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Napoleonic Wars

In the early 19th century, it seemed like France was at war with everybody. In some senses, they were! At its most, powerful, the French Empire encompassed most of western Europe.Napoleon's Empire, spanning from Portugal in the south to Germany in the west, had control over 10% of the world's population.1 This absolute control angered many of his rivals, who…

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Napoleonic Wars

Napoleonic Wars

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In the early 19th century, it seemed like France was at war with everybody. In some senses, they were! At its most, powerful, the French Empire encompassed most of western Europe.

Napoleon's Empire, spanning from Portugal in the south to Germany in the west, had control over 10% of the world's population.1 This absolute control angered many of his rivals, who formed various coalitions to try and defeat him - these were the Napoleonic Wars. Keep reading to learn more about the timeline, battles, and end of the Napoleonic Wars.

Napoleonic Wars Timeline

The Napoleonic Wars began in 1801 and only ended with Napoleon’s defeat in 1815. During this period, Napoleon made several attacks on weak areas of Europe, gathering huge amounts of loot and land.

Napoleon couldn't directly rule over his entire empire himself, and even ran out of close family and trusted generals to help, turning to less well-known figures such as General Murat, who was made King of Naples.

1796Attack on the Rhein
1806Prussian Invasion; Introduction of the Continental System
1809Defeat to Austria
1812Failed invasion of Russia
1807-1814Peninsular War
1814Defeat to the Sixth Coalition
1815The Hundred Days; Battle of Waterloo

Napoleonic Wars Map

The Napoleonic Wars would redraw the map of Europe. In 1804, France's only ruled over a few overseas territories, like Corsica.

Did you know? Corsica was the birthplace of Napoleon. It is now part of Italy.

France's territories in 1804 are coloured in purple. But by 1812, France came to rule over Prussia (modern-day Germany), Spain, Portugal, and almost all of Italy, which is outlined in red.

Napoleonic Wars, Map of Europe, VaiaMap showing the extent of the French Empire in 1812 (outlined in red). Napoleon would suffer defeat just two years later. By Alexander Altenhof. Creative Commons License. CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons.

How did Napoleon take France from its humble origins in 1804 into an empire spanning most of continental Europe?

Napoleonic Wars Attack on the Rhein

As mentioned, during the turbulent years between 1790 and 1800, Napoleon attacked weak areas of Europe to amass easy land and loot it for money, arms and resources. One of the most significant of these attacks was the attack on the River Rhein in 1796.

The British Navy was the most renowned and feared in the world. Napoleon's only hope of an attack on Britain was to lure the Navy away, which he repeatedly failed to do. A weaker, more accessible target was Austria, so he attacked on the River Rhein in 1796, destroying the weak Austrian front and capturing Vienna, the capital city. It was a rich target, and Napoleon looted it for all it was worth in money, arms and supplies.

Napoleonic Wars Britain and France

Napoleonic Wars, British cartoon mocking Napoleon, VaiaBritish cartoon mocking Napoleon, Wikimedia Commons

A sort of faux hatred between Britain and France might be a source of humour nowadays, but in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, it was very real. It served as a backdrop to the Napoleonic Wars and it was almost a given that at any given point, the two were at war. Both Britain and France were unhappy with the other's attempts to reorder the international systems in Europe, and each felt sidelined by the other. The British often made fun of Napoleon, as seen in this cartoon, which Napoleon took very personally.

Other global events affected this relationship, too. Britain had ousted the French from Quebec (in Canada) in 1775 and each was trying to hold onto and administer their empires outside Europe.

The biggest problem for Napoleon was Britain's superior navy. It meant that he could not attack or invade Britain directly, something the British recognised themselves. As Admiral Jervis once said in the House of Lords:

I do not say, my Lords, that the French will not come. I say only that they will not come by sea."

- Admiral Jervis, addressing the House of Lords as First Lord of the Admiralty in 1801 2

Britain's naval superiority meant that it was able to support other European powers in their fight against Napoleon.

