Coalition forces of the Napoleonic Wars

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British 52nd light infantry regiment, early 1800s 52nd Regiment of Foot by J.C. Stadler.jpg
British 52nd light infantry regiment, early 1800s
Soldiers of the King's German Legion King'sGermanLegion.jpg
Soldiers of the King's German Legion

The Coalition Forces of the Napoleonic Wars were composed of Napoleon Bonaparte's enemies: the United Kingdom, [1] the Austrian Empire, Kingdom of Prussia, Kingdom of Spain, Kingdom of Naples and Sicily, Kingdom of Sardinia, Dutch Republic, Russian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, Kingdom of Portugal, Kingdom of Sweden, various Confederation of the Rhine and Italian states at differing times in the wars. At their height, the Coalition could field formidable combined forces of about 1,740,000 strong. This outnumbered the 1.1 million French soldiers. The breakdown of the more active armies are: Austria, 570,000; Britain, 250,000; Prussia, 300,000; and Russia, 600,000.

Napoleonic Wars Series of early 19th century European wars

The Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815) were a series of major conflicts pitting the French Empire and its allies, led by Napoleon I, against a fluctuating array of European powers formed into various coalitions, financed and usually led by the United Kingdom. The wars stemmed from the unresolved disputes associated with the French Revolution and its resultant conflict. The wars are often categorised into five conflicts, each termed after the coalition that fought Napoleon: the Third Coalition (1805), the Fourth (1806–07), the Fifth (1809), the Sixth (1813), and the Seventh (1815).

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland Historical sovereign state from 1801 to 1921

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was a sovereign state established by the Acts of Union 1800, which merged the kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland.

Habsburg Monarchy former Central European country (1526–1804)

Habsburg Monarchy is an umbrella term used by historians for the lands and kingdoms of the House of Habsburg, especially for those of the Austrian branch. Although from 1438 until 1806 the head of the House of Habsburg was also Holy Roman Emperor, the empire itself is not considered a part of the Habsburg Monarchy.


British Forces

The British Army forces consisted of 250,000 troops at their height. This is notable as it consisted of 2% of the entire British population during that time. Integral divisions of the British army were the King's German Legion (18,000 men), the Brunswick troops, and several other troops from France, Switzerland and the Netherlands. While Great Britain played a major role in various campaigns on land, at sea the Royal Navy was the dominant part of the allied naval power, and succeeded in destroying French naval power in a series of major sea battles culminating in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

Royal Navy Maritime warfare branch of the United Kingdoms military

The Royal Navy (RN) is the United Kingdom's naval warfare force. Although warships were used by the English kings from the early medieval period, the first major maritime engagements were fought in the Hundred Years' War against the Kingdom of France. The modern Royal Navy traces its origins to the early 16th century; the oldest of the UK's armed services, it is known as the Senior Service.

Battle of Trafalgar 1805 battle of the Napoleonic Wars

The Battle of Trafalgar was a naval engagement fought by the British Royal Navy against the combined fleets of the French and Spanish Navies during the War of the Third Coalition of the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815).


Gaining experience under the Duke of Wellington in the Peninsular War and forged into a disciplined, honed weapon of war, they advanced to become a very prominent force in the Napoleonic Wars. The redcoats, as they were called, principally employed tactics such as disciplined platoon fire and (sometimes) bayonet charges and saw much success through these methods.

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington 18th and 19th-century British soldier and statesman

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, was an Anglo-Irish soldier and Tory statesman who was one of the leading military and political figures of 19th-century Britain, serving twice as Prime Minister. He won a notable victory against Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

Peninsular War War by Spain, Portugal and the United Kingdom against the French Empire (1807–1814)

The Peninsular War (1807–1814) was a military conflict between Napoleon's empire and Bourbon Spain, for control of the Iberian Peninsula during the Napoleonic Wars. The war began when the French and Spanish armies invaded and occupied Portugal in 1807, and escalated in 1808 when France turned on Spain, previously its ally. The war on the peninsula lasted until the Sixth Coalition defeated Napoleon in 1814, and is regarded as one of the first wars of national liberation, significant for the emergence of large-scale guerrilla warfare.

These foot soldiers were typically equipped with the tower-pattern musket, or 'Brown Bess', whose inaccuracy was compensated by the technique of mass firing by platoons.

