The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars

Napoleon takes the surrender of General Mack and the Austrians at Ulm on October 20, 1805
By René Théodore Berthon - Collections du château de Versailles, Public Domain, Link

After the French Revolution transformed France and threatened the old order of Europe, France fought a series of wars against the monarchies of Europe to first protect and spread the revolution, and then to conquer territory. The later years were dominated by Napoleon and France’s enemy was seven coalitions of European states. At first, Napoleon first bought success, transforming his military triumph into a political one, gaining the position of First Consul and then Emperor. But more war was to follow, perhaps inevitably given how Napoleon’s position was dependent upon military triumph, his predilection for solving issues through battle, and how the monarchies of Europe still looked at France as a dangerous enemy.


When the French revolution overthrew the monarchy of Louis XVI and declared new forms of government, the country found itself at odds with the rest of Europe. There were ideological divisions - the dynastic monarchies and empires opposed the new, partly republican thinking - and family ones, as relatives of those affected complained. But the nations of central Europe also had their eyes on dividing Poland between them, and when in 1791 Austria and Prussia issued the Declaration of Pillnitz, which asked Europe to act to restore the French monarchy, they actually worded the document to prevent war. However, France misinterpreted and decided to launch a defensive and pre-emptive war, declaring one in April 1792.

The French Revolutionary Wars

There were initial failures, and an invading German army took Verdun and marched close to Paris, promoting the September Massacres of Parisian prisoners. The French then pushed back at Valmy and Jemappes, before going further in their aims. On November 19th, 1792, the National Convention issued a promise of assistance to all people looking to regain their liberty, which was both a new idea for warfare and the justification to create allied buffer zones around France. On December 15th, they decreed that the revolutionary laws of France, including the dissolution of all aristocracy, were to be imported abroad by their armies. France also declared a set of expanded ‘natural borders’ for the nation, which put the emphasis on annexation rather than just ‘liberty’. On paper, France had set itself the task of opposing, if not overthrowing, every king to keep itself safe.

A group of European powers opposed to these developments was now working as the First Coalition, the start of seven such groups formed to fight France before the end of 1815. Austria, Prussia, Spain, Britain and the United Provinces (Netherlands) fought back, inflicting reverses on the French which prompted the latter to declare a ‘levy en masse’, effectively mobilizing the whole of France into the army. A new chapter in warfare had been reached, and army sizes now began to rise greatly.

The Rise of Napoleon and the Switch in Focus

The new French armies had success against the coalition, forcing Prussia to surrender and pushing the others back. Now France took the chance to export the revolution, and the United Provinces became the Batavian Republic. In 1796, the French Army of Italy was judged to have been underperforming and was given a new commander called Napoleon Bonaparte, who’d first been noticed in the siege of Toulon. In a dazzling display of manoeuvre, Napoleon defeated Austrian and allied forces and forced the Treaty of Campo Formio, which earned France the Austrian Netherlands, and cemented the position of the French-allied republics in North Italy. It also allowed Napoleon’s army, and the commander himself, to gain large amounts of looted wealth.

Napoleon was then given a chance to pursue a dream: attack in the Middle East, even on into threatening the British in India, and he sailed to Egypt in 1798 with an army. After initial success, Napoleon failed in a siege of Acre. With the French fleet seriously damaged in the Battle of the Nile against British Admiral Nelson, the Army of Egypt was greatly restricted: it could not get reinforcements and it could not leave. Napoleon soon left, some critics might say abandoned, this army to return to France when it looked like a coup would take place.

Napoleon was able to become the centerpiece of a plot, levering his success and power in the army to become the First Consul of France in the Coup of Brumaire in 1799. Napoleon then acted against the forces of the Second Coalition, an alliance that had gathered to exploit Napoleon’s absence and which involved Austria, Britain, Russia, the Ottoman Empire, and other smaller states. Napoleon won the Battle of Marengo in 1800. Along with a victory by French general Moreau at Hohenlinden against Austria, France was thus able to defeat the Second Coalition. The result was France as the dominant power in Europe, Napoleon as a national hero and a possible end to the warfare and chaos of the revolution.

