Intercepted: The Fall of Paris, 1814
by Eric Niderost
On Sunday, January 23, 1814, some 700 officers of the Parisian National Guard
assembled in the Salle des Marechaux of the Tuileries Palace. The Salle
des Marechaux was cavernous, it’s two-story walls echoing with the
booted footfalls of the officers. The very magnificance of the Salle
proclaimed the glory of France, a glory that was now threatened by invading
enemies. But Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of the French, was due to make an
appearance. There was something about the man that inspired confidence—but only
when he was physically present.
It had been a hard winter, and patches of snow lay around the Cour du Carrousel
where the National Guard was drawn up in serried ranks. Inside the Palace the
atmosphere was just as frigid, chilled not by the weather, but a kind of
collective anxiety. The Allies of the Sixth Coalition—Great Britain, Russia,
Prussia, Austria, and a host of smaller states—were even now on French soil.
The Allies has several armies in the field, including Anglo-Portuguese forces
under Arthur Wellesley, soon to be created 1st Duke of Wellington. Wellington
came up from Spain, pierced the rugged Pyrenees Mountains, and was now
threatening Bayonne and southern France. There was another army under Swedish
Crown Prince Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, a former French marshal who nursed
ambitions for the throne of France.
For the moment, Wellington and Bernadotte could be discounted; the British were
too far away from the political heart of France, and Bernadotte was largely
inert, possibly for fear of antagonizing his future “subjects.” The former
marshal probably had some guilt feelings as well, and wanted to escape the onus
The greatest threats were the Army of Silesia and the Army of Bohemia. The
former, commanded by Field Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blucher, consisted of
70,000 Prussians, while the latter was an Austro-Russian force of 130,000 led
by Field Marshal Karl Schwarzenberg. Czar Alexander I of Russia and King
Frederick William III of Prussia accompanied the Army of Bohemia.
While the National Guard officers waited from Napoleon to appear, some must
have reflected on the chain of events that had brought France to such a pass.
One National Guard Captain, Louis Antoine Fauvelet Bourrienne, was certainly in
a reflective mood. Bourrienne knew Napoleon intimately; they had been schoolboy
friends, and later Bourrienne had been Bonaparte’s personal secretary.
Perhaps Bourrienne and the others could recall the day, not four years before,
when napoleon was at the apogee of a dazzling career, master of an empire that
dominated Europe. It was in this same Salle des Marechaux that
Napoleon escorted his new bride, the Archduchess Marie Louise of Austria, to
the balcony to receive the plaudits of her new subjects.
But then came the ill-fated Russian campaign. Drawn into the limitless
interior, the Grand Army was decimated by battle, desertion, exhaustion, and
the cruel Russian winter. Napoleon lost a half-million men in Russia, and
another 200,000 were tied up fight a bloody and ultimately pointless war in
Spain. Somehow, the Emperor managed to fill his depleted ranks with conscripted
youths, mere boys dubbed “Marie Louises.”
The green lads performed wonders, but Napoleon lacked adequate cavalry—the
thousands of mounts had been lost in Russia could not be replaced. His ability
to gain adequate intelligence and exploit victories was severely hampered. The
Allies realized Napoleon could not be everywhere at once, so they defeated his
more vulnerable subordinates one by one.
Napoleon was at last cornered and decisively defeated at the Battle of Leipzig
in the fall of 1813. Poised at the borders of France, the Allies offered peace
at the so-called “Frankfort proposals” in November of 1813. The offer would
have kept Napoleon on the throne and given France her “natural boundaries” to
the Rhine. It was a proposal that would have delighted the heart of King Louis
XIV. But Napoleon dragged his feet, still hoping that his waning fortunes might
Napoleon did finally give his assent to the plan, it was too late. The war
would go on, and France would face invasion for the first time in over twenty
years. Napoleon faced the challenge with his customary vigor, but his usual
hard-headed optimism was being replaced by a curious over-optimism. He simply
could not believe, in the face of mounting evidence, that his “star” was on the
The Salle doors were flung open, and napoleon made his appearance.
Bourrienne hadn’t seen his old companion in some time, and there had been
changes in the interim. Some things were the same; the former secretary noted
the pale, marble-like skin, the thinning hair, and the chiseled features
dominated by commanding blue-gray eyes. But Napoleon was growing noticeably
corpulent, very fat, in fact, and a far cry from the scrawny schoolboy or
youthful general Bourrienne once knew.
