24 The Shade of Napoleon
In 1823 the French army, which had been ’observing’ the situation in Spain from the Pyrenees, received orders to cross the frontier. It met with little resistance. The Spanish constitutionalist Government fled from Madrid and its authority vanished. A coup in Lisbon, which took place on the news of the French invasion of Spain, restored the absolutist monarchy in Portugal. In a brief, almost bloodless, campaign, the French army extinguished the last liberal revolutionary governments in Europe. It was an astonishing result and most of the chancelleries of Europe were delighted. Just as the Austrians had acted on behalf of the absolutist powers to extinguish the revolutions in Naples and Piedmont in 1821, so the French could claim to have been carrying out the collective wishes of the powers in eradicating the cancer from Spain. Only the British had opposed the move, but the French had correctly calculated that they would not go to war on the issue. France, eight years after the battle of Waterloo, was indisputably again a great power. She had been trusted with a delicate military operation by her allies, who had been so recently her enemies, and had carried it out to their satisfaction. And she had successfully defied the old enemy across the Channel.
The events in Spain had an important effect on the Greek War of Independence. The solution of the Spanish problem allowed European politicians to turn their attention more fully to the last untidy situation in Europe, the existence of Free Greece. It also led to a new phase of philhellenism. The torch which had been taken up by the Germans and Swiss and then passed to the English was now to be carried by the French.
Even before the death of Lord Byron in April 1824 the first signs of the new movement were to be seen. When the Ann and her cargo sent by the London Greek Committee reached Malta in December 1823, a mysterious figure came on board and asked to be given passage to Greece. As Humphreys, one of the British Philhellenes on board the ship, wrote: ”A French gentleman who joined, who calls himself Borel but I believe he is travelling incognito, is very clever. I should think he will be very useful with the diplomatic line’. Colonel Stanhope, the Committee’s agent in Greece, knew more of the man and prepared to welcome him: ’The intelligent soldier, mechanic, and agriculturist’, he wrote in guarded terms to Bowring, ’whom you mention as going to settle in Greece, will be a most useful character there: he may command my services’.
The secret of Monsieur Borel’s alias was not well kept. As one French officer who met him in Greece records, his first words were ’I travel under the name of Morel [sic] but I am Colonel Fabvier’. No further introduction was necessary.
Charles Fabvier was a soldier of heroic proportions. He stood over six feet tall and had a stern imposing military manner. He was highly intelligent, ambitious, and determined. All his early life had been spent in the army. After graduating from the École Polytechnique as an artilleryman in 1805, he joined the Grand Army. Thereafter his rise was rapid as he distinguished himself in campaign after campaign. In 1807 he was entrusted with an important military mission to Asia Minor and Persia. In 1812 he was with the Grand Army in Russia. He became ADC to Marshal Marmont, a Baron of the Empire and Commandant of the Legion of Honour. Then came the first abdication, the Hundred Days, and the final defeat of Napoleon. In 1815, the humiliation of seeing the allied armies on the soil of France was almost intolerable to him but, like so many of Napoleon’s officers, Fabvier was almost equally disgusted at the return of the Bourbons and their émigré friends.
There was no place in Restoration France for a successful and ambitious Napoleonic officer especially if, like Fabvier, he was temperamentally outspoken. Besides, Fabvier had emphatic liberal views which he equated with respect for Napoleon. Soon he was on the lists of the secret police. In 1820 he was involved in an ill-prepared conspiracy to attempt a Napoleonic restoration and then in 1822 the affair of the four sergeants of La Rochelle (in which Bowring was also suspected). He was obliged to go into exile, and Spain was the obvious place.
Fabvier became one of the leaders of the growing band of escaped revolutionaries and political refugees who were gradually filtering into Spain as other countries were closed to them. There were groups of Italians, victims of the upsets of 1821, French revolutionaries and Bonapartists, exiles from earlier political changes, and the usual miscellany of idealists, mercenaries, adventure-seekers (including some former Philhellenes) who were attracted to fight in a good cause. Fabvier seems to have hoped that a Liberal Foreign Legion could be formed in Spain which would eventually be the spearhead of a renewed Napoleonic liberation of France. When the French army of the Bourbons was menacing Spain from across the frontier, Fabvier calculated that if he could assemble a little army of French old soldiers like himself under the tricolour (which was the symbol of the Revolution, of Napoleon, and of the Empire), then the French army drawn up under the white flag of the Bourbons would be unable to hold together. They would remember the great days of old and would desert to their old love.
