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Warfare in the Age of Napoleon:
Warfare was no stranger to Europe in the years preceding Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise to power in 1799 or after his reign ended in 1815, but there is little that compares with the epic scale of these campaigns or the romance that has built up around them in such a relatively short time. Even though this period consists of numerous campaigns between different coalitions, they were once all grouped together as The Great War prior to World War One for they were then considered the conflict of consequence. Now often seen as a result of one man’s ambitions, they are referred to as the Napoleonic Wars.
The French Revolution, with its notions of political liberty and equality, was greatly unsettling to the remaining monarchies of Europe. It not only offered a real alternative to despotic rule, it challenged the traditional belief in God-given dominance by those of noble birth. This inevitably stirred a violent backlash against France by those wishing to return to the old status quo. Monarchs might argue over the size of their empires but not their right to rule them. This situation was further aggravated by French radicals whose passionate belief in universal rights caused them to advocate for spreading the revolution beyond the borders of France. Both sides sought solutions in battle rather than diplomacy making it possible for military men to rise to prominence. It was in this milieux of revolutionary fervor and the disorder it caused that Napoleon Bonaparte would find an opportunity to make himself known. His military career began not as a leader of an empire but as a servant of the Revolution.
Aeschines of Macedon wrote an important book on oratory in the 4th century BCE in which he advised that it was of poor form to be seen speaking with one’s arm outside the toga. This may have been the source of the tradition of painting formal portraits with one hand tucked into a waistcoat. This pose can be found in ancient Greek and Roman statuary and was common in portrait painting by the mid-1700’s. It was only natural that Napoleon would take up this pose when being rendered to show himself a proper leader. Since then many others wishing to be associated with Napoleon’s aura have been painted in this fashion. Today this tradition has largely been forgotten except in mimicry as the pose has since become synonymous with Napoleon. We may not be able to recognize Napoleon’s likeness on postcards, hampered by few trustworthy portraits, but this cliched pose is a dead giveaway.
Installment postcards were produced as an elaborate novelty that French publishers tended to produce as hand colored real photos. They were usually sold in a set of ten cards where each had its own narrative plus a fraction of a larger image that only appeared when the full set was assembled. They were usually mailed out one at a time to increase the anticipation of correspondence. These sets were often patriotic and concentrated on portraying national heroes. Napoleon was one of the most popular figures to be placed on installment cards.
The Anglo-Spanish War 1796-1802
After the Allies were defeated in the War of the First Coalition, King Charles IV of Spain decided to give up the fight against France and become their ally. Great Britain immediately countered by blockading Spanish ports. In February 1797 a British squadron under Admiral Sir John Jervis accidentally intercepted a much larger Spanish fleet off the southern coast of Portugal at Cape St. Vincent. Though disobeying orders, the aggressive actions of Commodore Nelson prevented the Spanish from escaping, and caused much confusion among their inexperienced sailors. This greatly helped the outgunned British to win this battle. This victory was followed by the capture of the Spanish held islands of Minorca and Trinidad.
While Britain was having success in the West Indies, their blockage of Spain was not going so well. Spanish sorties from Cadiz temporarily opened the port, allowing important convoys to pass. British attention then turned to the Canary Islands, which was a regular supply stop for Spanish convoys. A small squadron under Nelson, now a Rear Admiral was then sent to the Island of Tenerife where he launched an amphibious assault on Santa Cruz in July 1897. The Spanish defense was stronger than anticipated, and Nelson was severely wounded in heavy fighting before the British were forced to withdraw. In the treaty of Amiens that brought the War of the Second Coalition to an end, Britain agreed to recognize republican France. This treaty also brought the Anglo-Spanish War to an end, though Britain continued to hold on to Trinidad. It was a short lived peace as Britain and Spain would go to war again in 1804.
Although the Battle of Cape St. Vincent is largely remembered as the first encounter Nelson fought in during the Napoleonic wars, even disastrous defeats like the Battle of Tenerife have been represented on British postcards simple because the represent episodes from Nelson’s life. Without the great fame Nelson garnered years later at Trafalgar, many of these smaller engagements may have never made it on to a postcards. There are however publishers like Raphael Tuck & Sons who produced a number of naval sets that depicted a range of naval warfare from the Napoleonic era.
