June 18, 1815: the beginning of the end

(To Paolo Palumbo)
18/06/21

This year, remembering the Battle of Waterloo has a completely different flavor. It is the year of the bicentenary of Napoleon's death and, in fact, celebrating the day he was defeated militarily and politically, takes on a deeper value.

When Napoleon fled the island of Elba, miraculously escaping the surveillance of the English fleet, he returned to France full of good intentions, however the only thing that haunted his mind was a deep desire for peace. He who for years had put the whole of Europe to fire and sword, now asked all of Europe to forgive him, to lower their weapons and accept his government in a France which, according to his promises, would remain within its borders.

After the Battle of Leipzig and the extraordinary French campaign of 1814, Napoleon abdicated, returning his power to the allies who brought Louis XVI's younger brother back to the throne of France. The Bourbons, therefore, returned to power ready to transform citizens into subjects again, but above all determined to erase forever the memory of those who had expelled them from their legitimate power, a power that did not come from men, but directly from God.

Napoleon, at the same time son and executioner of the revolution, was confined to a miniature kingdom which, however ridiculous it was, nevertheless highlighted the emperor's creative impetuosity. Whether his domain was big or small, Napoleon knew how to get the best out of his men, he knew how to exploit everything around him, and had only his own in mind. height and his unstoppable passion for all that was beautiful.

In the years when Napoleon was on Elba, everything changed for the better and the island benefited, even if for a short time, from the presence of a great soldier and a sensible businessman. Elba, however, was too narrow for one more like Napoleon, the Corsican, who felt that France still needed him.

Louis XVIII, tired, slow and circumspect sovereign, immediately understood that he could not impose himself on the French as a sovereign of the Ancien Régime and that France would only endure a softer form of government than that adopted by his predecessors; he resigned himself to the idea of ​​a constitutional monarchy that limited his powers.

Fleury de Chaboulon, former secretary of Napoleon and member of the Council of State, in his memoirs on that period observed how the king had been particularly careful to leave certain prerogatives of the Napoleonic administration unchanged, but above all he had guaranteed the maintenance of ranks and rewards of honor to the soldiers who had fought in the Grand Armée. The latter were certainly the most disappointed and crushed by the exile of their leader, while others of higher rank were able to get back on the saddle and someone - Marshal Michel Ney - promised the Bourbon king to bring Bonaparte back to Paris "closed in a iron cage ".

On 1 March 1815, theEagle - as Napoleon was called in his correspondence - landed in the Gulf of San Juan in Provence: the flight then continued to Paris. On the way, the soldiers met their emperor like children waiting for a father who had been away from home for too long. At the mere sight of the famous headdress, of his small figure wrapped in the famous gray frock coat, any French regiment was annihilated by the love and memories of the only general and chief they recognized as such.

Napoleon's passage through the villages was a succession of triumphs, until I entered Paris through the main door, while the king fled from the back to be safe.

All that remained for Napoleon was to form a new government and ask for peace from the sovereigns who had hitherto opposed him. Among the priorities there was also that of hugging her beloved son, clung to the Austrian clutches of Metternich.

The board was formed: Prince Cambacérès was appointed Minister of Justice, Marshal Davout received the Ministry of War, the Duke of Vicenza, Caulaincourt, took the helm of foreign affairs, The Duke of Otranto Savary took over the direction of the police, in short all the loyalists received a prestigious position in the leadership of the country.

The army, however, was in pieces: many soldiers had given up the tricolor cockade, replacing it with the white one of the Bourbons. Napoleon had the battalions gather in the Tuileries courtyard and, Fleury de Chaboulon always remembers: "the whole capital witnessed the sentiment and enthusiasm and attachment that animated these brave soldiers; it seemed that they had regained their homeland and rediscovered in the national colors, the memories of all the generous feelings that have always distinguished the French nation".

In the short period of time in which Louis XVIII was in power, he confirmed some positions within the ministry of war, however he drastically reduced the offices and administrative employees. The infantry regiments, as a result of a royal ordinance of May 12, 1814, were reduced from 156 to 90 for the line and from 37 to 15 for the light1. The same cuts also affected the cavalry which passed from 110 regiments to 56, and the artillery was restricted from 485 men to just 200 units. The same decree also established the fate of the glorious Imperial Guard. In article one it was decided to incorporate Napoleon's praetorians into two distinct corps of three battalions each: the royal corps of the grenadiers and the royal corps of the French hunters. The cavalry instead remained on four regiments which, however, omitted the title of "imperial" by adopting that of "royal body".

Napoleon therefore had to raise what remained of the most powerful army in Europe from the ashes, but it was not an easy task. The recruits at his disposal were no longer many; the soldiers then did not all think in the same way about the return of the emperor and many abhorred the thought of being in battle again. But would there be a new war then?

