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How Fighting EndsA History of Surrender$

Holger Afflerbach and Hew Strachan

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780199693627

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199693627.001.0001

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‘Civilized, Rational Behaviour’? The Concept and Practice of Surrender in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, 1792–1815

‘Civilized, Rational Behaviour’? The Concept and Practice of Surrender in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, 1792–1815

(p.229) 13 ‘Civilized, Rational Behaviour’? The Concept and Practice of Surrender in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, 1792–1815
How Fighting Ends

Michael Broers

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Two debates dominate the history of the Revolutionary-Napoleonic wars. The first turns on the thesis of John Lynn that the French army evolved/regressed from the citizen-army of the Revolutionary decade into an army of honour, as Napoleon reprised the moeurs of traditional professionalism. The second is the recent thesis of David Bell, that the Revolutionary-Napoleonic wars represent the first example of a ‘total war’. The concept of surrender would appear to be a perfect touchstone to explore these wider issues. Attitudes to surrender present important windows on the minds of soldiers and politicians, as the character of armies and warfare changed, 1792–1815. The conclusion of the wars in 1814 offers a microcosm of the dilemmas facing contemporaries about coping with defeat and victory.

Keywords:   patriotism, honour, negotiation, regime change, conventions, legality, revolutionary ideology, diplomacy

Merde!’ The last significant utterance made on the last significant battlefield of the Revolutionary-Napoleonic Wars does not betoken a mentality amenable to the idea of surrender. It was shouted by General Cambronne at the British cavalry, from within the last square of the Imperial Guard at Waterloo, on the evening of 18 June 1815, as that elite unit made its final stand to protect Napoleon’s withdrawal from the field. Or so the story goes. This may or may not be apocryphal, but the defiant Cambronne became a prisoner of war in Britain, returning to France in December 1815, so more than one tale hangs by this vignette.

It also serves as a reminder of the bellicosity that serenaded the outbreak of the wars. The revolutionaries decreed ‘peace on the cottage and war on the castle’ as they cranked up the pressure for war with Europe. In the depths of desperation and defeat in 1793, St Just—the veritable voice of the terror—declared with a laconic style that was wholly apposite, ‘The French Republic deals with its enemies only in lead’. Direct comparisons—not references—to the Punic wars abounded in the French assemblies of the 1790s. The decree of 23 August 1793—of la patrie en danger—called for a levy of 350,000 men and exhorted the French to rise up as one nation to defend their revolution. The revolutionaries found echoes on the right. Joseph de Maistre saw the revolution as the devil’s work; so did the Spanish clergy. German Romantics, especially from 1809 onwards, called for a ‘people’s war’ against Napoleon, and a people’s army to fight it. Linda Colley has fashioned a whole thesis on the roots of British national (p.230) identity on the call to arms against the dread French ‘other’ in these decades.1 There is no need to elaborate further. This is fighting talk. It disguises more than it reveals, however.

The Revolutionary-Napoleonic Wars were, in fact, a series of conflicts, not a continuous whole. If the Waterloo campaign is included, there were seven coalitions against France, between 1792 and 1815, each marked by surrenders and negotiated peaces. It is all too often forgotten that there was a period of over four years, between the Treaty of Amiens in 1801 and the opening of the war of the Third Coalition late in 1805, when the whole of continental Europe was at peace, and hostilities were confined to naval and extra-European operations between France and Great Britain. Thus, from as early as the withdrawal of Prussia from the First Coalition in 1795—and, as will be seen, actually much earlier—the concept of surrender, of ceasing hostilities, was an integral part of these supposedly ‘total wars’ of ‘absolute enmity’.2 In truth, one of the distinguishing features of these conflicts is the role played by negotiated surrender in hostilities at every level: at that of diplomacy; of the strategic theatre; of operational theatres; and at that of the direct, frontline engagement. Bellicose rhetoric rapidly became the preserve of ideologues, as even serving politicians came to accept surrender in practice; it was a reality for all the participants. As the wars progressed, the acceptability of surrender arguably became a defining characteristic of what contemporaries, military just as much as civilian, regarded as civilized, rational, behaviour.

