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Coalition Diplomacy in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars: A Great Leap Forward?

Commentary, 15 March 2010
History
Coalition warfare was an inherent feature of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. While national histories tend to overlook this aspect, coalition diplomacy formed a crucial part of Britain’s war experience and the most important factor in the eventual victory at Waterloo.

Coalition warfare was an inherent feature of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. While national histories tend to overlook this aspect, coalition diplomacy formed a crucial part of Britain's war experience and the most important factor in the eventual victory at Waterloo. In the interests of collective security the period witnessed the development of key organisations essential for the prosecution of allied warfare - organisations that are entirely recognisable in today's multi-national security deployments.

Wellington and Blucher Anglo-Prussian Alliance 1815

By Professor Charles J Esdaile, for RUSI.org

On 18 June 1815 the British army fought the greatest single one-day battle in its entire history. Known in Britain as the Battle of Waterloo, this was truly an epic affair that had by nightfall inflicted losses that, in percentage terms, approximated to those suffered on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.  At the same time, the battle brought to an end the career of the towering figure of Napoleon Bonaparte. In Britain, then, it was only natural that throughout the nineteenth century and well beyond that Waterloo should have been remembered as the very stuff of heroism: the moment when Britain had definitively saved Europe from French tyranny and in effect put paid to all future attempts to resurrect it. And, of course, it was above all a British battle - the handiwork of a great British general, the Duke of Wellington. Faithfully supported by the serried ranks of  redcoats, men who were in turn honoured by the issue of the British army's first ever general campaign medal and celebrated by all and sundry as the heroes of the hour.

Not to detract from the well-deserved reputation of the men who fought so hard to defend the ridge of Mont Saint Jean, however, they did not stand alone. The kernel of Wellington's army, certainly, was his 23,000 British troops, but alongside them were ranged no fewer than 44,000 Belgians, Dutch and Germans, many of whom fought just as bravely as any of their British fellows. Not only that, but had not Blucher's Prussians cast off the effects of their mauling at Ligny on 16 June, and hastened to Wellington's assistance two days later, then Waterloo might well have been a French victory. Although the most apposite name for the battle might therefore seem to be 'La Belle Alliance' - the inn where Wellington and Blucher met as Napoleon's army fled the field in panic - this substantial foreign presence is all but invisible in British accounts. Study the paintings of Lady Butler and Caton Woodville, for example, and not one blue-coated Dutchman or black-coated Brunswicker will be found to be in evidence.

The Age of Coalition Warfare

The seemingly forgotten contribution of the Belgian, Dutch and German soldiers is evidence that coalitions have a sad habit of withering with age. Thus, eager to commemorate the doings of their own countries, those historians whose first concern is narrative military history have been inclined to put forward a view of the past that is distinctly one-sided. However, whilst this is understandable, to do so in respect of Waterloo is particularly unfortunate, not just because of the grave historical injustice that this represents, but also because the battle was the culminating moment in what ought to be remembered as the age of coalition warfare par excellence. At Waterloo there triumphed the last of no fewer than seven coalitions that from 1792 onwards had been put together to constrain French ambition (it should be noted here that only in 1815 was 'régime change' formally a part of the war aims of France's opponents).  While throughout the eighteenth century war had almost invariably been waged in the context of a variety of alliances. Thus, the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714), the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48) and the Seven Years War (1756-1763) were all affairs involving various combinations of the great and small states of Europe alike.

Incumbent on all historians who wish to study the age of 'horse and musket' is an approach that transcends the concerns of national histories. However, this is particularly true of those who wish to look at the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. In the American War of Independence of 1776-83, Britain had learned a very painful and costly lesson. Unlike any other conflict in the eighteenth century, Britain found herself isolated in the face of a powerful coalition, and, not only that, but one whose members - France, Holland and Spain - represented a particularly dangerous combination. The result was a most painful and damaging defeat. The statesmen who headed Britain's war effort in the period 1793-1815 were, with few exceptions, well aware that the British army was too small to take on France on its own. Their war aims - essentially the containment of Revolutionary France within the frontiers of 1789 - could only be achieved in the context of a broad alliance of the great powers.

This did not mean that British diplomacy was at all times focused on the formation of such a coalition. Short-term concerns lead Britain from time to time to engage in actions that threatened such a goal. Between 1807 and 1812, successive British governments abjured any move in this direction for fear that it would merely hand fresh triumphs to Napoleon. However, the basic idea was never lost sight of, even under the so-called Ministry of All the Talents (1806-07), the administration that was least enthusiastic in the pursuit of such a policy; who judged a coalition to be impossible to secure, and Britain therefore had no option but to look to her security through other means, including, most notably, a compromise peace with France.

