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Warfare in the Age of Napoleon:
The War of The Seventh Coalition 1815
By the fall of 1814 the major powers of Europe formed the Congress of Vienna to discuss how they would remake the Continent to their liking. A major contention between them was whether an independent Poland would be allowed to exist. Sensing their dissension, the restless Napoleon left Elba eleven months after being exiled, and landed at Cannes in February 1815. His former field marshal Ney, now serving Louis XVIII, chose to arrest him to prove his loyalty to the King. Upon their meeting he switched sides and added his army to Napoleon’s meager guard. Napoleon then moved slowly to Paris by way of Switzerland gathering more troops loyal to him along the way. On his arrival he found that Louis XVIII had already fled. Napoleon retook the throne but tempered his rule by accepting constitutional limitations on his power. While he offered peace to his old enemies, a new coalition of Britain, Russia, Prussia, Sweden, Austria, the Netherlands and some German states quickly reunited and declared him a criminal. As each began to raise an army in preparation for war, Napoleon decided to strike first and defeat these forces one at a time before they could mass in unity against him. It was an old strategy and a risky one but there were few alternatives.
Napoleon marched on Belgium in June where he secretly concentrated his army at Charleroi where he would have the choice to strike at General Blucher’s Prussians or the Anglo-Dutch army under General Wellington before they could combine. Napoleon first struck the Prussians at Ligny pushing them back while his left wing under the command of Marshal Ney was sent to seize Quatre-Bras and then fall on the Prussian flank. When the British holding the town repulsed Ney’s attack, he never arrived at Ligny and the Prussians escaped (There is some controversy questioning the existence of this plan of action). The French right wing under Marshal Grouchy was then sent after the retreating Prussians while Napoleon headed toward Waterloo where Wellington’s men had retired on the road to Brussels. While these battles were small in Napoleonic terms, they are well represented on postcards because of their crucial relationship to the Battle of Waterloo that followed.
The Petit Journal was a popular daily Parisian newspaper with a rather large circulation. While they did not begin to include a weekly illustrated supplement until 1884, they had a longer tradition of printing pictures on their front and back covers. Many of these images would eventually find their way onto postcards which they also published. These postcards were usually tied to current events, but they produced postcards of Napoleonic battles during important 100th year anniversaries. Some backs carry a French tricolor flag printed along with a patriotic slogan printed red in the correspondence area.
Bad weather caused Napoleon’s assault on Wellington’s Anglo-Dutch army to open late, and when it did the initial attacks accomplished little. Further assaults were then made including a massive and perhaps ill-judged cavalry attack by Ney but little came of this except for rising casualties. Another attack on Wellington’s center finally gained some ground just as the first elements of the Prussian advance began to appear on Napoleon’s flank. Grouchy had failed to find Blucher’s army, and having recovered from their defeat at Ligny they were now rushing toward the sound of battle at Waterloo. In one last desperate move Napoleon committed the veterans of his Imperial Guard to the attack but they also failed to break through adding to the demoralization of the French. The British then counterattacked just as the Prussians entered the battle, and the French army began to disintegrate.
As the Allies advanced only three reserve battalions of Napoleon’s Old Guard held their ground. While they were eventually overwhelmed, they bought time for many others including Napoleon to escape. Only Blucher’s army was in condition to pursue, and they followed the French through the night. They eventually met up with Marshal Grouchy’s fresh troops at Wavre where they fought a meaningless battle. Waterloo was a large battle and one of consequence, but an uninspired one. While Wellington’s men put up a tenacious defense, there was little brilliance shown in his tactical maneuvering. Napoleon’s plan was sound but its execution by his Marshals was severely flawed; a fatal mistake when there wasn’t room for many mishaps. In many ways the Battle shows off the inherent flaws in Napoleon’s military organization that was too dependent on good decisions from high up. The Prussians on the other hand demonstrated the efficacy of their reforms, and they became the model for the modern army.
