What could Napoleon Bonaparte have expected from the 100 day restoration of his French Empire? Was it a smart move to begin with and was there any chance he could have played for time before rebuilding France in his own image? Granted, this is a wider question than the Anglo-centric “What if Napoleon won at Waterloo” but like most counterfactual alternatives, you have a complete cause/effect scenario.

So, Napoleon escapes from Elba and returns to France. The French King Louis XVIII loses his nerve and legs it in the dark. The Sixth Coalition partners who were at each other’s throats during the Congress of Vienna ally and form the Seventh Coalition declaring Napoleon’s regime illegitimate and war breaks out. He decided to go north to Belgium where Wellington and the under-provided British Army was stationed. Victory over the British (and the rapidly advancing Prussians) would give his troops a much needed morale booster as well as possibly spurring pro-Napoleonic elements to ferment rebellion.

Alas this was not to be for on 18th June, a battle was fought outside Waterloo leading to the French army failing to make gains against the British whilst their right flank was attacked by Blücher’s Prussian army. Napoleon was effectively broken by the outcome of this battle, abdicated in favour of his son and following a failed escape attempt, surrendered to the British who at least were quasi-sympathetic to the French.

Napoleon’s main goals, as far as can be determined, were to defeat the Allied powers and force them to return to the negotiating table – many French prisoners were released before the conclusion of the Congress of Vienna which gave Napoleon a hardened army of veterans and he didn’t hesitate to use them. And had Napoleon decisively defeated Wellington and Blücher, he would have had to face the Austrians and the Russians. Whilst it’s unlikely he’d have been able to defeat them, “never” is quite a strong word to use when describing Napoleon’s capabilities.

It’s fairly common held wisdom that if Austria and Russia had won, they’d expand their empires at the expense of the defeated French and their allies. Whilst the British were more interested in maintaining the balance in continental Europe, the Prussians were also interested in increasing their territory but were happy to go along with the British so long as their interests didn’t clash too much. A Austrian/Russian victory would have marginalised the Prussians and left them something of a two-bit player on the European scene.

And what of a victorious Napoleon? A larger France not entirely dissimilar to Metropolitan France pre 1814 was the most likely option but following his history, it’s unlikely Napoleon would have been content to remain within those borders. However, by 1815, Napoleon was a sick and tired man suffering from a number of ailments which would have only limited his capacity to govern effectively. And with a weakened Napoleon, his subordinates would have jockeyed for power, using ruthless methods in the quest for dominance. It’s not entirely without possibility that the revolutions of 1848 could have come earlier but with the same effects. Nationalist elements in an expanded French Empire might have seen “Free Belgium, Free Italy” elements at the fringes. Also, Napoleon may have been tempted to reimpose its will over its former Caribbean possessions with peace in Europe which would have completely changed the destiny of Haiti et al.

With the ideas of the French Revolution spread across Europe, refined and ultimately leading to the nationalist revolts, Imperial France would not have been spared blushes and there is little historical evidence that Napoleon’s son (assuming poppa still shuffles off the mortal coil in 1821) was capable of handling said crises effectively. One thing is certain, the Grand Duchy of Warsaw would have survived in some form and there would be no greater Polish nationalism as Poles across Europe would have had a choice to migrate there rather than battle cultural assimilation in the Empires of Prussia, Russia and Austria. And there may have been less pressure on the masses of Europe to migrate to the United States – the great cultural melting pot may well have remained a largely Anglosphere nation overwhelmingly dominated – by former British and Irish citizens.

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