The early nineteenth-century concept of surrender was rooted in the wider context of enlightened self-interest during these wars, something that distinguished advanced societies and polities from the barbarians: to be a Greek was to read deeply in Thucydides, rather than to emulate Thermopylae, Cambronne’s defiance notwithstanding. However, to mangle Clausewitz, the general acceptance of surrender as a part of war and, by extension, of politics by the political and military establishments of the era was perhaps related to two salient but thoroughly antithetical and quite sinister phenomena of European political development. One was a growing divergence between the attitudes of the political and military establishments of the era—men marked by and large by the eighteenth-century Enlightenment—and an ‘educated’ public opinion increasingly imbued with chauvinism, certainly in western Europe. The other was the emergence of the precisely opposite outlook among bureaucracies, officer holders, and sections of the propertied classes; dubbed by French observers la mentalité des girouttes (the politics of the weathervane), it can be seen as a twisted outgrowth of the age of reason’s application of enlightened self-interest to surrender. Traitors in the eyes of posterity, but in their own eyes voices of sanity in a crisis, neither vile nor traitors, but merely human, more subjected to the error (of their leaders), victims of the powerful victors of the moment’, as Pierre Serna has summed them up acutely in a French context.3 The penchant of Revolutionary-Napoleonic France—the prototype of the ‘rouge state’—to recast the map of Europe, and to insist on overt oaths of loyalty to itself, created a new variant on the need to accept hard realities. The contemporary fates of Italian patriotti, of Spanish afrancesados, and finally of French fonctionnaires and notables themselves, were finally ensnared in the new vortex of collaboration, and its increasingly common equation with treason and cowardice. Or was it public-spirited sanity? It would all come together in 1814, most poignantly in France, but equally, all across Europe, as (p.231) regime-change took place on a hitherto unimaginable scale, commensurate with that of the wars that gave it birth. That was for the postwar world, however. Those left to get on with matters of war and peace in this age of conflict soon left the early splutterings of revolution and counterrevolution behind them, and played by older rules that worked.

War: Why operations cease

Strategic and operational levels

The fearsome reputation of the Grande Armée and its commander notwithstanding, only three of the seven wars of the period can truly be said to have been ended by emphatic military triumph: that of the Third Coalition, at Austerlitz, in 1805; the War of the Fifth Coalition, at Wagram, in 1809; and the Waterloo campaign—technically the War of the Seventh Coalition—which actually put an end to the Napoleonic adventure. The others were brought to standstills by combinations of mixed success by both sides in separate strategic theatres, and their course does much to bear out the increasing faith Clausewitz placed in the efficacy of defensive war, culminating in concentrated counteroffensives. Bringing the enemy to one, decisive, and crushing battle was always Napoleon’s plan, but only twice did it actually end a whole war, as opposed to settling a specific issue in one operational theatre: when the crushing, ‘definitive-engagement’ victories of 1805 and 1806 detached one ally from another—Austria from Russia in 1805, and Prussia from Russia in 1806. The year 1809 was very much an aberration in the period because only one land army, that of Austria, was involved. In reality, the ‘Napoleonic method’ proved decisive in breaking up coalitions, by knocking one or two powers out of a given war, and isolating the remaining combatant for the next kill, where possible.

