Emperor Napoleon abdicates
The leader’s generals force his hand after refusing his orders
The beginning of April 1814 found Napoleon Bonaparte in defiant mood. After a series of military reverses, his empire had crumbled and the troops of the Sixth Coalition (comprising Russia, Austria, Prussia, Britain and others) had occupied Paris. The emperor himself, with what remained of his army, was at Fontainebleau, south of the capital. Far from giving up, however, he was determined to fight on. At midday on 3 April, Napoleon told the Imperial Guard that they would shortly march on Paris and retake the city. “Vive l’empereur!” the men shouted. “A Paris! A Paris!”
Unfortunately for Napoleon, his senior officers had different ideas. They had no desire to see more blood spilt to appease their master’s vanity. “Are we to sacrifice everything to one man?” asked the previously loyal Marshal Ney. “It is time to think a little of ourselves, our families and our interests.”
Ney led a delegation to see Napoleon. The latest news from the capital, he said, indicated that the senate had turned against the emperor. It was pointless to fight on: “The army will not march on Paris.” “The army will obey me!” Napoleon shouted. “Sire,” said Ney firmly, “the army will obey its generals.”
There was a pause. Then Napoleon asked his marshals to let him speak to his foreign minister. In that moment, they knew he had given up. Three days later, on the morning of 6 April, the emperor summoned his officers and wrote out a note of abdication.
When the news reached England, all was jubilation. As people queued for newspapers, bells rang out in triumph. Napoleon’s extraordinary career was over – or so it seemed.