LITTLE BIG MAN
JEAN-ROCH COIGNET OF THE IMPERIAL GUARD
“If there is one fact in history capable of incontestable proof, it is that from the assumption of power by Napoleon to his downfall, England lay at the bottom of nearly every war that desolated Europe; and it is equally clear that at the outset she had not a wrong to redress or a right to secure.” 1
Napoleon with his Guard from the Battle of Jena by Horace Vernet
Napoleon took every care of his ‘children’ – the Guard. Coignet describes a surprise visit to the barracks by him and General Lannes, his favourite. When the Consul saw that Coignet’s bedmate was too big for his cot, he ordered new beds for everyone in the Guard. Napoleon walked through all the rooms, lectured the officers and even inspected the bread ration: “That is not the right kind. I pay for white bread. I wish to have it every day…order the quartermaster to come to me.” 2 Nothing escaped his eagle eye. Aware that there was dissatisfaction amongst the men, he ordered a review and said he would listen to complaints.
At noon on the following Sunday, Napoleon appeared at the Tuileries on a magnificent white horse that had once belonged to Louis XVI. Walking amongst the soldiers, he received petitions and listened to the concerns of the rank and file. Coignet adds: “The petitions were almost all granted, and the contentment was general.” 3 Napoleon was an expert at man-management and an incomparable leader of men.
English troopers were disciplined with the whip, Russians with the knout, but there was no corporal punishment in the French Army. As a student at Brienne, Napoleon had been struck by an older boy during drill practice. He threw down his arms in protest. Subsequently, Alexandre des Mazis was assigned to instruct him and the two became great friends. 4 So, the First Consul had had first-hand experience of being beaten, and the indignity of it was spared his own soldiers.
Even the officers had to address members of the Guard as ‘Monsieur’. Wellington may have called his soldiers ‘the scum of the earth’, but Napoleon knew better. Guardsmen also outranked their fellows in the Line, a Corporal in the Guard being the equivalent of a Sergeant in the Line. It was jokingly said that even a donkey became a mule if it was assigned to the Guard. With such dutiful care, good pay, their first call upon the rations, and generous rewards for bravery and ability in the field, Napoleon won the loyalty, admiration, adulation and even love of his personal bodyguard. His own bearing in the face of the enemy was legendary. 5
Unlike Tsar Alexander or Emperor Francis of Austria, Napoleon was often to be found where the action and fighting was at its hottest. At Wagram in 1809, as he directed his men under a veritable canopy of Austrian cannonballs, the Guard cried ‘Emperor to the rear’ and threatened to lay down their arms unless he complied. Reluctantly, he retired to the island of Lobau and watched the proceedings from high up in a tree! Coignet was a witness to this. 6
On June 14 th 1804 at the Invalides, Jean-Roch Coignet was awarded the Legion of Honour for his bravery. Before Napoleon, besplendant upon a throne with Josephine nearby, Prince Eugene Beauharnais holding the pins and Murat clutching the crosses, he heard his name announced to the august throng – the very first of 1,800 Guardsmen to be so honoured. But when he approached the foot of the throne, Eugene stopped him. Here, Murat interceded for him: “Prince, the candidates for the cross of the Legion of Honour are equals; he has been called, he can pass up.” 7
Those few words, in a nutshell, summarize the best aspects of the French Revolution. And through his greatness, Napoleon spread equality to the humblest men in his realm, even to a former peasant boy from Druyes.
Coignet became an instant celebrity, with beautiful women asking him for kisses and everyone wanting to see his cross. Back at the barracks, a sentry presented arms to him and he looked back over his shoulder in surprise – there had been an order to salute all recipients of the Legion of Honour. Coignet was so pleased he forced the soldier to accept five francs and invited him to breakfast. Later, his Lieutenant insisted Coignet accompany him to the Palais Royal where everything was free to him: “How delightful that evening had been to me. I had never known anything like it before.” 8 Such were brave men, even common soldiers, treated in Napoleonic France.
However, as so often in life, behind every silver lining there lurked a dark cloud.
A few days later, again at the Palais Royal, a stranger begged him to accept a cup of coffee in celebration. At first he refused, but the man was dogged. Relenting, Coignet followed him to the Café de la Régence. There he drank a cup of black coffee – very black coffee, for it had been laced with poison. Suddenly, the stranger disappeared and almost immediately, Coignet collapsed in agony. Taken to the hospital at Gros-Caillou, he spent eight days and nights in acute discomfort. Massages, stomach pumps, nothing seemed to help him. 9
Fortunately: “My condition was reported to the First Consul, who ordered two physicians to attend me during the night, and attendants day and night. Every possible care was lavished on me.” 10 For forty days, Coignet suffered. Finally, Baron Larrey, Chief Surgeon to the Guard and esteemed by Napoleon as the best man he ever met, was called in and his remedies saved Coignet’s life.
