Napoleon on the psychiatrist’s couch

Napoleon on the psychiatrist’s couch

Like last week, this week’s blog is a result of my attendance at the recent conference on ‘War and Peace in the Age of Napoleon’ held at King’s College London. It’s basically a summary of the final presentation. That seems worth doing because it was a fun way to end two days of heavy historical analysis with a fascinating attempt to get inside the head of Napoleon by having his behaviour examined by a team of psychiatrists whose day job is treating American servicemen. It was presented by Dr Edward J Coss, who is a professor of military history at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College.

Napoleon being dead, Dr Coss decided that any diagnosis of his mental state should be based on the closest he could get to actual observation of the living subject, so he looked for things that Napoleon had written himself or statements made by witnesses who directly quoted the man. In this way he gathered a substantial corpus of what could be treated as primary source material on his subject. He then gave this mass of quotations to practising psychiatrists engaged in the treatment of American servicemen.

Coss was expecting to find symptoms of PTSD. Napoleon had been almost constantly engaged in warfare for 17 years. He was a general who (contrary to the way the English tend to think of him) often led from the front and was exposed to danger directly and saw the effects of warfare on his men for all that time. Coss stated that it’s rare for anybody engaged in conflict over a period of years not to suffer from PTSD, so this seemed the most obvious thing to look for.

To his surprise, none of the psychiatrists considered that there was any evidence of PTSD, but, in their professional view, Napoleon did show signs of other attitudes and behaviours which are nowadays classified as psychological illness.

The psychiatrists said they saw clear evidence of narcissism. This is a condition characterised by

  • a strong sense of self-importance (grandiosity)
  • fantasies of power, success, brilliance
  • the notion that the individual is special and not as other people
  • the need for excessive admiration
  • a sense of entitlement
  • the tendency to interpersonal exploitation
  • a lack of empathy
  • envy
  • arrogance

There were interesting illustrations of such behaviours cited. For example, at Jaffa Napoleon touched the bubos of soldiers suffering from plague. While some people see this as evidence of his trying to show sympathy with the dying men, the psychiatrists suggested that it was more likely (as Napoleon was not a notably sympathetic character) that he touched them to show that he could not die of plague like ordinary people – he was, indeed, special.

Napoleon at Jaffa

I must admit that I was not entirely convinced. Napoleon was the single most powerful man in the world, ruler (effectively dictator) of a huge empire. A sense of self-importance and, indeed, entitlement seems, in the circumstances, quite reasonable. As to the fantasies of power, it is difficult to see how any fantasy could exceed the reality of his position. On the other hand, his early behaviour in Corsica (where he was heavily involved in local politics and rather over-reached himself as a very young man) did suggest that he had a sense of self-importance even then.

It does seem that Napoleon was big on admiration. He did like a certain amount of bowing and scraping, and Kamil Szadkowski’s paper on his court (officially established in 1804) gave a lot of fascinating detail on just how incredibly expensive and elaborate it was. But the court was part of a political strategy designed to establish his rule in France as being as legitimate as that of other rulers. Lacking the “divine right” of hereditary rulers, it was essential that the panoply of state was at least as impressive as that of other countries. It’s likely that Napoleon enjoyed the admiration (who wouldn’t?) but it’s not necessarily a symptom of a psychological pathology.

Self-important? Me?

I was also sceptical at the suggestion that Napoleon lacked empathy. It is said that he never showed real sympathy for those who were injured under his command. It is, of course, impossible to know for sure but the suggestion that he lacked the ability to form wholehearted emotional relationships is dubious. Even if you discount his relationship with Josephine (which was, at best, erratic) as a young man he did fall desperately (and rather pathetically) in love on more than one occasion. The suggestion that he was always cold and distant does not fit with many of the details of his life.

