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The French Revolutionary Wars were a series of major conflicts, from 1792 until 1802, fought between the French Revolutionary government and several European states. Marked by French revolutionary fervour and military innovations, the campaigns saw the French Revolutionary Armies defeat a number of opposing coalitions and expand French control to the Low Countries, Italymarker, and the Rhineland. The wars involved enormous numbers of soldiers, mainly due to the application of modern mass conscription.

The French Revolutionary Wars are usually divided between those of the First Coalition (1792–1797) and the Second Coalition (1798–1801), although France was at war with Great Britainmarker continuously from 1793 to 1802. Hostilities ceased with the Treaty of Amiens (1802). For military events afterwards, see the Napoleonic Wars. Both conflicts together constitute what is sometimes referred to as the "Great French War."

Context of the wars

War of the First Coalition


As early as 1791, the other monarchies of Europe looked with concern at the revolution and its upheavals, and considered whether they should intervene, either in support of King Louis XVI or to take advantage of the chaos in France. The key figure was Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II, brother to Louis XVI's Queen Marie Antoinette. Leopold had initially looked on the Revolution with equanimity, but became more and more disturbed as the Revolution became more radical, although he still hoped to avoid war. On 27 August, Leopold and King Frederick William II of Prussiamarker, in consultation with emigrant French nobles, issued the Declaration of Pillnitz, which declared the interest of the monarchs of Europe in the well-being of Louis and his family, and threatened vague but severe consequences if anything should befall them. Although Leopold saw the Pillnitz Declaration as a non-committal gesture to placate the sentiments of French monarchists and nobles, it was seen in France as a serious threat and was denounced by the revolutionary leaders.

In addition to the ideological differences between France and the monarchical powers of Europe, there were continuing disputes over the status of Imperial estates in Alsacemarker, and the French were becoming concerned about the agitation of émigré nobles abroad, especially in the Austrian Netherlands and the minor states of Germanymarker.

In the end, Francemarker declared war on Austria first, with the Assembly voting for war on 20 April 1792, after a long list of grievances presented by foreign minister Dumouriez. Dumouriez prepared an immediate invasion of the Austrian Netherlands, where he expected the local population to rise against Austrian rule.However, the revolution had thoroughly disorganized the army, and the forces raised were insufficient for the invasion. Following the declaration of war, French soldiers deserted en masse and, in one case, murdered their general.

While the revolutionary government frantically raised fresh troops and reorganized its armies, a mostly Prussian allied army under Charles William Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick assembled at Coblenzmarker on the Rhine. In July, the invasion commenced, with Brunswick's army easily taking the fortresses of Longwymarker and Verdunmarker. The duke then issued a proclamation called the Brunswick Manifesto, written by the French king's cousin, Louis Joseph de Bourbon, Prince de Condé, the leader of an émigré corps within the allied army, which declared the Allies' intent to restore the king to his full powers and to treat any person or town who opposed them as rebels to be condemned to death by martial law. This, however, had the effect of strengthening the resolve of the revolutionary army and government to oppose them by any means necessary. On 10 August, a crowd stormed the Tuileries Palacemarker, where Louis and his family had been staying.
The Battle of Valmy.
The invasion continued, but at Valmymarker on 20 September, they came to a stalemate against Dumouriez and Kellermann in which the highly professional French artillery distinguished itself. Although the battle was a tactical draw, it gave a great boost to French morale. Further, the Prussians, finding that the campaign had been longer and more costly than predicted, decided that the cost and risk of continued fighting was too great, and they decided to retreat from France to preserve their army. The next day, the monarchy was formally abolished as the First Republic was declared.

Meanwhile, the French had been successful on several other fronts, occupying Savoy and Nicemarker in Italy, while General Custine invaded Germany, occupying several German towns along the Rhine, and reaching as far as Frankfurtmarker. Dumouriez went on the offensive in Belgium once again, winning a great victory over the Austrians at Jemappes on 6 November, and occupying the entire country by the beginning of winter.


On 21 January, the revolutionary government executed Louis XVI after a demonstration of a "trial". Spainmarker and Portugalmarker entered the anti-French coalition in January 1793, and on February 1 Francemarker declared war on Great Britainmarker and the Dutch Republic.

