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The Modern Era

1789 - 1914

In Europe, the revolutionary transformation of the ruling systems and state structures began with a bang: In 1789 the French Revolution broke out in Paris, and its motto "Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite"—Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood—took on an irrepressible force. A fundamental reorganization of society followed the French Revolution. The ideas behind the revolution were manifest in Napoleon's Code Civil, which he imposed on many European nations. The 19th century also experienced a transformation of society from another source: The Industrial Revolution established within society a poorer working class that stood in opposition to the merchant and trading middle class. The nascent United States was shaken by an embittered civil war. The economic growth that set in following that war was accompanied by the development of imperialist endeavors and its rise to the status of a Great Power.


Liberty Leading the People,
allegory of the 1830 July revolution that deposed the French monarchy,
with Marianne as the personification of liberty,
contemporary painting by Eugene Delacroix.


see also:

Between Two Revolutions

(From David to Delacroix)



Napoleonic Domination

1792 - 1814


Revolutionary France turned almost all of Europe against it. Between 1792 and 1806, it faced changing coalitions in four wars, and triumphed each time.

Led by
1 Napoleon, France gained dominion over the majority of Europe and brought its liberal ideas and laws to the occupied countries.

But Napoleonic rule was ambivalent. It fostered civil emancipation, but suppressed opposition and national self-determination. This dictatorship cloaked as a democracy soon aroused the resistance of the occupied states. When France's string of victories reached an end in Russia in 1812, the other European powers also rebelled.

The Battle of Waterloo in 1815 sealed Napoleon's fate. This was followed by a period of restoration, but the seeds of liberalism had been planted and began to germinate.

Napoleon Bonaparte Crossing the Alps, painting by Jacques-Louis David, 1801 (detail)

see also collectoon:
Jacques-Louis David

Napoleon Bonaparte - biography

1769 August 15 - Birth at Ajaccio, Corsica
1779 College d’Autun, later Military School Brienne
1784 Royal Military School in Paris
1793 Brigadier General
1795 Commander of the Army of the Interior
1796, March - Head of the Army of Italy
1798 Egyptian Campaign
1799 First Consul of France
1802 Treaty of Amiens
1804 Emperor of the French
1805, Sept 21 - Oct 20 - Battle of Ulm
1805, October 21 - Battle of Trafalgar
1805, December 2 -  Battle of Austerlitz
1807, February 7–8 - Battle of Eylau
1808 Peninsular War
1809, May 21-22 - Battle of Aspern-Essling
1809, July 5-6 - Battle of Wagram
1812 Russian Campaign
1813 Battle of the Nations at Leipzig, Germany
1814 Abdication, Elba
1815 Waterloo (Belgium), St. Helena
1821 May 5 - Death on St. Helena Island

The French Revolutionary Wars and the First Napoleonic Wars


At first, France was merely defending itself against the shifting coalitions of European powers, but under Napoleon's leadership it soon sought domination over Europe.



French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars

Locator map of the competing sides of the Napoleonic Wars before outset of the war (early 1800s).

Blue: Great Britain, Austria, Russia, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Ottoman Empire with more.
Green: France, French client states in Europe, Denmark-Norway, USA with more.
Light Blue: New South Wales, British claimed territory and Fezzan, Ottoman vassal.

European history
a series of wars between 1792 and 1815 that ranged France against shifting alliances of other European powers and that produced a brief French hegemony over most of Europe. The revolutionary wars, which may for convenience be held to have been concluded by 1801, were originally undertaken to defend and then to spread the effects of the French Revolution. With Napoleon’s rise to absolute power, France’s aims in war reverted to simple aggrandizement of influence and territory.

The overthrow of Louis XVI and the establishment of republican government placed France at odds with the primarily monarchical and dynastic governments of the rest of Europe. In the Declaration of Pillnitz (1791) Austria and Prussia issued a provocative general call to European rulers to assist the French king reestablishing himself in power. France declared war in April 1792. On September 20, 1792, French forces under Charles-François Dumouriez and François-Christophe Kellermann turned back an invading Prussian-Austrian force at Valmy, and by November the French had occupied all of Belgium. Early in 1793 Austria, Prussia, Spain, the United Provinces, and Great Britain formed the first of seven coalitions that would oppose France over the next 23 years. In response to reverses at the hands of the First Coalition, the Revolutionary government declared a levy en masse, by which all Frenchmen were placed at the disposal of the army. By that means unprecedentedly large armies were raised and put in the field during this period. Battles on the Continent in the mid-18th century typically had involved armies of about 60,000 to 70,000 troops, but after 1800 Napoleon routinely maneuvered armies of 250,000; and he invaded Russia in 1812 with some 600,000. (See map.)

