What were the Napoleonic Wars?

The Napoleonic Wars were a series of conflicts that occurred from 1803 to 1815, fought between France under Napoleon and a series of coalitions of European powers.


Though the Napoleonic Wars are often seen as a clash of European powers fighting for dominance over the European continent, in many ways they were also an example of a global conflict before the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

The Napoleonic Wars are usually numbered by the coalitions that were raised against Napoleonic France between 1803 and 1815:

  • The War of the Third Coalition, 1805–06
  • The War of the Fourth Coalition, 1806–07
  • The War of the Fifth Coalition, 1809
  • The War of the Sixth Coalition, 1813–14
  • The War of the Seventh Coalition, also known as the Hundred Days, 1815

What of the wars of the first and second coalitions? These precede the Napoleonic Wars, both being part of the French Revolutionary Wars of the 1790s.

Why did the Napoleonic Wars happen?

There are many explanations, but you could consider the Napoleonic Wars to be a consequence of the French Revolutionary Wars, which concluded with the 1802 Peace of Amiens.

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These wars had left France in a commanding strategic position in Western Europe, “something that no other European power could tolerate, because it appeared to threaten their own strategic security”, says Michael Rapport, reader in modern European history at the University of Glasgow, who spoke to us about the Napoleonic Wars on the HistoryExtra podcast.

“Any peace – which occurred in 1802 through the Treaty of Amiens – was going to be really a truce.”

That peace broke down in 1803. “The Peace of Amiens wasn't really honoured by either side,” he says. Neither side really trusted each other.”

Who was Napoleon?

The Napoleonic Wars are named after a single man – Napoleon Bonaparte. How did a young, inexperienced artillery officer from Corsica rise to such a position of military prominence, not to mention Emperor of France?

It took Napoleon just six years from being a relative unknown in 1793 to taking personal rule of France through a coup d’etat in 1799, something Rapport believes that it is no small part thanks to the French Revolution itself.

“What the revolution did was it unlocked careers in the army, in government and in law to talent, rather than to birth and status,” he says.

“Even though he was noble and he was never barred from the officer corps, the chances of him maybe advancing really high up were probably slimmer than they would have been if it hadn't been for the French Revolution.”

War itself provided opportunities. Staggering death rates among officers plus the loss of royalists created opportunities for advancement – if you were politically motivated that is (“Napoleon, initially at least – wore some Republican credentials fairly visibly,” notes Rapport.)

How did the Napoleonic Wars end?

In March 1814, the allied powers of the Sixth Coalition occupied Paris, prompting Napoleon’s abdication on 11 April. He was exiled to Elba, an island home to some 12,000 people just off Italy’s Tuscan coast, to live out his days as its sovereign. And that should have been the end of that.

Napoleon was held in high esteem even after his abdication, and so when he and 700 of his followers escaped from Elba back to France, he quickly gained support.

Among the most totemic was his former marshal turned royalist commander, Michel Ney. Sent to intercept Napoleon, Ney had promised to bring him back to Paris in an iron cage; instead he joined his army of 6,000 to Napoleon’s.

So began the Hundred Days, Napoleon’s final roll of the dice. Realising that he could not sit still in Paris, lest the powers of Europe join and assault him en masse, he went on the offensive – culminating in the battle of Waterloo.

Waterloo was Napoleon’s final defeat, at the hands of Britain and Prussia. He was forced to abdicate once more, and banished anew – this time he was exiled to St Helena, an East India Company possession deep in the Atlantic, where he remained until his death in 1821.

How many people died during the Napoleonic Wars?

Five million people died in the Napoleonic Wars between 1803 and 1815, notes Rapport. “It's an estimate, but it's the best estimate we have,” he says.

“In terms of the size of the European population at the time, that is the same number, proportionately, as in the First World War.”

