War of the Second Coalition

gigatos | January 14, 2022


The second anti-French coalition (1799-1802) was the alliance of several European powers formed to wrest from revolutionary France its conquests on the continent and crush the Revolution by restoring the ancien regime.

While General Napoleon Bonaparte was engaged in the difficult expedition to Egypt and, despite local victories, was no longer able to return with his army to France after the destruction of the French Mediterranean fleet by the British squadron of Admiral Horatio Nelson, the major continental monarchies formed a new anti-revolutionary alliance with Great Britain. Austria and Russia mobilized mighty armies for campaigns in Germany and Italy in 1799.

After an initial phase of French revolutionary expansion in Rome and Naples, the coalition achieved notable successes both in Germany, where the French fell back across the Rhine, and especially in Italy, where, with the intervention of the Russian army of Field Marshal Aleksandr Suvorov, a large part of northern and southern Italy was reconquered. Conflicts between the powers and operational indecisions favored the resumption of the revolutionary armies; in the Netherlands General Guillaume Brune repelled a British army landed to support the allies, in Switzerland General Andrea Massena routed the Russians and Austrians in Zurich, forcing Marshal Suvorov to a disastrous retreat through the mountains, after the abandonment of conquered territories.

The second coalition later disintegrated completely with the defection of Russia and with the return of general Bonaparte who, after becoming First Consul, descended in Italy and won in 1800 the decisive battle of Marengo; after the new Austrian defeat in Germany at the battle of Hohenlinden by general Jean Victor Moreau, also Austria withdrew from the war and Great Britain accepted in 1802 to conclude with France the peace of Amiens that momentarily restored peace in Europe.

Revolutionary Expansion

The first anti-French coalition born in 1792-1793 to oppose the French Revolution and restore the monarchy of the ancien regime had gradually dissolved; after a series of defeats in the Netherlands and in the Rhineland, the coalitionists had been forced to give up the invasion of France and, on the contrary, the armies of the Republic had reached the so-called “natural borders”, expanding French power and spreading revolutionary ideas. While the Peace of Basel had sanctioned the withdrawal of Prussia and Spain from the coalition, Austria had been forced to conclude the Treaty of Campoformio after General Napoleon Bonaparte”s surprising victories in Italy in 1796-1797.

After the dissolution of the first coalition, the Directory took a series of political-military initiatives of revolutionary expansion favored by the pressure of the generals and suppliers and supported by the patriotic and ideological exaltation of the “Great Nation” that, with their aggressive and ideological character, prevented a real pacification and instead contributed to the rapid reconstitution of a new anti-French alliance. It was in particular in Italy that the revolutionary propaganda and expansion manifested itself in the most aggressive way; after a purge in the Cisalpine Republic to align its politics to the French needs, the failed Jacobin uprising in Rome on December 28, 1797 that cost the life of the French general Mathurin-Léonard Duphot and put in danger the ambassador Joseph Bonaparte, general Louis Alexandre Berthier, new commander of the Army of Italy, received the order to march on Rome. The general reached and occupied the city without difficulty on February 11, 1798, and moved Pope Pius VI to Siena, while Jacobin revolutionaries proclaimed the Roman Republic. The generals and suppliers began the depredations and raids in Rome; however, General Berthier, who was not very favorable to revolutionary developments, was replaced in command of the French troops in Rome at first by General Andrea Massena, whose appointment, however, triggered protests and riots among the subordinate officers because of his reputation as a raider and because of old diatribes between officers of the Army of Italy and those of the Army of the Rhine. General Massena was therefore replaced by General Laurent Gouvion-Saint-Cyr.

The political conduct of the Batavian Republic did not satisfy the Directory; in order to ensure the highest anti-British loyalty of the Dutch, the 3 rainy year VI (January 22, 1798) a coup d”état of the democratic currents led by Herman Willem Daendels and the Paris envoy Delacroix, conducted with the support of French troops deployed in the territory of General Barthélemy Joubert, purged the assembly of the Republic and drew up a new constitution, ensuring a strict control of France. Even the Swiss cantons became the target of French revolutionary propaganda; supported by some democrats in favor of the constitution of a unitary state, the Directory, after some uncertainty, decided to take the initiative; agreements were concluded since December 8, 1797 between the director Jean-François Reubell, General Bonaparte and the Swiss democrat Peter Ochs. A unitary constitution was promulgated and accepted by a part of the cantons, but after some contrasts and anti-French riots, the Directory ordered to invade the country, and on 13 and 14 February 1798 General Guillaume Brune and General Alexis Schauenburg entered Switzerland and occupied Bern after hard fighting. The emissaries of the Directory Lecarlier and Rapinat organized the Helvetic Republic, plundered the territory, and in order to suppress opposition, carried out a coup d”état on June 17, aligning the Swiss Directory to the French economic and political needs.

Even the Kingdom of Sardinia became the target of the revolutionary expansionism of the Republic; in spite of the treaty of alliance signed with France by the king Carlo Emanuele, the democrats of the Cisalpine Republic and of Genoa, helped by the representative of the Directory Pierre-Louis Ginguené, showed proposals of subversion and conquest. The new commander of the Army of Italy, General Brune, supported these threatening pressures on Piedmont, and the king, intimidated, had to sign on June 27, 1798 with Ginguené a convention that provided for the occupation by French troops of the citadel of Turin.

The Empire of Austria watched this continued expansion of the Republic with concern; according to the letter of the Treaty of Campoformio any new French acquisition in Europe would have to involve compensation for Austria, and Chancellor Thugut expressed demands to this effect at the congress in Rastatt, after the French expansion and further demand for the entire Rhineland. However, the French representative at the congress, Jean Baptiste Treilhard, rejected these demands, exacerbating the conflict with Austria; in Vienna the new French ambassador, General Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, was threatened in April 1798 by anti-French riots and had to leave the city.

Expedition to Egypt and formation of the second coalition

In addition to undertaking a series of aggressive initiatives on the continent, revolutionary France in the same period had carried out with the utmost energy the war against Great Britain, the only power that remained at war even after the conclusion of the peace from Campoformio. Having the naval superiority, the British had been able in the course of the years to interrupt the navigation of French ships and colonial trade and had taken possession of most of the overseas possessions of the enemy power. The Republic still maintained control only of Guadeloupe and Mascarene, while Tobago, Saint Lucia, Martinique had fallen into the hands of the British who had also occupied Dutch Guiana and the Spanish Trinity; San Domingo was in possession of the black population led by Toussaint Louverture. The Directory believed it was possible to bend the last enemy whose determination and military strength were underestimated, considering its land weakness and the apparent instability of its economy based on trade. Thanks also to the alliance of the Revolutionary Republic with Spain and the Netherlands, the British naval dominance was to be undermined, and even Talleyrand, considered an Anglophile, promoted all-out war against “the tyrants of the world” and the “vampires of the sea”.