As it turned out, no such desertions occurred. Already a new generation of French soldiers manned the ranks who cared nothing for Fabvier’s ideas. Napoleon, they knew, was dead even if rumours were put around to the contrary. And if they were unwilling to fire upon Frenchmen drawn up under the tricolour, these Frenchmen were equally unwilling to fire on the famous regiments in whose ranks they had spent the proudest moments of their lives. The bands of refugees in Spain dispersed and looked around to find a new life and a new home. Some hung on with the scattered groups of Spanish constitutionalists who attempted to oppose the French army in remoter parts of Spain; others fled to Portugal hoping to find a passage to South America; others were captured and taken back to France to stand trial for having opposed the King’s army. Many were scattered around Europe, mainly in England and the Netherlands, living a semi-clandestine existence, often on charity, waiting for an opportunity to renew their life.
Fabvier felt a deep sense of loyalty to the men who had followed him to disaster, some of whom had been with him for years. What could he now offer them? Like so many of the characters mentioned in this book he surveyed the world’s trouble spots – now only South America and Greece remained. To a man of liberal principles Greece was the obvious choice. During the second half of 1823 he darted about Western Europe in various disguises apparently organizing his sources of support. He visited England where he had discussions with the liberals of the Spanish Committee, who were largely the same small group that inspired the Greek Committee. He also visited Belgium, apparently as a convenient rendezvous to communicate with his friends and supporters within France. The French secret police followed his movements tirelessly. In August he was reported to be back in France itself under the alias of Cabillo Tores. Later in the year, instructions were given to the prefects of half a dozen provinces to look out for him but they lost track. The next news they had was from an intercepted letter posted in Malta in which Fabvier announced that he and several French officers intended to join Lord Byron and fight alongside him for the cause of Greek independence.
Fabvier’s first visit to Greece was in the nature of a reconnaissance. He travelled unnoticed through the Peloponnese and, while the Byron Brigade was wasting uselessly at Missolonghi, he was putting new proposals to the Greek leaders. Within a few months he was back in England and again in Belgium. In his pocket he carried a contract signed by the Greek Government for the establishment on Greek soil of an ’agricultural and industrial colony’ of which he was to be the chief. Fabvier was to be given a concession of between 3,000 and 4,000 acres of land for which he undertook to pay as from 1 January 1826. In return he undertook to institute an training programme for the Greeks, helping them to introduce more modern agricultural techniques and to establish manufacturing industries to produce the goods which Greece had to import from abroad. In addition he undertook to provide a full range of military assistance, construction of arsenals, fortification of towns, instruction in the art of defence and of attack, establishment of military academies.
Fabvier’s return to Western Europe in 1824 was to arrange for his old comrades to go to Greece to establish the colony; to provide them with passports; to obtain money from his supporters in France; and to liaise with the philhellenic societies. The French secret police, still trying to keep track of him as he moved from one mysterious assignation to another, were baffled to read letters referring to the obtaining of passports in Belgium for his ’Greek workers’. The Greek workers were of course the French and other soldiers who had been involved with Fabvier in his eventful life since 1820 and were now being rounded up to sail to a new life in Greece.
And so through 1824 and 1825 a new wave of Philhellenes began to make their way to Greece. The revolutionaries and refugees who had been concentrated in Spain and then scattered by the French invasion began to reassemble again, this time in Greece. Individuals and small groups made their way to the last corner of Europe where the flag of liberty was still flying and where a soldier could lend a hand. Some came direct from Spain, others from their temporary refuges in the Netherlands, Britain, and elsewhere. Most were Italians or French, but there was a sprinkling of other nationalities. The French were mainly Bonapartists. From France itself former Napoleonic officers, who had been purged from the army, decided to join their old comrades on their way to Greece. Even if they had been careful to keep clear of politics, they could not escape the ever-present police suspiciously recording the details of their lives. For a compulsorily retired Napoleonic officer, life in Restoration France could be irksome and claustrophobic. The secret police dutifully reported as old Bonapartists disappeared from their homes on their way to the ports. Gibassier, a former Captain, left for Livorno against the wishes of his family after receiving letters from Fabvier. Bourbaki, once a Colonel in the Imperial army who had been under constant watch, left to join his old comrades. Berton, the son of the General executed in 1820 for opposition to the regime, hoped to vindicate his father’s memory. Regnault de St. Jean d’Angely, later a Marshal of France, who had been promoted for valour by the Emperor on the battlefield of Waterloo, left to look for an opportunity of fighting under the famous Colonel Fabvier.
In one important respect this latest wave of Philhellenes stood out from their predecessors. Almost every one was a professional soldier with long years of active experience behind him on dozens of the battlefields of Europe. These were no runaway students or beardless subalterns; they were no romantics trying to make a reality of Byronic dreams; but men on the verge of middle age, men already set in their ways and set in their beliefs, men who had no illusions about the nature of war.
