It’s December 2nd, 1805, and a battle is underway in what is today the Czech Republic.
A few miles outside the town of Austerlitz, a regiment of Russian soldiers retreat from a battlefield where they’ve just been routed by the French. Among those running for their lives, a young private dashes ahead, barely able to see through the thick snowfall. He and his comrades are exhausted, but they keep running, fleeing certain death at the hands of the French, and trying to find cover or some way to escape.
Up ahead, a private makes out the shape of a large lake. He groans in despair as he realizes they may be cornered.
The private and the rest of his battalion are forced to stop at the edge of the frozen water.
They look around frantically, hoping to find some way out.
The private unslings his musket, and with the point of his bayonet… taps the translucent blue ice. It seems thick enough. But he can’t be sure. Still, he knows turning back is not an option. So… the young private takes a breath… and steps out onto the icy surface. His comrades follow closely behind.
They walk quickly, anxious to reach the other side of the lake. But as they make their way across… the sound of musket fire suddenly rings in the air. The retreating Russians hurl themselves prone onto the ice. The private lifts his head and peers out into the swirling mist. On a mountain ridge overlooking the lake, the private can just make out a solitary figure, wearing a French uniform and a black bicorne hat. The figure raises his arm… and orders another volley of musket fire.
The private ducks his head. But when he looks up, he sees that none of his comrades are hit. The French aren’t aiming at them. Instead, the private realizes, they’re shooting at the ice.
The private looks around in horror as musket balls shatter the lake’s frozen surface. Jagged cracks appear and branch off in zig-zag patterns.
The private leaps to his feet and begins to make for the far bank of the lake. But as he closes in on the other side… there’s one final volley of musket fire.
The ice gives way under the private’s feet… and he plunges into the freezing depths.
The Battle of Austerlitz, as it will come to be known, was fought between the combined forces of Austria and Russia against the army of Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France. Fearing Napoleon’s ambition to conquer all of Europe, Russia, and Austria formed a coalition to stop him. The two sides did battle on December 2nd, 1805, but despite being significantly outnumbered, Napoleon emerged victorious.
With his victory at Austerlitz, Napoleon’s power reaches its peak. He rules a vast empire that stretches from Portugal in the west, to Russia in the east. But within a decade, everything will come crashing down. Napoleon will find himself stripped of his dominions, ousted from power, and banished into exile; a dramatic reversal which culminates in Napoleon surrendering to the British on July 15th, 1815.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
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Today is July 15th, 1815: Napoleon Bonaparte Surrenders.
Act One: The Fire of Moscow
It’s September 14th, 1812; almost seven years after the Battle of Austerlitz.
On a warm, overcast day in western Russia, an army approaches Moscow. Riding at the vanguard, encircled by two squadrons of mounted guards, is the French Emperor himself, Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon tightens his grip around his horse’s reins as the spires of St. Basil’s Cathedral pierce the gray horizon.
After seizing power in 1799, Napoleon spent the next ten years conquering or annexing most of Europe, including Belgium, Holland, Italy, Spain, and Germany; he even subdued the mighty Austrian Empire, and humbled Russia, at the Battle of Austerlitz. But despite the scale of his conquests, Napoleon won’t be satisfied until allof Europe has submitted to French authority. And there’s one holdout: Napoleon’s sworn enemy, Great Britain.
But Napoleon has a problem. His army is dominant on land, but Britain remains vastly superior at sea. To combat this, Napoleon decided to launch an assault on the British economy, forcing every country in his Empire to boycott British trade. They all complied, until 1810 when Russia defied Napoleon and reopened trade with Britain. Enraged, Napoleon decided to teach the disobedient Russians a lesson.
Back in June, Napoleon launched an invasion of Russia with a force of over 500,000 men – the largest army Europe has ever seen. His goal was to draw the Russians into open battle and finish them off once and for all.
But to Napoleon’s frustration, the Russians refused to engage, steadily retreating and dragging Napoleon’s army ever deeper into enemy territory. Eventually, after three long months, Napoleon and his army reach the gates of Moscow. Napoleon has spent many long nights picturing himself riding victoriously into the city, overwhelming its guards and parading before its humbled civilians.
But when he finally does enter the city gates, Napoleon finds the streets eerily silent. The entire population of Moscow has fled, taking most of the food and supplies with them. Astounded, the soldiers of the French Army march through the deserted city, their bayonets lowered, the hoofs of their horses echoing around the abandoned squares. A sense of unease hangs over Napoleon’s troops; they fear they have walked into a trap…
Napoleon’s generals quickly install themselves in the Kremlin, the seat of government in Russia. Napoleon himself retires to a house on the outskirts of Moscow. And that night, at around 2 AM, the Emperor is awoken by a messenger with news that a fire has broken out in the city. Alarmed, Napoleon gets dressed and gallops to the Kremlin, where he finds his generals in a state of panic. Nobody seems to know how this fire started, although reports have emerged of Russian arsonists…
Napoleon is in a fury. But before he can launch into a tirade, a terrible sight snatches his breath away. Napoleon walks slowly to the window, his eyes wide. The entire city is ablaze. Flames roar along the streets and race up church spires, devouring everything in their path. The sky above Moscow glows an infernal red, while charred debris from burning buildings rains down, cloaking the city in a veil of ash. Napoleon blinks, disbelieving.
