THE AUSTRIAN ARMY OF THE
FRENCH REVOLUTION AND NAPOLEONIC WARS
From the book by Bruce Bassett-Powell and Philip Cranz published by Uniformology in 2011
Hostility to the ideals of the French Revolution caused Austria to ally itself with Prussia to confront it. France, however moved first and in 1792 declared war on Austria in what became known as the First Coalition War. Thus began twenty three years of almost continuous warfare. The First Coalition (1792-1797) began badly for Austria with defeats at Valmy and Jemappes and during the rest of the period fared no better. It ended with the treaty of Campoformio in 1797, with France gaining much territory in the Netherlands and Italy. The Second Coalition War (1798-1802) saw Austria defeated at the decisive battles of Marengo and Hohenlinden (1800). Her allies (Russia, Naples and eventually Britain) also decided to leave the coalition and sign the Treaty of Amiens.
The rise of Napoleon and his ambitions caused the treaty to be broken in less than a year with France pitted against Britain. In 1805 a Third Coalition was formed which included Britain, Austria, Russia and Naples. Napoleon’s swift advance to southern Germany enabled him to isolate Karl Mack’s Army at Ulm. He took Vienna in November and again defeated the Austro-Russian armies in what was considered his greatest battle … Austerlitz. The war ended with the Treaty of Pressburg and the end of the Holy Roman Empire.
The Fourth Coalition was brief (1806-1807) and included Prussia, Russia and Britain, but ended with Prussia’s disastrous defeat at Jena-Auerstadt in October 1806 and the defeats of Russia at Eylau and Friedland in April 1807. The Treaty of Tilsit (1807) rendered Russia and Prussia unable to participate in the next coalition.
Napoleon’s major defeats of his armies in Spain by the Britain and Spanish/Portugese allies gave impetus to Austria to begin the Fifth Coalition War of 1809. Again, Austria miscalculated. Despite a marginal victory at Aspern-Essling that year they were again defeated at Wagram. The Treaty of Vienna in October 1809 deprived Austria of a large amount of territory.
It could be said that, as Britain was almost alone against the French and regularly defeating them in Spain, they continued the 5th Coalition, but in 1812, the Russians abrogated the Treaty of Tilsit prompting Napoleon to invade. The Sixth Coalition War was the most brutal for the French. After Borodino which was, at best, a stalemate, the French occupied Moscow but were forced to retreat upon the onset of winter. The rest of the story is well known. Austria, nominally an ally of Napoleon moved its army back to the homeland, along with the Prussians. The ensuing battles (often brilliantly handled by Napoleon) culminated with the Battle of Leipzig in 1813 which forced the French to retreat to France. The war ended with the occupation of Paris and the abdication of the Emperor.
The Seventh Coalition War can be described with one word. Waterloo. Although Austria took no part in the battle, it was on the march south, should it be needed.
It is a grand irony that Austria, defeated in most of the battles it fought with France in the previous 23 years should end the war as one of the main arbiters of the future of Europe. The Congress of Vienna, dominated by the brilliant Austrian diplomat, Prince Metternich, redrew the map of Europe. Austria gained a great deal of territory including northern Italy and was the main influencer of Southern Germany. The Austrian Army remained an organization of contrasts. A multi-national, multi-ethnic force dispassionately led by a class of patricians with tenuous control of most of its entities. It would be tested again in 1848.