French Revolutionary Wars

French Revolutionary Wars

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=French Revolutionary Wars

place=Europe, Egypt, Middle East, Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean
result=French victory; survival of the French Republic; several French client republics established
Treaty of Lunéville and Treaty of Amiens
Beginning of the Napoleonic Wars.
combatant1=flagicon|Habsburg Monarchy Austria [a]
flagicon|Prussia|1750 Prussia [b]
flagicon|UK Great Britain [c]
flagicon|Russian Empire Russia [d]
combatant2=flagicon|France French Republic
*flagicon|Leinster United Irishmen [h]
flagicon|Denmark Denmark–Norway [j]
commander1=flagicon|Habsburg Monarchy Archduke Charles
flagicon|Habsburg Monarchy Michael von Melas
flagicon|Habsburg Monarchy József Alvinczi
flagicon|Habsburg Monarchy Dagobert Sigmund von Wurmser
flagicon|Habsburg Monarchy Peter Quasdanovich
flagicon|UK Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany
flagicon|UK Horatio Nelson
flagicon|UK Ralph Abercromby
flagicon|UK William Sidney Smith
flagicon|Prussia|1750 Duke of Brunswick
flagicon|Prussia|1750 Prince of Hohenlohe
flagicon|Russia Alexander Suvorov
commander2=flagicon|France Napoleon Bonaparte
flagicon|France Charles Pichegru
flagicon|France Jean-Baptiste Jourdan
flagicon|France Jean Victor Marie Moreau
flagicon|France Charles François Dumouriez
flagicon|France François Christophe Kellermann
flagicon|Leinster Wolfe Tone

  1. 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.
  2. Neutral following the Peace of Basel in 1795.
  3. Became the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland on 1 January 1801.
  4. Declared war on France in 1799, but left the Second Coalition the same year.
  5. Allied with France in 1796 following the Second Treaty of San Ildefonso.
  6. 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.
  7. Most forces fled rather than engaging the invading French army. Allied with France in 1795 as the Batavian Republic following the Peace of Basel.
  8. Started the Irish Rebellion of 1798 against British rule.
  9. Arrived in France following the abolition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth after the Third Partition in 1795.
  10. Officially neutral but Danish fleet was attacked by Britain at the Battle of Copenhagen.
The French Revolutionary Wars were a series of major conflicts, from 1792 until 1802, fought between the French Revolutionary government and several European states. Marked by French revolutionary fervour and military innovations, the campaigns saw the French Revolutionary Armies defeat a number of opposing coalitions and expand French control to the Low Countries, Italy, and the Rhineland. The wars involved enormous numbers of soldiers, mainly due to the application of modern mass conscription.

The French Revolutionary Wars are usually divided between the First Coalition (1792–1797) and the Second Coalition (1798–1801), although France was also at war with Great Britain continuously from 1793 to 1802. Hostilities ceased with the Treaty of Amiens (1802). For military events afterwards, see the Napoleonic Wars. Both conflicts together constitute what is sometimes referred to as the "Great French War."

Context of the wars

"The French revolution was to change the political state of Europe, to terminate the strife of kings among themselves, and to commence that between kings and people. This would have taken place much later had not the kings themselves provoked it. They sought to suppress the revolution, and they extended it; for by attacking it they were to render it victorious.."
"Austria, England, and France had been, from the Peace of Westphalia to the middle of the 18th century, the three great powers of Europe. Interest had leagued the two first against the third. Austria had reason to dread the influence of France in the Netherlands; England feared it on the sea. Rivalry of power and commerce often set them at variance, and they sought to weaken or plunder each other. Spain, since a prince of the House of Bourbon had been on the throne, was the ally of France against England. This, however, was a fallen power: confined to a corner of the continent, oppressed by the system of Philip II, deprived by the Family Compact of the only enemy that could keep it in action, by sea only had it retained any of its ancient superiority. But France had other allies on all sides of Austria: Sweden on the north; Poland and the Porte on the east; in the south of Germany, Bavaria; Prussia on the west; and in Italy, the kingdom of Naples. These powers, having reason to dread the encroachments of Austria, were naturally the allies of her enemy. Piedmont, placed between the two systems of alliance, sided, according to circumstances and its interests, with either. Holland was united with England or with France, as the party of the "stadtholders" or that of the people prevailed in the republic. Switzerland was neutral. The French war was very hard on most peasants as they often starved during wars. In the last half of the eighteenth century, two powers had risen in the north, Russia and Prussia. The latter had been changed from a simple electorate into an important kingdom, by Frederick-William, who had given it a treasure and an army; and by his son Frederick the Great, who had made use of these to extend his territory. Russia, long unconnected with the other states, had been more especially introduced into the politics of Europe by Peter I and Catherine II. The accession of these two powers considerably modified the ancient alliances. In concert with the cabinet of Vienna, Russia and Prussia had executed the first partition of Poland in 1772.

