The Fall of Napoleon

Within four weeks of taking the field Napoleon had thrown the allies into disarray and seemed to have stopped the invasion in its tracks. He had gone far towards restoring the reputation for invincibility and military genius which had been badly dented in 1812 and 1813. In fact, however, at the very moment that Kankrin was despairing the situation was turning in the allies’ favour in all three crucial areas of the war, in other words supply, diplomacy and military operations.

As regards supply, one important factor was that most of Kankrin’s mobile magazines commanded by majors Lisanevich and Kondratev struggled their way from the Rhineland through to the army, which they then kept supplied with biscuit for a month. Lisanevich and Kondratev were unsung heroes of the Russian war effort, whose achievement in getting so large a part of the mobile magazines – including the great majority of its original carts and horses – all the way from the Danube and Belorussia through Germany and Switzerland to central France was remarkable. En route they had defeated snowdrifts, floods, cattle plagues, ambushes and the never-ending breakdowns of their overloaded peasant carts. No doubt the biscuit they carried for the troops, much of it baked in the autumn of 1812 and then dried out after getting damp that winter, cannot have been very appetizing. But it was a great deal better than nothing and, as in 1813, the magazines’ carts, which Kankrin used to shuttle food to and from depots along the lines of communication and to evacuate the wounded, were a godsend. Very importantly, he was also able to send Major Kondratev’s whole mobile magazine to Joinville in Lorraine, through which he was opening up a completely new supply line for the Russian troops’ exclusive use, thereby ending their dependence on the overloaded road back through Switzerland and on Austrian commissariat officials.1

Opening up this new supply line depended on the cooperation of David Alopaeus, the governor-general of occupied Lorraine. In January 1814 Baron Stein’s Central Administration had been given responsibility for running conquered French territory. Austrian officials were to run the provinces between Schwarzenberg’s army and the Rhine. The Prussians governed France’s northern provinces, in other words the area adjacent to the Low Countries and the Lower Rhine. The central area, conquered by Blücher’s army in January, was run by the Russians, whose governor-general, Alopaeus, was stationed in Nancy. Alopaeus was not initially very sympathetic to Kankrin’s appeals, since he was already having to feed Blücher’s army and was scared that if he imposed still more requisitioning peasant resistance might spread beyond control. Though Lorraine was richer than the provinces administered by the Austrians, it contained many French fortresses, which were very weakly blockaded, sometimes by forces smaller than their garrisons. Sorties to link up with local peasant bands were a constant threat. In addition, Alopaeus complained that the carts he needed to transport the supplies never returned from the army and that Russian commissariat officials were much less numerous and efficient than their Prussian counterparts.2

Kankrin must have gritted his teeth on reading this complaint, since his lines of supply ran all the way back to Russia and his shortage in particular of German- and French-speaking officials was inevitably chronic. As he reported to Barclay, he had been forced to strip even his own secretariat in order to find men to troubleshoot along the supply lines.3 But he needed the help of Alopaeus far too much to afford resentment. As he wrote to Barclay, ‘the new operational line for food supplies is a matter of crucial importance’. In fact relations quickly warmed, with the governor-general writing that, ‘as you see, we don’t lack goodwill, nor is there a total lack of the supplies which you need. But we do suffer from a severe lack of transport and of officials to oversee it.’ In response, Kankrin sent every official he could scrape up, together with Kondratev’s carts. Meanwhile the mobile magazine of the Army of Silesia also arrived providentially at Nancy, providing Alopaeus and Kankrin with an additional large reserve of carts. If this did not fully solve Kankrin’s problems, it did end the immediate emergency and held out the prospect of putting the army’s supply on a much more stable basis.4

Meanwhile, thanks to Napoleon, matters were looking much brighter for the allies on the diplomatic front too. His intransigence undermined Metternich’s strategy and reminded the Austrians how dangerous it would be to rely on Napoleon and isolate themselves from their allies. As Metternich knew, even the British military representative at allied headquarters was becoming very impatient with Schwarzenberg’s delaying tactics. Since Castlereagh’s arrival at headquarters an informal political understanding had developed between him and Metternich. But both men realized that there were limits beyond which Britain could not go in its desire to accommodate Vienna. British public opinion would distrust any peace with Napoleon. So too would the government.5

While Castlereagh was negotiating at allied headquarters, the Russian ambassador in London, Christoph Lieven, was speaking to the prime minister, Lord Liverpool, and the Prince Regent. Both men opposed signing a peace with Napoleon. The Prince Regent’s views precisely mirrored Alexander’s, as Lieven reported:

It would be to betray the desires of Providence…not to establish on unshakeable foundations a peace which had already cost so much blood…never had the world seen so powerful means united to achieve this. But these means were unique and the moral and physical forces of the allies could never be re-constituted to this level at any future time. Now was the time to ensure the well-being of Europe for centuries – while any peace made with Napoleon, however advantageous its conditions, could never give the human race anything other than a shorter or longer truce. The history of his entire life provided one example after another of bad faith, atrocity and ambition; and the blood of all Europe would only have flowed for a very doubtful respite if peace depended on treaties signed with this everlasting source of disturbance.6

Castlereagh could sign a treaty with Napoleon so long as this secured Belgium and was accompanied by formidable barriers against renewed French aggression, and so long as there appeared to be no other force available in France with which to make peace. Under no circumstances, however, could he accept France’s ‘natural frontiers’. Even Austrian hints about such terms would drive Castlereagh into Alexander’s arms. By the end of February, therefore, Metternich had every reason to seek a compromise. So too, however, did the Russian emperor. His political isolation from his allies in early February, coupled with Napoleon’s military victories, showed the dangers of intransigence. As a result, on 1 March 1814 the four allied great powers signed the Treaty of Chaumont, pledging themselves only to accept a peace based on France’s historic borders, an independent and extended Netherlands, and a German confederation of sovereign states dominated by Austria and Prussia. At least as important, the treaty was also a military alliance between the four powers, designed to last for twenty years after the peace was signed and to uphold this peace by joint military action if France attempted to breach its terms. The Treaty of Chaumont could not determine whether the allies would make peace with Napoleon or some alternative French regime. All the allied leaders knew that to a great extent this would have to depend on the French themselves. Nevertheless the treaty was in both real and moral terms a big boost to allied unity.7

Ultimately, however, it was military operations that were most likely to determine Napoleon’s fate. Only total defeat could persuade him to accept, even temporarily, the 1792 frontiers. Equally, the emperor’s defeat was the likeliest catalyst for a revolt of the French elites against his rule. In the second half of February defeat once again seemed far away. Schwarzenberg’s army was in full retreat. Initially the plan was to summon Blücher to march south to join with the main army and offer battle but by the time the Army of Silesia arrived in the vicinity on 21 February Schwarzenberg had changed his mind. The commander-in-chief insisted on detaching most of his Austrian troops southwards to block what he considered to be a growing threat to his communications from Marshal Augereau’s army in Lyons. This gave him an excellent reason – his critics used the word ‘excuse’ – to continue his retreat southwards and avoid a battle. Blücher was outraged and Alexander seriously considered removing himself and the Russian corps from the main army and joining up with Blücher.