While hoping to exploit a possible insurrection in Ireland, the Directory intended to strengthen the economic warfare, with the introduction of strict rules against neutral trade that accepted British goods and the adoption of a system of “continental blockade”, and planned above all to bring the war directly on the enemy island, organizing in Brest an Army of England entrusted to General Napoleon Bonaparte. However, in a short time a series of events favorable to Britain made impractical this ambitious project. On the sea the British dominance was strengthening: after obtaining in 1797 the victory of St. Vincent, Admiral John Jervis besieged Cadiz neutralizing the Spanish fleet, while Admiral Horatio Nelson entered the Mediterranean. Moreover the Dutch fleet was defeated in Camperduyn by Admiral Adam Duncan, while the French Admiral François-Paul Brueys, blocked in Corfu, could not reach Brest to protect the naval convoy destined to transport the army to England.

On February 23, 1798 General Bonaparte advised to renounce the landing because of the naval difficulties and the British maritime dominance; also the Directory feared to lose its strongest army and its best general while the situation on the continent remained unstable. However, after renouncing the landing in England, General Bonaparte proposed in his place to organize a daring expedition to the East to conquer Egypt; this plan appeared even more daring and risky. In addition, besides preventing any agreement with Great Britain, it could destabilize the precarious Ottoman Empire and strongly irritate the Russian Empire of the new Tsar Paul I, who was showing intentions of global expansion in Europe, in the East and in the Mediterranean. Despite the dubious utility of such an undertaking for the Republic, the expedition was approved by the Directory, eager to get rid of the ambitious General Bonaparte, and also optimistically determined to threaten the British colonial Empire. The Republic foresaw little resistance from the Mamluks and a favorable reception among the local population; moreover, in possession of Egypt, the French would be able to expand towards the Red Sea and also India where Tippoo Sahib was resisting the British in Mysore.

After a moment of uncertainty due to the crisis caused by the incidents in Vienna at the French embassy, which seemed to prelude the war in Europe, on May 19, 1798 the expedition led by General Bonaparte, consisting of 30 warships, 280 transports, 38,000 soldiers of the Army of the East and a large and qualified cultural and scientific mission, sailed from Toulon to Egypt. The expedition conquered on June 6 the island of Malta, whose knights of the Order did not offer resistance, escaped the search of the British fleet of Admiral Nelson, and then landed in Alexandria shortly after the British Admiral had left for the Aegean Sea, leaving the Egyptian waters.

General Bonaparte marched along the Nile, easily won the battle of the Pyramids against the Mamluks on July 21, then reached and occupied Cairo. In the meantime however Admiral Nelson, finally obtained information in Naples on the French movements, returned back and the night of July 31 1798 attacked by surprise in the roadstead of Abukir the French fleet of Admiral Brueys; the battle ended with a clear British victory: the French ships were destroyed or sunk and the French Admiral was killed. The disaster of the fleet put in serious difficulty the general Bonaparte that, also maintaining the control of the dry land and extending his conquest toward Aswan and the isthmus of Suez, was in practice blocked and isolated with his army in the East, without being able to receive aid from the mother country.

The expedition to Egypt accelerated in a decisive way the formation of a new anti-French coalition: the Ottoman Empire, faced with the invasion of one of its territories, on September 9, 1798 declared war on France, while the Kingdom of Naples, under the influence of Admiral Nelson, who had assumed a dominant role of political leadership in the kingdom thanks to his ties with the wife of the British ambassador William Hamilton, joined closely to Britain and took the risky initiative to attack and invade the Roman Republic. Above all, the eastern expansion of the Republic decided Tsar Paul I to take the initiative and make an alliance with the Ottoman Empire; the Turks granted free passage through the straits and the Russian fleet was able to enter the Mediterranean where the capable Admiral Fedor Ušakov began a series of operations against the Ionian Islands that were gradually conquered, Corfu fell after a long siege on March 3, 1799. Tsar Paul, whose goals were very ambitious, declared himself protector of the Order of Malta and the Kingdom of Naples, and Russian ships dominated the waters of the eastern Mediterranean and the Adriatic. The British in turn had blockaded the French garrison on the island of Malta and with Admiral Nelson controlled Naples and the western Mediterranean. On December 29, 1798 Great Britain and Russia joined the Ottoman Empire and concluded a formal agreement of military-political alliance against France; combined operations with Russian and British troops in the Netherlands and Italy were decided, a landing of Russian troops in Britain was planned.


The untimely intervention in the anti-French coalition of the Kingdom of Naples and the decision to immediately attack the Roman Republic gave way to France to reach, even before the beginning of the continental war, an important military success and to achieve a final triumph in the policy of “export” of the Revolution and the establishment of sister republics of the “Great Nation”. After having concluded on November 29 and December 1, 1798 alliance agreements with Russia and Great Britain, the Kingdom of Naples, on the impulse of Queen Maria Carolina and Lady Hamilton, decided to begin hostilities and attacked on November 23. The weak Neapolitan army, led by Austrian general Karl Mack, obtained an initial success and advanced to Rome on November 27, where King Ferdinand IV also arrived, while general Jean Étienne Championnet, commander of the French forces of the Army of Rome, initially fell back behind the Tiber.

The Directory declared war on the King of Naples and gave orders to the general to go on the counter-offensive. General Championnet, after having concentrated his forces, completely routed the Neapolitan army that had attacked him at Civita Castellana on 5 December 1798, and went on the offensive. The French returned to Rome, where the king fled hastily, and pursued to the south of the enemy forces that were completely disintegrated. The French advance was characterized by violence and looting, the royal palace of Caserta was devastated, the public houses of Naples were looted. The king Ferdinand abandoned any resistance, first took refuge on December 21 on British ships and then fled to Sicily. General Championnet entered Naples on January 23, 1799 after taking possession of the Castle of Sant”Elmo thanks to the collaboration of local democrats. The resistance of the popular “lazzaroni” in Naples was crushed hard by the French troops.

