Two hundred years ago today, March 1, 1815, a short, slightly portly, middle-aged general—who had surrendered to his enemies ten months before—landed on a beach a little east of Cannes. This unlikely event set off one of the most remarkable one hundred days in European history. Napoleon was back.
After fifteen years of war, untold loss of life, and struggles that ravaged many and ultimately involved every country in Europe, his enemies had finally forced the Emperor to surrender the previous spring. They left him the title of “Emperor” and gave him the tiny island of Elba to rule. The title was an insult. They intended the island as a prison. The victors then assembled in Vienna and began deliberations that would set treaties and parameters to decide the fate of every country involved. Before they could complete their work, word arrived that the general had escaped.
The initial landing looked like a minor event. He had sailed from Elba with a few generals and about one thousand soldiers, his personal guard. He landed in a spot that would force a difficult march through the Alps rather than at the valley of the Rhone, which would have provided a direct route to Paris. Local authorities dithered and gave him time to rest and regroup. On March 1, few might have predicted he could take on the combined might of Europe one more time before the following summer would end. But he did.
Waterloo, when it came, settled Napoleon’s fate once and for all. It (and the Congress of Vienna) also set Europe on the path it would take for the next hundred years, until 1914. It marked the men of its generation for the rest of their lives.
No one who writes romance novels set in the years between 1815 and 1821 can ignore Waterloo. An Englishman was either there or he was not. Either way his psyche was marked, much like those in the U.S. who fought at Gettysburg or in our father’s generation who landed at Normandy. Whether you were there at the largest cataclysm of your generation or not, your life would be marked by it. Among the characters in the Dangerous series, Andrew Mallet and Jamie Heyworth were there. The Marquess Glenaire and the Earl of Chadbourn were not, although each served in his own way. Respect (and scars both visible and invisible) went to those who fought.
As we approach the two hundredth anniversary of the battle, we remember the steps that led to it. Today is the two hundredth anniversary of the Emperor’s return to France after his daring and extraordinarily lucky escape from Elba. What happened next astounded many.