Continuing on with Part 6 of excerpts from the memoirs of Neapolitan General Guglielmo Pépé. The atmosphere of uncertainty in Naples pervades through the winter of 1814-15; Pépé is critical of Murat’s inactivity during this crucial time, when Naples and the rest of Italy are teeming with revolutionary sentiments. News of Napoleon’s escape from Elba arrives, and Murat soon takes to the field with his army.
Pépé reiterates the claim that the Murats had been in constant communication with Napoleon throughout his first exile, a claim likewise made in the memoirs of Louise Murat, but denied on Saint Helena by Napoleon himself, who stated that Murat had not reached out to him a single time during that period. The evidence for whether Murat and Napoleon communicated while Napoleon was on Elba is flimsy either way; I tend to believe that there was, at least, communication conducted verbally between the two via Napoleon’s sister Pauline. But the nature and extent of it is impossible to know.
Pépé also discusses the divide in opinion at the Neapolitan court as to how Murat should respond to Napoleon’s return to France; Pépé admits his shock at learning that Queen Caroline opposes her husband supporting her own brother’s cause, and prefers that Naples maintain its alliance with Austria.
Source: Memoirs of General Pépé, Vol 2 (London: 1846), pages 31-35.
It did not require any very great sagacity to foresee the misfortunes which threatened, not only the kingdom of Naples but the whole of Italy. I was in a state of great despondency on perceiving the impossibility of avoiding the trials which awaited us. I was fully of opinion, that the consequences of any revolutionary movement in the kingdom would have been most pernicious at that moment. I was, therefore, extremely cautious. I saw a great deal of my friends from Pesaro, and read several of their select works. About the same time, I was in the habit of receiving letters as well from Naples as the Abruzzi, contained projects which savoured of madness. Few, if any, of these letters evinced the slightest wisdom. A great many officers from the kingdom of Italy, who came to serve with us, asserted that in the event of the King’s movement, more than a hundred thousand men from that part of the country which lies between the Roman States and the Alps would assemble, clothed and armed at their own expense. I gave no more credit to such reports than they deserved; but not so the King, who did not prepare for the coming time with that steadiness which was necessitated by the difficulty of his situation. He wasted his hours in needless reviews, and in giving entertainments to the English and other foreigners who crowded his capital. In the midst of the apparent tranquility in which we lived, we were suddenly astounded by the intelligence that Napoleon had landed in France from the Isle of Elba.
I did not expect so important an event, but I could not doubt that the King, who had during the preceding year been in uninterrupted communication with the great Captain, would not have seconded his views to the utmost of his power. I was convinced that, supported by the Emperor, Joachim would have decided upon the mode of conducting his impending war with Austria, and that both, profiting by the experience of their past misfortunes, would have acted with wisdom and unanimity, not only in war but in politics. However, notwithstanding the long correspondence they had kept up together, subsequent events will show how little real communication existed between the two Princes.
On the 26th of February, Napoleon quitted the small island forming his sole empire. On the 20th of the following month, the Neapolitan forces marched beyond the frontiers of the kingdom, and the King arrived in Ancona. I went immediately to pay my respects to him, and he did me the honour of inviting me to dinner. On this occasion, he said to me, “I am on terms of friendship with Florestano,” and added, “We will talk shortly of giving a Constitution to the kingdom, and of driving the strangers out of it.” I replied that now that it was a question of fighting for the nationality of Italy, he would no longer find in me a Tribune, but a blindly obedient soldier. We were only six persons at table. The King affirmed that there were not, at the utmost, above fifteen thousand Austrians in Italy. I was of opinion that in such a case the population of that portion of the country which lies beyond the Po would have risen immediately.
Before dismissing me, the King said that he had sent Florestano upon an important mission to the coast of Rome, on board a vessel conveying troops to be landed there. To my infinite surprise, I received, on the following day, a letter from Florestano, in which he advised me by no means to urge the King to commence hostilities. This letter was sent to me open, through the Minister of Finance, Count Mosbourg, a man wholly devoted to the King and Queen.
I thus became aware of the existence of two opposite opinions prevalent at Court, and amongst the general officers, one of which was, that the King ought to temporize; whilst the other was, that he should assault the enemy with as much promptitude as circumstances would admit. The King leant towards the latter course, which was likewise my own opinion. I was impressed with the idea that the triumph of Napoleon would prevent the fall of Joachim, and that Italy would then cast off the yoke of France and Austria; that the fall of the Emperor must inevitably produce that of the King, and the consequent ruin of the whole of our Peninsula. However clear such views were to myself, they were not so in the eyes of the Ministers and Counsellors of State, who were all of opinion that it would be wiser to maintain a neutral position. What amazed me more than anything else, was that the Queen, Napoleon’s own sister, who had been in constant correspondence with her brother during the whole time of his residence in the Isle of Elba, now entreated the King not to declare himself against Austria. My own inclination was decidedly for war; and I regarded it as indispensable, when once the die was cast, to avail ourselves of all the forces at our disposal, as well as of those furnished by the whole of Italy, aroused by the intoxicating promise of the most unbounded freedom and independence. But Machiavelli truly says, that “Men rarely perish but through half measures!”
Joachim was guilty of two very serious errors; the first was, not opening the campaign with all his troops of the line, gendarmes and the select companies of the militia, amounting in all to at least sixty thousand men; the second, not to have summoned to arms, under the banner of Italy, all those who had already served either in the kingdom of Italy, or under the Empire, as well as all the unmarried and able-bodied men under thirty years of age, declaring all those who declined to do so, guilty of treason to their country. By such means the sixty thousand Neapolitans would have been joined on their march by about thirty thousand veterans, and by an equal number of fighting-men, well fitted to defend the different fortresses and to fight in detachments. There is not the slightest exaggeration in affirming that Joachim, at the head of sixty thousand men, would have been joined by at least an equal number on his progress from his capital to the Alps. To those who urge, “How could the King have left the kingdom unprotected?” I answer that Gaeta with a small garrison would have been a safe asylum for the royal family, and that the provinces and the capital would have been protected by the National Guard, and by the knowledge that the King was at the foot of the Alps at the head of a hundred and twenty thousand Italians. Admitting, however, that the kingdom might have been invaded by the Anglo-Sicilians, they would, at the first intelligence of the advantages gained by Joachim, have crossed the Strait again, accompanied by the curses of the inhabitants on this side of it. Some may, perhaps, be disposed to question that the army would have increased by thirty thousand veterans and by the National Guard; but I knew Italy thoroughly, both as a citizen and a soldier.
A few months previous I had laughed at the wonders promised to the King; but in April of the year 1815, I felt a depth of conviction amounting to certainty, that with the forces at the head of which Joachim advanced, the return of Napoleon to power, and the patriotic excitement which prevailed from the Tronto to the Alps, he would have gathered reinforcements perhaps exceeding the number I have specified. If the inhabitants of that portion of Italy which lies beyond the Tronto did not rush to arms, the fault was entirely the King’s own, who did not know either how to excite, or how to compel them to defend the country’s cause.