Sixth Coalition


The war of the sixth coalition finally saw the removal of Napoleon from power in France and subsequent exile to the Italian island of Elba. Consisting of Great Britain, Austria, Russia, Prussia, Sweden, Spain, and Portugal. The sixth coalition was the most unanimous display of European purpose in hundreds of years, it hemmed in French forces on all sides and allowed the allies to finally overpower Napoleon and throw off the French yoke of oppression.

In 1812, the French empire was at its zenith, both Austria and Prussia had been subjugated and were in nominal alliance with France. Furthermore, while the Duke of Wellington and his Anglo-Iberian army was advancing through Spain, this was but a minor threat to Napoleon’s empire. Perhaps bored by the relative calm that had settled over Europe, Napoleon decided on an invasion of Russia. The goal of this expedition was to capture the Russian capital of Moscow and force the Russian Tsar Alexander to recommit to the continental system, from which Russia had been straying.

On the 23 June 1812, Napoleon crossed the Neman River on the Russian border with a force numbering around 650 000 men, of which about half were French and half were German and polish allied troops. The Russian forces pulled back in front of the French, conducting a scorched earth campaign to deprive the French of all food and supplies. This continued until the 7 September, when the Russian army gave battle at Borodino. This battle, though devastating for both the French and Russians (35 000 french and 45 000 Russian casualties were sustained), was inconclusive and the Russians were forced to continue their retreat. On the 14 September, Napoleon and his army entered Moscow, but found the city abandoned and empty of much needed food and supplies. The French, seeing that their current position was untenable, and with the harsh Russian winter setting in, commenced what would go on to be called the Great Retreat. By November, when the remnants of the army re-crossed the German frontier after enduring frigid temperatures, a lack of food, and all the while being hounded by Russian forces; the French had lost 370 000 men to fighting, starvation, and desertion, as well as 200 000 men captured. In total the French had lost approximately 88% of their initial force. The Russians, having themselves lost 400 000 men were not immediately ready to pursue the French into Germany, but the ball was now in their court.

At this point, the Russian forces met with the Prussian military command (then supposedly allied with France) to formulate the Convention of Tauroggen, ending hostilities between Prussia and Russia, this would mature into the Treaty of Kalisch (28 February 1813), in which Prussia allied with Russia, Sweden, and Great Britain as well as declaring war on France.

The third country to change sides to the allies (both Russia and Prussia had been allied with France) was Sweden. After her possessions in Swedish Pomerania were reoccupied by French forces on the 9 January 1812; Sweden, now ruled by a former French marshal (Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, now Crown Prince Charles John) signed a secret treaty with Russia against France. This paved the way for the creation of the Treaties of Orebro, formally ending the state of war between Britain and Sweden and Russia. These treaties also included a formal declaration of war between Sweden and France.

Following his Russian disaster, Napoleon returned to Paris; there he vowed to rebuild his forces on the eastern front to what they were prior to the Russian campaign. In this at least, he was successful, in several months, he was able to augment his army to around 400 000 men. At the battles of Lutzen (2 May 1813) and Bautzen (20-21 May 1813) Napoleon was able to inflict 40 000 casualties on the advancing allies. This did not improve his fortunes however, due to the fact that he lost only slightly less than the allies. At this point the warring factions declared an armistice, lasting from the 4 June to the 13 august. This allowed both sides to recover from their horrendous losses in the past year’s fighting. During this time, negotiations on the part of the allies succeeded in bringing Austria, and her 300 000 man army, into the coalition. By the time that fighting resumed, the allies had a total force (in Germany) of around 800 000 front line troops, with a strategic reserve of 350 000. Napoleon was able to bring about 650 000 French and allied soldiers to bear in Germany, with 100 000 more in Italy, and 200 000 in northern Spain. The allies also included the Anglo-Iberian army of the Duke of Wellington, which numbered around 150 000 veteran troops, poised for an offensive across the Pyrenees and into southern France. In total, French forces numbered around 900 000 troops in all theaters, they were opposed by a little over 1 000 000 allied troops, not counting the strategic reserve under formation in Germany.

As hostilities recommenced, Napoleon and the French seemed to regain the initiative with their victory at the Battle of Dresden (26 – 27 August 1813). This French victory, though inspiring for the French troops, did little to turn the tide of the war; as French forces suffered a series of minor, but strategically important defeats at Grossbeeren, Katzbach and Dennewitz. This was followed by the destruction of a whole French army corps at the battle of Kulm (29 – 30 August 1813).

Under pressure from the allied forces, Napoleon withdrew 175 000 troops to the village of Leipzig in Saxony, there he planned a defensive action intended to halt the advance of the converging allied armies. The ensuing battle, which saw a total of 191 000 French troops defeated by more than 430 000 allied soldiers, went on to be called the Battle of the Nations (16 – 19 October 1813). Involving a total of more than 600 000 men, it was the largest single battle Europe had ever seen and would remain so until the outbreak of WWI. This defeat forced the French to retreat across the Rhine and take up defensive positions on that front. Meanwhile, in Spain, The duke of Wellington had broken French power in Spain by defeating a French army at the Battle of Vitoria (21 June 1813). The British, with their Portuguese and Spanish allies then advanced towards France itself. On the night of the 9 November 1813, the British army crossed the Pyrenean passes and entered France, the first allied army to do so since the first coalition. Wellington would then go on to fight a series of battles in the south of France, culminating with the bloody Battle of Toulouse (10 – 13 April 1814), fought several days after the capture of Paris and the capitulation of the French. In total 10 000 men fell after the peace had been implemented.

Back in Germany, the Allies offered peace in the form of the Frankfurt proposals. These allowed Napoleon to remain emperor in France, but limited France to “her natural boundaries”. This would mean that France would have to cede all the territory she had won in Germany, Spain, Italy, and Poland to the Allies. These terms were instantly refused by Napoleon and the invasion of Northern France began. The Allies forced Napoleon steadily backwards with overwhelming numbers. After a brief campaign, they entered Paris on the 30 march 1814.

Napoleon abdicated on the 11 April 1814 after his marshals mutinied and demanded that he step down. This was followed by the Treaty of Paris, signed the 30 May 1814, ending the war between France and the major powers of Europe.

Following a month of victory celebrations, the leaders and top diplomats of the Allies moved on to Vienna for the Congress of Vienna (September 1814 – June 1815). There they were to redraw the map of Europe and decide the fate of Napoleon and the French nation. These negotiations were highly successful, and kept relative peace in Europe for nearly 100 years. In general, they reduced France to her frontiers before the war of the first coalition. They also eliminated the duchy of Warsaw and added many of the smaller German states to Prussia. As to Napoleon, he was exiled to the tiny Mediterranean island of Elba, while France was given to the restored king Louis XVIII.


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