Bonaparte’s close-run thing…

“This battle is lost but there is still time yet to win another.”

Battle of Marengo

Battle of Marengo

It was 5pm on the 14th June 1800 and Napoleon Bonaparte was on the brink of defeat in the vineyards and corn fields of the plain of Scrivia in northern Italy. But his faithful lieutenant, General Louis Desaix, mud splattered and sweating after a frantic ride cross-country, was undaunted, confident that victory could be snatched from the jaws of defeat.

louis Desaix

Louis Desaix

The battle of Marengo, the climax of my novel Bitter Glory, had been underway for ten hours already. Lannes’ and Victor’s divisions had held the line unsupported against the bulk of the Austrian army for almost five hours before they were forced into a fighting retreat eastwards. As they withdrew, the Guard Infantry, sent forward to plug the gap between them had become isolated and had been cut to pieces by Austrian cavalry.

For hour after hour the dogged retreat continued. Though the French divisions held their discipline, Bonaparte knew that only the arrival of Desaix’s force could prevent a disaster. What he had expected to be a battle of annihilation, the total destruction of the Austrian army in front of Alessandria, was turning out to be the destruction of his own force.

Thinking to prevent the Austrians slipping away, Bonaparte had sent Desaix south to cut off any escape route there but the great man had been duped, partly due to false reports provided by a double agent in the service of the enemy. Desaix’s mission was a wild goose chase as the Austrians had no intention of trying to get away. Instead they launched their own attack and by 5pm they thought victory was theirs. Their commanding officer, Field Marshal Melas, with an injured hand, had withdrawn from the field, handing over to subordinates for the mopping up exercise.

Meanwhile, to the east, as Desaix’s men gradually arrived on the battlefield, a hastily improvised attack plan was put into action. Desaix attacked at the head of a fresh infantry brigade. Though he was killed by a shot in the chest almost immediately, his men pressed home the attack. The extended columns of the Austrian infantry were taken completely by surprise and then thrown into confusion and flight by a devastating charge by Kellerman, son of the hero of Valmy, at the head of his dragoons. His charge criss-crossed the Austrian columns creating havoc and when an ammunition carriage exploded behind the now panicked Austrians, they broke and fled.

death of desaix

Death of Desaix

This created a chain reaction of panic and rout in the Austrian army. They had been so convinced that victory was theirs that the sudden reverse was utterly devastating for them. Their morale collapsed. By 6.30pm they were in total retreat with thousands falling prisoner to the now rampant French forces.

When the fighting finally ended due to darkness and exhaustion at around 10pm the French forces were back to the positions they started in that morning and the battlefield was littered with thousands of dead and wounded.

Fifteen years later Wellington would famously describe Waterloo as a “damned close-run thing”, but there have been few battles in history that have seen a change of fortune so dramatic and so decisive as Marengo.

The Duellists

One of the more bizarre sequences of events during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods was the protracted series of duels fought between two officers, Fournier and Dupont, spanning 19 years; the inspiration for Joseph Conrad’s novel, The Duel, and subsequently Ridley Scott’s 1977 film, The Duellists (below).

It all started in 1794, with offense taken by Fournier to an innocuous message delivered to him by Dupont at the orders of their general. By that time Fournier was already notorious as an inveterate duellist apparently relishing the opportunity for death within the unimpeachable “rules” of the duel. When he called out Dupont and his challenge was accepted it set in train a sequence of duels between the men that would stretch to 1813.

Fournier (below), on whom I based the character Boulancy in my first novel, Bitter Glory, had an erratic military career, at one extreme garnering plaudits for his fearless demeanour on the battlefield, but at the other bordering on disgrace for his behaviour off it. On more than one occasion it was only the protection of his friend Lasalles, that paramour of hussar leaders, which saved him from ignominy. Yet his valour in battle was undeniable as illustrated by his impeccable leadership of the 12th Hussars during the Marengo campaign. His personality seems equally a bundle of contradictions, on the one hand open and generous, but a merciless killer bordering on psychotic.


But as they say it takes two to tango and Dupont was a willing participant in the duels. They even agreed a contract between them which formalised the conditions for their meeting:

  • As often as MM. Dupont and Fournier find themselves within thirty leagues of each other, they shall meet half-way between, for a duel with swords.
  • If either of the combatants finds himself restrained by the exigencies of the service, the other shall make the entire journey, in order to effect a meeting.
  • No excuse, except such as may grow out of the exigencies of military duty, shall be admissible.
  • Etc, etc.

They also exchanged correspondence, with Fournier once congratulating Dupont on his promotion so that they were once again of the same rank and could continue their duels. After all, it was not honourable to fight someone of a lower rank!

The duels came to an end in 1813 when a duel with pistols was arranged in a walled copse. Dupont managed to entice Fournier into shooting precipitately, wasting his shots. No mean feat as Fournier was a crack shot who reputedly used to amuse himself and his comrades by shooting the pipes out of soldiers’ mouths. With no shots left Fournier coolly left his cover and prepared himself for death but Dupont declared that he had Fournier’s life in his hands and the next time they met he would have two free shots. Whereupon he left and duels were ended.

As a little footnote to this, the identity of Dupont is not too clear. Most of the early sources are unclear and stick to the use of his surname only. Wikipedia names him as Pierre Antoine Dupont de l’Etang (below) and this is adopted by many other reports and articles but I’m not convinced for a few reasons:


  • Dupont was a very common name
  • He was eight years older than Fournier and joined the army seven years earlier
  • Dupont wanted to end the duels as he was about to marry. The final duel was in 1813 but Dupont de l’Etang married in 1804

Not conclusive, but perhaps cause for doubt.

