Napoleon leaving Elba by Joseph Beaume, 1836
Napoleon came ashore on the beach of Golfe Juan at 5 o’clock on the afternoon of 1 March. A tent was pitched for him in a clearing surrounded by olive groves and he sat down by a bivouac fire while General Cambronne rode over to nearby Cannes with a small detachment to procure horses and victuals. Cambronne was rebuffed and returned empty-handed, so Napoleon decided to move as fast as he could directly on to Grenoble.
Over the next two days his small force made its way with difficulty along rutted roads and mountain tracks, their Emperor often dismounting to scramble up the steep inclines, falling several times, watched from behind rocks and stone walls by suspicious peasants. On 4 March, at Digne, he addressed a small crowd that gathered in the square, and was cheered. The following day at Sisteron and then Gap he met with muted enthusiasm. At Laffrey on 7 March he found his road barred by a battalion of the 5th of the Line. Napoleon rode out in front of his own column and, a pistol-shot away from the ranks of infantry drawn up across the road with their muskets at the ready, he dismounted and walked forward. ‘Soldiers of the 5th of the Line, look at me,’ he shouted. ‘If there is one among you who would shoot his General, his Emperor, let him do it; here I am!’ The front rank lowered its muskets, and then a cheer went up as the men surged forward to surround their former commander. That night, at 9 o’clock, he entered Grenoble in triumph. General Labedoyère and the troops that had been deployed to apprehend him also rallied to his side.
The next day he entered Lyon amid delirious manifestations of joy and took up his quarters in rooms vacated that morning by Monsieur, who had been sent out by Louis XVIII to oversee his defeat and capture. The local authorities, civil and military, and the population as a whole made it abundantly clear to Napoleon that his reading of the situation had been right, and that his gamble had been justified.
He continued his march through Villefranche, Mâcon, Tournus, Châlons and Autun. At Avallon on 16 March, two more regiments sent out against him went over to his side. At Auxerre two days later Marshal Ney, who had been despatched at the head of a large force and had promised to Louis XVIII that he would bring the ogre back in a cage, presented himself humbly before the Emperor and was warmly embraced.
On the morning of 20 March Napoleon drove into the Cour du Cheval Blanc of the château of Fontainebleau, where he had bidden a tearful farewell to his troops exactly eleven months before. He left Fontainebleau at 2 o’clock that afternoon for Paris. Along the road the 1st, 4th and 6th Chasseurs à Cheval and the 6th Lancers presented arms to him, and at half past ten that night his carriage rolled under the arch of the Carrousel and up to the Tuileries.
As the crowd gathering outside hailed its Emperor, the erstwhile Préfet of the palace, Saint-Didier, marched in at the head of the imperial household. ‘Lackeys, officers of the table, cooks, kitchen boys, each of whom had unearthed his old livery, triumphantly took possession of the disordered apartments, the unmade beds, the still smoking stoves, and chased out with their brooms and their spits what was left of the royal household,’ in the words of one contemporary.
Louis XVIII had left the palace in the early hours of that very morning. ‘I hope that France will no longer have need of your swords,’ he had declared to Napoleon’s marshals when they rallied to him less than a year before, expressing the hope that they would become the pillars of his throne, ‘but, by God! Gentlemen, if the need to draw them should arise once more, I will, gout-ridden as I am, march at your side!’ But in the event he had cowered in the Tuileries, sending off one force after another, handing out cash to the troops in an attempt to buy their loyalty.
On 18 March, when Napoleon was nearing Paris, the King sent a trusted valet off with the crown jewels and four million francs in gold, with instructions to make for Lille and then England. When it became clear that Paris could not be held, some of his advisers suggested he fall back on royalist Bordeaux or the Vendée where he could rally the people to his cause. But he was afraid of falling into Napoleon’s hands.
Just after midnight on the morning of 20 March he left the Tuileries by a back staircase. His carriage trundled out of Paris in the pouring rain, making for England. His household troops, the Maison Militaire, trudged half-heartedly after him through the mud of Picardy, dwindling with every step as deserters peeled away to join Napoleon. Fearing to remain in France a moment longer, Louis crossed into Belgium at the nearest point instead of making for Calais. He wanted to take ship at Ostend, but Monsieur persuaded him to pause at Ghent. In doing so, he managed to rescue from the ignominious débâcle a shred of dignity and hope for the future.
