Waterloo: Origines et Enjeux

Pascal Cyr, Canada


This conference demonstrates that the 1815 Napoleonic campaign was undertaken not only for strategic reasons, but also in response to political and financial needs. When Napoleon returned from the Island of Elba, he brought the war against Europe with him. Once again, Europe formed an alliance against France. Within the country, the effects were instantaneous. Napoleon met resistance at every level. First, he had to deal with treason and the lack of trust by many bureaucrats. He also had to check the royalist insurrection in the West and the liberal fronde who hoped to reduce his power through the drafting of the Acte Additionnel, or constitutional supplement. Napoleon became aware that opposition by the liberals had a significant impact on the confidence of military suppliers. As Louis XVIII had cancelled their claims during the First Restoration, the military suppliers, who did not believe imperial reign would last, were not more disposed to give him credit. The Emperor therefore had to pay cash for everything he bought to rebuild the army, which was soon to begin a campaign. However, as cash reserves were very limited, he had to multiply the acknowledgements of debt and the issuance of treasury bills, which increased France’s debt considerably. Although he was able to reconstitute a formidable army, it was not able to resist the coalition’s forces.


Napoleon wanted an army of 800,000 men for the end of the summer of 1815 but that was impossible without the support of the financiers, liberals and bureaucrats. The only way for him to win back the trust of the country’s driving forces was through victory. He knew that if he was able to achieve a coup in military operations, he could turn things back in his favour as victory was always his stronghold. In his mind, taking the defensive was not an option. As Belgium offered the best strategic and tactical possibilities, he decided to turn his offensive action in that direction. However, Napoleon also had to deal with an unseasoned army due to the hasty start to the campaign. Military errors as well as political and financial dictates which greatly influenced his decisions during the campaign finally caught up with him at Waterloo.


Under these conditions, when he returned to Paris, he could not hope to receive the support of the liberals and financiers. With the news of the victory at Ligny, they all rallied behind the Emperor, which proves that his calculations were correct. However, when the news of Waterloo was received, perception of him changed dramatically. The Chambre des représentants, or House of Representatives, which was controlled by the liberals, asked him to abdicate. Various authors writing on the subject have said it was treason but, in fact, politics were driving Napoleon following the Brumaire coup d’état. Beginning with Austerlitz, victory was always his main way of keeping himself in power. Consistent with this reality, the defeat at Waterloo forced his abdication.