To this day, historians disagree over who started the fire. Some claim it was an accident. Others maintain it was deliberately started by Russian officials, who wanted to smoke out the French invaders. Whatever the true cause of the fire, Napoleon feels he’s been duped. He believes the Russian military ordered the civilians to evacuate, before setting their ancient capital ablaze. He is in equal parts appalled and impressed by the Russians’ audacity.
Coughing and spluttering through the smoke, Napoleon retreats to the outskirts of Moscow. Over the course of the next month, while his men starve in the smoldering city, Napoleon sends desperate letters to the Russian Emperor, Tsar Nicholas I, urging him to surrender. But no surrender comes. Nicholas knows the French Army has been weakened by its long stay in Moscow, and he isn’t going to squander the advantage he's gained.
Napoleon is running out of options. He spends long nights pacing in his tent, nursing his bruised ego. This invasion was supposed to be his crowning glory. But instead, it’s turning into a humiliating fiasco. For all Napoleon’s bluster and fighting talk, he is fundamentally a thin-skinned man. And eventually, he is forced to accept the fact that invading Russia was a mistake.
By October, the French are running perilously low on supplies. Faced with the threat of mass starvation, Napoleon withdraws his troops from Moscow. And as the French begin their retreat, the Russians launch their counter-attack. For weeks the Russian Army has been biding its time, hiding in the hinterlands east of Moscow. With Napoleon's Army weakened and out in the open, the Russians press the attack. Bands of fearsome Russian soldiers hound the retreating French legions. Napoleon’s men try to fend off the raids, but a new foe is making life even harder for the French. By now, winter has set in, bringing icy squalls and freezing winds. Napoleon hoped this invasion would be over by the summer; his army is ill-prepared for such weather, and before long, his men begin dying off by the thousands.
Two months later, Napoleon’s army finally makes it out of Russia. But the journey was costly. Of the 500,000 French soldiers who embarked on the invasion, only 100,000 make it out alive. Soon, other countries will follow Russia’s lead and defy Napoleon, pulling their soldiers from his army’s ranks and forming an alliance against France. Having lost confidence in their leader, Napoleon’s own government and generals turn on him. By April 1814, the Emperor has little choice but to abdicate power.
One month later, Napoleon will be sent into exile on the island of Elba in the Mediterranean. Many people think this will be the end of Napoleon. But the stubborn and ambitious ruler will prove them wrong, and escape from the island, and set out to make one last stand.
Act Two: The Escape From Elba
It’s September 1814 in Vienna; one year before Napoleon’s final surrender.
Inside the opulent banquet hall of the Ballhausplatz – a federal building in Vienna – delegates from across Europe are gathered to discuss the balance of power on the continent. After fifteen years of Napoleonic dominance, these delegates – in their silk breeches and powdered wigs – hope to restore the traditional, aristocratic ways of Old Europe.
Since 1799, Napoleon has been a constant cause of trouble for Europe’s leaders. But after the catastrophic failure of his Russian invasion, everything began to unravel for the French Emperor. In 1813 – inspired by Russia’s heroic defiance – a coalition of nations united against France, including Russia, Prussia, Austria, and Great Britain. Over the course of several decisive battles, the coalition army defeated the greatly weakened French military.
Then in March 1814, the coalition marched on Paris, brushing aside what little resistance Napoleon could still muster. The leaders of the coalition then entered into negotiations with the French government, demanding Napoleon abdicate immediately, and then be banished to the island of Elba in the Mediterranean. Having lost the support of his own government and generals, the former Emperor had no choice but to comply.
With Napoleon finally out of the way, Europe’s leaders turned their attention to the political situation on the continent. Each major power sent representatives here, to Vienna, to help create a new post-Napoleon paradigm.
And to a large extent, these delegates are feeling relieved. Napoleon has been stripped of all titles and official influence; and the French monarchy has been restored under Louis XVIII, the brother of the king who was beheaded by revolutionaries over two decades prior. At long last, it appears things are finally returning to normal in Europe.
Except that beneath the calm facade, an undercurrent of anxiety ripples through the banquet hall. Napoleon is gone – but only for now. The island of Elba is just a few miles off the Italian coast. For many of these delegates, that is too close for comfort.
It’s five months later, on February 25th, 1815.
Napoleon walks through the gardens of his residence on the island of Elba. Darkness has fallen. Moonlight twinkles on the surface of the Mediterranean, visible over the top of the wall that surrounds Napoleon’s compound. The 45-year-old former Emperor gazes pensively out to sea, lost in thought.
