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Of all eight coalitions of the first European War, all were defeated by the French and their allies. In the words of Napoleon himself, Europe was at his feet, and by the end of the wars, France had claimed victory over almost every nation in Europe at least once.
Perhaps the most astounding achievement of the war was Napoleon's invasion of Britain; the first successful invasion of Britain in over 700 years. He won a series of battles of southeastern England and brilliantly out-maneuvered his enemy's armies and marched into London in 1808, knocking Britain out of the fourth coalition, forcing them to accept his terms, and leaving only Russia, Austria, and Prussia to defy his domination of Europe.
Upon the defeat of Britain, Sweden surprisingly scored a series of victories over Ney's forces in the Rhineland, killing him and allowing Russia to gain a breathing spell to prepare for the War of the Fifth Coalition, Britain to get back into the war, and Prussia to assemble a much larger army. Nevertheless, Napoleon once again destroyed the armies of Prussia in the Batte of Siegen and Battle of Potsdam, turned south and defeated the advancing Austrians at the Battle of Nürnburg, and finally went on to march through Vienna and crown himself Emperor of Austria in 1811, permanently eliminating the Austrian threat.
Now, with only Prussia, Russia, and Britain remaining independent states, the sixth coalition was formed among those three and Sweden. Napoleon could not enter Britain again, since the French fleet was now far too weak to cross the channel. So, he focused the remaining Grande Armée on the continent, striking at the heart of Prussia and devastating its forces and those of Russia at the Battle of Berlin and crowning himself king of Prussia in 1813. Napoleon followed the Russian retreat into Russian territory; a move regarded as the biggest mistake of his military career. He invaded during the winter, and many of his men starved or died from illness, combined with repeated raids by the Russians, and Napoleon was forced to turn back and retreat with his dwindling army.
Napoleon's retreat was a worst case scenario for him, as the Swedish, Russians, and British were afforded the opportunity to liberate Prussia and Austria in the east, reversing two years worth of work by Napoleon. The fighting never stopped, however, and the Russians, Austrians, Swedish, Prussians, and some Italian kingdoms formed a seventh coalition and were determined to defeat France once and for all while it was still recovering. It is during this war that some of Napoleon's most genius military victories came, defeating a combined Austrian/Prussian/Swedish army of 50,000 with a force of 10,000 at the Battle of Schwerin, and forcing their retreat to Berlin, where he again defeated the massive army and knocked Prussia out of the war once again. Finally, after a vicious defeat at Chemnitz, the seventh coalition surrendered and the eighth was formed among Russia, Austria, Sicily, Sardinia, and Britain in 1816.
During this last war, Napoleon suffered his second defeat in the entire war during a failed second invasion of Britain, where his forces were decimated at the Battle of Brighton. Upon returning to the continent, he had to raise a new army quickly to stop the eighth coalition. He raised about 40,000 for himself, found out about the current situation, a stalemate in central Europe, and set out to crush the eighth coalition. Along with MacDonald, he routed the Austrians at Augsburg, then sent MacDonald into Italy to root out any resistance. The next battle came at Karlsbad, and Napoleon brilliantly surrounded and captured a fighting force of 30,000, incororating it into his own. When his massive force reached Vienna, he defeated the Austrians and shouted "People of Vienna, your emperor has returned!" as he marched through the streets. He had two remaining enemies now: Russia and Britain. Both of which would be impossible to invade, but he felt that he had no choice. In 1817, he made a decision to enter Russia a second time, this time, at the very end of winter. Alexander's forces fought bravely and strategically, but Napoleon broke through Russian defenses at Grodno, marched to Minsk, in a very unforeseen move, and arrived at Moscow before winter. He sacked Moscow in a very decisively French battle, and moved north to Novgorod, where he smashed the tsar's forces against Lake Ilmen, and continued north to St. Petersburg, which he reached in early winter. Against all odds, he did defeat the Russians at St. Petersburg through trapping the tsar's forces against the Gulf of Finland and injuring him in the process, in a battle that shaped the fate of Europe for the next century.
