You Gotta Know These Napoleonic Battles

Napoleon Bonaparte (born 1769 on the Mediterranean island of Corsica) rose to power during the later stages of the French Revolution. He defended the revolutionary government with artillery fire during the coup of 13 Vendémiaire (October 1795) and was rewarded with command of the French forces in Italy, where his series of battlefield victories forced Austria to sign the 1797 Treaty of Campo Formio. Over the next eighteen years, Napoleon rose from general to first consul to emperor of France, effectively ending the French Revolution and provoking a series of “Napoleonic Wars” that sent French troops into battle in places as distant as Egypt, Portugal, and central Russia. To defeat and depose the upstart emperor, it took a coalition of European powers nearly two decades of warfare, including the following battles:

  1. The Pyramids (July 21, 1798, Egypt) and the Nile (August 1–3, 1798, Egypt) After his victory over Austria, Napoleon proposed crossing the Mediterranean and invading Egypt. While the stated goal of this expedition was to strike a blow against British trade with the Middle East and Asia, it also catered to Napoleon’s fascination with antiquity. A team of scientists followed his military expedition, whose most lasting result was the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, unearthed by soldiers digging to construct a fort in the Nile delta. Napoleon supposedly cried “Soldiers, forty centuries look down upon you” at the 1798 Battle of the Pyramids, where his troops used modern artillery and large square formations to ward off a cavalry charge by the Egyptian Mamluks. French control of Egypt, however, was dependent on communications across the Mediterranean, which were interrupted by the Royal Navy’s attack on the French fleet in Aboukir Bay in early August. British victory at the Nile forced Napoleon to abandon his army and return to France.
  2. Marengo (June 14, 1800, northern Italy) The coup of 18 Brumaire (November 9, 1799) brought down France’s existing government (the Directory) and made Napoleon himself “first consul,” the effective leader of France. While Napoleon was absent in Egypt, a coalition of Austria, Russia, and Britain had pushed French troops back on all fronts. In 1800 Napoleon marched over the Alps to roll back Austrian gains in Italy. His troops, overextended in an attempt to relieve the Austrian siege of Genoa, were hit by an Austrian surprise attack on June 14, 1800. General Louis Desaix led a column of French reinforcements to Napoleon’s aid; the additional troops drove off the Austrian army, but Desaix was shot and killed.
  3. Trafalgar (October 21, 1805, off the coast of southwestern Spain) In 1804 Napoleon abolished the consulate and became France’s emperor. He faced an array of enemies who made up the “Third Coalition”: the humiliated Austrians sought military aid from both Russia and Britain. France and Spain allied in the hope of challenging the Royal Navy and making it possible for Napoleon’s armies to launch an invasion of Britain. Trafalgar, fought in the Atlantic off the coast of Spain in the fall of 1805, was the last great naval battle of the Napoleonic era. A combined French and Spanish fleet under admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve was attacked by Royal Navy ships under Lord Horatio Nelson, Britain’s greatest admiral. Just before the battle, Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory, flew the signal “England expects that every man will do his duty.” Although Nelson was killed by a French sniper in the battle that followed, his ships captured half of the French fleet, including Admiral Villeneuve. French plans to invade Britain were postponed indefinitely.
  4. Austerlitz (December 2, 1805, Czech Republic) Napoleon’s Grand Army then struck east at Austria and Russia, the land-bound members of the Third Coalition. Napoleon’s first move was to force the surrender of 30,000 Austrians under General Mack at Ulm. The French then turned east into the heart of Austria, where they seized Vienna and awaited counterattack by the Russians. At Austerlitz on December 2, 1805, a mostly-Russian coalition army collided with the waiting French. (The Russians, led in person by Tsar Alexander I, were joined by the scattered remains of the Austrian army under Holy Roman Emperor Francis II. Austerlitz is thus known as the “Battle of the Three Emperors.”) The allies, planning to advance their left, abandoned the Pratzen Heights, a dominating hill in the center of the battlefield. Napoleon seized the heights, splitting the Russian army and then defeating each half in turn. The resulting Peace of Pressburg (December 26, 1805) ended the War of the Third Coalition and brought about the downfall of the Holy Roman Empire.
