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The Napoleon Series > Biographies > Biographies

Research Subjects: Biographies

The Indispensable Marshal: Louis-Alexandre Berthier (1753-1815)

By Kevin Kiley

Marshal Louis-Alexandre Berthier

Marshal Louis-Alexandre Berthier

0900, 4 January 1813, Posen, The Grand Duchy of Warsaw

The gray haired, stocky officer stood at the window of the miserable building now serving as the office of the Major General and Chief of Staff of the Grande Armée, or actually what was left of it; if the starving, ragged, and frostbitten survivors trying to rally at the end of the great retreat could be called 'Grande.' He stood with his arms behind his back, noticing the white uniformed troops of the regiment of black men from Naples in formation in the snow, thinking how incongruous it looked. Grizzled veterans from the Old Guard were conducting an inspection for guard mount, slowly and methodically going up and down the ranks, checking weapons and ammunition.

The army was in a mess. Ammunition low, losses crippling, so many key subordinates dead or dying, frost-bitten stragglers wandering in every day to more or less contribute to the army's hollow combat strength. Eble and Lariboisiere had just died; the Emperor had left for Paris a month ago, promising to bring back reinforcements. Murat had just deserted, and the command of these gallant remnants had devolved onto Prince Eugene, the Emperor's stepson.

To Eugene's credit, he had hesitated to take command, but someone had to, someone all would obey. The marshals were quarreling again; no one would take orders from anyone else. Only Davout was demonstrating any sense at all. If they didn't straighten things out, the Russians would be on the Elbe in a week. There were already rumors of Cossacks in their rear, and there wasn't enough cavalry left to find out. Their losses in horses had been incredibly heavy, the cavalry crippled, much of it Murat's fault.

Eugene was due here in about fifteen minutes. He had finally consented to assume command late last night. Now they had much work to do, and Napoleon had to confirm Eugene in command as soon as possible to stop this senseless bickering among the marshals and senior generals. There was still time to draft some necessary orders before Eugene's arrival, although there were few of the Chief of Staff's gallant 'hellions' left to deliver them. Too many friends and comrades had been left behind dead or captured inside Russia. With a heavy sigh, and the shrug of his shoulders, the officer at the window turned and resumed his seat at his desk, took out his pen and paper and started to write. Marshal Berthier, Major General and Chief of Staff of the Grande Armee was once again at work, waiting for yet another commander to serve.

LouiséAlexandre Berthier (1753-1815) senior of the Marshals, was the first of the great chiefs of staff in military history. Born at Versailles of a soldier father, he was carefully brought up and trained for a career as a soldier. His father being in the select Topographical Engineers, Berthier too entered that corps in 1766, and was selected to accompany Rochambeau's expeditionary force to America in 1780. Assigned a la suite to the Soissonnais Infantry Regiment, he embarked for America as an infantry captain. An eager, aggressive, and valorous officer, he was 'neat and orderly in all things' and was praised, promoted, and decorated for gallantry in America.

Berthier entered the service at thirteen, and by the time he was sixteen he had joined the topographical engineers. He also served as an instructor, and became an experienced officer, serving not only as a staff officer, but with an infantry regiment, and two cavalry outfits, one dragoon and one chasseurs a cheval.

Returning to France from America in 1783 he went into the corps d'etat major, the new permanent staff corps the French were organizing, part of the reforms based on their dreadful experience in the field in the Seven Years' War, and the experiments conducted by officers who wanted to improve the service back to the old standards of Turenne. A new staff manual was begun, and there is evidence that Berthier had a hand in its writing; at any rate, he absorbed its lessons carefully. His other duties included testing new tactics and different types of organizations to modernize the army, as well as conducting a study of the military system of Frederick the Great. By the time the Revolution erupted and France went to war with at least half of Europe, Berthier's reputation as a talented officer was well established.

Being of the 'high middle class', Berthier supported the Revolution, but he was considered a ci-devant noble as he had the Order of St. Louis. He was well known, however, and he was requested for service in various theaters by a number of army commanders. He was assigned as chief of staff of L'Armee du Nord, but just as quickly he was charged with incivisme, and went on inactive duty. Not one to sit on his hands, he ended up as a volunteer in the Vendée. Noticing his talents, the powers that be sent him as chief of staff to L'Armée de la Rochelle. His superiors proved to be totally incompetent, and somewhat cowardly. Berthier was wounded in action, Rochelle failed and Berthier went to Paris to seek a better assignment. Put once again on inactive status with the threat of the guillotine looming over him, he was again recalled to active duty in 1795 as chief of staff for Kellermann. The next year he and Napoleon were paired as chief of staff and commander, respectively, and the partnership that would last until after the first abdication in 1814 began.

Chief of staff in the Armée d'Italie, 1796-1797; then to L'Armée d'Egypte, 1798-1799; commander and chief of staff of L'Armée de Reserve, 1800. Minister of War, 1800-1807; Chief of Staff and Major General of the Grande Armée, 1802-1814, Berthier served gallantly, efficiently, and loyally. He was Napoleon's shadow, and many of his greatest accomplishments have either been taken for granted or ignored through the years. In the process of his myriad duties, he managed to infuriate and earn the eternal ire of that egotistical Swiss renegade, Antoine Jomini. Attempting to teach the young mercenary proper staff procedure when he was serving as an aide de camp to Marshal Ney, Jomini took it personally, and for the rest of his life attempted to unfairly blacken Berthier's reputation.

