The View From the Bunker The most amazing 100 days in military history!10 Jun 2015 0
Since the 200th anniversary of an epic battle doesn’t come around very often, I thought we’d spend the next couple of weeks discussing various aspects of the Anglo-Allied victory on those farm fields of Belgium. This mini-series will, hopefully, culminate in a review of the just released Scourge of War: Waterloo.
So it’s in that very vein that, unlike my bad military moves columns, the maneuver that makes me giddy every time I read about it is Napoleon’s triumphant return from his infamous Elba exile.
While I’ve always given those inherently persistent Bond villains extra points for always taking that end-of-the movie final swipe, Odd Job could learn a thing or two from our diminutive French Emperor.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that Napoleon didn’t have a little help. For some strange reason, the Seventh Coalition went out of their way to set the stage for his return and here’s the recipe they used:
- First, exile the guy who dominated Europe for a decade to a nearby island with 1,000 members of his fanatically loyal Old Guard as his garrison. I understand the notion of honor was a bit different back then, but really?
- Then, to make matters much worse, restore the Bourbons to the French throne; a royal family so heinous they actually incited the French Revolution. Without those boneheads, Napoleon would never have come to power in the first place. Let’s just say the French public quickly noted that this morally challenged group weren’t exactly the most gracious winners.
- Now add the major European powers insistence upon acting like a group of middle school girls at a slumber party gone bad. The Congress of Vienna turned out to be one large temper tantrum where Russia demanded Poland, Prussia demanded Saxony, Austria demanded Northern Italy and so forth and so on. The acrimony got so bad that war almost broke out among the victors!
Meanwhile, Napoleon, a man who could size up a situation pretty well, realized they were rolling out the red carpet. Call me crazy, but former emperors, in general, don’t seem to be the type to slide into a quiet retirement. I can’t stand sitting still in a movie theatre for two hours.
So on February 26, 1815, with the French and British guard ships inexplicably MIA, having correctly surmised he’d be greeted as a hero, Napoleon and his merry band of men sailed from Elba for Golfe-Juan on the coast of what’s now the French Riviera. This move took everyone completely by surprise with the news taking four full days to reach Paris.
Fearing the royalist leaning citizens of Provence might be a tougher audience, Napoleon wisely took the longer and less populated Alpine route north with former Grande Armee veterans flocking to his side at every turn.
On March 5, the 5th Infantry Regiment joined his cause. On March 6, the royalist 7th Infantry Regiment, ignoring orders to fire on the fledgling army, raced to their Emperor’s side weeping and shouting “Vive L'Empéreur. On March 14, Marshal Ney, who once said Napoleon should be brought back to Paris “in an iron cage,” put the fate of his 6,000 men in his former commander’s hands.
With the news of all the defections making the rounds, a practical Paris Joker scrawled the following message on the wall of the Place Vendôme; “From Napoleon to Louis XVIII: My dear brother, it is not necessary to send me more troops, I already have enough of them!”
With no one left to stop this inexorable advance and talk of revolution in the air, Louis XVIII and his royal lackeys quickly fled the country with their heads still intact. Facing no further opposition, on March 20, Napoleon marched into the Tuilleries palace and resumed power.
That’s what we call a true reversal of fortune, and the amazing thing is, he did it without firing a single shot!
But it wasn’t all Bordeaux and roses. The Chamber of Representatives was stacked against him, he had to make deals with former devils, and the Seventh Coalition, finally realizing the error of their way, started mobilizing some one million men.
Always the expedient one, Napoleon staved off immediate disaster by issuing a plea for peace, delaying an immediate mobilization, and refusing to reinstate the despised conscription. This bought him time to start putting his army back together.
The rest, as they say, is history, with his short-lived comeback essentially ending on June 18, 1815 at Waterloo.
That defeat notwithstanding, all I can tell you is, if after reading this amazing tale, you still believe that fiction is stranger than truth, then you have no imagination!
C’mon! You’d think someone who marched into Russia with 600,000 men and came back with a meager 93,000 would’ve horked a few people – including his army – completely off. But the mere reappearance of their Emperor was all it took to gain their loyalty one more time.
And I’ve seen the paintings. M. Bonaparte doesn’t exactly reek charisma. Given the lack of 1815 newsreels, perhaps we could be missing something, but clearly his former opponents’ immaturity was not nearly enough to explain Napoleon’s his vast popularity and incredible personal magnetism.
If ever the phrase “force of will” truly applied to an endeavor, this is the one. And you can’t help but root for the short guy in this case. But sadly, had he prevailed in that “damn close-run thing,” the forces aligned against him were too great and the end was inevitable. And this time, they wisely sent him to St. Helena where Napoleon died a few years later.
So anytime you feel like the fates are against you. Anytime you start believing adversity has pasted a bull’s-eye on your forehead. Whenever you’re getting ready to give up, remember what Napoleon did in just one hundred days!
So perhaps on June 18, we should all hoist a glass of our best French wine to the man who wouldn’t give up. It certainly would be fitting.
Jeff Ward is a free-lance writer, radio show host, and former opinion columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times Media Group. He got hooked on wargames immediately after he picked up that copy of Avalon Hill’s Midway from Hobbymodels in Evanston, Illinois in 1970. You can reach Jeff at firstname.lastname@example.org.