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The Struggle for Sea Power by  M. B. Synge


 

 

THE FALL OF THE EMPIRE

"Farewell to the land where the gloom of my glory

Arose and o'ershadowed the earth with her name;

She abandons me now, but the page of her story,

The brightest or blackest, is filled with my fame."

—BYRON (Napoleon's Farewell).

NAPOLEON had returned to Paris at Christmas-time in 1812. The following spring found him taking the field again, for Prussia had suddenly sprung to arms and allied herself with Russia against France.

Napoleon had lost his Grand Army. The heroes of that fatal march, slept their last sleep beneath the winter snows of Russia, but he was undaunted still. His veterans were dead, but he called on the youth of the French empire. He commandeered lads of seventeen—the last hopes of France—to fight his battles. They were not soldiers, but children; enthusiastic, superbly brave, but without the strength or endurance needed for such a [204] campaign. And it sounds almost brutal to hear their general complaining, that they "choked his hospitals with their sick and strewed his roads with their dead bodies."

"I grew up in the field, and a man like me troubles himself little about the lives of a million of men," Napoleon had explained.

And so great was his genius, that with this young army, he defeated the Russians and Prussians in the two battles fought at Lutzen and Bautzen.

The defeated armies now looked to Austria for help, and not in vain. Austria joined them, England joined them. One by one the nations of Europe arose, to shake off the yoke of Napoleon.

"A year ago," said the French Emperor, "all Europe marched with us; now it all marches against us."

It was five months after he had received the news of Wellington's victory at Vittoria, that Napoleon was beaten at last by the allies at Leipzig, in Germany. It was a terrible fight, lasting three days, and known to history as the "Battle of the Nations." It was almost a massacre in its loss of life; but it shook Napoleon's throne, and it broke his power.

On November 9, 1813, Napoleon returned unexpectedly to Paris. He found the capital sullen and gloomy at the news of fresh disaster to the Empire. His Empress threw herself into his arms in floods of tears. The country was crying for peace.

[205] "Inspire my papa, O God, with the desire to make peace, for the welfare of France and of us all," was the nightly prayer of the baby-king of Rome.

Napoleon listened and smiled. But he rejected the terms of peace now offered by the four allies, and they prepared for the invasion of France herself.

"We must march to Paris," said the famous Prussian general, Blücher. "Napoleon has paid his visit to every capital in Europe, and we can do no less than return the compliment."

Yet once again, Napoleon prepared to march against them. On January 23, he held his last great reception in the palace of the Tuileries.

"Gentlemen," he said to the assembled company, "a part of France is invaded. I am about to place myself at the head of my army, and with the help of God and the valour of my troops I hope to drive the enemy back beyond the frontiers."

Then he led forward his Empress and the little king of Rome, a flaxen-haired child of three, dressed in the uniform of the National Guard.

"If," he added in a broken voice—"If the enemy approaches the capital, I intrust all that I hold dearest in the world—my wife and my son—to the devotion of the National Guard."

Amid sobs and shouts of fidelity, he carried round the child in his arms. Before the morning dawned on January 25, he said good-bye to Maria Louisa [206] and his little son, neither of whom he ever saw again.

He now placed himself at the head of his hastily formed army, which was to oppose the great hosts of soldiers pouring down upon him from beyond the Rhine. A nine weeks' campaign followed. Napoleon was as full of genius and resource as ever, but the Powers arrayed against him were too strong for his boy army. Slowly he was pushed back from the Rhine to the boundaries of France. Toward the end of March, the Allies were nearing Paris. Still Napoleon did not despair. With a magnificent courage, he led on his weary troops.

"If the enemy reaches Paris, the Empire is no more," he exclaimed, as he pushed vigorously forward.

On March 30 Maria Louisa and her little son had fled from the doomed city. Napoleon was even now within ten miles: he might yet be in time to save the town. Forward—forward to Paris. Then they told him the news. "Sire, it is too late: Paris has capitulated."

Slowly the truth burnt into the brain of the fallen and defeated Emperor. Paris was his no longer. He could see the enemy's watch-fires glowing against the northern sky; he knew the heights of the city were bristling with cannon which forbade approach. His great courage gave way at last.

Meanwhile Alexander of Russia and Frederick [207] William of Prussia were riding side by side through Paris, while the people shouted for the restoration of Louis XVIII. as their king. Nothing was left for the Emperor of the French save to abdicate.

"The allied Powers having proclaimed that the Emperor Napoleon was the sole obstacle to the re-establishment of peace in Europe, faithful to his oaths, he declares that he renounces for himself and his heirs, the thrones of France and Italy, and that there is no sacrifice, not even that of life, which he is not ready to make for the interest of France." So ran the words whereby Napoleon signed away his mighty empire.

"Obtain the best terms you can for France. For myself I ask nothing," he said gloomily to the messenger between himself and the Allies.

Yet his anguish was great when he found that his great empire was to be exchanged for the little island of Elba away in the Mediterranean, between Corsica and the coast of Italy. Such a position seemed intolerable. He sought to take his own life, but failed.

"Fate has decreed," he exclaimed; "I must live and await all that Providence has in store for me."

Preparations went forward.

"It is all like a dream," he said one day, putting his hand wearily to his head.

On April 20 he said good-bye to the Imperial Guard, drawn up before him. Tears fell from his eyes, as he dismounted in their midst.

[208] "All Europe," he said, "has armed against me. France herself has deserted me. Be faithful to the new king whom your country has chosen. Do not lament my fate. I could have died. I shall write with my pen of the deeds we have done together. Bring hither the eagle. Beloved eagle! may the kisses I bestow on you long resound in the hearts of the brave. Farewell, my children; farewell, my brave companions,—farewell!"

Then, kissing the war-stained banner of France, he turned from them and went on his way, while the sobs of the men, who had fought for him, fell on his ear.

He was accompanied to Elba, his new home, by four representatives of Russia, Prussia, Austria, and England. Maria Louisa was safe in her father's keeping, and now refused to follow her husband into exile. Alone, bereft of all his friends, forsaken by wife and child, the fallen Emperor arrived at his island home.

"It must be confessed," he said smiling, as he stood one day at the top of the highest hill in Elba,—"It must be confessed, that my island is very small."


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