Much as, contrarian that I am, I was happy to take issue with individual pointers toward narcissism, eventually I was worn down by the sheer quantity of evidence. In any case, the psychiatric diagnosis relies on positive indicators of only five of these characteristics, and the psychiatrists had no trouble in agreeing that he was, indeed, a narcissist. Interestingly, according to Coss, narcissists are considered by psychiatrists to be “inwardly fragile”. Certainly Napoleon was prone to attacks of fury when crossed, often alternating with periods of sulking. He also famously attempted suicide on two occasions. It seems quite possible that under the bluster, the arrogance, and the spectacular displays of power, there was a sad little boy who had never had a good relationship with his father and who really, really needed his mum.

Napoleon was plagued with depression on Elba

But that was not all. We all know that Napoleon was moody and the psychiatrists volunteered the suggestion that he was clinically depressed – or perhaps bipolar. There was also a suspicion that by the end of his rule he may have been suffering a degree of brain damage. He twice injured his head falling from horses, on one occasion having a brief loss of consciousness. Nowadays he would have been encouraged to take it easy for a while, but in those days the suggestion that you “get back on the horse” was interpreted pretty literally. It is possible that some of his behaviour was the result of concussion-induced brain damage.

For me, the least surprising finding was the suggestion that Napoleon was a sociopath. Given that sociopathy is often linked with high performance in a corporate culture (so the incidence of sociopathy in CEOs is often quoted as being about 20%), I would be quite surprised if Napoleon had not had a sociopathic personality.

If the French army had had psychiatrists back in the day, could Napoleon have been treated? Well, brain scans could have looked for evidence of neurological damage, although as nobody did anything about it the time it’s unlikely that any effective treatment could have been given years later. The depression might have responded to drug treatment, but narcissism and sociopathy, according to the psychiatrists involved in the study, are almost impossible to treat.

It was a hugely entertaining presentation and may well give us a better understanding of Napoleon’s mind, but does it help us understand his rule? Honestly, I suspect not – except in so far that it reminds us that underneath that famous bicorn hat was a real person who had his personal strengths and weaknesses, his ups and his downs. By the time of Waterloo, he was quite sick. (He may well have picked up an illness during his Egyptian campaign that was never to entirely leave him. He is widely believed to have been suffering from piles at Waterloo and, whether or not the psychiatric diagnosis is accurate, he certainly seems to have had emotional issues by the end of his rule.) He was, it is fair to say, not at his best. When people ask why, for example, he allowed the cavalry to charge without close infantry support, we should consider the possibility that he was just having a really bad day.

Picture credits

Napoleon abdicated in Fontainebleau, 4 April 1814 by Paul Delaroche (1845)
Napoleon at Jaffa is a detail from Bonaparte visitant les pestiférés de Jaffa by Antoine-Jean Gros (1804)
Napoleon I on his Imperial Throne by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1806)
Napoleon on Elba is an anonymous painting from the early 19th century

A word from our sponsor

My interest in the Napoleonic era stems from the research that I’ve done for my books about James Burke. Burke was real person and although most of his adventures are fictional a lot of research goes into making the backgrounds authentic. Eventually it gets to the point where I spent more time writing stuff like this than I do writing fiction. (I am working on a non-fiction account of the background to Waterloo, if anyone knows a publisher who might want it.) Nobody pays me for writing these blog posts, although I do now accept donations if anybody wants to buy me a coffee. What I would really appreciate, though, is if you bought one of books. They are all available on Kindle and cost £2.99 or less.

Thank you.

Battle of the Nile

The Battle of the Nile was on 1 August 1798. Nobody seems to remember it these days – it’s all about Trafalgar. Back in the day, though, the battle of the Nile was regarded as quite a big deal. Look at this commemorative arch at Greenwich and you can see one of the figures holding a scroll saying “Trafalgar” on the left while a cherub on the right holds another saying “The Nile” and “Copenhagen”.

In many ways, I think that the Battle of the Nile was a more impressive victory than Trafalgar. I’ll go into details of battle and why it was important later, but first I should explain the background to the engagement.

