The road from Waterloo: The march to Paris
As June faded into July, the Allies refused to agree to an armistice, determined to take control of France and to re-establish a legitimate government that would afford some chance of peace. Napoleon may have fled Paris for the coast, hoping to reach America, but his supporters were still at large; the Allies advanced, taking the fortresses of the towns along the border, and marching after the remnants of the French army, as it retreated to Paris.
Writing on 2 July, Wellington reported progress to Lord Bathurst, Secretary of State for War and the Colonies:
“The enemy attacked the advanced guard of Marshall Prince Blucher’s corps at Villers Cotterets on the 28th, but, the main body coming up, they were driven off with the loss of 6 pieces of cannon and about one thousand prisoners.
It appears that these troops were on the march from Soissons to Paris; and, having been driven off that road by the Prussian troops at Villers Cotterets, they got upon that of Meaux. They were attacked again upon this road by General Bulow, who took from them 500 prisoners, and drove them across the Marne. They have, however, got into Paris.
The advanced guard of the Allied army under my command crossed the Oise on the 29th, and the whole on the 30th, and we yesterday took up a position, with the right upon the height of Richebourg, the left upon the Bois de Bondy.
Field Marshall Prince Blucher, having taken the village of Aubevilliers, or Vertus, on the morning of the 30th June, moved to his right, and crossed the Seine at St. Germain’s as I advanced; and he will this day have his right at Plessis Piquet, his left at St. Cloud, and the reserve at Versailles.
The enemy have fortified the heights of Montmartre and the town of St. Denis strongly; and, by means of the little rivers, Rouillon and la Vieille Mer, they have inundated the ground on the north side of that town; and water having been introduced into the canal de l’Ourcq, and the bank formed into a parapet and batteries, they have a strong position on this side of Paris.
The heights of Belleville are likewise strongly fortified, but I am not aware that any defensive works have been thrown up on the left of the Seine.
Having collected in Paris all the troops remaining after the battle of the 18th and all the depots of the whole army it is supposed the enemy have there about 40 or 50,000 troops of the line and guards, besides the National Guards, a new levy called les tirailleurs de la garde, and the Federes.
Under these circumstances I am inclined to doubt the expediency of our attacking the enemy in their fortified position; more particularly as having reason to believe that Marshall Prince Wrede’s corps was at Nancy on the 26th, we suppose it is this day at Chalons, and it may be here in 4 or 5 days…”
[MS 61 Wellington Papers 1/475/9]
That same day, Wellington was at Gonesse, a little to the north-east of Paris, and was again approached for an armistice. He wrote to Blucher:
“It appears to me that, with the force which you and I have under our command at present, the attack of Paris is a matter of great risk. I am convinced it cannot be made on this side with any hope of success … We must incur a severe loss, if it is necessary, in any case. But in this case it is not necessary. By the delay of a few days we shall have here the army under Marshal Prince Wrede, and the allied sovereigns with it, who will decide upon the measures to be adopted, and success will then be certain with a comparatively trifling loss; or, if we choose it, we can settle all our matters now by agreeing to the proposed armistice.”
[MS 61 Wellington Papers 1/475/10]
The Allies were reluctant to destroy Paris, the capital of Louis XVIII, whom they hoped to restore to the French throne. Yet the French army could not be allowed to remain there, and the king could not recover his throne in a way that left him in the hands of the Assemblies, which were seen as Napoleon’s creation and instrument.
Fighting continued around Paris on 2 and 3 July, at Meudon and Issy, to the south-west of the capital, in which the French suffered heavy losses. The Prussians then moved along the left bank of the Seine, in communication with Wellington’s army by way of the bridge at Argenteuil; and the British army was able to move in force along the left bank of the Seine as well, towards the Pont de Neuilly. At this point, the French asked for a ceasefire on both sides of the Seine and to negotiate a military convention.
Agreed at St Cloud on the night of 3 July and ratified the following day, the convention set out the terms on which the French army should evacuate Paris. There was to be a suspension of hostilities, with the French army given eight days to withdraw from the city across the Loire. In return, the Allies promised to respect the rights and property of the present authorities, French citizens and members of the French armed forces. At this stage, the terms of the agreement remained purely military and did not settle any political question.