A PICTURE PAINTS A THOUSAND WORDS
It is the winter of 1814 and an Empire is dying – besieged by the baying hounds that the divine right monarchies have unleashed upon Napoleon. That same year a baby is being nurtured in a French womb. Jean-Louis Meissonier would be born on February 21st 1815, two months before the catastrophic Tamboran explosion that would rock the world and help the Allies defeat the Emperor at Waterloo in the following June.
Meissonier’s painting is small yet it brilliantly encapsulates and reflects the epic events that were taking place at the time of his birth. Napoleonic France was in its death throes as privilege and reaction prevailed in the courts of Europe. The self-appointed ‘elites’ of the Continent were determined to destroy the one man who had welcomed ability wherever he found it and instituted the careers open to talent that he made manifest in his own Army and Government.
Behind Napoleon in this famous painting rides red-headed and hot-blooded Ney. The Marshal was the hero of 1812, the man of whom Napoleon had said he would give up all the gold in the Tuileries just to see him again after news arrived that Ney had been cut-off with his men behind the Russian lines.
He is not a man he is a lion, Napoleon declared when Ney reappeared, but the Marshal was not very forgiving, thinking that he had been abandoned in the Russian snows. Perhaps it was a result of that feeling and the subsequent brooding it led to that would lead Ney to betray his Emperor shortly after that winter of 1814?
He would not be the first man to betray Napoleon. Talleyrand was a past master at it and Fouché was a fellow ingrate along with Marshal Bernadotte. The daggers were well and truly out that treacherous winter. Even Marshal Marmont, Napoleon’s oldest friend, would succumb to the temptation to betray his master – the only thing he failed to do was to kiss the Emperor’s cheek en passant. Heroes are rare and singular: traitors are two a penny.
In the English Civil War it was the Earl of Strafford who was sacrificed on the altar of reaction and envy. When he died in 1641, Charles Ist lost the one man who could have saved his King. In 1815 it was Napoleon who was to be sacrificed by the Kings because he was the one man who had dared stand up to them on the field of battle. Much worse in their eyes, he had a tendency to win those battles no matter how many times they declared war on him in 1803, 1805, 1806, 1807, 1809, 1814 and 1815.
The British had earlier failed to assassinate Napoleon, but it wasn’t through lack of trying. Pitt had found plenty of gold to pay for the secret agents of the Chevalier de la Foi (Knight of the Faith) who worked for the loathsome Comte d’Artois, brother of Louis XVIII. The British Navy had ferried them across the Channel often enough – there were plenty of tars with the same brush. But they couldn’t sweep Napoleon from power with Infernal Machines or those daggers in the hands of maniacs.
Napoleon treated these acts of nefarious ‘diplomacy’ with the contempt they deserved and he would not retaliate in kind. He is often accused of being little more than a Corsican bandit, but it was Pitt who sunk to the depths of infamy, not Napoleon. It was the British Cabinet that behaved like brigands – to them there was always an ‘open season’ on the ruler of France.
The Bowes states that: “his strong belief in aristocratic rights and privileges made him a particularly hated figure by revolutionaries… he became king aged 67. From his coronation onwards, Charles’ attempts to reverse the ideals of the revolution made him deeply unpopular and in July 1830, public revolts forced him to abdicate.”
Louis XVIII had been brought back in the baggage train of the Allies, courtesy of m’lud Wellington – no one deigned to ask the French people who they wanted as their Head of State. In effect, it was also that Irish-Englishman who bequeathed D’Artois to the reluctant French nation. The pair of them seemed to believe that what mattered was what they wanted, not the lives of millions of people who would suffer by their arbitrary whims and penchants.
If having the last vain peacock of the ancien regime restored to preen and coo from the Tuileries Palace wasn’t bad enough for the ordinary French citizen, D’Artois was an enthusiastic supporter of Prime Minister Liverpool’s bloodthirsty purges against former soldiers of the Emperor – the White Terror. Liverpool didn’t just believe in kicking a man when he was down, he saw it as a moral duty to grind him into the earth and finish him off tout de suite.
As David Hamilton-Williams has written: “In 1813-15, the French army was closer to its civilian roots than at any time since the Revolution. The police reports showed that nearly 80 per cent of the population supported Napoleon and didn’t want the Bourbons.” 1 But what did Wellington, Liverpool or D’Artois care about that?
But Talleyrand’s machinations in Paris made all the efforts of his glorious and valiant countrymen useless – he told the Allies to march on the capital and Napoleon was not able to get back to Paris in time to save either the city or his throne.
In 1795 the future Marshal Joachim Murat had brought the cannons that enabled a wiry and threadbare Napoleon to put down the royalist insurrection of Vendémaire. Dashing and handsome, he was the epitome of a resourceful cavalry officer and only a few others like Lasalles came anywhere near him. But Murat was also incredibly vain, designing his own uniforms and ever ready to strut his stuff. The ladies fell for him like Autumn leaves. Napoleon once said of him that Murat needed women like other men needed bread. He was a Casanova on horseback.
