The woodcut, a mirrored copy of George Cruikshank’s March 1815 print ‘Hell Broke Loose’ (see bottom left of the page for a link to the Cruikshank print), is a Saturnalian riot of fleeing Britons and imposing martial French soldiers; Napoleon himself towers over the scene, leading his men to Paris, symbolised by the Arc de Triomphe and a guillotine. It is an image rich in allusion – yet it is outstripped in this regard by the accompanying song.
Superficially, ‘Boney’s Return to Paris’ is a simple comic response to the news, dwelling with glee on the fickleness of fortune and the plight, rendered absurd, of London tourists forced to escape the French capital. But the song has a history: it is a reprisal of another song, ‘The Corsican Drover’, which had discussed an identical circumstance in 1803 after the end of the Peace of Amiens – and itself a parody of James Smith’s 1802 poem ‘All the World’s in Paris’.
Smith’s original simply mocked the fashionable tourists; it was the parody that inverted events to reflect the British flight. In 1814, Smith’s original was sung by Grimaldi, a famous clown, in a Christmas pantomime at Covent Garden. The tune – an interpretation of ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ – was a witty nod to the ‘macaronis’ satirised in that song of the 1770s, the idea being that the tourists of 1814 were also absurdly overdressed. This is as much a tale of late-Georgian theatre and satire as of Napoleon’s return: the emperor made the news, but he could not escape entanglement in idiosyncratic English allusions.
You can hear the Waterloo Singers (including the author of this entry) and their rendition of the song here.