Egyptian Campaign 1798-1801
On instructions from the Directoire, Napoleon’s Armée d’Orient set sail from Touloun in May 1798 on an expedition to capture Egypt, a nominal Ottoman Provence. Its control would not only open up more convenient trade routes to the Far East, it could possibly serve as a base of operations for the invasion of British India. Napoleon was happy to accept this far off challenge because it kept him relevant after the Italian campaigns, and it diminished the apprehension of the Directoire with the ambitious Napoleon off the Continent. After setting sail the French fleet put into Malta for supplies but were granted only limited access. Napoleon then landed troops to challenge the Maltese knights and captured the island. The French fleet then moved on to Egypt landing troops near Alexandria in July that quickly took the city. They then won their first victory against the Mamelukes who controlled Egypt at El Rahmaniya.
Photographer Ernest Louis Desire Le Deley was a major publisher of heliotype postcards that covered a wide variety of subjects. One of these were a large set of postcards following Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign that are based on period black & white prints. Due to the large size of this set, it covers many aspects of the campaign that are not found on other cards.
From the coast Napoleon began his march on Cairo meeting only light resistance from the Mamelukes along the way. The army of Murad Bey then sent massive waves of cavalry against him at the Battle of the Pyramids but unaccustomed to modern warfare they suffered a crushing defeat. Ibrahim Bey’s army holding Cairo then fled toward Syria while the French took the city and set up a provisional government. The battle of the Pyramids was heavily romanticized in imagery of the day, which later gave postcard publishers a great source to draw upon. When stressing the exotic aspect of Egypt to make sales, a recognizable landmark such as the Pyramids at Giza are a big help. The actual battlefield however is not within sight of the Pyramids.
When Napoleon’s Fleet set sail from Toulon, The British fleet under Admiral Nelson was supposed to follow it but they were separated by stormy weather. After weeks of searching, Nelson finally found the French fleet anchored near the Bay of Aboukir at the end of July with a good portion of their crews ashore searching for fresh water. Nelson attacked aggressively and battle raged into the night. Unprepared for battle the French lost all but two of their ships through capture or sinking. With his transports now trapped in Alexandria, Napoleon could no longer sustain a long campaign. While the fighting was intense and the explosion of the French flagship dramatic, the significance of this battle outweighed its size. It became the subject for many historical paintings, and continued to be a popular subject for postcards.
To most Europeans Egypt was an exotic place, so the interaction of the French with local sights generated as much interest with the public as battles. This led to many such representations in prints that were later turned into postcards. This effort was enhanced by the many first hand accounts that were available through the large number of scholars, engineers, and artists that accompanied Napoleon to Egypt. Even so, many highly fictional renderings were produced to enhance sales to a public that could never really know what was true. This subject still proved enticing to painters and illustrators throughout the 19th century, especially with the growth of Orientalist art, and many of these pieces also found their way onto postcards.
Despite Napoleon’s posturing as a liberator, religious leaders in Egypt were unhappy with the reforms that came with him. In October 1798 a general uprising against French rule broke out in Cairo. At first the Egyptians met with success after killing the French commander, General Dupuy, while keeping Napoleon locked outside of the city’s gates. Eventually Napoleon massed his artillery in the city’s streets herding the rebels toward the Great Mosque. Refusing their surrender, the French opened a bombardment, then stormed the complex, massacring thousands inside. What may appear as an atrocity to one side, could seem like a heroic defense on the other, depending on whose ideals are held to be worthy. Such struggles were already being tackled and popularized within Napoleon’s own day, and this divide would remain into the age of postcards.
At the beginning of 1799, Napoleon began to fear the Ottoman forces building against him and decided to strike first in Syria. After invading Palestine he quickly captured Jaffa, but was forced to lay siege to Acre. The Turks in Damascus then tried to relieve the Acre garrison, but Napoleon surprised them at the Battle of Mount Tabor in April. While this was a great French victory, his siege of Acre was going nowhere and his army was growing sick. Napoleon began to secretly withdraw back to Cairo but suffered from constant enemy harassment.