France declared a new levy of hundreds of thousands of men, beginning a French policy of using mass conscription to deploy more of its manpower than the aristocratic states could, and remaining on the offensive so that these mass armies could commandeer war material from the territory of their enemies. The Allies launched a determined drive to invade France during the Flanders Campaign.

France suffered severe reverses at first, being driven out of Belgiummarker and suffering revolts in the west and south. One of these, in Toulonmarker, set the stage for the first recognition of a hitherto unknown artillery captain named Napoleon Bonaparte. His contribution in planning the successful siege of the city and its harbour with well-placed artillery batteries provided the spark for his subsequent meteoric rise.

By the end of the year, new large armies and a fierce policy of internal repression including mass executions had repelled the invasions and suppressed revolts. The year ended with French forces in the ascendant, but still close to France's pre-war borders.


The year 1794 brought increased success to the revolutionary armies. Although an invasion of Piedmont failed, an invasion of Spainmarker across the Pyreneesmarker took San Sebastiánmarker, and the French won a victory at Fleurusmarker and occupied all of Belgium and the Rhineland.

At sea, the French Atlantic Fleet succeeded in holding off a British attempt to interdict a vital cereal convoy from the United Statesmarker on the First of June, though at the cost of one quarter of its strength.


After seizing the Netherlandsmarker in a surprise winter attack, France established the Batavian Republic as a puppet state. Further, Prussia and Spain both decided to make peace, in the Peace of Basel ceding the left bank of the Rhine to France and freeing French armies from the Pyrenees. This ended the main crisis phase of the Revolution and France proper would be free from invasion for many years.

Britain attempted to reinforce the rebels in the Vendéemarker, but failed, and attempts to overthrow the government at Paris by force were foiled by the military garrison led by Napoleon Bonaparte, leading to the establishment of the Directory.

On the Rhinemarker frontier, General Pichegru, negotiating with the exiled Royalist, betrayed his army and forced the evacuation of Mannheimmarker and the failure of the siege of Mainzmarker by Jourdan.


The French prepared a great advance on three fronts, with Jourdan and Moreau on the Rhine, and Bonaparte in Italy. The three armies were to link up in Tyrolmarker and march on Viennamarker.

Jourdan and Moreau advanced rapidly into Germany, and Moreau had reached Bavariamarker and the edge of Tyrol by September, but Jourdan was defeated by Archduke Charles, and both armies were forced to retreat back across the Rhine.

Napoleon, on the other hand, was completely successful in a daring invasion of Italy. He separated the armies of Sardinia and Austria, defeating them in detail, and forced a peace on Sardinia while capturing Milanmarker and besieging Mantuamarker. He also had defeated successive Austrian armies sent against him under Wurmser and Alvintzy while continuing the siege.

The rebellion in the Vendéemarker was also finally crushed in 1796 by Hoche, but Hoche's attempt to land a large invasion force in Ireland was unsuccessful.


In February, the Battle of Cape St. Vincentmarker saw the British block an attempt by a larger Spanish fleet to join the French at Brestmarker.

Napoleon finally captured Mantua, with the Austrians surrendering 18,000 men. Archduke Charles of Austria was unable to stop Napoleon from invading the Tyrol, and the Austrian government sued for peace in April, simultaneous with a new French invasion of Germany under Moreau and Hoche.

Austria signed the Treaty of Campo Formio in October, conceding Belgium to France and recognizing French control of the Rhineland and much of Italy. The ancient republic of Venicemarker was partitioned between Austria and France. This ended the War of the First Coalition, although Great Britain remained in the war.


With only Britain left to fight and not enough of a navy to fight a direct war, Napoleon conceived of an invasion of Egypt in 1798, which satisfied his personal desire for glory and the Directory's desire to have him far from Parismarker. The military objective of the expedition is not entirely clear, but may have been to threaten the British dominance in Indiamarker.