In the end a compromise was hammered out in a conference of the allied leaders at Bar-sur-Aube on 25 February. Schwarzenberg would continue his retreat as far as Langres if necessary, where he would be joined by the newly arriving Austrian reserves. If Napoleon was still pursuing him he would turn at Langres and fight a defensive battle. Meanwhile Blücher was to march northwards and, it was hoped, draw Napoleon off Schwarzenberg’s back by threatening Paris. If, as was expected, Napoleon turned round and pursued Blücher, Schwarzenberg was to resume the offensive. Bülow and Winzengerode’s Army Corps of Bernadotte’s former Army of the North had in the meantime marched from the frontiers of Holland towards Paris and were now approaching Soissons on the river Aisne. They would come under Blücher’s command, as would the newly formed Saxon corps of the German federal forces, whose job it would be to hold the Low Countries. Even without the Saxons, Blücher’s combined army would total over 100,000 men, which by now was considerably more than Napoleon’s entire force. Alexander’s instructions to the Prussian field-marshal reflected both his awareness that only Blücher had the confident aggression necessary for victory and his great fear that a repetition of Blücher’s earlier carelessness might wreck the allied cause. They concluded with the words, ‘as soon as you have coordinated the movements of your various corps we wish you to commence your offensive, which promises the happiest results so long as it is based on prudence’.8 Blücher set off northwards immediately. Unlike during his earlier offensive towards Paris, on this occasion the Russian cavalry was deployed to guard all the roads from the south. By 2 March it was clear from their reports that Napoleon was pursuing the Army of Silesia with a large force. The first objective of Blücher’s manoeuvre had thus been achieved. The next task was to unite with Winzengerode and Bülow, who were currently surrounding Soissons, which was important because its bridge offered a secure passage over the river Aisne. Vladimir Löwenstern was sent into the town as an emissary by the allied commanders. He used all his gambler’s tricks of bluff, aggression and charm to persuade the French commandant to surrender Soissons on 2 March.

Napoleon was furious, ordered the commandant to be shot, and claimed that if the city had not surrendered he would have pinned Blücher with his back to the Aisne and destroyed his army. Most Prussian historians angrily deny this and claim that the Army of Silesia could have crossed the Aisne elsewhere. On the other hand, some of General von Bülow’s supporters were only too happy to argue that their hero had rescued Blücher from a tight spot. Inevitably they neglected to mention that the chief agent of this rescue was not a Prussian but Löwenstern. To an even greater extent than normal in 1813–14, the Russian role is neglected and what actually happened is obscured amidst a cacophony of French and German nationalism and machismo. Probably the Prussian historians are right and Blücher would have escaped Napoleon’s clutches, but some at least of the allied force would have needed to cross the river over the Army of Silesia’s Russian pontoon bridges, never an easy task with Napoleon in the offing and made no easier by the Aisne’s flooding banks.9

The French army crossed the river Aisne at Berry-au-Bac to the east of Soissons on 5 March. Napoleon intended to advance on Laon; he was under the illusion that the allies were retreating and that all he would meet would be more or less determined rearguards. Blücher decided to pounce on the French as they advanced towards Corbeny and Laon. He deployed Winzengerode’s 16,300 infantry under the command of Mikhail Vorontsov on a plateau just to the west of the Laon road near the village of Craonne. Correctly, he believed that the emperor could never push on to Laon with this force on his flank and would need to concentrate first on defeating Vorontsov. Fabian von der Osten-Sacken’s Army Corps was deployed some kilometres behind Vorontsov on the plateau to support him in case of need. While Vorontsov’s Russians were pinning down Napoleon and occupying his attention, Blücher intended to march 10,000 cavalry under Winzengerode and the whole of Lieutenant-General von Kleist’s Prussian Army Corps around the French northern flank and into their rear. Meanwhile Bülow would shield Laon and Blücher’s communications with the Low Countries, while part of Alexandre de Langeron’s force would remain behind to hold Soissons.

There were problems with Blücher’s plan. Langeron’s and Bülow’s men would take no part in the battle and were therefore to some extent wasted. The terrain over which Winzengerode and Kleist were supposed to make their flank march was not properly reconnoitred and turned out to be very difficult. Rocks, hills, streams and broken ground caused great delays even to the cavalry, let alone the guns. A better general than Winzengerode might well have overcome these difficulties but with him in command the whole flank movement crawled along and finally had to be abandoned.

As a result, in the battle of Craonne on 7 March Vorontsov fought alone for most of the day against an ever-increasing proportion of Napoleon’s army. Fortunately his position was very strong. The height held by the Russians became famous in the First World War as the Chemin des Dames. It stretched about 17 kilometres from east to west and was narrow, in some cases being only a few hundred metres wide. The Russians could therefore hold their line in depth while the steep sides of the plateau made it very difficult for the French to outflank their position. Vorontsov deployed his artillery skilfully and he put the 14th Jaegers into the stout farm buildings at Heurtebise in front of his main line in order to blunt and delay the French attack. This was a crack regiment, with its ranks full of elite sharpshooters from the former combined grenadier battalions of Winzengerode’s Army Corps, which had been disbanded just before the campaign began. For once it was the Russians who enjoyed the advantage of fighting from behind stout walls and the 14th Jaegers put up a formidable performance on 7 March.10

The battle began shortly after ten o’clock in the morning of 7 March when Marshal Ney’s corps, 14,000 strong, advanced against the left of the Russian line. Ney attacked prematurely before other infantry divisions were on hand to support his advance. His young conscripts fought with great courage but they were advancing over difficult ground in the face of many well-sited Russian batteries. Not surprisingly, their repeated attacks failed. When General Boyer’s excellent division of units withdrawn from Spain arrived on the scene Napoleon threw it into the fray immediately. It fought its way past the farm of Heurtebise and up onto the plateau, allowing four French batteries to climb the slopes and deploy in its support. Vorontsov, however, launched a counter-attack which threw both Boyer and Ney back off the plateau. Not until the early afternoon, when Charpentier’s infantry and a number of cavalry brigades joined the attack, was the Russian position in serious danger.

At this point orders came from Blücher for Vorontsov to retire and for the whole army to retreat northwards and concentrate at Laon. The orders were sensible. Once the flank attack had come to nothing it made no sense to expose Vorontsov and Sacken to a battle against the whole French army. Inevitably this was not how matters seemed to Vorontsov in the midst of the fray. His men had fought with great courage to pin down Napoleon. Now their sacrifice appeared to be in vain. A warrior’s pride made it very difficult for him to retreat from a battle in which thus far victory had been on his side. In any case, at least in the short run it was easier to hold one’s ground than to retreat in orderly fashion in the face of a numerically superior enemy who would be emboldened by the sight of his enemy withdrawing.