After his army arrived in Cairo, Napoleon learned that his access to the coast was being threatened by an Ottoman army that had assembled in Rhodes and was brought to Aboukir in the Nile Delta by the British navy. Although the Ottomans were in a fortified position, a determined French attack broke through and destroyed their army. On the heels of victory, the convention of El Arich was negotiated that would allow Napoleon’s army to be peaceably repatriated to France.
After Napoleon secretly left for France in August 1799, the British navy reneged on the El Arich convention with hopes of capturing the Armée d’Orient, now under the command of General Kleber. An Mameluke army then marched on Cairo and instigated a revolt against the French occupation. The two armies met at the Battle of Heliopolis in March 1800 where the Ottomans were decisively defeated allowing the French to retake Cairo and put down the revolt. In the meantime a revolt had broken out against the French holding Malta, enticing the British to move in and seize the island. Kleber was assassinated in June, and command of the Armée d’Orient passed to General Menou.
British troops landed on the Egyptian coast in 1801 and defeated Menou’s army at the battles of Mandora and Alexandria. The French then took refugee in Alexandria but the city was besieged and fell that September. A final arrangement was then agreed upon in which the Armée d’Orient would turn over all control over Egypt to the Ottomans in exchange for safe passage back to France.
The War of the Second Coalition 1798Ð1800
In 1798 a new group of monarchies united into a coalition to attack revolutionary France on three different fronts. Part of the plan called for an Anglo-Russian army to recapture the Netherlands, but the lack of coordination between the two armies prevented them from driving the French out. They then withdrew after capturing the Dutch fleet. The Austrians were set to recapture the Rhineland and Switzerland, but when the Austrians left Switzerland to reinforce the failing British drive in the Netherlands, the French achieved a victory at Zurich before the Russian army in Italy could completely take the Austrian’s place. Because of this loss the Austrians never reached the Netherlands and they would later face defeat themselves at the battle of Hohenlinden. The French replaced the rule of the Swiss Cantons with the Helvetic Republic.
Another joint Austrian-Russian army was assigned to recapture Italy in Spring 1799, and the Austrians made much headway after achieving victories at Mangano and Winterthur. The Russians under Generalisimo Alexander Suvorov then recaptured most of French held Italy but this campaign ended when they were ordered to stabilize the failing situation in Switzerland. Before he could arrive the French won a victory over the Austrian-Russian army at Zurich, and Surovov was forced to retreat through the high Alps. Unhappy with all the wasted opportunities on all fronts, the Russians withdrew from the Second Coalition.
After returning from Egypt in 1797, Napoleon found France nearly bankrupt and public opinion turning against the Directoire, which had nearly lost its ability to govern. After securing political allies he staged a coup in November and declared himself Emperor of France. While the appearance of a republic was maintained, Napoleon rewrote the constitution to ensure that a military dictatorship would prevail. In his new position as Emperor Napoleon I, he had to show himself as the unifier of a troubled France, appealing to both monarchists who wanted a royal dynasty, and republicans who needed to see a continuation of the Revolution. His likeness was then painted in the royal tradition accompanied by the appropriate symbolism. He stands before a throne in an ermine lined robe and a crown of laurel holding a scepter, all to make him seem the legitimate heir to the Carolingian Empire. Despite his title and all his political power, he basically preformed his duties as a general and dressed accordingly. It is Napoleon as a general, and hero of the common man that has come down to us in myth, even though he always insisted on being greeted as Your Majesty. Postcards usually depict him in his role as general because that is how the public envisions him
In Napoleon’s absence the Austrians had invaded Italy and wrestled it from French control. Emperor Napoleon now made overtures of peace but when the Allies refused he decided to settle maters on the battlefield and regain lost territories in Italy. After raising a new Army in 1800, Napoleon took it across the Alps in May and began concentrating it near Milan where he expected to meet up with the French army from the Rhineland. It was an arduous maneuver for the mountain passes were still full of snow and it was difficult to move artillery through them. This part of the campaign is often romanticized in art and was widely expressed on postcards. Even in Napoleonic times it presented the narrative that the French Army could persevere against the harshest of natural elements. While good propaganda in its day, it now appears somewhat arrogant in retrospect despite the truly arduous feat.
