We’re taking a look at one of the most iconic periods covered by Black Seas – the Napoleonic Wars. This article provides an overview of the conflict.
One of the most heavily studied eras of European history, the French wars which began in 1803 were effectively a continuation of those which had preceded them, involving most European countries and their colonial possessions. Naval actions in this period were worldwide: in the Mediterranean, the North Sea, the Baltic, the Atlantic and as far afield as the West and East Indies. These were, of course, mainly in support of strategies and campaigns on land, but also related to local quarrels as well as to strategic, political and trade decisions.
Whilst Britain, of course, remained Napoleon’s obdurate opponent throughout the period, the other great powers – Austria, Prussia, Russia, Spain – found themselves at times either allied to him, or one-by-one defeated by him. His early reputation was confirmed in the masterly land battles of 1805: Ulm (a superb outflanking of sluggish Austrian forces) and Austerlitz (deception then the destruction of an outnumbering Russian and Austrian army).
Trafalgar prevented Napoleon’s planned invasion of Britain. Having naval dominance, in 1806 Britain now began a complete naval blockade of the French coast. In response, Napoleon instituted the Continental System, which prevented trade between French allies and Britain. Whilst Britain did not suffer greatly as a result, merely redirecting trade to other countries, many of Napoleon’s European allies lost significant trade, creating further resistance to his rule. Policing these blockades, and escorting or disrupting merchant convoys, became important elements of naval strategy, while the position of Spain and Russia, at the limits of French conquest, potentially left holes in the French system.
After the highpoint of 1807, French fortunes varied. In 1808 Napoleon invaded Spain which revolted against French rule. This war in the Peninsular became a constant drain on French resources and saw a succession of French Marshalls defeated by British, Portuguese and Spanish forces (the most renowned being Wellington’s victories at Talavera in 1809, Salamanca in 1812 and Vitoria in 1813).
Meanwhile, Napoleon was concerned about Russia. Despite the treaties, Tsar Alexander was trading extensively with Britain through proxies. Napoleon decided to compel Alexander’s compliance by invading Russia, on the pretext of protecting Poland. He assembled a Grande Armée of over 600,000 French and allies, which, in 1812, battered through Russian resistance at Borodino, but arrived at Moscow to find the city ablaze and uninhabitable.
In March 1815 he was back in Paris, organising a new army that would be defeated 100 days later by Allied forces on the battlefield of Waterloo.
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