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 Post subject: Waterloo @ 200 - The Flight of the Eagle: Grenoble
Unread postPosted: 17 Mar 2015, 21:52 
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Waterloo @ 200
The Flight of the Eagle: March on Grenoble


“Before Grenoble I was an adventurer, at Grenoble I became a reigning prince again”

By Matthew Groves

Napoleon’s Proclamations

Napoleon had always been a master of spin. The numerous proclamations and declarations issued throughout the Empire reveal an Emperor always able to inspire people through powerful and emotive appeals to the nation.

Prepared in advance and copied on board the brig the ‘Inconstant’ during the crossing, the proclamations dated 1 March 1815 at Golfe-Juan are typical of his style. Napoleon issued two proclamations: to the people and to the army. The officers of the Imperial Guard issued their own, addressed to the generals and officers of the army.


Proclamation to the army
"Soldiers: We have not been conquered; two men, sprung from our ranks, have betrayed our laurels, their country, their benefactor, and their prince. Those whom we have beheld for twenty-five years traversing all Europe to raise up enemies against us, who have spent their lives in fighting against us in the ranks of foreign armies, and in cursing our beautiful France, shall they pretend to command or enchain our eagles?—they who have never been able to look them in the face. Shall we suffer them to inherit the fruit of our glorious toils, to take possession of our honors, of our fortunes; to calumniate and revile our glory? If their reign were to continue all would be lost, even the recollection of those memorable days. With what fury they misrepresent them! They seek to tarnish what the world admires; and if there still remain defenders of our glory, they are to be found among those very enemies whom we have confronted in the field of battle. Soldiers: in my exile I have heard your voice; I have come back in spite of all obstacles, and all dangers. Your general, called to the throne by the choice of the people, and raised on your shields, is restored to you; come and join him. Mount the tri-colored cockade; you wore it in the days of our greatness. We must never forget that we have been the masters of nations; but we must not suffer any to intermeddle with our affairs. Who would pretend to be master over us? Who would have the power? Resume those eagles which you had at Ulm, at Austerlitz, at Jena, at Eylau, at Wagram, at Friedland, at Tudela, at Eckmuhl, at Essling, at Smolensk, at the Moskowa, at Lutzen, at Wurtchen, at Montmirail. The veterans of the armies if the Sambre and Meuse, of the Rhine, of Italy, of Egypt, of the West, of the Grand Army, are illuminated; their honorable scars are stained; their successes would be crimes; the brave would be rebels, if, as the enemies of the people pretend, the legitimate sovereigns were in the midst of foreign armies. Honors, recompenses, favors, are reserved for those who have served against the country and against us. Soldiers: Come and range yourselves under the banners of your chief; his existence is only made up of yours; his interest, his honor. His glory, are no other than your interest, your honor, and your glory. Victory shall march at a charging step; the eagle, with the national colors, shall fly from steeple to steeple, till it reaches the towers of Notre Dame. Then you will be able to show your scars with honor; then you will be able to boast of what you have done; you will be the liberators of your country! In your old age, surrounded and looked up to by your fellow citizens, they will listen to you with respect as you recount your high deeds; you will each of you be able to say with pride, 'And I also made part of that grand army which entered twice within the walls of Vienna, within those of Rome, of Berlin, of Madrid, of Moscow, and which delivered Paris from the stain which treason and the presence of the enemy had imprinted upon it.' Honor to those brave soldiers, the glory of their country!"

Napoleon knew he needed the army to come back over to him if his venture were to succeed. He tried to rally the soldiers by representing them as liberators of France, making much of the need for French self-determination, and he called on the army to shape the future of the nation. He instructed every man to cast off the white colours of the royal family and return to the French Revolutionary tricolour cockade.
In a sentence which instantly became iconic, he declared: “Victory shall march in double quick time; the eagle bearing the colours of the nation will fly from steeple to steeple until it reaches the towers of Notre-Dame Cathedral.”
These proclamations were very important in Napoleon's march on Paris.

The March Begins

Napoleon knew he could waste no time in Golfe Juan, nor could he waste a few hours to release Captain Lamouret and his men if he wanted to reach Paris before the 20th of March. He declared “Time is too precious, the only way to correct the bad impression created by this affair is to travel more quickly than the news. Why, if half my force were prisoners at Antibes I should leave them there. If they were all there I should go on alone.”