Despite Napoleon's will to come to terms with the victors of 1814, the truth was different as he expected that, at any moment, the English and Prussians who remained in Belgium would attack him. Napoleon also knew of the presence in Ghent of Louis XVIII and of the sympathy received by the Bourbon in those provinces. It was therefore natural that the Army of the North would be the main army that would neutralize an alleged Allied attack and it is no coincidence that Napoleon himself reserved the command.

The day after the battle

The epic battle between Wellington and Napoleon on the Waterloo plain has been extensively covered in military historiography. Every detail of the battle was analyzed, evaluating all the possible variables and putting the famous Grouchy, who soon became the scapegoat of the imperial defeat, under severe judgment.

Napoleon was beaten in the plain of Waterloo due to a series of adverse circumstances, but above all the fact that he, perhaps, was no longer the same commander of a few years before. Those who were next to him on that day told of a man whose inner strength was the same as the 1797-year-old who commanded the Army of Italy in XNUMX, nevertheless the body was that of a tired man, disheartened by a series of health problems. that prevented him from letting his genius shine in the middle of the battlefield. In addition to this, his old faithful companions were also missing, those he trusted: more than once Napoleon invoked the presence of his friend Berthier, or of Marshal Lannes.

The mistakes Ney made, with his unscrupulous cavalry charge, could have been avoided if only a man like Murat had been in charge. Wellington behaved like an expert hunter, waiting for his quarry to make some mistake, and it did.

Blücher's Prussian army fell on the side of the French following the same tactics in which Napoleon was a master, yet the appearance of the dark blue uniforms of the Germans and the last legendary square of the Guard of Cambronne marked the end of that single day, however. Of the war.

The next 24 hours in Waterloo have often been overlooked by historiography, but thanks to the admirable work of Paul L. Dawson "Battle for Paris 1815" are able to reconstruct what happened immediately after the defeat of the emperor.

On June 19, 1815, the veterans of the Army of the North were left to fend for themselves: Napoleon, as soon as the circumstances seemed irreparable, preferred to go away to Genappe and then Paris to reorganize a second campaign that should have started in July.

The withdrawal of the Army of the North alarmed the 16th military division whose commander even ordered the mobilization of the National Guard.

Marshal Grouchy, unaware of what had happened in Waterloo, continued to press on the Prussian troops, even achieving some results. When the news of Napoleon's defeat arrived, the marshal could choose to retreat immediately to Paris, however it would have been a rather rash decision as he would have found the road that connected Charleroi to the capital completely blocked. Grouchy then, in order not to end up in the funnel, decided to fall back on Namur.

General Exelmans was sent to the city with the order to preserve the bridges still intact on the Sambre: to cover 48 kilometers it took more than five hours due to the poor condition of the roads, still impassable by the mud.

On the same day, Grouchy learned of the defeat at Waterloo: on 18 and 19 June his divisions had kept the Prussians at bay in Wavre, but the victory had been very useless.

On 20 June Marshal Soult wrote to Napoleon informing him that he had arrived in Rocroy explaining the poor conditions of the army: "Many soldiers are without weapons, a large number of horsemen are without horses. I also realized that a large number of horses for the artillery train have been lost."2.

Another report by a French general, Emmanuel Fouler, Count of Relinque, recounted: "Any form of discipline between soldiers and officers has been lost, as well as between officers and generals. Club strikes are prohibited in the army, so there is no way to punish soldiers. There is a lot of talk about honor and sentiment," but they are purely imaginary and so rare that no law should rely on them. Pillage has become so general that soldiers believe it is their right [...] "3.

On 21 June, the Duke of Wellington began the march towards Paris.

Marshal Soult was seriously worried: "The soldiers are disappearing in all directions. I was told that a column of these fugitives was heading towards Mezieres, but I intercepted them and ordered them to go towards Laon. After leaving Rocroy, towards Laon, I encountered several and I expected to find many more in this place. General Langeron told me, however, that there is a lot of frustration and that many have disappeared "4.

The conditions of the cavalry were not better, indeed some departments missed the call and had taken different paths without following any coordination.

Under these conditions, Napoleon's plan to reunite a new army by uniting it with the rest of the Army of the North, with that of Grouchy and with the National Guard immediately proved impossible: all that remained was to defer to one's destiny. Napoleon abdicated a second time, but this would be the last.

The island of Sant'Elena

The longest days for the emperor began on 23 and 24 June 1815. In those two days he was presented with the new provisional government that would take power after his abdication. People crowded around the Elysée: curious, morbid and eager to see for the last time that little man who had transformed the geography of Europe at his pleasure.

Il giorno dopo, il general Bonaparte - as the British always called him, since they never recognized his imperial dignity - he would have left the palace of power towards a destiny still unknown to him. He was preparing again for a long journey, he knew that this time the English would not be so foolish as to keep him close.

Napoleon hoped for a more dignified exile: America, for example, would have been right for him. The British government, however, chose the most remote island of its vast empire: St. Helena. That small island, a safe landing point in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, had been owned by the East India Company and was preparing to become the cage for the most feared man in Europe.

