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The Little Corsican Ogre, Part 2

By Angelo Barthélemy

I suspect this might be propaganda from Perfidious Albion. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In Part 1, Angelo looked at the first questions about the myths that have accrued to Napoléon Bonaparte; in this, he continues with the deconstruction of the sayings - true and not - of the General and Emperor.

A soldier has a field marshal's baton in his knapsack? You what?

Yes and no.

First of all, this was never said by Napoléon himself but by... Louis XVIII, sometime between 1817 and 1819, after a new law reinstating partial conscription, which he had abolished in 1814. 22 Marshalls were created between the Restoration and 1852; Napoléon had created 26. Of the 22 Marshalls created by Louis XVIII, 6 were non-nobles and of those 6, two were posthumous appointments, of which one was for an assassination attempt. It doesn’t seem that Louis XVIII was doing anything other than having a laugh.

No marshals of Napoléon were rankers at the time he came to power, or at the time he came to command a theatre of operations, for that matter. The spectacular rises through the ranks generally occured during the period 1791-5, which Napoléon was a major beneficiary of. When he appointed his first eighteen Marshalls, they were all the equivalent of Major-Generals, the highest rank in the French army at the time.

They were:

Augereau. From a father who was a servant (bottom of the social heap at the time) then mason. Foreign service first, started as a sergeant in the French Revolutionary Army.

Bernadotte. From an established bourgeois family. Enlisted as a private in the early 1780s, made NCO by the mid-decade, and reached his legal rank limit just before the Revolution. In due course, he became Crown Prince of Sweden, was made King, and his descendants are still on the throne and are connected to most European royal families.

Berthier. Family ennobled one generation prior. Career soldier, and an officer long before the Revolution.

Bessières. Father a barber-surgeon (also low on the social totem pole, though on the rise in that century). Started at a middlingly high rank just pre-Revolution, but was forced to reenlist as a private.

Brune. Father from the bourgeoisie and mother minor nobility. Completely ruined and forced to work as a printing press. He probably enlisted as a private and was soon promoted to officer by election in his national guard unit.

Davout. Very old nobility. Spelled his name that way to avoid problems during the Revolution, as well as to express genuine support. Originally d’Avout. He was a career soldier, following the same curriculum as Napoléon. He started as an officer, a second lieutenant at the time of the Revolution, soon elected to lieutenant-colonel.

Jourdan. Son of a surgeon. Enlisted as a private long before the Revolution, left the service, rejoined and got elected officer at the start of the Revolution.

Kellerman. Old foreign nobility, career soldier, started as an officer thirty years before the Revolution. He made general by 1788, the only one to have that rank pre-Revolution among all the imperial marshalls.

Lannes. Son of a trader. Joined as NCO post-Revolution.

Lefebvre. From the small bourgeoisie. He enlisted as a private and made NCO shortly before the Revolution.

Masséna. From an Italian trading family. He enlisted first in the Navy and then in the Army as a private. He was an NCO before the Revolution, left because he could not rise higher, rejoined after the Revolution and was elected officer.

Jeannot de Moncey. Minor and recent nobility. Joined as a private, but in a special gendarmerie regiment where this was equivalent to second lieutenant in other units. First lieutenant by the Revolution.

Mortier. Bourgeoisie, partly military family. Enlisted as private, and soon electred officer – in a regiment commanded by his uncle.

Murat. Son of innkeeper and coachmaster. Enlisted as a private shortly before the Revolution.

Ney. From the small bourgeoisie. Enlisted as private, NCO before the Revolution, appointed officer shortly after.

Pérignon. Family ennobled fifty years before his birth. Career soldier, but too recent a noble, so forced to resign his commission. Elected officer post-Revolution when he rejoined the army.

Séruerier. Minor nobility. Career soldier, officer from the first, only a captain by the Revolution.

Soult. Minor nobility. Enlisted as private pre-Revolution (yes, I know). NCO post-Revolution.