Napoleon’s resumption of power had been seamless. The morning after his return to the Tuileries, the entire imperial court, headed by the former Queens of Spain and Holland and the wives of the marshals, gathered in the throne room to greet him. ‘Fleurs-de-lys had banished the bees everywhere, yet looking at the immense carpet of the throne room in which they waited, one of these ladies noticed that one of the fleurs-de-lys had become detached,’ writes General de Lavalette. ‘She pulled it off, to reveal a bee underneath. All these ladies then set to work, and in the space of less than half an hour, to the bursts of merriment of the entire assembly, the carpet became imperial once more.’
When he called at the Tuileries that evening, Lavalette found Napoleon in his old uniform surrounded by ministers, and for a moment thought himself ten years back in time. ‘The subject and the tone of the conversation, the presence of all those persons who had worked under him for so long, contributed to efface entirely from my memory both the Bourbons and their reign of nearly a year.’ And this despite the busts of the royal family still adorning the room.
Unlike the Bourbons, Napoleon had learnt a great deal from the events of the past two years, and he was not about to repeat their mistakes. He did not attempt to resume his absolutist rule, and instead sought strength and political legitimacy in the Revolutionary tradition. As soon as he had reached Lyon, he dissolved the Chambers of Peers and Deputies, abolished ‘feudal titles’, expelled a few returned émigrés and sequestrated lands they had recovered. He also issued a decree summoning the representatives of the entire nation to come to Paris in May, in a repeat of the National Federation of 1790. He couched his statements in rhetoric about ‘nobles and priests’, and even talked of stringing them up from lamp-posts.
Napoleon hoped to install a constitutional system that would marry the best traditions of the Revolution to a liberal monarchy. One of the first things he did was to summon the political thinker Benjamin Constant in order to enlist his support. Constant did not like Napoleon. He nevertheless believed that in his present mood he represented the best chance of providing France with a favourable form of government. Another whom Napoleon needed to have at his side was the man who would have taken Talleyrand’s role in March 1814 if he had been in Paris at the time – Joseph Fouché, duc d’Otrante.
It is difficult in the space of a few lines to give an adequate idea of this extraordinary product of the Oratorian Order’s spiritual education who went on to join virtually every faction in the course of the French Revolution, always one step ahead, ruthlessly repressing and putting to death former colleagues and friends as he went. He helped the rise to power of General Bonaparte, whose chief of police he became, and was rewarded by the Emperor Napoleon with the duchy of Otranto in Italy. He remained chief of police until 1810, when he was replaced by Savary following the discovery of his dealings with the exiled Bourbons.
Always looking for the next regime in his determination to remain at the helm, Fouché had opened communications with them when he saw Napoleon’s star begin to wane. In 1813 Napoleon had sent him to take over as Governor of Illyria and thence to Naples, mainly in order to keep him out of Paris at such a critical time. Fouché was aware of this, and watched helplessly from afar as the empire crumbled. He raced to Paris as soon as he could, but he was too late, and Talleyrand had assumed control of the situation.
In spite of his Revolutionary past and the taint of having voted for the death of Louis XVI, Fouché managed to gain favour with Monsieur and a position of influence. But he did not believe the Bourbon regime would last, and he plotted with General Drouet d’Erlon to raise the garrison of Lille for Napoleon in the event of a comeback by the Emperor. His ultimate wish was to provide France with a regime which would be capable of preserving some of the legacy of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods, and his preferred option was to bring about a regency for the King of Rome in which he could hold the reins of power. That was why he wrote to Napoleon advising him to exchange his realm of Elba for private exile in the United States – with Napoleon out of the way across the Atlantic, the allies might be more amenable to the idea of a regency for his son.
