Marshal Jean Lannes


Jean Lannes Close friend to Napoleon and the first of Napoleon's marshals to die in battle



Born: April 10, 1769

Place of Birth: Lectoure, Gers, France

Legion of Honor: Grand Eagle

Imperial Nobility: Duke

Died: May 31, 1809

Cause of Death: Mortally wounded

Place of Death: Kaiser-Ebersdorf, Austria

Arc de Triomphe: LANNES on the east pillar


Pronunciation:



Beginnings

Known as one of the few true friends to Napoleon, Jean Lannes began his military career by joining the National Guard in 1792. Elected as a sous-lieutenant in the 2nd Battalion of Volunteers of Gers, he first saw action in 1793 against Spain in the Pyrenees. His baptism of fire is notable in that it was the only time he ran away from the enemy, but he quickly made up for it. Ordered to reinforce an attack on a Spanish position, his battalion of volunteers was moving towards the front when they ran into their comrades, whom they were supposed to reinforce, fleeing from the battle. Soon the backwards momentum overran the volunteers, and Lannes alongside his battalion was running away with everyone else. Suddenly, he stopped, absolutely mortified that he was running away so easily. With quite a lot of swearing and shouting at his fellow soldiers that they were going the wrong way, Lannes successfully stopped the rout of many of the soldiers. Charging back to the attack, he led them in a counterattack and soon the Spanish were driven from their position.

In September of 1793 Lannes fought at Peyrestortes and received a promotion to lieutenant. One month later, a ball passed through his arm during fighting at Banyuls, and he received a promotion to capitaine. That December, he commanded the advance guard of Laterrade's brigade at the action at the camp of Villelongue, and afterwards he received a promotion to chef de brigade. Continuing to fight, in 1794 he served at Montesquieu and Saint-Laurent de la Mouga.

Army of Italy

With the Spanish signing a peace treaty with France in 1795, Colonel Lannes married his sweetheart Polette Méric and then transferred to the Army of Italy, where he began to gain even more of a reputation for courage and determination. Late that year he fought at Loano , and then in March of 1796 the young General Bonaparte assumed command of the poorly equipped Army of Italy. Lannes fought at Voltri under Cervoni, and then he fought at Millesimo and Dego where Napoleon Bonaparte began to notice his talents. Before long the two were good friends. Fighting at Lodi , Lannes was one of the group of officers who led the soldiers in the daring assault across the bridge.

Rising in prestige over the coming months, Lannes crushed rebellions in Italy, fought at Saint-Georges, received a promotion to général de brigade, took two enemy flags at Bassano , served at Due Castelli, and was wounded by a shot at Governolo. After recovering, he joined Augereau's division with which he fought at Arcola . During that battle, Lannes was wounded while leading an assault across the bridge and knocked unconscious. Dragged to safety by his soldiers, he was transported back to an aid station a few miles away from the battle. Waking to the sound of gunfire, Lannes brushed the doctors and their protests away, commandeered a horse, and rode back to Arcola to join in battle again, only to be wounded and knocked unconscious yet again.

In 1797, after the Austrian threat in Italy had been defeated, Lannes was sent to campaign against the Papal States. During this campaign, Lannes and Marmont and a few other officers were taking a walk well away from their main force. A Papal contingent of cavalry on patrol , numbering about 300, saw the small group of officers and quickly approached, drawing their swords. Horribly outnumbered, Lannes commanded the Papal soldiers to put away their swords and surrender immediately, and they complied. Upon meeting the Pope later, the Pope held out his hand for Lannes to kneel and kiss his ring as tradition dictates, but Lannes shook the Pope's hand instead.

Expedition to Egypt

Selected to join the Army of the Orient in 1798, Lannes set sail with the army from Toulon in May. Immediately after the expedition took over Malta, the soldiers were ordered to stay on board the ships to let the situation calm down. Lannes disregarded this order, and with Subervie and a few others, he disembarked to explore Malta and escape boredom. Coming upon a convent, they found it being ransacked by other insubordinate French soldiers. Ordering them to stop, Lannes threatened to shoot them if they did not immediately comply. Surprised at being denied their spoils of war, they left but threatened to return. Lannes sent Subervie to retrieve a guard to protect the convent and then made small talk with the nuns while waiting. That evening, the unruly soldiers returned, this time with a few more soldiers, and Subervie had not yet returned. The ringleader of the unruly soldiers exclaimed that Lannes couldn't do anything to stop them, and Lannes was silent, simply drawing his sword and preparing to take them all on. A moment later Subervie arrived with a guard for the convent, and the unruly soldiers were arrested, with four being court-martialed and the leader being executed for disregard of a superior's orders.

