German Defenses of Paris 1944

General Dietrich von Choltitz, commander of German forces in Paris, seen shortly after he formally surrendered the city late on the afternoon of August 25.

At first Hitler’s assignment did not seem to be too much of a burden to the new Wehrmacht Paris Commander General of Infantry Dietrich von Choltitz. Choltitz’s main tasks in Paris were to maintain law and order, to eliminate any and all so-called rear echelon phenomena, and to comb out the various headquarters to find men who were still fit to fight. But the swift Allied advance introduced the problem of how the city could be defended against external attack. Initial guidance came from Kluge, the OB West at that time, who analyzed the situation correctly and assessed as unlikely any major Allied push to Paris. Kluge noted expressly that defensive efforts would have to be concentrated entirely on the barrier belt that ran to the west of the city.

Here was at least a chance of beating off enemy reconnaissance probes with the help of field fortifications and tank barriers along the outgoing streets, as well as with the 88mm batteries of the Paris antiaircraft artillery belt. Kluge wanted to avoid street fighting, and for that matter any fighting at all in the city. As for the initiation of the so-called “paralysis and demolition measures”-which were entirely customary during withdrawal operations to slow down the enemy’s pursuit-Kluge stipulated that any such actions in Paris would be initiated only on his specific orders.

To keep a handle on things at all times and to prevent any independent actions, Kluge had the Wehrmacht Paris Commander report to him directly. Even after Kluge was relieved, Choltitz continued to make every effort to conform to the intentions of the former OB West. Model, the new OB West who had just arrived in France, did not have the time to address in detail the rather secondary problem of Paris.

Thus the priorities were established. The main body of the twenty thousand men available in the Paris area was employed to the west of the city. Remnants of the decimated 352nd Infantry Division were also deployed to the front of the barrier ring. Given their heterogeneous and provisional makeup, neither those units nor the two regimental battle groups committed there under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Hubertus von Aulock could possibly carry out a delaying defense along the approximately forty-five-kilometer long barrier belt.

The higher-level staffs were entirely familiar with these problems. As early as August 16 higher headquarters estimated that the enemy would at any time be in a position to penetrate the only lightly manned defensive positions. But the various headquarters in the west had no idea of what should be done in the case of an offensive. A telephone conversation between chiefs of staff Blumentritt and Speidel indicates clearly the existing doubt as to whether the city of Paris should be defended at all.

Once the barrier belt had accomplished its mission of gaining time, there was nothing to prevent any evacuation of the metropolis without a fight. The notion that Paris, like Rome, could be declared an open city might have been a factor, although there was no indication at the time that the Allies would honor any such declaration. Choltitz’s original mission to preserve stable internal conditions grew increasingly more difficult as the unrest bubbling beneath the surface of the city rose to the point of near eruption. Despite the Allied successes in Normandy, the population of the city initially had adopted a wait-and-see attitude. That mood was now changing, driven, among other things, by inadequate food supplies. Paris was now cut off from its sources of supply, which had been located to the west. And with the rail lines destroyed, food shipments reached Paris only irregularly by highway. The French Ravitaillement General (the general supply system), which until then had done the job of distributing the few arriving goods in coordination with the German military, collapsed or was put out of action by the Resistance. Paris was on the brink of starvation. Compounding the tensions were rumors that the entire male population of the city capable of working would be deported. Such a decision was actually under consideration in the Reich Chancellery, which estimated a labor force of some one hundred thousand to two hundred thousand men. Those rumors increasingly drove Parisians into the arms of the militant Resistance. Especially after the point when the defensive main effort was placed in the outer barrier ring, Choltitz had forces within the city with which to oppose the more than twenty thousand (albeit poorly armed) members of the FFI. The 325th Security Division, first organized in 1942, with the 1st, 5th, 6th, and 190th Security Regiments, was the force assigned to the Commandant of Greater Paris for maintaining internal control. The 325th Security Division, however, no longer existed as such. All Choltitz had was the 2nd Battalion of the 190th Security Regiment, the 17th Technical Battalion, two companies of the 5th Security Regiment, and remnants of the 317th Reserve Antiaircraft Artillery Battalion. That meager force was supported by a few Panzers and World War I-era French-built tanks. That was the only tactical reserve Choltitz had available. The desolate situation of the defenders inside the city, totaling some five thousand men, was augmented by four so-called “Paris Alert Battalions,” patched together partly from Military Administration civilian officials, who were quickly put into Wehrmacht uniforms and placed in various buildings that were designated as strongpoints. In the event of any fighting, the decisive advantages would be with the FFI, which fought with guerrilla tactics. They had the ability to pop out from the population at any moment, execute their action, and then merge just as quickly back into the population. Thus restricted in his military options, all Choltitz could do was try somehow to defuse by other means the tense atmosphere. If he could do that, he could buy time until either the evacuation of Paris was authorized by the Führer Headquarters or adequate reinforcements arrived to put the resistance down. The possibility of reinforcements for Paris was something the various German headquarters in the west still considered a real possibility at that point. Such notions did not originate out of thin air. The First Army, in whose sector Paris was located, was supposed to receive control of not only the 48th Infantry Division but also the 47th and 49th Infantry Divisions from the Channel coast. Additionally, the remnants of three Panzer or Panzer Grenadier divisions were then refitting in the immediate vicinity of the city.

Reinforcements late August

Choltitz’s disastrous military strength situation was the basis of his actions, which were cautious in dealing with the French at least. Choltitz released three of de Gaulle’s captured representatives after they had assured him that they would urge compliance with the armistice. In the final analysis, however, Choltitz’s efforts to play the factions of the Resistance against each other were meaningless because the reinforcements he was hoping for never arrived. Choltitz’s hopes did not last long. Instead of the divisional-sized units he was hoping for, Choltitz received only an engineer and an artillery unit of battalion strength, plus the 11th Assault Gun Brigade with twenty combat vehicles. That was all Model was able to spare, because of the threat facing Army Group B. The 47th and 49th Infantry Divisions from the Channel coast were immediately deployed against the Seine River bridgeheads above and below the city; the 47th Infantry Division was halted dead in its tracks as Allied fighter-bombers shot up the locomotives of the trains moving the unit.

Various actions taken by Model indicate that the German command in the west had given Paris up as lost on August 23.

The reactions to the “Rubble Field Order”-as it was now mockingly called-from the Führer Headquarters were crystal clear. Hitler’s demands for resorting to “the severest measures upon the first indication of an uprising, such as demolition of residential housing blocks, public executions,” were based on an utterly wrong estimate of the situation. Choltitz had seen that immediately, with no little indignation. As he reported to Model in a telephone conversation that day, one had to expect “that Paris would soon be wrested from the German armies, possibly by the internal enemy, because the enemy has now recognized our weakness.” That evening Model advanced the same opinion in a telephone conversation with the chief of the Wehrmacht operations staff, and he urged that the existing directive be amended. In response to Jodl’s hesitant reply that “Paris would have to be held for the moment,” the OB West thundered that he did not want “provisional orders” but a clear directive in case of the loss of Paris. A city of millions of people, Model insisted, could not be defended internally or externally with the weak forces available. Model further insisted that “these situation assessments be reported to the führer clearly.”

It was all in vain; Hitler’s mind could not be changed. As a consequence, Choltitz lost the more promising and militarily significant opportunity of withdrawing from Paris and organizing the defenses along the eastern edge of the city without the permanent threat to his rear from the FFI. But now Choltitz’s position was exceptionally precarious because he had gone out on a limb by his actions and his harsh criticism of Hitler’s order. His only remaining chance of avoiding a rather somber fate while at the same time fulfilling his sense of duty as a soldier was to hold out at his post to the bitter end. To avoid exposing his men to the FFI with no protection and therefore leaving them to face the explosion of stored-up popular anger, Choltitz hoped that he would be able to continue fighting, at least until such time as he was facing regular Allied units.


The German Army in The Ardennes 1914

Strategy and Tactics

The defeat of the French 4th Army by the German 4th Army in the Battle of the Frontiers spelled the failure of the French war plan. Combined with the Russian defeat at Tannenberg, the Entente strategy for simultaneous Russian and French attacks against Germany had also failed. French losses were far higher than German, and the resulting disparity in combat power meant that the French were not even able to hold the last significant terrain obstacle, the Meuse.

These victories were not accomplished by superior war planning or by operational excellence. The French had anticipated the German advance to the north of the Meuse and had devised an excellent means defeating it. The German advance through Belgium was hardly the thing of wonder that it has been made it out to be. That the French plan did not succeed, while the German plan did, had nothing to do with strategy, but was solely the product of German superiority at the tactical level.

There is a school of thought which maintains that the German ‘genius for war’ was the product of the excellence of the German Great General Staff, that is, German victories were due to superiority at the operational and particularly at the strategic levels. There is no evidence to be found for this proposition either in the Battle of the Frontiers as a whole or in the Ardennes on 22 August. The Chief of the General Staff, the younger Moltke, did nothing to give German planning operational coherence: the seven German armies acted virtually independently of each other. The German 5th Army attack plan for 22 August, written by a General Staff major general, left a corps-sized gap in the army centre that was not filled until late afternoon, and which nearly resulted in a French breakthrough, while the army right flank was hanging completely in the air. The 5th Army plan was not coordinated with the 4th Army. The 4th Army moved to the south on its own initiative at the last minute to cover the 5th Army right flank, in turn leaving the 4th Army’s own centre outnumbered and dangerously thin. Due to the 5th Army’s poorly thought-out attack, of the ten German corps in these two armies, two corps could only be brought into action late in the day and one not at all, while all the French corps were engaged. The only German senior officer to display sound operational ability in the Ardennes was the commander of the 4th Army, the Duke of Württemberg, a capable professional soldier but also the hereditary ruler of a German state and hardly the prototypical General Staff officer. But the real victors on 22 August in the Ardennes were the officers and soldiers of the divisions of the German 4th Army, which dealt the French 4th Army – the French main attack – the most stinging defeats in the entire Battle of the Frontiers.