Napoleonic Wars Battles

Napoleon's grand vision of a French Empire controlling all of Europe created many enemies. At different times, these enemies formed together to create a Coalition. The Wars of the First and Second Coalitions were during the tumultuous pre-1800 period, so we'll concentrate on those which definitively fall within the Napoleonic Wars.

Napoleonic Wars Wars of the Third and Fourth Coalitions

The Third Coalition was fought in 1805. It was Napoleon's first, and last, serious opportunity to mount an invasion on Great Britain, after Britain was stirring anti-French feeling across Europe. Napoleon send ships to threaten the British colonies in the Caribbean, while gathering 180,00 troops in northern France. He hoped to distract Britain and then cross the unprotected English Channel. This plan had worked to some extent.

The French fleets, along with ships from their ally Spain, outnumbered British ships. However, the British Commander, Admiral Nelson, used unconventional tactics to separate the French and Spanish ships. This was the Battle of Trafalgar, where Nelson defeated Napoleon's forces at the cost of his life.

CoalitionCountries in the Coalition
ThirdAustria, Great Britain, Russia, Naples, Sicily, Sweden
FourthPrussia, Russia, Great Britain, Saxony, Sweden, Sicily
FifthAustria, Great Britain, Sardinia, Sicily, several independent rebel groups
SixthPrussia, Russia, Great Britain, Mecklenburg-Schwerin, Portugal, Sardinia, Sicily, Spain, Sweden, Austria, Bavaria, Baden, Lichtenstein, Netherlands, Württemberg, Denmark
SeventhGreat Britain, Russia, Prussia, Austria, Netherlands, Brunswick, Hanover, Nassau, Württemberg, Tuscany, Baden, Bavaria, Denmark, Lichtenstein, Portugal, Sardinia, Saxony, Sicily, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland

The Third Coalition, however, was largely a failure. Britain and Russia tried to limit France's power indirectly. They allied with Russia and Austria to reduce France's power over Austria. However, Napoleon once again occupied Vienna and crushed the advancing Austro-Russian army. Austria was forced to sign a peace treaty ceding much of their empire to France. The Third Coalition was defeated.

Napoleonic Wars The Fourth Coalition

Only a few months later, a new alliance of Britain, Russia, Prussia, Saxony and Sweden emerged against France - the Fourth Coalition. In response, Napoleon amalgamated the small states of what is now Germany to make their administration and defence easier. In 1806, Prussia foolishly decided to go to war with France alone, before its allies were close enough to offer aid. Napoleon unleashed almost all his forces into Prussia and decimated the Prussian army. Napoleon moved east and drove the Russians out of Poland, capturing it for himself and forcing Russian leader Alexander to sign a peace at Tilsit in 1807. This marked the defeat of the Fourth Coalition.

Napoleonic Wars Peninsular War

This war dragged on longer than any other conflict of the Napoleonic Wars and eventually merged with the War of the Sixth Coalition in 1812. It started as Portugal and Spain (the Iberian Peninsula) failed to adhere to the Continental System of trade embargoes.

What was the Continental System of 1806?

Napoleon wanted to weaken the British economy but their navy proved difficult to defeat.

Instead of naval warfare, Napoleon blocked Britain's trade to Europe. This was known as the Continental System. This system banned nations ruled under the French Empire and the Empire's allies from trading with Britain.

Despite this, countries such as Russia continued to buy and sell from Britain, infuriating Napoleon. The embargo did little to weaken the British economy and it arguably weakened Napoleon’s hold on his Empire by alienating his allies.

The Peninsular War was a rare failure for France. When Napoleon was in direct charge and present in the war, the French were fairly successful. However, the outbreak of the War of the Fifth Coalition drew him away and stretched French forces. His less capable generals couldn't hold off the British, who had come to the aid of the Spanish and Portuguese, nor could they enforce the Continental System. The war mainly served to drain French resources and manpower.