Upon his return through Europe, Napoleon crowned himself King of Prussia in Berlin and forced the terms of the Treaty of Verdun upon his victims, including Great Britain who knew that they could not defeat France alone.
The War of the Fourth Coalition (1806-1808)
The War of the Fourth Coalition started in August 1806 as a conflict between France and Prussia. Prussia had gone to war with France under Frederick William III over the creation of the Confederation of the Rhine. Frederick William III believed that the creation of a centralized German state would threaten Prussia's status as the greatest Germanic state and decided the best course of action would be to destroy the confederation before it did rise in status.
Napoleon and his generals set out in October after hearing the news of the declaration of war. Napoleon moved toward Prussia in the north, and his allies moved toward the south. He dealt two devastating blows to Prussia on the same day- one he took part in personally at Jena, and another Marshal Louis-Nicolas Davout took part in at Auerstadt. These two victories quite literally won the war, as the Prussians sustained losses of nearly 200,000 men and lost the majority of their equipment during combat at Auerstadt. Between October 8 and October 27, Napoleon had destroyed an entire army in a remarkably short amount of time. Upon defeating the Prussians, Napoleon toured Berlin, visiting many historic sites in the city before turning his attention to the next threat.
By the time the Prussians had been squashed, the fourth coalition had formed among Britain, Russia, and Sweden. Napoleon set his sights on the vulenerable Great Britain, which was using its fleet to blockade the United States at the time and had few remaining ships guarding the channel. Before he set out for Britain, he won a final death blow against Prussia at Konigsberg, and instructed Victor to destroy the remainder of the Russian army in the north and in Poland while he was away. Victor took control of all non-Grande Armée forces in the area, amounting to about 120,000, and confronted the Russian force at Danzig to the west in May. The battle resulted in a stalemate, and the Russians fled to the west in hopes of reaching Berlin to wrestle it from French control.
Victor finally caught up with the Russians in Kustrin immediately east of Berlin. The battle was nearly a stalemate, but Victor managed to cut off the Russians and surround them, forcing them to either flee to the south or be smashed against the Oder River. Of course, tsar Alexander chose to move south with what remained of his army, where he engaged with Victor one last time at Frankfurt before surrendering and being captured. With the main Russian army crushed and the tsar captured, Victor moved north to confront a smaller Russian force moving to capture Elbing, where Victor suffered his first defeat, strangely. He fell back to Danzig where he regrouped with a large army and defeated the Russians decisively, ending the war in continental Europe on November 9, 1807. The tsar was treated as a prisoner of war until Napoleon could return and figure out what to do with him.
Invasion of Britain
The invasion of Britain was a bit more complicated than the Russian Campaign. Not only would Napoleon have to defeat the British navy, he would have to get hundreds of thousands of men across the English Channel safely. Much planning went into this operation and it depended on the fact that the invasion could occur while the British-American War was still ongoing. When Napoleon and Villeneuve finished planning the invasion, it was already August of 1807.
On September 1, 1807, the entirety of the French fleet set sail from Calais. Many empty ships headed for Dover, while the rest of the fleet, which contained much of the Grande Armée, waited just out of sight near Hastings. When the British fleet went to engage the French at Dover, Napoleon landed at Hastings and his men stormed the shores. They were met with gun and cannonfire from all directions, but the cannons on French ships helped the land forces clear a way through the city. By nightfall, the battle of Hastings was still raging on, but the French were beginning to seem like likely victors. Finally, the next morning, John Moore's forces retreated from Hastings to Dover.
Napoleon, instead of giving chase to Moore's forces, moved west to Brighton, capturing the city with minimal effort, and then Portsmouth, where he captured a British detail and incorporated it into his forces. Moore then realized that Napoleon was trying to surround London before attacking, and moved to intercept him at Reading, where Napoleon was able to trick Moore into retreating east to London through a series of genius tactical manipulations. Napoleon decided he could now move on London, and did so on April 29, 1808. The battle lasted only a few hours before the Grande Armée pressed Moore's forces against the Thames, and, to Napoleon's surprise, the King was evacuated across the river along with the rest of the British army, and evacuated to Canterbury. In the meantime, Napoleon shut down the British government.