Slowly, he recovered, and he had no doubt as to what had happened. It was: “revenge which had been attempted upon me by one who could not wreak it upon the First Consul himself; for it was one of the spies of Cadoudal who had watched his opportunity to kill me.” 11
This episode demonstrates the depths to which royalist assassins would stoop. They did not care if innocent people suffered, just so long as they could vent their spleen with another atrocity in the name of the ‘divine right’ principal. It is abundantly clear that they had no principles and all their murderous exploits were paid for with English gold, secretly supplied without the knowledge of Parliament by a criminal cabal in the Cabinet. 12
In contrast, we see the care and attention Napoleon was prepared to give in order to save the life of just one of his soldiers. This says everything about Napoleon’s view of equality and fraternity – his actions speak louder than mere words. Years later in Russia, Coignet was horrified when the Russians allowed their wounded men to be burnt to death by their own side in order to deny French soldiers shelter. Similarly, Tsar Alexander and Emperor Francis fled the field after Austerlitz without a thought for their wounded. Coignet describes time after time how Napoleon always camped on the battlefield so as to give succour to the wounded of both sides.
In his book ‘The Eagle in Splendour’, 13 the English ‘historian’ Philip Mansel talks of “the Emperor’s endless wars” 14 and he states that: “By 1809, or earlier, the army and its leaders were beginning to tire of fighting.” 15 He does not say that the war of 1809 was started by an Austrian invasion of Bavaria, Napoleon’s ally, without even a declaration of war. Nor does he mention the generous dollop of gold the English Cabinet gave the Austrians to encourage them in yet another fatal miscalculation – Napoleon defeated them yet again. As he had done in 1805 when English gold brought both them and the Russians into the field against France.
After talking of Napoleon’s wars, on Page 163, Mansel then completely contradicts himself by adding that: “Although some wars were started by other powers (for example, those of 1806 with Prussia and of 1809 with Austria), their real cause was the Emperor’s disregard of neutrality combined with his apparently limitless appetite for territorial expansion.” 16 As we have seen, this is utter nonsense.
He then makes the astonishing assertion on Page 178, that: “Francis I of Austria was a simple, peaceful monarch…” 17 This is risible. What then was he doing in 1805, 1809, 1813 and 1814, when Austria attacked France? Did he simply have his back turned or was he asleep? Austria played its unsavoury part in the dismemberment of Poland in the C18th. The leopard had not changed its spots in the early C19th.
Futhermore, Francis I helped to disinherit his own grandson in 1814, he denied Marie Louise access to Napoleon when the Emperor was in Elba and he set her up with a one-eyed lover, Neipperg, to distract her from her marriage vows. The misery endured by Napoleon’s son at the Austrian Court is well known. Yes, Francis was a real charmer.
Mansel’s book is a collection of beautiful pictures threaded together with malicious invective. His pompous, one-sided fiction reads like a belated apologia by Cecil Rhodes for the British Empire in Africa, as if the English were empowered with a divine right to conquer races and peoples less fit for domination than themselves. The Oxford man writes with such arrogance himself that he could have been at the Oxford Court of Charles Ist during the English Revolution, not a dispassionate historian reflecting upon the history of two competing powers that had been in conflict for over fifty years. The dust jacket of his book says of Napoleon: “His policy of territorial expansionism was pursued with an arrogance and inhumanity which turned all Europe against him.” 18
Why was it then, that in Europe the running joke was that ‘England will fight to the last drop of Prussian, Austrian and Russian blood’? 19 Or, that the Emperor Francis, in a rare moment of enlightenment, stated that ‘the English trade in human flesh’? 20 Rather than talking of the Eagle in splendour, he tries to make Napoleon out as little more than a plucked chicken. He fails abysmally. England really started the war after the Treaty of Amiens, the war of 1805, the war of 1809 – and the war of 1812 against the Americans.
Mansel either betrays his ignorance or else he consciously deploys lies in his campaign of vilification. Either way, he defeats his object. It may be his story but it isn’t history. Mansel’s Napoleon always has a glass half empty, never half full. We need not dwell any longer upon his mischievous revisionism.
