Stories from French History - Lena Dalkeith

A Story in Praise of Napoleon Bonaparte

It was the little man in the drab overcoat and three-cornered hat who did it—the little man with the smooth boyish face and the strangely keen eyes that seemed to be able to read your most secret thoughts; he did it; he saved France from the hands of her enemies, when it seemed as if fortune had deserted her altogether.

You must not think, however, that France had not made a brave fight for it; indeed, she had held her own against all Europe before ever the world had heard the name of Napoleon Bonaparte.

You must know that when France had declared her right to freedom, and proclaimed herself a Republic never more to ruled over by kings, the princes and rulers of the countries of Europe began to feel easy. They began to wonder if their own heads were safe.

"If goes on," said they, "our own people will maybe follow the bad example, and we shall all be murdered like Louis the Sixteenth." So they gave soldiers and money to help the refugee French nobles to win back again the crown for the royal house of France.

The little Dauphin had died during the Revolution, so that the next heir to the throne of France was Louis the Eighteenth, brother of Louis the Sixteenth.

France, determined to defend the Republic at all costs, sent out her army, and there was war in Europe.

Austria said, "The French rebels must be made to bow before a king again," and the Austrian army went forth to war.

England said, "Is this Freedom which allows murderers to rule? Better the old way," and England made ready her army and her fleet.

Prussia said, "Let me have a hand in the crushing of these people," and the Prussian army went forth to war.

So also the Russian, the Italian, and the Spanish armies. Thus, at one time or another, France had to face every great power in Europe.

The French army made a gallant stand, but they could not expect to succeed long against such great odds, for they had little or no help from their government in Paris. Paris, in truth, was so busy murdering and killing, and changing its rulers, that it neglected the army, sending little money or ammunition; and if you have no money and no ammunition, how can you go on fighting?

Matters became desperate. Something had to be done. Something was done; a few wise men who happened to be in power at that time appointed a new Commander-in-chief of the army and gave him power to do whatever he thought best. Napoleon Bonaparte was the name of this new man. Very few people knew anything about him. The name sounded strange to them:—"Who was he? What had he done?" they asked.

"He comes from Corsica. Twice before has he saved France—once at Toulon, when he showed the generals twice his age the right way to take the city; once in Paris, when he saved the government from being overthrown by a Royalist plot." So answered those who knew him, for most men who knew Napoleon believed he was the only man who could save France from her enemies.

But the old warriors who had led the army before and fought so well were doubtful at first of their new chief. "A young whipper-snapper to be set in authority over us," they cried indignantly. "What does he know of war? What is the experience of a young officer compared with ours? What kind of man must he be to have been given this honour?"

They soon found out what kind of a man this Bonaparte was. He showed his power at once, and, after the first interview, he had won most of them to approve of his plans.

The new campaign was to be opened in Italy, said he, and gave his reasons; and the march must be made so quickly as to surprise the Austrian and Italian armies, who would not expect them there. The soldiers heard him speak and would have followed him anywhere, so strong was the power of the man.

"Soldiers of France," he cried, "I come to lead you into the most fertile plains in the world, the plains of Lombardy. There you will find honour, glory, riches.—Now march!"

And march they did. What cared they if their clothes were ragged, their feet bare, when Napoleon was there to lead! They marched with almost miraculous speed through the mountains and into Italy, and if you will believe me, in fifteen days Napoleon had led that army to victory six times. His movements were so quick, his plan of fighting so new and strange, that he bewildered his enemies.

Again he spoke to his army: "Soldiers, in fifteen days you have won six victories, taken twenty-one colours, fifty pieces of cannon, many strong places, the richest land in Piedmont. Lacking everything, you have supplied yourselves with all. You have won battles without cannon, crossed rivers without bridges, made forced marches without shoes, lain down in camp, time and again, supperless and hungry. The two armies which attacked you now flee from you; only Republican armies could do such heroic deeds. Nevertheless, while you have done much, there is more to do. Neither Milan nor Turin is yours, and these towns command Italy. Forward, then! Your country expects much of you! Do not let her be disappointed!"

Forward again marched they, following close on the enemy. General Beaulieu, the head of the Austrian army, was determined to defend Milan from these surprisingly victorious soldiers. He chose his position well, making for Lodi, a town on the river Adda. If by ill-fortune Napoleon forced him to retreat from Lodi, he had his choice of two refuges—Mantua, which lay to the east, a grim citadel almost impossible of capture, and Milan itself in the north-west, a strongly fortified town and the seat of the government. But Napoleon had made up his mind to give the Austrians such a thorough beating before they came either to Mantua or Milan that they would not be able to reach either of those cities.

He chased them so swiftly that the first part of the French army came upon the last part of the Austrian army just as they were entering Lodi, and thus the Austrians had no time to close the city gates after them. The two armies marched fighting as they went.

Now a long narrow wooden bridge led out from the town across the river Adda; this bridge was called the Bridge of Lodi. The French forced the Austrians to cross this bridge. On the other side, however, Beaulieu brought up his artillery in great numbers. They swept the bridge with a storm of shot. Napoleon immediately did the same upon his side so as to prevent the Austrians from destroying the bridge by setting it on fire, as they tried to do. Thus. the two armies seemed at a deadlock, for who would dare cross the bridge under such deadly fire?

Napoleon then sent a troop of cavalry up the stream to find a safe ford; when he saw that they had crossed and were on the other side ready to help him, he turned to the grenadiers and gave the order to cross the bridge. Not only did he give the order but he led the way himself. After him sprang the giant Lannes, who was later on to be one of his best generals and friends. The grenadiers followed.

Once Napoleon feared they would fail him. They had been but a moment on the bridge, and in that moment a thousand had fallen. "On, on to victory," cried Lannes, springing forward, and the men who loved him obeyed. On they pressed, trampling over the bodies of their dead comrades. Still the relentless storm of bullets rained down upon them. Still they poured over the bridge, nothing daunted, and at last came to the other side. Lannes was the first to reach the bank, Napoleon second. Lannes was promoted on the spot. After this their victory was assured. "What can we do against such a foe?" cried the Austrians; "he snatches victory out of the hands of death."

Four days after this Napoleon and his army marched in triumph through the streets of Milan. But at the Bridge of Lodi Napoleon had done more than defeat the enemy. He had shown his own soldiers that not only could he make the plans which gave them victory, but that he could fight side by side with them for it, showing equal courage; and they loving him for this, named him "The Little Corporal."

They loved him always—those brave soldiers—even to the end, when after defeating every nation in Europe, save only England and Russia, he lost all through his own vainglory and ambition.

The story of his wars, triumphs, and downfall is too long to tell here. He brought France both glory and shame, both victory and defeat. Through selfishness and ambition, he fell from his high place among the sons of men, and France he dragged with him in his fall.

But in Paris his memory is honoured with a wonderful marble tomb round which are grouped all the flags captured by him in battle, and there is scarcely a country in Europe which has not one or more flags there.

France recovered slowly after the downfall of Napoleon and his Empire, and after many adventures and misfortunes has at last come to be a prosperous and stable Republic, respected and honoured by all nations.