Napoleonic Wars

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Napoleonic Wars

Napoleonic Wars, 1803–15, the wars waged by or against France under Napoleon I. For a discussion of them see under Napoleon I.
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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Napoleonic Wars


the wars waged by France during Napoleon I’s Consulate (1799–1804) and Empire (1804–14; 1815). The Napoleonic Wars were fought in the interests of the French bourgeoisie, which tried to establish its military, political, commercial, and industrial hegemony over Europe, annex new territories to France, and win the struggle with Great Britain for world commercial and colonial supremacy. Fought virtually without interruption until the fall of the Empire of Napoleon I, they were, on the whole, aggressive wars, but at first they had some progressive aspects. The Napoleonic Wars contributed objectively to undermining the foundation of the feudal system. By eliminating dozens of small feudal states in Germany, introducing the Napoleonic Civil Code in several conquered countries, confiscating and reselling some monastic lands, and abolishing some of the nobility’s privileges, the wars cleared the way for the development of capitalist relations in a number of European countries. However, when Napoleon I conquered several countries, placing their peoples under the double yoke of the foreign invaders and of their “own” native exploiters, the Napoleonic Wars became purely aggressive wars and lost their once characteristic progressive elements.

At the time of the coup d’etat of 18 Brumaire (Nov. 9–10), 1799, which resulted in the establishment of Napoleon’s military dictatorship, France was at war with the Second Coalition. Formed in 1798–99, it included Russia, Great Britain, Austria, Turkey, and the Kingdom of Naples. (The first anti-French coalition, which had been formed in 1792–93, was made up of Austria, Prussia, Great Britain, and several other states.) In May 1800, Napoleon led his army across the Alps into Italy, defeated the Austrian troops in the battle of Marengo (June 14, 1800), and established French rule over some of the Italian territories and, subsequently, over almost all of Italy. In the same year, after Russia had left the coalition because of disagreements with the allies, the second anti-French coalition broke up, and Great Britain continued to fight alone.

After the resignation of W. Pitt the Younger in 1801, the British government entered into negotiations with France. The Treaty of Amiens was signed in 1802. However, the war between Great Britain and France resumed in May 1803. In the battle of Trafalgar (1805) the British fleet under Admiral H. Nelson defeated and destroyed the combined Franco-Spanish fleet, thwarting Napoleon’s strategic plan for invading Great Britain with a French expeditionary force concentrated in the Boulogne camp.

The third anti-French coalition (Great Britain, Austria, Russia, and Sweden) was formed in 1805. Its forces had a great numerical superiority over Napoleon’s army. In the 1805 campaign Napoleon decided to compensate for the numerical superiority of the allied forces with rapid troop movements aimed at destroying the enemy forces unit by unit and engaging the enemy in a general battle before its reserves could be moved up. After encircling the Austrian Army at Ulm, Napoleon inflicted a heavy defeat on the Russo-Austrian troops in the battle of Austerlitz (Dec. 2, 1805).

Under the Treaty of Pressburg, which Austria was forced to sign with France on Dec. 26, 1805, Austria recognized all the French conquests in Italy and in western and southern Germany. Thus, Austria lost most of its possessions. In June 1806, Napoleon created the Confederation of the Rhine out of the states of western and southern Germany and made it part of a military bloc with France. The formation of the confederation marked the end of the Holy Roman Empire (August 1806), which had been ruled by the Hapsburgs, the Austrian dynasty.

The Fourth Coalition (Russia, Great Britain, Sweden, and Prussia) was formed in September 1806. In October 1806 the Prussian Army was completely destroyed in the battles of Jena and Auerstädt, and Prussia was occupied by French troops. In February 1807, Napoleon failed to defeat Russian troops in a bitter battle at Eylau, but he was victorious in June at Friedland.

Under the Treaty of Tilsit (1807), Russia recognized the territorial and political changes brought about in Europe by Napoleonic France and joined the Continental System, which had been proclaimed by Napoleon in 1806. The French occupied Spain in the spring of 1808, capturing Madrid in March 1808.

During the Austro-French War of 1809, Austria, which had again allied itself with Great Britain (the fifth anti-French coalition), was defeated by Napoleon at Wagram and became a dependency of France. In 1810 the Kingdom of Holland, which was dependent on France, was incorporated into the French Empire.

The French victories over the armies of the feudal absolutist states were due primarily to bourgeois France’s more progressive social system and to the more advanced military system created by the French Revolution. Napoleon, a brilliant military leader, perfected the strategy and tactics developed during the revolutionary wars. Most of the soldiers in the Napoleonic army were free peasants whose term of military service was five years. The army also included troops from states subject to Napoleon, as well as foreign corps supplied by his allies. Large army units known as corps were formed. (Cavalry corps were also established.) The artillery, to which Napoleon attached great importance, was strengthened. Recruited from veteran soldiers (10,000 men in 1804; 60,000 in 1812), the Guards were a powerful striking reserve including all the combat arms.

The Napoleonic army was characterized by high combat training and discipline, particularly before its best forces were destroyed in Russia in 1812. Soldiers who distinguished themselves were made officers. Napoleon was surrounded by a galaxy of talented marshals and young generals, including L. Davout, J. Murat, A. Masséna, M. Ney, L.-A. Berthier, J.-B. Bernadotte, and N. Soult, many of whom had risen through the ranks or from the lowest strata of the population. However, as the French Army became almost exclusively an instrument for carrying out Napoleon’s aggressive plans and as it suffered tremendous losses, its combat qualities declined considerably. (For example, of the 3,153,000 men drafted into military service in France between 1800 and 1815, 1,750,000 died between 1804 and 1814 alone.)

