ER,  France,  Western Europe

Napoleon’s Strangest Battle

bonaparte1Napoleon was arguably one of the greatest military minds of the his age.  However, he was outwitted by a strange opponent.  No, not Wellington at Waterloo (learn more about that here: ) nor a beautiful and dedicated queen (read more about Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz here: ).  He was attacked and almost vanquished by common rabbits.

It was 1807 and Napoleon had just signed the Treaty of Tilsit between France and Russia.  To celebrate this achievement, he wanted to relax and have some fun.  Like most upper class gentlemen of that time, hunting was a popular past time.  According to the memoirs of Paul Thiébault, a general in Napoleon’s army, a hunt was organized at the estate of a courtier Baron Alexandre Berthier.  Hoping to impress, Berthier put on an outdoor luncheon with a rabbit hunt afterward.  He was said to have gotten as many as 3,000 rabbits for Napoleon and all the upper brass to shoot at.  “He had the idea of giving the Emperor some rabbit-shooting in a park which he possessed just outside of Paris, and had the joy of having his offer accepted,” Thiébault wrote.  Small problem.  There were no rabbits on the estate, but Berthier was sure he pick some up.  No big deal.  I’m sure Berthier was hoping to get in good with his boss by showing him a wonderful time at his estate.  What happened was exactly the opposite.

The party had a lovely picnic and then went onto the parkland to commence their shooting.  Servants opened the cages to release the rabbits, and that’s when it all went wrong.  Wild rabbits would have scattered and allowed the party pursue them.  However, Berthier had bought tame rabbits.  When the cages were opened, they saw the group of men and assumed it was feeding time and they were hungry.  They took one look at the master of Europe and decided he had lunch hiding in his pockets and charged.  At first the group thought it was funny, but as the crowd of rabbits grew and got closer they began to be concerned.  Some of the rabbits scurried up Napoleon’s legs and tried to get into his jacket while he beat them off with a riding crop.  It was time to beat a strategic retreat.

The party made for the coaches and according to historian David Chandler, “with a finer understanding of Napoleonic strategy than most of his generals, the rabbit horde divided into two wings and poured around the flanks of the party and headed for the imperial coach.”  Some of the more determined of the rabbits made it into the coach itself.  Napoleon and his party withdrew from the field.  The hungry rabbits had done what most of Europe could not- made Napoleon turn tail and run.