On February 26, 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte, the French Emperor forced to step down from his throne in 1814, returned to Paris from his captivity on the Island of Elba. With only a few guards by his side, Napoleon sought to retake control of France by winning the French people’s broader support, who were disillusioned with the new Bourbon monarchy. However, Napoleon’s comeback appeared short-lived. It ended on June 22, 1815, after approximately 100 days, with his ultimate loss at the Battle of Waterloo to the Seventh Coalition (comprising Britain, Russia, Prussia, and Austria).
The Emperor’s Rise & Fall Before His Hundred Days
Napoleon Bonaparte was born on the island of Corsica on August 15, 1769, and graduated as an artillery officer from the French military academy in 1785. The French Revolution of 1789 was a stepping stone in Bonaparte’s military career. Supporting the revolutionary leaders, he grew close to Augustine Robespierre, the brother of Maximilian Robespierre, one of the most influential figures of the French Revolution. Augustine Robespierre recommended Napoleon to the Jacobins, a radical political faction involved in the French Revolution, to appoint Napoleon as the head of the Toulon operation. The French revolutionary army’s successful defeat of the English army in Toulon in 1793 marked Napoleon’s first significant victory and gave him the possibility to prove his loyalty and competence to the Directorate, the French government during 1795–1799. The Directorate appointed Napoleon as commander in chief of the Army of Italy in March 1796.
General Napoleon Bonaparte entered Italy across the Mediterranean coast in April 1796. On April 12, 1796, in Montenotte, and on May 10, 1796, at Lodi, he pushed the Austrian soldiers out of Lombardy. Early in 1797, Napoleon dispatched troops to Austria and concluded a peace settlement; as a result, the Austrian Empire was compelled to cede a substantial area of Italy to France. After a successful military campaign against Austria, Napoleon advanced on the Republic of Venice, ending its almost thousand-year independence.
Napoleon’s expedition in Egypt, conducted from 1798 to 1801, was another military operation designed to increase French authority, acquire more resources, and disrupt the British presence and commercial interests in India. Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition included propaganda efforts to awaken anti-British sentiments in the region, which, as Napoleon sought, would spill over into India and inspire opposition forces to resist. In addition, military campaigns in Egypt caused the relocation of British troops, making it more vulnerable to defend its interests in India.
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Due to the deteriorating political climate in France and the necessity of his return, Napoleon was compelled to call off the campaign in 1801. Even though the French were defeated at the Battle of Alexandria in March 1801 by the joint efforts of the British, Ottoman Empire, and Egyptian armies, the expedition contributed to increased interest in Egyptology and Egyptian culture among European societies.
Napoleon was still regarded as a national hero in France despite his defeat in Egypt, and he managed to build solid ties with influential French political elites. On November 9, 1799, Napoleon overthrew the Directory (the Coup of the 18th Brumaire) and, following the signing of a new Constitution, declared himself the “First Consul” of France in 1799.
In the years leading up to 1804, Napoleon implemented various reforms intended to transform and stabilize France, setting the stage for transforming it into an Empire. The Napoleonic Code, or Civil Code, represents one of the most known Napoleonic legacies in French law. It created a new legal framework for civil, property, and religious rights. Aiming to centralize power, Napoleon implemented administrative reforms, established prefectures, and appointed his loyal representatives. Napoleon also reformed the French educational system; he opened the University of France and promoted science, mathematics, and technological advancements.
In 1804, Napoleon declared himself Napoleon I, Emperor of France, and embarked on restructuring Europe, headed by France. The Napoleonic Wars of 1803–1815 were intended to affirm Napoleon’s supremacy over the European continent and expand French borders. Among others, the Battle of Austerlitz against Austria and Russia proved to be one of the most important victories for Napoleon, contributing to the creation of the Rhine Confederation.
In 1812, Russia defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Borodino, which was followed by another loss against the coalition forces of Austria, Prussia, Russia, and Sweden in the Battle of Leipzig in 1813. Napoleon was forced to flee to Paris, but a few months later, in March 1814, the coalition forces entered Paris. Napoleon was forced to abdicate his throne on April 6, 1814, with the following words: “There is no sacrifice, not even that of life, which I am not ready to make for the interests of France.” He was exiled to Elba, a remote island of Italy, arriving there on May 3, 1814.
The Hundred Days
Napoleon Bonaparte’s rule resulted in significant changes not only in France but in Europe in general. Following the Napoleonic Wars, the Congress of Vienna 1814–1815 was held by leading European nations to establish a new governmental structure and order for Europe. The Bourbon dynasty, led by Louis XVIII, was to be restored to the throne as part of the Congress of Vienna’s plan to reestablish a new French Empire within the borders of old France. During his long and lonely days on Elba, Napoleon carefully observed and examined every bit of information he acquired about Congress’s efforts to forge the new European order, which, as it appeared, was not appealing to the French.
Napoleon correctly assumed that the reduction of his French Empire would result in unrest among the French people. On the other hand, it would encourage wider public support and create a favorable situation for his return.
Napoleon’s plan materialized on February 26, 1815, when he managed to escape from Elba with about 1,000 men. He arrived in Golfe-Juan, on the French mainland, in just two days. Within four days, King Louis XVIII was informed of Napoleon’s escape.
Timeline of Key Events During Napoleon’s Hundred Days
The 5th Regiment was among the first to be sent to capture Napoleon near the city of Grenoble. Napoleon successfully used his charisma and approached the soldiers alone, shouting, “Here I am. Kill your Emperor, if you wish.” The division promptly responded, “Long live the Emperor,” and Grenoble warmly welcomed him.