Michael Rapport is reader in modern European history at the University of Glasgow and the author of The Napoleonic Wars: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2013). He was speaking to Jon Bauckham

Seven facts about the Napoleonic Wars…

The young Napoleon showed little promise

The Bonapartes (Buonapartes in Italian) originated in Italy, but Napoleon was born into a branch of the family that moved to Corsica [an island in the Mediterranean Sea belonging to France]. His parents were both of minor Corsican nobility and had married young. The couple had had another son called Napoleon four years before the more famous one, but the child died in infancy. Growing up in Corsica, Napoleon’s first language was Italian, not French. However, as his family was well off (by Corsican standards), he and his brother Joseph were sent to military academies in France.

Napoleon did not fit in particularly well. While he did learn French, he spoke it with an accent that betrayed his roots, and he was teased for sounding like a peasant. Furthermore, the other boys came from well-connected and more affluent families, and while they were good at dancing, Napoleon’s skills lay in gardening. It was not a promising start for a boy who, at various times, dreamed of becoming an officer in the French navy or an artillery instructor in the Ottoman Empire. How different history would have been had he taken one of those routes.

Aged 15, Napoleon was admitted to the elite École Militaire in Paris. This was a huge honour, which turned into a disaster when his father died of stomach cancer while Napoleon was in his first year. The young cadet was now expected to be the family’s chief source of income, while at the same time attending one of the most expensive schools in France. The situation forced him to complete the two-year course in just one, and while he came only 42nd in a class of 58, graduation meant he could become a commissioned officer just after his 16th birthday.

A portrait tiled 'Bonaparte as First Consul' by John James Masquerier. (Photo by Print Collector/Getty Images)
A portrait tiled 'Bonaparte as First Consul' by John James Masquerier. (Photo by Print Collector/Getty Images)

By 1791, as war was about to break out across Europe, Napoleon, still a second lieutenant stationed in a sleepy garrison town, went on leave to see his family in Corsica. This was about as unexceptional a start to a military career as can be imagined. No one could have predicted that within 10 years Napoleon would be the most feared military commander in Europe, and later would become one of the greatest generals in history.

The royal navy attacked a city

France was courting Denmark and Norway in 1801, and, if they could be persuaded to join the fight, it looked like Russia might also join them. The possibility that Denmark might attack the British mainland could not be contemplated – something had to be done.

Step forward Admiral Parker, who was sent to carry out some very British gunboat diplomacy (ie turn up with some warships and force a settlement). It wasn’t necessarily meant to be a shooting war. When the royal navy arrived, the Danish fleet was moored against the gun batteries and naval defences of the city, so a frontal assault would have been impossible.

However, Parker’s subordinate was Vice Admiral Nelson, who was just the right mix of brilliant, brave and mad. He attacked the weaker southern end of the Danish defences, which resulted in a brutal artillery duel between land and sea. Parker lacked Nelson’s grit and, on seeing the devastating effect of close-quarter cannon fire, signalled the retreat. Nelson replied with a signal that acknowledged the order, but did nothing. Instead, he lifted his telescope to his blind eye and said to his flag-captain, Thomas Foley: “You know, Foley, I only have one eye. I have the right to be blind sometimes.”

With that, he continued to press his attack. In the heat of the battle, Nelson was seen to be carefully preparing a letter for the terms of Copenhagen’s surrender – amid the roar of cannons, the screams of men and the sound of splintering wood. This forced at least one of his officers to conclude that Nelson had lost his mind, but Nelson calmly explained that if he was seen to have the time and the conditions to prepare a decent letter, it would make the Danes think they weren’t causing as much damage as they were. It was remarkable logic, and an example of the ultimate cool head under fire.

The ruse worked, and Copenhagen surrendered. Remarkably, no royal navy ships were sunk; however, around 1,000–1,200 British crew were either killed or wounded. The Danes suffered 50 per cent more casualties and lost three ships, including their flagship, the Dannebrog, when it exploded.