Otherwise, much hinged on both sides reaching the point of near exhaustion when outright victory would have cost them both too dearly to maintain an effective force to renew hostilities or provide adequate defence in an unstable international climate. Thus, the preservation of forces continued, as in the previous century, to determine why most of the wars within the ‘great war’ ended when they did. That is, most of the time, there was ‘unfinished business’ and that unfinished business was between France and Russia. Napoleon won on the battlefield in the Eylau–Friedland campaign in 1807, but these operations proved in no way decisive, and led both parties to the negotiating table at Tilsit; Napoleon’s advantage was gained at the tactical level and at that of the operational theatre, but he knew Alexander was better positioned in strategic terms. The same conditions, really, applied in 1812. Smolensk and Borodino were French victories, but the retreat and, just as importantly, the losses of horses and equipment sustained in the advance into Russia, turned 1812 into a strategic catastrophe. The outcome of the 1807 campaign is, perhaps, one of the most instructive of the period in examining the process of how and why fighting stops and can end in negotiation, just as it is the first clear example of the effectiveness of a defensive war, particularly as it did not have to culminate in a significant counteroffensive for Alexander to persuade Napoleon to accept a negotiated settlement. Friedland was, indeed, a tactical victory for Napoleon, but one that could not be followed up decisively. Napoleon had lost experienced, elite troops on an unprecedented scale, and it was clear that logistics were working against him. Alexander’s forces had been badly mauled in direct combat on the rare occasions when Napoleon had been able to corner them, literally at Friedland, if not at Eylau; but as subsequently became apparent in Spain, the surest way to end fighting at the operational level was a well-prepared defensive war, punctuated by counterattacks (p.232) that ended not in outright victories but in well coordinated retreats. Bennigsen showed the effectiveness of this at Eylau, and almost succeeded again at Friedland.

Tactical level

Of necessity, things are always less nuanced on a tactical level: engagements are won or lost, and a field is ceded or held. During its most radical, bellicose phase, the French Revolutionary government quickly learned the usefulness of very old-style attitudes to surrender at the tactical, battlefield level, when it most needed to. In March 1793, a French division was entrapped by the Prussians at Mainz, and in July, after a long siege, the field commanders, Kléber and Aubert-Dubayet, negotiated a very traditional convention with their very ancien régime captors: the French troops were repatriated to France, with all their baggage and arms, on condition these units took no further part in the war, conditions that scarcely corresponded to the rantings of the National Convention any more than they did to the sabre-rattling of the Brunswick Manifesto. These terms did not preclude the use of the repatriated troops within France against the Vendean rebels, whose insurrection was at its high tide that summer when they captured Saumur and had routed the units of the Parisian national guard—‘the people’s army’—in June and July. The ‘Mayençais’ were good troops, well led, and it was really only thanks to their presence that the revolt was contained at this stage; by October, the rebels had been pushed deep into the countryside. The deepest irony is that had Kléber not discarded revolutionary fanaticism to save his men, the defeat of the ‘Royal and Catholic Army’ would have taken far longer.

The tradition of ‘sane surrender’ saved a French army again in northern Portugal, by the Convention of Cintra signed on 30 August 1808 between Dalrymple’s British force and Junot. The terms of Cintra were very generous to Junot, as they allowed the evacuation of his entire army, its supplies and arms, and was so vague as to allow him to ‘asset-strip’ the considerable stores he had built up in Lisbon. Junot had sued for terms, knowing any retreat from so advanced a position would be costly, to say the least. The British commanders were hauled before a committee of inquiry and turned on each other with considerably more venom than they had shown in the field. Nevertheless, they all agreed that, from a military perspective, a negotiated end to the campaign had been the correct course. Junot’s orderly evacuation had spared them the ghastly prospect of besieging Lisbon and fighting for it, street by street. They fell out over the generosity of the terms, but not over the acceptability of negotiated conventions between field armies.

