10 Key Battles in the Napoleonic Wars

Harry Atkins

3 mins

04 Dec 2019

The Napoleonic Wars spanned 12 years and several major conflicts between Napoleon Bonaparte’s militaristically emboldened French Empire and various coalitions of European allies. The period was marked by relentless war and the emergence of large-scale gun use which led to some of history’s bloodiest military confrontations. Here are 10 of the key battles.

1. Battle of the Pyramids (21 July 1798)

Napoleon’s military expedition to Egypt would serve as his springboard to political power.

This battle actually took place five years before the Napoleonic Wars are generally considered to have started but it was one of the fights that would set the stage for Napoleon’s confrontations against various coalitions of nations between 1803 and 1815.

Also known as the Battle of Embabeh, this significant military engagement saw Napoleon — then a general in the French military — and his troops claim Cairo, a major victory in the invasion of Egypt. Napoleon’s implementation of the divisional square, one of his great military innovations, proved decisive in the battle and the Egyptian expedition would help to propel him to political power.

2. Battle of Marengo (14 June 1800)

A narrow and hard fought victory, the Battle of Marengo occurred during the War of the Second Coalition — a precursor to the coalitions that France would fight in the later Napoleonic Wars.

It pitted 28,000 of Napoleon’s men against 31,000 Austrian troops and was considered by Napoleon — by now the head of the French government — to be one of his finest triumphs. Victory helped to secure both his military and civilian authority in Paris.

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3. Battle of Trafalgar (21 October 1805)

This famous naval battle took place at Cape Trafalgar off the south-western coast of Spain, between the British Royal Navy, led by Admiral Lord Nelson, and the fleets of France and Spain. The Royal’s Navy’s resounding victory established Britain’s naval domination but came at the cost of Lord Nelson’s life.

4. Battle of Austerlitz (2 December 1805)

This confrontation was also known as the “Battle of the Three Emperors”.

Perhaps the most significant and decisive battle of the Napoleonic Wars, Austerlitz ranks as one of Napoleon’s greatest victories. Fought near Austerlitz in Moravia (now the Czech Republic) and also known as the “Battle of the Three Emperors”, this confrontation saw 68,000 French troops defeat nearly 90,000 Russians and Austrians.

Victory for France led to the Treaty of Pressburg, which aimed to establish “peace and amity” and secured Austria’s withdrawal from the Third Coalition of countries fighting France.

5. Battle of Jena-Auerstädt (14 October 1806)

An important French victory in the War of the Fourth Coalition, the Battle of Jena-Auerstädt was fought between 122,000 French troops and 114,000 Prussians and Saxons at Jena and Auerstädt in Saxony. Napoleon’s troops decimated the Prussian army at Jena as France’s Marshal Davout defeated the main Prussian force further north at Auerstädt.

6. Battle of Rolica (17 August 1808)

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Although not a particularly big battle, Rolica is noteworthy as the first major action of the British Peninsular War, which saw Britain challenge Napoleon’s French forces for control of the Iberian peninsular.

Rolica became the setting for the conflict’s opening clash when Sir Arthur Wellesley’s Anglo-Portuguese troops met 4,000 rear-guard French forces en route to Lisbon. Wellesley’s army outnumbered the French three to one and eventually forced them into a withdrawal.

7. Battle of Borodino (7 September 1812)

An especially bloody fight between 130,000 French troops with more than 500 guns and 120,000 Russians with more than 600 guns, the Battle of Borodino saw General Kutuzov’s Russian troops attempt to block Napoleon’s advance on Moscow. A fierce, attritional battle ensued before Kutuzov eventually retreated. A week later, Napoleon occupied Moscow unopposed.

8. Battle of Leipzig (16–19 October 1813)

Undoubtedly one of Napoleon’s most significant defeats, this battle inflicted brutally severe losses on the French army and more or less concluded France’s presence in Germany and Poland. Also known as the “Battle of the Nations”, this bloody engagement was fought at the city of Leipzig in Saxony.

Napoleon’s forces were effectively surrounded by 300,000 allied soldiers (including Austrian, Prussian, Russian, and Swedish forces) who converged on the city’s perimeter. It was a crushing defeat for Napoleon who would be forced to abdicate six months later following Paris’ capitulation to the allies.

9. Battle of Ligny (16 June 1815)

The last victory of Napoleon’s military career, Ligny could nonetheless be considered a strategic failure. Though Napoleon’s troops defeated Field Marshal Prince Blucher’s Prussian army, many of the Prussian soldiers survived and joined the Duke of Wellington’s British troops at Waterloo.

10. Battle of Waterloo (18 June 1815)

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The battle that changed the face of Europe. An Anglo-Allied army under the Duke of Wellington faced Napoleon’s forces in Belgium. With Prussian reinforcements, the allies defeated the French — though Wellington proclaimed it was “the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life”.