After this short but bloody encounter, the two nations agreed an armistice. Following this, Parker sailed the fleet to Sweden in an attempt to persuade it to break away from the armed neutrality league that had been set up in the Baltic, but the Swedes declined his offer.

As a result of Parker’s wavering at Copenhagen, followed by his rather lacklustre display in Sweden, he was relieved of duty, and Nelson was promoted to vice-admiral.

All sides understood the ‘propaganda war’

The Napoleonic Wars were not the first to use the medium of print for propaganda purposes – The Times, for example, started in 1785 as The Daily Universal Register, was not above bias. But this particular era of conflict excelled at printing scurrilous opinions and defamatory cartoons. The leaders of the age knew the power of the press. As Napoleon once said: “Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.”

However, it wasn’t just opinion pieces that influenced; imagery was often more powerful and lingered longer. Napoleon understood this, and became known for self-aggrandisement. The famous painting of him crossing the Alps (painted by the French artist Jacques-Louis David between 1801 and 1805), for example, shows a strongly idealised view of the real crossing that Napoleon and his army made across the Alps.

Napoleon also made sure his coronation as emperor was immortalised in oil paintings, and both he and his wife, Josephine, commissioned regal portraits of themselves in their splendid imperial robes. While Napoleon didn’t plan his own tomb, it continued the themes of power and supremacy – this time with Napoleon as an Adonis; a god among men. Brilliant general he assuredly was, but physically Napoleon was a little on the pudgy side, and had a crooked nose.

Napoleon had the twin advantages of being both a general and an absolute ruler; he was able to dictate and control the French press. Britain did not provide its monarchs and leaders with the same benefits; it had a freer press, and parliamentary democracy meant magazines could draw witheringly satirical cartoons of friend and foe alike.

For example, Napoleon’s nickname, ‘Boney’, was a British invention designed to conjure antipathy. At the time, it was thought that having some meat on your bones was a good thing; therefore, horrible old ‘Boney’ was a wraith to be feared or mocked. ‘Boney’ stood in stark contrast to the famous John Bull cartoon popularised first by British print makers. Bull was the national personification of England; a plump, down-to-earth patriot and beer lover.

Napoleon is often portrayed as compensating for his lack of stature with comically large hats and boots. But to set the record straight, Napoleon wasn’t short. This misunderstanding arose because French measurements were different to British ones, and we now know that Napoleon was a little taller than the average man of his time (although he would probably have looked diminutive standing next to someone like the Duke of Wellington).

The idea that Napoleon was short still exists to this day, all thanks to British propaganda from 200 years ago.

The best way to defeat Spain was to invade Argentina

By 1806, Britain had been at war almost constantly for well over a decade. Its continental allies were continually being humbled by French armies, and Britain’s own contributions to the war thus far had been mainly naval victories. However, William Pitt and Sir Home Riggs Popham (the British royal naval commander) had been mulling over for a year or so ideas to weaken France’s main ally, Spain.

Spain’s South American empire was largely undefended. Trying to resist a British invasion there would take Spanish troops away from the resources that Napoleon could use in Europe. So, in short, it was decided (by Popham, without authorisation) that the best way to win a war against France in Europe was to invade Argentina in South America.

These operations were referred to as the British invasions of the Río de la Plata. Britain achieved early success when it captured Buenos Aires – one of the key cities in the area – and held it for more than a month. When the invaders were ejected, it wasn’t thanks to the arrival of Spanish troops, but an uprising of the local population.

In 1807, the British responded by sending a larger invasion force – this time successfully storming Montevideo, where they stayed for a few months just to prove a point. Shortly afterwards, the British sent a third force back to Buenos Aires, but after heavy fighting with a combined force of Spanish soldiers standing side-by-side with the local militia, they were pushed back and suffered more than 50 per cent casualties.

The British lost this campaign. It was an ambitious plan that had assumed resistance could only be achieved by Spanish regular troops. In fact, it was the bravery of the locals that saved Río de la Plata from becoming part of the British empire.

