The Top Twenty French Cavalry Commanders:
This soldier was a superb equestrian, with a brilliant sword arm, and a terrific combat record. He possessed an exceptional talent for controlling large formations of mixed cavalry. Rated ahead of LaSalle on the basis that he was less headstrong and more calculating than the legendary hussar commander.
Montbrun was one of eight children (four boys and four girls) born to Joseph de Montbrun and his wife Marie Arvieu. He enlisted in the Chasseurs d'Alsace (later to become the 1er Chasseurs-a-Cheval) in May 1789 at the age of 19.
He had an active service life and suffered his first wound at Altendorf in July 1796. He was then instrumental in the capture of the bridge over the Nidda near Frankfurt in October 1799 and was made Chef d'Escadron on the battlefield. One week later he was wounded again at Gross-Gerau and followed this with distinguished service at Erbach and Kirchberg. This resulted in General Antoine Richepance promoting him to Chef-de-Brigade in June 1800.
After service at Ulm he was sent to the garrison of Bruges for 1803/05 where he served in the brigade of General Jean-Baptiste-Theodore Viallanes. Montbrun commanded the 1er Chasseurs-á-Cheval and the brigade was completed by the 7e Hussards under Colonel Ferdinand-Daniel Marx.
Having given a distinguished performance at Ried on 30th October 1805 and then at Austerlitz following which he was promoted to General-de-Brigade, he went on to serve at Breslau, Strehlen, Ohlau, Borki, Thann, Schierling, Eckmuhl, Nittenau, Raab and Acs. During this period he was also decorated, being made Baron de l'Empire, and awarded the Grand Cross de l'Ordre Militaire de Wurtemberg.
In November 1808 came an incident, which, to a degree is still shrouded in mystery, there being so many contradictory descriptions of an action, resulting in the securing of the Pass of Somo Sierra en-route to Madrid.
The Pass was winding, uneven, up hill with an open space for the final 400 metres or so to the summit. The top of the mountain was defended by some 13,000 Spanish soldiers under the command of General Benito San Juan. The Spanish commander also had 13 (some sources say 16) artillery pieces expertly sited to provide a converging fire. The flanks provided opportunity for the defenders to further strengthen their position which they duly took advantage of. Once into the last 400 metres there was very little protection for any would be attackers.
The Emperor had been urged by General Frederic-Henri Walther to wait for the 9e regiment legere together with the 24e and 96e regiments de ligne (the latter under the command of General Pierre Barrois), of General Francois-Amable Ruffin's 1er division of Victors 1er Corps deployed on the flanks, to engage the enemy. However, Napoleon, impatient as always, ordered the first assault to be made by his escort squadron, the Chevaux legers Polonaise. The duty squadron was the 3e comprising just seven officers and 80 troopers.
The first attack was easily repulsed, the French suffering very heavy losses of over 50 per cent in dead and wounded. Among the casualties were Capitaine Jean-Nepumocene Dzjeswanowski who sustained wounds to his thigh and arms from which he died in Madrid on 4 December, Capitaine Pierre Krasinski wounded in the chest, Chef d'Escadron Jean Kozietulski who led the charge had his horse killed under him, and Lieutenant Andre Niegolewski suffered nine bayonet wounds and also had his horse killed. Other officers killed were Lieutenants Krzyzanowski, Rudowski and Rowicki.
The Emperor then called up Montbrun who at that time had no specific command. He was still out of favour with Napoleon through an event that was none of his doing (the second such incident involving the unfortunate Montbrun) While the wounded Capitaine Krazinski reformed the survivors of the depleted squadron, Montbrun assembled the remaining so far unused 1er, 2e, and 4e Squadrons plus 4 squadrons of Chasseurs-a-Cheval. Together with Krazinski and accompanied by General Hippolyte-Marie-Guillaume de Rosnyvinen Pire (at that time ADC to le Marechal Berthier), and Major Philippe de Segur, he led a second assault on the pass. Quite what happened next is still something of a mystery but it would appear that the attack was successful with the aid of the 96e de ligne under Barrois whose men engaged the enemy at exactly the same time. The Poles swept through to cut down the gunners, with the remaining defenders fleeing down the far side of the pass taking their hapless commanding officer with them. For their deeds that day, the Chevaux-legers Polonaise were immediately elevated to Imperial Guard status.
The following year, Montbrun was further decorated as Chevalier de la Couronne de Fer, and was then decorated Comte de l'Empire. He was present at Almeida, Busaco (although not engaged there), Coimbra, Fuentes d'Onoro, and El Bodon before leaving the Peninsular in preparation the Russian Campaign.
On the 30th June 1811 he was made Grand Officier de la Legion d'Honneur.
Having had a glorious career Montbrun, while out on reconnaissance early on the morning of the 7th September 1812, was struck in the lower abdomen by a stray canon shot during a desultory artillery exchange prior to the battle of Borodino, and died a few hours later. Had he survived Borodino there is a strong possibility that he would have been created Marechal.
He was married to Marie-Madeleine-Anatole Morand, the daughter of the excellent infantry commander General Joseph Morand (not to be confused with Davout's legendary divisional commander General Charles-Antoine-Louis-Alexis Morand). Joseph was killed at Lunebourg in April 1813.
Montbrun had two children, a son Louis-Anatole-Napoleon born 1807 and a daughter Louise-Clarisse born in 1812. It is believed that Montbrun never got to see his daughter.
His loss was keenly felt by Napoleon who held Montbrun in very high regard in spite of the two unfortunate instances mentioned earlier for which Montbrun was not to blame. Perhaps the Emperor knew the real truth and circumstances behind each of these incidents after all.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: August 2002
© Copyright 1995-2010, The Napoleon Series, All Rights Reserved.