The specific circumstances of both conventions are worth reflection. In both cases, the besieging forces made a clear calculation that the loss in life and the damage to infrastructure urban warfare would lead to far outweighed simply letting an enemy force retire, intact. Fighting for large cities, street by street, was something all the armies of the age were ill equipped for, and the destruction of badly needed supplies that would ensue made no practical sense. In this, certainly, the military of both sides had shed the ideological intransigence of revolution and counter-revolution alike, if, indeed, they had ever really embraced them. There may be a more subjective aspect to these decisions, although it is harder to document. Both these conventions were made between armies with large resources of manpower, on the one hand—France in both cases—and those with far more limited pools of men, on the other hand—Prussia and Britain respectively. In the case of Cintra, Dalrympyle also knew that replacements were hard to obtain from London, even in times of success. The prevalence of such attitudes could and did restrain hostilities at a tactical level and even, as at Cintra, at that of an operational front, but they could not end wars, and nor were they intended to. That often came, as has been seen, as the result of stalemate and diplomatic isolation.

(p.233) Diplomacy: Why wars end

The central tenet of Paul Schroeder’s analysis of the Napoleonic Wars is that no lasting peace could ever be achieved simply because of Napoleon.4 While he was there, war would always be inevitable because it was intrinsic to his system of government and to his own personal character. It is a powerful case, and finally became the view of the French ruling elites themselves. Yet it is equally true that lasting peace was difficult to achieve for all parties when the shape of European power had been so changed and galvanized, first by the emergence of France as a massive military power, and then of Britain, initially as a paymaster but finally, by 1813, as a military presence in its own right.

Napoleon fought with diplomatic ends to the forefront, at least as much as purely military considerations. Indeed, after 1812, with his military capacities greatly and permanently diminished, diplomatic objectives became paramount. Throughout the wars, however, negotiated settlements were the rule. That was why there were seven wars within the long conflict. Negotiated peace gave way to unconditional surrender after Austerlitz—but then only with Austria, not Russia; with Prussia in 1806 but, again, not with Russia; and with Austria in 1809. Obviously, only the peace of 1814 proved lasting, but the willingness of all parties to attempt negotiation—Britain usually excepted—denotes an openness to compromise that began with the withdrawal of Prussia from the war of the First Coalition in 1795; it was a mentality Napoleon sought to play on in 1814, and of which Castlereagh lived in dread, right up to the Treaty of Chaumont, in 1814, when he at last bound the allies to a definitive agreement to stick together and to reject the separate peaces Napoleon’s military tactics aimed to produce.

Underpinning this was an intellectual cast of mind, particularly among the French—and not just when they were winning—that a mark of civilized, rational human behaviour was to know when courage and self-sacrifice gave way to fanaticism and blind blood lust. It was severely tested in the context of civilian resistance, most prominently in Spain, but in Italy, the Tyrol, and, first of all, in the Vendée.

The need for the vanquished to submit to the political realities of conquest was elevated to official imperial policy. Indeed, the circumstances surrounding surrender became almost a meditation on ‘state death’ for the Napoleonic leadership. In 1811, the minister of justice wrote to Napoleon:

When a government is annihilated, it does not necessarily follow that the men who were subject to it are, as well. To administer them, it is essential that a new government succeeds that which has disappeared. The new sovereign succeeds by right to the prerogatives of the old one; public well being demands as much. The slightest delay in this transfer could have dreadful consequences. Thus, it is force, or, in better terms, the power to protect, which confirms the right to govern. Those who wish to distinguish between the sovereign by right and the sovereign de facto are still bound to acknowledge the need for obedience to those laws and regulations essential to maintaining order and public peace, to whichever source of authority to whom taxes are payable. The reality is that society is not governed by abstractions.5

One of Joseph Bonaparte’s first decrees as king of Spain, in July 1808, encapsulates this pragmatic approach to surrender and its natural corollary, collaboration, He ordered his emissary (p.234) to Toledo: ‘to give definitive organisation to all branches of public administration, to show the people of the towns where their own interests lie, and to convince them that their co-operation (with us) is essential for the rapid restoration of order’.6

This attitude predominates not just in the correspondence of the time, but in the memoirs of many Napoleonic soldiers and administrators and is, therefore, not solely the product of hubristic times, but of meditations in the light of their own defeat. In his memoirs of the war in Spain, Marshal Suchet expressed unequivocal admiration for the way the Aragonese resistance ‘saw sanity’:

