The Story of the Napoleonic Wars

The Story of the Napoleonic Wars

This new special edition from BBC History Magazine explores the dramatic clashes and campaigns fought across Europe at the turn of the 19th century. Discover: - How Napoleon seized power in Revolutionary France - The chain of events leading to the Duke of Wellington's famous victory at Waterloo - Why the Peninsular War proved so costly for the French - How Lord Nelson masterminded Britain's naval triumph at the battle of Trafalgar - The impact of the Napoleonic Wars across the globe – from India to Latin America

United Kingdom
Immediate Media Company London Limited

in this issue

2 min

“By the time Napoleon fled the battlefield at Waterloo in 1815, Europe had been embroiled in near-continuous conflict for more than a decade, with only a fleeting period of peace separating the hostilities from the French Revolutionary Wars of 1792–1802. The Napoleonic Wars and their bloody prelude claimed the lives of millions of people across the continent – the sheer scale of devastation almost unprecedented in the history of Europe. This special edition of BBC History Magazine reveals the story behind these turbulent times, beginning by exploring the chain of events that enabled Bonaparte to ascend from minor Corsican nobility to become the leader of a mighty French empire. We’ll offer expert insight into Lord Nelson’s success at the battle of Trafalgar and the reasons Britain came to rule the seas during the…

11 min

1790 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…

11 min
napoleon’s chance

It was the French Revolution that made the rise to power of Napoleon Bonaparte possible. The Revolution of 1789 brought down the centuries-old regime of absolute monarchy and privileged nobility. In its place the revolutionaries founded a new regime based on principles of individual liberty, equal rights, and popular sovereignty. Yet the ensuing 10 years of political instability would be exploited by Bonaparte to seize power in a militarist regime which was, in some ways, more autocratic than that of Louis XVI and, in terms of the millions of casualties of the Napoleonic Wars, much more lethal. The Revolution smashed the stranglehold of hereditary privilege and venality, hitherto endemic in all parts of old regime society. Many young men profited from the ending of privilege to forge careers in the higher ranks…

10 min
napoleon is coming

Napoleon’s coronation took place in the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, on 2 December 1804. Clad from head to toe in satin and diamonds, he marched up the aisle, wearing high-heeled shoes and carrying the sceptre of Charlemagne in his right hand. He was received by the Pope, who had travelled from Rome for the enthronement. In a ceremony that was partly religious but mostly secular, Napoleon Bonaparte was crowned with a diadem of gold laurel leaves designed to make him look like a Roman emperor. He placed the crown firmly on his own head at the climax of the proceedings, rather than receive it from the Catholic Church, as custom demanded. The Pope looked on with barely suppressed disapproval. Afterwards, Napoleon and his wife Joséphine emerged from Notre Dame to…

1 min
britain’s bogeyman

Bonaparte was a great bogeyman to the British, and in popular culture became the personification of all their fears. According to a nursery rhyme, Napoleon (“Buonaparté”) was as tall and black as Rouen steeple, supping every day on naughty people. Children were warned that he would come down the chimney and get them if they didn’t behave. School books were printed with a picture of “Nappy” on the cover brandishing a cat-o’-nine-tails. Cartoons depicted him as an evil dwarf or a Corsican fox. One showed a yokel displaying Bonaparte’s head on a pitchfork: “Ha! my little Boney, what dost think of Johnny Bull now? Plunder our houses, hay? Ravish all our wives and daughters, hay?” The British were adamant it must never happen.…

1 min
pitchforks at the ready

Invasion seemed imminent to the British after the resumption of the war in 1803. The tents of Napoleon’s army were clearly visible along the cliffs between Calais and Boulogne, growing more numerous by the day. The army’s lights shone threateningly at night and its guns could sometimes be heard booming across the water. More than once, people in Dover and Folkestone packed their valuables and fled inland, convinced that the activity on the opposite shore heralded the beginning of the invasion. The country was woefully ill-prepared for an attack. The navy was short of ships and the army thinly spread along an invasion coastline stretching from Yarmouth to Land’s End. Thousands of civilians had rushed to join the Militia or the Volunteers, but there weren’t enough uniforms for them at first,…