A new biography of possibly the most renowned light cavalryman
There can be few, if any, students of the military history of the Napoleonic period who are unaware of the career of the flamboyant Antoine Charles Lasalle. General Lasalle did not only epitomise the spirit of the French light cavalry officer of his time, he became truly iconic—the archetypal ‘hussar’ who was brave to the point of recklessness on the battlefield and a libertine when there was no battle to fight. A soldier by the time he was just eleven years old, Lasalle rose meteorically through the ranks of the French light cavalry to become a General of Division. He fought in the early revolutionary campaigns, during the campaign in Italy—where he became a favourite of Napoleon Bonaparte, the Egyptian Campaign, during the War of the Fourth Coalition, in Spain and in the War of the Fifth Coalition at the battles of Aspern-Essling and at Wagram in 1809 where he was killed in the closing moments of the battle. This new and original Leonaur title follows Lasalle and his peers through all these campaigns and battles, and includes many of first-hand accounts and anecdotes in which Lasalle featured. Included are many illustrations and maps to support the text and this new biography will be an entertaining and essential addition to every library of the warfare of the age of Napoleon.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
But Napoleon was soon to learn of a more extraordinary feat of arms for which Lasalle was responsible. On the very day when he congratulated the light cavalry for extremes of valour, Lasalle presented himself with his brigade before the fortress of Stettin. The cannon of the place having shot some hopeful balls in his direction, he ordered his regiments to be concentrated in a sheltered position. He ordered his men to build and ignite more campfires than were required to give the impression that his force was considerably larger than was actually the case. Meanwhile two officers went on his behalf to summon the governor of Stettin to surrender.
At two o’clock in the morning, these two officers returned with the capitulation document signed. The garrison was to march out at eight o’clock on to the glacis and be made prisoners of war. Lasalle immediately informed Murat and asked him for infantry to provide the necessary support for the operation, but at the appointed hour none of the expected troops had yet arrived, with the exception of a single regiment supported by two cannons.
Seeing at once that they were dealing with so few people to ensure their cooperation, the Prussian troops pretended to revolt as a pretext to effect an escape. Without losing a moment, Lasalle had them charged by his hussars and scattered them across the plain. The arrival of Victor returning with the infantry of Marshal Lannes, put an end to the business, and ‘rid of this chore,’ said Lasalle, ‘I was able to continue my journey.’
It was on this occasion that Napoleon memorably wrote to Murat:
‘If your hussars are able to take strongholds, I have only to dissolve my great artillery, and to dismiss my genius.’
The old General Friedrich von Romberg, who commanded at the fortress of Stettin and who was thus comprehensively tricked out of defensive works and who put his name to the capitulation, ‘gave as a gift’ to Lasalle, as a token of his ‘esteem’ according to Thoumas, a superb Turkish pipe enriched with gem stones. It is this pipe that Lasalle has at his feet in the beautiful portrait of him painted by the artist, Antoine-Jean Gros, a pupil of David, who was responsible for several of the famous paintings of the revolution, consulate and empire periods including the magnificent portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte mounted upon a rearing white charger at the crossing of the Alps.
Romberg predictably paid dearly for his error and his ‘esteem’ for Lasalle, because he was tried by a Prussian military tribunal for surrendering Stettin without resistance, found guilty and sentenced to life in imprisonment. Elderly, frail and disgraced he died in Berlin before he was able to take up his sentence, aged 80 years. However, it was acquired, Romberg’s pipe became emblematic of General Lasalle’s appearance for the remainder of his life and indeed for posterity.
Lasalle continued his march on Damm, Anklam, Schwerin and Lübeck, by forty and fifty-five-kilometre journeys. According to Thoumas, Lasalle took an active part in the Battle of Lübeck, on the 6th of November, 1806 though it is Watier’s brigade that is recorded in this battle. Certainly, thereafter the French had Blücher ‘on the run’ and within a circling movement enveloped his exhausted command at Radtkau where he was compelled, out of options, to surrender to the three marshals—Bernadotte, Soult and Murat.
Blücher to conclude the matter wrote a curt note thus:
‘I capitulate since I have neither bread nor ammunition. Signed, BLÜCHER.’
Few incidents in military history as it applies to cavalry can equal the enterprise and ardour with which Lasalle and his hussars pursued the remains of the Prussian Army during this campaign. According to many accounts it was this outstanding performance which earned Lasalle’s brigade the undeniably evocative sobriquet, ‘The Infernal Brigade’. It must be noted that Thoumas in his account does not mention this appellation at all which is noteworthy in as much as one would imagine, given its peculiar singularity, it would be unlikely to be overlooked by any historian.