On December 18th 1812, Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of the French, was back in Paris from the frozen lands of Russia. Behind, he had left his soldiers’ corpses, of his once incomparable army, la Grande Armée. His sword and shield, with which he had made himself master of Europe, shattered against the Russian wall. His enemies, old and new, stirred with the scent of blood of the wounded beast. The British Empire, Russia, Austria, Prussia, Sweden, Spain and Portugal, amongst many others; would form the Sixth and Seventh Coalition, against Napoleon. He would be defeated and exiled twice. His legacy and name would outlive them all. Read below about Napoleon’s last adventure.
1# After the Russian campaign
In the beginning of 1813, not everything was hopeless for Napoleon. His enemy of old, Austria, remained neutral, and while Prussia had coalesced with Russia―both funded with British capital as all fighting against Napoleon would―Russia had also suffered vastly as a result of Napoleon’s failed invasion in 1812. Its richest lands were scorched, its army down to less than a 100.000. Still enough to snuff out the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, the short-lived Polish state that owed its existence to Napoleon, while Berlin and Pomerania were also taken and returned to the Prussians, with the exception of some strong French garrisons like Stetin and Danzig.
The german states of the French protectorate of the Rhine Confederation begun to question their loyalty to their protector, who as was characteristic of him, had launched himself into a flurry of activity on his return to Paris. New conscripts were recruited and soon France had 150.000 soldiers ready to take the field. The new recruits were nicknamed Marie-Louises for it was Napoleon’s wife, Empress Marie Louise, who had signed the recruitment order, and on account of their youth, some as young as 15. Napoleon complained of their young age and their lack of training but it had been his orders to leave garrissons behind in the besieged Pomeranian cities, and his fault to start the Peninsular War against Wellington’s army, Spain, and Portugal.
2# The War of the Sixth Coalition
Napoleon’s army marched to meet the Russians and Prussians in Saxony, one of his protectorates, where his tenderfoot recruits fared exceptionally well, winning the battles of Lützen, 2nd May, and Bautzen 20 to 21st May, east of Dresden. However, he had lost a quarter of a million during the Russian campaign, his current 8.000 couldn’t compete against Russian and Prussian 30.000, preventing him from chasing and exploiting the victory. Nevertheless, both sides were exhausted, and Napoleon agreed to a truce. During this hiatus, Metternich, Austria’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, proposed a conference in Prague to mediate between Napoleon and his foes. The conditions put in front of him were: to retreat west of the Rhine, thus abandoning its allies, the Rhine Confederation, the Kingdom of Italy and the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. In return, he’d be allowed to keep the French throne. But Napoleon couldn’t bring himself to accept a humiliating peace, to abandon the allies (who wouldn’t be so squirmish about abandoning him themselves) and forsake the sacrifice of his soldiers during all these years.
With Metternich’s attempts to diplomatically regain territory lost to Napoleon in 1809, Austria finally joined Britain, Prussia, Russia, Sweden, and other small kingdoms in the Sixth Coalition. Their summer battle plan aimed to pick Napoleon’s subordinates one by one, while avoiding an engagement with his main force in the meantime. Napoleon eased their job, by wasting Oudinot’s corps in a far-fetched operation to retake Berlin, while Vandamme and MacDonald’s corps were also mowed down after an inconsequential French victory at Dresden. To compound this, Bavaria, one of Napoleon’s oldest allies of the Rhine Confederation, suddenly deserted to the Coalition. The decisive battle was fought from 16th to 17th October 1813, when 360.000 Coalition soldiers attacked Napoleon’s 200.000 in Leipzig. Sometimes called the Battle of the Nations, it was the largest battle of European history prior to World War I, and also one of Napoleon’s largest and most decisive defeats. Saxony, whom he had refused to abandon during the Prague Conference, betrayed him too, like Bavaria and Württemberg. The Rhine Confederation was lost, and Napoleon retreated west of the Rhine, never to cross it again.
3# The brilliant general and tactician
Napoleon would have to stomach yet a third betrayal, when later that month his brother-in-law, Joachim Murat, whom Napoleon had made a Marshal and later King of Naples, sided with the Coalition in exchange for being allowed to keep his throne. He got his wish, but ironic justice would see him deposed and executed in 1815, by Ferdinand I, the restored Bourbon King of Naples. In November 1813, the Coalition offered peace terms again, the Frankfurt proposals, demanding France’s withdrawal from the Netherlands and Italy (Spain and German states having already been liberated), but allowing Napoleon to keep Belgium and the Rhineland (west bank of the Rhine). Napoleon agreed, and the Napolenic Wars might have ended here, if not for Britain’s last-minute refusal to allow France to keep Belgium, fearing Napoleon might invade Britain from there. Napoleon saw the yielding of Belgium in contradiction with his 1804 oath to protect the borders of the French Republic, and the war resumed by 1814.
