Modern history

Introduction The Napoleonic Wars in Historical Perspective

Writing of the outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars in 1803, John Holland Rose once remarked, ‘The history of Napoleon now becomes, for twelve momentous years, the history of mankind.’1 Such a remark today seems like a relic of a bygone era. At the time that Britain and France were coming to blows, Robert Fulton was inventing the steamship, Richard Trevithick building the first steam locomotive, and William Jessop engineering the first public railway in the world. In North America, Lewis and Clark were on the brink of becoming the first white men to make it all the way from the eastern seaboard to the Pacific Ocean; in Africa the Sokoto caliphate was in the process of islamicizing the Hausa people of what is today northern Nigeria; and in China the so-called ‘White Lotus’ sect was leading a series of anti-Manchu revolts that discredited the ruling Qing dynasty and helped pave the way for its subsequent disintegration. As for the world of ideas, new currents were starting to emerge that would have horrified most of the men of 1789 (let alone Napoleon): while Saint-Simon was at work on the ideas of proto-socialism, Madame de Staël, Mary Wollstonecroft and a number of other writers were explicitly raising the banner of female emancipation. The history of Napoleon, then, was never the history of the world. Was it, though, the history of Europe? It is this question that this book seeks to answer, at least from the perspective of international relations. Was the French ruler a prime mover in events? Was Napoleonic Europe, in short, proof of the ‘great-man’ theory of history? Or was he rather caught up in processes that had been set in train without any intervention on his part? The emperor himself seems to have been in two minds. At one time he remarked, ‘I have always commanded; from the moment that my life began I was filled with power, and such were my circumstances and my strength alike that from the moment that I came to prominence I recognized neither masters nor laws.’2 Yet at another what occurred in Europe between 1803 and 1815 he put down to something very different: ‘I have never really been my own master; I have always been governed by circumstances.’3 Whatever the truth, one thing is clear: the France of Napoleon was not acting in a vacuum. Even if the course of international relations does prove to have been bent to his will, the other powers in Europe had strategic and diplomatic goals that long predated Napoleon, and did not cease to play their own games just because they successively came under ever greater threat from Paris. Hence the need for a work on the international aspects of Napoleonic Europe that is something other than just one more life of Napoleon Bonaparte, or one more recitation of his campaigns.

Let us begin by discussing what we mean when we say the Napoleonic Wars. Hostilities broke out on 18 May 1803 when Britain, pushed beyond endurance by repeated acts of aggression and hostility, declared war on France and her new ruler, the so-called First Consul, Napoleon Bonaparte. For the next two years there was little in the way of land conflict, but amidst much naval manoeuvring on the high seas which led, amongst other things, to Spain joining forces with France in 1804, a large French army massed on the French coast and menaced Britain with invasion. No fleet of landing craft set sail, however, and in August 1805 the danger receded altogether: whereas in 1803 Britain had stood alone, the summer of 1805 had seen a powerful anti-French coalition come together. Alongside Britain there now stood Austria, Russia, Sweden and Naples, and so the French armies were soon marching east to deal with the new threat. A Franco-Spanish fleet was destroyed at Trafalgar, but the Austrians were defeated at Ulm and the Russians at Austerlitz. Badly beaten, Austria made peace and for a brief moment it appeared that Britain and Russia might follow her example. Even had this happened, it is unlikely Europe would have been able to keep the peace: following the outbreak of a revolt in Serbia in 1804, the Ottoman Empire was rapidly sliding towards war with Russia, such a conflict eventually breaking out in the autumn of 1806. But all chances of peace with France were soon at an end: neither Britain nor Russia was able to obtain the compromise peace that they sought, or at least not in an acceptable form, and then in September an increasingly desperate Prussia attacked Napoleon. There followed further great battles: the Prussians were crushed at Jena and Auerstädt, whilst a French invasion of Poland led in February 1807 to the terrible slaughter on the blizzard-swept field of Eylau. For a moment Napoleon was checked, but the coming of summer saw a new offensive that led to another French triumph at Friedland, whereupon the Tsar of Russia, Alexander I, decided to make peace.

