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  More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)

More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)
French Revolutionary Wars

Conflict between France and, at different times, virtually every other European power. The French revolutionary creed, adopted from 1789 and held with a crusading zeal, was combined with more traditional expansionist tendencies – giving France's royalist enemies double cause for alarm. Austria and Prussia attacked in 1792; by mid-1793 all Europe except Switzerland and the Scandinavian countries had joined in. Britain contributed no more than a few thousand men (under the ineffective duke of *York) to the campaigns on land, which were marked by many successes for the large French armies – the first in history raised by national conscription. Separate countries were in succession either occupied by the French or were forced to make peace. By the end of 1797 Britain and France were the only two powers still at war.

France was a long-standing rival of Britain for control of the sea, and Britain had concentrated her war effort on naval strategy. But at the start of 1797 the country faced an unusual threat; Spain and the Netherlands were now allied with France, so that the navies of three maritime powers were ranged in a hostile alliance. The situation was eased by British victories over the Spanish fleet off *Cape St Vincent in February, and over the Dutch at Camperdown in October.

By now there was a dominant new figure in France – *Napoleon Bonaparte, a young general who had conducted a brilliant campaign in Italy against the Austrians, leading to a treaty in October 1797 which brought peace to the Continent for the first time since 1792. Late in 1797 he took command of an army poised to invade Britain, but he concluded that this was impractical until the French had control of the sea. He decided instead to invade Egypt, in an attempt to spoil Britain's trade in the Middle East and even perhaps pose a threat to India. The resulting campaign brought Britain her greatest victory of the war, that of Nelson in 1798 at the *Nile.

Internal upheavals in France resulted in Napoleon becoming first consul in 1799. He was in effect dictator, and historians have often taken this as the end of the French Revolutionary Wars. But there is a more natural break with the short-lived peace of Amiens in 1802. In 1799 Austria, Russia and Turkey had re-entered the war against France, but they were soon forced by French successes to come to terms. By early 1801 the struggle was once more between Britain and France. Again the danger of a concerted naval invasion was frustrated, this time by Nelson's action at *Copenhagen.

Both sides were now weary of war (the expense of which had led to the introduction of *income tax in Britain) and a treaty was signed at Amiens in March 1802. But the underlying tensions had not been resolved. The peace was much enjoyed by British tourists, able to cross the Channel for the first time in almost ten years, but Napoleon continued to give unmistakable signs of his wider imperial ambitions. In May 1803 the British declared war again, starting another 12 years of conflict – the *Napoleonic Wars.

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