Story of Modern France - Helene Guerber

The Hundred Days

Meantime, Louis XVIII.'s brother and nephews tried hard to make the soldiers do their duty, but were unable to stem the tide. When the time came to fight, only one of the National Guards, it is said, remained faithful to the king.

Ney—now in the king's service—led an army southward, rashly promising to bring Napoleon back to Paris caged like a wild beast; but as he approached the district already held by the emperor, the example of other regiments proved so contagious that he and his army also deserted to join Napoleon. But one of his officers, eager to join the emperor, and yet mindful of his oath of fidelity to the king, broke his sword and regretfully left the ranks, saying, "It is easier for a man of honor to break iron than his word." After Ney's defection, a wag stuck up a notice on the Vendome column, purporting to come direct from Napoleon, and blandly bidding Louis XVIII. send him no more troops, as he already had all he needed!

At Bordeaux the Duchess of Angouleme made heroic personal efforts to induce the soldiers to fight for their king, showing such courage that Napoleon admiringly said she was the "only man of her family!" But the persuasions of the unhappy daughter of Louis XVI. proved of no avail; and the royal family—afraid of incurring Louis XVI.'s fate—fled in great haste from France, to the intense relief of Napoleon, who would not have known what to do with them if they had remained.

From Lyons to Paris the enthusiasm seemed to increase with every step, and when Napoleon reached the Tuileries, in the evening of March 20, 1815, he was borne up the grand staircase in the arms of his devoted adherents. He found many of his old officials already in their wonted places in the palace, and everything ready to receive him, in the rooms which Louis XVIII. had left only a few hours before.

This was a grand day,—the fifth anniversary of his son's birth,—and his friends boasted that a horse-chestnut tree in the palace gardens had just burst out in full bloom, as if to honor the occasion. In after years, also, his partisans claimed that this tree was always in bloom on the anniversary of Napoleon's return, although others of its kind might flower earlier or later, according to the season. Not a shot had been fired, not a drop of blood spilled, the flag of the Republic had literally "flown from steeple to steeple," so the change in government could be viewed only "as a conspiracy in which a whole nation was implicated." Thus began Napoleon's second reign, which is commonly known as "The Hundred Days," and which lasted from March 20 to June 22, 1815.

During his sojourn in Elba, where Napoleon had leisure to think dispassionately, and was no longer constantly surrounded by flatterers, he had perceived some of the mistakes he had made in his previous dealings with France. He therefore determined to rectify some of these past errors, and in earnest thereof appointed Carnot—a stanch Republican—minister of the interior, and granted full freedom to the press. He also declared: "I am not merely, as they have called me, the emperor of the soldiers; I am that of the peasants, of the commons of France. So, in spite of all that is past, you will see the people come back to me. There is sympathy between us, because I have risen from their midst. It is not with me as it is with the privileged class."

While Napoleon was reorganizing the government and army of France, his brother-in-law Murat who had hitherto been left in peaceful possession of Naples rashly laid claim to all Italy, but was defeated by the Austrians at Tolentino, and thus forfeited his crown, which was restored to its former bearer, who became once more "King of the Two Sicilies."

On the 26th of May, the new modifications in the imperial government were publicly announced on the Field of Mars, to the rapturous delight of the people, who registered one and a half million votes majority in favor of the restored empire. There, too, the emperor reviewed his new army, for, in spite of his openly avowed desire for peace, war was already near at hand. You see, the news of Napoleon's escape, reaching Vienna before the congress was dissolved, had roused the old coalition to new activity. The powers declared Napoleon an outlaw, and swore never to lay down their arms until he was punished. Some people even said,—for this time France as well as Napoleon, incurred their strictures,—"Let us march on to divide that impious land. We must exterminate that band of cutthroats called the French army. The world cannot dwell in peace as long as a French people exists!"

You can imagine the effect of such declarations upon an excitable people, justly proud of its past. Even those recently weary of warfare were now ready to fight again; and, had more time been granted him, Napoleon might perchance have armed all France, save the small Royalist region of the Vendee, which renewed the old civil war in favor of Louis XVIII.

Meantime, Napoleon's letters demanding the return of his wife and son had been disregarded, and he had not been allowed to communicate with them, so closely were they watched and guarded. He knew, therefore, that he could recover them only by awing his foes. Thinking that his best chances for success would be lost if he delayed action until the armies of the allies could unite, and anxious, besides, to carry the war out of the country, Napoleon decided to attack the armies of the English and Prussians stationed in Belgium, hoping that he could annihilate them separately before the Austrians and Russians could draw near France.