The former master of Europe was now the nominal monarch of an obscure island. In exile on Elba, he was surrounded by the faded trappings of court ceremony, while the pension promised to him did not materialise. Napoleon wrote again and again to his wife Marie Louise, the daughter of the Austrian emperor, asking her to come to him. Even if she could not or would not, he begged her to send their infant son. Neither request was granted as, although he did not know it, the letters were intercepted by his wife’s family and never reached her.


Napoleon's exile on Elba

A Napoleon who longs for his wife and child may cut a very human figure, but he remained the ambitious, supremely self-confident gambler who had made himself emperor. As the months passed, he received regular reports on events in Europe and sensed a shift. The Bourbon King Louis XVIII, younger brother of the man beheaded in 1793, returned to rule France. Ageing, overweight and lacking charisma, he had spent the last decades as an exile in Britain. He did not know his subjects and they did not know him. The same was true of all the royalist exiles who returned with him and received plum posts in government and the army.

This was no longer the France of before the Revolution. Napoleon’s soldiers resented the drastic reduction in size of the army and being made to serve under exiles who had never smelled powder. Tens of thousands of prisoners of war returned home and were left unemployed and resentful of their former captors. Civilians saw the royal court as corrupt, incompetent and arrogant. At the same time, the great powers met at the Congress of Vienna to decide the shape of Europe, where memories of their recent alliance quickly faded as old rivalries reappeared. Disputes over territory became so bitter that there were fears of war. Napoleon watched and waited, sensing the game was not yet over, and that even from defeat he could somehow turn everything around. He could not delay too long. Given time, the new king might establish himself, the allies might settle their differences, and the outrage of his old soldiers might fade.

At the end of February 1815, he slipped away from Elba, landing on the Côte d’Azure on 1 March. He had just 600 soldiers and Paris was almost as many miles away, but the march that followed became epic. Near Grenoble, a battalion of the 5th Line Infantry blocked their path. Not wanting civil war, Napoleon walked alone towards them – the soldiers tore off the white cockades of the Bourbon king and rallied to their emperor. His old commander, Marshal Ney, boasted that he would bring Napoleon back in an iron cage, but his troops also defected.

Napoleon regains his army

The closer he got to Paris, and the more soldiers joined him, the more respect he commanded, as shown in the way the story was told in the newspaper Le Moniteur. At first he was the “Corsican Ogre”, a “monster”, a “tyrant” and the “usurper”. Then he became “Bonaparte”, next “Napoleon”, until, on 22 March, the paper announced that “yesterday His Majesty” arrived in Paris. Louis XVIII had already fled to the Netherlands. Napoleon claimed that he wanted only to restore pride and prosperity to France, and wished for peace with his neighbours.

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View of a sham fight on the Serpentine, Hyde Park, London, 1814

For all their differences, the powers at Vienna would not accept the return of Napoleon, and none believed that he would keep the peace in the long run. Yet no one was ready to fight a war. Their armies had mainly returned home. The Russians and Austrians were not capable of taking the field before late summer at the earliest. A Prussian army could be mustered quicker than that, but it would not include many of their best troops. Even so, the army was sent to the Netherlands to act alongside a mixed force of Dutch, Belgian, German and British troops.

Time was against Napoleon, and once again he worked miracles as he assembled an army, organising and equipping new units, but he could not afford to wait. If he remained on the defensive then, eventually, the allies would attack France in overwhelming numbers. Napoleon had to strike, and the only place he could do this was to hit the armies gathering in the Netherlands. Win a great victory there, and it might just make some of the allies waver and be willing to negotiate with him. At the very least, he could hope to inflict heavy losses and so start to even the odds against him. In the early hours of 15 June, the first French soldiers crossed the border into Belgium.

