home | 18-19th centuries index


previous | next

Napoleon's Fall

In late 1812, with news of Napoleon's retreat from Moscow, people under his rule in Germany, Austria, Italy and elsewhere were encouraged. The Spanish were still fighting to drive out the French, but the French had been driven from Portugal back in 1811. Nationalism and hearts and minds were working against Napoleon rather than people taking to favoring the importation of the ideas of revolution that Napoleon had expected.

In February 1813, Prussia and Russia formed an alliance against Napoleon, and in March they declared war. German princes in Napoleon's Confederation of the Rhine were advised to join them against France under pain of being removed from power. Hamburg was occupied by Russian Cossacks. German conscripts in France's armies were deserting en masse. In April, Austria broke relations with France.

Napoleon had been raising a new army since his return from Moscow, taking whatever men and boys he could get but not finding the horses he needed for his cavalry. He was in Germany with 200,000 troops in mid-April. On May 1, he beat a Russian-Prussian force at Weissenfeld. The Russians and Prussians had made themselves vulnerable by underestimating Napoleon's strength. On May 2nd at L├╝tzen they fought Napoleon again. Napoleon performed well, but he was let down by subordinates, his better generals having been lost in previous wars.

In June, just south of France at Vitoria in Spain, an Anglo-Spanish army of 80,000 defeated a French army of 66,000, and much of three of France's armies withdrew from Spain.

During the summer an armistice was agreed to. Napoleon met with Austria's foreign minister, Count Clemens von Metternich, and the discussions did not go well. Napoleon told Metternich that he would give him nothing because Austria had not defeated him and that he would beat Austria again. Metternich described Napoleon's troops as boys and old men and told Napoleon that he was lost. In a rage, Napoleon told Metternich that he knew nothing of what goes on in a soldier's mind, that he, Napoleon, grew up on the battlefield and cared little for the lives of a million men. Metternich replied that he wished all of Europe could hear what he had just said. Metternich accused him of having sacrificed French soldiers for his own ambitions. Napoleon boasted of having spared French soldiers by sacrificing Poles and Germans, which outraged Metternich – a German.

Napoleon's diplomacy not having gone well, in October he faced four powers in what was to be known as the Battle of the Nations, Russia, Prussia, Austria and Sweden, near the Saxon city of Leipzig. It was a three-day war in which Napoleon was outnumbered and suffered heavily from his enemy's 1,400 artillery pieces. Napoleon's army had 38,000 casualties and lost 30,000 as prisoners. Napoleon's total losses for the year were around 400,000. It sent Napoleon retreating back toward France, Napoleon crossing westward over the Rhine River on November 2, 1813.

The Allied forces began penetrating France, with 85,000 French soldiers facing 350,000 invaders. By March 31, Russian and Prussian armies were entering Paris. Royalists welcomed them waving the white flag of the Bourbon monarchy. The French senate decreed the end of Napoleon's authority and instituted a provisional government. Napoleon signed his abdication on April 6. The Count of Provence, a younger brother of Louis XVI, returned to Paris as Louis XVIII. He did not want absolute power and accepted that he was to be a constitutional monarch.

Rather than hanging Napoleon for all his aggressions and bloodletting, the Allied powers followed the preference of Tsar Alexander of Russia. Napoleon was sent into exile to the island of Elba, between Corsica and Italy. He was to be the island's ruler, to maintain his title of emperor and to have a benefit of a yearly income of two million francs paid for by the government of France.

Napoleon tired of being lord and emperor over a mere little island, and he stayed on Elba less than eleven months. He had not received any of the stipend promised him. Napoleon had been brooding about where he had gone wrong and had decided that he had judged human nature too highly. He gave little weight to resistance by the Allied nations to his return to France, and on February 26, 1815, with about 1026 men, 40 horses and two cannons aboard a hired frigate he landed in the south of France, between Cannes and Nice.

A couple of hundred kilometers inland he encountered a battalion of French soldiers sent against him. Napoleon stepped forward and said "Let him that has the heart, kill his Emperor!" The soldiers were awed, and Napoleon was able to rally them to his side. Louis XVIII fled Paris. Napoleon took up residence there once again. He put France on war-footing again, and in June he sent troops into what today is Belgium. The Allies responded, and at the Battle of Waterloo, thirteen kilometers south of Brussels, Napoleon and his French army of 128,000 met a coalition force of 234,000 British, Dutch, Belgians and Prussians.

The battle began at noon on June 18. Forces commanded by the Duke of Wellington's withstood repeated attacks by the French until evening, when Prussians arrived and broke through Napoleon's right flank. Wellington's army counter-attacked and sent the French army fleeing in disorder down the road to France. Soldiers killed numbered 47,000. Ignoring Napoleon's decline across recent months prior to the battle, some were to ask whether rain was responsible for Napoleon's defeat.

The Allies took Napoleon prisoner and sent him to an island more remote than Elba. The island was St. Helena, 15 kilometers (about 10 miles) wide and well guarded by the British, more than 15 degrees below the equator and 1,950 kilometers west of the African continent. There Napoleon was to write his memoirs, giving the world a distorted account of his deeds. And there in 1821, at the age of 52, he died.


Napoleon: a Biography, by Frank McLynn, 1997

Additional online reading

Hegel and Hero Worship

Beethoven and Goethe

Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.