The rank of Marshal of France was the highest military rank within the armies of the Bourbons in the days before the French Revolution tore down the aristocratic establishment and signalled a period of change where citizens could rise on merit rather than as a right of birth. Revolution turned to Consulate and—under the seemingly invincible and unstoppable influence of Napoleon Bonaparte—to Empire. In 1804 Napoleon reinstated the rank as the highest attainable by his officers, and he knew his ambitious soldiers well for many fought and died driven by the idea that 'every soldier carried a marshal's baton in his knapsack,’ the opportunity to advance in status and wealth for those who might rise to Napoleon’s challenge no matter how lowly their origins. Between 1804 and 1815 Napoleon created twenty six Marshals. They were the men upon whom he would depend for victory on the battlefield or whilst conducting campaigns on their own. All cherished their positions and the power, influence and wealth that came with them. All sought to maintain what they had won and this resulted in jealousies and actions often contrary to their masters best interests. They were men who had come from all levels of society, of mixed talents, some brave as lions, others timid and cautious, the clever and the simply methodical, the fiercely loyal and those ready for betrayal at a moment of personal advantage. Some, essentially, had a talent for attracting good luck—an essential trait in the Napoleonic assessment. Here are the origins, victories, defeats and fates of the men who for more than a decade set Europe ablaze in an orgy of fire and blood at the behest of their master, Augereau, Grouchy, Macdonald, Massena, Moncey, Murat, Perignon, Poniatowski, Soult, Victor and sixteen more of Napoleon’s men. Available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket for collectors.
But war once again caused the emperor to summon his fiery lieutenant. Lannes took command of the fifth corps on October 5, 1806, and five days later had the satisfaction of beating a strong Prussian force at Saalfeld. From Saalfeld the marshal pushed on towards Jena, near which town, early on October 13th, his scouts came in contact with a large Prussian force under Hohenlohe. His small force was in considerable danger, but Napoleon at once hurried up all possible reinforcements.<br>
The Prussians held an apparently impregnable position on the Landgrafenberg, a precipitous hill which commanded the town. But during the night a local pastor pointed out to the French a track, which led up to the summit, which the Prussians had neglected to occupy. Working all night, the French sappers made a road up which guns could be hauled by hand, and on the morning of the 14th the corps of Lannes, Augereau, and the Guard were safely drawn up on the plateau of the Landgrafenberg, while Ney and Soult continued the line to the north. A heavy mist overhung the field of battle, and Hohenlohe was confident that he was only opposed by the fifth corps, and his surprise was immense when the fog lifted and he found himself confronted by the French army.<br>
The battle commenced by Lannes seizing the village of Vierzehn Heiligen. While the Prussians were fully occupied in attempting to hold this village, Napoleon threw his flanks round them, and the battle ended in the annihilation of Hohenlohe’s army. In the evening Napoleon learned that on the same day Davout had completely defeated the main Prussian army at Auerstädt. Thereon he sent forward his various corps to seize all the important fortresses of Prussia, and detailed Lannes to support Murat in pursuit of the Prussian troops under Hohenlohe and Blücher, which retreated in the direction of the Oder. If the battle of Jena had been followed by peace, as had happened after Austerlitz in the previous year, it is more than probable that once again Lannes would have thrown up his command, for when the bulletin appeared, the part that his corps had taken was almost entirely neglected.<br>
The marshal’s letter to his wife showed that he was vexed beyond words with his treatment by Napoleon, and he started out in the worst of tempers to support Murat. But he was too keen a soldier to let his personal grievances interfere with his active work, and, although he gave vent to his spleen in the usual recriminations, he performed his work to admiration. So hard did he push his infantry, marching sixty miles in forty-eight hours, that he was never more than five miles behind the light cavalry, and it was owing to his effective support that, on October 28th, Murat was able to surround Hohenlohe and force him to surrender at Prinzlow. But, in spite of this, Murat in his despatch never mentioned the name of Lannes. It took all Napoleon’s tact to smooth the marshal’s ruffled temper, and it was only the prospect of further action which ultimately prevented him from throwing up his command in high dudgeon.<br>
By the beginning of November the theatre of war was virtually transferred from Prussia to Poland. As after Ulm, so after Jena, the Russians appeared on the scene too late to give effective aid to their allies, but in sufficient time to prevent the war from ending. Napoleon, who always had an intense esteem for the marshal’s common sense and military ability, asked him at this time to furnish a confidential report on the possibilities of Poland as a theatre of war, and the marshal, with his keen insight into character, replied, “I am convinced that if you attempt to make the Poles rise on our behalf, within a fortnight they will be more against us than for us.”
The French troops crossed the Vistula at Warsaw, and encountered “the fifth element, mud.” Led by Murat, unable to make headway in mud up to their knees, baffled by the Fabian tactics of the Russians, and lacking the mighty brain of their emperor, the marshals fought without co-operation, each for his own glory. Lannes was as bad as the rest, showing in his refusal to give due praise to his brother generals for their help at Pultusk the same petty spirit of which he had complained in Murat. During the long winter weeks spent in cantonments along the Vistula, the marshal was ill with fever, in hospital at Warsaw, and was not able to return to the head of his corps in time for the bloody battle of Eylau. <br>
During May he commanded the covering force at the siege of Dantzig, and was summoned thence to take part in the last phase of the campaign. The Russian General, Bennigsen, allowed himself to be out-generalled by Napoleon, and the French were soon nearer Königsberg than the Russians. Bennigsen made desperate efforts to retrieve his mistake, and on June 13th actually managed to throw himself across the Alle at Friedland, just at the moment that Lannes arrived on the scene. The marshal at once saw his opportunity. The Russians were drawn up with the Alle at their backs, so that retreat was impossible, and only victory could save them. The marshal’s design, therefore, was to hold the enemy till the main French army arrived. Bennigsen made the most determined efforts to throw him off, attempting to crush him by superior weight of horsemen and artillery. But the marshal held on to him grimly, and by magnificent handling of Oudinot’s grenadiers, the Saxon horse, and Grouchy’s dragoons, he maintained his position in spite of all the Russian efforts during the night of June 13th. On the morning of the 14th, with ten thousand troops opposed to forty thousand, he fought for four hours without giving ground, skilfully availing himself of every bit of wood and cover, till at last reinforcements arrived. When the main French columns were deployed, Lannes, with the remnant of his indomitable corps, had a brief period of rest. But during the last phase of the battle the enemy made a desperate effort to break out of the trap through his shattered corps, and once again the marshal led his troops with invincible élan, and drove the Russians right into the death-trap of Friedland.