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Maastricht University

The First Allied Occupation – France 1815-18

Beatrice de Graaf, Utrecht University

When most people think about occupation, it is the twentieth-century occupations that spring to mind, most notably the occupations by Germany and Japan before and during the Second World War, and the Allied occupations of Germany, Austria, Italy and Japan after 1945. Before 1900, occupations were mostly military, and intended to extract resources – material, manpower or money – from a conquered country. There is however a remarkable precursor to the Allied occupation of Germany and Austria in 1945, and that is the occupation of France in 1815 by a similar group of allies that included Britain and Russia, but with Austria, Prussia and other members of the German confederation as occupiers, not occupied. This occupation of 1815 is now largely forgotten, but merits more interest for three reasons: 1) It was the first international, even supranational occupation regime in peace time; 2) it was not intended to conquer but to pacify; and 3) it followed the rules of international law. This article explains how it worked, and why it was forgotten.

On 3 July 1815 the Allied forces concluded an armistice with the remains of Napoleon’s Grande Armée just outside Paris. From that moment on, large swathes of France’s northern and eastern territory were officially occupied. While the peace of 1815 rested on an unconditional surrender, a maxim still held that came to be largely abandoned in the course of the nineteenth century: that not destroying a vanquished enemy entirely was good for the balance of power in Europe. ‘The war of 1815 is not a war of conquest’, Metternich urged his Prussian counterpart Hardenberg in a memorandum dated 6 August 1815. For the Allies, ‘the double aim’ of the war was ‘bringing down the usurpation of Napoléon Bonaparte’ on the one hand, and installing a government in France that would guarantee repose and order for both France and the remainder of Europe on the other. A state like France could not just be wiped off the map; Napoleon had already shown that obliterating states was most likely to produce chaos. That is why French territory was occupied and controlled by Allied forces, but occupation was always considered to be a temporary expedient: a means to the end, not an end in itself.

Yet, unlike the armistice and peace treaty that had been concluded just a year earlier, in 1814, the victors in 1815 realized that this time something more than simply formulating courteously worded reciprocal obligations was required. A paperwork of treaties was not enough; something more was necessary to enforce the peace. That is what the cutting-edge discussions among the Allies in Paris between June and September 1815 were all about. The eventual outcome of these discussions (recounted in my book Fighting Terror) was the decision to implement a temporary occupation of France, intended to secure peace in Europe and to secure the establishment of the newly restored government of Louis XVIII. This was a novel element: an occupation not to further military-strategic or purely tactical goals, but to consolidate peace and secure the transition to a stable constellation of power. The Allied administrators took over control over the territory of the conquered country, temporarily assumed supreme authority, put an occupation force in place and created a European condominium over France (see map) – all of which seems more like 1945 than either the end of the War of the Spanish Succession a hundred years earlier in 1713, or the Treaty of Versailles of 1919.

The Allied occupation of France, July – December 1815. (Erik Goosmann © 2020 Mappa Mundi Cartography).

Initially, in July 1815, two thirds of France was in Allied hands, and 1.2 million Allied soldiers were deployed within its borders. This, the Allies agreed, would be reduced to an occupation of one sixth of the territory by 150,000 troops from November/December 1815 until 1820 (in the end, only until late 1818).

While a formal international convention regarding the rules governing an occupation regime would only arrive in 1907 with the Hague Regulations, in 1815, authoritarian-ruled, imperial powers called the shots and together negotiated a collective security system. Yet, they made sure that they underpinned their occupational rule with two treaties: the Treaty of Paris, of 20 November 1815, regulating the principle of reparations, repayment, and also conditions for the projected end of the occupation; and the Treaty of the Quadruple Alliance, concluded that same day, to underwrite the fact that this occupation was carried out by a consortium of four Allied Powers – Britain, Russia, Austria and Prussia – that committed themselves to their own agreed written international legal terms and conditions, and joined together in an Allied Council to oversee the occupation on an almost daily basis, producing protocols that were intended to have the same force as international positive law.  Although no democratic values or international human rights provided the foundations for this system, the treaties gave a sense of legitimacy and accountability to the occupation.

The Allied occupation according to the Treaty of Paris, December 1815–18. (Erik Goosmann © 2020 Mappa Mundi Cartography).

The Allied Council and the occupation regime that was created in 1815 was therefore both highly innovative and complex. It was run by the best and most able managers the Allies could produce: Justus von Gruner for the police, the Duke of Wellington as chair and supreme commander of the joint Allied forces, and numerous clerks and officials supporting the Allied Council and the occupation regime at its headquarters, the British Embassy in Paris, the military headquarters at Cambrai or elsewhere at regional headquarters. Its success was remarkable: it managed to enforce payment by the French of their due debts (nearly 1.9 billion francs in total), stave off new revolutions and uprisings, build a ring of fortresses around France to provide greater military security for the Allies, and forge a relatively stable international coalition.

Why then has this innovative occupation been largely forgotten? First, it only lasted three years. For the French, who launched several instances of protest and even sabotage against the occupation, it was a such a black stain on the cloth of national autonomy, that they wrote it out of their national history books as soon as the last Allied boot had left their soil. For the Allies themselves, the brand of nationalism and national historiography that predominated from the 1820s onwards presented their country’s participation in the peace of 1815 as a single, national achievement, rather than accommodating this truly European, Allied endeavour into their increasingly chauvinist narratives.



Roger André, L’Occupation de la France par les Alliées en 1815 (Juillet–Novembre) (Paris: Boccard, 1924).

Beatrice de Graaf, Fighting Terror After Napoleon. How Europe Became Secure after 1815 (Cambridge: CUP, 2020).

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

Christine Haynes, Our Friends the Enemies. The Occupation of France after Napoleon (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018).

Philip Mansel, ‘Wellington and the French Restoration’, The International History Review, 11:1 (1989), 76–83.

Andreas Osiander, The States System of Europe, 1640–1990. Peacemaking and the Conditions of International Stability(London: Oxford University Press, 1994).

Walther Petonke, Der Konflikt zwischen Preussens Staats- und Heeresleitung während der Okkupation in Frankreich, Juli bis November 1815 (Greifswald: Adler, 1906).

Pierre Rain, L’Europe et la restauration des Bourbons 1814–1818 (Paris: Perrin, 1908).

Thomas Veve, The Duke of Wellington and the British Army of Occupation in France, 1815–1818 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992).

Volker Wacker, Die alliierte Besetzung Frankreichs in den Jahren 1814 bis 1818 (Hamburg: Kovac, 2001).


Picture credits:

Cover picture: Pierre Lacroix: Origine de l’étouffoir impérial. Blücher (left) and Wellington (right), try to shut the lid of a large dustbin, from which emerge the hands and head of Napoleon. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Source: British Museum image collection Released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license.

Beatrice de Graaf is Distinguished Faculty Professor, Utrecht University, The Netherlands