It is so hard to find out the truth by looking at the past. The process of time obscures the truth and even contemporaneous writers disguise and twist out of malice or flattery. — Plutarch

Story of Napoleon - H. F. B. Wheeler




The Conquest of the Conqueror


(1814-1815)


The Allies now had the upper hand beyond the shadow of a doubt. Napoleon the Conqueror—for he has surely as much right to that title as William of Normandy—who had used the greater part of Europe as a parade ground for his matchless legions, who had overturned thrones and founded a dynasty in the modern nineteenth century, had been defeated in two great campaigns. It is difficult to realise that he was now only forty-four years of age, in the prime of life, but "One grows old quickly on battlefields," as he once remarked. His astounding energy, physically if not mentally, was wearing out. Superactivity is a consuming fire.

[Illustration] from Story of Napoleon by H. F. B. Wheeler
A HUNDRED DAYS—1814


Although the Allies had brought the Emperor to his knees, or almost so, there was considerable difference of opinion among them as to their next step. He had lost much; the Confederacy of the Rhine was shattered, the greater part of Germany was unshackled, disasters had occurred in Italy, the British were masters of the Peninsula, yet his enemies wanted more. The Czar and England were the most determined; Prussia, Sweden and Austria were lukewarm. They eventually agreed to give the Emperor another chance, to offer terms humiliating without doubt, but affording him an opportunity of restoring peace to Europe, a blessing long desired but now absolutely necessary. The boundaries of France were to be the Rhine, the Pyrenees, and the Alps. He could accept them or choose the only alternative—war. The proud nature of the man, the memory of former conquests, more especially of the time when Alexander and Frederick William III. had been as so much clay in his hands, made a negative answer practically certain, and accordingly the terms of the Allies were refused.

France was all but exhausted; Napoleon could raise not more than 200,000 troops against the 620,000 men who were with the Allies. Still, he argued, it was worth the risk. The brilliant, dashing days when he could take the offensive were gone, and in its turn Paris was the objective of the enemy. On the 29th January 1814, four days after he had left the capital, Napoleon attacked and defeated Blucher at Brienne; at La Rothiere on the 1st February, Blucher having received reinforcements, the reverse was the case, the Emperor losing several thousand men. There was again an offer of peace, more humiliating than before, which met with no more favourable response. On the 10th February the Emperor was victorious at Braye, on the 11th at Montmirail, on the 12th at Chateau-Thierry, on the 13th at Vauchamp. It was but the final glory of the sun as it sinks below the horizon. In the middle of the following month Wellington, having compelled the French to retire from the Peninsula, after an extremely arduous campaign, crossed the Pyrenees and occupied Bordeaux, while Napoleon fought desperately at Craonne and Laon without decisive result, Marmont's corps sustaining heavy losses. The Emperor now turned his attention to the main army under Schwarzenberg, but was obliged to fall back upon St Dizier. Meanwhile Marmont and Mortier were taking measures for the defence of Paris, upon which the Allies were marching. The Marshals did their best but were overwhelmed, and eventually, acting on the advice of Napoleon's brothers, Joseph and Jerome, arranged an armistice. Paris, the scene of so much splendour and glory under the Imperial regime, capitulated. The Emperor, marching to the relief of the capital when it was too late, heard the awful news from some straggling soldiers at a post-house while his carriage-horses were being changed. "These men are mad!" cried the Emperor, "the thing is impossible." When he found that the announcement was only too true, large beads of perspiration stood out on his forehead. "He turned to Caulaincourt," writes Macdonald, "and said, 'Do you hear that?' with a fixed gaze that made him shudder."

[Illustration] from Story of Napoleon by H. F. B. Wheeler
THE RETURN FROM ELBA.


Napoleon retired to Fontainebleau and discussed the terrible situation with Oudinot, Maret, Caulaincourt, Ney, Macdonald, Berthier, Lefebvre and others. He asked Macdonald what opinions were held by his soldiers as to the surrender of Paris, and whether they would be willing to make an attempt to regain the city.