Napoleon did the rounds, pausing to give a word or two to the various National
Guard officers. His inspection was interrupted by the arrival of Empress Marie
Louise and their little son, Napoleon Francis Charles, the King of Rome. All
eyes were focused on the boy, not yet three years old, and the officers could
hardly fair to notice he was dressed in a miniature version of the National
The Emperor was a consummate political actor, but some detected a note of
genuine sincerity as he began to speak. Taking his wife and son by the hand, he
declared, “If the enemy approaches the capital, I entrust to the courage of the
National Guard the Empress and king of Rome.”
The officers, many moved to tears, exploded with fervent cried of “Vive
l’Empereur!“ The cheers were taken up by the assembled guardsmen in
the Cour du Carrousel, while inside the officers broke ranks to kiss
the hands of Napoleon and his son. It’s debatable how many of these men were
true Bonapartists. France was genuinely war-weary, sick of making sacrifices in
blood and treasure for ephemeral glory. Nevertheless, Napoleon’s words touched
them, and politics were washed away in a flood of emotion.
Two days later Napoleon left Paris to join his army and begin the Campaign of
1814. He might be joining his soldiers, but Paris was never far from his
thoughts. Paris was his capital, his administrative center, and a major
arsenal. But the city was also incarnate France, the cultural heart of the
country, and any French ruler who lost Paris did so at his peril. On paper the
Emperor had perhaps 70,000 men between Paris and the advancing Allied armies,
but many of these were raw conscripts hastily summoned to the colors. There
were around 200,000 Allied troops in northern France, and the possibility of
defeating them all with such meager resources seemed well-nigh impossible.
The city by the Seine was bound to be a magnet, drawing the Allies towards the
glittering prize. Napoleon planned a war of maneuver, protecting Paris by
striking one enemy, then another, If he kept the Allies off balance, he might
inflict enough damage to reopen peace negotiations on what he considered terms
favorable to France. There was even a possibility—however remote—he would win
another decisive victory like Austerlitz or Wagram, this time on French soil.
Even after a succession of defeats and disasters Napoleon’s name still
possessed a certain magic, making the Allies cautious. The wily Corsican
thought he could pull it off.
Before his departure, Napoleon set up a Regency to rule in his absence. The
government would be under the nominal control of the Empress, a pretty but not
overly intelligent woman who had little grasp of politics. Real power would be
invested in a Regency Council headed by Joseph Bonaparte, ex-King of Spain and
Napoleon’s older brother.
Not that this Council arrangement was much of an improvement over Marie-Louise.
Joseph was created Lieutenant-General of the realm, but no grandiose title
could conceal the fact that the older Bonaparte was ill-suited for the role.
 He was not without ability, but ruling a nation was beyond him. Napoleon
should have realized this, given Joseph’s decidedly checkered career as King of
Spain and the Indies. In Spain he was nicknamed “Pepe Botellas,” or “Joe
Bottles,” hardly an appellation of strength.
Napoleon was not unaware of this brother’s weaknesses, but probably the Emperor
felt blood was thicker than water, and at least he could trust Joseph not to
stage a coup. But Napoleon seemingly forgot there was one man in Paris with
more ability than the whole Regency council put together: Charles Maurice de
Talleyrand-Perigord. Talleyrand was an aristocrat who had a talent for
survival. Lame from birth, he had a genius for landing on his feet politically
during the Revolution and Napoleonic period’s many regime changes.
Talleyrand loved luxury and was notoriously greedy and rapacious. He was also a
statesman and diplomat of real ability, probably the greatest of his age.
Talleyrand had been Napoleon’s foreign minister, but the men had had a falling
out. The ex-foreign minister could see that Napoleon’s boundless ambition was
going to bring disaster, especially when the Emperor spurned his counsels of
moderation. Talleyrand was essentially dismissed, and in a famous tirade
Napoleon called the aristocrat “shit in a silk stocking.”
The former minister bided his time, knowing that Napoleon would overreach
himself. After the disastrous Russian campaign it was only a matter of time. By
1814 Talleyrand was ready, willing, and able to do all within his power to save
France from total ruin. A cautious man, he would wait for the Allies to get to
Paris before he would make his move.
Paris boasted a population of 650,000 in 1814. It sprawled over twelve square
miles, yet it was unfortified and therefore vulnerable. The metropolis was
enclosed by the Farmer-General wall, a barrier some eight and a half feet tall
and seventeen miles long. The wall, built between 1782 and 1787 during the
reign of Louis XVI, was designed to collect customs duties and discourage
smuggling, not repel enemy invaders. The wall funneled traffic and commerce
into 58 fixed points (gates).
