by  Winston  Churchill

Elba and Waterloo

The New Year of 1815 peace reigned in Europe and in America. In Paris a stout, elderly, easy-going Bourbon sat on the throne of France, oblivious of the mistakes made by his relations, advisers, and followers. His royalist supporters, more royal than their King, were trying the patience of his new-found subjects. The French people, still dreaming of Imperial glories, were ripe for another adventure. At Vienna the Powers of Europe had solved one of their most vexatious problems. They had decided how to apportion the peoples of Saxony and Poland among the hungry victors, Prussia and Russia. But they were still by no means in accord on many details of the map of Europe which they had met to redraw. After the exertions of twenty years of warfare they felt they had earned leisure enough to indulge in haggling, bargains, and festivity. A sharp and sudden shock was needed to recall them to their unity of purpose. It came from a familiar quarter.

Napoleon had for nine months been sovereign of Elba. The former master of the Continent now looked out upon a shrunken island domain. He kept about him the apparatus of Imperial dignity. He applied to the iron mines and tunny fisheries of his little kingdom the same probing energy that had once set great armies in motion. He still possessed an army. It included four hundred members of his Old Guard, a few displaced Polish soldiers, and a local militia. He also had a navy, for which he devised a special Elban ensign. His fleet consisted of a single brig and some, cutters. To these puny armaments and to the exiguous Elban Budget he devoted his attention. He would henceforth give himself up, he had told the people of Elba, to the task of ensuring their happiness. For their civic dignitaries he invented an impressive uniform. At Porto Ferrajo, his capital, he furnished a palace in the grand manner. He played cards with his mother and cheated according to his recognised custom. He entertained his favourite sister and his faithful Polish mistress. Only his wife, the Empress Marie Louise, and their son were missing. The Austrian Government took care to keep them both in Vienna.

The Empress showed no sign of wishing to break her parole. Family Habsburg loyalty meant more to her than her husband.

A stream of curious foreign visitors came to see the fallen Emperor, many from Britain. One of them reported, perhaps not without prejudice, that he looked more like a crafty priest than a great commander. The resident Allied Commissioner on Elba, Sir Neil Campbell, knew better. As the months went by close observers became sure that Napoleon was biding his time. He was keeping a watch on events in France and Italy. Through spies he was in touch with many currents of opinion. He perceived that the restored Bourbons could not command the loyalty of the French. Besides, they had failed to pay him the annual pension stipulated in the treaty of peace. This act of pettiness persuaded Napoleon that he was absolved from honouring the treaty's terms. In February 1815 he saw, or thought he saw, that the Congress of Vienna was breaking up. The Allies were at odds, and France, discontented, beckoned to him. Campbell, the shrewd Scottish watchdog, was absent in Italy. Of all this conjunction of circumstances Napoleon took lightning advantage. On Sunday night, the 26th of February, he slipped out of harbour in his brig, attended by a small train of lesser vessels. At the head of a thousand men he set sail for France. On March 1 he landed near Antibes. The local band, welcoming him, played the French equivalent of Home, Sweet Home.

The drama of the Hundred Days had begun, and a bloodless march to Paris ensued. Royalist armies sent to stop the intruder melted away or went over to him. Marshal Ney, "the Bravest of the Brave," who had taken service under the Bourbons, boasted that he would bring his former master back to Paris in an iron cage, he found he could not resist the Emperor's call; he joined Napoleon. Other Marshals who had turned their coats now turned them again. Within eighteen days of his landing Napoleon was installed in the capital. The Bourbons ran for cover, and found it at Ghent. Meanwhile the Emperor proclaimed his peaceful intentions, and at once started shaping his army. He bid for support by promising liberal institutions to the French people. In fact he dreamed of restoring all the old forms of Empire as soon as he had behind him the consolidation of military victory. But the mood of France had changed since the high noon of Austerlitz, Jena, and Wagram. There was enthusiasm, but no longer at the topmost fighting pitch. The Army and its leaders were not what they had been. The frightful losses of the Russian campaign and of Leipzig could not be made good. Since 1805 a hundred and forty-eight French generals had fallen in battle. Of those that remained only half were now loyal to Napoleon. Marshals like Marmont and Victor had fled to Belgium. Victor in Brussels had taken refuge in the Wellington Hotel. It was named after the Duke who had beaten him at Talavera. Marshal Berthier, the Emperor's indispensable Chief of Staff, failed to rally to him, and Napoleon had to rely, as he afterwards complained, on "that idiot Soult." He showed all his usual energy, he abounded in self-confidence. But the flashing military judgment of earlier years was dimmed. The gastric ulcer from which he had long suffered caused him intermittent pain.

