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The Emperor Napoleon III ended his days in exile in Chislehurst, Kent

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Royalty, War on Friday, 27 September 2013

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This edited article about France originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 412 published on 6 December 1969.

Napoleon III, picture, image, illustration

Napoleon III

Everyone shouted, “Liberty, equality, fraternity” – but none could agree. Though a foreign enemy was outside the city, 17,000 died within – because nobody could agree who was in charge of the French capital.

All Europe is familiar with the name of Napoleon. He conjures up visions of the conquest of Europe, the Battle of Waterloo, and the years of lonely exile after his fall.

But there was another Napoleon, named Louis, who played a part in the story of France. He was the nephew of the great Napoleon and when King Louis Philippe abdicated from the French throne in 1848, Louis Napoleon was chosen President of the new French Republic.

Three years later Louis decided that he could be at least as successful as his once powerful uncle. As Napoleon’s little son had sometimes been called Napoleon II, Louis began to style himself the Emperor Napoleon III. Those who objected, including an influential minister named Adolphe Thiers, were imprisoned.

Napoleon III had some of his uncle’s love of war and he soon showed that he had some of Napoleon I’s military skill too, by winning several battles against the Austrians. But another great power was beginning to flex its muscles in Europe – Prussia ruled by Bismarck. Throughout the eighteen-sixties, Bismarck’s Prussia and Napoleon III’s France glared at each other across Europe. Bismarck wanted war and Napoleon III wanted something to divert his people from their growing unrest with his corrupt rule. So it was he who declared war on Prussia in 1870.

All the German states at once sent troops to Prussia’s aid and very soon the French were totally overwhelmed. Their final humiliating hour occurred when the two armies met at Sedan.

The Germans had surprised the French at camp in a valley, and under cover of night a quarter of a million German troops sealed every exit to the valley. What followed was a massacre culminating in Napoleon III surrendering himself and 83,000 of his soldiers.

Throughout their history, the people of Paris have been quick to anger and terrible in their wrath, and the news of the humiliation at Sedan brought out the worst in them. The mob rose and marched to the Assembly Hall, where it declared the Emperor to be deposed and France to become a republic again.

Bismarck and his German army laughed cynically. They had beaten the French in battle and now they would take Paris. Remorselessly they closed in on the fermenting capital and on September 20, 1870, began a siege that was to give Paris an unforgettable winter of cold and starvation, of bursting shells and the ever present danger of death through an epidemic.

When at last the city was only four days from complete starvation, the French government accepted the terms of an armistice from Bismarck. They were bitter, degrading terms that rubbed the nose of the nation firmly in the dust in which it had been forced to kneel.

A new French government was elected and sat at Bordeaux, and it was clear from the start that left-wing republican Paris had nothing but contempt for it and its conservative leader, the same Adolphe Thiers whom Napoleon III had imprisoned, and who now was a little old man noted for his conspicuous forelock. As for the terms of the armistice, Parisians regarded them as unspeakable.

Paris had already elected a Central Committee of its defence force, called the National Guard, and more and more this Committee took into its hands the business of governing the city. Meanwhile, the Parisians’ anger was fanned even further by the French Government’s decision to quit Bordeaux and move not to Paris but to Versailles, 20 miles from the capital.

At Versailles, the Government looked in horror towards rioting Paris and decided that the city’s National Guard, 145,000 strong, would have to be disarmed. One October night they sent a force with that object in mind – but the National Guard put up a resistance much greater than anticipated, and when Parisians woke up in the morning they found the hated government troops attacking their Guard – their own private army – and angrily put them to flight. Some of the Versailles troops who stayed their ground decided to join the city’s rebel army, and two of their generals who would not, Thomas and Lecomte, were killed by the crowd.

From that day, the Central Committee took over entirely the running of Paris. Elections were held and the government returned to office was called the Commune.

The extraordinary situation then existing in France can be explained by showing what a similar situation might mean in England. In such a case, the G.L.C. elections would have returned a council violently opposed to the national government. As a result, the government workers in Whitehall would leave the city and join the government sitting at Windsor. Essex and Middlesex would be occupied by a foreign invader, which in the eyes of the Londoners was as hostile as the British government at Windsor.

Unabashed by a situation like this, the Commune set out to make itself into a government. It passed laws abolishing pawnshops and attempted to reorganise education, which was virtually non-existent. It found time to launch a disastrous military attack on Versailles.

But the city which had in fact declared itself an independent state knew that there was a bad time to come. Sooner or later the Versailles government would attack, and Paris knew that it would be the subject of another dreadful siege.

Inside the city, emotions in the Commune began to mount to a point of hysteria. Everyone shouted, “Liberty, equality, fraternity,” but none could agree. In a bizarre moment of anger, the Commune made a public demonstration of the demolition of a monument – the Vendome Column – erected to the glory of Napoleon Bonaparte, a symbol, in its view, of the tyranny of power.

And even while the dust of the falling column was clearing, Thiers and his Versailles government army were preparing to strike at rebellious Paris. They were ready at last, when the Commune had been in office for just over two months.

The assault on Paris began with a thunderous bombardment by artillery. It had the effect that Thiers and the government had wanted: discipline in the city began to crack and the Commune turned upon itself, arresting its own members in the mounting panic.

Nearly two weeks later, in the middle of a Commune trial of its own army commander-in-chief for “counter-revolutionary activity,” the news came that the Versailles army had entered the city and was advancing towards the centre. For the next seven days the Versailles army fought savagely, street by street, amid scenes of indescribable horror, to retake the city from its rebel government. Thousands of National Guards lay dead in the gutters as the barricades hastily erected by the Parisians were repeatedly stormed.

In the mayhem of that terrible week the crowd threw paraffin over the Tuileries Palace, tossed a match, and the historic building went up in bright orange flames. Hundreds of other houses went up in flames, too.

A game of who could shoot the most hostages was performed while the fires reddened the sky over the city. The Commune defenders shot the Archbishop of Paris and the Chief Appeal Court judge among others, and the Government attackers replied by selecting men, women and children at random off the streets and shooting them in the same place where the rebels had shot the two generals, Thomas and Lecomte. The Commune, now in its death-throes, then drove some monks out of their monastery, made them march in single file, and shot them down one by one. Within a week, the Government troops had taken the city. The last despairing stand of the Communards, 200 of them, took place in the cemetery of Pere Lachaise, in the North-east of Paris. There, amid the gravestones, they fought the last action, until all 200 of them were dead.

When law and order were at last restored, Adolphe Thiers became President of the Third French Republic, the successor to the Second Empire of Napoleon III who, having been released by the Germans, fled to England, where he died in 1873.

One comment on “The Emperor Napoleon III ended his days in exile in Chislehurst, Kent”

  1. 1. Tony Boullemier says:

    You are a little harsh on Napoleon lll. He brought stability and pride back to France after the revolutionary era and incidentally, made friends with England.
    He was moving towards a more liberal Empire when Bismarck’s infamous Ems Telegram incensed French public opinion and compelled him to declare war on Prussia.
    For an entertaining novel set in the French Second Empire, may I recommend my book Leonie and the Last Napoleon. Please see It’s available from
    Tony Boullemier, Northampton

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