General Jean-Marie-Pierre-François Lepaige DorsenneDisciplined commander of the Grenadiers à Pied and Chasseurs à Pied of the Imperial Guard
Born: April 30, 1773
Place of Birth: Ardres, Pas-de-Calais, France
Died: July 24, 1812
Cause of Death: Wounds never fully healed
Place of Death: Paris, France
Arc de Triomphe: DORSENNE on the west pillar
General Dorsenne was an almost legendary officer of the Imperial Guard, known for his strict discipline and excellent attention to detail. While a considerable number of officers showed remarkable sang froid under fire, Dorsenne was unique among them for being the only one who would completely turn his back on the enemy fire, inspiring and giving orders to his men without one glance as to what was going on behind him.1
Like many of the soldiers of France, Dorsenne began his military career when he volunteered in 1791, joining a battalion of Pas-de-Calais. The next year, he was wounded in the fighting at Pas-de-Baiseiux and later promoted to captain. Serving in the Army of the North, in May of 1793 he was wounded again, this time by a shot to the right leg at Tourcoing. At the end of the year he joined the 24th demi-brigade, and over the next few years served with the Army of the Sambre and Meuse.
In January of 1797 he joined Bernadotte's division in the Army of Italy. Two months later, he distinguished himself at the crossing of the Tagliamento, and was promoted by General Bonaparte to chef de bataillon on the battlefield. The next year he joined the expedition to Egypt where he served in Desaix's division, fighting at the Battle of the Pyramids and then in 1799 being wounded by a shot to the right hand at Kéné. In May of 1800 General Kléber promoted him to chef de brigade, and the following year he was wounded in the left shoulder fighting at Alexandria.
After returning to France, Dorsenne joined the Consular Guard, instilling strict discipline into his unit. In March of 1805 Dorsenne was named a major of the Imperial Guard, and in October he was made the Colonel-Major of the brigade of Grenadiers à Pied of the Imperial Guard. He was very proud of his Guard soldiers, and so sure was he of their discipline that he once remarked, "If I had a wagon load of gold, I would put it in the mess-room of my grenadiers, it would be safer there than under lock and key."2
Serving at Austerlitz, he was rewarded with a promotion to général de brigade in the regular army, and colonel of the guard. He went to distinguish himself at Eylau, and in 1808 became a Count of the Empire. Temporarily sent to Spain with a detachment of infantry of the Guard, he returned to Paris in early 1809 and then took command of the Grenadiers and Chasseurs à Pied of the Imperial Guard in the Danube Campaign. After serving at Ratisbon unscathed, he was not so lucky at Aspern-Essling . As his men were cut down and the dirt kicked up by the artillery rained down upon him, Dorsenne held his ground and told his men, "Your general is not hurt. You may depend on him, he will know how to die at his post."3 Unfortunately later he was wounded, receiving a wound to the head that would plague him for the rest of his life. The week before Wagram , Dorsenne took command of the 2nd Division of the infantry of the Old Guard, and led them at Wagram.
In 1810, Dorsenne was sent to Spain to take command of the Imperial Guard in Spain. His wife accompanied him to Spain, but refused to travel at a walking pace, forcing her escort of soldiers to run alongside the carriage to keep up with her. Many soldiers of her escort were hospitalized due to the strain of running such distances.4 In June of 1810 he became the Governor of the province of Burgos, and the next summer he took command of the Army of the North in Spain, replacing Marshal Bessières. That summer he was made a Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor, won at Saint-Martin de Torrès, and then reunited his force with Marmont's.
In May of 1812 Dorsenne quit his command and returned to Paris for a risky procedure of trepanning to help relieve issues stemming from his wound from Aspern-Essling. Unfortunately, the surgery did not go well, and he died from complications.
- John R. Elting, Swords Around a Throne: Napoleon's Grande Armée, (USA: Da Capo Press, 1997), 208.
- Joel Tyler Headley, The Imperial Guard of Napoleon: From Marengo to Waterloo, (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons: 1888), 133-134.
- Philip Haythornthwaite, Napoleon's Commanders (1) c1792-1809, (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2001), 25.
- Elting, Swords Around a Throne, 609.
Updated prior to 2014
© Nathan D. Jensen