Heroes of Modern Europe - Alice Birkhead

The Third Napoleon

Italy was free, but Italy was not yet united as patriots such as Garibaldi had hoped that it might be. Venice and Rome must be added to the possessions of Victor Emmanuel before he could boast that he held beneath his sway all Italy between the Alps and Adriatic.

Rome, the dream of heroes, was in the power of a Pope who had to be maintained in his authority by a garrison of the French. Napoleon III clung to his alliance with the Catholic Church, and refused to withdraw his troops and leave his Papal ally defenceless, for he cared nothing about the views of Italian dreamers who longed that the Eternal City should be free.

There was romance in the life-story of this French Emperor upon whose support so many allies had come to depend. He was the son of Louis Buonaparte and Hortense Beauharnais, who was the daughter of the Empress Josephine. During the reign of Louis Philippe, this nephew of the great usurper had spent his time in dreary exile, living in London for the most part, and concealing a character of much ambition beneath a moody silent manner. He visited France in 1840 and tried to gain the throne, but was unsuccessful, for he was committed to the fortress of Ham, a state prison. He escaped in the disguise of a workman, and made a second attempt to stir the mob of Paris to revolution in the year 1848, when Europe was restless with fierce discontent. The King fled for his life, and a Republic was formed again with Louis Napoleon as President, but this did not satisfy a descendant of the great Buonaparte. He managed by the help of the army to gain the Imperial crown, never worn by the second Napoleon, who died when he was still too young to show whether he possessed the characteristics of his family. Henceforth Napoleon III of France could no longer be regarded as a mere adventurer. The Pope had come to depend on French troops for his authority, and the Italians had to pay a heavy price for French arms in their struggle against Austria.

Paris renewed its gaiety when Napoleon married his beautiful Spanish wife, Eugenie, who had royal pride though she was not of royal birth. There were hunting parties again, when the huntsmen wore brave green and scarlet instead of the Bourbon blue and silver; there were court fetes, which made the entertainments of Louis Philippe, the honest Citizen-King, seem very dull in retrospect. The Spanish Empress longed to rival the fame of Marie Antoinette, the Austrian wife of Louis XVI who had followed that King to the scaffold. Like Marie Antoinette, she was censured for extravagances, the marriage being unpopular with all classes. The bourgeoisie or middle class refused to accept the Emperor's plea that it was better to mate with a foreigner of ordinary rank than to attempt to aggrandize the new empire by union with the daughter of some despotic king.

Yet France amused herself eagerly at the famous fetes and hunts of Compiegne, while the third Napoleon craftily began to develop his scheme for obtaining influence in Europe that should make him as great a man as the Corsican whom all had dreaded. The Emperor's insignificant appearance deceived many of his compeers, who were inclined to look on him as a ruler who would be content to take a subordinate place in international affairs. He dressed in odd, startling colours, and moved awkwardly; his eyes were strangely impenetrable, and he seemed listless and indifferent, even when he was meditating some subtle plan with which to startle Europe.

Dark stories were told of the part Napoleon played in the Crimean War, when Turkey demanded help against Russia, which was crippling her army and her fleet. Many suspected that the French Emperor used England as his catspaw, and saw that the English troops bore the brunt of all the terrible disasters which befell the invaders of the south of Russia. Alma, Balaclava, and Inkerman were victories ever memorable, because the heroes of those battles had to fight against more sinister foes than the Russian troops they defeated in the field. Stores of food and clothes were delayed too long before they reached the exhausted soldiers, and there was suspicion of unjust favour shown to the French soldiers when their English allies sought a healthy camping-ground. The war ended in 1855 with the fall of Sebastopol, and it was notable afterwards that the Napoleonic splendour increased vastly, that the sham royalty seemed resolved to entertain the royal visitors who had once looked askance at him.