Once in Egypt, Lannes initially commanded the 2nd Brigade of Kléber's division and took part in the capture of Alexandria. A month later he had earned command of his own division, and later he helped put down the revolt of Cairo. Taking part in the expedition to Syria, he distinguished himself at El-Arisch and the assault on Jaffa. During the Siege of Acre, Lannes was hit in the neck and knocked unconscious well ahead of French lines, abandoned by his troops who had fallen back. An intrepid grenadier captain, knowing the enemy's fondness for decapitating prisoners of war, rushed out and dragged the unconscious Lannes back to the safety of French lines. Lannes was so grateful to this officer that years later when he became wealthy, he bought the officer an inn which became his livelihood and home.

General Bonaparte rewarded Lannes with a promotion to général de division, and once recovered Lannes fought at the Battle of Abukir. During this time he also learned of his wife's infidelity back in France.

Consulate

When Napoleon decided to return to France in 1799, Lannes was one of the select few chosen to return with him. Assisting with Napoleon's coup d'état, he commanded the troops of Paris during the time and maintained order. After Napoleon's rise to become a head of state, Lannes still addressed Napoleon with the familiar "tu" instead of the formal "vous", and treated him as he would any friend, regardless of rank. This often meant he would state his true opinion to Napoleon, more often than not saying things that most others would consider unwise to tell your commander and the head of state.

In 1800 Lannes was placed in charge of the advance guard of the Army of the Reserve, leading the army across the Great Saint Bernard Pass and into Italy. After distinguishing himself at Aosta, he bypassed the defenses of Fort Bard as quickly as possible, and then went on to win the Battle of Montebello despite being badly outnumbered. Less than a week later, he held the right during the fierce fighting at Marengo, helping significantly to ensure the victory. With the campaign in Italy completed, he returned to Paris and remarried, this time to Louise Guéhéneuc, the daughter of a senator.

Despite not campaigning, Lannes continued to experience his share of excitement. He had never liked émigrés, disliking how they had fled France during the Revolution for various reasons, usually just for being nobility, while other nobles had stayed and defended France. First Consul Bonaparte granted a general amnesty to those who had fled France, and soon enough émigrés were around enough to annoy Lannes. Lannes told Caulaincourt, a noble officer that had not fled, that the "Ancien régime officers sure know how to look after their worthless friends." At another time, Lannes had a meeting with Napoleon, and he was told to wait while Napoleon finished a meeting with an émigré. Waiting for too long, Lannes gave up on ever having the meeting and left, but before walking out his temper got the better of him, and he picked up a footstool and threw it into a mirror, shattering the mirror and expressing his displeasure.1

Lannes was one of the officers accompanying First Consul Bonaparte to the opera on the failed Christmas Eve assassination attempt in 1800. As the procession of carriages traveled to the Opera, a wagon with a bomb exploded, and while many were hurt and killed, Bonaparte and his officers escaped unscathed.

Napoleon had appointed Lannes as head of the Consular Guard and ordered him to upgrade the unit's equipment and quarters to be more prestigious since they were to become the premiere unit of the army. Lannes did an excellent job but did not pay much attention to the budget, and when Napoleon learned of the bill he was furious at the cost and ordered Lannes to pay it back. Even though he was a general, as Lannes did not partake in looting during the campaigns, he was unable to afford the costs. Luckily his friend General Augereau, who did have that much money, came to his rescue and loaned him the money, which Lannes paid back once he could.

Next Napoleon appointed Lannes as ambassador to Portugal from 1802 to 1804, though Lannes initially protested this, instead wanting to stay in France. Employing unconventional diplomatic methods, he wore his battle sword to court instead of a ceremonial sword. He ignored much of court protocol, but nevertheless managed to charm many influential figures. An animosity developed between him and the English ambassador, and at one point while both were traveling in carriages alongside one another and vying for the lead position on the road, Lannes ordered his driver to sideswipe the English carriage, sending it careening off the side of the road.

Campaign of 1805

After being created a Marshal of France in 1804, Lannes received further awards of the Grand Cross of Christ of Portugal and the Grand Eagle of the Legion of Honor. Back in France he assumed command of the advance guard at Boulogne, which would later become V Corps. Taking part in the campaign that followed, he fought at Wertingen. As Marshal Ney was battling it out with the Austrians at Elchingen , Lannes and Napoleon were watching from a distance. Realizing that they were in an exposed position and in range of enemy fire, Lannes, with little care for protocol, grabbed Napoleon's horse's reins and pulled him back to a safer position.

