On This Day in Napoleonic History – 4 April 1814

4Marshal Auguste de Marmont betrays Napoleon

With Napoleon in Fontainebleau and the Allies closing on Montmartre, Marmont marched all the remaining French forces to the Allied quarters to capitulate. This led Emperor Alexander of Russia to demand Napoleon’s unconditional abdication.

Marmont’s treachery bothered Napoleon till the end of his life. ‘The ungrateful wretch. He will be more unhappy than me,’ he said on St Helena. Because of this ultimate betrayal, Marmont’s company was nicknamed Judas’ company and Marmont was forever known as a traitor. Even three decades later, when he was an old man living in Naples, children would follow him and shout, ‘There goes the man who betrayed Napoleon.’

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 2 April 1814

marechal_neyRevolt of the Marshals at Fontainebleau

The Senate declared ‘Napoleon Bonaparte and his family deprived of the throne, the French people and army freed from their oath of fidelity’. Although Napoleon wanted to march on Paris, his marshals refused, demanding his abdication.

‘The army will obey me!’ said Napoleon, to which Ney replied, ‘The army will obey its chiefs.’ They reminded Napoleon that he had once promised to do what was in the best interest of France. Napoleon accused them of wishing his abdication only to enjoy the riches he had given them over the years but even he knew the real reason. Given the strategic position they were in, none of them could see how they could possibly win. Napoleon’s abdication was the only way to end the war.





On This Day in Napoleonic History – 31 March 1814

31Napoleon arrives in Fontainebleau, having become the first French monarch to lose the capital since the 15th century

The day before, Talleyrand had set up provisional government that immediately began peace negotiations. Although the Allies were open to the idea of regency for Napoleon II, with Marie-Louise acting as regent, Talleyrand, who knew that he personally couldn’t expect any benefits from the Bonapartes, persuaded the Allies that brining the Bourbons back was the best course of action for Europe. This was only one of many examples of Talleyrand’s treachery.

Napoleon once said of his foreign minister, who was dishonest to the point of selling French military secrets to Austria behind Napoleon’s back, ‘You are nothing but shit in silk stockings.’ To which Talleyrand replied, once Napoleon was safely out of the room, ‘It’s a pity that such a great man should be so ill-bred.’ Inexplicably, Napoleon forgave him time and time again, giving him important government posts.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 30 March 1806

12Joseph is crowned King of Naples

One of the biggest mistakes Napoleon made was to install his brothers in key positions. As a Corsican, Napoleon valued family and believed he would get loyalty and support from his brothers that he wouldn’t get from anyone else. However, more often than not his brothers proved a liability to Napoleon. Throughout Joseph’s reign in Naples and, subsequently, Spain, Napoleon would bombard his brother with constant letters that outlined the way Joseph ought to behave. ‘You must be a king and talk like a king’ he would write.

Unfortunately, Joseph, just like the rest of Napoleon’s siblings, lacked the leadership gene. ‘There are thousands of people in France who have given greater service to France than them,’ Napoleon said of his brothers. Not only would Joseph lose his throne of Spain but he would also give up Paris to the invading Allies.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 29 March 1796

29Louis-Alexandre Berthier becomes Napoleon’s chief of staff

Napoleon was the first commander to use a chief of staff in its modern sense. And he couldn’t have chosen a better man. Just like Napoleon himself, Berthier was indefatigable when it came to working long hours, without a break and often through the night. On one occasion in 1809 Berthier was summoned no fewer than 17 times in one night. He could keep his head clear after taking dictation for twelve hours, possessed prodigious memory and was one of the few who could decipher Napoleon’s atrocious hand-writing. A born diplomat, he managed to convince his wife, Duchess Maria Elisabeth of Bavaria, whom he was forced to marry by Napoleon, to share the château with his mistress, Madame Visconti, whom he had loved passionately for many years before his marriage. Berthier put together an efficient team that ensured that Napoleon’s every wish was quickly put into action.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 28 March 1814

12Joseph Bonaparte gives up Paris to the Allies

Joseph, who completely lost his nerve, convinced the regency council that Napoleon wished for the Empress and government to leave Paris and move to Blois, using as evidence a letter that was a month old and was twice superseded by different orders. He was supported by Talleyrand, who was already drawing up lists of ministers who would serve in his post-Napoleonic provisional government.

Hortense tried to convince Marie Louise to remain, saying, ‘In leaving Paris, you lose your crown.’ She was unsuccessful, however, and the next day the imperial convoy left the capital. Paris capitulated.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 27 March 1810

27Napoleon meets Marie Louise for the first time

Napoleon was pleased with his choice of a bride. Not only the marriage with Marie Louise would link his new dynasty with one of the oldest monarchies of Europe, but the Habsburg women were well-known for having many children. It was good news for Napoleon, who wanted an heir more than anything. ‘When I heard Marie Louise was fair, I was very glad,’ he recalled.

Unfortunately, his future wife’s sentiments couldn’t be more different. It was bad enough that she was only 18, while he was 40. But also, Austria had been at war with France for most of her life. As an Austrian princess, she had played with a ferocious effigy of Napoleon in her nursery when she was a child. At 14 and 15 she had been forced from her palace to escape Napoleon’s armies. ‘I pity the poor princess he chooses,’ she wrote to a friend before she had any suspicion that it might be her. Once she realised that it was her who was chosen for his future bride, she said, ‘I resign my fate to the hands of the Divine Providence.’