An inn called La Belle Alliance sat on a ridge to the south of Wellington’s position, and it served as Napoleon’s headquarters during this great battle of June 18, 1815. As the fighting drew to a close and Napoleon fled, generals Wellington and Blucher met nearby to discuss their next move. This meeting was captured in many paintings and subsequently many postcards because it has come to symbolize the end of the battle and the victory over Napoleon. While the Duke of Wellington, who chose the place of battle, insisted it be named Waterloo after a nearby village, Blucher preferred the name La Belle Alliance. The original name referred to the marriage between the widow who owned the inn and the workman she married, but Blucher thought it a good reference to the alliance of the seventh coalition that finally defeated Napoleon. Most histories have adopted Wellington’s choice, but in Germany they often followed Blucher’s and call the Battle of Waterloo the Battle of Belle-Alliance Sieg on German made postcards.
Waterloo is probably the most famous battle ever fought, so it should not be surprising that it received the most attention of all Napoleonic battles on postcards. The message here is again one of arrogance and defeat; that even the seemingly invincible are never guaranteed a victory. Despite this cautionary message, much romanticism has been built up around the details of the battle itself that have come to be represented on postcards. We can see this in the determined defense of the Hougoumont, the dramatic charge of the Scotts Greys, and the final encounter between Napoleon’s Old Guard and Wellington’s infantry at the peak of the battle. This Battle was important enough for details to be remembered or to be sought out to create an audience for picture postcards of them. Nowhere else is this true except for Napoleon’s campaign in Russia. Even so if meaning and symbolism are put aside we are still left with great drama, which has an appeal all its own.
One particular element of the battle heavily depicted op postcards is the cavalry charge led by Marshal Ney. When the British began sending units that had been badly damaged by French artillery to the protected side of the ridge they held, Ney mistook this for a retreat and ordered his cavalry forward. With most infantry still engaged at Hougoumont, he was forced to advance without support, which put him at a disadvantage once he suddenly discovered the British squares in front of him. His horses would not allow themselves to be thrown upon these tight formations bristling with bayonets, and though highly vulnerable to artillery fire, the French guns were to distant to be affective. This maneuver turned into an ineffectual bloodbath for both sides.This event has often been dramatized into a clash between an irresistible force and an immovable object.
A smaller episode within the attack in which French cuirassiers were swept into the sunken Ohain Road by their own momentum has been romanticized in both word and paint. It is depicted on postcards because the misstep has come down to us more as myth than fact. We are drawn to the tragedy it invokes, which itself is a microcosm of Ney’s charge, the Battle of Waterloo, and of the entire Napoleonic era. When brought down to a more human scale, it’s like listening to the Blues.
Panoramas were a major art form of the 19th century and a leading form of mass entertainment. They consisted of a large scale 360-degree paintings placed within a cylindric structure (rotunda) in which visitors would stand in the center to obtain an illusion of reality. Like so many great Battles, a 36 foot high by 330 foot long panorama was painted of Waterloo by the artist Louis Demoulin, and unveiled in 1912 at the foot of Lion’s Hill. Even though interest in it began declining in the 1930’s, it remains a popular tourist attraction, and the rotunda began appearing on view-cards as soon as it opened.
While postcards of the rotunda that houses the Waterloo panorama are not common, there are many reproductions of the painting to be found on postcards. These were usually published as sets or in booklet form to take advantage of its great size. If placed together they form a rather disjointed image of the painting as each card is cropped to place emphasis on creating a good single composition rather than a comprehensible whole.
Postcards of events connected to the Napoleonic age were always published simply because of the public’s great interest in the topic. While much of this was generated by a general interest in military history, the appeal went far beyond this. The mythical associations that grew up around Napoleon insured his popularity among postcard collectors. Sine many Napoleonic anniversaries took place during the golden age of postcards, they became a good excuse to print even more cards. This worked well until 1914 when the political realities of the Great War shifted allegiances. It did not pose a problem for the Germans whose armies had attacked France in 1814, but the 100th anniversary of Waterloo fell in 1915 when Britain and France were allies. While there is no telling what sort of cards might have been produced if circumstances were different, the subject was far from neglected; for while many sites have fade into obscurity, the battle of Waterloo had remained deeply etched in public consciousness from the day it was fought to the era when postcards were first published. What had happened in the interim was that through romanticizing the battle, it had come to represent the bravery and determination of the solderers who fought on both sides and not long standing national hatreds.