Napoleonic Wars War of the Fifth Coalition

In 1809, the Austrians were hungry for revenge and allied with Britain. They wanted to regain some of their lost land on mainland Europe whilst the British occupied the French in naval battles on the Iberian Peninsula.

Austria attempted to push east in Poland but was driven back by the Polish Army. Napoleon returned from the Peninsular War and took direct control of a counter-attack against the Austrians, pushing them back into their own territory from Poland in the east and Bavaria in the south. However, Napoleon became over-confident. In a rushed attempt to force an even quicker Austrian retreat, he was pushed back at the River Danube by the Austrian forces. This was Napoleon's first major defeat. Despite this, he was able to cross the Danube at the second attempt and retook Vienna, a significant embarrassment for the Austrians.

Napoleonic Wars Failure in Russia

Due to Russia’s repeated violations of the Continental System and increasing tensions, Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812. However, the French made little progress due to the extreme cold and snow and the Russians’ refusal to directly engage in battle. When they eventually fought, Napoleon’s forces couldn’t overcome the Russians. It was increasingly clear Napoleon could be defeated, and countries began to form greater alliances to remove him from his position of near-total dominance in Europe.

Napoleonic Wars Sixth Coalition

Having seen that Napoleon was increasingly capable of being defeated, a huge coalition was formed, consisting of Sweden, Russia, Spain, Portugal, Britain, and Prussia. They fought to remove Napoleon from his Empire and reduce it to a fraction of its current size. The Coalition defeated Napoleon in the single most significant battle of the Napoleonic wars, the Battle of Leipzig, and marched through Paris. Napoleon lost the support of his generals and abdicated in 1814. He was exiled to Elba, where he remained for ten months.

End of Napoleonic Wars

Napoleon managed to flee Elba in February 1815 aboard a ship named Inconstant with 700 men in tow. Louis XVIII sent an army to recapture him, but Napoleon still had massive support in France, and King Louis fled on 13 March.

When Napoleon arrived in Paris, he regained rule of France. In a proactive attempt to head off the Seventh Coalition armies sent to unseat him, he headed into what is now modern-day Belgium.

End of the Napoleonic Wars Battle of Waterloo

On 18 June 1815, the Duke of Wellington led the British army against Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. He held off Napoleon’s forces while the Prussian army managed to break through the French lines. Napoleon fled to Paris but found that he had lost the people’s support.

By this point, the Coalition armies were moving swiftly through France once again, aiming to restore King Louis to power. On 22 June 1815, having lost his country’s support, Napoleon was forced to surrender, bringing the Napoleonic Wars to an end.

The Napoleonic Wars - Key takeaways

  • The Napoleonic Wars were fought between around 1801 and 1815 and consisted mainly of various coalitions of European countries trying to break Napoleon's domination over Europe.
  • Britain supportedFrance's enemies with money, arms and resources.
  • From the First through Fifth Coalitions, Napoleon was virtually undefeatable, having an incredible run of consecutive land victories.
  • The Coalitions had a breakthrough when Austria just about secured out a minor victory over the French, preventing them from crossing the Danube. This was the turning point, demonstrating that Napoleon could be defeated.
  • This led to a mega-coalition of European nations who allied to rid Europe of Napoleon. His attempted comeback in 1815 was swiftly smothered by the Seventh Coalition, another supergroup of European nations.


  1. https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/world-population-by-year/
  2. Andidora, Ronald (2000), Iron Admirals: Naval Leadership in the Twentieth Century

Frequently Asked Questions about Napoleonic Wars

There were many wars, but Napoleon hardly failed at all, winning almost all of them. His defeat came against the Sixth and Seventh Coalitions.

Between around 1801 and 1815

In around 1801, although some historians include some conflict between 1790 and 1800.

Initially, increased French dominance throughout Europe and finally Napoleon's downfall and ultimate exile in 1815.

There had been decades of antagonism between the British and the French, who both resented the other's attempts to expand their empires. The spark for the first armed conflict was the attempts by Britain and Russia to remove France from the Batavian Republic.


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