Napoleon in 1815: The Escape from Elba

Napoleon’s attempt to form a second and more liberal empire was, like Waterloo, a close-run thing and “came nearer to success than is usually allowed.”

Ash Wednesday in 1815 fell on February 15th. In Napoleon’s Empire of Elba, as elsewhere in the Latin South, the ancient ritual of burying the Carnival was being celebrated with abandon; Lent and ashes were being put off for one more day.

But that year the people of Portoferraio, the little island’s capital and harbour town, were treated to a most unusual spectacle. The funeral procession escorting the coffin of Prince Carnival was formed by their new sovereign’s Guards who, in keeping with local tradition, were dressed up in a variety of costumes.

At the head rode their commander, Colonel Mallet, swathed in the robes of an Egyptian Pasha; behind him followed a lanky Polish Lancer, Captain Schultz, as Don Quixote, with a fat catering officer at his side as Sancho Panza. Next came the Guards band, dressed as harlequins, sounding trumpets, beating small drums, plucking away at their guitars, and several cardboard floats, mounted on gun carriages, on which reclined Napoleon’s tough and dedicated guardsmen draped and veiled to represent the women of the Pasha’s harem.

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