March 13, 2010 cameron

England’s Wars Against Napoleon

I just discovered this terrific short online book by John Tarttelin that acknowledges that David and I have been saying for years – Napoleon’s wars against the other European powers were, for the most part, defensive. Read it here.

Comments (54)

  1. Napoleon invaded Italy, Egypt, Belgium, Holland, Austria, Prussia, Spain and Holland. He built a fleet with the intention of invading England. He attempted to reconquer Haiti.

    That is one heck of a defensive strategy!

  2. Cameron

    He invaded them only after they have broken peace treaties with France. When a nation breaks a peace treaty with your country, and breaks off all diplomatic discussions, with the obvious intentions of attacking, attacking them first *is* a defensive strategy.

  3. I have just realised that I put Holland twice when I meant to put Portugal. But then Napoleon invaded so many places one can be forgiven for not being able to keep up.

    He had to actually invade Spain first before he could get to Portugal. Portugal was a more significant country militarily then than it is now, but even so it is very hard to see what threat it posed to Napoleon.

  4. Peter Hansen

    The idea that Napoleon always wanted pease is absurd and a claim that can only be reached by a selective study of the events that took place. Cameron and Markham are strong believers in the peaceargument but the facts does not support is. The invasion of Spain and Russia are perfect examples of Napoleons wish to be the master of Europe.

    • Cameron

      Peter, your two examples prove my point.

      In the instance of Spain, Charles IV abdicated on 5 May 1808 in favour of Napoleon. He invited Napoleon into Spain to help him sort out the problems he faced with his son, wife and Prime Minister.

      In the case of Russie, there is PLENTY of evidence supporting the position that Napoleon tried desperately to avoid war. There is no doubt at ALL that it was Czar Alexander who chose to break off communication with France, expelled their Ambassador, and started to amass troops on the border of Poland, in preparation of an attack.

      If you want to debate Napoleon’s motives, please provide some evidence in support of your theories. We’re always happy to listen to informed debate.

  5. Colin L.

    With respect to Russia, I believe it was really a known fact that war was going to come sooner or later. The Russian court, had, after all, refused Napoleon’s offer of marrying the Grand Duchess Catherine (at the instigation of Maria Feodorovna and the other anti-French elements), so it was clear that they were moving to a definitively anti-French orientation

    Peter, also consider the following

    -Russia was bound by Tilsit (and I believe reinforced at Erfurt?) to help France in the event she was attacked. This was the case in 1809, yet the Russians only moved in at the end to prevent the Poles from taking more of Austrian Galicia.

    -Also, Napoleon was not interested in fighting Russia until it was clear that he had no choice. Why else was he willing to basically concede to the court of St. Petersburg a refusal to reestablish Poland and to essentially keep the Duchy of Warsaw as a Saxon vassal, when, as has been well established, he would much rather have reconstituted the old Kingdom of Poland?

    Now, I don’t know the entirety of the court drama involved, but I do think that the blame for the war in 1812 lays as much on Alexander’s head as it does on Napoleon’s, if not more so.

    By the way, a big thank you to David and Cameron for this awesome podcast: I can fully say that this podcast has really kindled my interest in the époque napoléonienne

  6. I picked up an interesting podcast from somewhere on this very blog. The details are below. In it the author claims that the Russian espionage machine was very effective enabling the Russians to work out at a very early stage Napoleon’s planned invasion. This puts the diplomatic scene into a completely different light. It is well worth a listen if only because it is such a big shift from the accepted picture of events that I was taught here in Britain. We tend to think of Napoleon as pretty aggresive, it isn’t often facts come to light that make him appear even more so.

