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Sedan 1870: The Eclipse of France.

Sedan 1870

The Eclipse of France

Douglas Fermer

Pen and Sword 244pp 19.99 [pounds sterling]

ISBN 978 184 4157310


Discovery at Rosetta

The Ancient Stone that Unlocked the Mysteries of Ancient Egypt

Jonathan Downs

Constable and Robinson 288pp 16.99 [pounds sterling]

ISBN 978 184 5295790


The Road to St Helena

Napoleon after Waterloo

J. David Markham

Pen and Sword 204pp 19.99 [pounds sterling]

ISBN 978 184 4157518


Napoleon and St Helena

On the Island of Exile

Johannes Willms

Haus 231pp 10.99 [pounds sterling]

ISBN 978 190 5791545


The Napoleonic dynasty was a failure, going down thrice to military defeat--in 1814, 1815 and 1870. Napoleon I abdicated twice. His efforts to have his son, the never-crowned Napoleon II, succeed him failed in both 1814 and 1815 and his nephew, Napoleon III, was declared deposed after defeat at Sedan, bringing monarchy in France to a close. As Douglas Fermer notes in his fine study of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, which takes the reader as far as the Battle of Sedan, 'a Napoleonic system without a Napoleon worthy of the name to exercise coherent political and military command invited the divided counsels that led to disaster.'

Yet Napoleon I also failed, totally. The intellectual curiosity ably sketched in Downs' interesting work on the Rosetta Stone was always secondary to an aggressive determination to expand his power, the two linked by a belief in his own destiny. The resulting unwillingness to compromise made peace dependent on his removal and this ensured that his promises, once he returned to power in a coup in 1815, were not credible.

Having mishandled both the Waterloo campaign and the Battle of Waterloo itself, Napoleon was determined to fight on, but his regime collapsed even before the Allied troops reached Paris.

Some advisers, including his brother Lucien and his military commander Davout, wanted Napoleon to dissolve the hostile Chamber of Deputies and to rule as a dictator, thus bringing to an end the constitutional government of Louis XVIII that he had continued in an attempt to curry popularity. Napoleon could have called on the Parisian workers to rally to him, but this would have caused civil war and he was no longer the general of 1795, ready to order cannon fired on opponents in the streets of Paris. Lafayette acted promptly to thwart Napoleon, persuading the Chamber of Deputies on June 21st, 1815 to vote to make itself permanent.

Napoleon abdicated on June 22nd in favour of his son by Marie Louis of Austria. By then Napoleon's presence or absence was of limited consequence. Serious resistance could not be mounted against the advance on Paris. Wellington and Blucher were able to turn their defeat of the French invasion of Belgium into a triumph for the Allies.

Wellington played a key role in the political transition within France, in part because he had the relevant skills from his years of managing Spanish politics. Blucher had no interest in such activities. In Paris, the crucial player was Fouche, the Minister of Police, as he claimed to control the 25,000 federes (revolutionary volunteers) in the city, pledged to fight the return of Louis XVIII. Fouche sought a peaceful settlement that would not be dominated by royalist ultras and persuaded Wellington that he could deliver an orderly transition, not least by blocking Napoleon's son from becoming regent. Wellington pressed successfully for a ministry with which he could deal, having Talleyrand, with whom be had negotiated at Vienna, as its head and also its foreign minister, and with Fouche as Minister of Police.

France fell, as Prussia had done in 1806: there was no lengthy struggle. The situation would have been different had Napoleon won, for the Allies, most of whose armies were not yet engaged, would have kept on fighting. Napoleon's regime, however, was dependent on his main battle army and on his prestige. Resting on these fragile foundations the regime rapidly collapsed. J. David Markham's book is an able study of the aftermath, while Johannes Willms' short work considers both the exile, in which Napoleon devoted his energies to self-justification, as well as the subsequent history of St Helena.

In September 1815, on the third anniversary of the Battle of Borodino, in a dramatic display of power Tsar Alexander I reviewed a parade of 150,000 Russian troops east of Paris, in the Russian occupation zone, alongside Francis I of Austria and Frederick William III of Prussia, both of whom were dressed in Russian uniform. Earlier, on July 10th, the three monarchs had reached Paris. In Europe, in place of Napoleon, came an attempt to develop a practice of collective security through a Congress system and Tsar Alexander's Holy Alliance of Christian monarchs (or at least those of Russia, Austria and Prussia), designed to maintain the new order. Within France, the new political order matched the ideas of the Holy Alliance. The Talleyrand-Fouche ministry was replaced after elections by a propertied electorate to the new Chamber of Deputies in August 1815, which returned a large number of ultra-royalists.

Unlike Louis XIV, Napoleon left a smaller France. Moreover, France's relative decline owed much to French politics, specifically the heavy loss of life in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. As Jonathan Downs shows, Napoleon's defeat was also an intellectual failure. The Rosetta Stone passed into British control, providing opportunities to the polymath Thomas Young in his attempt to decipher its secrets and thus to claim an intellectual pedigree from Egypt to Britain.
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Title Annotation:Discovery at Rosetta: The Ancient Stone that Unlocked the Mysteries of Ancient Egypt; The Road to St Helena: Napoleon after Waterloo; Napoleon and St. Helena: On the Island of Exile
Author:Black, Jeremy
Publication:History Today
Article Type:Book review
Date:May 1, 2009
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