In 1798 Napoleon invaded Egypt. He had distinguished himself by his generalship during his invasion of Italy and was a rising star in France. There are suggestions that the Directory (the rulers of France at the time) wanted him out of the way. He was becoming a little bit too popular and they may well have been worried that he could one day challenge their rule, as, indeed, he did only a year later.

Was the invasion of Egypt just a sideshow? Or would its possession by France allow them to move troops overland into India and threaten British possessions there? We know that Napoleon looked seriously at the idea of building a canal very close to where the Suez Canal was eventually constructed, but in the end his plans were thwarted, so we will never know whether an overland invasion of India was a serious prospect or not.

Victory at the Battle of the Pyramids gave Napoleon control of Egypt

Egypt had fallen very quickly to the French attack, but if it was to be used as a jumping off point for further conquest it was essential that France maintain its supply lines across the Mediterranean. The British had a substantial naval presence in the Med, but Napoleon had assembled a considerable fleet to transport his army and to maintain communications after the conquest. This was lying off the northern coast of Egypt, not actually at the Nile at all but in the Bay of Aboukir, near Alexandria.

Nobody knows exactly why the fleet was lying at anchor in a position where it was at risk from an attack from the sea where it would be pinned between the land and any hostile force. After the French defeat everybody blamed everybody else for this strategic error. One possible explanation is that Napoleon had ordered the fleet to sea but that the message had somehow never reached it, and this is the version that I use in Burke and the Bedouin. We’ll never know, of course, but if the British had had an agent in Egypt, then stopping that message getting through would have been a very useful way for him to spend his time.

There was a roughly equal number of ships in both fleets, but the French ships carried more guns. In 18th-century naval battles the number of guns that could be brought to bear was usually decisive and the French fleet carried 1196 guns against only 1012 for the British.

The British sailed into the bay intending a conventional attack. Each British ship would line up against a French vessel and both sides would hammer into each other with their cannon until the loser was no longer able to fight effectively. However, as the British approach the French line they realised that the French vessels were swinging at anchor. Clearly there was enough water between the line of French vessels and the coast for them to swing without grounding and, the British reasoned, it must therefore be possible for their ships to sail down the narrow channel. The British split into two columns and each French vessel found itself engaged on both sides. With the wind making it impossible for the French to make out to sea, they were stuck in line as the British worked their way along sinking ship after ship.

The most dramatic French loss was their flagship L’Orient, which carried an astonishing 120 guns. Fire on deck spread to the magazine magazine which exploded and the ship very quickly sank. While nowadays most of us have forgotten the Battle of the Nile many will remember the boy who “stood on the burning deck, whence all but he had fled”, a poem that commemorated the sinking of L’Orient. The boy was the captain’s son who, the captain being dead and unable to tell him to abandon ship, remained at his post and became one of over a thousand men to die in the explosion.

When it was all over, of 13 French ships of the line and four frigates, three were destroyed and nine captured by the British. British casualties were 895 while the French lost 5,225 dead and 3,105 captured.

The French defeat left them with no way of resupplying or reinforcing their army in Egypt. The French remained stuck in the country, despite attempts to fight their way out through Syria, until they surrendered to an Anglo-Ottoman force in 1800. By then, of course, Napoleon had abandoned them, returning to France in August 1799.

Nelson’s remarkable victory left the British firmly in control of the Mediterranean and prevented the French from using Egypt as a jumping off point for further aggression in the Middle East or towards India. It deserves to be remembered.

‘Twas on the ninth day of August in the year ninety-eight
We’ll sing the praise of Nelson and the bold British fleet.

Traditional sea song.


Burke and the Bedouin 

Did a British spy stop the messenger carrying the orders to the French fleet to set to sea and thus make Nelson’s victory possible? We’ll never know, but the idea that the messenger was intercepted is one that historians consider quite credible.

Burke’s escapades in Egypt are a straightforward adventure story, featuring a beautiful woman (of course), desperate rides across the desert, evil Turks, and dastardly Frenchmen. It’s a lot of fun but there’s some solid history about the French landings, the Battle of the Pyramids and, of course, the Battle of the Nile.

