• Napoleon was a French military and political leader who rose to prominence during the latter stages of the French Revolution and its associated wars in Europe.
  • As Napoleon I, he was Emperor of the French from 1804 to 1815. His legal reform, the Napoleonic Code, has been a major influence on many civil law jurisdictions worldwide, but he is best remembered for his role in the wars led against France by a series of coalitions, the so- called Napoleonic Wars.
  • He established hegemony over most of continental Europe and sought to spread the ideals of the French Revolution, while consolidating an imperial monarchy which restored aspects of the deposed Ancient Regime. 
  • Due to his success in these wars, often against numerically superior enemies, he is generally regarded as one of the greatest military commanders of all time, and his campaigns are studied at military academies worldwide.

The Rise of Napoleon

The Directory 1795–1799:

  • The Directory became the new government of France after the Convention created a new constitution establishing a bicameral parliament.
  • This government included an upper house, called the Council of Ancients, and a lower house, called the Council of Five Hundred.
  • The Directory sought to relax the austerity and radicalism of the Committee of Public Safety by suppressing the extremes of the Jacobin and royalist forces within France.
  • Despite desire for change and stability, the Directory was beset with economic and civil problems, giving rise to high inflation and increased spending. Support for the new government weakened as it began to alienate key sectors of French society with its obvious corruption and quest for control of conflicting factions.

The Rise of Napoleon:

  • In 1799 Napoleon Bonaparte returned from the Egyptian Campaign. Successful in suppressing uprisings against the government and victorious in his Italian campaigns, Bonaparte was known as an excellent strategist who had gained the respect of his men through bravery and courage under fire, meticulous planning and an unconventional approach to warfare.
  • Despite defeats in Egypt, Napoleon returned to a hero’s reception. Out manoeuvring the government and supported by his army he collaborated in a coup d’état to overthrow the Directory and establish the Consulate.
  • By 1800 Napoleon had become the First Consul of France, and was now in a position of total power.

The Napoleonic Wars 

  • The Napoleonic Wars were a series of conflicts fought between France under the leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte and a number of European nations between 1799 and 1815.
  • They followed on from the War of the First Coalition (1793-97) and engaged nearly all European nations in a bloody struggle, a struggle that also spilled over into Egypt, America and South America. During the Wars (for during this period the fighting was not constant) warfare was to change and move towards modern warfare leaving behind forever the idea of war as a sport of kings and moving towards the concept of Total War and the nations in arms. 
  • Weaponry also evolved though at a much slower rate than the ideas of the nation at arms and conscription. By the end of the period most European armies had riflemen and the British made the first large scale use of Congreve Rockets in a European war.
  • The period starting with bright uniforms but by the end of the period dark blue or green uniforms had become common for skirmishers, the beginnings of military camouflage.
  • The period also saw the British Army under the leadership of the Duke of Wellington become renowned as the best in Europe.
  • The first campaign of the Napoleonic wars was the War of the second Coalition – with Bonaparte absent in Egypt fighting the British a new coalition formed against the French in 1798. This consisted of Russia, Great Britain, Austria, Portugal, The Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of Naples. 
  • The fighting took place mainly in Northern Italy and Switzerland, with the Russians under General Aleksandr Suvorov being successful at first undoing the damage done by Napoleon’s victories in Italy.
  • The French defeated the Russians who pulled out of the coalition. Bonaparte offered peace but the coalition refused and in 1800 he crossed the Alps and defeated the Austrians at the battle of Marengo 1800.
  • Other French victories followed and soon only Britain remained to stand against the French. 
  • After a failed attack in Holland, Britain made peace (1802). This was not to last long.
  • In 1805 the War of the Third Coalition broke out, with Britain joined by Russia, Austria and Sweden. Napoleon defeated the Austrians at Ulm (1805) and finally at Austerlitz in 1805 (known as the battle of the three Emperors).
  • Once again the coalition reformed this time with Prussia but without Austria in 1806. Napoleon quickly moved against the Prussians and crushed them at the battle of Jena in 1806.
  • By 1808 Napoleon was master of all Europe but he was now to begin a series of mistakes that would lead to his defeat. Dethroning King Charles IV of Spain he made his brother Joseph Bonaparte King, causing a revolt and what was to be known as a Guerrilla war in Spain.
  • During the Peninsular war (1808-1813) the Spanish Guerillas aided by British troops under Wellington and Portuguese allies drove the French out and eventually invaded southern France.
  • A fifth Coalition formed but the Austrians were defeated at the battle of Aspern and Wagram in 1809.
  • With large numbers of his troops tied down in Spain, Napoleon decide to invade Russia in 1812 with an Army of 500,000 men and although he defeated the Russians at the battle of Borodino in 1812 and took Moscow he was forced to retreat due to weather, costing him most of his army and marking the beginning of the end. Surrounded by enemies on all sides with his best troops dead Napoleon was forced to abdicate in 1814.
  • As the members of the Fifth coalition decided the fate of Europe, Napoleon staged a daring return to power and tried to reverse the outcome of the war at the battle of Waterloo (18 June 1815).
  • Waterloo was a bloody battle which saw his remaining elite guard destroyed and Napoleon exiled to St Helena from where he was never to return, marking the end of the Napoleonic wars.

