Reviews: Books of General Interest


 

The Road to St Helena, Napoleon after Waterloo

Markham, J. David. The Road to St Helena, Napoleon after Waterloo. Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword/Drexel Hill, PA: Casemate, 2008. 204 pages. 20 black and white illustrations. ISBN-13# 9781844157518. Hardcover. £19.99/$39.95

A Surgical Artist at War Cover

This book, to make this clear at once, is not yet another account of the 100 days, of the Waterloo campaign or of Napoleon's captivity on St Helena.  It starts with a single chapter covering Napoleon's return from Elba and the battle of Waterloo (though a few controversial remarks find their way in)  and then concentrates on the events of the next month  that led him to surrender to the British, with a short epilogue to cover the events from Torbay to St Helena. Seven chapters cover the aftermath of the battle, Napoleon's return to Paris and the political dealings that led to his abdication.  The remainder of the book follows the ex-Emperor to Malmaison, then details his travels to the port of Rochefort, from where he had intended to take ship, and the events which concluded with him going on board the HMS Bellerophon.  The outline will be familiar from any biography of Napoleon, but there is more detail here including a great many quotes from the less common memoirs and some interesting letters.  There are fourteen appendices, including proclamations of the period, the full text of the Convention of Paris, and General Lallemand's version of the last days in France.

The illustrations consist of eight pages of black and white pictures from the author's collection, mostly portraits.  What is absent, though it would have been useful, is a map showing the route to Rochefort and the relationship of the port to the Île d'Aix.  There is also a helpful Cast of Characters at the beginning of the book and a good bibliography at the end.  The footnotes are placed at the end of the book, which I find irritating, though I realise it is impossible to please everyone on this point. Most of the quotes are given a reference though there are passages of narrative where no source is attributed.

The first section of the book is, to my mind, the most interesting since it deals with Napoleon's return to Paris and the machinations of Fouché.  It is a pity that the author has used memoirs so frequently here instead of the records of the debates in the Chambers, particularly since writers such as Savary and Pasquier can only speculate on exactly what Fouché was up to (and they assumed the worst) and the memoirs of Fouché are of doubtful authenticity.  On this subject, the edition of the memoirs of Caulaincourt used throughout is Napoleon and his Times, an 1838 publication, and therefore they can only be the unreliable Constance de Sor version.  Still, the duplicity of Fouché, the naivety of Lafayette and the vain rhetoric of the Chambers makes for a good story, set against the background of the Allied advance and the prospect of a Bourbon restoration.  Even in this narrative Napoleon never manages to take command of the situation, he remains almost a background character throughout all this, appearing at intervals only to reject advice and, finally, to sign the abdication.

I would have liked more of the politics to have been explained, the political composition of the Chamber of Representatives for instance, and also why the Chamber of Peers, whose members had been directly appointed by Napoleon, was so inactive.  In the first paragraph of the first chapter "the lack of universal support" for Napoleon's return is admitted, but subsequently it seems to be assumed that he could claim to represent the will of the French people, rather than the Representatives elected by the people.  It is stated more than once that only a small minority wanted the Bourbons back, but no statistics to support this are produced and it seems to be contradicted by accounts of the rising in the Vendee and the subsequent 'White Terror' in the south.

The second part places the ex-Emperor back on centre stage, following him through the days of indecision at Malmaison, the slow journey to Rochefort and the further delays and procrastinations at the port which ended in him going on board the British ship.  The delays are partly explained by a continuing failure of the temporary French government to produce passports, in spite of them having insisted he should not sail without them.  An interesting set of correspondence is shown from which it appears that this may have been deliberate, that he was being held up in order to make it possible for the English to capture him.  What the author fails to make clear is why Napoleon needed passports at the outset, though he had asked for them himself before leaving Malmaison; there seems to be some suggestion that he needed them to enter the United States, but I find it hard to believe that the American authorities would turn away Napoleon Bonaparte unless he had a passport signed by Fouché!  In the later stages there is a question, which makes more sense, of passports being issued by the British to allow him to pass the naval blockade, but there seems to have been no reason why these should have been granted.  It would be interesting to know why Davout, as Minister of War, and Caulaincourt, as a member of the Commission of Government, did not take stronger action to enable Napoleon to leave safely.  There was also the question of the Minister of Marine insisting that one of the frigate captains in particular must take command; this man is said to have been less than enthusiastic about the task which, if known to the Minister, might indicate that there was no real intention to let Napoleon leave, yet, at the last moment, on July 15th, this captain wrote to urge the Emperor to embark immediately.

The difficulty over this section, well-narrated though it is, is that it takes Shakespeare to make a hero out of a character in a perpetual state of indecision, and Napoleon just does not have a good enough script to carry it off.  He does a good line in pathos at Malmaison, and the Themistocles letter is in the heroic vein, but otherwise his dithering becomes just plain irritating.  The author emphasises many times that the delays are almost inexplicable when the need for prompt action should have been obvious.  At Paris Hortense had urged Napoleon to leave quickly; if she understood the situation, then surely the experienced generals in his entourage could have shown more character and exerted more pressure.  Once at Rochefort there were many possible arrangements for Napoleon's escape, yet he turned them all down until it reached the point where "his realistic, safe options had been reduced to one": surrendering to the British.  One wonders whether this had been at the back of his mind all along, he never seems to have been seriously committed to going to America and he had considered retiring to England the year before (ref. Caulaincourt's own memoirs).  Lallemand blames unnamed members of the Emperor's entourage for this attitude, but blaming the royal advisors is the traditional way of deflecting blame from the monarch.

