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Who's the Prince?
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Louis Alexandre Berthier (The Prince)


Louis Alexandre Berthier, Prince of Wagram and Neufchatel, Marshal (1804)

Born Versailles, 1753 - Died Bamberg, Bavaria, 1815

By Alexandra Dalbin

Napoleon's shadow, the most indispensable of all marshals, the most spoilt and also the most reprimanded. Always at the Emperor's side, Berthier understands, takes down and transmits to the battle corps all his master's orders and plans.

Son of an engineer in the King's army, Berthier enters a Royal school of military engineering at a very young age. At the age of 13, he is already a geographical engineer, at 17 he is an officer. He serves in the American War of Independence. Back in France in 1789, he is named major general of the Versailles National Guard. This enables him to help two of Louis XVI's aunts get away, and to protect the royal family during the fateful October days. Discharged in August 1792, at the time of the fall of the monarchy, he is reinstated three years later as Kellerman's chief of staff.

Bonaparte, whom he meets in March 1796, appreciates this man who does not hesitate to charge at the head of his men during a battle, as he did at Lodi, on May 10, 1796; but he also knows how to read a map and give orders. Berthier "knew maps well, was skillful when making a reconnaissance, personally ensured orders were executed, was brilliant in explaining the most complex army moves in simple words" says Bonaparte in April 1796, when he is put in command of the Army of Italy. He appoints him his chief of staff.

In 1798, Berthier occupies Rome and announces the birth of the Roman Republic. He takes an active part in the 18-Brumaire, and is given the Ministry of War at the very beginning of the Consulate. He organizes the new departments of Piedmont and negotiates peace with Spain.

When the Empire is proclaimed, in 1804, Napoleon showers him with honors and titles: marshal, master of the royal hunt, grand aigle of the Lgion d'Honneur, major general of the Grande Arme, Prince of Neufchatel and of Vallengin in March 1806, vice-constable...

Named Prince of Wagram in August 1809, he now simply signs "Alexandre" and receives a pension of one million two hundred and fifty thousand francs a year. Napoleon sneers at his passion for Madame Visconti, whom he met in Italy, and marries him in 1808 to Princess Mary Elizabeth, niece of the King of Bavaria, who bears him three children.

To the Emperor, Berthier is more than a valiant soldier; he is a faithful and obedient friend whose organizational skills are priceless. Chief of staff of the Grande Arme in Russia, in Germany and in France, he is the one who transmits Napoleon's orders, ensures they are executed, watches over supplies and various administrative tasks, collects information, etc. He fully reorganizes the staff headquarters.

He is sometimes in command of the armed Forces on the field, as in Spain in 1808 or in Bavaria in 1809. However these commands are only temporary. He very rarely takes part in conceiving battle plans but he waits for Napoleon's instructions.

His command of the French forces in 1809, at the beginning of the Austrian campaign even proves disastrous: applying to the letter the orders the Emperor sends him from Paris, he takes no initiative on the field, at the risk of endangering the army's scattered corps. He infuriates Napoleon, but manages, once he is back at the Emperor's side, to make up for his mistakes during the battle of Wagram (July 5-6, 1809).

Under every circumstance, even when the Emperor calls him in the middle of the night one night this happened seventeen times! Berthier insists on being impeccably dressed. The Emperor respects him, holds him in high esteem and considers him to be indispensable. He is the one who is sent to ask for Archduchess Marie-Louise's hand in February 1810, and who escorts her to Paris. But he also gets rebuked.

During the Russian campaign in 1812, as the French armies are about to attack Kutuzov's Russians in Borodino, Berthier and the Emperor have an argument about the strategy to be followed. Punished, Berthier will not lunch at the Emperor's table until they enter Moscow. When Napoleon leaves the army to go back to Paris, Berthier begs him to take him along. Berthier remains in Germany during the entire 1813 campaign, assuming his role of chief of staff of the armies. During the French campaign, it is again Berthier who will hold this position for the Emperor.

Two days after the abdication, he asks his master for permission to go to Paris, promising to return the next day. As soon as he leaves the room, Napoleon remarks: "He won't come back". Indeed, Berthier has made his choice: he goes to see Louis XVIII in Compigne to announce he is siding with the Monarchy. He is made Peer of France in 1814. When Napoleon announces his return, Berthier does not answer his letter. He follows the King to Ghent during the Hundred Days and then retires to his estate in Bamberg, where he falls to his death from a window. Accident? Suicide? Murder? The circumstances of his death have never been elucidated.