Once again, Napoleon chased Moore to Canterbury, where he defeated the British once again and moved south, routing the British and forcing them to surrender. Unbeknownst to Napoleon, Moore had escaped with the King and a detail of about 5,000 to Oxford. Napoleon took 10,000 of his remaining 30,000 and gave chase when he heard the news, leaving the Grande Armée to oversee the occupation of southeastern England. Upon reaching Oxford, Napoleon initiated a short battle, in which Moore finally accepted defeat and accepted the terms of the Treaty of Oxford.
After Napoleon defeated Britain, Michel Ney was killed in battle after Swedish forces entered the Rhineland, but the Treaty of Hannover ended hostilities between the French and Swedish. The Treaty of Oxford force Britain to open trade to France, and to eliminate any presence in the English Channel. When Napoleon returned to the continent and saw that the war had been won, he was happy. But when he saw that the tsar had been taken prisoner he was furious. He demanded the release of Alexander I and negotiated the Treaty of Hannover, forcing Russia and Prussia into the continental system. So, as it stood at the end of the war, France had a grand total of one remaining enemy: Sweden. Of course, this would soon change with the formation of the fifth coalition.
The War of the Fifth Coalition (1809 - 1811)
The fifth coalition was assembled by a revitalized Austria and a Russia eager for revenge over the capture of Alexander I in 1809. The Austrians dragged the Prussians back into war after they assembled a larger army and Britain nullified the Treaty of Oxford and proceeded to join the coalition and patrol the channel. Napoleon's navy was in ruin, but so was the British navy, which was still fighting the Americans. Britain closed off trade with France once again and prepared to send limited forces to assist in the effort against France.
The first campaign of the war was a rather unique one in the sense that only one army fought it and that army was under Napoleon. When France was notified of an invasion of the Confederation of the Rhine by an Austrio-Prussian army of 300,000, Napoleon immediately set out with 200,000 men to reverse this. He first engaged his enemy at Siegen, defeating the enemy in his classic method of surrounding and manipulating the enemy. He made it appear as if his force were much larger than it was, sending the enemy into disarray and chaos.
The Austrians were hit the hardest in the battle and had to fall back all the way to Potsdam and Berlin to regroup. Napoleon of course gave chase and shattered the Prussians to pieces in the battle of Potsdam after brilliantly splitting their army in two and dealing with each as individual threats. He captured over 40,000 Prussians and about the same amount were killed in a single horrifically bloody engagement.
Napoleon called on Victor once again to assist him in the Austrian campaign, as he had firsthand experience dealing with large Russian forces, which had arrived to assist the Austrians. By the time Victor was ready, August of 1810 had arrived. Along the way, Claude's forces were caught off guard by a large Austrian army advancing through central Germany. Due to the element of surprise, the Austrians were able to defeat the French, capturing nearly 20,000 and killing 5,000. Napoleon quickly moved south with his armies and collided at Nurnburg with the "Austrian shadow" as the army came to be called since no one knew about its existence until it was nearing French territory. The army was led by Archduke Charles himself, and Napoleon was able to force a retreat to the east, but not to defeat the army entirely.
Napoleon and Victor found a massive Russo-Austrian force at Klagenfurt and split up. Napoleon went to the north side of the city, and Victor to the south. By doing this, the army was "squeezed" from both sides forcing a split retreat to the east and west. Napoleon marched north toward Vienna following the battle, and Victor gave chase to the army that fled westward. The Grande Armée reached Vienna a day after the Russian force that had fled east, and the battle of Vienna began on July 2, 1811. It lasted three days, but Napoleon's force was able to dislodge the enemy and chase them north to Brünn, where tsar Alexander I once again surrendered to Napoleon's France.
Meanwhile, Victor engaged the Austrians in the west at Munich a few days after the Battle of Brünn, failing to subdue the force, which defeated and captured Victor and his army. When Napoleon heard this, he headed west to Regensburg where he reached a stalemate with the Austrians. Archduke Charles surrendered to Napoleon and released all prisoners upon learning that Vienna and Brünn had been sacked, and Napoleon marched through Vienna on November 17, crowning himself emperor.