The continuous wars and conquests created a huge Napoleonic Empire, in addition to a system of states directly or indirectly subject to France. Napoleon plundered the conquered countries. The army in the field was supplied primarily by requisitions or direct plunder, in accordance with the principle that “the war must feed the war.” Tariffs favorable to France seriously hurt the countries dependent on the Napoleonic Empire. The Napoleonic Wars provided a constant and important source of revenue for Napoleon’s government, for the French bourgeoisie, and for the military elite.

As V. I. Lenin pointed out, the wars of the French Revolution began as national wars. “They were revolutionary wars—the defense of the great revolution against a coalition of counterrevolutionary monarchies. But when Napoleon founded the French Empire and subjugated a number of big, viable, and long-established national European states, these national wars of the French became imperialist wars and in turn led to wars of national liberation against Napoleonic imperialism” (Poln. sobr. soch. 5th ed., vol. 30, pp. 5–6).

The national liberation struggle of the oppressed peoples against Napoleonic domination began in Spain (the Spanish Revolution of 1808–14). In 1809 an uprising broke out in the Tirol against French occupation forces. Various centers of resistance to Napoleonic oppression emerged in several of the German states. However, the decisive blow against the Napoleonic Empire was struck in Russia. Napoleon clearly underestimated his opponent’s forces when he decided to launch a campaign against Russia in 1812—a campaign that was preceded by extensive strategic and diplomatic preparation. He hoped to destroy the main forces of the Russian Army in a general battle near the frontier and then quickly capture Moscow, where he planned to dictate the terms for peace. The plan failed. The heroic struggle of the Russian people and of the Russian Army under the command of Field Marshal M. I. Kutuzov led to the destruction of Napoleon’s Grand Army, which had invaded Russia (the Patriotic War of 1812).

The crushing defeat of Napoleon’s army drastically changed the balance of power in Europe and had a tremendous effect on the subsequent course of events. In the wake of the defeat there was a powerful upsurge in the liberation struggle of the European peoples. A war of liberation (chiefly a partisan war) against Napoleon’s rule broke out in Germany and particularly in Prussia. Under pressure from the people’s liberation movement, the Prussian government was compelled to voice its opposition to France. In February 1813, Prussia signed the Treaty of Kalisz with Russia, inaugurating the sixth anti-French coalition. (Originally made up of Russia, Great Britain, Prussia, and Sweden, the coalition was joined in August 1813 by Austria and several other states.)

In the military campaigns after 1812 the Russian Army was the nucleus of the coalition forces. The spirit of a people’s war against Napoleonic France greatly improved the combat ability of the regular armies of the anti-Napoleonic coalition. As a result of the Battle of Leipzig of 1813, all of Germany was freed from Napoleon’s rule.

Although Napoleon’s army won a few victories in early 1814 against allied armies entering French territory, France was defeated. In late March 1814 allied troops entered Paris. Napoleon was forced to abdicate (April 1814) and was sent to the island of Elba. Under the terms of the Treaty of Paris (May 1814), France lost all the territories it had conquered in the late 18th century and early 19th. The disposition of these territories was to be decided by an international congress (the Congress of Vienna, 1814–15).

Napoleon regained his throne in 1815 (the Hundred Days) but was defeated by British troops led by Wellington and Prussian troops led by G. Blücher at Waterloo, the last battle of the Napoleonic Wars. On July 6, 1815, the troops of the seventh anti-French coalition entered Paris. (Formed in the spring of 1815, the coalition included Russia, Great Britain, Austria, and Prussia.) On Nov. 20, 1815, the allies signed a second Paris treaty with France, restoring the power of the Bourbons.

As K. Marx emphasized, “all the wars for independence fought against France were characterized by a combination of the spirit of rebirth and the spirit of reaction” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 10, p. 436). The character of the wars against Napoleonic France was contradictory. Because the people were struggling for independence from foreign oppression, they were wars of liberation. At the same time, the goals and policies of the monarchist governments and ruling circles of the coalition states gave the wars against France a reactionary character. In 1813 the war against Napoleon was essentially a war of liberation. But in 1814 the states that were waging “against Napoleon by no means a war of liberation but an imperialist war” transferred the war to French soil, intending to restore the feudal order and the Bourbon dynasty (Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 35, p. 382). Subsequently, the reactionary traits of the war were sharply intensified.

After Napoleon’s defeat feudal reaction triumphed in many European countries. However, the chief result of the bitter wars was not the temporary victory of reaction but the liberation of the countries of Europe from domination by Napoleonic France. In the final analysis, this contributed to the independent development of capitalism in a number of European states.


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Marx, K. “Vosemnadtsatoe briumera Lui Bonaparta.” In K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 8.
Marx, K. “Revoliutsionnaia Ispaniia.” Ibid., vol. 10, p. 436.
Engels, F. “Vneshniaia politika russkogo tsarizma.” Ibid., vol. 22.
Lenin, V. I. “O broshiure Iuniusa.” Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 30, pp. 5–6.
Lenin, V. I. “Groziashchaia katastrofa i kak s nei borot’sia.” Ibid., vol. 34, pp. 195–96.
Lenin, V. I. “Neschastnyi mir.” Ibid., vol. 35.
Lenin, V. I. “Glavnaia zadacha nashikh dnei.” Ibid., vol. 36, pp. 81–82.
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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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