Napoleon initially hesitated to fortify Paris, because that might alarm its
always-volatile citizens. Besides, the idea of the Allies at the gates of Paris
smacked of defeatism, a notion napoleon would not countenance even in his most
private moments. The habit of victory died hard, and also bred a kind of
arrogant self-delusion. Napoleon wanted peace, but peace on his own concepts of
“grand empire.” He turned a blind eye and ear to the very real war-weariness on
most of his long-suffering subjects.
The city would depend on a Parisian National Guard for defense, the same Guard
that gave napoleon such an emotional response at the Tuilleries Palace. But the
Guard’s strength was more apparent than real. Originally its target figure was
30,000 men, to be drawn from all levels of society. Eventually, though, the
teeming working class was excluded from the muster rolls.
The lower classes had been the catalyst for much of the turmoil and violence
that occurred during the French Revolution, and were associated with left-wing
“Jacobin” radicalism. There was the latent fear that the workers, once armed,
would turn their guns on the French government rather than a foreign enemy.
In the end, the Parisian National Guard became largely a “bourgeois”—middle
class—organization of 12,000 men. Yet even at that reduced number, there was a
critical shortage of serviceable muskets. Only about 6,000 men got decent
weapons; the rest got defective muskets or had to make do with pikes.
The campaign of 1814 opened with a hard-fought French victory at Brienne
(January 29) the place where Napoleon attended school as a boy. There was
another clash at La Rothiere, but it ended in a draw. Thousands were lost on
both sides, but while the Allies could make god their losses, Napoleon could
not. The Emperor rebounded with a series of brilliant but ephemeral victories
over Blucher’s Army of Silesia ar Champaubert (February 10), Montmirail
(February11), and Vauchamps (Feb 14)
It is estimated that Blucher lost 30,000 men in four days, but Napoleon’s lucky
streak finally, and inevitably, ran out. His army was mauled at Craonne, and
suffered a major loss at Laon (March 9-10). Napoleon did manage to pull off a
kind of pyrrhic victory at Arcis-sur Aube against Schwarzenberg, but it was
clear the French were nearing the end of their rope.
With his back to the wall Napoleon conceived a last-ditch stratagem: he’d
gather what forces he could, then sweep east in the general direction of St.
Dizier, roughly 100 miles from Paris. The emperor could then threaten the
Allied line of communications, at the same time bolstering his own dwindling
forces with troops now immured in the fortress towns of Metz and Verdun.
The plan had much to recommend it, but its success depended on total secrecy.
Ironically, the Emperor himself betrayed the scheme via an indiscreet letter to
Marie Louise. The message was one of two dispatches intercepted by a roving
Cossack patrol. “I have resolved,” Napoleon confided, “to betake myself to the
Marne in order to draw off the enemy from Paris, and approach my
fortifications. I shall be this evening in St. Dizier.”
This was just the sort of information the Allies needed: it revealed both
Napoleon’s plans and his exact whereabouts. On the night of March 23, the
Allies held a Council of War attended by Czar Alexander, King Frederick
William, and the various chiefs of staff. Any lingering doubts were dispelled
by yet another intercepted message, this time from Anne Marie Rene Savary,
French Minister of Police.
It was Savary’s job to keep his finger on the political pulse of the capital,
reporting any ominous stirrings. Savary’s note declared “many influential
people in Paris are openly hostile to the Emperor and would be a source of
trouble if the enemy approached the capital.”
The Allies responded to this vital intelligence with alacrity. One sharp thrust
at Paris, and the city might fall into Allied hands before Napoleon—some three
or four days march away—could effectively intervene. As events unfolded, the
Armies of Bohemia and Silesia united at Meaux on March 28, the pushed on to the
city by the Seine.
The disasters of the previous two years, coupled by Napoleon’s current string
of seesaw victories and defeats, left Paris in an uncertain mood. The French
capital, long addicted to victory, was suffering terrible withdrawal pains.
Trade was disrupted, unemployment rife, and food hoarding was producing
shortages. Thousands of wounded soldiers poured into the city from
not-too-distant battlefields. Wretches in bloodstained bandages and dirty,
tattered uniforms roamed the streets begging for bread, literally bringing home
the harsh realities of war.
Newspapers tried to lift morale with semi-hysterical predictions of apocalyptic
doom for the Allies. “We must bury ourselves beneath the ruins of Paris,” ran
one such paper, then further predicted that “The sacred soil which the enemy
invaded will become a devastating fire… the enemy will find his grave in the
streets of Paris”. But the city needed more than bombast to revive a
sinking morale. Many remembered the burning of Moscow, and fear Paris would
suffer a similar fate.