When the war ended, the Treaty of Dresden once again forced Prussia and Russia into the continental system and forced Britain to open the English Channel, which it flatly refused to do, eventually sparking the War of the Sixth Coalition. Prussia had to employ mass conscription methods to raise an army large enough to contend with Napoleon again, leading to outrage among the Prussian people. Napoleon became emperor of Austria, leaving three nations in Europe that were not dependent on Napoleon's France: Britain, Prussia, and Russia.
The War of the Sixth Coalition (1813 -1814)
After the defeat of the fifth coalition, Napoleon's powers had been very much consolidated in Europe. Prussia's armies were destroyed for the time being, he was the Emperor of Austria, and Russia was still feeling the pain from Napoleon's victories in Austria. Britain, on the other hand, had recovered from their defeat and were actively helping the other powers to rearm and prepare themselves for another war with Napoleon in hopes of pushing French power out of eastern Europe. With the situation as it was, Napoleon could easily end Prussia's existence as a sovereign state with a few swift blows, but he was content to allow the continental system to take its course.
Sweden and Britain had other plans, however, and assembled a sixth coalition in defiance of the terms of the Treaty of Dresden in 1813, and Napoleon and his most trusted general, Claude Victor, prepared to end the wars once and for all.
The Disastrous Russian Campaign
Napoleon and Claude gathered the rested Grande Armee and a smaller force of around 200,000, and departed to meet the Russo-Prussian advance in central Europe once again. They met the army at Gottingen and won a shaky victory, as not nearly enough damage was done to the enemy. The retreating army was again defeated at Magdeburg along the border of Prussia, and Victor chased the enemy to Potsdam while Napoleon went to Austria to assemble an army of his new subjects. Around 50,000 were presented to him, and he set off to the north to destroy the Prussians once and for all.
Victor, unfortunately, was devastated at Potsdam, and was forced to begin retreating on August 16. Napoleon reached Potsdam days later and shattered the already weary enemy armies, who retreated for the last time to Berlin. The Battle of Berlin began with Napoleon pushing the enemy against the Spree River, but he was soon surrounded after a few tactical errors, and felt that his surrender was inevitable. Around nightfall, Victor and what remained of his forces arrived in Berlin, tipping the scale in favor of the French, and Napoleon was able to salvage the situation and once again press the Prussians against the Spree, dealing irreparable damage to the military infrastructure of the nation for the third time in ten years. After the Prussians under the Duke of Brunswick surrendered, Napoleon visited the tomb of Frederick the Great, and marched through Berlin with the Grande Armee, crowning himself King of the Prussians, a move that drew great controversy.
Napoleon's next move was a total and absolute disaster. Even though all but two continental European nations were under his total authority, he wanted to defeat the Russian menace, and departed with Victor into Russia on January 1, 1814. They gave chase to the Russians and won battles at Kovno, Mittau, and Riga by March, greatly reducing the Russian force, but the extremely decisive Battle of Pskoff sent the Grande Armee reeling, captured a large number of French soldiers, and saw the death of Claude Victor, bane of the Russians. Napoleon later recalled seeing Victor thrown off his horse just a few feet away from him.
From then on, the French were on full retreat and suffered repeated harassment and raids by the Russians. Napoleon fell back first to Mittau, hoping to salvage the situation, then Tilsit, then Kolberg. Alexander I followed him quickly, giving him no time to regroup his forces. In Berlin, Russia reinstated Frederick William III as king of Prussia, and following Napoleon's retreat from Dessau, he reinstated Francis I as emperor of Austria. Jacques MacDonald later recalled Napoleon telling him that he "saw his empire crumbling before his very eyes." In just a few months, the work of Napoleon's previous 3 years was destroyed.
Upon retreating to the frontiers of the Confederation of the Rhine, Napoleon was offered the Treaty of Schwerin, which would have undone all of his previous conquests and diplomatic accomplishments, but allowed him to keep directly annexed territories. Napoleon refused, beginning the War of the Seventh Coalition on July 20, 1814.
