Authors: Rupert Matthews
Tags: #History, #Military, #Napoleonic Wars, #Strategy, #Non-Fiction
This edition published in 2015 by Arcturus Publishing Limited
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Corbis: ch. 1 (2), 2 (2), 5, 6 (2), 7 (1,3), 8, 9, 10, 11 (1), 13 (2)
‘They have learned nothing and forgotten nothing’
Charles Talleyrand, on the situation in France in 1814 under Louis XVIII
The battle fought on 18 June 1815 just to the south of Waterloo in what is now Belgium proved to be the decisive engagement in the final campaign of a war that had torn Europe apart for 23 years. Fighting had spread around the world as the combatant states sought to gain advantages that eluded them in Europe.
The death toll of these long years of war will never be properly known. Certainly, millions died as a direct result of the fighting and millions more in the famines and epidemics that followed the armies and the disruptions they caused. Economically, Europe was left prostrate – with hardship and unemployment making worse the misery of the wars themselves.
The conflict had been sparked by the French Revolution, which began in 1789. When the Revolution first erupted, it had been seen very much as an internal French matter. The government of King Louis XVI was notoriously corrupt and inefficient, while the social injustices of the regime were well known. Many people across Europe – even some monarchs – welcomed the early stages of the Revolution, seeing it as a necessary reform of a hopeless system that might bring stability to a tottering regime.
However, the increasingly violent nature of the Revolution and sweeping claims of universal rights and freedoms made by the more extreme revolutionaries soon began to concern the more autocratic monarchs of Europe. In August 1791 Frederick William II of Prussia and Leopold of Austria issued the Pillnitz Declaration. This vaguely worded statement was intended to reaffirm the theoretical basis of monarchical power – partly to give some diplomatic aid to Louis, but mostly to give warning to reformers in the rulers’ own realms that while reform might be possible, revolution was not. Unfortunately the French government interpreted the declaration as a warning that Prussia and Austria were going to use military force to restore the dictatorial rule of Louis in France. Deciding to get their retaliation in first, France declared war on Austria in April 1792. Prussia rushed to aid Austria, while the Kingdom of Piedmont in northern Italy joined in, hoping to grab disputed border territories.
The early campaigns ended in stalemate. The French government became more extreme, abolishing the monarchy and executing Louis XVI. Revolutionary ideas spread rapidly across Europe, as peoples sought to throw off the shackles of serfdom and enjoy previously unheard-of freedoms – such as not going to church every Sunday, having a trial before being thrown in prison or being free to set up a business without having to pay a government official for permission. Some monarchs responded by encouraging reforms, others with repression – but the French invariably welcomed and encouraged such revolutionary movements. Europe was caught in an upheaval of social, legal and cultural turmoil every bit as disruptive as the wars that would engulf the continent.
Napoleon’s rise and fall
Out of this turmoil emerged a single dominating figure: Napoleon Bonaparte. Born in 1769 into a family of minor Corsican nobility, Napoleon joined the French army and enthusiastically embraced the principles of the Revolution. By a combination of military genius and political cunning, Napoleon made himself dictator of France by 1799 and in 1804 had himself crowned Emperor of the French. He instituted a composite regime that retained many of the social, legal and cultural features of the Revolution while reimposing the autocratic rule of the monarchy under his own control.
Napoleon had himself crowned emperor in 1804 and while retaining of the social, legal and cultural features of the Revolution, reimposed the autocratic rule of the old monarchy under his own control.
This potent mix of idealism and pragmatism emboldened revolutionaries outside France, and Napoleon himself. By 1807 Napoleon was master of Europe, heading a patchwork of regimes ruled by his relatives and cronies or by older dynasties cowed into subservience. Only Britain stood aside from French domination – safe beyond the English Channel, guarded by the ships of the Royal Navy.
In 1812 Napoleon accused Tsar Alexander I of Russia of plotting an alliance with Britain – and invaded. The 1812 campaign turned into a disaster for Napoleon as Russian resistance combined with savage winter weather to reduce Napoleon’s army from 450,000 men to just 40,000.
Sensing French weakness, other European monarchs rose against Napoleon. Even reformists who welcomed revolutionary policies had come to resent French control and Napoleon’s rapacious demands. A general coalition was formed against Napoleon. Wanting to avoid the horrors of more fighting, the coalition offered Napoleon peace if France returned to its pre-war boundaries. He refused – and by 1814 had been crushed.
Banished to Elba
On 4 April 1814 Napoleon abdicated the imperial throne of France. The allies gave him the small Mediterranean island of Elba to rule and allowed him a personal guard of 1,000 men. The French monarchy was reinstated in the shape of King Louis XVIII, younger brother of the executed Louis XVI. The allies had made Louis promise to accept most of the reforms of the Revolution as a price of restoration to his crown, but as soon as he was in power Louis ignored his promises.
Louis ensured that leading politicians of the Revolution and Empire were sacked, along with large numbers of government officials. He reintroduced old pre-Revolutionary laws and raised taxes. Louis announced a new democratic constitution, but then restricted the vote to just 90,000 wealthy men out of a population of more than 30 million.
Many French people feared not only that the bad days of corrupt and inefficient royalist government were coming back, but also that Louis was determined to pay off scores and settle the feuds of the Revolution. ‘They have learned nothing and forgotten nothing,’ quipped Napoleon’s foreign minister Charles Talleyrand.
Trouble was brewing. And Napoleon was watching carefully from Elba.
‘The Monster is loose’
on Napoleon’s escape from Elba, March 1815
When he arrived on Elba in May 1814, Napoleon was uncertain what to do. He attempted suicide, but failed because he took ineffective poison. After this his spirits were restored by the arrival of a number of old adherents, admirers and friends.
