In April 1809 Austrian forces took advantage of Napoleon’s distraction by attacking Bavaria, a French client state that was one of their key allies. They took the Bavarians by surprise by attacking a week before Napoleon had expected them, throwing both them, and the French commanders in the region into confusion. However, Austrian fortunes changed between the 19th and 23rd of April, when Napoleon arrived to counter-attack against their invasion with the Landshut manoeuvre, winning 6 separate victories in 5 days. This was then followed by the Battle at Ebelsburg on 3rd May in which French troops took control of the last bridge over the Danube, which enabled them to enter the Austrian capital of Vienna 9 days later.


A major setback for the French occurred on the 21st of May, at the Battle of Aspern-Essling. During this conflict Napoleon attempted to cross his army over the flooding Danube in order to attack the Austrian forces, which were under the command of Archduke Charles. However, the bridges he built to allow them to cross were repeatedly destroyed by the powerful water and by Austrian barges being cut free to float down the river and crash into them. The lack of bridges trapped the French vanguard, and left the bulk of the army without reinforcements. The French set up defensive positions at the villages of Aspern and Essling, until after two days of fighting they were able to retreat. This was the first military loss Napoleon had ever commanded over, and the enormous death toll of 21,000 soldiers struck at the belief in Napoleon’s invincibility.


The Fifth Coalition began to collapse following the Battle of Wagram in July 1809. The French victory was as much needed following the military disaster at Aspern-Essling as it was decisive. Napoleon succeeded in splitting the Austrian army in two and drove them to retreat, eventually resulting in 40,000 Austrian casualties. This defeat forced Archduke Charles to sign an armistice, and then later on the 14th of October to sign the Treaty of Schonbrunn, again agreeing that Austria would give up more territory to France. This treaty brought an end to the War of the Fifth Coalition.

War of the Sixth Coalition

The War of the Sixth Coalition occurred between 1812 and 1814, and featured an alliance of the British, Austrian, Russian, Prussian, Swedish, Spanish and Portuguese armies. The war originated with the invasion of Russia by the French in June 1812, following months of relative peace in Europe.


The French advanced through Russia, until on the 7th September they engaged with Russian forces at the Battle of Borodino, which resulted in an estimated 80,000 casualties. Despite this it was inconclusive and the French advance continued. Napoleon’s army reached Moscow on the 14th September, however on arrival they found that the city had been ransacked. Faced with the coming harsh Russian winter without supplies, the French army were forced to retreat back towards the German border, at a cost of an estimated 88% of their original force.


On the 28th of February 1813 Prussia signed the Treaty of Kalisch, which allied them with Russia, Sweden and Britain, as well as declaring war on France. By May Napoleon had succeeded in rebuilding his army following its decimation during the Great Retreat, and this allowed him to gain two victories in the spring of that year at the Battles of Lutzen and Bautzen. However, these victories were at a significant cost, and both the allies and the French were forced to agree to an armistice between the 4th of June and the 13th of August in order to rebuild their armies and recover. During this time, on the 12th of August Austria joined the Coalition and the war against France.

Soon after the armistice ended the French once again seemed to be in a position of strength, defeating the Coalition forces at the Battle of Dresden between the 26th and 27th of August. However, there were more significant defeats for Napoleon, which culminated at the Battle of Nations between the 16th and 19th of October 1813. More than 600,000 men were involved, making it the largest battle of the Napoleonic wars. In November the allies offered Napoleon a peace with the Frankfurt proposals, which agreed that Napoleon would remain emperor of France, but that its borders had to return to its ‘natural boundaries’, thus giving up much of the territory that it had gained over the last few years. Napoleon rejected these terms, which resulted in the allied invasion of Northern France over the winter of 1814.

On the 30th of March 1814 the Coalition forces successfully entered Paris, and on the 11th April Napoleon finally agreed to abdicate following a munity from his officers. The Treaty of Paris ended the War of the Sixth Coalition, and the allies agreed to exile Napoleon to Elba, restoring the Bourbon monarchy in his place.

War of the Seventh Coalition

The final War of the Seventh Coalition began in spring of 1815 when Napoleon escaped from his exile in Elba. The allies had been distracted by disagreements over the future of Europe at the Congress of Vienna, which caused tension and a war nearly to break out. Napoleon took advantage of their dispute, and fled from Elba on the 26th of February, reaching Paris on the 20th of March.


There was an international consensus that Napoleon should now be removed by force, and so on the 25th of March Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia signed the Treaty of the Quadruple alliance, each pledging to contribute forces and arms to defeat the French emperor.


The resulting campaign was short – on the 16th of June French forces won the Battle of Ligny, invading Belgium and defeating the Prussian forces that opposed them. It was however to be the final French victory of the Coalition Wars. Two days later on the 18th of June, Napoleon engaged with the Duke of Wellington’s forces at the Battle of Waterloo. The result was a resounding defeat for Napoleon, who suffered the loss of 25,000 men, compared to the 15,000 he inflicted upon the allied forces.


Following his defeat Napoleon returned to Paris to gain a political consensus for further action. On failing to get this he abdicated for the second time on the 22nd of June 1815. He was then sentenced to life exile on the island of St Helena, where he remained until his death in 1821.

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