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" I wish my ashes to repose on the banks of the Seine."

Napoleon I

Napoleon From Left:
1797 at 28 leading general of the Revolution
1802 - First Consul and Master of France

1813 - After the disaster of Russia, the Emperor in his last days of power

Napoleon From left:
1815 - on board the ship that took him to St. Helena, leaning against the gun the English called "the Emperior's cannon," while gazing out to sea.
1817 - 1819 - 1820 - These last three representations all while at St. Helena, getting steadier heavier as he nears his end.

Within twenty years of his death, Napoleon had been reborn and dominated the minds and imaginations of most of the French people. Soldiers cherished the memory of the Petit Caporal, who had joined them around the campfire and promoted without class prejudice. The peasants remembered the man who had protected them from the demands of the nobility. The proletariat had prospered under his rule and the middle class had grown in wealth and social acceptance. Napoleon dominated the minds and imaginations of men. "The world belongs to Napoleon." wrote Chateaubriand. "Living he failed to win the world; dead he possesses it."


The second clause of his will issued his final command. "It is my wish that my ashes may repose on the banks of the Seine in the midst of the French people whom I have loved so well." His wish was the country's command. "Bring him home," echoed througout the land. When Great Britain was asked to return his body to France, Prime Minister Lord Melbourne quickly approved the request and added,"It would be well to inform the Duke of Wellington." Napoleon could not stand Wellington; the Duke's reply to his last request is unknown.

"The government of her Britannica Majesty hopes that the promptness of its answer may be considered by France as proof of its desire to blot out the last trace of those national animosities, which during the life of the Emperor, armed England and France against each other."

The King sent his own son, Francois, Prince de Joinville, to St. Helena to bring back the remains of Napoleon. The La Belle-Poule a 60-gun frigate of the French Navy, was chosen to bring back the remains of Napoleon to France in what became known as the retour des cendres.The prince sailed from Toulon on July 7, 1840 accompanied by Napoleon's most intimate servant, Marchand, who together with two generals would decide on the authenticity of the corpse. They arrived at St. Helena on 8 October and preparations were made for the exhumation of Napoleon's body.

By the light of torches, British soldiers began work, taking off the topsoil, the flowers placed there by the French, the grille and the stones that formed the edge of the tomb. They then came on three slabs closing off the pit and long efforts were needed to break through the masonry closing off the coffin. At 9.30 the last slab was breached and the coffin appeared. Coquereau took some water from the nearby spring, blessed it and sprinkled it over the coffin, before reciting de profundis. The coffin was raised and transported under a large blue and white striped tent that had been put up the previous day. Then they proceeded to open the bier in complete silence. The first mahogany coffin had to be cut at both ends to get out the second lead coffin. General Middlemore and lieutenant Touchard (Joinville's ordinance officer) then arrived and presented themselves, before the party proceeded to de-solder the lead coffin. The coffin inside this was of mahogany and remarkably well-conserved. Its screws were removed with difficulty and the last coffin of tin was opened with infinite caution.

Abbe Coquereau sprinkled holy water on the body. He recorded that, "The whole body seemed to be covered with a light foam (adipocere, a greyish waxy substance produced by the decompostion of soft tissue in corpses exposed to moisture) as if we were looking at it through a diaphanous cloud. The head was unmistakeable, a pillow raised it slightly; we could distinguish his broad forehead and his eyes, the sockets of which were outlined beneath the eyelids still fringed with a few lashes; his cheeks were swollen, only his nose had suffered; his mouth, which was half open, revealed three remarkably white teeth; on his chin the traces of a beard were perfectly clear; his two hands, in particular, seemed to belong to someone who still breathed, they were so fresh in tone and colouring .... His nails had grown after death and they were long and white. One of his boots had come unsewn and showed four dull-white toes."

The lead coffin was re-soldered and placed into the ebony coffin brought from France - a six-handled, 2.56m long, 1.05m wide and 0.7m deep ebony coffin imitated classical Roman coffins and had been carved in Paris, with the word "Napoléon" in gold letters on the lid, a gilded bronze letter N on each of its four sides and also the words "Naploléon_Empereur_mort à Sainte-Hélène le 05 Mai 1821". The ebony coffin and its contents were then placed in a sixth oak coffin designed to protect the ebony one, the final total weight being 1,200 kilos.

It was then placed by 43 gunners on a solid black-draped hearse with four plumes of black feathers at each corner and drawn by four black-dressed horses. The coffin was covered by a large (4.3m by 2.8m) black velvet drape decorated with golden bees, eagles surmounted by imperial crowns at the corners and by a large silver cross. The ladies of Saint Helena offered French flags they had made with their own hands and the imperial flag that would fly from La Belle Poule to the French commissioner who had to serve at the ceremony.At 8am on Sunday 18 October la Belle Poule set sail.

Placing Napoleon's coffin aboard La Belle Poule

Napoleon's Ashes Arrive in Paris

The funeral that followed was thought by many to be the longest in history. The coffin was taken to the steamer Normandie, which took it to Val de lay Haye on the Seine River below Rouen, where it was transferred to a river barge and borne in stately fashion leisurely up the Seine River making frequent stops at major towns along the bank for joyous celebrations by rapturous citizen.

Seine River
photo by G. Wilson

On December 15, 1840 Napoleon's body arrived in Paris. It was estimated that a million people greeted its arrival, shouting over and over again, "Vive mon grand Napoleon." In a "gorgeous funeral car drawn by sixteen black horses followed by the imperial eagles veiled in crepe," his coffin passed beneath the 164 foot Arc de Triomphe. Like the fabled Pharaohs of Egypt, Napoleon intended to leave great monuments. He dreamt of a grand and glorious capital for France. The Paris he planned was to be monumental in scope and full of triumphal arches. The most magnificent, the Arc de Triomphe, which he commissioned in 1806, was to commemorate the glory of his Grand Armee. Completed in 1836, he never saw it finished, but Napoleon was the first national figure to be honoured by passing beneath it.

