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The battle of Rivoli (click to enlarge)

'Greatness is nothing unless it be lasting' - Napoleon

The principal parties of the first attempt to defeat the French Revolution were Austria and Prussia, the leaders of which, Frederick William II and Leopold II - wanted to restore King Louis XVI to the throne. The execution of Louis XVI and his queen Marie Antoinette, however, catapulted Britain into the alliance, with Spain joining in March of 1793. 

In addition to having to deal with invading allied armies, the Convention in Paris also had to contend with a revolt in heavily Catholic areas of the north including Brittany,  Normandy and the Vendee, where the Royalist guerilla chief Jacques Cathelineau , the so-called ‘Saint of Anjou’, put up impressive resistance before his death in Nantes.

In August of 1792, an 80,000-man army entered France under the reticent Duke of Brunswick, capturing key fortresses on its march towards Paris. Half of the force was Prussian and 30,000 were Austrian, French emigres and minor German states made up the rest. Opposing the Allied army was a force of 36,000 Frenchmen, a combination of troops from General Francois Kellerman's army and that of General Charles Dumouriez.

General Kellerman stood his ground at Valmy, where French artillery caused huge casualties in the enemy ranks and Brunswick took it as a good excuse to return home. In Germany, a French invasion force under General Adam Custine threatened Frankfurt for a time, but it was in the Netherlands that the greatest successes occurred.

General Dumouriez moved against the Austrian provinces, the southern Catholic provinces of the Netherlands, and caught the retreating Hapsburg army at Jemappes. Within two weeks he had taken Brussels and Paris annexed the territory. 1793 saw serious moves by the Allies to deal with the upstart revolutionaries and with Custine bottled up in Mainz by Brunswick, an Austrian army led by Prince Frederick of Saxe-Coburg sought to recover the Netherlands.

Dumouriez attacked Saxe-Coburg at Neerwinden, but was sent into flight. The Austrian advance then retook Brussels and when the political police travelling with the revolutionary armies accused Dumouriez of betrayal he fled to his former enemy's camp.

France's ruling Committee of Public Safety sent the unlucky General Dampierre to hold Saxe-Coburg, but he was killed in action. Next they tried Custine but the demoralised French were no match for the Austrians at Valenciennes and Custine was guillotined for his troubles.

With paranoia gripping France, General Jean Houchard took over the Army of the North - which had been bolstered by the conscripts of the the newly introduced levee en masse - and sparked confidence when he defeated the Duke of York at Hondschoote. He then went on to beat the Prince of Orange at Menin but, staggeringly, was alleged to have not tried hard enough and found himself a victim of Madame Guillotine.

General Jean-Baptiste Jourdan now took the poisoned chalice of leading the army, but the pressure was somewhat eased by Lazare Carnot, the Minister of War, who held supreme command. Carnot sent Jourdan against Saxe-Coburg's force that was investing Mauberge and the French won the resulting battle of Wattignies.

It was the first of many pieces of good news. Toulon was recaptured from the Anglo-Spanish forces that had held it for months, General Lazare Hoche refused to be put off by a loss at Kaiserslautern and beat a Prussian army at Froschwiller on 22 December and an Austrian one under General Dagobert Wurmser at Geisberg on 26 December.

Revolutionary zeal continued to build in 1794 with victories at Tourcoing, Hooglede and Fleurus. Jourdan captured Brussels and Antwerp and finally drove the Austrians from the Netherlands. On the southern border, French forces checked moves from Spanish armies, but lost Corsica, its West Indies holdings and the naval battle of First of June.

The northern Netherlands - the United Provinces - were Protestant and joined the fight against France when its southern cousins were annexed into Revolutionary France. Early in 1795, General Jean Pichegru moved against the Protestant Dutch and seized its ice-locked fleet with horsemen, the Netherlands was now under complete French control.  In June, more than four thousand emigres and their British allies landed in Quiberon bay in an ill-fated attempt to take the royalist cause to the Revolution’s doorstep.

On 16 May, Prussia quit the war and signed the Treaty of Basle. Soon after, Spain and the minor German states also made their peace with France. In June, the British navy landed 3500 pro-royalist and émigré troops in France at Quiberon. The hope was to ferment unrest, but the plan underestimated French resolve and Hoche moved quickly to crush the insurgents. The uprising was short-lived and fewer than half of the landed troops escaped back to Britain.

One major loss for France was that of General Pichegru who, defeated at Mainz on 29 October, defected to the Austrians rather than face the wrath of his superiors, or the bite of the guillotine. In 1796, the two remaining protagonists - France and Austria - squared off against one another in Germany and Italy.

General Jean Moreau and General Jourdan took on Archduke Charles along the Rhine, with Jourdan trying to pin the new Austrian commanders forces to allow his colleague to cross the mighty river and invade Bavaria. Charles beat Jourdan at Wetzlar, forcing him back across the Rhine, and then pursued Moreau.

He caught him at Malsh where neither side could get an advantage and then returned his attentions to Jourdan. Charles beat the Frenchman at Amberg, and then Wurzburg, while Moreau bested the Austrian covering force at Freidberg. However, with his colleague pushed back it left Moreau in an untenable position and he, too, retreated. The two nations then signed an armistice.