The usual hints of British duplicity and betrayal are here, but they are even less convincing than usual.  Napoleon knew better than anyone that a frigate captain could not make promises for his government.  However he was showing signs of more than indecision at this point: actual self-delusion.  He is reported to have said "I am not acquainted with the Prince Regent, but from all I have heard of him, I cannot avoid placing reliance on his noble character", which, if genuine, makes one wonder where he got his information from.  He did write in the instructions Gourgaud was to carry, "If I must go to England, I should wish to reside in a country-house, at the distance of ten or twelve leagues from London.....I should require a dwelling house sufficiently capacious to accommodate all my suite...should the ministry be desirous of placing a commissioner near my person, Gourgaud will see that this condition shall not seemingly have the effect of placing me under any kind of confinement..." 

Whatever can have made him believe he could make demands and impose conditions like this?  Did he not think what the reaction of the English might have been to seeing a man who had been their violent enemy for 20 years and had cost them so much in blood and gold  living a life of luxury in their midst at the public expense?  How could his safety have been assured and how could he be trusted not to interfere in French, or even in British, politics?   He would have had to consider all these things if he had been the head of state making the decision, why, if he was in his right mind, did he did not consider them now?  What the British government was considering was Fort George, in the north of Scotland-- St Helena could only be an improvement on that.

It is probably not the author's intention, but the effect of the narrative on this reader is to confirm the opinion that Napoleon was the author of his own misfortunes, and that the French did right to dump him after Waterloo, since from that point his actions, or lack of them, mark him as a long-term loser.  Even those who start with more sympathy for him may struggle to find much to admire here.

Turning from the subjective view, the "Appendices" are worth reading.  Unfortunately they open with a substantial error since Appendix I is headed "Decree by Louis XVIII as he left France on 6 March 1815": Napoleon landed in France on March 1st, the decree of 6 March  is the first reaction to his landing, Louis did not leave Paris till 19 March.  This is not just a misprint, since the same error appears in the text of Chapter One.

Appendix II is the "Additonal Act to the Constitution", which is worth reading.  It is strange that there is no ruling on the voting, whether it was to be public or secret, and whether a simple majority was enough, or on what would happen if the two Chambers did not agree.  Only the Government, i.e. the Emperor, could propose legislation, the Chambers could propose amendments but the Government did not have to accept them.  This was a limited form of democracy, though substantially more liberal than the previous constitution of the Empire.

Appendix III is the Treaty of the Allies against Napoleon of 25 March and Appendix IV, the two proclamations from the King when he returned to the country in June. The second of these is notable for the first mention of the 'horrible plot' which the court had become convinced was behind Napoleon's return, it was the urge to uncover and punish conspirators that led to most of the proscriptions. Appendix V is Prince Schwarzenberg's proclamation on behalf of the Allies of 23 June, and Appendix VI, a letter from the King to Talleyrand, 26 March. There seems to be no reason why these documents have not been put into chronological order, it would have made them easier to follow.

Appendix VII is the instructions given by the Minister of Marine to the frigate captains at Rochefort (undated), emphasising the importance of a rapid departure and urging that Napoleon should be treated with all respect. This is the letter referred to above in which Captain Philibert was ordered to take command of whichever ship the Emperor should board, it is hard to infer from this letter that any delay was intended..

Appendix VIII is the Convention between the French and Allied military commanders around Paris, 3 July. This document contains the arrangements for the evacuation of Paris by the French army and its occupation by Allied troops. Article XII is the one which Ney's lawyers tried to use to protect him, but reading the whole document makes it quite clear that this convention covers the military occupation of the capital and was never intended as a general amnesty. Appendix IX, the proclamation of the Committee of Government to the French of 5 July, is Fouché's attempt to explain the capitulation and his promises with respect to a new government. You have to admire his phrasing, no-one could possibly guess which form of government he had in mind.

Appendix X is General Lallemand's account, taken from his journal (which does not appear in the bibliography), of Napoleon's departure (it says July-August 1856, but I presume the year is a misprint on this occasion); Lallemand alleges that Maitland claimed to have authorisation from the government for taking Napoleon on board and promising him safety, Lallemand also claims to have been the only member of the Emperor's suite to have had doubts about this.  In chapter 14 it says that Montholon claimed he and Gourgaud were the only ones opposed to the plan.  Appendices XI and XII are further accounts of Napoleon's departure from eye-witnesses.  Appendix XIII is Maitland's letter to Admiral Keith 18 July, explaining how he came to have Napoleon on board, in which he states that he had made it clear that he had no authority to make any promises.  The reader can choose who to believe.

Finally, Appendix XIV is Savary's protest to Admiral Keith at not being allowed to settle in England.  Both he had Lallemand were wanted by the French government, but the British government, instead of sending them back, held them on Malta till the amnesty, which seems a reasonable compromise.  The notes on Lallemand in the "Cast of Characters", states that he had been imprisoned by Louis XVIII for 'disloyalty', which is rather a weak term for an attempt to raise an armed rebellion.  The attempt coincided with Napoleon's landing in France, though the relationship between the two events never seems to have been explained, and this fuelled the Royalist suspicions of an extensive conspiracy.  It would be interesting to know if any more of Lallemand's journal is available to cast any light on that episode.

The author is to be commended for the amount of new material included here, it should also be said that the book is less partisan than Gilbert Martineau's Napoleon Surrenders, which covers the same ground. The preface suggests that the story "is guaranteed to enthral all but the most jaded reader"; while admitting to being that jaded reader, I think that the failure to enthral is the fault of the hero, not of the narrator: an honest historian can only do so much with his material.

Reviewed by Susan Howard

Placed on the Napoleon Series: September 2008

 

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