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HISTORY OF THE NAPOLEONIC WARS
 
 


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The Russian campaign: 1812

With Austria an ally by conquest and marriage, Prussia crushed into submission, and nearly the whole of western Europe as his empire, Napoleon perhaps understandably feels justified in taking a strong line with Russia.

In spite of the congenial mood of Tilsit in 1807, and an attempt by Napoleon to revive it in another grand meeting at Erfurt in 1808, Alexander I fails to give any practical support to his ally in the 1809 campaign against Austria. There are various reasons. The Continental System is doing harm to Russia's Baltic trade. The introduction of French republican principles in the grand duchy of Warsaw alarms St Petersburg. And the terms agreed by the tsar at Tilsit have been unpopular in Russia from the start.
 









With war between the two empires increasingly probable, Napoleon moves first in what he intends to be a massive and rapid strike. From February 1812 armies begin to march from many different regions to converge on the river Neman (the border famous already for the raft at Tilsit).

The assembled force is vastly impressive, with 500,000 infantry, 100,000 cavalry and 80,000 in the baggage trains. About 200,000 of these troops are the French Grand Army. There are other contingents from all over Napoleon's world, including even some rather half-hearted regiments from Prussia and Austria. The crossing of the Neman into Russia begins on June 24.
 







The confronting Russian armies are heavily outnumbered, so they withdraw - dragging the French ever deeper into an environment where it is hard to find food for such large numbers of men and horses. There are occasional engagements, but the first major battle takes place on September 7 at Borodino - at a distance, by then, of only seventy miles from Moscow.

The result is a narrow victory for Napoleon over a Russian army commanded by the veteran Kutuzov. The Russians withdraw once again, leaving Moscow open to Napoleon. A week later he enters the city, only to find much of it burning - set on fire by the Russians.
 







Napoleon waits in Moscow for a month, vainly hoping that envoys will arrive to make terms. Nobody comes. He sends ambassadors to the Russian camp to suggest negotation. A sign of weakness. Winter is approaching. On October 18 Napoleon gives the order to withdraw.

The retreat of the Grand Army from Moscow in 1812 has become one of the classic images of an invading force suffering disaster and devastation. Harried by regular Russian troops, by guerrillas and by hostile villagers, amid falling snow and plunging temperatures, often finding the bridges ahead of them destroyed, the columns and squadrons of Napoleon's greatest army seem to face an impossible task in getting home. Most fail to do so.
 







It is calculated that of more than 600,000 who entered Russia that summer, only about 112,000 come out again. The effect on Napoleon's ability to raise another army of this calibre is devastating, but not as great as the damage to his reputation. All over Europe that winter, as the news spreads, people chafing under French domination begin to imagine a different future.

Napoleon, desperate to arrive in Paris before the bad news, hands the command over to Murat and hurries on ahead. He reaches the city on December 18 and sets about recovering the situation. The astonishing fact, typical of the man and his energy, is the extent to which he is able to do so - at any rate for another eighteen months.
 






Shifting alliances: 1813

The three years from the disaster in Russia in 1812 to Waterloo in 1815 demonstrate vividly Napoleon's resilience in fighting back from an apparently hopeless position. During the winter of 1812 he imposes on a weary France a new level of conscription, bringing in a broader range of older men and reducing the age limit for the youngest recruits. At the same time strenuous efforts are made to rebuild the French arsenal.

When Napoleon moves east across the Rhine in April 1813 for a new season of campaigning, just four months after his return to Paris, he is once again in command of an army of more than 250,000 men, dragging with it nearly 500 cannon.
 









Meanwhile his alliance of the previous year against Russia is breaking up. Public demonstrations in Germany against the French persuade the king of Prussia, Frederick William, to change sides. He declares war on Napoleon in March 1813.

Austria is more cautious. Marie Louise, the Austrian emperor's daughter, is now empress of France. And Austria instinctively distrusts any course of action which may restore the well-being of Prussia. Nevertheless in the coming showdown it seems unwise to face likely defeat as an ally of Napoleon. After signing a treaty with Russia and Prussia, Austria declares war on France in August. Bavaria, the mainstay of the Confederation of the Rhine, follows suit in October.
 







During the early part of the 1813 campaign Napoleon achieves several partial successes in battles in Saxony, on Prussia's southern borders. But by the autumn, with the ranks of the allies steadily increasing, he finds himself dangerously outnumbered. In eastern Saxony, in October, his army of 185,000 is confronted by about 320,000 troops put in the field by Russia, Prussia, Austria and Sweden. In one of the stranger twists of this complex period, the Swedish army is commanded by Bernadotte, one of Napoleon's own marshals and linked with the Bonaparte family by marriage.

The crucial encounter between France and the allies begins near Leipzig on October 16 and lasts for three days.
 







