The French Campaign, by Ernest Meissonier
I. Meissonier: The French Campaign
Ernest Meissonier painted this picture in 1864, fifty years after the French Campaign. The Emperor appears leading his troops, in a muddy and dead winter landscape. He advances with a determined but sombre expression. His men, amongst whom we recognize some of his marshals, look gloomy and exhausted.
The painter, who already knows the outcome of this campaign, has tried to give the atmosphere of the end of the campaign using cold colours and painting a heavy and menacing sky. This is indeed the fall of the Empire...
II. History: what was the French Campaign?
The enemy: Britain, Russia, Prussia, some other German states of the Confederation of the Rhine and Austria
For a series of complex reasons, the French Revolution had proved a disturbing factor in European and world international relations. This disturbance, combined with the century-long struggle for world dominance between France and Britain, created antagonisms which led France, Britain, Austria, Russia, Prussia, the countries of Scandinavia, the lands now occupied by modern-day Belgium and the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, the Italian peninsula and Sicily, and even the fledgling United States into armed conflict, with France supported by various allies on the one hand against varied combinations of European allies, mostly led or financed by Britain, on the other. Between 1805 and 1814, France against found herself in armed conflict many times. She rarely fought alone, however. At Austerlitz in 1805 she fought allied to certain south German states against Austria and Russia (financed by Britain). Also in 1805, but at sea, she was allied with the Spain against Britain. In 1806, France fought against Prussia (a timid and tardy Russo-Austrian ally in 1805). In 1807, France fought against Russia (financed by Britain) and agreed a famous peace with Russia at Tilsit, sealing a Franco-Russian alliance against Britain. In 1809, France fought again against Austria, leading to an alliance sealed by Napoleon's marriage to the Austrian emperor's daughter, Marie-Louise. In 1812, on the collapse of the Franco-Russian alliance, France and alliance of most of continental Europe invaded Russia. In 1813 and 1814, France's allies (Prussia, Bavaria, the Confederation of the Rhine, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy) were gradually detached from her and as France was attacked by an alliance spearheaded by Russia, then by Russia and Prussia, then by Russia Prussia and Austria (all financed by Britain). In the period, 1807-1813, Britain fought continuously and directly against France and her Spanish and Portuguese allies in the Iberian peninsula. At the beginning of 1814, France was invaded in the South and in the East by an alliance made up of Britain, Russia, Prussia, some other German states of the Confederation of the Rhine and Austria.
First war on the French territory under Napoleon
After the defeat in the Russian campaign (1812) and in the German campaign (1813), Napoleon returned to France at the end of 1813, chased by the soldiers of Russia, Austria and Prussia. British troops were attacking South Western France.
- From the South: As British, Portuguese and Spanish troops under the Duke of Wellington drove the French regime out of Spain, France found herself attacked on her South Western border near Bayonne and Toulouse in February 1814. Furthermore, when Joachim Murat, King of Naples and Napoleon's brother-in-law, officially put his support behind Austria in January 1814, abandoning Napoleon, his troops and the Austrian troops prevented Eugène, Viceroy of Italy and adoptive son of the Emperor, from coming North to help Napoleon attacked in France.
- From the east and north: Prussian, Russian and Austrian troops crossed the Rhine near Mainz in January 1814 and made their way to Paris. It was on this front, from January to March 1814, that Napoleon I was to focus in his attempts to save his capital, Paris. Despite a series of victories in the Champagne region of France to the East (notably at Champaubert, Montmirail, and Vauchamps), the Emperor failed to gather enough men to turn the situation in his favour: the Grande Armée was weakened by years of campaigning, its morale was low after the defeat and retreat of 1813, and the allied troops outnumbered them.
The capitulation of Paris
The Allies were advancing towards Paris and camped in Bondy on 25 March, about ten km (six miles) from the centre of Paris, in the north-eastern suburbs. On 30 March, the Battle of Paris began. Several city gates north of the capital were attacked simultaneously. One of the most famous struggles was the Clichy Gate. The Allies eventually entered the city. An armistice was signed in the evening, and French troops were forced to leave the capital.
Napoleon heard a rumour of this capitulation. He stopped his advance towards Paris and pitched camp in Fontainebleau.
From his base at the Château of Fontainebleau, the Emperor hoped to negotiate his abdication in favour of his son, the King of Rome, who was then four years old. But the French Senate voted that he should step down on 1 April. There was discussion amongst leaders of the coalition as to whether the restoration of the Bourbon dynasty would be best. On 6 April, Napoleon was forced to sign an abdication without being able to impose his conditions. He realized that he had lost the support of his marshals and of a portion of the population, exhausted as they were by years of war and conscription. The last battle of the campaign took place against British forces in Toulouse (pointlessly) four days later: the Empire was finally destroyed. The details regarding the abdication were discussed. Napoleon even made an attempt at suicide, but finally agreed to the requirements of the coalition on 13 April signing a document known as the Treaty of Fontainebleau. Before leaving for Elba, the place of exile chosen during the negotiations for the Treaty of Fontainebleau, on 20 April, the Emperor gave a review of the last soldiers who had remained at his side. This episode in Napoleonic history is known as the “Adieux de Fontainebleau”.
The exile on Elba
Napoleon agreed to go into exile on the small Mediterranean island of Elba. He was to live there accompanied by a few relatives and a several hundred soldiers who had remained loyal to him. From Fontainebleau, he was escorted by a delegation of the Allies to Saint- Raphael on the south coast of France, arriving on 28 April. He then boarded a British ship, Undaunted, which carried him to the town of Portoferraio, on the north coast of Elba, arriving on 3 May, 1814.
Napoleon remained in exile on Elba for ten months. On 1 March, 1815, he landed at Golfe Juan with a hundred or so soldiers with the aim of returning to power. His spectacular twenty-day return to Paris and his throne astounded Europe. But that is another story...