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Battle of Waterloo: The Hundred Days

This article describes how Napoleon quickly gathered support, restored his imperial government and assembled an army.
Napoleon carried aloft on soldiers' shoulders on his return to Paris
© Morphart Creation/

Napoleon’s progress through France was rapid and seemingly effortless. His charisma and the connection which many of his former soldiers felt for him was sufficient to persuade them to support him. Even Marshal Ney, who had sworn an oath of allegiance to Louis XVIII, proved that he was not immune to his former commander’s charms and, instead of arresting Napoleon, switched sides. His progress north became a series of triumphal entries into towns and cities, acquiring ever increasing forces. In the activity linked to this step we will consider an official newspaper account of one of Napoleon’s rousing speeches.

By 9 March, when he reached Lyons to find it had risen against the Bourbons, his supporters had grown to some 12,000. What began as a coup de main with a force of some 1,000 men landing in the south of France, resulted in the triumphal return of Napoleon to Paris on 20 March and the overthrow of the system of government that had been established in 1814. How did Napoleon manage to achieve this and in such a short timescale?

Support for the Bourbons had never been strong, and the rule of Louis XVIII did more to alienate rather than gather supporters to his cause. There was unrest and discontent in France, of which Napoleon had been aware and which he exploited to draw the populace to his cause. With Napoleon’s reappearance in France, support for Louis XVIII evaporated. The king was forced to flee Paris in advance of Napoleon’s arrival when he could not muster sufficient forces to defend the city.

How does Napoleon gather support across France?
Napoleon made effective use of communications, of speeches and proclamations, to gather together support and ensured that this information was disseminated as widely as possible through the telegraph system — there had been a network of thousands of kilometres of a telegraph, covering the principal routes of the French empire. By 16 March, a proclamation that he had issued at Lyons had reached most parts of France. He appealed to a sense of grievance and discontent in France, and he endeavoured to incite revolutionary fervour, using the language of anti-privilege and presenting himself as the saviour of France from the return of the ancien régime. At Lyons, Napoleon declared:

