French Revolutionary Wars
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The French Revolutionary Wars were a series of sweeping military conflicts, lasting from 1792 until 1802, resulting from the French Revolution. Primarily fought between the French First Republic and several European monarchies, they are traditionally divided in two periods: the War of the First Coalition (1792-1797) and the War of the Second Coalition (1798-1802). Initially confined to Europe, the wars gradually assumed a global dimension as the political ambitions of the Revolution expanded. After a decade of constant warfare and aggressive diplomacy, France had succeeded in seizing and conquering a wide array of territories, from the Italian Peninsula and the Low Countries in Europe to the Louisiana Territory in North America. French success in these conflicts ensured the spread of revolutionary principles over much of Europe and the Middle East. The wars also led to the rebirth of professional armies and the emergence of total war, which defined all future modern conflicts.
The Revolutionary Wars began from increasing political pressure on King Louis XVI of France to prove his loyalty to the new direction France was taking. In the spring of 1792, France declared war on Prussia and Austria, which responded with a coordinated invasion of the country that was eventually turned back at the Battle of Valmy in September 1792. The victory rejuvenated the French nation and emboldened the National Convention to abolish the monarchy. A series of victories by the new French armies abruptly ended with defeat at Neerwinden in the spring of 1793. The remainder of the year witnessed additional defeats for the French, and these difficult times allowed the Jacobins to rise to power and impose the Reign of Terror as a method of attempting to unify the nation. In 1794, the situation improved dramatically for the French, as huge victories at Fleurus against the Austrians and at the Black Mountain against the Spanish signaled the start of a new stage in the wars. By 1795, the French had captured the Austrian Netherlands and knocked Spain and Prussia out of the war with the Peace of Basel. A hitherto unknown general called Napoleon Bonaparte began his first campaign in Italy in April 1796. In less than a year, French armies under Napoleon decimated the Habsburg forces and evicted them from the Italian peninsula, winning almost every battle and capturing 150,000 prisoners. With French forces marching towards Vienna, the Austrians sued for peace and agreed to the Treaty of Campo Formio, ending the First Coalition against the Republic.
The War of the Second Coalition began with the French invasion of Egypt, headed by Napoleon, in 1798. The Allies took the opportunity presented by the French strategic effort in the Middle East to regain territories lost from the First Coalition. The war began well for the Allies in Europe, where they gradually pushed the French out of Italy and invaded Switzerland—racking up victories at Magnano, Cassano, and Novi along the way. However, their efforts largely unraveled with the French victory at Zurich in September 1799, which caused Russia to drop out of the war. Meanwhile, Napoleon's forces annihilated a series of Egyptian and Ottoman armies at the battles of the Pyramids, Mount Tabor, and Abukir. These victories and the conquest of Egypt further enhanced Napoleon's popularity back in France; he returned in the fall of 1799 to cheering throngs in the streets. However, the Royal Navy had managed to inflict a humiliating defeat on the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile in 1798, further strengthening British control of the Mediterranean.
Napoleon's arrival from the Middle East led to the fall of the Directory in the Brumaire coup, with Napoleon installing himself as Consul. Napoleon then reorganized the French army and launched a new assault against the Austrians in Italy during the spring of 1800. This latest effort culminated in a decisive French victory at the Battle of Marengo in June 1800, after which the Austrians withdrew from the peninsula once again. Another crushing French triumph at Hohenlinden in Bavaria forced the Austrians to seek peace for a second time, leading to the Treaty of Lunéville in 1801. With Austria and Russia out of the war, Britain found herself increasingly isolated and agreed to the Treaty of Amiens with Napoleon's government in 1802, concluding the Revolutionary Wars. The lingering tensions proved too difficult to contain, however, and the Napoleonic Wars began a few years later with the formation of the Third Coalition.
- 1 Background
- 2 War of the First Coalition
- 3 War of the Second Coalition
- 4 Outcome
- 5 See also
- 6 Footnotes
- 7 Further reading
- 8 External links
French Revolutionary Army
In 1789–1792, the entire governmental structure of France was transformed to fall into line with the Revolutionary principles of "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity". The signing of the Declaration of Pillnitz (August 1791) between Leopold II, Holy Roman Emperor and King Frederick William II of Prussia and the subsequent French declaration of war (April 1792) meant that from its formation, the Republic of France was at war, and it required a potent military force to ensure its survival. As a result, one of the first major elements of the French state to be restructured was the army.