The repercussions of this attempted invasion were unforeseen by everyone. The Spanish were, at first, overjoyed that their colonies had resisted so resolutely. However, those same colonies felt their actions had earned them the right to be considered the equal of their colonial masters in Spain.

The Spanish were, at this time, also having serious trouble with a French invasion of their own country, so could do little. By 1810, the South American colonies felt confident enough to carry out their own revolution (the May Revolution), which removed the Spanish Viceroy and set up a local government for the first time.

This led, in July 1816, to the declaration of independence for the United Provinces of South America, which later became known as Argentina. At the time, some of the ex-Spanish colonies were at war with each other but, overall, shrugging off the old colonial overlord was seen as beneficial.

The irony then was that while Britain lost the campaign, it achieved its goals of weakening Spain and distracting Spanish priorities and forces. Another irony is that today in Argentina, Britain’s actions of 1806–7 are seen as the trigger for independence, and are widely considered to have been a good thing.

Nobody expected the Spanish Inquisition to end

The story of the Spanish Inquisition [a tribunal established in 1478 by Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile, intended to maintain Catholic orthodoxy in their kingdoms] is a long and complex one. However, the first area to come under its scrutiny was in 12th-century France. The more notorious version of these religious enquiries into potential heretics or apostates started in Spain in the late 15th century, and never really went away until the 19th century.

The French Revolution (which began in 1789) sparked real concerns in Spain. King Charles IV worried about how his people might regard the wealth and power not only of the monarchy, but also of the church. With this in mind, he took steps to clip the wings of the Spanish Inquisition. A number of the monolithic Catholic organisations were anathema to the enlightenment ideals of revolutionary France, and there were a number of times Napoleon (and others) dismantled century old ‘Holy Cows’ in the name of modernity.

When the French invaded Malta they had ended the Hospitallers; a religious organisation founded in the Middle Ages. Napoleon also abolished another ancient organisation, the Holy Roman Empire, the argument being that it too was a remnant of a theocratic past incompatible with a new Europe. So it should therefore come as little surprise that once the French invaded Spain, it was Joseph Bonaparte who tried to abolish the Spanish Inquisition once and for all.

However, Bonaparte was king of Spain from 1808 to 1813, which wasn't long enough to overthrow all the old ways. Consequently, by 1814 the inquisition was back in business. The last person to be killed by the Spanish Inquisition was a teacher in 1826, for suggesting so-called heretical ideas. The inquisition was officially abolished in 1834.

The showdown at Waterloo was delayed due to rain

With the battles of Quatre Bras and Ligny fought on 16 June 1815, and all the main forces still in roughly the same area, it would have been safe to assume that the next clash would be on the 17th. However, there were surprises in store for everyone.

First of all, Marshall Ney, Napoleon’s right-hand man returned to Quatre Bras to fight the second round of this encounter… except that when he got there, he found that Wellington had largely moved on. The challenge then was to find the allied positions and engage. However, while a brief skirmish did take place between the British and French on the 17th, it quickly faded as the heavens opened and torrential rain lashed all the armies for hours.

A year earlier, Wellington had been in this very region, and had recognised that a ridge with a reverse slope would be the perfect defensive position for a battle, should one ever take place in the area. Now was the time, and he positioned his forces both along and behind the ridge, located near the small Belgian town of Waterloo.

Wellington spent the night at a Waterloo inn, impatiently waiting for communication from the Prussian leader Blücher. It finally came at around 2am. After that, Wellington was wide awake and spent the rest of the night consulting with his officers and sending out orders.

Blücher’s message had been delayed while he argued with his subordinate, Gneisenau, about how their forces could effectively work with Wellington’s. Blücher knew that a concentration of troops was the best bet to beat Napoleon; however, Gneisenau distrusted the British.

Meanwhile, Napoleon was unusually indecisive. Grouchy had not advanced as fast as he’d hoped, and in the middle of the night Napoleon was seen going for a walk. He sent ambiguous orders to Grouchy who, instead of coming to his aid, continued to advance towards Wavre. Napoleon bedded down in a farmhouse and, in the morning, had fine breakfast with his officers. When they expressed concerns about Wellington – the only major allied general Napoleon had yet to face on the battlefield – Napoleon admonished them by saying: “Just because you have all been beaten by Wellington, you think he's a good general. I tell you Wellington is a bad general; the English are bad troops, and this affair is nothing more than eating breakfast.”

On the morning of 18 June, Napoleon delayed the start of battle as he waited for the ground to harden after the downpour of the previous day. This, he believed, would make it easier to reposition his artillery, and would allow better conditions for cavalry movements. He gave Ney operational command and could be seen sitting in an armchair, miles from the front line. It seems that Napoleon had been, once again, struck down with illness, and his haemorrhoids made it impossible for him to remain in the saddle for the whole day.

Waterloo was not the final battle against France

Conflicts are messy. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that there is no neat ending to this period of warfare. Waterloo was undeniably the most pivotal battle of this campaign, and it shattered Napoleon’s authority – less than a week after the battle, Napoleon abdicated. But the fighting had been in Belgium, and the race was now on to get to the French capital to ensure an allied army was present to oversee the dismantling of Napoleonic power and the return of Louis XVIII.

The French, however, didn’t see things in quite the same way. They had around 65,000 troops in the area [25,000 others had been killed or wounded at Waterloo, and 9,000 captured], and French General Vandamme led part of that army out to meet the approaching Prussians at a small town to the south of Paris. Wellington’s forces were also on their way, so quite what Vandamme was hoping to achieve is uncertain. He might not have been able to win in the long run, but in the short term he’d be damned if he’d allow Blücher to march to the capital without a fight.

The allies had come in a southerly direction because Paris’s main defences had been constructed north of the Seine. The battle was a Prussian/French affair because Vandamme chose to attack Blücher, rather than Wellington. Battle commenced on 2 July 1815 around the town of Issy and the commanding heights of Meudon. That night a council in Paris discussed whether it was time to surrender; however, it was Davout, one of Napoleon’s most loyal and talented marshals, who dug in his heels and insisted that Vandamme should try to oust the Prussians from their position.

The next day the French attacked the Prussians (who by now had barricaded themselves in) with artillery fire. Then the French infantry advanced. After fierce fighting, the French were driven back, only to regroup and try to break the Prussians once more. This attempt also failed, and for the rest of the day the French alternated between pounding the Prussians with cannon fire and then surging forwards with an infantry assault.

But the French never threw everything they had into any assault. Vandamme, for reasons unknown, never fully committed to the battle, and because of this the Prussians were able to hold their positions (despite high casualties). Ultimately, the French were forced to retreat back to Paris.

The Prussians pursued Vandamme’s retreating men, and some forward units even clashed with the French rear guard in the Parisian suburbs. This was quickly followed by a unilateral French ceasefire, and by now, Wellington had linked up with Blücher. Allied negotiators met French representatives at the Palace of St Cloud, chosen as a relatively neutral location. It was here that Paris formally surrendered in a hastily created document now rather formally known as ‘The Convention of St Cloud’. Ironically, the palace was destroyed by German troops the next time the Prussians attacked Paris, in 1870.

In summary, the Napoleonic Wars are like most of history – a swirling mass of facts, with areas that simply don’t fit into an easy narrative. But they shaped the political and cultural landscapes from Egypt to Russia and from Argentina to Belgium. Today, their legacy reverberates throughout Europe and beyond.

The above facts are abridged versions taken from Jem Duducu’s The Napoleonic Wars in 100 Facts (Amberley Publishing, 2015). Find out more, and you can also follow him on X (formerly Twitter) @JemDuducu


This article was first published by HistoryExtra in June 2015