In 1789 the French people began an open revolution against the totalitarian and frequently out of touch with reality monarchy of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. As this bloody revolution swept across the whole of France, pitting Royalist against Red Revolutionary, the rest of Europe sat on a knife’s edge. The degeneration of the French Revolution into civil war being waged by those regions loyal to the monarchy and those loyal to the newly created French Republic, ensured eventual foreign intervention.
In 1792, in order to reinstate the monarchy and thus end the ‘Reign of Terror’, the Austrian Empire and Prussia went to war with Republican France. The early campaigns against these two European power houses went poorly for the French and they lost ground to both the foreign powers France now found herself fighting on two fronts, but also the Royalists within France herself. So much so that by the beginning of 1793 it appeared as if the Revolutinary cause were lost. The Revolutinaries seeming to be unable to stave off the almost certain defeat at the hands of their enemies.
In 1793 Republican France made a newer and more formidable foe when she sent to the Guillotine, known also as the ‘National Razor’, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. After this execution England declared war upon France and the British Royal Navy set sail to blockade French ports and to attain the mastery of the seas. So as to strangle France from any and all supplies derived from foreign sources. An action which inevitably led to war between Britain and America. The British also sent an expeditionary force to the besieged Royalist held city of Toulons, in hopes of aiding the Royalists in a campaign to outflank the Revolutionaries. An aim which, though admirable in it’s contemplation and attempted execution, was not achievable due to lack of coordination and planning on the part of both parties involved.
It was at Toulons that a young French Revolutionary artillery officer, later to become the most famous French military commander and political leader since Charlemagne, would begin his meteoric climb up the military ladder. He would lead France to victory after victory, only to be defeated after making poor decisions later in his career. This young Frenchman being of course one Napoleon Bonaparte of Corsican birth.
The fall of Toulons, which could have been prevented had the Royalists and British commanders been able to agree that the Revolutionaries were the enemy more than each other, was a major boost to Republican morale. Afterwards it seemed as though the Republicans had gained something which had been sorely lacking in the campaigns of 1792-1793, confidence in their ability to win. What followed were a series of campaigns which would win for Republican France dominance of almost the whole of the European continent.
From late 1793-1797 it seemed as if France could not lose, though there were several battles in which the field was left to the enemy. The Kingdom of Spain, which had been allied with the pro Royalist nations, made peace with France. Only to ally herself with France shortly after, much to the chagrin of the British who saw this as an agriegous betrayal. By sea France could scarcely hope to match the power of the fastly over extended British Royal Navy. Now responding to the changing politcal and military reality by extending the blockade of Europe.
The later part of the 1790s saw France gain in territory from the Italian peninsula to the North Sea, from Iberia to an expedition by a relatively new, but already well known and respected General Napoleon Bonaparte to Egypt. This campaign would be his first taste of defeat in the field at the hands of the British. After first taking Egypt he instated himself in the role of a dictator in the mold of later Middle Eastern dictators such as Sddam Hussein. The British sent a combined Navy and Army force to counter this threat and in two key battles defeated soundly Napoleon’s dreams of Empire. The Battle of the Nile and the Battle of the Pyramids assured the French abandonment of the Egyptian Campaign. Napoleon himself fled Egypt to return to France ahead of the news of defeat, in order to spin the news to his purpose.
By 1800 France had defeated most of her enemies in Europe. However she still had enemies at the ready to strike. Two of whom would be key in her defeat. In the East lay the great feared bear, Russia, with thousands of men to be thrown into the field against any French army foolish enough to attempt invasion. Added to this was the predicament of supplying a large army in the field over such a vast distance and in some of the worst weather conditions imaginable. In the West lay Britain, her ‘Wooden Walls’ blockading France and denying much needed resources to her and her allies. With her many colonies to draw off of for manpower England too had a vast wealth o resources for both supplies and men. Without a decisive defeat of the Royal Nay, which was all but impossible with the French and Spanish Navies combined, there was little hope of France defeating England.
The Peace of Amiens brought an all too brief interlude of peace to a Europe that, in some areas, had been at war for eleven years. It was barely a full year before France was again at war with England.