Later during the same campaign of 1805, Marshal Lannes and Marshal Murat bluffed their way into possession of a key Austrian bridge. Loaded with explosives, the Austrians intended to destroy the bridge the moment the French attempted to to take it. Lannes, Murat, Bertrand, Belliard, and a few other officers crossed the bridge, telling the Austrians that an armistice had been signed that gave the French the bridge. Sending Bertrand with the Austrians to meet the Austrian commander, Lannes and Murat talked to the Austrians in an attempt to distract them from Oudinot's grenadiers who were sneaking up. One Austrian noticed the approaching grenadiers and lit a match to fire the artillery, but Lannes immediately seized his arm and demanded how he could dare to break the armistice without higher authority. Bertrand returned with Austrian General Auersperg, whom Lannes and Murat explained the same story to, and he agreed to not fire upon them. Oudinot's grenadiers finished coming up, cut the fuses to blow the bridge, and with that the bridge was in French hands without a shot being fired.

Shortly before Austerlitz, the two Russian armies united, a serious setback the French had been attempting to prevent. Arriving outside a senior staff meeting, Marshals Soult and Murat convinced Lannes that the only course left was to fall back, and that Lannes should explain this to Napoleon, since Napoleon listened to Lannes more than the others. Lannes agreed, and he told Napoleon that they felt the combined forces were too strong. "I can't imagine you advising retreat," Napoleon told Lannes, to which Soult and Murat immediately changed their tune from retreat to attack. Lannes exploded on Soult and Murat, swearing and challenging them, but Napoleon would not allow any duels.2

During the Battle of Austerlitz, Lannes commanded the left wing of the French army and contributed to the victory by keeping a large number of Russian soldiers occupied. After the victory, Napoleon insulted Lannes' V Corps in the official bulletin, implying that V Corps had done little in the battle despite the very important part they played. So enraged by this treatment, Lannes authorized his senior officers for leave and then himself went absent without leave. It took Napoleon a few days to realize this, and he sent Murat after Lannes in an attempt to stop him and calm him down, but it was too late, Lannes was long gone and speeding back to Paris to be with his family. Lannes never suffered punishment for this act of insubordination.

Campaigns of 1806 - 1808

Despite his insubordination, the next year Lannes received a further award, being made a Commander of the Iron Crown. Returning to command V Corps for the Prussian campaign, he was victorious at Saalfeld and then found the Prussians at Jena. After fighting at Jena, he received a message from the writer Goethe who appealed to any French marshals to protect his library from looting. Lannes was the only one to respond, and he posted guards and became a friend of Goethe's.

Continuing the campaign, Lannes fought at Pultusk where he was wounded. In January of 1807 he collapsed, still suffering from his wound and having fallen ill. Handing off his command to Suchet, he spent the next months recovering, and in the meantime he received another award, the Grand Cross of the Order of Saint Henry of Saxony. Finally fit for duty, Lannes assumed command of the Reserve Corps which was created to assist in the capture of Danzig . At the Siege of Danzig, Lannes and Oudinot were on horseback talking when a ricocheting ball flew into Oudinot's horse, killing it, then ricocheted and hit Lannes, then fell to the ground. Neither officer was hurt, but both were a little unnerved by just how lucky they had been.

After the fall of Danzig, the Emperor rejoined the army and stopped to talk with Lannes. Lannes took the opportunity to complain excessively to Napoleon, who finally responded with, "Go home if you're so unhappy." Lannes was momentarily speechless, but then responded by telling Napoleon, "I can't do that, you need me here."3 Back in action, Lannes led his men at Heilsberg and then caught the retreating Russian army at Friedland. Using his single corps as bait, he enticed the Russian commander to battle and successfully held his position long enough for the rest of the Grande Armée to arrive and crush the Russian army. Numerous awards followed, with Lannes becoming a Colonel General of the Swiss, a Knight of the Order of Saint-André of Russia, the Duke of Montebello, and the Prince of Siévres.

The next year Lannes traveled to Spain with Napoleon. As they were traveling through the Pyrenees, his horse slipped on ice and fell on him, nearly crushing him. Struggling to rise, it was barely back on its feet before it fell on him again. Lannes' friend Dr. Larrey prescribed a sheepskin treatment that saved his life.

Once recovered, Lannes was victorious at Tudela and then took command of the Siege of Saragossa from Junot. Methodically taking the city, he succeeded where others had not, but was disturbed by the fanatical and brutal style of warfare of the Spanish. By this time Lannes had grown to control his temper with an iron will, to the degree that he could tell a French sentry who accidentally took a shot at him that he was sure the soldier regretted his mistake.4 Ordered to return to France to help deal with the new Austrian threat, he quickly set out to return to Paris, but found time to stop at the inn of the grenadier captain who had saved his life at Acre.

