Main Page and Map | Links | Contact



Undaunted By Doubt He Sought To Fulfill His Destiny

Napoleon Bonaparte

On March 9, 1821 shortly before his death, Napoleon prophesied about his future fame. "In five hundred years' time, the French imagination will be full of me. They will talk only of the glory of our brilliant campaigns. Heaven help anyone who dares to speak ill of me." There is little doubt that he was right for there are few in all of France who would not agree that Napoleon Bonaparte was the greatest Frenchman who ever lived.

This fact is loudly and proudly proclaimed annually at a little town on the Riviera named Golfe Juan, It is here every year in March that a re-enactment of Emperor Napoleon's dramatic return from banishment on Elba is celebrated to the pride and delight of thousands of Frenchmen and tourists.

Paris was occupied on 31 of March 1814 following the defeat of the Grand Army by forces of England, Austria, Prussia and Russia. Napoleon at the urging of his marshals abdicated on 6 April in favor of his son. However, the Allies demanded unconditional surrender and Napoleon abdicated again unconditionally on 11 April. In the Treaty of Fontainebleau the victors granted Napoleon a pension of two million francs and exiled him to Elba, a small island in the Mediterranean 20 km off the coast of Italy.

Napoleon's exile on Elba began on May 4, 1814. His jailers, the victors Britain, Austria, Prussia and Sweden had exiled him to an island just off the west coast of Italy. It was a beautiful place dotted with low mountains and gouged with small, sandy beaches. From his 'prison' amidst cactus, palm, pine and poppy, he could gaze across the dazzling blue waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Life on the lovely island was not one of leisure alone for Napoleon busied himself by refurbishing his homesteads at Mulini in the port city of Portoferraio and at Villa de San Martino a few kilometres distant in the island's wooded interior. He also built roads and designed an island flag - three golden bees on a red-striped white field. It was not enough; Waterloo awaited him.

In France the royalists had taken over and restored Louis XVIII to power. The victors assembled at the Congress of Vienna to remake the map of Europe. Disagreements plagued their deliberations. Napoleon meanwhile was cut off from the pension granted him by the treaty and heard of rumours that he was about to be banished to a remote location in the Atlantic. Urged on by his mother to "fulfill your destiny," he decided to act.

Flight from Elba

In late February a little flotilla of six vessels left Elba and disappeared into the darkness. It was not a plot within France that summoned Napoleon from Elba. He read the national mood correctly. "All France regrets me and wants me," he said at sea. "I shall reach Paris without firing a shot." He was right. Instead of bloodshed he received a fervent welcome on March 1, 1815 when the ships sailed into the bay at Golfe Juan. So began "the Hundred Days" between the first exile and final banishment. With a few hundred soldiers, some horses, two cannons and two chests filled with gold, Napoleon prepared to challenge the whole of France. They spent the chilly, moonlit night on the beach, the troops in a large circle with Napoleon in the centre. After a supper of soup, they slept. Long since engulfed by the growth of Cannes, their location today is commemorated by a large plaque on the Rue de Bivouac in downtown Cannes.

Ici Napoleon
photo by

At four in the morning Napoleon and his motely crew set off on their astonishing trek through the mountains. The march took them from Antibes to Grenoble through Provence and the Western Alps. (Today one can take a walking tour that treads in the emperor's footsteps.) They marched in single file for the road was little more than a narrow, stony path. At times Napoleon rode his white horse.

Napoleon Crossing the Alps
by Jacques Louis David

Route Napoleon in the making

On other occasions he staggered along on foot, falling several times but rising to press on. At one point in the perilous journey two mules rolled into a precipice scattering gold pieces down the mountainside. In spite of heavy snowfalls, they covered some 18 kilometres a day, travelling from Grasse to Grenoble in record time. Today a fine paved highway called Route Napoleon retraces their winding, treacherous trail through the mountains.