It was not too long after the resumation of hostilities between France and England that Napoleon Bonaparte, France’s famous and revered generalisimo, declared himself ‘First Consul’ of France. Shortly there after crowning himself as ‘Emperor of the French’. Between 1801-1812 he consolidated French control of Europe. Installing relatives as heads of state whenever convenient. Most of whom could not properly rule the nations they were entrusted with.
Napoleon’s tactics ensured a constant stream of victories and additions to the ‘French Empire’. At Austerlitz he defeated an opposing force that should, given the size and ability of it’s troops, have won an easy victory. Instead, due partly to his tactics and partly to the inability of the Russian Tsar and the Austrian field commander to agree upon a strategy. Napoleon used his favored tactics of deception and speed, plus a healthy dose of artillery. The end result was the almost complete ruination of Austrian forces. The blow to Austrian morale and confidence in their own abilities ended in their eventual capitulation to France.
In the early 1800s there was a band of brigand cutthroats known as the Barbary Pirates, based out of Tripoli on the North African coast. Britain and all the other European powers paid them not to attack their shipping. However America would have none of it. An American expedition was launched to crush the pirates. It would later become lauded as a key piece of United States Marine Corps history. Four US Marines led a force comprised of mercenaries and adventurers, mostly North African, and defeated the pirates. Their skill and daring would be immortalized in the Marine Corps Hymn.
Napoleon was the first modern dictator to use mass extermination as a policy. This being due to the fact that in the new, freedom loving France, there was no such thing as a slave. However, someone apparently forgot to inform the French colony of Haiti. In order to rectify this Napoleon, known to his enemies as ‘the Corsican Tyrant’ and to the French as ‘l’empreur’, had a novel solution. The sensible thing would have been to declare all slaves endentured servants to be free, which would have been a sizeable number. Then to actually recruit them as soldiers to be used against France’s enemies. The result of having to draw off manpower and naval power to defend her West Indies holdings would have all but crippled the British European war effort, which was gravely over extended as it was. Instead, Napoleon chose option No. 2, genocide. The estimates are varying, but it is certain that more than 2,000 Haitian slaves were packed into old ships, and then secured in these floating prisons. The next step was to burn a substance that created a toxic smoke, that once inhaled meant almost assured Death for the poor soul. In essence the French, at the behest of Bonaparte, had turned these ships into floating ‘gas chambers’.
At the same time as these events were unfolding in France’s European possessions rebellions were rife throughout the land. Most noteable were those in Spain by partisan ‘Guerillas’, most of whom took up arms to restore their rightful king, others due to the ‘abolishment’ of the Catholic Church and faith by French Republicans. In response to these attacks the French would execute any and all whom dared to resist, aid those who resisted, or any other person that came to hand. It was much the same in other possessions, most of which hated the heavy handedness with which French authorities dealt with the conquered people. In Prussia there were partisans whom dared defy French authority and fought valiantly, as their Spanish brethren did, to resist and defeat the French occupation forces. Much with the same, brutal reprisals.
The British blockade had an unfortunate side effect for England. The blockading forces would stop any ship bound to Europe, and proceed to seize ship, cargo, and often times crew. Impressment of sailors, whether belonging to neutral nations or those at war currently with any of the belligerents, was common practice in the Royal Navy. It helping to refill ranks depleted by combat deaths, wounds, disease, and desertion. However it also angered many neutral nations, most especially the United States of America. However, there was almost a civil war in America before she declared war upon England. The states that comprise New England threatened to secede from the Union and form a seperate nation, thus giving them the ability to declare war independently upon Britain. This was narrowly avoided by the Federal Governement, which decided in the end to go beyond the diplomatic wrangling with the British over their policies. Angry diplomatic notes had been passing back and forth for some time before actual war broke out. America was outraged that a nation it had fought to be free of should forcibly take American citizens and force them into the service of that very same nation. However, diplomatic means were not enough to avoid the coming war. Partly over the impressment of American citizens, and partly the desire to seize Canada from Britain, America declared war.
