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The French campaign and the fall of Napoleon (1814)

The French campaign of 1814 is generally regarded by fans of the period as one of the most fantastic. The chain of victories in a context which seems however hopeless makes it in any case one of the most tragic episodes of theimperial epic. After the failures in Russia and Germany, the Great Army is forced to fight on its own territory to repel the vastly outnumbered coalition forces that are flocking to all borders. 1814 marks the twilight of First Empire, fighting against a European league.

Situation report in January 1814

On the side of public opinion, the murderous setbacks of 1812 and 1813 largely encouraged the emergence of strong opposition to power, or rather to war. In 1813, to give himself the means of a counter attack, Napoleon increased taxes and anticipated the conscription classes (the soldiers recruited are increasingly young), thus stoking discontent. This phenomenon is worsened by poor harvests and an economic crisis which since 1812 have led to business closings and an increase in the cohort of the poor. Some priests do not hesitate to make the link between the misfortunes of France and the violent dispute between the Catholic Church and the excommunicated Emperor. The countryside is increasingly lacking in labor and the peasants do not trust the vouchers given to them in exchange for requisitioned fodder. Public opinion, weary of sacrifices, is more and more rallying to the idea of ​​a rapid peace with the allies. False peace treaties, with relatively precise closings, are circulating in the country to further accentuate, if necessary, this impatience for peace.

To this pacifism is added a certain fear of the inhabitants close to the borders who fear, rightly, the arrival of enemy armies. In Paris itself, the richest consider leaving and melt their silverware while others accumulate provisions for a siege. This fear makes the demand for peace all the more urgent for the French who are ready to make many concessions, certainly more than their sovereign. Thus the prefect of Finistère sends back to the ministry: “ Reading in an article in the Gazette de France that the nation wants peace and that the monarch wants it too, we ask ourselves: do the nation and the monarch agree on the conditions? The public spirit continues to speak out against any maintenance of conquest so that if, on the one hand, we strongly desire that our enemies be beaten and pushed back far from our territory, on the other hand, we seem to fear the Emperor's successes. who could still, it is said, be dragged too far and would end up leading France to a real loss ».
Opposition to conscription is more and more visible, pamphleteer posters are multiplying, we hide the refractory ... In November 1813, the prefect of Seine-Inférieure reported that the conscripts " pass under the fathead as if they were going to the guillotine, the recruiting board room is flooded with tears ". It was truly at the end of the year 1813 that the black legend of the Napoleonic Ogre reached its peak. The union between the Nation and the Army tends to fracture slowly. Propaganda is less and less successful in heroizing war and young people think more of the bullet or the cannonball than the laurels that await them ... Opposition to the regime is also manifested by an increasingly massive abstention than the prefects notice during municipal elections.

On the military side, after the disastrous Russian campaign, Napoleon somehow managed to recreate an army worthy of the name to oppose fierce resistance in Saxony. But the failure of the negotiations and the entry into the war of Autish-Hungary alongside Russia, Prussia, Sweden and many occupied German states once again turned the geopolitical situation in favor of the anti-Napoleonic forces. . After their victory in Leipzig, the coalition forces were free to enter France. At the same time, in the Iberian Peninsula, the British forces supported by the Spanish nationalists are victorious and are preparing to cross the Pyrenees. In Italy, the situation is also very degraded: the Austrians progress and Murat, Marshal of the Empire and King of Naples, betrays Napoleon and rallies to the coalition to save his crown.

At the start of the year 1814, France was threatened by three armies:

- Field Marshal Schwarzenberg's army of Bohemia (supreme commander of the coalition forces) with 200,000 Austrians, Russians and various Germans.

- Blucher's Silesian Army with 150,000 Russo-Austrians.

- The army of Bernadotte, former Marshal of the Empire too, and Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Sweden. He is at the head of 150,000 men but will only engage part of them. Bernadotte wanted to help the allies without getting too involved in the invasion of France because he still hoped that he would be called upon to replace Napoleon.

