French Military 1850-80 Part I

Napoleon III Takes Power

That year revolutions ignited by economic distress swept Europe. Paris, that powder keg of revolutionary passions, erupted in February. King Louis-Philippe, despised for his cautious and inglorious foreign policy, abdicated and fled to England. The Second Republic was proclaimed by Paris radicals, but France became embroiled in internal troubles. Such was the need felt in the country for a man of order that the presidential election held on 10 December produced a result undreamt of by the revolutionaries of February when they introduced universal male suffrage: a Bonaparte was restored to power in France.

Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte was elected President of France by 5.5 million votes: far ahead of his nearest rival. Born in 1808, he was the nephew of the great Emperor, on whose knee he had been dandled as a child and whose legend he revered. After Waterloo Louis had lived in exile in Switzerland with his mother Hortense Beauharnais, and spoke French with a German accent. During disturbances in Italy in 1831 he had sided with the revolutionaries against the Austrian regime there. After both his elder brother and his cousin, ‘Napoleon II’, died in 1831–2, Louis assumed the role of Bonapartist pretender to the French throne. His pamphlets, notably Napoleonic Ideas (1839), promoted the myth Napoleon had woven around himself in exile on St Helena: of Napoleon the Liberal, Napoleon the friend of nationalities working for a united Europe, who had been thwarted by the reactionary monarchies. However, his first attempts to exploit his uncle’s legend against King Louis-Philippe ended in farce. An attempted military rising at Strasbourg in 1836 was a debacle and earned him a sentence of exile. A second attempt, a landing at Boulogne in 1840 with a boatload of volunteers and mercenaries who had joined him in London, was quickly overpowered by royal troops. This time Louis was imprisoned in the damp northern fortress of Ham. He escaped disguised as a workman in 1846 and fled to London where, supplied with money by his rich friends and English mistress, he was well placed to take advantage of events unfolding in 1848.

In the presidential campaign his supporters adeptly promoted the power of the Bonaparte name, using images that appealed to classes who had never before had the vote. Not for the last time, bourgeois professional politicians underestimated the powers of this unimpressive figure, whose tendency to stoutness, drooping eyelids, and hesitant, heavily accented delivery belied his political skills and determination. As Prince-President, he swore to defend the Republic and toured the country, promoting himself as the only man who could defend both liberty and order and reconcile internal divisions that lately had made France seem ungovernable. Continuing radical disturbances rallied conservatives to him as a man of order. Catholics approved of a new education law favouring religious schools, and of the despatch of an expeditionary force to protect the Pope from revolutionaries at Rome. Louis-Napoleon’s championship of universal male suffrage against the bourgeois politicians of the National Assembly who tried to restrict it made him appear a defender of democracy.

His appeal to many groups, combined with shrewd appointments of supporters to key posts, put him in a strong position to extend his presidency, which was due to end in 1852. The National Assembly, however, blocked his attempt to achieve this legally. Louis, with careful planning by his inner circle and the support of reliable generals and his police chief, staged a coup d’état on the night of 2 December 1851, the anniversary of his uncle’s victory at Austerlitz. The Assembly was locked out; its leading politicians were arrested and imprisoned.

‘Operation Rubicon’ did not go as smoothly as planned, however. On 3 December a Deputy of the National Assembly, Dr Baudin, was killed on a Paris barricade. Next day over a thousand protestors manned barricades in the city. Troops opened fire and killed dozens of them and bystanders too. In the provinces over 26,000 people were arrested, half of whom were deported, banished or imprisoned. Throughout the nineteen years of his rule, the ‘crime of 2 December’ blighted Louis-Napoleon’s attempts to win over a hard core of opponents to accept the legitimacy of his regime. Nevertheless, the great majority of French voters supported him when he sought popular endorsement of his coup. He had brought something new to European politics; a dictatorship resting on popular approval, but supported by strict censorship, police surveillance and electoral manipulation. Pressing his advantage, in November 1852 he sought approval for restoration of the Empire and got it by 8 million votes to 250,000, with 2 million abstentions. With effect from 2 December 1852 he declared himself Napoleon III, Emperor of the French, and shortly promulgated a constitution that preserved the forms but not the substance of parliamentary government.

