"At the head of the army"

(To Paolo Palumbo)
05/05/19

On the evening of 15 June 1815 ended an era in which the god of war had triumphed over the fields of half of Europe, crossed the waves of all the oceans and finally extinguished his passion in a trivial plain of Belgium. The French empire crumbled at Waterloo and finally the English, its irreducible enemies, managed to put an end to the dominion of the "small corporal", but above all to the danger he represented for the European balance.

After the defeat, the emperor still had some hope for his future: the winners, although with a heart full of anger, could not treat him as any prisoner. Napoleon's expectations, however, were soon disillusioned because in Paris someone had been preparing for some months the future of France. The Duke of Otranto and Minister of Police Joseph Fouché wrote after Waterloo: “It was then that I felt the need to implement all the available resources deriving from my position and my experience. The defeat of the emperor, his presence in Paris that raises general indignation, puts me in the most favorable circumstances to obtain from him the abdication to which he opposed when instead he could have saved him "1. Fouche lied, since he had stopped believing in Napoleon years ago, knowing that his escape from the Island of Elba would not have brought him anything good. Already during some meetings of the fateful "One Hundred Days", the emperor and the Duke of Otranto had been at loggerheads: "You betray me, Signor Duke of Otranto" - Napoleon once said - "You might as well take this knife and sink it in your chest, it would be fairer"2.

When he returned to the capital it was therefore already decided: Napoleone, crushed by the will of the Council and the Chambers, signed his second and last abdication.

A man like Bonaparte, however, did not know how to give up power easily: until the end he tried to cling to it, even proposing himself as a simple general following the army. Nothing, however, could preserve him from his sad destiny: an exile in a remote place where no one would ever have reached it and from which he could no longer escape.

The 29 June, after repeated insistence on the part of Fouché and Talleyrand - the true orchestra conductors after Waterloo - persuaded the fallen ruler to embark for Rochefort for a destination not yet specified. The emperor hoped to get a safe conduct towards the United States, but the British still feared it too much and had no intention of accepting impositions.

While France was preparing to welcome the new king, Louis XVIII, Captain Frederick Lewis Maitland walked impatiently on board the vessel HMS Bellerophon, awaiting the order of his superior, Admiral George Keith. His job was to capture the Corsican ogre and transfer it to safer places. Captain Maitland had to prevent Napoleon from sailing to the United States and lead him to Plymouth: here the fate of the prisoner would be decided. Already after Waterloo, Bonaparte feared falling into the hands of the Prussians of Field Marshal Blücher, for this reason, when his end appeared inevitable, he asked for asylum in England. The hopes, however, were misplaced also because the Prime Minister Lord Liverpool did not show any favoritism or intention to treat him with white gloves. The cabinet chief, after exposing the problem to parliament, asked some representatives of the India Company, asking that the administration of the island of Saint Helena pass under the aegis of the crown.

The man who had bent the sovereigns of half of Europe to his wishes, was about to end his days in a British penal colony: an unhappy place, lashed by continuous winds and humidity that would slowly erode his already weak health. To the illustrious prisoner, addressed contemptuously by the English "General Bonaparte", he was allowed to bring with him a court reduced to the smallest terms composed of the generals Bertrand, Montholon, Gourgaud and the Count of Las Cases.

After a tedious ten-week crossing aboard the HMS Northumberland, the English commander, admiral James Cockburn, saw the outline of the coast on the horizon: Napoleon had therefore arrived in what will be his last domain. "The village of Sant'Elena" - recalled Las Cases in the famous Memoiral - "It is nothing more than a short road, along a very narrow valley, enclosed between two mountains overlooking a bare and barren rock"3.

The British officers sifted the possible dwellings to house the famous prisoner: Plantation House or the fortress of Jamestown, certainly not luxury palaces, but at least some comfort. The English jailers, however, opted for a different solution: Longwood House (photo on the left of the 1913), an old unhealthy warehouse that, after a summary reconstruction, would have been able to welcome the new guest. Before entering hell, the emperor had the pleasure of staying for a few weeks in the home of William Balcombe, administrator of the East India Company and father of the young and lively Betsy, destined to enter the heart of Napoleon who always used to offer her his beloved licorice.

