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Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
Habsburg lands divided
Thirty Years' War
Austria and the Turks
18th century
Wars against France
     Encircling a pariah
     Republican victories
     Strategies against Austria
     The Italian campaign
     Napoleon against Austria
     The European board game
     Napoleon against Russia and Austria
     Austria's expensive adventure
     Napoleon's Austrian marriage
     Metternich the diplomat

1875 - 1918
To be completed

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Encircling a pariah: 1792

In the first year or two of the French Revolution the other European powers observe from a distance what is clearly, however dramatic, an internal upheaval. Moreover the three leading continental powers, Prussia, Austria and Russia, are concentrating their energies elsewhere, to ensure their due share in the coming partitions of Poland.

But during 1791 the situation changes. The danger to the French king and queen is painfully evident after their interception at Varennes, and the queen, Marie Antoinette, is the sister of the Austrian emperor Leopold II. Moreover action against France is now being urged by a new group outside French borders - the émigrés.


Émigré is merely the French for emigrant, but in the context of France at this time it has an added implication. Applying specifically to aristocrats and to other victims of the revolution (such as the Non-juring priests), it has a different significance in its French form.

Eventually more than half the officers of the pre-revolutionary French army leave the country, and many of them join the émigré groups living just beyond the country's borders and waiting to march home under arms. Their chances of doing so increase after Austria and Prussia issue the declaration of Pillnitz, in August 1791, declaring a willingness to use force if necessary to protect Louis XVI.


The same two rulers issue another circular on 12 April 1792 soliciting allies for future action against France. The republican Convention in Paris responds by declaring war on Austria - the closest hostile power, as ruler of the Austrian Netherlands (modern Belgium), and vulnerable in that region because of a strong local resistance to Austrian rule.

In the event the first major development of the war is an invasion of northeast France by a joint Austrian and Prussian army in August 1792. Their declared intention of marching on Paris heightens revolutionary fervour in the capital and to a large extent prompts the September massacres.


Republican victories: 1792-1793

The allies take Verdun on September 2 and advance unopposed until confronted by a republican army at Valmy on September 20. The engagement consists of a massive exchange of cannon fire (40,000 rounds are fired, with the total casualties on both sides fewer than 500), but it is a clear victory for the French. It is followed by the withdrawal of the invading army to the other side of the Meuse.

This unexpected success is soon followed by others. A victory at Jemappes on November 6 enables the French to overrun much of the Austrian Netherlands before turning east to capture Aachen.


These French successes bring almost the whole of Europe into the war against France during 1793, in the grouping known as the First Coalition. But during the next two years, spent in inconclusive warfare in the territories occupied by the French during 1792-3, the coalition gradually falls apart.

Prussia and Russia lapse into neutrality. The French persuade the United Provinces of the Netherlands (by invasion) and Spain (by forceful diplomacy) to change sides and join them in the fight at sea against Britain.


Two strategies against Austria: 1796-1797

By 1796 the only enemies still at war with France are Britain, Austria, Sardinia and Portugal. The British navy is able to prevent any French initiative at sea. The natural avenues open to France are a drive east towards Austria north of the Alps, and a piecemeal campaign south of the mountains against the kingdom of Sardinia (meaning in this context the area round Turin) and the Austrian territories in north Italy.

Of these two strategies, the Directory in Paris puts much greater faith in the northern option.


The bulk of the available resources in 1796 are given to two armies poised on France's eastern frontier, each an amalgamation (they are known by this stage as the armies of Sambre-and-Meuse and of Rhine-and-Moselle). Together they number about 150,000 men. But their excursions eastwards across the Rhine during 1796 make little lasting headway against the Austrians.

By contrast the armies of the Alps and of Italy are weak, under-equipped and expected to achieve little. But on 2 March 1796 the command of the army of Italy is given to the 26-year-old Napoleon Bonaparte. The result is astonishing.


The Italian campaign: 1796-1797

When Napoleon joins his army in March 1796, he finds himself in command of 37,000 men who are demoralized, badly fed and unpaid. During April he leads them in a series of rapid victories which vastly raise the soldiers' spirits and hold out the promise of rich loot under this energetic young commander.