General Championnet, who dominated the local situation in contrast with the representative of the Directory Guillaume-Charles Faipoult, recognized the Partenopean Republic created since January 21st on the initiative of the local pro-French democrats. The Directory also took the initiative to declare war on the King of Sardinia, considered conniving with the enemies of the Republic; Piedmont was then quickly occupied by the French troops of the Army of Italy under the command of General Joubert, and the sovereign Charles Emmanuel IV, after having signed on December 8, 1798 the cession of sovereignty to France, retreated first to Parma, then to Florence and finally to Cagliari in Sardinia. The Directory organized a provisional government in Piedmont and, without giving space to independentist currents, made to vote in February 1799 a popular petition in favor of the annexation to the France.

Soon a violent contrast developed in Naples between General Championnet who, having joined the local liberals, considered himself protector of the Republic, and the representative of the Directory Faitpoult who, instead, following the directives of Paris, wanted to contribute the territory and carry out vast dispossessions. The clash would end with the recall of both and the arrest of the general for insubordination. Other contrasts between the political representatives of the Directory and the French generals also occurred in Switzerland and Italy, where first General Brune was transferred to the Netherlands and then the successor General Joubert resigned in turn for the inability to collaborate with Commissioner Amelot.

In spite of this new expansion of French influence, the coalition was increasing its strength; the Anglo-Russians sought above all the alliance of the Empire of Austria or Prussia, whose participation in the war would allow them to gather powerful armies and attack France in northern Italy, on the Rhine and in Switzerland. The lack of effective cohesion between the great powers and the persistent conflicts related to the divergent objectives of war, however, weakened from the beginning the solidity of the second coalition. Prussia, which had been out of the anti-French coalition since 1795, remained cautious and, even if it rejected the offers of alliance brought by the French envoy Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, decided to remain outside the alliance. The Austrian chancellor Johann von Thugut instead started concrete negotiations with the Anglo-Russians to agree on an alliance; however he maintained different objectives from his interlocutors; in particular the chancellor was hostile to the Tsar Paul”s intentions to restore the Italian monarchs and to the British aims on the Netherlands. Thugut therefore did not conclude any precise agreement with the allies even if he began extensive war preparations; he also authorized the Russian troops to cross the Austrian territory, an event that triggered the reaction of the Directory.

The Directory therefore decided to formally declare war on Austria on 22 March 1799 and to resume expansionist initiatives in Italy. Justifying its action with the presence of Neapolitan troops in Livorno, the Republic first occupied Lucca, then imposed its rule on the Grand Duke of Tuscany Ferdinand III; the French troops from March 22, 1799 invaded the Grand Duchy and the sovereign, after having invited his subjects to avoid any resistance, was forced to retreat to Vienna. The Pope Pio VI, that was guest in the grand duchy, was taken by the French and after a series of transfers under escort, he was finally deported to Valence-sur-Rhône where he would have died August 29 1799. At the end of March then France had assumed the complete dominion of the Italian peninsula and only Parma and the Austrian Veneto were excluded from the system of French occupation and hegemony; however the selfish behavior of the French occupiers and the scarce adhesion of the population to the instances of renewal promoted by the Italian liberal bourgeoisie would have compromised in a short time, under the attacks of the armies of the second coalition and of the legitimist popular revolts, the whole architecture of the predominance of the revolution in Italy.

The beginning of the continental war was characterized by a bloody event that contributed to strengthen the revolutionary fervor of the Republic and to relaunch the ideological propaganda against the reaction of the monarchies of the ancient regime; on April 28, 1799 the French plenipotentiaries who were leaving the Congress of Rastatt after the breakdown of negotiations were attacked in unclear circumstances by the Austrian cavalry, the representatives Roberjot and Bonnier were killed, while only Jean Debry managed to save himself. This tragic fact seemed to demonstrate the irreducible hatred of the powers against the Republic and its representatives and the decision of the coalition to destroy the revolutionary nation.

Since January 1798 a series of proposals to reinforce the military power of the Republic and to reject the new alliance of the monarchies were presented to the assembly, testifying the strengthening of the Jacobin currents after the crisis of 18 Fruitsday; on 23 Snowy Year VI (January 12, 1798) General Jean-Baptiste Jourdan had proposed the constitution of an auxiliary army of 100,000 soldiers and on 19 Fruitsday Year VI (September 5, 1798) he finally presented a law on conscription. This “Jourdan law” provided for the compulsory conscription of young men between 20 and 25 years of age; able-bodied conscripts would be placed, without possibility of subrogation or exemption except for those married before 23 snowy year VI, on a national list from which the legislative body would determine an annual contingent that would be enlisted. The subsequent Act of 3 Vineyard Year VII (September 24, 1798) decreed the call to arms and fixed the quota at 200,000 men.

The application of the provisions of the “Jourdan law” encountered great organizational difficulties and also little enthusiasm among the majority of conscripts; out of 143,000 young men declared fit, only 97,000 answered the call and, after numerous desertions, only 74,000 reached the armies at the front. This influx of new soldiers partly strengthened the army of the Republic, allowing a new amalgam and supporting the patriotic impulse of the units, but the serious shortage of materials and equipment, the financial difficulties, the corruption of suppliers, seriously weakened the armies despite the economic efforts of the Directory with the tax laws of the year VII and with the sale of national assets. The troops, no longer able to exploit the resources of the occupied territories, already plundered, entered into combat without means, without provisions, in numerical inferiority with respect to the coalition.

Moreover, from the strategic point of view, the 1799 campaign was characterized by a series of uncoordinated operations extended on all war fronts, with slow maneuvers according to eighteenth-century operational habits, without the formation of large main concentrations with which to carry out decisive offensives. The French, in particular, instead of forming a strategic mass in Switzerland that could have taken the enemies in Germany or Italy from behind, decided to attack simultaneously both in Bavaria, where the Army of the Danube of General Jean-Baptiste Jourdan was concentrated with 45,000 men, and in the Italian peninsula, where 100,000 French soldiers were present. However, the new commander of the Army of Italy, General Barthélemy Schérer, was able to concentrate only 45,000 soldiers on the Adige. In Switzerland, the smaller Army of Helvetia of General Andrea Massena should have invaded the Grisons and advanced towards the Tyrol.