    The Tsar Liberates Europe? Russia against Napoleon, 1807-1814
    Speaker: Professor Dominic Lieven
    This event was recorded on 8 October 2009 in Sheikh Zayed Theatre, New Academic Building
    In 1812-14 Alexander I defeated Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and then created and led a European alliance all the way to Paris. This lecture explains why and how he did this. It discusses Russian grand strategy, diplomacy and espionage, as well as the tsarist military machine, and the mobilisation of the home front. In both Western and Russian historiography the Russian achievement in 1813-14 is greatly underestimated, which seriously distorts understanding of European power politics and the causes of Napoleon’s demise. The lecture explains this underestimate partly as a legacy of Leo Tolstoy but also because while 1812 was traditionally seen by Russians as a national war, the victories of 1813-14 were interpreted as the triumph of the dynasty and empire.
    Available as: mp3 (35 MB; approx 76 minutes)
    Available as: video
    Event Posting: The Tsar Liberates Europe? Russia against Napoleon, 1807-1814

  7. Peter Hansen

    Cameron is once again trying to rewrite history. He wants to believe that Napoleon was a peasemaker and therefore looks for anything that can support that claim.

    I don’t look at Napoleons motives. I look at his actions and he invaded Russia and Spain.

    Napoleon wanted to rule like an Alexander or Cesar and that included the use of war as way of getting the results.

    Its okay by me to look up to Napoleon for his rise from rags to riches. Thats an amazing story but to make him into something he was not is totally absurd.

  8. Colin L.

    Declaring himself Emperor was necessary to advance reconciliation with some of the émigrés (as it marked that he was definitively moving away from the regicidal Republic) and also to dissuade the Bourbons from trying to make a return (what better way to exclude the old dynasty from the throne than making one of your own)

    Also, the only ones who felt threatened by his declaration as Emperor were the Austrians, as they feared for the loss of their own imperial prestige (which, as we would see with Pressburg, proved to be a justified fear). Yet they nevertheless accepted it in time…

  9. Declaring himself emperor made the return of the Bourbons more likely not less. Indeed, they did return. What is easier for a monarch to take over, a monarchy or a republic?

    If the time Napoleon spent trying to build an empire had been spent instead bedding in the republic, the Bourbons would never have been given the opportunity to return.

  10. rick hoss

    Napoleon didn’t spend all his time building an empire, after every war he went back to managing the national affairs when the british would buy another coalition against him. He would then quickly mobilize and move on his enemies. After defeating them he would offer them overly gracious terms and go back to work until another coalition came by. I think the only way it works out for France in this time period is if from around 1805 they start eliminating the rival monarchies when they go to war with them. Dispose of the austrians after austerlitz then the prussians. After that the russians and eventually the brits.

  11. Rick, you are advocating an even more aggressive policy than the pretty aggressive one Napoleon actually followed. As Napoleon had the whole continent against him as it was it is hard to see how that would have worked any better.

    Now had Napoleon followed a defensive strategy based on the Rhine and the Pyrenees while building up French sea power I don’t see how any alliance could have stopped him. He wouldn’t have got to Moscow but he might well have bagged India.

  12. Brendan Thomas

    I think that Napoleon was forced into offensive strategies by other countries. Russia forced him into an invasion by practically forming an alliance with Britain.

  13. Brendan,

    I think you will find the LSE lecture I recommend earlier in the thread very informative and interesting.

    Russia’s espionage picked up that Napoleon intended to invade Russia. And indeed Napoleon did invade Russia.

    In the circumstances, the alliance between Russia and Britain was simply a recognition of a common enemy.

  14. Chris

    From what I’ve read it looks like Napoleon had a lot of opportunities to take a lot more for himself in Europe than he actually did. I also think that a lot of countries needed to be nullified before he turned to the source of the whole problem. This was why he needed to neutralise many countries after having defeated coalitions formed against him, before turning to the source of the problem: Britain. Napoleon needed stability on the continent first.

