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Friday 17 March 2023

A quick guide to the Napoleonic Wars and the Great War against France (1792-1815)

The Battle of Waterloo in The wars of Wellington, a narrative poem by Dr Syntax illustrated by W Heath and JC Stadler (1819)
The Battle of Waterloo in The wars of Wellington, a narrative poem
by Dr Syntax illustrated by W Heath and JC Stadler (1819)
Rachel writes: I don’t do military history, but as a Regency romance author, it’s impossible to ignore the war with France that raged during the opening years of the 19th century. If I want to make a soldier the hero of a Regency romance, I can’t afford to be completely ignorant about the Napoleonic Wars or was it the Peninsular War or the War of the Something-or-other Coalition…?

I confess to have got somewhat confused about the war with France, and in the name of historical accuracy, I would at least like to try to refer to the war correctly in my novels. Fortunately, my husband does like military history, and as he has a better understanding of the Great War with France, he wrote this blog to help me understand it. I thought others might find it helpful too.

The Great War against France

It’s really easy to get confused about the various wars with France that raged outside Regency-era England. It’s also easy to make silly mistakes in your writing, by using the wrong names for the various wars, campaigns and even battles.

This guide should help you make more sense of what was going on where, and what to call it.

Britain1 was at war with France for around 23 years—almost a quarter of a century. That’s most of Jane Austen’s adult life, from when she was a teenager to just two years before she died.

When people talk about the ‘war with France’ at this time, they could mean one of several different wars. They were all sparked by the French Revolution in 1789.

Napoleon Bonaparte from The Life of Napoleon,
Emperor of the Frenc
h by Sir Walter Scott (1871)

The Coalition Wars

The French Revolution shocked the rulers of other European countries. Relations between the revolutionaries in France and their neighbours broke down, initiating the first of several wars.

The first two Coalition Wars are also known as the French Revolutionary wars, because France was under a revolutionary government. The later Coalition Wars are part of the Napoleonic wars, because Napoleon Bonaparte governed France.

Coalition, meaning temporary alliance, is the name given to these. That’s because each war involved an alliance of different European nations.

Admiral Lord Nelson after the painting by John Hoppner in Miller's edition of Robert Southey's Life of Nelson (1896)
Admiral Lord Nelson after the painting by John Hoppner
in Miller's edition of Robert Southey's Life of Nelson (1896)

The French Revolutionary Wars

War of the First Coalition 1792–1797

France declared war on Austria in April 1792, and then on Britain and the Netherlands in February 1793.

Britain, the Netherlands, Spain, Prussia, the Holy Roman Empire (much of central Europe) and various smaller nations formed an alliance against France. Over time, different nations dropped out, making their own peace deals with France.

France captured the Netherlands and turned it into the Batavian Republic.

It included the only battle of the Revolutionary Wars fought in Britain, near Fishguard in Wales, where a small French invasion force was quickly defeated 22–24 February 1797.

The war ended in October 1797, although Britain did not make a peace treaty.

War of the Second Coalition 1798–1802

Britain, Russia, Portugal, the Holy Roman and Ottoman Empires, with other smaller countries, again took on France in a series of campaigns all over the continent, and in Egypt.

This war saw Nelson defeat a French fleet at the Battle of the Nile, on 1–2 August 1798.

The Battle of the Nile from Horatio Nelson and  the Naval Supremacy of England by W Clark (1890)
The Battle of the Nile from Horatio Nelson and 
the Naval Supremacy of England by W Clark (1890)
Again, countries made their own peace with the French. Britain signed a peace treaty on 25 March 1802—the Treaty of Amiens.

End of the French Revolutionary Wars

The peace of March 1802 initiated the longest period of peace during the long years of war with France.

It also marks the end of the French Revolutionary wars. In 1799 Napoleon had effectively become ruler of France. In 1802 he became ruler for life, and in 1804 he crowned himself Emperor of France.

The peace lasted just 14 months, with Britain declaring war on France in May 1803. Britain faced France alone from 1803 to 1805, during which time the French threatened to launch an invasion.

The Napoleonic Wars

War of the Third Coalition 1805–1806

Britain, Russia, Sweden and the Holy Roman Empire, plus smaller states, allied against France. This war includes the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805, where Nelson defeated a French and Spanish fleet.

