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The Napoleonic Wars

For 15 years, as First Consul (1800), Consul for Life (1802) and Emperor of the French (1804-14), Napoleon was sole master of France. He preserved the principle of civil equality and all the economic gains of the Revolution, but political liberty for a time was lost True, his rule was a denial of the old doctrine of Divine Right: each new usurpation received the sanction of a popular vote, and he boasted that he was chief by will of the people. But every form of constitutional opposition was crushed or muzzled. The legislative chambers existed only to speak when and as he chose; free speech, free press and all security for personal liberty were suppressed by a system of spies and secret police and by arbitrary imprisonment of suspects; local administration was centralized more highly than ever under the old monarchy, "nor did there exist anywhere independent of him authority to light or repair the streets of the meanest village in France."

This all-pervading absolutism was directed by the penetrating intelligence and indomitable energy of the world's most "terrible worker"; and it conferred upon France great and rapid benefits. Order, precision, symmetry were introduced into every branch of the administration. The interrupted work of the Convention was resumed. Education was organized; law was simplified and codified; the Church was again brought into alliance with the state; industry was fostered, and magnificent public works were carried out. But in all this, Napoleon was merely the last and greatest of the beneficent despots. And in the outcome, his rule fixed more firmly than before in the mind of the nation the dangerous willingness to depend upon an all-directing central power; so that in our own day, after many revolutions, the supremely difficult task of the Third Republic has been to create the spirit of local self-government.

No doubt, in 1800, when Napoleon came into power he sincerely desired peace, in order to reconstruct France. By the brilliant victories of Marengo and Hohenlinden he dissolved the hostile coalition, and a series of treaties, closing with the Treaty of Amiens (1802), gave Europe a breathing spell. But soon Napoleon again desired war. His victories in Italy, as a general of the Directory, had first brought him to the world's notice, and only military glory could keep France from murmuring at his rule. Moreover, he aspired frankly to European empire. On the other hand, the nations felt that there could be no lasting peace with him except by complete submission to his will.

At the accession of Napoleon I to the throne, France was at war only with England. The gigantic preparations of the new Emperor for the passage of an army into England alarmed that nation and forced her to form a new coalition; and Austria, still smarting under the humiliating Treaty of Luneville, Russia, and Sweden concluded treaties of alliance with Great Britain. Napoleon in turn had assured himself of the support of Spain, Bavaria, Wiirttemberg, and the Duchy of Baden, besides the new Kingdom of Italy whose crown he also wore, and which was put in readiness to co-operate by means of an auxiliary army.

The ensuing War of the Third Coalition inaugurated the long period of the Wars of the First Empire which convulsed Europe for eleven years and ended only with the definitive overthrow of Napoleon in 1815. It was the period of greatest military tension experienced to that time. In 1803, England and France renewed their strife, and between these powers there was to be no more truce until Napoleon's fall 11 years later. In that time Napoleon fought also three wars with Austria, two with Prussia, two with Russia, a long war with Spain and various minor conflicts. From 1792 to 1802, the unceasing European wars belong to the Revolutionary movement. From 1803 to 1815, they are properly Napoleonic wars, due primarily to the ambition of a great military genius. In the first series, Austria was the chief opponent of the Revolution; in the second series, England was the relentless foe of Napoleon.

Napoleon's insight readily divined his true enemy; but Nelson's great sea fight put an end to all possibility of directly invading England. On the Continent, however, victory followed victory. After Austerlitz (1805), Austria gave up her remaining Italian and Illyrian territory and many of her possessions in Germany. After Jena (1807), humiliated Prussia was reduced half in size, thrust beyond the Elbe and bound to France by a shameful treaty. Less decisive conflict with Russia was followed by the diplomatic victory of Tilsit (1807). Emperor and Tsar entered into friendly alliance. France was to have a free hand in western Europe; Russia was to be permitted to aggrandize herself at the expense of Sweden, Turkey and Asia; and the two were to join in ruining England by enforcing Napoleon's "continental system."

The refusal of Portuga| to obey Napoleon's command for the confiscation of English commerce led to the seizure of that state. Then followed a like seizure of Spain, out of which grew the long1 Peninsular War, which, as Napoleon confessed afterward at Saint Helena, was really the canker that destroyed him. At the time, however, it seemed trivial, and for five years after Tilsit Napoleon was master of the Continent. At its greatest extent the huge bulk of France filled the space from the ocean to the Rhine, including not only France as we know it, but also Belgium, half of Switzerland and large strips of Germany, while from this central body two outward-curving arms reached toward the cast, one along the North Sea to the Danish Peninsula, and the other down the coast of Italy past Rome. The rest of Italy and half the rest of Germany were under Napoleon's protection, ruled as a vassal states by his brothers and generals. Denmark and Switzerland were his willing allies and Prussia and Austria were unwilling ones. Sweden and Russia, though nominally nis equals, were allowed that dignity only because they upheld his policy. Only the extremities of the Continent the islands of Sicily, Sardinia and England, and the mountainous Spanish Peninsula kept their independence, at the cost of wasting war.

