Illustrations and maps to be added later. Suggestions welcome.
The Revolution began in 1789. At first it was promising, and a lot got done. Aristocratic and clerical privilege were abolished and administration was reorganized and made more efficient. The confiscation of church lands gave the Exchequer a much needed shot in the arm. But King Louis XVI's blundering attempts to regain control pushed the national assembly into declaring France a republic, and the nobility traitors. From there the slide to dictatorship was rapid as a new collapse of credit, foreign threats and the frustrations of the poor pressed the Assembly into ever more extreme measures. In 1793 King Louis XVI was guillotined and Robespierre was put into power by the working class of Paris. This new revolution was widely resented in the provinces but any attempt at disobedience was ruthlessly crushed. 1793-1794 saw 40,000 executions, the vast majority of them rebel peasants. The Terror had come to save the Revolution.
As the French state sank to its knees, the vultures gathered. In 1792 an Austro-Prussian army marched into France, its intended destination Paris. By then the French army was so demoralized and disorganized that no one expected it to offer significant opposition. However, the French did make a stand at Valmy. A strong cannonade proved that the Austro-Prussians would have a real battle on their hands if they pressed on. As this was not what they were looking for they pulled back. They had stirred up a hornets' nest!
At the end of the year the French surged forward all along their eastern frontier, one army overrunning Belgium [Austrian Netherlands], another marching north from Alsace and clearing the left bank of the Rhine, and another occupying trans-Alpine Savoy. This onslaught by forces that had been though incapable of defense amazed and alarmed Europe. As the French were eager to spread the gospel of revolution and prodigal in their declarations of war, 1793 saw the formation of an anti-French coalition that included just about everyone. The English and Dutch joined forces on the lower Rhine. Austria and the minor Italian states sent support to the Savoyards fighting in the Alps, and Spain attacked across the east Pyrenees. The allies forced the French back within the old frontiers but did not invade France itself much, being to quick to congratulate themselves for containing the French.
The French armies rapidly built up again as Carnot, the "organizer of war" took power and the Terror wound down with Robespierre's execution. Carnot 'scientifically' organized conscription and munitions production and sent both to the French Army at a truly revolutionary rate. As Carnot sent nothing but men and guns, the army had to attack to stay alive!
In 1794 a second surge forward began which again shoved the Allies across the Rhine. This time neither the river nor the winter stopped the French. 'General Winter' took the French side as a cold winter froze the Dutch fleet in the Scheldt--General Moreau led the army across the Scheldt and captured the Dutch fleet. The Dutch ashore found themselves citizens of a 'Batavian Republic' allied to France and paying French taxes.
By mid 1794 the Terror was done and the Republic was under middle class control again. This did not mean any loss of belligerence, for the new state could only function on a war footing and its armies only in an offensive role. Nevertheless, it was an extraordinarily ambitious plan that the five-man Directory sent to the general in command of the Riviera Front. So ambitious that the army commander, after one look at his starving soldiers, sent it back saying it was impossible. Let the man who dreamed it up carry it out. The directors concurred and dismissed the general. At the age of 26, General Napoleon Bonaparte (who had endeared himself to the Directorate by extirpating the working class committees that had run Paris during the Terror) was told to take command of the ambitiously named Army of Italy.
Napoleon arrived to find his men creeping along the coast towards Genoa to keep themselves fed and the Austrians beginning an attack along the foremost French corps. Napoleon immediately thrust north between the Savoyard and Austrian armies, then turned back towards the Savoyards and drove them back on Turin in disorder. At the end of April--Napoleon had been in command one month--Savoy accepted an armistice and a French occupation. Turning east Napoleon chased the Austrians out of Milan and by June had the remnants of their army locked up in Mantua. The minor Italian states quickly offered to buy peace from the conqueror. The amounts they had to pay brought tears to their eyes.
A six month truce had been in effect along the Rhine from December 1794 to June 1795. Napoleon was counting on General Moreau, who commanded the French army there, to stop the Austrians from reinforcing the Italian front. But upon the expiration of the truce Moreau moved slowly, and when he did move he was defeated. Napoleon's Army of Italy found itself facing a fresh Austrian force. After various battles with a few close calls Napoleon shut the new Austrian army up in Mantua too. In 1796 the Austrians sent a third army into Italy and this one Napoleon dispatched quickly in January 1797. In February the surviving Austrian forces in Mantua surrendered. Napoleon then invaded Austria itself and was 100 miles from Vienna when the Austrians surrendered.
Except for England, all of France's enemies had been defeated. Napoleon's campaign was by far the most spectacular. The terms of the peace gave France protectorates over the northern third of Italy (except for part of the territory of Venice which Austria was allowed to annex, to throw them a bone and keep the peace.) 1797 saw France with frontiers such as their kings had always dreamed of. France hailed its Caesar.
France had control of the Batavian Republic, the Cisalpine Republic, and Tuscany.
Before the ink was dry on the very favorable treaties of 1797 the French were on the move again. In February 1798 Napoleon occupied the remnant Papal States. In April he occupied Switzerland. In May he set sail for Egypt with an army of battle-hardened veterans. The Egyptian campaign depended on French command of the sea, which they did not have. Napoleon's army got safely to Egypt, taking Malta on the way. Once there Napoleon easily defeated the Mamluks and seized the country. But the pesky British struck. Admiral Nelson found Napoleon's fleet at anchor in Aboukir Bay and destroyed it.
After that Napoleon's actions seem to have been more dictated by anger than logic. Napoleon invaded Syria, but the British supplied the Turkish garrison at Acre and Napoleon could not take it. Napoleon then annihilated a Turkish force that had been sent in from Rhodes. Finally he decided that France needed him and slipped off home in a fast boat (October 1799). The garrison Napoleon left at Malta surrendered to the British in 1800, and the army Napoleon left in Egypt did the same in 1801.
France did need him. But that story is for the next entry.