The Battle of Trafalgar from Horatio Nelson and the  Naval Supremacy of England by W Clark (1890)
The Battle of Trafalgar from Horatio Nelson and the 
Naval Supremacy of England by W Clark (1890)
Just a few weeks later, on 2 December 1805, Napoleon crushed the armies of the Emperors of Russia and Austria at the battle of Austerlitz. The war effectively ended, although there was no peace agreement with Britain or Russia.

War of the Fourth Coalition 1806–1807

Britain, Prussia, Russia, Saxony and Sweden again allied themselves against France. French military successes soon reduced the alliance to Britain and Sweden. Russia swapped sides, declaring war on Britain.

With most of Europe under his control, Napoleon turned his eyes to Portugal, still an ally with Britain. In late 1807 he sent an army to capture its ports, thereby initiating the Peninsular Wars. These are separate from the Coalition Wars.

Napoleon Bonaparte from The Life of Napoleon Bonaparte by W Sloane (1896)
Napoleon Bonaparte from The Life of
Napoleon Bonaparte
by W Sloane (1896)

War of the Fifth Coalition 1809

Britain, Austria, Sardinia and Sicily joined forces, with Austria fighting back after its huge defeat at Austerlitz. This war saw the British launch the Walcheren campaign, in an attempt to support the Austrians by invading the Netherlands. It failed and the war ended with Austria’s defeat at Wagram.

War of the Sixth Coalition 1813–1814

Britain, Prussia, Austria, Russia, Spain, Portugal, Sweden and other smaller states formed an alliance that defeated Napoleon.

The allies took advantage of France being weakened by the failed invasion of Russia in 1812 and the ongoing Peninsular Wars.

The allies captured Paris on 31 March 1814 and Napoleon was sent into exile on the island of Elba.

War of the Seventh Coalition 1815

Also known as the Hundred Days, this was the final campaign of the Napoleonic Wars, prompted by Napoleon’s escape from exile on Elba in February 1815.

It led to Napoleon being defeated at the Battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815  and surrendering himself soon after, on 15 July 1815. He was sent into exile on the remote island of St Helena.

The Battle of Waterloo from Historic, military and naval anecdotes of particular incidents by E Orme & illustrated by JA Atkinson (1819)
The Battle of Waterloo from Historic, military and naval anecdotes
of particular incidents by E Orme & illustrated by JA Atkinson (1819)
A huge number of nations allied against France, including Britain, Prussia, Austria, the Netherlands, Russia, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.

The Peninsular War 1807–1814

This war overlapped with the fifth and sixth Coalition Wars. It saw Britain and Portugal, and later Spain, taking on the French. The name comes from its location on the Iberian Peninsula.

This war began with the Corunna campaign, with the British being driven out of Spain in early 1808. However, under Arthur Wellesley, later 1st Duke of Wellington, the British soon returned to Portugal. They launched a series of campaigns that eventually drove the French back to their own country.

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington © Rachel Knowles - own collection
Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington
© Rachel Knowles - own collection

The French invasion of Russia 1812

The peace made between France and Russia in 1807, after the War of the Fourth Coalition, was breaking down. Napoleon launched a massive invasion of Russia, but it failed.

This war has other names. Napoleon himself called it the Second Polish War.

The failure of the invasion, and the decimation of the French army, helped encourage the formation of another alliance against France, leading to the War of the Sixth Coalition.

Headshot of Rachel Knowles author with sea in background(2021)
Rachel Knowles writes faith-based Regency romance and historical non-fiction. She has been sharing her research on this blog since 2011. Rachel lives in the beautiful Georgian seaside town of Weymouth, Dorset, on the south coast of England, with her husband, Andrew, who has written this post.

Find out more about Rachel's books and sign up for her newsletter here.

If you have enjoyed this blog and want to encourage us and help us to keep making our research freely available, please buy us a virtual cup of coffee by clicking the button below.

Note

  1. I have used the term Britain throughout for simplicity. Until 1801, Britain was known as the Kingdom of Great Britain. From 1801 onwards, Ireland joined the union and Britain became known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

Everyday Life in Victorian London by Helen Amy - book review

Front cover of Everyday Life in Victorian London by Helen Amy with map of London background

Rachel writes: Although not Regency, it’s helpful to know something about the periods immediately before and after. This book takes a look at everyday life in London in the Victorian era, which started in 1837. 