General Pierre-Jaques-Etienne Cambronne, accompanied Napoleon into exile, and would lead a regiment of Old Guard Chasseurs at Waterloo.

As soon as the moon was up the little army moved along the coast to join Cambronne’s advance guard which had moved into Cannes in the late afternoon. The inhabitants seemed to be stunned by the sudden appearance of these troops with tricolour cockades in the small hours of the morning. Napoleon met with no trouble or enthusiasm at Cannes, then he led his men up through the commune of Le Cannet on the rough carriage road which climbed fifteen miles through the hills to Grasse.

Once again there was no opposition waiting for Napoleon at Grasse. The royalist mayor, on hearing of Napoleon’s approach, had declared he would defend the town, and appealed to the retired General Gazan for help. But Gazan was a realist, seeing that the town had just five usable muskets and fewer people willing to use them, he told the mayor to put up no fight, he then sent a message to the War Ministry in Paris before riding off in the hope he would come across troops from Antibes who he assumed must be on Napoleon’s trail. He would be shocked to discover that nothing had been done to despatch the garrison at Antibes. Nothing effective would be done anywhere else in the next few vital days, partly because the authorities were surprised and ill-prepared, partly because they feared the line regiments were to disaffected to be dependable, and partly because many men in official posts delayed because they were unsure who to support, the Bourbons or the Emperor.

The situation in Grasse was ambivalent, the people neither opposed Napoleon nor welcomed him with cheers, and the only two recruits on the first day were two deserters from Antibes and a local tanner.

Into the Mountains

Napoleon received bad news at Grasse, the road on to Digne and Sisteron which he had authorized in 1809 had never been built. He had two choices, he could either take a safer route by moving dangerously close to the garrisons at Toulon and Marseilles, or he could take the quicker but dangerous route north by a narrow snowbound track through mountains, where he and his men would have to walk single file and it would be necessary to pack the treasure and other baggage on a strong of mules. Of course, time being of the essence, he chose the latter, abandoning his cannons and supply wagons. Major Laborde wrote afterwards “Our little force stretched as far as a column of twenty thousand men on a normal road.”

Before setting off Napoleon allowed his men to rest in Grasse from 8am until noon, it was Thursday 2nd March, barely a day after his landing at Golfe Juan, his men were understandably exhausted and they still had a long march ahead of them. The little army trudged single file on the narrow, treacherous path, Napoleon marched on foot with his men as no one could ride their horses on the path. A mule carrying two-thousand gold napoleons fell into a deep gully.

On the Friday, Napoleon led his men on an early start and by midday they had reached the little town of Castellane. As the inhabitants searched for supplies to give the little army, Napoleon sent for the mayor and secured some blank civilian passports. One he gave to Apollinaire Emery, a surgeon from Grenoble who had secretly travelled to Elba in September 1814. The seizure of Grenoble was greatly important to the success of the expedition, so Napoleon sent Emery to tell the Bonapartists there what the Emperor expected of them. Another passport was given to another man who was ordered to go to Marseilles where Marshal Massena was located in order to rally him to Napoleon’s cause.

On the same day the army marched another thirty miles to Barreme, Another early start on the Saturday allowed Napoleon to arrive in Digne late in the morning. There he received a cordial but cautious welcome from the townspeople, encouraged by a clique of Bonapartists. A squad of mounted gendarmes joined Napoleon’s force along with a few veterans of the Grande Armee. A local printer ran off hundreds of copies of his proclamations as Napoleon dined in the inn called Le Petit Paris.

March to Gap

Continuing the march later on in the day, the army reached the commune of Malijai, at last coming to a passable road. While Napoleon halted at the Chateau for the night, Cambronne and forty men went ahead another twelve miles to seize the crossing at Sisteron. At one o’clock in the morning, they arrived to find it intact and the fort which dominated empty, due to the General of the small garrison in Basse-Alpes having not enough power to blow up the bridge and the lack of support from the population.

Marshal André Masséna, proved to be one of France’s finest commanders in the Revolutionary wars and Napoleon’s campaigns in Europe from 1805-1809. By 1810, being given command of a new Army of Portugal sent to drive out Wellington, he was not “the Dear Child of Victory” he had been in his younger years and his failure to defeat Wellington lead him to live in semi-retirement as local commander of Marseilles throughout the rest of the wars.