The Austrian army preoccupied with besieging the French garrison in Genoa and advancing on Nice did not at first realize that Napoleon was placing his army between them and Austria. When the Austrians pulled back to meet the scattered French forces behind them, they nearly beat them at Marengo in June but the sudden arrival of reinforcements turned the battle into a major French victory. The French Army to the north under Moreau then advanced on Vienna delivering the Austrians another serious defeat at Hohenlinden by the end of the year. Austria sued for peace, and as a result of the Treaty of Luneville signed in February 1801, Austria was forced to give up control over their share of Italy. Her ally Spain was also forced to cede Louisiana to France. This is usually considered the last of the French Revolutionary Wars.
While Puccini’s opera Tosca is a tragic love story, the conflict between the republicans and papists are essential to the plot. It is set 100 years before its premier in 1900 in the city of Rome three days after Napoleon’s victory at Marengo. Though the French invasion of Italy is little more than a backdrop to the story line, some of the many postcards that illustrate this opera seem to play up this connection. Ricordi & Co. in Milan was the primary publisher of these cards.
Plot of the rue Saint-Nicaise 1800
There were a number of assassination attempts made against Napoleon by royalists and Catholic extremists, but only one seems to have been widely reproduced on postcards. This was the plot carried out by the Chouans, a royalist fraction from Breton, in December 1800. They devised a bomb known as the Machine Infernale from a large wine barrel bound with iron hoops that they filled with gunpowder. It was then placed in a wagon and taken to the Rue Saint-Nicaise in Paris where they knew Napoleon would pass on his way to the opera. As Napoleon’s carriage approached, the lookout panicked and failed to give the signal to light the fuse. It was lit anyway but too late to hurt Napoleon and it killed many innocent people in the street instead. Napoleon who was trying to reconcile with the royalists ignored the true plotters and used the attempt on his life as an excuse to attack his Jacobin opposition. Over a hundred of his leading political enemies were put to death ending all threats to his power from the radicle left.
The economic blockades that both France and Great Britain imposed on each other were largely enforced through their navies. There was however no consensus at this time to whether trade or war should take priority when it came to neutral nations. By 1797 tensions had grown from the British seizure of neutral Danish and Swedish ships. In December 1800, Czar Paul of Russia made an alliance with Denmark, Prussia and Sweden in which they all took the position that trade would continue with France by way of Armed Neutrality.
In response to this new Alliance, the British decided to disrupt it by sending a battle fleet under Admiral Parker to the Baltic. He joined with another fleet under admiral Nelson off of Ostend where they made plans to attack Copenhagen in March 1801. Many of Denmark’s ships were not yet rigged for sea, so they moored their fleet with floating batteries along the cities shore where the larger British ships could not navigate the shallow waters to meet them. Despite this both sides inflicted very heavy damage on each other. In the truce that followed, the British would not take the city but they were allowed safe passage into the Baltic Sea.
Once the British reached the Baltic they prevent the Swedish and Russian fleets from joining forces but they could not engage them while they were anchored under heavily fortified positions. In any case the political situation had changed after Czar Paul’s assassination; his replacement, Czar Alexander I wanted to end the Armed Neutrality policy. The Danes still managed to conduct some trade with France, but their relations with Britain were ruined.
The most valuable of all French colonies was Saint-Dominique due to its vast revenue producing sugar plantations. The harvesting of sugarcane was very labor intensive activity, and by the late 18th century over 450,000 black slaves on the island were engaged in it. By 1789 the ideals of the French Revolution had stirred the pot in St. Dominique inspiring plantation owners to seek their own independence, and free blacks to fight for greater rights. When a slave revolt broke out in 1781 the plantation owners conspired with the British and the neighboring Spanish in Hispaniola to not only suppress the uprising but to help them in their fight against France. To counter this threat the National Assembly in Paris under Robespierre abolished the institution of slavery, which brought many converts to the French side. In the end, rebel forces under the former slave Toussaint L’Ouverture would defeat the coalition on the behalf of France, but after claiming himself governor of a sovereign Black State, his role became problematic to his French ally.
