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The Napoleon Series > Biographies > Biographies

The “Last Veteran” of Napoléon’s 1812 Grande Armée or How a Great Mystery Was Solved

The Campaign of 1814: Introduction

By Victor Totfalyshin (Russia) and Yves Gauthier (France)
Translated by Eman M. Vovsi  



Toward the end of the 1880s-earlier 1890s, some local history buffs of the town of Saratov (now, a major seaport of the Volga River) noticed that they live, side by side, with an old bloke named Nicolai Andreevich Savin (Russian: Николай Андреевич Савен/Савин) who, to their surprise, was called the last veteran – a grognard – of the once Napoleon’s 1812 mighty Grande Armée.   Was that true or too good to be true? 

According to his own story, this old man introduced himself everywhere as Jean-Baptiste (or Jean-Baptiste-Nicolas) Savin, of French noble origin and a graduate of the Jesuit College at Tours , who later took part in numerous campaigns of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, including the expedition to Egypt, 1798-1801.  As he narrated his story further – being decorated a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor for his bravery at the siege of Saragossa and appointed lieutenant of the 2nd Hussar Regiment (part of Marshal Ney’s 3rd Corps) – Savin was wounded at the Battle of Borodino and taken prisoner at the Berezina’s crossing. Sent to Saratov as POW he, nonetheless, decided – after his release – to settle in this town permanently.  So he lived in Saratov for the next 82 years, where he became acquainted with the local elite, including the then Governor, Alexei Panchylidzev (tenure 1808-1826). Unfortunately, according to Savin’s own statement his identity papers got all burned during the 1848 City Hall fire. 

In 1881, a local writer, Nicolas Khovansky, was one of the first inquiring minds who wrote about this famous inhabitant of Saratov: “Savin is 126 year old now… but he looks very fresh… does  reading without glasses, but has hearing problem.”[1] 

Perhaps, this very publication had appeared, somehow, in St.-Petersburg from where it was picked up by Le Petit Parisien.  In 1885, the French newspaper informed its public (in an anonymous article, though) of this “patriarch” – “a “Methuselah” who is capable to carry off heavy loads … a 130 years old man who still possesses a very serene memory and good sight but is hearing impartial.”[2]

Then events slowly started to unfold.   On May 1, 1888 Savin received a letter from Lyon, addressed to the “former Grande Armée officer and teacher of a local high school,” sent by certain Hippolyte Delestre who claimed to be his “the most legally bound nephew.”  “Please, come to live with us, dear uncle – wrote Delestre – both my wife, children and grandchildren will most certainly embrace you with family care and unconditional love.”[3] 

At the same time another person took an interest in Savin – the editor-and-chief of the Bratskaya Pomosh’ [Brotherly Help] magazine named Peter Ustimovich – who obtained for him to receive 300 rubles of the Tsar’s pension (1887) and also arranged his first picture to be taken in the local Saratov’s photo shop (1888).  In 1889 Ustimovich published an article in his magazine; first, in Russian and then in French.  The French version of the article was sent to Paris’ Le Figaro which also included Savin’s home address, but at that time no consequences followed.

Then the second wave of publicity came about – and at this time, more successfully.  The Russian General and professional military historian of the 1812 Russian campaign, Konstantin Voensky (who stayed in Samara on a business trip from 1893 to 1896) wrote a small biographical essay on Savin – narrating in graphic details his life and military adventures – which was published in June’s issue of 1894 the Novoe Vremya [New Era] magazine.[4]

This was a breakthrough; the French press responded widely and from 1894 to 1900 published more than a dozen big and small articles which, in turn, produced mass mail sent to the Novoe Vremya editor, the Saratov local police and, of course, directly to Savin himself.

The French Le Figaro was most proactive.  The newspaper richly cited Savin’s interview which he gave to Voyensky, along with an extended call for help, including a financial support.  So, donations poured; it is safe to assume that all the money – one way or another – had reached the old man.  The prove of this is found in Savin’s answer, which was published by Le Figaro as well; apparently, Savin asked “[my] good friend, K. Voensky, to write a note of appreciation to all co-countrymen of my dear patrie who still remember the old soldier of Egyptian campaign, the Battle of Austerlitz and the Berezina…”[5]        

The publicity thus continued.  In the summer of 1894, Mr. Pierre Richard, a deputy of the département de la Seine petitioned the Chancellery of the Legion of Honor with a motion where he expressed his desire to see Savin being decorated with the Officer’s Cross of that distinctive award.[6]  This was passed over; however, Savin did receive the Médaille de Sainte-Hélène (est. in 1857 to honor participants of the Napoleonic wars, - E.V.) presented to him by the then Saratov’s Governor General, Count Boris Meshersky in late summer 1894.  Private letters also poured in; many writers “recognized” in Savin their long disappeared relative.  Some collectors wrote, too – they wanted his autograph as a “precious gift of a Napoleonic veteran.” Others asked for his portrait, yet others – a picture for business publications.

