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Napoleon's Shield and Guardian: The Unconquerable General Daumesnil

By Edward Ryan

We asked Edward Ryan to write about his new book, Napoleon's Shield and Guardian: the Unconquerable General Daumesnil

Napoleon's Shield and Guardian: the Unconquerable General Daumesnil
by Edward Ryan


To begin with, a 'setting-the-record straight' note.  When writing Napoleon's Elite Cavalry in 1999, I included an episode about the refusal of a French officer to surrender the fortress of Vincennes to the Allies as they went about occupying Paris in 1814.

Unwisely, at that time I wrote, 'History does not reveal how that stand-off was resolved'.  To my chagrin I discovered not very long afterwards that that was nonsense.  The cool refusal to capitulate in the face of overwhelming odds - facing down two emperors, two kings, and an uneasy provisional French government arrayed against him - was the decision of one remarkably unruffled General Baron Pierre Daumesnil.

Some time later, I fell upon a little volume entitles Le Blocus de Vuncennes en 1815 - The Blockade of Vincennes in 1815.  In that tome, I found that a year later Daumesnil had again successfully defied an identical demand - this time, by the Prussians - to surrender Vincennes to the Allies. I decided to acquaint myself with this man's story.

As I dug into the limited material on Daumesnil available in American libraries, I came upon a biography of him written in 1970 by a great-great-grandson of his, Henri de Clairval.  I thought that he might well still be alive, so I first wrote to Prince Napoleon to ask if he could
help me.  He replied politely, but was unable to help.  Then I wrote to a genealogical society in Paris, and they came right back with Clairval's address.

I wrote to him, explaining that I was starting work on a book about his distinguished ancestor and hope to be able to meet him and discuss it.  When I was in Paris in September 2000, I called him and he invited me to visit him in his apartment.  Thus our very enjoyable collaboration started.  From the outset he has offered, and given me his unstinting co-operation and I am consequently greatly in his debt.  My book would be a shadow of itself
without his very generous assistance.

The more I learned about the course of Daumesnil's inspiring career the more determined I became to tell his story.  His life story is a truly remarkable one.  As a raw, provincial youth, after a fatal duel with a soldier he had run off to join the army, and had risen through the ranks over many campaigns and years - accumulating 20 wounds and many honours in the process - until he became a senior officer in the most prestigious regiment of the
French army and a favourite of Napoleon.  Finally, by virtue of his unshakeable courage and iron resolve, he achieved the status of a French national hero.

There was something almost d'Artganan-esque about the man: a mixture of quick, often mordant, wit, an absolute contempt for danger, all overlaid by a fierce loyalty to his comrades and, most of all, to his Emperor.  One of the most appealing qualities of his character, I believe, was the deep and lasting affection which united the battle-scarred hero with a young lady of tender years and high social standing.  Despite the often wrenching
vicissitudes of Daumensil's subsequent career, their bond remained unshaken to the end.  It is fair to say that in this story Leonie, la baronne Daumesnil, is a heroine in her own right.

I have found that writing a book can be a richly educational experience.  In this instance, I found it necessary to immerse myself in the details of the campaigns and battles of which I previously had only a cursory knowledge. In the particular case of the war between Revolutionary Spain (1793-1795) what I learned if it was a fascinating revelation for me, as I hope it may be for others.  Marshal Bessieres said that Napoleon thought that Daumesnil
brought him luck.  Almost 200 years later, it was my good luck to discover Daumesnil.

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