When Fouché heard of Napoleon’s landing at Antibes he activated the d’Erlon conspiracy, but this misfired. At the same time he was asked by Louis XVIII to enter the government. He stalled for as long as he could, and was saved from having to commit himself to the crumbling Bourbon cause by Napoleon’s entry into Paris. Napoleon did not trust him, but, just like Louis XVIII, he needed him. He made him chief of police again, as only he could keep republican elements under control. Fouché played along. ‘Well, here he is again,’ he commented to a colleague about Napoleon’s return. ‘It’s not him we wanted, but one cannot remove him like a pawn from a chessboard. We shall see what we can do to keep him.’
Napoleon did all he could to represent his return to power as an internal French matter, and therefore of no concern to other European powers. From Lyon he wrote to Marie-Louise, requesting that she join him with their son. As his Foreign Minister he appointed the universally respected Caulaincourt, who wrote to Metternich with assurances of France’s peaceful intentions. Napoleon proclaimed his acceptance of the terms of the Treaty of Paris, and wrote to Alexander assuring him that he would abide by it. At his behest Queen Hortense wrote to the Tsar to persuade him to accept the situation. In an attempt to endear himself to Britain, he abolished the slave trade outright.
While serving Napoleon as chief of police, Fouché also supplemented Caulaincourt as a kind of unofficial Foreign Minister. He sent an old republican friend of La Harpe to Switzerland with a letter for Alexander, in which Napoleon declared his peaceful intentions and his readiness to accept any arrangement acceptable to the allies. He also opened up channels of communication with Metternich.
Metternich was unnerved by the developments, and anxious not to be caught out. Should Napoleon manage to strike a deal with one of the allies, he was determined to be in on it. He sent a letter to Fouché, written in invisible ink and transmitted by an employee of the Viennese bank of Arnstein & Eskeles on routine business in Paris. But Napoleon’s spies spotted him delivering the letter. Napoleon sent his own man to meet Metternich’s agent, in Bâle. The negotiation ended in inconclusive verbiage, as Metternich did not wish to commit himself.
While he worked with energy at building up an effective army, Napoleon was hoping to avoid, or at least delay, conflict. He was counting on the universal war-weariness and the differences that had emerged between the allies ranged against him. In the hope of aggravating these, he ordered Caulaincourt to hand to the departing Russian chargé d’affaires in Paris, Pavel Butyagin, a copy of the Anglo-Franco-Austrian treaty of 3 January against Russia and Prussia, which had duly been discovered in the archives of the French Foreign Ministry. He was to be disappointed.
Within hours of hearing the news of Napoleon’s escape from Elba, and long before they had any idea of where he was headed, the plenipotentiaries of the Five began mustering their forces against him. By 12 March Wellington was able to report to Castlereagh that they planned to deploy three large corps: an Austrian one in Italy of 150,000 men; another composed of 200,000 Austrians, Bavarians, Badenese and Württembergers on the upper Rhine; and a third consisting of an Austrian contingent and the Dutch, British and Prussian troops in Flanders, of which he was to take command. A Russian army of 200,000 would assemble in their rear at Würzburg. Liverpool began transferring units from Ireland to Holland, to reinforce the 4,000 British troops there.
The Austrians grew nervous when it became clear that while all available Austrian troops would be concentrating on the borders of France, a vast Russian army would be massing in their rear. ‘However great might be the danger threatening us from Paris, it is not as great as that menacing us from Warsaw,’ one of the Austrian archdukes was overheard saying by a member of Alexander’s entourage. Metternich took measures to limit the risk by making elaborate arrangements for the Russian troops to march along narrow corridors both well provisioned and policed.
Alexander volunteered to take overall command as ‘Dictator’, with Frederick William, Schwarzenberg and Wellington as advisers, but the latter protested vehemently, confiding to Castlereagh that he would ‘prefer to carry a musket’ than participate in such an arrangement. He took a far less exalted view of the Tsar than most of his contemporaries, and was less in thrall to the Russians, who, as he put it to his brother, ‘have neither wealth nor commerce, nor anything that is desirable to anybody excepting 400,000 men, about whom they make more noise than they deserve’.
As the allies argued over command it became apparent that they must create a basis for what was in effect a new coalition. On 16 March Castlereagh suggested to Wellington that the Treaty of Chaumont was the only basis on which they could safely proceed, and Wellington began working towards that end. But imposing unity on the allies was not easy.