Written by Gordon Thomson
The westerly gale buffeted Longwood House, chilled and wet from its uninterrupted passage of nearly three thousand kilometres from South American coast. Standing alone as it did on a windswept plain on Saint Helena, with little to shelter it from the ferocity of the elements, the house was cold, damp and unhealthy, and Napoleon could not help but shiver. God, but it is cold. He clenched his arms to his ribcage, pulling his grey riding coat tight to his body, and that at least seemed to warm him a little. Napoleon let his lip curl with the hint of a smile. My trusty riding coat, he thought. What days you have seen. He had first worn the coat in the war against the Third Coalition, when he had trapped a large Austrian force beside the Danube at Ulm and forced it to capitulate. Sixty thousand men, and thirty generals, all neutralised in one fell swoop by the surprise and speed of the Grande Armée. He had worn the coat when he captured Vienna, which the demoralised Austrians had abandoned as they scuttled back to join their advancing Russian allies. Those were my glory days. Napoleon had again worn the coat to shield him from the bitter cold of the Moravian winter as he smashed the Allies at Austerlitz, luring them into throwing the weight of their army into an attack on his deliberately weakened right flank while he punched through their centre, with Marshal Davout’s Third Corps arriving just in time to reinforce his right. The victory had been decisive, with the Austrians surrendering shortly afterwards. Napoleon had always considered Austerlitz his finest triumph, a set-piece victory which doubtless would be taught and marvelled in officers’ academies, like the École Militaire, for centuries to come. They’ll have no idea how cold it was, though. Napoleon had been glad of his coat that day.
The coat had seen him through many other cold days as well. In early 1807 he had worn it as he strove to bring the Russians to a pivotal battle in East Prussia by cutting off their eastward retreat. Fortune had foiled the plan, however, when Cossack’s horsemen had flukily captured a copy of his orders and relayed them to Russian commander Bennigsen. Despite a major battle at Eylau, the Russians had been able to escape eastwards largely intact. That had been a significant wound to Napoleon’s reputation for invincibility, a wound that even victory over the Russians later that year at Friedland had not been able to fully heal. Fortune is a fickle woman, Napoleon mused, like so many of the women in my life. Pauline Fourès, the wife of an officer in Napoleon’s army, had been only too happy to become his mistress during his Egyptian campaign, and had spoken volumes of her undying love, but seemed to have had little difficulty in realigning herself to General Kléber when events had forced Napoleon to return to France. He had discovered that his own wife, Joséphine, had cheated on him while he had been in Egypt, and with some difficulty and threats he managed to suppress a scandal which could have damaged his reputation immeasurably. Ultimately he had forgiven Joséphine, both in word and in his heart, and he had even made her his Empress, but time and nature had conspired against them, and as it became evident that she could no longer provide him with the heir he so craved. His sense of destiny, more than lust, pushed his eye to wander. There had been a violent scene when Joséphine had caught him in the act with one of her ladies-in-waiting and, although he had reconciled with her, their marriage could not last. Divorced from Joséphine, he married the daughter of Emperor Francis of Austria, Marie-Louise. Sweet and simply Marie-Louis succeeded in providing Napoleon with his much sought heir. But upon Napoleon’s defeat and first exile (to Elba), she had returned to her homeland with their son, and had made no efforts to contact him. Although his marriage to Marie-Louise had never been a love-match like his marriage to Joséphine, only a means to an end, the betrayal had hurt him. After all, even the old flame from his Prussian conquest, the Polish beauty Marie Walewska, had been decent enough to write to him in Elba. Nevertheless, after Waterloo she had apparently written her memoirs, in which she claimed to have become involved with Napoleon purely for the patriotic aim of benefiting Poland politically, describing her affair with the defeated Emperor as ‘debased’. So many betrayals. So many have failed me.
The Hundred Days Campaign that had climaxed with Waterloo could so easily have been different if others had not failed him. If Ney had captured the crossroads at Quatre Bras, and D’Erlon had joined him at Ligny as planned to trap the Prussians. If Grouchy had been able to keep the defeated Prussians on the run, to prevent them joining from Wellington at Waterloo. And if fortune had not stricken Napoleon ill on the battlefield of June 18th, then perhaps others’ failings would not have mattered, for with his old magic Napoleon could surely have beaten Wellington with ample time to turn and fend off the Prussians. Fortune and the failings of others have undone me.
Shivering, he felt an ache in his bones, a deep chill the like of which he had not known since Russia, when the savage cold of the Russian winter shattered his army as the Cossacks yapped at his heels. 1812. The year everything came apart. Was that my own fault? Did I stay in Russia too late? Trapped with his memories and his ghosts, Napoleon pulled his coat even tighter to his body, but although it had seen him through the ice and snow of Russia, it could no longer dispel the cold from him. Even my coat is failing me, Napoleon reflected, as the bitter wind howled round Longwood House.