The Age of George III

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The Hundred Days: 1 March-18 June 1815

After the Battle of Leipzig in October 1813, the Allied powers exiled Napoleon to Elba, an island just off the coast of Italy. It does seem strange that they supposed that Napoleon would settle down as the ruler of a tiny island, after all his conquests throughout Europe. However, Napoleon had been watching and waiting while he kept himself informed about the disagreements between the Allied powers and the disaffection in France with Louis XVIII.

On 1 March, Napoleon left the island of Elba with about a thousand men and landed near Cannes with the intention to

He baffled attempts to waylay him by a swift advance through the foothills of the Alps and appeared at Grenoble on 4 March. His proclamations stirred his old troops. "Soldiers, your general, called to the throne by the choice of the people, and raised on your shields, has come back to you. Come and join him! I am sprung from the Revolution. I am come to save the people from the slavery into which priests and nobles would plunge them."

Louis XVIII sent General Ney to capture Napoleon: Ney promised to "bring him back in an iron cage". However, when Ney met Napoleon and sent the troops to to arrest him he stepped forward and, opening the familiar grey overcoat, exclaimed: "Let him among you who wants to kill his Emperor, fire!" The soldiers broke into cheers, surged round him, and rummaged in their knapsacks for the tricolor cockades long hidden there. When Ney came into contact with his old master, memories were too much for him and he went over to him with all his men.

The restored monarchy had offended and alarmed so many Frenchmen in so many ways that they looked upon Napoleon as a deliverer and an avenger. Courtiers and ministers protested loyalty to the King - but took steps to make themselves safe with the Emperor. Louis XVIII left hurriedly for Ghent. When Napoleon drove up to the Tuileries at midnight on 20 March, he was greeted with delirious enthusiasm. Some of his old marshals, such as Macdonald and Marmont, remained aloof; but others, such as Devout and Soult, followed the example of Ney.

To please Lafayette and the old republicans he summoned the Chambers and issued an Acte Additionnel aux Constitutions de l'Empire. This was an attempt to outdo Louis XVIII, promising a more democratic franchise and more unrestricted liberty for the individual. In the preamble Napoleon gave a novel interpretation of his actions during the past ten years. His purpose, he said, had always been to establish a Federation of Europe founded on liberal principles. Unfortunately the opposition of monarchs and aristocrats - especially the English - had involved him in wars and had frustrated his plans. Those plans could not be resumed without yet another war, which it was against his principles to provoke; but within the limits of the Empire his name should ever stand for the ideas of 1789, peace and free institutions. To the Allied Sovereigns he sent a message declaring that he had heard the voice of posterity. He now desired peace with all men; and though he would never have signed the Treaty of Paris, yet he would faithfully observe it. The peacefulness of a constitutional monarch would accord with his declining years.

The Powers at Vienna were not impressed by his fair words. All Talleyrand's skill in dissolving the Coalition was wasted. When Napoleon sent the Czar the secret treaty between France, Austria and Britain, which he had found in Louis XVIII's desk at the Tuileries, Alexander merely showed it to the embarrassed Metternich and then put it on the fire, saying, "Let us forget all that: the question now is to over throw our common enemy." They declared that Napoleon had placed himself outside the pale of civil and social relations, and renewed the Treaty of Chaumont. Wellington, the chief British plenipotentiary at the Congress, was appointed to the supreme command of the Allied forces, and at once left Vienna to take up his duties.

Meanwhile Napoleon was reorganising the French army. Most of the émigré officers had fled, but there was no lack of war-hardened veterans to replace them. They and the thousands of prisoners of war returned from Russia enabled him to create in a month the best army he had had since 1812 - perhaps since 1807. However, Napoleon was not the man he had been, except in fits and starts. The man of action had degenerated into an overweight, sleepy, easy-going and garrulous man who lacked the "get-up-and-go" of his earlier years.

By 20 March, Napoleon was in Paris with an army of 140,000 regular troops and a volunteer reserve of about 200,000. The Allies had been caught unawares; Napoleon was not prepared to fight on French soil so he took battle to his enemies. The Allied armies were divided:

Napoleon intended to defeat them separately.

  1. The Prussians at Liége

The two armies met on 16 June 1815 at the Battle of Ligny and the Prussians were routed. Napoleon thought that they were so badly beaten that he allowed them to retire - in reasonably good order - instead of following up and ensuring his victory. The Prussians went to Wavre; Napoleon thought they were heading for Namur (the opposite direction). Eventually, he sent General Grouchy to Namur to finish off the Prussians, with a third of the French army. This was to prevent Blucher joining up with Wellington.

  1. The British at Brussels

Ney led the French at the Battle of Quatre Bras, also on 16 June 1815. It was a stalemate but Ney allowed Wellington to withdraw and take up a better position above Charleroi, at Waterloo.

Ney and Napoleon joined their armies and faced Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815. Napoleon is reported to have said, "Wellington is a bad general, the English are bad troops and it will be a picnic". Wellington's verdict on the battle was that "it was a damned close-run thing".

Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo ended the Hundred Days. He surrendered to Captain Maitland of HMS Bellerophon and spent his last six years on the island of St Helena. Napoleon died there on 5 May 1821.

See The Battle of Waterloo web site for a detailed account of the battle.
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Last modified 4 March, 2020

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