Napoleon and his encounter with rampaging rabbits provides an amusing nugget of European history.
The Mighty Napoleon of France
Most people think that the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 was the most crushing defeat that the Emperor of France Napoleon Bonaparte suffered but there was another battle in 1807 that arguably ranks as his most humiliating. Napoleon, then considered to be the most powerful man in Europe, was defeated by a marauding army of rabbits during a rabbit hunt.
Napoleone di Buonaparte (1769-1821) left behind the modest life of an Italian nobleman’s son on the island of Corsica to attend military school in France where he learned French for the first time aged ten. He progressed through the ranks of the army, supported the French Revolution and rose in prominence in the 1790s achieving great military victories. He was elected the Emperor of the French in May 1804 with 99% of the vote.
Napoleon Celebrates His Greatness
Summer 1807 brought the end of the War of the 4th Coalition when France defeated Russia at the Battle of Friedland on the 14th June 1807. The signing of the two-part Treaty of Tilset by Napoleon and Tsar Alexander I of Russia (1777-1825) was completed on the 7th July and Prussia’s leader Friedrich Wilhelm III (1770-1840) added his signature on the 9th July. The French emperor decided that a celebration was necessary for himself, French dignitaries and his key military officers. (The rank-and-file soldiers were unsurprisingly not on the guest list.) Napoleon asked his skilled Chief-of-Staff Louis-Alexandre Berthier (1753-1815) to arrange a day of rabbit hunting with a luncheon in the open air.
As with most stories, the exact number of rabbits that Berthier gathered on the hunting ground has been exaggerated with its retelling but Berthier collected several hundred, perhaps thousands, of rabbits and placed them in cages at the edges of a field so that when his emperor took aim he would find his prey plentiful and enjoy an excellent day’s sport. Napoleon could be difficult and he wasn’t a renowned shot so Berthier was meticulous in preparing the way for a jubilant emperor. Or so he believed.
Military Leader Under Rabbit Attack
On the day of the shoot, the rabbits were released from the cages as the hunting party with gun bearers and beaters took their positions. The first of the released rabbits acted unexpectedly. Instead of bounding away from the party of gun-toting men, the rabbits bounced merrily towards them. At first, Napoleon and his guests were amused. Why weren’t the rabbits running? Did they want to be rabbit stew?
Their mirth turned to discomfort and then fear as all of the rabbits followed the first few and formed a formidable furry army that moved in a wave towards the world’s most eminent soldier. Many clustered around Napoleon’s feet, some began to clamber up his legs and a few enterprising rabbits reached his jacket. He tried to swat them away with his riding crop but the rabbits were undeterred. Napoleon’s guests picked up sticks and attempted to liberate him. Again, the rabbits did not flee, they stuck close to their man. There was gunfire but no rabbit retreat. No one dared to laugh at the bizarre sight of their besieged emperor. The rabbits grew less friendly. They appeared to be hopping mad that they were being met with resistance.
Napoleon's Waterloo #1
A petrified Napoleon bolted, as quickly as the rabbits would allow him, to his carriage. He left his guests to fend off the bunny army. Cleverly, almost as though they had studied Napoleon’s military techniques, the rabbits divided into two regiments and made determinedly towards Napoleon’s carriage. The coachmen used their whips to scare them but to no avail.
Some adventurous rabbits managed to jump into the carriage with Napoleon, who had presumably seen far too many rabbits already that day. Only when the carriage was set in motion did the rabbits concede. The few invaders in the carriage were thrown out of the window by the emperor.
The Cause of the Emperor's Embarrassment
The explanation for the rabbit hunt debacle was simple although Berthier did not readily accept blame. He was acclaimed for his organisational skills but on this occasion, Berthier had made a monumental error. Instead of sourcing wild hares and rabbits in the field, he’d elected to take a less labour-intensive route. Berthier and his men had approached the local farmers about securing a spectacular array of rabbits. What he hadn’t realised, even as they popped the rabbits in their cages to be ready for the shoot, was that the farmed rabbits were tame.
The furry friends did not comprehend the risk to them when the hunt began. Whenever these rabbits saw a human approaching it was with food so when they looked at Napoleon and his party they supposed that he was delivering food, so why would they not run towards him to secure the tastiest nibbles? Their subsequent pursuit of the man to his carriage where the food might have been was, as it transpired, wishful thinking.
The rabbits and Berthier lived to see another day but he died in mysterious circumstances on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo. The question remains whether he fell, jumped or was pushed out of an upstairs window to meet his end. (Rabbit revenge?)
Napoleon passed away in exile in 1821. Presumably, he never kept a pet rabbit.
- The Time Napoleon Was Attacked by Rabbits | Mental Floss
- Napoleon's Battle Against Rabbits | All About History
© 2021 Joanne Hayle