Danube Campaign of 1809

Lannes had presentiment about his death, donating money to churches and being reverent at mass for the first time in years. Shortly before leaving Paris for the campaign against Austria in 1809, Empress Josephine noticed that he was not his usual self, but much more quiet and subdued. Initially resisting her questions, she finally got him to admit he had a bad feeling about the campaign.5 Once he had rejoined the emperor, Napoleon also noticed that he wasn't his usual self, and tried to cheer him up with talks of glory, to no avail.

Taking command of II Corps in Germany, Marshal Lannes fought at Landshut and Eckmuhl, and then distinguished himself at Ratisbon. When the French needed to take Ratisbon, he called upon volunteers to rush under fire with ladders and scale the walls. Many soldiers volunteered, and a group was selected to carry out the attack. Unfortunately, the fire from the walls was so intense that most were killed or wounded and the attack failed. Lannes called for another group of volunteers, and plenty volunteered, but they met with the same fate as the first. He called for more volunteers, and no one volunteered. Removing his legion of honor from his uniform, he held it up for all to see and offered it to the first men to scale the walls. Immediately more soldiers volunteered for a chance to win the prestigious medal, but their assault met with the same fate. At any time, Lannes could have ordered the soldiers to perform this attack, but he chose not to. Out of options for inspiring the troops, Lannes told them, "All right, gentlemen. I was a grenadier before I was a marshal, and I'm still one!" Grabbing a scaling ladder, he began to run towards the walls, chased by his aides and all the soldiers. His aides seized the ladder from him and then led the troops up and over the walls in a successful attack.6

Though the French successfully took Vienna, the Austrians had not surrendered and their army had escaped across the Danube. As Lannes and Napoleon were reconnoitering along the Danube, Lannes tripped and fell into the river. Napoleon waded in and helped drag him out, both getting absolutely covered in mud in the ordeal.

Battle of Aspern-Essling

As the French began to cross the Danube, Lannes was stopped by the bottleneck of troops crossing. While waiting, he saw Doctor Lanefranque, and told him, "I've got a bad feeling about this, but however it turns out, it's my last battle."7 Once across the river, Lannes took command of the right wing of the army with the village of Essling as his prime defensive point.

When the Austrians attacked and began the Battle of Aspern-Essling , Marshal Bessières was placed under Lannes' orders. Lannes sent his aide Captain de Viry to order Bessières to charge and make it count. As the battle heated up and no charge occurred, when de Viry returned it was learned that he had changed the wording to a request to charge with all his cavalry. Furious, Lannes sent another aide, Captain La Bédoyère, and told him exactly what to say. Again no charge occurred and La Bédoyère had worded the order more politely. Finally, Lannes sent Marbot to rudely force Bessières to comply, with the words, "Tell Bessières I order him to charge at once." Marbot successfully delivered the order and Bessières finally charged.8

Later that night, Bessières was talking with Marshal Masséna and they came upon Marbot with Lannes close behind. Not realizing Lannes was close behind Marbot, Bessières began insulting Marbot for his rude treatment of a superior and exclaiming that if Marbot's words were due to Lannes, then he would demand satisfaction from Lannes for his honor. Lannes exploded onto the scene, more than willing to give Bessières a chance at satisfaction, and drew his sword as angry words were exchanged. As the two marshals' superior, Masséna intervened and ordered them to not fight a duel.9

During the next day of the battle, Lannes was talking with his old friend General Pouzet when Pouzet was instantaneously killed by a cannonball, the blood spattering all over Lannes. Significantly affected by this, Lannes walked away from the battle and sat down, his hands over his face as he tried to control his emotions. He never saw a spent ball bouncing towards him which then tore through both his legs. As he was transported back to safety, Napoleon saw him and rushed to him, concerned for the fate of his wounded friend. Lannes' friend Dr. Larrey quickly decided to amputate one leg and let the other heal, and immediately operated on him. Unfortunately, the wound became infected, and Lannes took an agonizing eight more days to die. Upon his death, Napoleon wept.

At St. Helena, Napoleon pondered how events would have played out had Lannes lived longer, and he wrote about Lannes, "I cannot imagine that he would deviate from the path of duty and honor... If he had remained untouched, he was certainly a man capable of changing the whole course of events by his own presence and influence."10

Recommended Biography: The Emperor's Friend: Marshal Jean Lannes by Dr. Margaret Chrisawn.


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Updated January 2017

© Nathan D. Jensen