Continuing with his four part series on The use of the saber in the army of Napoleon, Dr. Bert Gevaert now presents the third part:
Individual martial prowess on the battlefield
Stories about individual swordsmen are the most fascinating ones and in this chapter I will briefly present some spectacular stories of individual sword or saber wielding bravery on the battlefield. The power of cavalry lied in a mass force of thousands of armed men, augmented by the speed and weight of their horses, which made them into a huge and heavy hammer to smash the enemy, as the most famous cavalry charge of the army of Napoleon demonstrated in Eylau (7-8 February 1807). Here the cavalry of Murat sabred down the Russian artillery and made a difficult battle into a questionable and bloody French victory.
Nevertheless, there are several stories of individual martial bravery and skill. Sometimes individual soldiers even challenged their enemies for a personal duel in the empty space between the opposing lines of battle (Elting, 1997, p. 602).
Jean-Louis Michel (1785-1865)
The best swordsman ever in the army of Napoleon was without doubt the mulatto Jean-Louis Michel (1785-1865), who was born in Haiti and came to France in 1796 as ‘un pupille de régiment’. Only eleven years old, probably a war orphan, looking fragile, he learned to fence from the fencing master of the regiment, the Flemishman M. d’Erape. His talents were soon discovered and soon Jean-Louis was known for his omitting of everything in fencing that he saw as superfluous: saluting, contre-coups, pauses… In 1804 he was insulted for being a mulatto swordsmen and Jean-Louis was forced to duel. His opponent could use a normal sword, but Jean-Louis preferred a buttoned foil by which he gave his opponent a terrible punishment. He smashed him so hard in the face that he was knocked over and left bleeding on the floor.
But his greatest achievement had yet to come. In 1812 the Italians who were fighting under Napoleon in Spain, refused to support their French colleagues and started to fight against them. It didn’t take long for the first victims to fall, so the officers had to find a solution: it was decided that fifteen fencing masters and provosts from the Italians and Frenchmen had to fight in succession until only one regiment didn’t have any man left. The two quarrelling teams went outside Madrid and some thousand men (and their families) watched the 30 people fighting for their lives. Jean-Louis fought on the French side against his first opponent, the Italian Giacomo Ferari, a tall man with a lot of combat experience. Jean-Louis defeated him without any problem, waited two minutes for the next opponent and kept on fighting until someone would injure him deadly… but that was not so easy. No less than 13 Italians were dead or seriously wounded and Jean-Louis was still standing! Though he was also bleeding and wanted to defeat the last two Italians, who were full of fear. Then it was decided to stop the fight and the army shouted “Vive Jean-Louis!” “Vive le 32ième” (the regiment of the French)! Vive le 1er (the regiment of the Italians)! Jean-Louis shouted back: “We are all one and the same family. Vive l’Armée!”
Jean-Louis retired to Metz, where he opened a fencing school, which later moved to Montpellier. Until his death, and even blind – so he had to do everything by touch- Jean-Louis kept on teaching (Cohen, 2010, p. 97-99)!
Jean-Baptiste Guindey/Guindet (1785-1813)
One of the most famous stories about martial skill, mentioned in several Napoleonic memoires, is told about sergeant Jean-Baptiste Guindey/Guindet (1785-1813), quartermaster of the 10th Hussars. During the Battle of Saalfeld (10 October 1806) Guindey was confronted with the Prussian prince Louis (Lewis) Ferdinand. Baron de Marbot (1782-1854) gives us a detailed description of the fight:
Even de Brack mentions this fight:
“Prince Lewis might yet have fallen back on the Prussian force which was occupying Jena, but having been the prime instigator of the war it seemed to him unseemly to retire without fighting. He was cruelly punished for his temerity. Marshal Lannes, cleverly taking advantage of the high ground under which Prince Lewis had so imprudently deployed his troops, first played upon them with artillery, and when they were shaken sent forward his masses of infantry, who, rapidly descending from the high ground, poured like a torrent on the Prussian battalions and broke them up in a moment. Prince Lewis, losing his head, and probably seeing the mistake he had made, tried to repair it by putting himself at the head of his cavalry, with which he impetuously charged the gth and 10th Hussars. At first he gained a slight advantage, but our hussars, returning to the charge with fury, threw back the Prussian cavalry into the marshes, their infantry at the same time flying in confusion before ours. In the middle of the scuffle Prince Lewis found himself engaged hand-to-hand with a sergeant of the 10th Hussars, named Guindet. Being summoned to surrender, he answered with a sword-stroke which laid open the Frenchman’s face, whereupon the other ran the prince through the body, killing him on the spot” (Butler, , 2013, I, 178)
“As soon as you have delivered the thrust, if the enemy does not surrender, deal him a backhanded blow; it was thus that Guindet killed the Prince of Prussia at Saalfield” (de Brack, , 1876, p. 52).