When Marshal Massena heard of Napoleon’s march he sent two regiments to block the road to Grenoble, but having served under Napoleon for so long, he probably realised the futility of this cause, and realised Napoleon had an unprecedented lead on his pursuers.
After Digne, Napoleon had put his army into proper marching order for the first time, the Polish lancers had been acquiring horses along the way. There was a warm welcome at Sisteron where Napoleon stayed at Bras d’Or. On Sunday afternoon, as he pushed on past the village of Poet into the traditionally republican areas of Dauphine, the peasants at last stood on the side of the track and cheered on the little army.

There was no resistance at Gap either, General Rostollant, the military commander of the Hautes-Alpes, had only a handful of men, some guns but no gunners, he made a show of action by sending messengers to other local commanders but wisely kept his distance from Napoleon. Within a week he had joined the Emperor, saying later, in a neat explanation of the dilemma faced by so many officers on Napoleon’s return, that he had done everything in the first embarrassing moments to reconcile his honour and his duty with the attachment and devotion that he had never ceased to feel towards the Emperor.

At Gap, the grognards (a nickname for veteran soldiers of the grenadiers of the Guard), who had marched one-hundred and fifty miles since Wednesday night, joined the townspeople in the square, singing ‘La Marseillaise‘, ‘Ca Ira!’ and ‘La Carmagnole’ as if the revolution were beginning all over again. That night, Napoleon slept at the Hotel Marchaud.

The Congress Receives Word of Napoleon’s Escape

Historian Norman Mackenzie raises a good point in his analysis of Napoleon’s escape, because he escaped while the Congress was still going on, it meant that the Allies could easily unite and make preparations for their armies to stop marching back to their countries and prepare to turn around back to France. Had Napoleon escaped when the Congress was over and all the monarchs of Europe were back in their palaces it would have been much harder for the Allies to coordinate and it is very possible the disputes between themselves would have made some less enthusiastic about driving Napoleon out of Europe again. However, if Napoleon had not initiated his escape attempt when he did, there was no guarantee he would get that chance again. With the number of ships guarding him increasing, being watched by his British observer Campbell and with rumours that he may be shipped off out of Europe for good. If he had delayed, it is very possible his escape would have failed quickly, so Napoleon clearly felt that February 26th was his only chance and he took it. Taking Napoleon’s incredible confidence into account, it is also possible that Napoleon misjudged the severity of the rifts between the Allies and hoped that even when they heard of his return they would not unite against him.

Klemens von Metternich, Austrian foreign minister.

As it was, when Metternich received word of Napoleon’s escape in the morning of 7th March, he went straight to his Emperor Francis, who ordered Metternich to find King Frederick William of Prussia and Tsar Alexander of Russia to inform his he was willing to march his armies back into France to face Napoleon. Before 10am Metternich had seen and discussed the issue with the monarchs, had met with Field Marshal Schwazernberg, sent messengers to order the halt the withdrawal of the Allied armies and summoned Wellington, Talleyrand and the other important foreign ambassadors to an emergency meeting.

The uncertain mood of the moment was well expressed by the King of Prussia. A French royalist, Count Alexis de Noailles, said to the Prussian monarch “For a long time Napoleon has deserved to be hanged. Now that he has escaped it is essential that this time he really is hanged.” To which the king replied “Perfectly true my dear count, but first you have to catch him!”

News Reaches Naples

Joachim Murat, King of Naples, known for his many magnificent uniforms and his mastery in leading cavalry.

When Napoleon’s empire was at its zenith, Napoleon gave the throne of the Kingdom of Naples to his marshal and brother-in-law Joachim Murat in 1808. When the empire collapsed in 1814, Murat struck a deal with the Austrians which ensured his place on the throne, despite the disapproval of the other Allied powers. As the Allies squabbled at the Congress of Vienna however, Murat’s position seemed to be becoming less secure as it seemed possible Austria might cave into the other Allies demands for the former king of Naples, Ferdinand, to be restored.

