Military Subjects: Battles & Campaigns

Multiethnic Military Dissent and Armed Resistance in 1811 Portugal: Controlling Conflict, Chaudron’s Attested Choice and The Formation of the Independents Part II

By Roberto A. Scattolin, Italy

Elements of evaluation in the French contemporary sources

Documentary piece

 “[…] from the beginning there were also isolated soldiers and others who ran away from their regiments and marauded for themselves. The latter committed fewer cruelties because it was too dangerous for them. With their insufficient numbers, it was not to their interest to maltreat the inhabitants. Some of them even established themselves as the protectors of the region where they settled. Moreover, they sometimes gathered to confront the enemy and often stopped our forage details from marauding in their area. Finally, one such band styled itself the 11th Corps, a number not found in the Army of Spain. It was said to have been formed under the orders of a corporal who made himself commander and was called General Chaudron. He had taken the decorations of a general officer from one baggage pillaged by his band. There was a great deal of talk about this 11th Corps for rather a long time, but the famous Chaudron was finally caught and shot[1].

Comment: Eight phrases, for one hundred sixty-two words (20, 12, 14, 16, 19, 18, 22, 16, 25) count.

The sheer reading of this recollected passage is well beyond apparent and credible simplicity.

In order to show the reader the meaning of histoire événementielle (evenemential history), correct understanding is the proper way to reach a deeper and definitive comprehension of the text.

More intelligibly, the reasons behind this narrative methodology still have to be appraised beyond what Pelet’s inked contents and evocative writing attitude permits at first sight.

The message lies in certain “disconcerting” events that could be hidden in the form of an articulated scheme and settled literary structure.  

A ranking French officer, in a key position, Pelet[2] never would have admitted responsibilities and failure at the head of the General-Staff, or imputations of cause to the leading figure of Maréchal Masséna, and consequently to any fellow-associate like himself.

Pelet was always prepared and kept his ears open to collect every kind of rapidly spread information no matter how useful it was.

One element which emerges with clarity and incisiveness: the armed independents were employed in combat organizations to ensure territorial control and to protect the much sought after food supplies.

Under trying circumstances their own survival was irreversibly tied to the precariousness and instability of living in one invaded foreign country, and to the ever-growing requests for nourriture (nourishment) and denrées alimentaires (food-stuffs).

The definition of déserteurs (runaways) is merely a defined linguistic device, indicative, but unfitted and restrictive if compared to the physical sufferings and authentic experience on the field – which implied “active operations” mostly exceeding the margins of moral continence, decency[3] and respectability, and out of any established law code.

Men against

A more compatible inference is that of dissidents.

Disassociated in politics to the cause of the Empire they were unwilling to serve in arms (the severe infringement of the disciplinary code was recognized in the abandon des obligations militaries) – for the glorious pretentions of France’s autocratic régime and out and out fallacies.

The proper reference to these socio-military entities (communities living apart from the official military) is singularly insufficient, and inadequate to define this systemic organizational system.

The hastily-applied term, deserters[4], exceeds in the long run its own meaning.

Basically, their boldness, risk-taking, and braggadocio belied their numbers, the loosed “dogs of war”, and in the power of arms.

Without weapons, these armed independent groups would have been nonentities, with no effect on the local society -- and with no proficient tactical operations and readily enacted operative flexibilities.

The codification of “Corps” sounded imposing, and even majestic: an awe-inspiring unified collective.

It was by this definition – to cite 11th Corps, the major example, more fearsome – that revealed the potentialities (infantry, plus cavalry compounds), of “unspecified numbers” (units) and the intrinsic force this formation organized with rigidity of intents and modalities of military character.

Prudential attitudes

The final elements of the memoirs presented by Pelet acquire significant relevance.

The French aide de camp to Maréchal Masséna knew perfectly the confirmed details of what once was the military status of the generalissimo “Chaudron”.

No secret was disclosed there.

He was a man serving in the French ranks, and therefore of French birth -- an N.C.O., “said” to be a caporal (corporal).

