10 Facts About the Napoleonic Wars

Harry Atkins

4 mins

18 Jun 2018

The Napoleonic Wars were a series of conflicts that took place at the start of the 19th century, when Napoleon led the new French republic into battle against a revolving opposition of allied European states.

Driven by revolutionary zeal and militaristic ingenuity, Napoleon oversaw a period of intense warfare against six coalitions, proving his leadership and strategic acumen time and time again, before finally succumbing to defeat, and abdication, in 1815. Here are 10 facts about the conflicts.

1. There’s a good reason they are known as the Napoleonic Wars

Unsurprisingly, Napoleon Bonaparte was the central, and defining, figure of the Napoleonic Wars. They are typically considered to have commenced in 1803, by which time Napoleon had been First Consul of the French Republic for four years. Napoleon’s leadership brought stability and military confidence to France in the aftermath of the revolution and his combative leadership style undoubtedly shaped the conflicts that came to constitute the Napoleonic Wars.

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2. The Napoleonic Wars were prefigured by the French Revolution

Without the French Revolution the Napoleonic Wars would never have happened. The ramifications of the revolt’s violent social upheaval extended far beyond France’s borders, triggering other conflicts across the globe that became known as the “Revolutionary Wars”. Neighbouring powers viewed France’s revolution as a threat to established monarchies and, anticipating intervention, the new republic declared war on Austria and Prussia. Napoleon’s ascent through the French military was undoubtedly driven by the increasingly influential role he played in the Revolutionary Wars.

3. The Napoleonic Wars are usually considered to have started on 18 May 1803

This was the date that Britain declared war on France, ending the short-lived Treaty of Amiens (which had brought a year of peace to Europe) and sparking what became known as the War of the Third Coalition — the first Napoleonic War.

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4. Napoleon had been planning to invade Britain when it declared war on France

The escalating agitation that prompted Britain to declare war on France in 1803 was entirely justified. Napoleon was already planning an invasion of Britain, a campaign he intended to fund with the 68 million Francs the United States had just paid France for the Louisiana Purchase.

Napoleon’s leadership brought stability and military confidence to France in the aftermath of the revolution.

5. France fought five coalitions during the Napoleonic Wars

The Napoleonic Wars are typically separated out into five conflicts, each named after the alliance of nations that fought France: The Third Coalition (1803-06), the Fourth Coalition (1806-07), the Fifth Coalition (1809), the Sixth Coalition (1813) and the Seventh Coalition (1815). The members of each alliance were as follows:

  • The Third Coalition was composed of the Holy Roman Empire, Russia, Britain, Sweden, Naples and Sicily.
  • The Fourth included Britain, Russia, Prussia, Sweden, Saxony and Sicily.
  • The Fifth was Austria, Britain, Tyrol, Hungary, Spain, Sicily and Sardinia.
  • The Sixth originally included Austria, Prussia, Russia, Britain, Portugal, Sweden, Spain, Sardinia and Sicily. They were lated joined by the Netherlands, Bavaria, Württemberg and Baden.
  • The Seventh was formed of 16 members, including Britain, Prussia, Austria, Russia, Sweden, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal and Switzerland.

6. Napoleon was a brilliant military tactician

Napoleon’s reputation as a brilliant and innovative battlefield strategist was already established when the Napoleonic Wars commenced, and his brutally effective tactics were showcased throughout the ensuing conflicts. He was undoubtedly one of the most effective and influential generals in history and most historians agree that his tactics changed warfare forever. 

7. The Battle of Austerlitz is widely regarded as Napoleon’s greatest victory

The Battle of Austerlitz saw outnumbered French forces take victory.

Fought near Austerlitz in Moravia (now the Czech Republic), the battle saw 68,000 French troops defeat nearly 90,000 Russians and Austrians. It is also known as the Battle of the Three Emperors.

8. Britain’s naval supremacy played a key part in the wars

For all Napoleon’s battlefield ingenuity, Britain consistently managed to present a sturdy opposition force during the Napoleonic Wars. This owed a lot to Britain’s formidable naval fleet, which was substantial enough to allow the UK to continue its international trade and empire building, pretty much untroubled by the threat of an invasion from across the Channel.

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Britain’s command of the seas was most famously showcased at the Battle of Trafalgar, a decisive and historically vaunted British naval victory which saw the Franco-Spanish fleet decimated without a single British vessel being lost.

9. The Napoleonic Wars triggered global conflict

Inevitably, power struggles in Europe had an impact on the global stage. The War of 1812 is a good example. The simmering tensions that eventually sparked this conflict between the US and Britain were, to a large extent, caused by Britain’s ongoing war with France, a situation that began to seriously impact on America’s ability to trade with either France or Britain.

10. The Hundred Days period brought the Napoleonic Wars to a dramatic conclusion

Following his abdication in 1814, Napoleon was sent to the Mediterranean island of Elba. But his exile lasted less than a year. After escaping Elba, Napoleon led 1,500 men to Paris, arriving in the French capital on 20 March 1815. This began the so-called “Hundred Days”, a brief but dramatic period that saw Napoleon seize back power before entering into a series of battles with allied forces. The period concluded on 22 June when Napoleon abdicated for a second time following France’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo.