20 April 1792 – Start of the French Revolutionary Wars

Three years into the French Revolution, France’s Legislative Assembly declares war on Austria, fearing that it will launch an invasion in a bid to restore the absolute monarchy of Louis XVI. A Prussian-led coalition army attempts to march on Paris in September, but it is defeated at Valmy, around 108 miles from the capital. The first stage of the French Revolutionary Wars – commonly known as the War of the First Coalition – is now underway.


22 September 1792 – The French Republic is born

Emboldened by the victory at Valmy, the revolutionaries abolish Louis XVI’s constitutional monarchy and proclaim the new French Republic. In November, General Charles François Dumouriez leads an army into the Austrian Netherlands (now Belgium) to prevent an invasion of France via the Low Countries, defeating the main Austrian force in the region at the battle of Jemappes.

21 January 1793 – Louis XVI is executed

Having been convicted of high treason, Louis XVI is beheaded by guillotine in what is now Place de la Concorde, Paris. The execution sparks outrage among the monarchies of Europe.

1 June 1794 – Britain’s ‘Glorious First of June’

With Britain now part of the coalition of powers fighting France, a fleet led by Admiral Lord Howe attacks 26 French warships sent to escort an American grain convoy into Brest. The vital convoy does reach France, but superior British gunnery costs the French seven warships (six captured and one sunk) and 5,000 casualties.

14 February 1797 – Spain is defeated at Cape St Vincent

With Spain now allied to the French Republic, Britain’s Admiral Sir John Jervis (pictured below) and 15 warships attack a Spanish fleet of 27 off southern Portugal. Thanks to a melee created by the then-commodore Horatio Nelson, British captains win several individual ship encounters. Their superior rate of fire has a deadly effect and four Spanish ships are captured.

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21 July 1798 – Battle of the Pyramids

A young general, Napoleon Bonaparte, leads an invasion of Ottoman-ruled Egypt in an effort to defend French trade interests and weaken Britain’s access to India. At the so-called battle of the Pyramids, he repels the Mamluk cavalry to seize Lower Egypt.

9–10 November 1799 – Napoleon seizes power

Having made his name in Italy and Egypt, Napoleon returns to France to find the government under pressure after setbacks in the War of the Second Coalition (led by Britain, Austria and Russia). He mounts a bloodless coup and becomes first consul of France, eventually crowning himself emperor in 1804.

14 June 1800 – A decisive moment at Marengo

Napoleon’s opening campaign as first consul is an invasion of northern Italy, beginning with a crossing of the Great St Bernard Pass. At Marengo, he finds the Austrians a formidable rival, and his enforced retreat for much of the battle is only reversed following a successful counter-attack by French reinforcements. A quarter of the French army become casualties. The Austrians ask for an armistice.

27 March 1802 – The Peace of Amiens

Britain, Spain and the Batavian Republic (the Netherlands) agree a peace treaty with France in the city of Amiens, marking the end of the War of the Second Coalition and the French Revolutionary Wars as a whole. The French signatory is Napoleon’s older brother, Joseph Bonaparte.

20 October 1805 – The French leader shows his brilliance at Ulm

Attacking the Austrians in the War of the Third Coalition, Napoleon moves his Grande Armée (a ‘Great Army’, comprising troops from the Armée d’Angleterre) by rapid marches that outmanoeuvre part of the Austrian army based at Ulm. In the face of his brilliant strategic campaign the enemy surrenders (although Austria remains in the war), opening the way for the overrunning of southern Germany.

21 October 1805 – Britain’s Royal Navy triumphs at Trafalgar

Vice Admiral Lord Nelson intercepts a Franco-Spanish fleet off Cape Trafalgar near Cádiz. The British attack in two divisions, splitting the opponents into groups. The battle of Trafalgar then becomes a series of small struggles between individual ships or groups in which British gunnery and seamanship prevails, albeit at the cost of heavy casualties – including Nelson himself. Meanwhile, Napoleon’s planned invasion of Britain has failed to materialise.

2 December 1805 – Battle of Austerlitz

In perhaps his greatest ever victory, Napoleon defeats a larger Russian and Austrian army near the town of Austerlitz (now in the Czech Republic). Around 16,000 Austrian and Russian troops are killed or wounded, with 11,000 taken prisoner. The defeat leads Francis I of Austria to accepta harsh peace two days later.

14 October 1806 – Prussian resistance is crushed

Frederick William III of Prussia joins Russia as part of the Fourth Coalition, but Napoleon attacks before Russian reinforcements can arrive. At the twin battles of Jena and Auerstädt in Saxony, the poorly-commanded Prussian forces are defeated. Napoleon crushes what he thinks is the main body of the Prussian army at Jena, but it is actually at Auerstädt, where it is expertly defeated by Marshal Louis-Nicolas Davout.

7–8 February 1807 – Napoleon struggles at Eylau

Moving east, Napoleon finds the Russians to be tough opponents. At Eylau in East Prussia, repeated French attacks fail to break the Russians, who withdraw during the night. French casualties are heavy and, although Napoleon gains possession of the battlefield and Russian losses are heavier, he wins neither tactically nor strategically.

14 June 1807 – Battle of Friedland

Russia, with an inferior force and their backs to a river, attacks the French at Friedland. The plan fails and leads to heavy losses. It leaves the Russians so
battered that they need time to rebuild their army. The subsequent Treaties of Tilsit on 7 and 9 July bring about an uneasy peace.