For his action Guindey received the cross of honour, though Napoleon regretted that the prince was not taken alive. When Guindey heard about this – he was in the hospital when Napoleon uttered his regrets – he replied that Louis-Ferdinand was not really in the mood to surrender… (Parquin, (, 1892, p. 45)
Unfortunately, Guindey lost his own life in the Battle of Hanau (20 October 1813): his body was entirely covered with saber wounds and he was surrounded by several dead Bavarian horsemen, whom he made pay terribly for his death (Parquin, (, 1892), p. 142)
Jean Baptiste Antoine Marcellin de Marbot (1782-1854)
Marbot, who provided us the story of Guindey, was also involved in a very serious saber fight, when he was fighting in Spain (1811) under general Masséna.
“So, being sure that the orders had been conveyed, I was about to return, when a young English light infantry officer trotted up on his pony, crying, ‘Stop, Mr. Frenchman; I should like to have a little fight with you!’ I saw no need to reply to this bluster, and was making my way towards our outposts, 500 yards in arrear, while the Englishman followed me, heaping insults on me. At first I took no notice, but presently he called out, ‘I can see by your uniform that you are on the staff of a marshal, and I will put in the London papers that the sight of me was enough to frighten away one of Masséna’s or Ney’s cowardly aides-de-camp!’
I admit that it was a serious error on my part, but I could no longer endure this impudent challenge coolly, so, drawing my sword, I dashed furiously at my adversary. But just as I was about to meet him, I heard a rustling in the wood, and out came two English hussars, galloping to cut off my retreat. I was caught in a trap, and understood that only a most energetic defence could save me from the disgrace of being taken prisoner, through my own fault, in sight of the whole French army, which was witness to this unequal combat.
So I flew upon the English officer; we met; he gave me a slash across the face, I ran my sword into his throat. His blood spurted over me, and the wretch fell from his horse to the ground, which he bit in his rage. Meanwhile, the two hussars were hitting me all over, chiefly on the head. In a few seconds my shako, my wallet, and my pelisse were in strips, though I was not myself wounded by any of their blows.
At length, however, the elder of the two hussars, a grizzled old soldier, let me have more than an inch of his point in my right side. I replied with a vigorous backhander; my blade struck his teeth and passed between his jaws, as he was in the act of shouting, slitting his mouth to the ears. He made off promptly, to my lively satisfaction for he was by far the braver and more energetic of the two. When the younger man found himself left alone with me, he hesitated for a moment, because as our horses’ heads were touching, he saw that to turn his back to me was to expose himself to be hit. However, on seeing several soldiers coming to my aid, he made up his mind, but he did not escape the dreaded wound, for in my anger I pursued him for some paces and gave him a thrust in the shoulder, which quickened his speed. During this fight, which lasted less time than it has taken to tell it, our scouts had come up quickly to set me free, and on the other side the English soldiers had marched towards the place where their officer had fallen.
The two groups were firing at each other, and I was very near getting in the way of the bullets from both sides. But my brother and Ligniville, who had seen me engaged with the English officer and his two men, had hastened up to me, and I was badly in want of their help, for I was losing so much blood from the wound in my side that was growing faint, and I could not have stayed on my horse if they had not held me up. As soon as I rejoined the staff, Masséna said, taking my hand, ‘Well done; rather too well done! A field officer has no business to expose himself in fighting at the outposts.’ The wound in my cheek was not important; in a month’s time it had healed over, and you can scarcely see the mark of it along my left whisker ” (Butler, , 2013, II, 146-147)
Grenadier Hennin (died 1805)
Marbot managed to defeat three cavalry men in one fight, but what about grenadier Hennin, who killed seven Austrians with his saber in the Battle of Ulm (16-19 October 1805) as recorded by Nicolas Devout (1770-1823) in one of his letters to marshal Berthier (1753-1815)?
Hennin, who was fighting in the 108th line, was standing in the middle of an Austrian troop of soldiers and tried to grab their flag. His own musket was broken so only his saber was left to fight with. With success he killed seven enemies and maybe he could have killed more but his weapon broke and he was killed…
Davout adds: “cette mort est digne d’un grenadier français “(this death is suitable for a French grenadier) (Blocqueville, A.L.(,2013), p. 70-71).