To face these invading armies, Napoleon relied on Soult's army in the South-West with 48,000 men, Suchet in Catalonia with 35,000 men, Eugène in Italy with 50,000 men, Augereau around Lyon with 20,000 men, Maison in the North with 20,000 men plus the garrison forces maintained in several places in Germany and Holland. These forces are defensive forces, to lead the counter attack Napoleon announces that he has 50,000 men (70,000 more likely) gathered in emergency with the remains of the troops engaged in the German campaign and the troops repatriated from Belgium and from Spain. Colorful army recalling on certain points the time of the revolutionary armies of the amalgamation where veterans and all young conscripts meet. Napoleon also relies on the National Guard (which will sometimes fight with the line army) and on the Frankish corps which harass the enemy. As if to reassure his troops in the face of the disproportion of forces, Napoleon declared: " 50,000 men and me, that's 150,000 » !

Napoleon would have hoped for a winter truce, but at the end of December the coalition forces entered the national territory : violating Swiss neutrality Schwarzenberg swooped down on the Lyon region, Blücher crossed the Rhine and made a breakthrough at Mainz. Marshals Marmont and Victor fall back on Saint-Dizier.

Napoleon then prepares to enter the scene personally after ensuring the stability of power in Paris: he organizes a regency council around Marie-Louise and appoints his elder brother Joseph (who however never shone militarily) lieutenant General of the Empire. Their mission is simple: ensure the continuity of power while the Emperor devotes himself to war, defend Paris as much as possible and only evacuate if the situation is desperate. To instill the momentum of resistance, Napoleon dispatched commissioners chosen from among the senators to the armies and forbade the prefects to leave their departments even if they were invaded: the latter were invited to shut themselves up in the nearest place and to hold on. As for the deputies of the Legislative Body, the Emperor accusing them of defeatism violently reminded them at the beginning of the month: “ I called you to help me and you came to tell you what to do to help the stranger. The true representative of the Nation is me. The throne itself, what is it? Four pieces of golden wood covered with velvet? No ! The throne is a man, and that man is me! ". Once everything is clear in the capital, Napoleon can put on the boots of 93.

During the night of January 24 to 25, 1814, Napoleon took the road to the East. He will never see his wife and son again ...

End of January / February: the Emperor on all fronts!

On the 25th, Napoleon found his marshals in Châlons-en-Champagne, the next day he took command of the army in Vitry-le-François. For the time being, the Emperor's plan is simple: as in Italy during his younger years, he hopes to take advantage of the dispersal of enemy forces to beat them separately and impose peace on them.

On the 27th he met and defeated Blücher's vanguard at Saint-Dizier. The French lost 300 to 400 men, the Russians for their part counted between 500 and 1,800 killed and wounded, 1,800 to 2,000 prisoners and lost 18 guns. Józef Grabowski testifies: “ Many prisoners fell into our hands, as well as cannons, the enemy's crate, and cars loaded with large barrels; they were full of snuff. The whole road was covered with it. The Russian treasury coffers were also smashed and bundles of Russian banknotes of different colors were scattered all over the road. For more than a thousand paces we walked on tobacco and Russian banknotes, the value of which the French soldiers did not suspect. ". The victory, however, is only partial. On the other hand, on the 29th, in Brienne where he spent his youth at military school, Napoleon won a great victory. At first, the enemy army which was aware of Napoleon's intentions (a courier was intercepted) resisted firmly, the French infantry had a lot to do with the Russian cavalry. But in the night, at 10 p.m., the men of the Huguet-Chateaux division entered the park of the castle which dominated the city ... Blücher, who was dining in the house, had to evacuate it precipitously ... During the whole night the fight of streets raged in the city in flames and around midnight Blücher orders to take down. There are about 3,000 dead on the French side, 4,000 in the opposing ranks. Napoleon hastened to send a press release to Paris on his victory.

Things got worse when Schwarzenberg marched north to rescue Blücher: on soggy ground, in snow and cold, Napoleon was beaten at La Rothière on February 1, 1814 and had to fall back on Troyes. The army retreats, covered by the resistance of the Young Guard. If we try to minimize this defeat in the eyes of public opinion, Napoleon knows that the hour is serious. When the Chatillon congress opened on the 3rd to negotiate the conditions for peace, the Emperor would have considered accepting the conditions of the allies, namely the return to the borders of 1792. Blücher took the opportunity to march on Paris by going up the Marl. Surely he wrote to his wife " In eight days, we will certainly be under the walls of the capital and Napoleon will lose his crown. ».