Born Versailles, 1753 - Died Bamberg, Bavaria, 1815

By Kevin Kiley

Louis Alexandre Berthier (1753-1815) senior of the Marshals, was the first of the great chiefs of staff in military history. Born at Versailles of a soldier father, he was carefully brought up and trained for a career as a soldier. His father being in the select Topographical Engineers, Berthier too entered that corps in 1766, and was selected to accompany Rochambeau's expeditionary force to America in 1780. Assigned a la suite to the Soissonnais Infantry Regiment, he embarked for America as an infantry captain. An eager, aggressive, and valorous officer, he was 'neat and orderly in all things' and was praised, promoted, and decorated for gallantry in America.

Berthier entered the service at thirteen, and by the time he was sixteen he had joined the topographical engineers. He also served as an instructor, and became an experienced officer, serving not only as a staff officer, but with an infantry regiment, and two cavalry outfits, one dragoon and one chasseurs a cheval.

Returning to France from America in 1783 he went into the corps d'etat major, the new permanent staff corps the French were organizing, part of the reforms based on their dreadful experience in the field in the Seven Years' War, and the experiments conducted by officers who wanted to improve the service back to the old standards of Turenne. A new staff manual was begun, and there is evidence that Berthier had a hand in its writing; at any rate, he absorbed its lessons carefully. His other duties included testing new tactics and different types of organizations to modernize the army, as well as conducting a study of the military system of Frederick the Great. By the time the Revolution erupted and France went to war with at least half of Europe, Berthier's reputation as a talented officer was well established.

Being of the 'high middle class', Berthier supported the Revolution, but he was considered a ci-devant noble as he had the Order of St. Louis. He was well known, however, and he was requested for service in various theaters by a number of army commanders. He was assigned as chief of staff of L'Arme du Nord, but just as quickly he was charged with incivisme, and went on inactive duty. Not one to sit on his hands, he ended up as a volunteer in the Vende. Noticing his talents, the powers that be sent him as chief of staff to L'Arme de la Rochelle. His superiors proved to be totally incompetent, and somewhat cowardly. Berthier was wounded in action, Rochelle failed and Berthier went to Paris to seek a better assignment. Put once again on inactive status with the threat of the guillotine looming over him, he was again recalled to active duty in 1795 as chief of staff for Kellermann. The next year he and Napoleon were paired as chief of staff and commander, respectively, and the partnership that would last until after the first abdication in 1814 began.

Chief of staff in the Arme d'Italie, 1796-1797; then to L'Arme d'Egypte, 1798-1799; commander and chief of staff of L'Arme de Reserve, 1800. Minister of War, 1800-1807; Chief of Staff and Major General of the Grande Arme, 1802-1814, Berthier served gallantly, efficiently, and loyally. He was Napoleon's shadow, and many of his greatest accomplishments have either been taken for granted or ignored through the years. In the process of his myriad duties, he managed to infuriate and earn the eternal ire of that egotistical Swiss renegade, Antoine Jomini. Attempting to teach the young mercenary proper staff procedure when he was serving as an aide de camp to Marshal Ney, Jomini took it personally, and for the rest of his life attempted to unfairly blacken Berthier's reputation.

Berthier had both a strong character and constitution. He could work for days without sleep, some of his subordinates once claimed he had gone thirteen days straight without any sleep at all. If true, that is quite amazing. Reputedly, Berthier would rest after a long day's ride by sitting down and writing the Emperor's orders for the next day. He was short, stocky, an expert horseman, strict, but fair, with his subordinates, methodical and modest. He took good care of the troops and officers in his charge, but put up with no nonsense, and always insisted on proper staff procedures, even though he was sick, and getting a little long in the tooth, in 1813-1814. Coignet thought quite highly of him, as he had given him some bread to eat after Coignet's capture of an Austrian cannon at Marengo in 1800.

Thiebault, said of him in 1796:

'Quite apart from his specialist training as a topographical engineer, he had knowledge and experience of staff work and furthermore a remarkable grasp of everything to do with war. He had also, above all else, the gift of writing a complete order and transmitting it with the utmost speed and clarity. No one could have better suited General Bonaparte, who wanted a man capable of relieving him of all detailed work, to understand him instantly and to foresee what he would need.'

Ferdinand von Funck, a Saxon officer who had served both for and against Napoleon and knew the marshals, thought Berthier had 'incredible talenthard and irascible' and 'amenable to reasonable representations.'

Berthier developed the staff procedures the Grande Arme would later use, as well as the staff system that went with it. Quite possibly he had saved the embryonic staff manual that had been with the corps d'etat major in the 1780s. He also developed certain procedures later adopted by the Prussian general staff, such as having chiefs of staff of comparable organizations communicate with each other without involving their commanders to save them unnecessary headaches.