The German Army

The German army’s 1906 infantry regulation presented an effective tactical doctrine based on the need to gain fire superiority as well as on offensive action based on fire and movement. German training in this doctrine was realistic and thorough, and concluded every year by several weeks of live-fire gunnery exercises and tactical problems conducted at MTA. French doctrine did not include the concept of fire superiority and the French did not have adequate training areas. German doctrine and training also emphasised the meeting engagement and individual initiative at the tactical level; the French, on the other hand, emphasised linear engagements tightly controlled at the division, corps and army levels.

The German army won the Battle of the Frontiers because of superior peacetime doctrine and training. German patrolling and reconnaissance were vastly superior to the French. In almost every instance, German reconnaissance provided excellent reports on French movements while blinding French cavalry reconnaissance. French air reconnaissance was largely ineffective in the forested Ardennes; the French senior headquarters formed an entirely erroneous impression of German movements and intentions. On 22 August none of the French divisions had any idea that major German forces were in their immediate vicinity.

On 22 August the two French armies were advancing to the northeast, while the two German armies were attacking to the west. All of the subsequent battles were meeting engagements. German units moved quickly and deployed smoothly. French movements suffered from friction and their deployment was slow and uncertain. Once engaged the Germans smothered the French with rifle, MG and artillery fire and gained fire superiority. If the Germans were on the defence, this fire stopped the French attack. If attacking, the Germans then closed with and destroyed the French infantry by fire and movement. Widespread myths notwithstanding, there were no trenches, and the only barbed wire encountered was that which the Belgian farmers used to fence in their livestock.

German Infantry

Prior to the war there had been considerable concern that the nerves of the troops would not stand up to the terrors of modern combat. As Otto von Moser noted, these battles proved beyond a doubt that the German troops were equal to the task. To Moser’s observations it must be added that the French troops were often not equal to the requirements of the modern battlefield; after a few hours of combat, most French units cracked. This was due to inadequacies in French training.

This was not to say that everything went flawlessly. In particular, the infantry often attacked without waiting for the fire support of MG and artillery to soften the enemy up. Losses were even higher than the most sobering peacetime projections: in Moser’s units more than a third of the officers and nearly a third of the enlisted men became casualties on 22 August. But French casualties were even higher. As The commander of the 25 ID, speaking of IR 116 and IR 117 at Anloy, said:

‘In spite of these (terrain) difficulties, in spite of the casualties and the intense enemy fire our troops worked their way forwards. As was characteristic of our men at this time, they got the bit in their teeth and pushed forward, which cost us a great many casualties … Nevertheless! Who would dare to criticise the wonderful aggressive spirit of our soldiers?’

In the battle the general was describing, the terrain was very close and the action was taking place at 400m range or less. Artillery support was practically impossible. Using fire and movement, the German troops pushed back the French, one terrain feature at a time. There were no ‘bayonet charges’. The German infantry simply kept on battering the French, undeterred by casualties.

The performance of the German infantry on 22 August 1914 was exceptional, the result of high morale, intelligent doctrine, effective training and excellent leadership.

German Artillery

The commander of the VI RK listed the common complaints about the performance of the German artillery. The infantry pushed quickly forward and the artillery was too slow to keep up. The German artillery was especially slow in occupying covered positions. The result was that the German artillery often fired into its own infantry. The French gun had a maximum effective range 2,000m greater than the German gun. The French artillery was better trained and more tactically proficient; the French operated flexibly, by batteries, the Germans employed clumsy three-battery sections.

Most of these criticisms seem to have been coloured by experiences later in the Marne campaign. During the French withdrawal, their artillery was very effective as a rear-guard. During the battle of the Marne the French emptied their magazines, firing prodigious quantities of shells that smothered the German infantry.

But during the meeting engagements on 22 August in the Ardennes the German artillery was almost always superior to the French. If it was sometimes slow to get into action, the French artillery was slower. The Germans were usually able to fight combined-arms battles; the French infantry was often destroyed before the French artillery got into action. The Germans frequently brought individual guns right into the skirmisher line, where they provided highly effective fire support at point-blank range; the French never did so. The German light and heavy howitzers proved their worth.

Both the German and the French artillery soon discovered that frequently the terrain did not provide observation of enemy positions. Rather than do nothing, both artilleries employed unobserved area fire (Streufeuer) against suspected enemy locations. This was not provided for in either the French or German pre-war artillery doctrines, because it was felt to be ineffective and wasteful of ammunition. However, both sides used it from the first day of combat on, and to good effect.

German Cavalry

German doctrine emphasised that cavalry needed to be aggressive during the battle in developing opportunities to both participate in the battle as well as to operate against the enemy flank and rear. Doctrine also stated that cavalry was the arm best suited to conduct pursuit.

While the 3 KD and 6 KD had been very effective in the reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance roles before the battle, during the battle they accomplished nothing. The 3 KD commander decided that the terrain prevented the division from accomplishing anything and resigned himself to inactivity. 6 KD was used to guard the army left flank. Neither division conducted a pursuit, either on 22 or 23 August, although the Colonial Corps would seem to have offered a fine target for 3 KD and the right flank of the French VI CA an even better target for 6 KD.

It appears that the cavalry learned during the approach march that a mounted man presented a fine target and that even small groups of infantry were capable of blocking cavalry movement. By 22 August the senior cavalry commanders were thoroughly intimidated: they avoided serious contact and were unwilling to attempt to move large bodies of cavalry anywhere that they might be subject to small arms or artillery fire. Coupled with the unimaginative operations of the 5th Army headquarters, the timidity of the cavalry leaders cost the cavalry the opportunity to have made a major impact in the battle.

Command and Control

The German army discovered that modern means of communications were unreliable, an observation that would be repeated by practically every subsequent army. This included the telephones that connected army headquarters to OHL, which utilised the seemingly infallible civilian telephone net. As Crown Prince Wilhelm complained, the telephones became so overloaded with traffic that the command and control system at times broke down completely. Nevertheless, German reporting was good and with the exception of the breakdown between V AK and XIII AK German senior HQs kept each other informed.

Liebmann’s Evaluation of German Doctrine and Training

In his study of how German doctrine and training withstood the test of combat in 1914, Liebmann concluded that ‘In 1914, none of our enemies possessed a doctrine which was superior in combat to that of the German army, even though we must acknowledge that German doctrine had weaknesses’.

‘Foremost among these errors was a failure to recognise the effect of firepower, even though German doctrine was based on firepower … It must also be recognised that even the most conscientious preparation in peacetime does not insulate against similar errors.’

‘The German infantry proved itself to be superior to that of the enemy. Its high morale and discipline and its powerful offensive spirit, the product of its traditions and decades of training, allowed it in many cases to simply overrun the enemy infantry’. But Liebmann said that this superiority applied only to mobile warfare, and contended that attacks later in the war against a prepared enemy defence failed disastrously.

Liebmann said that conducting the firefight with thick skirmisher lines was effective and that the casualties incurred were acceptable as were forward bounds by individuals or by squads. Casualties only became serious when long lines bounded forward or entire fronts conducted assaults. And although the German army emphasised fire superiority, gaining and using it in actual practice proved difficult. A much more serious deficiency in German doctrine and training was the failure to recognise the difficulties in infantry–artillery cooperation. In German exercises the problem was glossed over. On the other hand, the German cavalry performed its reconnaissance function everywhere with distinction.

Foreign Policy of Henry IV

Henry IV and the war of Savoy

In exchange for retaining Saluzzo (dotted area, lower center), Savoy was compelled to cede most of its territories on the far side of the Rhône (striped area, upper left)

The peace of Vervins was not very well observed on the part of France. The ruling idea which guided the foreign policy of Henry IV was to curb the power of the House of Austria: a plan incompatible with the letter of the treaty. In pursuance of this policy Henry became the supporter of Protestantism; not, perhaps, from any lingering affection for his ancient faith—his indifference in such matters has been already seen—but because the Protestants were the natural enemies of the Austrian House. Hence he was determined to support the independence of Holland. He annually paid the Dutch large sums of money; he connived at the recruiting for them in France; and in spite of a royal prohibition, granted at the instance of the Spanish ambassador in 1599, whole regiments passed into the service of the United Provinces. In aid of these plans Henry fortified himself with alliances. He courted the Protestant Princes of Germany, and incited them to make a diversion in favour of the Dutch; he cultivated the friendship of Venice, reconciled himself with the Grand Duke of Tuscany, and attached the House of Lorraine to his interests by giving his sister, Catharine, in marriage to the Duke of Bar (January 31st, 1599); who, formerly, when Marquis of Pont-à-Mousson, had been his rival for the French Crown, and who in 1608 succeeded his father as Duke of Lorraine. The Porte was propitiated by Savary de Brèves, an able diplomatist; and the vanity of France was gratified by obtaining the protectorate of the Christians in the East. The Pope was gained through his temporal interests as an Italian Prince. Henry had promised, on his absolution, to publish in France the decrees of Trent; and, as he had refrained from doing so out of consideration for the Huguenots, he had, by way of compensation, offered to support Clement VIII in his design of uniting Ferrara to the immediate dominions of the Church; although the House of Este had often been the faithful ally of France. The direct line of the reigning branch of that family becoming extinct on the death of Duke Alfonso II, Clement VIII seized the duchy; and Caesard’Este, first cousin and heir of Alfonso, obtained only the Imperial fiefs of Modena and Reggio (1597). The connivance of Henry gratified the Pope and caused him to overlook the Edict of Nantes.

