Military Subjects: The Hundred Days

The Retreat

Second Abdication

Military Situation



Chapter Seven

The Retreat and Second Abdication

By Alfons Libert, FINS

In the evening of 18 June 1815, the shattered remains of the French army that had fought the battle of Waterloo were retreating under cover of the cavalry of the Imperial Guard. This day was the end for Napoleon but all was not lost for France, the Allies had won a battle but still not the war. The soldiers were ready to fight on, but as you will read further along these lines, the politicians decided otherwise.

The Retreat

During their meeting at La Belle Alliance on 18 June 1815, Wellington and Blücher decided that the Prussian cavalry would pursue the French. The Prussian chief of staff, Gneisenau, would take command of this pursuit. The exhausted allied troops would remain on the battlefield for the night. The Prussian II Corps under General Pirch would march in the direction of Mansart around midnight to cut of Grouchy's line of retreat. General Bülow received orders to march on Genappe.

After taking refuge in the last square of the Guard for some time, Napoleon and some of his officers fled to Genappes where he found his coach. He was almost captured by the Prussians when his coach got stuck in the mass of fleeing French soldiers. The Prussian Major von Keller managed to "capture" Napoleon's hat, coat and sword but the Emperor escaped.

The Prussian cavalry pursuit lost more and more of its momentum as the night progressed and eventually Gneisenau halted just south of Frasnes. The Prussians had captured about 8,000 French.

On the morning of 19 June Marshal Grouchy was still unaware of Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo. At about 1030 Grouchy received word of the Emperor's defeat. After some confusing moments General Vandamme proposed to march on Brussels to free the prisoners, cut of the enemy's line of communication and then regain France via Valenciennes. Soult's messenger, however, had brought orders for Grouchy to retreat to the river Sambre. Grouchy decided to do so by way of Namur, Dinant and Givet. In order to do so the Namur bridges had to be captured as fast as possible.

At 1130 Grouchy ordered General Exelmans to advance with his cavalry to Namur to take the bridges over the Sambre. The rest of Grouchy's command would follow at once, covered by a rear guard composed of Pajol's cavalry and Teste's infantry division.

This retreat was unhindered by General Thielmann's Prussians, many of whom had been routed after Grouchy's victory at Wavre. But General Pirch II Corps was on it's way to cut of Grouchy's line of retreat. He arrived at Mellery at about 1100 on 19 June but his troops were so exhausted that he had to let them rest. He spent the rest of the day there.

Two regiments of French Dragoons captured the Namur bridges at about 1600. At about 1900 the rest of Exelmans' cavalry passed through the city of Namur while Grouchy and IV Corps (General Gérard) were only about 10 km behind. Vandamme's III Corps reached Gembloux around 2100.

On 20 June Pirch's Prussians overtook the French and began to appear everywhere but where repulsed. Pirch then attacked again while the French withdrew through Namur but Teste's rear guard was able to hold off the Prussians at the cost of 1,500 Prussian casualties. Blücher then recalled Pirch and Thielmann and the Prussian pursuit of Grouchy's right wing ended.

Late on 21 June 1815, Grouchy's undefeated troops entered Phillipeville. He had managed to escape destruction or capture with about 28,000 men, most of his wounded, all his artillery and most of his equipment.

The Second Abdication

Napoleon reached Phillipeville on 19 June at 0900. There he ordered the remains of his army to concentrate at Laon. Around 1300 Napoleon left Phillipeville in Soult's coach. After a short halt at Laon he reached Paris on 21 June. The Chambers took a very hostile posture against him. Caulaincourt and Joseph advised capitulation. Davout, Carnot and Napoleon's brother Lucien, advised Napoleon to dissolve the Chambers and to seize power. But the Emperor was tired and physically exhausted and while he rested the Chambers decreed that any attempt to dissolve them would be treason. Napoleon now could only seize power by force. It would be easy since Napoleon still had about 30,000 reliable troops in Paris and he had the loyalty of the Paris lower classes too. On his command the Chambers would have been annihilated but Napoleon did not wanted to "have Paris run with blood."

On 22 June he abdicated in favour of his son, the king of Rome. A provisional government under Fouché took over power.