In December, the decayed imperial court moved permanently to Longwood where the living conditions were very distant from the glories of the Tuileries. The atmosphere was dismal, the rooms squalid and poorly furnished, which gave the guests the sad feeling of having to serve a long and uncomfortable sentence. Napoleon, who did not usually lose heart, alternated moments of depression with euphoric states, especially when he retired to his studio, together with Las Cases, to dictate his memoirs. To defeat boredom, the emperor tried to mark his day according to precise rhythms from which he did not like to depart: lunch, dinner, a few walks and long conversations with his helpers, remembering past glories. However, the worst evil that plagued Napoleon was the insomnia that forced him to stand for whole nights, worsening his mood.

For the rest, Bonaparte honored the label in force in Paris: everyone had their place and something to look after. For the most intimate service dedicated to his person he also obtained the presence of two trusted valets, Marchand and Saint-Denis known as Alì.

Napoleon's health - more and more fragile every day - was kept under control by Dr. O'Meara, a good Irishman who made a sincere friendship with his popular patient. His benevolence, however, provoked the wrath of the island's governor, Sir Hudson Lowe, who from the day of his arrival - the 16 April 1816 - tried in every way to make Napoleon's exile a real torture. Thus began an interminable duel between the emperor and Lowe, where history condemned forever the ambiguous figure of the English governor: a man poor in intellect, accused of being incapable and guilty of having refused a position in the general staff just to become the sadistic jailer of Sant'Elena. If history was lacking in positive opinions on Lowe's account, he was still the last word on the island: the restrictive measures against the "general" became increasingly suffocating so much so that, from the 1819 on, the health of the the emperor suffered a rapid and worrying decline.

The various medical bulletins, drawn up by Dr. Antommarchi, revealed a constant deterioration of the prisoner who seemed to have lost his usual vitality, but what is even more worrisome are the usual stomach pains, which became more and more frequent and the medicines made less and less effect. During his lifetime, Napoleon suffered from various ailments including dysuria and some serious liver problems, but despite all this he had a formidable resistance to fatigue4. He used to take long hot baths - to alleviate prostate pains - and despite the advice of his personal physician, Jean Nicolas Corvisart, he never spared his body, especially during military campaigns. The advancing years and the stress to which he was subjected during his career, accelerated his slaughter and the climate of Saint Helena gave him the coup de grace.

On the night between 3 and 4 May, General Bertrand noticed how the conditions of his beloved sovereign were getting worse: "the emperor has often crossed his hands on his belly, intertwining his fingers or keeping his hands open; sometimes he changed places with his right hand, leaning over the edge of the bed. Often with his left hand, he took the handkerchief to wipe his mouth after spitting"5. On that sad day Dr. Francesco Antommarchi and Archibald Arnott - an English doctor at Lowe's service - gave him more placebos, but without any appreciable results.

At the 5,49 of the 5 Maggio 1821 the emperor Napoleon breathed his last breath. Bertrand recorded in his memoirs the last moments of life of a great sovereign who, just before leaving life, murmured the words "at the head of the army". That was the place dearest to him. Only in the agitated moments of the battle, between the fire and the cannonballs, did Napoleon fully realize his being a man, an emperor, but above all a soldier among the soldiers. God of a war that gave him immortality in the hearts of his soldiers, but not foresight in the courts of politicians although, even today, there are few who manage to escape his unquestionable charm.

1 Jospeh Fouché, Memoires, Paris, Jean de Bonnot, 1967, p. 424.

2 Dominique de Villepin, The hundred days or the spirit of sacrifice, Rome, Edizioni dell'Altana, 2005, p. 406.

3 Las Cases, Mémorial de Sainte-Helene, Paris, Bossange, 1823-1824, vol. I, p. 324.

4 Louis Chardigny, Private Napoleon,Milan, Rusconi, 1989, p. 10.

5 Bertrand, Notebooks of Saint Helena 1816-1821, Milan, Longanesi, 1964, p. 1336.