The first line of defense was entrusted to Marshal Auguste Marmont’s VI Corps
and Marshal Edouard Mortier’s assorted Imperial Guard units, altogether
amounting to some 20,000 men. Marmont’s troops can be taken to be
representative, raw conscripts so ill-trained some barely knew how to fire a
musket. Many were peasant lads still shod in farmer’s sabots, with
only a bonnet de police (forage cap) to outwardly mark him as a
soldier. Marshal Bon Adrien Moncey, another experienced commander, was in
charge of the Parisian National Guard.
Marmont and Mortier’s rag-tag collection of conscripts and a few veterans met
the Allied armies at La Fere Champenoise. Though ill trained, ragged,
exhausted, and hungry, the French youths fought well. Outnumbered about five to
one, Marmont and Mortier were forced to conduct a fighting retreat to the very
outskirts of Paris.
In the meantime Joseph Bonaparte summoned a Regency Council meeting at the
Tuilleries Palace about 8:30 on the evening of March 28. His object was to try
and determine a future course of action, particularly in regard to the little
king of Rome. The Council debated if the Imperial family should stay in the
city, but Joseph produced a trump card in the form of a letter from Napoleon.
The missive stated he wanted his wife and son to leave if the enemy threatened.
It was agreed that Marie Louise and her son must depart as soon as possible.
The Empress and King of Rome left Paris in a large procession which included
ten heavy green carriages emblazoned with the Imperial arms. The caravan
included the coronation coach and Treasury funds totally some 18 million
francs. In retrospect, the Empress’s hasty departure was a mistake, at least
from the Bonapartist point of view. The presence of the Imperial family might
have rallied the defense; without them, already low morale plummeted like a
stone in the Seine.
But Paris would not capitulate without a fight. The “regular” Paris garrison
was a heterogeneous lot, untied in a common desire to resist the enemy. There
were Young and Old Guardsmen from city depots, assorted artillery units,
invalided cavalrymen, and troops posted at strong points like the Castle of
Vincennes. Even students from the Ecole Polytechnique were pressed into
When all was said and done the 12,000 men of the Parisian National Guard formed
the backbone of the city’s defense. There was still a chronic shortage of good
muskets, and half the national Guard were armed with defective weapons. Some
were even issued with pikes. Joseph earlier tried to raise the status of the
pikemen by forming a grand-sounding “Lancers of the National Guard” to protect
the King of Rome. It was a well-meaning but ultimately futile gesture.
Nature itself, together with some man-made features, helped the capital’s
defense. The outskirts of Paris were dotted by satellite villages and
crisscrossed by canals. Much of the ground was undulating, and punctuated by
hills that rose up like rocky fists. The most famous of these was Montmartre,
later famed as a center of art and bohemian life. Montmartre and other hills
were fortified with cannon, and they had to be held as long as possible. Once
the Allies took them, they would have Paris literally at their feet.
The French right rested near St Ouen, where the dark ribbon of the Seine
meandered its way to the sea, while the French left was anchored near the
brooding medieval fortress at Vincennes. Though somewhat decimated, Marmont’s
and Mortier’s troops would participate in the defense. Joseph left the
dispositions of the men to the two marshals, since he had no military training
and certainly lacked his brother’s genius for command.
Paris had about 23,000 defenders all told, though some estimates, counting
every possible able-bodied man, “walking wounded,” and youth, boost the total
to perhaps 38,000. The advancing Allies had around 145,000 men, maybe more,
but sources often don’t agree. Whatever the figures, the French were vastly
outnumbered and outgunned, and Parisian fortifications wee woefully inadequate
by any standard.
Marmont held the French right, which included Vincennes, the hills of
Belleville and Saint-Chaumont, and the villages of Charonne, Menilmontant, and
Pre-Saint-Gervais. Vincennes Castle had its own garrison under a doughty
one-legged veteran, General Daumeanil. By contrast, Marmont held the French
left, including the hills of Cinq-Moulins and Montmartre.
St Denis, one of the very few really well defended outposts on the left, was
garrisoned by National Guardsmen and Imperial Guard troops under a Colonel
Savarin. This little town was the birthplace of the Medieval Gothic style and
burial place of French kings.
While Paris prepared as best it could, the Allies were making steady progress.
Around 5 pm on the afternoon of March 29, Czar Alexander and King Frederick
William arrived at Clichy with the bulk of the Russian troops serving with the
Army of Bohemia. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and the setting sun gilded
the sparkling French capital in the distance. “Paris!” came the exultant shout,
and Russian soldiers broke ranks to see the prize they fought so long to
behold. For many a long-suffering muzhik, it had been a long road
since the French invasion of 1812.