Burke and the Bedouin is available from Amazon in both paperback and e-book format, and in the USA from Simon & Schuster.


Picture credits

The Battle of the Pyramids, by Louis-François, Baron Lejeune, 1808. Public domain
Battle of the Nile, August 1st 1798 at 10 pm, by Thomas Luny. Public domain

Waterloo Weekend at Apsley House

As promised in last week’s blog, this weekend we made a visit to Apsley House, where there were some special events to mark Waterloo Weekend.

Apsley House is well worth a visit in any case. Once known as ‘Number One, London’, because it was the first house that you came to when entering the city from the west, Apsley House was the home of the Duke of Wellington. The present Duke still lives on the upper floors, but the two lower floors and the basement are now open to the public. The décor and furnishings are those of a very grand Georgian House, but its main interest is obviously its connection with the Duke. Wellington was well aware of his place in history, and Apsley House (complete, even when he was living there, with its own museum of Wellington-related memorabilia) is the history of the British victory expressed as architecture.

This weekend, though, we could only spend a short time there, so we concentrated on the special events for Waterloo Weekend.

The Rifles

Before the house was open to the public, representatives of the 95th Rifles marched into the forecourt of Apsley House and gave a demonstration of drill.

Even with just four men, making all the prescribed moves smartly together is much harder than it looks, and the 95th were impressive. It was interesting to see how close together they marched, presumably reflecting the fact that in the line the ranks of infantry would be packed together much more tightly than you would expect nowadays – “bollocks to backsides” as one re-enactor explained to me. (Not this weekend, when everyone was on their best behaviour.) Later I had a chance to talk to a couple of the men who were inside the house displaying their equipment. As ever when I meet re-enactors, I learned lots of stuff that isn’t immediately obvious when you read about the period. For example, I had always thought of the flints used in a flintlock rifle as being similar to the sort of flints that you would find in a cigarette lighter. After all, you only need one spark and how hard can that be? In fact, the flints were decent size pieces of stone about three quarters of an inch wide. I was told that the flints for the Brown Bess musket were even bigger.

The Brown Bess was generally bigger in every respect. Muskets need a longer barrel than rifles but this meant that when Rifleman was standing alongside other infantry to resist a cavalry attack there was a danger that the line of bayonets that the enemy faced would be ragged, because the weapons of the Rifles were so much shorter than the muskets of the regular infantry. The Rifleman I talked to showed how this was addressed by issuing rifles with sword bayonets, so long that they could stand alongside other infantry to make an unbroken line of steel. The sword bayonets had the additional advantage that they could also be used as swords in close combat. The length of the bayonets is clearly shown in the photo below. (I hope the sergeant had words with the man furthest from the camera or perhaps he was just preparing to attack a very short Frenchman.)

The Riflemen carried pre-cut patches – pieces of paper that were wrapped around the musket ball so that it gripped in the rifling of the barrel. At this stage rifle ammunition was issued as loose balls rather than pre-prepared cartridges and loading was a slow and laborious process. Apparently early Riflemen were sometimes issued with mallets to help them force the ramrod down the barrel. It was not surprising that the Rifleman I spoke to said that after the first couple of shots they were likely to load without patches as once the enemy was near the advantage of accuracy was not worth the reduction in rate of fire.

There was a tent in the courtyard where one lucky Rifleman could shelter from the weather. Presumably he was an officer, because British troops at this period were seldom afforded the luxury of tents. Hanging around the real fighting men, as the artillery so often do, were a couple of representatives of the Royal Horse Artillery, looking very splendid in uniforms which, confusingly, were predominantly blue – the colour of the enemy’s uniform. There were a lot of different colours of uniforms among the Allied armies and what we nowadays call blue-on-blue (though I guess then they might have been red-on-blue-with-orange-facings-because-that-won’t-confuse-anyone) casualties were not uncommon. The RHA did have very pretty uniforms though (and they don’t half look smarter than the representatives of 2019 hanging around the place).