To ensure control over his Empire, Napoleon dispatched troops to America in 1801. While some of these went to secure the former Spanish colony of New Orleans, a French army that included a Polish Legion landed in St. Dominique. Recently freed blacks, now fearful of re-enslavement, filled the ranks of the opposition. President Thomas Jefferson fearing that this slave revolt might spread to the United States wanted to aid the French, but he was also worried that Napoleon wanted to reestablish a new French Empire in North America so he declared his neutrality. As Napoleon grew more concerned over new threats closer to home he sold off Louisiana to the United States in 1803. With this threat removed the Jefferson was now free to give indirect material support to the French in their attempts to put down the revolt in St. Dominique. The French however were defeated by the rebels at the Battle of Vertieres, and they left the island for good soon after. In 1804 independence was declared and this new nation was renamed Haiti.
The birth of a sovereign black nation was not welcomed by any other power and its history was largely ignored except on the island itself. While early view-cards of Haiti were published, few make any reference to its history. Only as tourism began to grow did some this nation’s historic landmarks become popular enough for publishers to represent them on postcards. Even so, those dealing with military subjects prefer the romance of ruins over victorious Blacks in battle. In more modern times the story of the Haitian Revolution has come to serve as inspiration and a source of pride for the Black community as a whole but at the same time the influence of postcards has dwindled and is no longer sought out to represent this change in perspective.
West Indies 1793-1810
The sugar plantations of the West Indies were a very valuable asset to anyone who controlled them. While Jamaica and Barbados were held by the British for some time, its navy began taking a more aggressive stance in the region when conflicts grew with France and her allies. After 1793 Britain would capture Tobago, Martinique, St. Lucia, Guadeloupe, St. Martin and French Guyana from the French; Trinidad from Spain; St. Bartholomew from Sweden; Demerara, St .Martin, Curacao, Surinam and Essequibo from the Dutch; and St. John, St. Thomas and St. Croix from Denmark. The British gave up most of these conquests after the Peace of Amiens was signed in 1802. The French in exchange relinquished the Papal States and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Britain would retake many of these islands again in subsequent wars with France; Martinique fell in 1809, and Guadeloupe in 1810. While actual combat was light, many fighting in the Caribbean succumbed to tropical deceases. This was such a peripheral part of the Napoleonic Wars that it largely fell out of the public consciousness when postcards began to be published. Napoleonic cards related to this theater of war are rare.
The War of the Third Coalition 1805
In 1805 after Britain began putting together a third coalition against France, Napoleon began to assemble a Grande Armée at Boulogne for the purpose of invading England. Even the largest navy of these times was not big enough to transport an entire army at once, so an amphibious attack on England would have to be made with a great quantity of small boats and barges. These small craft however were very vulnerable to attack by armed ships, which meant that as long as the British navy remained a viable foe, France could not launch an invasion. All attempts to lure the British Fleet out of the English Channel failed, and the French army waited.
While most Napoleonic cards reproduce contemporary or period artwork, there are also typical view-cards with Napoleonic themes. While there are certainly plenty of battlefields, they rarely appear on cards unless marked by a major monument. Most of these cards tend to depict statues or historic buildings. On a continent that has seen so much fighting, a particular battlefield may not strongly resonate in the public consciousness.
When the War of the Third Coalition broke out Napoleon started making plans to pull the French and their allied Spanish fleets together for a decisive naval engagement against the British. The British seizure of a Spanish convoy headed for Cadiz had already reignited the Anglo-Spanish War in 1804. All parties finally met up in October near Cape Trafalgar off the southwestern coast of Spain. Though the British fleet was heavily outnumbered, its commander Admiral Nelson divided his force in two and pressed forward. The French, who had rid their navy of its best commanders during the days of the Revolution did not respond well to this unorthodox maneuver. While Nelson was mortally wounded in battle, his unusual tactics won the day in what many consider to be Britain’s greatest naval victory. Nelson sunk twenty-two French ships with no losses of his own, though a number of heavily damaged ships from both sides succumbed to their wounds afterwards.
Even though Lord Nelson met his death at Trafalgar, he was propelled into fame. While a national hero in England, his name is also now recognized around the world. Many postcards depicting this battle were produced on its 100th and even 200th anniversaries. There was already many historical paintings from the 19th century representing this battle for publishers to draw imagery from. While the battle itself is well represented on postcards, it is the death of Nelson that is most often depicted.
By the time the Battle of Trafalgar was fought, threats to the Rhineland had already forced Napoleon to shift the Grande Armée there; so while a decisive French defeat, this battle did not end up playing a strategic role in this War against England. It did however end the prospect of Napoleon making a future amphibious assault on England, and Britain’s domination the seas would now allow it to make crucial transfers of troops in the Iberian conflict.