The allies facing Napoleon are the Austrians, committed to defending their extensive territory around Milan - and the Sardinians whose realm extends from Savoy and Nice west of the Alps to Piedmont, with its capital at Turin, on the Italian side. (They are called Sardinians because the duke of Savoy is also the king of Sardinia, a senior title.)


Napoleon's strategy is to divide and to surprise his enemies. Instead of taking the obvious route along the coast, he leads his army through Alpine passes to catch the Austrians unaware at Montenotte on April 12. It is the first of a rush of victories against Austrians and Sardinians separately. The allies are successfully prevented from joining forces against their fast-moving opponent.

At the end of the month Napoleon issues a proclamation to his men, using a certain degree of hyperbole to trumpet their achievements: 'Soldiers! In fifteen days you have gained six victories, taken twenty-one colours and fifty-five pieces of artillery, seized several fortresses and conquered the richest parts of Piedmont.'


By April 28, in the armistice of Cherasco, the king of Sardinia is ready to make peace with France and to cede his territories of Savoy and Nice - both in practice already occupied, since 1792, by French republican forces.

Napoleon's conquest of Piedmont is repeated, in similar piecemeal fashion, in other regions of Italy. He defeats the Austrians at Lodi on April 10 and enters Milan five days later. Subsequent campaigns lead rapidly to armistices with the dukes of Parma (May 9) and Modena (May 17) and with the pope, Pius VI, on June 23. Ancient and enfeebled Venice is unable to offer any opposition to the conqueror. In May 1797 Napoleon deposes the last of the doges and sets up a provisional democracy.


In all these subdued territories Napoleon has been energetically imposing the new French ways, often with the enthusiastic support of locals as impatient as the French with the remnants of feudalism. Northern and central Italy is reorganized as the Cisalpine Republic, while the territory of Genoa becomes the Ligurian Republic.

During the winter of 1796-7 there are prolonged and complicated engagements between French and Austrian forces round Mantua, but by April Napoleon is secure enough to move northwards against Vienna itself. He is just two days' march away from the city, at Leoben, when the Austrian emperor agrees an armistice.


By the terms of the peace, signed at Campo Formio in October, Austria cedes to France the Austrian Netherlands and all her territory in northern Italy. In return, as a sop, Napoleon gives the emperor Venice.

Napoleon's campaign in Egypt, from the summer of 1798, prompts the allies to try and recover their losses during his absence. Austria joins a Second Coalition, with Russia and others as allies. During 1799 Austria is successfully re-established in all her Italian territories. But by the end of that year Napoleon is back in Paris with much increased powers, as first consul. He turns his attention to Italy, the scene of his greatest past successes.


Napoleon against Austria: 1800-1801

Napoleon's military priority, on becoming first consul in 1799, is to reverse gains recently made by Austria during his absence on the Egyptian campaign. To give himself a freer hand he makes a tentative offer of peace to England in December 1799, but it is firmly rejected.

As in 1796, the Austrians could be attacked by French armies either north of the Alps in Germany or south of them in Italy. No doubt remembering his own triumphs in that year, Napoleon selects Italy. He hopes to surprise the enemy by bringing his army south through the Great St Bernard pass in May 1800 before the snows have cleared. He himself slithers through the pass on a mule, but this does not deter the painter Jacques-Louis David from depicting him on a magnificent rearing stallion among the snowy peaks.


When the crucial encounter with the Austrians occurs, at Marengo on June 14, it is very nearly a disaster for Napoleon. By mid-afternoon it seems that the Austrians have won the day. But a brave French counter-attack reverses the situation.

Victory at Marengo is followed by an armistice and a truce - which Napoleon breaches in November, when he sends a French army north of the Alps against Vienna. Another French victory, at Hohenlinden in December, prompts the Austrian emperor to sign a treaty at Lunéville in February 1801. It goes even beyond the terms of Campo Formio. France keeps the Rhineland. Austria recognizes the four French sister republics.


The European board game: 1805-1809

Continental Europe returns to war when Britain persuades Russia, Sweden and Austria to join her in 1805 in a Third Coalition against France. During the next four years Austria drops out at the end of 1805; Prussia joins in on Britain's side in 1806; Prussia and Russia change sides in 1807; Austria re-enters the fray in 1808 against Britain and in 1809 against France.