Napoleon and Marie-Louse married by proxy in the Capuchin chapel of Habsburg Palace in Vienna on March 11, with Arch-Duke Charles standing in for Marie Louise and Louis-Alexandre Berthier for Napoleon. Their first meeting was to take place after the proxy marriage but before the civil ceremony. Instead of meeting her at the arranged location, the impatient groom rode to intercept her carriage. ‘Madame,’ Napoleon told her on seeing her for the first time. ‘It gives me great pleasure to meet you.’

They traveled together in Napoleon’s coach to his Palace at Compiègne, where they arrived at 9.30 PM and defied protocol by not only dining together but also spending the night. ‘She liked it so much that she asked me to do it again,’ said Napoleon later. It started out as a happy marriage. They spent every night under the same roof from July 1810 until September 1811 and Napoleon even stopped seeing his Polish mistress Marie Walewska. Marie Louise was not the love of his life, however. ‘I think,’ he was to say years later, ‘although I loved Marie Louise very sincerely, that I loved Josephine better. That was natural. We have risen together and she was a true wife, the wife I have chosen.’

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 26 March 1796

26Napoleon takes command of the Army of Italy

Napoleon arrived at the headquarters of the Army of Italy in Nice, meeting his divisional commanders. They would be a tough group to impress, let alone inspire. As a contemporary had put it, Napoleon ‘had won his reputation in a street riot and his command in a marriage bed,’ and generals such as André Masséna and Pierre Augereau were more experienced and felt that they deserved the command more.

This is how Masséna remembers Napoleon: ‘At first I didn’t think much of him. His small size and puny face didn’t put him in their favour. The portrait of his wife that he held in his hand and had shown to everyone, his extreme youth made them think that this posting was a work of another intrigue but the moment after he donned his general’s cap and seemed to grow by two feet. He questioned us on the position of our divisions, their equipment, their spirit and active number of each corp, gave us the direction that we had to follow, announced that the next day he will inspect all the corps and the day after that they would march on the enemy to give battle.’

The portrait of Napoleon that Masséna had painted was perfectly accurate – Napoleon’s activity, confidence, obsessive demand for information and his love of his wife were all important features of his character. When General Bonaparte arrived in Nice, he found his army in no state to move anywhere, however. Soldiers had no overcoats, no shoes, no draft horses, no meat and bread only occasionally. They hadn’t been paid for months, prompting mutterings of mutiny. In a short period of time Napoleon was to change all of this.

Napoleon thus addressed his troops: ‘Soldiers, you are naked, ill fed! The Government owes you much; it can give you nothing. Your patience, the courage you display in the midst of these rocks, are admirable; but they procure you no glory, no fame is reflected upon you. I seek to lead you into the most fertile plains in the world. Rich provinces, great cities will be in your power. There you will find honour, glory, and riches. Soldiers of Italy, would you be lacking in courage or constancy?’ He was true to his word and his feats during the Italian campaign are among the greatest Napoleonic legends.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 25 March 1802

25Peace of Amiens between France and Britain is signed

Amiens was chosen for the occasion because Henry VIII and Francois I had signed a peace treaty there in 1527 and it was seen as a good omen. Under the treaty, Britain was to restore to France, Spain and Holland nearly all the territories captured since 1793, including the Cape of Good Hope, Dutch Guiana, Tobago, Martinique, St Lucia, Menorca and Pondicherry, retaining only Trinidad and Ceylon. Britain was also to evacuate Elba, return Malta to the Knights of St John and Egypt to the Ottoman Empire. France was required to evacuate Naples and the Papal States.

The treaty was a triumph for France. The whole of France’s overseas empire was returned at the cost of parts of Italy. The only territories gained by Britain were Trinidad and Ceylon, neither of which had belonged to France. Despite the inequality of the Treaty of Amiens, Britain rejoiced and there were celebrations in the street. There was a great change in the tone of the government papers. Suddenly, the Corsican adventurer was referred to as the August hero and the restorer of peace, which had some truth to it because within a year Napoleon had made peace with Austria, Russia, Turkey and Britain.

On the conclusion of the Peace of Amiens, around 5000 British citizens descended on Paris. Commenting on the numbers of French arriving in Britain, the naturalist James Smithson remarked that, should they continue this way for a little bit longer, the two countries were likely to completely exchange their inhabitants.

On This Day in Napoleonic History – 23 March 1801

Paul I23 is assassinated

Assassination of the Russian Tsar Paul III at the hands of a group of Russian nobles came as a blow to Napoleon, who was hoping for a lasting alliance with Russia. Paul was mentally unstable and his policies supporting the middle class threatened the Russian nobility. Although not directly involved in the murder, Paul’s 23-year old son and heir Alexander, who was in the palace at the time, had known about it in advance. This knowledge and the fact that he stood by while his father was being assassinated was a heavy burden he was to carry through his whole life. The nobles demanded Paul’s abdication before they stabbed, strangled and kicked the Tsar to death. Alexander was crowned Tsar later that year. Although he theoretically had absolute power, he knew that he had to work with the nobility if he were to escape his father’s fate. He understood that unpopular policies, including any concessions to France, would endanger not only his crown but his life.