Jean-Baptiste Bessières

Last updated


Jean-Baptiste Bessières

Duke of Istria
Jean-Baptiste Bessieres.jpg
Born(1768-08-06)6 August 1768
Prayssac, France
Died1 May 1813(1813-05-01) (aged 44)
Weißenfels, Saxony-Anhalt
AllegianceRoyal Standard of the King of France.svg  Kingdom of France
Flag of France (1790-1794).svg  Kingdom of the French
Flag of France (1794-1815).svg  French First Republic
Flag of France (1794-1815).svg  First French Empire
Service/branch Army
Years of service1791–1813
Rank Marshal of the Empire
Battles/wars French Revolutionary Wars,
Napoleonic Wars
AwardsMarshal of the Empire
Duke of Istria
Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour
Commander of the Order of the Iron Crown
Knight of the Order of the Crown
Grand Cross of the Military Order of St. Henry
Knight of the Order of Christ
Named on the Arc de Triomphe
Relations Bertrand Bessières (brother),
Julien Bessières (cousin)

Jean-Baptiste Bessières, 1st Duke of Istria (6 August 1768 1 May 1813) was a Marshal of the Empire of the Napoleonic Era. His younger brother, Bertrand, followed in his footsteps and eventually became a divisional general. Their cousin, Géraud-Pierre-Henri-Julien, also served Napoleon I as a diplomat and Imperial official.

Contents

Biography

Bessières was born in Prayssac near Cahors in southern France. He served for a short time in the Constitutional Guard of Louis XVI and as a non-commissioned officer took part in the war against Spain. [1]

In the Army of the Eastern Pyrenees and in the Army of the Moselle he repeatedly distinguished himself for valour, and in 1796, as captain, he served in Napoleon Bonaparte's Italian campaign. At Rovereto his conduct brought him to his chief's notice, and after the Battle of Rivoli he was sent to France to deliver the captured colours to the Directory. Hastening back to the front, he accompanied Napoleon in the invasion of Styria in command of the Guides, who formed the nucleus of the later Consular and Imperial Guards. [1]

As a chef de brigade he next served in the Egyptian expedition, and won further distinction at Acre and Aboukir. [1]

Returning to Europe with Napoleon, he was present at Marengo (1800) as second-in-command of the Consular Guard. General Jean Lannes, commanding a corps at Marengo, felt he didn't support his faltering troops sufficiently and a long running feud arose between them. At the close of the battle, Bessières led a successful cavalry charge with the Guard Cavalry though its effect on the battle was not as decisive as Napoleon pretended. [1] It was General François Étienne de Kellermann´s cavalry charge that won the battle for Marengo but Napoleon gave the credit largely to his own Guard Cavalry.

Promoted to general of division in 1802, he was subsequently promoted to Marshal of France in 1804, a wholly undeserved distinction based on his loyalty and friendship with Napoleon. [1] Auguste de Marmont, a future Marshal, said that if Bessières can be made a Marshal, then everyone can be one. He was also made colonel-general of the Guard Cavalry and would command them in all future campaigns where he proved a very able cavalry commander.

In 1805 he received the Grand Eagle of the Legion of Honour, and in 1809 was entitled Duke of Istria, or duc d'Istrie. It was a duché grand-fief, a rare, nominal, but hereditary honor (extinguished in 1856) in Napoleon's own Kingdom of Italy. [1]

With the outbreak of the Peninsular War, Marshal Bessières had his first opportunity of an independent command. He did well against the Spaniards, scoring a crushing victory in the Battle of Medina del Rio Seco (1808), [1] but proved slow and hesitant in command of a large all-arms force. Bessières was thus soon recalled to lead the Guard Cavalry during Napoleon´s invasion of Spain, a task more befitting his talents.

As war erupted in 1809 against Austria, he was again with the Grande Armée in the Danube valley as a cavalry leader, a position in which he excelled. At Essling, he led the cavalry in the centre and did a fine job holding it against superior numbers, [1] but once again fell foul of Marshal Lannes. Lannes again felt that Bessières was not providing sufficient support to his faltering troops and ordered him to charge home instead of malingering. Bessières then challenged Lannes to a duel. Marshal André Massena intervened and prevented the duel between two marshals in front of their troops.

At the subsequent Battle of Wagram, Bessières once again led the cavalry reserve and had a horse killed under him which caused consternation amongst the Guard. [1] Napoleon congratulated him on making his Guard cry but also chided him for not netting more prisoners because he lost his horse.

Replacing Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte in the command of the Army of the North a little later in the same year, the newly created Duke of Istria successfully opposed the British Walcheren expedition. In 1811, he was sent back to Spain again to lead the Army of the North. [1] He mostly fought counter-insurgency operations and proved a difficult and touchy colleague to his fellow army commanders, especially Marshal Masséna who was in dire need of support after his failed invasion of Portugal in 1810-1811. He was recalled in some disgrace and once again reverted to his habitual Guard Cavalry post.