By then he only had 80.000 men left to defend the Rhineland. 90.000 more in South-west France against Welington’s 121.000, and 60.000 more in Northern Italy. His enemies dwarfed him with a million in all fronts, including strategic reserves. Moreover, Napoleon also had to contend with the war-weariness of the country. The French people were aghast and tired of war, with draft evasion rising to over 30%. Nevermind that when there weren’t enough muskets and uniforms to furnish them with. In addition to, several French villages and towns gladly surrendered without a fight to the vanguard Coalition troops. But it was during this hopeless situation that Napoleon showed his military genius, by deftly moving his less than 80.000 men between three larger Coalition armies, 400.000 men in total, and scored four consecutive victories in what came to be known as the Six Day’s Campaign, between 10th to 15th February. The Duke of Wellington, one of the best generals of the day, later stated that Napoleon might have saved Paris if he had been able to continue with his strategy a little longer.
4# Abdication and exile
Napoleon counted on his countrymen to emulate the hostility of the Russians to the French invaders in 1812, while he dogged them with guerrilla war and harassed their supply lines. But instead of chasing him, the Coalition armies decide to march for Paris. The capital was neither prepared nor willing to fight on, and on 31st March, they surrendered, a far cry from the burning of the city with which the Russians had welcomed Napoleon to Moscow. Dissuaded of marching against the city by his marshals, Napoleon sent one of them, Auguste de Marmont, to discuss peace terms with the Coalition once again. Marmont took a page from Murat’s book and surrendered with his men, critically crippling Napoleon’s options. On April 2nd, the French Senate passed an act deposing him and restoring the Bourbons, with Louis XVIII, the brother of Louis XVI who was executed during the French Revolution. Reminded of his promises to put the welfare of France before his own, he bowed to the Senate’s wishes, abdicating on 6th April.
That same night he attempted to commit suicide, but a doctor arrived in time and forced him to vomit the poison. A week later the Treaty of Fontainebleau was ratified, in which Napoleon abdicated his throne in exchange for the Island of Elba, and the keeping of his imperial title for his new domain, and even a small army and navy. With four hundred guards and a small court, he bid farewell to his Imperial Guard, an event full of tears and an emotional speech. The army remained unconditional to Napoleon, and would be his main supporter during his return in 1815. Moreover, he was denied the company and sight of his wife and son, and he would never seen them again. He arrived on Portaferraio, Elba, on May 3rd, to begin his new reign.
Wedged between Italy and his native Corsica, his new island-home counted with 11.000 inhabitants. Nevermind that it was insignificant compared to the vast territory he had ruled as master of Europe, and nevermind that the Bourbons never remmited him a single Franc of the annual 1.5 million agreed in the Treaty of Fontainebleau as his pension; Napoleon was restless and bursting with incomparable drive. During his short stay he left his indelible print on the island. He reinforced defences, built, paved, and reformed the administration in the lines of France, codifying and promoting meritocracy in detriment of birthright, just as he had done elsewhere. He didn’t forget to keep tabs on news from home, asking lots of questions to visitors, although he always wisely claimed his role in international politics was over.
5# The return
Louis XVIII had failed to alleviate the people’s fears about the reestablishment of feudalism, the Ancien Régime, which had been one of the causes of the French Revolution. His unpopular policies towards the army, like the abolishment of the tricolor flag, prestigious units like the Imperial Guard, or popular Napoleonic condecorations, was resented by the veterans. They yearned for the return of their petit caporal (little corporal), their nickname for him, on account of the camaraderie they shared, and not of his stature, for Napoleon understood their psychology better than anyone. Their dreams came true when on February 26th 1815, Napoleon escaped Elba on board of the Inconstant, a brig of his small navy, avoiding both British and French squadrons. In total he had gathered eight small vessels, a thousand men, two light cannons and twenty servants. On March 1st they docked in Golfe Juan, near Cannes. Napoleon was back.
Napoleon marched north across mountains to avoid Bourbon patrols, gathering veterans and supporters as he went. A famous moment exemplifying his charisma and the respect he still instilled in the soldiers, was when he encountered the 5th regiment sent to arrest him. One version of the story says he asked the soldiers if they wanted to shoot his emperor, and they immediately dropped the muskets and embraced him. Another version tells of Napoleon talking to the soldiers in his familiar, jovial style, pinching their cheeks regardless of their rank and revising them as though they were still his own. Whatever version you choose, both left little doubt to with whom the loyalties of the French men-in-arms lay.