Andrew's review:

It’s tricky to write a book about everyday life in Victorian London, the city that became the capital of a global empire. That’s because there is no such place as Victorian London. The London of 1837, when Victoria ascended the throne, was very different to that of 1901, when she died.

During the 64 years of the queen’s reign, the city witnessed massive changes—in size, in wealth and in technology. Transport was just one area that bore witness to these advances. Trains, a novelty in 1837, were commonplace by 1901, when motorcars were making their first appearance on London streets.

Attempting to describe the everyday life of London during this era of momentous change is a major undertaking, even before taking into account the many different strata in London society. Author Helen Amy attempts the challenge in just 250 pages. The result is a series of snapshots, rather than a comprehensive treatment of the subject.

The book is divided into sections that describe different aspects of London life. Individual chapter cover subjects such as:

     Housing

     Education

     The Great Exhibition

     Religion

     Crime

Each chapter is broken into sections. For example, the chapter on education describes a number of specific schools and colleges, the educational opportunities for the poor, and public libraries. Most sections are relatively short, giving highlights with limited detail.

I found that most of the subjects covered in the book were very practical. They related to aspects of life such as homes, schools, shops and entertainment. There’s very little about politics or the matters that might have occupied the everyday conversation, particularly among the reasonably well educated middle classes.

The author makes frequent reference to the sources of information used in the book, and I was pleased to see that she often quotes original reports and journals. These first-hand accounts, the voices of Victorian Londoners, help bring the history to life. We’re permitted to glimpse London as it was in the second half of the 1800s, through the eyes of those who lived there.

Some are observers, often reporting on the plight of the less fortunate. The section on street children allows us to hear from people such as Charles Dickens, who had genuine concern for those living on the margins of society.

Charles Dickens from The Life of Charles Dickens by John Forster (1872)
Charles Dickens from The Life of
Charles Dickens
by John Forster (1872)
An example of someone living an ‘everyday life’ is Hannah Cullwick, a maid-of-all-work in a household in Kilburn. An extract from her diary recounts, in detail, the many tasks she had to undertake each day:

Opened the shutters and lighted the kitchen fire - shook my sooty things in the dusthole and emptied the soot there, swept and dusted the rooms and the hall, laid the cloth and got breakfast up - cleaned two pairs of boots, made the beds and emptied the slops…1

Unfortunately, no dates are given, so we can’t tell which period of the Victorian era it relates to.

While I know London reasonably well, I would have preferred the book to include at least one map. At the very least, this would have helped illustrate the change in size during the Victorian period. I think it would also have been useful to readers unfamiliar with the sprawling geography of the city.

I was pleased to see a number of illustrations, showing different aspects of the everyday London life that the book describes.

My opinion is that this book could be useful to someone looking for a general introduction to the many aspects of life in Victorian London. It doesn’t dig deeply into any subject, but it does highlight a wide range of different topics that could be researched separately.

The writing style is straightforward and clear, making it very accessible. The generous use of quotations from original sources ensures that you’re not simply hearing the author’s opinion. Her statements are backed by eye-witnesses from the time. The book has a reasonable bibliography but the index feels a little thin.

There are many Victorian Londons. Helen Amy makes a good stab at illustrating the various facets of them, from life on and around the River Thames, through to the various flavours of Christian churches available to the public. She closes the book with a short summary of the changes in London over Queen Victoria’s later life, concluding with a short description of the monarch’s final journey to Frogmore, where her burial marked the end of the era. 

Note

  1. Quote from Everyday Life in Victorian London by Helen Amy (2023) p53.

Everyday Life in Victorian London is available from Amberley Publishing here.

Headshot of Rachel Knowles author with sea in background(2021)
Rachel Knowles writes faith-based Regency romance and historical non-fiction. She has been sharing her research on this blog since 2011. Rachel lives in the beautiful Georgian seaside town of Weymouth, Dorset, on the south coast of England, with her husband, Andrew, who wrote this review.

Find out more about Rachel's books and sign up for her newsletter here.

If you have enjoyed this blog and want to encourage us and help us to keep making our research freely available, please buy us a virtual cup of coffee by clicking the button below.