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Napoleon's farewell to his Guard at Fontainebleau (click to enlarge)

'To die is nothing, but to live defeated and without glory is to die every day' - Napoleon

Keeping his promise to the shattered Grand Army as he left them during the retreat in Poland, Napoleon quickly recovered from the disaster of the of Russian campaign and amazingly pieced together a new army of more than 300,000 men as the 6th Coalition assembled to remove him from power once and for all, reducing France to her borders of 1792 in the process, a severe point of contention in subequent negotiations. The nations newly arrayed against Napoleon included the omnipresent Britain and also Russia, Spain, Portugal, Prussia, Austria (albeit unofficially), Sweden and several German states fed up with their coerced membership in the Confederation of the Rhine.

Determined still to reestablish his hold over Germany, Napoleon's army successfully began the campaign by beating the Russians and Prussians in major actions at Lutzen and Bautzen, although he lost his cherished old friends Marshal Bessieres at Rippach and Grand Marshal Duroc at Markersdorf along the way. Nonetheless, this auspicious start to the campaign gave him the political strength to force an armistice and earn much-needed breathing space in which he could gather more troops to the cause.

Hostilities resumed when Austria officially entered the fray in August and now France found herself up against almost all of Europe once again. Leading the Allies were Field Marshal Gerhard Lebrecht von Blucher, Austria's Karl Schwarzenberg and Sweden's Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, until recently a French Marshal, of course.

From the outset things were tough for the badly outnumbered French with Marshal Oudinot losing the battle of Grossbeeren against the ambitious Bernadotte. Napoleon evened the young campaign, however, by besting Schwarzenberg at the pitched battle of Dresden. But then followed a series of disastrous reverses. A battle at Kulm saw a French corps under General Vandamme was destroyed, Marshal MacDonald was beaten by Blucher at Katzbach, and Bernadotte defeated Marshal Ney at Dennewitz.

The deliberate campaign to avoid battle with the emperor and try to defeat his subordinates had worked well for the Allies. After Dennewitz, Bavaria defected to the anti-French cause. Bonaparte's fate was sealed during the three-day battle for Leipzig, the biggest singular clash of the Napoleonic Wars, although the sheer bravery of his troops allowed the French army to extricate itself from complete destruction.  The victorious Allies quickly took up the pursuit of the retreating Napoleon.

Another ally, Saxony, now switched sides but its army was brushed aside at Hanau.  The now-battered French army crossed the Rhine to lick its wounds (the wounded Marshal Poniatowski drowned trying his luck swimming the Elster). Despite retiring into France in good order, the remnant of the Grand Army wouldn't get much rest, as the presence of Cossack on the frontier signaled that an invasion of France was now imminent.

Napoleon and his escort during the Battle of France 1814 by Chelminski

The Battle of France

Having managed to survive through both the disastrous Russian Campaign and the Campaign in Germany of the following year, Napoleon made the politically fatal error of not agreeing to peace terms set by the Allied Powers. With that rejection, Francis I finally gave in to Metternich and Austria joined the coalition. The strengthened Allies were resolved to restrict France to borders based on her natural frontiers, the Rhine and the Alps, but Napoleon believed as he always believed, that he would be able to overcome the combined forces ranged against him.

This time, however, the hard-pressed Emperor's inexperienced troops would be assailed from all sides and by seasoned and numerous soldiers led by the likes of the Duke of Wellington, Prussia's von Blucher and a former French marshal, now Crown Prince of Sweden, Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte...though Bernadotte's was in no particular hurry to have another go at the Imperial Guard after the drubbing its enraged Grumblers handed Bernadotte's troops at Leipzig.

Despite the odds, an energized Bonaparte performed brilliantly in what is known as the 'Five Days Campaign', handing out defeat after defeat to his persecutors, especially the Austrians under Field Marshal Karl Schwarzenberg who eventually managed to whip up enough courage to send his forces forward though he was always timid in the face of the Napoleon who had so often sent him reeling in defeat. Napoleon's victories at Brienne, La Rothiere, Champaubert, Montmirail, Chateau Thierry, Vauchamps, Montereau and Craonne had the Allies on their heels, including Blucher who might just as well have been renamed 'Old Rearwards' since all he ever did when confronted by Napoleon in person, perhaps by design intent, was retreat intending to either find more favorable defensive ground for deployment or to join up with other Allied forces.

The main objective of the wary Allies was to march on Paris while maintaining a unified front, winning by sheer weight of numbers knowing Napoleon couldn't possibly hope to defeat more than 200,000 men, with more on the way, with his own mostly conscript-stocked army of barely 75,000. They were out to foil Napoleon's 'divide and conquer' strategy which had worked so beautifully for him time and time again. Despite Napoleon's own brilliant return to form in the Battle of France, his final successful campaign, losses by Marshal MacDonald at Bar-sur-Aube and Marshals Mortier and Marmont at La Fere-Champenoise did not help the Emperor's cause. Other sharp actions during this hectic phase occurred at Laubressel and Thennelieres.

Despite being greatly outnumbered, Napoeon was forced to take increasingly desperate actions and launched a high-risk assault on Blucher at Laon. He lost, and then moved to instead hit Schwarzenberg at Arcis-sur-Aube. Here he lost for the first time to Schwarzenberg. While the Emperor turned to try and reinforce Marmont and Mortier near Paris, the highly suspect Marmont foolishly surrendered his entire army of more than 30,000 men. It was the end of the road for Napoleon.

Despite the heroic resistance organized in Paris by Marshal Moncey, Marmont and Mortier were beaten by Blucher and Schwarzenberg in the final battle at Montmartre on 30 March, and the capitol was occupied on 31 March. Within a week Napoleon's Marshals, seeking to save what they could for themselves, were extremely vocal in their appeal to the Emperor for his abdication. Finally realizing that the Allies would accept nothing less than his unconditional surrender, Napoleon abdicated on 14 April 1814.

Napoleon at the battle of Montereau

On April 20, the Emperor delivered his famous farewell speech to the Old Guard, his oldest and most treasured veterans, in the courtyard of Fontainebleau as he prepared for exile on the island of Elba just off the west-central coast of Italy:

'Soldiers of my Old Guard, I bid you farewell. For twenty years I have constantly accompanied you on the road to honor and glory. In these latter times, as in the days of our prosperity, you have invariably been models of courage and fidelity. With men such as you our cause could not be lost.

But the war would have been interminable. It would have been civil war, and that would have entailed deeper misfortunes on France. I have sacrificed all of my interests to those of the country. I go, but you, my friends, will continue to serve France. Her happiness was my only thought. It will still be the object of my wishes.

Do not regret my fate. If I have consented to survive, it is to serve your glory. I intend to write the history of the great achievements we have performed together. Adieu, my friends. Would I could press you all to my heart.'

With that amazing farewell, Napoleon brought to a close the first great phase of his amazing career. But soon there would be much talk of his return 'when the violets bloom in the Spring'. Next stop, Elba and the Hundred Days.

Vive L'Empereur!