By early 1795 France had defeated the allies on every front and had pushed to Amsterdam, the Rhine, and the Pyrenees; more importantly, Prussia had been forced out of the coalition and had signed a separate peace that held until 1806. In May 1795 the United Provinces of the Netherlands became the French-influenced Batavian Republic. In northern Italy, a strongly positioned French army threatened Austrian-Sardinian positions, but its commander proved reluctant to move. In March 1796 he was replaced by a more dynamic general, Napoleon Bonaparte.

Napoleon executed a brilliant campaign of maneuver against Austrian and Sardinian forces in Italy and in the resultant treaty of Campo Formio forced Austria to cede the Austrian Netherlands (now Belgium and Luxembourg), which became the first territorial additions to the French Republic, and to recognize the Cisalpine and Ligurian republics established by French power in northern Italy.

Napoleon’s next campaign was a major failure. He sailed an army to Egypt in May 1798 with the idea of conquering the Ottoman Empire. The defeat of a French naval squadron by Admiral Horatio Nelson in the Battle of the Nile (August 1, 1798) left him without sufficient naval support, however, and, after failing to take Acre in 1799, Napoleon withdrew to France. His army continued to occupy Egypt until 1801. Meanwhile, other French forces had occupied new territories and established republican regimes in Rome, Switzerland (the Helvetic Republic), and the Italian Piedmont (the Parthenopean). As a result the Second Coalition formed, comprising Britain, Russia, the Ottoman Empire, Naples, Portugal, and Austria. The allies’ initial successes were reversed by their inability to agree on strategy, however, and by the time Napoleon became the first consul of France by the coup d’état of 18 Brumaire, year VIII (November 9, 1799), the danger of foreign intervention against the Revolution in France was over. A victory over Austria at Marengo in 1800 and the consequent Treaty of Lunéville left France the dominant power on the Continent. For two years thereafter only Great Britain, with its powerful navy, remained to oppose Napoleon. Nelson’s smashing victory at Trafalgar (October 21, 1805) ended a French threat to invade England. In 1805 a Third Coalition formed with Britain, Russia, and Austria. Napoleon won major victories at Ulm and Austerlitz in 1805 and at Jena, Auerstädt, and Lübeck over the new coalition member Prussia in 1806. The resulting Treaty of Tilsit, in which Prussia was halved at the Elbe and also lost part of Poland, and the Treaty of Schönbrunn in 1809, following a brief Austrian uprising, left all of Europe from the English Channel to the Russian border, with the exceptions of Portugal, Sweden, Sardinia, and Sicily, either part of the French Empire, under the control of France, or allied to France by treaty.

In 1806, in an attempt to use French control of continental ports to blockade Britain indirectly, Napoleon issued the Berlin Decree, by which ships passing to French-controlled ports after calling at British ports were liable to seizure. The Continental System, as this policy was called, was not successful. The general inhibition of European trade that ensued (for Britain responded with a like policy of detaining ships bound for French ports) and the perceived favouritism in the French government’s granting of licenses to French merchants for trade with Britain cost Napoleon considerable political support. Meanwhile, though pressed at home, the British were able to expand their colonial markets so as to emerge from the trade war more prosperous than before.