Finally, on October 16, 1894, the French War Ministry sent to the Russian officials a note, in which they were informed of 400 francs annuity awarded to Savin by the French government.[7]       

At the same time the first shadow of a doubt had appeared, as well.  Thus, Finnish Colonel Freiman (who had some family roots in Saratov, as well) performed a private investigation using his connections at the French archives.  He revealed his findings to Savin: “a) your name does not appear in the roster of Legion of Honor [as a recipient during the Napoleonic time], and b) there is no documentation, which reflects your service in the 2nd Hussar Regiment of the Grande Armée.” In a polite manner he asked Savin to provide any proof that “would immediately clarify the situation.”[8]    Another similar inquiry was sent by the veterans of the Crimean War 1853-55; earlier, in July 1894, the French Embassy in St.-Petersburg sent their official inquiry to Saratov’s officials, as well.[9]

On September 20, 1894, the chief of the Saratov Police issued a memo, which read that “Nicolai Andreevich Savin, 126 years of age, a former lieutenant of Napoleon’s army resides, permanently, in Saratov at his daughter’s house...  He has a certificate, issued on October 9, 1847 (No. 16362), which identifies him as a Russian subject; another document is a license No. 290, issued on March 27, 1835, which allows him to teach French language in high school… other documents were destroyed by fire…”[10] 

So where was the truth?  So far it appeared that General Voensky, who did a great job on Savin’s publicity, somehow “avoided” – or ignored? – some obvious historical facts at the expense of an idealistic picture he himself drew on Savin’s.  Thus, he should have known that the 2nd Hussar Regiment did not take part in 1812 Russian campaign but fought in Spain; there was no Savin name listed in the roster of the officers POWs sent to Saratov (a roster, which Voyensky had an access to).  Finally, the Chancellery office of the Legion of Honor did not confirm in Savin’s its recipient (as it should appear in de Lacépède’s 2 vols compendium, which listed all awardees 1804-1814 – E.V.).  Many other facts seemed odd, too – especially his date of birth (which was frequently changed from publication to publication); but... once created “heroic” picture honeyed by the improvement of modern French-Russian political and diplomatic relations hooked up the audience.

Saven - Records

Savin died in December 1894 but publicity continued.  On December 17, 1894, Le Figaro informed their readers on funeral of “lieutenant Savin, which was paid in full by the Saratov’s municipality.”[11]  Next, the French settlers in St.-Petersburg erected – on their own accord and using their own finances – a small monument at the Saratov cemetery and Le Petit Parisien wrote about this event on August 1, 1896.  So the “the history became legend; the legend became myth…” and it lived ever since.  In 1999, at the place where Savin’s house once stood, the commemorative plaque was inaugurated.

Only in 2002, Viktor Totfalyshin, a Russian professor of history at the Saratov University, put further scrutiny to the story,  both created and cherished by General Voensky.  It appeared right on the spot that the only Hussar regiment under Marshal Ney’s command was the 11th (Holland), which did not list Savin on its rosters and there is no record of Savin’s being wounded at the Battle of Borodino, as well.[12] Further, the list of officers POWs, which was sent to Saratov’s officials on February 15, 1813 does not have his name either.

Seeing an obvious mystification, Totfalushin performed a diligent research and published his findings, first in the local University’s Press.[13]  According to a newly discovered document –  a general list of POWs written by the Russian lower scriber – a certain “Nikolai Savin” did, in fact, exist but as a simple NCO of the “24th Jäger Regiment” of Napoleon’s 1812 Grande Armée. After being taken prisoner, he was sent to Khvalynsk (of Saratov’s county); there, in 1813, he swore allegiance to Russia, became  middle class, and got married to Praskovya Sergeeva with whom he bore four children (this fact was proven to be true).  In 1836 Savin petitioned the Russian government for permission to return back to France, but it was denied, because according to the Russian cannon law of 1826 such permission could be granted only to 1) unmarried POWs, or 2) married but childless POWs.  So, Savin was neither.

Next, Totfalushin found that the Savins moved to Saratov only in 1839 and this information did effectively eliminate the fact him being acquainted with Governor Panchylidzev (as stated above, his tenure was from 1808 to 1826). Additionally, a few pieces of correspondence was found authored by Savin, which indicated his grammarless use of his mother’s tongue and this eliminated another Savin’s claim in General Voyensky’s epic story that Savin once was known as a French tutor.  Further, yet another Savin’s claim was dethroned.  The Jesuits’ College at Tours – which, again, according to his own story, Savin was a student of – was dissolved in April 1762 by Louis XV, that is, a long before the earliest possible known day of his birth.  