Only after repeated orders from Sacken did Vorontsov begin his withdrawal. He remained calm throughout, as did his men, and the French cavalry had no success in their efforts to break into the Russian infantry squares or capture their guns. At the narrow defile near the village of Cerny, Vorontsov halted his retreat to give time for Ilarion Vasilchikov’s cavalry to arrive. When Sacken received Blücher’s orders to retreat he had got his infantry away immediately but he sent Vasilchikov forward to cover Vorontsov’s regiments as they made their way across the more open plateau west of Cerny. Together Vasilchikov and Vorontsov kept the pursuing French at a respectful distance, particularly after they had combined to ambush one enemy detachment which pursued them too incautiously. Towards the western end of the plateau it once again narrowed and the French were forced to bunch together in close columns to continue their advance. At these points the very competent commander of Sacken’s artillery, Major-General Aleksei Nikitin, had deployed a number of batteries and their concentrated fire stopped the pursuit and inflicted heavy casualties, before the Russian guns slipped away unscathed under the protection of Vasilchikov’s cavalry.11

Since Britain had no troops in the allied army, Lord Burghersh – its military representative at headquarters – was a relatively impartial observer. He called the Russian performance at Craonne ‘the best fought action during the campaign’. Vorontsov, Vasilchikov and their troops had certainly shown great skill, discipline and courage. The performance of Vorontsov’s infantry was particularly striking because few of his regiments had seen serious combat since the spring of 1813 and for many of his men this was their first experience of battle. The French subsequently claimed victory because Blücher’s plan had failed and because they held the battlefield at the end of the day. In this narrow sense they were indeed victorious, just as they had been ‘victorious’ in these terms in every Russian rearguard action during their advance to Moscow in 1812. But the Russians left behind no guns and very few prisoners. Clausewitz sums up the battle of Craonne by saying that ‘the Russians defended themselves at Craonne so successfully that the main goal, to reach Laon undisturbed, was achieved…this was accomplished by exceptionally brave soldiers, a very self-possessed commander and an excellent position’.12

The Russians lost 5,000 men. The earliest full French account puts their own casualties at 8,000 and since they were very disinclined indeed to overstate their losses this figure may be accurate. Subsequently, however, French historians chipped away at the numbers and Henri Houssaye wrote that ‘the Russians lost 5,000, the French 5,400’. A contemporary French expert tweaked the figures still further, claiming that the allies lost 5,500 men and Napoleon only 5,000. Presumably this was in order to stake an additional claim to victory. In the same spirit 29,000 Frenchmen are said to have faced 50,000 allies, which may be true if one counts every soldier within a day’s march of the battle but completely distorts what actually happened on the battlefield on 7 March. In reality all of this juggling of statistics is irrelevant, though it does help to illustrate the historian’s difficulties in getting at the truth. Even if in fact the Russians and the French had lost the same number of men at Craonne, the basic point was that Napoleon could no longer afford this kind of attrition.13

Napoleon followed up Blücher to Laon and on 9 March attacked the Russo-Prussian forces there. Once again he believed that he was likely to face only a rearguard and drastically underestimated the size of the allied army. In fact Blücher had concentrated all his corps near Laon, almost 100,000 men, and outnumbered the French by more than two to one. In addition, Napoleon’s army was divided in two, with the emperor advancing up the road from Soissons and Marmont up the road from Rheims. Communication between the two wings was very difficult because of the Russian light cavalry and the swampy terrain. Not at all surprisingly, Napoleon’s attack on 9 March failed. After darkness set in that evening the Prussians themselves surprised and routed Marmont in one of the most successful night attacks of the war. Napoleon’s army was now at the allies’ mercy. He was saved by Blücher’s breakdown, which paralysed the Army of Silesia. The immense strains of the previous two months had ruined the health of the 72-year-old field-marshal. After Prussia’s defeat in 1806–7 Blücher had suffered a breakdown, a side effect of which was alarming hallucinations about giving birth to an elephant. Now staff officers who came to him for orders found him in another world and unable to respond to their enquiries. Any light on his eyes caused him great suffering.14

The next few days revealed the fragility of the coalition armies’ command structure and just how much the Army of Silesia had depended on Blücher’s drive, courage and charisma. In principle the army’s senior full general was Alexandre de Langeron but there was no chance of Yorck or Bülow obeying him. Langeron himself dreaded the idea of having to take over command and argued that Gneisenau should do so, as Blücher’s chief of staff and the man best informed of the commander-in-chief’s intentions. Neither Yorck nor Bülow much respected Gneisenau, however, and in addition he was junior to both of them. Yorck chose this moment to act the prima donna and resign his command, only returning to duty after Blücher scrawled an appeal to him which was supported by the pleas of Prince William of Prussia, one of Yorck’s brigade commanders and the king’s brother. Deprived of Blücher’s strength and inspiration, Gneisenau lost confidence and courage. He fell prey to one of his congenital failings, the belief that Prussia was being betrayed by her allies. The result was that for more than a week after the battle of Laon the Army of Silesia spread out in search of food but played no useful role in the war.15

The inactivity of the Army of Silesia allowed Napoleon to escape, rest and then pounce on the 12,000-strong detachment led by Emmanuel de Saint-Priest, Bagration’s chief of staff back in 1812, which had taken Rheims on 12 March. Although Napoleon had suffered at least 6,000 casualties at Laon, reinforcements arrived from Paris, bringing his army back up to 40,000 men. This was more than sufficient to defeat Saint-Priest, particularly since Napoleon caught the allies by surprise. To some extent this was Saint-Priest’s fault for not taking proper precautions but it was hard to predict that Blücher’s army would stand still, lose all track of Napoleon and fail to provide any warning as to his movements. Part of Saint-Priest’s force was made up of Prussian Landwehr, who had dispersed in search of food and put up little resistance when the French attacked on 13 March. Saint-Priest’s Russian regiments from his own Eighth Corps were made of sterner stuff, however, and put up a stiff fight, despite the fact that their general himself was severely wounded and out of action from the beginning of the battle.