Later, in Lyon, he even reprimanded a batallion for not marching well. These instances showed the soldiers that Napoleon was confident in his authority. He wasn’t begging for their obedience. He had earnt it in the past and he still deserved it. Even his former Marshall, Ney, fell prey to the snowballing effect, when he was sent to intercept him. Army apart, the general feeling towards him remains more difficult to gaige. Some areas and classes supported him genuinely, while others were simply displeased with the Bourbons. Be as it may, the country was swept by a wave of euphoria, brining about a feeling of unity and national pride like that of the first days of the French Revolution. Louis XVIII fled to Belgium for lack of support, and eleven months after abdicating, Napoleon arrived to Paris on 20th March as de facto Emperor of the French. When he arrived in the Tuileries Palace, the residence of the French monarchs, he was welcomed with unseen joy and tears of joy, with cries of vive l’empereur, and vive Napoléon!
6# The Hundred Days
True to his word, he didn’t persecute anybody who had served the Bourbons, and welcomed with open arms, even those like Joseph Fouché, his former Minister of Police, who had conspired to overthrow him in the past. It was characteristic of Napoleon to be merciful, even forgetful of the slights done to him. He restored the Tricolor Flag, the Imperial Guard, military honours and regiment designations. He also revamped the political system, sharing power with the two chambers of the parliament. It was a more liberal monarchy than his first mandate, in which he had held absolute power. He eliminated Bourbon censorship and abolished slave trade entirely, declaring the end of his imperial ambitions.
This didn’t assuage the fears of Austria, Russia, Prussia, and Britain, who formed the core of the Seventh Coalition with seventeen more countries and small states, and sworn not to put the arms down until the Corsican outlaw was defeated and ousted. But to bring their impressive force of 850.000 men to the French borders they needed time, specially the Russians and the Austrians, so Napoleon judged the British and Prussians under Wellington and Blücher, cantoned near Brussels, to be the most immediate threat. He could only hope a decisive victory against them might knock off one or both, out of the war, or at the very least buy him time to fight the Austrians and Russians one by one as opposed to all together like in 1814. Napoleon brought his army close to 200.000, plus several extra thousand training in the depots, although they were badly wanting in training, morale and equipment, Moreover, he had to divert 20.000 to steam a royalist rising in the Vendée, and at his disposal were only left four marshals: Davout, Bey, Soult and Grouchy; as opposed to the eleven to fifteen he had always had during previous campaigns.
Napoleon took around 130.000 men while the rest covered the Italian, Swiss, Spanish and Rhine borders. He marched north, sending Ney with a corps to delay Wellington’s Anglo-Dutch army at Quatre Bras, south of Brussels, while he dealt with Blücher. He aimed to prevent them joining forces and outnumber him, and initially he succeeded in driving out the Prussians, near Ligny, on 16th June. At noon of the following day, he sent Grouchy with 30.000 to harass the retreating Prussians, thus ignoring one of his military maxims: no force should be divided before a battle. For he was marching to battle Wellington near the town of Waterloo.
7# The Battle of Waterloo
On 17th June, the eve of the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon was uncharacteristically lethargic. He spent barely any time on horseback to inspect the field and the troops, as it was his wont. There is some evidence pointing to his suffering hemorroids, which prevented him from riding for too long. Moreover, at 46, he was overweight, the tireless energy of his mid twenties slacked, and he had barely slept. And for a second time that day, Napoleon ignored another of his military maxims: never do what the enemy wishes you to do, by allowing the skilful Wellington to choose the ground. And yet a third serving when he refused to attack Wellington on the first light of the 18th, waiting for the ground to dry for the artillery.
Instead, he ordered the attack at 11am, unknowingly giving Blücher’s forces plenty of time to come to Wellington’s aid. Had he attacked at dawn, he would have had extra time to break Wellington’s lines without Prussian interference, but by 4pm the latter were already engaging his right flank, depriving him of crucial units for the main offensive against Wellington. Napoleon wasn’t alone in erring that fatidic day, his generals too seemed infected by the same maladroitness. Marshal Davout, the best commander of Napoleon had been left in Paris as governor; Grouchy, engaging Blücher’s rearguard in Wavre, failed to rush to Waterloo once he heard the French grand battery thundering in the distance; while Ney led an unsupported 10.000 men cavalry charge against Wellington’s centre. To the day it’s unclear who ordered or whether someone ordered it at all, for both Napoleon and Ney denied it.