The friendship of the Pope was also necessary to Henry for his private affairs, as he was meditating a divorce from his wife, Margaret of Valois, from whom he had long been estranged, and who had borne him no children. Flaws were discovered in Gregory XIII’s dispensation for kinship; and as Margaret herself, in consideration of a large pension from the King, agreed to the suit (July, 1599), a divorce was easily obtained. The choice of her successor was more difficult. Mary de’ Medici, the offspring of Francis, Grand-Duke of Tuscany, by a daughter of the Emperor, Ferdinand I, was proposed, and supported by Sully who opposed all idea of a marriage with Gabrielle, now Duchess of Beaufort. The difficulty was solved by the sudden death of Gabrielle, April 10th, 1599. Henry, who was absent from Paris, though he felt and displayed an unfeigned sorrow for the death of his mistress, harbored no suspicions, and the negotiations for the Florentine marriage went on. Mary de’ Medici, however, was nearly supplanted by another rival. Before the end of the summer, Henry had been captivated by a new mistress, Mademoiselle d’Entragues, whom he created Marquise de Verneuil. The Papal commissaries had, in December, 1599, pronounced his marriage with Margaret null; and on the 25th of April following the King signed his marriage contract with the Tuscan Princess, the second descendant of the Florentine bankers, who was destined to give heirs to the Crown of France.

A domestic rebellion, fomented by Spain and Savoy, diverted awhile the attention of Henry from his plans of foreign policy. Sully’s economy and love of order had excited much discontent among the powerful nobles of France; the materials of sedition were accumulated and ready to burst into a flame; and a point that had been left undecided in the treaty of Vervins afforded the means of applying the torch. By that treaty the question between France and Savoy respecting the Marquisate of Saluzzo had been referred to the decision of the Pope; but Clement VIII, unwilling to offend either party, had declined to interfere. In order, if possible, to settle this question, and also to engage Henry to support his pretensions to Geneva, Charles Emmanuel, who then reigned in Savoy, paid a visit to the French King at Fontainebleau; where, alarmed apparently at the idea of being seized and detained, he agreed to decide whether he would give up Bresse in exchange for Henry’s claims on Saluzzo. He had, however, no intention of surrendering either the one or the other; and he employed his visit to France in ingratiating himself with the French nobles, many of whom he gained by large gifts and still larger promises. It had been predicted by an astrologer that in the year 1600 there should be no King in France; and Charles Emmanuel made use of a prediction which, in that age, earned no slight weight, not only to rouse the ambition of the French nobility, but also, it is said, to stimulate a renewal of the odious enterprises against Henry’s life. A plan was formed to convert France into an elective monarchy, like the Empire, and to establish each great lord as an hereditary Prince in his government. It was thought that many towns as well as nobles might be drawn into the plot, nay, even that some princes of the blood might be induced to engage in it. Among the leading conspirators were the Dukes of Epernon and Bouillon (Turenne), and the Count of Auvergne, a natural son of Charles IX and uterine brother of the King’s mistress, Henriette d’Entragues. But Marshal Biron was the soul of the plot: whose chief motive was wounded pride, the source of so many rash actions in men of his egregious vanity. Biron pretended that the King owed to him the Crown, and complained of his ingratitude, although Henry had made him a Duke and Peer, as well as a Marshal of France and Governor of Burgundy. Henry had mortified him by remarking that the Birons had served him well, but that he had had a great deal of trouble with the drunkenness of the father and the freaks and pranks of the son.Biron’s complaints were so loud that the Court of Spain made him secret advances; while an intriguer named La Fin proposed to him, on the part of the Duke of Savoy, one of the Duke’s daughters in marriage, and held out the hope that Spain would guarantee to him the sovereignty of both Burgundies. After many pretexts and delays, Charles Emmanuel having refused to give up Bresse for Saluzzo, or Saluzzo for Bresse, Henry IV declared war against him in August, 1600, and promptly followed up the declaration by invading Savoy. Biron carefully concealed his designs, nor does the King appear to have been aware of them; for he gave the Marshal a command, who conquered for him the little county of Bresse, though still secretly corresponding with the Duke of Savoy. Henry’s refusal to give Biron the command of Bourg, the capital of Bresse, still further exasperated him.

One of the most interesting incidents of this little war is the care displayed by Henry for the safety of Geneva. The Duke of Savoy had long hankered after the possession of that city, and had erected, at the distance of two leagues from it, the fort of St. Catherine, which proved a great annoyance to the Genevese. The fort was captured by the royal forces; and the now aged Beza, at the head of a deputation of the citizens, went out to meet the King, who, in spite of the displeasure of the Papal Legate, gave him a friendly reception, presented him with a sum of money, and granted his request for the demolition of the fortress. This war presents little else of interest except its results, embodied in the treaty of peace signed January 17th, 1601. The rapidity of Henry’s conquests had quite dispirited Charles Emmanuel; and although Fuentes, the Spanish Governor of the Milanese, ardently desired the prolongation of the war, the Duke of Lerma, the all-powerful minister of Philip III, was against it; for the anxiety of the Spanish cabinet had been excited by the appearance of a Turkish fleet in the western waters of the Mediterranean, effected through the influence of the French ambassador at Constantinople. Under these circumstances negotiations were begun. In order to retain the Marquisate of Saluzzo, which would have given the French too firm a footing in Piedmont, the Duke was compelled to make large territorial concessions on the other side of the Alps. Bresse, Bugei, Valromei, the Pays de Gex, in short, all the country between the Saone, the Rhone, and the southern extremity of the Jura mountains, except the little principality of Dombes and its capital Trevoux, belonging to the Duke of Montpensier, were now ceded to the French in exchange for their claims of the territories of Saluzzo, Perosa, Pinerolo, and the Val di Stura. The Duke also ceded Chateaux-Dauphin, reserving a right of passage into Franche-Comte, for which he had to pay 100,000 crowns. This hasty peace ruined all Biron s hopes, and struck him with such alarm, that he came to Henry and confessed his treasonable plans. Henry not only pardoned him, but even employed him in embassies to England and Switzerland; but Biron was incorrigible. He soon afterwards renewed his intrigues with the French malcontent nobles, and being apprehended and condemned for high treason by the Parliament of Paris, was beheaded in the Court of the Bastille, July 29th, 1602. The execution of so powerful a nobleman created both at home and abroad a strong impression of the power of the French King.

While the war with Savoy was going on, Mary de’ Medici arrived in France, and Henry solemnized his marriage with her at Lyons, December 9th, 1600. The union was not destined to be a happy one. Mary was neither amiable nor attractive; she possessed but little of the grace or intellect of her family; and was withal ill-tempered, bigoted, obstinate, and jealous. On September 27th, 1601, the Dauphin, afterwards Louis XIII, was born.

Although the aims of Henry IV were as a rule noble and worthy of his character, the means which he employed to attain them will not always admit of the same praise. His excuse must be sought in the necessities and difficulties of his political situation. At home, where he was suspected both by Catholics and Huguenots, he was frequently obliged to resort to finesse, nor did he hesitate himself to acknowledge that his word was not always to be depended on. Abroad, where his policy led him to contend with both branches of the House of Austria, he was compelled, in that unequal struggle, to supply with artifice the deficiencies of force; and he did not scruple to assist underhand the malcontent vassals and subjects of the Emperor and the King of Spain. France is the land of political “ideas”, and Henry, or rather his Minister, Sully, had formed a magnificent scheme for the reconstruction of Europe. Against the plan of Charles V and Philip II, of a universal THEOCRATIC MONARCHY, Sully formed the antagonistic one of a CHRISTIAN REPUBLIC, in which, for the bigotry and intolerance supported by physical force, that formed the foundation of the Spanish scheme, were to be substituted a mutual toleration between Papists and Protestants and the suppression of all persecution. Foreign wars and domestic revolutions, as well as all religious disputes, were to be settled by European congresses, and a system of free trade was to prevail throughout Europe. This confederated Christian State was to consist of fifteen powers, or dominations, divided according to their constitutions into three different groups. The first group was to consist of States having an elective Sovereign, which would include the Papacy, the Empire, Venice, and the three elective Kingdoms of Hungary, Poland, and Bohemia. The second group would comprehend the hereditary Kingdoms of France, Spain, Great Britain, Denmark, Sweden, and the new Kingdom of Lombardy which was to be founded; while the Republics or federate States, as the Swiss League, the contemplated Belgian commonwealth, and the confederacy of the Italian States would form the third. The Tsar of Muscovy, or as Henry used to call him, the “Scythian Knès”, was at present to be excluded from the Christian Republic, as being an Asiatic rather than a European potentate, as well as on account of the savage and half barbarous nature of his subjects, and the doubtful character of their religious faith; though he might one day be admitted into this community of nations, when he should think proper himself to make the application.

Marengo: 14 June 1800 Part I

Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David

Napoleon is presented the body of Desaix

Give me lucky generals.


During his voyage back to France on board Muiron, Bonaparte frequently referred to the importance of luck. No matter how strong his belief in determinism, ‘all great events hang by a hair and I believe in luck’. On the other hand, nothing should be neglected which could promote a man’s destiny. His main concern when he contemplated the situation in France was that he might be too late to take advantage of it, that ‘the fruit might be overripe’. He was going to need all the luck going. As things turned out, not only did he neglect nothing which might bolster his cause, but he had the devil’s own luck as well.