Thankfully enough for the British, Napoleon Bonaparte had chosen to make a mistake that would be repeated 139 years later by another Continental tyrant. He chose to invade Russia. A ‘Grande Armie’ of 200,000 soldiers from France and all nations controlled by her was gathered for this attack upon the slumbering Russian Bear. A campaign that had no chance what so ever of success. The Russians adopting their favored tactics of withdraw and leave nothing to the enemy, this being one bear that likes fire, then in winter unleash the Bear. Thus the ‘Grande Armie’s’ supply lines were over extended. Meaning that the proper equipment for the winter was not available without having to come across barren Russian plains filled with partisans and Cossacks, and little else. Then the inevitable winter descended and the morale of the ‘Grande Armie’ plummeted as fast as the temperature did. The slow withdrawal was made through miles of hostile terrain, enemies at every turn glad to cut down stragglers, deserters, or those in ranks. It was a telling defeat for Napoleon, who fled ahead of his troops to be in Paris before they arrived to put a brighter face on things. The Russian Bear had been awoken, and now it was on the attack, an unstoppable force.
In America the invasion of Canada fared little better, the Americans underestimating their foes. The British, even though engaged in Europe against almost the whole Continent, had plenty of troops to send to fight the Americans. The American Army being undermanned, undertrained, undersupplied, and all around out classed by soldiers who had stood toe to toe with the likes of Bonaparte’s armies. This gave the British a confidence that soon blossomed into arrogance. Something they would pay dearly for in blood as arrogance is the first step to defeat as Napoleon had proven. America lost more battles than she won, but held firm against the British forces where it counted. After the fall and burning of Washington England was destined for defeat. It wasn’t an overwhelming defeat, nor one that should have any true effect on British power in Europe. In fact the greatest defeat suffered at the hands of the Americans came technically after the war was over in 1814 at New Orleans. The peace treaty having already been signed by representatives of both governments.
By 1814 Napoleon Bonaparte’s empire was in tatters. A coalition of nations, having smelled blood, was fast closing in. After the peace was made Bonaparte was exiled to Elba. A Bourbon king once again sat on the throne of France, but it was not to last long.
In 1815 Bonaparte broke free of his island prison and landed in France. Raising an army from those loyal to him he marched on Paris, Louis XVIII fled upon word reaching him. For a glorious ‘One Hundred Days’ l’Empreur was back. It too was not to last.
In July of 1815 a combined British, Prussian force engaged Napoleon’s army at a small Belgian town that many had never heard of before. Through a combination of tactics, selection of position, and raw courage they defeated the ‘Corsican Tyrant’. One day of battle cost 50,00 lives all told, and would cost Bonaparte his freedom, and eventually his life.
Thus ended what I prefer to call the ‘Second World War’. A war which lasted for almost 23 continuous years, 26 if you count the period from 1789-1792. It devistated Europe and many overseas possessions thereof. It encompassed not only the battlefields of such places as Toulons, Egypt, Austerlitz, Smolensk, Borodino, the Iberian Peninsula, and Italy. But also the American colonies, the United States, Canada, and Haiti. As well as the largest and most strategically vital battlefields for England, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. In all, and this is an estimate based off of figures that mainstream historians can agree upon, 5,000,000 to 6,000,000 people died in this time period. It is more likely that even more died than official records account for, especially in the Russian Campaign. Perhaps a figure of 8,000,000 to 9,000,000 would be closer to the truth. Either way these numbers are staggering when one considers that in, for sake of argument, 26 years using technology that had existed for one hundred years all the involved powers including America managed to kill almost as many people as were killed from 1914-1918. With flintlock muskets, smoothbore muzzle loaded artillery, bayonets, sabers, lances, an early form of poison gas, the world managed to kill almost as many as it took four years to with far more advanced technology, but relatively unchanged tactics.
In 1821 Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France, the ‘Corsican Tyrant’, died a broken man of disease on his new island prison of St. Helena. A man who’d conquered almost all of Europe, won countless battles, led thousands to their deaths, and been responsible for millions of deaths himself, as well as forever changing Europe, and the world. Even today we feel the aftermath of this period in history. It effects our world in ways almost too numerous to list. It saw the birth of the peasant revolution, the rise of nationalism, the formation of alliances, and the idea that one man can lay Europe at his feet and rule an empire worthy of a Caesar.