Napoleon is almost a year into his exile. And all things considered, life on the island hasn’t been terrible. Napoleon governs Elba like a miniature empire – with a small army, a lavish court, and a private staff of servants and advisors. But despite the many comforts of his exile, Napoleon is bored. His vanity and arrogance demand that he parade around Elba like a king. But deep down, Napoleon knows how far he has fallen.
And recently, Napoleon heard reports that people are dissatisfied with the restored French monarch, Louis XVIII. Napoleon knows he still has enough supporters in France to mount an effective challenge to the king's leadership. So over the past few weeks, Napoleon has started plotting his escape from Elba, preparing a fleet of ships to carry him back to France.
But tonight, on the eve of his daring escape, Napoleon is having second thoughts. He knows his return to mainland Europe will likely start a war; one he might not be able to win. So Napoleon decides to seek counsel from his mother, Letizia.
He hurries to his mother’s quarters, where Letizia greets him, her face etched with concern. Napoleon confesses his doubts about his planned escape. And after a pause, Letizia says softly: “Go now, my son. Fulfill your destiny. You were not made to die on this island.”
Encouraged by his mother’s words, Napoleon embarks the following evening. He leaves Elba with a flotilla of ships containing around 1,000 soldiers. And when the French coast appears on the horizon, Napoleon swaps the white flag of Elba for the French Tricolore. After disembarking, Napoleon begins marching north toward Paris. He issues a proclamation to the people of France, declaring: “Victory will advance at the charge; the eagle, with the national colors, will fly from steeple to steeple all the way to the towers of Notre Dame.”
Louis XVIII sends troops immediately to intercept Napoleon. But when they see their former emperor, the soldiers switch allegiances. And on March 20th, Napoleon and his now larger army enter Paris to cheering crowds. By the time he arrives, the King has already fled.
Napoleon’s return to power marks the beginning of what will become known as the Hundred Days. The restored Emperor will move quickly to rebuild his army. Napoleon knows the great powers of Europe are already gathering against him again, assembling another coalition force to launch one final attack to try to destroy Napoleon Bonaparte once and for all.
Act Three: Waterloo
It’s the evening of June 18th, 1815 in Belgium; one month before Napoleon surrenders.
On a warm midsummer’s day, in a field outside the village of Waterloo, Napoleon Bonaparte studies a map of the surrounding area. The Emperor looks calm and composed; but underneath, he can feel everything falling apart.
Since about eleven o’clock this morning, Napoleon’s army has been battling a coalition force of British, Prussian, and Dutch troops. This coalition army is commanded by the British general, the Duke of Wellington; a man whose military genius rivals Napoleon's own. And things have not gone according to plan for the French Emperor. His soldiers simply cannot compete with the sheer firepower of Wellington’s army.
Soon, the Emperor looks up from the map. The picturesque countryside is shrouded in gunsmoke. The horizon is darkened by columns of enemy soldiers marching from all angles, their bayonets gleaming. Napoleon knows he’s losing this battle – but he decides to make one last throw of the dice. He orders eight battalions of his elite Imperial Guard into the main attack. In their plumed helmets and navy-blue tailcoats, the mounted soldiers gallop headlong into the fray.
Napoleon’s final gambit fails. Wellington repels the Imperial Guard within the hour. And soon, panic breaks out among the French soldiers. With Prussian lances bearing down on them, all discipline evaporates. Napoleon’s men drop their muskets and run from the field. Napoleon and his generals fall back. And by nightfall, the Battle of Waterloo is lost; Napoleon’s last stand has ended in defeat.
Napoleon returns to Paris, where he finds the people have once again turned their backs on him. On June 22nd, Napoleon abdicates for a second time. He retreats to his palace, ten miles outside Paris. And there, Napoleon dwells for several weeks, contemplating his options. Seeing he has none, Napoleon decides to throw himself on the mercy of his old enemy, the British.
At dawn on July 15th, 1815, Napoleon embarks from the shores of northern France in a small boat. The vessel carries him to a British warship moored a short distance away. Napoleon climbs aboard, removes his hat, and addresses the ship’s captain, Frederick Lewis Maitland, saying: “I am come to throw myself on the protection of your Prince and your laws.” Captain Maitland bows and accepts Napoleon’s surrender. And with that, the Napoleonic Wars are over.
Soon, Napoleon will be exiled again, this time to St. Helena, a tiny island in the south Atlantic, where he will die six years later at the age of fifty-one. Napoleon Bonaparte shaped the course of European history for fifteen years. His extraordinary rise to power was matched only by his calamitous downfall, a fate which was sealed when Napoleon surrendered to the British on July 15th, 1815.
Next onHistory Daily.July 18th, 64 AD, when the Great Fire of Rome reduces two-thirds of the city to ashes, Emperor Nero uses the catastrophe as an excuse to persecute a new religious group, the Christians.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Derek Behrens.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.