While many historic sites have fade into obscurity, the battle of Waterloo had remained deeply etched in public consciousness from the day it was fought to the era when postcards were first published. The battlefield had become a tourist destination; and as such many view-cards of its monuments were published. These however pale in number to cards that reproduce historic scenes of the battle.
In many ways the Battle of Waterloo came to represent the dilemma of working with shifting allegiances when depicting historic sites. When the 100th anniversary of the English-Prussian victory over the French came round in 1915, France was now Britain’s ally and both were at war with Germany. The anniversaries of great battles were usually commemorated on postcards to reinforce old allegiances and traditional hatreds. When your enemy becomes your friend, it deflates the potential of historic events to preform as an instrument of propaganda. Waterloo however had become too large a myth to completely ignore, so it was presented in a new way. The epic battle is now related to Belgium’s resistance to the German invasion while the old protagonists are conveniently hidden away.
Three days after finding that the citizens and the marshals of France had little support left for further resistance, Napoleon abdicated the throne. He had hoped to escape to America but the British blockade was too tight. He then boarded the warship HMS Bellephon, the ship that prevented his departure and surrendered himself to the British. He was then permanently exiled to the island of St. Helena. England, Austria, Prussia, and Russia then formed the Quadruple Alliance to finish redrawing the map of Europe to their liking. France would be reduced to her 1790 borders.
Michel Ney was perhaps the most famous of Napoleons Field Marshals. He was drawn to military service early in life, joining a hussar regiment in 1787 at Metz. He soon found himself in command of cavalry for the French Revolutionary Army first serving in the Netherlands and then in Switzerland. After Napoleon’s rise, he became one of his Marshals in 1804, and would play a crucial role in all the campaigns that followed. After Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, the unrepentant Ney was arrested by the reinstated Bourbon monarchy of France and executed in December 1815 for treason. Despite the large role he played throughout this era, he is not singled out for excessive representation on postcards. It is difficult to determine if this was just due to being overshadowed by Napoleon, or if there was some lingering resentment against him when postcards first came into production. Hw was honored in Metz with a huge monument, which is captured on view-cards.
After Napoleon’s exile to Elba, Joachim Murat’s position as King of Naples grew ever more tenuous as his fellow Allies began to reconstruct Europe. Napoleon’s return to France inspired Murat to declare war on Austria in March 1915. He achieved some initial success as his army advanced into central Italy, but the populace never rose up against Hapsburg rule as he expected. After the Austrians won a decisive victory over him at the Battle of Tolentino in May, Murat was forced to flee to France while the Bourbon King Ferdinand, who Murat had been holding in Sicily, was restored to the throne. As Austrian autocracy took hold in Italy, Murat saw the growing unrest this caused as an opportunity to regain his throne. He returned to Naples in October but the groundswell of support he expected did not appear. Soon after his arrival he was arrested and executed. The Italians would not rise up against Austrian rule until 1820.
Exile to St Helena
Napoleon’s story does not end with his last battle but in his exile to the remote island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic far off the west coast of Africa. His life there until his death was unremarkable but it still managed to inspire a number of postcards due to his mythological status rather than events. Captured on cards is the classic story of the great man fallen, dreaming of what might have been. While many of these cards incorporate symbolism, there are also many cards that take a more documentary approach depicting his estate at Longwood, or of Napoleon strolling in his garden.
Even though the cult of followers that promoted the myth of Napoleon remained strong in the early 20th century, there is no telling what direction his legacy might have taken had their been no First World War. With as many detractors as supporters his depiction as a great man seemed to be on the decline. Though a controversial figure when the Great War broke out, he was more valuable as a propaganda tool for the French if his negative aspects were ignored. As efforts were made to promote him more as a hero of France, his exile came to be seen less like just punishment and more like persecution.
