Dressed in his robes of state, Napoleon looked over the Champ de Mai in Augustan splendour. It could have been twelve years ago, in the glory days before Austerlitz.
Before the field of Eylau and frozen hell of Russia or the mud and betrayal of 1814. Rank upon rank of troops in magnificent dress uniforms waited to be issued their Eagle tricolours gilded with their old battle honours. After the Archbishop of Tours had said Mass, the Emperor arose from his throne and made a speech, after which he placed his hand on the New Testament and made an oath to observe the Constitution of the Empire and ensure it was respected. Then the Deputies and Dignitaries repeated it with a codicil of loyalty to the Emperor after which the assembly solemnly affirmed “We swear it”. The Eagles were presented and the troops swore to recognise them as their rallying signs, to die protecting them and to never abandon them. Amidst the cries of Vive l’Empereur and Vive L’Armée, it all seemed to have happened so fast. It was the 1st of June 1815
Escape to Grenoble.
By late February 1815 the only British vessel on the Elba station was HMS Partridge, an 18 gun brig/sloop under Captain Adye. Only she was not on station, she had been away conveying Sir Neil Campbell on one of his regular trips to Italy since the 16th. It had been the moment Napoleon had been waiting for. Taking advantage of his jailor’s absence he had started outfitting five small ships in readiness to transport him and his tiny army to France. The island was shut down, no one left and no one came in, and the tiny imperial fleet was readied for sea. Sir Neil could return any day, and that left a very narrow window in which to make ready and get away. Then the appearance of a sail on the horizon during the evening of the 23rd seemed to doom the whole enterprise. There was a mad scramble to try and get Napoleon’s brig Inconstant into open water so as to hide their intentions. The Imperial party had good reason to be suspicious of the strange ship, the intruder was none other than HMS Partridge. However Captain Adye had only stopped by to kill some time. He intended to give a cursory check all was quiet and at the same time give some tourists a daytrip before heading back to fetch Campbell from Livorno. Adye spent the night and better part of the next day, had a long chat with the emperor, then spoke to General Bertrand and left that evening, oblivious to the panic he had caused ashore. Napoleon had played it cool, even setting his grenadiers to planting some trees to divert suspicion, men who had just a few hours before been loading munitions. Bertrand had been attentive and asked after Sir Neil, to every reasonable mind everything seemed quite well. A boat even followed him out to sea with a message from the emperor asking him to invite Campbell to dinner on his return. Adye failed to spot anything untoward and left for Italy. The escape preparations resumed.
On a watery 26th of February Napoleon arrived at the small port Portofeirro to board his ship but the fitful weather delayed things. The emperor of Elba passed the time by inspecting his troops drawn up on the quay in the drizzle, then boarded and prowled the quarterdeck, miniature droplets of water silvering his famous hat and greatcoat. He had once said “Ask of me anything but time” and with each passing hour lessened his chances of success.When that evening a breeze blew up, Napoleon must have looked up at the darkening sky and thanked that old and fickle lucky star of his. Without even trying he had evaded the Royal Navy. Patrolling the waters off Elba were two Royalist frigates. The Fleur de Lys and the Melpomène were ships of the newly reinstated French Royal Navy patrolling the escape routes off the northern tip of Corsica and it cannot be forgotten therefore that ten months or so before, they had been officers of the Republic and Empire of France. On Monday the 27th Napoleon’s invasion fleet passed them by. Melpomène was in clear view of Inconstant, but let her pass. At this point Partridge was returning to Elba, and even sighted “Three Sail” to the south west, but raised no alarm, at this point Napoleon’s escape seemed incomprehensible.
At 6pm as the Kings Ship Zephyr now approached and closed with Inconstant. Captain Chautard gave orders to prepare to fight. The Grenadiers-à-Pied loaded their muskets and lay down on the deck, ready to stand up and sweep the opposing ship when they came close, but as the distance diminished Captain Adrieux of the Zephyr stepped to the rail and pulling off his hat called out to Chautard, a mutual exchange of destinations passed between them and then Adrieux asked, “How is the great man?” Silence followed. Did he know? The wrong answer here could cause a bloodbath and the end of all their hopes, but Adrieux kept his cool and when Napoleon told him to give an affirmative he called back, “Extraordinarily well”. With perhaps a wink and a nudge and a good deal of justifiable deniability tucked under his belt Adrieux let Inconstant go without another word.
Late that evening Partridge arrived at Portofeirro to find the worst had happened, the cage was empty and the bird had flown. Early next morning Campbell caught up with the Fluer whose captain (pulling a Schultz, for it is unseemly for a Frenchman to pull a Nelson) said they had “seen nothing” due to a heavy fog.