There was serious work to be done, for while Bonaparte had been in Egypt, the Directory, a government of lawyers, had fallen from favour, and every sort of intrigue was under way to bring about change. This was not to be wondered at for everything was going wrong. Bonaparte’s glorious conquests in Italy had been forfeited, the Treasury was empty, widespread disorder reflected widespread discontent. The armies, except for Masséna’s on the Frontiers of Switzerland and Brune’s in Flanders, had been defeated. The Allied campaign in the Netherlands may be summed up by saying simply that their armies had advanced in drenching rain from Den Helder to the line of the Zype Canal, where they stuck fast in the mud, while the Dutch people did not so much as lift a finger to support their supposed liberators. After much dithering and recrimination, the Allied armies withdrew and were evacuated. One more British expedition to the Netherlands had ended in failure. No wonder Macaulay condemned Pitt’s military administration as that of a mere driveller.

Despite their losses elsewhere, the French were still defying their enemies further south. The Austrians under Archduke Charles were poised to invade France by crossing the Rhine, while the hideous butcher, Suvorov, whose military doctrine was to go bull-headed at the enemy, and whom Byron called half demon and half dirt, was coming up from Italy towards Nice. Yet if either did invade, Masséna would be able to emerge from his Alpine bastion, pounce on their communications and sever them from their supply columns. There was a third threat to Masséna. Korsakov, reputed lover of Catherine the Great and a celebrated bon viveur, was commanding an Austro-Russian army at Zurich. But Masséna, undeterred by the prospect of a simultaneous attack from three sides, concentrated his force outside Zurich at the very time when the Allies did not concentrate against him. Archduke Charles took his army off towards the Netherlands; Suvorov had been slowed down by snow and harassed by French forces under Lecombe; and Korsakov had dangerously extended his position to the west of Zurich, prompting Masséna to attack him with his entire force, driving him out of Switzerland and capturing 8,000 men, guns, money and supplies. Suvorov then abandoned his offensive. Thus Masséna had plucked the flower, safety, from the nettle, danger. His cold, crafty, calculating waiting game, played with great patience and perseverance, harbouring the opportunity to pounce on vulnerability, had saved the Republic from invasion. By the time it was next threatened, Bonaparte would not only be once more in command of the army, he would be the political leader of France.

The process by which this came about was set in train by the Abbé Sieyès, one of the Government’s Directors. He hit upon the idea that he himself would be an excellent replacement for the Directory. But others would need to be similarly persuaded, among them that great survivor, Talleyrand, and the Chief of Police, Fouché. There would also have to be a soldier to wield the sword for Sieyès. At first Sieyès thought of Bernadotte, Minister of War, but he was too circumspect. Moreau might do, but he was too timid. It was, however, Moreau who made the crucial suggestion when he heard on 13 October 1799 that Bonaparte had landed at Fréjus. Bonaparte, Moreau told Sieyès, was the man to manage a coup d’état. And manage it he did.

There was a lot of preliminary manoeuvring to be done, and between 16 October and the end of that month, Josephine’s salon – Bonaparte had forgiven her dalliance with Lieutenant Hippolyte Charles and they were now on more comfortable terms – was crowded with politicians and soldiers, while her husband ruminated, gauged the temperature and formulated his plans. After deliberating for two weeks, he threw in his lot with Sieyès and Ducos, another Director, and assured himself that the support of those soldiers essential to him if it came to a fight would be forthcoming. The men who mattered – Berthier, Murat, Lannes, Marmont – had been with him in the Italian and Egyptian campaigns. All would later become Marshals of the Empire. Bonaparte also made sure of Sérurier and Moreau. He still had to get the Military Governor of Paris, Lefèbvre, on his side, but he was manipulable enough. Bluff and naïve, Lefèbvre fell for Josephine’s blandishments and Bonaparte’s smooth confidences. Bernadotte, on the other hand, continued to sit on the fence. The conspiracy would have to proceed without him. The first step was to get the soldiers into their proper positions. On 9 November Bonaparte’s supporters fastened their grip on the key places and deployed their troops in readiness. Marmont, one of Bonaparte’s oldest friends and, like him, an artilleryman, was fittingly enough in charge of the guns; Murat, one of history’s greatest cavalry leaders, was with his hussars and chasseurs at the Palais Bourbon; Lannes – who while in Egypt, not having seen his wife for more than a year, heard that she had given birth to a bouncing boy – was in command of the Tuileries; Macdonald was at Versailles; Sérurier at St-Cloud. By the end of that day all the Directors were rendered impotent and it only remained for Bonaparte to appear the following day and confront the Council of the Ancients and the Deputies at St-Cloud for the whole coup d’état to be complete.

Few things daunted Bonaparte, but one of them was a hostile mob, and this was precisely what he had to face in the Council Chamber at St-Cloud, outside Paris, on 10 November. When he addressed the Council of the Ancients, he struck quite the wrong chord, speaking to them not as the statesman they expected, but as soldier, bragging that the god of Victory and the god of Fortune marched with him. He was greeted with angry shouts. Worse was to come when he entered the Orangery to address the Five Hundred Deputies. At once he was accused of violating the law. Angry Deputies crowded round him, clawing and striking at him, shouting that he was a dictator and should be outlawed. Bonaparte was rescued by four stalwart soldiers and led outside. His brother Lucien, who was President of the Five Hundred, then made an attempt to restore order and sent an urgent note to Bonaparte telling him to act at once. After making an appeal to the soldiers – ‘I led you to victory, can I count on you?’ – powerfully reinforced by Lucien, who swore that he would run his own brother through should he jeopardize the freedom of Frenchmen, Bonaparte ordered General Leclerc, a comrade-in-arms at Toulon and husband of Bonaparte’s sister, Pauline, to clear the Orangery, together with Murat. Murat, who never stood on ceremony, acted with his characteristic blend of eloquent bravado and practical action, inviting his grenadiers to chuck the Deputies – ‘these blighters’ – out of the Orangery window. This action effectively put a stop to all opposition and early the following morning, 11 November 1799, still at the Orangery, the new Government formally took office.

There were to be three Consuls – Bonaparte, Ducos and Sieyès. They all swore their loyal service to the Republic. The principles of Liberty, Equality and the Representative System would be upheld. But none of this counted for much when about a month later Bonaparte became First Consul and virtual ruler of France. He was thirty years old. He moved to the Tuileries in February 1800, telling the ‘little Creole’, Josephine, to ‘sleep in the bed of your masters’. It would not be long, however, before he found himself at the head of the army, once more confronting the enemies of France. He would have preferred to concentrate on matters of peace, but neither Austria nor Great Britain was prepared to follow suit. That Bonaparte wished for peace was made clear by his declaration to the people on becoming First Consul that he knew they wanted peace and that the Government wanted it even more. He himself wanted to set about the gigantic task of overhauling completely the organization of France and the conduct of its affairs. He went so far as to send a message to King George III proposing a settlement and asking ‘why the two most enlightened nations of Europe should go on sacrificing their trade, their prosperity, and their domestic happiness to false ideas of grandeur?’ His own ideas of grandeur were to take huge strides in the coming years and he would create for himself a position and fame unparalleled in contemporary history. Yet it must be borne in mind that all the wars fought by him up to 1807, when he sent troops into Spain to conquer Portugal, were defensive wars against a series of coalitions, sponsored by England and joined by Russia, Austria and Prussia. And while waging these wars to preserve the integrity of France, Bonaparte was generally successful. It was only when the wars of aggression began that his game began to go wrong.

Bonaparte’s overtures to George III met with a dusty answer. George instructed his Foreign Secretary, Grenville, to write to Talleyrand and reject any idea of negotiating with the First Consul. This rejection could have been couched in firm, diplomatic and inoffensive language, but Grenville chose to employ irrational and tactless pomposity, demanding restoration of the Bourbons and a return to pre-revolutionary frontiers. It was, of course, Pitt who was the arbiter of this dismissal of Bonaparte’s peace offer, and when challenged in the House of Commons as to the purpose of continuing the war, against which there was now high feeling in the country, he justified his policy on the grounds of security. He went so far as to speak of the danger which threatened the world as being the greatest that had ever done so, one that had been resisted by the nations of Europe, and with notable success by England. Jacobinism, which had previously been embodied in the persons of Robespierre and Barras, the Terror and the Directory, had not gone away. It had now ‘been centred and condensed into one man, who was reared and nursed in its bosom, whose celebrity was gained under its auspices, who was at once child and champion of all its atrocities and horrors’. There was no security for England in making peace with Bonaparte. The prosecution of war, on the other hand, would attain security. Yet for the time being, as far as making war on land was concerned, it would have to be left to the Austrians. The irony of it all was that this brought about another triumphant victory for Bonaparte, and in spite of Nelson’s destruction of the Danish fleet at Copenhagen and the recapture of Egypt by Abercromby, England did make peace with France. But by then Pitt had ceased to be Prime Minister and Addington was in his place. How did Bonaparte set about beating the Austrians?

During the early months of 1800 the First Consul was obliged to interrupt his formidable task of organizing France’s finances, judicial system, Civil Code, religion, educational structure, its roads, ports, canals and countrywide administration, in order to raise another army to beat off enemies which were gathering again to overthrow the Revolution once and for all. France was being threatened on two fronts – from the Rhine and from Italy. Bonaparte positioned his Army of the Reserve at Dijon from where he could reinforce either front. It was to Italy that he marched for, whilst the Army of the Rhine succeeded in checking the Austrians at Biberach, south of Ulm, the position in Italy was potentially much more dangerous. It all depended on that old fox Masséna, who was defending Genoa, hemmed in by the Austrian army on land and by the British navy at sea. Masséna defied all the odds – starvation, disease, a mutinous army, a rebellious population – hanging on at all costs, for the Austrians dared not advance beyond Genoa leaving French forces, albeit weak, astride their communications. Towards the end of May 1800, Masséna heard at last that the First Consul had crossed the Great St Bernard Pass with the Reserve Army (not as depicted in David’s famous painting mounted on a full-blooded grey charger, but on a mule well behind the main body), and was in Lombardy at Marengo, positioned between Vienna and the Austrian army under Melas. Masséna could now march out of Genoa with his bedraggled remains of an army and leave the rest of the business to Bonaparte.