"They share our grief," the Marshal replied, "and I come now to declare to you that they will not expose Paris to the fate of Moscow. We think we have done enough, have given sufficient proof of our earnest desire to save France from the calamities that are now crowding upon her, without risking an attempt which would be more than unequal, and which can only end in losing everything. The troops are dying of hunger in the midst of their own country, reduced in number though they are by the disastrous events of the campaign, by privation, sickness, and, I must add, by discouragement. Since the occupation of the capital a large number of soldiers have retired to their own homes, and the remainder cannot find enough to live upon in the forest of Fontainebleau. If they advance they will find themselves in an open plain; our cavalry is weakened and exhausted; our horses can go no farther; we Have not enough ammunition for one skirmish, and no means of procuring more. If we fail, moreover, as we most probably shall, what remains of us will be destroyed, and the whole of France will be at the mercy of the enemy. We can still impose upon them; let us retain our attitude. Our mind is made up; whatever decision is arrived at, we are determined to have no more to do with it. For my own part, I declare to you that my sword shall never be drawn against Frenchmen, nor dyed with French blood. Whatever may be decided upon, we have had enough of this unlucky war without kindling civil war."

The Emperor was quite calm; he met his defeat with less apparent concern than in the old days when a minor error had instantly provoked a violent outburst of temper. Taking up a pen he wrote an offer of abdication on behalf of his son. Again and again he endeavoured to win his old comrades-in-arms to his side ere he realised that the game was up. On the 11th April 1814, he signed his own dismissal, making no conditions, surrendering everything.

"The Allied Powers," he wrote, "having declared that the Emperor was the sole obstacle to the re-establishment of peace in Europe, the Emperor, faithful to his oaths, declares that he renounces, for himself and his heirs, the thrones of France and Italy, and that there is no sacrifice, not even that of life, which he is not ready to make for the interest of France."

With mock generosity the Allies gave the former Emperor of the West the tiny island of Elba as his future kingdom, an army of 400 men, and an income of 2,000,000 francs a year—which was never paid. The Empress and her son were granted the duchies of Parma, Placentia and Guastalla and an ample subsidy, and the remaining members of the Bonaparte family had no reason to complain of their treatment.

Napoleon's activity in his miniature possession, which is 17i miles wide and 12 miles from North to South, has been likened to a bluebottle under a glass tumbler. He certainly imported considerable energy into his administration, erected fortifications, built roads, created a make-believe navy, and annexed the adjacent island of Palmaiola. It was all useful dust to throw into the eyes of those who watched. On the 29th April 1814, Napoleon had set sail for Elba in the Undaunted, a British vessel commanded by Captain Ussher; less than a year later, on the 26th February 1815, he stepped on board the French brig Inconstant  for his last desperate adventure. With 1050 troops he had decided to invade France, to "reach Paris without firing a shot."

He had chosen a favourable time for putting into action the scheme on which he had been secretly brooding. The Allies still quarrelled amongst themselves, the Czar in particular showing a disposition towards the others more warlike than pacific; some 300,000 troops had been released from German fortresses, Spanish prisons, and British hulks, and might rally around him; the Bourbons, who had been replaced in power, were anything but popular, and people were beginning to talk about "the good old times" when the insatiable French appetite for glory had been appeased. On the first day of March the Commander and his little army landed near Cannes and pushed on to Grenoble as quickly as possible. The garrison did not seem particularly anxious to listen to his overtures. Unbuttoning his coat he declaimed to the soldiers, "Here is your Emperor; if any one would kill him, let him fire!" This dramatic appeal was irresistible. The detachment instantly joined him, followed by many others as he marched in the direction of Paris. Peasants who would have heard with unfeigned delight of his assassination ten months before, now saluted and cheered him as he rode at the head of his rapidly increasing army, which included Ney and the 6000 soldiers who had been sent to capture him. The new king deemed it advisable to leave Paris; on the following day Napoleon entered it and was again in the Tuileries. Without losing a moment he began to re-construct the Government. Great Britain, Russia, Austria, and Prussia, declared him an outlaw, a step less serious than their agreement to keep 600,000 troops under arms "till Bonaparte should have been rendered absolutely incapable of stirring up further troubles." At the commencement of hostilities the Emperor had 125,000 men, the Allies 210,000.