Noticing that the latter has again dispersed his forces, Napoleon decides to intercept him: on February 10 he annihilated Olsoufiev's Russian corps in Champaubert: surprised by Doumerc's cuirassiers, the Russian infantry was dispersed before having had time to form into squares. During this battle, the very young Marie-Louise of the 113th Line stood out in particular. Evidence of their lack of preparation supplemented by a fierce will, a young little soldier of this regiment would have launched to Marshal Marmont who gave his orders: " Oh ! I'll fire my gun, only I wish I had someone to load it "... Champaubert marks the beginning of a dazzling takeover of the campaign by Napoleon, which chains up no less than four victories in five days: on the 11th at Montmirail he overthrows the forces twice the number of Sacken. On the 12th at Château-Thierry he surprised General Yorck and finally at Vauchamps Blücher himself was beaten and forced to fall back on Châlons ... This series of victories gave the French troops some balm and reassured the public. . For example following the victory of Montmirail the Monitor will announce " After two hours of fighting, the entire enemy army was overthrown. Our troops have never shown more ardor. The enemy, embedded on all sides, is in a complete rout, infantry, artillery, ammunition, everything is in our power or has been overthrown. The results are immense, the Russian army is destroyed. The Emperor is doing wonderfully and we have not lost anyone of note ... ". Napoleon himself thinks that the court of the countryside is overturned, at the Congress of Châtillon he orders Caulaincourt not to let go of the natural borders (the Pyrenees, the Alps and the Rhine). Napoleon then had a secret hope, that these victories would reason his father-in-law, the Emperor of Austria, and that the latter would withdraw from the coalition.

But while the imperial army gutted Blücher's army, the Bohemian army had a free hand to take Troyes, Nogent, Montereau ... Some advanced elements even reaching Fontainebleau and taking the castle for a few hours. Noting that the enemy is only 75km from his capital, Napoleon turns around and marches on Schwarzenberg. On February 17, he jostled Wittgenstein's troops in Mormant then in Nangis, forcing him to fall back on Nogent. Napoleon then marches on Montereau, a strategic point at the confluence of the Seine and the Yonne. The Emperor is betting everything on speed because he wants to take the bridges intact. Furious at Victor's lack of speed, he replaces him with Gérard. Schwarzenberg is totally surprised by the speed at which Napoleon came into contact, he proposes an armistice but Napoleon refuses, having in memory the armistice of Pleiswitz which certainly cost him victory during the German campaign. After very fierce fighting, the Napoleonic army managed to retake the city with its bridges intact thanks to the furious charges of Pajol's cavalry! A rapid march follows to Troyes behind Schwarzenberg's army which retreats to the east.

Taking advantage in his turn that Napoleon is fighting Schwarzenberg, Blücher takes the road to Paris ... Once again Napoleon has to turn around to cut Blücher from his rear. Blücher was stopped in his lead by Marmont and Mortier at Meaux. Knowing that his troops were tired, and learning that Napoleon was coming to meet him, the Prussian general decided to fall back to the North. Not managing to cross the Aisne, and knowing that the best captain in Europe is arriving on them with the farm intention to crush them, the army of Silesia is completely demoralized ... It is then that an event comes to the aid of the allies: on March 3, 1814 Moreau, surrounded in Soisson, capitulates and allows Blücher to take shelter behind the Aisne. Outside of himself, Napoleon ordered the execution of Moreau (which was not to be done). Napoleon nevertheless catches up with Blücher and beats him at Craonne, but the latter can freely fall back on Laon. Napoleon pursues him but does not manage to seize Laon, he remarks bitter: " the Young Guard melts like snow in the sun ". On March 10 he retired, taking Reims on the 13th.

