The History and Legacy of the Greatest Battles of the Napoleonic Wars (Paperback)
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*Includes accounts of the battles
*Includes online resources and a bibliography for further reading
Over the course of its history, England has engaged in an uncountable number of battles, but a select few have been celebrated like the Battle of Trafalgar, one of the most important naval battles in history. Before the battle, Napoleon still harbored dreams of sailing an invasion force across the English Channel and subduing England, but that would be dashed on October 21, 1805 by a British fleet that was outnumbered and outgunned.
The impact of Trafalgar cannot be overstated, as it literally set the stage for the rest of the Napoleonic Era. Unable to invade England, Napoleon was limited to conducting war on the European continent, and while he spent the better part of a decade frustrating the British and their allies, he was eventually undone at Leipzig and then Waterloo nearly a decade after Nelson's victory at Trafalgar.
For those questioning why generals continued using tactics from the Napoleonic Era even as technology changed the battlefield, the Battle of Austerlitz may provide the best answer. Napoleon is regarded as one of history's greatest generals, and Austerlitz was his greatest victory. In 1805, Britain, Austria, and Russia allied together to form the Third Coalition against the French, and the Third Coalition's forces consisted of armies from Austria and Russia, with Britain providing naval support as well as its financial powers. The Battle of Austerlitz was a tactical masterpiece that saw Napoleon actually invite an attack on his army by the bigger Coalition army, and over the course of about 9 hours, the French successfully defended their right flank while counterattacking in the center and splitting the Russo-Austrian army in two, allowing the French to hit the flank of the advancing left wing of the enemy. The result was a decisive victory that virtually annihilated the Third Coalition's army and made Napoleon the master of the European continent.
By 1812, he had succeeded in subduing most of his enemies - though in Spain, the British continued to be a perpetual thorn in his flank that drained the Empire of money and troops - but his relationship with Russia, never more than one of mutual suspicion at best, had now grown downright hostile. On July 23rd, 1812, he launched his army across the border, despite the protestations of many of his Marshals. The Russian Campaign had begun, and it would turn out to be Napoleon's biggest blunder. Russia's great strategic depth already had a habit of swallowing armies, a fact many would-be conquerors learned the hard way. Napoleon, exceptional though he was in so many regards, proved that even military genius can do little in the face of the Russian winter and the resilience of its people. By the time the Grande Armee had reached the Berezina, it had been decimated: of the over 450,000 fighting men that had invaded Russia that autumn, less than 40,000 remained.
These factors set the stage for the second setback, which essentially sealed the fate of Napoleon's empire. The four-day Battle of Leipzig in October 1813, romantically but accurately dubbed the "Battle of the Nations," proved the decisive encounter of the War of the Sixth Coalition and essentially determined the course the Napoleonic Wars took from that moment forward.
Waterloo is the most famous battle in modern history if not all of history, and appropriately so. Gathering an army of 100,000 men, Napoleon marched into what is now Belgium, intent on driving his force between the advancing British army under the Duke of Wellington and the Prussian forces under Marshal Blucher. It was the kind of daring strategy that only Napoleon could pull off, as he had at places like Jena and Austerlitz. At Waterloo, however, it would end disastrously, as Napoleon's armies were unable to dislodge the British or Prussians, leading to defeat.