  15. supun

    every time napoleon want peace.even after battle of autzalize,napoleon realease russian prisoners with brand new uniforms and send to russian king saftly.he thought that can make peace.please tell me.if you are destroy whole enemies they nearly surronded,who will ever think to make peace offer to loosing side.but napoleon did.that is not only time.every time before war begins napoleon make peace negosiation which his enemies didn’t accept.pitt said to his cabinet 1796 ‘we will continue to wage for war untill france go back to her 1789 borders.that will show waht is all about.even 1812 war against russia he waited 9 days to see alexander’s reply to peace offer.even after he gain his power back in 100 days he announce that he didn’t want a war.and spain invaiding.it is clear that is not began by napoleon.it is kind of religon war.if you don’t belive me then tell me wahat is the purpose of society which call as HOLLY ALLIANCE.

  16. Chris

    It’s clear that he could have taken a great deal more than he actually did. In fact, he was quite generous to the Austrians and Russians after he defeated them. This doesn’t sound at all like the attitude of a ‘warmongerer’.

    Put yourselves in Napoleon’s shoes: you’ve got the nation’s of Europe, with funding from Britain, constantly raising armies against you. Do you sit and wait and do nothing? If you repulse one invasion, do you just wait for another? Or do you try to bring stability to the continent?

  17. Chris, exactly the same logic could be applied to why Britain didn’t just wait to be attacked by Napoleon.

    But Napoleon can be criticised not just for being aggressive, but also for a lack of judgement. Had he employed a defensive strategy based on the Rhine and the Pyrenees it is very hard to imagine even the strongest of coalitions successfully invading. If he had built up his fleet in the meantime he could have neutralised Britain’s one advantage.

    If he had followed that approach the Bonaparte’s might still rule France, the US might still be the original 13 colonies and Cameron could be speaking French.

  18. Chris

    I agree with you that Britain may have feared invasion. But considering that Napoleon countlessly wrote the allies asking for peace I don’t believe that he intended an invasion.

    It’s possible that Britain, on the other hand, feared invasion. If this is the case then I can half-forgive them for funding the coalitions against France. However, I’m not 100% sure of what Britain’s motives were during this war.

    However, this does not mean that Napoleon was to blame for the Napoleonic Wars. In fact, he had inherited them by becoming First Consul.

    The fact remains that Napoleon could have taken a lot more of the continent than he actually did, and for the most part was quite lenient towards the nations he defeated.

  19. Chris

    Another point before I run off: I think that while it may have been very hard for nations to invade France they were certainly capable of it, potentially being able to field over a million troops. France had several fronts to defend.

    This happened in 1814 and again 1815. Even a military genius like Napoleon could not stop this, though I that if he hadn’t been betrayed he may have succeeded.

  20. As you say, even in 1814 and 1815 Napoleon gave the allies a run for their money. If he hadn’t lost so many men and horses in Russia, Germany and Spain in the years before do you really think he couldn’t have defended France behind strong geographical barriers?

  21. Chris

    Fair point. I agree that with more horses he may have won. But firstly, I think that you’re still taking a risk by adopting a defensive policy.

    Secondly, by attacking the country you neutralise them, whereas sitting there and waiting doesn’t actually remove the threat. Building up a navy would take a great deal of time. And could you do that while you’re directing all of France’s resources to defending its fronts.

    It’s a lot more effective to strike first. Would Napoleon have wanted continual repeats of the 1814 campaign? Austria, Prussia and Russia can still raise more and more armies to attack you.

    Thirdly, Britain’s achilles heal was its economy. Rupturing it would be a lot more effective than trying to defeat its naval power, especially while you’re making a supreme effort to defend your fronts. It would take ages and, in the long run, simply wear France down.

    Having said all this, I don’t think it’s good to judge whether or not somebody is right or wrong on the basis of error of judgement. All human beings are guilty of error of judgement.

  22. Attacking first manifestly was not the most effective strategy. Remember, Napoleon lost.

    England struggled to keep coalitions together even when Napoleon was aggressive. If France was not a threat there would be no reason to invade it.

    For all his brilliance, Napoleon was a disaster for France. And all his problems flow directly from an over-aggressive foreign policy.