Louis XVIII sent the 5th Regiment of the Line led by Marshal Ney who had formerly served in Russia under Napoleon to meet him at Grenoble on 7 March 1815. When they met an officer shouted, "There he is! Fire!" Napoleon approached the regiment alone. Dismounting from his horse, he approached to within earshot of Ney's forces, opened his coat and shouted, "Soldiers of the Fifth, you recognize me. If any man would shoot his emperor he may do so now". After an agonizing silence the soldiers bellowed back, "Vive L'Empereur!"

Napoleon was greeted rapturously by throngs of people all along the route and upon his arrival at the palace in Tuileries in Paris on March 20. From here he had ruled over a nearly united Europe. The ogre of Elba had once again become Emperor of France and had mounted the world stage. The life of the land was concentrated anew on one man as if all were trying to fill their lungs with the air he breathed. He readily raised a regular army of 140,000 and a volunteer force of around 200,000. The count-down was on to his clash at Waterloo with Wellington on June 18, 1815.

Today the re-enactment of Napoleon's arrival at Golfe Juan attracts crowds that fill the narrow sidewalks and overflow into the street of this quaint fishing village. Military units in colourful uniforms parade to the cadence of crashing cymbals, throbbing drums and blaring brass.

Marching Military Units
Photo by
G. Wilson

The bay buzzes with motor boats and sailboats of all shapes and sizes as they jockey for a good view of the re-enactment. Around three-thiry boats move from the centre to the sides of the bay to await the arrival of six sailboats that suddenly appear on the horizon of the shimmering silver sea. Their white sails gradually drew closer and after what seemed an eternity, the mini armada anchored some fifty yards or so off shore.

Boats in the Bay
Photo by
G. Wilson

Rowboats are lowered and senior officers were ferried to the beach where soldiers had alrady bivouacked. The short, stocky figure of Napoleon could occasionally be seen in his long, grey greatcoat and famous black hat, hands behind his back nervously pacing the deck of the Inconstant, the largest of the sailboats. Each glimpse of this instantly recognized figure prompted excited reactions from the crowd lining the shore in a great, semi-circle, eight or nine rows deep. All during this period a millitary band in the colourfully flamboyant period costumes played spirited French marches. After two large trunks containing Napoleon's gold coins were brought ashore, the officers and soldiers assembled smartly at the dock. All was in readiness; the moment had arrived.

Napoleon Appears
Photo by

A large rowboat manned by six marines sidled up to the Inconstant and the Emperor climbed into it. Moving to the centre of the boat, he stood, hands on hips, peering towards the crowd as the boat made its way to the pier. The grenadiers came to attention as the boat pulled along side the dock. Napoleon moved to disembark, stopped momentarily, then dramatically stepped onto the soil of France. As he did so, he raised his hat and shouted, "Vive la France!" With a roar the crowd took up the salute, repeating Vive la France a number of times. No sooner had the shouting died, than the band with a clash of cymbals struck up La Marseillaise, France's national anthem which Napoleon said was worth two divisions. It was written in 1792 by a young, army engineer at the garrison at Strasbourg named Roget de Lisle. The rousing song caught on and soon men all over France were marching to war to La Marseillaise "with its heady appeal to valour and patriotism and its images of the tainted blood of tyrants." It was declared the French national anthem in 1795.


First by a hesitant few and then in growing numbers, men, women and children began to sing with spirit, pride and great emotion, what Napoleon called the Republic's greatest song. It was a thrilling and very moving moment.

Napoleon Passes By
Photo by
G. Wilson

On the quay, the time and place of Napoleon's landing are marked by a mosaic plaque and a column. The bay itself has been immortalized in history and is visited somewhat like a shrine by French men and women and especially children who seemed fascinated by the fanfare. After attending one re-enactment, the great Victor Hugo, wrote that he was intensely moved by the occasion and very certain he could feel the presence of Napoleon. We now know what he meantbecause when the band and crowd launched into La Marseillaise, our spines began to tingle too.

The Redingote et chapeau de Napoleon 1er
(Musee de l'Armee Hotel national des Invalides)


Copyright © 2013 Website Administrator