Was that military position really credible and trustworthy, or had that been a shrewdly cunning plan (a cover up by the military hierarchies) to minimize the severe abandonment in the French ranks?

More evident on the causal motivations is why the real birth name (and surname) of this combattant régulier (i.e., qualified regular) was not mentioned?

Was he forced to remain the unknown corporal?

And no longer a Frenchman?

Was that proficiency used as a kind of damnatio memoriae?

Reading between the lines, a true understanding of this occurrence can be noted of the intentional process of protection following the desertion of a large number of soldats assermentés[5].

The prudent administration (a practical escamotage), of keeping the matriculation roles, are particularly envisaged on immediate applications.

First: not to confirm the ranks of the deserters; second: nor to equally imply that their name and surnames had not been divulged, nor their actual numbers.

Of course, the État-Major général (General Staff) well knew that information.

But publicity of that sort had not been given to dishonour the arms, or to infringe on the austerity of the nearly sacred three-part motto by which the unsparing soldiers lived with honor: empereur, armée, patrie (emperor, army, mother country).

Pelet is faithful to himself as well as in the discharge of his official duties, when he recounted in his narration, that there was much talk about the cited independent corps.

The hardy retrogressive situation could not be otherwise meant, as, in fact, it referred to the audacity and dauntlessness of these “organized formations” which even dared to confront French reconnaissance and foraging parties -- to protect their vital strategic areas and bases, which surprisingly included one fortressed stronghold configured into a Headquarters (actually, an abandoned mosteiro, id est, a convent, near Santarém)[6].

A conceptualization of war: sustentative strategies

Their swagger and arrogance seemed indomitable “peculiarities” forging the proud continuation of their esprit de corps.

The noblest surnom de camaraderie (nickname of comradeship) was given by the leader of the dissidents -- a revealing choice that was undeniably a pragmatic symbolism, during the height of difficult times of deprivation.

More importantly, the nominal reference to a single-headed appellation -- Chaudron -- markedly defined a communicative language that was characteristic of that considered dialectic application, to figure out the community members; and properly identified an articulated colloquialism which was constantly used inside the known hierarchical establishment of the independents.

This revealing observation noted that the afore-cited slangy nominative actually meant, in the French idiom[7], a récipient pour faire chauffer – a large pot, a cauldron.

So, what is the priority to understand beyond what is in a nickname’s significance?

As a matter of fact, it is recognized that the laborious activities of the hardworking French independent leader were mostly concerned with nutritional necessities, survival and culinary arts.

Literally, “his” large cauldron – and dietary regimen – had become a source of life to daily feed the voracious appetites of so many hungry mouths.

His energy in securing food supplies and his capacités culinaires (culinary capabilities) had nobly marked him with the nickname of distinguished connoisseur.

The first important factor to remember is that the indefatigable Chaudron had carefully organized control of the local alimentary resources, in one unspecified area, by himself.

His responsibilities of command were not merely based on a military-type organization, but on the flexibility assumed in one area which permitted adequate transport and replenishment of subsistence.

Chaudron’s synergies actively emerged; by granting his armed protection to local rural villagers (in this case, accords between the parts were recognized), he gained access to food, and by controlling that indispensable “resource”, he could attract further enlistments to his community of armed formations.

To say the least in the course of this analysis, his power and talents were essentially marked by sagacity, farsightedness, in addition to a “natural” intelligence and a “nourished” perspicacity.

One ultimate question does rise: was not all of that “talent in action” enough for a reputed commander who had lost his patrie?

Was that hardily new course in a distant foreign land -- like Portugal -- really worth the choice and the time Chaudron had resolved upon?

No answers are demanded except to understand that continued climate of suffering and to place a veil of mercy over abhorred acts of moral violence. 

Nota bene

“[...]. He had taken the decorations of a general officer from one baggage pillaged by his band [...]”.

Comment: The factual discrepancies of this statement are noted, in their spurious “ideological” adulteration of context, dénigrement de probité (detraction of probity), and infamie sans équivoque (unequivocal infamy).