Napoleon’s military successes resulted from a strategy of moving armies rapidly and striking quickly, sometimes by surprise, often so as to prevent the coordination of the forces opposing him, which he was then able to defeat piecemeal. This strategy necessitated a thorough knowledge of the terrain of the theatre of war, especially as quick movement precluded adequate supplying of his armies without a large amount of requisitioning in the area of operations. The answer to this strategy for Napoleon’s enemies was to maintain a threat while avoiding engagements until coordination could be achieved; relying on strong lines of supply, allied armies could await opportunity while Napoleon’s troops, chasing them, began to suffer from overextension of their supply lines. This strategy was used first in the Peninsular Campaign of 1811 by the duke of Wellington, who was able to open up Spain using supply lines through Portugal. It was used most dramatically by the Russian generals M.B. Barclay de Tolly and P.I. Bagration in their response to Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812; they simply withdrew along parallel lines. Unable to win a decisive victory at Borodino on September 7, the only full-scale engagement of the campaign, Napoleon was eventually forced to retreat. The Russian armies then turned to pursuit; Napoleon was forced to march his army back along the same route he had come, now depleted of forage, through the Russian winter in which temperatures reached −30 °F (−35 °C). In this disastrous campaign, Napoleon lost 500,000 men, the faith of his allies, and the awe of his enemies.

A new coalition, formed in 1813, mustered armies that at last outnumbered those of France. Napoleon’s allies fell away one by one, and by late 1813 he had been forced to withdraw west of the Rhine. An invasion of France commenced early in 1814; Paris was reached in March, and on April 6 Napoleon abdicated. His exile to the island of Elba lasted less than a year, however, and in March 1815 he returned to France and rallied a new army. A seventh and final coalition of Great Britain, Russia, Prussia, and Austria opposed him. The campaign was brief. Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo on June 16–18, 1815, was again decided upon the issue of his inability to surprise and to prevent the joining up of two armies invading France along separate lines, in this case Wellington’s Dutch and English troops and Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher’s Prussians. Napoleon abdicated on June 22, and the Bourbon monarchy was restored in the person of Louis XVIII shortly thereafter.

Encyclopaedya Britannica



Siege of Mantua

Napoleon Bonaparte as a young officer

European history
(June 4, 1796–Feb. 2, 1797), the crucial episode in Napoleon Bonaparte’s first Italian campaign; his successful siege of Mantua excluded the Austrians from northern Italy. The city was easy to besiege: the only access to it was via five causeways over the Mincio River. The two Austrian commanders, Count Dagobert Siegmund Graf von Wurmser and Baron Josef Alvintzy, in four successive tries, repeated the same mistakes of giving priority to lifting the Siege of Mantua, rather than first trying to destroy Napoleon’s 40,000-man Army of Italy, and of deploying their armies too far apart to coordinate their attacks effectively. Napoleon utilized his central position and greater mobility to “divide and conquer.”
After a series of battles, Napoleon forced the surrender of Mantua on Feb. 2, 1797, and the French conquest of northern Italy was virtually completed.

Encyclopaedya Britannica




Battle of Arcola

Bonaparte on the Bridge at Arcole by Jean-Antoine Gros

In the Battle of Arcola on 15 to 17 November 1796, the French Army of Italy commanded by Napoleon Bonaparte won a victory over the army of Austria led by Jozsef Alvinczi. The battle was part the third relief of the Siege of Mantua in which Alvinczi's army repulsed Bonaparte at the Second Battle of Bassano on 6 November and at the Battle of Caldiero on 12 November. Meanwhile, Paul Davidovich's Austrian Tyrol Corps clashed with Claude Vaubois' French division at Cembra on 2 November. Davidovich defeated Vaubois at the Battle of Calliano on 6-7 November and Rivoli Veronese on 17 November. After Bonaparte's triumph at Arcola, he turned on the Tyrol Corps, beat it at Rivoli on 21 November, and forced it to retreat north into the mountains.

After having the worst of some damaging engagements in the country east of Verona, and retreating through that city and across the river Adige, Napoleon doubled back and force-marched along its south bank to a place where he knew he could throw a pontoon bridge across the river. On the far bank was an area of marshy land that troops could not penetrate, which meant that all movement was limited to the causeways on the banks of the river Adige, and the banks of a small tributary, called the Alpone, that flowed into it from the north. Bonaparte’s plan was to establish a bridgehead on the northern bank of the Adige, and to protect this from the main Austrian army by sending some troops along the causeway to the west. The narrowness of the causeway would mean that the Austrians could not use their superior numbers to advantage against this holding force. Another part of his army would move along the causeway to the east, then turn due north as it bent to follow the course of the Alpone.

