The only peace agreed to between France and England during the Napoleonic wars was that known as the “Peace of Amiens,” which lasted from March, 1802, until May, 1803. During the existence of that peace the whole world, as it were, rushed to Paris, to catch a glimpse of the man who had wrought such mighty changes in so short a time. The obscure Corsican had become the greatest man of the times. Emperor of France, in all but name, his Court began to take on all the trappings and ceremonies of royalty. Holding the reins of power absolutely within the grasp of his own hands, he tolerated no interference, either by his colleagues or by the people.
In peace, as in war, he rested not, but laboured incessantly for the advancement of his country, whose needs he seemed to comprehend fully. Society was reorganised for the better; judicial reforms were perfected, and the Code pushed forward towards completion; the educational system of the nation was thoroughly revised and improved; the relations between church and state were settled by the signing of the Concordat in the spring of 1802: the finances were brought up to a flourishing condition; magnificent roads and bridges were built; everything, in fact, that could enhance the greatness and glory of France was thought of and carried out by this tireless mind.
It was at this time the Legion of Honour was established.
Premiere ‘Légion d’honneur’ by Charles Étienne Pierre Motte
A depiction of Napoleon making some of the first awards of the Legion of Honour, at a camp near Boulogne on 16 August 1804
How many a gallant soldier rushed to his death in hopes of winning a place in that legion, and how many a dying hero was made happy by being presented with its badge before he answered the last roll-call. When the “Star” no longer led the Legion on to victory, Byron gave us the following lines.
Shout! for the Lord hath triumphed gloriously!
Upon the shores of that renowned land,
Where erst his mighty arm and outstretched hand
He lifted high,
And dashed, in pieces dashed the enemy;
Upon that ancient coast,
Where Pharoah’s chariot and his host
He cast into the deep,
Whilst o’er their silent pomp he bid the swollen sea to sweep;
Upon that eastern shore,
That saw his awful arm revealed of yore,
Again hath he arisen, and opposed
His foe’s defying vaunt: o’er them the deep hath closed!
Shades of mighty chiefs of yore,
Who triumphed on the self-same shore:
Ammon, who first o’er ocean’s empire wide
Didst bid the bold bark stem the roaring tide;
Sesac, who from the east to farthest west
Didst rear thy pillars over realms subdued;
And thou, whose bones do rest
In the huge pyramid’s dim solitude,
Beneath the uncouth stone,
Thy name and deeds unknown;
And Philip’s glorious son,
With conquest flushed, for fields and cities won;
And thou, imperial Caesar, whose sole sway
The long-disputed world at length confessed,
When on these shores thy bleeding rival lay!
Oh, could ye, starting from your long, cold rest,
Burst Death’s oblivious trance,
And once again with plumed pride advance,
How would ye own your fame surpassed,
And on the sand your trophies cast,
When, the storm of conflict o’er,
And ceased the burning battle’s roar,
Beneath the morning’s orient light,
Ye saw, with sails all swelling white,
Britain’s proud fleet, to many a joyful cry,
Ride o’er the rolling surge in awful sovereignty!
Calm breathed the airs along the evening bay,
Where, all in warlike pride,
The Gallic squadron stretched its long array;
And o’er the tranquil tide
With beauteous bend the streamers waved on high.
But ah! how changed the scene ere night descends!
Hark to the shout that heaven’s high concave rends!
Hark to that dying cry!
Whilst louder yet the cannon’s roar
Resounds along the Nile’s affrighted shore,
Where from his oozy bed,
The cowering crocodile hath raised his head!
What bursting flame
Lightens the long track of the gleaming brine?
From yon proud ship it came,
That towered the leader of the hostile line!
Now loud explosion rends the midnight air!
Heard ye the last deep groaning of despair?
Heaven’s fiery cope unwonted thunders fill,
Then with one dreadful pause, earth, air, and seas are still!
But now the mingled fight
Begins its awful strife again!
Through the dun shades of night
Along the darkly heaving main
Is seen the frequent flash;
And many a towering mast with dreadful crash
Rings falling. Is the scene of slaughter o’er?
Is the death-cry heard no more?
Lo! where the east a glimmering freckle streaks,
Slow o’er the shadowy wave the gray dawn breaks.
Behold, O sun, the flood
Strewed with the dead, and dark with blood!
Behold, all scattered on the rocking tide,
The wrecks of haughty Gallia’s pride!
But Britain’s floating bulwarks, with serene
And silent pomp, amid the deathful scene
Move glorious, and more beautiful display
Their ensigns streaming to thy orient ray.
Awful Genius of the land!
Who (thy reign of glory closed)
By marble wrecks, half hid the sand,
Hast mournfully reposed;
Who long amid the wasteful desert wide,
Hast loved with deathlike stillness to abide;
Or wrapped in tenfold gloom,
From noise of human things for ages hid,
Hast sat upon the shapeless tomb
In the forlorn and dripping pyramid;
Though thou behold the day no more
That saw thy pride and pomp of yore;
Though, like the sounds that in the morning ray
Trembled and died away
From Memnon’s statue; though, like these, the voice
That bade thy vernal plains rejoice,
The voice of Science, is no longer heard;
And all thy gorgeous state hath disappeared:
Yet hear, with triumph, and with hope again,
The shouts of joy that swell from thy forsaken main!