To calm fears at home and abroad that the return of the Empire meant war, he declared at Bordeaux in October 1852 that ‘The Empire means peace’, and that his focus would be on internal improvements like building roads, railways, dockyards and canals. He was careful to cultivate his uncle’s old nemesis, Great Britain. Despite his peaceful professions, he cultivated the army, recreated an elite Imperial Guard, and frequently appeared in military uniform, in deliberate contrast to the black-coated dullness of Louis-Philippe’s court. Like all French governments since Waterloo, he nurtured hopes of burying the 1815 treaties. Unlike the Bourbon monarchs, but like the republicans of 1848, he sympathized with the cause of nationalities in Europe. He might be expected to act in their favour where opportunities arose.

A Franco-German Crisis, 1859

A shift in Great Power relations came sooner than anyone foresaw, as a result of the Crimean War of 1854–6, in which Britain and France combined to defeat Russia’s attack on the ailing Turkish Empire. The defeat her army suffered at allied hands at the long siege of Sebastopol exposed Russia’s weaknesses and discouraged her from active intervention in European politics for two decades while she undertook internal and military reforms.

The war had another important consequence for European and German politics: it isolated Austria. Like Prussia, Austria had wished to stay neutral, but Russian forces at the mouth of the Danube intruded on her vital interests. Her long resistance to joining the western camp won her no friends; yet her eventual signature of an ultimatum to Russia weighed heavily in Russia’s decision to accept peace terms. Russia regarded Austria’s action as rank ingratitude for the military help she had received in 1849, and an intolerable betrayal by a fellow conservative power. In future Austria could expect no Russian help if she needed it; indeed, Russian court circles desired to see her punished. Prussia, which had not intervened against Russia and had a common interest in keeping the Poles suppressed, was on the contrary seen as Russia’s only friend in Europe.

If Russia and Austria were losers, victorious France gained prestige. Napoleon III’s army had acquitted itself well, albeit at the cost of 95,615 French lives. It had made up the majority of allied land forces and had shown itself less incompetent than any other in the field; even if the latest communications technology, the electric telegraph, had proved a mixed blessing. One French commander-in-chief in the Crimea, Canrobert, had resigned in despair over orders wired direct from the Emperor in Paris. The 1856 peace conference was held in Paris, where Napoleon invited the delegates to banquet and waltz at the Tuileries Palace and savoured his moment as arbiter of Europe. His chances of founding a stable dynasty improved when the Empress Eugénie gave birth to a healthy male son, Louis, the Prince Imperial.

In 1858 Napoleon exploited his diplomatic and military advantages in the hope of ‘doing something for Italy’. Having long desired to help the Liberal and national cause there, he secretly agreed with the Kingdom of Piedmont to drive the Austrians out of the parts of Italy they had occupied since 1815. Napoleon was mixing idealism with opportunism, for he had the chance to achieve military success, weaken reactionary Austria while she was isolated, create client states in northern Italy, and regain Nice and Savoy as the price of his support. Yet, as conflict became imminent, his resolve faltered, even once he was sure of Russia’s neutrality. Napoleon was finally pulled over the brink only when, provoked by Piedmontese military preparations, Austria obligingly declared war in April 1859.

The Italian campaign showed how much warfare had changed since Waterloo. The French army was transported by railway and steamship, debouching over the Alps and to the port of Genoa in three weeks. At close hand there was much that was chaotic about French supply arrangements: Napoleon lamented privately to his War Minister that ‘What grieves me about the organization of the army is that we seem always to be … like children who have never made war … Please understand that I am not reproaching you personally; rather the general system whereby in France we are never ready for war.’ Yet to outside observers it seemed that the French army was again proving itself the best in the world. With no interference from the sluggish Austrians it completed its concentration, outmanoeuvred the enemy and marched across the north Italian plain, winning bloody battles at Magenta and Solferino in June. If little tactical brilliance was on display, French troops showed the superior élan and willingness to get to close quarters that made them so formidable. Their senior commanders, driven by the instinct that getting close to the enemy was the path to honours and promotion, included men who would command armies in 1870. The courtly aristocrat Maurice MacMahon, already distinguished for his successful assault on the formidable defences of Sebastopol in the Crimea, won his marshal’s baton and the title of Duke for his performance as a corps commander at Magenta.

