Napoleon against Austria: AD 1800-1801
Napoleon’s military priority, on becoming first consul in 1799, is to reverse the gains recently made by Austria. To give himself a freer hand he makes a tentative offer of peace to England in December 1799, but it is firmly rejected.
As in 1796, the Austrians could be attacked by French armies either north of the Alps in Germany or south of them in Italy. No doubt remembering his own triumphs in that year, Napoleon selects Italy. He hopes to surprise the enemy by bringing his army south through the Great St Bernard pass in May 1800 before the snows have cleared. He himself slithers through the pass on a mule, but this does not deter David from depicting him on a magnificent rearing stallion among the snowy peaks.
When the crucial encounter with the Austrians occurs, at Marengo on June 14, it is very nearly a disaster for Napoleon. By mid-afternoon it seems that the Austrians have won the day. But a brave French counter-attrack reverses the situation.
Victory at Marengo is followed by an armistice and a truce – which Napoleon breaches in November, when he sends a French army north of the Alps against Vienna. Another French victory, at Hohenlinden in December, prompts the Austrian emperor to sign a treaty at Lunéville in February 1801. It goes even beyond the terms of Campo Formio. France keeps the Rhineland. Austria recognizes the four French sister republics.
Napoleon against Britain: AD 1800-1802
The conflict between France and Britain, continuously at war since 1793, tends always towards stalemate. The two nations are evenly matched but have very different strengths. Britain has a much smaller population (11 million compared to 27 million in France in 1801). This disadvantage is offset by Britain’s wealth (from a more developed economy and extensive overseas trade) and by the British superiority at sea. In 1803 France has 23 ships of the line; Britain has 34 in service and another 77 in reserve.
For these reasons the British contribution to any war against France in continental Europe is largely limited to providing funds for allied armies.
The naval clash between Britain and France is a strange one – not so much a sea war as a coast war. It is the permanent concern of the British navy, commanding the seas, to harm France and her allies by preventing any merchant ships other than those of Britain from reaching continental ports. And it is the permanent concern of the French armies, commanding the land, to prevent British vessels entering those same ports.
Third parties suffer as much as anyone from this form of economic warfare, particularly after Britain adopts the policy of seizing goods carried by the ships of neutral nations if they are destined for a harbour under blockade.
Indignation at this British policy, heightened by diplomatic pressure from Napoleon, prompts Russia, Sweden and Denmark to form in December 1800 a League of Armed Neutrality. They declare the Baltic ports out of bounds to British ships. The embargo is strengthened when the Danes seize Hamburg, the main harbour for British trade with the German states.
Britain responds by sending a naval fleet into the Baltic. The second-in-command is Nelson, who sails into shallow and well defended waters in Copenhagen harbour. There is heavy fighting, during which the commander of the fleet flies the signal for Nelson to withdraw (this is the famous occasion when he puts the telescope to his blind eye).
Nelson destroys many of the ships in the harbour and damages the shore defences in this battle of Copenhagen (2 April 1801). His victory prompts the Danes to make peace in May. Sweden does so in the same month, and Russia follows suit in June.
By now, as after Campo Formio, Britain and France are the only two nations still at war. From the British point of view one affront still needs to be righted. In March 1801 a fleet is sent through the Mediterranean to help the Turks expel the French from Egypt. The French command in Cairo surrenders in June, followed by Alexandria in August.
Both sides are now exhausted. There have been tentative peace talks since February. Terms are agreed in October, putting an end to hostilities. The peace is signed in Amiens in March 1802.
Napoleon’s negotiators do well for France. All overseas territories taken by Britain in the past nine years (including several West Indian islands) are returned into French hands. Similarly Minorca reverts to Spain and the Cape colony in South Africa to Holland. But Britain keeps Sri Lanka (taken from the Dutch) and Trinidad (previously Spanish). Egypt is to be Turkish again. Malta (taken by Napoleon in 1798 and by Britain in 1800) is to be restored to the Knights of St John.
The peace of Amiens: AD 1802-1803
Peace is eagerly greeted by Europeans starved of the pleasures of travel – particularly the British, cooped up in their island for years, who now flock across the Channel to enjoy once again the pleasures of Paris. But this is to prove only a breathing space. Nothing has been resolved in the long rivalry between Britain and France, and each government soon finds much to complain about in the behaviour of the other during the interlude of peace.
Napoleon annoys the British by failing to allow the spirit of harmony into the market place. His refusal to agree a commercial treaty means that British merchants are penalized by high tariffs in French and allied ports. They conclude that peace seems no more profitable than war.
Meanwhile Napoleon alarms the British government by his expansionist behaviour in regions not covered by the treaty – for example in his annexation of Piedmont in 1802, to bridge the gap between France and the Cisalpine republic.
Britain gives France more specific cause for complaint by not fulfilling the terms of the treaty of Amiens. It has been agreed that she will withdraw from Malta. Her failure to do so would be justified in modern eyes by the expressed views of the Maltese. Horrified at the prospect of the return of the Knights of St John, the local assembly passes a resolution inviting George III to become their sovereign on condition that he maintains the Roman Catholic faith in the island.