Everyone’s favourite villain, Joseph Fouché


Church educated and brutal dechristianiser… Radical Jacobin and betrayer of Robespierre… Directory minister and betrayer of Barras… Architect of the coup d’état of 18 Brumaire and betrayer of Napoleon…

Joseph Fouché was the ultimate survivor (rivalled only by Talleyrand), emerging unscathed when each regime he allied himself to was destroyed. Remaining in positions of influence when his loyalties were constantly doubted. As the ever insightful Madame de Rémusat observed, he was an adept at making himself a necessity.

Contradiction, duplicity, deceit, brutality, ruthlessness, self-serving aggrandisement; these were his watchwords. If he had a moral compass the needle would have spun like a bicycle wheel.

A ready-made villain for any story set in the turbulent times of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods. I was keen to use him as such in my own novel, Bitter Glory. But how well do the facts stack up against the appalling reputation he acquired through his career.

Fouché was born in Nantes in 1759, given a good education by the Oratorians who had taken over religious education in France since the ousting of the Jesuits, and destined for a career as a teacher within that order.

All that changed with powder keg of revolution exploding across France.

Politicized, Fouché joined the Jacobins and became a friend of Maximilien Robespierre. When royalist supporters rose in La Vendée he was sent there with almost dictatorial powers to crush the revolt which he did with such brutal efficiency that he was immediately promoted to the post of Commissioner of the Republic in the département of the Nièvre. There the former Oratorian launched the policy of dechristianisation, ransacking churches and sending their valuables to the Treasury.

When revolt broke out in Lyon Fouché was sent there with almost two thousand of the Parisian Revolutionary Army to restore order.  In reality he initiated a massacre – various sources describe scenes of groups of men blasted with grapeshot, firing squads and an overworked guillotine.  Estimates put the number of citizens executed at over 1800 from late 1793 to April 1794 when he returned to Paris.

As he put it: The blood of criminals fertilises the soil of liberty and establishes power on sure foundations.

Back in Paris, conflict with his former friend Robespierre led to the Jacobin leader trying to oust Fouché from the Jacobin Club, at the time tantamount to a death sentence, but with the support of Barras, Fouché turned the tables. It was Robespierre’s head that fell to Madame Guillotine.

With his fall, moderates came to dominate the ensuing regime, the Directory, and Fouché was cast out of favour but three years later he was back, working for his benefactor Barras as ambassador in Milan and then as minister of police.

But already Fouché could detect the wind of change and the new rising star; a young general from Corsica. With barely the skip of a heartbeat he transferred his allegiance from Barras to Bonaparte and was instrumental in facilitating the coup d’état of 18 Brumaire.

Thereafter, through the course of the Consulate and the subsequent Empire, Fouche was in and out of favour with Bonaparte who recognised he needed the resources of his sinister minister of police but was ever wary that he had garnered too much power than was healthy for a subordinate.  Every few years he would be bounced out of office for overstepping the mark but would never be entirely disgraced by Bonaparte who still maintained an eye for the future and Fouché’s potential usefulness.

In 1802 he was removed from office when Bonaparte suspected he was unduly protecting his former Jacobin friends but he was brought back in 1804 after his spy network had been rather more useful than his successor’s in thwarting the Cadoudal plot.  After making independent overtures to the British for peace he was sacked by a furious Napoleon in 1810 but gradually worked his way back into favour, if not trust, over the next three years.

But in 1814, when he saw the writing on the wall for the Empire, and the Allies closing in on all fronts, he opened negotiations with the royalists. However, not getting any satisfaction from them in the short term he sided once again with Napoleon when he broke out of Elba for the Hundred Days. Even then, he made contact with the Austrian Metternich, evidently ensuring he could play either side depending on the outcome.

This strategy worked because, following Waterloo, he found his services in demand still. Talleyrand, that other notorious survivor, became the prime minister of the newly restored Kingdom of France, and he named Fouché as his minister of police. So the regicide, the man who had urged the execution of Louis XVI so vigorously, became a minister for his brother, Louis XVIII.

He now initiated a campaign of terror against real and imagined enemies of the crown but by 1816 his royalist masters tired of him and dismissed him for the last time. He was proscribed and exiled.

Fouché, the father and mother of secret police forces the world over, died in Trieste four years later.

Bitter Glory…. now available

In 1800 Napoleon Bonaparte’s grip on the reins of power in Revolutionary France is far from secure and the French Army stands on the brink of another defeat with thousands of men besieged in the city of Genoa. He needs a great victory to secure his position and he is looking to northern Italy for it.

Bitter Glory Book Cover 4Like Hannibal two thousand years earlier he will cross the Alps with an army to fall upon his enemy.

Caught up in this plan is a young cavalry officer, Antoine Chauvelle. Returning to his regiment as they march to war, he is thrown into the path of a notorious duellist who has murdered his friend and from whom honour dictates he must seek revenge. From the struggle across the mountains to the desperate fight for survival in a besieged and pestilential city, events sweep Chauvelle into a plot that could undermine all Bonaparte’s grand strategy and will culminate on the bloody battlefield of Marengo.

My first novel, the historical adventure Bitter Glory is now available as an e-book from Amazon.