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Portal:Napoleonic Wars

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• • • Napoleonic Wars • • •

Austerlitz

The Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815) were a series of major conflicts pitting the French Empire and its allies, led by Napoleon I, against a fluctuating array of European powers formed into various coalitions, financed and usually led by the United Kingdom. The wars stemmed from the unresolved disputes associated with the French Revolution and its resultant conflict. The wars are often categorised into five conflicts, each termed after the coalition that fought Napoleon: the Third Coalition (1805), the Fourth (1806–07), Fifth (1809), Sixth (1813), and the Seventh and final (1815).

Napoleon, upon ascending to First Consul of France in 1799, had inherited a chaotic republic; he subsequently created a state with stable finances, a strong bureaucracy, and a well-trained army. In 1805, Austria and Russia waged war against France. In response, Napoleon defeated the allied Russo-Austrian army at Austerlitz in December 1805, which is considered his greatest victory. At sea, the British severely defeated the joint Franco-Spanish navy in the Battle of Trafalgar on October 1805. This victory secured British control of the seas and prevented the invasion of Britain itself. Prussian concerns about increasing French power led to a resumption of war in October 1806. Napoleon quickly defeated the Prussians, and defeated Russia in June 1807, bringing an uneasy peace to the continent. The peace failed, though, as war broke out in 1809, and a new coalition was soon defeated.

Hoping to isolate Britain economically, Napoleon invaded Iberia, declaring his brother Joseph king of Spain in 1808. The Spanish and Portuguese revolted with British support, and, after six years of fighting, expelled the French from Iberia in 1814. Concurrently, Russia, unwilling to bear economic consequences of reduced trade, routinely violated the Continental System, enticing Napoleon to launch a massive invasion of Russia in 1812. The resulting campaign ended with the dissolution and withdrawal of the French Grande Armée. Encouraged by the defeat, Prussia, Austria, and Russia began a new campaign against France, decisively defeating Napoleon at Leipzig in October 1813 after several inconclusive engagements. The Allies then invaded France, capturing Paris at the end of March 1814 and forcing Napoleon to abdicate in early April. He was exiled to the island of Elba, and the Bourbons were restored to power. However, Napoleon escaped in February 1815, and reassumed control of France. The Allies responded with the Seventh Coalition, defeating Napoleon permanently at Waterloo in June 1815 and exiling him to St Helena, a British territory midway between Africa and Brazil, where he died six years later.

The Congress of Vienna redrew the borders of Europe, and brought a lasting peace to the continent. The wars had profound consequences on global history, including the spread of nationalism and liberalism, the rise of the British Empire as the world's foremost power, the appearance of independence movements in Latin America and subsequent collapse of the Spanish Empire, the fundamental reorganisation of German and Italian territories into larger states, and the establishment of radically new methods of conducting warfare.

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The Fall of Nelson
Painted by Denis Dighton c.1825, this artwork depicts Admiral Lord Nelson, fatally wounded on the deck of HMS Victory, during the Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805.

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Battle of Trafalgar
The Battle of Trafalgar (21 October 1805) was a sea battle fought between the British Royal Navy and the combined fleets of the French Navy and Spanish Navy, during the War of the Third Coalition (August – December 1805) of the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815).

The battle was the most decisive British naval victory of the war. Twenty-seven British ships of the line led by Admiral Lord Nelson aboard HMS Victory defeated thirty-three French and Spanish ships of the line under French Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve off the south-west coast of Spain, just west of Cape Trafalgar. The Franco-Spanish fleet lost twenty-two ships, without a single British vessel being lost.

The British victory spectacularly confirmed the naval supremacy that Britain had established during the previous century and was achieved in part through Nelson's departure from the prevailing naval tactical orthodoxy, which involved engaging an enemy fleet in a single line of battle parallel to the enemy to facilitate signalling in battle and disengagement, and to maximise fields of fire and target areas. Nelson instead divided his smaller force into two columns directed perpendicularly against the larger enemy fleet, with decisive results.

Nelson was mortally wounded during the battle, becoming one of Britain's greatest war heroes. The commander of the joint French and Spanish forces, Admiral Villeneuve, was captured along with his ship Bucentaure. Spanish Admiral Federico Gravina escaped with the remnant of the fleet and succumbed months later to wounds sustained during the battle.

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Horatio Nelson
Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson, 1st Duke of Bronté, KB (29 September 1758 – 21 October 1805) was a flag officer famous for his service in the Royal Navy, particularly during the Napoleonic Wars. He was noted for his inspirational leadership and superb grasp of strategy and unconventional tactics, which resulted in a number of decisive naval victories. He was wounded several times in combat, losing one arm and the sight in one eye. Of his several victories, the best known and notable was the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, at the end of which he was shot and killed.

Nelson was born into a moderately prosperous Norfolk family and joined the navy through the influence of his uncle, Maurice Suckling. He rose rapidly through the ranks and served with leading naval commanders of the period before obtaining his own command in 1778. He developed a reputation in the service through his personal valour and firm grasp of tactics but suffered periods of illness and unemployment after the end of the American War of Independence. The outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars allowed Nelson to return to service, where he was particularly active in the Mediterranean. He fought in several minor engagements off Toulon and was important in the capture of Corsica and subsequent diplomatic duties with the Italian states. In 1797, he distinguished himself while in command of HMS Captain at the Battle of Cape St Vincent.

Shortly after the battle, Nelson took part in the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, where his attack was defeated and he was badly wounded, losing his right arm, and was forced to return to England to recuperate. The following year, he won a decisive victory over the French at the Battle of the Nile and remained in the Mediterranean to support the Kingdom of Naples against a French invasion. In 1801, he was dispatched to the Baltic and won another victory, this time over the Danes at the Battle of Copenhagen. He subsequently commanded the blockade of the French and Spanish fleets at Toulon and, after their escape, chased them to the West Indies and back but failed to bring them to battle. After a brief return to England, he took over the Cádiz blockade in 1805. On 21 October 1805, the Franco-Spanish fleet came out of port, and Nelson's fleet engaged them at the Battle of Trafalgar. The battle was Britain's greatest naval victory, but during the action Nelson was fatally wounded by a French sniper. His body was brought back to England where he was accorded a state funeral.

Nelson's death at Trafalgar secured his position as one of Britain's most heroic figures; numerous monuments, including Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square, London, have been created in his memory and his legacy remains highly influential.

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• • • Did you know? • • •

Did You Know? ... that Yakov Kulnev, a Russian general killed in action during Napoleon's invasion of Russia, was reputed to live in poverty, in order to emulate the soldiers of Roman antiquity that were his ideal?

Did You Know? ... that Eugène de Beauharnais returned the territories of the Napoleonic Italy to provisional Austrian rule in 1814 by the Convention of Mantua?

Did You Know? ... that British rifleman William Green's memoir is one of the few accounts by an enlisted man of life in the Duke of Wellington's army, and as such, has provided source material for many historians?

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