The prize was indeed within the Czar’s grasp, but Alexander’s sense of personal
triumph was diluted by a growing anxiety. To the Parisians, the Allied army was
a juggernaut, but there were many problems lurking behind the impressive
façade. Suppose, for instance, that Paris was defended street by street and
house by house by an armed and aroused city populace? Many Parisian streets
were narrow, barely 36 feet wide in many cases, tortuous labyrinths scarcely
changed from the Middle Ages. It would be hard to maneuver in such tight
places, and Allied numbers would be neutralized.
A great metropolis like Paris could be a sponge, absorbing as army and holding
it captive. The French were war weary, true, but the Parisians were touchy and
volatile and might rise against the invaders as they did in the heady days of
1792-93. If the Allies became bogged down in street fighting, there was a
danger that Napoleon might suddenly appear, using his army like an “hammer” to
smash the Allies against the Parisian “anvil.”
It was a nightmare scenario, and one that the Czar would do all in his power to
avoid. But if the outer Paris defenses could be taken, its citizens might be
persuaded to surrender without further bloodshed. Above all the city had to be
taken before Napoleon, still some distance away, knew his capital was
In general terms, the Allied plan of attack had the Prussians advance on
Montmartre, the Russians on the plateau of Romainville, and the Austrians on
Vincennes and Charenton. But in actual practice the attacks were carried out in
a disjointed fashion. Marshal Blucher, for example, was under the weather,
trying to nurse a fever. He was the heart of the Army of Silesia, and things
were confused when he was indisposed. On top of that, actual orders to advance
on Montmartre until 7 am, well after the battle opened.
The Battle of Paris—some accounts call it the Action of Montmartre—began at
four o’clock in the morning of March 30, 1814. The capital was awakened by the
steady, throbbing tattoo of drummers sounding the generale. . This
was a call to arms, and men rubbed sleep from their eyes and reported to their
units. National Guardsmen lucky enough to have working muskets impaled fresh
loaves of bread on their bayonets before falling in and marching towards the
Real fighting began as dawn broke over the city. Russian General Barclay de
Tolly posted a brigade at Romainville, and another at Patin, but Marmont would
not concede this high ground to the enemy. The marshal ordered a vigorous
attack, the peaceful morning suddenly shattered by the barking reports of
massed musketry. The Russians were taken by surprise and forced back, though
Allied reinforcements soon stabilized the situation.
While Marmont had his hands full on the French right, Marshal Mortier took up a
position in a redoubt near La Villette. Mortier was a big, bluff, hearty man,
not overly intellectual but brave as a lion in combat. It was fitting that he
was near artillery, since his surname, “Mortier,” is also the French word for
mortar. He was the tallest of the marshals, a towering six feet, six inches,
which made him a commanding presence as well as an easy target for the enemy.
Mortier gathered his staff about him, acknowledging that the odds were stacked
against them. “We don’t have enough troops to resist the Allies for long,” he
reminded them, “but we do this for honor.” The marshal then trained his
telescope down the Le Bourget road and spied 20 Cossacks approaching.
“Gunners,” he announced, “let us see if your big piece (a 24 pounder cannon)
caught cold last night…”
The cannon discharged with a roar, the first, one observer noted, to be fired
in the defense of Paris against a foreign enemy since the reign of Charles VII
in the fifteenth century.
The main enemy attacks were concentrated in the northern and eastern edges of
Paris, but were making little headway. Marmont and Generral Jean-Dominique
Compans blunted Allied thrusts around Roamainville, though the fighting was
heavy. In fact the magnitude of the clashes at Romainville attracted the notice
of Marshal Mortier, who sent Generals Charpentier and Curial to support
Napoleon’s celebrated Imperial Guard grenadiers added to their legend during
the course of the battle. Captain Morley and 50 grenadiers of the Old Guard
held the Neully Bridge all day against heavy odds. Most of the grenadiers were
wounded invalids, but they successfully defended the crossing against some
4,000 Allied troops and four cannon. Repeated demands for surrender were
rebuffed by these proud “grumblers.” Captain Morley had a simple answer: “The
Guard does not lay down its arms.” The Old Guardsmen held all day and all
through the night, and only surrendered the next day when the battle was
plainly and irrevocably lost.
In the meantime the battle grew in intensity. When four regiments of Russian
cuirassiers came out of Pantin village, there were disordered by numerous
ditches and unable to charge. These armored cavaliers were subjected to a heavy
French artillery fire which emptied many saddles. Unable to make headway
against the iron hail that peppered their ranks, the bloodied survivors
withdrew, closely pursued by French Infantry.