In a progressed analytical examination, flagrant contradictions are patent.

Would one be prone to believe that Chaudron was so short of acumen, impulsive, and even so obtuse, as to appropriate for himself “decorations” which did not belong any more to his “national” military experience?

Not to mention a vainglorious insensibility towards the compatriots this French-native had abandoned?

That was a rather dubious and insubstantial “necessity”, in times of hard, severe constrictions.

If the objects he removed had been French, et voilà de quoi il s’agit, this felonious ostentation would have determined Chaudron’s own fate.

In fact, if taken prisoner, this independent leader of partidas would have undergone a perfunctory sentence or even worst, had he been captured by the Portuguese or English in possession of national accolades.


1810, 19 February: Portugal and England sign a further Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Trade.

June: Third invasion of the French army this time led by Maréchal Massena.

English reinforcements arrive by boat from England.

24 July: Battle of Bridge of Côa. The English forces under General Robert Craufurd create severe casualties and delay the advance of the French troops led by Marshal Michael Ney.

1 August: Declaration by Marshal Massena that a large French army was invading Portugal from Ciudade Rodrigo, in Spain, to fight the English army and not the Portuguese.

15 August: Siege of Almeida – English forces forced to surrender on the 18th of August after heavy bombardment from French forces.

10 September: Fifty leading Portuguese liberals are exiled to the Island of Terceira, in Azores, for promoting the policies.

18 September: The French army occupies Viseu.

27 September: Battle of Buçaco – The French army led by Marshal Masséna suffers a serious defeat against an inferior number of English and Portuguese troops.

1 October: The French army occupies Coimbra and sacks the town.

7 October: Portuguese troops led by Coronel Trant retake Coimbra.

Wellesley awarded title of Marquês de Torres Vedras.

14 October: The French army led by Masséna tries to penetrate without success the Linhas de Torres fortifications at Sobral – the foreign troops also attempt to cross the river by boat but the Chamusca boatmen burn many of their boats.

29 October: General Francisco da Silveira Pinto da Fonseca Teixeira, Conde de Amarante encircles the Fort of Almeida; he retreats on the 13th as superior French reinforcements arrive.

15 November: The French army short of supplies withdraws to Santarém.

30 December: Battle of Bridge of Abade – General Silveira engages with the French army led by General Clarapède near Lamego.


[1]Horward, Donald D.. The French campaign in Portugal 1810-1811. An account by Jean Jacques Pelet. Edited, annotated, and translated by Donald D. Horward. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1973, p. 315, l. 1-14. With reference to the above-mentioned “[...] cruelties [...]”, did that opprobrium occur under the seal of the débauche (debauch), or was it more often the dépravation (depravity) of damaged psychopaths? Were those lascivious and hatful hearts in their own little corner of some demented universe torn apart?

[2]Général Baron Jean-Jacques-Germain Pelet-Clozeau was born a Toulouse on July 15, 1777, and died in Paris (December 20, 1858). État de services (military synopsis): pupil at the École des Sciences et des Arts of Toulouse; 1799: enrolled; 1800, 27 January: sergent in the 1er bataillon auxiliaire of the Haute-Garonne; at the siege of Genova: appointed provisional adjudant and inspecteur of the citadel; 15 September: employed in the works of the génie in the armée d’Italie; November: at Peschiera, appointed inspecteur du matériel de siège; sent to Verona; 1801, 6-17 January: served with distinction at the siege of the citadel (forte San Felice) of Verona; 21 January: promoted by General Chasseloup provisional garde du génie de 3e classe at the citadel of Verona, armée d’Italie; 19 March: on leave; 5 June: sous-lieutenant in the corps of the ingénieurs géographes; 1802, 14 April: lieutenant topographe de 3e classe; served in the bureau tophographique of the Adige and of the Adda, whose assignment was to prepare the carte of the Italian Republic; once reached the town of Brescia with Cavailher, he passed at the orders of Colonel Brossier – they were to make cartographic works of the region which lied between the Po River and the Oglio, then of the region of Verona; 16 August: topographe de 2e classe; 1803, May: charged to realize the carte of the terrain between the Adige and the Lake Garda (he wrote the mémoire of the region, containing, beyond technical and statistic specifications, the strategic priorities and the human and physical resources; 1805, September: in the état-major of Masséna; 8 October: aide de camp of Masséna; 30 October: under the orders of Général Verdier, he is wounded in the head by a fire-shot storming the Austrian redoubts at  the battle of Caldiero; 1806, June-July: at the siege of Gaeta; served at Naples; 1807, 12 February: capitaine; 1809, 3 May: wounded at the left arm at Ebersberg; 15 May: chef de bataillon; 21-22 May: served at Essling; 2 July: occupied the island of Moulin; 12 July: served at Znaïm; 1810-1811: in Portugal; 1811, 10 April: colonel; 13 July: chevalier de l’Empire. The name of général Pelet is inscribed in the eastern façade of the Arc de triomphe de l’Etoile, in Paris.

