1814 Napoleon’s First End Part II

Allied entry into Paris 1814, Painting by Aleksey Danilovich Kivshenko.
Allied entry into Paris 1814, Painting by Aleksey Danilovich Kivshenko.

For the emperor, however, cheer was still to be found in the continued devotion shown by some soldiers. In Paris, one last parade saw Napoleon entrust Marie-Louise and the King of Rome to the garrison prior to his departure for the front: ‘The enthusiasm generated by the emperor when he took the young king in his arms . . . can never be forgotten by its witnesses. Frenetic and prolonged cries of “Vive l’empereur!” moved from the Hall of Marshals to the national guard assembled in the Carrousel . . . These demonstrations of so true a love for his son moved the emperor: he kissed the young prince with a warmth that escaped none in the audience.’ Instead of listening to the calls for peace with which he was bombarded, Napoleon therefore chose to fight on in the hope of improving his bargaining position, striking hard and fast at a succession of allied commanders as they invaded eastern France.

At first it seemed he might succeed. Suffering five major defeats in three weeks, the shaken Allies offered peace on the basis of the frontiers of 1792. But once again Napoleon had been too successful for his own good, electing to fight on in the hope of forcing the resurrection of the Frankfurt proposals. It was his last mistake. Though his improvised armies had performed prodigies of valour, little more could be expected from them, while, recovering their nerve, the Allies now pressed for the frontiers of 1791.

Whether Napoleon could still have achieved anything on the battlefield remains a moot point among historians, but in fact the question is irrelevant. The French state was falling apart. Even the most enthusiastic Jacobins were not fooled by the regime’s attempts to evoke the spirit of 1793, while the bulk of the population was furiously hostile to the demands of the regime for yet more men, and angry at the depredations of the half-starved French army. ‘Everywhere Napoleon was execrated,’ wrote the former member of the Committee of Public Safety, Bertrand Barère. ‘A general wish prevailed that the foreigners might be defeated and driven from France, and yet the victories of the emperor were dreaded because they were likely to encourage him in his despotism.’ In those areas penetrated by the Austrians, Prussians and Russians, there was much brutality on the part of the invaders, and this produced a few instances of popular resistance, but where the Allies behaved well, as was almost invariably the case in the areas occupied by Wellington, the enemy troops had a friendly welcome. As one of Wellington’s officers remembered, ‘The English army became popular in time. All the supplies were paid in gold by us, while their own army did not respect property. It was said at the time that Marshal Soult remarked, “I may expect to find by-and-by that the inhabitants will take up arms against us.” ’ In the confusion there were frequent disturbances by the population. ‘The peasants in the district of Gourdon . . . endured the execrable and ruinous yoke of the customs dues with impatience. They flocked together to Gourdon on market-day to the number of 4,000, piled up the books and registers of the custom-house in the middle of the public square and set fire to them after expelling all the officials.’ The elites were no more enamoured of the regime than the people, and expressions of support for the Bourbons began to multiply dramatically. And, last but not least, Napoleon’s intransigence had driven the Allies closer together, an agreement reached on 1 March committing all of the powers to total victory over the emperor. ‘People realized,’ wrote the Duchess of Reggio, ‘that, by yielding a certain number of his conquests in preceding years, the emperor might have saved France this invasion; that a little later, the line of the Rhine would at least have been left to him; that, even at the time we had reached, if he would only give the Duke of Vicenza (his representative at the congress of Châtillon) the latitude which that zealous functionary demanded, he would still obtain supportable conditions of peace. Peace! The cry was in every heart, for of glory, the everyday food of the country, France had had a sufficient share.’

As to Napoleon’s state of mind as this veritable twilight of the gods unfolded, we have no better guide than the memoirs of Caulaincourt, who had at the last minute been restored as Foreign Minister and sent to represent France at the abortive peace talks that opened at Châtillon:

The break-up of the congress was inevitable. I had long anticipated this, and had foretold it to the emperor, who, deceiving himself with his habitual and unhappy illusions, was doubtless unwilling to believe it. He kept flattering himself that a military success would drive the enemy away from the capital, that after the enemy had had the slightest reverse, the exasperation and courage of the citizens would force a withdrawal from France. He wrote to the Emperor of Austria, and he had the Prince of Neuchâtel write to Prince Schwarzenberg, as though the negotiations were being held 150 leagues from Paris, as though there were some hope of disuniting powers that had been brought together by a common peril, regardless of any concern other than to escape from the supremacy and sway of the cabinet of the Tuileries . . . For the time being there was but one aim: to subdue France – to chain up Napoleon’s power and reach a state of rest . . . But the emperor . . . did not submit to sacrificing for his personal safety the departments which the arms of the Republic had won . . . As I have said already, he gauged everyone’s zeal by his own . . . Hoping for a piece of luck, he wished to make time for it to happen, and, instead of answering my dispatches, he sent me nothing but bulletins of victories, so-called . . . as if . . . the winning of a fight against a single corps could change the basis of affairs . . . Dangers crowded upon him, encompassed him, oppressed him, from every side, but he thought to escape from them, and even to hide them from others, by misrepresenting them to himself.