  23. Chris

    Could he possibly have won with all of Europe against him?

    Striking first was the most effective way of protecting France. In Napoleon’s words, ‘The attack is the best form of defence’. The 1814 defence of France was very, very costly. France was very hard pressed, Napoleon making a supreme effort, and there was dissension among the ranks. Could he really have gone through a campaign like that repeatedly?

    Again, I stress that by attacking you remove the threat. Sit and wait would allow the allies to unite. It would not strategically defeat the allies.

    If Britain and the allies hadn’t rejected all his peace offers, the wars would not have occurred. The allies were the really aggressive ones. They forced Napoleon’s hand, again and again and again.

    At the end of the day, it’s very easy to put the blame on people who have great responsibility. The fate of France was ultimately in his hands the moment he rose to power. And I repeat, we should not judge whether someone is good or bad on the basis of error of judgement. And I don’t believe he made an error of judgement. His main aim was to protect France.

  24. All aggressors make peace offers and claim that their hands were forced by the unreasonableness of others.

    I point out again just how many countries Napoleon ended up leading his army into. If he really was a basically peaceful man he had one heck of a strange way of expressing it.

  25. Chris

    Why should we deny that he wasn’t trying to make peace? Because he invaded other countries? I’ve already shown why Napoleon had little choice but to mount an offensive campaign to neutralise his enemies.

    Aggressors who wait for their adversaries to attack them don’t continually beg for peace. Before Britain declared war, he wrote to king George asking for peace. When allied army was torn to shreds at Austerlitz he got the Austrian Emperor to promise that he would not start another war. When Prussia declared war Napoleon asked the Prussian monarch for peace, etc. etc. Even when Napoleon’s enemies were helpless and ruined he would take a lot less from their empires than he could have taken.

    In fact, most of the territory he annexed was not even under his complete control. They were semi independant states with their own governing monarchs. A great part of the territory which was under Napoleon’s complete control had already been conquered prior to his rise to power.

    Every time he crushed a coalition he went back to managing internal affairs, focusing on improving and modernizing France. Is this really the attitude of a conquering aggressor?

    Accounts of him suggest that he didn’t care about personal wealth. While other monarchs sat on their thrones during the wars Napoleon was always out there with his guard, in the midst of it all.

    Napoleon did great things for France, including giving freedom of religious practice, acknowledging rights for women, introducing a strong legal system as well as public education, infrastructure, improving economy, and introducing the bank of France.

  26. I can’t disagree about the great things Napoleon did for France. If he had concentrated on those think what a reputation he would have left.

  27. Chris

    If Napoleon had won and managed to fully modernize France then yes, his reputation would have been unbelievable

  28. Napoleon couldn’t win. His ambition was always going to outstretch his resources. Impressive as his brief conquests were, they were not enough for him. Remember he was in Egypt on the way to India. A potentially great man who let his aggressive instincts get the better of him.

  29. Chris

    Well, that brings us back to square one in this discussion. As for me, I think there’s little to suggest that he was overly ambitious considering that he could have taken a hell of a lot more than he actually took. And if the allies hadn’t kept forcing his hand, then Napoleon would have kept on managing France just as he did during the intervals of each war.

    I’m not convinced that he was on his way to India though. I thought the campaign in Egypt was a combination of rupturing British economy, propaganda and scientific discovery.

  30. ‘Here I am, quiet unassuming modest guy that I am. But somehow I have ended up leading the largest army yet assembled in history all the way to Moscow. What am I like, eh?’

  31. Chris

    It’s easy to say ‘warmongering conquerer’. But all those countries are unfriendly and I have little choice but to neutralise these countries before they overwhelm me with numbers.

    Napoleon made it to Moscow, all right. But that makes it sound like he actually annexed every bit of territory along the way. He did no such thing, but he was always capable of totally anihalating Austria and Prussia for his own gain.

