French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars

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The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1792–1815)


The period of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars encompassed the years 1792 to 1815. The French Revolution (1789–99), stemming from a dissatisfied populace, rioting, and poor harvests, commenced with the storming of the royal Bastille prison and set out its aims in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen which embodied the principles of liberty, equality, property rights, and freedom of speech for all men. In the French Revolutionary Wars (1792–1802) France fought against Great Britain, Austria, Prussia, Russia and several other conservative monarchies. This conflict is divided in two periods: the War of the First Coalition (1792–97) and the War of the Second Coalition (1798–1802). The French Revolutionary Wars began with threats by the other European powers towards the young French Republic, but later expanded with French conquests. Initially confined to Europe, the fighting gradually assumed a global dimension. After a decade of constant warfare and aggressive diplomacy, France had conquered 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 beyond. Revolutionary France succeeded because it fought with mass armies drafted by universal conscription.

Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821) was a successful military general and from 1899 political leader of revolutionary France before he crowned himself Emperor of the French in December 1804. The era of the Napoleonic Wars (1803–15) started with the War of the Third Coalition (1803–06) in which France and its satellite states fought against a coalition of Britain, Austria, Russia, Sicily and Sweden. This conflict was followed by the Wars of the Fourth to Seventh Coalition from 1806 to 1815. The Napoleonic army was defeated first in the Russian campaign (June – December 1812), and then again decisively in the Battle of Leipzig in October 1813, but France did not accept its defeat by the Sixth Coalition until the Battle of Paris in March 1814. Napoleon was exiled to the island of Elba, but returned to France in March 1815, and was ultimately defeated in the Battle of Waterloo three months later. The Napoleonic Wars took place not only all over Europe, but also the Atlantic Ocean, Mediterranean Sea, North Sea, Río de la Plata, French Guiana, West Indies, Indian Ocean, North America, and the Caucasus. During the height of its power around 1810 Napoleon had succeeded in bringing most of Western Europe under one rule.

The size of the militaries and levels of mobilization in society during the era of the Napoleonic Wars were unprecedented and the wars, in many ways, presaged the World Wars of the twentieth century. About 2.8 million Frenchmen fought on land and about 150,000 at sea, bringing the total for France to almost three million combatants during 23 years of warfare. The estimated total number of casualties from the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars is 2.5 million combatants’ casualties with another one million civilian casualties, which in relation to the population was similar to the First World War. The Congress of Vienna (1814–15) ended the conflict. The counter-revolutionary monarchic forces returned to power and brought the Bourbon monarchy back on the French throne. Many of the borders were restored. The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars did more than cause destruction and death, however, because despite a period of Napoleon’s imperialist and reactionary politics, the spread of national and liberal ideas and French revolutionary ideals such as liberty, equality, and fraternity was ultimately unstoppable.

For basic information see the Wikipedia pages on the French Revolutionary Wars (1792–1802) and the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815).


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