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After French expansion into Switzerland in 1798, Great Britain issued an ultimatum demanding that France withdraw to its own borders. When France refused, Great Britain declared war in 1803. Fighting occurred across the European continent on land and on sea, and important battles occurred at Trafalgar, Leipzig, and Waterloo. Throughout the war, Great Britain saw many different configurations of allies and took part in five coalitions against the French Empire. The war came to an end in 1815, when Napoleon suffered defeat at Waterloo and was exiled to Saint Helena in the southern Atlantic Ocean.
In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Switzerland and seized power in France the next year. Great Britain sent an ultimatum, demanding that France return to its previous borders. Napoleon ignored the ultimatum, and in May 1803, Great Britain declared war on France. Immediately, the Royal Navy set up a strict blockade around France, and in 1805, Britain formed the Third Coalition with Austria, Sweden, and Russia. In that same year, France formed an alliance with Spain and challenged Britain on the high seas. Under the command of Lord Nelson, the Royal Navy defeated France and Spain in the Battle of Trafalgar and retained almost total control of the seas. Following defeat on the seas, Napoleon turned eastward, captured Austria, and established the Confederation of the Rhine.
With Austria defeated, Great Britain established the Fourth Coalition with Prussia, Russia, Saxony, and Sweden in 1806. Great Britain supplied its allies with weapons and munitions, mass produced after the developments of the Industrial Revolution. Napoleon attempted to stymie these trade routes through the institution of the Continental System. This system prevented all countries on the European continent from trading with Great Britain, although British smugglers slipped through French protections to continue trading with other European countries.
Napoleon continued east and captured Prussia before setting his sights on Russia. Great Britain feared westward expansion and doubted the loyalties of its closest neighbors, so in 1807, British forces attacked Denmark-Norway in a preemptive strike. Angry over the unwarranted attack, Denmark-Norway sided with France, and Russia left the coalition to side with France as well, condemning the British attack on Denmark-Norway.
Hoping to strike a blow to one of Great Britain’s few allies, France and Spain attacked and captured Portugal. Napoleon then turned on Spain and took control of the Iberian Peninsula before sending more troops east to Russia. Despite its earlier condemnation of British actions, Russia had continued trading with Great Britain, so Napoleon accompanied his troops to enforce the Continental System in Russia. His invasion was unsuccessful and very costly, and in the winter of 1812, the remaining French troops retreated west.
In October 1816, the Sixth Coalition secured a major victory at Leipzig, pushing the French out of the German states and invading France. The invasion led Napoleon to abdicate his emperorship, and he was exiled to the Mediterranean island of Elba. During this time, the Congress of Vienna was formed by the coalition to determine how Europe would be divided among them. Their planning was for naught, as Napoleon came out of exile in 1815, retook command of his armies, and reinstituted his plan for continental dominance in Europe.
The Seventh Coalition, comprised of Great Britain, Russia, Prussia, Sweden, Austria, the Netherlands, and several German states, refused to allow Napoleon to conquer Europe once more. Under the Duke of Wellington, allied forces seized a monumental victory at Waterloo, which resulted in Napoleon’s second abdication and exile to Saint Helena, where he would spend the rest of his life. The Congress of Vienna helped settle the region after Napoleon’s exile.
More than 150,000 soldiers served in the Napoleonic Wars. For their service, many received pensions in Great Britain or Ireland, or their widows received a pension in the case of fatalities. Due to the protracted duration of the conflict, some soldiers deserted and defected to other countries; some who were recaptured faced court martials for their choices.