"The latter powers had in 1787 re-established by force the hereditary, stadtholderate of the United Provinces. The only act which did honour to French policy, was the support it had happily given to the independence of the United States. The revolution of 1789, while extending the moral influence of France, diminished still more its diplomatic influence.

"England, under the government of young Pitt, was alarmed in 1788 at the ambitious projects of Russia, and united with Holland and Prussia to put an end to them. Urged by England and Prussia, Catherine II also made peace with the Porte at Jassy, on the 29th of December, 1791. These negotiations, and the treaties they gave rise to, terminated the political struggles of the eighteenth century, and left the powers free to turn their attention to the French Revolution.

"The princes of Europe, who had hitherto had no enemies but themselves, viewed it in the light of a common foe. The ancient relations of war and of alliance, already overlooked during the Seven Years' War, now ceased entirely: Sweden united with Russia, and Prussia with Austria…"
-François Mignet [Mignet, [ History of the French Revolution from 1789 to 1814] . Accessed online 30 August 2006. This work is now in the public domain.]

War of the First Coalition


As early as 1791, the other monarchies of Europe looked with concern at the developments in France, and considered whether they should intervene, either in support of Louis XVI or to take advantage of the chaos in France. The key figure was Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II, brother to Marie Antoinette, who 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 August 27, 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 way of taking action that would enable him to avoid actually doing anything about France, at least for the moment, 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.

In the end, France declared war on Austria first, with the Assembly voting for war on April 20 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, 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 Coblenz 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 August 10, a crowd stormed the Tuileries Palace, where Louis and his family had been staying.The invasion continued, but at Valmy on September 20, they 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 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 in Italy, 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 November 6, and occupying the entire country by the beginning of winter.


On January 21, the revolutionary government executed Louis XVI after a trial. This united all Europe, including Spain, Naples, and the Netherlands against the revolution. Even Great Britain, initially sympathetic to the assembly, had by now joined the First Coalition against France, and armies were raised against France on all its borders.

France responded by declaring a new levy of hundreds of thousands of men, beginning a French policy of using mass conscription to deploy more of its manpower than the aristocratic states could, and remaining on the offensive so that these mass armies could commandeer war material from the territory of their enemies.

France suffered severe reverses at first, being driven out of Belgium and suffering revolts in the west and south. One of these, in Toulon, set the stage for the first recognition of a hitherto unknown artillery captain named Napoleon Bonaparte. His contribution in planning the successful siege of the city and its harbour with well-placed artillery batteries provided the spark for his subsequent meteoric rise.

By the end of the year, new large armies and a fierce policy of internal repression including mass executions had repelled the invasions and suppressed revolts. The year ended with French forces in the ascendant, but still close to France's pre-war borders.


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 the Battle of Fleurus and occupied all of Belgium and the Rhineland.


After seizing the Netherlands in a surprise winter attack, France established the Batavian Republic as a puppet state. Further, Prussia and Spain both decided to make peace, in the Peace of Basel ceding the left bank of the Rhine to France and freeing French armies from the Pyrenees. This ended the main crisis phase of the Revolution and France proper would be 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.

On the Rhine frontier, General Pichegru, negotiating with the exiled Royalists, betrayed his army and forced the evacuation of Mannheim and the failure of the siege of Mayence by Jourdan.


The French prepared a great advance on three fronts, with Jourdan and Moreau on the Rhine, and Bonaparte in Italy. The three armies were to link up in the Tyrol and march on Vienna.

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 defeated successive Austrian armies sent against him under Wurmser and Alvintzy while continuing the siege.

The rebellion in the Vendée was also finally crushed in 1796 by Hoche, but Hoche's attempt to land a large invasion force in Ireland was unsuccessful. An expedition to Ireland, led by General Hoche, set sail in 1796. Accompanied by United Irishmen leader Wolfe Tone, it attempted to land at Bantry Bay, County Cork, but strong gales prevented a successful landing.


Napoleon finally captured Mantua, with the Austrians surrendering 18,000 men. Archduke Charles of Austria was unable to stop Napoleon from invading the Tyrol, and the Austrian government sued for peace in April, simultaneous with a new French invasion of Germany under Moreau and Hoche.

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 in the war.


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 the 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 the Pope, establishing a republic in Rome.

Peasants' War in Luxembourg and Belgium.

The French also fought an undeclared war at sea against the United States. The was known as the "Quasi-War."

War of the Second Coalition

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. Another 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.


See also:

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.


See also:

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.


See also:

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.


In 1802, the British signed the Treaty of Amiens, ending the war and recognising French conquests. This began the longest period of peace during the period 1792-1815. This is an appropriate point to mark the transition between the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars (Napoleon was crowned emperor in 1804).


The First French Republic, starting from a position precariously near occupation and collapse, had defeated all its enemies 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.

Further reading

* Attar, Frank, "La Révolution française déclare la guerre à l'Europe". ISBN 2-87027-448-3
* Blanning, T.C.W., "The French Revolutionary Wars, 1787-1802". 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)


External links

* at Wikisource
* [ Napoleon, His Armies and Battles]

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