France began to believe that no further Revolution could disturb the Second Empire, which was secure in pride at least. Yet Austria was crushed by Prussia at the great battle of Sadowa in 1866, and the Prussian state was advancing rapidly under the government of a capable minister and king. There were few Frenchmen who had realized the importance of King Wilhelm's act when he summoned Herr Otto von Bismarck from his Pomeranian estates to be his chief political adviser. The fast increasing strength of the Prussian forces did not sufficiently impress Napoleon, who had embarked on a foolish expedition to Mexico to place an Austrian archduke on the throne, once held by the ancient Montezumas. The news of Sadowa wrung "a cry of agony" from his court of the Tuileries, where everyone had confidently expected the victory of Austria. Napoleon might have arbitrated between the two countries, but he let the golden opportunity slip by in one of those half-sullen passive moods which came upon him when he felt the depression of his bodily weakness. Prussia began to lay the foundation of German unity, excluding Austria from her territory.

Napoleon handed over Venice to Italy when it was ceded to him at the close of the Austrian war, and Garibaldi followed up this cession by an attempt on Rome, which he resolved should be the capital of Italy. He defeated the Papal troops at Monte Rotondo, which commanded Rome on the north, but he was defeated by French troops at the battle of Mentana. The repulse of the Italian hero increased the national dislike of French interference, but Napoleon only consented to evacuate Rome in 1870 when he had need of all his soldiers to carry out his boast that he would "chastise the insolence of the King of Prussia."

The Franco-Prussian War arose nominally from the quarrel about the throne of Spain, to which a prince of the Hohenzollern house had put in a claim, first obtaining permission from Wilhelm I to accept the dignity. This prince, Leopold, was not a member of the Prussian royal family, but he was a Prussian subject and a distant kinsman of the Kaiser. It was quite natural, therefore, that he should ask the royal sanction for his act and quite natural that Wilhelm should give it his approval if Spain made the offer of the crown.

Napoleon sought some cause of difference with Prussia, because Bismarck had refused to help him to win Belgium and Luxemburg in 1869. He was jealous of this new military power, for his own fame was far outstripped by the feats of arms accomplished by the forces of General von Moltke, the Prussian general. He thought that war against his rival might help him to regain the admiration of the French. They were humiliated by the failure of the Mexican design and saw fresh danger for their country in Italian unity and the new confederation of North Germany.

Napoleon, racked by disease, might have checked his own ambition if his Empress had not been too eager for a war. He was misled by Marshal Leboeuf into fancying that his own army was efficient enough to undertake any military campaign. He allowed his Cabinet to demand from Wilhelm I that Prince Leopold's claim to the Spanish crown, which had been withdrawn, should never be renewed by the sanction of Prussia at least. The unreasonable demand was refused, and France declared war in July 1870, eighteen years after the new empire had risen on the ruins of the Republic of the French.

The other European powers would not enter this war, though England offered to mediate between the rival powers. France and Prussia had to test the strength of their armies without allies, and neither thought how terrible the cost would be of that long national jealousy. Napoleon took the field himself, leaving Eugenie as Regent of the French, and the King of Prussia led his own army with General Von Moltke and General Von Roon in command.

The French army invaded South Germany, but had to retreat in disorder after the battle of Worth. The battle of Sedan on September 1st, 1870, brought the war to a conclusion, the French being routed and forced to lay down their arms. Napoleon had fought with courage, but was obliged to surrender his sword to Wilhelm I upon the battlefield. He declared that he gave up his person only, but France herself was forced to yield after the capitulation of Metz, which had resisted Prussia stoutly. The Empress had fled to England and the Emperor had been deposed. France was once more a Republic when the siege of Paris was begun.

The citizens showed strange insensibility to the danger that they ran, for they asserted that the Germans dared not invest the town. Nevertheless, Parisians drilled and armed with vigour as Prussian shells burst outside the walls and the clang of bells replaced the sounds of mirth that were habitual to Paris. Theatres were closed, to the dismay of the frivolous, whom no alarm of war would turn from their ordinary pursuits. The Opera House became a barracks, for the camps could not hold the crowds that flocked there from the provinces.