The British formed squares and used bayonets to repell the charges―a very effective tactic against cavalry―but this let them weak against the horse artillery that Ney had brought forward. This was the breaking point, when Napoleon used to order his reserve, the fearsome elite troops of the Imperial Guard to rush to widen Wellington’s gap, a drop to start the flood that washes away the enemy. But Napoleon refused the entreaties of his generals just as he had done in the battle of Borodino, and the opportunity slipped through his fingers. When he finally commited them, it was to be too late. Dutch artillery pounded them hard and they fell back, demoralised. Someone shouted “La Garde recule. Sauve qui peut!” (The Guard is retreating. Every man for himself!). Never before the Imperial Guard had been routed, and when the rest of the French troops saw, their spirit disintegrated and they fled. It was the end. Two reserves of the Old Guard sacrificed themselves to cover the retreat of their emperor and his shattered army.
8# The second exile
When news of the defeat reached Paris, it wasn’t long until the two chambers formed a provisional government and demanded Napoleon’s abdication. He contemplated shutting down the chambers and keeping the fight on, but finally abided, and abdicated for a second time on June 22nd. On July 8th Louis XVIII was restored again. 111 days had passed since Napoleon arriving from Elba, thus the period is known as the Hundred Days. For a time, he hoped to be allowed to retire in the U.S., his erstwhile ally against Britain, but rightly fearing execution at the hands of the Bourbons or the Prussians, he finally decided to surrender to the British. On 15th July, he handed himself to Captain Maitland, on HMS Bellerophon, thus concluding the Napoleonic Wars.
Fearing a reptition of his Elba escape, Britain decided to exile him to the remote island of Saint Helena, where he and his small cadre of followers arrived on board of the HMS Northumberland, on October 15th 1815. Saint Helena was and still is, an overseas British possession almost 2000 km west of Africa. Literally, in the middle of nowhere and far for from everything. With Jamestown as the only viable harbour and British ships patrolling around, Napoleon must have known he would die there. While his final residence of Longwood House was fixed and refurbished, he resided in Jamestown for two months, where he struck friendship with Betsy Balcombe, the fourteen-year-old daughter of his hosts. Like with his son, Napoleon was always at ease around children, and entered at their games with equal glee as though he was of their age.
9# Saint Helena
Although the weather on island is tempered tropical, Longwood House sits on a plateau with a nasty microclimate of its own: windy, cloudy three hundred days a year and with humidity over 70%. Everything there was damp, from furniture and wallpaper to the cards Napoleon used, and which had to be dried in the oven. Moreover, Longwood had constant infestations of rats, mosquitoes, cockroaches, midgets, mosquitoes and termites. But it was the easier place on the island to guard and keep a watchful eye on Napoleon, with around a hundred soldiers. But things were about to get even worse for him, when Hudson Lowe took the post of Island Governor in 1816. Napoleon had gotten exceptionally well with all the British officers before, but in the tactless Lowe he found his match. Although not a cruel man, Lowe was described by Wellington as: “wanting in education and judgement. A stupid man”.
When not quarrelling with Lowe, Napoleon spent his days in Longwood House learning English, taking baths, playing chess, receiving visitors, and reading aloud or narrating his adventures to the audience. He also begun dictating a biography about Julius Caesar, and his memories, the latter published after his death to become the most sold bestseller of the 19th century. He had a prodigious memory to be sure, able to recall the troop dispositions of all his battles, but also self-serving, thus contributing to reinforce the Napoleonic myth. Around that time he likely had an affair with Madame Albine de Montholon, wife of French general Charles Tristan, both having joined Napoleon on his exile. Albine’s daughter, Hélène Napoleone, might have been the last of Napoleon’s illegitimate offspring. Such lovers’ arrangements weren’t unusual at the times amongst the French aristocracy.
10# Napoleon’s death
In 1816, Napoleon begun showing further signs of ill health. He stopped taking walks and ride on horse. He refused to eat fruit and vegetables, and refused doctor prescriptions. He suffered depression and his condition further deteriorated by 1820: he breathed with difficulty, suffered from swelling extremities, headhaches, gum ache, excited bowels, liver problems, and perhaps he also had hepatitis B. Soon he couldn’t stand on its own and grew weak by the day. By February 1821, he had lost 22 to 33 pounds, vomited daily, his complexion was tallow and pale like a corpse, his cheeks sunken and coughed and spat a lot. Knowing the end was near, he wrote his last will on April 1821.