Somewhat later in his career, Napoleon – we may refer to him thus now, as after the peace of Amiens in 1802 he was confirmed for life as First Consul and would from then on be known as Napoleon – made his plea: ‘Give me lucky generals.’ At Marengo in June 1800, making the mistakes he did, he needed plenty of luck himself – and got it! Having dispersed his forces too widely, astonishing in a general who knew all too well that concentration was a cardinal principle of war, never to be breached, and failing to give the Austrian commander credit for being able to mount a concentrated attack on him, Napoleon was dismayed to find his divisions being pushed back and his entire position in danger of disintegrating. There was but one measure that could save the day – a counter-attack. It was then that three of his subordinate commanders came to the rescue. First, Napoleon sent a desperate plea to Desaix, who with his infantry division of some 5,000 men had earlier been sent off south to cut the road to Genoa: ‘For God’s sake come back.’ At about five o’clock Desaix returned and, according to Correlli Barnett, more or less took charge of the situation, commenting to Napoleon that although one encounter seemed to have gone wrong, there was still time to win the battle. Meanwhile, Marmont, who was in charge of the guns, and who had been fighting all day, supplemented his five pieces of artillery with five from the reserve and eight from Desaix, making up a battery of eighteen guns. Thus Marmont was able to deliver an effective bombardment against the advancing Austrians, enabling Desaix to go forward. On the flank with 400 cavalrymen was young General Kellermann, and their charge just as the Austrians were trying to recover from the combined shocks of Marmont’s discharge of cannister and Desaix’s assault completed a perfectly combined action of horse, foot and guns, which transformed the fortunes of a battle the Austrians thought they had won.

Marengo: 14 June 1800 Part II

Situation at the beginning of the French counter-attack

‘The French counter-attack,’ wrote A. G. Macdonnell, ‘was, by chance, one of the most perfectly timed tactical operations by combined infantry, artillery and cavalry in the whole history of warfare.’ First came Marmont’s bombardment with his eighteen guns which lasted for some twenty minutes. Then Desaix went forward with his infantry – he was killed by a bullet in the head while leading his men in the attack – and Marmont, having limbered up four of his guns, was there in support. It was another instance of close cooperation between arms, for in an effort to counter the counter-attack, a battalion of Austrian grenadiers was pressing forward against Desaix’s men, and seeing them but fifty yards ahead, Marmont unlimbered his four pieces and let the advancing closely ranked Austrian grenadiers have four rounds of cannister from each gun fired at point-blank range. To cap it all, just as the Austrians were reeling from this fresh blow and Desaix’s infantrymen were surging forward, young Kellermann came charging in from the flank with his heavy cavalrymen. The enemy broke and fled. ‘A minute earlier,’ said Macdonnell, ‘or three minutes later, and the thing could not have succeeded, but the timing was perfect, and North Italy was recovered in that moment for the French Republic.’

Napoleon’s own part in the battle had been positively undistinguished, yet the victory confirmed his position as First Consul and enabled him to make peace. When Berthier consoled an Austrian officer after the battle, however, by pointing out that his army had been defeated by the greatest general in the world, the reply was that it had been Masséna’s iron hand that had won the battle of Marengo by resisting siege in Genoa. To which might be added – Genoa certainly and chance!

But what if Desaix had not come back? Correlli Barnett is quite clear about it: ‘If Desaix had not returned in time, the resulting defeat would have put an end to his [Napoleon’s] career.’ Evangeline Bruce is equally definite: ‘Bonaparte had gambled his future and almost lost it; had Desaix not arrived in time his career would have ended then.’ Very well, let us hypothesize that chance does not favour him after all, the Austrians win at Marengo, Bonaparte is dismissed from his position as First Consul; what might have happened then? We might consider first what would not have happened, for whatever else might be said about Napoleon, it cannot be denied that he was totally unique. He was a comet shooting through his own generation and many others to come, a man whose imagination, ambition, capacity and sheer magnitude made him stand up peerless among his contemporaries. He was a modern Caesar and bestrode this narrow world like a Colossus. His capacity for work was prodigious. And it was after Marengo that the business of putting France in order really began. It may be doubted whether anyone else would have embarked on quite so radical and comprehensive a programme as he did, but Napoleon held two winning aces. First, he was immensely popular; indeed, the royalist Mathieu Molé observed that with the exception of America’s first President, George Washington, no chief magistrate of a republic had ever been so universally popular. The second ace was power. When Napoleon and Sieyès had discussed what form the Republic’s executive should take, it was Napoleon who got his way. There were to be three Consuls, but only the First Consul would make decisions. Napoleon was therefore able to set about the complete reorganization of France’s internal affairs. Most of his measures were instituted in the two years 1800–1802, the so-called ‘ardent years of the Consulate’. It was then, wrote Evangeline Bruce, that ‘he laid the foundations of all the administrative and fiscal achievements that were to be his real monuments, created the tightly centralized administration that survives in France, much modified, to this day, restructured the judicial and public educational systems, and created the Bank of France’.

His greatest, most enduring achievement was the Civil Code, more renowned as the Code Napoléon. This was essentially a matter of the law. Following the Revolution in 1789 there had been so many decrees, regional codes and rulings by autonomous courts that, as Napoleon himself put it in writing to Talleyrand, France was ‘a nation with three hundred books of laws, yet without laws’. Now the whole matter of law and justice was to be put in order. The Code Napoléon was founded on a number of principles: all were to be equal before the law; there would be an end to feudal rights and duties; property would be inviolable; marriage would be a civil act, not a religious one; there would be freedom of conscience and freedom in choice of work. Without Napoleon, we may take it that all this would not have been done, nor would the Concordat, the pact between Napoleon and the Pope recognizing Roman Catholicism as the official religion of most French people, have been brought about. And then Napoleon was utterly dedicated to work. During the early months and years after becoming First Consul, he would work for sixteen, even eighteen, hours a day, seven days a week. Apart from the time he spent in the Council Chamber at the Tuileries where he presided over the Council of State, much of his day was passed in his study, dictating to his secretary. There, as Vincent Cronin put it:

Napoleon answered letters, issued orders, made minutes on Ministers’ reports, checked budgets, instructed ambassadors, raised troops, moved armies and carried out the thousand and one other duties which fell to the head of government, always totally immersed in the task in front of him, always completing it before going on to the next.

It was this ability to concentrate which was the key to his powerful intellect. At a time when in his own words la carrière ouverte aux talents was there for the taking, Napoleon showed the world how his own quite exceptional talents opened up for him a career of dazzling distinction.

Added to this, of course, was his supreme confidence. In establishing the Code Napoléon, he was sure that it would endure. He was right. It is still the law of France, with some amendments. To make the whole thing work, Napoleon established in each département a new type of official, the prefect, a system of administration still in being today. When we add to all this a new criminal code, a reformed educational system, the Legion of Honour and the building of roads, canals and ports, there seems to be no end to his achievements. Yet there is one more we must look at, without which all the rest might have gone for nothing – creating the Grande Armée: ‘It was to be a real, full-dress, organized, trained fighting machine,’ wrote Macdonnell. ‘Its training ground was to be the north-east coast of France, and its objective was England.’ This was the army which was to be Napoleon’s tool for dominating the affairs of Europe for the next decade, and against which only a small British army under Wellington was able to nibble away in a theatre of war which the by then French Emperor regarded as a side-show. Napoleon’s army was certainly on the grand scale. It was a highly efficient fighting force, as regards both numbers and quality. Organized into seven corps, positioned at Hanover, Utrecht, Flushing-Dunkirk, Boulogne, Montreuil and Brest, it consisted of some 200,000 men. The Corps Commanders, all of whom were destined to become Marshals of the Empire, represented about the most glittering array of military talent that could be gathered together.

They consisted of Bernadotte, who, despite his fence-sitting during the 1799 coup and his lack of regard for the First Consul, did at least promise cooperation; Marmont, Napoleon’s friend and artillery expert, who was very earnest, painstaking, concerned with his men’s well-being, and who loved building things; Davout, who was later said to be the only one of the Marshals who really understood what Napoleon’s theory and practice of war was all about; Soult, who was another great builder and an excellent trainer of young officers; Lannes, the courageous leader of so many attacks, who had been the First Consul’s envoy in Portugal to bully England’s oldest ally into neutrality; Ney, the fiery red-headed cavalryman, who worshipped war and battle for their own sake, who studied hard to master infantry tactics, and whose admirable concept of operations was ‘fast marching and straight shooting’; Augereau, swaggering, rough-mouthed and full of intrigue, but a bold man in a tight corner; and the cavalry under Napoleon’s brother-in-law, Murat (he had married Caroline Bonaparte), the most dashing of cavalry commanders, and whose subordinate generals, Lasalle, Colbert, Sainte-Croix and Montbrun, were all young, illustrious, good-looking and rash. Later, Bessières with the Imperial Guard was added to this star-studded community.