The War of the Seventh Coalition (1814 - 1815)
Upon Napoleon's historic retreat, all of his enemies suddenly formed a massive coalition to defeat him for good. The seventh coalition was formed by Russia and went on to contain Prussia, Austria, Sicily, Sardinia, Britain, Spain, and Sweden, as well as the Ottoman Empire, which was convinced that Napoleon was planning to invade the Ottoman Balkans.
Prussia Falls Once Again
Napoleon had only about 100,000 men under his command and faced an armada of nearly 700,000 total which was descending on his position in central Europe. His plan of action was to send MacDonald to Spain with the majority of his forces while he fended off the advancing armies in the Confederation. He also called on Louis-Alexander Berthier to take the majority of the remaining forces and keep the advancing enemies at bay in Austria until he could defeat Prussia.
On July 25, the Battle of Schwerin came, and although Napoleon felt sure that a loss was imminent due to being outnumbered 5 to 1, he tried to keep the spirits of his men high. The battle was fierce, and relied heavily on the fact that the French had previously fortified Schwerin due to its proximity to Prussia. Eventually, Napoleon was able to force a retreat of the much larger force back across the Prussian border. Before pursuing, he raised a new army of 60,000 out of the confederation and moved to Spandau, where he was just able to defeat the enemy army of around 200,000 by working defensively. He forced the enemy to attack his men, and in doing so allowed himself to play off the moves of his enemies, eventually resulting in the surrender and disbandment of the enemy army, although he was able to incorporate 15,000 Prussians into his current force.
In the meantime, Berthier has much worse luck in Austria, winning a few battles here and there, but being defeated at Brunn, falling back to Prague, and then Karlsbad, where his army was captured, although he managed to escape with a small force to warn Napoleon, who marched with his 70,000 men to confront a Russian/Austrian/Ottoman army of around 450,000. He first bypassed the army and went to Prague, capturing the city which had a much smaller group and separating the Ottomans from reinforcements. Berthier went south to Brunn and Napoleon went north to Karlsbad, finding that he was outnumbered nearly 10 to 1. He used the strategy that had let him to victory at Spandau, and slowly diminished his opposition to the point where he felt he could engage in normal warfare, though he was still greatly outnumbered. Seeing the French advancing, Archduke Charles and Alexander I ordered a retreat to Chemnitz, where they were met by a small group of French soldiers who greeted them with cannonfire.
Napoleon's small troop arrived at Chemnitz to face the 250,000 man army of Charles and Alexander. The battle raged for nearly a week, and both armies were reduced to skeletons of their former power. Eventually, Napoleon's men reached the fortifications at the far side of the battlefield, and the battle was instantly won. The enemy had neither the men nor the supplies to carry out the operations necessary to dislodge the small remaining French forces, and surrendered on May 26, 1815.
Spain Fights On
MacDonald had successfully kept the Spanish out of France until the end of the coalition, when Britain sent aid through Portugal to help the Spanish defeat France. Upon hearing the news, Napoleon quickly went to visit MacDonald along the border and put Berthier in charge of replenishing the Grande Armee. MacDonald explained that the Spanish would soon break through, and Napoleon rounded up about 80,000 men, and decided to go on the offensive, conquering Barcelona by early July, and moving on the Saragossa later that month. Napoleon was in his element again, having the ability to fight with equal firepower and forces, and used it greatly to his advantage.
MacDonald continued south down the coast of Spain and eventually captured Valencia, while Napoleon drove toward the heart of Spain, hoping to reach Madrid by the end of the year. He routed the Spanish at Burgos and Valladolid, gaining control of the north and east coasts, then pushed south toward the capital, winning victories at Salamancia and Toledo, cutting off the British aid from Portugal, and then moved north as MacDonald moved west, closing in on Madrid. Finally, on February 9, 1816, Spain capitulated and France annexed Catalonia.
After halting the enemy advance, Napoleon and his men regrouped and prepared to end the war entirely and began drafting plans to fend off an eighth coalition. At the ame time, Prussia was permanently defeated, as they had neither the manpower nor the resources to do battle with the French again, leaving only Britain, Russia, and Austria as viable threats.