The transformation of the army was best seen in the officer corps. Before the revolution 90% had been nobility, compared to only 3% in 1794. Revolutionary fervour was high, and was closely monitored by the Committee of Public Safety, which assigned Representatives on Mission to keep watch on generals. Indeed, some generals deserted, others were removed or executed. The government demanded that soldiers be loyal to the government in Paris, not to their generals. A characteristic of the French revolutionary armies, later perfected in the Napoleonic era, was their ability to forage war supplies more effectively than their enemies from the territories they were marching in, "living off the fat of the land", and giving them a crucial advantage in strategic mobility.
War of the First Coalition
As early as 1791, the other monarchies of Europe looked with outrage at the revolution and its upheavals, and considered whether they should intervene, either in support of King Louis XVI, or to prevent the spread of revolution, or to take advantage of the chaos in France. Then, the key figure was Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II, brother of Louis XVI's Queen Marie Antoinette. Leopold had initially looked on the Revolution with equanimity, but became more and more disturbed as the Revolution became more radical, although he still hoped to avoid war. On 27 August, Leopold and King Frederick William II of Prussia, in consultation with emigrant French nobles, issued the Declaration of Pillnitz, which declared the interest of the monarchs of Europe in the well-being of Louis and his family, and threatened vague but severe consequences if anything should befall them. Although Leopold saw the Pillnitz Declaration as a non-committal gesture to placate the sentiments of French monarchists and nobles, it was seen in France as a serious threat and was denounced by the revolutionary leaders.
France eventually issued an ultimatum demanding that Austria renounce any hostile alliances and withdraw its troops from the French border. The reply was evasive and the Assembly voted for war on 20 April 1792, after a long list of grievances presented by foreign minister Dumouriez. Dumouriez prepared an immediate invasion of the Austrian Netherlands, where he expected the local population to rise against Austrian rule, as they had earlier in 1790. However, the revolution had thoroughly disorganized the army, and the forces raised were insufficient for the invasion. Following the declaration of war, French soldiers deserted en masse and, in one case, murdered their general, Théobald Dillon.
While the revolutionary government frantically raised fresh troops and reorganized its armies, a mostly Prussian allied army under Charles William Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick assembled at Koblenz on the Rhine. In July, the invasion commenced, with Brunswick's army easily taking the fortresses of Longwy and Verdun. The duke then issued a proclamation called the Brunswick Manifesto (July 1792), written by the French king's cousin, Louis Joseph de Bourbon, Prince de Condé, the leader of an émigré corps within the allied army, which declared the Allies' intent to restore the king to his full powers and to treat any person or town who opposed them as rebels to be condemned to death by martial law. This, however, had the effect of strengthening the resolve of the revolutionary army and government to oppose them by any means necessary. On 10 August, a crowd stormed the Tuileries Palace, seizing the king and his family.
The invasion continued, but at Valmy on 20 September, the invaders came to a stalemate against Dumouriez and Kellermann in which the highly professional French artillery distinguished itself. Although the battle was a tactical draw, it gave a great boost to French morale. Further, the Prussians, finding that the campaign had been longer and more costly than predicted, decided that the cost and risk of continued fighting was too great and, with winter approaching, they decided to retreat from France to preserve their army. The next day, the monarchy was formally abolished as the First Republic was declared (21 September 1792).
Meanwhile, the French had been successful on several other fronts, occupying Savoy and Nice which were parts of the Kingdom of Sardinia, while General Custine invaded Germany, occupying several German towns along the Rhine, and reaching as far as Frankfurt. Dumouriez went on the offensive in the Austrian Netherlands once again, winning a great victory over the Austrians at the Battle of Jemappes on 6 November, and occupying the entire country by the beginning of winter.
Spain and Portugal entered the anti-French coalition in January 1793. Britain began military preparations in late 1792 and declared that war was inevitable unless France gave up its conquests, notwithstanding French assurances they would not attack Holland or annex the Low Countries. Britain expelled the French ambassador following the execution of Louis XVI and on 1 February France responded by declaring war on Great Britain and the Dutch Republic.
France drafted hundreds of thousands of men, beginning a policy of using mass conscription to deploy more of its manpower than the autocratic states could manage to do (first stage, with a decree of 24 February 1793 ordering the draft of 300,000 men, then with the general mobilization of all the young men able to be drafted, through the famous decree of 23 August 1793). Nonetheless, the Coalition allies launched a determined drive to invade France during the Flanders Campaign.
