Napoleon and his staff are returning from Soissons after the battle of Laon.
The war, then, continued. Back in France Napoleon proceeded to try to rebuild his fortunes. Already a fiction, the French kingdom of Spain was now abandoned: Joseph Bonaparte had already been brusquely sacked in the wake of Vitoria, and, deciding that the moment was ripe to cut his losses, Napoleon now sent a message to Madrid offering to release the imprisoned Ferdinand VII on the understanding that he would make peace with France and expel the Anglo-Portuguese. When these terms were firmly rejected, he decided to release Ferdinand anyway, but while chaos ensued – the result was a military coup that restored absolutism – it was much too late to make any difference. What was left of France’s Peninsular army was therefore going to have to keep fighting in the south-west.
Nor was it of the slightest account that the emperor also released the Pope and directed him to make his way to Rome. Without the resources of the Grande Empire, the regime’s demands soared. Taxes shot up dramatically: land tax rose by 95 per cent and property tax by 100 per cent. As for manpower, in addition to the 350,000 men called up between January and April 1813, and another 30,000 men called up in August, October saw a demand for 120,000 men from the classes of 1809 to 1814 and 160,000 men from the class of 1815, this being followed a month later by a second demand for 300,000 from the classes of 1803 to 1814. And, as if this was not enough, another 180,000 men were mobilized for service as members of the National Guard. This was a levée en masse such as France had not seen since 1793. Alongside it, indeed, the 500,000 men raised under the Terror paled into insignificance.
The impact of all this was catastrophic. The war had already been unpopular in France, but the atmosphere produced by the news of Leipzig was one of growing panic. As Pasquier wrote:
There was no longer any hope in anything: every illusion had been destroyed. There were certainly long columns in Le Moniteur full of patriotic addresses and expressions of devotion on the part of every corporation, every town council, but this official language had the appearance of a practical joke. It would have been much better by far for the government to have maintained a dignified silence.
If confirmation was needed of the state to which France was reduced, it was the sights that accompanied the arrival of the survivors of the German campaign. ‘The army returned in the most dreadful condition,’ wrote Lavallette. ‘The number of sick and wounded was immense; the hospitals and private houses were not enough to contain them, and that most deadly malady, typhus fever, attacked not only the army, but every village and town through which it passed.’ As for fresh recruits, there were scarcely any to be had, still less any will to send them.
France had long since been exhausted, not so much of money . . . but of men. This last scarcity . . . threw whole families into despair and want. They really were bled to the uttermost. The poor man had to give his last son and in him lost his support, and in the fields it was often the women and girls who led the plough . . . And the same disasters occurred in the towns. Numbers of families condemned themselves perpetually to cripple their fortunes in order to save the young man whom other measures ended by reaching . . . The crepe with which the Russian and Leipzig campaigns had covered France had not yet disappeared; bitter tears were still being shed.
Despair, then, was widespread, and to this was added political disaffection. In few parts of the country was royalism much of a force. According to Rochechouart, ‘With the exception of the nobility, the clergy and a few wealthy members of the old bourgeoisie, the majority of the populace did not even know the name of Louis XVIII.’87 But anger at the increased demands of the state inflamed old political antagonisms. Following the Leipzig campaign, for example, Marbot had ended up at Mons in the former Austrian Netherlands. As he wrote, ‘I found the spirit of the population changed. There was a regret for the old paternal government of Austria, and a keen desire for separation from France, and the perpetual wars which were ruining commerce and industry. In short, Belgium was only awaiting the opportunity to revolt . . . From my hotel I could see every day 3,000 or 4,000 peasants and artisans assembling in the square and listening to the talk of certain retired Austrian officers . . . All French officials left the department to take refuge at Valenciennes and Cambrai.’ At Mons serious trouble was averted by vigorous action on the part of the garrison, but at nearby Hazebrouck there was serious rioting. And even where there was no overt resistance, draft evasion once again became a serious problem, and with it a renewal of brigandage. Almost everywhere there was a mood of barely suppressed fury. ‘Observant minds saw plainly that the emperor had already lost his head, and that he would soon lose his crown. Consequently public opinion was violently opposed to him. His military and financial operations were loudly blamed. No longer dreaded, he became the butt of diatribes, satirical songs, lampoons, and all the other offensive weapons employed by French public opinion.’ Even attempts to play on fears of invasion had no effect: ‘I was at the Vaudeville,’ wrote the Duc de Broglie. ‘The police had given orders for the performance there of an appropriate play, in which Cossacks plundered a village, pursued young girls, and set fire to the barns: the piece was outrageously hissed from the very beginning, interrupted by the noise from the pit, and could not be terminated.’