This settlement was a turning point. Following the victories of the past two years, Napoleon was at the height of his power. Crowned emperor of France in December 1804, he now presided over a vast empire. Over the past few years the satellite republics inherited from the 1790s had been joined by new territories, and the whole now constituted a series of monarchies ruled by one or other of Napoleon’s many brothers and sisters. These principalities included Holland, the German states of Westphalia and Berg, the Kingdom of Italy (roughly speaking, the valley of the river Po) and Naples. Many other areas, meanwhile - Belgium, the Rhineland, Piedmont - had been annexed to France and varying degrees of control were also enjoyed in Germany, where the old Holy Roman Empire had been replaced by a new Confederation of the Rhine, and Poland, part of which had been organized into yet another satellite state known as the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. With Spain a loyal ally and Russia in effect persuaded to join Napoleon in his war against Britain, the way was open for final victory, to achieve which the emperor instigated a continent-wide embargo on British trade that is generally referred to as the Continental System.4

Napoleon completely failed to exploit this opportunity and it is often said that in 1808 he made the greatest mistake of his career by turning on his Spanish allies and overthrowing the Bourbon monarchy in favour of his brother, Joseph Bonaparte. Such an assessment, however, is short-sighted. The Spanish adventure may have plunged France into a long and devastating war which was to see-saw back and forth in the Iberian Peninsula for the next five years, but in itself this was not a disaster. Exerting a greater degree of control in Spain made sense in terms of both Napoleon’s war against Britain and the partition of the Ottoman Empire, which he was certainly considering by 1808, whilst the war there was by no means unwinnable. The real error was Napoleon’s treatment of the rest of the Continent. Such was the loathing and distrust with which Britain was regarded in Germany, Italy, Scandinavia, Austria and Russia that a policy of conciliation and respect might well have won the emperor the active support of the whole of Europe, and made it very difficult for Britain to continue the war. From the beginning, however, the Napoleonic imperium showed itself to be bent on nothing more than exploitation; even the reforms that it brought in amounted to little more than attempts to produce more men and money. And for the other powers it was clear that what faced them was in effect complete subjugation to Paris. Realizing this, Austria, like Prussia before her, made a last-ditch attempt to assert her independence in 1809, only to be defeated at Wagram. This victory, the last of Napoleon’s great triumphs, was not enough to restore France’s authority, however. Increasingly restive, Russia broke with Napoleon at the end of 1810 and mobilized her army. To the very end, conflict in the East could have been avoided, but the French ruler would not compromise with Alexander over any of the matters at issue, and in June 1812 a gigantic French army invaded Russia. This proved disastrous for Napoleon. His hold on the rest of Europe was jeopardized by the need to mass as large a force as possible against Russia, whilst the army that marched into Lithuania and ultimately ended up in Moscow was completely destroyed by a combination of stubborn Russian resistance and the rigours of the Russian climate.

There followed a terrible endgame. In a decision of crucial importance, Alexander resolved not to stop at the Russian frontier, but to invade Germany and the Grand Duchy of Warsaw so as to deal Napoleon such a blow that his dreams of glory would finally be brought to an end. This led Prussia to rise up against the French, whilst further posturing on the emperor’s part brought in the Austrians and many of the German states. After months of bitter fighting the new army that Napoleon had managed to improvise in the wake of the Russian disaster was destroyed at Leipzig, leaving the French ruler no option but to evacuate Germany and retreat to the river Rhine. Offered several peace deals that would have left him on the throne of France, Napoleon resolved to fight on in the hope that the alliance against him might fall apart, but his situation was now desperate. Not only was France in revolt at the endless demands for more conscripts, but, having overthrown the Bonaparte Kingdom of Spain at the battle of Vitoria in June 1813, the Anglo-Portuguese army had crossed the Pyrenees. In a campaign of great brilliance, Napoleon held out for a few more weeks, but by early April it was quite clear that the situation was hopeless, and the emperor was in the end forced to abdicate by his own generals.

With the exception of a further episode of violence the following year, when Napoleon escaped from the petty kingdom he had been awarded on the Italian island of Elba, seized power in Paris and once more went to war, only to be defeated at the battle of Waterloo, the Napoleonic Wars were over. What, though, are we to make of them as a historical episode? The first thing to note is that the conflict of 1803-15 has often been regarded as a continuation of the nine years of war that had followed the outbreak of hostilities between Revolutionary France and varying combinations of the other states of Europe in April 1972. At first France had only been faced by Austria and Prussia, but then 1973 the increasingly radical tenor of events in France led many other countries to join the struggle against her. For a year or more it was a question of the French versus the rest, but very soon a variety of factors led state after state to fall away and even to make alliances with France against Britain. By 1797 all that was left were Britain and Austria, and in that year even Austria was brought down by a string of victories gained by Napoleon - then plain General Bonaparte - in Italy. As was to be the case ten years later, Britain stood all but alone, but on this occasion too French aggression played into her hands. Led by Napoleon, a French army invaded Egypt and this prompted Austria, Russia, Naples and the Ottoman Empire to go to war. However, from this struggle Napoleon - from November 1799 ruler of France - emerged victorious. Austria and Naples were defeated and forced to make peace; Russia was persuaded in effect to change sides; and Britain was left with no option but to secure such terms as she could in the Treaty of Amiens.