Coignet’s Napoleon of 1850 is very different, as is Abbott’s of 1855, Runciman’s of 1919, Markham’s of 1963, Cronin’s of 1971, and Elting’s of 1988. 21 Heine, Goethe and Nietzsche speak highly of him. Churchill thought that Napoleon was: “The greatest man of action born in Europe since Julius Caesar.” 22 Chateaubriand, who was a Breton royalist and political enemy said he possessed: “The mightiest breath of life that ever animated human clay.” 23 Charles Whiting, the English historian calls him “Napoleon the Great”. 24
When Napoleon died in 1821, even former enemies were moved. Napier, the great historian of the Peninsular War was devastated, and even though he was suffering himself from an old wound sustained in England’s wars against France, he wept bitterly. Wilson, the English attaché to Kutuzov’s Russian army in 1812 was deeply saddened. While Hazlitt, the great essayist and biographer of Napoleon was utterly inconsolable. 25 Such men put the ‘great’ into Great Britain, yet they willingly acknowledged someone even more fantastique on the other side of the Channel.
Napoleon was a Titan, born into a world were men were no longer like gods. His great powers were feared and envied, his brilliance ensured his own eclipse. His monumental stature was insufferable to the petty tyrants that ruled the Europe of his day. Like Lilliputians they conspired to bring him down.
So why do people write books about a person they so clearly hate? Perhaps jealousy and envy are part of it – and the fact that they themselves are obviously captivated by the man they seek to impugn. On average, three books a day are written about Napoleon, a thousand a year. Now, they are over 300,000 of them. 26 If Napoleon was so inconsequential, hateful and incompetent as many insist, why do they bother?
More books have been written about Napoleon than any other human being who has ever graced the face of the Earth. Thomas J. Vance hits the nail on the head when he says of Americans: “they were captivated by Napoleon’s achievements through talent as opposed to birthright like many other European heads of state. Napoleon was celebrated as a self-made man.” 27 Plays were produced about him as early as 1820 in the States and by 1859, fifteen towns were named after him. 28
Gillray’s take on the British National Debt
Long after Napoleon had been exiled to Saint Helena and could no longer be used as an excuse for internal repression, the British authorities were massacring their own people – as at Peterloo in 1819. Innocent men, women and children,were charged by mounted militia in Manchester and many were killed, simply for debating how the country was being run. When Prime Minister, Wellington was dead set against an extension of the franchise.
Well might George Bernard Shaw say of Napoleon in the preamble to his play The Man of Destiny (1897) that: “it is even now impossible to live in England without sometimes feeling how much that country lost in not being conquered by him…” 30
How many ‘English’ Coignets never got their chance to shine and raise themselves out of the mire because of the aristocratic stranglehold on power? Privilege prevented progress in the benighted realm of George III – and it wasn’t just the King that was insane. Britain at that time had a virtual caste system.
After his brush with death, Coignet was allowed to return home to recuperate. As if in compensation for his recent ordeal, he heard that his brother Alexander was still living with Thibault the miller and they were soon reunited. At Druyes a crowd was waiting for him: “There he is, good M. Coignet; he has not wasted his time, he has won that fine cross! The good God has blessed him on account of all the suffering his stepmother made him endure!” 31 Embracing his father, they made up, but he still refused to have anything to do with The Beauty.
Coignet was soon inundated with invitations. He even received a letter from the prefect of the Yonne written at the command of Davout, inviting him to take part in a wolf-hunt. Once again, Davout belies the cold character attributed to him by many writers. He personally requested Coignet’s company, demonstrating the ‘band of brothers’ mentality that was so pervasive amongst the Guard: “The marshal recognized me immediately. ‘Here is my grenadier,’ said he to the prefect… ‘This is the smallest of my grenadiers. Now make yourself thoroughly happy in your native place.’ ” 32
When he got back to Paris, he placed Alexander with a wine-merchant. At the barracks he heard about the preparations for an invasion of England and soon he was taking part in manoeuvres by land and upon the water. Coignet describes how two hundred pinnaces went out to sea in line, “commanded by a good admiral, who was on a fine frigate in the middle.” 33 And day after day, the men drilled onshore.
At the camp of Ambleteuse he got a visit from his old bedmate. His giant friend had left the Guard under unusual circumstances. One night, on the way to bed, the First Consul saw him on guard outside his chamber and he paused in amazement: “There was more than sufficient cause for his astonishment. Imagine a man six feet four inches tall, wearing a bearskin cap eighteen inches high and a plume at least a foot higher than the cap.” 34 Napoleon decided he would make a good drum-major and sent him to find his officer.
In confusion, the man left his musket on the floor and came back for it. Napoleon said: “Never mind, I will watch it, and wait for you.” 35 When the Guardsman told his officer the ‘little corporal’ was on duty in his place he was not believed. However, when the two of them returned they saw him pacing up and down beside the musket. Soldiers often spoke of Le Tondu standing in for their exhausted comrades on guard duty and they were never believed. Here, is one occasion when it definitely happened.
