Napoleon had found France divided on his return. The military were very much for him, but the country as a whole was war weary, having been at war almost constantly for twenty three years and having suffered over a million casualties (the loss to France, although over a longer period, was in fact similar, in proportion to the size of population to her losses in the First World War). Many areas of the country were openly hostile to a new war or at least quietly obstructive; the internal situation was far from promising.
Napoleon arrived in Paris to find that the majority of the government had fled and that everything was in complete disarray; he was also keen to prove his credentials as a reformed man, with new freedoms and electoral reforms. All of his renowned vigour and drive would now be needed to put things right quickly.
The myriad of orders that suddenly emanated from Paris touched every conceivable aspect of life. At the same time all of the frontier fortresses and mountain passes were put on alert for attacks and ordered to be fully armed and provisioned.
La Vendee, the traditional home of royalist support, predictably led the revolts against him and the fighting there was to require the use of a significant number of troops which would otherwise have been available to join the main army, including two whole regiments of the Young Guard. Numerous royalist areas rose up against the return of Napoleon, although it was only on 21 May that Napoleon admitted to the chambers that civil war was breaking out in La Vendee and he claimed that the British wielded great influence there. However, this threat was dramatically reduced by Fouche, the new Minister of Police, when he sent out the Comte de Malartic as a peace emissary. He succeeded in persuading the majority of the Vendean leaders that they were attacking too early, as fighting alone, the weight of the whole French army could be turned against them and that they would be annihilated with ease. It would be much better to wait and launch their attacks when the allies began their invasion of France in June. The advice was accepted by the great majority of leaders and when the recalcitrant commander in chief, the Comte de Rochejacquelein was killed in a skirmish on 3 June, the war petered out; but the 20,000 French troops committed to the Vendee were unable to join Napoleon before Waterloo, a significant loss.
The Duc d’Angouleme had proceeded to Nimes the day that Napoleon had entered Lyon on his march to Paris, almost all of the troops in that city proceeding with the Emperor. This left the south of France virtually undefended and with a newly raised army of about six thousand local peasants and workers, from Languedoc and Provence known locally as ‘Miquelets’, he planned to march on Lyon. Without uniforms and only the insignia of a fleur de lys on their jackets to identify themselves and armed with a mixture of hunting rifles, pitchforks and cudgels, they marched on, confident of taking France’s second city. Napoleon responded by sending Lieutenant General Grouchy to Lyon, who quickly pulled together a ragtag army of volunteers and retired soldiers and marched out to meet d’Angouleme. The contending forces met at La Pallud near Marseille where d’Angouleme’s troops were routed and the prince captured, but allowed to sail to Spain, to avoid again the awkward problem of what to do with members of the royal family. But throughout the following campaign wanton acts of revenge, destruction and intimidation continued on both sides in the south. Grouchy was made a marshal for his success; this decision made him a key player in the ensuing campaign.
The situation at Marseille was so critical that the city’s great arsenal of 100,000 kilograms of gunpowder and 500,000 cartridges had to be transferred to Lyon and Toulon for safety. The 4,000 strong National Guard in the city was also disbanded and the Observation corps of Var, under Marshal Brune was told to crack down on Marseilles. On 3 June a large number of cities in the west and south were actually put on a danger list of ‘hostile cities’; these included Marseilles, Toulon, Arles, Toulouse, Le Havre, Bordeaux, Nantes and Cherbourg. Their National Guard units were disbanded and martial law proclaimed. Davout ordered strong units of local federes, or popular militias, to be armed throughout the south to defend their lands, turning poachers into game keepers.
Having ended the immediate threat of civil war within France, Napoleon now sought a diplomatic path to avoid war. The foreign diplomatic corps had been caught out by Napoleon’s sudden return and there were fears that he might hold them as hostages to prise an agreement out of the allies; however Napoleon instantly proffered them an olive branch with the immediate offer of passports if they wished to leave, in an attempt to allay their fears. However, his letters of peace to the crowned heads of Europe, intended to break the cohesion of the great alliance, failed dismally, with most of the letters being returned unopened. The letters had however immediately found their way into Le Moniteur to reassure the public at home that he was serious in his attempts to gain peace. Napoleon was a realist however, he knew that war was inevitable and was coming soon, but his problem was that the great majority of the French people did not want to hear this message.
It is estimated that about one million Frenchmen had died directly or indirectly during Napoleon’s wars from a total population of thirty-one million; or put simply, approximately one in ten of all males of fighting age. Given that for every death two more were probably maimed for life, it soon becomes apparent that the effect on the French populace was not too dissimilar from that felt by the British public after World War One. Few families were lucky to escape personal loss. At the very least, they would receive back a shattered frame who would consequently struggle to support himself, let alone their aging family. France was war weary; long gone were the days of victory and glory, now the days were filled with hurt, pain and hunger.
Yet the paradox is that Napoleon seems to have returned on the crest of a wave, how is this possible?