Light infantry

The British and German elite light infantry held a distinct advantage over their counterparts on the battlefield as they were equipped with Baker rifles. Having grooved barrels, these rifles achieved great target accuracy over a considerable distance and in this respect were superior to the muskets used by the French voltigeurs. Napoleon Bonaparte's rationale for choosing to equip his soldiers with muskets was their faster loading speed, a decision not without consequence for battlefield strategy. The British and German light battalions were deployed in pairs of two soldiers, forming a skirmish curtain, fighting quite independently and using all the cover they could find. These were new tactics, frowned on by more conservative officers, but very effective against enemy officers, who were often the first targets of the skirmishers.

The Baker rifle was a flintlock rifle used by the rifle regiments of the British Army during the Napoleonic Wars. It was the first standard-issue, British-made rifle accepted by the British armed forces.

Line infantry

Mamluk cavalry charges French infantry square during the Battle of the Pyramids, painting by Wojciech Kossak. Battle of the Pyramids 1798.jpg
Mamluk cavalry charges French infantry square during the Battle of the Pyramids, painting by Wojciech Kossak.

The line, column and square formations were the most recognised tactical formations in use during the Napoleonic era. [2] Each of these formations had its own unique purpose in attacking or counter-attacking and no doubt played a large role in battlefield tactics. The line formation was the most favoured amongst the British infantry. Lined up in this way, all men were able to fire at the same time, reaching a maximum firepower of about 1000 to 1500 bullets per minute. [3] The column formation, favoured by the French, was unable to achieve any such output since only the men in the first row of the column (about 60) were able to fire their rifles at once. [4] While the line formation worked well in engagements with infantry, it was very vulnerable whenever the enemy employed cavalry to attack the formation from the rear or at force, causing chaos and horrendous casualties. In the event of cavalry involvement, battalions would therefore hasten to reorganise their lines to square formation to cover their back against a much more mobile force.

Line (formation) Tactical formation of soldiers

The line formation is a standard tactical formation which was used in early modern warfare. It continued the phalanx formation or shield wall of infantry armed with polearms in use during antiquity and the Middle Ages.

Column (formation) formation of soldiers marching together

A military column is a formation of soldiers marching together in one or more files in which the file is significantly longer than the width of ranks in the formation. The column formation allowed the unit rapid movement and a very effective charge, and it could quickly form square to resist cavalry attacks, but by its nature only a fraction of its muskets would be able to open fire.

A tactical formation is the arrangement or deployment of moving military forces such as infantry, cavalry, AFVs, military aircraft, or naval vessels. Formations were found in tribal societies such as the "pua rere" of the Māori, and ancient or medieval formations which include shield walls, phalanxes, Testudo formation and skirmishers. Tactical formations include:

The square formation seems to have been the best protection against cavalry as horses were very reluctant to push into a row of bayonets three or more lines deep. We know of only a few battles during which square formations were overrun by cavalry, one being the Battle of Salamanca, during which three French squares were broken up by the King's German Legion's heavy dragoons.

Battle of Salamanca battle

In Battle of Salamanca an Anglo-Portuguese army under the Duke of Wellington defeated Marshal Auguste Marmont's French forces among the hills around Arapiles, south of Salamanca, Spain on 22 July 1812 during the Peninsular War. A Spanish division was also present but took no part in the battle.

Kings German Legion military unit

The King's German Legion was a British Army unit of mostly expatriate German personnel during the period 1803–16. The Legion achieved the distinction of being the only German force to fight without interruption against the French during the Napoleonic Wars.

The bayonet was used to finish off actions brought to near completion by the musketry and also in skirmishes, as reported by contemporary observers: opposing regiments when formed in line and charging with fixed bayonets, 'never' meet a struggle hand to hand and foot to foot; and this for the best possible reason, that one side turns and runs away as soon as the other comes close enough to do mischief. [5] Here, fear of the bayonet, it seems, rather than the bayonet itself tended to be seen as the deciding factor in the outcome of a battle. On occasion, however, the bayonet could be used extensively as was the case during the Battle of Fuentes de Onoro.

The British infantry pay rates ranged from 22 shillings six pence per day for a colonel to as low as one shilling per day for a private.


Britain's war effort against France was always hampered by a shortage of cavalry. Its lack of numbers accompanied by poor leadership and indiscipline wasted not only good opportunities but also lives. The cavalry consisted of a few important ranks. Each played a different role in ensuring the army was an effective and formidable war machine.