This chaotic shifting of alliances reflects an important reality of continental Europe at this time. Three major powers (France, Russia, Austria) surround a central area comprising many smaller states (in Germany and Italy) among which, with Napoleon vigorously shaking the dice, almost everything is up for the taking.


The faded fragments and tatters of the Middle Ages form a patchwork of imperial cities and small territories ruled by bishops, counts and knights. They are easy prey for their powerful neighbours. As in a board game, they can be distributed at will among the major players.

Even quite significant rulers can be pushed around. An example is Ferdinand III, grand duke of Tuscany. In 1801 France and Austria agree that Tuscany shall become the kingdom of Etruria with a new ruler. In compensation Ferdinand is given Salzburg, previously belonging to an archbishop. In 1805 he is forced to exchange this for the ex-bishopric of Würzburg. By 1814, with the fall of Napoleon, he is back in Tuscany.


This is just one example of the upheavals occurring all over central Europe at this time, as Napoleon rearranges the map after each stage of his victorious progress. His opponents fail to achieve a convincing alliance against him because they are primarily interested in preserving their own territories and in acquiring any others which may become available.

With the exception of Britain, implacably opposed to France as a world-wide competitor, Napoleon's other opponents enter or drop out of the fray on anhoc basis of self-interest.


Napoleon against Russia and Austria: 1805

When Russia and Austria declare war on Napoleon in 1805 (in the Third Coalition), he is able to find allies in Germany who are eager to see Austria's power reduced. Prussia remains neutral, but Bavaria and two other territories in southwest Germany come in on France's side. Their region sees the first encounter in this new phase of the war. Moving fast along the Danube, Napoleon gets between the Austrians and their approaching Russian allies. In October 1805 he surrounds the Austrians at Ulm. More than 50,000 troops are captured with minimal French losses.

The French reach Vienna on November 12 and enter the city unopposed. They quickly move on, pursuing a joint Russian and Austrian army into Moravia.


The eventual encounter takes place on December 2 at Austerlitz. The allied army, under the command of the Russian general Kutuzov, outnumbers the French by a wide margin (90,000 men to 68,000). In spite of this, the day goes decisively to the French.

The victory ends any immediate threat to Napoleon from the Third Coalition. The Russians limp back home after agreeing a truce. The Austrian emperor, Francis I, signs a peace treaty with Napoleon at Pressburg on December 26. He cedes to Napoleon the entire northern coast of the Adriatic, consisting of the provinces of Venetia (meaning Venice and its surrounding region), Istria and Dalmatia.


At Pressburg Francis I is also forced to recognize a new status for Napoleon's three German allies in the recent campaign, Bavaria, Baden and Württemberg. Their rulers receive marked increases in status (as kings now of Bavaria and Württemberg, and grand duke of Baden), but the improvement is more nominal than real.

A few months later, in July 1806, Napoleon merges the two new kingdoms and the grand duchy, together with several smaller principalities, into a single Confederation of the Rhine - a vassal state under the protection of France.


At a stroke this ends the medieval feudal allegiance of most of the territories within the Holy Roman empire. Francis responds by taking what can be seen as a logical step. A month after the Confederation of the Rhine, in August 1806, he renounces his title as Holy Roman emperor (of which he has been Francis II) and becomes plain Francis I, emperor of Austria.

By this action, widely accepted as ending the medieval institution, he prevents Napoleon from becoming Holy Roman emperor in his place (though Napoleon now controls more of the empire than anyone has done for centuries). Francis has had this spoiling action in mind for some time. He declared himself emperor of Austria in 1804, on the news of Napoleon's plan to assume imperial rank in France.


Austria's expensive adventure: 1809

During the last two months of 1808 Napoleon takes personal charge of the campaign in the Peninsular War. His absence in Spain, with large numbers of French troops, prompts the Austrians to re-assert themselves. As many as three archdukes (brothers of the emperor Francis) prepare to take the field with armies pressing south into Italy, north towards Warsaw and west into southern Germany.

The largest force, under archduke Charles (by far the most distinguished soldier in the imperial family), moves west along the Danube and enters Bavaria in April 1809. By then Napoleon has hurried back from Spain to meet this greater threat.