During this time Schwarzenberg had resumed the road to Paris, but retreating again towards the East for fear of being cut off from his rear (especially since Bernadotte does not resolve to enter into action in France), he falls on Napoleon at Arcis-sur-Aube. But Napoleon did not know that he had in front of him the main body of the army of Bohemia, the battle turned in favor of the allies, he himself had to rally some of the routed troops. He must quickly give up the field. Schwarzenberg on his side overestimates the rest of Napoleon's forces and does not push his advantage. Passing after the battle in front of Arcis-sur-Aube, Narcisse Faucheur recounts the sad spectacle that awaits his eyes: " [Arcis-sur-Aube] gave us a lamentable picture of the misfortunes of war. Almost half of the city had been burnt down. In this country stones are rare, the houses are generally built in wood with a sort of wattle, there are only the chimneys which are built in bricks; however the chimneys had resisted the fire and formed dismal obelisks in the middle of the rubble of the fire ».

Napoleon saw his forces diminish with each battle, he knew full well that he needed more men to defeat Blücher and Schwarzenberg and would therefore modify his plan accordingly. The Emperor then ordered his marshals to hold the roads to Paris, during this time he walked quickly to the east to gather the troops from the strongholds. Paris and its surroundings will be the anvil resistant to the allies, it will be the hammer returning to the enemy rear. But everywhere in France the situation seems hopeless: in the North Maison is forced to abandon Belgium, in the South the English have beaten Soult in Orthez and arrive in Toulouse on the 24th, Lyon (where the municipality refused to build barricades) is occupied since the 20th, in Italy only the Milanese are still resisting.

March: where it all ends ...

On March 8, the English minister Castlereagh, fearing a dislocation of the coalition, had the Chaumont pact adopted, which prohibited a separate peace. A few days later the allies put an end to the Châtillon congress.

The Czar Alexander I wanted to end it as soon as possible and take advantage of Napoleon's distance to the East, he convinced the coalition command to sound the hallali on Paris: on March 25 Marmont and Mortier were swept away at La Fère-Champenoise. On the 29th the armies of Bohemia and Silesia were under the walls of the capital. Marie-Louise and Joseph fled to Blois. On March 30, the battle began, rough and desperate given the balance of power undeniably favorable to the invaders. Among the well-known episodes of this battle, let us note the action of the students of the Polytechnic who with 28 guns try to oppose the troops of Pahlen: charged by the Uhlans, the students are killed or taken prisoner, some will be delivered during an attack by French Dragons and Light Horses.

Napoleon is back at a run to defend Paris, but in the capital no one has heard from him for four days. In two days no less than 9,000 men were killed or wounded on both sides at the gates of the capital. Thinking of the desperate situation, Marshal Marmont signed the capitulation of Paris.

Napoleon learns the news in Juvisy, he then withdraws to Fontainebleau. His marshals offered him to fall back to the South, but he wanted to rally around this point all the forces available to retake Paris. Much of his hopes rest on the Paris garrison itself which obtained to withdraw with arms and baggage: the 6th corps of Marmont.