The core of Russian resistance was the Riazan Regiment, an old unit with a fine fighting record, founded by Peter the Great in 1703. In the current war the regiment had fought at Borodino, Bautzen and Leipzig, where 35 per cent of its officers were killed or wounded and thirty-two of its men won military medals. General Saint-Priest himself was popular with his troops, of whom he took good care, for instance using a captured French treasury to buy new clothes for his soldiers in the winter of 1813–14. He had a particularly strong relationship with the Riazan Regiment, which he called ‘the Guards of the Eighth Corps’. The regiment’s inspiring commander was Colonel Ivan Skobelev, the son of a state peasant, who had served twelve years in the ranks before receiving his commission. Amidst the chaos on 13 March the Riazan Regiment’s third battalion built a breastwork in front of the main gate of Rheims and beat off French efforts to break into the city. Meanwhile, initially 2 kilometres outside the city’s walls, the regiment’s first battalion formed a square against the French cavalry and fought their way back to where their comrades of the third battalion were holding out, carrying the wounded Saint-Priest in their midst. The two battalions of the Riazan Regiment then formed the core of the Russian rearguard, commanded by Skobelev, which held up the French for long enough for most of the Eighth Corps to escape from Rheims and rally beyond the city. The Riazan Regiment itself was cut off but escaped through the city’s back streets with the help of a local royalist guide.16

After defeating Saint-Priest, Napoleon gave his troops two days’ rest at Rheims before heading south to tackle Schwarzenberg. Meanwhile the first three weeks of March had been a time of great tension at allied headquarters, above all for Alexander. The emperor was not without military talent but he was nervous and lacked confidence. His correspondence in March 1814 reveals great fears that history was about to repeat itself. Once again Schwarzenberg was advancing with infuriating caution and slowness at a time when Blücher’s army was running considerable risks. The emperor was constantly attempting to prod Schwarzenberg forward while enquiring anxiously about the safety of Blücher and Saint-Priest, and bemoaning the fact that news from them was so infrequent. On 12 March there were angry scenes at headquarters when Alexander interrogated Metternich about the existence of secret Austrian orders to Schwarzenberg constraining the main army’s movements. Meanwhile Frederick William III shouted out that the Austrians were betraying the allied cause and exposing the Prussian and Russian soldiers of Blücher’s army to destruction. Inevitably, when news arrived of Saint-Priest’s defeat this did nothing to calm Alexander’s fears. Remembering events in February, he was terrified that, once again, Wittgenstein’s Army Corps and Pahlen’s advance guard were isolated and vulnerable to a sudden attack. Langeron recalls that Napoleon’s speed and audacity in February had thrown the allied commanders off balance: ‘We believed that we could see him everywhere.’ Of no one was this more true than Alexander.17

Nevertheless, Alexander was correct to believe that Napoleon’s strategy would now be to strike into the main army’s right flank and rear in the hope of isolating and destroying one of its Army Corps. In fact by now if Napoleon was to attack the main army this was his only option. He had been forced to leave marshals Marmont and Mortier with 20,000 men to watch Blücher’s 100,000. Marshal MacDonald was guarding the southern approaches to Paris with 30,000 men against Schwarzenberg’s 122,000. This left Napoleon with barely 20,000 men when he marched southwards from Rheims on 17 March in the hope of surprising Schwarzenberg. He could expect to be joined by a few thousand reinforcements from Paris while on the march but even if he then united with MacDonald the allied main army would still outnumber him by more than two to one. On 21 March, when the emperor found himself confronted by the whole of Schwarzenberg’s army at Arcis-sur-Aube, he knew that his offensive had failed and that he had no option but to retreat.

It was at this point that the allied decision to invade France in winter and pre-empt Napoleon’s efforts to raise a new army truly justified itself. The emperor had no reserves left in his depots and two months of ceaseless marches and battles had shattered his army. After retreating from Arcis Napoleon really had only two options left. He could retreat on his capital and concentrate every soldier and National Guard he could scrape together for the defence of Paris. His presence would overawe any opposition forces in the capital. Entrenched in the hills, gardens and buildings surrounding Paris even 90,000 men under Napoleon’s personal command would be a formidable nut for the allies to crack.18

The other option – the one adopted by Napoleon on 22 March – was to strike against the allies’ communications to the Rhine. During the campaign Schwarzenberg had shown himself to be in general very cautious and in particular extremely nervous about any threats to his rear. It was therefore reasonable for Napoleon to believe that, if he himself attacked Schwarzenberg’s communications with his main army, the allied commander-in-chief would retreat from the Paris region and try to protect his bases and supply lines. Nothing in the way Schwarzenberg had previously fought the campaign suggested that he would take the risk of turning his back on Napoleon and marching on Paris. If, however, the allies did do this then Napoleon needed to be able to sacrifice his capital, as Alexander had sacrificed Moscow. One of his greatest weaknesses in 1814 was that he felt he could not do this, for political reasons. Events were to prove him correct. French armies had occupied Moscow, Vienna and Berlin without any serious domestic opposition emerging against the Romanov, Habsburg or Hohenzollern monarchs. Within one week of the allies’ arrival in Paris not just Napoleon but also his dynasty had been swept away. Napoleon’s belief that his own throne was more fragile than those of the legitimate monarchs who opposed him was justified. On the other hand, in 1813–14 he had done much to persuade French elites that he was fighting more for his own glory than for French interests.19

On 22 March Schwarzenberg and Alexander did not know in which direction Napoleon was heading. Petr Volkonsky wrote to Gneisenau on 22 March that Napoleon had masked his movements by leaving large cavalry screens behind him. The allies intended to follow hot on his heels. If the enemy attacked the Army of Silesia then on this occasion the main army would be right on his tail and would strike his rear. If he took any other direction, the two armies would unite and then advance against him and seek battle. That very evening Blücher discovered exactly where the enemy was heading because his Cossacks had captured a French courier with a letter from Napoleon to Marie-Louise saying that he was intending to attack the allies’ communications and thereby draw them well away from Paris.20

A copy of the letter was immediately sent to the main army headquarters where its implications were discussed in a council of war held in Pougy on the afternoon of 23 March. Of Alexander’s closest Russian military advisers only Petr Volkonsky was in Pougy at the time, and he never spoke up publicly in such meetings. The most basic point, however, was that by the time the allied armies could be turned round Napoleon would have two days’ start on them. Nothing could now stop him from getting into the allied rear. Any attempt to race back to protect allied bases would put tremendous strains on army morale and discipline, not least because the troops would be marching into areas already ravaged by war, where they would find it very difficult to feed themselves. For the moment therefore the allied leaders stuck to their existing plan to link up with Blücher and then advance to meet the enemy and give battle. Meanwhile urgent orders went out to town commandants and commanders of troops in the rear to get as many supplies, transport columns and reinforcements as possible under protection or away from the main roads. The ever-nervous provost-general, Oertel, had previously been chided for over-reacting to imagined threats to the Russian lines of communication. Now urgent orders went out to him from Barclay to take emergency measures to preserve Russian bases, supplies and treasuries. Oertel did well on this occasion and reported his arrangements to Barclay, a fellow Balt, in Latvian, a language which the commander-in-chief understood. If the orders were intercepted, it would be a very unusual Frenchman who could decipher them.21

On the evening of 23 March Schwarzenberg, Alexander, Frederick William and their staffs set off from Pougy to Sompuis where they arrived early in the morning of the next day. On the way they were given more enemy dispatches captured by the Russian cavalry. These told of the low morale of Napoleon’s troops and their generals, and also revealed that Paris’s depots and arsenals were empty. Most important was a letter to Napoleon from his police chief Savary, who wrote that he could not answer for the capital’s loyalty if the allied armies approached. That same night news arrived from the south that Bordeaux had gone over to the Bourbons and that the city had been occupied by Wellington. Nevertheless when Schwarzenberg and Frederick William left Sompuis on the morning of 24 March the allied plan was still to unite their two armies and then go in search of Napoleon.