Now, let’s move to Savin’s real identity.  What kind of “24th Jäger Regiment” did the Russian scriber have in mind when he composed a roster of the French POWs?  Traditionally, the term “Jäger” in the Russian transliteration could represent either French “Chasseur a Cheval” or “Light Infantry” regiments.  Mr. Yves Gauthier, the French colleague of Totfalushin’s did check the French War archive.  At first, the roster of the 24th Chasseur a Cheval regiment provided no result.[14]  But his examination of the 24th Light Infantry Regiment finally paid off.  There was, in fact, a certain man named Pierre Felix Savin (regimental roster No. 10429) born on July 13, 1792, in Rouen.[15] 

But was this the same Savin or his namesake?  From the regimental records Gauthier find that Savin volunteered to the Grande Armée on August 26, 1811 and was first assigned to the 2nd Light Infantry Regiment.  Next, on January 1, 1812 Savin was transferred to the 24th Light Infantry Regiment – a regiment in which Savin undertook his Russian campaign with.  The regimental record indicates that he “was left behind in Russia; presumably dead or taken prisoner.  Stricken off the regimental roster on August 11, 1814.”[16]  This information was confirmed by examination of the 2nd Light Infantry regimental roster, which revealed additional information of Savin’s mother (Hourdet Savin) and the young soldier’s civil profession – a cabinet-maker .

So far so good.  But why – or how – did Pierre Felix became Nickolas-Nicolay? This is not entirely clear, so Totfalushin offers some options.  It is well known – and this soon became a crucial element in our story – that family ties in Normandy (where Savin was originally from) were so important that relatives often took each others’ names and/or surnames. 

When French genealogists examined the Savin registration records back in Rouen, they discovered that Pierre Felix Savin had an older cousin named Nicolas who bore, in August 1801, a son named Jean-Baptiste.  It is almost certainly that – when becoming a POW – Pierre Felix did take a name of one of his close cousins and, therefore, we have our character intact.  Other pieces from the puzzle – Saratov, marriage, children – finally were all confirmed, as well. 

Therefore, there was no noble, no officer of the 2nd Hussars, no hero of the Austerlitz and the Berizina or a decoration with the Legion of Honor received for bravery at the siege of Saragossa… In fact, there was one of the many young men who dreamt of glory, which made him to volunteer to the Napoléon’s Grande Armée.  But… the destiny decided otherwise and instead of a triumph, a 19-years old soldier became POW, after which he dragged a miserable existence for 82 more years in the remote province of the then Russian Empire – and only stories “from the past” and desperate search for notoriety could fulfill his dreams which in reality never came true.  He died in the age of 103 and was buried at the Saratov’s local cemetery leaving behind a remembrance, which will remain – even in this “decorative” form – for many years to come.

Pictures courtesy of Totfalyshin's and Gauthier’s collection


[1] Saratovsky listok, September 30, 1881 issue.

[2] Le Petit Parisien, April 30, 1885 issue.

[3] Russian National Library (ОР РНБ, Ф. 152. Оп. 1. Д. 471. Л. 1).

[4] Konstantin Voensky, “Poslednyi iz veteranov Belikoi Armii” [The last veteran of the Napoléon’s Grande Armée], Novoe Vremya, 28 May 1894 issue (addendum).

[5] Le Figaro, 17 July 1894 issue.

[6] Le Figaro. 18 June 1894 issue.

[7] Saratov’s State Archive (ГАСО - Ф. 1. Оп. 1. Д. 5374. Л. 125).

[8] Russian National Library (ОР РНБ. Ф. 152. Оп. 1. Д. 481. Л. 1–2).

[9] Saratov’s State Archive (ГАСО - Ф. 1. Оп. 1. Д. 5374. Л. 116–116 об).

[10] Ibid., (Л. 120–120 об.)

[11] Le Figaro, 17 December 1894 issue.

[12] Chambray G. Histoire de l`expédition de Russie. Paris, 1838. Vol. 1–3; Martinien A. Tableaux par corps et par batailles des officiers tués et blessés pendant les Guerres de l’Empire, 1805–1815. Paris, 1899, p. 626.

[13] See, e.g., Тотфалушин В.П. “Жизнь и судьба Ж.-Б. Савена в свете новых фактов,” См. также: Он же. Загадки Савена // Кто есть кто 2003. Саратов, 2003.

[14] SHD/DAT, 24 Yc 360–363.

[15] Savin’s birth certificate was also found (AD 76, Rouen paroisse Saint-Ouen, BMS 4 E 2008, 1792, cliché 18).

[16] SHD/DAT, 22 Yc 176, p. 143.


Placed on the Napoleon Series: December 2013


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