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
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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