The Hundred Days heat up

Napoleon had 123,000 men and 358 cannon. Facing him were some 130,000 Prussians under Field Marshal Blücher and 100,000 men in the Anglo-Dutch army under the Duke of Wellington. Both armies included large numbers of inexperienced soldiers, and others who, until only recently, had fought as allies of the French. They were also widely dispersed to cover the border and to make it easier to billet and feed them. Napoleon’s troops were largely veterans, and he also had the even greater advantage that his opponents did not know when or where he would strike. He needed to hit the enemy hard before they could concentrate and, most of all, to prevent Wellington and Blücher joining together.

The Prussians guarded the frontier where the French invaded. Napoleon knew from experience that the old warrior was instinctively aggressive. On the other hand, Wellington was known to be cautious, and in the event misread the situation, for he was convinced that the French would swing around his right flank and try to cut him off from the shore – and his communications with Britain. It was not until late on 15 June that he realised his mistake, declaring “Napoleon has humbugged us, by God.” The realisation came at the Duchess of Richmond's ball, held in Brussels – much of London society had come to watch the war from a safe distance.

Ligny and Quatre Bras

The next day was hot and humid. Blücher had some two thirds of his army concentrated at Ligny. Wellington rode over to meet him, and promised to march to join him, but his army took too long to muster and part of it was attacked at the crossroads of Quatre Bras. Claims that Wellington duped his ally into fighting have often been made, but are unlikely to be true. Blücher was determined to fight and Napoleon readily obliged him. The battle of Ligny was an attritional pounding match, and the Prussians were ground down by the French artillery and driven from their positions by evening.

At Quatre Bras, the other wing of the French army was led by Marshal Ney. He had only arrived the afternoon before, after Napoleon’s original choice of general had fallen ill. Ney inflicted heavy losses on Wellington’s men, but was repulsed. Due to confusion over their orders, some 20,000 French infantry spent the day marching between the two battlefields and failed to intervene in either.

On 17 June, Napoleon believed the Prussians were too badly damaged to pose an immediate threat, and detached some 35,000 men under Marshal Grouchy to follow Blücher and ensure that he did not join Wellington. Napoleon and Ney took the rest of the army, and followed Wellington. It took time for the French to marshal their forces, and so Wellington got his army away and retreated along the main road north to Brussels. During a day of downpours and thunderstorms, the British cavalry fought a series of delaying actions to keep the pursuers at bay. The rain continued through the night as the Anglo-Dutch army deployed along the ridge at Mont St Jean. Wellington had his headquarters in the village of Waterloo a little to the north, and kept his tradition of naming the battle after the place where he had slept the night before.

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Napoleon watches on as the fighting at Waterloo unfolds in this 1843 painting

The Sun came up in a clear sky on Sunday 18 June, with some of the French still marching to join the rest of the army facing the ridge.

Napoleon expected the Anglo-Dutch to retreat again, and was pleased when they did not. Wellington was determined to fight, having received Blücher's promise to aid him with at least one of the four corps in his army. Napoleon trusted Grouchy to keep him away. He had never before faced the British in battle but, at least publicly, was dismissive. “Just because you have been beaten by Wellington,” he told his chief of staff, “you think he’s a good general. I tell you, Wellington is a bad general, the English are bad troops and this affair is nothing more than eating breakfast!

The bitter end of the Hundred Days

What followed was the battle of Waterloo. As his army collapsed into retreat, Napoleon took shelter in a solid square of Imperial Guardsmen before making his escape. The Prussians chased after the French. Wellington’s men sank down for an exhausted rest on the battlefield, surrounded by some 43,000 dead and wounded men and 12,000 fallen horses.

The war was not quite over. Grouchy fought a skilful delaying action on 19 June, and there was resistance to the allied advance in several fortified towns. Yet it was soon obvious that Napoleon could not recover from this defeat. The allies were at Paris by the beginning of July, and Napoleon surrendered to the British. This time, he was exiled to St Helena, a far-less accessible South Atlantic island. He died six years later.

Dr Adrian Goldsworthy is an historian and novelist, and the author of several works of Napoleonic fiction


This content first appeared in the April 2015 issue of BBC History Revealed