Yet the Emperor remained a formidable figure and a challenge to Europe. The Powers at Vienna acted with unaccustomed speed and unanimity. They declared Napoleon an outlaw. He was pronounced a disturber of world peace who had rendered himself liable to public indictment. The Powers, too, set about marshalling their forces. The British Government, which had led the country and the world against the Corsican, realised that they would have to bear the brunt of a whirlwind campaign. It would take time for Russia and Austria to muster their strength. Prussia was the only main ally then in readiness. There was no time to lose. Wellington recommended the immediate transport of an army to the Netherlands, to form bases for a march on Paris and prepare for a clash upon the frontiers. Within a month of the escape from Elba, Wellington took up his command at Brussels.

The state of his army did not please the Duke. Many of his best troops from the Peninsula had gone to America, including his Chief of Staff, Sir George Murray. With great difficulty the British Government had obtained six regiments of cavalry and twenty-five battalions of infantry, consisting partly of Peninsular veterans and partly of untrained boys. The biggest deficiency was in artillery. On the conclusion of the Peace of Paris in 1814 the British Cabinet had ordered the wholesale discharge of gunners and drivers, and the shortage was now serious. But there were, as in all European wars, the Continental allies and auxiliaries. The King of Great Britain was still King of Hanover. Hanoverian troops, on their way home through the Netherlands, were halted and joined the new army. Wellington, at a loss for numbers, tried to persuade the Portuguese to send a few battalions. He had taught them the arts of war, and he was proud of his "fighting cocks," as he called them. But his efforts were in vain. The Dutch and Belgian troops put under his command by the King of the Netherlands looked unreliable. Their countries had for twenty years been occupied by the French, and the Belgians at least had taken not unkindly to French rule. The sympathies of their rank and file would probably waver towards Napoleon, There were contingents also from Nassau and other German provinces. As the summer drew near Wellington assembled a mixed force of eighty-three thousand men, of whom about a third were British. He bluntly cursed, as was his habit, the quality of his untried troops, while bending all his endeavours to train and transform them. The main support for his new adventure must be Marshal Blucher. The Prussians had a force of a hundred and thirteen, thousand men, but nearly half of them were untrained militia. They lay in Eastern Belgium. Wellington, with his staff, planned a large-scale advance into France. He meant to take the offensive. He did not propose tamely to await a Napoleonic onslaught. In his calm, considering way, he worked it all out based upon Brussels, he took up a line between Maubeuge and Beaumont, with the Prussians on his left holding the position between Philippeville and Givet, as it happened, the Emperor seized his usual initiative.

Napoleon could not afford to waste a day. Nor did he do so. His two main enemies stood on his north-eastern frontier within a few days march of his capital. He must strike immediately at his gathering fees. The moral value of victory would be overwhelming, and the prestige of the British Government would be shaken. His admirers in London, the pacific Whigs, might replace the Tories and proffer a negotiated peace. Louis XVIII would be driven into permanent exile and the Belgian Netherlands restored to French rule. This achieved, he could face with equanimity the menaces of Austria and Russia. Such were his hopes while he applied his intense power of will to rousing the French nation. Assembling a sufficient army threw a heavy strain upon exhausted France. Five corps of about a hundred and twenty-five thousand men were organised on the frontier fortress line. The protection afforded by these fortresses, behind which he could build up at leisure, gave Napoleon the impetus in the opening phases of the campaign. Wellington was obliged to canton his troops upon a possible defence line of forty miles and to guard against a French stroke at the point of junction between the British and Prussian armies. During the early days of June tension was heightening. It was plain, or at least predictable, that Napoleon would attempt to rout Wellington's and Blucher's armies separately and piecemeal. But where would he land his first blow? Wellington waited patiently in Brussels for a sign of the Emperor's intention. He and his great opponent were to cross swords for the first time. They were both in their forty-sixth year. Quietly on June 15 Napoleon crossed the Sambre at Charleroi and Marchiennes, driving the Prussian forward troops before him to within twenty-five miles of Brussels. He had struck at the hinge of the Allied armies. The capture of Brussels would be a great forward stride. Possession of a capital city was always a lure for him, and a source of strength.