France was at war with England during the whole reign of Napoleon. The war with England lasted from 1803 until 1814, and broke out again in 1815 during the Hundred Days. France was at war with Austria in 1805,1809,1813-14 and in 1815; with Russia from 1805 to 1807, 1812 to 1814, and 1815; with Prussia from 1806 to 1807, 1813 to 1814 and in 1815; with Spain from 1808 to 1814; with Portugal from 1807 to 1814; with Sweden from 1805 to 1807 and 1812 to 1814; with the Kingdom of Naples from 1806 to 1807; with Sardinia in 1814 and 1815 and with Holland the same years; with Bavaria, Wiirttemberg, and the Grand Duchy of Baden from 1813 to 1814 and in 1815; and with Saxony in 1806, 1813-14 and in 1815.

During this period, of all the countries of Europe only Turkey and Denmark were not at some time at war with France.

It is an indisputable fact that Napoleon I was the most bellicose of the monarchs of all time; but in spite of this incontestable truth, to impute to him all the wars of his reign would be to falsify history. The wars of which he was in fact the instigator are the following:

  1. War with Naples, 1806.
  2. War with Portugal, 1807.
  3. War with Spain, 1808-14.
  4. War with Russia, 1812.
  5. War of the Hundred Days, 1815.
The other wars of the First Empire, which were really thrust upon France, were:
  1. War of the Third Coalition, 1805.
  2. War with Prussia, 1806.
  3. War with Austria, 1809.
  4. Wars of Liberation, 1813-14.
As to the war with England, of 1803 to 1814, the two nations were equally instigators.

The wars of the First Empire witnessed the mustering of enormous armies, the largest in proportion to the populations of the countries that had ever been put into the field. The numbers in the opposing lines frequently exceeded 300,000. With regard to the numerical strength of the forces opposed, the battle of Leipsic remained the greatest in history down to 1905, when in the battle of Mukden the number of combatants passed the 600,000 mark.

The absolute and relative losses increased pari passu with the augmentation in the size of the armies. The percentage of killed and wounded on many occasions surpassed even the bloodiest battles of Louis XIV and Frederick the Great. The bitterness of the struggle, the stubbornness of combats hand-to-hand and at the bayonet's point, the desperate efforts of weaker forces against superior numbers, the employment of compact columns and the use of masses of cavalry against unyielding infantry, all contributed toward making the losses higher than the military history of the nations had previously seen.

No other man had sacrificed so many human victims to the god of war as did Napoleon I; no other man had sowed death broadcast on such a scale; no commander had cared less for the lives of his soldiers than he. The bloodiest battles for the French armies were those of Waterloo and Trafalgar, where their losses in killed and wounded reached forty per cent; they lost a third of their effective strength at Essling, Albuera, Eylau, Borodino, and Malo Jaroslawez, and at the passage of the Beresina, and about one-fourth at Auerstadt, Salamanca, Kulm, Leipsic, and Craonne.

The losses of the opposing forces were relatively lighter, except where veteran Russian troops were engaged; these uniformly made a stout resistance. Even in many of their greatest victories, the French lost more heavily than their defeated antagonists, especially where they were the aggressors.

The number of pitched battles and great field engagements in the Napoleonic wars was enormous, that of the sieges relatively small. It is and must remain impossible to ascertain the exact figures for the loss of life which these wars of the First Empire cost the countries engaged, as records on the subject do not exist. The archives of the different governments contain only statements of the killed, wounded, and missing in the most important battles. Statistics of the lesser engagements are totally wanting, a fact especially regrettable in view of the prodigious number of actions of this class. Besides this, the recording of the number who died of disease and hardship was entirely neglected, which is also very unfortunate, as these losses are known to have played a most important role in all the armies. There are grounds for believing that, in the Napoleonic armies at least, the losses from disease and exhaustion actually exceeded those inflicted by the weapons of the enemy.

The period was filled with important rearrangements for Europe, territorial, political and social. Many of these were designed in selfishness; but nearly all were to bear good fruit. In Germany, even the territorial rearrangements paved the way for later national unity. Not only the 1,500 anarchic territories of the "knights," but also the 300 petty, scattered, despotic principalities, ecclesiastical states and oligarchic city-republics (with a few exceptions) were absorbed in larger neighbors; so that the multitudinous, ill-governed states of the vanished Empire were consolidated into less than 40. Most of these reorganized states, outside Austria and Prussia, were further combined in the Confederation of the Rhine; and in this Confederation as well as in the German and Italian territory annexed to France, and in the various vassal states over Europe, serfdom and feudalism were abolished and civil equality and the Code Napoleon were introduced. The administration of justice was made cheap and simple, and the old clumsy and corrupt methods of government gave way to order and efficiency.

Most important of all, similar reforms were adopted in Prussia, not from French pressure, but by the influence of the Prussian Minister, Stein, who sought to make his country strong enough to throw off the French yoke and to regenerate Germany. Napoleon's insolence had at last forced part of Germany into a new national patriotism; and that patriotism began to arm itself by borrowing weapons from the arsenal of the Revolution.

Napoleon's "continental system," if embarrassing to England, was ruinous to Europe. Moreover, Tsar Alexander began to suspect Napoleon of intriguing against him in Finland and Turkey; and in 1811 he refused longer to follow Napoleon's commercial policy. Napoleon declared war. The destruction of his Grand Army amid Russian snows was the signal for the rising of the peoples of central Europe in the Wars of Liberation. Napoleon, like a desperate gamester, refused all terms, and finally was crushed and deposed. The Bourbon dynasty was restored to the throne of France, and the powers met in the Congress of Vienna (181415) to reconstruct the map of Europe.

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Page last modified: 13-09-2012 19:13:18 ZULU