Of Napoleon's campaign in Belgium little need be said. It was short and it was decisive. On the 16th June 1815, he won his last victory at Ligny, where he defeated the Prussians under Blucher, Wellington gaining the battle of Quatre Bras against Ney. Two days later Wellington and Blucher routed the French on the field of Waterloo. The Iron Duke afterwards told Thomas Creevey that it was "the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life."

"On the morning of the 18th," relates Sir Hussey Vivian, who led a British brigade, "about eleven o'clock, our advanced posts were driven in, and we saw the enemy's column advancing to attack us.

"The firing soon began, and about one o'clock one of the most desperate attacks I ever witnessed was made on the centre and left centre of our line; this was defeated, and repeated twice, the armies constantly mixed actually with each other, and the French always covering each attack by the most tremendous cannonade you can possibly imagine. With respect to the particular situation in which my brigade was placed, it did not suffer much until towards the last attack; the ground on the left did not admit of the cavalry advancing, and I, being on the left of all, consequently suffered only from the cannonade. About six o'clock, however, I learnt that the cavalry in the centre had suffered dreadfully, and the Prussians about that time having formed to my left, I took upon myself to move off from our left, and halted directly to the centre of our line, where I arrived most opportunely at the instant that Bonaparte was making his last and most desperate effort. And never did I witness anything so terrific: the ground actually covered with dead and dying, cannon shot and shells flying thicker than I ever heard musquetry.

"In this state of affairs I wheeled my brigade into line close (within ten yards) in the rear of our infantry, and prepared to charge the instant they had retreated through my intervals (the three squadron officers were wounded at this instant). This, however, gave them confidence, and the brigades that were literally running away halted on our cheering them and again began fighting. The enemy on their part began to waver. The Duke observed it, and ordered the infantry to advance. I immediately wheeled the brigade by half-squadrons to the right and in column over the dead and dying, trotted round the right of our infantry, passed the French infantry, and formed lines of regiments on the first half-squadrons. With the 10th I charged a body of French Cuirassiers and Lancers infinitely superior to them, and completely routed them. I then went to the 18th, and charged a second body that was supporting a square of Imperial Guards, and the 18th not only defeated them, but took fourteen pieces of cannon that had been firing grape at us during our movement. I then, with the 10th, having reformed them, charged a square of infantry, Imperial Guards, the men of which we cut down in the ranks, and here the last shot was fired—from this moment all was de-route. . . . I never saw such a day, nor any one else."

[Illustration] from Story of Napoleon by H. F. B. Wheeler
THE FLIGHT FROM WATERLOO.


In confirmation of the last statement Sir Harry Smith, who also fought under Wellington in this campaign, says "I had never seen anything to be compared with what I saw," excepting only "one spot at New Orleans, and the breach of Badajos." He adds a description of the field as he observed it on the following day:—

"At Waterloo," he writes, "the whole field from right to left was a mass of dead bodies. In one spot, to the right of La Haye Sainte, the French Cuirassiers were literally piled on each other; many soldiers not wounded lying under their horses; others, fearfully wounded, occasionally with their horses struggling upon their wounded bodies. The sight was sickening, and I had no means or power to assist them. Imperative duty compelled me to the field of my comrades, where I had plenty to do to assist many who had been left out all night; some had been believed to be dead, but the spark of life had returned. All over the field you saw officers, and as many soldiers as were permitted to leave the ranks, leaning and weeping over some dead or dying brother or comrade. The battle was fought on a Sunday, the 18th June, and I repeated to myself a verse from the Psalms of that day—91st Psalm, 7th verse: 'A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand, but it shall not come nigh thee.' I blessed Almighty God our Duke was spared, and galloped to my General, whom I found with some breakfast awaiting my arrival." In Sir Harry's opinion "Napoleon fought the battle badly, his attacks were not simultaneous, but partial and isolated, and enabled the Duke to repel each by a concentration."

