1814 Napoleon’s First End Part III


Defense of Clichy during the battle of Paris.

With matters in such a state, the end came quickly. Though Napoleon continued to fight and manoeuvre relentlessly, he could achieve little. On 9 March Bentinck had landed at Livorno from where, having issued a call for a national revolt against the French that met with no response whatsoever, he marched on Genoa. On 12 March Bordeaux had proclaimed Louis XVIII, its authorities having first made sure that they would be immediately relieved by the Anglo-Portuguese army. As in 1870 and 1940, refugees were streaming west, adding to the confusion. Among those who fled Paris as the enemy closed in was the wife of Marshal Oudinot:

The Versailles road was free . . . We let the empress, her suite and her escort set out, and at about four o’clock in the afternoon we ourselves departed . . . It was almost dark when we arrived. We took possession of two adjacent rooms in an already crowded house in the Rue de l’Orangerie. During the whole night an incessant and confused noise told us of the passage of a large number of men, horses and carriages, and soon the daylight revealed the most astonishing sight that human eyes perhaps have ever looked upon. We stood motionless at our windows. What we saw passing . . . was the empire, the empire . . . with all its pomp and splendour, the ministers . . . the entire council of state, the archives, the crown diamonds, the administrations. And instalments of power and magnificence were mingled on the road with humble households who had heaped up on a barrow all they had been able to carry away from the houses which they were abandoning.

At this point, the army finally broke as well: with the soldiers deserting in droves, at Lyons Augereau simply abandoned his headquarters and in Paris Marmont first surrendered the city, and then led his troops over to the enemy.

It was a climactic moment. With Alexander I and Frederick William III both in the capital, the initiative was now seized by Talleyrand, who had been living there in semi-retirement and now set about persuading the allied monarchs that Napoleon had to go. A rather doubtful Alexander had to be persuaded by some hastily organized demonstrations of support for Louis XVIII, but on1 April the allied monarchs issued a declaration that they would no longer treat with Napoleon or any of his family, and that France’s future government would be decided by the wishes of the French people as expressed by an immediate meeting of the Senate. Stage-managed by Talleyrand, this event could have had but one end. On 2 April the Senate proclaimed Napoleon to be deposed and formally invited Louis XVIII to return to France. Meanwhile, Napoleon was at Fontainebleau with 60,000 men. Though the emperor was still ready to fight on, his remaining commanders could take no more and on 4 April Napoleon was bluntly informed that he must abdicate. The war was not quite over: if only because news of the armistice reached him too late, Wellington fought one last battle at Toulouse on 10 April, while various isolated garrisons also held on for a few more days. But this was a mere detail. Forced to yield to force majeure, on 28 April the emperor sailed for the Elban exile decreed by a treaty negotiated with him at Fontainebleau. The peace of Europe had been restored.

So what finally brought down Napoleon? Certainly not some mythical ‘people’s war’, nor even a general decision to employ the weapons of the French Revolution against him. The answer, of course, is in part to be found in Napoleon himself. Tired, far from healthy, and increasingly living in a world of fantasy, he threw away his only hope of victory in Russia, and then proceeded repeatedly to reject peace offers that would have left him ruler of a country larger than it had been when war began in 1792. In the words of a song popular in the British army of the period, ‘Boney was a warrior’ and, as such, there could be no peace except one based on the complete subordination of his opponents – that did not, in short, represent the very apotheosis of military glory. Even as late as 1812, this was not a problem in political terms, for Napoleon possessed the resources of an imperium that stretched from the Pyrenees to the Pripet. But pursued in the very different circumstances of 1813 and, still more so, 1814, it was another matter entirely. Forced to make demands of France of a sort which domination of ever greater areas of the Continent had shielded her from ever since 1799, if not 1793, the emperor shattered the acquiescence – often grudging – with which his rule had hitherto been accepted, while at the same time betraying the interests of the propertied elements that were the real bedrock of his regime. Just as damaging, meanwhile, was the impact on the loyalty of Napoleon’s satellites: in June 1813, for example, every interest of the ‘Third Germany’ encapsulated by the Confederation of the Rhine lay in a compromise peace that would have seen a Grand Duchy of Warsaw that the emperor could not protect restored to Austria and Prussia, but compared with the emperor’s personal prestige, the interests of Maximilian of Bavaria and the rest were as nothing. Preferring to ‘go for broke’, he jeopardized every gain they had made in the last ten years and in the process thought nothing of throwing open their peaceful domains to the horrors of war. With their loyalties tested beyond endurance, the princes were therefore thrown willy-nilly into the arms of Metternich, and this, of course, intensified the pressure on France still further.