There were a few women around too, adding a touch of glamour. I was particularly impressed with this outfit, which was a riding habit with a jacket and bonnet that made clear the lady’s admiration for the Rifles.

It was a useful reminder that the war affected every aspect of society, including fashion. The idea of clothing that showed your support for particular regiments was apparently quite common, although it’s not something that I’ve come across before. I must admit it seems more credible to me than the idea popularised by Jane Austen fans that the war was something separate from everyday life back home in England.

The  Surgeon

Paul Harding gave an interesting talk on surgery in the aftermath of Napoleon. I’ve been to a talk on this before, given by a well-regarded expert who showed off his case of surgical instruments, which was rather like the one in this (unfortunately rather blurry) picture from the National Army Museum.

Mr Harding’s approach was less refined. A few drills and saws and a bloody bandage were scattered around on his table as he explained how he would treat various wounds in those lucky enough to make it as far as the field hospital at Waterloo, some distance in the rear. He pointed out that operating on the field of battle was impractical and, probably more importantly as far as he was concerned, left surgeons open to the possibility of getting killed. There weren’t a lot of them and they had no intention of dying they could avoid it.

Mr Harding’s approach was down and dirty. Finding musket balls with a probe was all well and good, but nothing beat sticking your finger into the bullet hole. Cauterisation might create problems in the future, but applying a white hot iron to bleeding wounds provided a quick fix.

I learned some interesting things I didn’t know before. Patients were generally operated on while sitting, rather than laid on a table. They’d be sober too: rum might be offered after surgery but the last thing he wanted while operating was the struggles of a drunken man. He also explained that the idea that amputations were done very quickly is a little misleading. If you cut through skin and flesh your saw clogs up, so the surgeon prepares for the amputation by making an incision in the skin and drawing the flesh back to expose the bone at the point where the cut has to be made. This approach is illustrated very clearly in this contemporary drawing.

The cutting of the bone was, indeed, done very quickly, but the whole operation could easily take twenty minutes without anaesthesia. Most patients would fall unconscious after only a few minutes and the physiological response to the shock of surgery meant they would often survive the actual operation, but the after-effects of shock, infection (equipment was often not cleaned, let alone disinfected, between operations) and pre-existing weakness meant that Mr Harding’s best estimate for post-operative survival rates was about 9%.

We were given a quick introduction to trepanning and told how to leave a decent flap of skin to sew over the stump. (Lots of surgeons didn’t so that wooden prosthetics will be fitted straight against areas of scar tissue. You might be able to imagine the pain this would inflict, but you’ll probably be happier if you don’t.) Fascinating stuff and makes you realise just how glad you are to live in an age of anaesthetics and antibiotics.

For more about Apsley House:

I’ve written more about the house here:


Many thanks to all who worked on this at Apsley House and who were so patient answering my questions.

Special thanks to Marcus Cribb at Apsley House for the photo of the surgeon’s demonstration and to Claire Donovan for posing in her splendid dress.

The illustration of a leg amputation by Sir Charles Bell is in the Wellcome collection and reproduced with permission.

Burke at Waterloo 

If you would like to read a ripping yarn that climaxes at the Battle of Waterloo (and which does tell you an awful lot about what it must have been like), then I’d love you to consider Burke at Waterloo. It does tend to get slightly more sales at this time of year, and because of the way Amazon works the book gets much more visibility if you buy now rather than waiting until you go on holiday. If you enjoy reading me wittering on about the events in Belgium 200+ years ago, I’d really appreciate it if you could buy the book. Thank you.

Here’s the link:

Waterloo weekend

Waterloo weekend

We’re coming up to the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo on 18 June. I’ve written a book which climaxes at Waterloo: Burke at Waterloo. It’s a lot of fun and also gives you a useful summary of the events leading up to Waterloo and the battle itself. According to the mysterious laws of promotional blogging, because I’ve written this book I now have to write about the history. The problem is that the anniversary of Waterloo comes round every year and I covered it quite thoroughly last year.

