Shortly after landing in the Golfe Juan the Elban battalion entered Cannes, whose residents showed little interest, let alone enthusiasm, for the visit. This was Provence, after all, where Napoleon had been hung in effigy and nearly torn apart by an angry mob during his journey into exile. In nearby Antibes, 25 of his men were taken captive while attempting to win over the local garrison. Convinced therefore of the danger of following the main road to Lyon, the returning exile started inland along a route leading through the foothills of the Alps. At Grasse, horses and mules were procured, and Napoleon and a small mounted guard left the road altogether to make their way through snow-covered mountain passes. Having gambled everything on his ability to win over the army, the Emperor now raced northward in hopes of outpacing the news of his advance. “If the people and army don’t want me,” he prophesied, “at the first encounter thirty or forty of my men will be killed, the rest will throw down their muskets, I shall be finished and France will be quiet. If the people and the army do want me… the first battalion I meet will throw itself into my arms. The rest will follow.”
Moving with remarkable speed (along one stretch, on horseback and afoot, he covered 60 miles in twenty-four hours), Napoleon reached the village of Caps on 8 March. By this time, the garrison at Grenoble had been warned of his approach and stood ready to prevent his passage through a narrow defile in the mountains. The all-important first encounter was at hand, and after surveying the disposition of the garrison troops and finding their strength somewhat less than his own, Napoleon ordered his Polish cavalry forward at a walk. The show of force prompted the opposing troops to fall back somewhat, and with the situation reaching a crisis Napoleon took his cue. Calling back the cavalry, he ordered the battalion’s band to play La Marseillaise, then rode forward alone, the tricolour on conspicuous display behind him. At a point some fifty yards from the opposing troops he dismounted and continued forward on foot, now clearly recognizable in his familiar grey campaign coat and bicorn. Arriving within point-blank range, he paused and the young regimental captain nervously gave the order to fire. None of his men obeyed. Then the legendary figure before them drew back the lapels of his overcoat, presenting his white waistcoat for a target. “If you want to kill your Emperor,” he called out to them, “here I am.” A momentary silence was followed by shouts of “Vive L’Empereur!” as the men came streaming forward to surround him.
About the army, Napoleon had guessed right. Despite their sworn allegiance to Louis, the garrison troops quickly flung the white Bourbon cockades from their hats and replaced them with the forbidden tricolour ribbons they had been saving for just such a moment. Napoleon gave a short speech, reinforcing the old bonds of comradeship that had led to so many brilliant victories. Then, his forces nearly doubled by the addition of the Grenoble men, he continued his march. And so it went along the rest of his route, the appearance of the returning exile touching off another revolution throughout the countryside as soldiers flocked back to the colors. It remained, however, to win over one key figure: “the bravest of the brave,” Marshal Ney. After helping convince Napoleon to abdicate at Fontainebleau, Ney had gone on to serve under the restored King Louis, to whom he had recently sworn to bring the escapee back to Paris “in an iron cage.” When Napoleon sent a message inviting the veteran of so many of his great campaigns to rejoin him, however, the call of glory proved stronger than his boast, and at Auxerre the impetuous marshal went over to the Bonapartist camp, bringing with him a force of some 4,000 men. As Napoleon had predicted, the rest of the army would follow.
Upon learning of Ney’s defection, Louis XVIII and his court made a hasty departure for Ghent, and the following evening Napoleon entered Paris. It was the 20th of March, the birthday of his son and heir, the King of Rome. At the Tuileries, a large and wildly enthusiastic crowd had gathered to witness his historic return and mobbed him as he stepped out of his carriage. The greatest gamble of his career had paid off, and even the self-control of a consummate actor could not prevent him from beaming with unabashed joy. For all of his miraculous success in reclaiming his throne, however, the real challenge–that of retaining it against the combined might of the monarchies–now lay before him. Recognizing the essential fragility of his situation, immediately upon resuming power he sent a special envoy to the European heads of state at the Congress of Vienna with a hand-written letter expressing his desire for peace. As he saw it, he had agreed to the terms of the Treaty of Paris in order to prevent a civil war, and the same reason had necessitated his return; the Bourbon restoration having failed the French people, he had been obliged to resume the throne to prevent anarchy. Moreover, inasmuch as he intended to uphold all other terms of the treaty, the Allied powers had no reason to interfere in France’s domestic affairs. It was a thin argument, to be sure, and the Allied leaders, having none of it, returned the letter unopened.