Some of the heaviest fighting was around Montmartre, which was Joseph
Bonaparte’s command post early in the battle. Joseph later moved the Chateau
Brouilliard, relatively out of harm’s way. But while he was still at Montmartre
watching the progress of the battle a message came from Czar Alexander under a
flag of truce. There were two Allied emissaries with the message. One was Count
Alexis Orloff, one of the Czar’s aide de camps, and a hastily recruited French
architect by the name of Peyre.
Alexander was growing more religious with the passage of time, and as Allied
victories mounted he was becoming convinced that he, Alexander Pavlovitch, was
an instrument of the Almighty. The Czar saw himself as the man selected by God
to restore peace and harmony in Europe. As one of God’s instruments on earth,
he was prepared to play the role of generous and even forgiving enemy.
But such generosity had its own requirements. Paris had to capitulate at once,
or face a righteous wrath that was inspired from God. As Czar Alexander
concluded in his note, “in the palaces or in the ruins, Europe (the Allies)
will sleep tonight in Paris.” Either Paris surrendered, or it would face
the fate of Carthage and be wiped off the face of the earth.
Joseph’s resolve, never strong to begin with, soon crumbled before the Czar’s
verbal assault. Alexander’s veiled threat conjured images of a helpless
Parisian population helpless before rampaging Russians and vengeful Prussians.
After a hurried conference, it was decided that Joseph and what remained of the
official French Imperial government would evacuate Paris. Joseph did not
delegate authority, so the two marshals were in de facto control.
It was approaching noon, but the fighting did not abate. General Barclay de
Tolly decided to use his reserves against Marmont, so he dispatched 9,000
Russian grenadiers under Generals Tzpkolow and Paskewitsch to Romainville and
Monttraul, and the Royal Prussian Guard at Pantin.
The Prussian Guards were an elite force, some 4,000 bayonets brimming with
confidence, and they quickly drove the French from Pantin. Not content with
this success, the Prussians fanned out in three columns beyond the village,
only to meet a hurricane of French fire. Cannonballs scythed through their
ranks; the fire grew so intense, even small trees were cut down as if by an
The Parisian National Guard was hard pressed, but gave a good account of
themselves. At Parc des Buttes Chaumont, National Guardsmen and some marines
staged a heroic defense until finally forced to surrender. A cluster of
Voltigeurs of the Young Guard found themselves trapped at St. Denis, surrounded
and running low on cartridges. At one point French cavalry—Imperial Guard
Chasseurs-a-Cheval and Polish Lancers—tried to break through the enemy cordon
with fresh ammunition.
Indeed, the Polish Lancers of the Imperial Guard performed prodigies of valor
throughout the day. They were led by Jan Kozietuski, the “hero of Somosierra,”
famed for his courage during the Spanish campaign of 1808. Angered and
impatient with Spanish intransigence Napoleon had ordered his Polish Lancer
escort to take some Spanish guns at the gallop. They instantly obeyed, and
managed to capture 3 or 4 Spanish cannon, but at very heavy cost. Kozietuski
was one of the brave survivors.
Now, six years later, the Poles showed their gallantry and enthusiasm was
undiminished. Kozietuski led charge after charge against the enemy, his men
colorful in their blue and red uniforms, square-topped czapkas perched
on their heads. They probably changed in Polish fashion, with on the front
ranks having lances couched under their arms. The rest were armed with sabers,
which were quickly coated with blood.
The enemy had their own lancers, generally called Ulans. At once point the
Russian Chuguyev Ulans stormed into a French battery and managed to take it.
They were surprised to see that many of the gunners were mere youths, boys from
the Ecole Polytechnique. These lads were experiencing their first taste of war,
and the shock was too much for some. Some of the youthful prisoners were
crying, while others were openly hostile and defiant, standing protectively
near their guns as if daring the Russian to take them.
Green-coated Russian infantry advanced on Montmartre with bayonets fixed, and
drummers loudly beating a steady tattoo. Some of the Russian officers led their
men with sword unsheathed, shouting commands and exhortations, the Russians
swept though some gardens, then advanced up the hill, the French resisting
every foot of the way. After heavy fighting the rampaging Slavs took the French
Russian and Prussian troops took Montmartre, then hauled cannon up the slopes
and established a battery. The French defenders fell back, bloodied but
unbowed, leaving the hill littered with enemy dead an wounded. Lieutenant Viaux
of the 2nd Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard and 20 men defended Montmartre
until overwhelmed by sheer numbers. His body was later found under a tree,
bloodied sword still in his hand. The gallant Old Guardsman was surrounded by
dead and wounded Prussians.
