By Jonathan Hopkins
Napoleon’s French cavalry were the best in Europe, if not the world; head and shoulders above their British counterparts.
I know, I know - but they were. Really. Certainly before the disasters of 1812, in any case. And that was due in no small part to their commanders, because however well trained and equipped, cavalry on a battlefield can turn from well-ordered fighting machine to disorganised rabble in seconds.
Even so, Marshal Marmont insisted in his memoirs that France had only three leaders capable of controlling large cavalry formations: Francois Kellerman, the unsung hero of Marengo, larger-than-life hussar general Antoine Lasalle, and Louis Pierre Montbrun.
Montbrun was born the son of a nobleman in 1770, in the Mediterranean town of Florensac (between Narbonne and Montpelier). One of eight children, at 19 he joined the Chasseurs d’Alsace, later to become the 1st Regiment, Chasseurs a Cheval. His family seem to have survived the worst excesses of the revolution and Montbrun himself served in the Army of the North and Army of the Moselle. It was in 1796 at the combat at Altendorf against the Austrians that Montbrun first showed his considerable ability, fighting off numbers of the enemy, despite being wounded, to prevent General Richepanse being captured. He was promoted to lieutenant on the field.
After this his CV reads more like that of a fictional character than a real soldier. Transferred to the Army of the Rhine as a captain, he led a successful attack on one of the bridges at Frankfurt and was promoted Chef d’Escadron. The following week at Gross-Gerau he suffered two sabre wounds, to the face and bridle (left) arm. He fought at Erbach, Kirchberg (promoted to Chef de Brigade), Ulm and Austerlitz. After the latter he was promoted to General de Brigade and transferred to the Army of Naples, not returning to France and the Grande Armee until 1806.
In 1808 Montbrun was called to accompany Napoleon’s march into Spain, and at this point had one of his fallings-out with the Emperor. The history is a bit murky, but it appears Montbrun was delayed by his wedding to Madelaine Morand, so was very late reporting for duty and had to catch up with the invading army. It’s interesting that his son Louis Napoleon de Montbrun was born in 1807, apparently out of wedlock, so perhaps earlier marriage plans were frustrated by duty. Whatever the case, Napoleon was not a Happy Hector.
Once the French reached Madrid, however, Montbrun was back in favour. Perhaps the Emperor realised at last that it was Montbrun’s loyalty which was the cause of his tardiness, and loyalty was a trait Napoleon much admired. It was reported in Bulletins that Montbrun led the suicidal charge of the Polish Lighthorse of the Imperial Guard against massed artillery in the Somosierra pass, which opened the road to the Spanish capital.
As the Emperor wrote the bulletins (or his rght-hand man Bessieres did) perhaps it was intended as an oblique apology. Phillipe de Segur, one of the Emperor’s aides, reported the same in his memoirs, but since he also put himself at the head of affairs at one point his writings need to be taken with a very large pinch of salt.
Montbrun himself is reported to have burst out laughing when he heard of his own supposed heroics.
After Napoleon returned to Paris in January 1809 to deal with renewed Austrian mobilisation, Montbrun found himself ordered north again, this time as a General de Division. In action most famously at Eckmuhl and Raab, when the Austrians eventually sued for peace he is reported to have yelled at the messenger, "What (expletive) use is that? I wanted to fight!" He had done enough, though, to earn elevation to Count of the Empire.
Spain beckoned again in 1810, this time overall command of Marshal Massena’s cavalry in the Army of Portugal. It was Montbrun’s patrols which discovered the side-road allowing the French to turn the flank of Wellington’s position atop the ridge at Bussaco, but only after Massena’s futile frontal attack up its near vertical slopes wasted almost five thousand lives.
It was Montbrun who first reported the series of gun-bristling redoubts, scarped slopes and blocked valleys constructed by the Portuguese, on Wellington’s orders, to protect Lisbon – the Lines of Torres Vedras. And when the French, frustrated by the allied defences and starving for lack of food, eventually retreated from Portugal, thanks to his ruthless search for and seizure of supplies he had lost only 30% of his cavalry horses, 2208 out of 7184. The artillery, supply train and staff lost a far higher proportion.
After further successes against the British at Fuentes de Onoro and El Bodon, Montbrun returned to France before joining Naploeon’s invasion of Russia. It was to be his final campaign.
At Wilna, he had another spat with the Emperor. Directly ordered by Napoleon to rush cavalry forces into the town so its stocks of food could be captured before the Russian rearguard could destroy it all, Marshal Joachim Murat arrived as he was about to set off and countermanded the order. Despite Montbrun’s protests, Murat (he was the Emperor’s brother-in-law) took his own cavalry force to seize the town, but by the time he got them organised and reached Wilna he was too late: the Russians had set fire to the lot.
Predictably, Napoleon went ballistic. Once the tirade stopped, Montbrun looked pointedly at Murat, who simply sat there on his horse and said nothing. Whereupon Montbrun drew his sabre, spun it in the air, caught it by the blade so it was reversed and threw it over his shoulder before yelling, "The lot of you can all go to the devil!!", though his language was probably saltier.
Yet despite such blatant insubordination, the following day Montbrun was still in command of his brigade. Perhaps Murat had admitted his fault later, in private.
Unfortunately for Montbrun he had also begun to suffer from gout and earned the undying admiration of his men when rushing to mount during an alarm: he left off his boots and charged at the head of his brigade in stockinged feet.
On 7th September, just before the Battle of Borodino really got going, Montbrun’s cavalrymen were standing under artillery fire. He had gone forward to try to find them a less exposed position when he was hit in the small of the back and fell from his horse. At the time he is reputed to have said ‘Good shot!’, but lost consciousness soon after, and though the famous surgeon Larrey was called to attend him died a few hours later. He never saw his daughter, Louise Clarisse de Montbrun, born that same year
Charles Parquin said of Montbrun ‘The general was the most handsome warrior that I have ever seen. He was famous throughout the whole army for his bravery."
Of Napoleon’s three great cavalry generals, now only Kellerman lived (Lasalle was killed at Wagram in 1809).
Perhaps if they had all been present at the Emperor’s’s final hurrah, Waterloo, the outcome of Marshal Ney’s famous, and disastrous, cavalry charges might have been different.
Jonathan Hopkins is the author of two novels featuring British cavalrymen fighting in Portugal and Spain: Walls of Jericho and Leopardkill (to be published September 2013).
More details on his website CavalryTales and Blog