Sometimes the name of the individual swordsman is lost, as is the case of an anonymous French officer (or is he called M. Lealteur?) who defended the emperor the day after the Battle of Maloyaroslavets (24 October 1812). Sergeant Bourgogne records how this officer was defending Napoleon when he was surrounded by cossacks. Using his saber, the Frenchman killed one Cossack and wounded several of them but lost his weapon and military hat. Because he didn’t have any weapon left, he took a lance of the enemy and kept on fighting. A grenadier à cheval saw what was happening and took his comrade for a Russian and pierced him with his saber. The grenadier realized what he had done and wanted to kill himself by taking as many enemies with him as possible, but dind’t succeed. Now he became a hero and killed many of them with his saber, was covered with blood and when there was no enemy left he went to his own men to ask about the officer he wounded. Luckily the officer survived his wound and could return to France (Cottyn and Hénault, ,1910, p. 59-60).
Marie-Thérèse Figueur (1774-1861)
Most of the deeds of arms were performed by men, but sometimes remarkable women appear! One of them was Mademoiselle Marie-Thérèse Figueur (1774-1861), also known as Madame Sans-Gêne (the lady without shame), who served as a women dragoon in the army of Napoleon. She dictated her memories to a certain Saint Germain, so we are well – but maybe not neutrally – informed about her life (Figueur, 1842). When she was soldier in the revolutionary Army of the Eastern Pyrenees, she had to flee for the enemy and rallied her comrades to follow her. Suddenly someone points a gun at her, but Madame Sans-Gêne is not afraid: she rushes to her opponent and hits him in the throat with her saber, in her words: “ c’est ce qu’en langage militaire nous appelons le coup du cochon (this is what we call in military language: the cut of the pig, Figueur, 1842, p. 63). ” Marie-Thérèse didn’t even notice that his bullet hit her helmet and messed up her hair on the left side! Later, in a battle against the Austrians (1799: Battle of Savigliano), she receives four sword blows on her back, but she was only lightly wounded. When she is taken away as prisoner, some farmers try to take off her wet boots and this causes her, in combination with the four wounds on her back, the most terrible pain of her entire life: “it was as if the ruffian was skinning my legs” (Figueur, 18142, p. 96).
During her career, several of her horses were shot down under her and she was also taken prisoner, twice by Austrian and twice by Spanish soldiers.
The last example of martial prowess is a truly exceptional story but almost forgotten in history. In 1805 a detachment of the French Seventh Hussar Regiment was attacked by a much larger group of Russian soldiers and was about to collapse. One of the fighters was Madeleine Kintelberger who lost her husband Joseph Kintelberger in the fight and who was now hopelessly trying to protect her six children. While her children were sheltering behind the ammuniton of the regiment, her husband dying in front of her eyes after he was struck by a cannon ball, and being pregnant for about six months, Madeleine was also hit by a cannon ball which almost tore away her right arm below the shoulder. Nevertheless Madeleine took up a sword, wielded it expertly and fought off several mounted attackers! Meanwhile she was bleeding from her arm and got injured again by saber cuts and lance wounds.
The cossacks wanted to take this exceptional woman alive and shot her in the leg, but this didn’t stop the brave lady from fighting, so they shot her in the other leg. Then the cossacks captured her and her wounded children and escaped from the battelfield. In captivity her arm was amputated, her other thirteen wounds were taken care of and in prison she gave birth to a twin! In 1806 she could return to her homeland, because of the temporary peace between France and Russia. General Jean Rapp provided a luxury coach to transport Madeleine and her children back to France where she received an extraordinary pension by Napoleon himelf, who never saw such act of bravery (Cardoza, 2010, p. 1-2). Thomas Cardoza, who writes about this story, adds:
“Nevertheless, despite her almost unbelievable courage and suffering, today Madeleine Kintelberger is totally forgotten. She appears in no history books, no monument reminds us of her deeds, and even in her own country she remains completely unknown.” (Cardoza, 2010, p. 2)
Other ways of using the saber: punishment and prize
Sometimes the flat of the blade was used to punish prisoners, or as in the case of Marie-Thérèse Figueur, the flat was used to encourage her not to slow down when she was taken away as prisoner (Figueur, 1842, p. 107). Sergeant Bourgogne tells the story about a Russian officer who uses the flat of his saber on his own soldiers who where trying to flee from the battlefield (Cottyn and Hénault, ,1910, p. 112)
When he was still general, Napoleon had the custom of giving honorary swords and pistols to brave and valliant soldiers. There was some discussion if he really had the authority to do so, but nevertheless he gave valuable, beautifully decorated and inscribed weapons to his soldiers already in 1797 (In the Italian campaing he had given about one hundred sabers to his heroes) and in 1798. (Gallaher, 2008, p. 112; Crowdy, 2015, p. 135-136), In this practice, Napoleon was not new, because already in 1796 the Directory government already started to give ornate weapons to brave soldiers or units (Crowdy, 2015, p. 136).