At the end of 1814, we left the exiled Napoleon on Elba. Across the Atlantic, on January 8th 1815, American forces defeated the British in the Battle of New Orleans, the last major battle of the War of 1812. On January 21st, the mortal remains of the guillotined Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI were transferred in a sombre procession to the royal crypt in Saint-Denis. The restoration was complete. The map of Europe could be re-drawn again and the victorious allies agreed to meet in Vienna to discuss the new borders.
Meanwhile, thousands of Britons had decamped for the Continent. Their reasons were mixed; some simply wished to travel again while others hoped to leave their massive debts behind and live abroad on an ‘economical plan’. They soon established their own enclaves in Brussels and Paris where they continued to live the same life as they had at home, mixing with the same people and founding such bulwarks of English society as clubs and libraries where they could be sure to remain among themselves.
At the beginning of March, with trade with the European continent open again, Britain’s ruling classes looked to protect the interests of the landowners by introducing the Importation Bill. This was the first of the so-called Corn Laws, designed to prevent the importation of cheap foreign grain, thus keeping their incomes at the war-time levels. They readily ignored the fact that as a result the price of bread would be at an artificially high level, a fact that did not escape the poorer classes. In the ensuing riots, the windows of White’s club were broken and parliament had to be surrounded by a protective cordon of soldiers.
All rioting ceased when the news reached England that Napoleon had escaped from Elba and was marching towards Paris. He had indeed returned with the violets. The Importation Bill became law without further ado and Europe awaited the next developments with bated breath.
A contemporary source summarised Napoleon’s progress as follows:
A Conversation between Two Gendarmes, modelled on THE TIMES:
First Gendarme: What is the news?
Second Gendarme: Ma foi! the news is short.
The tiger has broken out of his den.
The Monster was three days at sea
The Wretch has landed at Frejus
The Brigand has arrived at Grenoble
The Invader has entered Lyons
Napoleon slept last night at Fontainbleu
The Emperor enters the Thuilleries this day.
On March 19th, Louis XVIII and his family hurried away from the Tuilleries, only some hours before the Emperor’s triumphant return. The English who had flocked to Paris now as hastily left it, many heading for Brussels.
Enriched and enlivened by the influx of officers, the Brussels social whirl continued alongside the preparations for war. Would Napoleon sally across the French border to attack the allied forces or would he remain in France, daring them to invade?
The Duchess of Richmond appealed to Wellington himself for advice as to whether her ball, planned for June 15th, might go ahead. “Duchess, you may give your ball with the greatest safety, without fear of interruptions” was his reply.
Byron captures best what happened next:
There was a sound of revelry by night,
And Belgium's capital had gathered then
Her beauty and her chivalry, and bright
The lamps shone o'er fair women and brave men;
A thousand hearts beat happily; and when
Music arose with its voluptuous swell,
Soft eyes looked love to eyes which spake again,
And all went merry as a marriage-bell;
But hush! hark! a deep sound strikes like a rising knell!
Did ye not hear it?--No; 'twas but the wind,
Or the car rattling o'er the stony street;
On with the dance! let joy be unconfined;
No sleep till morn, when Youth and Pleasure meet
To chase the glowing Hours with flying feet.
But hark! that heavy sound breaks in once more,
As if the clouds its echo would repeat;
And nearer, clearer, deadlier than before!
Arm! arm! it is--it is--the cannon's opening roar
Napoleon had ‘humbugged’ him, as Wellington admitted to the Duke of Richmond, sending Ney to attack the British and Dutch-Belgian forces at Quatre Bras while he himself forced the Prussians to retreat at Ligny. But even as the wounded from these encounters were brought to Brussels, the Allied and French armies marched towards Waterloo, a small village south of Brussels on the far side from Brussels of the Forest of Soigné.
From then until the evening of the 18th, the residents of Brussels were torn between hope of victory and fear of defeat. Some fled immediately towards Antwerp while others remained but prepared for instant flight. One after the other, the dreadful reports arrived: The Prussians had retreated, the Highland regiments that had been piped out of Brussels only that morning had been slaughtered, Wellington had been defeated; the French were at the gates…Every hour only served to add to the dismay.
On the night of the 17th, a violent thunderstorm came on, followed by torrents of rain which during the night, when the army were laying unsheltered upon the field of Waterloo, never ceased a single moment. On Sunday [the 18th] the terror and confusion [in Brussels] reached its highest point.
Meanwhile, on the plain of Waterloo, Wellington and Napoleon set out their armies as calmly as a grand master might dispose of his chessmen were he allowed a free hand in their positioning. It was mid-morning before battle commenced, perhaps because the ground was too wet to allow the artillery to move its guns. But soon about two hundred thousand men were engaged in deadly combat. The battle waged all day until, near sunset, the invincible Imperial Guard was forced to retreat causing the surviving French to flee. The battle was over, the allies under Wellington had won the day, Napoleon was finally defeated, but at what cost?
The earth is cover’d thick with other clay,
Which her own clay shall cover, heap’d and pent,
Rider and horse,—friend, foe,—in one red burial blent!