When Napoleon returned, Murat was strangely ecstatic considering he had abandoned his brother-in-law the year before. It seems he was eager for more glory and believed earnestly that Napoleon would succeed, despite his wife, Caroline Bonaparte, and his ministers urging him to not get involved until there was a clear victor. When a Neapolitan general returned from the Congress and tried to reason with Murat, the cavalryman shouted back “We shall succeed. I shall call together all the people of Italy at Bologna. It is no longer time to negotiate. It is time to fight!”

On 9th March the Inconstant came into Naples with news that Napoleon had landed in France and was last seen on the road to Grasse. Murat’s rhetoric on hearing this news became even more roused, he wrote to Lucien Bonaparte in Rome “At last everything goes marvellously well, I have taken my side.” And in a letter to Cardinal Fesch he declared “I wish to prove to the whole world that I have never been, that I am not now the enemy of Napoleon.”

Murat was no doubt the greatest cavalryman of the Napoleonic age, and one of the most lavishly attired at that. But he was clearly thinking incredibly rashly about the situation, he ignored many of his advisors and declared himself an ally of Napoleon and declared war on Austria. Murat was a fine horseman, but clearly did not have the mentality of a king, his rash gamble would eventually result in the end of his life later that year.

Arrival at Ponthaut

Napoleon left Gap on Monday 6th March in the afternoon, a cheering crowd followed the column out of the town. Along the way, peasants offered to arm themselves and rally the local National Guard to join the little army, but Napoleon declined, wanting to keep the fervour of the people within bounds.

Late on Monday night, Cambronne ran into a company of army engineers sent to destroy the important bridge at Ponthaut. These engineers were in a disorderly mood, some had thrown away their white cockades and cried “Vive l’Empereur!” as the marched from Grenoble. When these engineers had reached the town of La Mure, two miles short of the bridge, the mayor easily persuaded them to abandon their task, saying it would be pointless to blow up the bridge.

With the advance guard, Cambronne reached La Mure, where he learnt there were troops from Grenoble ahead. He contemplated holding the town, but hearing there was a battalion on the move nearby and fearing he would be outflanked, he withdrew back to Ponthaut to hold the bridge. He sent an urgent messenger to the Emperor, who had stopped for the night at the Hotel de Palais in Corps some miles back.

The Garrison of Grenoble


The garrison was commanded by General Jean Gabriel Marchaud (above). He had at his disposal the 5th Regiment of infantry, 3rd Regiment of engineers, and the 4th Regiment of artillery to hold the town. He had sent for the 7th Regiment of infantry and the 4th Hussars. But Marchaud’s troops were not loyal, they were resentful towards Marchaud for his newfound royalist convictions, and the 4th Regiment of artillery were proud to be the regiment in which Napoleon had started his military career. The townspeople were seething with Bonapartist intrigue. Dr Emery had arrived in Grenoble with copies of the Golfe Juan proclamations, and he started a campaign to rouse the soldiers and the people.

By 5th March, the Bonapartist fervour was so severe that Marchaud paraded his troops and made them swear their oath of allegiance to the Bourbons once again, and he declared that Napoleon could not possibly succeed because he only had a thousand men. This sullen ceremony was interrupted by cries of “What about us, then?” and “Don’t we count, too?” Marchaud decided to keep most of his garrison inside the walls to prevent their desertion.

The next day Marchaud sent the party of engineers to blow up the bridge at Ponthaut, a few hours later he dispatched Colonel Lessard and a battalion of the 5th Regiment of Infantry to support the demolition. Lessard’s orders were unclear as to what to do if he came in contact with Napoleon, furthermore his will to resist the Emperor was undoubtedly affected by the dissatisfaction of his men. When they passed through the village of Vizille even the children were crying “Vive l’Empereur!”whilst the troops muttered. Lessard reached the outskirts La Mure shortly before Cambronne, he then heard he was in contact with Napoleon’s advance guard and withdrew the engineers and infantry through the village of Pierre-Chatel towards Laffrey some miles back towards Grenoble. It was the sound of this movement that had caused Cambronne to withdraw back to Ponthaut.

The Defection of the 5th

In the morning of Tuesday 7th March, Cambronne returned to La Mure to find no troops and cheering people, Cambronne went on in search of the troops led by Lessard while Napoleon came up and received the warm welcome. Five miles towards Grenoble the Polish lancers came across Lessard’s battalion drawn up in battle order across the track in a strong position. Both sides were equally matched and spent all morning looking at each other. Lessard was waiting for a reply from Marchaud to a letter he had sent that night requesting further orders, Cambronne was waiting for Napoleon to come up and decide what to do.

