The Formation of the Third Coalition (August 1805 – December 1806)
Since 1792, France had been at war with all of the major powers of Europe; though peace had been made with each in turn, Great Britain held out the longest. In March 1802, the Treaty of Amiens ended the hostilities between the United Kingdom and France. Europe seemed at peace. But conflict arose quickly as the British and the Swedes made an agreement that would lead to the forming of the Third Coalition against France. Russia and Austria would also join this coalition; Austria in particular was keen on revenge after suffering embarrassing defeats and ceding territory in the First and Second Coalition wars. The first two coalitions were waged against revolutionary France; the Third Coalition however would mark the beginning of what is now known as the Napoleonic wars. In May 1803, before these alliances were finalized, the UK declared war on Napoleon’s France. By August 1805, Russia and Austria had joined in and all Europe was again at war.
Napoleon, French Emperor after 1804, developed ambitious plans for invading the British Isles. He assembled a massive invasion force around 200,000 men for the task. But with creation of the Third Coalition and threats looming on the continent, Napoleon abandoned his plans of invasion and turned his attention eastward. Though Napoleon discarded his invasion plan, all was not lost. French troops gained invaluable experience in the months of training that would prove to be of service in their upcoming campaign.
The Ulm Campaign (25 September – 20 October, 1805)
The Austrians moved towards France by concentrating their forces near the city of Ulm, at the time part of the Electorate of Bavaria, a state in the Holy Roman Empire. Karl Mack was the commander of the Austrian forces. He instituted reforms to the army on the eve of the war which would lead to insufficient officer training. This greatly hindered their military organization as officers did not have the proper training to coordinate troop movements. In the previous campaigns against the Austrians, the Italian theater became the primary focus for the French. The Austrians believed the French would focus heavily on Italy again and dispatched 95,000 troops into northern Italy and 72,000 into Ulm. The Austrians hoped with the heavily fortified and mountainous region of Ulm, they could hold out until Russian reinforcements arrived.
This is an ongoing project to complement my reading of John Keegan’s The First World War (2000), as well as Michael Howard’s The First World War: A Very Short Introduction (2003). I have also made use of other literature and resources throughout the project (see Useful Resources below).
Every year 1914-1918 has a paragraph summary detailing the events of each month. This article is for the first half of the conflict, 1914-1916. Each year of the war also has a table, divided into sections for the Western Front, the Eastern Front, the Southern Front/Balkan Campaign and the multiple Turkish Fronts fought against the Ottoman Empire.
Particular attention is spent on the largest battles of the war: Verdun and the Somme (1916), and Passchendaele (1917). The first two of these will be covered here.
1914: The War Begins
The Great War began in July 1914, after decades of military buildup and tension between the great powers of Europe. Conflict was set off by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary and nephew of the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph. In retaliation, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28th. The next day, Austrian forces began shelling Belgrade, the Serbian capital. Alliances between the great powers and the invasion of Belgium brought Germany and Austria-Hungary into conflict with Russia, France, and the United Kingdom by early August.
At the start of August, Germany invaded Belgium in order to maneuver around the strong French positions along the Franco-German border. This began the Battle of the Frontiers. Stiff Belgian resistance prevented German forces from invading past the border until late August. Belgian fortresses, most importantly Liege and Namur, held the Germans back until the last fort surrendered on the 17th. French attempts to invade German Lorraine in mid-August ended in utter disaster. Pushing into France, the Germans were able to overwhelm seven French armies as well as the British Expeditionary Force (BEF).
Combat in 1914 often featured field armies maneuvering in open spaces to gain advantage. By the end of the year, this would no longer be a feature of the war on the Western Front.
In 1789, when the Estates-General was called by Louis XVI, only a small fraction of the delegates selected were members of the Jacobin club. However, by 1793 the most radical Jacobins had established a virtual republican dictatorship. How did this political minority experience such a meteoric rise? How did Revolutionary France transform from a constitutional monarchy into a republican dictatorship? The downfall of the revolutionary republic cannot be explained by any one factor. The execution of Louis XVI, war, political factionalism, and revolutionary fervor can all be attributed to the political gains of the Jacobin club. It is telling that within the National Assembly the extreme wing of the Jacobins would become known as the Montagnard, or the Mountain.
The Flight to Varennes and the Creation of the First French Republic
The end of the constitutional monarchy was critical to the rise of the Jacobins; the monarchy fell largely due to the Varennes flight. On the 20-21st of June 1791 King Louis XVI and his family attempted to flee France to the Austrian Netherlands. With the King’s flight and eventual arrest, debate ensued on whether or not France should remain a constitutional monarchy.
When public papers began printing the king’s declaration explaining his flight (where he denounced many revolutionary decrees) hundreds of political clubs began to be created across France; over 400 houses were affiliated with the Jacobin club. By mid July of that year popular opinion was decisively against the monarch, with only 1 in 6 provinces showing any sympathy towards the King. This is in stark contrast to the previous public opinion immediately after the king’s capture: citizens had been more inclined to believe that the King was ill-advised or kidnapped.