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The Story of France by  Mary Macgregor

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THE BATTLE OF WATERLOO

[439] WHEN Napoleon had been banished to Elba, the brother of Louis XVI., who had been living in exile in England, was recalled and proclaimed King of France.

The little son of Louis XVI., although he had never reigned, had sometimes been called Louis XVII., so the new king was given the title of Louis XVIII.

As you would expect, the Royalists were delighted to welcome a Bourbon to the throne, but the soldiers were still loyal to Napoleon. When they saw their new king, who was old and fat, and fond of eating and drinking, they longed for the old days to come again, when their great general was the ruler of France.

Violets, which had always been a badge of the Bonapartes, were handed from one old soldier to another, while they whispered, "He will come to us with the spring." And they were right, for, tired of his little island kingdom, Napoleon determined to return to France. He set sail from Elba in February 1815 with ten hundred and fifty troops, resolved to stake all on one great adventure.

Landing on French soil, the general hastened to Grenoble with his miniature army. Here there was a garrison of his old troops.

At first, when they saw Napoleon, they showed no great eagerness to join him. Perhaps they were afraid of the result if they proved disloyal to Louis XVIII.

The officer, who was a Royalist, ordered his men to shoot the daring exile. But the order was not obeyed.

[440] "Soldiers," then cried Napoleon, throwing open his coat, "here is your emperor! if any one wishes to kill me he can do so."

His voice acted as a spell, thrilling the troops and awakening their old devotion. "Long live the emperor!" they cried again and again, as they stepped over to join the ranks of those who followed him.

As Napoleon marched toward Paris, town after town, village after village, forgot their allegiance to Louis XVIII. and sent their soldiers to follow the general they had loved so well in other days.

Even Marshal Ney, who had been sent by the Government to capture the outlaw and had promised "to bring the Corsican to Paris in an iron cage," no sooner saw his old general than he forgot his promise, and with all his troops joined Napoleon.

Louis XVIII. was not brave enough to fight for his throne against the hero of the people. He fled from Paris in the middle of the night, while Napoleon reached the capital and was carried by the soldiers in triumph to the Tuileries.

The short time during which Napoleon again ruled France was known as the "Hundred Days."

The emperor knew that the princes of Europe would soon be up in arms and ready to march against him.

With all his old energy he made up his mind not to await the enemy. Taking with him as large an army as he had been able to muster, he set out, to find the English under Lord Wellington, the Iron Duke, encamped on the field of Waterloo near Brussels.

Here, on June 18, 1815, Napoleon also took up his position, hoping to fight the English before the Prussians under General Blücher had come to their aid.

On the evening before the battle rain had fallen, and still in the early morning it had not ceased. When the battle began, about twelve o'clock, the fields of Waterloo were wet and slippery.

[441] Again and again the French cavalry charged the English infantry, which was drawn up in solid squares, but still the English stood firm.

"Will those English never show us their backs?" cried the emperor impatiently, as he saw how they still stood unflinching before the tremendous onslaught of his men.

"I fear they will be cut to pieces first," answered one of his generals.

Blücher, meanwhile, was hastening to join the Iron Duke as quickly as muddy roads and heavy cannon would allow. But with all his haste, it was four o'clock before Wellington heard the welcome sound of distant cannon and knew that the Prussians were approaching.

Napoleon also knew that the Prussians could not now be far away, and he resolved on one more desperate charge before Blücher arrived.

His Old Guards, whom hitherto he had kept in reserve, were ordered to advance. But the English met them with so fierce a fire that even these hardy veterans hesitated and fell back in confusion.

The English seized their chance and, charging in among them, drove Napoleon's Old Guards in triumph from the field.

Wellington then advanced with his whole army, and before this terrible onslaught the entire French army turned and fled.

Napoleon knew that the day was over, that victory would not be his.

"All is lost," he cried, "save himself who can," and he galloped from the field.

Blücher and his troops arrived in time to follow the fugitive French army. No mercy was shown by the Prussians, who overtook and killed many hundreds of Frenchmen before they could reach a place of safety.

Napoleon went sadly back to Paris, knowing that the "Sun of Austerlitz" was set for ever. The fickle Parisians, [442] angry at the loss of so many of their soldiers, turned the defeated general out of the city, while orders reached him to leave France. Every port, however, was guarded by a British man-of-war; escape was impossible; and so, exactly a hundred days after he had landed so confidently in France, Napoleon gave himself up a prisoner to the captain of the British ship Bellerophon.

The princes of Europe made up their minds that Napoleon should again be banished, and he was sent to the rocky island of St. Helena, in the Atlantic Ocean. From this lonely spot he could not easily escape, and to make it the more impossible, guards were placed on the island to watch his movements and to read his letters, lest he should ask his friends to help him to return to France.

For over six long years the great general remained a prisoner on the island of St. Helena. On the 5th of May 1821 he died.

As he lay dying a great storm passed over the island. The thunder crashed and the lightning flashed. Then Napoleon raised himself slightly and opened his eyes.

It was surely the noise of cannon that he heard, for looking around, as though for his soldiers, he murmured, "France, army, the head of the army, Josephine." Then, sinking back on his pillows, the great man Closed his eyes for the last time.

"I desire that my ashes may repose on the banks of the Seine, in the midst of the French people I have loved so well," Napoleon had written in his will.

Nineteen years after his death his wish was fulfilled, his body being brought to France and laid to rest in a beautiful tomb in Paris.

After Napoleon had been banished to St. Helena, Louis XVIII. had returned to claim his crown. He was allowed to sit upon the throne of France, but he was never able to gain the love of his people.

In 1824 he died, saying with his last breath to his brother [443] Charles, who would succeed him, "The Charter is the best inheritance I can leave you."

This was the Charter of French Liberties which Louis XVIII. had signed and promised to uphold when he ascended the throne of France.


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