Lessard had a lawyer arrested who tried to read Napoleon’s proclamation to the battalion, but he could not prevent local peasants fraternising with the soldiers, asking if they would really shoot the Emperor. A messenger from Marchaud gave a vague order to Lessard to resist, which did not really make Lessard’s objectives any clearer.

The sight of the battalion was enough to worry Napoleon, for a long time he looked at the battalion and its position, discussing the situation with Cambronne, Drouot and Bertrand as well as some men who had been moving in between the opposing sides. It was the most critical moment of the march. Finally, Napoleon sent his aide Captain Raoul to Lessard suggesting that he defect. When Lessard refused, Raoul shouted to the soldiers of the 5th, “The Emperor is about to advance before you. If you fire he will be the first to fall, and you will answer for it to France!”

The Polish lancers advanced first, so Lessard turned his men about and marched them back until he believed he had full control, then he ordered the halt and faced the battalion at the lancers. The lancers swerved away, revealing behind them the blue coats and bearskins of the Old Guard, Napoleon marching with them, with their muskets under their left arms and bayonets in their scabbards as a sign of peace. As they approached some guardsmen shouted, “We are Frenchmen too! We are you brothers!” before Napoleon himself addressed Lessard and the battalion.


The exact words are debated, but it went along the lines of “Soldiers, if any of you will shoot your Emperor, shoot him now.” Lessard’s line suddenly collapsed as the men were cheering, laughing and crying all at once in this emotional moment. Napoleon had taken less of a risk than legend would say, as it seems he was fairly sure that the regiment would defect, nevertheless it was a great moment. Napoleon said to Drouot, “Everything is over, in ten days we shall be in the Tuileries.”

Napoleon made a speech to the new recruits and administered the oath to them, as he did so, a rider from Dr Emery, dressed as an officer of the National Guard, told the Emperor that the Bonapartist faction in Grenoble promised 100,000 francs. Lessard and his battalion were given the honour of being at the head of the column, a symbolic gesture of their acceptance by Napoleon that would encourage the rest of the garrison at Grenoble to defect. As they descended into Vizelle, the column met the 7th Regiment of infantry, led by Colonel Charles de la Bedoyere, who had produced the old regimental eagle and led his soldiers back to the man who had given it to them.

Arrival at Grenoble

General Marchaud had made serious blunders and now he could not hold control of Grenoble. Civilians were reading the Emperor’s proclamations in the streets, soldiers were wearing tricolour cockades and singing jingles in the barrack-rooms in favour of Napoleon. Marchaud asked a royalist artillery officer, “Will the officers fire if the men refuse to do so?” the officer replied, “We should be hacked to pieces on our own guns if we did.”

At nine o’clock that evening, Napoleon arrived at the southern gates of Grenoble, the Porte de Bonne, Marchaud and the few officers and men remained loyal to the Bourbons fled for Lyons through the northern gate, Porte St Laurent. There was pandemonium at the Porte Bonne, where the barricades had already been swept away for Napoleon’s entry. Outside there was a shouting crowd of peasants, workers and soldiers, who discovered as they assembled that evening that Marchaud had closed the city gates against them.

Napoleon’s force arrives outside Grenoble, the people wave and cheer his return.

On the walls were the enthusiastic soldiers of the garrison, eager to welcome the Emperor. There was tension when Colonel Rousille, who had held the gate for two hours, refused to open the gate. Then, as a group of wheelwrights began to pound away with a battering ram, Rousille opened the door from within. The symbolic gesture was greeted with a great shout, Napoleon was carried in shoulder-high. Since no one had the keys to the city, the people instead broke down the iron and wooden gates and presented them under the window of Napoleon’s room at the Hotel de Trois Dauphines.

The people of Grenoble present the gates to Napoleon

On St Helena, Napoleon recollected, “Before Grenoble I was an adventurer, at Grenoble I was a reigning prince again.”


Glover, Gareth, Waterloo: Myth and Reality, (Pen & Sword Military, 2014).

Mackenzie, Norman, The Escape from Elba: The Fall & Flight of Napoleon 1814-1815, (Oxford University Press, 1982).

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