The War of the Eighth Coalition (1816 - 1817)
After the defeat of the Seventh Coalition, Napoleonmand MacDonald carefully planned their defense and eventual attacks on the individual nations of the Eighth Coalition, which formed in December 1816. The coalition was made up of Britain, Russia, Austria, and a few smaller Italian kingdoms. Napoleon drafted plans for a second invasion of Britain, as well as another invasion of Russia.
Failure in Britain and Success in Austria
Napoleon's invasio of Britain went into effect on December 13, 1816, just ahead of the first attacks on French held areas by the coalition. After a series of tactical manipulations, Napoleon's forces landed on the beaches of Brighton. Unfortunately for Napoleon, this invasion was extremely short-lived, and his men were utterly decimated by the well-prepared British Army. By January, Napoleon's remaining men had evacuated, and he later said of this event "It was my most personal failure...the weather was not responsible, only I am to blame for this defeat." Following the evacuation, the British began hammering the northern coast of France with cannonfire, so Napoleon left a relatively large artillery force along the coast to fend off the attacks.
On January 9, Napoleon met with MacDonald on the outskirts of Augsburg, where the battle had settled into a bloody stalemate. Later that day, he and his newly raised group of 40,000 soldiers entered the battle and turned the tide very quickly, culminating in the lagest rout of the war. Hearing word of minor rebellions in northern Italy, Napoleon sent MacDonald to the south to stifle it while he pursued the retreating Austrians to Karlsbad, where he encircled and captured 30,000 Austrians and Russians and incorporated them into his own ranks, nearly doubling the size of his army. In early February, his forces reached the gates of Vienna and stormed the city, resulting in the massacre of the retreating disoriented coalition troops. Following this victory, Napoleon marched the streets of Vienna and crowned himself emperor on February 5.
After a brief respite in Vienna, Napoleon's men set out to secure the Russian border in early March, fortifying it heavily. Then, on March 17, MacDonald arrived in Lublin to assist Napoleon, and they departed into Russian territory following the general withdrawAl of Russian forces from Austria. On the 23rd, the two sides clashed at Grodno, where Napoleon and MacDonald overpowered the Russian defenses and were effectively free to move resources from Prussia, the Duchy of Warsaw, and Austria into Russian territory to keep their men equipped. Next, the two French generals surprised Alexander by heading to Minsk instead of moving north. Minsk quickly fell on April 16, as only a small defense force was stationed there, further opening up supply routes to the French.
Russian cities then began falling like dominoes, as the Russians had to try to catch the French from behind since they had retreated north. By September 19, Napoleon reached and captured Moscow. He was then in a less advantageous position, as he had to move north to reach St. Petersburg, and therefore had to confront the tsar's forces directly. On September 27, Napoleon and MacDonald pushed Alexander's forces out of Novgorod after a series of clashes on the way to the city when they smashed the Russians against Lake Ilmen. The Russians then adopted a scorched earth policy, and burned everything in their path as they retreated toward St. Petersburg. Without the cover of winter, however, the tsar's situation was hopeless to begin with. The battle at St. Petersburg came on October 14, during a severe snowstorm. Napoleon then began to fear a repeat of what had happened during his last invasion and ordered MacDonald to take command of most of his men. As MacDonald and his men advanced through one area of the battlefield, Napoleon and a much smaller force snuck behind the tsar's lines, trapping him. The battle raged for a few more hours before Napoleon personally caught up with the tsar's detail and knocked him to the ground with his sword, severely injuring his arm. Following the capture of Alexander, the Russians surrendered, having been long abandoned by the British.
Following the defeat of Russia, Napoleon left a large force under MacDonald in Russia to occupy it, and then marched through Prussia, crowning himself king. Later, Napoleon met with Alexander, King George III, and Lord Liverpool of the United Kingdom in Verdun to discuss a peace treaty. This peace treaty was the Treaty of Verdun, and it left Britain economically isolated from the rest of Europe, gave Napoleon full leadership of the Rhineland Confederation, Austria, and Prussia. Russia was forced into the continental system, and Britain was forced to relinquish its American colonies, as was Spain. This left the French Empire the greatest power in the world, but also fostered a strong resentment in the defeated nations which would fuel dangerous levels of nationalism over the next century.