As so often in the past, Napoleon is able to prevent his enemies from making the most of their advantages. Engagements at Abensberg and Eckmühl on April 19-23 leave the Austrians in retreat. By May 13 Napoleon is once more at the gates of Vienna, which are opened to him when he threatens bombardment.

However the archduke Charles is nearby with a large army. The result is a hard-fought battle on May 21-22 around the towns of Aspern and Essling, on the bank of the Danube a few miles from Vienna. Neither side gains a clear advantage. But with Napoleon's invincible reputation, this engagement is seen in Europe as his first serious personal defeat in battle.


Six weeks later the same commanders meet each other again on a plain near the village of Wagram to the northeast of Vienna. The fighting on July 5-6 is extremely heavy, with some 74,000 casualties between the two sides, but this time the day is clearly Napoleon's. The Austrians immediately ask for an armistice.

When the treaty of Schönbrunn (or Vienna) is signed in October 1809, the terms are once again disastrous for Austria. The emperor Francis surrenders further slices of territory - to Bavaria, to the grand duchy of Warsaw, to Russia and to France - losing in the process some 3,500,000 subjects and all his remaining coastline. It will be small consolation that he is about to acquire a son-in-law.


Husband and father: 1810-1811

As the first emperor in a hereditary dynasty, it is profoundly irksome to Napoleon that he and Josephine have no child - leaving him only with the choice of a brother as his heir. There are now three emperors in Europe. If Napoleon is to divorce Josephine, it seems to him appropriate that his new bride should come from the narrow class to which he has successfully aspired. He has his eye on Anna, the 15-year-old sister of tsar Alexander I.

The matter is given a new urgency in September 1809, when Napoleon is living in the palace of Schönbrunn after his defeat of Austria. His Polish mistress Marie Walewska tells him she is pregnant.


With proof now that the lack of a child is not his fault, Napoleon moves fast. In November, back in Paris, he tells Josephine that he is going to have their marriage annulled. He has already sent an ambassador to ask the Russian emperor for his sister's hand. When a diplomatic refusal is returned (the family consider her too young for marriage), Napoleon immediately delivers a virtual ultimatum to the Austrian embassy in Paris, demanding the hand of the emperor's 19-year-old daughter Marie Louise.

The Austrian emperor, Francis I, considers this to be a prudent step. In the circumstances so does Metternich, his newly appointed minister for foreign affairs. Marie Louise is persuaded to do her duty.


Within a minimum space of time she has done so doubly. The marriage takes place in Paris in April 1810; in March 1811 Marie Louise gives birth to a son. As if to create a link with the recently extinct Holy Roman empire, Napoleon gives the child a resounding title - the king of Rome.

Austria, defeated in battle and allied to France by an imperial marriage, is ill-placed now to play any major role in Europe's opposition to the conqueror. But a more diplomatic approach to the affairs of the continent happens also to be the natural style of Metternich.


Metternich the diplomat: 1809-1815

Clemens von Metternich, a count by birth but promoted to the rank of prince in 1813, becomes foreign minister just nine days before Austria has to sign the humiliating treaty of Schönbrunn in 1809.

It is Austria's lowest ebb, but Metternich - passionately committed to securing a balance of power in Europe by diplomatic means - is the perfect man to recover the situation. It may be he who suggests the Austrian marriage (when Napoleon is in Schönbrunn) as a first stage in a quiet campaign of prudent alliances. Typically, when Napoleon insists that an Austrian contingent joins the invasion of Russia in 1812, Metternich agrees but instructs the Austrian field marshal, Schwarzenberg, not to try too hard.


During the summer of 1813 Metternich offers himself as a mediator between Russia and Prussia on one side and Napoleon on the other. But Napoleon's intransigence, evident in a famously stormy personal encounter between himself and Metternich in Dresden, persuades Austria to re-enter the war against France in August. Schwarzenberg leads the Austrian army in the decisive Battle of the Nations in October 1813, and in the advance of the allies on Paris the following spring.

It is the ultimate triumph of Metternich the diplomat that the great congress of the nations, convened to settle the dust after twenty years of chaos, takes place in Vienna. He is in his element playing host to the most powerful men in Europe.


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