Marshal Ney - The Bravest of the Brave.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

So, of the first 1804 batch of eighteen marshals, there are eight who were nobility, a bit under half, most of whom were recent nobility. None came from complete misery – for that, you’d have to look at Hoche who rose and died before Napoleon was even First Consul – though some went through some pretty desperate financial straits. Eleven enlisted as privates, one had a higher rank but reenlisted as a private, six were officers before the Revolution, of whom only one was already a general. Note that three of those pre-Revolutionary officers (Kellerman, Pérignon, Sérurier) were made marshals as courtesy as they had led armies, but never commanded in the field post-1800. Lefebvre, who was appointed as courtesy, and had a start as private, did command in the field under the Empire.

Then we have the post-1804 appointments.

Gouvion Saint-Cyr. From the bourgeoisie. Enlisted post-Revolution as a private, soon elected officer.

Grouchy. Old nobility. Career soldier. Started as second lieutenant, in effect a lieutenant-colonel by the Revolution.

Macdonald. From a Jacobite noble family. Career soldier, started as a second lieutenant before the Revolution.

Marmont. Minor nobility. Father bought him a commission in 1789.

Oudinot. From the bourgeoisie. Enlisted as a private, made NCO, left the army pre-Revolution, rejoined post and made officer.

Poniatowski. Polish prince. Special case, made general when swearing allegiance to Napoléon during the 1807 campaign. Minister for War in the Grand Duchy of Warsaw.

Suchet. From the bourgeoisie. Enlisted post-Revolution as second lieutenant.

Victor. From the bourgeoisie. Enlisted as drummer, so a private. Left before the Revolution, reenlisted as a private after

So as the empire went on, it became less likely that one would become a marshal after having been a private (3 out of 8, 7 if we exclude the special case of Poniatowski, against 12 out of 18), no person below the bourgeoisie (against 4 out of 18), nobility staying in equal proportion at about or just under half. While promotion to high rank from the ranks was even less likely under subsequent regimes, it remained a possibility.

The other thing that stands out is how very young the men achieving the rank are, with a lot of them between thirty-five and forty-five.

However, it’s a small sample, not necessarily representative, even if the saying is about marshals. While not many privates made marshal (but then, few people make it) eleven or twelve out of eighteen did make it in 1804, often making the jump into officership by election post-Revolution.

It’s not even a comparison with other countries where you had to buy your commission and be a noble.

Likewise, Napoléon’s Légion d’honneur could be awarded regardless of rank and came with additional pension (very rarely paid in full under the empire, because it was chronically short of money). The first such decoration in Britain was the Victoria Cross, first awarded in 1856, and some people’s brains were a bit jolted at the concept that there might be privates and NCOs worthy of being mentioned in dispatches in that little thing over in Crimea.

If we examine the officer corps, a staggering 80% of pre-1789 officers were nobles in France, with the remaining 20% confined to the lowest commissioned ranks and either regularly purged out of the army of forced out because of the low pay with no prospect of advancement. The proportion of nobility as officers under the empire falls to 2%, which you would not suspect if you only looked at the marshalls. We have 70% of the officer corps (rising to 90% among the general officers) made up of the bourgeoisie, with still a third from craftsmen, working class people, and agricultural labourers. No other country in Europe had anywhere close to the equivalent.

In addition, when Louis XVIII made the statement, he was possibly addressing students at Polytechnique or Saint Cyr (though I haven’t been able to find confirmation). Both were military schools set up by Napoléon himself. Upon graduation, students from these schools would be automatically commissioned officers.

If he did say that, he was being very cheeky. He was not addressing common privates and saying there was a chance.

Did Napoléon ever say that he preferred his generals to be lucky?

Like so many of his famous quotes, (see the marshal baton, the knapsack), plenty of stuff is attributed to Napoléon that he could have said, that he might have said, but that we have no reliable record of him ever saying it.

That particular one is often said to have occurred during the Hundred Days. Strapped for time and for good general officers (some were still in captivity, some had sided with Louis XVIII or he didn’t trust them anymore, and a number had been wounded or died in his many campaigns), he did not have the luxury of looking too deeply into the background of the people he had to promote. In many cases, he wouldn’t have known them as they would have served in Spain where he hadn’t commanded since 1808-09.