For the Russian campaign in 1812, he commanded the enlarged Guard Cavalry. Hardly engaged at the Battle of Borodino, he destroyed his reputation with the rest of the army when he advised Napoleon not to use his Guard for a decisive breakthrough. Although this left the Imperial Guard intact for future battles, it prevented a decisive victory which might have successfully ended the Russian campaign.

With Joachim Murat back in Naples at the beginning of the 1813 campaign, Bessières was appointed to the command of the whole of Napoleon's cavalry.

Death

Three days after the opening of the campaign, while reconnoitering the defile of Poserna-Rippach, Bessières was killed by a cannonball which ricocheted off a wall and hit him in the chest. [1] He died instantly. Napoleon deeply felt the loss of one of his truest friends while the remaining Marshals considered it a good death for a soldier.

After his death, Bessières was found to be heavily in debt after spending his fortune on his mistress. Napoleon oversaw his inheritance, settled most of his debts, and looked out for the future of his children. His eldest son Napoléon Bessières was made a member of the Chamber of Peers by Louis XVIII. [1]

Legacy

As a commander, Bessières proved out of his depth when leading armies. His background as the commander of Napoleon's headquarters Guard, the Guides of the Army of Italy, deprived him of the wide experience more deserving Marshals had earned before assuming high command. Like Murat, he was however an excellent cavalry commander and he also proved an able administrator of the Guard. His few attempts at independent command were not a success however and Napoleon thereafter preferred using Bessières as a leader of cavalry.

Bessières was not of high birth but he adopted the manners and looks of a gentleman as befitting Napoleon's closest Guard commander. He typically wore the uniform of Napoleon´s old Guides of the Army of Italy with Marshal´s distinctions and wore his hair long with white powder in Ancien Régime style, even when the latter went out of fashion. He was known to be well mannered and kind and generous to subordinates but very touchy about his privileges and position.

Notes

Related Research Articles

Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro battle

In the Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro, the British-Portuguese Army under Lord Wellington checked an attempt by the French Army of Portugal under Marshal André Masséna to relieve the besieged city of Almeida.

Battle of Marengo 1800 battle between French and Austrian forces

The Battle of Marengo was fought on 14 June 1800 between French forces under Napoleon Bonaparte and Austrian forces near the city of Alessandria, in Piedmont, Italy. Near the end of the day, the French overcame Gen. Michael von Melas's surprise attack, driving the Austrians out of Italy and consolidating Napoleon's political position in Paris as First Consul of France in the wake of his coup d’état the previous November.

André Masséna French military commander

André Masséna, 1st Duke of Rivoli, 1st Prince of Essling was a French military commander during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. He was one of the original eighteen Marshals of the Empire created by Napoleon, with the nickname l'Enfant chéri de la Victoire.

Battle of Jena–Auerstedt decisive battle of the Napoleonic Wars, allowing the French Grande Armée to occupy Prussia

The twin battles of Jena and Auerstedt were fought on 14 October 1806 on the plateau west of the river Saale in today's Germany, between the forces of Napoleon I of France and Frederick William III of Prussia. The decisive defeat suffered by the Prussian Army subjugated the Kingdom of Prussia to the French Empire until the Sixth Coalition was formed in 1812.

Laurent de Gouvion Saint-Cyr Marshal of France

Laurent de Gouvion Saint-Cyr, 1st Marquis of Gouvion-Saint-Cyr was a French commander in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars who rose to Marshal of the Empire and Marquis.

Jean Lannes Marshall Of France

Jean Lannes, 1st Duke of Montebello, Prince of Siewierz, was a Marshal of the Empire. He was one of Napoleon's most daring and talented generals. Napoleon once commented on Lannes: "I found him a pygmy and left him a giant". A personal friend of the emperor, he was allowed to address him with the familiar "tu", as opposed to the formal "vous".

Honoré Théodore Maxime Gazan de la Peyrière French general

Honoré Théodore Maxime Gazan de la Peyrière was a French general who fought in the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars.

Battle of Aspern-Essling battle

In the Battle of Aspern-Essling, Napoleon attempted a forced crossing of the Danube near Vienna, but the French and their allies were driven back by the Austrians under Archduke Charles. The battle was the first time Napoleon had been personally defeated in over a decade, but Aspern would be a sign of numerous military defeats and blunders that would soon hinder Napoleon. However, Archduke Charles failed to secure a decisive victory as Napoleon was able to successfully withdraw most of his forces.

Army of the North (France)

The Army of the North or Armée du Nord is a name given to several historical units of the French Army. The first was one of the French Revolutionary Armies that fought with distinction against the First Coalition from 1792 to 1795. Others existed during the Peninsular War, the Hundred Days and the Franco-Prussian War.

