As part of our series of programs dedicated to the victory of Russian troops over Napoleon Bonaparte in 1812, we present another edition highlighting the people and events of that epoch. Today we will continue our story about Napoleon’s marshals, namely Jourdan, Brune, MacDonald, Poniatowski and St. Cyr.
Apart from Jean-Baptiste Jules Bernadotte, there was another French marshal who expressed discontent with Napoleon, although was above betrayal – Count Jean Baptiste Jourdan, one of the best generals of the Great French Revolution. On June 26th 1794, he defeated the Austrian army in the famous Battle of Fleurus, thus saving France’s western border. A republican to his very bone marrow, Jourdan took an explicit stand against the establishment of an empire but served faithfully to his homeland after receiving a marshal’s baton from Napoleon instead of being repressed. However, Jourdan preferred to keep himself well away from Napoleon – he stayed out of the emperor’s most triumphant campaigns of 1805-1807 and served as a military tutor for King Joseph Bonaparte in Spain from 1808.
The third oppositionist, Count Guillaume Marie Anne Brune, an active member of the revolution, a close associate of Georges Danton and a great friend of Camille Desmoulins, served as colonel starting from 1792 and was promoted to general in 1793. Shrewd, fearless and imposing in appearance, Brune rose to prominence having defeated the Russian-English troops led by the Duke of York in the Battle of Bergen on September 8th, 1799. Napoleon had little liking for marshals Brune and Massena over their thieving ways, especially after Brune was caught embezzling state property in 1807 while serving the governor of the Hanseatic cities. A man of the most tragic fate out of Napoleon’s other marshals, Guillaume Brune was assassinated at Avignon by a royalist mob on August 2nd, 1815.
Two other “non-conformists” (frondeurs) – Jacques Etienne Joseph MacDonald and Laurent Gouvion St. Cyr – failed to get into the first list of Napoleon’s Marshals but were granted marshal’s batons later. The former was bestowed the honor for his success in the Battle of Wagram on July 5th-6th, 1809, and the latter – for defeating General-Field Marshal Pyotr Wittgenstein near Polotsk in August 1812.
Jacques Etienne Joseph MacDonald, Duke of Taranto of an ancient Scottish lineage, was an outstanding figure of the French Revolution, a disciple of General Jean Charles Pichegru and a close friend of General Jean Victor Marie Moreau. In 1799, he yielded to Russian commander Alexander Suvorov in a fierce three-day battle at the Trebbia River, but even that was considered to be an honorable defeat which by no means tarnished his reputation. A highly educated, intelligent and well-bred person – his father was a friend of composer Georg Friedrich Händel – MacDonald never ceded an inch of his military glory, even in the 1812 war against Russia, although he lacked tactical ingenuity and vigor.
Count Laurent Gouvion St. Cyr stood out among Napoleon’s other marshals for his intelligence and education just as much, if not more, than MacDonald. A clever strategist, cunning tactician and the next best administrator of Napoleon’s Grande Armée after Davout, he was a consummate, elusive politician. Despite being a republican and an unwavering oppositionist, St. Cyr managed to find common ground with both Napoleon and the revolution, during which he rose from a soldier in 1792 to a general in 1794, as well as with the Bourbon dynasty which twice appointed him military and naval minister, in 1815 and 1817-1819. St. Cyr’s multivolume memoirs are considered to be classics, along with his military-strategic works.
The only foreigner among Napoleon’s marshals was Prince Josef Anton Poniatowski, who served in this capacity for only 2 days before being killed. He was one of the most outstanding French military commanders back in those days. Promoted to the rank of marshal after the first day of the Battle of Leipzig (or the Battle of the Nations as it is sometimes referred to), he was killed on the third and final day of that fight. A nephew of Poland’s last King Stanisław August Poniatowski and an associate of Tadeusz Kosciuszko (nicknamed “the Polish Bayard”), Josef Poniatowski showed himself as a gifted, courageous and charming state and military figure, who also enjoyed unprecedented popularity in Poland. Napoleon, who appreciated Poniatowski much, said the following about him on Saint Helena’s Island: “He was a man of noble character, brimming with honor and bravery. I intended to make him the King of Poland had I been successful in Russia.”