It is often argued that this long sequence of wars was the fruit of an ideological clash between France and the ancien régime, that the principles of the French Revolution were so shocking to the rulers and statesmen of the rest of Europe that they embarked on a crusade against them that could have no end until they had been crushed and the Bourbons restored to the throne of France. Equally, convinced that there was no other option, and that it was, indeed, their duty, successive rulers of France strove to export the principles of the Revolution to the ends of the earth. This idea has been much exaggerated. There was certainly much loathing of ‘Jacobinism’ in Europe’s salons, courts and chancellories, while the conflict was accompanied by sustained propaganda campaigns of a like never been seen before. But in the end few governments or rulers were genuinely committed to the cause of what would later be known as regime change and still fewer enthusiastic at the idea of the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy as it had existed in 1789. Even in the 1790s there had been plenty of states willing to essay a policy of détente with France, and others who had joined her in pursuit of long-standing foreign policy interests of one sort or another, while by the time of Austerlitz, Jena and Friedland there was in practice no state that could not have lived with Napoleon provided that he accepted certain limits to France’s power. Indeed, to imagine that the French Revolution and its successors somehow set aside the main issues in international relations would be most short-sighted: one of the reasons why France achieved as much as she did was because most of the powers that faced her continued until 1812 or later to pursue other concerns. Russia is a good example. In 1791 and again in 1794 Russia’s troops were fighting not the French but the Poles, while during the Napoleonic Wars Alexander I did not hesitate to get involved in conflicts not just in the Balkans but also in the Baltic and central Asia. Equally, in 1814 Sweden’s forces were to be found not battling Napoleon, but rather concentrating on the conquest of Norway.

If Europe was not divided along ideological lines, what did the long period of conflict that gripped her between 1792 and 1815 stem from? In the end, as we shall see, the prime mover was Napoleon’s own aggression, egomania and lust for power, but one cannot ignore other factors that are essentially structural or systemic. The most important of these were, first, the issue of what to do about Eastern Europe and, in particular, how to fill the vacuum left by the decline of Sweden, Poland and the Ottoman Empire, and the second, the endemic colonial and commercial conflict that had for most of the past century characterized the relationship between Britain and France. Indeed, with respect to the first issue, it is even possible to argue that the French Revolutionary Wars were precipitated by, and part of, a much wider crisis that began in Eastern Europe in 1787. Rather than imagining the French Wars as a new type of conflict that foreshadowed the total wars of the twentieth century, it is more sensible to think of them in terms of the dynastic wars of the eighteenth century. As far as Napoleon is concerned, the most obvious parallel is Louis XIV. King of France between 1643 and 1715, in 1667 Louis embarked on a programme of conquest that, on the surface, foreshadowed that of Napoleon. First of all, a series of conflicts with Holland and other powers brought France an important slice of the Spanish Netherlands and the region of Alsace, and then in 1700 the death without issue of King Charles II of Spain opened up the possibility of acquiring for France - or at least a suitable ‘cat’s-paw’ in the person of Louis’s grandson, Philippe - the whole of the inheritance of the Spanish Habsburgs. Had this ploy succeeded, Louis would have ended up with a sphere of influence encompassing Spain, Naples, Sicily, Sardinia, Lombardy and the Spanish Netherlands, not to mention a colonial empire that would have incorporated much of North and South America.

With France effectively propelled to superpower status, her domination of Western Europe would have been total, and thus it was that a broad coalition of powers arose to challenge Louis in the War of the Spanish Succession. On the one side were France, Spain (where Philippe had quickly established himself as Felipe V) and a few minor German states that had fallen out with Austria; and on the other, Britain, Holland, Denmark, Austria and most of the states of the Holy Roman Empire. The following struggle was for its time at least as demanding as the Napoleonic Wars. The armies raised by the combatants were very substantial. In 1710 Louis XIV’s army amounted to 255,000 men and that of Queen Anne of Britain to about 58,000; indeed, one estimate places the figure for the French army as high as 360,000. At first sight these figures appear quite small, and certainly much smaller than the armies that were fielded in the Napoleonic period, but then, the population base was much lower. In 1700 France had about 20 million inhabitants, whereas by 1800 the figure had risen to some 33 million, the equivalent figures for Britain being 5 million and 16 million. With general prosperity and especially levels of agricultural prosperity at a lower level, warfare was also a far greater burden on society. And for France in particular the War of the Spanish Succession represented a veritable calvary. As Louis was unable to maintain a presence in either Germany or Italy, the entire weight of the struggle fell on his unfortunate subjects. Conscription was very heavy–between 1701 and 1713