They defended themselves as an heroic people in every possible way; but, when reduced to the most unbearable extremities, and when all hope of relief was lost, they opened the gates to the victor, and accepted the consequences of their actions without any second thoughts. Their feelings were too highly cultivated to allow themselves to overstep the bounds, and fall victim to the madness that goes beyond legitimate self defence and which, moreover, flout the laws of both war and humanity.7

In the ex-Prussian territories of Mark, since 1807 part of the Napoleonic Grand Duchy of Berg, their ex-administrator, Jacques-Claude Beugnot, noted the exact opposite among his new adminsitrés in his memoirs, but his opinion was informed by the same system of values as Suchet’s. Frederick the Great had given them a high opinion of themselves:

as well as a love of country that bordered on idolatry. Frederick had made them reckless, bold and, above all, irreligious; the master had taught them that only the ends mattered, not the means. I learned that it was not over, for men who could not admit when they were beaten, and who craved vengeance, even when the enemy had them under his control, ready to deal them the final blow.8

None of this was hypocrisy. Many among the French elites applied the same values to themselves and their own condition, in 1814. In the first week of April 1814, Marshal Marmont took his 12,000 men over to the allies and left Paris open to enemy occupation. He did so, he told his troops, because ‘the war had become pointless, aimless’ and so their real duty was to obey ‘public opinion’ and ‘the general good’.9

1813–14: The end of an era

The last campaigns of the War of the Sixth Coalition—those following the Russian campaign of 1812—took place in greatly altered military circumstances. The change that probably mattered least, in the end, was the virtual destruction of the Grande Armée in Russia, save in one crucial respect: the loss of its cavalry.10 This obviously damaged Napoleonic battle tactics in two of (p.235) their essentials: there was no longer a heavy cavalry on the battlefield to deal the killer blow at the right moment; thus, there could be no more victories such as Austerlitz. Nor was there a light cavalry to harass and pursue a broken enemy, to prevent or delay an opponent regrouping—thus, there could be no more victories such as Jena-Auerstedt’s, either, as shown by Napoleon’s inability to follow up the initial successes of Bautzen and Lützen in 1813. But the loss of the cavalry compounded another problem for Napoleon. In his sheer desperation to buy time to rebuild it, he agreed to the armistice of the summer of 1813. This allowed the formidable but still cumbersome Russian army to reach central Europe en masse, well supplied, and with its reserves now properly trained and moving at a useful distance behind it.11 Unlike the circumstances of the 1790s, or the 1805 campaign, the Russians could now bring all their force to bear on central and western Europe, including an ability to make good their losses quickly, although thousands of miles from base. The story of the rebuilding of the Prussian army is well known, and it played a crucial role in the 1813–14 campaigns, but it was the Russian presence that was unique and, ultimately, shifted the balance definitively against Napoleon. There was now a military power in the heart of western Europe—not just trying to get itself there—equal to his own in manpower and, finally with time to train new men and sufficient numbers of veterans to do so, now able to match his troops in quality. It was Alexander who now had the critical mass of cavalry; he had elite guard regiments, formed from veterans, who composed a Napoleonic-style reserve; and he had the time to get to the heart of the Napoleonic empire, in numbers. Nothing could be the same again, however successful Napoleon still appeared to everyone at the time.

However strong Alexander’s forces now were, his will could be sapped, and both Napoleon and Castlereagh knew as much. This was where diplomacy mattered, and why Napoleon’s strategy—and operational tactics—were calculated politically, as well as militarily, and why they almost worked, the new odds stacked against him notwithstanding. Alexander could fight, but he had good reasons not to prolong the war, even if it entailed a negotiated peace. Indeed, Alexander had hoped for a truly defensive victory in textbook Clausewitzian manner, well before the theory was to hand: he had lured Napoleon over the border, deep into Russian territory, then struck back with the intention of crushing his whole army in one engagement. This narrowly failed at the Berezina, and he was forced to rethink his next move, but clung to the conception of the whole war of 1812–14 as a single counteroffensive operation.12 This shaped a clear military plan, but it did not always seem that it would triumph over politics at the time. The very resolve and the growing military might of the British came close to convincing Alexander that he might actually need to save Napoleon and support him as a counterweight to Britain. Added to this was the fact that he was thousands of miles from his court, an infamous source of intrigue.