Would some Bonaparte substitute have created such a weapon of war? And who might that substitute have been? There was no lack of intrigue against the First Consul even in the early days, enough indeed to satisfy even those arch manipulators of power, Talleyrand and Fouché. Envy was a great breeder of intrigue, and there were plenty of Napoleon’s erstwhile comrades-in-arms who envied him. Some of this envy was cloaked under protestations that the principles of the Republic were not being consolidated. Such men as Sieyès, disgruntled by his own former disappointment, Moreau, Oudinot and St-Cyr, did not understand what it was that Napoleon was striving for: first, the organization of France so that order would replace disorder, proper administration take the place of corrupt practices, and a system of beneficial government would prevail subject to the will of one man; second, Napoleon’s ardent desire to heal old wounds, to bind together conflicting interests and loyalties, in short a programme of reconciliation and stabilization which would fuse the nation into one united France. It was all very well for Augereau and Lannes to make a fuss about the Concordat, and point to the countless number of lives which had been lost ‘to get rid of this nonsense’, but the fact was that the people as a whole enthusiastically welcomed the return of Catholicism after twelve years of State-enforced atheism. Among the ranks of other intriguers and malcontents were Jourdan, Brune, Macdonald and Masséna. Yet, as A. G. Macdonnell pointed out: ‘In all the intriguing against the Consulate it was the attitude of Bernadotte, as in 1799, that was the key to the situation.’ Bernadotte’s ambition was boundless – he did become after all King of Sweden later – but his intrigues with Moreau and Sièyes were not conducted with the discretion and secrecy which such dangerous goings-on demanded, and it was Davout, a devotee of Napoleon and at this time Commander of the Military Police, whose successful espionage uncovered the plot for a coup d’état against Napoleon. Had it come off, we may speculate that it would have been Bernadotte who headed the new Government.

No Emperor Napoleon, then, no plan to invade England, no Austerlitz, no crushing of Prussia at Jena or Russia at Friedland, no Treaty of Tilsit, or aggression in Spain, no Peninsular campaign by Sir John Moore or Wellesley . . . the catalogue stretches on. Instead we may imagine a consolidation of Republican measures, peace-making with England, Talleyrand as Foreign Minister, Fouché still Chief of Police, the other generals bought off with military commands or political posts, no Grande Armée for conquering Europe, but an Army of the Republic for defending France’s frontiers against the hostility of Austria and any allies she could muster. And if by chance it were not Bernadotte who was called upon to rule France, of one thing we may be sure. France would not have reinstated the Bourbons. It took another decade or so of Napoleonic sovereignty to bring about that ill-fated design ‘to call back yesterday, bid time return’.

As it was, however, Marengo had confirmed Bonaparte as First Consul. It would not be long – shortly after the Peace of Amiens was concluded in March 1802 – before Napoleon received an overwhelming vote of confidence from the French people, confirming him as Consul for life. From there it would be an easy leap to become Emperor of the French. As Emperor he was to command the Grande Armée in countless battles. In doing so he would often be mounted on a grey Arab stallion named Marengo. It may seem strange that Napoleon should have called the horse said to be his favourite charger after a battle in which his own part had been so undistinguished. Yet it was the result of the battle, rather than its conduct, which proved to be so significant. On 14 June 1815, when giving the army its Orders of the Day for the morrow, he charged his soldiers to recall the glorious anniversaries of Friedland and Marengo, both fought on that day. There is some controversy as to whether or not Napoleon rode Marengo at the battle of Waterloo. Marengo’s skeleton is on display at the National Army Museum, and the accompanying caption states that the Emperor did ride him. Other sources contend that Marengo was the horse on which Napoleon escaped from the battlefield. Some claim that it was a white mare called Desirée that carried him. Of course, Napoleon would have had more than one charger at hand. The outcome of the battle was certainly not what he desired. Indeed, whichever horse he rode, it availed him nothing at Waterloo.

18 June 1815 Part I

Marshal Ney of France leading a charge.

To be killed at Waterloo would have been a good death.


The historian Jac Weller is said to have complained that the Ifs of Waterloo made him wince. I fear we must make him wince again. No doubt these Ifs are countless, but for our purposes here, we will choose five chances which contributed to Napoleon’s defeat and examine the consequences had chance taken another course. First, Napoleon’s chance meeting with Ney as he moved forward on the Charleroi road and his capricious and fatal appointment of Ney as field commander; second, even given this mistake, the interference by Ney in countermanding Napoleon’s order to d’Erlon to join him at Ligny when Ney himself was dithering at Quatre Bras; third, the thunderstorm on the night of 17/18 June which delayed Napoleon’s attack; fourth, the gates of Hougoumont, the closing of which Wellington somewhat arbitrarily claimed was the decisive element of the battle; and fifth, the Emperor’s imprecise orders to Grouchy, together with Grouchy’s own incomprehensible error of judgement, which led to his 33,000 men taking no part in the decisive encounter. We will look at what effect on the battle there might have been if any of these five occurrences had been different. Such speculation will lead us to two further questions: what if Napoleon had won? What if he had been killed?

Napoleon’s choice of subordinate commanders for his last campaign must strike us as capricious, to say the least. Of course, the field was somewhat limited. There were few of the old hands who supported the Emperor on his triumphant return from Elba. Marmont, St-Cyr, Victor and Macdonald stuck to their new Bourbon loyalties. Augereau and Berthier had gone to ground. Soult, on the other hand, despite his former allegiance to Louis XVIII, had rejoined the Emperor. So had Mortier and Suchet. Masséna, perhaps wisely, chose to be unwell. Murat, King of Naples – who would never have allowed the cavalry to be handled as Ney did – impetuous as ever, on hearing of his brother-in-law’s resumption of power, committed the egregious folly of turning on his Austrian friends and attacking them with Neapolitan soldiers, who of course ran away, leaving Murat to fly ignominiously to Toulon. Napoleon had created one more Marshal – Grouchy – who might have turned the scales at Waterloo had he acted as a Marshal of France should. The Emperor had one other worthy supporter, the iron, uncompromising Davout, who accepted the Ministry of War. If instead he had been with Napoleon in the field, either as Chief of Staff or as the Emperor’s immediate lieutenant, what a world of difference he might have made. The Ministry could have been left to Soult, for however devious Talleyrand and Fouché might have been, they would never have risked a coup against Napoleon while he was in command of the army. But all in all it must be conceded that the Emperor would not be fielding the first eleven for the battle to come.

Those who have suggested, as Andrew Roberts in his recent book has reminded us, along with that eminent Napoleonic expert, David Chandler, that Napoleon deliberately appointed a second eleven in order to enjoy the greater share of glory himself after a victorious campaign, are surely wide of the mark. Napoleon’s whole future, and that of France, was at stake. Not to have taken every step to promote success would have contradicted Napoleon’s entire creed. He may have been a gambler, but he was not in the habit of throwing away aces in the middle of a game. This is what makes it all the more extraordinary that he should have chosen Ney to be his field commander before the battle got under way. Ever since the battle of Borodino, when the fiery, red-headed Marshal had launched his tirade against his Commander-in-Chief for not being right up at the front and for refusing to release the Imperial Guard, Ney, despite his heroic rearguard action in the Russian campaign and unfailing courage at Leipzig, had been unbalanced, at times hysterical. Although temporarily in disgrace because of his promise to Louis XVIII to bring the usurper back to Paris in an iron cage, Ney was to be entrusted by Napoleon with absolutely crucial responsibility in the forthcoming battle, a responsibility which Ney was temperamentally and psychologically incapable of fulfilling. Not once, but twice, he made decisions, or was guilty of indecision, which robbed the Emperor of almost certain victory. And then his actual appointment had been such a chance, so thoughtlessly haphazard. On 12 June 1815, when Napoleon set out for the Northern Front, the army consisted of five corps, commanded by d’Erlon, Vandamme, Gérard, Reille and Lobau. The only Marshals with the army were Soult, Chief of Staff, Grouchy, commanding the Reserve Cavalry, and Mortier, who was taken ill and fell out at Beaumont. Ney, dressed in mufti, had accompanied the army, bitter and aggrieved at being left out; he acquired two of Mortier’s horses and hung about near Napoleon’s staff. By chance, while looking at a map outside a tavern by the Sambre, the Emperor happened to glance up, caught sight of Ney, and at once asked him to take command of two army corps and the regiments of cavalry, some 50,000 men in all, together with over seventy guns. ‘It was,’ observed A. G. Macdonnell, ‘a strange and casual appointment.’ Apart from anything else, why did Napoleon not choose to command in person? He had in the past overseen the operations of more than two corps in a series of successful encounters with the Austrians, Russians and Prussians. Had he wished to outshine all those in subordinate positions, what more certain way of doing so? But the whole idea of his not wishing to share the credit for success may be dismissed by remembering his former instant and generous recognition of his corps and divisional commanders. His praise for Augereau at Castiglioni, for Lannes at Arcola, Masséna at Rivoli, when Napoleon greeted him as l’enfant chéri de la victoire, is enough to give the lie to such calumny. When we add the Emperor’s acknowledgement of Davout’s saving the day at Auerstädt, of his creating Macdonald a Marshal on the field of Wagram, of his unstinting commendation of Ney’s rearguard action during the retreat from Moscow – Bravest of the Brave, Prince of the Moscowa – no more evidence is needed. But to have chosen Ney, who was suffering from what we would now call battle fatigue, and whose ability coolly to weigh the tactical odds, however unquestionable his courage, was sadly deficient, constituted the first of a series of blunders that Napoleon would never have made in his heyday.

Given that Ney was appointed, however, we now come face to face with perhaps the biggest If of all, for when Napoleon was engaging the Prussians at Ligny on 16 June, Ney, with a most unfortunate coalition of indecisive manoeuvring and petulant action, was undermining the Emperor’s strategy – with the gravest consequences. Had Ney carried out Napoleon’s orders promptly, that is, to seize Quatre Bras, he would have been in a position to threaten the Prussians’ right flank and so enable Napoleon to finish Blücher’s part in the affair. Because he had been slow and indecisive, Ney received orders from the Emperor to despatch d’Erlon’s Reserve Corps to complete the business at Ligny. Again, had this been done, Blücher’s army would have been so knocked about that it would not have been able to come to the aid of Wellington two days later. As it was, Ney, finding the fight for Quatre Bras becoming ever more severe because his own delay had allowed Wellington to bring up reinforcements, countermanded the Emperor’s order and brought d’Erlon back towards Quatre Bras. In the event, d’Erlon took no part in either battle, so that the great If here is this: had Ney allowed d’Erlon to help finish off the Prussians at Ligny, there would have been no need to detach Grouchy with his 33,000 men, who would then have been available for Napoleon in his confrontation with Wellington at Waterloo. We will look further at Grouchy later on, but there is a further aspect of Quatre Bras to consider first.