Among these grizzled Bonapartists one exception is worth a mention. In 1827 Paul-Marie Bonaparte, the son of Lucien and nephew of Napoleon, was a student at the University of Bologna. He was then aged eighteen and was said to bear a remarkable resemblance to his uncle, the late Emperor. In March he left Italy secretly under an assumed name and made his way to the Ionian Islands with the intention of joining the Greeks. But while still on board ship at Nauplia he accidentally shot himself when cleaning a pistol and died soon afterwards.7 His body was embalmed and eventually buried in 1832 on the island of Sphacteria alongside the French sailors who died in the Battle of Navarino.
Fabvier himself was typical of many of the French who came to Greece at this time. Most European liberals looked with envy and admiration at the free institutions of Britain which had survived a period of repression after Waterloo. In their struggles against the absolutist monarchies most would have settled for far less. But for men like Fabvier the fact that England enjoyed a more liberal political system was a constant shame. To them their late leader, the Emperor Napoleon, was the embodiment of everything they held dear and the memory grew ever more tender with the passage of time. As the stories of the Empire faded into myth, Napoleon came to be thought of as the great liberator. England might be the most enlightened country in Europe, but for Waterloo and the downfall of Napoleon the English could never be forgiven. Men like Fabvier combined a fierce devotion to the cause of liberalism with a deep-seated hatred of the British. They were liberals, some of them prepared to go to war against their former comrades in arms in the French army in their fight to establish a more liberal regime in France, but they were also heirs of a long tradition of anti-British feeling. The fact that, after the collapse of the constitutionalist Government in Spain, the British Government was the only government to show them any sympathy and Britain almost the only country which would accept them as exiles, merely intensified their mortification.
Fabvier arrived back in Greece in May 1825 with a few of his followers. The country had changed drastically in the year or so since he had left. In February 1825 Ibrahim and his Arab army had landed in Greece and they were already in control of much of the Peloponnese. There could be no question now of establishing the proposed agricultural and industrial colony. The very existence of Free Greece was at stake. If Fabvier and his followers were to find a permanent home in Greece, they first would have to fight for it.
Fabvier’s return to Greece coincided with the belated realization on the part of the Greek Government that the armed bands of the captains were simply not good enough to defend the country against Ibrahim’s Arab troops. In the middle of June 1825 the Greek Government decided to attempt again to establish a disciplined regular force which might have some chance of withstanding the invaders. The situation was desperate. Ibrahim’s army was only a few hours’ from the seat of government at Nauplia. The Greeks turned to the only group of Philhellenes who might help them with a crash programme of military training. Fabvier was asked if he would undertake the task of raising, training, and commanding a regular force.
It was a formidable task. Greece had no regular troops at all, except for a small ceremonial guard that had been maintained at Nauplia after the disbandment of the Regiment in 1823. Fabvier accepted, but on certain conditions. He was promised virtually absolute control over all aspects of the life and use of the force; also the full support of the Government in enforcing a strict law of conscription and in using the gold of the British loan to pay the men.
It was just at this time that the Greeks were sending desperate appeals to the representatives of the British Government in the area begging that Britain would take Greece under her protection. The suggestion was being canvassed that Leopold of Saxe Coburg (later to be King of Belgium) or the Duke of Sussex should be appointed King of Greece. When Ibrahim was outside Nauplia there was talk of raising the Union Jack over the fortress in the hope that the British warships in the harbour would come to their rescue. For Fabvier, the prospect of Britain establishing a protectorate over Greece was intolerable. He declared to the Greek Government that he would only accept the command if they promised to fight to the last extremity. If, however, they intended to raise the flag of another country he would not help them – not even if it was the flag of France. The conditions were accepted, although the Greek Government was hardly in a position to ensure that it would keep its promises.
On 4 July 1825, in a little ceremony in Nauplia, Fabvier was presented to the men who were to form the new regular force. The standards which had once belonged to the Regiment Tarella were brought out and re-presented. Fabvier himself appeared with all his medals in the uniform of an officer of France. In his speech he declared his readiness to die for his new country. Today, he said, he was a Frenchman but tomorrow they would see that he was a Greek. The next day he appeared wearing the magnificent dress of a Greek palikar and thereafter he never wore anything else. It was more than a colourful philhellenic gesture. The Greeks could see that he meant it. Fabvier and his little band of followers, for whom life since Waterloo had been a series of retreats and defeats, were now at the end of the road. Their fate was inextricably tied to Greece. They had no other home.