Liaison between the British and Prussians was mysteriously defective and hours passed before the news reached Wellington. It seemed as though there was no detailed plan of cooperation between the Allied commanders. Military intelligence, as so often at the neap of events, was confusing and contradictory. There were no British troops on the Waterloo-Charleroi road, which was held thinly by a Dutch-Belgian division. On the night of the 15th, while the French armies massed to destroy the Prussians, the Duchess of Richmond gave a ball in Brussels in honour of the Allied officers. Wellington graced the occasion with his presence. He knew the value of preserving a bold, unruffled face. Amid the dancing he reflected on the belated news which had reached him. At all costs contact must be maintained with the Prussians and the French advance upon Brussels held. Wellington resolved to concentrate on the strategic point of Quatre-Bras. In the early hours of the morning of the 16th Picton's brigade rumbled down the Brussels road to join the Dutch troops already covering this dangerous ground lying open between the British and Prussian array.

For the French everything depended upon beating the Prussians before forcing Wellington north-westwards to the coast. Napoleon had in mind the vision of a shattered British army grimly awaiting transports for home in the Flemish ports. At Corunna and Walcheren such things had happened before. Leaving Ney with the French left, the Emperor swung with sixty-three thousand men and ninety-two guns to meet the main Prussian army, centred in Ligny. But the tardiness and sureness of Wellington's movements deceived him. Realising that so far only a small force held the position at Quatre-Bras, he ordered Ney to attack, and then meet him that evening in Brussels. At two o'clock in the afternoon of the 16th the French went into action on a two-mile front. Wellington himself arrived to take command with a force of seven thousand men and sixteen guns. The brunt of the battle fell upon Picton's leading brigade. After having marched for twelve hours from Brussels these Peninsular veterans steadily pressed on. In vain the French cavalry swirled round them while the Allied Dutch and Belgian infantry were edged from the field. There was little tactical manoeuvre in the fierce struggle which swayed backwards and forwards on that June afternoon at the cross-roads on the way to Brussels. It was a head-on collision in which generalship played no part, though leadership did. Wellington was always at his coolest in the hottest of moments. In this battle of private soldiers the fire-power of the British infantry prevailed. Out of thirty thousand men engaged by nightfall on their side the Allies lost four thousand six hundred; the French somewhat less. But Ney had not gained his objective. Brussels was not in his grasp.

On the French side the staff work had hardly been creditable. D'Erlon, under Napoleon's orders, had marched aimlessly about, at one time in the direction of Ligny and at another towards Quatre-Bras. Napoleon had gained the advantage at the opening of the campaign, but he had not intended that both wings of his army should be in action at once. He seems to have departed from his original plan. At Ligny however he won a striking success. Marshal Blucher was out-generalled, his army split in two, battered by the magnificent French artillery, and driven back on Wavre. Again liaison between the Allied armies broke down. Wellington had no immediate information of the outcome at Ligny, nor of the subsequent movements of the Prussians. He had held the French left at Quatre-Bras, but their victory to the east enabled them to concentrate their strength against him and the Brussels road. Wellington's main body had gathered around the village of Quatre-Bras by the time he learnt of the Prussian defeat. Napoleon decided in the small hours of the 17th to send Marshal Grouchy with thirty-three thousand men to pursue the Prussians while he flung his main weight against Wellington. The crisis of the campaign was at hand.

There seems no doubt that in the opening days Wellington had been surprised. As he confessed at the time, Napoleon's movements had "humbugged" him. Years later, when he read French accounts of Quatre-Bras, he declared with his habitual frankness, "Damn them, I beat them, and if I was surprised, if I did place myself in so foolish a position, they were the greater fools for not knowing how to take advantage of my faults." Immediate after the battle his methodical mind was in full command of the situation. His plan was to fall back upon a prepared position at Mont St Jean, which British engineers had examined before the campaign of the previous year. There he would accept battle, and all he asked from the Prussians was the support of one corps.