When the emperor arrived in Rochefort - ready for embarkation - he had already discarded his military clothes: "It seemed that the Emperor, in the midst of the agitation of men and things, showed calm, impassivity and was completely indifferent to what was happening"5.

The day of July 15 stirred the emperor's soul since it was time to get on a ship and take the route to the new destination. Napoleon, once he boarded the Bellerophon he turned to the commander and after greeting him said: "I get on board putting myself under the protection of English law". A law that proved to be full of hatred and desire for revenge, which became increasingly harsh and oppressive towards him.

On July 16, 1815, Napoleon met the English admiral Hotham and it was on that occasion that, after a long time, he wore military clothes again, taking command of a small British squad charged with honoring the illustrious guest.

It was useless to hide it: every effort to annihilate the image of that man in front of the world was a useless waste of time. As soon as the Bellerophon moored at Plymouth a crowd gathered on the quay, while thousands of boats attempted to reach him by sea. Napoleon thus made his public appearance: a murmur rose from the intrigued and admired crowd.

On Sunday 30 July 1815, Admiral Lord Keith communicated his next destination to Napoleon: "The island of Sant'Elena was chosen for her future residence: its climate is healthy, and the local situation will allow it to be treated with greater indulgence as we could not do elsewhere, given the indispensable precautions that we will be obliged to take. to secure his person. General Bonaparte is permitted to choose, from among the people who accompanied him to England, with the exception of Generals Savary and Lallemand, three officers who, with his surgeon, will be allowed to accompany him to St. Helena and will no longer be able to leave the island without the permission of the British government "6.

Bertrand, Montholon, Gourgaud, were therefore prisoners in the same way as Napoleon, perhaps more prisoners of the affection they felt for that man or more simply "interested" in his inheritance, in what he would leave after him.

The last boarding was on the vessel Northumberland where Napoleon never abandoned his verve, showing almost enthusiasm and curiosity about any detail of the trip: "In the morning, the emperor would call one of us in turn to find out about the ship's newspaper, the leagues made, the state of the wind, the news, etc. etc ... He read a lot, got dressed around four and went into the common room where he played chess with each of us. Everyone knew that the Emperor was not used to staying at dinner more than a quarter of an hour; here the two services lasted from an hour to an hour and a half, for him it was one of the things more painful, although he did not let it be understood: his figure, his gestures and his whole person were constantly impassive "7.

On October 16, 1815, after several months of sailing in which Napoleon had plenty of time to reflect on his past and what his future would be, he landed on the island of Sant'Elena.

The first period spent as an illustrious prisoner of His British Majesty was not entirely negative: Napoleon spent long and pleasant days in the estate of Briars, which belonged to William Balcombe. He had the opportunity to chat with other people, to chat with the inhabitants, but above all to entertain a good relationship with the young girl Betsy Balcombe.

Those were happy days in which the concept of captivity still seemed a long way off. The real prison began when the emperor, along with his trusty, were moved to Longwood, a narrow corner of the island, constantly windswept and with a humid and unhealthy climate. Not everyone went to live with Napoleon: the trusted Bertrand, for example, took up a house for him and his family in the surrounding area, so did Montholon.

In Longwood the house had been the subject of recent work which had embellished - as much as possible - its appearance. Inside, Napoleon prepared everything necessary to spend his time immersed in reading, but also in absolute idleness.

In those days, he became a historian of himself: like a swollen river he poured out on Las Cases, a quantity of thoughts, information and stories that served to build a myth that went far beyond his miserable death.

Likewise, the emperor wanted the same etiquette as the Tuileries to be respected in his home: a small court of exiles, clinging to the memories and splendor of a time that would never return.

Napoleon's jailer, Sir Hudson Lowe, was the only one who could have occupied that place and that unpleasant task: a man with a cold, surly character, who opened a duel with the emperor of spite, oppression and deprivation.

There have been many rumors about the causes of Napoleon's death: some claimed that he died of stomach cancer, others due to a slow poisoning wanted by Charles Montholon livid with anger and jealousy for the Liaison that Napoleon had with his wife Albine. The truth was that beyond a disease or arsenic, Napoleon died slowly for a life that was no longer his, chained to the memories of a glorious past.

He, like few others in history, was the testimony that history is not always written by the victors; he was a loser, yet his thoughts and the testimony of those who shared his last days with him built a stainless myth that survives to this day.

1 H. Couderc de Saint-Chamant, Napoleon ses dernières armées, Paris: Flammarion, sd, p. 74.

2 PL Dawson, Battle for Paris. The untold story of the fighting after Waterloo, Barnsley: Frontline books, 2019, p. 91.

3 Ivi, p. 92.

4 Ivi, p. 94.

5 E. Las Cases, Mémorial de Sainte-Helene, Paris: Bossange, 1823 - 1824, vol. 1, p. 46.

6 Ivi, p. 83.

7 Ivi, p. 134.

Images: web