The Battle of Ebelsberg, known in French accounts as the Battle of Ebersberg, was fought on 3 May 1809 during the War of the Fifth Coalition, part of the Napoleonic Wars. The Austrian left wing under the command of Johann von Hiller took up positions at Ebersberg on the Traun river. The French under André Masséna attacked, crossing a heavily defended 550-meter-long bridge and subsequently conquering the local castle, thus forcing Hiller to withdraw. Ebelsberg is now a southern suburb of Linz, situated on the south bank of the Traun, a short distance above the place where that stream flows into the Danube River.

Battle of Montebello (1800)

The Battle of Montebello was fought on 9 June 1800 near Montebello in Lombardy. During the lead-up to the Battle of Marengo, the vanguard of the French army in Italy engaged and defeated an Austrian force in a "glorious victory".

Marshal of the Empire military rank

Marshal of the Empire was a civil dignity during the First French Empire. It was created by Sénatus-consulte on 18 May 1804 and to a large extent resurrected the formerly abolished title of Marshal of France. According to the Sénatus-consulte, a Marshal was a grand officer of the Empire, entitled to a high-standing position at the Court and to the presidency of an electoral college.

Étienne Marie Antoine Champion de Nansouty French cavalry commander during the French Revolutionary Wars

Étienne-Marie-Antoine Champion, comte de Nansouty was a French cavalry commander during the French Revolutionary Wars who rose to the rank of General of Division in 1803 and subsequently held important military commands during the Napoleonic Wars.

Auguste François-Marie de Colbert-Chabanais French general

Auguste François-Marie de Colbert-Chabanais, Comte de l'Empire joined the French army during the French Revolutionary Wars. He became a general officer of cavalry during the Napoleonic Wars and fought in a number of major battles under Emperor Napoleon I of France in 1805-1807. He was killed by a long range shot fired by a British rifleman during the Peninsular War in 1809.

Frédéric Henri Walther French general of division

Frédéric-Louis-Henri Walther, was an Alsatian-born general of division and a supporter of Napoleon Bonaparte. He fought for France in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars.

Alexander Elisabeth Michel vicomte Digeon, fought in the French Revolutionary Wars in the cavalry. He became a general officer during the Napoleonic Wars, fighting in a number of important battles. After 1814, he gave his loyalty to the Bourbon Restoration and briefly served as Minister of War.

Grenadiers à Cheval de la Garde Impériale

The Grenadiers à Cheval de la Garde Impériale constituted a heavy cavalry regiment in the Consular, then Imperial Guard during the French Consulate and First French Empire respectively. They were the senior "Old Guard" cavalry regiment of the Imperial Guard and from 1806 were brigaded together with the Dragons de la Garde Impériale.

Nicolas Léonard Beker French general

Nicolas Léonard Beker or Nicolas Léonard Becker or Nicolas Léonard Bagert, born 18 January 1770 – died 18 November 1840, joined the French army as a dragoon before the French Revolutionary Wars and rose in rank to become a general officer. In 1800 he married the sister of Louis Desaix, who was killed at the Battle of Marengo. He led an infantry brigade in the 1805 campaign and commanded a dragoon division in 1806 and 1807. In 1809 he became chief of staff to Marshal André Masséna but ran afoul of Emperor Napoleon and was banished from the army for several years.

Jean-Jacques Germain Pelet-Clozeau French general

Jean-Jacques Germain Pelet-Clozeau became a French general in the Napoleonic Wars and later was a politician and historian. He joined the French army in 1800 and became a topographic engineer. He joined the staff of Marshal André Masséna and was wounded at Caldiero in 1805. He served in southern Italy in 1806 and Poland in 1807. He was wounded at Ebelsberg and fought at Aspern-Essling and Wagram in 1809.

The Reserve Cavalry Corps or Cavalry Reserve of the Grande Armée was the name of a French military formation that existed during the Napoleonic Wars. In 1805, Emperor Napoleon appointed Marshal Joachim Murat to command all the cavalry divisions that were not directly attached to the Army Corps. During the Ulm Campaign, Murat led his horsemen in successfully hunting down many Austrian Empire units that escaped the Capitulation of Ulm. Murat's horsemen fought at Austerlitz in December 1805. Under Murat, the Cavalry Reserve played a prominent role in the destruction of the Kingdom of Prussia's armies after the Battle of Jena-Auerstadt in 1806. Five dragoon divisions of the corps were employed in the Peninsular War starting in 1808 and placed under the overall command of Marshal Jean-Baptiste Bessières. The Cavalry Reserve was reassembled in 1809 to fight Austria with Bessières still in command. In 1812 the Reserve Cavalry Corps was split up into the I, II, III, and IV Cavalry Corps for the French invasion of Russia.

References