Marmont had held Montmartre and its environs as long as he could, but by 4 pm
it was obvious invalid veterans and callow youths could not resist the Allies
for much longer. The Marshal sent forward a note under a flag of truce,
requesting the opening of negotiations. But a final crisis had to be met: The
Russians were arriving on the Belleville-Paris Road. This was serious, because
if this avenue was cut, Marmont’s troops would be cut off.
The Marshal hastily gathered 60 men and personally led the attack. Napoleon
loaded the Marshalate with honors and riches, and in the end he criticized them
for becoming “too soft.” They had faults, but were always willing to risk their
lives and lead from the front. Marmont was no exception.
It was an incredible sight: a Marshal of France, his once-immaculate uniform in
bullet-ridden tatters, his face smoke-grimed and sporting a 8-day growth of
beard, leading a handful of men on an impossible mission. Generals Ricard
and Pelleport were killed at Marmont’s side, and within minutes 20 more men
were cut down, but the Russians gave way before the fury of this forelorn hope.
Marmont, his uniform bloodstained by a wound, led what was left of his forces
back into Paris.
The last major action in the Battle of Paris took place at the Clichy gate, one
of the entrances to the city. Marshal Moncey was on hand to give encouragement
to the defense. He established his headquarters at Pere Lathuile Tavern, and
took overall command of the Clichy Gate.
When he arrived on the scene, Moncey found Russian cavalry a scant 500 yards
down the road from the gate defenses. The Marshal posted his men at the windows
of surrounding buildings, hoping to create an enfilade fire if they approached.
Men were also posted at the stockade barriers that defended the gate, but
Moncey was afraid that Russian cannonballs would smash these wooden “walls” to
As a precaution the Marshal ordered a second barrier thrown up behind the
first. Civilian spectators, including many women and children, worked with a
will, piling carts, logs, and even pried-up paving stones from the street and
added them to the makeshift fortification. It was an act of heroism as well as
patriotism, because heavy Russian musket fire raked the whole area while they
When the Russian did move forward, they were met with a withering fire from
well-served canon and muskets. The green-coated enemy did not press the attack,
because they had been expressly forbidden by the Czar to enter the city proper.
After they fell back, they contented themselves with sniping.
The fighting was now at an end, but now the serious business of negotiation
began in earnest. The talks were conducted in Marshal Marmont’s Parisian home,
and while Czar Alexander was prepared to be generous, it was clear he would
accept no last-minute stalling or playing for time. The Russian monarch was no
fool, and knew that Napoleon and his army still hovered “off stage.”
A deal was struck at 2 am on the morning of March 31, 1814. By the terms of the
pact—formally an Armistice—the French army would evacuate the city by 7 am that
same day. They would be allowed to depart with their weapons, though the
Parisian National Guard that stayed behind would be disarmed. Any wounded or
stragglers found in the city after the Allied entry would become POWS.
Czar Alexander made his triumphal entry into Paris at 11 am. Alexander was in
the van of the Allied host, accompanied by King Frederick William III and a
Cossack Guard Escort. A glittering cavalcade of Allied officers followed, about
1,000 men all mounted on magnificent steeds. They included officers from
Russia, Prussia, Austria and a host of allied German states. There were even
British officers in the group.
After the officers came the “common” soldiers, rank upon rank of Foot Guards,
grenadiers, and armored cuirassiers from many different countries. Almost 400
guns were included in the parade, and the groaning axles and clip-clop of their
straining horse teams was said to create a frightful din.
The Parisians were at first quite, perhaps even sullen, plainly not knowing
what to expect. Gradually though, they seem to have come around, impressed with
Alexander’s courtesy and good will, and perhaps relieved their would be no sack
of the city. It helped that the Czar, who spoke French like most educated
people of his time, could converse directly with the curious Parisian throngs.
“I do not come as an enemy!” he shouted at one point, “I come to give you peace
and commerce!” The comment was greeted by loud cheers. Then a Frenchman,
perhaps a royalist who favored the Bourbons, boldly approached the Czar and
declared, “We’ve been waiting for you for a long time!” “If I didn’t come
sooner,” Alexander replied, “it is the bravery of French troops that is to
blame!” The Czar knew how to win hearts if not minds, and before long the
crowds of spectators were cheering and shouting “Vive Alexander!” as he passed
It wasn’t long before Alexander was visiting Tallyrand at the latter’s home at
No. 2 Rue Saint-Florentin. The two men agreed that the French Senate should
convene and a provisional government be established at once. The Senate met on
April 1, adopted a constitution, and created a provisional government for
France. On April 2 Napoleon was formally deposed.