Napoleon had anchored off Golfe Juan on the 1st of March 1815 and marched on Paris with 1,100 men. At first he came like a 17th Century Buccaneer descending upon the Spanish Main, coming ashore from a fleet of small ships anchored on a tropical sea, with a loyal band of followers at his back to sack a city. However he had come for more than plunder, Napoleon was back from Elba and he had come for all of France, yet by the same token the capture of a single city ensured his success. Grenoble.
Kill me if you can.
Delassart, commander of the 5th Ligne was by any opinion in a bad position that day in March 1815. He had a single battalion in line blocking the pass of Laffrey. A natural defile flanked by a 400 foot bluff on one side and some lakes on the other, near Grenoble. He had orders from General Marchand to delay the rebels and if possible blow the bridge at Ponthaut, he now had his men formed in line, skirmishers out watching the Grenadiers of the Old Guard deploying on the road ahead. Delassart was an enigmatic but experienced officer, and didn’t give much away. When Captain Randon, nephew and ADC to General Marchand arrived that morning he had been reserved when the impassioned 19 year old asserted that they must fire upon Napoleon if they met him. Now he watched the great man pace in front of his Grenadiers, an officer of which was acquaintance, who know approached Delassart to persuade him to defect. The commander of the 5th turned a deaf ear and told him simply that he would do his duty, worried, the officer asked curiously “Are you going to fire?”
“I shall do my duty” replied Delassart and placing his hand on his sword dissuaded a further outburst but as he did the Emperor’s ADC Captain Raul rode up and cried out that Napoleon was about to advance and that if the 5th fired he would be the first to fall, Raul wheeled around and finished with a warning before galloping back, “You will answer for it before France”
Sure enough Napoleon had given the order to advance. The detachment of Polish Lancers rode proudly in front of the Grognards, fierce reputations preceding every stride. Delassart saw how his men began to tremble and grow pale, and silencing Randon’s complaints with a growl, ordered them to withdraw to keep them in line, most likely pulling his skirmishers in, but with their backs to the Poles no one felt safe, and he soon had them face front again and ordered them to charge bayonets.
As if on parade the Poles wheeled back to the right of the Guard. Little did the men of the 5th know that before the lancers had gone forwards Napoleon had given explicit orders not to charge, and he now told Colonel Mallet of the Guard to have his men to reverse arms. Mallet had cautioned the Emperor that it was folly to advance so unprepared, the first volley would cause havoc, “Mallet, obey your orders” Napoleon told him. The game of bluff was now to enter its final act.
It was Randon than nearly called him on it, for as he approached the young royalist spotted him at the front and cried out “There he is, fire!”
The muskets of the battalion came up to the present but nothing happened. Some Voltiguer’s acidly commented that he was a moron, and that if they were to shoot, it wouldn’t be the emperor, who had done them no wrong that they’d be aiming at. But what would Delassart do?
Determined not to fire the first shot, Napoleon halted the Guard and accompanied by three household officers, advanced on the 5th, he stopped a short distance away and continued alone to well within pistol shot so they could see his face. The legend now walked before their levelled muskets, arms spread, his famous cocked hat on his head, the tricolour proudly displayed in the bright sunshine, the open olive grey coat framing the modest undress uniform of a Colonel of the Chasseurs a Cheval de la Garde Imperial. With his voice raised so all could hear he told them that they were free to kill him, if they could. As he did the Polish Lancers had ridden up to them with sheathed sabres and slung lancers, and began parleying. A moment later am ecstatic cry of “Vive l’Empereur” broke out, shako’s were raised on bayonets and the 5th melted before him.
At Grenoble the loyal la Bédoyère placed an eagle on the standard of the 7th Ligne and led it with the 11th Ligne and 4th Hussars and Engineers, to Napoleon. Grenoble fell and it unlocked the door to Franc. Napoleon later wrote that before Grenoble had been an adventurer and after it, he was a reigning Prince. On the 14th of March, after some soul searching Marshal Ney, the hero of the Russian campaign, went back over to Napoleon with 6,000 men and began issuing decrees urging the rest of the army to do likewise, all hope evaporated. Ney was Louis’ last hope, the swing vote on which the nation hung, he was the soul of the army. So went the Prince of Moskowa, so went the troops. Five days later Napoleon entered Paris to the acclaim of cheering crowds. With his sword he picked up the crown that Louis in his haste had dropped in the gutter and he put it on.
Waterloo new perspectives: David Hamilton Williams.
Waterloo 1815 (vol 2) Ligny: John Franklin.
Waterloo, Napoleon’s Last Campaign: Christopher Hibbert.
The Waterloo Companion: Mark Adkin.
A narrative of the political and military events of 1815: James M’Queen.
L’Armée Français: Jules Richard & Edouard Detaille.
The Campaign of 1815: Siborne.