About a mile along this lay a bridge over the Alpone, on the other side of which was the village of Arcole, and the road that went north and intersected the Austrian lines of communication, which Napoleon hoped to be able to cut. However, it proved to be difficult even to reach the bridge at Arcole, never mind capture it, as the Austrians were able to line the east bank of the Alpone and enfilade the French troops as they marched along the causeway towards the bridge. Before long, most of the French soldiers were lying in the lee of the causeway to shelter from the fire. One eye-witness claimed that he saw Napoleon holding a colour and leading his grenadiers in an assault. It was an important moment in Napoleonic legend. It seems likely, therefore, that the paintings that show Bonaparte actually crossing the bridge owe more to artistic interpretation than fact. Not that being on the bridge itself would have been any more heroic: several of the men standing around Napoleon at the time were killed and wounded, and he was extremely lucky to escape unharmed, though according to one source he was toppled from his horse and ended in the mud at the edge of the marsh. (Napoleon's aide-de-camp, Jean-Baptiste Muiron, was killed on the first day of the battle covering Napoleon's body with his own; Napoleon named the French frigate Muiron after him.) Although the French did manage to cross the bridge on the first day of the battle, they had to retire again. Another two days of heavy fighting ensued before Napoleon and his commanders managed to solve the conundrum of how to dislodge the Austrian defenders and cross the Alpone to Arcole, which they finally achieved in gathering darkness on 17 November.

Encyclopaedya Britannica


3 Napoleon's Egyptian campaign, 1798

In the War of the First Coalition (1792-1797), the levee en masse ("general mobilization") and above all Napoleon's decisive action in the Italian campaign led to a French victory over the armies of Austria, Prussia, Great Britain, Spain, and the Netherlands.

Two years later, after his failed 3 Egyptian campaign, Napoleon deposed the Directory with a coup d'etat to place himself at the head of France.

Bonaparte Before the Sphinx, by Jean-Leon Gerome


Bonaparte Visiting the Pesthouse in Jaffa, March 11 1799,  Jean-Antoine Gros



Battle of the Nile

The Battle of Abukir by
Jean-Antoine Gros

Egyptian-European history
also called Battle of Aboukir Bay, Aboukir also spelled Abukir
(Aug. 1, 1798), battle that was one of the greatest victories of the British admiral Horatio Nelson. It was fought between the British and French fleets in Abū Qīr Bay, near Alexandria, Egypt.

The French Revolutionary general Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798 made plans for an invasion of Egypt in order to constrict Britain’s trade routes and threaten its possession of India. The British government heard that a large French naval expedition was to sail from a French Mediterranean port under the command of Napoleon, and in response it ordered the Earl of St. Vincent, the commander in chief of the British fleet, to detach ships under Rear Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson to reconnoitre off Toulon and to watch French naval movements there. But Nelson’s own ship was dismasted in a storm, and his group of frigates, now dispersed, returned to the British base at Gibraltar. Meanwhile, St. Vincent sent Nelson more ships, which joined Nelson on June 7, bringing his strength up to 14 ships of the line.

The French expedition eluded the British warships and sailed first for Malta, which the French seized from the British early in June. After spending a week at Malta, Napoleon sailed with his fleet for his main objective, Egypt. Meanwhile, Nelson had found Toulon empty and had correctly guessed the French objective, but because he lacked frigates for reconnaissance, he missed the French fleet, reached Egypt first, found the port of Alexandria empty, and impetuously returned to Sicily, where his ships were resupplied. Determined to find the French fleet, he sailed to Egypt once more and on August 1 he sighted the main French fleet of 13 ships of the line and 4 frigates under Admiral François-Paul Brueys d’Aigailliers at anchor in Abū Qīr Bay.

Although there were but a few hours left until nightfall and Brueys’ ships were in a strong defensive position, being securely ranged in a sandy bay that was flanked on one side by a shore battery on Abū Qīr Island, Nelson gave orders to attack at once. Several of the British warships were able to maneuver around the head of the French line of battle and thus got inside and behind their position. Fierce fighting ensued, during which Nelson himself was wounded in the head. The climax came at about 10:00 pm, when Brueys’ 120-gun flagship, which was by far the largest ship in the bay, blew up with most of the ship’s company, including the admiral. The fighting continued for the rest of the night, with the end result that the British warships destroyed or captured all but two of Brueys’ ships of the line. The British suffered about 900 casualties, the French about 10 times as many.

