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The Napoleon Series > Biographies > Biographies

Research Subjects: Biographies

Louis Alexandre Berthier, Prince of Wagram and Neufchâtel, Marshal (1804)

(Born Versailles, 1753 - Died Bamberg, Bavaria, 1815)


Napoleon's shadow, the most indispensable of all marshals, the most spoilt and also the most reprimanded. Always at the Emperor's side, Berthier understands, takes down and transmits to the battle corps all his master's orders and plans.

Son of an engineer in the King's army, Berthier enters a Royal school of military engineering at a very young age. At the age of 13, he is already a geographical engineer, at 17 he is an officer. He serves in the American War of Independence. Back in France in 1789, he is named major general of the Versailles National Guard. This enables him to help two of Louis XVI's aunts get away, and to protect the royal family during the fateful October days. Discharged in August 1792, at the time of the fall of the monarchy, he is reinstated three years later as Kellerman's chief of staff.

Bonaparte, whom he meets in March 1796, appreciates this man who does not hesitate to charge at the head of his men during a battle, as he did at Lodi, on May 10, 1796; but he also knows how to read a map and give orders. Berthier "knew maps well, was skillful when making a reconnaissance, personally ensured orders were executed, was brilliant in explaining the most complex army moves in simple words" says Bonaparte in April 1796, when he is put in command of the Army of Italy. He appoints him his chief of staff.

In 1798, Berthier occupies Rome and announces the birth of the Roman Republic. He takes an active part in the 18-Brumaire, and is given the Ministry of War at the very beginning of the Consulate. He organizes the new départements of Piedmont and negotiates peace with Spain.

When the Empire is proclaimed, in 1804, Napoleon showers him with honors and titles: marshal, master of the royal hunt, grand aigle of the Légion d'Honneur, major general of the Grande Armée, Prince of Neufchâtel and of Vallengin in March 1806, vice-constable...

Named Prince of Wagram in August 1809, he now simply signs "Alexandre" and receives a pension of one million two hundred and fifty thousand francs a year. Napoleon sneers at his passion for Madame Visconti, whom he met in Italy, and marries him in 1808 to Princess MaryElizabeth, niece of the King of Bavaria, who bears him three children.

To the Emperor, Berthier is more than a valiant soldier; he is a faithful and obedient friend whose organizational skills are priceless. Chief of staff of the Grande Armée in Russia, in Germany and in France, he is the one who transmits Napoleon's orders, ensures they are executed, watches over supplies and various administrative tasks, collects information, etc. He fully reorganizes the staff headquarters.

He is sometimes in command of the armed Forces on the field, as in Spain in 1808 or in Bavaria in 1809. However these commands are only temporary. He very rarely takes part in conceiving battle plans but he waits for Napoleon's instructions.

His command of the French forces in 1809, at the beginning of the Austrian campaign even proves disastrous: applying to the letter the orders the Emperor sends him from Paris, he takes no initiative on the field, at the risk of endangering the army's scattered corps. He infuriates Napoleon, but manages, once he is back at the Emperor's side, to make up for his mistakes during the battle of Wagram (July 5-6, 1809).

Under every circumstance, even when the Emperor calls him in the middle of the night one night this happened seventeen times! Berthier insists on being impeccably dressed. The Emperor respects him, holds him in high esteem and considers him to be indispensable. He is the one who is sent to ask for Archduchess Marie-Louise's hand in February 1810, and who escorts her to Paris. But he also gets rebuked.

During the Russian campaign in 1812, as the French armies are about to attack Kutuzov's Russians in Borodino, Berthier and the Emperor have an argument about the strategy to be followed. Punished, Berthier will not lunch at the Emperor's table until they enter Moscow. When Napoleon leaves the army to go back to Paris, Berthier begs him to take him along. Berthier remains in Germany during the entire 1813 campaign, assuming his role of chief of staff of the armies. During the French campaign, it is again Berthier who will hold this position for the Emperor.

Two days after the abdication, he asks his master for permission to go to Paris, promising to return the next day. As soon as he leaves the room, Napoleon remarks: "He won't come back". Indeed, Berthier has made his choice: he goes to see Louis XVIII in Compiègne to announce he is siding with the Monarchy. He is made Peer of France in 1814. When Napoleon announces his return, Berthier does not answer his letter. He follows the King to Ghent during the Hundred Days and then retires to his estate in Bamberg, where he falls to his death from a window. Accident? Suicide? Murder? The circumstances of his death have never been elucidated.

By Alexandra Dalbin


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