France suffered severe reverses at first. They were driven out of the Austrian Netherlands, and serious revolts flared in the west and south of France. One of these, at Toulon, was the first serious taste of action for an unknown young artillery officer Napoleon Bonaparte. He contributed to the siege of the city and its harbor by planning an effective assault with well-placed artillery batteries raining projectiles down on rebel positions. This performance helped make his reputation as a capable tactician, and it fueled his meteoric rise to military and political power. Once the city was occupied, he participated in pacifying the rebelling citizens of Toulon with the same artillery that he first used to conquer the city.
By the end of the year, large new armies had turned back foreign invaders, and the Reign of Terror, a fierce policy of repression, had suppressed internal revolts. The French military was in the ascendant. Lazare Carnot, a scientist and prominent member of the Committee of Public Safety, organized the fourteen armies of the Republic, and was then nicknamed the Organizer of the Victory.
The year 1794 brought increased success to the revolutionary armies. Although an invasion of Piedmont failed, an invasion of Spain across the Pyrenees took San Sebastián, and the French won a victory at Fleurus, the French Aerostatic Corps use of the reconnaissance balloon L'Entreprenant marked the first military use of an aircraft that had decisive influence on the outcome of the battle, and occupied all of Low Countries and the Rhineland.
At sea, the French and British fleets clashed on the First of June over a convoy arriving from the United States. Both sides claimed victory, since the British sank or captured a quarter of the French Atlantic Fleet with minimal losses of their own, but the vital grain convoy got through unharmed and dispelled the threat of an impending famine.
After occupying the Netherlands in a fast moving, mid-winter campaign, France established the Batavian Republic as a sister republic. Now Prussia and Spain, and then Hessen-Kassel, each decided to make a separate peace. In the three parts of the 1795 Peace of Basel Prussia secretly ceded the left bank of the Rhine to France; Spain withdrew from the War of the Pyrenees—freeing French armies from the Pyrenees front—and ceded the eastern two-thirds of Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic). This ended the main crisis phase of the Revolution and France proper was free from invasion for many years.
Britain attempted to reinforce the rebels in the Vendée, but failed, and attempts to overthrow the government at Paris by force were foiled by the military garrison led by Napoleon Bonaparte, leading to the establishment of the Directory.
Jourdan and Moreau advanced rapidly into Germany, and Moreau had reached Bavaria and the edge of Tyrol by September, but Jourdan was defeated by Archduke Charles, and both armies were forced to retreat back across the Rhine.
Napoleon, on the other hand, was completely successful in a daring invasion of Italy. He separated the armies of Sardinia and Austria, defeating them in detail, and forced a peace on Sardinia while capturing Milan and besieging Mantua. He also had defeated successive Austrian armies sent against him under Alvintzy at the bridge of Arcole and Wurmser at Rivoli while continuing the siege.
In February, the Battle of Cape St. Vincent saw the British block an attempt by a larger Spanish fleet to join the French fleet at Brest that had landed the Légion Noire (The Black Legion) in England.
Napoleon finally captured Mantua by siege, and, in the process, the Austrians surrendered eighteen thousand men. Archduke Charles of Austria was unable to prevent Napoleon at the Battle of Tagliamento from invading the Tyrol, and the Austrian government sued for peace in April, at the same time that a new French invasion of Germany, under the generals, Moreau and Hoche, began.
Austria signed the Treaty of Campo Formio in October, conceding the Austrian Netherlands (modern Belgium) to France and recognizing French control of the Rhineland and much of Italy. The ancient republic of Venice was partitioned between Austria and France. This ended the War of the First Coalition, although Great Britain remained a belligerent.
With only Britain left to fight and not enough of a navy to fight a direct war, Napoleon conceived of an invasion of Egypt in 1798, which satisfied his personal desire for glory and the Directory's desire to have him far from Paris. The military objective of the expedition is not entirely clear, but may have been to threaten British dominance in India.
Napoleon sailed from Toulon to Alexandria, taking Malta on the way, and landing in June. Marching to Cairo, he won a great victory at the Battle of the Pyramids; however, his fleet was sunk by Nelson at the Battle of the Nile, stranding him in Egypt. Napoleon spent the remainder of the year consolidating his position in Egypt.