It’s impossible, though, to ignore Waterloo completely. This weekend we may well end up going to the special events at Wellington’s London home, Apsley House. For those more adventurous, there is an annual re-enactment every year at Waterloo. This year it will be next weekend (22-23 June).

Why do the British get so excited about Waterloo? I was once talking about this to a French army officer who suggested that the French really were not interested in Waterloo, but were more enthusiastic about Austerlitz. There is no doubt that nations do tend to remember the battles they won, but Wellington won a lot of battles in the Peninsula and their anniversaries pass by with hardly any commemoration at all.

Field at Waterloo from the top of the Lion’s Mound

Waterloo holds a place in British history which is completely disproportionate to its actual military importance. Bloody as it was, it was far from the bloodiest battle of the Napoleonic wars, and the British have always overstated its strategic significance. In truth, the era of Napoleon had ended the previous year with the fall of Paris and the Emperor’s exile to Elba. Waterloo was rather a sad coda to the story of French military supremacy in Europe.

Waterloo, though, was a decisive victory which could be presented as a uniquely British achievement. (It wasn’t – fewer than half of those fighting Napoleon were British). Britain had been central to the struggle against Napoleon, bankrolling the armies of other states across Europe and maintaining control of the seas. It was only at Waterloo, though, that the British Army directly engaged French forces on the main front of the war. The battle cemented Britain’s position as one of the leading powers of Europe with a decisive influence in the settlement of the continent after the Allied victory.

For 200 years following Waterloo Britain saw itself as arguably the most important military and political power in Western Europe. This was not a view that would have been shared by other countries and its effects were not always positive. For example, some commentators consider that it was victory at Waterloo that convinced the British that they did not need the sort of military reforms that were seen in, for example, Prussia. The failure of the British army to adapt to the new forms of warfare that were emerging in the 19th century was a contributing factor to the disaster of the Crimean War. Yes, we were on the winning side, but militarily the campaign did not reflect well on the British Army. British soldiers behaved heroically, but their leadership let them down time and time again, not only in well-publicised disasters like the Charge of the Light Brigade but in less high profile – though arguably more significant – failures in supply and communications.

Politically, too, the myth of British exceptionalism, of which Waterloo was a significant element, has often damaged our relationships with the rest of Europe, culminating in the rejection of continuing EU membership. For better or worse, the reverberations of Waterloo continue to resonate more than 200 years later.

We are probably right to remember Waterloo. It marked the end of an era. What historians call “the long 18th century” ended on that bloody field just south of Brussels. The world was, indeed, never quite the same again – but the changes that we were to see in the 19th century were probably inevitable anyway. The growth of industrialisation, the increase in the franchise, the rise of the middle classes, the dramatic changes brought about by improvements in transport (notably the railways) and communication (like the electric telegraph) – all these things would almost certainly have happened whoever had won at Waterloo. 18 June, 1815, though, is one of those milestones in history. The journey does not radically change as we pass a milestone, but it is the milestones that remind us where we are.

If you have the chance this weekend or next, it’s worth thinking about that milestone and how the world has changed since and, perhaps, how we want it to change in the future.

Burke at Waterloo

Of course, you could commemorate the battle by reading my book. Burke at Waterloo starts off as a straightforward spy story. Burke is in Paris to foil an attempt on the Duke of Wellington’s life. (Yes, there really were attempts on Wellington’s life.) Burke’s pursuit of the Bonapartist spy leading plot takes him to Brussels with a climax at Waterloo. Military history enthusiasts are likely to enjoy the details of the Battle of Waterloo and of the (nowadays sadly neglected) Battle of Quatre Bras two days earlier. Everybody else can just relax and enjoy the spy story.

Burke at Waterloo  is available on Kindle or in paperback. In the USA it is also distributed by Simon & Schuster.