The Battle of the Nile had several important effects. It isolated Napoleon’s army in Egypt, thus ensuring its ultimate disintegration. It ensured that in due time Malta would be retaken from the French, and it both heightened British prestige and secured British control of the Mediterranean.

Encyclopaedya Britannica



Bonaparte and the Council of Five Hundred at St. Cloud, 10th November 1799, by Francois Bouchot



Coup of 18–19 Brumaire
French history
(November 9–10, 1799), coup d’état that overthrew the system of government under the Directory in France and substituted the Consulate, making way for the despotism of Napoleon Bonaparte. The event is often viewed as the effective end of the French Revolution.

In the final days of the Directory, Abbé Sieyès and Talleyrand planned the coup with the aid of General Napoleon Bonaparte, who had arrived in France from the ill-fated Egyptian campaign to be greeted, nevertheless, with triumphal cheers. In Paris on 18 Brumaire, year VIII (November 9, 1799), the legislative Council of Ancients, under Sieyès, voted to have both the Ancients and the lower house, the Council of Five Hundred, meet the next day in the palace at Saint-Cloud, ostensibly in order to render the councils safe from a purported “Jacobin plot” in Paris but in reality in order to put the councils at a convenient site away from the city and under the intimidation of Bonaparte’s troops.

The next day, 19 Brumaire, when the councils met at Saint-Cloud, Bonaparte blundered through a speech before the Ancients and later was met by a storm of abuse in the meeting place of the Five Hundred, whose members, hearing rumours and seeing troops all about, began to perceive the real plot that was brewing. Bonaparte fled the hall, but Sieyès, Lucien Bonaparte, and Joachim Murat retrieved the situation, ultimately by sending in the grenadiers, dissolving the Five Hundred, and forcing the Ancients to decree the end of the Directory (and itself) and the creation of a new consular government headed by First Consul Bonaparte and aided by consuls Sieyès and Roger Duclos. By November 14 Bonaparte was established in the Luxembourg Palace.

Encyclopaedya Britannica


Exit libertè a la Francois! or Buonaparte closing the farce of Egalité, at St. Cloud near Paris Novr. 10th 1799,
British satirical depiction of the coup.

He defeated Austria in the War of the Second Coalition (1798-1802) at Marengo and forced an accommodation at Lune ville, bringing the left bank of the Rhine permanently into France.


Battle of Marengo

The Battle of Marengo by Louis-François Lejeune

European history
(June 14, 1800), narrow victory for Napoleon Bonaparte in the War of the Second Coalition, fought on the Marengo Plain about 3 miles (5 km) southeast of Alessandria, in northern Italy, between Napoleon’s approximately 28,000 troops and some 31,000 Austrian troops under General Michael Friedrich von Melas; it resulted in the French occupation of Lombardy up to the Mincio River and secured Napoleon’s military and civilian authority in Paris.

Napoleon led his army across several Alpine passes in May and cut Melas off from communication with Austria. Melas concentrated his troops at Alessandria to meet the French. Napoleon mistakenly thought Melas was at Turin, more than 50 miles (80 km) to the west, and his troops were widely separated when Melas attacked. The initial French force of about 18,000 men was at first overpowered by the Austrians and was pushed back 4 miles (6.4 km) by 3 pm. Melas, believing victory was secured, gave the command to a subordinate and retired to Alessandria. The slow Austrian pursuit enabled Napoleon to hold his forces together until the arrival of some 10,000 reinforcements, mainly General Louis Desaix’s corps. The furious French counterattack at 5 pm, in which Desaix was killed almost immediately, forced the Austrians into headlong retreat. Austrian losses included about 7,500 killed and wounded and some 4,000 captured, while French losses totaled about 6,000. The next day Melas signed an armistice.

Encyclopaedya Britannica


In order to stem Napoleon's ambition and maintain a balance of powers in Europe, the British prime minister 2 William Pitt the Younger continually forged new coalitions against France.

2 Cartoon: Napoleon and the British Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger carve up the world between them, 1805



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