Em­peror Napoleon ab­di­cates

The leader’s gen­er­als force his hand af­ter re­fus­ing his or­ders

BBC History Magazine - - Anniversaries -

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.

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