[Illustration] from Heroes of Modern Europe by Alice Birkhead


Still many ridiculed the idea of investment by the Prussian troops, and householders did not prepare for the famine that came on them unawares. People supped in gaily-lighted cafes and took their substantial meals without thought of the morrow. There were fewer women in the streets and the workmen carried rifles, but the shops were still attractive in their wares. The fear of spies occupied men's thoughts rather than the fear of hunger—a foreign accent was suspicious enough to cause arrest! There were few Englishmen in the capital, but those few ran the risk of being mistaken for Prussians, since the lower classes did not distinguish between foreigners.

Paris was invested on September 19th, 1870, and the citizens had experienced terrible want. In October Wilhelm established his headquarters at Versailles, part of the French Government going to Tours. Gambetta, the new minister, made every effort to secure help for France. He departed from Paris in a balloon, and carrier pigeons were sent in the same way to take news to the provinces and bring back offers of assistance. Strange expedients for food had been proposed already, and all supplies were very dear. Horseflesh was declared to be nutritious, and scientists demonstrated the valuable properties of gelatine. Housewives pored over cookery-books to seek for ways of using what material they had when beef and butter failed. A learned professor taught them how to grow salads and asparagus on the balconies in front of windows. The seed-shops were stormed by enthusiasts who took kindly to this new idea.

Gambetta's ascent in the balloon relieved anxiety for a time, because every Parisian expected that help would come. But soon gas could not be spared to inflate balloons and sturdy messengers were in request who dared brave the Prussian lines. Sheep-dogs were sent out as carriers after several attempts had been frustrated, but the Prussian sentries seized the animals, and pigeons were soon the only means of communication with the provinces.

The Parisians clamoured for the theatres to be opened, though they felt the pangs of hunger now. They retorted readily when there was some speech of Nero fiddling while Rome burned. Their city was not yet on fire, they said, and Napoleon, the Nero of the catastrophe, could not fiddle because he had no ear for music! The Cirque National was opened on October 23rd, though fuel was running short and the cold weather would soon come.

In winter prices rose for food that the fastidious had rejected earlier in the siege. A rat cost a franc, and eggs were sold at 80 francs the dozen. Beef and mutton had disappeared entirely from the stalls, and butter reached the price of fifty francs the demi-kilogramme. The poor suffered horrible privations, and many children died from the effect of bread soaked in wine, for milk was a ridiculous price. Nevertheless, four hundred marriages were celebrated, and Paris did not talk of surrender to their Prussian foes.

Through October and November poultry shops displayed an occasional goose or pigeon, but the sight of a turkey caused a crowd to collect, and everyone envied those who could afford to purchase rabbits even though they paid no less than 50 francs. Soon dogs and cats were rarely seen in Paris, and bear's flesh was sold and eaten with avidity. At Christmas and New Year very few shops displayed the usual gifts, for German toys were not popular at the festive season and the children of the siege talked mournfully of their "New Year's Day without the New Year's gifts."

Shells crashed into houses in January of 1871, an event most startling to Parisians, who had expected a formal summons to surrender before such acts took place. After the first shock of surprise there was no shriek of fear. Capitulation was negotiated on January 26th, not on account of this new danger, but because there was no longer bread for the citizens to buy.

Gambetta resisted to the last, but his dictatorship was ended, and a National Assembly at Bordeaux elected M. Thiers their president. By the treaty of Frankfort, signed in May 1871, France ceded Alsace and Lorraine to Prussia, together with the forts of Metz, Longwy and Thionville. She had also to pay a war indemnity of 200,000,000 pounds sterling. By the exertions of Bismarck, the imperial crown was placed upon the head of Wilhelm I, and the conqueror of France was hailed as Emperor of United Germany in the Great Hall of Mirrors at Versailles by representatives of the leading European states. The German troops were withdrawn from Paris, where civil war raged for some six weeks, the great buildings of the city being burned to the ground.

Europe was satisfied that united Germany should take the place of Imperial France, whose policy had been purely personal and selfish since its first foundation in 1852. The fall of Napoleon III caused little regret at any court, for he had all the unscrupulous ambition of his mighty predecessor, without the genius of the First Napoleon.