The Battle of Leipzig, involving all the major powers of continental Europe and seen, in retrospect, as a turning point in the downfall of Napoleon, acquires later another resounding name - the Battle of the Nations. It ends in disaster for the French. Only about 70,000 men arrive home, crossing the Rhine in early November. For the second year running the French emperor has thrown away an army in his eastern adventures.

He has also let slip the chance of a peace which would perhaps leave France with some gain from two decades of war.
 







At times during 1813 it seems that the allies might accept a settlement which allows France her 'natural frontier' of the Rhine. It may be that this was never a serious offer on the allied side (Britain in particular is profoundly opposed to Belgium being in French hands), but in any case Napoleon cannot accept the loss of all his hard-won gains in Germany and Italy.

It is a deeply ingrained part of his character to fight on regardless of the circumstances. But as he does so, during the winter of 1813-4, the allied position hardens. France must shrink back to the borders of 1792. Meanwhile enemy forces, for the first time since 1792, are poised to enter French territory. The wheel has come full circle.
 






The noose tightens: 1813-1814

Wellington's army is the first to cross the border into France. Pushing north in the final campaign of the Peninsular War, he is on French territory in October 1813.

In January 1814 allied armies, under the command of the Prussian and Austrian field marshals Blücher and Schwarzenberg, cross the Rhine. For two months Napoleon somehow finds the energy to wage a vigorous and complex campaign against their advancing forces, but he is unable to prevent them reaching and entering Paris on March 31. Talleyrand, Napoleon's long-serving foreign minister and the most slippery of the many faithless characters in these turbulent times, is on hand to welcome the Russian tsar and the king of Prussia into the city.
 









On April 2 Talleyrand persuades the few available members of the senate to declare that Napoleon is deposed. Four days later they invite Louis XVIII to return from exile and, on condition that he accepts the terms of a constitutional monarchy, to mount the throne of his guillotined brother Louis XVI. (Louis XVII has died as a child, supposedly of scrofula, in a French revolutionary prison.)

Napoleon, meanwhile, is at Fontainebleau, where he still has 60,000 troops. Even in these circumstances, with Paris lost, his instinct is to fight on. But his marshals tell him that the army will not obey him. He has no choice but to abdicate, in the Treaty of Fontainebleau..
 







The allies settle their affairs with Napoleon in April in the treaty of Fontainebleau and with the new king of France, Louis XVIII, in May in the treaty of Paris. The terms in each case are surprisingly lenient, considering that the expansionist campaigns of the French republic and Napoleon have brought Europe two decades of war and hundreds of thousands of deaths.

Napoleon is given the island of Elba as his own estate, is allowed to retain the title of emperor and is given an annual pension of two million francs (to be paid by Louis XVIII). No indemnity is required from France as a nation, and she is even allowed to retain many of the works of art brought from elsewhere in Europe during the years of plunder.
 







France is confined to her borders of 1792, losing the territories won by the citizen armies of the republic, but even here there are exceptions (Avignon, the anachronistic outpost of the papacy, now becomes French).

On 29 April Napoleon crosses in a British warship from the south of France to Elba, where with typical resilience he is soon enjoying himself in creating a miniature state. He reforms the local agriculture, organizes artistic events and behaves like an enlightened despot in a doll's house. Meanwhile his enemies convene in the congress of Vienna, from September 1814, to tie up the loose ends of the continent which he has reshaped. But the little lord of Elba is still capable of surprising them.
 






The return from Elba: 1815

Napoleon soon becomes bored with Elba. Moreover his existence there looks like becoming impossible, since Louis XVIII shows no signs of paying the agreed annual subsidy of two million francs. The money is essential if Napoleon is to continue to pay his guards, without whom his life is certainly in danger. To make him even more restless, the reports from his secret agents suggest that the French people are far from happy with the return of the Bourbons, foisted upon them by the machinations of Talleyrand and the conquering foreign powers.

The result is an exceptionally audacious plan - and one which succeeds beyond all likelihood.
 









Napoleon waits until the British naval brig, stationed to watch Elba's coastal waters, is briefly called elsewhere. On 26 February 1815 he embarks his followers in a fleet of small vessels. They make the passage unobserved and on February 28 reach the coast of France. Just over 1000 men, with forty horses and two cannon, land near Antibes. Napoleon tells them that they will reach Paris before his son's birthday (March 20) without firing a shot.

A six-day march along icy mountain roads brings the little party to Grenoble. On the way they are challenged by a detachment of the French army. With extraordinary panache Napoleon walks alone towards the French muskets, identifies himself and asks the men to join him. They do so.
 







The same thing happens in Grenoble. The party which marches north from the city is 9000 strong and now has thirty cannon. The pattern of welcome continues, as the news of the emperor's approach runs ahead of him. As promised, he reaches Paris and an ecstatic crowd on his son's birthday, March 20. And nobody has been killed on the way.