    The invasion of Russia was a tragedy and disaster but it was necessary all the same. Russia was aggressive and conspiring with Britain. Napoleon invaded it in the hope of putting it out of action and stop its support of England, which was funding every anti-french coalition.

    You’re absolutely right when you say Napoleon was aggressive. But he was only ‘aggressive’ when other countries forced his hand, in which case he had little choice but to be aggressive as a defensive campaign on France’s natural borders would have led nowhere.

    Why would it have led nowhere? Because in war the attack is the best form of defence. And on a strategic level armies are always going to be pushing against each other, its always the case. You can never just stay on the defense.

    Even Wellington, who followed a defensive campaign in the Peninsular (devastating Portuguese territory as a result of his ‘defensive’ schemes) was drawn an invasion of Spain and France.

    A defensive policy was never possible. The 1814 campaign of France would have been drawn into an offensive had he succeeded.

  32. I don’t think it is a cast iron rule that attack is the best form of defence. Indeed, in Napoleon’s case attack was a dreadful form of defence. Remember, the allies ended up in Paris.

  33. Chris

    They would certainly have ended up in Paris anyway if they wanted to. Against over a million troops Napoleon has little chance.

  34. Michael

    …only the observation that attack is a spectacular form of defense provided you account for general winter and a human adversary that is willing to implement scorched earth on its own civilians’ crops and property.

  35. The English Monarch’s ruled the seas and the world with iron hand the French Revolution was a giant threat. The French wanted safe borders. Napoleon was an intelligent defender of territory not a merciless conqueror.

  36. John Merkatatis

    Colin,you write(13/32010) “a heck of a defensive strategy”.Yes Colin it is;and I am going to explain why:
    a)When Napoleon graduated from the military academy in Paris France was surrounded by enemies from all sides;Valmy was a victory on French soil against invading armies os Austria and Prussia under Brunshwick(no treaty of piece was signed) ditto for Toulon which was an occupation of French soil by royalists and English,Napoleon’s mind was to defend France and expel the English from French soil..There was a French army in Italy protecting the interests of cities there which wanted a French style goverment and also most important prevented the Austrians from invading France through the French Riviera (France was at war with Austria);that army was in the brink of disolution through lack of money;it was an emergency,which Napoleon faced succesfully.the war in Italy was succesful and ended with the treaty of Campo Formio,whereby France received from Austria Belgium and Holland and in a secret addendum gave Venice to Austria.Itally Belgium and Holland therefore were not invaded,but ceeded.Napoleon did not invade Italy but Austrian territory.
    In the 3rd coalition of Austria Russia
    and great Britain,Napoleon had to transfer the war in a rapid campaign to Austria unless he wanted to see his country ravaged something that would have destructive effects on French
    Those are examples for you.
    Portugal and Russia later broke the treaty of Tilsit enough cause for war.The numerical superiority was depressive that is why Napoleon wanted to destroy them piecemeal(Austerlitz) and soon before they were allowed to concentrate.
    I hope now you understand the purpose of invasion;victory on enemy land would have been much more effective!abd cost less…
    Napoleon made great peace work enough to call him great.Code Napoleon in its various forms is adapted almost by every European country;only jingoism prevented the English for admitting as much…

  37. John Merkatatis

    A mistake:treaty of piece was not signed after Valmy.Prussia and Austria remained enemies of France.

  38. Yves, I don’t think the British navy did rule the sea before Napoleon. The French navy under the Bourbons was a serious threat to Britain at sea- look how they did during the American War of Independence. A defensive strategy on land combined with building up the French navy was the biggest threat to Britain. Luckily, Napoleon did almost the exact opposite.

  39. Chris

    The Brits didn’t exactly rule the seas before the revolution, taking into account the Battle of Chesapeake which lost England its colonies in America. But their navy had still been superior throughout the rule of Louis XV and the Seven Years War. Furthermore, it was the revolution that trashed the French navy. By the time Napoleon took the throne his navy was vastly inferior to that of the British.