The French army had suffered severe cutbacks under the government of Louis XVIII and these soldiers wholeheartedly embraced the return of their Emperor. There was a huge reserve of officers and soldiers who were either out of work following the massive reductions in the size of the army, or on extended home leave on reduced pay; they saw this as an opportunity to regain their lost status and saw Napoleon as the way to renewed glory. Part of the civilian population also welcomed his return with great joy and hope for the future; however it cannot be denied that the great majority of the civil population were far less eager to see his return.
Napoleon was acutely aware of this from a great number of reports he commissioned from his new ministers. Fouche, as Minister of Police, reported a massive increase in demonstrations, riots and general unrest throughout the country including attacks on army personnel, indeed France was close to anarchy. In previous times, Napoleon would have used his centralised government to swiftly eradicate such problems, but he now discovered that his carefully crafted systems were broken irrevocably.
Only two days after arriving in Paris, Napoleon announced a number of populist measures. He ordered that all royalists were immediately banned from living within 90 miles of the Capital, warrants were issued for the arrest of 13 prominent royalists including Talleyrand, Marmont, La Rochefoucauld and Bourienne with the sequestration of all royalist property. This populist move had an undesired effect on the people of Paris, where fear of a return to the revolutionary bloodshed of 1792 reared its ugly head, causing near panic.
Napoleon also needed the Paris mob on his side as he had no wish to confront them. A number of jobs were created with the announcement of new public works, including 3,000 to construct a new market at Saint Germain and to repair the Louvre, 2,000 artisans to restore damaged weapons and 4,000 to construct defences along the heights of Montmartre; overnight 9,000 families in Paris had a new bread winner. This coupled with a number of festivals, theatre shows and constant military reviews re-established an air of vitality and self belief in Paris and secured his immediate power base.
This could not be replicated so easily beyond the capital where the great majority of prefects and mayors were either openly against or at best ambivalent to the new government and would clearly not support moves to increase the army or to raise significant new taxes. During the first week of April, Louis Carnot, the new Interior Minister, summarily dismissed no less than 61 of the 87 prefects who governed regional France. Having done so, replacing them proved extremely difficult, with few pushing themselves forward to take the posts which traditionally were keenly sought after, a clear and alarming sign of the times. On 20 April, Carnot rashly followed this up with the immediate sacking of every mayor of a town with a population of more than 5,000 inhabitants. The chaos following such an arbitrary measure forced Carnot to rescind the order ten days later and await the results of new elections. The ultimate futility of his measures was shown when the subsequent elections re-elected two thirds of the previous mayors, who, if previously likely to be ambivalent, now joined the ranks of the ill disposed towards the new regime, causing a serious escalation of civil disobedience. Orders for the National Guard and retired servicemen to be called out, army deserters to be hunted down and returned to their corps and drives to recruit new soldiers were at best patchily obeyed, many stalling or openly defying them, refusing to send any more young men to their deaths. This was a very serious problem for the Emperor and one which he did not have time to rectify and which severely hampered his efforts to increase the forces available to him for the inevitable fighting to come.
Whilst Caulaincourt, his new Foreign Minister sought vainly to appease the allies and seek for a diplomatic way forward, Napoleon inexorably moved France towards war.
No less than sixty-seven new articles were announced within the Acte Additionnel of 23 March which included the abolition of the slave trade for a second time (it had previously been abolished during the Revolution but reinstated later by Napoleon); and the end of press censorship. The removal of censorship was however a fallacy, as Fouche simply installed a man in the office of each newspaper to ensure less overt ‘autocensorship’. A brand new paper was also launched, the Journal General de France, which was intended to provide a patriotic impetus to the masses.
Benjamin Constant had been persuaded to join the government to piece together a new constitution and a two tiered system was announced, a Chamber of Representatives, the members of which were to be voted for by electoral colleges, the members of these colleges being voted for by the people, and a Chamber of Hereditary Peers.
Napoleon had already announced a great meeting of these new representatives at the Champ de Mai, which was to be postponed more than once and severely derided by most Parisians as empirical trumpery, had originally been set for 26 May but was eventually held on 1 June. It was designed as a huge theatrical announcement of the results of the national referendum on the Act Additionnel, but everyone knew that the rigged result would be overwhelmingly in favour just like all of Napoleon’s previous votes. The event was spectacular and over two hundred thousand people watched the proceedings which lasted most of the day. Napoleon appeared in his white coronation robes which heightened further the aura of theatricality, bordering dangerously on pantomime. The results of the plebiscite, or referendum, was announced with an unsurprisingly impossible level of support, helped by the fact that the results from the eleven western and southern provinces which had been in revolt had apparently unfortunately all arrived too late to be counted!
The result and Napoleon’s rallying speech, full of his usual grandiose rhetoric, was received with only polite applause by all but the huge delegation of representatives from the army who roared their support wildly. Up to this point the Champ de Mai had clearly misfired as a spectacle and even Napoleon, according to some witnesses, looked troubled by the poor reaction. However, the great meeting was saved by the magnificent scenes that followed as the army representatives received their new eagles, the rallying point for each regiment. The scenes of military pomp and the adulation of the soldiers for their warrior Emperor transformed the event into one of Homeric proportions. However, this finally made it clear to the French people and to the world at large, that the peaceful intentions so often proclaimed had been an act of ‘smoke and mirrors’, Napoleon was going to war.