Nelson’s flagship, the HMS Victory, was badly damaged at Trafalgar, but after repairs she saw further acton in the Baltic Sea. She was finally retired as a depot ship at Portsmouth in 1812, and would later house a naval training school until it moved in 1904. When further accidents and decay left her unseaworthy, she was place into drydock in 1922 and has slowly been undergoing repairs ever since. Her long presence in Portsmouth coupled with her widely known legend made this ship a prime subject for postcards. Sometimes the Victory is portrayed alongside modern ships, not to show her antiquity but to remind the viewer that the Royal Navy is keeping up the same traditions of bravery and valor.
The principal aims of the third coalition, consisting of Britain, Russia, Austria, and Sweden, were to remove the French presence in the Netherlands, Switzerland and in Italy where Napoleon had also proclaimed himself King. Austria first moved into Bavaria in 1805, hoping to force their army into the Coalition. When this failed the Austrians moved to Ulm, which they fortified, while waiting for Russian and Swedish reinforcements. Napoleon’s Grande Armée in Boulogne was already secretly headed for the Rhine arriving in Bavaria by October. He quickly surrounded the Austrians before the Russians arrived, forcing them to surrender after the Battle of Ulm. The second Austrian offensive in Italy was also turned back at Caldiero. Napoleon continued to advance until he captured Vienna.
While Napoleon occupied Vienna, the Austrians had one army in the Alps and another under Archduke Ferdinand in Prague, while the Russians under General Kutuzov sat in Olmutz. All three Allied armies moved against Napoleon in November in order to cut him off from France but this is just what Napoleon expected. After sending Marshal Ney to block the Alpine passes, Napoleon left Vienna taking his army into Moravia. The remaining two Allied armies then tried to get between the French and Vienna, but Napoleon managed to keep them from acting in concert and won a major victory over both at the Battle of Austerlitz. While the remaining Russians retreated back across their border, they were no longer an effective fighting force. The same was true of the Austrians who were then forced to withdraw from the coalition.
This decisive French victory led Napoleon to be much harsher in his terms with Austria than he had at the conclusion of the last war. In the Treaty of Pressburg, Austria was forced to ceded the state of Veneto to The Kingdom of Italy, and Tyrol was added to the Duchy of Bavaria. Both Bavaria and Wurttemburg would become independent Kingdoms allied to France. Napoleon continued to force more concessions out of Austria in 1806, disbanding the Holy Roman Empire under the control of Francis II in July, and by August he consolidated the small southern and western German States once in it into the Confederation of the Rhine.
Though many historians consider the Battle of Austerlitz Napoleon’s greatest tactical victory in terms of the execution of his skills as a general, this does not seem to have been given any special consideration in the publication of postcards depicting this battle. While the battle had great importance within the military campaign in which it was fought, it never allied itself with any cultural implications that might make it resonate further, and most cards just reproduce historical paintings. The only special consideration Austerlitz is sometimes given is in its name. It later came to be romanticized as the Battle of the Three Emperors because the monarchs of all three Empires who fought there, Napoleon, Czar Alexander, and Francis II were present on the battlefield.
The romanticizing of the Battle of Austerlitz eventually put it into the public consciousness far beyond its historical importance. Even if few could recite any truly relevant facts regarding the battle, some notions of it became points of trivia that people carried around in their heads. This popularization of history followed many events surrounding Napoleon including the Emperor himself. The associations made with such imagery, such as power or quality, made them prime subject matter for marketing that could be used for any product regardless of its relationship to history. The familiarity of products associated with Napoleon also strengthened his myth because the understanding of facts were no longer necessary.
While there were many appropriations of Napoleonic imagery for commercial purposes, Napoleon and some of the events surrounding him were ingrained into popular culture to the degree that playful associations could be made. With the use of a few simple signs a specific historical event could be evoked, but battles no longer had to have associations with violence, politics, oppression or any form of unpleasantness that might turn people away from buying military themed postcards. The elements of popular culture however are always shifting, and knowledge shared by all of one generation may disappear in the next rendering simple associations on postcards difficult to decipher.