The French Revolution and Napoleon

What happened in France between the Revolution of 1789 and the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815 was of far greater political than military significance. The Revolution began in 1789 as a class war. Within a few years the monarchy had been destroyed and class distinctions had been erased. Each person became a citizen of the reconstructed nation.

The import of what had happened in France was not lost upon the other monarchies of Europe. They saw this social upheaval as a threat to their very existence. The French were in part responsible because they wanted to spread their revolution to the rest of Europe. In response, Prussia and Austria formed a coalition to defeat the revolution and restore the monarchy.

With the monarchy gone, the immediate reaction of the French was to identify defense of the revolution with defense of the nation. For the first time in history, all the loyalties and aspirations of a people were bound up with the fate of their country. Modern patriotism was born: a nation would go to arms to defend itself. A new relationship had been forged between a state and its army, a relationship that has played a vital role in most nations of the 19th and 20th centuries.

France's call to arms in 1793 brought forth more than one million men, the first army of such size in modern times. The revolutionary government decreed that every citizen--young or old, man or woman--was to work for victory against the Austrian-Prussian coalition by making ammunition, providing and moving supplies, and nursing the wounded. War was no longer left to the professionals; the day of the citizen soldier had arrived. To raise its armies, the French used conscription, a practice that soon was to spread to the rest of Europe.

Napoleon was the general who welded the French armies into a combat force that defeated the other armies of Europe for 20 years, from 1795 to 1815. His division contained infantry, artillery, and cavalry. He assembled two or three divisions into a corps to make larger units for battle.

Napoleon had two main strategies: he sought out terrain most favorable to his armies to fight on, and he used artillery and masses of men to breach the enemy's weakest point and disrupt its battle plans. His methods were normally direct and simple: use a fast-moving army to breach the enemy lines, then outmaneuver and outflank them. Napoleon was finally defeated at Waterloo, Belgium, because the armies of the Prussians and the English had learned to use some of his own tactics and employed them against him.

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