The ranks opened suddenly, and a figure stepped into view.
He was taller than many of his enemies described him. Taller and leaner, the angles of his face clearly defined. His eyes were colder than depicted in the paintings and the propaganda, and they sparkled with a strange ferocity as he surveyed the lines of armed men before him.
The 5th Infantry Regiment had levelled their weapons, the barrels of their guns held steady as the small army advanced towards them.
Napoleon Bonaparte had returned.
‘The old Emperor had moved quickly, but word of his approach moved quicker still. It was said that he and his men were yet to fire a single shot in their defence – his words alone were enough to win the people to his cause.
He promised free elections, political reform, a new era of peace and empowerment for the citizens of France. It was a stirring message, uplifting and powerful – wherever he went, his forces swelled.
By the time he reached Grenoble, however, the royalist authorities were well aware of his progress. Holding a line across the road, their rifles aimed squarely at Napoleon’s oncoming troops, the 5th Infantry Regiment were ready and waiting.
Less than ten months ago, France’s greatest general had been sent into exile.
The Coalition had marched on Paris, and after an increasing number of severe defeats and setbacks, the capital was taken. Following the Battle of Montmartre, Napoleon surrendered to his enemies and abdicated his throne.
He was promptly exiled to the island of Elba, there to live out the rest of his days in seclusion while the powers of Europe rebuilt their nations. Of course, it was not to be.
From his new home, Napoleon had watched as tensions escalated across the continent. The Congress of Vienna, where heads of state from throughout Europe gathered to redefine the borders, was always going to be a difficult situation. However, against a backdrop of increasing civil unrest in France, fuelled by the actions of the new royalist regime, it looked as if peace might be short-lived.
Returning to their country for the first time in years, the old French nobility mistreated everyone from the veterans of Napoleon’s wars to the lower classes in general. On top of this, the people of France had to watch their once great empire being rapidly portioned off and reduced by the Coalition.
All this was fuel for the fire Napoleon was now about to light.
So it was that, on the 26th of February 1815, the exiled Emperor left the island where his enemies had hoped he would end his days. In fact, some members of the French nobility were even pushing to have him assassinated, or at least moved further away, as they astutely feared he might take advantage of the growing unrest.
Of course, even as such plans were formulated, they were already too late.
During a brief window of opportunity, with both British and Spanish ships temporarily absent, Napoleon and 1000 loyal men left Elba and sailed away undetected. By the time word reached Paris of the exiled Emperor’s escape, he was back on French soil.
With tensions between the royalist nobility and the oppressed lower classes nearing breaking point, there could have been no better time for the old Emperor’s return.
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