An eagle is ascendant in spirit, swift in flight, sudden in decision and ruthless in deed. It was Napoleon’s unique marshalling of these characteristics that made the eagle so aptly his symbol. His whirlwind tactics of rapid marching and vital concentration of force, which he employed in the Italian campaign of 1796/97, were what shook the European armies to their foundations. The astonishing way in which he redeployed the Grande Armée from the coastal areas near Boulogne to surround Mack’s army at Ulm was a classic example of deception and rapid concentration, leading to the triumph of Austerlitz. It was the speed and violence of his pursuit of the Prussian army after Jena and Auerstädt which utterly confounded what was left of Frederick the Great’s legacy. And when the Emperor learned that Sir John Moore was threatening his communications with France by chasing Soult with his English leopards in Old Castile, he at once abandoned his idea of advancing into Portugal and hurled his force of 80,000 men northwards to entrap Moore’s small army. Vitesse was always the watchword. Napoleon himself had once conceded that he might lose ground, but would never lose a minute. This great sense of urgency seems to have deserted him in the Waterloo affair. Not only did he lose countless minutes on 17 June, he threw away the best chance of winning the campaign. For a kind of lethargy seemed to overcome him. In spite of ordering Ney to take Quatre Bras that morning and, when surprised by Ney’s wavering reluctance to act decisively, sending him a second order, couched in uncompromising terms – ‘There is no time to lose. Attack with the greatest impetuosity everything in front of you’ – Napoleon did not ensure that his orders were obeyed. Indeed, as Andrew Roberts has emphasized, if instead of wasting his time waiting for information as to Wellington’s movements and hanging about near Ligny, Napoleon had joined Ney in a joint attack on Wellington, who had only some 50,000 troops at Quatre Bras, he would have won the campaign there and then. ‘This loss of the initiative,’ wrote Roberts,

was disastrous, and still worse was his decision at around 11 a.m. to split his forces by sending Marshal Grouchy off with 33,000 men and no fewer than ninety-six cannon to follow the Prussians in what at least initially turned out to be the wrong direction.

Concentration had been a cardinal principle of Napoleon’s conduct of war, yet here he was breaking his own rules.

Now let us look at another aspect of chance – the intervention of fate and fortune.

‘Can such things be,’ demanded Macbeth, ‘And overcome us like a summer’s cloud, Without our special wonder?’ It was the breaking of a summer’s cloud, we might say, that overcame Napoleon on that night of 17/18 June 1815. Listen to Victor Hugo on the point:

It had rained all night, the ground was saturated, the water had accumulated here and there in the hollows of the plain as if in tubs; at some points the gear of the artillery carriages was buried up to the axles, the circingles of the horses were dripping with liquid mud. If the wheat and rye trampled down by this cohort of transports on the march had not filled in the ruts and strewn a litter beneath the wheels, all movement, particularly in the valleys, in the direction of Papelotte would have been impossible.

The battle began late. Napoleon was in the habit of keeping all his artillery well in hand, like a pistol, aiming it now at one point, now at another, of the battle; and it had been his wish to wait until the horse batteries could move and gallop freely. In order to do that it was necessary that the sun should come out and dry the soil. But the sun did not make its appearance. It was no longer the rendezvous of Austerlitz. When the first cannon was fired, the English general, Colville, looked at his watch, and saw that it was twenty-five minutes to twelve.3

Victor Hugo’s conclusion is that if it had not rained in the night of 17/18 June 1815, Europe’s fate would have been different. His reason? The battle of Waterloo could not be started until half past eleven and this gave Blücher time to come up. In support of this view we may note that Napoleon had set up his headquarters at Le Caillou and breakfasted there with his generals at eight o’clock on the morning of 18 June. Had the ground been completely dry, that is had there been no thunderstorm the previous night, his attack could have started at least four hours earlier than it did. We must note too that even when the French artillery did begin its bombardment at half past eleven, the ground was still wet, causing round shot to bury itself rather than ricocheting for many hundreds of yards with deadly effect. Moreover, shells were also robbed of their effectiveness by the sodden ground. But leaving this aside, it was time that would have been the crucial factor.

‘Ask me for anything but time,’ declared Napoleon. Had there been no thunderstorm, some precious hours would have been available to him. It was not until the climax of the battle, the evening of 18 June, that the Prussians intervened. This climax would have been reached well before that. Moreover there are subsidiary Ifs. An earlier start to the battle might have brought Grouchy on the scene; it might have revealed to Napoleon and Ney – and to Jérôme Bonaparte leading the attack on it – that the Château of Hougoumont had either to be taken, or screened and outflanked, if the principal assault on Wellington’s position was to be successfully made.

18 June 1815 Part II

Chateau Hougemont under attack by the French.

Sous Lieutenant Legros wielding his axe through the North Gate, Hougoumont.

The role played by Hougoumont will always arouse admiration and invite controversy. Victor Hugo went so far as to say that its conquest was one of Napoleon’s dreams and that, had he seized it, it would have given him the world. Extravagant language, but perhaps not to be rejected out of hand. Hougoumont had two doors to its court, one to the château itself on the southern side, one belonging to the farm on the north. It was this latter door that was smashed open by a huge French officer who, followed by some of his jubilant men, rushed into the courtyard. They were instantly set upon by soldiers of the Coldstream Guards, who then succeeded in closing the doors and barring them with a vast wooden beam. Wellington was later to observe that his success at Waterloo had depended on closing these doors. It would perhaps be more accurate to say that a successful defence of Hougoumont was a crucial part of Wellington’s strategy. It was because he appreciated its significance and had seen the scale of the French attack on it that he reinforced the garrison with four companies of the Coldstream Guards, thereby doubling its complement of Foot Guardsmen. Their remarkable achievement may be judged when we consider that, as Victor Hugo put it, they held out for seven hours against the assaults of vastly superior numbers.

After the initial failure of Napoleon’s brother, Prince Jérôme, to take Hougoumont, neither he nor Napoleon himself took the decision to bypass this stubborn centre of resistance and get on with the main business of attacking Wellington’s main line. Jérôme, in short, allowed what was a diversionary, albeit important, objective to take his eye off the main tactical purpose which was to pierce Wellington’s centre. Instead of getting this principal attack under way, Jérôme poured more and more troops into the desperate struggle for Hougoumont. The divisions of Foy, Guilleminot and Bachelu hurled themselves against it; nearly all Reille’s corps took their turn and failed; Bauduin’s brigade was not strong enough to force Hougoumont from the north, while Soye’s brigade, although making the beginning of a breach in the south, could not exploit it. Jérôme had been making one of the classic errors of war – reinforcing failure – and on such a scale that he was robbing the French army of the strength to sweep Wellington aside before the Prussians came up to support him. Wellington, on the other hand, had reinforced success. Thus the contribution which Hougoumont’s defenders made to victory at Waterloo was incalculable.

What would have happened if the gates had not been closed? For the purposes of speculation, we must assume that the French would have taken Hougoumont, for if, even though the gates were not closed, the British had still defied the French attacks and held on to the château, and if Napoleon had also permitted the same continued attempts to persevere, there would have been no change of circumstance. So we must ask ourselves what Napoleon would have done after capturing Hougoumont, had this happened; and in answering the question let us assume further that this capture was effected early on, in other words before Jérôme had dissipated his main forces against it. Napoleon then has two possible courses of action: to persist in the frontal assault on Wellington’s centre, which in the event is what he did do, or try to outflank the Allied right and so roll up Wellington’s position. This would have been the sure touch of Napoleon at his tactical best, as in former days when he instantly saw that the key to taking Toulon was to capture the Le Caire peninsula and so bring artillery fire to bear direct on the Royal Navy’s ships; or when at Austerlitz he seized the fleeting opportunity to strike at and destroy the Austro-Russian centre, roll up their left wing and finish the thing off. In short, if the chance of closing the Hougoumont gates had not befallen, and the château had fallen early on into French hands, Napoleon’s attack would not have been delayed or impeded. He would have been presented with great freedom of tactical choice, and provided he had taken a proper grip of the battle there and then, he must surely have prevailed. We will see shortly what might have come about had Napoleon defeated Wellington, but for the time being we may concede that the latter’s comment about the closing of Hougoumont’s gates, while an over-simplification as to what brought about success, does at least deserve serious consideration. Yet even given Hougoumont’s retention in British hands, and the fact that Napoleon exerted himself far too late to rescue his army from the tactical blunders made by his subordinates, there was still one more chance, one more If which will always persist in the minds of those who ponder great battles.

‘On a perdu la France’ was Napoleon’s comment to d’Erlon, referring to Ney’s mistakes at Quatre Bras when he joined him there at midday on 17 June. The comment might equally well have applied to Grouchy. When on that same day Napoleon detached Grouchy and his 33,000 men to follow up and harass the Prussians, Grouchy himself and Soult tried to dissuade him, but the Emperor insisted. Not only was he giving himself too many objectives, he was dissipating his forces. A single aim – the defeat of Wellington – and a concentration of force to do so would have served him better. Moreover, his instructions to Grouchy were far from clear. Grouchy was required to pursue the Prussians and reconnoitre their movements so that Napoleon could determine their intentions. He needed to know what Wellington and Blücher meant to do. During the early hours of 18 June, Napoleon received a despatch from Grouchy announcing his intention to follow the Prussians towards Wavre and prevent their moving towards Brussels and Wellington’s position. The Emperor’s reply confounded confusion and contained these words: ‘His Majesty desires you will head for Wavre in order to draw near to us [my italics] . . .’ This in itself was contradictory for whereas Wavre was to the north of Grouchy, Napoleon was to the west. Had Napoleon’s former Chief of Staff, Berthier, been there instead of Soult, he would never have permitted such sloppy phrasing. But Soult did at least press for the instant recall of Grouchy, only to have his intervention dismissed by the Emperor. The full impact of Grouchy’s detachment was still to be felt.