In 1812 Murat was observed alone at the head of the Grand Army surrounded by Cossacks. His staff flocked to the rescue only to find the Marshal being admired by those denizens of the Steppes. Murat was adored by most of the cavalrymen in Europe and the Russians retreating before their beloved Moscow lamented that they wished they had a commander like him. However, he was notoriously negligent of his horses and men.
It was as a result of his crass incompetence that the reinvigorated Russians caught him off guard at Winkovo in 1812 and only his own brilliant rallying charges saved his troops from annihilation. Coignet sent on a mission to the Marshal saw some of his soldiers escaping from the trap by riding bareback. The Great Retreat had begun.
To attack the unbroken British squares with mounted troops alone was against one of the basic tenets of military command. Because of the torrential downpours consequent upon the distant volcanic eruption of Tambora back in April of that year which had changed weather patterns across the world, the battle had been delayed and the ground was still sodden. The French cavalry were able to do little more than trot towards their enemy. There were also so many riders crammed together that some horses were lifted completely off the ground! Similarly the French cannon had not been as effective that day as the balls sank into the clinging earth rather than bouncing as they would normally have done, causing many more casualties thereby.
Anxious to join in the fray, more and more French cavalry joined the attack, many without orders to do so, until the finest cavalry in Europe was moiling around some of the finest infantry – both sides unable to deal a crippling blow. Murat and Lasalles would never have committed such a jejeune error. When Ney finally brought up some horse artillery he began to do serious damage to Wellington’s Army, but by then the Prussians were debouching from the woods in force before Placenoit and all the French reserves had to be sent by Napoleon to keep them at bay.
The fact remains - Napoleon knew that Ney was unable to command more than 20,000 men as he had shown, unfortunately for the French, in 1813 and 1814. So why did he leave him in charge on that fateful day? As both political and military head of the Army and as Emperor as well, perhaps Napoleon hoped by publicly ‘forgiving’ Ney for his treachery and his infamous “I’ll bring him back in an iron cage” remark the previous year, all types of men, including former aristocrats and erstwhile enemies might return to the fold. Whatever the reason, it was a bad mistake.
Murat had offered his services to the Emperor after his return from Elba, but as he had betrayed him as well in 1814, Napoleon did not reply. Ironically, Murat would have known the exact moment at which to strike against Wellington and had he been able to, he might have repeated his glorious exploits at Eylau when he led a cavalry charge against overwhelming Russian numbers and saved the day.
Years before, in the Egyptian sands, Murat had led another victorious charge at Aboukir. On that occasion he received a wound on his cheek. More than twelve years later in the freezing hell of Russia, Sergeant Bourgogne noticed the residual scar that had been revealed by the exceptional cold.
Larrey was captured after Waterloo and was about to be shot by the vengeful Prussians when a German doctor and former student of his, recognized him and saved his life by begging Blücher for mercy on his behalf. As Larrey had saved the life of the Old Thunderer’s son, 5 even the famous French-hating Prussian Marshal had the grace to spare this one enemy life. 6
Napoleon had ruled his tiny kingdom of Elba well. He was not a prisoner on that small island, he was still a legitimate Emperor who had voluntarily ceded power on the mainland in France. But the Allies reneged on the agreed settlement and Louis XVIII refused to pay Napoleon the 2,000,000 francs that was his due. Not surprisingly, when the so-called Allies began to fall out amongst themselves at the Congress of Vienna, Napoleon planned his return. The Eagle began to flap his wings as he prepared to leave the nest.
The Eagles flew from steeple to steeple as Napoleon had predicted and after a slow start, men flocked to the colours. Even Ney swallowed his pride and returned reluctantly to the side of his former master. Napoleon was no fool, but he did allow men who had spurned and betrayed him to return to his Court. He was a far more rational, decent and forgiving monarch than the likes of Tsar Alexander, Francis of Austria, George III of England, or Frederick-William of Prussia. The romantic Jewish poet, Heinrich Heine certainly preferred him to those others: “Heine unconditionally admired Napoleon for his contribution to enlightenment which, for some time, the Frenchman had installed in occupied German areas. All of Heine’s publications in Germany were subject to state censorship…” 7
Further, as Cameron Reilly and David Markham have made clear in their excellent Napoleon Podcast series – whereas Hitler murdered the Jews, Napoleon gave them equal rights. 8 When he fell from power the reactionaries jumped in and made the Jews second-class citizens again. The Dreyfus Affair of 1894 would have been impossible under Napoleon. He was also the first person to suggest that the Jews be given their own territory in the Holy Land.
Yet some mischievous and poor historians still insist in equating the Emperor with Hitler. It would be laughable if it wasn’t so pathetic.
We shall leave the ever-fascinating events of Napoleon’s life late in the evening of June 18th 1815. In Earnest Crofts’ atmospheric painting some members of the Old Guard stem the tide of terrified refugees as one soldier – in the bottom left of this cropped image – looks over his shoulder at his Emperor. Forced to abandon his carriage, Napoleon is about to vanish from the living pages of history. Ahead there is only Saint Helena and the reptilian Hudson Lowe. A giant is leaving the political stage to the Lilliputian midgets that have brought him down. These non-entities will now re-write history and cast Napoleon as the reincarnation of Lucifer himself.
They have weaved a web of lies, but delve deeply enough and the real light will shine through.
© John Tarttelin 2010