Behind the scenes of the Chute

Behind the scenes of the Fall a man is at the heart of the plot: Talleyrand. The "lame Devil" then no longer had a ministry, but was vice-grand-elector of the Empire (" the only vice he lacked »Said Fouché) and member of the Council of Regency. This great expert in the art of surviving all regimes since the beginning of the Revolution is generally seen as the most opportunistic being of the period. Emmanuel de Waresquiel, a historian specializing in this character, underlines that, on the contrary, and paradoxically, Talleyrand's line of conduct has remained relatively stable. From start to finish, Talleyrand works for a relatively liberal constitutional monarchy and to do so he will support the coup d'etat of 18 Brumaire, as he will work for the fall of the Empire ... Finally, Talleyrand remains faithful to his ideas while betraying his masters ... Sensing the end of the Emperor near, Talleyrand wanted to be in the front row to organize the Restoration. Bernadotte is quickly sidelined, keeping Marie-Louise in power if Napoleon were to be killed is a possibility, the Duke of Orleans is being considered because this branch of the royal family is well involved in the Revolution (the father of the duke voted death of Louis XVI), but it is ultimately the elder branch of the Bourbons that he will support. In this choice, the capture of Bordeaux played an important role: the port city suffered greatly from the continental blockade imposed under the Empire, it welcomes with joy the defeat of the Emperor's armies and applauds the Duke of Angoulême (nephew of future Louis XVIII) disembarked clandestinely in Bayonne. Talleyrand will then play the card of Louis XVIII, being the instigator of his return should allow him to keep a good place by redeeming himself for having planned the assassination of the Duke d'Enghien and orchestrated the spoliation of Church property. .. To convince the allies to play the Louis XVIII card, he relies on two arguments: firstly, the dynasty is legitimate and should be stable in the long term, secondly, putting the Louis XVI dynasty back on the throne is a strong sign of solidarity. within European monarchies which can all be threatened by revolutionary movements. To negotiate directly with the allies, Talleyrand plays very clever: he pretends to flee like Marie-Louise and Joseph (which shows his good will in the event of Napoleon's return ...) but manages to have a friend in the National Guard arrested him and "forced him in spite of himself" to stay in Paris ... When the Czar entered the capital, Talleyrand pretended that there was a risk of an attack at the Elysee Palace so that the Russian monarch could stay with him. .

Talleyrand then created a provisional government of which he naturally took the head ... He surrounded himself with two senators, Beurnonville and Jaucourt, the former German ambassador Dalberg and the abbot of Montesquiou. This new government goes hand in hand with a new constitution whose drafting is entrusted to the Senate. The senators were the staunch supporters of the Empire, but in the hour of defeat they have an opportunity to save their careers. The senators agree to work on a new constitution but impose their conditions: their imminent place in the future regime, but also to preserve the ranks and pensions of the army, public debt, national property, freedom of religion and that of the press .

On April 1, the Paris municipal council asked for the restoration of Louis XVIII, which encouraged the senators to go in this direction. On April 2, the Senate declared Napoleon and his family deposed from the throne and released the army and the people from their oath. On the 3rd, Senator Lambrechts, a longtime opponent of Napoleon, writes the proclamation of forfeiture without however specifying the return of the Bourbons. A constituent commission was hastily formed, a return to the constitution of 1791 was unsuccessfully proposed but it was rejected, it was procrastinated ...

At the same time, Talleyrand regularly sent emissaries to Fontainebleau to keep Napoleon's staff informed of political developments in Paris. Caulaincourt for his part continues to negotiate as much as possible an honorable exit for the Emperor. Napoleon considered the abdication for a while in favor of his son, but an event further changed the political situation to the detriment of the Emperor of the French: on April 4, the 6th Corps retired behind enemy lines, Marmont had just negotiated his exit with the allies. The situation becomes difficult for Caulaincourt who must convince Napoleon to abdicate unconditionally. During the day a discussion takes place between the Emperor and the marshals present at Fontainebleau: Ney, Oudinot, Lefebvre ... They know everything about the political situation, they also know that militarily it is now impossible to take back Paris, they insist to their sovereign so that he accepts the abdication. Napoleon gives in, he writes with Maret and Caulaincourt his act of abdication. In the days which follow Ney, Oudinot and Lefebvre leave Napoleon to join the provisional government.

Napoleon's abdication clarified things for the Senate, the return of royalty then seemed obvious to them. A text is drawn up to guarantee a constitutional monarchy where they themselves would keep their posts and their endowments ...
On April 29, Talleyrand finally received Louis XVIII, but on May 2, he refused to ratify the constitution of senators, nevertheless accepting the idea of ​​a representative regime. It will be the compromise of the Charter, granted by the king to the French people and which makes France one of the most liberal regimes in Europe. 57 Empire senators lost their posts, including Lambrechts who had drafted the act of forfeiture of Napoleon ...

As for Napoleon, the Treaty of Fontainebleau of April 11 granted him the small kingdom of Elba. Defeated and abandoned by all, the fallen Emperor then tries to leave the scene as a tragic hero and tries to commit suicide on the night of April 12 to 13, 1814. But Death does not want him, his servant alerted by the sufferings of his master alert Bertrand, Caulaincourt, Maret, Fain and the surgeon Yvan. By making him vomit, the latter saves Napoleon from the poison he had ingested. No one knows it yet, but the Napoleonic epic is not yet over ...