Not long afterwards, at approximately ten o’clock, Alexander summoned Barclay, Diebitsch and Toll, showed them the intercepted letters and the troops’ current positions on the map, and asked for their advice about the best course of action. He put two options to them: either the allies could pursue Napoleon or they could march on Paris. It may be that Alexander had already talked to Volkonsky, who had spoken up in private for moving on Paris. Barclay on the contrary was a cautious and not very imaginative strategist: he argued for continuing with the current policy of combining with Blücher and then going in search of Napoleon.

Diebitsch did not disagree openly with his superior but argued that they should also send a strong corps to take Paris at the same time. Toll was always a less ‘political’ and tactful person than Diebitsch. Disagreeing with a boss was second nature to him. He argued that a single detached corps could never take Paris. Instead both armies should head for the capital, sending off a flying column mostly made up of cavalry to shadow Napoleon and report his movements.22

The emperor was probably expecting and hoping for Toll’s view, which he adopted instantly. Alexander sent an aide-de-camp to find Schwarzenberg and Frederick William, and ask them to wait for him. He caught up with them on a little hill near the village of Plancy and in the fine early spring weather Toll spread his map on the ground and an impromptu outdoor conference took place. The Prussian king immediately agreed to Alexander’s proposal and Schwarzenberg too took little persuading, despite the objections of some of his staff. The idea of turning one’s back on Napoleon and marching on the French capital was not a total surprise to Schwarzenberg. It had been in the air for some time and his ablest staff officer, Lieutenant-General Radetsky, had apparently argued for it privately on the previous day. It is nevertheless striking that the previously very cautious commander-in-chief agreed to so daring a move without much delay or opposition. There is no certain evidence as to why he did so but one can make a plausible and informed guess.23

Though a march on Paris was bold, the alternatives were also risky. Only ten days before, Schwarzenberg had been bemoaning the difficulties of squeezing food out of ‘impoverished Champagne, which has been supporting us for three months’. Moving the combined allied armies through this region in pursuit of Napoleon would be very difficult. Actually a threat to Paris was probably the likeliest way to draw Napoleon away from the allied rear. The area around Paris was rich and untouched by war. Once they arrived there the allies would have far less trouble feeding themselves than if they pursued Napoleon or remained static. The main army currently held more than enough food in its carts to keep it going until it reached this area. On 25 March one Russian corps reported that it had eight days of supplies still in its regimental carts. Four days later Kankrin told Barclay that the 200 carts of Lisanevich’s mobile magazine currently with the army still carried four days’ biscuit rations. As Kankrin and Francis II both noted, with the main army heading north there was also now a good chance of opening up a new line of supply through the wealthy and largely untouched Low Countries.24

Barclay de Tolly was not inclined to easy compliments, but he wrote to Kankrin at this time saying that ‘I have complete confidence in your zeal and your sensible arrangements for the good of the service’. The praise was merited because the allied intendancy responded well to the challenge of simultaneously protecting its rear bases and feeding its own advancing army. But if the army’s supply officers made an advance possible, political and military reasons made it seem desirable in Schwarzenberg’s eyes. With the congress of Châtillon closed and negotiations with Napoleon suspended, it was clear that military victories were the only way to secure peace. Taking Paris was the best means either to force Napoleon to accept allied peace terms or to encourage French elites to get rid of him. The recent fireworks at headquarters must have made Schwarzenberg realize that Russian, Prussian and even British patience with his cautious strategy was wearing very thin. Even some of his senior Austrian officers were complaining about the inglorious role played by their army thus far in the campaign. Probably all these thoughts were in the commander-in-chief’s mind when he ordered his army to march on Paris. In addition, it is a happy commander who starts an operation knowing the position, weakness and worries of his enemies.25

Ferdinand Winzengerode was ordered off in pursuit of Napoleon with 8,000 cavalry. He was told to try to hoodwink the emperor into believing that the whole allied army was pursuing him and to keep allied headquarters well informed as to enemy movements. Meanwhile the two allied armies began their march towards Paris early in the morning of 25 March. The bulk of the main army marched down the road which led from Vitry through Fère-Champenoise to Sézanne, with the cavalry of Peter Pahlen and Prince Adam of Württemberg as its advance guard.

A few kilometres to the south Barclay and the army’s reserve units marched in parallel along side roads and across country. To the north of the main army, Langeron’s and Sacken’s troops advanced down the road from Châlons to Bergères. Ahead of them rode the cavalry divisions of Baron Korff and Ilarion Vasilchikov. The scent of victory had led to the semi-recovery of Blücher. He travelled with his troops in a carriage, visible to all, wearing a lady’s green silk hat with a very broad brim to shade his eyes. The weather had turned fine and the allied troops at last felt that they were moving forward under confident and united leadership. Morale soared.

Shortly after eight in the morning of 25 March Pahlen and Prince Adam bumped into Marshal Marmont’s corps drawn up across the road to Fère-Champenoise, near the village of Soudé Sainte-Croix. Nearby was Marshal Mortier’s corps. Together the two marshals commanded 12,300 infantry, 4,350 cavalry and 68 guns. Even counting Cossacks, this well outnumbered the 5,700 horsemen and 36 guns of Pahlen and Prince Adam, but the French marshals could see large enemy forces in the distance and began to retreat. Even after the arrival of 2,500 Austrian cuirassiers the French infantry squares were still safe enough, though their cavalry was driven off and two light infantry regiments were cut off in Soudé Sainte-Croix and forced to surrender.