Coignet gives an interesting account of a tussle with the Royal Navy. A 74 gun vessel sailed close to shore and unleashed a broadside into the French camp. A man called Despienne begged Napoleon to be allowed to fire back with a mortar, claiming he could hit the ship in two shots. The first flew over the rigging but the second fell directly amidships: “There was a shout of joy. ‘I will make you lieutenant in my artillery,’ said he to Despienne.” 36
Small French boats then pursued the stricken vessel and others that came to its rescue: “It was a sight to see our little terriers after their great hounds. The English tried to return to the charge, but they were roughly received… Our little boats made havoc of them.” 37 The Admiralty had unleashed the dogs of war, only for the French to shoot their fox. Not every naval engagement was a foregone British victory, despite the received wisdom amongst many English historians.
On the eve of embarkation for his Channel crossing, Coignet and his comrades were given new marching orders. The Austrian lust for the gold languishing in the vaults of the Bank of England had worked its black magic, so Emperor Francis and Napoleon were at war. Coignet had to march day and night with men tumbling into ditches all around him, fast asleep. Eventually, it was his turn. Napoleon had his ‘long boots on’ and the Grand Army was striding towards a masterful encirclement of the Austrian forces at Ulm, with Ney and Murat in the vanguard. 38
At Ulm the dwelling of a citizen went up in flames. Napoleon blamed his Guard who had lit fires in order to dry themselves after a river crossing. He was furious: “ ‘You shall pay for it,’ said the Emperor angrily. ‘I will give six hundred francs and you shall give a day’s pay. Let that sum be immediately paid over to the owner of the house.’ ” 39 As a consequence, the ‘victim’ became very rich. Later, at Moscow in 1812, Napoleon did his best to save the houses and palaces in the city from the fires started on the orders of the Russian governor, Count Rostopchin. He was always adamant that ordinary citizens and noncombatants should not suffer unduly from the ravages of war.
On October 19 th 1805, General Mack surrendered. How did Napoleon treat this defeated army? Coignet states that: “ General Mack came at their head to surrender his sword to the Emperor. This the Emperor refused to accept (all the officers and generals retained their swords and knapsacks), and he talked a long time with the superior officers.” 40 This was strange behaviour for a ‘Corsican Ogre’.
In a small place nearby called Austerlitz, history was about to be made.
“The Emperor went out every day to make reconnaissances along the line, and returned satisfied. He seemed delighted; his pinches of snuff took effect (this was always a proof of his contentment), and with his hands behind his back he went about talking to everyone.” 43 No one would have guessed that the French supply lines were stretched to breaking point, that many of the soldiers were on the brink of exhaustion, or that the Russians and Austrian armies under the joint command of Tsar Alexander and Emperor Francis greatly outnumbered the French. In the deathly ballet that was soon to follow, it was as if Napoleon had choreographed every move the enemy was about to make and had told them exactly when to make them. He was on the eve of one of the greatest military victories ever – only a few battles like Cannae come anywhere near it in military perfection. 44
On the evening of December 1 st 1805, Napoleon began a visit to the outposts. His horse-grenadiers carried lighted torches which encouraged the Guard to set fire to brands of straw. A resounding cry of “Vive l’Empereur!’ rent the air. Drums thundered and the bands played. Above them, on the soon to be famous Pratzen Heights, bemused Russians gazed down upon the spectacle. 45
On the morning of December 2 nd, 25,000 men of the Guard waited with baited breath alongside the rest of the Army. Then: “The drums and music mingled together. It was enough to make a paralytic move forward.” 46 Like a fast-forward video the battle whirled in a tumult of sound, fury, blood and gore. At first the Russians seemed to have the upper hand, but Napoleon’s masterplan proceeded with robotic logic, his soldiers drilled to perfection in the sea breezes of Boulogne.