Also the Austrians deployed their forces along the whole front; Archduke Charles had 75,000 soldiers on the German territory, while general Paul Kray led an army of 60,000 soldiers in Veneto, other 20,000 soldiers under the command of general Friedrich von Hotze defended the Tyrol. The Austrians, even if they had the numerical superiority, did not take the offensive and preferred to wait for the arrival of the Russian armies promised by the czar; the chancellor Thugut, concentrated on the objectives of power, intended to regulate the operations in order to reach his political goals especially in Italy, even at the expense of his allies.

The campaign began in Germany with the advance of the French; the general Jourdan, to the command of the Army of the Danube, charged to invade the Bavaria, initially advanced through the Black Forest until the lake of Constance and attacked to Stockach the Austrian troops of the archduke Charles. The French attacks were repulsed on March 25, 1799 and the general Jourdan preferred to retreat, returned with his army on the Rhine and then resigned from the command of the army. Archduke Charles, after this success however did not pursue the French closely but, on indications of Chancellor Thugut, he headed instead, with a part of his forces, south of the Rhine to participate in the invasion of Switzerland. In this area General Masséna had achieved some initial successes and had occupied the Grisons, but after invading Vorarlberg he was repulsed at Feldkirch on March 23, 1799.

In Italy the general Barthélemy Schérer had amassed on the line of the Adige only 45,000 soldiers in front of the Austrian army of the general Paul Kray constituted by 60,000 men; the French general maneuvered with scarce ability: after having conquered Pastrengo and Rivoli, he failed the attack to Verona and the 5 April 1799 he was attacked and defeated by the Austrians in Magnano. Instead of trying to resist, general Schérer immediately fell back to the Adda line where he was cautiously pursued by general Kray. General Kray did not intend to insist in the offensive and preferred to wait for the arrival of the reinforcements sent by the czar Paul; 20.000 Russian soldiers guided by the famous and energetic field marshal Aleksandr Vasil”evič Suvorov, protagonist of numerous victories against Poles and Turks, destined to assume the supreme command of the coalition in Italy.

The French, under whose command General Jean Victor Moreau had replaced General Schérer, organized an ineffective cordon defense of the Adda line that was attacked in force on April 25 by Marshal Suvorov with his Austro-Russian army of over 70,000 men, in clear numerical superiority in front of the approximately 27,000 French available. The Austro-Russians went on the offensive along the entire line of the river and crossed the Adda in several points, at Lecco, Trezzo and especially at Cassano. After an attempt of resistance, general Moreau decided on April 27 to abandon the defense of the Adda and to retreat towards west; the division of general Jean Sérurier, fragmented and disorganized, was surrounded in Verderio and forced to surrender. The battle of Cassano d”Adda ended with a clear victory of Marshal Suvorov; the French evacuated the Milanese area and concentrated the remains of their forces in Alessandria, the Austro-Russians invaded the Cisalpine Republic and entered Milan on April 29.

After these important successes Marshal Suvorov fragmented his forces in order to occupy the whole Cisalpine Republic and his first attacks against the new position of general Moreau on May 12 did not obtain great results, however the French general decided to retreat further towards Cuneo and Turin. In the meantime it was finally approaching from south, after an exhausting march along the insurgent peninsula, the French army of Naples guided by general Étienne Macdonald. These troops had evacuated, in order to participate in the decisive battle, the Partenopean Republic that was already threatened by the counter-revolutionary army organized in Calabria by Cardinal Ruffo, while also in Tuscany the legitimist and catholic popular uprising was in progress. General Moreau decided to look for the reunification of the two French armies near Alexandria and successfully advanced towards Marengo, while General MacDonald crossed the Apennines.

Marshal Suvorov understood the danger and quickly regrouped his forces to block the way to General Macdonald; the French troops were beaten in the hard battle of Trebbia from 17 to 19 June 1799; the general Macdonald, lacking of help from the forces of the general Moreau, was forced to renounce to advance beyond the river and therefore it passed again the mountains, it marched along the coast and reached Genoa where very soon the forces of the general Moreau converged that, learned the defeat of the general Macdonald, had folded to its turn. Northern Italy was largely lost to revolutionary France; fortresses, including Mantua, surrendered to Austro-Russian forces while Marshal Suvorov entered Turin, occupied Piedmont, planned to reinstate the King of Sardinia, and invaded the republic from the Dauphiné. An alternative plan of the coalesced might have included a general concentration in Switzerland to destroy General Massena”s army and penetrate France through the Burgundian gate.

In the meantime the French predominance in Italy had collapsed; the population of Lombardy and Piedmont had welcomed the autro-Russians as liberators and the pro-French democratic minorities were persecuted, violent excesses and persecutions occurred. In Tuscany the catholic and reactionary bands, started from Arezzo, spread all over the region, on July 7 they arrived in Florence where serious violence and repressions were carried out; in the Papal State the action of the bands was supported by the armies of the coalition coming from the south, formed also by Ottoman troops. The most tragic events of the fall of the Jacobin republics in Italy took place in the territories of the ephemeral Parthenopean Republic; the Sanfedist army of Cardinal Ruffo, supported by the population, overcame all resistance, the weak forces of the republic, abandoned by the French troops of General Macdonald, were easily overwhelmed, the advance was full of violence, repression, destruction. The 23 June 1799 the cardinal Ruffo, convinced of the necessity to begin a pacification policy, concluded an honorable surrender with the representatives of the republican government refugees in the forts of Naples, but the intervention of the admiral Nelson, of the ambassador Hamilton and of the British fleet that transported the army of the coalition, changed the situation. The Admiral demanded much harsher measures against the Neapolitan democrats who were imprisoned, tried and largely publicly hanged, including all the most important figures of the Republican government.

Faced with the series of disasters and the loss of Italy there were important political developments in France with a strengthening of the revolutionary and patriotic determination; after the revolutionary day of 30 pratile Anno VII (18 June 1799) the Directory changed its composition with the inclusion of Louis Gohier, Pierre Roger-Ducos and Jean-François Moulin, considered faithful republicans linked to the Jacobin side; the generals in favour of continuing the war with greater energy increased their power, General Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte became Minister of War, General Championnet was acquitted of charges for his behavior in Naples, General Joubert assumed command of the Army of Italy to take command of the forces gathered in Genoa, replacing General Moreau who would remain with the army as vice-commander.