Image at top of page is Wellington at Waterloo by Robert Hillingford
The Hundred Days

The Hundred Days

Fans of Napoleonic history (and my blog readership statistics show that there are a lot of you out there) will be very familiar with the term “The Hundred Days”. But what does it actually mean, and what did Napoleon achieve during these hundred days?

It’s an odd idea, really. In the same way as presidents and prime ministers are increasingly rated at the end of their first hundred days in power, so Napoleon’s return to France is also talked about in terms of this magic number. The ‘Hundred Days’ are regarded as starting on Napoleon’s return to Paris on 20 March, 1815 and ending with the restoration of King Louis on 8 July. Constitutionally, it’s important, because it marks the period while France was, yet again, without a king, though if you count it up it adds to 110 days. In reality, though, it’s a fairly arbitrary slice of the calendar. It doesn’t mark the period of Napoleon’s ascendancy. The failure of Louis’ men to stop Napoleon on his march north marked the end of any real power for the king, and Waterloo, though not technically the end of Napoleon’s rule, was the end of his control of France.

For students of Napoleon’s life, though, the Hundred Days are interesting because they showed the way that Napoleon had to adapt his once absolute rule to take account of the changed circumstances in which he found himself.

Napoleon (right) was often compared favourably with the obese King Louis (left)

Despite the astonishing success of his march from the south coast to Paris, France was far from united in supporting his return. The somewhat meandering route that he took carefully avoided those areas – especially in the south and west of the country – where the population remained loyal to Louis. The king had been seen as weak and ineffective and some of the measures he’d taken to restore aristocratic privilege had caused resentment amongst the people, but this did not mean that they were necessarily going to support Napoleon. The French army had relied on conscription and hundreds of thousands of young Frenchman had been taken from their homes and families and led to their deaths, especially during the Russian campaign. This alone meant that many people were unhappy to see the Emperor back in charge.

Army reform

Professional soldiers (as opposed to conscripts) were the backbone of Napoleon’s support. He had led them, they believed, to victory (the dead of the Russia campaign were, after all, not there to argue) and he could restore French glory again.

Napoleon was well aware of the importance of the army and took care to keep the favour of the soldiery. He reinstituted the Legion of Honour and frequently inspected troops at the Tuileries, taking the opportunity to speak to the men and ensure their loyalty. At the same time, he instituted military reforms, for he recognised that he would need active military support to put down revolt at home and to protect himself against enemies abroad.

Louis XVIII had left him with few resources. The Chamber of Representatives refused to allow him to reintroduce conscription, but he was able to recall those conscripted in 1814. Officers who had served under him in the past had been stood down on half pay under Louis and they flocked to return. National Guardsmen, who were not technically available for regular military service, were swallowed up.  Estimates of how many troops were recruited during the Hundred Days are unreliable. Chesney, whose Waterloo Lectures are widely regarded as an important source, considers that some of the very high estimates given are essentially propaganda by partisan Bonapartists and that, for example, they include many men who were in no fit state to be deployed. He considered that by the beginning of June Napoleon could deploy fewer than 200,000 men – a significant achievement but much less than the 560,000 that Napoleon claimed.

Liberal Reform

An Englishwoman, Helen Maria Williams, living in Paris at the time described how Napoleon had to adapt to the new situation. Her account is partisan, but accurate.

Bonaparte, conscious that his enchanter’s rod was now broken, that he was no longer believed to be invincible … had recourse to new arts. He deemed it necessary to propose a voluntary decent from the height of his ancient dictatorship, and to declare himself the patron and popular chieftain of a free government.

Bonaparte decided that his new rule would be based on a more liberal constitution that would, amongst other things, guarantee press and religious freedom and allow the possibility of an extension of the franchise. Other liberal measures were to be implemented immediately (for example, slavery was abolished on 29 March) but the Constitution was to be put to the people of France in a plebiscite.