In the months that followed, Napoleon threw himself into reforming the government and economy of the island. He put a lot of effort into improving the mines and into making agricultural output more profitable. These often long-term plans were aimed at increasing government revenue, on which Napoleon relied. The British resident put on Elba to keep an eye on Napoleon, Sir Neil Campbell, became convinced that Napoleon was resigned to a life as a minor monarch and became a less frequent visitor to Napoleon’s court.
In the opening weeks of 1815 a messenger was intercepted carrying letters between Napoleon and his one-time supporter Joachim Murat, king of Naples. This was a breach of the peace treaty, which forbade Napoleon to communicate with other rulers without permission. However, Murat was an old friend and, apparently, a firm Austrian ally so no real action was taken.
In fact, Napoleon was in contact with many of his old supporters in France and across Europe. He was keeping himself very well informed about events, and was thinking carefully as he laid his plans.
Unrest in France
In Paris discontent was growing. The victorious allies had put Louis XVIII on the throne of France. He was the younger brother of Louis XVI, the king executed during the Revolution. Before allowing him to take his throne, the allies had extracted from Louis promises that he would respect the social and legal changes that had taken place in France since the Revolution, and that he would not engage in any feuds against those who had supported Napoleon. Louis promised everything asked of him, but as soon as he was on the throne he ignored his pledges.
Discontent grew rapidly as new taxes were introduced, officials sacked and new laws repealed. Louis brought back to France thousands of his supporters, who had fled the Revolution. He gave them important positions in government, for which they had no qualifications or skill other than loyalty to Louis. Inefficiency and corruption returned to French government. Soon, it was feared, the old restrictions that had plagued the common people would be reintroduced.
Bad as this was for the long-term prospects of a contented France, of more immediate concern was the behaviour of many of those who had come back to France with Louis. Conscious of their ancient noble blood, resentful of the privileges they had lost and scandalized by the common origins of many who held positions of influence or wealth in the new France, these nobles were favoured by King Louis and lost few opportunities to snub or insult those they considered their inferiors.
Arguments, disputes and fights were frequent. At times they could be politically dangerous. Among the men who had achieved distinction under Napoleon was Michel Ney. Born the son of a cooper, Ney joined the army in 1787 as a hussar trooper. Under the Revolutionary regime, Ney had gained rapid promotion due to his talent for dashing charges and careful rearguard actions. Napoleon made Ney a marshal of the army and duke of Elchingen. When Napoleon abdicated, Ney was persuaded that France needed his talents and so he accepted high military command from Louis, who in return recognized his dukedom. Other nobles, however, refused Ney the respect due to a duke and made spiteful jokes about his cooper father.
Ney tried to rise above the petty insults and sneers, but his wife felt the insults keenly and would have preferred to return home rather than stay at court. One day Ney came home to find his wife in tears following a particularly unpleasant insult and social snub from the duchess of Angoulême – one of the noble ladies most favoured by King Louis. Ney raced to the Tuileries Palace, pushed the guards aside and stormed through the palace seeking the duchess. Passing the king, Ney gave a stiff, formal bow then passed on without saying a word. When he found the duchess, Ney grabbed her arm and shouted, ‘While I was fighting for France, you were sipping tea in an English garden.’ The duke of Angoulême intervened and it looked as if Ney was about to floor him with a punch when courtiers restrained him. Calming down, Ney shook off the courtiers and turned to leave. But before he went he pointed at the Angoulêmes and swore ‘I’ll show you.’
The episode was reported back to Napoleon, along with dozens of other incidents in which returning royal favourites had angered or humiliated those they thought of as their inferiors.
Napoleon also learned that more than 100,000 prisoners of war were returning to France from captivity abroad. These were fully trained veteran soldiers who came home to France to find themselves unemployed and treated with contempt by the new royal officials. Perhaps even worse, the reforms for which they had fought were being dismantled and destroyed. Discontent among these former soldiers was immense. Napoleon knew that they were unhappy and guessed that they would respond willingly to a call to arms to protect and preserve the reforms of the Revolution.
Congress of Vienna
Not content with alienating his own people, Louis was also doing his best to annoy the allies who had put him back on his throne. The diplomats of Europe were meeting in Vienna to draw up a new map of Europe and – just as important – decide on how far the reforms of the Revolution should be allowed to remain standing.
This Congress of Vienna had as its main objective to agree a deal that would ensure peace for the future. Everyone had had more than enough of war. What was needed was an international settlement that would satisfy the ambitions of the big powers, settle any disputes to the satisfaction of anyone important and leave no lingering disputes to cause problems years into the future.
Adding to the confusion were the myriad border changes that had taken place since the wars began 22 years earlier. Germany had then been composed of nearly 360 separate countries ruled by a bewildering mix of dukes, archdukes, counts, bishops, princes, kings, electors and republics. Some of these states had been little larger than a biggish village, and only a handful were of any real importance.
Nearly all these mini-states had been swept away. Revolutions had done for some, others had been destroyed by the armies of France. Revolutionary France had established reformist republics in its own image, while Napoleon had created equally radical kingdoms ruled by cronies he knew would support his foreign wars. Italy had undergone a similarly radical restructuring.
Not unnaturally, the displaced rulers wanted to be restored to their old positions as rulers. Equally understandably, those who now had control of those lands wanted to hang on to them.
Britain wanted to promote free trade, though nearly all other rulers were against this because they gained a great deal of money from import duties. Having paid for the recruitment and the equipping of most of Europe’s armies in order to defeat France, Britain felt it should be able to recoup some of the money by trade. Nobody else agreed.