455,000 men were called up - and still more men were periodically pressed to dig fortifications, with the result that agricultural production experienced a significant fall, thereby forcing up bread prices. Larger armies, an obsession with the attack and defence of fortresses and the ever greater prominence of cannon all made the cost of the fighting enormous. Between 1700 and 1706 government expenditure amounted to 1,100 million francs, while between 1708 and 1715 it rose to 1,900 million. Then in 1709 there came natural catastrophe. France had already been ravaged by epidemics of dysentery and other scourges, but in that year she was struck by one of the worst winters ever recorded. With the harvest completely destroyed, the populace succumbed to famine. No one knows how many died, but so apocalyptic are the descriptions that have come down to us that the figure certainly ran to many hundreds of thousands, and possibly several millions.

Elsewhere things were not quite so desperate (though some of the German states almost certainly put a greater proportion of their men under arms than they ever had to in the Napoleonic period), and it might, too, be pointed out that battles were by no means as frequent as they were a hundred years later. This was an important distinction, but when the rival armies did meet the results were still spectacular. In the first place, the field armies of the period were not that much smaller than their Napoleonic counterparts. At Blenheim, for example, 60,000 French and Bavarian troops faced 56,000 Allies; at Malplaquet Marlborough had 110,000 troops and Villars, 80,000; at Oudenarde 80,000 Allies fought 85,000 French; and at Ramillies the two sides had 50,000 men apiece. This gives an average of 142,000 combatants in each battle, which does not compare unfavourably with the figures for the Napoleonic epoch quoted below. In the second place, the slaughter was just as bad as anything seen on the battlefields of Napoleon, Wellington and the Archduke Charles. At Almansa, for example, the Allies lost 17,000 casualties out of the 22,000 men they had engaged, while at Blenheim the losses of the French and Bavarians came to 38,000. Bloodiest of all these combats, however, was Malplaquet where the losses of the two sides combined reached 42,000. On a number of occasions, then, the War of the Spanish Succession saw battle reach a pitch of intensity that was the equal of anything seen in the Napoleonic Wars.

Nor could the Napoleonic Wars lay claim to being unique in their geographical reach. Whilst they were fought out on a stage that was truly worldwide - not counting the serious conflicts that were sparked off in both North and South America, minor forces of the combatants directly clashed with one another as far afield as Java, the Cape of Good Hope, Buenos Aires and the West Indies - the Seven Years War of 1756-63 witnessed colonial campaigns of a scope that the struggle of 1803-15 had nothing to match. Indeed, it might even be said that if there was a great leap forward in warfare at this time, it came not in 1803 nor even in 1792, but rather in 1756: whereas the major conflicts of the reign of Louis XIV and the forty years that followed had all been largely European affairs, it was the Seven Years War that turned Europe’s colonies in Asia, Africa and the New World into a battlefield - indeed, on occasion, the main battlefield.

What, then, marks out the Napoleonic Wars from what had gone before? Head of the list must come the idea that, just as the Seven Years War made conflict in Europe a global affair, so the struggle that began in 1803 was the first one waged by nations-in-arms. This concept had been invented by the French in 1793, but it now took its place on the other side of the lines as well: universal conscription was introduced in Spain in 1808, Sweden in 1812 and Prussia in 1813, while in Britain the continual absence of conscription to the army was countered by a number of Acts of Parliament laying down that all men should tender some form of military service even if it was only in part-time reserve forces designed to meet the needs of home defence. And even in states whose systems of recruitment remained unreformed-agood example here is Russia - the demand for men was at times so great that it is difficult to believe that many more troops could have been called up even had a French-style system been introduced. Hence, in part at least, the new stress on the role of propaganda, and hence too the fact that field armies suddenly got much bigger. In testimony to the War of the Spanish Succession’s somewhat exceptional character, the number of combatants in the twelve battles of the Seven Years War fought by Frederick the Great amounted to an average of 92,000 men, while, somewhat surprisingly, the same figure for the six greatest battles of the French Revolutionary Wars comes to only 87,000. Yet put together the battles of Austerlitz, Jena, Eylau, Friedland, Tudela, Aspern-Essling and Wagram - the combats that established Napoleon’s hegemony in the period 1805-1809 - and the same total comes to 162,000. And looking at the battles of the years of Napoleon’s decline in 1812-1813 - Borodino, Lutzen, Bautzen, Dresden and Leipzig - produces another leap forward to 309,400.