If Napoleon did not concentrate overly on Russia, it was because he was not sufficiently aware of the extent of Russian mobilization, or the quality of its new army. Rather, he set himself the task of trying to deal what would have been a killer blow to the almost pathetic Austrian forces coerced into France in 1814. Badly armed, badly supplied, both Napoleon and the allies (p.236) knew that if the French engaged with them, Francis I would leave the war. The Prussians had to spend almost all of the 1814 campaign acting as a buffer between Napoleon and the Austrians, in a carefully crafted chase along the eastern river valleys. Beyond the threat to the Austrians, it tied down the best, if the smallest, of the allied forces in a fruitless perpetual check, of which the Prussians also became tired. Even when the Prussians were able to outrun Napoleon and bring him to battle at Laon, 7–10 March 1814, the result was inconclusive. The Prussians won a tactical victory, forcing Napoleon from the field, as they should have, outnumbering him almost two to one as they did. However, although the French were now much less able to sustain heavy losses than the allies—and they amounted to almost ten per cent—the Prussians, taken alone, were shaken by the cost of so localized a victory. The fall of Paris meant little to Napoleon; he still had his forces intact and a reserve army under Davout, on the Loire.

The killer blow would not be military or even diplomatic. It came from the French belief that a civilized people knew when the cost of victory outweighed the preservation of civilized life, and if there was one thing that bound the entire Napoleonic project together, it was the firm belief that France was the beacon and bastion of civilization. If Napoleon had to be shed to preserve this, then so be it. There was less an alternative ideology to hand than a serviceable strand within the Napoleonic ethos to rally around.

There was a political and a geographical pattern to this. The passivity of the war-weary masses is more directly explained by years of high taxation and, above all, of mass conscription that, from 1812 onwards (in Spain since 1808) offered the likelihood of death in the field. However, the main coalition armies were actually advancing into many of those parts of France that had done best out of the Revolution and the Napoleonic continental system, where resistance might have been expected. The warm welcome Wellington received in Bordeaux, whose trade had been ruined by the blockade, was predictable; the willingness to ensure smooth regime-change in the east, was far less so, yet it happened. The same was true of French officials beyond the borders of ‘old France’ in western Germany and northern Italy. At the behest of the local elites and the enemy, as much as of Paris, they remained at their posts until the advancing allies had their own system in place. The underlying logic was that, exactly because public order and a degree of prosperity existed, they had to be preserved. It was the gains of Napoleonic rule that counted, not the survival of the regime itself. Wellington’s prediction that the southwest might see a French version of the guerrilla proved utterly groundless, although his decision to keep his Spanish troops out of France doubtless helped. That said, there were no straggling lines of refugees crowding the roads of eastern and northern France in 1814 as the Russian and Prussian troops advanced, although many local populations soon regretted their decision. The Russians had proved themselves barbarous in earlier campaigns in Italy, and they remained so in 1813–14; Prussian occupation, as opposed to campaigning, turned out to be brutal, but only when it was too late. At the time, if there was a collective will, it was to preserve order and property, and the best way to do so was to abandon the regime, not defend territory.

