Reviews: Books of General Interest


1815: The Return of Napoleon

By Paul Britten Austin

Austin, Paul Britten.  1815: The Return of Napoleon  London : Greenhill, 2002. ISBN# 1853674761. 366 p. Hardcover. $40

1815: The Return of Napoleon

The story of Napoleon's Hundred Days is so dramatic, so full of romance that it is no wonder that authors keep returning to it.  Oceans of ink and whole forests of trees have been expended in telling and retelling the story of "Waterloo and all that."  The latest entry in the library of books on the end of Napoleon's public career is Paul Britten Austin's 1815: The Return of Napoleon

My first thought on approaching this book was to groan, "Not another Waterloo book!"  Though in fact Austin never gets to Waterloo in this volume, which I presume, is the first of another trilogy.  So any author attempting another retelling of this well-known story has his work cut out for him.  Any new work on this topic has to retell the familiar story in an interesting way, and at least attempt to tell us something new.  Austin succeeds fairly well in both areas.

Anyone familiar with Paul Britten Austin's previous trilogy on Napoleon's Russian campaign will know that Mr. Austin knows how to cull his sources for the interesting and informative anecdote and weave them together into a fascinating narrative.  Austin uses the same technique here. Employing primarily French sources, he follows Napoleon's route from the Golfe Juan to Paris, ending with Napoleon's entrance into the French capital.

Like Mr. Austin's previous works, this is not analytical study of the military, political and diplomatic history of Napoleon's Hundred Days.  Readers can easily get that elsewhere.  Rather this is the human story of a great event, told by the Frenchmen who experienced it.  One isn't going to find a revisionist history, but rather the romance of Napoleon's last throw of the dice.

We see the events through the eyes of the men and women who experienced them.  Austin does a good job in his notes indicating trustworthiness of his witnesses.  We hear from Royalists, Bonapartists and the fence-sitters. (Austin also, naturally, picks up some of the stories of those who had participated in the Russian campaign.)  While we have occasional diversions to Paris or some of the other cities in France, the reader will not learn what was happening in Vienna, London, Berlin or St. Petersburg.  Austin sticks closely to the Route Napoléon.

One theme of the book is how those who encountered Napoleon on his return from Elba interpreted their duty, honor and allegiance.  Some stand by their oaths to the King, some swear allegiance to Napoleon, Many play a waiting game, doing little or nothing one way or the other.

On 1 March 1815, near Antibes, Napoleon, along with 800 men, landed in the shadow of Le Fort Carré.  Already by late 1814 Frederick William of Prussia was writing that he had "nearly forgotten about Napoleon Bonaparte." To the Bourbons Napoleon is "nothing more than a corpse without influence…" In Vienna, the Congress danced.  Bertrand, Drouot and the others around Napoleon thought the enterprise mad.  The landing begins inauspiciously, but no attempt is made to halt Napoleon from marching inland. At first the notables Napoleon meets declare their loyalty to the King.  But as Cambronne observes, the "should have shown it" by doing something in the King's interest.  At Grasse, the chief town of the Var, the local commander, rather than attempting to form some plan to halt or arrest the Bonapartists, hopes that Napoleon will "take the Aix road, and it'll be none of our business to bar his way."  He then packs up and retires to his country house, abandoning his post.  Napoleon is to encounter such inertia along his whole march to Paris.  At Grenoble, Randon, a Royalist ADC to the commanding general, encounters "a crowd of the inhabitants pouring out into the plain from all sides, armed with muskets, forks, hayforks, all kinds of implements." Had this mob intended to stop Napoleon the adventure would have been done for.  Louis' supporters seem to be able to only flee before Napoleon's ragtag force or lock their gates and hope the former Emperor goes elsewhere.

On foot, on horse and by carriage, Napoleon, displaying his typical energy and will, marches forward over narrow, steep mountainous paths, outstripping even his little band of soldiers.  The return though is no cakewalk.  Strong action by a Royalist official early on would probably have doomed it, but all seem mesmerized into inaction. Louis XVIII, in the "twentieth year of his reign," seems unconcerned when told of "Buonaparte's" return.  Handed a telegraph dispatch, Louis simply orders Vitrolles, his Secretary of State, to pass it on to the Minister of War, Marshal Soult.  "He'll see what's to be done," the King remarks.  Whether the King's preternatural sang-froid is due to bravery, stupidity or inertia who's to say.

Along the way each official encountered is forced to make a decision.  Ney in a rage calls Napoleon a "lunatic," a "wild beast," and a "mad dog."  He famously threatens to bring Napoleon back in an iron cage.  He works himself into such a state that, by the time Napoleon and his ever-growing troop arrives, Ney is ready to throw his lot in with Napoleon.  The "arch-traitor" Bourmont, former Vendéan, Ney's aide-de-camp, follows him into Napoleon's camp, commenting, "If Ney, that day, had calculated, he'd have ceased to be himself."  On the whole the generals who rally to Napoleon are found to be "morose and unsure of themselves, or even hostile, having merely gone along with their men's impulse."  It is the rank-and-file and the lower level officers who rally to Napoleon.

Ney is not the only one that will make a complete about face at the advent of Napoleon.  Benjamin Constant, who says Napoleon is "stained with our blood," that France would be inflicted with a "government of Mamelukes" if the "tyrant" returns, who compares Napoleon with Atilla" and calls him "more terrible, more odious" than Genghis Khan, also is soon to change his tune.  Not often are men required to make such stark decisions.  Each officer or official had to choose—Bourbon or Bonaparte.  Vitrolles comments, "No one who hasn't been present at one of these extreme moments can understand the situation where, still all alive, one knows tomorrow one will be dead."

The book hangs or falls ultimately on the author's choice of quotes from his sources.  Austin, as expected, picks his passages well, keeping the narrative flowing with judicious selections from a multitude of characters. The book is filled with human interest stories, such as the story of Col. Jubé's various trials and tribulations at Grenoble that end in his tumble down a flight of stairs.  Or that of Peyrusse, Napoleon's treasurer, and his chest of gold.  Readers looking for in-depth military, political or diplomatic analysis should look elsewhere, but for the human story of this exciting time, this is a book you'll want to own.

The book includes five maps and sixteen pages of illustrations.  The index is not analytical. Paul Britten Austin is a translator and author of the 1812 trilogy, recently republished in one paperback, 1812: Napoleon's Invasion of Russia.

 

Reviewed by Tom Holmberg
Placed on the Napoleon Series: May 2002

 

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