Born the second of eight children of a Corsican lawyer, Napoleon Bonaparte rose to become Emperor of France through merit and impeccable timing. As a colonel and then general in Revolutionary France, Napoleon proved himself on battlefields in Italy and the streets of Paris. He returned to France from a failed expedition to the Middle East, hurrying just in time to be part of a coup that would eventually set him up to autocratic power as a champion of liberty. He used his military genius to expand French rule over almost all of Europe from Portugal to Russia, where he invaded in1812 to force his Continental System of economics in hopes of starving out his last enemies, the British. The invasion turned into a fiasco, and Napoleon abdicated in 1814, retiring to the island of Elba in the Mediterranean. After being frustrated with attempts to get his allowance and bring his family from the Austrian court, Napoleon evaded British naval patrols and returned to France. For a time known as the Hundred-Twenty Days in 1815, Napoleon regained his title as emperor and mustered 200,000 soldiers into an army that hoped to secure France’s position among Europe.
The Dutch Campaign began with a French victory over Blucher at Ligny on June 16. The Prussians were driven to retreat northward, and Napoleon sent Marshall Grouchy in pursuit. Wellington, meanwhile, realized his position had become jeopardized and fell back as well. Napoleon and the bulk of his army followed, finally catching him at the village of Waterloo. Torrential rainstorms had moved in, but a westerly wind pushed the majority of the rain fell east to where the Prussians’ retreat became mired as they tried to reform corps for a counter-attack. Grouchy redirected his attacks to the western flank when he heard cannon begin the Battle of Waterloo some miles to the southwest and cut off any chance of a Prussian flank.
At Waterloo, there was much less rain, and Napoleon deemed the battlefield dry enough for a fight by midmorning. Wellington’s troops withstood repeated attacks from the French before finally breaking under the strength of Napoleon’s elite Old Guard. Despite British reserves and cavalry charges, the French pushed the British into retreat by afternoon. On June 19, Napoleon marched his forces to Wavre, where Grouchy had pinned up reinforcements, and the combined French force crushed the Prussians. He turned northward again and drove Wellington into the sea before turning south to deal with the next Coalition force.
A massive Austrian force of 225,000 soldiers were marching through the Rhineland under Karl Philipp, Prince of Schwarzenberg, the man who had defeated Napoleon at Leipzig in 1813 and taken Paris in 1814. Napoleon had left Marshall Rapp in his path with 23,000 men, but Rapp, despite winning a victory at La Suffel against a force of 40,000 under the Crown Prince of Wurttemberg, could do little to stall the large force. Napoleon marched south back into France, joined with Rapp, and made his final stand at Nancy. Many of his attendants would later recall Napoleon’s observation that Charles the Bold had died at Nancy and ended Burgundian Valois. The exhausted French army was overwhelmed by the Austrians, and Napoleon was taken captive July 15, 1815.
Napoleon was imprisoned in the Austrian court, where he lived out his life with his wife and son, whom he had missed dearly in Elba. Klemens von Metternich, who had guided Austria as Foreign Minister and Minister of State during the Napoleonic Wars, met with him often, discussing the liberalization of Europe. Metternich had orchestrated the short-lived alliance between Austria and France and Napoleon’s marriage to Princess Marie Louise but switched sides as he predicted Napoleon’s eventual defeat. The Congress of Vienna, which decided nearly all of the geographic and political questions in post-Napoleon Europe, had been his brainchild. As witness at the Battle of Nancy and then champion opposing the notion of breaking up France, Metternich was considered the most powerful diplomat in the world. Demands for independence from Austrian rule in Germany after the fall of the Holy Roman Empire and talk of unification in Italy still plagued him, however.
In moves that were believed to have been advised by Napoleon recalling days of the Revolution, Metternich shifted his standings on the questions to public support, emulating what Napoleon had done convincing a liberal France to support an autocratic emperor. Metternich had long served the conservative, royal factions and now campaigned for them to follow the ideals of Italian unification (under Austrian terms, of course). The press was seen as the pulse of the people, and Metternich followed it closely to guide him in maintaining power. He set up reforms throughout the myriad of people-groups in Austria, encouraging a Hungarian diet as well as economic unions through the south of Germany that would counterbalance the growth of Prussian power in the north. His work seemed successful when Austria proved immune to liberal revolts that plagued Spain, where he was quick to act as assert yet more diplomatic authority. Later, his attention turned eastward, encouraging Greek nationalism and intervening in the Egyptian-Ottoman War of 1831, affirming a confederation (under Austrian guidance) for the Balkan nations seeking to throw off the yoke of Ottoman rule.
Through his tenure, Metternich carefully balanced conservative ideals on the growing wave of liberalism throughout Europe. He frustrated the attempts at Tsar Alexander I’s “Holy Alliance” to repress democracy and instead stirred favor for the Austrian model. Vienna continued to be the diplomatic capital of the continent, though it drove away Britain, who focused attention on empire worldwide. Britain finally came back into European affairs with the Russian-Ottoman War in 1853, and, in the last years of his life, Metternich recommended action that resulted in Vienna once again hosting an international treaty in 1856. After Metternich’s death in 1859, Austria would continue to be a sprawling empire under Franz Joseph, who upheld many of Metternich’s ideas on directing liberalization. While much of Europe carried out imperialistic wars in Africa, Central Asia, and the Pacific in the twentieth century, Austria maintained its position as a central power, practically the hinge on which Europe, and the world, swung. Even the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914 by anarchists was smoothed as Serbia, part of the Balkan Confederation headed by Austria, gave its deepest condolences.
In reality, the rains did not slow the Prussians’ march, and Napoleon’s wait until noon for the battlefield to dry has been criticized as one of many possible points where the battle was lost. Blucher’s forces swept into the battlefield in a flanking maneuver that defeated the French utterly, leading Napoleon to surrender to the HMS Bellephoron and into British political asylum. Metternich’s Congress of Vienna determined a new Europe, satisfying conservatives while ignoring the growing strength of liberalization that had been spread by the short-lived Napoleonic Empire. Although it created decades of external stability, revolutions and nationalistic wars would eventually shatter the ideals of empire.