March 7 1815: Napoleon’s Bravery

“Easily the most dramatic moment of the journey came the following day [ March 7 1815] a few hundred yards south of the town of Laffrey, where Napoleon encountered a battalion of the 5th Line in a narrow area between two wooded hills on what is today called La Prairie de la Rencontre. According to Bonapartist legend, Napoleon, standing before them well within musket range, with only his far smaller number of Imperial Guardsmen protecting him, threw back his iconic grey overcoat and pointed to his breast, asking if they wanted to fire on their Emperor. In testament to the continuing power of his charisma, the troops threw down their muskets and mobbed him. Napoleon had previously been informed by two officers of the pro-Bonapartist attitudes of the demi-brigade, but a single shot from a royalist officer could have brought about a very different outcome.

Savary, who wasn’t present, told a slightly less heroic version, in which Napoleon’s conversational style and habit of question-asking saved the day. The Emperor approached; the battalion kept a profound silence. The officer who was in command ordered them to aim their muskets: he was obeyed; if he had ordered Fire we cannot say what would have happened. The Emperor didn’t give him time: he talked to the soldiers and asked them as usual: ‘Well! How are you doing in the 5th?’ The soldiers answered ‘Very well, Sire.’ Then the Emperor said: ‘I’ve come back to see you; do some of you want to kill me?’ The soldiers shouted ‘Oh! That, no!’ Then the Emperor reviewed them as usual and thus took possession of the 5th Regiment. The head of the battalion looked unhappy.

When Napoleon himself told the story he said he had adopted a jovial, old-comrade attitude towards the troops: ‘I went forward and held out my hand to a soldier, saying, “What, you old rascal, were you about to fire on your Emperor?” “Look here,” he answered, showing me that his musket was not loaded.’ He also put the success down to having his veterans with him: ‘It was the bearskin helmets of my Guards which did the business. They called to memory my glorious days.’ Whether Napoleon had been declamatory or conversational at that tense moment, he showed great nerve.

Laffrey also represented a watershed, because for the first time regular soldiers, rather than peasants or National Guardsmen, had come over to his side. After being cheered by crowds at Vizille – where Charles de La Bédoyère brought the 7th Line over to him – taking refreshment at Mère Vigier’s café in Tavernelles and having a by then well-deserved footbath at Eybens, Napoleon entered Grenoble at 11 p.m. on March 7. There the townspeople tore down their own city gates and presented pieces of them to Napoleon as a souvenir of their loyalty. ‘On my march from Cannes to Grenoble I was an adventurer,’ Napoleon later said; ‘in Grenoble I once again became a sovereign.’Rejecting an offer to stay at the prefecture, Napoleon displayed his customary genius for public relations by instead staying in room No. 2 of the hotel Les Trois Dauphins in the rue Montorge, which was run by the son of a veteran of his Italian and Egyptian campaigns and was where he had stayed in 1791 when stationed at Valence.”

 Napoleon the Great by Andrew Roberts

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