Voting was organised throughout the areas of France where Bonaparte exercised control. The plan was that representatives would travel from all over France to Paris where twenty or thirty thousand would meet at a great festival to be held in May. This “Field of May” was supposed to reflect a feudal assembly of ancient French history, where the monarch met with representatives of the nobility and the church, which was as close to a parliament as would have been known in those days. No such assemblies, though, had been held for a thousand years. Essentially, Napoleon (as he had often done in the past) was inventing a ritual to legitimise his status.

There were obvious dangers in having so many “electors” in Paris at a time when much of the country was still in turmoil. Measures were therefore taken to reduce the number who might turn up. They were to receive no money toward travelling expenses or accommodation. It was explained that when they did arrive there was to be no discussion of the new constitution but their role would be limited to verifying the registers and counting the votes.

Even with the best will in the world, the circumstances prevailing at the time would have made a plebiscite difficult. As it was, the electoral registers were drawn up locally and included only “active citizens” the definition of which was largely down to the officials. Obviously, prior to the election, Bonaparte expelled from office all those officials who were known to be favourable to the Bourbon regime. It probably goes without saying that it was not a secret ballot.

By now, Bonaparte felt that he needed the support of the people. He had been used to ruling autocratically, but now he found that the ministers he appointed would argue with him, insisting that their views be taken into account. The Chamber of Representatives (one of his liberal reforms, which he was probably already regretting) even elected a president who was known to oppose him.

In the end only 1,532,527 people voted in the plebiscite, about a fifth of those eligible, and far fewer than in plebiscites organised under the Republic, but Napoleon claimed he had the majority he needed and was, once again, the legitimate Emperor of France.

The Field of May

No one was quite sure what the ‘Champ de Mai’ would entail. The feudal ceremony was lost in the mists of history, but Parisians were promised a spectacle.

“What is the Field of May?” exclaimed the Parisians; at once something antique, and something new; when much was to be done for their liberties, and, what was not indifferent, an unknown ceremonial would be performed for their amusement. It may be observed, that one effect of twenty-five years’ of revolution is to have given the French such restless habits, that they require continually something new or strange to occupy their minds… All Paris flocked in multitudes to see what was to be seen at the Field of May.


The one thing that everybody seemed sure of was that the ceremony would be held in May, but repeated delays meant that it eventually took place on 1 June.

Helen Maria Williams described the scene in a letter home:

A spacious temporary amphitheatre had been erected for this purpose in the Champs de Mars, connected with the facade of the military school, and containing about fifteen thousand persons, seated, and covered by an awning; these were the electors, and the military deputations. The sloping banks which arise round the Champs de Mars, were crowded with people, and its immense plain was filled with cavalry. Here an altar was placed, opposite the throne, which was erected within the amphitheatre.

Napoleon arrived at ceremony dressed in Roman costume. The Mass was celebrated at the altar and then came speeches and a declaration that the new constitution had been accepted by “an almost unanimity of votes”. Then came a military parade of nearly 50,000 troops.

The spectacle was magnificent… The inspiring sounds of music, the blaze of military decoration, the glittering of innumerable arms, the countless concourse of spectators, their prolonged vociferations, the occasion, the man, the mighty events that hung in suspense, all concurred to excite feelings and reflections which only such a scene could have produced.

William Mudford

Two weeks later, Napoleon was to lead these troops north into Belgium and the start of the road to Waterloo.



Chesney, Charles Cornwallis (1868). Waterloo Lectures: a study of the Campaign of 1815.

Mudford, William (1817) An Historical Account of the Battle of Waterloo

Williams, Helen Maria (1815) A narrative of the events which have taken place in France : from the landing of Napoleon Bonaparte, on the 1st of March, 1815, till the restoration of Louis XVIII : with an account of the present state of society and public opinion

Picture of ‘Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France’ is a British satirical picture published in London in 1815 and held in the Bodleian library, Oxford.

Cartoon of Louis and Napoleon is an anonymous print from 1797 held in the Bodleian library, Oxford.