  5. Jena-Auerstedt (October 14, 1806, Germany) In 1806 Napoleon turned his forces against Prussia. At the twin October battles of Jena and Auerstedt, Napoleon and Marshal Louis-Nicolas Davout worked together to smash a Prussian army led by the Duke of Brunswick, who was mortally wounded by Davout’s troops near Auerstadt. The collapse of the Prussian army, widely considered the continent’s most experienced and professional military force, shocked European observers. Napoleon felt that he had secured revenge for Frederick the Great’s victory over France at Rossbach in the Seven Years’ War (1757).
  6. Salamanca (July 22, 1812, Spain) While Napoleon struggled against Austrians, Russians, and Prussians on the plains of central and eastern Europe, a smaller but no less violent conflict was fought for control of Spain and Portugal. During this “Peninsular War” (1807–1814), the throne of Spain was claimed by Napoleon’s older brother, Joseph Bonaparte. Spanish and Portuguese resistance (the first “guerrilla” warfare, from the Spanish for “little war”) was supported by the landing of British troops under the command of the Duke of Wellington. Wellington’s triumph over Marshal Auguste Marmont at Salamanca in July 1812 was a decisive blow against the stability of Joseph’s regime.
  7. Borodino (September 7, 1812, Russia) In 1812 Napoleon assembled the largest army of his reign for the most ambitious military operation of the 19th century: a full-scale invasion of Russia. Russan Tsar Alexander I, despite losing to Napoleon in central Europe between 1805 and 1807, refused to agree to the “Continental System,” the Napoleonic proposal for a Europe-wide embargo on British trade in manufactured goods. Napoleon’s march on Moscow was slowed by Russian resistance at Borodino, where Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov’s army was driven out of fortified redoubts after a day of destructive fighting. Although French forces were briefly able to seize control of Moscow, the subsequent retreat through the worst of the Russian winter ruined Napoleon’s Grand Army.
  8. Leipzig (October 16–19, 1813, Germany) The following year the Russian army marched west into central Europe at the head of a “Sixth Coalition” that brought the previously defeated Austrians and Prussians back into hostilities against France. At Leipzig in central Germany coalition forces met a hastily-assembled replacement army raised by Napoleon after the disaster in Russia. More than 600,000 men fought in this four-day struggle, popularly known as the “Battle of the Nations” for the multi-ethnic nature of the coalition army. The forces of Saxony, one of the minor German states, switched sides during the Battle of Leipzig, leaving Napoleon’s army to join the allies. The premature destruction of a bridge over the River Elster hindered Napoleon’s retreat from Leipzig, the first in a series of military disasters that led to the emperor’s forced abdication and exiled to the Mediterranean island of Elba in 1814.
  9. Waterloo (June 18, 1815, Belgium) Napoleon’s escape from Elba began a period known as the “Hundred Days,” in which the emperor briefly returned to the throne of France. The struggle between the restored emperor and the “Seventh Coalition” began when Napoleon’s Army of the North marched into the Low Countries, hoping for a showdown with the British, Dutch, and Prussians before the Austrian and Russian armies gathering further east could come to their aid. The French brushed aside Allied advance guards at the two preliminary battles of Quatre Bras and Ligny on June 16. Napoleon’s victory over the Prussians at Ligny led him to falsely believe that he had enough time to pursue and defeat the British without further Prussian interference. On June 18 Napoleon’s advance on Brussels approached the crossroads of Mont St. Jean, where the Duke of Wellington had set up a defensive position for a combined army of British Peninsular War veterans, Dutch, and pro-British Germans. On the French left, British troops defended the walled farm of Hougoumont from a series of infantry assaults; in the center, Marshal Michel Ney’s massed cavalry charge was broken by the square formations of the British infantry; on the right, Gebhard von Blücher’s Prussian army arrived to attack the French army in the flank. Napoleon’s final gamble was to commit his Imperial Guard to a renewed assault on the Allied center. The guardsmen were cut down by the fire of British light infantry, leading to the general collapse of the French army. Napoleon was exiled once more, this time to the isolated South Atlantic island of St. Helena, where he died in 1821.

Recommended Reading

  • David A. Bell, The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007)
  • David Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (New York: Macmillan, 1966)
  • Owen Connolly, Blundering to Glory: Napoleon’s Military Campaigns (Wilmington, Delaware: Scholarly Resources, 1987)
  • Dominic Lieven, Russia Against Napoleon (New York: Viking, 2010)
  • Gunther E. Rothenberg, The Art of Warfare in the Age of Napoleon (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978)

This article was contributed by NAQT member Jeff Hoppes.

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