Searching for the British contribution: The Peninsular War

Such a compromise peace, however, was not forthcoming, and so the Talents' successors had no option but to continue the war. Yet as far as achieving a general alliance against France was concerned, they faced a major problem. For Britain to be a credible partner in a war, such as the one Austria, Russia and Prussia would have to fight in the period succeeding the great French victories of 1805-1807, she would have to show that her war effort would not be restricted to chasing France's navy from the seas, blockading the coasts of Europe and 'filching sugar islands'.

However, that was precisely what Britain's war effort consisted of at the beginning of 1808, due to the inability of the British army to find any theatre on the Continent in which it could operate with any security, a theme which Napoleon's highly sophisticated propaganda machine never ceased to exploit. Hence the importance of the uprisings that convulsed Spain and Portugal in the early summer of 1808. The very special strategic circumstances which these offered opened the way for a British army to be stationed permanently upon the European landmass and engage in a series of victorious campaigns that were marked by a series of victories over against the French armies.

However,  an alliance with Spain and Portugal was never going to be sufficient to enable Britain to obtain her war aims on its own, and , while, viewed from the outside, until 1812 Napoleon still seemed likely to triumph in the Peninsula. Yet the fact that British troops were taking an active part in the war was of great importance to the coherence of the coalition. But this in turn forces us once again to acknowledge the vital role played by coalitions in the British war effort. If British troops were able to operate continuously in Spain and Portugal, it was because those states continued to fight Napoleon without cease, and, indeed, to play a central role in the struggle. From 1810 onwards, roughly one-third of Wellington's Peninsular army was made up of Portuguese troops, whilst the Spaniards contrived at any given time to tie down between two-thirds and three-quarters of the French forces fighting south of the Pyrenees. Nevertheless, the alliance with Spain in particular was an extremely difficult one, demonstrating the extent to which vital national interests - in this case the security of the British army - can be traded off against the need to keep a vital military partner in the war.

Napoleon's missed opportunities

If only with great difficulty did the British keep the war in the Peninsula going, but it was not this struggle that produced the great coalition that brought about Napoleon's downfall. In brief, this was the work of Napoleon himself. As successive British governments had hoped he someday would, Napoleon over-reached by invading Russia in 1812 and became involved in an unimaginable disaster.

Yet defeat in Russia need not have been the end of the story. Though he may have retreated from Russia with terrible losses, Napoleon still possessed the vast resources of his empire, and, more importantly, military alliances with Austria and Prussia. At this point, we see the importance of coalition diplomacy in another sense. In control of the bulk of the European continent, the French ruler had the power to forge a great coalition himself, and, what is more, he had far more possibility of doing so than Britain. With hatred, suspicion and resentment of the British widespread, it should not have been impossible to establish a trans-continental alliance aimed at curbing Britain's control of the seas and protecting the interests of European industry. Fortunately for Britain, to have achieved this would have required a very different statesman to Napoleon. Concerned with the need to assert his own supremacy and bend all others to his will, the emperor had ruled Europe with a rod of iron rather than the hand of friendship. This turned first Prussia and then Austria against him, thereby leaving France alone to confront the impossible odds that finally brought Napoleon down in 1815.

Collective security and the emergence of common war aims

The Sixth Coalition, forged between 1812 and 1814, was in many respects a fragile alliance marked by such mutual jealousy and suspicion that a more judicious choice of action on the part of Napoleon might have split it asunder and left him on the throne of France. Yet, despite these problems, in the space of a few short months in the autumn of 1813 great steps  forward were taken in the conduct of coalition diplomacy including the establishment of a de facto Allied war council, the negotiation of a set of minimum war aims, the elaboration of a common strategy and the appointment of a single commander-in-chief of all the armies operating in the central European theatre (a role which Wellington had already fulfilled on the Spanish front).

It is hard not to conclude that the success of the grand alliance in coalition-building was due to their new common objective of collective security. The wars of the eighteenth century had ultimately been about the interests of Europe's ruling dynasties - the acquisition of a province here or the control of a throne there - and therefore even coalitions had had an intense degree of rivalry built into them. In general, territorial gains for one partner would invariably also mean 'compensation' for the others. In 1814, however, what was at stake was something very different, Napoleon threatened a set of security-interests of equal concern for every state on the continent. Whilst dynastic interests were certainly not abandoned, for the first time, the notion of collective security had entered the world of European diplomacy. This being a development that, however imperfectly achieved, was a truly great leap forward, and therefore Waterloo should be remembered neither as a British nor a Prussian victory, but rather as the product of a coalition.

 

 Professor Charles J. Esdaile is Professor in History (Napoleonic Europe, Modern Spain) at the University of Liverpool

 The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI

 

 

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