Things began to look ominous only around two in the afternoon, when the Russian heavy cavalry arrived on the scene. The Chevaliers Gardes and Horse Guards had not seen serious action since Borodino and their commanding general, Nikolai Preradovich, begged Barclay to allow the 1st Cuirassier Division to take part in the battle. Their appearance more or less coincided with the onset of a violent rain and hailstorm, which blew directly in the faces of the French infantry as they were trying to pass through the deep gully near Conantray. With their muskets useless and under accurate fire from the Guards horse artillery two French squares collapsed and were ridden down by the Russian cuirassiers and the Württemberg cavalry. Panic ensued among much of the rest of the French infantry, many of whom took to their heels. In the end Marmont and Mortier escaped but they lost one-third of their men and most of their guns to an enemy which they always outnumbered and which did not include any infantry.26

Part of the reason they escaped at all was that towards five in the afternoon heavy gunfire was heard in the rear of the allied cavalry. For a time there was uncertainty on all sides as to which troops were in sight and what the gunfire meant. In fact this was two small French divisions, mostly of National Guardsmen, escorting a vast artillery and supply train, and pursued by Korff’s and Vasilchikov’s cavalry from the Army of Silesia. The French column, commanded by generals Pacthod and Amey, was roughly 5,000 strong. It initially encountered Korff’s cavalry at about eleven in the morning on the road from Châlons. Baron Korff had begun the 1812 campaign on the heavy side. By 1814 he was very large and becoming rather lazy. Disliking bivouacs, he had retired on the previous night to the nearby chateau of Sillery, accompanied by his subordinate generals. Meanwhile his Cossacks had uncovered a store of 60,000 bottles of wine into which all of Korff’s cavalry dived with joy. Not surprisingly, they got off to a rather slow start the next morning.27

By midday, however, the French were in full retreat down the road from Châlons to Bergères which passes near Fère-Champenoise. By now they were surrounded not only by Korff’s men but also by the much more formidable Ilarion Vasilchikov. In all, the Russians had 4,000 cavalry and three batteries of horse artillery. The French generals abandoned their baggage train in mid-afternoon but even this did not save them. Already having exhausted themselves and suffered heavy casualties against Korff and Vasilchikov, their position became hopeless when their retreat took them straight into the arms of the main army’s cavalry and horse artillery at Fère-Champenoise. In the end the entire column was killed or taken prisoner.

The battle of Fère-Champenoise is often described as a tale of French heroism. At one level this is entirely just. Pacthod and Amey’s National Guardsmen showed a courage, discipline and endurance of which veterans would have been proud. Not all of Marmont and Mortier’s regiments did as well, however. Moreover, the achievement of the allied cavalry was also remarkable. Sixteen thousand horsemen, of whom three-quarters were Russian, had defeated 23,000 French troops, most of them infantry, killing or capturing half of them and taking almost all their guns. The battle of Fère-Champenoise is well compared to Dmitry Neverovsky’s desperate fight against Marshal Murat at Krasnyi in August 1812, though the numerical odds against Neverovsky were much greater. Like the French at Fère-Champenoise, a large proportion of Neverovsky’s men had been new recruits who showed great courage and discipline during their first battle. The Russian generals succeeded at Fère-Champenoise where Murat failed at Krasnyi partly because, unlike him, they got their horse artillery to the battlefield. They also coordinated their attacks and adapted their tactics to the terrain much more skilfully.28

With Marmont and Mortier in flight, the road to Paris was open. The only real chance of defending the capital was if Napoleon and his army could return in time. Even if the emperor arrived on his own he was likely to galvanize and coordinate the defence, and overawe potential traitors in the city. Not until 27 March, however, was Napoleon aware of the fact that he had been tricked and that the enemy armies were advancing on Paris. By now the allies had three days’ march on him. After consulting with Caulaincourt, Bassano and his marshals he decided that he must abandon his assault on the allied rear and race back to save his capital, but it was too late. By the time he approached the city in the late evening of 30 March the battle of Paris had been lost and his capital was on the point of surrender. Worse still, Napoleon’s enemies in Paris were stirring. On the emperor’s orders his wife, son and government left Paris on the eve of the battle so as not to be captured. With all the key figures in the Bonapartist regime gone and the allies on the point of occupying Paris, the moment had arrived for Napoleon’s opponents to seize the initiative. Along with all other top officials, Talleyrand had been ordered to leave Paris but he contrived to evade these orders without seeming openly to flout Napoleon’s authority.29

On the other side of the lines, now only a few kilometres away, was Karl Nesselrode, to whom Talleyrand had slipped so much secret advice and information in the years before 1812. When Napoleon launched his assault on allied communications on 22 March, almost all the allied diplomats had been cut off from headquarters and had scuttled southwards to safety, to the undisguised glee of many of the generals, who were glad to be rid of them. The one exception was Nesselrode, who had got away just in time from Chaumont to find his way back to Alexander’s side. On 28 March, the very day that it was decided that Napoleon’s empress, son and government should leave the capital, Nesselrode wrote to his wife from a village near Paris that he was enjoying ‘an exquisite capon’, which Marshal Ney’s wife had sent to her husband from Paris along with some bottles of liqueur. The Cossacks had intercepted the present and tactfully donated it to their emperor’s table. With Francis II, Metternich, Castlereagh and Hardenberg all absent, there was never any doubt that Alexander would speak for the allies should their armies reach Paris. To have Nesselrode by his side was an additional advantage, however, especially when it came to negotiating with Talleyrand. As victory loomed and Alexander’s hopes were realized, the tension that had existed between the two men disappeared.30

The Russian army approached Paris through a rich countryside amidst fine spring weather and with the smell of victory in the air. Vladimir Löwenstern ate peacock for the first time to celebrate. Peter Pahlen contemplated all the beautiful young ladies he would meet in the French capital. Ivan Radozhitsky recalled his men telling each other that when they got to Paris the emperor would give them each a ruble, a pound of meat and a tumbler of vodka. As his battery marched down the highway the cry rang out, ‘stand to the right, stand to the left’, as happened when a general or the emperor himself was passing through a marching column. Down the middle of the highway charged Vaska, a goat which the soldiers had adopted as a mascot, to hoots of ‘make way, make way, Vaska is off to Paris’.31

In the early evening of 29 March, the emperor’s staff, including Aleksandr Mikhailovsky-Danilevsky, ascended a slight rise towards the village of Clichy. Many years later he recalled that

the sun had just set, and a cool breeze refreshed the air after the heat of the day; there was not a cloud in the sky. All at once, on the right hand, we got a momentary glimpse of Montmartre, and the tall spires of the capital. ‘Paris! Paris!’ was the general cry. We pointed out and strained our eyes to grasp the huge but indistinct mass rising above the horizon. Forgotten in a moment were the fatigues of the campaign, wounds, fallen friends and brothers: overwhelmed with joy, we stood on the hill from which Paris was barely visible in the distance. Since that day, more than twenty years have passed…but the remembrance of that memorable scene is still so vivid, that it comes over us with all the freshness of a recent event, making the heart swell with that triumphant exaltation which then filled every breast.32

In the longest campaign in European history, in less than two years the Russian army had marched from Vilna to Moscow and then all the way back across Europe to Paris. With the enemy capital in sight at last, speed was now essential. Paris must be taken before Napoleon arrived to galvanize and reinforce its defence. The Bavarians and Sacken’s Army Corps had been left at Meaux to guard the allied rear in case Napoleon attempted to march on Paris by the most direct route. But that night orders went out to all other corps for a full-scale assault on Paris on the very next day, 30 March. On the allied right, the Army of Silesia was to attack the capital from the north, heading for Montmartre and La Chapelle. On the left the Württemberg corps was to advance from the east along the north bank of the Seine, past the chateau of Vincennes. General Gyulai’s Austrians would support the Württembergers. Peter Wittgenstein had returned to Russia, handing over command of his Army Corps to Nikolai Raevsky. He would lead the attack in the centre towards Romainville and Pantin. In all, the attacking force added up to 100,000 men. Behind Raevsky, to be used if necessary, stood the Grand Duke Constantine’s Reserve Army Corps, made up of the Guards and Grenadiers.33

