Friday 1 May 2015

Jean-Baptiste Bessières: Death by Ricochet

Jean-Baptiste Bessières, 1st Duc d' Istria (Prayssac, France, 6th August 1768 – Weißenfels, Saxony-Anhalt, 1st May 1813)

It feels like a while since we make the acquaintance of Napoleon and his many generals but today, we find ourselves back on the battlefield to witness the final moments of Jean-Baptiste Bessières, a Marshal of France and valued friend of the Emperor.

Jean-Baptise Bessières by Delpech, 1830
Jean-Baptise Bessières by Delpech, 1830
Bessières distinguished himself in his military service and, after serving as captain in Italy, came to the attention of Napoleon, who took a great interest in the developing career of this dedicated, cool-headed soldier. Serving under Napoleon, he impressed time and time again and, in 1804, their close friendship resulted in Bessières being promoted to the rank of Marshal of France.

Of course, even the most celebrated soldier is not immortal yet Bessières seemed to enjoy breathtaking good luck time and again. When his very horse was shot from beneath him at Wagram, the Marshal escaped uninjured; among other victories he led the forces that opposed the English during their disastrous Walcheren expedition and all the time, his friendship with Napoleon grew deeper. 

However, fate was to come calling on Bessières in 1813, when he joined Joachim Murat in Naples. Just three days after he took command of the cavalry, Bessières was struck by a musketball that ricocheted off a wall and ploughed into his chest. The Marshal died in seconds.

Napoleon felt the loss of his friend deeply and always wondered what might have been; following his most famous defeat he looked back on that fateful day and mused, "If I had Bessières at Waterloo, my Guard would have decided the victory".

A fine epitaph indeed.

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