After these political upheavals followed by the Jacobins a series of revolutionary measures, to strengthen the army and enable it to prevent an invasion, the 9 messidoro (June 27) General Jourdan proposed and approved the so-called law of “mass conscription”: all five classes of conscripts would be subject to total call without replacement, 203. The following month it was decreed the strengthening of the National Guard to be used in the internal struggle against rebels and outlaws. Other revolutionary extremist measures followed: the law of 19 thermidoro (6 August) on forced loan, always on proposal of the general Jourdan, to finance the war with a progressive taxation on incomes; previously, the 24 messidoro (12 July) it had been voted a “law of the hostages” against the relatives of rebels, emigrants or traitors. This series of revolutionary measures and the request of the 9 messidoro to put in state of accusation four old directors (Jean-Baptiste Treilhard, Jean-François Reubell, Philippe-Antoine Merlin de Douai, Louis-Marie de La Révellière-Lépeaux), the defeated generals and the commissioners to the armies, provoked great alarm among the moderate currents of the Republic; moreover the course of the operations continued to be unfavorable to the Republic on the various war fronts.

General Joubert was supposed to take the offensive against the Austro-Russians of Marshal Suvorov in connection with the forces of the new Army of the Alps entrusted to General Championnet whose arrival was expected from Piedmont. However General Joubert, popular among the troops and possible candidate of Abbot Sieyès to lead an authoritarian coup d”état, decided to take the initiative and attack the Austro-Russian forces of Marshal Suvorov without waiting for the arrival of General Championnet who was still organizing his forces. In the battle of Novi of 15 August 1799, the French army was still defeated and the same general Joubert was killed, general Moreau took command and led the remains of the troops to Genoa. The Marshal Suvorov remained therefore master of the situation in northern Italy and it seemed imminent a definitive defeat of the French but the divisions and the rivalries of the coalesced powers would have soon favored the resumption of the revolutionary armies.

In fact at first the situation of the Republic appeared even more critical after the landing, on August 27, 1799, at Den Helder in the Netherlands of a large Anglo-Russian expeditionary force led by the Duke of York and the Russian general Johann von Fersen; the Batavian fleet surrendered without resistance and was captured by the British; the Anglo-Russian troops could strengthen their positions and the first attempts of counterattack of the French troops led by General Brune, supported by the Dutch commanded by Herman Willem Daendels, were rejected. The coalesced could advance southward and threatened to invade France through Belgium.

These news provoked great alarm in Paris; in the session of the assembly of September 13, 1799 the general Jourdan proposed to declare the “homeland in danger”; during a tumultuous session the conservative deputies, fearing the adoption of radical terrorist measures, succeeded to update the request; there were popular assemblies, the minister of the war, general Bernadotte received proposals from the Jacobins. The directors Sieyès and Paul Barras succeeded in making the minister resign and on 28 fruttidoro (September 14) the proposal of general Jourdan was rejected with a minimum of votes. Within a few days, new, unforeseen developments on the war fronts would have decisive consequences on the internal political situation of France.

Due to the defeats in Germany and Italy, General Masséna”s situation in Switzerland had also become difficult; Archduke Charles had crossed the Rhine at Schaffhausen and an army of 28,000 Russian soldiers was approaching from the east. The French general therefore abandoned the Grisons and fell back behind the Limmat. On June 4, 1799, General Masséna repulsed the Austrian attacks on Zurich, but preferred to abandon the city and to establish himself between the Rhine and Lake Zug with the cover of the Limmat and Lake Zurich; however, the French position remained exposed to threats from the south via the Gotthard.

However, the lack of cohesion between the powers and the intrigues of the Chancellery of Vienna prevented the coalition to take advantage of the favorable situation. The Austrian Chancellor Johann von Thugut, engaged in his complex diplomatic maneuvers selfishly focused on safeguarding the imperial interests of Vienna even at the expense of his British and Russian allies, ordered the Archduke Charles to abandon Switzerland and march to the Netherlands to collaborate with the Anglo-Russian forces landed at Helder on August 27. Moreover, the Chancellor induced Tsar Paul I, wishing to present himself as the liberator of Switzerland, to order Marshal Suvorov to interrupt his operations in Italy, thus leaving a free field to the Austrians in the peninsula, and to take his army north to march, through the St Gotthard, to meet the other body of Russian troops just led on the Limmat by General Aleksandr Korsakov.

It was a risky plan and exposed the Austro-Russian forces to be attacked and defeated separately during the difficult maneuver in the rugged mountainous Swiss territory; Archduke Charles understood the danger and tried, before executing orders, to defeat General Masséna by attacking him on August 17, but the French repelled the attack. After a new indecisive battle on August 30, the archduke had to obey and leave the theater of operations with the bulk of his army, but he left a body of troops under the command of General Friedrich von Hotze deployed on the Linth to block the way, in collaboration with the Russian forces of General Korsakov, the French troops of General Massena. In the meantime the strategic situation of the French had improved: on the St. Gotthard, general Claude Jacques Lecourbe was well placed to intercept the forces of Marshal Suvorov, while general Gabriel Molitor was deployed in Glarus; general Masséna therefore, protected from behind by these forces, decided to take decisively the offensive on the Zurich front to take advantage of the weakening and fragmentation of the enemy forces and obtain a decisive victory.

Therefore, while Marshal Suvorov advanced with difficulty, reconquered the St. Gotthard after difficult fights and marched slowly, always opposed with ability by general Lecourbe, along the valley of the river Reuss, general Masséna won between 25 and 27 September 1799 the second battle of Zurich; the general Korsakov, attacked on the Limmat frontally and on the right flank, risked to be surrounded and had to beat in retreat towards Winterthur after having suffered heavy losses, while on the Linth the troops of the general Nicolas Soult routed the Austrian forces of the general von Hotze, who was killed at the beginning of the clashes.

In the meantime marshal Suvorov continued his slow advance along the Reuss valley always opposed by general Lecourbe; arrived in Altdorf the Russian commander was forced to deviate on the mountain route, because of the absence of a road along the Zurich lake. General Masséna, after having defeated Generals Korsakov and von Hotze, was now free to reinforce the sector and sent the divisions of General Honoré Gazan and General Édouard Mortier that, coordinated by General Soult, blocked the advance of the Russians between Schwyz and Glarus; Marshal Suvorov then headed towards Linth but also here, after some success, his troops were repeatedly repulsed by the soldiers of General Molitor at Näfels.