However, the wishes of local inhabitants carry little weight in diplomatic negotiations in the early 19th century. And Britain, remaining in possession of the island, is undoubtedly in violation of the treaty.
Napoleon complains but avoids pressing the issue to the brink of hostilities. It is likely that his long-term intentions towards Britain are not peaceful, but he is not yet ready for a renewal of war. He needs time, in particular, to build up his fleet. The same logic makes Britain prefer an early renewal of the conflict. For no very good reason, other than long-term self-interest, the British government declares war on France in May 1803.
The war at sea: AD 1803-1805
For two years, after the resumption of hostilities in May 1803, Britain is the only nation at war with France. Napoleon returns to the scheme of 1798 for an invasion across the Channel, but now on a much more elaborate scale.
In ports from Brest to Antwerp he gathers a fleet of nearly 2000 craft for the transport of men, horses and artillery. During 1803 he assembles what later becomes known as the Grand Army, amounting to some 150,000 men bivouacked (so as to remain inconspicuous) in four widely separated camps but ready to converge at any moment on Boulogne for embarkation. Meanwhile the British, well aware of the threat, are dotting their south coast with the circular fortifications known as Martello towers.
Napoleon’s initial plan is for his fleet to launch on a single tide and to cross the Channel unobserved, perhaps under cover of fog, and so escape the attentions of the British navy. But this is impractical for such large numbers. He needs a fleet capable of protecting the invading force.
In December 1804 Napoleon persuades Spain to join him in war against Britain, thus acquiring the support of the Spanish navy. His strategy is now to divert the British fleet, or at least part of it, from guard duty in the Channel.
The result, during 1805, is a game of maritime cat and mouse – with French and British squadrons criss-crossing the Atlantic, between the West Indies and the European coast, in an attempt to second-guess and outwit each other. With the primitive communications of the day, it is difficult even for allied fleets to achieve an intended rendezvous in distant waters. Inevitably Napoleon’s somewhat elaborate plans go adrift.
In August the combined French and Spanish fleet, under the command of Villeneuve, withdraws to Cadiz. But the port is already under observation by three British ships of the line. Word is urgently sent for reinforcements. At the end of September Nelson arrives to take command.
On October 19 Villeneuve sails from Cadiz, intending to head south and enter the Mediterranean. He has thirty-three ships of the line. Nelson shadows his movement from several miles out to sea, keeping his twenty-seven ships of the line out of sight and receiving information by signal from his frigates.
Nelson closes in, off Cape Trafalgar, on the morning of October 21. The battle begins just before noon. Five hours later some nineteen French and Spanish ships have surrendered or been destroyed, with no British losses. But Nelson himself is dead, mortally wounded on the deck of the Victory by a sniper firing from the topmast of the Redoutable.
Trafalgar confirms Britain’s reputation at sea and has the effect of preventing the French fleet from playing any major part in the remaining years of the war – though Napoleon keeps ships of the line in readiness in French harbours, putting Britain to the considerable expense of mounting permanent blockades.
In his struggle with Britain, Napoleon now reverts to the longer-term strategy of sealing the continent against British goods in the policy which becomes known as the Continental System. But meanwhile others of his old enemies are up in arms again, and he is back in his element – on the battlefields of Europe.
The European board game: AD 1805-1809
Continental Europe returns to war when Britain persuades Russia, Sweden and Austria to join her in 1805 in a Third Coalition against France. During the next four years Austria drops out at the end of 1805; Prussia joins in on Britain’s side in 1806; Prussia and Russia change sides in 1807; Austria re-enters the fray in 1808 against Britain and in 1809 against France.
This chaotic shifting of alliances reflects an important reality of continental Europe at this time. Three major powers (France, Russia, Austria) surround a central area comprising many smaller states (in Germany and Italy) among which, with Napoleon vigorously shaking the dice, almost everything is up for the taking.
The faded fragments and tatters of the Middle Ages form a patchwork of imperial cities and small territories ruled by bishops, counts and knights. They are easy prey for their powerful neighbours. As in a board game, they can be distributed at will among the major players.
Even quite significant rulers can be pushed around. An example is Ferdinand III, grand duke of Tuscany. In 1801 France and Austria agree that Tuscany shall become the kingdom of Etruria with a new ruler. In compensation Ferdinand is given Salzburg, previously belonging to an archbishop. In 1805 he is forced to exchange this for the ex-bishopric of Würzburg. By 1814, with the fall of Napoleon, he is back in Tuscany.
This is just one example of the upheavals occurring all over central Europe at this time, as Napoleon rearranges the map after each stage of his victorious progress. His opponents fail to achieve a convincing alliance against him because they are primarily interested in preserving their own territories and in acquiring any others which may become available.
With the exception of Britain, implacably opposed to France as a world-wide competitor, Napoleon’s other opponents enter or drop out of the fray on an ad hoc basis of self-interest.