The military consequences of this development were immense. Whereas in the eighteenth century the considerable investment represented by the individual soldier ensured that the generals of Europe sought wherever possible to avoid battle and to win their campaigns by manoeuvre, it was now possible to fight far more battles. In the War of the Spanish Succession, it is possible to come up with perhaps a dozen major battles, but in the Napoleonic Wars the number is at least forty. Meanwhile, the armies had become so large that they could no longer function as single units but had to be broken down into permanent sub-units. Known as divisions, these had first appeared in the French Revolutionary Wars, but it had soon become apparent that there were serious flaws with the initial steps that were taken in this direction. The divisions created in the Armies of the North, the Sambre and Meuse, the Eastern Pyrenees, Italy and the rest were often too small to sustain themselves for very long, while the decision that they should be self-supporting led to the cavalry and artillery being split up into ‘penny-packets’ that were of little use to anyone. What was needed was something rather different, and in 1804 this was found in the form of Napoleon’s new corps system. Henceforward the basic formation in the emperor’s forces was the corps, each of which was usually made up of three or four divisions of infantry and a division of cavalry, each division being made up of two brigades of infantry or cavalry and a battery of artillery. In addition, a corps commander might enjoy the services of a couple of extra batteries of artillery, but the bulk of the guns, and especially the heavy twelve-pounders that delivered the main punch, were held back at army level as a special reserve that could be deployed wherever the general in command of the army - in the case of the main French forces Napoleon himself - saw fit. Also held back at army level might be one or more corps made up of nothing but heavy cavalry and horse artillery, the role of these troops generally being to exploit a breakthrough in the enemy line and turn defeat into complete rout. With various differences in detail and nomenclature, by 1812 this model of organization had become standard in all the armies of Europe, and with it battle had been transformed. Although it still happened - Waterloo is the obvious example–a decisive victory was no longer likely to be obtained in a single day. Instead, battles were now fought out over several days by commanders attempting to control operations from some farmstead a mile or more to the rear (again Waterloo is an exception here). In short, we see the passing of an era, and the first dim stirrings of a new age of war.

One might here, too, touch on the participation of the civilian populace in the struggle. As is well known, the Napoleonic Wars gave the world the word ‘guerrilla’, and the fact is that in Italy, the Tyrol, the Iberian Peninsula and Russia the civilian populations were drawn into the struggle in considerable numbers as irregular combatants. This development should not be exaggerated: the famous Spanish guerrillas, for example, have in recent years been shown to have had strong links with the regular forces, just as the real basis of irregular resistance in Russia was not the peasantry but the Cossacks. Furthermore it was not entirely new: in the War of the Spanish Succession, for example, bands of desperate peasants had regularly taken arms in an attempt to save their homes and crops from destruction or requisition. Yet sufficient was the reality that it is possible to argue that it was the Napoleonic Wars that formalized the concept of asymmetrical warfare. At the same time, such was the effort that they were calling forth from their unfortunate inhabitants that none of the powers of Europe found themselves able to avoid at least a measure of engagement with public opinion. For the first time, we enter an era in which propaganda and news management became an integral part of the war effort, as well as one in which the populace on all sides was urged to hate the enemy. In addition, if the people were expected to fight, then they had to be given something to fight for, the result being that in various parts of the Continent, most notably Prussia and Spain, the example set by France in September 1793 was copied via the introduction of various measures of political and social reform. And, last but not least, the development of the modern state was given a sharp boost: with the huge demands now involved in making war, many administrations found themselves introducing new methods of administration, fostering the emergence of modern bureaucracies, and exploiting new sources of revenue, all of which drove a further nail into the coffin of the ancien régime.

