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The French Wars: 1792-1806

Sometimes the French Wars are broken down into different parts. For example, the period 1792-1799 can be called the Revolutionary Wars; the period 1799-1815 is sometimes known as the age of the Napoleonic Wars; the whole period 1792-1815 is that of the French Wars.

In an attempt to prevent France from over-running the whole of Europe, Pitt was eager to see the establishment of coalitions. European armies could then fight France on land and allow the Royal Navy to deal with the French fleets. The aim of the various coalitions was to combine European monarchies against the French Revolutionaries (that is, the Jacobin Republic) who (like the Americans before them) were influenced by ideals - in the case of the French, liberty, equality, fraternity and democracy.

1793-1797 the First Coalition (S.H.A.P.E.S.)
1799-1801 the Second Coalition (T.E.A.R.)
1803-1807 the Third Coalition (P.E.A.R.S.)

Between 1793 and 1797 the First Coalition was established. It comprised Spain, Holland, Austria, Prussia, England and Sardinia.

James Gillray, The Promis'd Horrors of the French Invasion (1796).

The Promis'd Horrors of the French Invasion

Gillray shows St. James' Street in London. A French army marches through the city, bearing various dismembered bodies, including that of Lord Grenville on the right, and flags supporting a republic. On the left, French soldiers clear out White's Club (a pro-government social club) and begin hurling aristocrats from the balcony. They have also thrown out playing cards and part of a gambling table. Meanwhile, on the balcony of the Brookes' s club, British radicals (including an Anglican minister and some dissenters) burn Magna Carta, introduce new laws, and guillotine a variety of authority figures (including a judge as indicated by the white, flowing wig). A note beneath a plate of heads says: "Killed off for the Public Good." On the ground floor, a man walks in the main entrance bearing a sack on his head ("Remnants of the Treasury") and under his arm ("Requisitions from the Bank of England"). In the right foreground, a bundle including the Bill of Rights, various statutes, and several acts of Parliament bears a tag: "Waste Paper." In the center of the composition, William Pitt, the Prime Minister, finds himself tied to a liberty pole while Charles Fox scourges him. In the background, a church is on fire.

Source: http://www.anselm.edu/academic/history/hdubrulle/ModernBritain/text/generalinfo/gallery02.htm

By the end of 1797 Napoleon Bonaparte had made a deep impression in France: he had

1793 recaptured Toulon.
1795 saved the Convention from yet another Royalist rising
1796 defeated Piedmont and Austrian Italy with an army little better than a rabble when he got it.
1797 captured Venice. Italy was looted of art treasures for France.
1798 signed the Treaty of Campo Formio with Austria which gave Belgium to France and control of left bank of Rhine. He created the Cisalpine Republic from the northern Italian state

In May 1798 Bonaparte, he was sent to capture Egypt and in August 1798 the Battle of the Nile (or Aboukir Bay) took place.

In 1802 the Peace of Amiens was concluded between Britain and France; both countries needed a breathing space after 10 years of war and the new Prime Minister of Britain, Addington, had always wanted to find a peaceful settlement to end the wars against France. Napoleon wanted a peace treaty to secure his own position in France, where he began to undertake massive social and economic reforms, to regroup his armies following the setbacks in Egypt and to stabilise France, where a civil war had been going on since 1793.

Britain needed to regroup her forces and deal with the scarcity riots of 1801-02. Trade had increased by 60% but the National Debt had increased by 100%. Wheat and other food prices were at an all-time high; there had been a series of bad harvests and the upheaval caused by the war all led to rioting. Furthermore, the second Coalition had collapsed, isolating Britain which needed time to prepare for the next round of fighting.

Pitt had resigned in March 1801 over the principle of the Irish Act of Union which became effective from 1 January 1801. Pitt had promised that if the Dublin parliament voted itself out of existence, he would pass an Act for Catholic Emancipation. The king refused to countenance such a piece of legislation so Pitt resigned on principle because he was unable to keep his promise. Addington formed a ministry from 1801 until May 1804, leading a weak government on a platform of peace and retrenchment. He promptly cut the army and navy estimates and reduced manpower in both services. (NB Addington became Lord Sidmouth).

Despite Addington's best intentions, Amiens was only a truce. Sheridan, the playwright and MP said that the Peace of Amiens was a 'peace which all men are glad of, but no man could be proud of'. Napoleon was ambitious for a French empire in Europe, and as a military dictator he needed continuing success for continued power. Britain could not afford a military dictatorship in France, and from 1802, Addington tried to limit French power in Europe. The Peace established two main things

1802 was the end of the revolutionary period, when Britain was fighting an idea, and marks the start of a period when European nationalism began to fight the French military machine: this was total role reversal.

The demands for reform in Britain almost came to an end and patriotic feeling to crush the dictatorship in France grew. In 1803, a third coalition was formed in another attempt to defeat the French.

On 23 January 1806 Pit died, aged 46. His death was accelerated, if not caused, by Europe's failures. He was ill and exhausted. It has been said that 'Austerlitz. killed Pitt'. Also in 1806 Prussia was defeated at Battle of Jena and in 1807 Russia was defeated at Battle of Friedland. Czar Alexander made peace at Tilsit. Neither Alexander nor Napoleon intended the treaty to be signed on land that he owned so both emperors sat on a raft in middle of River Niemen which marked their territorial boundaries.

Comment on Pitt's War Policy

Pitt made no appeal to the principle of nationalism which was developing in Europe because of the teachings of the French Revolution: liberty, equality, fraternity and because of the realities of the French occupation. These feelings of nationalism eventually led to Napoleon's downfall. This first period of the French Wars saw the beginnings of European nationalism. Pitt negotiated with governments, but France negotiated with people.

Pitt followed a traditional, safe, defensive policy and never committed Britain to a European defeat of France. He limited the British war effort to the navy and remained happy to subsidize European armies because he was concerned with the defence of Britain and her colonies first. Pitt believed that France in Europe was France's affair. This policy was sensible and realistic, initially. The coalitions failed because each country, including Britain, was only looking after its own interests. The allies committed armies to the field without co-operation between them: they were coalitions on paper only. Each country made separate peace treaties. When Pitt died, so did the coalitions, until Castlereagh negotiated the fourth coalition in 1813.

Reform of the British army was needed, together with a man of genius to lead it, if ever Britain was to win land battles. Pitt concentrated all his efforts on the navy. The naval phase almost ended and Napoleonic France grew stronger. Britain began to concentrate on the land campaigns in the Iberian Peninsula with Wellington and the army, following up naval successes with land victories.

The pattern of the French Wars can be identified as follows:

This total role-reversal helped to defeat Napoleon.

Pitt's life also divides. The first period was between 1783 and 1793 when he had opportunities for constructive achievement, not all of which he took. Between 1793 and 1806 he was swept along by events and had to meet situations as they occurred: Pitt had to react rather than act. The result of Pitt's death was political upheaval. He was succeeded by his cousin, Lord Grenville, in the so-called "Ministry of all the Talents".


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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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