    With regards to offensive/defensive strategy, remember that the combined nations of Europe could field vastly superior forces to anything Napoleon could throw at them. And France is surrounded by hostile nations.

    By 1814-1815, Europe probably put over a million men into the field. So waiting on the defensive is suicidal (‘The attack is the best form of defence’ said Napoleon).

    And when you divide and conquer attacking forces, you should treat them humanely and generously, so as to try to gain their favour. This is exactly what Napoleon did. Additionally, he tried to forge alliances with his enemies in order to secure general peace.

  40. Vmatts

    As a die-hard “frog-hater”, it has been instructive to listen to the points raised by the podcast. From this commentator’s perspective, while the Revolution was the greatest tragedy to ever befall France, Napoleon did the best he could with a bad hand. In the final analysis, it appears that most if not all of his efforts were in fact defensive. The tragic dual irony is that the bulk of Napoleon’s waking hours were spent on military efforts instead of taking care of things at home; the same could be said of his part time nemesis, Pitt the Younger.

  41. Chris

    Hats off to anyone who can regulate internal affairs while being attacked by all of continental Europe.

  42. Derrick

    Hmmm, when you think about it, it truly is possible to perceive Napoleon as being constantly on the defensive. I mean seriously, when you take a look at all of Napoleon’s efforts t conduct a peaceful diplomatic solution, they were slashed down by one coalition after another. And also, Napoleon’s actually did the best he could with France’s internal affairs, and made intial successes such as the Concordant, the Napoleonic Code, the restructuring of the education system, and the emphasis on gaining prominence through merit rather than birth. Napoleon was indeed a genius, and he could hve done more with his nation, but the problem lies in the fact that the other powers of Europe were constantly stirring up conflict with British money. I mean take a look at the War of the first, second, and third Coalition. In every single one of them, Austria, Prussia, Russia, Turkey, and Great Britain has publicly shown and committed actions against France. Though Napoleon may have been the first to strike, it was not without aggravation. The great things of history shall not be settled by eloquent speeches or by one’s penmanship on document, but by Blut und Eisen.

  43. Chris

    I’d say the war were caused by the economic and political environment of Europe. For example, there was Europe’s desire to cut down and humiliate the revolution, the economic rivalry between France and Britain, etc.

  44. Thomas

    I fail to see how the British were responsible for the wars. When the French Revolution took place, Britain proposed in 1792 that if France return to it’s borders, the French Republic would be recognised by all European nations and left in peace. The French responded by declaring war on Britain in 1793. During the early years of the war, Britain’s main war aim was to make the French leave Holland, since 90% of Britain’s trade with Europe was channelled through Dutch ports, further more the Dutch ports were ideally situated for an invasion of Britain. The British made three attempts at peace negotiations in 1796-1797, but the French refused to compromise, demanding Britain surrender pratically all of their empire, and allow France to retain all the territories it had gained. Eventually the Peace of Amiens was signed in 1802, but during it, the French refused to withdraw from Holland, despite the treaty, and the British were forbidden from selling its goods to French ruled territories. France’s expansionism into Switzerland and Italy angered the British, since not only was it against the treaty, it also increased the territory Britain could not trade with. Had Napoleon continued expanding at his 1802 rate without British resistance, it is likely that by 1815 all of Europe would have been prohibited from trading with England. Understandably, the ‘nation of shopkeepers’ took offence at this trading ban, more so when Napoleon demand the British censured any of their newspapers not to his liking, and demanded England hand over any former French aristocrats who had fled during the revolution. The British refused to withdraw from Malta in response, though they made several offers to do so if France left Holland and Switzerland. This failed and war continued, and the British concluded that if they wanted to be allowed to trade with Europe, and be safe from invasion, then Napoleon had to go. As Napoleon himself said,’48 hours after peace with England is signed, I will shut out foreign produce and manufacturers, and pass a navigation act that will exclude all but French ships from our ports.’

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