Berthier had both a strong character and constitution. He could work for days without sleep, some of his subordinates once claimed he had gone thirteen days straight without any sleep at all. If true, that is quite amazing. Reputedly, Berthier would rest after a long day's ride by sitting down and writing the Emperor's orders for the next day. He was short, stocky, an expert horseman, strict, but fair, with his subordinates, methodical and modest. He took good care of the troops and officers in his charge, but put up with no nonsense, and always insisted on proper staff procedures, even though he was sick, and getting a little long in the tooth, in 1813-1814. Coignet thought quite highly of him, as he had given him some bread to eat after Coignet's capture of an Austrian cannon at Marengo in 1800.

Thiebault, said of him in 1796:

'Quite apart from his specialist training as a topographical engineer, he had knowledge and experience of staff work and furthermore a remarkable grasp of everything to do with war. He had also, above all else, the gift of writing a complete order and transmitting it with the utmost speed and clarity…No one could have better suited General Bonaparte, who wanted a man capable of relieving him of all detailed work, to understand him instantly and to foresee what he would need.'

Ferdinand von Funck, a Saxon officer who had served both for and against Napoleon and knew the marshals, thought Berthier had 'incredible talent…hard and irascible' and 'amenable to reasonable representations.'

Berthier developed the staff procedures the Grande Armee would later use, as well as the staff system that went with it. Quite possibly he had saved the embryonic staff manual that had been with the corps d'etat major in the 1780s. He also developed certain procedures later adopted by the Prussian general staff, such as having chiefs of staff of comparable organizations communicate with each other without involving their commanders to save them unnecessary headaches.

Berthier believed the chief of staff to be the central point for the headquarters, 'the headquarters pivot.' He needed to either see or sign everything that comes in and goes out of the headquarters. The staff itself had no set hours, as it is there to serve the commander and the good of the army as a whole. When work was finished, the staff could then rest. Above all, the commander should always be told the truth, no matter how unpleasant, and whatever the consequences. Something akin to the modern military maxim, 'bad news does not age well.'

The Grand-Quartier General Imperial, which developed from Berthier's work in the armies of the Alps and Italy, and refined by both himself and Napoleon was an efficient organization, tailored and suited to Napoleon's method of waging war. Berthier has been characterized by many as nothing but a chief clerk. That is as inaccurate as it is completely unfair. Berthier ran the staff, and through it, he and Napoleon ran the Grande Armée. Thiebault had remarked that Berthier was the ideal chief of staff, as he relieved Napoleon of all detailed work; he was also the only person who could read Napoleon's deplorable handwriting.

His achievements were many. Berthier commanded and organized the Army of the Reserve and moved it across the Alps in 1800. With it, Napoleon fought and won Marengo, regaining northern Italy for France. He was responsible for the planning that moved the Grande Armée from the channel across the Rhine and into Germany in 1805 to surprise the allies and surround Ulm. In 1812, Berthier planned and executed the huge concentration for the invasion of Russia, including all the detailed planning of moving units from the far reaches of the Empire in an orderly matter. The logistical requirements alone were seemingly insurmountable, but the Grande Armee of 1812 was the best supplied and equipped of any Napoleon ever led.

His awards were many: Prince of Neufchatel, Prince of Wagram (a battle honor for his 1809 service), Grand Huntsman and Vice Constable of France, Senator, and grand Officer of the Palace, Colonel General of the Swiss and Grisons, Legion of Honor, and the Order of the Cincinnati from the United States, which was his most prized decoration.

Berthier has frequently been blamed for the command and stuff muddle at the beginning of the 1809 campaign. He was not, however, the commander of the Army of Germany, as so frequently mislabeled. He was still serving as Napoleon's chief of staff, and the fault for the mess was Napoleon's irritating and somewhat confusing practice during the period Berthier was with the army and Napoleon still in Paris of sending both letters and telegraphs to Berthier, out of sequence because of the relative speed of the two different forms of communication, and somewhat confusing. Berthier finally was 'politely blunt' and told Napoleon that his presence was required with the army; end of command and staff problems.

Berthier was an aggressive and imaginative officer, whose character shone through in victory and defeat, triumph and adversity. He cold rally a broken column of infantry, seize a regimental color and lead it forward through shot and shell, as he did at Lodi in 1796; be coldly courageous at Fort Bard in the Alps in 1800; coordinate the advance of different arms as at Friedland in 1807; or, in what probably was the most important action he ever completed, pulled the wreck of the Grande Armée together in Poland at the end of the retreat from Russia after Napoleon's departure for Paris to raise another army and Murat's desertion just to go home, by persuading Prince Eugene to assume command before the situation completely fell apart and set the example 'of loyal and energetic subordination' thereby stopping the useless quarreling between the marshals.

Napoleon himself summed up Berthier's overall worth as a soldier, and to the Grande Armée in general, referring to his absence at Waterloo, 'If Berthier had been there, I would not have met this misfortune.'


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Chandler, David, ed. Napoleon's Marshals New York : Macmillan;1987.

Coignet, Jean-Roche. The Notebooks of Captain Coignet London : Greenhill Books; 1989.

Diberder, Georges Le. Les Armées Françaises a L'Epoque Revolutionaire 1789-1804 Paris : Editions PREAL; 1989.

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Elting, John R. The Superstrategists New York : Charles Scribner's and Sons; 1985.

Esposito, Vincent J. and John R. Elting. A Military History and Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars London : Greenhill Books; 1999.

Lachouque, Henri, and Anne Brown. The Anatomy of Glory London : Greenhill Books; 1997.

Willing, Paul. Napoleon et ses Soldats de Wagram à Waterloo 1809-1815 Paris :Editions PREAL; 1987.

Willing, Paul. Napoleon et ses Soldats L'Apogee de la Gloire 1804-1809 Paris : Editions PREAL; 1986.


Placed on the Napoleon Series: April, 2000 

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