News of Napoléon’s flight reached Vienna on March 7. Stunned, the Allied representatives decided within hours to send troops to oppose Napoléon, but they also embargoed the news from France for several days until they were prepared to make a public statement. Several days later, they jointly declared that by reappearing in France, Napoléon had proved himself “an enemy and disturber of the peace of the world,” and that together, “the sovereigns of Europe would be ready to give the King of France and the French nation the assistance necessary to restore peace.”
King Louis XVIII would need all the help he could get. Twenty-two years after the execution of his brother, Louis XVI, few Frenchmen outside of a die-hard circle of royalists desired to return to the days of a pre-Revolutionary monarchy. Too much land belonging to the king, the aristocracy, and the church had been dispensed to too many members of the Third Estate to turn back the clock. Nor had a year of life under the restored Bourbon dynasty endeared King Louis to his subjects. Facing an immense national debt which he inherited from Napoléon, Louis’ ministers found it necessary to slash the army budget, cancelling contracts for military supplies and throwing nearly three hundred thousand soldiers out of work. The government also reduced spending on public construction projects while maintaining an oppressive array of taxes. As unemployment rose along with the price of bread, hungry citizens in Channel ports rioted against the shipment of grain to Britain. “We are really going on very badly,” wrote one government official, “and we must do better if we do not wish to perish completely.”
Louis himself engendered little personal loyalty, or even respect; a British bishop once said that the French king was “a man fit only to cook his own capons.” Fifty-eight years old and so grossly overweight that he could not sit on a horse, Louis abhorred hard work and delegated authority with alacrity. Despite a modest measure of charm in private conversations, Louis never developed a compelling public presence. Certainly he paled in comparison with the charismatic former emperor. As Napoléon hastened towards the capital in March, covering two hundred miles in six days, Louis grew increasingly anxious. Ominous strains of the incendiary Marseillaise rang through Paris streets; royal troops deserted en masse and went over to Napoléon; and newspaper editorials likened the situation to the eve of the Terror, when nobles and monarchists were slaughtered. Recognizing that, as one writer put it, “the Parisians love for their King has so died down that barely a spark remains,” Louis decided on the evening of March 18 to flee Paris.
Three days later, Napoléon entered the city without a shot being fired. By the first week of April, however, it was clear that the weary and impoverished French public lacked any appetite for ambitious schemes to restore the glory of the empire. Napoléon’s proposals for new taxes to fund a revitalized army met with widespread opposition. Visible signs of disaffection appeared; rallies in support of the emperor’s return clashed with demonstrations demanding his ouster. To bolster his defenses against the Allied assault he knew was coming, Napoléon issued orders on April 8 for a general mobilization of the French nation. Meanwhile, he assured the sovereigns of Europe (whom he formally referred to as “my brothers”) that he wanted nothing more than “the maintenance of an honourable peace.”
But more than anything else, France—and the rest of Europe—desperately needed a breathing space. A year earlier, the Marquis de Caulaincourt had written that “the need for rest was so universally felt through every class of society, and in the army, that peace at any price had become the ruling passion of the day.” Napoléon’s return from Elba only deepened the prevailing exhaustion. “Our objective is to make sure that our children have years of peace,” noted the Austrian general Karl Schwarzenberg, “and that the world has some repose. The Emperor Napoléon had shown all too plainly of late that he desires neither of these things.”