The Military Situation of France

The military situation was not hopeless: Marshal Grouchy, appointed as commander in chief of the "Armée du Nord" had already assembled some 28,000 men at Laon by 24 June and this force soon swelled to about 55,000. The northern and eastern borders were solidly defended by a series of "Places fortes - strongholds". The combined Allied and Prussian armies had only just crossed the French border. Marshal Suchet had attacked and beaten Frimont's Piedmontese in the southeast. Lamarque had ended the uprising in the Vendée. There where still about 170,000 replacements available in French Army Depots. However, the news of Napoleon's abdication broke the moral of many French soldiers and caused many desertions. Schwarzenberg, with 210,000 Austrians, crossed the Rhine on 23-26 June. General Rapp, outnumbered and without orders, soundly defeated the advance guard under Württemberg, then withdrew to a position near Strassbourg. Several border fortresses came under siege and effective irregular warfare flared everywhere along the eastern borders.

The crippled British army, too, were advancing in the direction of Paris, by way of Péronne and Montdidier, and were two days march behind the Prussians. Grouchy was able to slow down the Prussian advance and on 29 June the Army of the North entered Paris. On 30 June the Prussians assaulted Paris' northern defences. Blücher was repulsed and began to circle around Paris with the intention to attack it from the less fortified south. Davout knew his every move of course since Blücher had to operate in hostile country. Davout now had superior numbers than either Allied army so he could be confident of victory. However, he saw no purpose in it and was probably disgusted by the maze of intrigues the politicians had trapped him in so, as minister of war, he decided that the only sensible thing to do was to recall King Louis XVIII. He loosed Exelmans' cavalry on the Prussians to moderate their advance. Blücher halted and Wellington called Louis XVIII back to Paris.

On 4 July an armistice was signed. The French promised to withdraw their army over the river Loire. Davout had hoped to be able to maintain the army but Louis XVIII, under pressure from the allies, disbanded it. France was occupied and plundered.

The return of the King and the disbanding of the French army opened the door for the so-called "White Terror." This was an explosion of reactionary fear and hate, fanned by the Allies. Marshal Ney was shot for treason after an unfair trial, Marshal Soult vanished, General Vandamme left for America, Marshal Brune was killed by a mob and Murat, the former king of Naples, was executed after a failed attempt to recapture his former kingdom.

Napoleon Goes Into Exile

On 22 June 1815, Napoleon had abdicated in favour of his son. He retired in Malmaison where he was like a semi-prisoner of the provisional government. After some consideration (he first thought about retiring in England) he asked the provisional government to supply him with a frigate to sail to America where he wanted to seek asylum. Fouché stalled this demand because he knew that Napoleon would make a great bargaining chip in the negotiations with the Allies. He even contrived to warn the British that Napoleon would try to escape by sea from Rochefort. Napoleon repeated his demands for a frigate because he knew that he was in considerable danger. Blücher wanted to hang him as soon as he was able to capture him and he would most certainly face life long imprisonment if captured by the British.

With the enemy at the gates of Paris, Napoleon offered his services as a general to the government with the promise to leave French soil for America as soon as he had driven out the enemy. Fouché ignored this offer. Napoleon left for Rochefort. He could have very easily regained the army and took over Paris if he wanted to at this moment but he chose not to break his pledge to the government.

He reached Rochefort on 3 July and found the frigate waiting. But he was trapped: a British squadron guarded the harbour and the winds were contrary. Several plans of escape were offered to Napoleon; for example, boarding a fast American vessel, but Napoleon rejected them all because he found them unworthy for the Emperor of the French.

On 10 July 1815, Napoleon started negotiations with the Admiral Maitland, commander of the British squadron at Rochefort. During the night of 14-15 July, orders issued by Louis XVIII for Napoleon's arrest reached Rochefort. The city authorities warned Napoleon and at sunrise on 15 June he boarded a British warship and surrendered himself to the British.

This was the first step to his exile on the island of St. Héléna, but that is another story that perhaps some day will be told in the Napoleon Series.


Among dozens of articles, notes and other material these books were used to create this Campaign of the Hundred days:

Chandler, David The Campaigns Of Napoleon
Couvreur, H.J. Le drame Belge de Waterloo
Desoil, General P. La chute de l'aigle
de Vos, Luc Het einde van Napoleon, Waterloo 1815
Haythornthwaithe, Philip J.Napoleon's Military Machine
Houssaye, H. 1815
Pericoli, U. Uniformes des armées de Waterloo
Van Neck, Leon Waterloo Illustrée

Most of the graphics where found on the Internet, some come from my own out of copyright books. The maps are of my own hand.

I hope you have enjoyed this Campaign of the Hundred Days. Thank you to my good friend Mr. John Schneider for finding and correcting my typos and grammatical errors and to my family, for letting me spend all this time behind the computer without (much) complaining!


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