Berthier believed the chief of staff to be the central point for the headquarters, 'the headquarters pivot.' He needed to either see or sign everything that comes in and goes out of the headquarters. The staff itself had no set hours, as it is there to serve the commander and the good of the army as a whole. When work was finished, the staff could then rest. Above all, the commander should always be told the truth, no matter how unpleasant, and whatever the consequences. Something akin to the modern military maxim, 'bad news does not age well.'

The Grand-Quartier General Imperial, which developed from Berthier's work in the armies of the Alps and Italy, and refined by both himself and Napoleon was an efficient organization, tailored and suited to Napoleon's method of waging war. Berthier has been characterized by many as nothing but a chief clerk. That is as inaccurate as it is completely unfair. Berthier ran the staff, and through it, he and Napoleon ran the Grande Arme. Thiebault had remarked that Berthier was the ideal chief of staff, as he relieved Napoleon of all detailed work; he was also the only person who could read Napoleon's deplorable handwriting.

His achievements were many. Berthier commanded and organized the Army of the Reserve and moved it across the Alps in 1800. With it, Napoleon fought and won Marengo, regaining northern Italy for France. He was responsible for the planning that moved the Grande Arme from the channel across the Rhine and into Germany in 1805 to surprise the allies and surround Ulm. In 1812, Berthier planned and executed the huge concentration for the invasion of Russia, including all the detailed planning of moving units from the far reaches of the Empire in an orderly matter. The logistical requirements alone were seemingly insurmountable, but the Grande Arme of 1812 was the best supplied and equipped of any Napoleon ever led.

His awards were many: Prince of Neufchatel, Prince of Wagram (a battle honor for his 1809 service), Grand Huntsman and Vice Constable of France, Senator, and grand Officer of the Palace, Colonel General of the Swiss and Grisons, Legion of Honor, and the Order of the Cincinnati from the United States, which was his most prized decoration.

Berthier has frequently been blamed for the command and stuff muddle at the beginning of the 1809 campaign. He was not, however, the commander of the Army of Germany, as so frequently mislabeled. He was still serving as Napoleon's chief of staff, and the fault for the mess was Napoleon's irritating and somewhat confusing practice during the period Berthier was with the army and Napoleon still in Paris of sending both letters and telegraphs to Berthier, out of sequence because of the relative speed of the two different forms of communication, and somewhat confusing. Berthier finally was 'politely blunt' and told Napoleon that his presence was required with the army; end of command and staff problems.

Berthier was an aggressive and imaginative officer, whose character shone through in victory and defeat, triumph and adversity. He cold rally a broken column of infantry, seize a regimental color and lead it forward through shot and shell, as he did at Lodi in 1796; be coldly courageous at Fort Bard in the Alps in 1800; coordinate the advance of different arms as at Friedland in 1807; or, in what probably was the most important action he ever completed, pulled the wreck of the Grande Arme together in Poland at the end of the retreat from Russia after Napoleon's departure for Paris to raise another army and Murat's desertion just to go home, by persuading Prince Eugene to assume command before the situation completely fell apart and set the example 'of loyal and energetic subordination' thereby stopping the useless quarreling between the marshals.

Napoleon himself summed up Berthier's overall worth as a soldier, and to the Grande Arme in general, referring to his absence at Waterloo, 'If Berthier had been there, I would not have met this misfortune.'


Chardigny, Louis. Les Marechaux de Napoleon Paris : Tallandier; 1977.
Chandler, David, ed. Napoleon's Marshals New York : Macmillan;1987.
Coignet, Jean-Roche. The Notebooks of Captain Coignet London : Greenhill Books; 1989.
Diberder, Georges Le. Les Armes Franaises a L'Epoque Revolutionaire 1789-1804 Paris : Editions PREAL; 1989.
Elting, John R. Swords Around A Throne New York : The Free Press; 1988.
Elting, John R. The Superstrategists New York : Charles Scribner's and Sons; 1985.
Esposito, Vincent J. and John R. Elting. A Military History and Atlas of the Napoleonic WarsLondon : Greenhill Books; 1999.
Lachouque, Henri, and Anne Brown. The Anatomy of Glory London : Greenhill Books; 1997.
Willing, Paul. Napoleon et ses Soldats de Wagram Waterloo 1809-1815 Paris :Editions PREAL; 1987.
Willing, Paul. Napoleon et ses Soldats L'Apogee de la Gloire 1804-1809Paris : Editions PREAL; 1986.

(The information above is from: http://www.napoleonseries.com/articles/biographies/marshals/berthier.cfm and http://www.napoleonseries.com/articles/biographies/marshals/berthier1.cfm)

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