The situation of Marshal Suvorov, isolated in the mountains, with scarce supplies and opposed in all points by the French troops, became more and more difficult; after having learned of the defeat of the generals Korsakov and von Hotze, the Russian commander had no choice but to try to retreat eastward in safety with the remains of his very tried army. The retreat of the Russians was very difficult and cost great sacrifices and heavy losses, all the artillery was lost; finally, passing through the Panix pass and the Tödi, the Russians reached the Rhine at Ilanz on October 7 and then continued towards Vorarlberg where they joined the survivors of General Korsakov.

While the French of the general Masséna solidly maintained the control of Switzerland, the coalition suffered other reverses in the Netherlands where the Anglo-Russian expeditionary corps led by the Duke of York, landed on August 27, was decimated by epidemics and was also rejected at Bergen on September 19 and at Castricum on October 6 by the French army of the general Guillaume Brune. After these failures, the Duke was forced to conclude an evacuation agreement at Alkmaar on October 18, 1799 and the remains of the expeditionary corps abandoned the continent after a complete failure.

Moreover, these unexpected defeats caused a first disintegration of the second coalition; Tsar Paul I, very annoyed by the selfish attitude and lack of cooperation of Austria, to whom he attributed the defeat of Marshal Suvorov in Switzerland, decided after the defeat to recall his armies and effectively abandoned the coalition; advised by Fëdor Rostopcin and appreciating the personality of General Bonaparte, who became first consul after the coup d”état of 18 brumaio (November 9, 1799) in France, the Tsar would soon adopt a new policy of neutrality constituting in 1800 the league of neutrals with Prussia, Sweden and Denmark, and extending its Mediterranean ambitions, with the risk of a conflict with Great Britain. On the continent then Austria found itself alone to face the French armies.


The unexpected victories in Switzerland and in the Low Countries seemed to consolidate the Directory and stabilized the situation to the advantage of the moderate political currents; the law on hostages was submitted to revision, the 9 brumaio (31 October) was proposed during a turbulent debate to replace the forced loan with an increase of the direct taxes; a law on the death penalty against the promoters of constitutional revisions or of surrenders to the enemy was rejected. Moreover, on the 17th of May (October 9) General Bonaparte surprisingly landed at Fréjus, after having left Egypt. He arrived in Paris on October 14 where he became the center of political maneuvers by Abbot Sieyès and the proponents of an authoritarian strengthening of the Republic.

In the previous months General Bonaparte, isolated with his army in Egypt, had tried to organize the conquered territory, but the revolt of Cairo on October 21, 1798, harshly repressed, showed the hostility of the local population. Moreover, the strategic situation of the French was rapidly deteriorating after the intervention in war of the Turks and Russians, the Ottoman Empire was organizing new armies to attack the French and the general decided in February 1799 to invade Syria to anticipate the movements of the enemy. The new advance, which began with the conquest of al-Arish and Jaffa, where the population was massacred, ended in failure, General Bonaparte had to abandon the siege of Acre, doggedly defended by Jazzar Pasha with the help of the ships of the British Admiral William Sidney Smith. The French commander, after having repulsed an attack by the Turks at Mount Tabor on 16 April, was forced to retreat across the desert from 20 May 1799 and the French troops suffered severe hardship and privation. Returning to Egypt, the army managed to destroy another Turkish army landed at Abukir on July 25, but the general French situation in the East became critical.

General Bonaparte decided in August to abandon his army in Egypt, entrusted to the command of General Jean-Baptiste Kléber, and return to France, where dark political machinations were underway. The general was enthusiastically welcomed by the population, despite the unsuccessful results in the East, and Abbot Sieyès decided to involve him in the project of a coup against the Directory and a constitutional revision in an authoritarian sense. The coup d”état of 18 Brumaire (November 9, 1799) ended with the success of the conspirators and Bonaparte, quickly supplanting Sieyès and his followers, immediately assumed the supreme power, political and military, in France with the title of First Consul.

After the decision of Tsar Paul I to recall his armies from Switzerland and Italy and effectively abandon the coalition, Austria found itself alone on the continent to face the French armies. The war operations in Europe resumed in spring, after a phase of negotiations ended in failure because of the irreconcilable war aims of the powers. Bonaparte seemed willing to negotiate, but in reality he refused the indications of the King of Prussia who advised, to reach a stable peace, to give up the Netherlands, Switzerland and Piedmont. The First Consul not only intended to maintain French dominance in the Netherlands and Switzerland, but he did not think at all to give up Italy, his first conquest; he also hoped to be able to help Egypt where the Eastern Army was in a precarious situation. The Austrian Chancellor Thugut, on the contrary, harshly rejected Talleyrand”s proposals to return to the borders of the Treaty of Campoformio and in reality he was counting on consolidating the supremacy in Italy, taking Nice and Savoy away from France and assigning them to the King of Sardinia, resettling the kings of the ancient regime; Archduke Charles, who was calling for moderation, was replaced at the command of the army in Germany. As for Great Britain, Prime Minister Pitt openly expressed the British intention to restore the monarchy in France and did not lend any confidence in Bonaparte.

The new Austrian war plan foresaw to maintain the defensive on the Rhine with the army of general Paul Kray and to attack in Italy with the army of general Michael von Melas in order to defeat the French troops of the Army of Italy, passed to the command of general André Masséna and attested after the repeated defeats on the Ligurian Apennines. It was planned then to enter in Provence in connection with a possible Royalist insurrection and with the intervention of British troops coming from Menorca; at the end however the British did not move while general von Melas was forced to disperse his forces to control the plain and the outlets of the Alps. On April 6, 1800 general von Melas went on the offensive and initially obtained considerable successes: the French army was defeated and had to fall back to Genoa where it was besieged by the Austrians while other troops fell back on the line of the Varo river under the command of general Louis Gabriel Suchet. General Massena succeeded in organizing a tenacious resistance in Genoa, gained time waiting for the direct intervention of Bonaparte in Italy and kept busy the bulk of the Austrian forces.

The Reserve Army crossed the Great St. Bernard from 14 to 23 May; the troops, hindered by the Bard fort and almost without artillery, came out with difficulty in the Ivrea plain and Bonaparte took the bold decision to march immediately on Milan to get in the line of communication of the Austrian army engaged in Genoa and seek an immediate and decisive battle. On June 2 the army entered in Milan and then the First Consul advanced towards south, crossed the Po river, deviated towards west and reached Stradella. On June 4, however, General Massena had to cease resistance in Genoa and evacuate the city with his troops and General von Melas could direct part of his forces against Bonaparte. Lacking precise information, Bonaparte dispersed his forces and found himself in difficulty at Marengo on June 14, 1800 for the attack of the Austrian army. The battle of Marengo was finally won by the First Consul thanks to the arrival of General Louis Desaix”s reserves and had important consequences on the Italian theater; on June 15 the Austrians signed an armistice agreement and fell back behind the Mincio.