The French government also took advantage of internal strife in Switzerland to invade, establishing the Helvetian Republic and annexing Geneva. French troops also deposed Pope Pius VI, establishing a republic in Rome.
An expeditionary force was sent to County Mayo to assist in the rebellion against Britain in the summer of 1798. It had some success against British forces, most notably at Castlebar, but was ultimately routed while trying to reach Dublin. French ships sent to assist them were captured by the Royal Navy off County Donegal.
The French in 1798 fought an undeclared war at sea against the United States, that was known variously as the "Quasi-War", the "Half War" and the "Pirate Wars". It was resolved peaceably with the Convention of 1800.
War of the Second Coalition
Britain and Austria organized a new coalition against France in 1798, including for the first time the Russian Empire, although no action occurred until 1799 except against the kingdom of the Two Sicilies.
In Europe, the allies mounted several invasions, including campaigns in Italy and Switzerland and an Anglo-Russian invasion of the Netherlands. Russian general Aleksandr Suvorov inflicted a series of defeats on the French in Italy, driving them back to the Alps. However, the allies were less successful in the Netherlands, where the British retreated after a defeat at Castricum, and in Switzerland, where after initial victories a Russian army was completely routed at the Second Battle of Zurich. This reverses, as well as British insistence on searching shipping in the Baltic Sea led to Russia withdrawing from the Coalition.
Napoleon himself invaded Syria from Egypt, but after a failed siege of Acre retreated to Egypt, repelling a British-Turkish invasion. Alerted to the political and military crisis in France, he returned, leaving his army behind, and used his popularity and army support to mount a coup that made him First Consul, the head of the French government.
Napoleon sent Moreau to campaign in Germany, and went himself to raise a new army at Dijon and march through Switzerland to attack the Austrian armies in Italy from behind. Narrowly avoiding defeat, he defeated the Austrians at the Battle of Marengo and reoccupied northern Italy.
The Austrians negotiated the Treaty of Lunéville, basically accepting the terms of the previous Treaty of Campo Formio. In Egypt, the Ottomans and British invaded and finally compelled the French to surrender after the fall of Cairo and Alexandria.
Britain continued the war at sea. A coalition of non-combatants including Prussia, Russia, Denmark, and Sweden joined to protect neutral shipping from Britain's blockade, resulting in Nelson's surprise attack on the Danish fleet in harbor at the Battle of Copenhagen.
In December 1801, an expedition was sent to Saint-Domingue to quell the revolution that had started there in 1791 once and for all, but the blockade of the Caribbean island by the British fleet made the sending of reinforcements impossible.
In 1802, the British and French signed the Treaty of Amiens, ending the war. Thus began the longest period of peace during the period 1792–1815. The treaty is generally considered to be the most appropriate point to mark the transition between the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars, although Napoleon was not crowned emperor until 1804.
The First French Republic, starting from a position precariously near occupation and collapse, had defeated both its internal enemies and foreign powers and produced a revolutionary army that would take the other powers years to emulate. With the conquest of the left bank of the Rhine and Belgium and domination of the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Italy, the Republic had achieved nearly all the territorial goals that had eluded the Valois and Bourbon monarchs for centuries.
However the Amiens peace proved to be fragile, and lasted little over a year before hostilities resumed with the Third Coalition.
- The Austrian Netherlands and the Duchy of Milan were under direct Austrian rule. Many other Italian states, as well as other Habsburg ruled states such as the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, had close ties with the Habsburgs.
- Neutral following the Treaty of Basel in 1795.
- Became the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland on 1 January 1801.
- Virtually all of the Italian states, including the neutral Papal States and the Republic of Venice, were conquered following Napoleon's invasion in 1796 and became French satellite states.
- Most forces fled rather than engaging the invading French army. Allied with France in 1795 as the Batavian Republic following the Peace of Basel.
- War against Austria was actually announced in the National Assembly by then King Louis XVI of the French on 20 April 1792 while the kingdom still existed in name. (Constitutional) monarchy was suspended on 10 August following the assault on the Tuileries, and abolished 21 September 1792
- Started the Irish Rebellion of 1798 against British rule.
- Arrived in France following the abolition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth after the Third Partition in 1795.
- Re-entered the war as an ally of France after signing the Second Treaty of San Ildefonso.
- Officially neutral but Danish fleet was attacked by Great Britain at the Battle of Copenhagen.
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