On April 26th he begun vomiting blood and on May 3rd, he received extreme unction, thus being received back to the Catholic Church that had excommunicated him. His last words spoken in the delirium were: France, the Army, Head of the Army, Josephine. Although before that, he apparently mumbled of bequeathing his only legitimate son, Napoléon François, with the family state of his native Ajaccio. On his deathbed, the great general, statesman and emperor who had held Europe on the palm of his hand, reverted to the Corsican landowner of the petite noblese. At 5.49pm on Saturday May 5th, he passed away after giving three sighs, right after the island sunset gun had fired.
11# Legacy and accomplishments
Napoleon was buried a mile off Longwood, but his remains were finally removed and taken to Paris in 1840, to be buried there as he had petitioned. Witness of the awe he still inspired even in death, his funerary cortege was attended by one million Frenchmen, and he was put to rest in Les Invalides, where he remains to the day. Because dangerous amounts of arsenic were found on samples from his hair, there hasn’t been a lack of finger pointing at Lowe and the British as the poisoners of Napoleon. But many of Napoleon’s contemporanies were also found to have unhealthy levels of arsenic. Furthermore, the autopsy had been conclusive: Napoleon died of stomach cancer, like the one that killed his father at 38, and which also killed his sisters Pauline and Caroline. In fact, the doctors were astounded he had lived for that long with such damaged organ.
The legacy of Napoleon is vast and complex, neither lacking in critics and admirers. In the military aspect he showed an acumen only seen in the likes of Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar. His record more than prove this, fighting more than sixty battles and only losing seven. Although he wasn’t a military theorist, he refined and perfected the existing strategy in France, and understood a soldier’s mind better than anyone, with his introduction of sought awards like the Legion of Honour (which still stands) and regimental pride. On the downside, he failed to recognise his enemies’ swift adoption of his corps system and military reforms. And his command of sea strategy was as lacking as his command in land was exceptional. His vanquisher, the Duke of Wellington said after hearing of his death: “Now I can say I’m the most successful general alive”. Praise coming from a foe is invaluable, even more if it came from a man whose military record almost equalled that of Napoleon himself.
His civil achievements are far more outlasting than the military though. He purged the most dangerous elements of the French Revolution, the Jacobinism, economic and political instability, civil unrest, etc; and tempered the positive aspects: rationalism in government aimed to improve the lives of its citizens, equality before the law, a culture of meritocracy, religious freedom, property rights, secular education, efficient police system, sound finances and efficient administration. All integrated in his code, the Napoleonic Code, which is the base for European law today, and forty other countries have adapted parts of it. Perhaps his greatest legacy, together with the standardization of state education, the Lycées, for he believed education was to be the sword and shield of the future generations of Frenchmen.
He was accused of warmongering and of being tyrannical and despotical, of being the sole responsible of the almost four million deaths of the Napoleonic wars. There’s no denying he was a soldier first and foremost, and put his soldiers’ and Frenchmen welfare before that of other European nations. And his first mandate resembled an unffetered dictatorship, another absolutist monarchy. But weren’t Austria, Russia and Prussia absolute monarchies, with the exception of Britain? And he wasn’t more of a warmonger than the others, in a world where before his rise to power all European countries had been squabbling with each other for centuries. With the exception of Russia in 1812, and Spain and Portugal in 1808, all wars were declared on him, and not viceversa. A fact that speaks on its own. Neither he was the vengeful Corsican they depicted him to be. Executed for political reasons under his rule can be counted with the fingers of one hand―most famous the Duke of Enghien―and even those who conspired to overthrow him like Talleyrand and Fouché, were pardoned, and even brought back to service in the case of the latter. An unheard, merciful and shortsighted behaviour, even for modern standards.
He resumed slavery in Saint-Domingue and only abolished it completely by 1815, but didn’t Britain outlaw slavery completely only by 1833? Didn’t Russia abolish serfdom, a form of indentured servitude, only in 1861? Didn’t the Coalition usher a more reactionary Ancien Régime after Napoleon’s defeat, in which ideas of equality, legality and moderate freedom exported by Napolenic France were quashed, and calls for reform and parliaments repressed? But these staple values of the French Revolution had been like a spark, spread by the hurricane force that was Napoleon, and in time would grow and consume the old feudal world of kings and peasants. He was a man of boundless energy and peerless vision, incomparable. Without him the world would be very different today. Without the man who was born into a petty noble family of the backwater island of Corsica, and showed the world how much a single man can achieve. This is the legend of Napoleon the Great.