The same logic applied at national level. Pierre Serna caught the collective outlook of the French commanders well when he describes it as one less of pure defeatism as of weighing the dear price to be paid for a victory, when surrender would actually prove more advantageous.13 The culture of sensible surrender, so well honed when Napoleon was advancing, was now turned against him. The allies saw this, which is why they knew that if Louis XVIII could be persuaded to retain the Napoleonic system, watered down by parliamentary constitutionalism on the pattern (p.237) of the early revolution, they could detach the ‘Napoleonists’ from Napoleon. They did; it was playing on the success of the regime that worked among the propertied and political classes in 1814, rather than any appeal to fundamental change. The year 1814 in France had more to do with 1688 than the apocalyptic, millenarian yearnings that so often grip endgame or postwar societies.

The chief allied architects of this were Castlereagh, who drubbed the need for a constitution into Louis—and tried to do the same with no success with the Spanish and Neapolitan Bourbons—and Metternich, who had already been through this mill, as it were, with the princes of the Confederation of the Rhine the previous year, for the German princes remained staunchly loyal to Napoleon. Metternich only detached the German princes from Napoleon when he agreed to sanction the survival, on its own terms, of the Napoleonic order in western Germany. For Metternich the short-term gain of the support of the German princes outweighed the final realization that real Habsburg power in Germany was gone forever. Even the imperial family embraced the concept of sensible surrender as first Murat and Caroline in Naples and then Joseph—deposed as king of Spain in 1813—began an underhanded process of changing sides.

Within France it signalled the emergence of something like a new element in the new political culture spawned by the Revolution and Napoleon. Its first act was to overthrow Napoleon from within his own corridors of power, while he still had an army in the field that they believed—probably wrongly—could deliver victory.

Conclusions: Changing attitudes to surrender

Collaboration: From enlightened self-interest to girouettisme?

It was not really the treason of a few marshals that ended Napoleon’s hopes in April 1814, for they did not initiate the flight from his standard. Their treason delivered Paris to the allies, but Paris was not France, just as their forces were far from the whole of army. Rather, the political elite chose to create a provisional government from within the edifice of the Napoleonic state that the allies could negotiate with and, above all, to which the French could rally. Had Joseph Bonaparte, Talleyrand, and Fouché been able to convince only the Senate and the process had stopped there, their defiance of Napoleon—their treason—would have been impotent. Instead, the Cour de Cassation, the judicial organ that pronounces on legality, declared the Senate’s deposition of Napoleon—and its ratification by the lower house, the Corps Législatif—as valid. The Parisian gendarmerie declared itself ‘bound’ to obey the new provisional government because it was a constituted authority, not a speculative one. Perhaps the real window on the minds of those at the helm of the provisional government emerges in its proclamation to the army, of 2 April 1814: their duty remained to fight for glory and country, but they were not bound by an oath to a man who was leading the nation to ruin.14 As Pierre Serna has observed with great insight, the tenor of every pronouncement of the provisional government in the crucial first weeks of April was couched in terms of public service. The truly courageous thing to do was not to make a vainglorious last stand, but to try to conserve the existing structures, to carry on working through the same ideas and principles, and so follow ‘the prudent direction outlined by the provisional government’, in the words of Chabrol, its leading apologist.15

(p.238) Napoleon understood this cast of mind from the outset. He knew those around him were seldom bound to him but to the successful end to revolutionary violence and instability—as distinct from the Revolution—he had brought. It was no different in 1814. The political elites would accept Louis XVIII if he accepted them; the allies, for their own reasons, made sure he did. When, less than a year later, Louis XVIII momentarily deserted his people in the same spirit, rushing to the newly drawn Dutch border, his flight was portrayed, in its turn, as a ‘sacrifice’ made for the good of the nation.16

Gloire and enmity

The whole culture of honourable surrender, followed by sensible collaboration, was predicated on the assumption that the victors, too, were civilized people, imbued with the same system of values as the vanquished. There were those who begged to differ, for not everyone shared in the ‘surrender culture’ of the age of reason.