In the meantime, in Germany, General Moreau, with 90,000 soldiers, had crossed the Rhine starting April 28, dispersing his forces between Schaffhausen and Kehl and advancing with difficulty through the Black Forest, but General Kray was unable to take advantage of the favorable opportunity, failed to concentrate his army of 140,000 soldiers and was repulsed on May 3 and 5 at Stockach and Mösskirch. The Austrians then retreated to Ulm while the French marched towards Iller and Vorarlberg. On June 9, General Moreau, after much hesitation, finally crossed the Danube at Höchstadt, and the Austrians first retreated north of the river, then re-crossed it further downstream and took up positions on the Isar. The French entered Munich and drove the enemy back on the Inn; an armistice was concluded at Parsdorf on July 15, 1800.

After this series of victories Bonaparte hoped to force Austria to peace, but in fact Chancellor Thugut, while beginning negotiations, had just concluded an agreement with the British envoy Lord Minto to continue the war, agreeing on an important program of British financial aid. In the Viennese court, the war party, led by Thugut, the Empress and Maria Carolina of Naples, and the advocates of peace, represented mainly by Archduke Charles, faced each other. At the end Thugut decided to withdraw and the new chancellor Ludwig von Cobenzl decided to personally start new negotiations with the French representative Joseph Bonaparte. The talks began on November 5, 1800 in Lunéville but in the meantime Bonaparte did not stop his policy of predominance in Italy, the French settled in Piedmont and Genoa, reconstituted the Cisalpine Republic, a new army under the command of General Joachim Murat entered in Italy, French troops invaded Tuscany, violating the clauses of the armistice. Also Great Britain continued the operations; since September 5 Malta had fallen in English hands.

The hostilities resumed at the expiration of the armistice, while the talks continued in Lunéville; Bonaparte had deployed the Army of Italy, under the command of General Brune, on the Mincio river against the Austrian army under the command of General Heinrich Bellegarde. From the Grisons the army of General Macdonald would have had to collaborate by attacking the Tyrol through the mountains, while the main army in Germany of General Moreau with 95,000 men would have attacked the Austrian army in Bavaria, covered on the Main by the corps of troops of General Pierre Augereau. The First Consul actually planned to intervene himself but the campaign was decided much more quickly than expected in Germany. General Moreau had dispersed his forces along the Inn and was initially surprised by the unexpected offensive of the Austrian army commanded by Archduke John and General Franz von Lauer, which bypassed his left flank at Ampfing. However, while General Moreau was concentrating his forces, on December 3, 1800 the Austrian army advanced through the wooded terrain and disintegrated; at the Battle of Hohenlinden, General Moreau”s French troops outflanked and partially destroyed the enemy army, which lost over 25,000 prisoners in its retreat. The French army quickly advanced in the direction of Vienna, and Austria agreed to a separate peace at Steyr on December 25, 1800.

The French obtained successes also in the other war fronts; general Macdonald advanced through the Spluga pass and maneuvered skilfully on the mountains and reached the Alto Adige; general Brune instead met great difficulties at the passage of the Mincio and on December 25 risked defeat at Pozzolo. The Austrian army did not exploit the advantage and the French advanced beyond the Adige and the Brenta; the Austrians concluded an armistice on January 15, 1801 in Tarvisio and withdrew beyond the Tagliamento. In central Italy General Murat invaded Tuscany, occupied Lucca and forced the army of the Kingdom of Naples to abandon Rome; an armistice was agreed at Foligno on 18 February 1801.


France”s position was also strengthened vis-à-vis Britain by increasingly hostile overtures to the British by Tsar Paul I, who was greatly angered by the British occupation of Malta and maintained correspondence with Bonaparte. The Tsar expelled Louis XVIII and blocked Russian ports to British goods on August 29, 1800; Sweden and Denmark joined Russia on December 16, 1800 and Prussia on December 18, the Danes occupied Hamburg and the Prussians Hannover; British trade suffered considerably from the closure of the Baltic Sea. In addition, Paul began to organize an expedition to India. Moreover the czar, besides aiming to take possession of Malta, planned the constitution of a Greek state, the partition with Austria of the Ottoman Empire, the reconstitution of the kingdoms of Naples and Sardinia; these projects were in contrast with the plans of Bonaparte who did not intend to give up Italy nor to allow the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. In March 1801 an envoy of the Tsar arrived in Paris to negotiate.

On February 9, 1801 Austria was forced, after a series of defeats, to sign the Treaty of Lunéville; von Cobenzl, lacking concrete British support and with Russia in contact with France, had to accept the conditions of the First Consul. The Austrians ceded the entire left bank of the Rhine and lost all influence on Italy. Bonaparte reorganized the French dominance over Italy: the Cisalpian Republic was reconstituted and increased up to the Adige, uniting the Veronese and Polesine, Novara and the Legations. Piedmont, after the refusal of King Charles Emmanuel IV to return to Turin, was merged with France as the twenty-seventh military division; the Kingdom of Naples for the time being maintained independence, signed the peace in Florence on March 28, 1801 and ceded Rome, Piombino and the island of Elba, was forced to close the ports to British ships and French troops occupied the ports of Otranto and Brindisi from where it was theoretically possible to resume the French expansion in the East.

So only Great Britain was still at war against France; Bonaparte believed possible in this phase to organize a series of alliances in anti-British function, precursor of the following programs of continental blockade, to force the enemy power to surrender, but a series of events and British countermeasures changed the situation again. Bonaparte had tried to consolidate the alliance with Spain: with the treaty of San Ildefonso (October 1, 1800) he obtained that Louisiana was returned to France and with the treaty of Aranjuez (March 21, 1801) he devised a dynastic combination assigning to the nephew of the queen of Spain, Ludovico di Borbone, the new kingdom of Etruria. Above all, the First Consul pushed the Spanish, where Manuel Godoy had returned to power, to invade Portugal in order to occupy this country and remove it from the dominant commercial and political control of Great Britain. This initiative of Bonaparte, however, was soon thwarted by the lack of cooperation of Godoy; the Spaniards attacked Portugal and took Olivenza on May 16, 1801, but the so-called “war of the oranges” was soon concluded with a simple financial agreement, without reaching at all the ambitious goals of the First Consul.

