Napoleon: why escape from Elba anniversary is a bigger deal than Waterloo

Joseph Beaume, Napoleon Bonaparte leaving Elba, 26 February 1815.

By the time the summer of 2015 is over, several thousand more pages will have appeared on Napoleon and the Battle of Waterloo, catering for the most obsessive of military historians and enthusiasts.

Publishers love a good anniversary, so a 200-year anniversary is gold dust. Yet, however useful a commercial hook, it’s hardly sufficient to warrant such an outpouring of scholarly and popular writing. Yes, Waterloo did draw a final decisive curtain on Napoleon’s military career. But the battle itself can be thought to have little historical significance. The commemoration of Wellington’s triumph by Britain’s political elite (despite the decisive role played by Blücher) is often little more than a jingoistic appeal to popular anti-French sentiment.

Because even if this battle had not finished Napoleon, then the combined armies of the four powers (Britain, Prussia, Russia, and Austro-Hungary) would have done so sooner or later. On March 13, the representatives at the Congress of Vienna had responded to Napoleon’s return from Elba by declaring him an outlaw who could not be tolerated in power. This was a rare moment of agreement between the four powers and it made war inevitable.

Meanwhile, things were looking pretty bleak on Napoleon’s side. The French National Assembly’s refusal to re-introduce conscription left him dependent on an inevitably dwindling supply of men and support for him more generally ebbed as war approached. The die had been wholly cast. It was not a question of whether he fell, but when – and at what cost to whom. So why the fuss about Waterloo?

Revolution eradicated

Napoleon had been forced to abdicate in March 1814 and was subsequently exiled to Elba. Louis XVIII was restored. After this, the Congress of Vienna sought to redraw the borders of Europe’s states and to restore autocratic and royal government across the board. The establishment of a stable balance of power between the great powers was one objective (and was one reason for keeping France whole), but so too was the eradication of the remnants of the French Revolution.

In France, oppressed by more than a decade of war and seeing little liberty under the Empire, the stability of a settled monarchy was initially attractive to many. Yet, after only a few months of Bourbon rule, that consensus evaporated.

Napoleon’s return in 1815 inevitably messed this balance up. And so one justification for the commemoration lies not in the final battle, or in the tragic hero’s final exile, but in the significance of his return for France and for Europe more widely.

Man of the people?

When Napoleon slipped the lax security of Elba and landed on French soil on February 26 1815, he offered himself not as an autocrat but as a popular hero: one who could, as Balzac later put it, “gain an empire simply by showing his hat!” Whether his initial aspirations were at all popular in character is unclear – he claimed to be coming to resume his rights, which he saw also as those of the people. But there is no doubt that his return re-kindled the spirit of 1789 and 1793: the Marseilles was sung again on the streets of Paris (having been sidelined in Napoleon’s earlier reign and banned under Louis).

And, if only tactically, he endorsed the sovereignty of the French people and linked his cause to a liberal (but not radical) reading of the original principles of the French Revolution. He managing to bring to his side many liberals, such as Benjamin Constant, who had previously opposed him.

Power from the people

So this time round he came not on his own terms, but on those of the people and in their name. He was embraced for redeeming their standing as a glorious, modern and reforming nation. Support for him hemorrhaged whenever he seemed to assume imperial standing. Not everybody bought his apparent commitment to popular sovereignty in his claim that “My will is that of the people”. But his ability to sweep back into France and into the hearts of the French military, who deserted Louis en masse to serve their old commander, is impossible to account for without accepting that he appeared to speak for the French people in a way Louis XVIII could not.

This role proved unsustainable following the Allies’ rejection of his rule and the resumption of military conflict. But it encapsulates, in dramatic terms, the debate over who determines state legitimacy: popular support or the autocratic decisions of the Congress of Vienna and the Courts of Europe.

While most of Europe thought the liberté and popular sovereignty of the French Revolution had finally been quashed by France’s humiliation in 1814, the 100 Days revealed the fragility of the Great Power politics that sought to contain France as a military, but more essentially, as an ideological force.

Yes, the Congress of Vienna resumed its task after Napoleon’s defeat and second exile. But the final flourish of the 100 Days did much to canonise Napoleon as the people’s hero and also to signify the inevitable fragility of monarchical and aristocratic orders that could not speak in the name of those they ruled with any confidence at all.

The heroic version of Napoleon could be seen in Britain in the years following Waterloo and his death on St Helena six years later. Several popular ballads emerged commemorating his ability to inspire commitment and sacrifice in his army and his people. One of the most enduring was The Grand Conversation on Napoleon, whose title and refrain might best be understood as underscoring the fact that, in the modern world inaugurated by the Revolution, political orders and their leadership might hold their power by their monopoly of violence – but they could derive their legitimacy only from their people.