Napoleon sailed from Toulonmarker to Alexandriamarker, taking Maltamarker on the way, and landing in June. Marching to Cairomarker, he won a great victory at the Battle of the Pyramids; however, his fleet was destroyed by Nelson at the Battle of the Nilemarker, stranding him in Egypt. Napoleon spent the remainder of the year consolidating his position in Egypt.

The French government also took advantage of internal strife in Switzerlandmarker to invade, establishing the Helvetian Republic and annexing Genevamarker. French troops also deposed Pope Pius VI, establishing a republic in Rome.

An expeditionary force was sent to County Mayomarker to assist in the rebellion against Britain in the summer of 1798. It had some success against British forces, most notably at Castlebarmarker, but was ultimately routed while trying to reach Dublinmarker. French ships sent to assist them were captured by the Royal Navy off County Donegalmarker.

The French were also under pressure in Belgium where the local people revolted against conscription and anti-religious violence (Peasants' War).

The French also fought an undeclared war at sea against the United Statesmarker, that was known as the "Quasi-War."

War of the Second Coalition

Britain and Austria organized a new coalition against France in 1798, including for the first time Russia, although no action occurred until 1799 except against Naples.


See also: French Revolutionary Wars: Campaigns of 1799

In Europe, the allies mounted several invasions, including campaigns in Italy and Switzerland and an Anglo-Russian invasion of the Netherlandsmarker. Russian general Aleksandr Suvorov inflicted a series of defeats on the French in Italy, driving them back to the Alps. However, the allies were less successful in the Netherlands, where the British retreated after a stalemate (although they did manage to capture the Dutch fleet), and in Switzerland, where after initial victories a Russian army was completely defeated at the Second Battle of Zurich. This reverse, as well as British insistence on searching shipping in the Baltic Seamarker led to Russia withdrawing from the Coalition.

Napoleon himself invaded Syriamarker from Egypt, but after a failed siege of Acre retreated to Egypt, repelling a British-Turkish invasion. Hearing of a political and military crisis in France, he returned, leaving his army behind, and used his popularity and army support to mount a coup that made him First Consul, the head of the French government.


See also: French Revolutionary Wars: Campaigns of 1800

Napoleon sent Moreau to campaign in Germany, and went himself to raise a new army at Dijonmarker and march through Switzerland to attack the Austrian armies in Italy from behind. Narrowly avoiding defeat, he defeated the Austrians at Marengo and reoccupied northern Italy.

Moreau meanwhile invaded Bavariamarker and won a great battle against Austria at Hohenlinden. Moreau continued toward Vienna and the Austrians sued for peace.


See also: French Revolutionary Wars: Campaigns of 1801

The Austrians negotiated the Treaty of Lunéville, basically accepting the terms of the previous Treaty of Campo Formio. In Egypt, the Ottomans and British invaded and finally compelled the French to surrender after the fall of Cairomarker and Alexandriamarker.

Britain continued the war at sea. A coalition of non-combatants including Prussia, Russia, Denmarkmarker, and Swedenmarker joined to protect neutral shipping from Britain's blockade, resulting in Nelson's surprise attack on the Danish fleet in harbor at the Battle of Copenhagenmarker.


In 1802, the British signed the Treaty of Amiens, ending the war and recognising French conquests. This began the longest period of peace during the period 1792-1815. This is an appropriate point to mark the transition between the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars (Napoleon was crowned emperor in 1804).


The First French Republic, starting from a position precariously near occupation and collapse, had defeated all its enemies and produced a revolutionary army that would take the other powers years to emulate. With the conquest of the left bank of the Rhine and domination of the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Italy, the Republic had achieved nearly all the territorial goals that had eluded the Valois and Bourbon monarchs for centuries.

See also

Further reading

  • Attar, Frank, La Révolution française déclare la guerre à l'Europe. ISBN 2-87027-448-3
  • Blanning, T. C. W., The French Revolutionary Wars, 1787-1801. ISBN 0-340-64533-4
  • Dupuy, Trevor N. and Dupuy, R. Ernest, The Harper Encyclopedia of Military History, HarperCollins, ISBN 0-06-270056-1
  • History of the French Revolution from 1789 to 1814, by François Mignet (1824), as made available by Project Gutenberg (out-of-copyright)


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