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The 1799 Campaign in Italy: Introduction

The 1799 Campaign in Italy: Introduction

By Enrico Acerbi

After the Peace of Campoformio (1797), France had continued to expand; it had established control, as well as satellite republics modelled after the French Republic, in Switzerland and the territory of the Papal State (the pope himself being abducted to France).  Austria, Russia, the Ottoman Empire, Portugal, and Naples formed a coalition against France, which was joined by Britain on June 22nd 1799.  Napoleon Bonaparte, at that time, was stuck with his army in Egypt. The British fleet, under Lord Nelson, had destroyed the French fleet at Abukir, thus cutting off Napoleon’s communication with France.

In Italy and Mediterranean Sea

A Russian fleet occupied the Ionian islands except Corfu, to which the French held on. A Neapolitan army took Rome, but was expelled again soon after. Naples mutinied against the Austrian commander of her own army; the commander surrendered himself to the French, who took Naples, establishing the Pathenopean Republic. This satellite republic, however, was very short-lived, as the French troops were needed in the north and rebels under Cardinal Ruffo di Calabria, supported by the British Navy under Admiral Nelson, expelled the Republicans and the French.

In Northern Italy, the main theatre of operation, the French faced Austrian and Russian forces, the latter commanded by Alexander Suvorov. The coalition forces gained victories at Magnano (April 5th 1799) and Cassano (April 25th-27th 1799). They took Milan and Torino, defeated the French at the Trebbia (June 17-20), and at Novi (August 15th 1799). However French General Massena defeated a Russian force near Zürich (Sept. 26th-27th 1799) and reoccupied Switzerland for France. Czar Paul I. then signed a peace treaty.

The Holland Campaign

A British-Russian force landed unopposed, as the Batavian Navy remained inactive – the Dutch sailors refused to fight against an orange flag (Russia’s Czarist flag was orange with a black diagonal cross over it; Prince William of Orange supported the Allies). Yet poor coordination and logistics resulted in their defeat at Bergen aan Zee and Castricum (October  6th 1799). When the coalition force failed in achieving its prime objective – seizing the Dutch fleet – the campaign was aborted; in the Convention of Alkmaar (October 18th 1799}, the withdrawal of the Anglo-Russian force was agreed upon.

Napoleon, without his army, returned to France and staged a coup d’etat on November 9th/10th 1799. Then he changed the French strategy, the war being simplified by Russia not only having withdrawn from the coalition, but an Anglo-Russian rift developing.

Final considerations

The Allies lacked a common strategy. Britain seemed intent on using the Coalition Wars to eliminate the fleets of potential rivals on the world’s oceans; Austria and Russia wanted to crush the revolutionary armies instead. British action caused the Russians to withdraw from the coalition.  French political leadership had learned from the mistakes of the 1st Coalition War; its generals were only rarely replaced and none ended up under the guillotine.

In 1800, because of the fragility of the coalition, France now clearly established her hegemony over western central Europe (Italy, Switzerland, western Germany, the Netherlands), gaining even Spain as an ally. Russia, now suspicious of British aims, attempted to establish a Baltic alliance (with Prussia, Denmark) which provoked the British to attack Copenhagen (1801); for the time being the emergence of another anti-French alliance was rather unlikely. The Anglo-French rivalry continued, Britain controlling the seas, France the land.

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