Decorations, promotions, and victory parades in Milan and Paris were one side of French success in Italy, but another shocked European opinion. Solferino, a savage battle involving 300,000 men, produced 36,000 casualties by the time a thunderstorm of extraordinary violence put an end to fighting. With none of his uncle’s ruthless indifference to high casualties, Napoleon III was sickened by what he saw and smelled on the battlefield next day. In a famous pamphlet, the Swiss traveller Henry Dunant described the horrors of the battlefield. The army medical services were overwhelmed. Dunant’s lurid description rallied widespread support for the initiative of a group of Swiss philanthropists, who in 1863 founded the International Society for Aid to the Wounded, later known as the International Red Cross. The Society’s efforts gave birth to the Geneva Convention of 1864, which laid down an international code for the humane treatment of wounded enemies and prisoners of war, and conferred neutral status on medical personnel. Prussia was among the first and most enthusiastic states to sign the Convention. France signed too at the Emperor’s behest, despite the reservations of military men who had no wish to see hordes of civilian volunteers working in the battle zone.

This was for the future. In the wake of Solferino Napoleon decided to end the war. He and Emperor Franz Josef of Austria met and agreed peace terms at Villafranca on 11 July. It was not simply that Napoleon had little stomach for further battles. Typhus was spreading in his badly fed army, camped under the torrid Italian sun. He had conquered Lombardy for Piedmont, but if he wanted to force the Austrians out of Venetia he faced a long and difficult war for which there would be diminishing support in France. Revolutionary support for Italian unification in central Italy was getting out of hand, threatening the Papal territories around Rome and alarming French Catholics. Worryingly, too, Prussia was mobilizing her army.

In the German states, Napoleon’s war in Italy was execrated as naked aggression against Austria. Fear that Napoleon’s next goal would be the Rhine revived enthusiasm for and debate about German unity as nothing else could. Newspaper and pamphlet denunciation of French ambitions was as virulent as in the crisis of 1840, and much slower to subside. Yet popular sentiment did not produce cooperation between Prussia and Austria. As she had in the Crimean War, Prussia obstructed proposals for the German Confederation to mobilize forces to support Austria. Finally, in mid-June, Prussia mobilized six of her nine army corps, but as the price of her support sought command of Confederation forces on the Rhine front. The suggestion made sense while Austria was under attack in Italy, but her mistrust of Prussian ambitions in Germany was such that she refused to yield precedence on this point. For the Austrians too, Prussian mobilization provided an incentive to make peace rapidly.

Even without an ultimatum, Prussia’s show of strength was sufficient to cause Napoleon alarm for his eastern frontier. He feared that the Prussians could put 400,000 men on the Rhine in a fortnight. This expectation was slightly exaggerated. Helmuth von Moltke, the studious and methodical Prussian Chief of General Staff, worried that in the present state of the German railway network – much of which was still single-tracked – it would take at least six weeks to move a quarter of a million men to the frontier. At all events, Napoleon concluded that he was in no position to fight the Prussians while continuing his campaign against Austria. Peace was concluded. The Prussians demobilized from 25 July, and the French eventually withdrew all their forces from Italy save for a garrison to protect the Papal territory of Rome, which Catholic opinion at home demanded. As his price for accepting the transfer of the central Italian states to Piedmont, Napoleon received Nice and Savoy following plebiscites in all the affected areas. The recovery of these two territories on France’s south-eastern border was his first reversal of a loss France had suffered in 1815: a gain which boosted the popularity of his regime at home. The other powers, and particularly the German states, were greatly alarmed that it might not be his last. After his Italian adventure it was hardly surprising that Napoleon III was feared as the ruler most likely to disturb the peace of Europe.


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