[3] Under this specific indication (a feminine noun) there is more to ponder; it “underlies”, and points to the French term fricoteur / fricoteurs: id est, “one, or more individuals who take advantage for themselves of illicit profits by recurring to questionable expedients de vie”. In French idiom, the afore cited is significant and correspondingly has synonymical meaning epithets of “defamatory gender” such as: aigrefin (swindler), arnaqueur, escroqueur, tripoteur (twiddler), malhonnête (dishonest), magouilleur (schemer), parasite (scrounger), tripatouilleur, sacripant (rascal).

[4] Instead does this commonly applied word reveal itself as ambivalent for an inaccurate terminology?

[5] Regular military personnel, soldiers who had sworn an oath of allegiance.      

[6] No detailed clarifications are reported concerning the place where the fortified camp-area of the independent armed parties was located. There is however corroborative evidence that this “controlled area” was not far off from Maréchal Massena’s headquarters. In his dense historic writings, Marbot reminisced: “He – Massena – selected the country between the Rio Mayor, the Tagus, and the Zezere, establishing the 2nd corps at Santarem, the 8th at Torres Novas (where also he fixed his headquarters), the 6th at Thomar, the artillery park at Tancos, while the cavalry were at Ourem with their outposts pushed as far as Leria” [vide: Marbot (Baron de). Adventures of General Marbot. Edited and illustrated by John W. Thomason, Jr.. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, London, 1935, 1935, p. 296, l. 29-34]. An incisive extrapolation is quoted from the primary French source: “Il choisit à cet effet l’espace compris entre le Rio-Major, le Tage, le Zezère, les villes de Santarem, Ourem et Leyria. Le 2e corps fut établi à Santarem, forte position dont la gauche est défendue par le Tage et le front par le Rio-Major. Le 8e corps occupa Torrès-Novas, Pernès et le bas du Monte-Junto. Le 6e corps fut placé à Thomar, le grand parc d’artillerie à Jancos et l’on cantonna la cavalerie à Ourem, poussant des avant-postes jusqu’à Leyria. Le maréchal Masséna fixa son quartier général à Torrès-Novas, point central de son armée” [vide: Marbot, Jean-Baptiste-Antoine-Marcellin (Baron de). Mémoires du Général Baron de Marbot. Vol. II. Madrid – Essling – Torrés-Védras. Paris, Librairie Plon, E. Plon, Nourrit et Cie, Imprimeurs-Éditeurs, Rue Garancière, 10, 1891, p. 416, l. 22-31].  

[7] The correct French word is chaudron, written without capital letter. That is the proper indication for a grosse marmite, a big cooking pot (ordinarily made of cuivre, i.e., copper). For a defined linguistic declination, vide, subvoce, the term chaudron: “Récipient  cylindrique profond, de cuivre ou de fonte, à anse mobile” -- quoted in: Petit Larousse illustré, Librairie Larousse, Paris, 1980, p. 194.


Placed on the Napoleon Series: November 2012


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