Napoleon Returns from Elba

The first of three posts describing Napoleon’s 100 Days, completing series on posts on the 200th anniversary of major events of the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon was exiled to the island of Elba after abdicating the French throne in April 1814. He retained the title of Emperor, but his empire consisted only of an island 120 miles square with a population of 12,000. He had an army of about 1,100 veterans of his Imperial Guard.

On 26 February the Emperor, accompanied by his guards and retainers, sailed for France. The date was chosen because the British Colonel Sir Neil Campbell, who had remained at Napoleon’s invitation after escorting him to the island, was visiting the mainland on board HMS Partridge.

Two French warships that were supposed to be patrolling the channel between Corsica and the Italian mainland did nothing to stop the convoy, although it is unlikely that they failed to spot it. One of their captains later told Campbell that the visibility was poor, which it was not. Another French warship, the Zephyr, approached close by, but her captain, Andrieux, did no more than shout ‘How is the great man?’[1] He was promoted by Napoleon a few weeks later.

Napoleon’s force landed at Golfe Juan on 1 March and began to march towards Paris. King Louis XVIII learnt of his arrival on 5 March, declared Napoleon to be a traitor and sent two forces. each of 30,000 men to deal with him. One was commanded by his brother, the Comte d’Artois, and the other by Marshal Michel Ney who, like most of Napoleon’s Marshals, had taken service with the restored Bourbon regime.

At Grenoble on at 7 March Napoleon approached a company of Royalist troops on his own. They were ordered to fire on him, but did not. He later said that ‘Before Grenoble I was an adventurer, at Grenoble I was a ruling prince.’[2]

On 10 March Napoleon reached Lyon. The Comte, with only 3,000 men versus the Emperor’s 8,000, fled. Napoleon began issuing Imperial decrees on 13 March, the same day as the Congress of Vienna declared him to be an outlaw. It was meeting to divide up the French Empire and was dominated by Austria, Britain, Prussia and Russia, although other countries were represented.

Ney arrived at Besancon on 10 March, finding a letter from Napoleon inviting him to rejoin the Imperial cause but few Royalist soldiers. On 14 March he announced that he was changing sides. Louis fled from Paris on 19 March; Napoleon, now accompanied by two divisions, entered it the next day. He had retaken France in 20 days; the only casualties were 33 soldiers drowned when a boat capsized. He later stated that:

‘I owed my restoration to the inhabitants of the towns and villages, to the soldiers and junior company officers. I could rely only on them. All the generals I met on my journey hesitated, or received me badly, even if they were not hostile, but they were obliged to give way before the excitement of their soldiers.’[3]

Louis XVIII had guaranteed civil rights by the Bourbon Charter, but he and his regime were regarded as ‘foreign puppets…of the reactionary powers, committed to destroy the ideals of the Revolution (theoretical though many of these had proved to be.’[4] The peasants feared that their property might be given to returned landowners, whilst many disgruntled veterans found it hard to fit into civilian life, especially the 12,000 officers now living on half pay in an ‘inflationary economy.’[5]

Although happy to see Napoleon back, most French people did not want war. Aware of this, he tried to persuade the Congress to accept him as ruler of France. However, on 25 March Austria, Britain, Prussia and Russia formed the Seventh Coalition with the intention of ending his threat forever. Napoleon realised that war was inevitable, but had to try to make peace for internal political reasons and because France was  heavily outnumbered.

Napoleon inherited a Royalist army of 200,000 men, which was brought up to 500,000 by recalling those on leave, rounding up men absent without leave, raising foreign regiments, calling for volunteers, introducing conscription, forming battalions of sailors who were without ships and calling out the National Guard. He had a field army of 200,000, of which 123,000 were in the Armée du Nord, which he commanded himself. The other 300,000 were in garrisons. The field army had high morale and a high proportion of veterans. Against this he faced 700,000 Coalition troops.[6]

The Coalition plan was attack on an arc measuring 700 miles from Brussels to the south coast of France. Their main advantage was numbers; their main disadvantages were the difficulty of co-ordination and the need to avoid defeat in detail. They had won the 1813 and 1814 campaigns by a strategy of retreating when facing battle with Napoleon himself, whilst attempting to threaten his lines of supply and defeat isolated French corps, until they were able to concentrate all of their forces to win a decisive victory. Napoleon’s plan was to use his interior lines and natural barriers such as mountains and rivers to concentrate on one enemy at a time. The Armée du Nord would first attack the Anglo-Dutch and Prussian armies in Belgium.

 

[1] M. Adkin, The Waterloo Companion (London: Aurum, 2001), p. 13.

[2] Ibid., p. 18.

[3] Ibid., p. 20.

[4] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 1009.

[5] Ibid., p. 1010.

[6] Adkin, Waterloo, pp. 22-24.

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Filed under Political History, War History

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