Introduction To The Marshalate
But he'll remember with advantage
What feats he did that day.'
-John R. Elting
'The man in the ranks is not a model of wisdom in every respect, but he is a mighty shrewd judge of his own commanding officer; no lying bulletin can throw dust in his eyes, no advertising swashbuckler can pass as a hero. The court-martial which sits round a bivouac fire may be very informal, but it has an 'instinct for reality.' I pin my faith to the judgment of the Grognards of the Old Guard. They spoke of him as 'l'Homme.''
The Great Wars exploded across Europe in 1792, Revolutionary France marching against all Europe to the stirring sounds of La Marseillaise and the Chant du Depart. The tramp of marching feet of eager volunteers and sullen regulars moving to the eastern and northern marches to fight the armies of the kings resounded on the streets of Paris and other French cities. La Patrie was definitely in danger, men flocked to the colors, thinking of la gloire and not realizing they were embarking on an adventure that wouldn't end for over twenty-three years, if they survived death and crippling wounds, disease, and privation.
In those serried ranks to the sound of those terrible drums marched twenty-six men, sergeants, junior officers, and new volunteers who would quite literally find a marshal's baton in the knapsack. Noblemen, former enlisted men from the old Royal Army, yardbird privates, soldiers of fortune, revolutionary zealots, sons of farmers, millers, and brewers, they all earned their epaulets under fire, learned their violent trade, and became, somewhere along the way, superb leaders of men.
To the sound of the beckoning guns, which would rumble from Lisbon to Moscow, marched grim, somewhat humorless soldiers who would become some of the most famous commanders in history. Some of them would gain their batons the old fashioned way, they earned them through military merit; others were awarded the blue and gold baton of a Marshal of the Empire by their Emperor because they belonged to factions within the army and France that had to be reconciled to Napoleon's rule. These men still possessed considerable martial skills. There were also those who developed into masters of the military art, some with skills to match their Emperor. Massena, Davout, Suchet, St. Cyr, Soult, and Lannes were very capable generals and corps commanders, and were talented independent commanders. Others, such as Victor, Mortier, and Bessieres generally reached their level of competence at the corps level. Others needed to be aimed like a projectile, yet they, too, did their duty and added to the prestige and traditions.
Three would die on the battlefield, a few, turned sour and disillusioned, would betray their country and their Emperor, others would later mutiny in the dark days of 1814 and force Napoleon's abdication, but others would be noted for their loyalty, steadfastness, and selflessness in their long and honorable service. In them burned the true sacre feu, the sacred fire, the deep desire to win or perish.
The amassed talent of these soldiers, along with those of the other generals of the Republic and Empire would be the stuff legends are made of, and legend many would become, as well as their accomplishments. Incredibly tough, inured to hardship, often wounded, they returned to the sound of the guns year after year, repeatedly defeating the armies raised to meet them until the odds, even for them, became too long.
They and their comrades were arguably the best collection of military talent to ever serve one man. Additionally, there were few commanders in history who were better served by their subordinates. In the long road all soldiers eventually take to the muttering guns, to see the owl and hear the elephant, theirs may well have been the longest, and only the toughest, hardest of them succeeded.
By Kevin Kiley
Publisher's Note: The menu below links to the biographies of the Marshals. They come from the CD-Rom: Napoleon, Europe and the Empire by Infogrames. Many thanks to Infogrames and Artea for making this text freely available by not putting any copyright on it. If you are really interested in Napoleon then you must get this CD-Rom, it is one of the best works on Napoleon I have ever seen. Look for it on the Infogrames homepage.