5 May 1808 – The costly Peninsular War begins

After Portugal refuses to adopt Napoleon’s Continental System (blocking it from trading with Britain), he invades the country via Spain, causing the royal family to flee. He then occupies Madrid, sparking a mass uprising, before overthrowing the Spanish monarchy on 5 May 1808. The Peninsular War ensues, with Anglo-Portuguese troops securing early victories against the French at Roliça and Vimeiro in August.

21–22 May 1809 – Napoleon faces a challenge by the Danube

Austria resumes conflict with France in 1809 as part of the Fifth Coalition. The first major battle, fought at Aspern and Essling near Vienna, reflects little credit on Napoleon, whose bold attack on a superior Austrian force is repelled, before a serious Austrian assault leaves the French isolated on the north bank of the Danube. The French army is not destroyed, but Napoleon abandons the battlefield.

5–6 July 1809 – The French counter-attack at Wagram

After failure at Aspern-Essling, Napoleon counter-attacks north of Vienna at Wagram. He drives Archduke Charles from the field, helped by a successful flank manoeuvre, but the Austrian army is not routed. Both sides use artillery to great effect. Wagram is followed by peace with Austria on French terms.

24–25 June 1812 – France invades Russia

Napoleon seeks to deal with the crisis in his relations with Russia by striking at the centre of its power, and with an army so large that it will guarantee victory. More than 600,000 French and allied troops cross the Niemen river and invade Russian territory without resistance, denying Napoleon the decisive battle he had initially sought.

7 September 1812 –A deadly day at Borodino

The Russians attempt to stop Napoleon’s advance on Moscow at Borodino, a battle involving around 250,000 men and in excess of 1,100 cannon. The battle lasts all day with total casualties of some 77,000. The Russians resist French attacks and are driven back without breaking. Napoleon refuses to commit his Imperial Guard, which might have been decisive. The Russians abandon the battlefield at night. Despite heavier Russian casualties, it is Napoleon’s losses – about a quarter of his army – that are crucial.

14 September 1812 – Napoleon enters Moscow

After the battle of Borodino, the road to Moscow is left open. Napoleon enters an undefended city on 14 September, only to find it set ablaze that night. Alexander I refuses to negotiate and Napoleon’s supply situation deteriorates, forcing him to abandon Moscow on 19 October. Heavy snowfalls turn the retreat into a nightmare and thousands of troops die. Meanwhile, the costly Peninsular War in Spain and Portugal continues to drain Napoleon’s resources even further.

26–27 August 1813 - Battle of Dresden

In 1813, Prussia, Austria and Sweden join Russia in the fight against a now-outnumbered Napoleon as part of the Sixth Coalition. They plan to avoid direct battle with him and only attack forces led by his subordinates. However, Frederick William III of Prussia insists on fighting the French emperor, and an army commanded by Prince Schwarzenberg is beaten by Napoleon at Dresden.

16–19 October 1813 – Severe losses at Leipzig

At the battle of the Nations at Leipzig, Napoleon is heavily outnumbered by converging Allied forces. Unable to defeat his opponents, whom he nevertheless holds off, he decides to retreat. In total, the French lose around 68,000 men.

6 April 1814 – Napoleon abdicates

In early 1814, Napoleon, with some success, attacks the Austro-Prussian-Russian forces that invade eastern France, manoeuvring with skill to destroy the most exposed units. Their superior numbers tell, however, and the coalition troops march into Paris. A provisional government deposes Napoleon and he formally abdicates on 6 April. Unaware of the news, Britain’s Arthur Wellesley captures Toulouse a few days later, having invaded France via the Pyrenees.

1 March 1815 – An unexpected return

Napoleon escapes from exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba with a small flotilla and about 1,100 troops. He comes ashore near Antibes, southern France, on 1 March where the garrison surrenders. The army of the new French king, Louis XVIII, proves unwilling to mount effective opposition, and on 20 March, Napoleon enters Paris to reclaim power. Louis has already fled the city.

9 June 1815 – The Congress of Vienna ends

Following months of negotiations in Vienna, ambassadors from several major powers (including Austria, Britain, Prussia and Russia) sign an act that redistributes a number of European territories. The objective is to create long-term peace by settling issues arising from both the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars.

15 June 1815 – The Waterloo campaign begins

As coalition forces prepare to mount an invasion of France, Napoleon decides the best way of breaking it down is to attack the powers individually. In what is now Belgium, he plans a concentration of troops south of the Prussian and British-led armies, with the intention of following it with a rapid advance designed to defeat them separately before advancing on Brussels.

16 June 1815 – A futile French victory at Ligny

The French defeat the Prussians at Ligny but Napoleon can’t outflank them as he had hoped. He instead has to rely on costly frontal attacks that drive the Prussians back without breaking them. French losses ensure Napoleon has a smaller margin of manpower for subsequent operations. To the northwest, the French are less successful against a British-led allied force at Quatre Bras.

18 June 1815 – Wellington’s triumph

Napoleon’s hopes are crushed during the battle of Waterloo as a result of a defensive engagement with the British-led army under Arthur Wellesley (now Duke of Wellington), joined later in the day by the Prussian army, which moves to their support. Napoleon’s lack of operational and tactical imagination plays a major part in his defeat.

15 July 1815 – Final surrender

Facing rising opposition and an erosion of support, Napoleon’s regime collapses. Having abdicated in favour of his son on 22 June, he plans to go to America, but a British naval blockade makes it impossible. Feeling he will get better treatment from Britain than other foes, he boards HMS Bellerophon on 15 July. He is sent to the island of St Helena, in the distant south Atlantic, where he is imprisoned until his death on 5 May 1821.