The War of 1812 fought between Great Britain and the United States was a bitter one, and there was no love lost between the French community of New Orleans and the British who they battled in 1815. This animosity grew more intense after many of Napoleon’s ex-officers sought refuge there once their Emperor fell. Eventually they began conspiring with Nicholas Girod, the Mayor of New Orleans and avid admirer of Napoleon, to organize his rescue from St. Helena. With the help of the pirates Dominque and Jean Lafitte, they were ready to sail to his island of exile and attack the small garrison there when news of Napoleon’s death arrived. While these plans might be nothing more than a fiction, the house prepared for Napoleon’s stay by Mayor Girod does in fact stand on Chartres Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans. The Napoleon House as it has come to be known is a major subject of view-cards.
Napoleon did not take kindly to his exile and seems to have become bitter over his reduced status. Although he lived a good life, Napoleon did not receive the respect he thought he reserved, which helped promote his new role as martyr that eventually evolved into a new myth. This fed into rumors concerning his official death from stomach cancer in 1821 when not all the symptoms fit. When an elevated level of arsenic was later found in his hair samples, conspiracy theories of his poisoning arose. Modern analysis shows that his arsenic levels weren’t abnormally high for his times, and that gastrointestinal bleeding was the most likely immediate cause of death. Napoleon was buried on St. Helena in a spot of his own choosing, a shaded valley beneath weeping willows. The gravesite itself is unremarkable, his plot surrounded by a short fence.
When the political situation in Europe changed on 1840, King Louis-Philippe allowed the emperor’s body be returned to France. Even in death Napoleon had an effect on postcard production. There are cards of his death mask, his original grave on St. Helena, and scenes depicting the British transporting his body back to France in 1840.
The long awaited tomb for Napoleon’s remains was designed by the architect Visconti for a site at Les Invalides in Paris. Napoleon was interred there in 1861. This elaborate tomb has always been the subject of many view-cards. His original gravesite is still marked and continues to be captured on cards.
Napoleon surrounded himself with some of the best court painters of his time assuring that his exploits would be recorded and glorified in a grand manner. Many of the early paintings by well known classical artists and had become noted works of art filling museums by the turn of the 20th century. There they caught the attention of high quality art publishers like Stengel & Co. who used chromolithography to produced some of the finest art reproductions anywhere. As a result there are many superbly printed postcards depicting events from the Napoleonic times. He would continue to be painted larger than life for most of the 19th century. These works of art continued to provide a vast inventory for publishers to draw upon during the golden age of postcards.
Not only were postcards printed as art reproductions; as a continuous piece of popular culture they were ready made to be converted into modern propaganda cards. We now view Napoleon through two eyes because of this. Most 20th century postcards represent him through 19th century art conveying sensibilities of that period, which are mixed with cards influenced by retrospect. Though attitudes toward him would vary in subsequent years he had quickly become a man of myth and legend.
The Palace of Versailles had largely been built by King Louis XIV in the 17th century, and later enlarged by Louis XVI. After the Royal family was arrested by revolutionaries in 1791 the palace and grounds were confiscated and eventually turned into a museum. When Napoleon declared himself Emperor, the artwork within the palace was dispersed, and he began restoring Versailles for his personal use though he spent little time there. Though King Louis-Philippe would also use Versailles as a palace, he turned it into a museum in 1837 dedicated to all the glories of France. It was a political move to quiet rivals by promoting nationalism. Within its walls are nearly all the paintings Napoleon had commissioned. It became a tremendous source of imagery for postcard publishers, and the Museum of Versailles published many cards themselves. There are also artist drawn cards depicting episodes from Napoleon’s personal life at Versailles.
In places with no direct connection to the ravages of military campaigns or political oppression, Napoleon is more apt to be connected with the positive ideals of the French Revolution. These places however were not generally centers of postcard production and might have been in revolt against empires that were. Images of Napoleon as a revolutionary hero outside of France are thus hard to come by. Napoleon as a symbol of military genius is another matter for it is this mythical reputation that has spread around the world and is the most likely to appear on cards of all nations. Napoleon can be found on Japanese cards because of there own long military traditions and their strong postcard industry.