A fleeting glimpse of the fallen Colossus as he rushes towards Paris is afforded us by Alexandre Dumas, then staying with his mother at the posting-house of Villers-Cotterets, about fifty-five miles from the capital. The novelist had seen the Emperor pass through the little town before the crushing conflict. He had then been accompanied by General Letort and Jerome Bonaparte. Says Dumas:

"At seven o'clock a courier arrived; he was covered with mud, his horse shook from head to foot, and was ready to drop with fatigue. He ordered four horses to be ready for a carriage which was following him, then he leapt on his horse and set off on his journey again.

"It was in vain we questioned him; he either knew nothing or would not say anything.

"The four horses were taken out of the stables and harnessed in readiness for the carriage: a rapidly approaching heavy rumble announced it was coming, soon we saw it appear round the corner of the street and draw up at the door.

"The master of the post came forward and stood stupefied. I took hold of his coat tails and asked: 'It is he? the Emperor? '

'Yes.'

"It was indeed the Emperor, just in the same place and carriage, with one aide-de-camp near him and one opposite him, as I had seen him before. But his companions were neither Jerome nor Letort. Letort was killed, and Jerome was commissioned to rally the army by Laon.

"It was just the same man, it was just the same pale, sickly, impassive face, but his head was bent a little more forward on his chest.

"Was it merely from fatigue, or from grief at having staked the world and lost it?

"As on the first occasion, he raised his head when he felt the carriage pull up, and threw exactly the same vague look around him which became so penetrating when he fixed it upon a person or scanned the horizon, those two unknown elements behind which danger might always lurk.

"'Where are we?' he asked.

"'At Villiers-Cotterets, sire.'

"'Good! eighteen leagues from Paris?'

"'Yes, sire.'

"'Go on.'"

In his second abdication, signed on the 22nd June, the Emperor declared that his public life was finished, and proclaimed his son as Napoleon II., Emperor of the French. But the child for whom his father had anticipated so glorious a career in 1811, who had been born with the mighty title of King of Rome, was never destined to wear the crown of France. That insignia of royal rank was donned once more by Louis XVIII.

The mighty conqueror had run his course. He threw himself on the mercy of the nation to which he had shown no mercy, and which he had hated with exceeding hatred. Great Britain consigned him to the island rock of St Helena, far away on the broad bosom of the Atlantic, and in the well-known picture by the late Sir W. Q. Orchardson, Napoleon on the Bellerophon, we see Napoleon taking his final farewell of France. He stands alone, bearing, in place of the weight of Empire, the almost insupportable burden of shattered hopes. Gone dynasty and throne and kindred, everything that was worth while in his complex life, but the Imperial Dignity will never be discarded. He remains Napoleon the Great. The rigidity of the mouth and the stern and unbending demeanour tell you that the will is still unconquered.

[Illustration] from Story of Napoleon by H. F. B. Wheeler
NAPOLEON ON BOARD THE BELLEROPHON.


Although Orchardson's picture only dates from 1880, the central figure of his dramatic canvas represents the conventional conception of what Napoleon was like. There is no portrait of the Emperor that we can say with certainty exactly delineates his features. He granted no sittings, and even David, his premier Peintre, had to make his preliminary studies without them. The death-mask taken by Dr Francis Burton shows a face of singular refinement, the forehead not unusually broad, and the chin by no means aggressive. The massive head is a myth.