Wellington himself had inspected this Belgian countryside in the autumn of 1814. He had noted the advantages of the ridge at Waterloo. So had the great Duke of Marlborough a century earlier, when his Dutch allies had prevented him from engaging Marshal Villeroi there. His unfought battle was now to unroll. Throughout the night of the 16th and 17th a carefully screened retreat began, and by morning the Waterloo position, a line of defence such as Wellington had already tested in the Peninsula, was occupied. Upon the French must be forced the onus of a frontal  attack. Wellington knew that time was playing against his  adversary.  Swift results must be achieved by Napoleon if he was to establish himself  again in France. A line of fortified farms and rolling slopes made up the Allied front, held by sixty-three thousand mens and a hundred and fifty-six guns. The French troops failed? to harass the retreat. Their staff work had again gone awry.  Napoleon was unaware of what had happened at Quatre-Bras, and there was an imminent danger that the Prussians would fall back and unite with Wellington. That was indeed their intention. Blucher and his Chief of Staff, Gneisenau who was the brain of the Prussian army, were retiring north-west from Ligny in the direction of Brussels. Grouchy, miss informed or misjudging, thought they were moving north-east towards Liege. He remained out of touch and ineffective. Grouchy's was a costly mistake for the French. Meanwhile Napoleon, furious to hear of Wellington's skilful withdrawal pounded in his carriage down the Brussels road with advance-guard in a desperate attempt to entrap the British rear. The mercy of a violent storm slowed up progress. The English cavalry galloped for safety through the thunder and torrential rain. An angry scene took place upon the meeting of Napoleon and Ney, who was greeted with the words from the Emperor, "You have ruined France!" As Napoleon reached the ridge of Waterloo and saw the British already in their positions he realized how complete had been their escape.

Late in the morning of the 18th of June the French attacked both flanks of the Allied position, of which the key points were the fortified chateau of Hougoumont on the right and the farm of La Haye Sainte in the middle. Napoleon promised his staff they would sleep that night in Brussels. And to Soult, who raised some demur, he said, "You think Wellington a great general because he beat you. I tell you this will be a picnic." Then seventy thousand French troops and two hundred and twenty-four guns were concentrated for the decisive assault. Fierce cannonades were launched upon the Allied posts. The battle swayed backwards and forwards upon the grass slopes, and intense fighting centred in the farm of La Haye Sainte, which eventually fell to the French. At Hougoumont, which held out all day, the fighting was heavier still. In the early afternoon one of the most terrific artillery barrages of the time was launched upon Wellington's infantry as preparation for the major cavalry advance of fifteen thousand troopers under Ney. Under the hail of the French guns Wellington moved his infantry farther back over the ridge of Waterloo to give them a little more shelter. On seeing this Ney launched his squadrons in a series of attacks. Everything now depended upon the British muskets and bayonets. Anxiously Wellington looked eastwards for a sign of the Prussians. They were on their way, for Blucher was keeping faith. But the French cuirassiers were upon the Duke. They never reached the infantry squares. As one eyewitness wrote: "As to the so-called charges, I do not think that on a single occasion actual collision occurred. I many times saw the cuirassiers come on with boldness to within; some twenty or thirty yards of a square, when, seeing the steady firmness of our men, they invariably edged away and retired. Sometimes they would halt and gaze at the triple row of bayonets, when two or three brave officers would advance and strive to urge the attack, raising their helmets aloft on their sabres; but all in vain, as no efforts could make the men close with the terrible bayonets and meet certain destruction." No visible   decision   was   achieved.   Napoleon,  looking through his glasses at the awful melee, exclaimed, "Will the English never show their backs?" "I fear," replied Soult, "they will be cut to pieces first." Wellington too had much to disturb him. Although the Prussians had been distantly sighted upon the roads in the early afternoon, they were slow in making their presence felt upon the French right. But by six o'clock in the evening Ney's onslaughts had failed and the Prussians were beating relentlessly upon the wing. They drew off fourteen thousand men from the forces assailing Wellington. The French made a final effort, and desperate fighting with no quarter raged again round the farms. The Imperial Guard itself, with Ney at its head, rolled up the hill, but again the fury of British infantry fire held them. The long-awaited moment to counter-attack had come. Wellington had been in the forefront of danger all day. On his chestnut, Copenhagen, he had galloped everywhere, issuing brusque orders, gruffly encouraging his men. Now he rode along his much-battered line and ordered the advance. "Go on, go on!" he shouted. "They will not stand!" His cavalry swept from the ridge and sabred the French army into a disorganised mass of stragglers. Ney, beside himself with rage, a broken sword in his hand, staggered shouting in vain from one band to another. It was too late. Wellington handed over the pursuit to the Prussians. In agony of soul Napoleon followed the road back to Paris.