Napoleon observing captured Austrians by Detaille

The Rise of Bonaparte

In the same year he married Josephine Beauharnais, a widow of an aristocrat guillotined during the Revolution. She had been forced to deliver the sword of his dead husband because of the order of disarmament of the Parisian population emanated by the Directory but the young Napoleon, with a gallant gesture, gave it back to her.

From here the love was born between them who departed for the usual wedding trip. But the honeymoon lasted few days because Napoleon got the nomination to ommander of the Army of Italy with the order immediately to reach his place of command.

Upon arrival, Napoleon found a certain air of distrust from the other general as, particularly, Augereau who had promised that 'with him he would have used the strong manners.' But the young Bonaparte immediately imposed himself imparting well precise and peremptory orders to which nobody dared to discuss so that at the end of the first command meeting Augereau himself said: 'This small Corsican general has put fear in me!'.

Napoleon had already become the idol of the soldiers since he was able to personify the moral authority needed for battle. In the meantime, Europe began to see a growing desire for peace with France which was now seen as the preeminent military power on the continent and an already sympathetic Tsar Paul I or Russia sought new relations with the Directory.

His first problem was being faced by two enemies, the Austrians under General Jean Beaulieu and General Michael Colli's Piedmontese army. Getting in between the two forces, Bonaparte split them further at Montenotte and defeated Beaulieu at Dego. Turning against Colli, the French general hammered his army at Mondovi. Colli then called for a halt to hostilities and two weeks later Piedmont quit the war. Another clash with the Austrians, this time at Lodi, cleared Lombardy of the enemy and Bonaparte then kept then pressure on the withdrawing Beaulieu and followed him into the Tyrol.

A new danger loomed when General Dagobert Wurmser led another army into northern Italy to break the siege of the fortress of Mantua, the last toehold the Austrians had in the region. Wurmser divided his force and sent General Peter Quasdanovich to cut Bonaparte's lines of supply. Again using interior lines - the tactic of getting between enemies and defeating them in detail before they can unite - the French commander pinned Wurmser and then beat Quasdanovich at Lonato.

Wurmser's men then felt the full force of the French at Castiglione, from which they fled back to the Tyrol. After he regained his composure, Wurmser tried a new attempt to help Mantua, but again split his forces. General Paul Davidovich remained to protect the Tyrol, while Wurmser moved down towards Mantua.

Bonaparte beat Davidovich at Calliano and then sped on a cruel forced march to catch the main Austrian army. He caught Wurmser at Bassano and while he beat him, the bulk of the Austrians managed to get through to Mantua. The garrison was 28,000 men, but they were not enough to break out of General Andre Massena's encircling forces.

A third rescue attempt was made by Austria and General Josef Alvintzy moved against the French. For a third time the Austrians split their forces and while a French covering force held off Davidovich, Bonaparte hit Alvintzy at Caldiero. The battle ended in Alvintzy's favour, but at the desperate battle of Arcola the young French general routed the Austrians in an action immortalized in the painting of the crossing of the bridge at Arcola by Horace Vernet.

Early in 1797, Vienna made its last move to free the trapped troops in Mantua. Alvintzy, who was clearly no fast learner, split his army and attacked the French at Rivoli without the weight of his full force. Despite this, he began well and Bonaparte was under pressure until reinforcements arrived and gave him the decisive upper hand.

Having won Rivoli, Bonaparte then returned to Mantua to help a surrounded General Jean Serurier caught between the Mantua garrison and another relieving Austrian army under General Johann Provera. The reinforcements allowed Serurier to again bottle up Wurmser's garrison, while Bonaparte encircled Provera's men and forced a surrender. It was the last straw for Wurmser and the troops and people in Mantua, the siege had cost them 18,000 dead - mainly from disease.

With victories such as those at Arcola and Lodi under his belt, Bonaparte now set his sights on Vienna. Although opposed by Archduke Charles , the French crossed the Alps and were only 100 miles from the Austrian capital when the emperor Francis I finally requested peace. Bonaparte set out in the terms for the treaty of Leoben the recognition of France's claim over the Austrian Netherlands and the acceptance of the Cisalpine Republic in northern Italy.

Once more the Italian patriots remained broadly disappointed since their dreams and their efforts for the birth of united Italy were broken, and along with them the principle of liberty and popular sovereignty shown during the French Revolution. Subsequently, the French troops invaded the Lazio and occupied Rome, founding the Roman Republic (February 15 1798). Later it was proclaimed (January 23 1799) from the Neapolitan Jacobins the Parthenopean Republic that lasted only few months.

The territory was regained soon by the king Ferdinand of Borbone, helped from the English fleet and from the gangs of peasants recruited by the cardinal Fabrizio Ruffo. The last problem was Genoa in which Napoleon tried to favor the growth of a strong Jacobin party and, considering that the project bitterly failed, he had to impose with force a constitution that was really a French protectorate.

Vive Napoleon!