In This Article The French Revolutionary Wars

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Handbooks and Historical Dictionaries
  • The Art of War on Land
  • Diplomacy and International Relations
  • The Satellite Republics and Occupied Territories
  • The Other Europe
  • The War at Sea
  • The Wider World

Military History The French Revolutionary Wars
by
Charles J. Esdaile
  • LAST REVIEWED: 01 December 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 April 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0059

Introduction

The French Revolutionary Wars is the name given to the series of conflicts that convulsed Europe in the ten years between 1792 and 1802. For many years it was traditional to see these events as marking a transformation in the history of European warfare. In the course of the last two decades of the 20th century, however, this view was increasingly challenged. On the one hand the idea that the French Revolutionary Wars were an ideological conflict was much called into question, and on the other more and more scholars began to argue that many of the changes in the art of war that were supposedly initiated by the Revolution were in fact products of the latter years of the ancien régime. As is reflected in the historiography, then, we are in the presence of a great debate. Yet even if the French Revolutionary Wars is regarded as the last of the long series of wars that pitted various combinations of European powers against one another in the course of the 18th century, there is no doubt that they represented a very great conflict indeed. With the French army much bigger than it had ever been before as a result of the introduction of the principle of universal conscription—it would be wrong to think that the Revolution brought nothing new—French generals could risk battle more often and push their troops ever harder, and this considerably speeded up the tempo of the fighting. Meanwhile, none of the major powers of Europe escaped involvement in the struggle, one or two of them on both sides, while fighting raged in many areas of the Continent and even France herself (not only was France invaded in several places in 1792 and 1793, but in 1793 and 1796 she also experienced major rebellions). Added to all this, meanwhile, was considerable fighting both at sea and in the West Indies. All this being the case, it is with some surprise that one discovers that modern writing on the conflict is remarkably sparse. There is, of course, plenty on the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, but beyond such matters coverage is not extensive. Let us hope, then, that this bibliography will inspire some young historians to set about redressing the balance. Finally, for various reasons the author has restricted himself to works in English and French while he has also refrained from citing articles in academic journals. However, those with the capacity to read on a wider basis will find some useful suggestions in such bibliographies as the one published in Ross 1998 (Historical Dictionary of the Wars of the French Revolution, cited under Handbooks and Historical Dictionaries) as well as in the bibliographies of the more scholarly monographs.

General Overviews

General introductions to the French Revolutionary Wars as such are few and far between. However, Ross 1973 and Fremont-Barnes 2001 provide a basic narrative, while Blanning 1996 is both an excellent analysis of the reasons for France’s success and one that is more searching than the traditional version (for this, see Best 1982). Meanwhile, two books that place the conflict in a wider context, albeit in different ways, are Esdaile 1999 and the extremely vigorous Bell 2007. Lastly Phipps 1926–1939 offers a strictly French perspective on the land campaigns and Haythornthwaite 1981 a unique visual reference.

  • Bell, David. The First Total War: Napoleon and the Birth of Modern Warfare. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007.

    E-mail Citation »

    A vigorous and controversial book whose title should really be “The French Revolution and the Birth of Total War” as it reaches well back into the 18th century rather than just looking at the Napoleonic epoch. Too much use is made of examples—the Vendee and the Peninsular War—that are clearly unrepresentative, but the book is beyond doubt a stimulating read.

  • Best, Geoffrey. War and Society in Revolutionary Europe, 1770–1870. London: Fontana, 1982.

    E-mail Citation »

    An early contribution to the field that in its time was an important work. While it covers a much wider period than just the 1790s, the early chapters make useful introductory reading. However, coverage of everywhere other than France and Britain is at best suggestive and, at worst, downright weak, while the French Revolutionary Wars are neglected in favor of the Napoleonic epoch.

  • Blanning, Timothy C. W. The French Revolutionary Wars, 1787–1802. London: Edward Arnold, 1996.

    E-mail Citation »

    An excellent introduction to the wars of the 1790s that is based on a far wider command of the main European languages than, say, Best 1982. However, discussion of the wider context is sometimes lacking: there is, for example, nothing on the domestic response of the ancien régime powers to the French challenge and very little on government, politics, and society in the annexed territories and satellite republics.

  • Esdaile, Charles J. The French Wars, 1792–1815. London: Routledge, 1999.

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    A brief introductory primer designed to give undergraduates an outline of the basic events of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, and is inclined to follow Schroeder 1994 (cited under Diplomacy and International Relations) and Blanning 1996 with regard to the origins and nature of the struggle. Perhaps the best thing to read if what is wanted is an introduction that looks at something other than just the military narrative.

  • Fremont-Barnes, Gregory. The French Revolutionary Wars. Oxford: Osprey, 2001.

    E-mail Citation »

    A well-illustrated primer equipped with what is probably the best set of maps in the field that will be found useful by anyone looking for a starting point in so far as a military narrative is concerned.

  • Haythornthwaite, Phillip J. Uniforms of the French Revolutionary Wars, 1789–1802. Poole, UK: Blandford, 1981.

    E-mail Citation »

    An interesting work whose beautiful artwork shows in great detail the uniforms worn by the various combatants in the French Revolutionary Wars and challenges many assumptions regarding the armies of both the ancien régime and the Republic: in brief, we learn that the former were not entirely resistant to reform and the latter by no means wholly wedded to change.

  • Phipps, Ramsey W. The Armies of the First French Republic and the Rise of the Marshals of Napoleon I. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1926–1939.

    E-mail Citation »

    A rather curious work that combines detailed military narrative with the stories of all twenty-six of Napoleon’s marshals, and is now very dated even on its own terms. However, to this day it remains the only detailed English-language survey of the whole sweep of the French Revolutionary Wars and is full of information that cannot easily be obtained anywhere else.

  • Ross, Steven T. Quest for Victory: French Military Strategy, 1792–1799. South Brunswick, NJ: A. S. Barnes, 1973.

    E-mail Citation »

    A narrative of the campaigns of the period 1792–1799 that was one of the first texts seriously to question the notion that the French Revolutionary Wars were an ideological struggle. Though now more than forty years old, it remains worth consulting, particularly as an introductory text.

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