The position held by the French was very strong. The heights of Montmartre to the north and of Romainville in the centre were major obstacles for an attacking army, around which the capital’s defence could be anchored. As one would expect on the outskirts of one of Europe’s greatest cities, the whole area was also a maze of stone buildings and walls. Napoleon, however, had done nothing to strengthen the city’s natural defences. Moreover, there were only 38,000 men to hold a long defence line, and of these many thousands were National Guardsmen with minimal training and unreliable muskets. Under the overall authority of Napoleon’s brother Joseph, Marshal Mortier was responsible for defending the northern sector against the Army of Silesia and Marshal Marmont the eastern sector against the allied main army. All three men knew that unless the defenders were willing to fight in the streets of Paris and bury themselves under the city’s rubble, their chances of success were slight. If the whole allied assault force had attacked simultaneously early in the morning of 30 March, the city would probably have fallen by lunchtime.

In fact, allied plans went awry. It was clear even on the evening of 30 March that the Württembergers and Austrians were still so far in the rear that they could not launch their attack until early the following afternoon. Meanwhile the aide-de-camp carrying Schwarzenberg’s orders to Blücher got lost in the dark, which meant that most of the Army of Silesia would only be ready to attack at eleven o’clock, six hours later than planned. As a result, the initial allied assault was only made by the 16,000 men of Raevsky’s Army Corps in the allied centre. Fortunately for the Russians they found the key village of Romainville undefended and were able to seize it before Marmont had time to send troops to occupy it. They also took the village of Pantin early in the morning. But it was all they could do to hold these strongholds against French counter-attacks in the morning of 30 March.

All attempts to break forward out of the villages came to nothing. The Prussian Guards infantry, not in action since the spring of 1813, stormed forward out of Pantin with great courage but was stopped in its tracks with heavy casualties. Amidst the buildings, walls and gardens all formation was lost and the battle dissolved into confused skirmishing and fire-fights. Barclay de Tolly moved up the two Russian Grenadier divisions in Raevsky’s support and came up to the front line himself to coordinate operations. Very sensibly, he got most of the regiments back into battalion columns ready for a new push, but ordered Raevsky not to mount a major new attack until the Württembergers were in position on his left and the Army of Silesia was absorbing Mortier’s full attention on his right.34

Shortly before three o’clock in the afternoon all the allied corps were in line and ready to attack. The Crown Prince of Württemberg pushed forward past the chateau of Vincennes against slight opposition, threatening to unhinge the whole French right flank by the Seine. The advance of Yorck’s Army Corps from the north into their rear forced the French troops fighting near the village of Pantin to retreat. In the centre Raevsky’s men and the Grenadier divisions attacked in overwhelming force and took all the key French positions within ninety minutes. Russian artillery batteries were brought forward and now ringed Paris to the east from close range. On the far right of the allied line, Langeron’s Army Corps stormed up the heights of Montmartre. In fact by the time the Russians took these heights Marshal Marmont was already seeking to capitulate, though there was no way that either the Russians or the French at Montmartre could yet know this.

The allies had suffered 8,000 casualties, three-quarters of them Russian, but Paris was theirs. A great wave of rejoicing went through the Russian ranks. The Guards began polishing their equipment and getting out their best uniforms in preparation for the greatest parade of their lives down the streets of Paris. On the heights of Montmartre the infantry bands blasted out regimental marches. The officer whom Langeron sent into Paris to arrange a truce with the nearest French troops came back hours later and in a state of bliss, having drunk too many toasts to victory. His commanding general forgave him. Langeron’s regiments from the former Army of the Danube had marched a long way and fought many battles for this moment.35

The really difficult battle was just about to begin, however, and it would be political rather than military. Unless their generals blundered on a grand scale, sheer weight of numbers and the superior quality of their troops were likely to bring the allies victory and the capitulation of Paris on 30 March. The French capital was of political rather than military importance, however. Much would depend on whether the allies could turn the fall of Paris to their political advantage. Of course, the allied leaders in general and Alexander in particular were acutely aware of this. Schwarzenberg issued a proclamation stressing that the allies fought Napoleon, not France, and sought peace and prosperity for all. As his army approached Paris, Alexander issued orders to his generals and pleas to his allies to preserve the strictest discipline and treat the civilian population well, stressing the great importance of cultivating French opinion. The man whom Alexander sent into Paris to arrange the capitulation was Colonel Mikhail Orlov, the same young intelligence officer who had accompanied Aleksandr Balashev to Napoleon’s headquarters in Vilna in June 1812. Orlov’s first words to Marshal Marmont were, ‘His Majesty desires to preserve Paris for France and for the sake of the whole world.’ Allied troops were to be quartered in Parisian barracks, not in private homes, and the National Guard was to be retained to preserve calm and normality on the streets. For the next few days Alexander was a perfect embodiment of charm, tact and flattery as regards the Parisians. This was a role at which he excelled.36

On the next day, Sunday, 31 March 1814, the allied armies entered Paris. The sun shone and Paris revelled in a crisp spring morning. Alexander emerged from his headquarters at eight o’clock, wearing the undress general’s uniform of the Chevaliers Gardes. Mounting his grey ‘Mars’, a gift from Caulaincourt when the latter was ambassador in Petersburg, he rode off with his suite to join Frederick William and Schwarzenberg. Greeted by salutes and thunderous cheers from their troops, the allied leaders rode through Montmartre and into the centre of the city. Their escort was provided by the Cossack Life Guard in their scarlet tunics and dark-blue baggy trousers, the same troops who had guarded Alexander throughout the campaigns of the last two years. On the Champs-Elysées the monarchs and Schwarzenberg stopped and reviewed their regiments as they marched past. The parade included the Prussian Guards, a division of Austrian Grenadiers and even a regiment of Guards from Baden. By universal consent, however, the Russian Guards were the finest-looking troops in Europe and it was they who stole the show.37

Both for the Guards and, above all, for Alexander this was a supreme moment of pride and personal fulfilment, but it did also have a political aspect. For the Parisian crowds, to see thousand upon thousand of these superb troops in their splendid uniforms marching in perfect formation as if in peacetime was a reminder of allied power and the hollowness of Napoleon’s claims that the invaders were on the edge of exhaustion. But if the allies handed out a political lesson they also received one. Thus far the allied monarchs had encountered few signs of popular enthusiasm for the Bourbons in the areas they had conquered. It was far from predictable that things would be different in Paris where so many beneficiaries of the Revolution and Napoleon lived. In fact, however, especially as they entered central Paris the monarchs were greeted by huge crowds shouting support for the allied cause and the monarchy, and bearing the white cockade and the white flag of the Bourbons. Two days later Alexander was to admit to a royalist politician that public support for a restoration was ‘much greater than I could have imagined’. After the parade the monarchs and Schwarzenberg rode to Talleyrand’s mansion on the nearby rue Saint-Florentin, where Alexander was to stay for his crucial first few days in Paris. On watch around the Hôtel de Talleyrand that night were the men of the First (Emperor’s Own) Company of the First Battalion of the Preobrazhenskys. This was the battalion that had mounted guard at Tilsit seven years before.38