In the meantime in Great Britain important political changes had occurred; the break with Russia of Paul I and the constitution of the League of Neutrals, which blocked access to the Baltic to British ships, had caused negative consequences on British trade with the continent; the economy of the islands entered a crisis, discontent and irritation spread among the population, there were riots and local riots, the financial situation became worrying. Faced with these difficulties the prime minister William Pitt preferred to resign on February 5, 1801 and was formed a new government with the weak Henry Addington as prime minister and Lord Hawkesbury as foreign minister. These circumstances finally allowed the opening of a peace negotiation between France and Great Britain; since February 21, 1801 Lord Hawkesbury proposed formal peace talks.

The talks between Lord Hawkesbury and Talleyrand were difficult and focused mainly on the destiny of Egypt, of the colonies and of the British conquests; both parties wanted to maintain the acquired advantages; a series of important events favorable to the British radically changed the situation. On March 24, 1801 Tsar Paul I was killed by a palace conspiracy perhaps organized with British connivance and his successor, his son Alexander I, pressed by the Anglophile nobility and the Baltic merchants, preferred to renounce for the moment to the grandiose planetary projects of his father and quickly decided to get closer to Great Britain. Almost simultaneously, the British fleet of Admiral Hyde Parker launched a sudden attack to break the blockade of the neutrals. British ships penetrated the Sund on March 28 and bombarded Copenhagen, the Danish fleet was almost destroyed and Denmark signed peace with Britain on May 28, 1801; May 18 had already abandoned the league of neutrals Sweden, while Russia concluded the agreement with the British June 17. Bonaparte therefore, because of the disintegration of the anti-English alliance system, decided to negotiate with the Tsar; the talks began on October 8, 1801; the First Consul made important concessions and Tsar Alexander retained the Mediterranean positions, Corfu and the influence on the Turks; he also obtained the evacuation by the French of the Kingdom of Naples and Bonaparte”s promises of compensation for the King of Sardinia and collaboration in Germany.

France also suffered a serious failure in the East where the Egyptian expedition ended with a complete failure; Bonaparte”s successor, General Jean-Baptiste Kléber, had tried to conclude an evacuation agreement with the Anglo-Turks, but it was rejected by British Admiral George Keith. General Kleber defeated a Turkish army at Heliopolis on March 20, 1800 but was assassinated on June 14, and his replacement, General Jacques François Menou, proved weak and unable to maintain the French positions. Despite Bonaparte”s attempts to send relief with the fleet of Admiral Honoré Ganteaume, the situation of the French became critical; after the fall of Malta, the British sent an expeditionary force that, under the command of General Ralph Abercromby, landed in Egypt on March 6, 1801 and defeated the French troops in the battle of Canopus on March 21. The French possession was attacked from all directions: on the Red Sea landed troops sepoys sent by Richard Wellesley by means of the fleet of Admiral Home Popham; the troops reached Quseir; from the Isthmus of Suez intervened instead a new Turkish army. Cairo fell on June 28 and Alexandria on August 30, 1801. General Menou was forced to capitulate, the troops could be evacuated and return home.

The decision of the Addington government, apparently too yielding to the French claims, was mainly due to fears of serious negative economic consequences for the British economy in case of prolongation of the trade war with the continent; the news of the conclusion of the preliminaries was however welcomed by the British population; in the Parliament instead there were criticisms and lively protests for the decision to accept the conditions considered, in view of the real strategic situation, too favorable to France. After the conclusion of the preliminaries, the final negotiations began in Amiens where the new British envoy Lord Cornwallis went, experienced general, veteran of the American War, and colonial politician expert of India. Bonaparte, despite the ongoing negotiations, did not stop his expansionist policy; on the contrary he manifested the will to resume an active colonial policy and an expeditionary corps was organized to reconquer San Domingo; in January 1802 he became president of the “Italian Republic”, risen from the Cisalpine Republic. Moreover, the First Consul refused to conclude a commercial agreement with the British in order to reopen the French market to English goods, requested access to India and a base in the Falkland Islands; these claims were clearly rejected by Cornwallis who also rejected the French request for a British recognition of the new continental balance and in particular of the new “sister” republics created by France in Europe.

On March 25, 1802 Lord Cornwallis took the responsibility, despite the doubts at home, to sign for Great Britain the Treaty of Amiens which officially ended the hostilities with the French Republic; in the last phase of negotiations the British envoy had obtained Tobago and moreover, although accepting in principle to abandon Malta, it was agreed that pending the execution of all clauses of the treaty, the British would remain for the moment on the island. The King of Sardinia and the Prince of Orange were not compensated for the loss of their states. The Treaty of Amiens was welcomed by the people in Great Britain, while in France Bonaparte further increased his prestige and power.

In reality the British political class showed skepticism about the duration of such a diplomatic combination and many parliamentarians harshly criticized the treaty which in practice accepted French dominance in Europe; within a short time, the absence of commercial advantages for English goods and the new aggressive French maneuvers disappointed and irritated British politicians and favored the reopening of Franco-British hostilities. For France, the Treaty of Amiens was a brilliant success; it put an end to ten years of war against the European monarchies and seemed to happily conclude the revolutionary period with internal political stabilization and a very favorable strategic situation. The “natural frontiers” had been reached and accepted by the powers and a system of allied states, strictly dependent on the Republic, had been organized.

Such a favorable geographical-political situation for France could have continued to exist only if Great Britain had obtained concrete advantages from the treaty, in particular with a reopening of European trade and a growth of colonial markets, and above all if Bonaparte had adopted a policy of pacification and balance, without alarming and threatening the continental powers any longer. On the contrary, the First Consul, besides continuing to hinder British trade on the continent, was willing to continue aggressive policies and resume his ambitious projects of reorganization of Europe and colonial expansion, without taking into account British interests and the persistent hostility of the defeated continental monarchies. Due to these circumstances the Amiens truce would have quickly ended, the British would have resumed the war since 1803 and a Third Coalition would have been formed in 1805 to counter Napoleon”s projects and weaken the French power in Europe.


  1. Seconda coalizione
  2. War of the Second Coalition
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