The Continental System or Continental Blockade

  • It was the foreign policy of Napoleon I of France in his struggle against the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland during the Napoleonic Wars.
  • As a response to the naval blockade of the French coasts enacted by the British government on the 16 May 1806, Napoleon issued the Berlin Decree on the 21 November 1806, which brought into effect a large-scale embargo against British trade. 
  • This embargo ended on April 11, 1814 after Napoleon’s first abdication.


  • The United Kingdom was an important force in encouraging and financing alliances against Napoleonic France.
  • In addition, the British government enacted a naval blockade of the French and French-allied coasts, on the 16 May 1806.
  • Napoleon didn’t have the resources to attempt an invasion of the United Kingdom or to decisively defeat the Royal Navy at sea. Napoleon resorted instead to economic warfare.
  • As a result of the Industrial Revolution, Great Britain was emerging as Europe’s manufacturing and industrial centre, and Napoleon believed it would be easy to take advantage of an embargo on trade with the European nations under his control, causing inflation and great debt. 


  • In November 1806, having recently conquered or allied with every major power on the European continent, Napoleon issued the Berlin Decree forbidding his allies and conquests from trading with the British.
  • The UK responded with the Orders in Council of 1807 issued 11 November 1807. These forbade French trade with the UK, its allies or neutrals, and instructed the Royal Navy to blockade French and allied ports.
  • Napoleon retaliated with the Milan Decree of 1807, which declared that all neutral shipping using British ports or paying British tariffs were to be regarded as British and seized.
  • Napoleon’s plan to defeat Britain was to destroy its ability to trade. As an island nation, trade was the most vital lifeline. 
  • Napoleon believed that if he could isolate Britain economically, he would be able to invade the nation after the economic collapse. 
  • Napoleon decreed that all commerce ships wishing to do business in Europe must first stop at a French port in order to ensure that there could be no trade with Britain. 
  • He also ordered all European nations and French allies to stop trading with Britain, and he threatened Russia with an invasion if they did not comply as well. 

Effects of the System:

  • The System had a significant effect on British trade, with British exports falling 25% to 55% compared to pre-1806 levels.
  • Belgium and Switzerland benefited the most – particularly the industrialized north and east of France, and south of Belgium, which saw significantly increased profits due to the lack of competition from British goods.
  • Southern France, especially the port cities of Marseille, Bordeaux and La Rochelle suffered from the reduction in trade. Moreover, the prices of staple foods rose for most of continental Europe.
  • The Dutch economy suffered greatly by the strong reduction of the overseas trading, even though the king Louis Napoleon, brother of emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, only half-heartily supported the blockade.
  • The embargo encouraged British merchants to seek out new markets aggressively and to engage in smuggling with continental Europe. Napoleon’s exclusively land-based customs enforcers could not stop British smugglers, especially as these operated with the connivance of Napoleon’s chosen rulers of Spain, Westphalia and other German states.
  • Britain, by Orders in Council (1807), prohibited its trade partners from trading with France. The British were able to counter the plan by threatening to sink any ship that did not come to a British port or chose to comply with France. This double threat created a difficult time for neutral nations like the United States of America. In response to this prohibition, compounded by the Chesapeake Incident, the U.S. Congress passed the Embargo Act of 1807 and eventually Macon’s Bill No. 2. This embargo contributed to the general ill will between the two countries (Britain and the U.S.), and together with the issue of the impressments of foreign seamen, eventually led to armed conflict between the U.S. and the UK in the War of 1812.
  • The embargo also had an effect on France itself. Ship building and its trades such as rope-making declined, as did many other industries that relied on overseas markets, e.g. the linen industries. With few exports and a loss of profits, many industries were closed down. 
  • Portugal openly refused to join the Continental System. In 1793, after the French declaration of war against the United Kingdom, Portugal signed with the UK a treaty of mutual help.
  • After the Treaty of Tilsit of July 1807, Napoleon attempted to capture the Portuguese Fleet and the House of Braganza, and to occupy the Portuguese ports.
  • He failed. King John VI of Portugal took his fleet and transferred the Portuguese Court to Brazil with a Royal Navy escort.
  • The Portuguese population rose in revolt against the French invaders, the British Army under Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington intervened, and the Peninsular War began in 1808. Napoleon also forced the Spanish royal family to resign their throne in favor of Napoleon’s brother, Joseph.
  • Sweden, Britain’s ally in the Third Coalition, refused to comply with French demands and was invaded by Russia in February 1808.
  • Also, Russia chafed under the embargo, and in 1810 reopened trade with the UK. Russia’s withdrawal from the system was the main incentive for Napoleon to force a decision to invade in 1812, which was the turning point of the war. 

Leave a Reply