Is it possible to nominate a single point at which historians can agree that the wars which ravaged Europe and other parts of the world in the 20th century became inevitable?
Probably not. It is suggested here that there were, with hindsight, points on the European timeline when developments in warfare foretold that there would be more to follow, when overt militarism was an ominous portent and another which proposes that the question was more a matter of when rather than if.
The first of these phases stemmed from the repercussions of the French Revolution. In Paris, the long-running Bourbon dynasty had been overthrown to be replaced by the repressive rule of Robespierre.
There had been no international affection for the Bourbons, especially not from the Austrian Habsburgs who, together with allies, attempted to overcome this ‘First Republic’ in fear of their own thrones being attacked in the revolutionary spirit rising widely across Europe.
The French army repelled this attack but were not able to pursue its advantage. Following the summary execution by guillotine in public of King Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, in 1793, Great Britain, and what became known as ‘coalitions’ of countries with crowned heads of state, declared war on France.
The first phase of this series of wars has been defined as ‘the Revolutionary Wars’ (later to become known as ‘the Napoleonic Wars’).
During those early years a young artillery captain, Napoleon Bonaparte, rose in rapid steps to become France’s military leader.
He was to lead France to victories in the Italian peninsula and, against a series of coalitions, overcome the combined armies of Austria, Prussia, Russia and others in a series of victories until, in 1812, he embarked on his doomed invasion of Russia.
He had, in the meantime, proclaimed and crowned himself Emperor of France, but had failed to take sufficient account of Britain’s belated military involvement in Europe through the landing of an expeditionary force under the command of Major General Sir Arthur Wellesley in French-occupied Portugal.
Britain’s role prior to that had been to finance countries of the successive coalitions against Napoleon, carry out subversive operations and, above all, to deploy the Royal Navy against the combined navies of France and Spain. Most notable of the outcomes were the four great victories associated with Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson.
Wellesley’s force was supplemented successively, as was his rank and title, as he prevailed against several of Napoleon’s marshals while the emperor kept his attention and intensions in Central Europe.
As Wellesley, by then raised to the title of Duke of Wellington and head of the British Army, cleared the French from the Iberian Peninsula and beyond to capture the city of Toulouse; Napoleon’s ambitions had run their course. Finding Moscow deserted and empty of supplies, he faced a disastrous retreat from Russia and was finally defeated at Leipzig in what became known as The Battle of the Nations.
The immediate outcome from this was Napoleon’s forced abdication and his exile to the island of Elba in the Mediterranean Sea, followed by the Congress of Vienna, a gathering of heads of state across the breadth of Europe except for Britain, whose prestige enabled her to be represented by its foreign secretary, Lord Castlereagh.
The purpose of the Congress was to establish new European borders and to construct a formula to prevent any repetition of the years of war recently experienced. It was largely successful for the next 33 years.
All the above is explained in more detail in my book, There Was a Time, and it begs the question “why is this period important on the path to pan-European war one hundred years later”?
Napoleon’s Grande Armée crossed generations of Frenchmen and required frequent fresh replacements. The people of France, while proud of its military successes, had long pleaded for an end to its wars and with good reason.
Its losses in men, estimated at 1.2 million from all causes, resulted in a country of widows and spinsters and thus a dramatic reduction in population. This was propagated through the following generations. Its warrior ethos was diluted and its industries, both industrial and agrarian, waned. It would never again be as strong as it once was.
There were signs of this at Waterloo, but worse was to follow when the former emperor’s nephew, Louis Napoleon, who became Napoleon III, acted foolishly and fell victim of the emergent European power, Wilhelmine Germany.
Had France been able to maintain a much stronger economic, industrial and military base it is entirely possible that Germany would have sought an accommodation with her rather than drawing up advance plans for her invasion.
It is also a speculative possibility that France might have had expansionist ambitions of her own instead!