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Revolution, War and Peace

This video introduces the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars; the conclusion of a world war and the settlement of 1814 — the congresses.
CHRIS WOOLGAR: This week we’re going to start off on the road towards Waterloo. In order to understand what happened, what caused this extraordinary battle, we need to go back as far as the French Revolution. The Revolution begins some 20 years of warfare across the world. This is indeed a World War in everything but name.
KAREN ROBSON: Fear of revolution and terror run deep in the 18th century mindset. British forces were engaged in the struggle against revolution all across the globe, from the Low Countries to South America, from Calcutta to Penang. The Revolution in France in 1791 raised the spectre of a very different and terrifying form of government, and caused concern across Europe. The fate of Louis XVI alarmed all European monarchs. Europe now found itself confronted by an aggressive foreign policy, first of the French Revolutionary Government and then of the empire of Napoleon.
CHRIS WOOLGAR: Napoleon Bonaparte was a young, Corsican artillery officer. He was in the right place at the right time, able to demonstrate his utility and his abilities to the government of Revolutionary France. In 1799, in a coup d’etat, he became the First Consul of France. And the story of the next 15 years is how he unites his military skill and his political abilities. He was able to build on the strengths of the revolution, the way the revolution had mobilised vast numbers of conscripts to build great armies. These armies grew in number and effectiveness under Napoleon. And it was one of the challenges of the Allied powers trying to combat him to bring sufficient forces together to defeat him.
KAREN ROBSON: There were a series of allied coalitions against Napoleon. But these made little effective challenge against his armies apart from where Napoleon made mistakes, such as his invasion of Russian in 1812. In the Iberian Peninsula, the forces of Great Britain, Portugal, and Spain under the command of the future Duke of Wellington enjoyed considerable success in what known as the Peninsular War. The French forces had much less success at sea. They had notable defeats at the battles of the Nile and of Trafalgar. And by 1811, the British were in ascendancy. But British naval supremacy would not force Napoleon to surrender. It will take a land war to defeat Napoleon’s armies.
CHRIS WOOLGAR: Allied military success led to the invasion of France in 1813 and 1814. At the Treaty of Schoenbrunn in March of 1814, the Allied powers– Great Britain, Prussia, Russia, and Austria– formally agreed to fight in alliance until they had defeated Napoleon. What Napoleon’s marshals did once they had seen the inevitability of Allied success was to persuade Napoleon to abdicate. He did so in early April 1814. The Allied powers agreed that he might go in exile to Elba in the Mediterranean, that he might retain the title of Emperor, and that he might have a small number of troops with him. With the abdication of Napoleon, Louis XVIII, the Bourbon king was restored to the throne of France.

Europe faces a terrifying threat to its established order as revolutionary France seeks to overthrow monarchs and build an empire. Inspired by radical politics, its vast armies — led by the outstandingly able and charismatic Napoleon Bonaparte — seem to be unstoppable. Can the Allied Powers form an effective coalition to fight back?

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Wellington and the Battle of Waterloo

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