But what was the Emperor doing during these last crucial days? In the same
predawn hours of March 31, 1814, when Marmont was arranging an armistice,
Napoleon was racing to Paris in a desperate attempt to prevent its
capitulation. Leaving his exhausted troops in Troyes to catch up, he had
reached a post-house near Juvisy with only a small entourage. He was only 10
miles from Paris, and only one more relay of horses would bring him to the
He was ay Juvisy when he heard of the armistice, and he was predictably
enraged. Even at the eleventh hour Napoleon had felt his presence in Paris
would have prevented defeat. “Everyone’s lost their heads!” he thundered, and
also raged against his brother, who he flatly said was “an ass.” After his fury
abated, he realized there was little he could do. He decided to travel to the
Palace of Fontainebleau.
Napoleon’s army joined him at Fontainebleau, and by the first week in April he
had gathered some 60,000 men. When Napoleon addressed them, it was clear some
of the old magic remained, and they lustily shouted “Vive l’Empereur! A Paris!
A Paris!” (To Paris! To Paris!) But this enthusiasm, however genuine, could not
mask reality. The army was ragged, exhausted, and its resources were dwindling
by the day. The ranks were filled with too many ill-trained peasant boys, not
veteran soldiers. Napoleon could not make up for the soldiers lost in Russia
and Germany, or the men now languishing in Allied prison camps. And there were
at least 145,000 Allies in the vicinity.
Then, more bad news: Marmont had deserted to the Allies, taking his men with
him. It was the last straw, and the empire collapsed like a house of cards.
Napoleon finally abdicated a few days after the fall of Paris. The Napoleonic
saga—save for a brief epilogue in 1815—was over.
Marmont was branded a traitor, and he stirs controversy to this day. Perhaps he
was a turncoat technically, but his defection was probably a blessing in
disguise. There was no doubt he fought hard and well during that last battle in
Paris, repeatedly risking his life. But if he had remained loyal, the fighting
might have continued, and the additional sacrifice of lives would have not
prevented the Empire’s fall.
Though he denounced others, ultimately it is Napoleon himself who was largely
responsible for his own political demise. Peace had been offered several times
over the months, yet he spurned the notion, preferring still trusting that his
“star” would retrieve his fortunes and bring victory. The Emperor also erred by
not fortifying Paris, and only ordering it in earnest when it was too late.
But most of all, it was Napoleon’s intercepted message to Marie Louise that
setr in motion the chain of events that led to the fall of the First Empire. A
doting husband and father had compromised the general and betrayed the Emperor.
Show Footnotes and
. Maurice Guerrini, Napoloen and Paris (NY:Walker and Co.,1964), p. 128
. Louis Antione Fauvelet de Bourrienne, Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte (NY:
Thomas Crowell and Co., 1910), p. 327
. R.F. Delderfield, Imperial Sunset: The Fall of Napoleon, 1813-1814
(London: Stein and Day, 1968), pp 169-170.
. Henry Houssaye, Napoleon and the Campaign of 1814 (London: Hugh Rees Ltd.,
1914), p. 335
. Guerrini, Paris, p. 58
. Houssaye, 1814, pp. 339-340
. Will and Ariel Durant, The Age of Napoleon, Vol. XI of The Story of
Civilization (NY: Simon and Schuster, 1975), p. 723
. Delderfield, Sunset, p. 219
. David Chandler, Dictionary of the Napoleonic Wars (NY: Simon and Schuster,
1993), p. 286
. Houssaye, 1814, p. 363
. Martin Windrow and Gerry Embelton, Military Dress of the Peninsular War
(NY: Hippocrene, 1974), p. 181
. Houssaye, 1814, p. 343
. Ibid., pp 417-418
. Anne S.K Brown, The Anatomy of Glory (Providence, RI: Brown University
Press, 1961), p. 396
. Houssaye, 1814, p. 391
. Brown, Anatomy of Glory, p. 396
. Guerrini, Paris, p. 336
. Houssaye, 1814, p. 397
. Ibid, p. 405
. Ibid, p. 407
. Ibid, p. 410-412
. Norman Mackenzie, The Escape from Elba: The Fall and Flight of napoleon,
1814-1815 (NY: Oxford University Press, 1982), pp.5-6.
Copyright © 2008 Eric Niderost
Written by Eric Niderost. If you have questions or comments on this article,
please contact Eric Niderost at:
About the author:
Eric Niderost teaches history at Chbaot College, a community college in Hayward, California.
A regular contributor to a number of magazines, he also is the co-author of Civil War Firsts (2001)
and A Nation Transformed (2007).
Published online: 04/26/2008.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.