Behind the scenes the Emperor had been driving his new ministers inexorably and relentlessly towards war preparations. He sent out a constant stream of tirades to speed up production of weapons, increase supplies, to recruit more soldiers and to strip everything else bare to enable his government to finance it all. His attention to detail in every matter was incredible and reminded everyone of the vigour he had shown fifteen years previously, he was like a man possessed again.
Three main supply depots were set up at Soissons, Laon and Avesnes with smaller ones at Meaux, Guise, Vitry, Langres, Metz and Strasbourg. These were designed to hold up to four months’ supplies for the army, which would then avoid the necessity of the soldiery devastating the French countryside like a plague of locusts, further alienating the people. Contracts were re-negotiated and outstanding debts paid off giving contractors confidence that they would get paid and so the stores began to fill rapidly. Workshops were set up in and around Paris, in any suitable large building that could be found, to massively increase both the production of new muskets and to repair the thousands of unserviceable muskets lying in numerous armouries across the country. The production of musket balls was ramped up significantly and the production of uniforms required many new factories to be hurriedly set up. But whatever was produced was not enough, not quick enough; Napoleon was never satisfied and he continued to chide his ministers to produce more…. ever more. There was no doubt that the country was now on a war footing, but Napoleon continued to excuse all of this to the nation as defensive measures to save ‘la patrie’.
On arrival in Paris, Napoleon had found that the French army numbered a mere 200,000 men, which he immediately set to increase dramatically. Former soldiers were recalled to the eagles; according to his estimates this would produce 112,000 men, comprising 32,000 who had retired from the army on age, health or disability grounds and 85,000 deserters who had gone missing during the 1814 campaign. It was clear that many of the former would not be fit to serve in the field but could man fortresses, releasing line troops; whilst the latter were hardly going to flood to the army in a bid to gain pardon for their earlier crimes. A poor reaction from those affected, and a firm determination by many mayors to ignore the orders, as many refused to send any more young men to their deaths, led to a very poor response to the call. In desperation large mobile columns of up to one hundred men were sent out, in effect, large press gangs taking anyone of serviceable age; but in reality only about 52,000 were actually raised by these measures, and most of these were extremely reluctant recruits. Napoleon was also unfortunately forced to disband the Regiment La Tour d’Auvergne because of their loyalty to the Duc d’Angouleme and the Swiss regiments as they refused to wear the national cockade, further reducing his available forces.
Horses were also an acute problem, partly solved by taking those of the gendarmes and giving them 600 francs each to replace them, thus providing 4,250 trained horses overnight.
Napoleon ordered the formation of a number of armies and corps of observation; the main army was clearly the ‘Army of the North’ consisting of five corps (numbers I to IV and VI), the reserve cavalry corps under Grouchy and the Imperial Guard under Marshal Mortier. The Amy of the Rhine under General Rapp consisted of V Corps; the Army of the Alps under Marshal Suchet consisting of VII Corps based at Lyons. The 1st Corps of Observation, or Army of the Jura commanded by General Lecourbe, was based at Belfort to watch the Swiss and Austrian armies in this sector. The 2nd Corps of Observation, the Army of the Var, under Marshal Brune was at Lyon. Two other smaller corps under General Clausel at Toulouse and General Decaen at Bordeaux watched the Pyrenees.
Davout’s recruitment problems were exacerbated by the Emperor’s insistence that only veteran troops were sent to the field, particularly to the Army of the North. Carnot also envisaged eventually forming a National Guard of over 2½ million men; but the first draft ordered out, which should have raised 234,000 second line troops to relieve any first line troops manning the static defences, only raised around 90,000. By June, when the fighting commenced in earnest, of the 446,000 called out, only 142,000 were actually in place.
In desperation, no stone was left unturned in the hunt for troops. Fourteen thousand gendarmes and twelve thousand customs officers were suddenly transferred to the army and six thousand volunteers all helped to plug the great void, but still all of this effort was not enough.
Great defensive works were also ordered to be built; a forty-five mile defensive perimeter was planned for Paris and construction started immediately, with many hundreds of naval guns being brought from the coast to be placed in the redoubts, but in early June much more effort was still required to complete these works and hundreds of these cannon were still on their transport barges. Over 150,000 troops could be utilised for the defence of Paris, but this number consisted almost entirely of inexperienced National Guardsmen. Although thousands of naval gunners had been sent to the capital, there were still insufficient numbers to man all of the guns and the students of the Ecole Polytechnique and the Military Academy were trained as gunners to fill the gap.
Much was achieved in a short time, but this was not, as it is so often portrayed, a ‘National effort’. It cannot for example be compared to the Russian effort in the Second World War. Napoleon strained every nerve to extract the maximum effort from the French nation. But support for the new regime was far from universal and it often only received a patchy response to its commands. What was achieved was truly remarkable, but nothing like what Napoleon wanted or had ordained.
Many feel that Napoleon’s fate was already sealed, but was it? If he had succeeded in his plan, is it not conceivable that his father in law, the Emperor of Austria, might come to terms, leaving the Russians isolated and far from home. Is it completely impossible that a treaty would be signed allowing Napoleon to stay on the throne?