In any case, the credibility of Napoleon’s desire for peace was about to be irretrievably compromised by the King of Naples, Joachim Murat. Since turning his back on Napoleon following Leipzig, Murat had found few friends among the royal courts of Europe, and when his former commander wrote him from exile inviting his support, Murat eagerly agreed to rejoin the Bonapartist cause. All too eagerly, as it turned out, for the same reckless daring that had seen him charge the Prussians at Jena wielding nothing but a riding crop would now characterize his role as an ally. Despite Napoleon’s request that he make no moves until the French army was ready to operate in unison, Murat led the Neapolitan army in a premature invasion of northern Italy, seizing Rome, Florence, and Bologna. At Tolentino, however, his army was thoroughly defeated, and he himself forced to flee. Napoleon later reckoned that the loss of his Neapolitan ally enabled as many as 100,000 troops to join the war against France.
Meanwhile, the Allied leaders quickly agreed to another combined effort to defeat the usurper, whose return Talleyrand characterized as “a criminal outrage on the social order.” By the end of March plans for a military response had been drawn up and the Duke of Wellington left Vienna for Brussels, where he was to begin assembling a large Anglo-Dutch force around a nucleus of some 10,000 British troops. Shortly thereafter, a Prussian army under Gebhard Blücher would come into position on Wellington’s left, while Schwarzenberg’s Austrians were to occupy the right bank of the Rhine in Baden.
With enemy troops massing on France’s frontiers, Napoleon was now faced with the daunting task of rebuilding the army without recourse to conscription. The forced raising of troops had been banned under Louis XVIII, and for all of the apparent excitement at Napoleon’s return, the French people were not about to go back to the yearly call-ups of his previous reign. Under pressure from a resurgent republican movement, Napoleon found himself compelled to accede to fresh demands for democratic reforms, and in token of his willingness to adapt to the altered political climate, he named one of his most outspoken opponents, Benjamin Constant, to draft a new constitution. The resulting document, known as the Acte additionel, won overwhelming approval in a plebiscite, and on the basis of this hastily-contrived mandate Napoleon set about the nation’s work, once again performing prodigies of organization and planning. Issuing torrents of orders dealing with all aspects of the coming campaign, he seemed to summon all of the energy and resourcefulness that had characterized his early career, scouring the country for available manpower, mobilizing National Guard units, calling back into service all veterans of military age, even converting much of the Navy to land service. Paris was heavily fortified and French industry was turned to the production of guns and materiel. Inspired by the emperor’s ceaseless energy and determination, the troops and the people themselves girded themselves for war, eager to restore the nation’s honor. By June, with the two main Allied armies widely scattered in the vicinity of Brussels, the opportunity offered to make a swift advance upon Belgium, where one or both might be knocked out of the contest before they could unite against him. Perhaps the surest indication of the scheme’s likelihood of success was the fact that neither Wellington nor Blücher expected it. Confident that Napoleon could not possibly be prepared to take the offensive, the Allied commanders had made few defensive preparations. Twenty years of war had taught them little, it seems, about their notorious adversary.
Having positioned various lesser armies along France’s outlying frontiers, Napoleon made his move during the first week of June, ordering a rapid and well-concealed concentration of the Army of the North on Beaumont, within five miles of the Belgian border. During this initial march, many units were still in the process of organizing, yet the concentration was completed with remarkable speed, and by the 14th some 128,000 men were on hand. Their first objective would be Charleroi, where they would gain the main road to Brussels and continue north along a route leading directly between the Anglo-Dutch and Prussian armies. Though the enemy’s combined strength far exceeded his own, Napoleon would have the advantage of surprise and his own, still-potent reputation.