This analysis was confirmed by the reception Caulaincourt received on his return to Napoleon’s headquarters. As reported by the unfortunate envoy, the emperor’s talk had become even more rambling and incoherent than it had been in the wake of the retreat from Moscow:

Battle of Paris 1814.
Battle of Paris 1814.

To humble us – that is what our enemies wish, but death is better. I am too old a campaigner to hang on to life: I will never sign away France’s honour . . . All the high officials are frightened, even the ministers . . . The peasants of Burgundy and the Champagne have more spirit than all the men on my council: you all have the shivers. The word runs that the counter-revolution is complete because the mayor of Bordeaux has turned traitor. No one understands the French but me: indignation will follow on the heels of dejection. You will see what is going to happen before a week is out. The whole population will be under arms; we shall have to come to the enemy’s rescue to stop the violence; they will slaughter everything that has a foreign look to it. We will make a fight of it, Caulaincourt. If the nation supports me, the enemy is nearer ruin than I am for anger is running high. I cut the allied communications: they have numbers, but no support. I rally some of my garrisons, wipe out one of their corps, and the slightest reverse can drive them away. They know what their last retreat has already cost them: another move like that and not one of them escapes. If I am beaten, it is better to fall gloriously than subscribe to terms such as the Directory would not have accepted after their Italian reverses. If I have support, I can regain everything. If fortune deserts me, the country will not be able to reproach me with the breaking of my coronation oath.

The reality, though, was one of misery and horror. The populace of eastern France was not, as Napoleon kept insisting, turning on the invaders, but rather trying desperately to survive. Among them was the writer Charles de Pougens and his niece, Louise de Saint-Léon. Caught in Soissons by the invasion, they first experienced the terrors of siege and assault:

Taking refuge . . . in a ground-level room whose firmly sealed shutters kept us plunged in complete darkness, we listened with many shudders to the explosion of the bombs that rained around us; one shell fell with a terrifying crash in the garden barely a hundred paces from where we were, and reduced a very large tree to dust. Soon afterwards . . . Soissons was taken by assault . . . and the Russians hurled themselves on the ramparts emitting cries, or rather screams, that made us tremble. I won’t go into any detail on the terrible events that followed: all that I will say is that the massacre of our poor soldiers and the pillage of the town lasted for a full hour.

Soissons was liberated soon after, but Pougens and his family chose to flee to Louise’s home in the nearby village of Vauxbuin. This, however, proved an unfortunate choice. On 2 March, 6,000 Cossacks descended on the village. Pougens managed at first to keep the group safe by persuading the commander that he had been a correspondent of the wife of Paul I, but no sooner had the Cossacks departed than a large group of stragglers appeared and sacked Louise’s house. Utterly terrified, left almost without food and constantly threatened by further bands of marauders, Pougens and his family then made their way on foot to Nanteuil, where they managed to board a stagecoach bound for Paris. But in the capital things were little better. Working on the staff of one of the city’s main hospitals was the young surgeon, Poumiès de la Siboutie:

Fighting was going on at the gates of Paris. The wounded were brought in in hundreds. We were soon overcrowded. Every available inch of space was filled: the ordinary sick had to be sent to their homes; the pensioners . . . and the incurables were turned out of their wards and herded together in dark corners and attics. Before long even that was not enough, and two patients were assigned to every bed. Each day fresh means had to be devised to house the steadily increasing tide of sick and wounded. The unfortunate fellows dragged themselves to Paris, animated by a feverish desire to obtain shelter and succour. Some fell exhausted on the very steps of the hospital and expired as they reached the haven of a bed. Many had sores and wounds which had not been dressed for days, if ever. Every morning the hospital hearses bore thirty or forty corpses to their long rest. It was the same in all the other asylums and hospitals.

Meanwhile, as even some of Napoleon’s most loyal subordinates admitted, the propaganda of the regime had little effect, and was, indeed, counter-productive:

The Moniteur was filled with all the complaints, with all the lamentations, of the wretched inhabitants of Montmirail, of Montereau and of Nangis . . . All the towns which had been afflicted with the scourge of war sent deputies to Paris to describe their misery and demand vengeance . . . The great examples of antiquity were invoked; France was reminded of her achievements in 1792 . . . But, it must be confessed, these measures produced at Paris and in all the great towns an effect quite contrary to that which was expected from them. The inhabitants were too civilized to adopt the decisive conduct of the Russians and the Spaniards. The imagination of the citizens was shocked at the violence of the measures suggested to them . . . and peace was loudly demanded as the period of so many horrors.