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The Napoleon Series > Military Information > Battles

Military Subjects: The Hundred Days


March on Paris

Back in Power

Preparations for War

Plan of Attack

Napoleon's Reaction

Chapter one

Napoleon's Return and Preparations for War

By Alfons Libert, FINS

On February 26, 1815 Napoleon Bonaparte, some generals and about a thousand soldiers of his personal guard boarded ship for their voyage from the island of Elba back to France. On this little island not very far from Corsica, the Emperor had stayed since his abdication. Napoleon Bonaparte considered it was time for his return. He was ready to put everything on the line in one last, big gamble.


19th Century Sailship
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The situation in France

The French were very displeased with the political leadership of King Louis XVIII. Although the King meant well, he proved to be incompetent.

In the King's wake the "émigrés" had returned to France: nobles and members of the clergy that had fled the country during the French revolution. Now they where back and they claimed, with a loud voice, their former privileges and the lands the owned before the revolution. The peasants who bought these lands for very low prices where of course very suspicious of a possible division of the lands amongst these "émigrés". France was mainly an agrarian nation in those day's and the mistrust of the largest part of the population undermined the King's position.

The mediocre attempts of the Bourbons to revive the unstable economy had no effects. The situation was far from good; the prices of food were sky-high because of a hard winter and a dry and very hot summer. The middle-class, that did so well under Napoleon's rule, was complaining about the bad economic situation and the poor and the needy had to live trough some very rough times.

Another large group of malcontents was the ex-soldiers. After their demobilisation in 1814, many of these men were able to continue their normal civilian lives. For a sizeable group of veterans, officers on half pay and ex-professional soldiers there was no place in the with inflation stricken society. Once they were conquering hero's bringing glory to France, now many of them were starving to death, deserted by that same France. It's only logical that they where unhappy and agitated.

On the international scene, everything looked favourable also. At the Vienna congress the understanding among the Powers was far from good and none of them really liked the French Bourbon government.

Napoleon's March on Paris

On March 1, 1815, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte set once again foot on French soil at Golfe-Juan, between Cannes and Antibes. A more appropriate place to land would have been the valley of the Rhone river. From there the march to Paris would have been far easier and a lot faster. Bonaparte feared the royalist sentiments of the inhabitants of that region so he took the more difficult road through the Alps to Grenoble.


The landing at Golfe-Juan
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His arrival took the French authorities by total surprise. It took four day's for the news to reach Paris. The irresolution of the local authorities gave Napoleon the time to act without interference. The population, on whose reaction everything depended, reacted with calm and resignation.

On March 7, 1815 the small Imperial column met the 5th Regiment of the Line, not far from Grenoble. Napoleon stepped forward and faced the muskets alone. With a remarkable mixture of exaggerations and lies and by using his charisma and personal power over soldiers, he managed to persuade the Regiment. With the cry: "Vive L'Empéreur" the 5th changed sides as one man. The gates of Grenoble opened and the Emperor received a warm welcome.

On March 8, the 7th Regiment of the Line and its commander, Napoleon's future Aide de Camps: Colonel Charles Huchet, Count de la Bédoyère changed sides too.

7th defects

The 7th Regiment of the Line defects
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On every stop on his march to Paris Napoleon addressed the people. He promised everybody exactly what they wanted to have being the opportunist that he was. Peasants he assured that they would not lose their lands to the émigrés, city people he seduced with promises of fiscal reforms. Everywhere he went he promised peace and prosperity.

In the mean time the Bourbons issued a warrant for his arrest. They send increasing numbers of troops to intercept him. Marshal Ney promised Louis XVIII he would bring Napoleon to Paris "in an iron cage". When he met his former master eye to eye on March 18, 1815 the attraction proved to be too great and he defected also together with the 6.000 men in his command.

In Paris, a practical joker had put up a message on the Place Vendôme. It read: "From Napoleon to Louis XVIII: my dear brother, it is not necessary to send me more troops, I already have enough of them!"

Meanwhile, the mob became very restless. Revolutionary song's and slogans began to reappear. On March 19, 1815 Louis XVIII took the safe way out. Pressured by Napoleon's unstoppable march to Paris and the growing anti-royalist mood in Paris he ran in the middle of the night to Gent, Belgium (then still the Netherlands). Here he started a voluntary exile that would last for more than a hundred days.

The Emperor Back in Power

Napoleon made his great entrance at the Tuilleries palace in Paris on March 20, 1815. Was his return this easy? No of course not:

Napoleon knew that war was inevitable but he did not proclaim a general mobilisation as off yet. It would only be a matter of time before his former enemies would turn on him but he desperately needed to get the French public opinion behind him so he pleaded for peace. He had hoped that at least some of the Powers would accept the fact that he was once again in charge in France, but that did not happen.

The representatives of the Powers met in Vienna on March 13, seven day's before the Emperor reached Paris. They declared him an outlaw and an enemy of world peace. They pledged to assemble armies to take care of him for once and for all.

On March 25, the Seventh Coalition was formed with the signing of a formal defence treaty between Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia. While Britain and Prussia had already troops in the field, the other nations prepared themselves. All Powers broke of their official relations with Napoleon's France.

In France Napoleon's position was a very weak one. He had to make lots of compromises to maintain himself. He nominated several members of the old nobility and even people that betrayed him in 1814 in high positions to get their much needed support. Off the about 730 députées in the chamber of representatives, only about 100 were on his side. The others watched his every move with eagle's eyes. This of course limited his freedom of actions a lot. In large parts of France, rebellion ruled. In the department of the Vendée an armed uprising broke out.