In his most agreeable account of Marcellin Marbot’s adventures as a cavalry général de brigade, based on Marbot’s own memoirs, Vyvyan Ferrers suggests that these memoirs gave Conan Doyle the inspiration for writing his stories about Brigadier Gérard. Ferrers also notes that the choice of the name Gérard was surprising, for as already recorded, one of the corps commanders at Waterloo was General Etienne Gérard, and on the fateful afternoon of 18 June he was with the newly appointed Marshal Grouchy, who was vainly attempting to follow up Blücher’s army to Wavre and engage it. It was while Grouchy was pondering what to do that the thunder of guns at Waterloo was heard. If ever the initiative inherent to any great military commander needed to be employed, it was now. To march to the sound of the guns – at a time when your own force was contributing nothing to the battle’s resolution – was so fundamental that Grouchy should have given instant orders to do so. Yet at this very moment General Gérard intervened and publicly told Grouchy that it was his duty to march upon the guns. Despite his own indecision, the one thing Grouchy was not prepared to tolerate was a lesson in command from one of his own subordinates, and after an ill-tempered dispute, the Marshal made it plain that his duty was to carry out the Emperor’s orders and proceed to Wavre. And so he turned his back on the struggle which was to determine Europe’s future. Had he marched to the guns with his 33,000 or so men, he would have intercepted the Prussian movement towards Waterloo and reinforced Napoleon at a moment when such reinforcement would have been decisive. Napoleon would not then have had to respond to Ney’s plea for more troops with a petulant: ‘Troops? Where do you expect me to find them? Do you expect me to make them?’ They would have been to hand at the very moment when Ney was poised to execute the coup de grâce.

It is clear, therefore, that the various Ifs that we have looked at so far spring from mistakes made by Ney, Soult, Grouchy and Napoleon himself. Vincent Cronin names three blunders committed by the Emperor before the main battle had even begun: first, not crushing Wellington on the morning of 17 June, when the Prussians were retreating and the French could have brought overwhelming numbers against Wellington; second, his misjudgement both of the quality of British soldiers and the tactical skill of their commander; third, his gross overconfidence – had he taken the whole affair much more seriously, he would not have delegated Grouchy on his fruitless errand and ignored his subordinates’ plea to get Grouchy back in time for the main attack.

  1. G. Macdonnell finds fault not so much with Napoleon as with Marshals Ney, Soult and Grouchy. We have examined Grouchy’s fatal indecision; Soult fell down by not stemming the tide of mistakes; Ney lost the battle by his ill-tempered countermanding of the Emperor’s order on 16 June to send up d’Erlon’s corps so that Napoleon could have destroyed Blücher’s army rather than simply mauling it and pushing it back. Had this been done, Grouchy would have remained with the main body and Napoleon would have had an extra 33,000 men to dispose of Wellington, who in turn would have received no last-minute support from the Prussians. The mere fact that Wellington called it a close-run thing indicates how easily the scales might have been turned. Yet when all is said, we may be sure that Napoleon would have taken the credit for victory, and so must bear responsibility for defeat.

But what if he had won? In his essay ‘Ruler of the World’ Alistair Horne argues that victory at Waterloo would not have brought about Napoleon’s ultimate success.

There were vast fresh forces of Russians, Austrians and Germans already moving towards France. A second battle, or perhaps several battles, would probably have followed Waterloo. But even if the ultimate engagement had ended in the likely defeat of Napoleon, with Britain out of the war, it would have been a continental and not a British victory. What followed would have, therefore, been a peace dominated by Metternich’s Central European powers – by Russian, Austria and Prussia instead of Great Britain.

I am not so sure. On hearing of Napoleon’s escape from Elba and with the Allied resolution to outlaw him, Czar Alexander of Russia had told Wellington at the Congress of Vienna that it was for him to save the world again. With Wellington and Blücher beaten, would the resolve of the other powers have held firm? We have to imagine a triumphant Emperor entering Brussels at the head of his troops, frantic enthusiasm from the Belgians, who instantly declare for him, the Netherlands also changing sides, then Napoleon’s return to Paris, acclaimed by all, even Talleyrand and Fouché – whose heads Napoleon might or might not have demanded – overtures for peace pouring out from the Tuileries, promises of democratic reform, the formerly circumspect Marshals rallying to their Commander-in-Chief, France jubilant, Napoleon overhauling the Grande Armée and preparing for the defence of the country’s frontiers. In spite of the gathering Allied armies, their leaders might have recalled Napoleon’s former ability to defeat them one by one or two at a time. They might have recalled the Emperor’s pulling on his long boots in 1813 and 1814, winning battle after battle at Lützen, Bautzen, Champaubert, Château-Thierry, Vauchamp, Montereau – and these victories won with a small army of some 50,000 men. What he might now do with an army of four or five times that number, commanded by the most valiant and able set of lieutenants under his own unique direction, would surely have given the Allied sovereigns pause for reflection and compromise.

Besides, it is so agreeable to picture yet one more Congress of Vienna, convened by Metternich, who by then would have appreciated that Napoleon was not un homme perdu after all, a Congress at which not only did dancing gild the scene and amorous intrigue rule the plot, but at which Napoleon and Wellington finally met, with Talleyrand – whose cynical observation that treason was simply a matter of dates would have come full circle – hovering in the background, and Alexander once more falling under the spell of his brother Emperor. Would Marie Walewska have been there to consort with Napoleon, or would the wicked, dashing Hussar General, Count Neipperg, have been constrained to escort the Empress of France, Marie-Louise, to Vienna, bringing with them the King of Rome, Napoleon’s son, destined six years later – if we assume that the Emperor still met his death in 1821 – to succeed his father as Napoleon II? If we are going to rewrite history, we might as well do it with a flourish.

There is perhaps one further diversion here. However insubstantial the Ifs of history may be, we must all applaud Stendhal’s captivating suggestion that had Napoleon won at Waterloo, not only would there have been no liberals to be afraid of in the 1820s, but all the ancient sovereigns of Europe would only have kept their thrones by marrying the daughters of Napoleon’s Marshals. Judging by the mettle of these Marshals, the sovereigns in question could have done a great deal worse. There would have been one further benefit from Napoleon’s winning – George IV would not then have boasted that he had been present on the battlefield.

And what if Napoleon had been killed at Waterloo – the ‘good death’ that he pondered on St Helena?6 Why, the whole of France would have honoured him. Marshal Ney’s comment as he gazed at Bessières’ corpse on the field of Lützen, ‘C’est notre sort. C’est une belle mort,’ would have echoed round the world in honour of the General, whom Wellington called ‘un grand homme de guerre’, the greatest ever to appear at the head of a French army, and the magnificent ceremony, which took place in 1840, with Louis-Philippe on the throne of France, when Napoleon’s coffin, returned from St Helena, was received by Marshal Moncey, Governor of Les Invalides, would have been enacted twenty-five years earlier.

There is one last If we may perhaps contemplate when we recall A. P. Herbert’s delightful book, Why Waterloo?, in which he argues that Napoleon did not break out of Elba but was driven out. Had the French government honoured the treaty of Fontainebleau with regard to money, had Marie-Louise joined her husband on Elba, had Talleyrand been less malignant, or Colonel Campbell more vigilant, had Royal Navy frigates blockaded the island properly, there would perhaps have been no escape, no Hundred Days, no Waterloo. A. P. Herbert concludes that no single person could be arraigned for the tragedy that ensued. Yet he adds this: ‘The Emperor of Austria, if he had had more humanity; Louis XVIII, if he had had more sense and honesty; Marie-Louise, if she had had more faith and fortitude, could have altered history and let one of the world’s great men die peaceful and happy.’

It was while Napoleon was still on Elba that his brother, Lucien, wrote to Masséna: ‘Voilà donc enfin le drame terminé. Tant de gloire perdue par la plus lâche fin. Bon Dieu! Que de souvenirs. Que de regrets.’ It was when on that other island that Napoleon himself could not resist a resort to the ‘what ifs’ of history. Had he appointed some other general instead of Grouchy. Blücher would not have arrived in time to save Wellington from defeat. Yet we must recall that Napoleon, who was so often to reiterate, ‘Be clear and all the rest will follow,’ broke his own rule in his confusing instruction to Grouchy. On St Helena the Emperor, like Lucien, has his regrets. He should have had Talleyrand and Fouché hanged. What a difference that might have made to the Hundred Days. Then again: ‘To die at Borodino would have been to die like Alexander: to be killed at Waterloo would have been a good death; perhaps Dresden would have been better; but no, better at Waterloo. The love of the people, their regret.’

He regrets, too, ever having left Egypt. He would have preferred to be Emperor of the East than of the West. The desert had always fascinated him and his own name meant lion of the desert. Besides, to have been master of Egypt would have been to be master of India. What rascals the English were! ‘If I had been able to get to India from Egypt with the nucleus of an army, I should have driven them from India.’ Now the English would have to see what would come to them from Russia. ‘The Russians, already in Persia, have not far to go to reach India.’ It was this last point of Napoleon’s which some twenty years later was the cause of concern in the minds of the Englishmen who ruled India, and the cause also of their beginning to play the Great Game.