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D - 22: The Great Prison Break

Two days after our visit to Pisa, we will reach the island of Elba, halfway between the Italian peninsula and Corsica. The official Tourism Board hails the island enthusiastically as “an enchanting paradise” with “lush, pristine beaches of all types and colors, history, art and culinary traditions that you won’t find anywhere else on the planet. The most crystal-clear waters you can imagine...” No wonder Napoléon accepted the island as his exile. After two years of non-stop fighting that took him from Warsaw to Moscow in 1812, threw him back to Germany in 1813 and eventually to Paris in 1814, staying on the island must have looked like a perfect holiday. And I guess that is exactly how Napoleon felt.

One of the many beautiful beaches in Elba

Having been outmanoeuvred in the winter battles and lost Paris on 30 March 1814, Napoleon abdicated the following week. The Allied Powers (UK, Russia, Prussia and Austria) evaluated several places for his exile. Corsica was considered to be too big and too close to France, Sardinia as too big as well and the re-established House of Savoy refused to give it up, Corfu was rejected for reasons I could not find out. Eventually, Elba was chosen against the objections of Austrian Tuscany. Napoleon was allowed to retain his title as Emperor, given sovereignty over Elba and was promised suitable provisions for his small court. He arrived on the British frigate Undoubted on 3 May 1814 in Portoferraio with his small retinue. He was now the sovereign of an island of 12’000 people. His mother and sister followed soon. His wife stayed away but his Polish mistress visited him occasionally

Portoferraio with Napoleon’s little palace to the left of the light house

Napoleon busied himself with rearranging the administration of the island, repairing the fortifications, building roads, issuing directives on agriculture and other businesses and receiving guests from all over Europe. In no way did he felt beaten. Yes, he had lost the winter campaign in the East of France since his new army was not ready and he had to fight with 70’000 men an enemy five times his size. But many of the battles he actually won. At an age of 45, he was still full of energy and was just bidding his time.

Almost unnoticed, he built a secret network of loyal supporters in France, created a mini army of 600 men from his old guards, established a small navy and influenced politiques in France where an unlucky Louis XVIII became quickly unpopular. Towards the end of summer 1814 it became clear that the French King would not honor his promised allowance of 2 million silver francs per year. Napoleon’s mini force cost him 1 million francs alone whilst Elba’s tax revenue was less than half. Also, he heard from his spies at the Congress of Vienna about a British plan to move him to the island of St Helena. The English secret service had gotten wind of Napoleon’s clandestine activities and his frequent French visitors and considered him to be far too close to France.

Something needed to be done. We know from Napoleon’s written memoirs that he hatched plans to return to France from the very day of his arrival on Elba. Now came the time to put them in place. Rumours of an impending putsch of the Duke of Orleans against Louis XVIII triggered the plans. In no way would Napoleon allow the incompetent French king to be replaced by a more competent rival. He himself would lead France again.

Napoleon’s departure from Elba on the 26th of February 1815 on the Inconstant

Napoleon readied his troupes, put his ships to sea and escaped when the British Ambassador who was supposed to keep an eye on him was on the mainland for two days. When Ambassador Campbell returned to Portoferraio on 28 February 1815, Napoleon was gone.

With him sailed his 600 grenadiers, 100 Polish Cavalry (but without horses), the 300 men of his Corsican battalion and about 100 civilians. On the 27th February, his small flotilla was discovered by two Royal French frigates which made no effort to approach. A bit later, he encountered the French brig Zéphir, exchanged some words and continued sailing. Nobody dared standing in his way.

The encounter with the Zéphir – Napoleon’s ship Inconstant is to the right

Four days later his little flotilla landed in the Gulf Juan between Antibes and Cannes and began marching on Paris. Quickly, entire Royal Regiments switched side. A small regimental force had become an army within a few days. On 13 March, Napoleon arrived in Lyon. His movement was now unstoppable. He dissolved the Royal parliament, published a new constitution, arranged a plebiscite to support him and launched a mass mobilisation to build a fresh army. He knew he had to fight the Allies and did not want to be in an inferior numerical position as he had been the year before. By end of May 1815, his army had reached the strength of 198’000. More than 66’000 troops, however, were still in training.

Everybody knows how it ended. Hostilities started on 15 June with a few successful skirmishes for the French. But the main battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815 was lost with tremendous losses. Wellington and Marshal Blucher pursued his troops. The second invasion of France within less than 12 months could not be stopped. Napoleon surrendered on the 15 July. Russian troops occupied Paris. The former French Emperor was exiled to the island of St Helena in the middle of the Atlantic, 1’870 km away from the African mainland. He would not leave until his death on 5 May 1821. He should have stayed in Elba – it would have been a nicer retirement than on the windy and wet rock in the middle of the Atlantic. But Napoleon was a gambler who want to throw the dice one more time. He did so on 26 February 1815 – the great prison break did not lead to great results.

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1 Comment

Suba Umathevan
Suba Umathevan
Jun 23, 2020

Interesting and engaging read!

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