The Napoleonic Wars

Britain and France were briefly at peace but soon argued, the former wielding a superior navy and great wealth. Napoleon planned an invasion of Britain and gathered an army to do so, but we don’t know how serious he was about ever carrying it out. But Napoleon’s plans became irrelevant when Nelson again defeated the French with his iconic victory at Trafalgar, shattering Napoleon’s naval strength. A third coalition now formed in 1805, allying Austria, Britain, and Russia, but victories by Napoleon at Ulm and then the masterpiece of Austerlitz broke the Austrians and Russians and forced an end to the third coalition.

In 1806 there were Napoleonic victories, over Prussia at Jena and Auerstedt, and in 1807 the Battle of Eylau was fought between a fourth coalition army of Prussians and Russians against Napoleon. A draw in the snow in which Napoleon was nearly captured, this marks the first major setback for the French General. The stalemate led to the Battle of Friedland, where Napoleon did win against Russia and ended the Fourth Coalition.

The Fifth coalition formed and had success by blunting Napoleon at the Battle Aspern-Essling in 1809 when Napoleon tried to force a way across the Danube. But Napoleon regrouped and tried once more, fighting the Battle of Wagram against Austria. Napoleon won, and the Archduke of Austria open peace talks. Much of Europe was now either under direct French control or technically allied. There were other wars; Napoleon invaded Spain to install his brother as king, but instead triggered a brutal guerrilla war and the presence of a successful British field army under Wellington – but Napoleon remained largely master of Europe, creating new states such as the German Confederation of the Rhine, giving crowns to family members, but bizarrely forgiving some difficult subordinates.

The Disaster in Russia

The relationship between Napoleon and Russia began to fall apart, and Napoleon resolved to act quickly to overawe the Russian tsar and bring him to heel. To this end, Napoleon gathered what was probably the largest army ever assembled in Europe, and certainly a force too big to adequately support. Looking for a quick, dominant victory, Napoleon pursued a retreating Russian army deep into Russia, before winning the carnage that was the Battle of Borodino and then taking Moscow. But it was a pyrrhic victory, as Moscow was set alight and Napoleon was forced to retreat through the bitter Russian winter, damaging his army and ruining the French cavalry.

The Final Years

With Napoleon on the back foot and obviously vulnerable, a new Sixth Coalition was organized in 1813, and pushed across Europe, advancing where Napoleon was absent, and retreating where he was present. Napoleon was forced back as his ‘allied’ states took the chance to throw off the French yoke. 1814 saw the coalition enter the borders of France and, abandoned by his allies in Paris and many of his marshals, Napoleon was forced into surrendering. He was sent to the island of Elba in exile.

The 100 Days

With time to think while exiled in Elba, Napoleon resolved to try again, and in 1815 he returned to Europe. Amassing an army as he marched to Paris, turning those sent against him to his service, Napoleon attempted to rally support by making liberal concessions. He soon found himself faced by another coalition, the Seventh of the French Revolutionary and Napoleon Wars, which included Austria, Britain, Prussia, and Russia. Battles were fought at Quatre Bras and Ligny before the Battle of Waterloo, where an allied army under Wellington withstood the French forces under Napoleon until a Prussian army under Blücher arrived to give the coalition the decisive advantage. Napoleon was defeated, retreated, and forced to abdicate once more.


The monarchy was restored in France, and the heads of Europe gathered at the Congress of Vienna to redraw the map of Europe. Over two decades of tumultuous warfare had finished, and Europe would not be so disrupted again until World War 1 in 1914. France had used two million men as soldiers, and up to 900,000 had not come back. Opinion varies on whether the war devastated a generation, some arguing that the level of conscription was only a fraction of the possible total, others pointing out that the casualties came heavily from one age group.

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Wilde, Robert. "The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Wilde, Robert. (2023, April 5). The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Retrieved from Wilde, Robert. "The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).