Preparations for War

Now that he could put the blame for the coming war on his enemies, Napoleon dropped his "angel of peace" act. He ordered a general mobilisation on April 8 but hesitated to reinstall the conscription. Louis XVIII had abolished this hated system when he came in power after Napoleon's first abdication.

There were big shortages on every possible kind of military equipment but with a lot of tremendous efforts most of them were, to some extend, resolved. The biggest problem however was the shortage of soldiers. The Royal Army that Napoleon inherited after Louis XVIII fled for Gent was about 200,000 troops strong. Some 75,000 former soldiers and some 15,000 new volunteers responded to their Emperor's call to arms. Police, Customs and Navy units changed into infantry and artillery regiments. Veterans and the battalions of the National Guard "Gardes Nationaux" entered active service. With these units an auxiliary army of some 220,000 men was formed, an army that provided the garrisons for the "places fortes" (fortresses) and the camps.

Captain National Guard

Captain of the National Guard
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These and other measures supplied Napoleon with a force of some 290,000 troops. He had a prospect of some 150,000 more troops within 6 months, the militia class of 1815. These conscripts, put on extended leave when the conscription was abolished, would be recalled into active service.

The Allied Plan of Attack

Despite his efforts Napoleon's position was still far from favourable. In time the Allies could send between 800,000 and 1,200.000 soldiers in the field against him. They could freely choose their directions of attack along France's long borders.

The Allied commanders were very aware of this last advantage. Starting from April 1, their troops would march on Paris from different directions and in great strength. They hoped to crush the smaller French armies with their superior numbers.

Wellington and Blucher with about 110,000 Anglo-Dutch troops and some 117,000 Prussians would attack France from the Netherlands (Belgium since 1830). General Kleist von Nollensdorf would join Blucher with his 20,000 Prussians, stationed in Luxembourg.

Schwarzenberg and about 210,000 Austrians would attack from the Black Forest.

An army of 50,000 Austrians and 25,000 Piedmonts under the command of General Frimont threatened Lyons and the Rivièra and in Switzerland Bachmann and 37,000 Swiss were standing by.

A Spanish-Portuguese army was still forming but would attack as soon as possible in the south and a Neapolitan army under Onasca would invade Southeast France.

Barclay de Tolly's 150,000 Russians, which had the longest distance to travel, would stay in reserve in the central Rhine area after their arrival.

This was a pretty impressive set-up on paper but the implementation of it on the field did not go as planned. Late May 1815 only the armies of Wellington and Blücher were in place. The Austrians could not reach the Rhine before early July and the Russians would reach their positions much later than planned.

Napoleon's Reaction

Napoleon could adopt two strategies to counter the Allied attack. His first option was to take a defensive posture. Assuming that the Allies would not reach Paris before mid-August, he could use the extra time to recruit and train more combat troops. He would than be able to concentrate his forces around Paris and meet the advancing Allied armies with numerical superior forces. But this strategy meant that large parts of France would be lost to the enemy with very little or no resistance at all. This would look very bad to the French people and Napoleon still very much needed to get the population behind him.

His second option was to attack the Allied troops in the Netherlands with the forces he already had. The disadvantage of this strategy was that he could only bring about 125,000 troops in the field against more than 200,000 Allied troops commanded by the Coalition's best generals. The possible advantages of a victory over these generals however were huge:

An Allied defeat would make the Seventh Coalition shake on its foundations. The French would rally as one person behind Napoleon and this would give him the much needed freedom of action. There was also a very real possibility of a pro-French revolt in the Netherlands once the Allied powers in those regions were defeated. This would give Napoleon an extra source of manpower: there were large numbers of seasoned veterans of the former Napoleonic armies in the Netherlands and lots of new recruits.

Wellington's defeat would probably provoke the fall of the British Tory government. With a new Whig government it would be much easier to talk about peace.

A French victory in the Netherlands would secure the north-north-east border so Napoleon would be able to wheel to the right and attack, reinforced by his observation Corps, the enemy at his eastern border.

Napoleon chose the offensive strategy. While he would attack in the Netherlands with the "Armée du Nord," his observation Corps would guard the French borders.

The "Armée du Rhine" of General Jean Rapp (23,000 troops) was in position to stop the Austrians of Schwarzenberg once they started their advance.

The 8,400 soldiers of General Lecourbe's "Armée du Jura" faced Bachmann's 37,000 Swiss.

Marshal Suchet's 23,500 strong "Armée des Alpes" was ready to protect Lyons against the Austrian-Piedmonts army.

Marshal Brune's "Armée du Var" (5,500) observed the Neapolitan army of Onasco.

In the rebellious department of the Vendée, General Lamarque and his 10,000 troops were supposed to end the uprising or at least to keep it under control.

Napoleon sent two armies in the field against the Spanish-Portuguese threat. The "Armée des Pyrinees Orientales" (7,600) de Decaen at Toulouse and the "Armée des Pyrinees Occidentales" (6,800) de Clausel at Bordeaux.

The minister of war, Marshal Davout disposed of 20,000 troops to protect Paris with.

Early in June 1815 the first preliminary orders were given. Soon after this, the first, very concealed, troop movements to the "Belgian" border commenced.


Allied plan of attack and French Observation Corps
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