Napoleon's Cortege

Napoleon's Cortege Under Arch de Triomphe

Arc de Triomphe Crowns the Champs-Elysees
photo by G. Wilson

This Arc de Triomphe relief depicts
The Departure of the Volunteers of 1792 or The Marseillaise.
The Motherland with wings outstretched is exhorting volunteers to fight for France.
photo by G. Wilson

This Arc de Triomphe relief depicts
The Triumph of Napoleon in 1810.
photo by G. Wilson

This Arc de Triomphe Crown relief depicts
The Resistance of 1814
photo by G. Wilson

This Arc de Triomphe relief depicts
The Peace of 1815.
photo by G. Wilson

From the Arc the procession proceeded down the Champs Elysees flanked on either side by cheering multitudes numbering nearly one million Frenchmen and 150 thousand soldiers, finally reaching the magnificently domed church of Hotel des Invalides [Veterans' hospital] late in the afternoonon on a bitterly cold day in a snow storm.

Hotel des Invalides - an impressive complex on the Left Bank of the Seine - was founded by Louis XIV as a home for wounded soldiers.
photo by G. Wilson

At the entrance to the building, the Prince de Joinville announced to his father, the King, "Sire, I present the body of Emperor of France."

King Louis Phillipe responded, "I receive it in the name of France."

Inside the building the aisles and nave were packed with silent spectators as twenty-four sailors carried the heavy coffin to the altar. Napoleon's sword and hat were laid upon it, then a requiem mass was sung to Mozart's music. Napoleon's wish had been granted. His remains finally rested in the heart of France on the banks of the Seine among the people he loved.

Napoleon's Death Mask
photo by G. Wilson

France's greatest hero lies within six coffins, two of which are made of metal. They are entombed in a spectacular sarcophagus made of porphyry, a purplish-red rock quarried in Finland. The magnificent mausoleum on a base of green granite is located in a large circular well around the rim of which tourists gaze upon Napoleon's tomb. Hundreds of thousands of people visit it each year.

Tourist at the Tomb
photo by G. Wilson

The atmosphere of the place is solemn, almost sacred. And why not, commented William Makepiece Thackery, "for who is god here but Napoleon."

Napoleon's Tomb
photo by G. Wilson

Surrounding the tomb are Amazon-like figures each representing one of the Emperor's 12 major military successes.

Napoleon's Crypt and Tomb
photo by G. Wilson

Close by is an 8.5 foot high statue of Napoleon in his white and gold coronation robes.

When some claimed that France's interrment of Napoleon had to outdo Britain's celebration of Wellington's victory, Chateaubriand opposed overdoing it. "The translation of Napoleon's remains is an offence against fame. Napoleon's bones will not reproduce his genius; they will only teach his despotism to second rate soldiers." On cue, Adolf Hitler entered the chapel at 6 a.m. on 23 June, 1940. With France at his feet and the city in silence, the Fuhrer decided to see its famous sites.

Allegedly on 10 December, 1940, Hitler had said he. "needed a present for the French," and gave the following order to his underlings in Vienna. "You have a coffin in the Capuchin Tombs of the King of Rome, Napoleon's son. I want him sent to Paris." It was no sooner said than done. The iron gates of the Capuchin Tombs, where all the Hapsburgs are buried, was opened and the bronze sarcophagus weighing two thousand pounds was carried to a 'gala carriage' drawn by four horses. From there it was transported to a special railroad car. High ranking Wehrmacht officers acting as a guard of honour, boarded the train to accompany the King to Paris.

They arrived in Paris about midnight, where the catafalque was carried through the silent streets to Les Invalides, where the German officers surrendered it to French gendarmes. At a special ceremony, the archbishop celebrated the mass for the dead and Parisians were allowed to crowd into the Invalides that day, 14 December 1940, a hundred years to the day since Napoleon had been brought home to Paris from St. Helena. At last, they said, "L'Aiglon est revenu pres de l'Aigle." [The Eaglet has come back to the Eagle.]

By order of a tourist who came as a conqueror, Napoleon's son, the 'King of Rome', Francois. Francois, now lay at his father's feet. L'Aiglon (the Eaglet) had suffered much during his brief life from various illnesses. He died in Vienna of pulmonary tuberculosis at the age of 21 on July 22, 1832. Napoleon had made him King of Rome at his birth in 1811, but he never lived long enough to exercise any powers of the office.

Napoleon in his coronation robes.
photo by G.Wilson

Napoleon is the most famous French figure of all time. For tourists his tomb is one of the many, must-see attractions in Paris. For the people of France, it is a place of pilgrimage.

Hitler savouring one of the sites.

One Conqueror Meets Another

The Fuhrer stared in rapt concentration at the crypt of Europe's last great conqueror, then he murmured. "This is the finest moment of my life."

Five years later, this self-same conqueror would be cowering in a bunker about to blow his brains out. As his '1000-year-old Reich' rained down in ruins about his head, he diabolically decided to destroy the very same city he had so greatly admired and issued an order to set Paris ablaze. Fortunately, Adolf's order was disobeyed by General Dietrich von Choltitz, who refused to carry out Hitler's insane command and so saved the City of Light from becoming a city of darkness and death. Little wonder that in 1966, Choltitz's funeral in Baden-Baden, the post-WWII French headquarters in Germany, was attended by high-ranking French officers.


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