The Napoleonic Wars, then, marked a watershed in the history of warfare and Europe alike. Let us conclude this introduction, however, by returning to the rulers of the eighteenth century and, in particular, Louis XIV. Even if he did not go to war himself after 1673, the ‘Sun King’ always remained a military monarch. The court at Versailles was very much the headquarters of successive French war efforts, and Louis’s leading male courtiers were invariably also prominent military commanders. There was, too, a strong fixation with martial glory: even as an old man Louis had himself depicted in full armour in his paintings, while Versailles was full of reminders of the glories of French arms. If Louis embarked on a series of wars as soon as he had assumed effective control of his dominions in 1661, it was in part because he saw war-making as a central part of the business of kingship, as the chief means, perhaps, by which a ruler could augument his status. There was, as we shall see, much here that was to be repeated a hundred years later, but there were also a number of crucial differences. Never entirely insensible to the horrors of war, Louis was capable of recognizing that there were moments when discretion was the better part of valour. Driven from Germany and Italy and forced to make war solely on the basis of France’s own resources and, for the most part, on her very soil, from 1706 Louis was desperate to end the War of the Spanish Succession. To his ever more generous proposals, however, the Allied response was to offer peace terms that were utterly unreasonable: France was not only to be stripped of many important border cities and forced to destroy many fortresses, but to send French troops to eject Felipe V from Spain should he refuse to abdicate voluntarily. In consequence, Louis deemed it was better to fight on; as he observed, if he must wage war, he would prefer not to do so against his own grandson. Indeed, it is quite clear that the ‘Sun King’ had never wanted war in the first place: the earlier Nine Years War of 1688-97 having already placed a serious strain on France’s resources, Louis would have been prepared to split the Spanish inheritance between Philippe and his Austrian rival even though the Bourbon dynasty had the stronger claim. And even in earlier years Louis’s ambitions were strictly limited: what he wanted was not an empire but simply secure borders.

Louis XIV may stand as a model for almost all the monarchs of eighteenth-century Europe. All were quite prepared to make use of war as an instrument of policy and to employ military success as the foundation and measure of their prestige, but, with the possible exception of Charles XII of Sweden, all set reasonable limits to their campaigns of conquest. If we take the case of Frederick the Great of Prussia, for example, the object of his wars with Austria was first to take and then to retain control of the province of Silesia, it being none of his business to conquer Bohemia or Hungary, nor still less topple the Habsburgs from their throne. Except for a very brief period in 1792 when the Brissotin leaders of the French Revolution were led by a rush of blood to the head to promise liberation to all the peoples of Europe, this principle of limited warfare was followed even in the French Revolutionary Wars of 1799: the Directory no more aspired to ‘jacobinize’ the whole of the Continent than the powers they were fighting were interested in turning the clock back to 1789. But Napoleon was different. At the end of his life Louis XIV is supposed to have lamented that he had loved war too well. This may or may not be true, but no such remark may be found in the annals of Napoleon’s exile on St Helena, and it is hard to imagine the emperor ever giving voice to such a sentiment. Napoleon Bonaparte was not just the ultimate warlord-a man who would have been nothing without war and conquest - but he was never capable of setting the same limits on himself as the rulers and statesmen who had waged the conflicts of the eighteenth century. There are those who would argue that this was not of his doing - that he was in effect impelled to embark on the road of universal conquest because of the refusal of Great Britain, especially, to allow France her just deserts. This is another debate, but it seems most unlikely that the ‘Sun King’ would ever have gone down such a path. In any case, the matter is irrelevant: however the Napoleonic Wars are explained, it was the emperor’s determination to eschew compromise, to flex his muscles on every possible occasion and to push matters to extremes that made them what they were.

Whatever the causes of the Napoleonic Wars, they left in their wake both a very different Europe and a very different world. Prior to 1789 France had been unquestionably the strongest of the great powers. Though temporarily in eclipse thanks to defeat in the Seven Years War and the financial difficulties that stemmed from her support of the thirteen colonies in the War of American Independence, she was still wealthier than any of her continental competitors and possessed of the best army in Europe. Meanwhile, in alliance with Spain, she was able to exert at least a partial curb on British domination of the wider world and at the same time to participate in the benefits of the colonial trade. By 1815, however, all this had been swept aside. France’s domestic resources remained very great, but the establishment of a new German confederation - the creation, it may be said, of a German nation - had ensured that the capacity to dominate the ‘third Germany’ that had been central to the Napoleonic imperium (and had in fact been Louis XIV’s only hope of winning the War of the Spanish Succession) was no more. Across the seas, meanwhile, much of France’s colonial empire had been swept away, together with Spanish control of the mainland of Central and South America. Ironically, then, the greatest hero in French history had presided over nothing less than a total collapse in France’s international position, leaving Britannia to rule the waves and the rest of Europe to contend with the emergence of what would ultimately become an even greater threat to its security than France had been. In short, the year 1815 was both an end and a beginning.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!