The Occupation of France After Napoleon, or Confessions of a Cultural-Turned-Military Historian

By Christine Haynes

The “Age of Revolutions” was also an Age of Wars. While this point may be obvious to most readers of this site, as well as historians of the period, it took me an embarrassingly long time to understand. Trained as a cultural historian focused on nineteenth-century France, I saw military history as separate from, and tangential to, the dramatic political and social changes unleashed by the French Revolution and Napoleonic Empire. Sure, I studied and eventually taught the wars that ensued from the French Revolution and their role in the rise and fall of Napoleon, but it took me a good while to recognize the centrality of war to all aspects of life in this period.

Paradoxically, my realization of the importance of war in this period came while researching a topic that, on the surface, could not be farther from military history: book history. While writing what ultimately became my first book on the “politics of publishing” in France during the century after the re-regulation of the book trade by Napoleon in 1810, I noticed that following the fall of the Empire, many of the booksellers and printers in Paris came from outside of France. Curious about why so many foreigners arrived in the French capital at that time, I realized that this influx was spurred by the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, particularly the military occupation of France by the powers allied against the Emperor following his defeat in the Battle of Waterloo. Seeking to sell books to the thousands of foreign soldiers and civilians in occupied France, these cosmopolitan printers and booksellers served as a reminder that the years after 1815 were a period of post-war reconstruction. 

To facilitate this reconstruction, the Allies employed a revolutionary tool, what they called an “occupation of guarantee” against political unrest. According to the peace treaty signed on November 20, 1815, an occupation force of 150,000 troops from all of the Allied powers (Prussia, Austria, Russia, and the U.K., plus the minor German states), under the command of the British general Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, were to remain around 18 garrison towns along the northeastern frontier, at French expense, until the French nation had indemnified them for the costs of remobilizing against Napoleon, for up to five years. When the French government succeeded in financing these reparations ahead of schedule, the Allied agreed at a conference in Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen) in October 1818 to end the occupation—and reincorporate France into the Concert of Europe— by the end of the year. One of the most successful post-war settlements ever, this was really the first modern use of military occupation for the purposes, not of territorial conquest or even regime change, but of peace-keeping and re-building of the defeated nation.

Despite its significance for the history of France and Europe, the post-war occupation had been largely forgotten in the academic as well as public memory, even in France itself. Attracted by the historiographical openness and narrative possibility of the topic, I began eight years ago to reconstruct the story of the occupation of guarantee of 1815-1818, and especially of relations between occupiers and occupied on the ground in northeastern France and in Paris. This project required me to familiarize myself with the methods and archives of military —and diplomatic, political, and economic—historians, not just of France, but of Europe more generally. It took me out of the French national archives and libraries in Paris with which I was already familiar, to dozens of municipal and departmental archives in northeastern France, as well as to manuscript collections in Great Britain and Germany.9780674972315-lg

The resulting book, entitled Our Friends the Enemies: The Occupation of France After Napoleon, provides the first comprehensive history of this important event. Detailing the experiences of occupiers and occupied in the villages and towns of northeastern France, it also depicts the vibrant cosmopolitan exchange—including the first montagnes russes, or roller coasters, imported from Russia—that occurred in the French capital during these years. Moreover, it illuminates the role of the occupying powers in the political and economic reconstruction of France after twenty-five years of revolution and war. Borrowing the refrain of a song that was popular at the time, “Our Friends the Enemies,” for its title, the book argues that the occupation of guarantee succeeded in transforming former enemies into allies, if not true “friends.” Like most occupations, this one involved considerable violence between occupiers and occupied. However, as a result of concerted cooperation and discipline on the part of officials on both sides, it also yielded significant cross-cultural accommodation and even embrace. It succeeded in making peace, helping to prevent another continent-wide war through the long nineteenth century, until 1914. In fact, its very success may have contributed to the lack of memory of the occupation of guarantee, and allowed a nineteenth-century French historian like myself to forget the significance of war to the Age of Revolutions.


Christine Haynes is Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She has published widely on nineteenth-century French history. Her new book—for which she received a Fulbright Fellowship to conduct research in Strasbourg, France, in 2013-2014—is titled, Our Friends the Enemies: The Occupation of France After Napoleon.

Title Image: Les Anglais et les Écossais aux Champs-Élysées, undated anonymous etched engraving, Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

Further Readings:

Aaslestad, Katherine and Karen Hagemann, eds. Special Issue on “Collaboration, Resistance, and Reform: Experiences and Historiographies of the Napoleonic Wars in Central Europe.” Central European History 39/4 (December 2006).

Bell, David A. The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Warfare As We Know It. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2007.

Forrest, Alan, Karen Hagemann, and Michael Rowe, eds. War, Demobilization and Memory: The Legacy of War in the Era of Atlantic Revolutions. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

De Graaf, Beatrice, Ido de Haan, and Brian Vick, eds. Securing Europe after Napoleon: 1815 and the New European Security Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

Hagemann, Karen. Revisiting Prussia’s Wars against Napoleon: History, Culture, and Memory, trans. Pamela Selwyn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Hantraye, Jacques. Les Cosaques aux Champs-Élysées: L’occupation de la France après la chute de Napoléon. Paris: Belin, 2005.

Schroeder, Paul W. The Transformation of European Politics, 1763-1848. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994.

Vick, Brian E. The Congress of Vienna: Power and Politics after Napoleon. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.

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