If he said it, he was not just looking for people with a better than average record at rolling dice. Plans tend to go awry when the enemy or the terrain have the despicable bad form of messing with them. An accident of the ground can open a gap between regiments, for example, or a determined resistance can hold up a regiment longer than expected. Luck here is what you do when the chances that rules over battlefields occur. The officers and generals who could spot when a piece of good luck came their way and exploit it, those were the ones Napoléon would have wanted as he was setting up a new army, much like he had in 1813. And those who had bad luck were those whose initiative he didn’t trust take take advantage of openings or minimising setbacks.

Why did Napoléon invade Russia? It’s a big place.

Famously so, as a forerunner found out a century previously, before going off to explore such highlights as having Ottomans setting a house he was in on fire and getting shot in the head in Norway, possibly by his own troops.

Russia. Big place. Bad place to retreat from in winter.

"Ever after, I could never look upon red placed on white." Brigadier Gerard, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

The Russians had been involved in the Second, Third, and Fourth Coalitions against France, but after their defeat in 1807 at Friedland (this is where Napoléon truly did say: “Never interrupt an enemy while he’s making a mistake”), the “definitely-did-not-kill-his-father-himself-just-okayed-it” Tsar Alexander I signed an alliance and did fight a desultorily on the pro-French side in the Fifth Coalition in 1809. In fairness, they had plenty of interesting tussles themselves in the meantime, with Sweden (nabbing Finland), with the Ottomans and the Persians. Big place. Lots of borders, lots of neighbours, a bad habit of going to war with them.

Thus making it a bit of a puzzle as to why Napoléon went to war with Russia in 1812 when he already had large armies involved in Spain and Portugal. Napoléon’s stated reason was that Russia was failing to do its part in the continent-wide blockade aimed at killing the United Kingdom’s trade, crashing its economy and making it unsustainable for the British to keep funding coalitions against him. Russia had no particular reason to keep with this blockade as the Baltic trade was very mutually beneficial to both partners: Russia got plenty of money, the British got loads of timber for their ships and hemp for the rigging. They had only agreed to the blockade in 1807 when Napoléon could reasonably be said to be master of Europe and had badly beaten them on the battlefield.

Plenty of people did wonder at how Napoléon was ever going to achieve his stated aims, both because they were not easily attainable and because his strategy, for once, did not seem very good, leaving too much time to the Tsar to save face according to him, but in practice, not being knocked out of the war before winter came (not that winter was decisive, although it made things harder: the army was already too weakened before the retreat which is when everything went sideways and it turned into a rout). Instead, it was suggested to him that he lead an army into Poland, enlarge the Grand Duchy of Warsaw and make it an actual partner and plan for a two-year campaign in which he would defeat or hold off Russia in current Eastern Poland or Belarus before a knockout blow in 1813.

On a personal note, I often wondered why go for Moscow and not Petersburg, the actual capital. The Baltic was pretty much a British lake, mostly due to Admiral Saumarez’s very skilled command. But I can’t help but feel it would have served better and might have induced the Swedes under Bernadotte to rejoin the alliance and turn on the British if a reconquest of Finland was offered.

One final thing, though. It’s been often noted that the Grande Armée, nearly seven hundred thousand men strong, was wiped out by the invasion of Russia. However, only two-thirds of it crossed into Russia proper, the remainder being garrisons in Germany, Poland, etc and/or securing lines of communication. Those units were spared destruction, though some were then besieged and remained unavailable, such as in Danzig. And only two thirds of the troops were French as well, others coming from as far away as Portugal or as close as Prussia (whose many defeats had basically turned it into a client state), and so countries which soon turned on Napoléon after the 1812 collapse lost a good many soldiers. Russia probably lost as many dead as France and had to spend the early months of 1813 rebuilding an army, just like France. Napoléon’s system of conscription was better than the Russian one and he could resume campaigning earlier. However, the 1812 invasion put paid to his cavalry; horses fared even worse than men in the winter retreat. This proved costly: never again would Napoléon be able to follow a battlefield victory with a headlong pursuit, turning a success into a major strategic win, like he had done in 1806 against Prussia or 1809 against Austria.

Part 3 of this analysis, and the concluding part, will follow next time.

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