Everyone knows that Napoleon was decisively defeated at the battle of Waterloo in July 1815 and next year will witness a number of commemorations to mark the bicentenary of this landmark event, not least on this side of the Channel. The Waterloo 200 website lists all activities, including a major exhibition at the British Museum, ‘Bonaparte and the British’.
Historians, among them Keele’s emeritus professor Malcolm Crook, will be contributing to the commemorations by highlighting Napoleon’s return to power in the spring of 1815 (following his abdication just a year earlier), an amazing adventure that culminated in Waterloo and became known as the Hundred Days. Exiled to the small Mediterranean island of Elba, Napoleon still hoped to regain his throne in France and, on 1 March 1815, he landed in Provence. He was taking a massive risk, but opposition melted away and on 20 March he entered Paris in triumph. On a website hosted by the University of Warwick, a series of items relating to the Hundred Days will be posted each day, from March to July 2015. Documents, cartoons, pottery, poems, and songs will be displayed to illustrate and illuminate contemporary reactions to this astonishing episode.
Napoleon duly re-established his Empire but, whatever his popularity among the French people, he needed to defeat the allied armies of the major European states if he was to remain in power. Though Waterloo was, in the words of Wellington, ‘a close-run thing’, Napoleon lost and this time he was exiled to St Helena in the South Atlantic, from which there was no return. Nonetheless, the Hundred Days fostered a legend of Napoleon that fascinated the nineteenth-century imagination.