Napoleon instals himself in the Tuileries (from which Louis XVIII has fled the previous evening) and starts to assemble a government. This is a harder task than the welcome of the populace would suggest. The middle classes are chary of any further upheaval. And retaliation is threatened swiftly from abroad, owing to the fact that Napoleon's enemies are all in one place, Vienna.
 







News of Napoleon's landing in France reaches Metternich in Vienna early in the morning on March 7. The allies' response to the crisis is immediately the agenda of the congress. Before noon joint action is agreed. Couriers are despatched to mobilize the armies.

By May great forces are assembling round France's borders. Blücher is at Liège with 120,000 Prussians. Wellington is at Brussels with some 95,000 British, Dutch, Belgian and German troops. 150,000 Russians and 210,000 Austrians are approaching the Rhine through Germany. Napoleon, using his favourite tactic of dividing his enemies, decides to strike northwards against Wellington and Blücher before the Russians and Austrians can join them.
 






Waterloo: 1815

With about 124,000 men Napoleon advances towards Brussels, hoping to take a position between Wellington's and Blücher's armies - with the intention of containing or driving off one of them while defeating the other. The way north is blocked by Wellington at Quatre Bras. On June 16 Napoleon leaves marshal Ney to assault this position while he tackles Blücher a few miles to the east, at Ligny. The engagement at Quatre Bras is indecisive. But Napoleon wins convincingly at Ligny, causing the Prussians to retreat in disarray.

During June 17 Wellington withdraws to a more secure position on a ridge near the village of Waterloo It is here, on the following day, that the crucial battle occurs.
 









When the engagement begins at Waterloo, on June 18, Wellington is in a defensive position with about 68,000 troops and 156 guns; Napoleon has 72,000 men and 246 guns. An extremely hard-fought battle looks almost certain to go Napoleon's way until the arrival in the afternoon of Blücher and the Prussians, regrouped after their flight of two days previously. They tip the balance. By the early evening the French are in full retreat, and Napoleon is on his way back to Paris.

He arrives in the city on June 21 and abdicates the next day. Louis XVIII returns to Paris on July 8 for his second restoration.
 







France's victorious enemies, irritated by the expensive diversion of this summer, are now in less generous mood. The treaty of Paris, signed in November 1815, is markedly less lenient than the terms offered in 1814 on the first Bourbon restoration. It removes some territory on France's eastern frontier, subjects the controversial eastern provinces to a period of occupation by allied troops and imposes an indemnity of 700 million francs.

Meanwhile the abdicating emperor, declared an outlaw by the congress in Vienna in March and so technically liable to execution if captured, is in La Rochelle negotiating his future.
 






Congress of Vienna: 1814-1815

The congress of Vienna, summoned by the four powers who have done most to defeat Napoleon (Britain, Russia, Prussia, Austria), is an attempt to stabilize the map of Europe after the upheavals caused by more than twenty years of war. All the crowned heads and their representatives are welcome in Vienna, with the result that there is much entertainment and glamorous festivity throughout the winter of 1814-15.

Behind the glitter, orchestrated by Metternich, the hard work of diplomacy goes on. The four great nations intend to make all the decisions themselves, but Talleyrand - representing the newly restored Louis XVIII - ensures that France has an equal place at the table. Her participation in any agreed balance of power will be essential.
 









Everyone is well aware that a breakdown in the negotiations can easily lead to a renewal of war, in the familiar pattern of recent years. Yet each participant has a vested interest in ensuring that none of the others becomes too strong. The main players are like heavily armed gangsters who nevertheless need to clinch a deal.

Danger lies primarily in Poland and Saxony, the much fought over regions bordered by Russia, Prussia and Austria. Poland has already been dismembered by her neighbours before being partly reconstituted by Napoleon - as a grand duchy which he grants to the king of Saxony. (Saxony remains a French ally longer than anyone else and thus ends up on the losing side.)
 







Eventually the major powers reach a compromise in Vienna, to the predictable detriment of Poland and of a much reduced Saxony. In most other areas this congress of conservative monarchies restores the pre-Napoleonic status quo. Just as Louis XVIII returns to the French throne, so Naples is restored to the Bourbons, the papal states to the pope, and much of northern Italy to Austria.

Among the more important changes, the larger German states keep their gains from the process of rationalization introduced by Napoleon; Denmark loses Norway to Sweden; and a new kingdom of the Netherlands links the Austrian Netherlands (or Belgium) and the United Provinces, as a barrier to renewed French expansion northwards.
 







Austria by now has no objection to relinquishing the Austrian Netherlands. But decisions of this kind are old-fashioned diplomacy, conducted between crowned heads and bearing little relation to the wishes or identity of people in the affected areas. Partly for this reason, the newly created kingdom of the Netherlands lasts only fifteen years before splitting apart.

Nevertheless in most respects the negotiators at Vienna succeed in their primary aim of finding a basis for peace. Most of their solutions hold good for several decades. The new Europe of the 19th century is no longer characterized by frequent wars. Instead, each nation is confronted internally by the likelihood of revolution.
 






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