March 1 1815: Napoleon Returns to France

“L’Inconstant sailed into Golfe-Juan on the southern French coast on Wednesday, March 1, unloading Napoleon’s force by 5 p.m. ‘I have long weighed and most maturely considered the project,’ Napoleon harangued his men just before they went ashore, ‘the glory, the advantages we shall gain if we succeed I need not enlarge upon. If we fail, to military men, who have from their youth faced death in so many shapes, the fate which awaits us is not terrific: we know, and we despise, for we have a thousand times faced the worst which a reverse can bring.’

The following year he reminisced about the landing: ‘Very soon a great crowd of people came around us, surprised by our appearance and astonished by our small force. Among them was a mayor, who, seeing how few we were, said to me: “We were just beginning to be quiet and happy; now you are going to stir us all up again.” ’108 It was a sign of how little Napoleon was seen as a despot that people could speak to him in that way. Knowing that Provence and the lower Rhône valley were vehemently royalist, and that for the moment he needed above all else to avoid any Bourbon armies, Napoleon resolved to take the Alpine route to the arsenal of Grenoble. His instinct was proved right when the twenty men under Captain Lamouret whom he sent off to Antibes were arrested and interned by the local garrison. He hadn’t the troops to attack Toulon, and was conscious of the need to move faster than the news of his arrival, at least until he could augment his force. ‘That is why I hurried on to Grenoble,’ he later told his secretary General Gourgaud. ‘There were troops there, muskets, and cannon; it was a centre.’

All he had was the capacity for speed – horses were soon bought for the lancers – and a genius for propaganda. On landing he issued two proclamations, to the French people and the army, which had been copied out on board ship by hand by as many of the men as were literate. The army proclamation entirely blamed the 1814 defeat on the treason of Marmont and Augereau: ‘Two men from our ranks have betrayed our laurels, their country, their prince, their benefactor.’110 He turned his back on bellicosity, declaring: ‘We must forget that we were masters of nations, but we must not suffer anyone meddling in our business.’ In the proclamation to the people, Napoleon said that after the fall of Paris, ‘My heart was torn apart, but my spirit remained resolute … I exiled myself on a rock in the middle of the sea.’111 It was only because Louis XVIII had sought to reintroduce feudal rights and rule through people who had for twenty-five years been ‘enemies of the people’ that he was acting, he claimed, despite the fact that the Bourbons had certainly not yet got around to reviving feudalism. ‘Frenchmen,’ he continued, ‘in my exile I heard your complaints and wishes; you were claiming that government of your choice, which alone is legitimate. You were blaming me for my long sleep, you were reproaching me for sacrificing to my repose the great interests of the State.’ So, ‘amid all sorts of dangers, I arrived among you to regain my rights, which are yours.’112 It was tremendous hyperbole, of course, but Napoleon knew how to appeal to soldiers who wanted to return to glory and full pay, better-off peasants who feared the return of feudal dues, millions of owners of the biens nationaux who wanted protection from the returning émigrés and churchmen who wanted their pre-1789 property back, workers hit by the flood of English manufactured goods and imperial civil servants who had lost their jobs to royalists. The Bourbons had failed so comprehensively in less than a year that even after the defeats of 1812 and 1813 Napoleon was able to put together a fairly wide-ranging domestic coalition.

On the day he landed Napoleon bivouacked on the dunes at Cannes not far from the present-day Croisette, opposite an old chapel that is today the church of Notre-Dame.”

 Napoleon the Great by Andrew Roberts

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