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Napoleon's Rabbit Party

John is currently pursuing a bachelor's degree in History from Montclair State University and thoroughly enjoys reading literature.

Napoleon on a successful hunt.

Napoleon on a successful hunt.

Napleon vs. The Rabbits

The day had dawned bright and clear. Napoleon's men stood in the field, weapons at the ready. Mere minutes later they were fleeing from the field of battle, their pursuers hot on their heels. Napoleon and his men leaped into the carriages, grabbing anything at hand to beat off the wicked demons chasing them. After a moment, the carriages began to trundle down the lane in a shameful retreat from the battlefield. It was a complete disaster for Napoleon and brilliant tactical maneuvering by the enemy forces.

The battle was not at Waterloo and the army was not a group of men. Napoleon’s greatest and most embarrassing military defeat was at the hands (paws) of a horde of rabbits.

Treaties of Tilset

In July of 1807, the Treaties of Tilsit were signed. The Treaties put an end to the War of the Fourth Coalition. The first treaty was signed on July 7th, 1807 in the middle of the Neman River. Alexander I (Aleksandr Pavlovich) of Russia and Napoleon Bonaparte met on a raft in the middle of the river, between their two respective armies, and signed the peace treaty. Two days later Frederick William III of Prussia met with Napoleon to sign the second peace treaty. France had won the war and the terms were considered to be an embarrassment to both Prussia and Russia. While Russia’s territory was untouched, Prussia had lost nearly 1/3 of its land. Prussia was also forced to reduce its army to only 40,000 and pay an exorbitant sum to France. The treaty also pledged that Russia would go to war with Britain if they did not accept Napoleon’s terms of peace, but likewise pledged that France would go to war with Turkey if they did not agree with Alexander I’s terms.

The Treaty with Russia being signed in the middle of a river.

The Treaty with Russia being signed in the middle of a river.

The Celebratory Hunt!

In celebration of the treaties and the winning of the Fourth Napoleonic War, Louis-Alexandre Berthier, Napoleon’s Chief of Staff had offered his land for a large celebratory rabbit hunt to be held. The exact date of the hunt is unknown. The rabbits would be procured in large numbers, with some sources claiming as few as 300 and others as many as 1000. As Berthier was the host, it was his duty to purchase the hares. It should be said that Berthier was most likely better versed in warfare than he was in purchasing rabbits. It is impossible to know if it was Berthier or if he had ordered his servants to purchase the rabbits, but in the end, the result was the same—complete embarrassment for Napoleon and laughter for the Russians and Prussians.

The rabbit hunt was supposed to work like this: The rabbits would be released from their cages and upon seeing the humans, run into the field. Said humans would immediately take up the hunt. With a few hundred or thousand rabbits, there was a good chance that everyone would bag at least one hare. This hunt did not follow that procedure. Berthier, or his servants, had made the mistake of buying domestic rabbits for the hunt, not wild rabbits. So when the cages opened and the rabbits poured out, they didn’t run away from the hunting party. They ran toward it.

A successful rabbit hunt from the early 1900's in Texas.

A successful rabbit hunt from the early 1900's in Texas.

Chaos Strikes the Hunt

The hoard of hungry rabbits had taken one look at the group of men and instantly thought of food. As Baron Thiebault describes in his Memoirs, “All those rabbits, which should have tried in vain, even by scattering themselves, to escape the shots which the august hand destined for them, suddenly collected, first in knots, then in a body; instead of having recourse to a useless flight, they all faced about, and in an instant the whole phalanx flung itself upon Napoleon.” Like a well-trained carrot-eating machine, the rabbits split into three groups and engulfed the men. They tried to fire in vain, as the rabbits were too quickly in close quarters, making the guns ineffective. The men grabbed anything at hand to beat off the rabbits—horsewhips, riding crops, and other items. It was all in vain. As Thiebault describes again, “the intrepid rabbits turned the Emperor's flank, attacked him frantically in the rear, refused to quit their hold, piled themselves up between his legs till they made him stagger, and forced the conqueror of conquerors, fairly exhausted, to retreat and leave them in possession of the field.” Napoleon and his men were forced back to the carriages. The rabbits followed them, still trying to entice the hunters to feed them, as they had not been fed that day in preparation for the hunt. It was with great shame and complete bafflement that Napoleon left the battlefield to his opponents- the mighty, hungry, rabbits.

For eight years this was to be Napoleon’s greatest defeat. Several wars and major battles later the battle of Waterloo would unseat the disastrous rabbit hunt and become renowned as the battle that finally undid Napoleon’s strategic genius and ended his career. Ironically, the coalition that defeated Napoleon used roughly the same tactics as the rabbits. They attacked in three flanks and turned an orderly retreat into a rout.


Sources: The Memoirs of Baron Thiébault (late Lieutenant-general in the French Army), 184-187.

The Liverpool Herald, April 6th 1901

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