Late that night Blucher and Wellington met and embraced. "Mein lieber Kamerad,' said the old German Field-Marshal, who knew not a word of English, "quelle affaire!," which was about all the French he could command. This brief greeting was greatly to Wellington's laconic taste. It was a story he delighted to repeat in later years when he was Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, recalling his memories at Walmer. The Duke rode back to Brussels. The day had been almost too much even for a man of iron. The whole weight of responsibility had fallen on him. Only the power and example of his own personality had kept his motley force together. The strain had been barely tolerable. "By God!" as he justly said, "I don't think it would have been done if I had not been there." As he took tea and toast and had the casualty lists read to him he broke down and wept.

Letters of congratulation poured in to the Duke in the days that followed. Prince Metternich, the Austrian Chancellor, conveyed his appreciation of what he cautiously called the "brilliant opening of the campaign." In fact it was all over, Blucher and his Prussians marched steadily and uneventfully upon Paris. Napoleon had reached his capital three days after the battle. He had a momentary surge of hope. He would fight again in France a campaign like that of 1814. But no one shared his optimism. The "grand officials" of the Empire, who owed him their positions and fortunes, had had enough. On June 22 he abdicated and retired to Malmaison. The treacherous Fouche headed a provisional Government and set about treating with the Allies and with Louis XVIII. There was nothing else to be done. On July 6 BlUcher and Wellington entered the capital. One of the Duke's first tasks was to restrain the Prussians from resentful vengeance. Their army in 1806 had been thrashed by the French, their country mutilated and their garrison towns occupied. They nourished a bitterness which the Duke did not share. When BlUcher proposed to blow up the bridge of Jena over the Seine, named after the celebrated Prussian defeat, Wellington posted British sentries to prevent him. Two days after the Allies' arrival Louis XVIII appeared. His second restoration was largely of Wellington's making. Most Frenchmen and many of the Allies would have preferred a monarchy under the Duke of Orleans, a Regency for Napoleon's young son, or a constitutional republic. Wellington had no high regard for the Bourbons, but he was convinced that France under their shaky rule would no longer have the power to disturb the peace of Europe. Louis XVIII was no Grand Monarque and could never aspire to become one. Wellington, like many great soldiers when victory is complete, looked forward to an age of tranquillity. Laurels and bays had been won; it was time to cultivate the olive.

Napoleon left Malmaison at the end of June. He made for Rochefort, on the Biscay coast, narrowly evading capture on the way by Blucher's Prussians. Had they taken him they would have shot him. He had thoughts of sailing for America, and he ordered a set of travel books about the transatlantic continent. Perhaps a new Empire might be forged in Mexico, Peru, or Brazil. The alternative was to throw himself upon the mercy of his most inveterate foe. This is what happened. Captain Maitland in the Bellerophon was cruising off Roche-fort with orders to prevent any French ships from putting to sea. With him Napoleon entered into negotiation. Maitland offered him asylum on his ship. He could not forecast what the British Government would decide to do with his eminent hostage. Nor did he make any promise. Napoleon hoped he might be kept in pleasant captivity in some English country house or Scottish castle. Marshal Tallard and other French generals a century earlier had enjoyed their forced residence in England. The ex-Emperor wrote a flattering letter to the Prince Regent, whom he addressed as "the strongest, the stubbornest, the most generous of my foes." When the Prince read this missive it must have helped to convince him that he and not his generals or his Ministers had really won the war. On this matter he did not need much convincing. The Bellerophon anchored in Torbay, and curious Devonshire crowds gazed upon the "Corsican ogre," while Lord Liverpool and the Cabinet deliberated in London. Newspapers clamoured that Napoleon should be put on trial. The Government, acting for the Allies, decided on exile in St Helena, an island about the same size as Jersey, but very mountainous, and far away. Escape from it was impossible. On July 26 the Emperor sailed to his sunset in the South Atlantic. He never permitted himself to understand what had happened at Waterloo. The event was everybody's fault but his own. Six years of life in exile lay before him. He spent them with his small faithful retinue creating the Napoleonic legend of invincibility which was to have so powerful an effect on the France of the future.