Coignet describes how one of Napoleon’s Mamelukes brought three different standards to the Emperor’s feet. Napoleon tried to stop him from descending into the melee yet again but the unknown hero died soon after. The Russian imperial guard fought magnificently but Bessières ‘black horses’, the French mounted grenadiers, responded to the challenge. 47
Coignet’s turn came and the Guard charged forward to attack the Russian infantry and for several terrible minutes no one knew who had the upper hand. Then, as Napoleon used to say, the ‘moment of decision’ came – and the enemy retreated into a valley of frozen ponds. French cannon balls smashed into the ice sheets and added to the panic of the enemy: “All the troops clapped their hands, and our Napoleon wreaked vengeance on his snuff-box; it was a total rout.” 48
Coignet at Austerlitz (picture research by Pascal Cazottes)
Coignet and his friends liked a good laugh. After the high tension of battle, they were obviously in the mood. When a confused hare hopped toward them Captain Renard tried to skewer it with his sabre and he ran after it until it disappeared down a hole. All the while the soldiers cried: “The fox won’t catch the hare…” 49 Coignet reveals the bonds that united the men of all ranks when he adds: “so we laughed at him, and we laughed so much the harder, because the captain was the best man in the world, esteemed and loved by all his soldiers.” 50 As for Napoleon: “the Emperor occupied himself in seeing that the wounded were picked up.” 51
That night, the temperature plummeted. In a nearby village Coignet discovered a huge pine cask like a giant coffin and he manhandled it back to the bivouac. Captain Renard asked if he could share this novel sleeping arrangement. Packed with straw and topped by a feather bed, it made a comfortable roost for the pair. Renard told him: “I shall remember you all my life.” 52
After Francis of Austria came to make peace – the Tsar had fled weeping like a baby – the Guard was eventually sent back to France. On the way, the Bavarians welcomed them. 53 Like Bourgogne, Coignet found that the Germans, especially the women, often preferred the French soldiers to their own. Perhaps they had a little more je ne sais quoi.
At Meaux, in Brie, Coignet was billeted on a rich woman who always sent such inconvenient travellers to an inn. When she told him she did not take lodgers, Coignet said that, as he was tired, if she would go and buy him a bottle of wine with the fifteen sous he offered her, he would leave. When she returned, she found him in her bed, rolling around as if seriously ill. The shrew had to spend the night on the sofa: “The neighbours were delighted with the joke I had played.” 54
In 1806 Jean-Roch took part in the Jena campaign. On October 13 th, the soldiers had to haul their cannon up a steep incline to a high plateau in the dead of night, Napoleon directing everything. Scrounging for supplies from deserted houses nearby, the men returned with plenty of wine and sugar and made merry. Coignet adds that they drank the health of the King of Prussia all night long. As for Napoleon: “Seeing us all so happy, put the Emperor in good spirits.” 55 When he did his rounds, guided by a single light, the Prussians fired upon him, but he was unscathed.
In the early hours of October 14 th, Prussian cannon announced the opening of battle. Darkness, then fog, caused the French to stumble and bump into each other. A halt was called so that the lines could be dressed. Marshal Lannes attacked on the left, the Guard advanced in the centre, and the Prussian line was broken. When the sun came out at ten o’clock, Coignet saw the carriage of the Queen of Prussia with its fairy tale team of white horses trying to make its escape. 56
Renewed fighting on the left wing caused an angry Napoleon to send an officer to see what was happening - Ney’s men were under attack from enemy cavalry. French horsemen were sent to counter the threat and the whole Army then advanced. Ney and Lannes in concert turned the tide and restored the Emperor’s good humour. 57
Murat brought a whole division of Saxons back, escorted by his dragoons and cuirassiers. The prisoners were covered in blood: “The Emperor reviewed them, and we gave them all wine…We had at least a thousand bottles of sealed wine left, and we saved their lives.” 58 They were given the choice of joining the French or remaining prisoners, as their ruler was not an enemy of France. He was, in fact, to become one of Napoleon’s staunchest allies, loyal and steadfast, even when his troops deserted their post at a critical moment at Leipzig and notoriously changed sides, precipitating Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of the Nations.
Louise of Prussia, the real King and leader of her
Davout had an even more dramatic victory at Auerstadt where, with his single corps, he destroyed the main body of the Prussian army. Following this double hammerblow, Napoleon marched to Erfurt, Potsdam, then on to Berlin. He entered the Charlottenburg gate on his way to the King of Prussia’s palace at the head of 20,000 grenadiers – Coignet somewhere amongst them. 59
Coignet gives a little vignette of Napoleon: “the Emperor moved proudly along in his plain dress, with his small hat and his one-sou cockade. His staff was in full uniform, and it was a curious sight to see the worst-dressed man the master of such a splendid army.” 60 The locals crowded forward in an effort to see their conqueror, as eager as the Parisians after Austerlitz, a year before.
Coignet’s adventures were just beginning and the two glorious victories would soon be forgotten in the desolate hungry wastes of a frozen Poland. In the distance lay the campaigns of Moscow and Waterloo. But Jean-Roch Coignet would rise to every challenge.
©John Tarttelin, FINS
TO BE CONTINUED