There is really no consensus on how to view Napoleon’s reign. There are many who admire and respect him as a revolutionary against the moribund monarchies of Europe, as a defender of order against mob rule, and as a brilliant general and brave warrior. There are of course those, usually from nations hurt by his personal excesses, autocratic ways, and his restless determination to get things done regardless of cost that see him in a negative light. This attitude quickly began to fade once this epoch was over, and even in these nations the memories of Napoleon as oppressor have largely faded away. There has also been a more modern trend to question traditional interpretations and scrutinize figures of authority through a sharper lens. Deserving or not, Napoleon also carries the myth of the ruthless warrior with him; a narrative that attributes a great loss of life to the purpose of nothing more than shaping the world to his own selfish imperialist desires.
Napoleon may have been indifferent to the suffering he caused, but his ambitions do not seem to be ethnically motivated. The treaties he made with his enemies were sometime generous and other times harsh. It was never a mater of who they were but what he thought the moment called for. To some this creates the appearance of a fair player, someone who can be focused in on for his military genius alone. When looked upon solely in this manner, his greatness overshadows his flaws, and he is reduced to a cartoon that carries a one dimensional message. Once simplified, the message can easily be manipulated to suit various purposes.
Until World War One, most Napoleon themed postcards were based on historical prints and paintings made throughout the 19th century. While it may seem natural that Napoleon’s presence be appropriated for new French Propaganda cards manufactured during the Great War, his likeness was only used sparingly. When seen he stands over French troops or generals as if parting his great wisdom over them, but this is problematic. While this stereotype of military genius is meant to reassure the public that their nation’s generals come out of a great military tradition, there is also the historic fact that Napoleon met his final defeat in part at the hands of the Prussians. A selective memory is needed for the myth to supersede fact.
While the presence of Napoleon on World War One propaganda cards were generally used to imply his genius was part of the French military tradition, there were also negative implications to his character that had become part of his myth by this time. When seen standing behind Germany’s Kaiser, Napoleon’s presence was meant to convey feelings of reckless oppression for the sake of self aggrandizement. The Kaiser was sometimes directly displayed on cards as the new Napoleon, which was not meant to be a compliment. This was more often seen on English cards where there was no love lost with the emperor.
On French cards depicting the Kaiser with Napoleon there is a different emphasis on their relationship. Unwilling to depict Napoleon in negative terms, he is aggrandized instead; and by contrast the Kaiser and his ambitions are diminished. While there is no consensus as to the precise legacy of Napoleon, we can see that his myth is so powerful that competing meanings can exist at the same time.
Comparisons between Napoleon and the Kaiser are probably the most common because of the interests stirred up around Napoleon by the anniversaries of his battles. This was not to be the last such analogy, and the same types of comparisons came to be made with Adolf Hitler. The formula was already in place, and it could be used to fit into new circumstances more easily than before. When the Battle for Britain opened in 1940 many saw a perfect opportunity to link it to Napoleon’s failed plans to invade England. These cards not only slandered Hitler, they were meant to reassure the British people that he too would fail.
The Napoleonic code that promoted radical changes in the class structure was a truly revolutionary model for social change in its day. While many 20th century institutions were based on its principals, some in France saw it as being out of date after a hundred years. One such group who sought further revolutionary change were the Suffrage movement who wanted a more inclusive role for women. They began borrowing Napoleonic imagery for satyrical posters and postcards in the 1920’s.
As we continue to change in the face of more modern wars, our ability to relate to those past has erodes, but the power of those encased in myth continue to have an effect us. Most of us have long forgotten the details of Napoleon’s times but the name Napoleon has not faded at all and his image has become iconic. It is not just a matter of remembering but how we remember. Without historical details to judge him, his myth can be better manipulated, and so both his positive and negative associations continue to be enhanced. Since few today have any stake in whether he is labeled a monster or a demigod, he can exist as both in our minds. His image can now be used to evoke strong emotions or just be employed for our amusement.
Napoleon had been the subject of early movies since 1903; and by the time the epic Napoleon vu par Abel Gance war released 1927, about 65 movies had been made. Stills from these films were reproduced on real photo postcards, and they played a large role in their promotion. If they could not make the iconic figure of Napoleon better known, they did help popularize his image and myth. This in turn affected the public’s perception and the manner in which they came to expect Napoleon to be displayed. The results can be seen in advertising and postcard production of those times, and it still affects us today.