Needless to say, the consequent social instability undermined the loyalty even of the regime’s own personnel, who as notables inevitably had much to lose, as well as no desire to return to the days of Jacobinism and the levée en masse which a desperate emperor now seemed to be trying to revive. Not only was the rhetoric of the regime increasingly echoing that of 1793 , but Napoleon sent out extraordinary commissioners in the style of the old députés en mission, introduced a number of measures intended to redistribute land to the peasantry, and decreed the formation of a volunteer militia drawn from unemployed workers in Paris and other towns of northern France. With a royalist restoration no longer a serious threat in social and economic terms – on 1 February 1813 Louis XVIII had issued a well-publicized declaration in which he promised generally to respect the status quo – the political establishment saw no reason to support a fight to the finish. Already in December 1813 the corps législatif had effectively demanded that Napoleon make peace immediately. Further signs of disaffection now appeared in the administration and the propertied classes. The prefects and their deputies began to refuse to carry out their orders, to connive at draft evasion and the non-payment of taxes, and even to abscond altogether, while the bond issue of 200 million francs the regime had authorized to finance the war effort at the beginning of the year proved a disaster. Typical enough was the attitude of the former governor of the Grand Duchy of Berg, Count Beugnot, who in the winter of 1813 was appointed to the prefecture of the department of the Nord: ‘I gave up trying to levy conscripts. More than that, I sent home the young men from the leading families of the department who had been swept into the Gardes d’Honneur, and put an end to the persecution that had been directed against their parents . . . And, finally, loudly proclaiming that, in the situation that the department might find itself at any moment, all its people together would not be enough to defend it, I promised that no one who was called up would be expected to serve outside its limits.’
The new armies, then, were not forthcoming. Asked to provide 5,000 men, for example, Seine Inférieure managed only 1,457, and the country as a whole raised only 63,000 . Even had more men appeared, there were few arms. Many of the National Guard, for example, were armed with no more than pikes and fowling pieces. Faced with disaster, the emperor displayed immense energy – ‘He goes to bed at eleven o’clock,’ his secretary, Baron Fain, told a concerned Lavallette, ‘but he gets up at three in the morning and until evening there is not a moment when he is not working.’ But no quantity of orders could change matters, and Fain admitted that his master was ‘utterly tired out’. Yet there was still no mention of peace. ‘Peace! Peace! It’s easy enough to say the word,’ Napoleon shouted at Beugnot, ‘Am I to give up all that I possess in Germany? I have 100,000 men in the fortresses along the Elbe, in Hamburg and in Danzig. If the enemy are foolish enough to cross the Rhine, I will march to meet them . . . and have my garrisons fall on their rear, and then you will see the meaning of the word débâcle.’ However, in reality, Napoleon’s power was on its last legs. In northern Italy, it is true, Eugène de Beauharnais was still holding the line of the Adige, but, having first led his army northwards on the pretext of reinforcing the defenders, Murat suddenly declared against the emperor in a desperate bid to save his throne. In the meantime Bentinck was preparing to set sail for the north from Sicily with an Anglo-Sicilian expeditionary force. Of the Polish strongholds, all had fallen, and in Germany only Hamburg, Wittenberg and Torgau still held out. Still worse, the erstwhile members of the Confederation of the Rhine were all mobilizing large numbers of conscripts, some of them enrolled in popular militias of the same sort as those seen in Prussia. In Denmark and Norway, Danish resistance was being crushed by Swedish troops. Yet another British expeditionary force was being readied for service in Holland. And in France there were only 85,000 men to defend the eastern frontier against an initial total of at least 350,000 Allies, while another 40,000 Frenchmen were facing 90,000 British, Portuguese and Spaniards in the south-west. With reinforcements almost non-existent, it was hardly surprising that many of the emperor’s closest confidants were begging him to make peace on whatever terms he could get: ‘With a blunt frankness only pardonable for its sincerity, I told him that France was worn out, that the country could not bear much longer the intolerable burden under which it was crushed, and that the people would throw off the yoke in order to surrender themselves, in accordance with their unfortunate habit, to some novelty . . . Particularly I spoke a good deal to him concerning the Bourbons, who would end by inheriting the spoils of his monarchy if ill-luck should overthrow him.’