‘I wish to be less the sovereign of France and more the first of her citizens. I am a product of the Revolution … [and] have come to free the French people from the enslavement in which the priests and nobles wanted to entrap them … I shall hang the lot of them.’
His proclamation of 1 March labelled feudal nobility, emigrés and clergy as ‘enemies of the people’, while that of 21 March abolished the nobility and feudal titles, expelled emigrés who had returned to France during the Restoration and seized their lands. The proclamation at Lyons was a call to arms, exhorting the population to rally against the indignities that had been heaped on France.
It was unlikely that there would be a peaceful negotiation with the allied powers: the declaration of outlawry and the coalition established in the Treaty of Vienna were not going to be set aside. On his return to Paris, Napoleon spoke directly to the people, eschewing all imperial pomp, and appealing to the tradition of the French revolution. He rapidly set in hand constitutional reforms that he expected would encourage support, in this case among the liberals, as well as legitimising claims that he was responding to a popular demand for change.
What was the importance of the French army?
Yet while Napoleon attempted to make it appear that his seizure of power had support across the whole population, it was always the army that was his main power-base. He had retained the affection of the ordinary soldiers. He now reinstituted the Legion of Honour and organised military reviews — these had been especially popular under the empire — the Imperial Guards were inspected at the Tuileries the day after he returned to Paris.
As his success would be dependent upon the army, Napoleon put great effort into raising a large force. He recalled those conscripted in 1814 and from some regions of France recruits flocked in: by 11 June their numbers were over 46,000. Former military men, officers on half pay, deserters, those who had retired, as well as Gendarmerie and National Guards were drawn into the new army. In parallel, he provided arms and uniforms for the recruits, along with mounts for the horse regiments. The capacity of the French manufacturers was not sufficient to meet the enormous demands for munitions — further matériel was bought, some from Britain; other supplies were smuggled from the Low Countries; workshops for uniforms were established in Paris. The whole country was drawn into the preparation for war, reducing unemployment and creating a sense of national purpose.
In the eight weeks from his entry into Paris, Napoleon raised just over half a million men for his army. On 10 June, as he began to contemplate manoeuvres against the allies, he had at his disposal a field army of 284,000 men with 220,000 National Guardsmen, 504,000 in total.
Document: News articles from the French government’s newspaper
Le Moniteur Universel was the official publication of the French government — switching its support to Napoleon as the government became his. Its issues through April 1815 provide a lively account of Napoleon’s movements and the ways in which his support grew. The reports from Lyons of 6 and 7 April are reminders that not all France had favoured the return of Napoleon: the Duc d’Angoulême, Louis XVIII’s nephew, had royalist forces in the south, and there was a group of major towns and cities — Bordeaux, Toulouse, Montpellier, Nîmes, Marseilles — which were either pro-royalist or determinedly anti-Bonaparte and republican.
What does the report of 9 April tell us about Napoleon as an orator and a leader?
[The official newspaper of the French government, Le Moniteur Universel, with reports for 6‒9 April 1815. University of Southampton Library, MS 61, Wellington Papers WP1/487/5]
Lyons, 6 April
General Grouchy yielded to the pressing solicitations of the mass of the people in inviting, through a proclamation, all men of good will who had the intention to march against the insurgents [the supporters of Louis XVIII and the allied powers] to sign up at M. de Corcelle’s, the man who, last year, gave 24,000 francs to equip the Second Battalion of the King’s forces and who, today, has just been named commandant of the National Guard. This proclamation had scarcely been posted up when the courtyards of the Hôtel de Ville and the Place de Terreaux were filled with young men asking to enrol. There were three offices at the Hôtel de Ville and one at Belcour: this is what happened at the first. Yesterday, at 9 o’clock 8 to 9,000 volunteers had signed up. This morning the offices were open from 6 o’clock and they are full.
All those who have enrolled have been assembled to be grouped into companies and to receive arms. The whole of the Veterinary School and a great part of the grammar school [the Lycée] have already left, equipped and armed. A great number of the National Guard who have signed up, leave this evening. Other companies, which were especially brought together, are on the point of leaving. Le Guillotière alone has provided 900 men. Crowds of people are coming in from the countryside to offer their services. In 24 hours the whole of our département will have formed a levée en masse.
There is huge enthusiasm. Nothing had to be done to stimulate it. Our honour and our interests speak sufficiently loudly. Could we have let our city be insulted by convicts and all those that the prisons of the Midi have concealed in their bowels. The proclamations of the Duc d’Angoulême [the nephew of Louis XVIII] have promised to this horde the pillage of two infernal cities, Grenoble and Lyons.
Lyons, 7 April
General Corbineau, aide de camp to the Emperor, arrived in our city. The crowd of National Guard coming from Burgundy was such that couriers had to be sent to countermand their march. The spirit that drives us can be seen in the fact that our city alone has set 9,000 men on foot. General Mouton-Duvernet will not rest day or night to get his troops away.
Lieutenant General Grouchy has gone to Valence; Lieutenant General Piré must be at this moment in the vanguard at Avignon. The Duc d’Angoulême’s effort has been a minor affair we can consider as finished. It has only served to show the devotion of our city to the Emperor, and that of Dauphiné and Burgundy.
It has been announced by telegraph that by tomorrow afternoon another 10,000 men will arrive to take up their posts. We will welcome them, but they are unnecessary. The government can rely on us to push back the insurgents. We shall have here as commander of the division General Brayer. He has already commanded here and has won the esteem of all Lyonnais.
Paris, 9 April
Today, after mass, the Emperor went on horseback and reviewed 20 regiments of cavalry and infantry. These troops came from Orleans and the left bank of the Loire. After the Emperor had passed through all the ranks to the repeated acclamations of the regiments and the people who filled the whole Place du Carrousel, the officers and soldiers crowded round in a circle. The Emperor expressed himself in the following terms:
Soldiers, I have just seen the news that the tricolour flies over Toulouse, Montpellier and throughout the Midi. The commanders of the garrisons at Perpignan and Bayonne have formally announced that they will not obey in any way orders given by the Duc d’Angoulême to deliver those towns to the Spanish who, besides, have let it be known that they do not wish to become involved in our business. The white flag [that of the royalists, of Louis XVIII] continues to fly only at Marseilles. But before the end of this week the people of that great city, oppressed by the violent acts of the royalists, will have regained their rightful place. Such great and prompt results are due to the patriotism that animates the whole nation and the memories of me that you have kept. If, for a year, adversity has obliged us to forsake the tricoloured cocade, it has always been in our hearts. Today it will become our emblem again, a sign that we have returned; we will not give it up except with our lives.
[The Emperor was interrupted by these words, repeated by all — Yes, we swear it.]
Soldiers, continued the Emperor, we do not wish to interfere in the business of other nations; but may misfortune come to those who wish to interfere in ours, to treat us as Genoa or Geneva and impose on us laws other than those the nation wants. They will find on our borders the heroes of Marengo, of Austerlitz, of Jena; they will find there the whole people, and if they have 600,000 men, we will oppose them with 2,000,000.
[Loud acclamations again interrupted the Emperor.]
I am greatly pleased, he added, at what you have done to rally round the tricolour. I will give you again these eagles — which have so often reflected the lustre of our valour and which have seen us put to flight the enemies of France — on the Champs de Mai and in the presence of the nation assembled.
Soldiers, the French people and I are counting on you; count also on the people and on me.

An outburst of the greatest enthusiasm followed this speech and the review was concluded.

[Translated from University of Southampton Library, MS 61, Wellington Papers 1/487/5]

© University of Southampton 2015
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Wellington and the Battle of Waterloo

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