What were the Great Powers of Europe doing while Napoleon was recapturing France?
You may remember, some time back in March, we looked at Napoleon’s successful return to France after his escape from Elba. But what had the victorious Allies been doing all this time. How could they have so catastrophically taken their eyes off the ball?
The Allies had ended (as they thought) the wars with France with the signing of the Treaty of Paris on 30 May 1814. That treaty, though, was concerned simply with restoring the Bourbon monarchy and confirming the new borders of France (essentially putting them back to the position they were in in 1792).
Two decades of war in Europe had left the great powers with more to decide than just how to restore Louis to the throne. The last substantive clause of the Treaty of Paris said:
All the powers engaged on either side in the present war shall, within the space of two months, send plenipotentiaries to Vienna, for the purpose of regulating, in general congress, the arrangements which are to complete the provisions of the present treaty.
The Congress of Vienna is often seen as an effort to “carve up” Europe among the great powers. France was included as, now that it was back under the control of the King, the other powers wanted it to be seen as taking its proper place amongst European nations.
While there is no doubt that each of the Powers sought whatever advantage it could gain, the objective of the Congress was to arrange a net of alliances between powers that meant that any future conflict would inevitably draw in the whole of the continent. They believed that, rather than face war on the scale that Europe had just witnessed, states would negotiate peace. It was, if you like, an early form of Mutually Assured Destruction. It worked, maintaining peace in Europe for almost 100 years. When a major conflict did break out, one by one all of the major European powers were drawn in and the result was World War I. That, I can’t help feeling, is the problem with Mutually Assured Destruction. One day, somebody just can’t resist pressing the big red button.
As has been the case with some more recent negotiations between the European powers, this timetable proved rather optimistic and by the end of summer it had been agreed that the Congress should start at the beginning of October.
The French Minister, Talleyrand (who had somehow survived the shift of power from Napoleon to the Bourbons), arrived in Vienna at the end of September to discover that Prussia, Britain, Austria and Russia had agreed amongst themselves how the Congress was to run.
As Talleyrand reported to Louis:
“The visible aim of this plan was to make the four Powers … absolute masters of all the operations of the Congress.”
Letter dated 4 October 1814
This was a somewhat cheeky move by the Powers, as it not only sidelined the French but also several other countries which considered but they were significant enough to be taken account of – notably Spain and Portugal. The many smaller countries (like Poland and some princely states) may not have expected their views to be given much weight, but now discovered that they would have no real influence at all.
Talleyrand knew that France will be negotiating from a position of weakness and that he needed to be able to make all the alliances he caught, so he objected to this arrangement, refusing to accept the outcome of any discussion that had taken place ahead of the official date for the starting of the Congress in October.
“I said… that the idea of arranging everything before convening the Congress was a novel one to me; that they proposed to finish where I had thought it would be necessary to begin.”
Letter dated 4 October 1814
Faced with the prospect of losing control of the Congress, the Powers simply delayed its start date. As Metternich said, “How can the Congress be assembled when nothing is ready to lay before it?”
By 18 November the eight signatories of the Peace of Paris, after repeated delays, finally accepted that the start of the Congress should be postponed indefinitely. After all, there didn’t seem to be any great urgency about matters.
In the end, the Congress never met in plenary session, but the representatives of the great powers continued to cabal amongst themselves, agreeing how to carve up smaller countries like Saxony and Poland.
Negotiations moved on at a snail’s pace for months. Britain was represented by Lord Castlereagh until the beginning of February 1815, when he was replaced by Wellington. Wellington’s life had been threatened in Paris (the assassination attempt in Burke at Waterloo is based on a real event) and the British government was anxious that he should quit, but he refused to do anything that looked like running away, so he was appointed to the Congress of Vienna largely as a face saver. The French, though, were happy to see him there, believing that Wellington would be easier to negotiate with. After his arrival, though, things still moved forward excruciatingly slowly.
By March the monarchs and Emperors were tiring of the interminable negotiations and began to talk of leaving, but they were still there when, on 7 March, Wellington received a dispatch from Lord Burghersh telling him that Napoleon had escaped from Elba.
Although the representatives of all the great powers were still all assembled in one place, they were unable to respond immediately, as no one knew what Napoleon’s plans were. Talleyrand struggled to find out what Napoleon was up to and to prepare a declaration for the nations to agree to as soon as Napoleon’s plans were clear. By 13 March, though there was still uncertainty about where Napoleon was leading his army, there was no doubt that he was back in France at the head of a military force. Encouraged by Talleyrand, the five Great Powers produced a declaration that united the nations of Europe against Napoleon.
The powers consequently declare, that Napoleon Bonaparte has placed himself without the pale of civil and social relations; and that, as an enemy and disturber of the tranquillity of the world, he has rendered himself liable to public vengeance.
By 19 March Talleyrand was able to write to Louis with details of the military preparations against Napoleon.
It is proposed to have two armies in the field and two in reserve.
The line of operations of the one will stem from the sea to the Main; it will be composed of English, Dutch and Hanoverians, with the North German contingents and Prussians. All to be under the command of the Duke of Wellington.
The second will have its line of operations between the Main and the Mediterranean … This army will consist of Austrians, Piedmontese, Swiss, and South German contingents.
On the 25 March the plans became the basis of a formal treaty, the Treaty of the Quadruple Alliance between Great Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia and on the 29th Talleyrand wrote:
[T]he Duke of Wellington would no longer put off joining his army; he left Vienna this morning at six o’clock.
After years of fighting Napoleon’s generals, Sir Arthur Wellesley was finally on his way to fight the man himself.
Pallain The Correspondence of Talleyrand and Louis XVIII
Mark Jarrett (2013) The Congress of Vienna and Its Legacy: War and Great Power Diplomacy After Napoleon