Some of the most heroic, colourful, and often significant actions of the Napoleonic wars stemmed from just such defiance, which is why the French so often remarked upon them. Elsewhere, their first manifestations came during the wars, and were almost always a response to seemingly irreversible French victories, and directed against those who collaborated as much as at the French. The desertion of Yorck’s Prussian corps to the Russians in 1812, and the whole covert operation that was the Prussian reform movement between 1806 and 1813, embodied this among officialdom. Decades of political instability and the deprivations of war had created genuine popular enmity across Europe between 1792 and 1815. Foraging troops, recruiting columns, and the peasant masses they antagonized did not share in the ‘patriotic pragmatism’ of politicians, senior administrators, or the military establishments. The radical reforms of the revolutionaries and Napoleon spawned politicized civil wars that knew not the rules of war. The British press did not share the attitude of Wellington and Dalrymple to the Convention of Cintra; the Vendean rebels came out of the bocage armed to the teeth in 1815, even as their king made his pragmatic sacrifice. Winning over the lower ranks of both the army and the bureaucracy to the provisional government’s concept of ‘surrender as public service’ was far from assured, as seen in the Hundred Days. The unreconstructed left would burst forth in the 1821 revolutions; the right would overflow in the ‘White Terrors’ in France and Spain in 1814–15.

As time went on, and postwar exhaustion gave way to nostalgia, the Napoleonic legend, the thirst for gloire, would take an increasingly wide hold on the French imaginations, just as the myth of the Spanish guerrilla made truly dirty wars iconic forevermore. In 1814, however, cooler—if rather cynical—heads prevailed.


(1) Linda Colley, Britons. Forging the Nation, 1707–1837 (New Haven and London, 1992).

(2) David A. Bell, The First Total War. Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Modern Warfare as We Know It (New York, 2007).

(3) Pierre Serna, La République des Girouettes. 1789–1815 et au-delà une anomalie politque: la France de l’extrême centre (Paris, 2005) p. 534.

(4) Paul W. Schroeder, The Transformation of European Politics, 1763–1848 (Oxford, 1994).

(5) Archives Nationales de Paris BB18 (Affaires Criminelles, dept. Rome), Report by the Minister of Justice to the Emperor—29 October 1811.

(6) Royal Decree of 13 July 1808, cited in Juan Mercader Riba, José Bonaparte. Rey de España, 1808–1813. Vol. I, Estrutura del Estado Español Bonapartista (Madrid, 1983) p. 200.

(7) Louis Gabriel Suchet, Duc d’Albufera, Mémoires du Maréchal Suchet sur les campagnes en Espagne, 2 vols (Paris, 1828) I, p. 295.

(8) Jacques-Claude Beugnot, Le Grand-Duché de Berg. (Extrait des mémoires inédits du comte Beugnot.) (Paris, 1852) p. 9.

(9) Cited in Serna, Girouettes, pp. 153–4.

(10) It would go beyond the remit of this chapter to discuss Napoleon’s ability to rebuild his army so quickly, in terms of both quantity and quality, but the following key factors may be listed: the efficient system of recruitment, which did not just provide numbers, but was staggered in such a way that not all men from every ‘class’—year of turning eighteen—were conscripted, even in a ‘big year’ like 1812; this meant that Napoleon could draw on men in the early twenties from ‘light years’ like 1807, 1810, and 1811, in 1813; the army was not mainly composed of old men and boys. He drew hardened units from the Spanish front, hoping to end the fighting by restoring Ferdinand VII; this failed, but the troops were present in eastern France. He was able to mobilize a large proportion of the Gendarmerie, his paramilitary police force, composed wholly of non-commissioned officers with at least three campaigns’ service.

(11) Dominic Lieven, ‘Russia and the defeat of Napoleon (1812–1814)’, in Kritika: Explorations of Russian and European History 7 (2006) pp. 281–306.

(12) Lieven, ‘Russia’, pp. 300–1.

(13) Serna, Girouettes, pp. 157–8.

(16) Emmanuel de Waresquiel, Cent Jours, la tentation de l’impossible, mars–juillet, 1815 (Paris, 2008).