While the troops were entering Paris that morning, Nesselrode was already on his way to the rue Saint-Florentin. On the previous day, while waiting in Marmont’s mansion to agree the terms of the city’s capitulation, Mikhail Orlov had been approached by Talleyrand with the request ‘to convey the deepest respects of the Prince of Benevento [i.e. Talleyrand] to His Majesty the Emperor of Russia’. Orlov was a clever and well-informed intelligence officer and had no doubt as to Talleyrand’s meaning. ‘Prince – I replied softly – you may be sure that I will bring this open offer to His Majesty’s notice.’ The young officer recalled that ‘a slight, barely noticeable smile passed quickly across the prince’s face’. Now on 31 March Nesselrode was coming to enlist Talleyrand’s help in toppling Napoleon and replacing him with a stable regime both legitimate in French eyes and willing to endorse the peace settlement. As Alexander made clear to the French leaders he met that evening, these were his only priorities. Though he outlined to them a number of possible scenarios as regards France’s future government, he stressed that it was for the French themselves to choose between them.39

For the emperor, Talleyrand was the perfect ally, and not merely because of his political skills and his connections. Like Alexander, he was no great partisan of the Bourbons. Even on 30 March he was by no means committed to a restoration. He was determined that if the monarchy was to return, it should be constrained by a constitution and should accept much of what had changed in France since 1789. In his heart he would probably have preferred a regency for Napoleon’s infant son, with himself as the power behind the throne. Alexander was no different. With Napoleon alive, free and still full of ambition, however, such a regency had obvious dangers. In the conference between the allied leaders and French politicians which took place in Talleyrand’s salon during the night of 31 March the key moment arrived when it came to drafting the allies’ proclamation to the French people. No one doubted that they would rule out negotiating with Napoleon. When it came to the clause also excluding negotiations with members of the Bonaparte family, Alexander ‘cast a glance towards Prince Schwarzenberg who agreed with a nod of his head, as did the King of Prussia’. Even after this Alexander’s mind was not entirely made up. As late as 5 April Caulaincourt believed that Alexander was still open to the idea of a regency and Talleyrand and his associates deeply feared this. By then, however, it would have been very difficult for Alexander to reverse course and abandon those Frenchmen who had committed themselves to the restoration under his protection and encouragement.40

Following the scenario which Alexander had outlined back in February, the allied declaration called upon the Senate to meet, to elect a provisional government and to draw up a new constitution. Under Talleyrand’s direction, a rump of the Senate agreed to this on 1 April, electing Talleyrand and his four associates as ministers. The next day the Senate deposed Napoleon and the Bonaparte family and released all French soldiers from their oath of allegiance. With Paris clearly heading towards the restoration of the monarchy the biggest issue now was the position of the army. If Napoleon’s army at Fontainebleau continued to support him there was a strong chance that the allies would find themselves in the middle of a French civil war. Not merely did they dread the time and costs involved: it was also self-evident that this would hugely damage the legitimacy of any regime they supported in France. Quite apart from his doubts about the Bourbons, this factor also had to influence Alexander’s thoughts about the continuing possibility of a regency for Napoleon’s infant son. Only the defection of Marshal Marmont’s corps on 5 April from Napoleon’s army ended Alexander’s doubts and made the restoration of the monarchy certain.41

For the first crucial days in Paris Alexander led and spoke for the coalition. During his time in Paris he made some mistakes. Though his effort to press the cause of moderation and the senatorial constitution on Louis XVIII was understandable, it was actually unnecessary and contributed to initially poor relations between Russia and the restored French monarchy. A more serious blunder was to allow Napoleon the sovereignty of Elba, which caused allied and Russian fears at the time, later justified. Undoubtedly this was in part the product of Alexander’s desire to be, and to be seen to be, generous to a defeated foe. It was not easy in the circumstances of the time to find any safe solution to the problem posed by Napoleon, however, as Castlereagh recognized in a letter to the British secretary for war which is not included in his collected correspondence. Castlereagh wrote that the French Provisional Government had supported Alexander’s offer because they were scared of civil war and desperate to get the emperor away from his army at Fontainebleau. Elba had its dangers but there were no obvious better alternatives. Although Castlereagh did not mention this, any constraint on Napoleon’s freedom was impossible because it was ruled out by the agreement with Marmont when he brought his corps over to the allies. The British foreign secretary did, however, write that Elba was a better alternative than Napoleon’s apparent desire to live in England, which the British Government certainly would not welcome.42

On the whole, however, Alexander’s performance in Paris was a great success. He had charmed the French, kept in line with his allies, and established a regime in Paris which had the best chance of retaining legitimacy while accepting a lasting peace. Alexander had been much criticized for arguing that once the allies reached Paris they would be able to find and encourage French opponents to Napoleon, but events had proved him right. If he retained doubts about the Bourbons, these were shared by many Frenchmen and by Alexander’s allies. As Schwarzenberg wrote to his wife at the time, the removal of Napoleon was a boon to mankind but he had little faith in the restored monarchy. For him as for Alexander, and in a manner very familiar in politics, the Bourbons were simply the least bad alternative at the allies’ disposal. With the monarchy restored and peace with France signed, Alexander left Paris on 3 June 1814.43

While Alexander had been busy negotiating, his army had been experiencing life in and around the French capital. Vladimir Löwenstern set himself up with an expensive Parisian mistress and a fine carriage, paid for partly by 10,000 rubles won at cards. The Guards officers received a special allowance to enable them to enjoy and grace Paris. Humble officers of the line were not so lucky. Aleksandr Zaitsev, an innocent young ensign of the Kexholm Regiment, was quickly separated from his meagre earnings when he dared to visit the gambling dens and the young ladies of the Palais Royal. As to the soldiers, only the Guards were quartered in Paris and they were subjected to strict discipline and constant parades. The news that they were going home was greeted with joy. First to depart were the irregular cavalry – Cossacks, Bashkirs and Kalmyks: they were not the best peacetime ambassadors for a Russia anxious to conciliate the French civilian population and to be seen as a pillar of European order and civilization. Soon afterwards the regiments of the line began the long march home, many of them enjoying feasts in the Prussian towns through which they passed, as a mark of gratitude from Frederick William III. As always, the Guards were different, most of them being carried home to Petersburg by the Russian fleet which had spent the last eighteen months based in British ports.44

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