The French Revolutionary Wars were a series of major conflicts fought between the French Revolutionary government and several European states from 1792 to 1802. Marked by French revolutionary fervour and military innovations, the campaigns saw the French Revolutionary Armies defeat a number of opposing coalitions. They resulted in expanded French control to the Low Countries, Italy, and the Rhineland. The wars depended on extremely high numbers of soldiers, recruited by modern mass conscription.
The French Revolutionary Wars are usually divided between those of the First Coalition (1792–1797) and the Second Coalition (1798–1801). France was at war with Great Britain continuously from 1793 to 1802. Hostilities with Great Britain ceased with the Treaty of Amiens in 1802, but conflict soon started up again with the Napoleonic Wars. The Treaty of Amiens is usually reckoned to mark the end of the French Revolutionary Wars; however, historians have proposed other events before and after 1802 as the starting point of the Napoleonic Wars.
War of the First Coalition[edit | edit source]
1791–1792[edit | edit source]
As early as 1791, the other monarchies of Europe looked with concern 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. 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.
In addition to the ideological differences between France and the monarchical powers of Europe, there were continuing disputes over the status of Imperial estates in Alsace, and the French were becoming concerned about the agitation of émigré nobles abroad, especially in the Austrian Netherlands and the minor states of Germany.
France declared war on Austria first, with the Assembly voting 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. 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, 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, where Louis and his family had been staying.
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.
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 Belgium once again, winning a great victory over the Austrians at Jemappes on 6 November, and occupying the entire country by the beginning of winter.
1793[edit | edit source]
On 21 January, the revolutionary government executed Louis XVI. Spain and Portugal entered the anti-French coalition in January 1793, and, on 1 February, France declared 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). This approach also allowed the French to maintain an offensive long enough that these vast armies might commandeer war material from territory taken from their enemies and, to a certain extent, "live off the fat of the land". 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 (Belgium), 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 and a fierce policy of internal repression had turned back foreign invaders and 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.
1794[edit | edit source]
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 Belgium and the Rhineland.
At sea, the French and British fleets clashed on the First of June over a grain 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 convoy got through unharmed.
1795[edit | edit source]
After seizing the Netherlands in a surprise winter attack France established the Batavian Republic as a puppet state. 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.
1796[edit | edit source]
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 Wurmser and Alvintzy while continuing the siege.
1797[edit | edit source]
In February, the Battle of Cape St. Vincent saw the British block an attempt by a larger Spanish fleet to join the French at Brest.
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 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 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.
1798[edit | edit source]
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 destroyed 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 were also under pressure in Belgium and Luxembourg where the local people revolted against conscription and anti-religious violence (Peasants' War).
The French also fought an undeclared war at sea against the United States, that was known as the "Quasi-War".
War of the Second Coalition[edit | edit source]
Britain and Austria organized a new coalition against France in 1798, including for the first time Russia, although no action occurred until 1799 except against Naples.
1799[edit | edit source]
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 stalemate (although they did manage to capture the Dutch fleet), and in Switzerland, where after initial victories a Russian army was completely defeated at the Second Battle of Zurich. This reverse, 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. Hearing of a 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.
1800[edit | edit source]
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 Marengo and reoccupied northern Italy.
Moreau meanwhile invaded Bavaria and won a great battle against Austria at Hohenlinden. Moreau continued toward Vienna and the Austrians sued for peace.
1801[edit | edit source]
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.
1802[edit | edit source]
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.
Results[edit | edit source]
The First French Republic, starting from a position precariously near occupation and collapse, had defeated all its enemies (bar Britain and the United States, whose inability to directly strike at France made this a moot point) 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 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.
See also[edit | edit source]
Notes[edit | edit source]
- Nominally the Holy Roman Empire, of which the Austrian Netherlands and the Duchy of Milan were under direct Austrian rule. Also encompassed many other Italian states, as well as other Habsburg ruled states such as the Grand Duchy of Tuscany.
- Neutral following the Peace of Basel in 1795.
- Became the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland on 1 January 1801.
- Declared war on France in 1799, but left the Second Coalition the same year.
- Left the war after signing the Peace of Basel with France.
- 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.
- 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.
- Mark E. Pietrzyk, Ph.D. - The Idea of a Democratic Zone of Peace: Origins in the Enlightenment - Impact of the French Revolution - internationalorder.com - Retrieved 4 July 2012.
Further reading[edit | edit source]
- Attar, Frank, La Révolution française déclare la guerre à l'Europe. ISBN 2-87027-448-3
- Attar, Frank, • Aux armes citoyens ! Naissance et fonctions du bellicisme révolutionnaire. ISBN 2-0208-8891-2
- Blanning, T. C. W., The French Revolutionary Wars, 1787–1801. ISBN 0-340-64533-4
- Dupuy, Trevor N. and Dupuy, R. Ernest, The Harper Encyclopedia of Military History, HarperCollins, ISBN 0-06-270056-1
- History of the French Revolution from 1789 to 1814, by François Mignet (1824), as made available by Project Gutenberg (out-of-copyright)
- Schneid, Frederick C.: The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, European History Online, Mainz: Institute of European History, 2011, retrieved: 29 June 2011.
[edit | edit source]
- 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article on French Revolutionary Wars at Wikisource
- Napoleon, His Armies and Battles
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