To a certain extent the emperor’s reputation has been shielded from the impact of the complete lack of realism he displayed in the last year of his reign by the extraordinary last-ditch defence which he mounted in the face of the Allies’ invasion of France. Even now, in fact, admirers of the emperor still solemnly dream of what might have happened if only Marmont had not surrendered Paris, or the French people had not betrayed their great saviour. Nothing, however, could be more misleading. In the campaign of 1814- generally agreed to have been one of the most masterly of his entire career – Napoleon certainly achieved much local success, but this was simply the reflection of a situation in which the grande armée was no longer grande. Able to manoeuvre his army with something of his old celerity, Napoleon was also able to make himself physically visible to far more of his troops than had been the case in either 1812 or 1813 : at Arcis-sur-Aube, he even fought sword in hand at the head of his escort and was almost killed when a shell burst directly under his horse. Once again, then, his extraordinary personal magnetism was able to inspire the teenage boys who formed the mainstay of his last army and the result was feats of heroism as great as anything seen in the Napoleonic Wars. Of these perhaps the greatest example was the battle of La Fère-Champenoise (25 February 1814) in which two National Guard divisions fought a desperate rearguard action and in the process lost all but 500 of their 4,000 men. There were therefore advantages to be found in weakness, but in 1814 they were no longer enough to turn the scales in the same way as they had in Italy in 1796, and, if Napoleon thought they could, it is but one more reason to doubt his grasp of the realities of his position.

By contrast, in the allied high command there gradually emerged a structure of authority that succeeded in both containing and channelling the many strains and tensions that beset the Sixth Coalition. One by one the allied rulers, or at least powerful representatives thereof, appeared at a common headquarters; joint strategies were evolved for dealing with the successive stages in the campaign; and, at key moments, major decisions involving all the coalition armies were taken that allowed the Allies to respond effectively to changing circumstances. On 24 March 1814, for example, it was decided to march straight down the river Marne towards Paris irrespective of anything that Napoleon might do to attack the allied rear. Almost to the end there was no unity in terms of war aims – the treaty of Chaumont committed the Allies to fighting on until Napoleon was defeated, but it did not insist on his removal from the throne, still less a Bourbon restoration – but methods were also elaborated that from the start militated against any of the powers reneging on the alliance altogether. From March 1813 onwards none of the powers fighting on the German front ever sent its forces into action in isolation: in the Leipzig campaign, for example, Bernadotte’s Army of the North was a mixture of Swedes and Prussians, Schwarzenberg’s Army of Bohemia a mixture of Austrians, Russians and Prussians and Blücher’s Army of Silesia a mixture of Prussians and Russians. And when quarrels did erupt in the allied camp, as for example, when Schwarzenberg, for strategic reasons, ordered allied forces to enter Switzerland after Alexander had promised to respect her neutrality, they were at no time allowed to become so bitter as to endanger the future of the war against Napoleon. Time and again, indeed, difficult situations were saved by renewed bouts of negotiation. For all the Allies there was a recognition that in the end the problem of Napoleon could only be resolved through maintaining allied unity. Against hegemony was pitted compromise, and in the end it was compromise that proved the stronger.