At the Congress of Vienna, the Allies (Britain, Russia, Austria, and Prussia) declared Napoleon an outlaw and embarked on establishing the Seventh Coalition, planning to mobilize more than 150,000 soldiers to defeat him once and for all.
Napoleon’s former supporter and then King Louis XVIII’s loyal French Peer, Marshal Michel Ney, promised the King to bring Napoleon to him in an iron cage. However, he and his army could not resist his former master’s charisma when they met eye to eye. Marshal Ney pledged to support his former emperor in his new endeavors and joined Napoleon’s army with around 6,000 soldiers.
Information regarding Napoleon’s successful march and warm welcome from the French population quickly reached Paris, and the national or revolutionary sentiments among the Frenchmen quickly rose. Reportedly, the following message was delivered to the Place Vendôme as a joke:
Napoleon and his supporters reached Paris without firing a single shot in their defense. The reason behind a seemingly uninterrupted return is twofold:
Firstly, Napoleon was greeted with enthusiasm and excitement, not only because he was perceived as a national hero but also because, along his way to Paris, he promised constitutional reform and direct elections to an Assembly. Benjamin Constant, a famous French political thinker and writer, played a pivotal role in remodeling the Constitution so that it could assist Napoleon in consolidating power and also include the concerns of a wide range of political parties. The new document is known as the Acte Additionnel (Additional Act). It offered a balance between Napoleon’s rule and individual rights. Emperor Napoleon I and the Parliament would jointly exercise legislative power. The Parliament would have two chambers: the Chamber of Peers, appointed by the emperor, and the Chamber of Representatives, elected for a five-year term. The modified constitution also promised freedom of the press and the end of censorship.
Additionally, King Louis XVIII did not enjoy much popularity either. His reign was associated with the old, oppressive regime, undermining the ideals of the French Revolution and the progress it made. Louis XVIII’s policies favored nobility and aristocracy, increasing the gap between them and the middle class. When Napoleon entered Paris, King Louis XVIII had already escaped to Belgium as he struggled to attain the political and popular support necessary to oppose Napoleon.
The high hopes for peace at the onset of the Congress of Vienna were shattered. War seemed inevitable. The Seventh Coalition was officially established, consisting of Britain, Austria, Prussia, and Russia. The Coalition signed a formal defense treaty and negotiated with other European nations to join the troops already positioned in fields in the Netherlands (Belgium from 1830).
On the other hand, one of the greatest military minds, Napoleon, struggled to form an army capable of victory against the numerically superior Allied forces, despite declaring the general mobilization. Louis XVIII’s legacy accounted for only 200,000 soldiers. Additionally, although 75,000 veterans and volunteers stood up to support their Emperor, it would not be enough. Napoleon opted for a specific strategy: to weaken the Allied forces by attacking each of them preemptively.
The Neapolitan War between the Napoleonic Kingdom of Naples and the Austrian Empire ended with the signing of the Treaty of Casalanza. The King of Naples was Napoleon’s brother-in-law, Joachim Murat. Declared king by Napoleon in 1808, Murat made an agreement with Austria in 1813 following Napoleon’s defeat, hoping to remain on the throne.
The Vienna Congress revealed that the European powers intended to remove Murat. In response, he supported the struggle for Italian independence and, on March 15, declared war against Austria, the main threat to Murat’s throne. The conflict ended with an Austrian victory at the Battle of Tolentino. The Treaty of Casalanza restored Ferdinand IV from the Bourbon dynasty as king of Naples. Murat’s defeat signaled the vulnerability of Napoleon’s former allies.
By the beginning of June, Napoleon had ordered his troops to invade Belgium, where Britain and Prussia had positioned their troops.
As a result of the plebiscite, France officially adopted Napoleon’s new Constitution.
The Battle of Ligny proved to be Napoleon’s last victory. Napoleon’s army managed to defeat the Prussian Army led by Field Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher. Simultaneously, the Battle of Quatre Bras occurred against the united British and Dutch armies, commanded by the Duke of Wellington. Even though the result of the battle was inconclusive, both sides suffered heavy casualties, particularly France, which was already limited in its army and military equipment.
The decisive battle that ultimately led to Napoleon’s final defeat was the Battle of Waterloo in Belgium. The army of the 7th Coalition, led by the Duke of Wellington, was later joined by the Prussian Army, which, despite the initial defeat at the Battle of Ligny, managed to reorganize. Outnumbered by the Coalition’s forces, the Imperial Guard, the last hope for Napoleon’s victory, eventually broke. France lost about 40,000 soldiers and was eventually forced to retreat.
Napoleon Bonaparte decided to return to Paris, comprehending that France was exhausted and could no longer resist. The next day, on June 22, Napoleon stepped down from the position of Emperor in favor of his son, Napoleon II. This plan never materialized.
The forces of the 7th Coalition entered Paris.
Louis XVIII returned to the throne. Napoleon’s Hundred Days came to an end.
The Legacy of Napoleon’s Hundred Days
The last adventure of Napoleon Bonaparte should have been his sail to America. He had even chosen “Colonel Muiron” as his pseudonym for his American life. However, on July 15, the British Royal Navy captured him. Eventually, Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled to the remote island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic, where he spent the rest of his life. Napoleon died on May 5, 1821, at the age of 51.
Napoleon’s Hundred Days illustrated the dedication and determination of the great Emperor, Napoleon I, to serve his ideals and revolutionary France, shaping not only French but European history and future political developments.
Shattered by Napoleon’s return and subsequent military campaigns, leaders of the major European countries jointly agreed to carve out a new system of international relations at the Congress of Vienna based on a peaceful resolution of conflicts that would restrain the dominance of one country over others. This system would last for almost 40 years.