The British cavalry developed a few crucial tactics to out-do these opponents. Against infantry the British planned a cavalry charge just after the enemy's infantry volley. This would minimise the number of muskets available to shoot at the cavalry as the infantry would be busy reloading. The infantry square formation was the best formation for outmaneuvering the cavalry.



Britain had a small but highly effective artillery arm (the Royal Artillery) that was exceedingly well trained but suffered from having only light guns. British cannon barrels were made of brass, with the carriages, wheels, and timbers painted grey and metal pieces painted black. The basic guns were from three to six pounders, and the British found themselves at a distinct disadvantage against French cannon. In fact, the Duke of Wellington forbade his gunners to engage in counter-battery fire against the superior French weapons and ordered them to focus on firing at enemy troops. The artillery was divided in horse artillery and foot artillery. Each cannon was manned by five gunners.

The anti-personnel bias of British artillery was boosted by the invention of a fused spherical case-shot, designed by General Sir Henry Shrapnel to explode over the heads of enemy troops and shower them with musket balls.

Gun Type (caliber)Maximum (metres)Effective (metres)Firing Canister
3-pounder1000320–400approx. 275
Gun Type (caliber)Maximum (metres)Effective (metres)Firing Canister


Another British invention was the Congreve Rocket, which was intended to shoot a barrage of 12-pounder explosives in the general direction of the enemy.

Unfortunately, the rockets were not very accurate and although they did see action in Iberia as well as in Germany during the Battle of the Goerhde and the Battle of Leipzig, they were not viewed as being particularly effective. Mostly they effected terror in the enemy troops, who were unfamiliar with this kind of weapon. The French initially thought that the rocket troops were lancers, as the firing device seemed from a distance to be a lance.


Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington by Robert Home cropped.jpg Henry William Paget, 1st Marquess of Anglesey by George Dawe.jpg
Duke of WellingtonSir Henry Paget
Rowlandhill.jpg Sir John Moore by Sir Thomas Lawrence.jpg
Sir Rowland HillSir John Moore

Allied forces

At the beginning of the wars the tactics of the allied forces were different from the British tactics. For example, they tried to use the column, but as they almost always lost against the French, they had to develop another system. Their approach became more and more similar to the British systems, although with some differences: the Prussian line was three man deep, in contrast to the two man deep line of the British army.

Austrian Empire

Kingdom of Naples and Sicily

Commanders included:

Kingdom of Portugal

The army of Portugal was in great need of modernisation. Quite a number of British officers joined the Portuguese army for that reason, rising in rank. They formed the army after the example of the British army and formed a force with great fighting spirit and skills. The caçadores were as effective as the British light infantry and fought side by side with their allies. The Portuguese units were attached to the British regiments, the Duke of Wellington being the commander of the joint forces.

Commanders included :

Kingdom of Prussia

Commanders included:

Russian Empire

Portrait of Barclay de Tolly from the Military Gallery of the Winter Palace, by George Dawe. Barclay de Tolly (Dawe).jpg
Portrait of Barclay de Tolly from the Military Gallery of the Winter Palace, by George Dawe.

Commanders included:

Kingdom of Spain

Francisco Javier Castanos General Francisco Javier Castanos (Museo del Prado).jpg
Francisco Javier Castaños

After the defeat of Spain and the deportation of the king and his family to France, the Spanish army was divided in several parts between 1812 and 1814.

The Spanish troops included about 160,000 men in 1813. Also very active were the Spanish guerilla troops, which in 1812 were the strongest Spanish forces. [8] They fought most independently of the time, but were also co-ordinated by the British. There was a guerilla force on the British right flank in the Battle of Fuentes de Onoro.

Gebhard Leberecht von Blucher Blucher.jpg
Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher

Commanders included :

Kingdom of Sweden

See also

References and notes

  1. The only constant in each of the seven coalitions, the first of which was formed against the First French Republic
  2. Infantry Tactics and Combat during the Napoleonic Wars ~ Part 3 ~
  3. Haythornthwaite p.26
  4. Haythornthwaite p.5
  5. Haythornthwaite p.27
  6. Crauford p.95
  7. Chartrand p.4
  8. Chartrand p.11


Further reading

Related Research Articles

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