The Congress of Vienna had completed its work in June. It remained for the emissaries of the Powers to assemble in Paris and compose a new peace with France. The task took three months. The Prussians pressed for harsh terms. Castlereagh, representing Britain, saw that mildness would create the least grievance and guard best against a renewal of war. In this he had the hearty support of Wellington, who now exerted a unique authority throughout Europe. The second Treaty of Paris, concluded in November, was somewhat stiffer than that of 1814. Together with the loss of certain small territories, France was to pay an indemnity of seven hundred million francs and to submit to an Allied army of occupation for three years. Yet no intolerable humiliations were involved. In the moderation of the settlement with France the treaty had its greatest success. Wellington took command of the occupying army. For the next three years he was practically a Great European Power in himself. Castlereagh, with his sombre cast of mind, thought the treaty would be justified if it kept the peace for seven years. He had built better than he knew. Peace reigned for forty years between the Great Powers, and the main framework of the settlements at Vienna and Paris endured until the twentieth century.

The treaties drawn up In 1815 were the last great European settlements until 1919-20. Herbert Fisher, the Liberal historian and Cabinet Minister, has thus compared the two settlements: "Talleyrand's formula of legitimacy summed up the spirit of the settlement. It was legitimacy which restored the Bourbons to France, saved Saxony for the Wettins, and confirmed the power of the house of Sardinia. No respect was paid to nationality or to the wishes of the populations concerned. In all essentials, therefore, the statesmen who drew up the settlement at Vienna were sharply opposed in aims and principles to the artificers of the Europe in which we now live. The peace treaties of 1920 constituted a democratic settlement made possible only by the downfall of those very monarchies to which the Congress of Vienna had entrusted the policing of Europe. The settlement of 1920 created new republics, redistributed frontiers, accepted the dissolution of the old Austrian Empire, and built up a Europe on that principle of self-determination which had been preached by the French Revolutionaries, but was afterwards long lost to view. To the Congress of Vienna the principles of President Wilson would have been anathema. Guided by Metternich, Talleyrand, and Castlereagh, it held that the well-being of Europe was to be secured not by compliance with the assumed wishes of the peoples concerned, but only by punctual obedience to legitimate authority." 1

Castlereagh might dismiss the Holy Alliance which was now formed between the three autocratic powers, Russia, Prussia, and Austria, as "a piece of sublime mysticism and nonsense." It was indeed a product of the Czar Alexander's

I H. A. L. Fisher, History of Europe (1935).

soaring, cloudy brain. Yet for the sake of stability Castlereagh was prepared to see Romanovs, Hohenzollerns, and Habsburgs re-establish their reactionary authority throughout the greater part of Central and Eastern Europe in defiance of all popular movements for nationality and freedom. Such was the price that Europe paid for the overthrow of Napoleon. Even the principle of legitimacy was discarded when it clashed with the interests of one of the Great Powers. Poland, still independent in 1792, was no longer accounted legitimate in 1814. Part of the kingdom of Saxony and the prince-bishoprics of the Rhine went to Prussia, the Republic of Venice and its Adriatic seaboard to Austria. Legitimacy presented no obstacle to territorial expansion.

So the scene closes on a protracted peace-making after the longest of the world wars. The impetus of the French Revolution had been spread by the genius of Napoleon to the four quarters of Europe. Ideals of liberty and nationalism, born in Paris, had been imparted to all the European peoples. In the nineteenth century ahead they were to clash resoundingly with the ordered world for which the Congress of Vienna had striven. If France was defeated and her Emperor fallen, the principles which had inspired her lived on. They were to play a notable part in changing the shape of government in every European country, Britain not excepted.