Imperial legend

Although lost, the campaign of France is generally presented as a relatively glorious hour of the Napoleonic epic ... Why?

Quite simply because the series of victories won by Napoleon is unexpected, some will go so far as to say miraculous. In obvious numerical inferiority, Napoleon inflicts crushing defeats on his enemies and one believes to relive at times the great hours of General Bonaparte in Italy. The tragedy of the invasion of France, the general mobilization which results from it also has some hints of the great hours of the French Revolution when the Fatherland was declared in danger. Finally, in 1814, Napoleon led a purely defensive war, defending his country, which gave him a certain aura. Many moving or heroic scenes sweeten this swan song: it is for example Napoleon fighting in Brienne where he had spent part of his youth and where he almost was killed by a troop of Cossacks, or Napoleon pointing him - even the cannons in Montereau as in his young years at the siege of Toulon ... Real scenes that have become myths taken up and widely disseminated by the images of Epinal and the engravings which are distributed throughout France. Another recurring graphic theme, inspired by a song by Beranger, that of Napoleon lodged for a few hours in a family of French peasants: the Emperor is often thoughtful, near the hearth, surrounded by his generals and the legend concludes on those tragic hours " - We will talk about his glory under the stubble for a long time ».

The enemy is also stigmatized by the press, at the time and then when the legend is written. These invaders from the East are painted as the new barbarians at the gates of the Empire: massacring, burning, raping ... The exactions are real and they should not be minimized. They are the fruit of all invading armies. However an emblematic figure is put forward: that of the Cossack. Represented on his horse with his lance, dressed in rags, with a shaggy beard, the Cossack is the archetype of the savage of the East, on the borders of Europe and the East, who came to destroy this heart of civilization that is France. This very exaggerated and stereotypical portrait will die hard although the Parisians discover with astonishment during the occupation that these men are not all what they were made to believe. The Russians are even becoming fashionable, we find them in salons, clubs, theaters ... It must be said that the Tzar Alexander, crowned with victory, ensures that his troops behave well in the most beautiful city from Europe. However, the veterans of the campaigns of 1812, 1813 and 1814 will always keep in their writings a very dark vision of these unruly and violent troops. It must be said that what they knew about the Cossacks during these wars is not what the royalists were able to know by going to see their bivouacs on the banks of the Seine ...

Finally, the campaign in France appears as a series of military victories. This is relatively true, although Imperial propaganda emphasizes successes and minimizes setbacks. We notice indeed that Napoleon chained the victories, tactical successes, but at the national level force is of note that the noose keeps tightening. Nevertheless, Napoleon did not suffer any stinging defeat, his military reputation was not damaged and, again at Fontainebleau, people wanted to believe that anything was possible. Those responsible for the defeat were the “traitors”: Talleyrand in Paris who welcomed the allies, turned the Senate against Napoleon and prepared for regime change, and in the army the marshals who refused to continue the fight and hoped to save their lives. position. Finally, we are not very far from the theme of the stab in the back which will have the success that we know in the following century. If a part of the population, especially in the South, welcomed the end of the Empire with joy, the disappointments of the Restoration soon prompted attention to the island of Elba ... In 1814, the allies had brought down the Empire but ultimately not the aura of the Emperor.


- Jean-Paul Bertaud, Napoleon and the French, Armand Colin, 2014.
- Jacques-Olivier Boudon, Napoleon and the French Campaign, 1814, Armand Colin, 2014.
- Jacques Jourquin, Souvenirs de campaigns du sergeant Faucheur, Editions Tallandier, 2004.
- Alain Pigeard, Dictionary of the Battles of Napoleon, Editions Tallandier, 2004.
- Marie-Pierre Rey, A Tsar in Paris, Flammarion, 2014.
- Emmanuel de Waresquiel, Talleyrand, le prince immobile, Fayard, 2002.

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