In February of 1815, France’s king, Louis XVIII, believed all was right with the world. Napoleon Bonaparte, however, saw things quite differently from his exile on the tiny island of Elba. According to historian and biographer Alan Schom, “by December 1814, Napoleon Bonaparte was simply bored stiff” (11). This line sets the tone for the dramatic events recounted in One Hundred Days: Napoleon’s Road to Waterloo. In it, Schom describes how a group of aging generals and courtiers, including Napoleon himself, set sail from a tiny island in the Mediterranean Sea in a makeshift “fleet” of ships for the coast of France. Their plan was to depose the king and install Napoleon as Emperor for the second time. Schom relates the surreal story of Napoleon’s party being confronted at the water’s edge by a local health inspector who tried—but did not succeed—to place them under arrest.
When Napoleon set foot on French soil, he unleashed a furious chain of events that played themselves out in a little over 100 days. Certainly, Napoleon’s theatrical return is appealing as a melodrama, even if one is uninterested in all the behind-the-scenes political machinations or even the battle that vanquished the emperor once and for all.
Although Schom may respect Napoleon’s military abilities, he is clear about his motives: “…Napoleon did not invade France on March 1 to save that country, but rather himself” (xii). According to Schom, Napoleon’s megalomania, which led to so much horror and bloodshed across Europe, should make him an object of universal derision, yet many have and continue to admire him. However, this book is much more focused on the events Napoleon set in motion, even though he was unable to convince significant portions of the army and the populace to support him one more time. With only limited backing among the population, he had to contend with counter-rebels willing to challenge his return.
For all his keen intelligence, Napoleon and his sycophants seemed unaware that times were changing. Indeed, his response to a reluctant population was, “If a nation wants happiness, it must obey orders and remain silent” (192).
After Napoleon’s armies were smashed by Wellington and the other members of the European Alliance at Waterloo on June 6, 1815, Schom describes a desperate man willing to see his country go down in flames with him. The day after his defeat, Napoleon talked about calling up 100,000 conscripts before finally succumbing to reality. At the urging of the British, the other members of the Alliance agreed to let Napoleon go into exile on the island of St. Helena instead of facing a stiffer penalty.
Schom effectively details the political and military moves Napoleon made as he scrambled to stay in power after Louis XVIII fled Paris.
Considerable space is also given in the book to Napoleon’s brother Joseph and his other siblings, although they had little impact on the events at hand. There is also a chapter recounting the career of Napoleon’s former foreign minister, the larger-than-life Talleyrand.
The book contains plenty of information about the politics and the fighting to more than satisfy students of this period. The appendix provides a chronology that will be helpful in putting the events in a broader context. But no list of dates and events can adequately explain the feverish grasping of a single man who threatened the peace of an entire continent.