Confusion to Robespierre and Napoleon: A Timeline of War With France

Closing the Gates at Hougoumont by Robert Gibb. Courtesy of National Museums Scotland.

Throughout the majority of our beloved series (not to mention the majority of Jack and Stephen’s adult lives), England is at war with France. The series and real-life events intersect at some key points, but even when there is no overlap every character in the series is aware of  and intensely interested in what progress is being made in the war against the Corsican Tyrant.

France declared war on Britain on 1 February 1793, and the conflict lasted 22 years. Britain was the one consistent partner in the many coalitions of European powers that formed against France, and an implacable foe of Napoleon. The wars came in two phases:

• French Revolutionary Wars 1793-1802

• Napoleonic Wars 1803-15

As a result of these wars, Britain made colonial gains in the West Indies and South Africa, and strengthened its hold on India. Britain also claimed influence in Egypt and set up a trading monopoly with South America. But, as Napoleon spread French laws, measurements and administration all over Europe, Britain ended up isolated from these progressive Continental trends.


In August, an Anglo-Spanish force occupies Toulon in France. In September, a British expedition under the duke of York is defeated at Hondschoote in the Netherlands. In December, Napoleon forces the British to evacuate Toulon.


In July, British ships land a French émigré army in Quiberon Bay, in Brittany, as part of an attempt to help French counter-revolutionaries; they are defeated (October 1795). The British navy occupies the French colonies of Martinique and St Lucia in the West Indies and the Seychelles off east Africa.


In January, the Dutch enter the war on the French side. The remains of the duke of York’s expeditionary force is evacuated from Bremen in north Germany. The British navy captures Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in February, the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa) in September and Guyana (South America) from the Dutch.


In October, Spain, France’s ally, declares war on Britain.


In February, the British navy (including Horatio Nelson) defeats Spain at the battle of St Vincent, off Portugal, and seizes Spanish Trinidad and Dutch Tobago (West Indies). But naval mutinies at Spithead and Nore in April and May cause problems, and the British expect an invasion. A French landing in Pembrokeshire finds no support. Admiral Duncan defeats the Dutch fleet at the battle of Camperdown in the North Sea.


In May, Napoleon sets off to Egypt to destroy British trade, seizing Malta in June. In August, Admiral Nelson defeats the French fleet at the battle of the Nile, fought in Aboukir Bay. This traps the French army in Egypt. In the autumn, another French expedition lands in County Mayo, Ireland, and campaigns for two weeks until defeated.


In August, a British expedition lands in the Netherlands. In October, it evacuates. Britain declares the entire Dutch coast under blockade.


In September, the British navy captures Malta. In December, Britain’s trading interests in the North Sea and Baltic are threatened by the ‘Armed Neutrality of the North’ agreed between Russia, Prussia, Denmark and Sweden (a coalition independent of both France and Britain).


In March, the British defeat the remnants of the French army at Alexandria in Egypt. In April, Admiral Nelson defeats the Danish fleet in the battle of Copenhagen and bombards the city. This weakens the Armed Neutrality (see 1800), which breaks up in June. On 1 October, the Treaty of London is signed between war-weary Britain and France.


On 27 March, the Peace of Amiens formally ends the French Revolutionary Wars. Britain and France return most of their conquests, but Britain keeps the islands of Trinidad (West Indies) and Ceylon (Sri Lanka).


In May, war resumes between France and Britain because of the former’s interference in Italian and Swiss affairs and the latter’s refusal to return Malta immediately to the Knights of Malta. In the West Indies, Britain captures St Lucia, Tobago and Dutch Guyana.


In December, Spain declares war on Britain after British ships attack its silver convoys from South America.


In 21 October 1805, Admiral Nelson defeats the French and Spanish fleet at Trafalgar, off Cadiz, then is killed by a French sniper. Stalemate as the French dominate continental Europe and the British dominate the seas.


In April, Britain begins its blockade of the French coast. In November, Napoleon issues the Berlin Decrees, creating the ‘Continental System’ that forbids the import of British goods into Europe. He hopes to cut British trade and starve the country into defeat.


The British navy blockades Europe, occupies Heligoland (off Denmark) and, in September, bombards Copenhagen again because of French plans to use the Danish fleet against Britain. British naval power forces neutral vessels to trade with Europe through Britain, thus allowing it to profit from the war. In November, France invades Portugal, which refuses to be part of the Continental System (see 1806).


In August, the Peninsular War begins as Wellesley lands the British expeditionary force in Portugal, and fights the battle of Vimiero.


In the Peninsular War, there are British military successes at the battles of Corunna (despite the death of Sir John Moore and the wounding of Sir Charles Napier), Oporto and Talavera (after which Wellesley is created 1st duke of Wellington). However, the expedition to Walcheren in the Netherlands is defeated. Britain occupies Ionian Islands and Cerigo in the Mediterranean.


In October, Wellington prevents France from capturing Lisbon by staging a successful rearguard action at Torres Vedras. British navy captures Guadeloupe, the last French colony in the West Indies.


Wellington plays a waiting game, building up his forces. He holds off the French at Fuentes d’Onoro and Albuhera in the Peninsular War.


In August, Wellington enters Madrid after victories at Ciudad Rodrigo, Badajoz and Salamanca. Then he is forced back to the Portuguese border. In September, Napoleon enters Moscow, but is forced to retreat about a month later.


In June, Wellington defeats the French at the battle of Vitoria and wins the Peninsular War. In October, as Napoleon suffers a major defeat at Leipzig, Wellington enters France across the Pyrenees.


In March, after the battle of Laon, Wellington captures Bordeaux and the allies enter Paris. On 11 April, Napoleon abdicates and is exiled on the island of Elba, off the Tuscan coast in Italy.


On 1 March, Napoleon returns from exile for the ‘Hundred Days’ campaign. On 18 June, Wellington and the Prussian general Gebhard Blücher defeat Napoleon at the battle of Waterloo, in what is now modern Belgium. War between France and Britain finally ends, and Napoleon is exiled to St Helena in the Atlantic. At the Congress of Vienna, Britain keeps its colonial gains from the wars.

Courtesy of Channel 4.

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