T is for Paul Thiebault

Paul Charles Francois Adrien Henri Dieudonne Thiebault (1769-1846) was a French general of the Napoleonic Wars who wrote a number of military books in his life time and left behind in manuscript Memoires du general baron Thiebault published in 5 volumes in Paris between 1893 and 1895. There is a perfectly good abridgement of his memoirs in English, translated by A J Butler, and published in 2 volumes in London in 1896. Typically, as Management would say, I don’t have any of these in stock. Instead I have three controversial pieces by his son Adolphe (1797-1875) contributed to the Spectateur Militaire in the 1840s. Again typically, they are bound together in the wrappers which that journal used to supply its offprints, broché as the French call it. Booksellers tell the credulous it’s better to retain the original beaten up paper than to rebind such material.

First a summary of Thiebault’s career:

  • 1789 : volunteer in the Feuillant battalion of the Paris National Guard
  • 1792 : volunteer in the battalion of Butte des Moulins
  • 1793 : joins the Army of the North – he is charged with treason
  • 1793 : re-employed in the Army of the North
  • 1795: joins the Army of Italy
  • 1800 : recalled to the colours to serve on Massena’s staff at the Siege of Genoa
  • 1801 : promoted general of brigade
  • 1805 : commands 1st Brigade 1st Division at Austerlitz
  • 1806 : Governor of Fulda in occupied Germany
  • 1807 : promoted general of division, he accompanies Junot to Portugal
  • 1810 : Governor of Salamanca
  • 1811 : Governor of Old Castille
  • 1813 : sent to Hamburg where he commands the 4th Division under Davout
  • 1815 : rallies to Napoleon and commands the Paris garrison
  • 1817 : appointed chief of the Royal Staff Corps
  • 1822 : retires at the same time as Gouvion Saint-Cyr

There are two moments of exceptional interest in his career. First when he was suspected of sympathising with General Dumouriez after the General deserted to the Austrians in 1793. Second when he wasn’t promoted in the aftermath of Austerlitz, a battle in which his brigade had performed well and after which promotions were handed out like confetti. More exceptional than either of these, however, is his love life. Prepare to be perplexed: this is a tangled web.

Thiebault married first Betzy Walker (1867-1824) daughter of Lady Mary Hamilton, author of Munster Village, a novel about a Utopia for fallen women. Lady Mary is worthy of a post of her own. Thiebault met Betzy in 1793 in Lille where she was living with her mother and her stepfather, George Hamilton. Like her mother, who wasn’t actually married to Hamilton, Betzy enjoyed tempestuous relationships. Her son Adolphe was born in 1797. She had several other children of whom two grew to adulthood, Laure-Melanie and Alfred. Adolphe wrote a biography of his grandmother and several pieces about his mother that are now with Lady Mary Hamilton’s papers at Yale. More of Adolphe’s papers are with Indiana University’s collection of Thiebault papers which also has the manuscript of Thiebault’s Relation de l’Expédition du Portugal published in 1817. Adolphe conducted extensive genealogical research, but counting up to nine should have been enough to suggest that Alfred wasn’t legitimate, Thiebault being posted at Tours at the moment of conception while Betzy was at home at Ste Larmes near Paris, the estate Thiebault had bought in 1799 with his loot from Italy. Thiebault divorced Betzy on 7th July 1804. Thereafter Betzy remained close to her sister Isabella while Thiebault remained friendly with Isabella’s husband, the dramatist Etienne Jouy, who had served with him in the Army of the North. I’m not sure how this Gallic arrangement worked. Betzy died in 1824 when she was living in Blois with her brother James Walker who had risen to the rank of Rear Admiral in the Royal Navy.

The Memoires are silent on the subject of Betzy’s affaires, probably because all reference to them was excised by her son Adolphe who seems to have been custodian of the Memoires until his death in 1875. They are far from silent on Thiebault’s affaires, Adolphe being more than a touch disapproving of his father’s ways. In 1823 Adolphe caught his father in flagrante with the governess of his stepsisters. He used this to advantage, compelling Thiebault to stump up for the marriage of his daughter Laure to Jacques Montbrun de Norvins, author of the first serious history of Napoleon.

Thiebault’s longest lasting mistress was Pauline Ricciulli who he met in Naples. According to the Memoires their idyll lasted until March 1802 when he received a final letter from Madame Ricciulli in which she threw his promises in his face. Adolphe’s papers, however, include a letter to Thiebault from his father in December 1802 in which the older Thiebault warns his son that the Baron de Nolli and another “very large” Italian were demanding to meet him so that they could hand over a letter from Pauline and possibly a personal message also.

By Jean-Christophe BENOIST – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11301412

In March 1802, while serving at Tours, Thiebault met Elisabeth (Zozotte), daughter of Francois Chenais, a coffee planter in the Antilles. In 1791 Francois had bought the Chateau de Villandry (above) from the Marquis de Castellane. Francois’ income was diminished by the rising in Santo Domingo which cost him his 400 slaves, but he was by no means a poor man when Thiebault began courting Zozotte. Thiebault married Zozotte two weeks after his divorce from Betzy was finalised in 1804. There’s not a word of criticism about Zozotte in the Memoires. You need to go to Adolphe’s papers to read, “It was not uncommon for them to go weeks at a time without seeing each other during fights”. Thiebault had three daughters by Zozotte. It was the oldest of them, Claire, who arranged for publication of his Memoires shortly before her death in 1894.

All this might suggest that there were tensions in the Thiebault family. Adolphe certainly doctored the Memoires. Claire probably did. There is a brilliant discussion of this and other matters relating to Thiebault’s career in Jack Sigler’s unpublished PhD thesis at https://fsu.digital.flvc.org/islandora/object/fsu%3A176227/datastream/PDF/view

Back to 1793 and the treason of General Dumouriez. Our hero had been introduced by his father to General Jacques O’Moran, a man who figures largely in John Cornelius O’Callaghan’s History of the Irish Brigades in the service of France. O’Moran, a divisional commander under Dumouriez, took the young Thiebault under his wing. On 22nd February he appointed Thiebault lieutenant in the 1st Tournai Regiment. He introduced the young captain to notables like Mme de Genlis. It was in Mme de Genlis’ house that Thiebault met Betzy and her mother Lady Mary Hamilton. As I’ve already remarked, there is a great deal to be said about Lady Mary. Inter alia, she was rumoured to be a British agent in communication with James Harris who was charged with co-ordinating the forces opposed to the French Revolution and more practically with shelling out large sums of British money. I can’t find anything to suibstantiate these rumours. Lady Mary is mentioned only once in the Diaries and Correspondence of James Harris 1st Earl of Malmesbury when in 1797 he records

No sign there of a George Smiley resuming contact with an agent. Still I suppose if Harris really was a spymaster, he’ll habe been so used to covering his tracks that it’s pointless looking for anything other than disinformation in his diaries. All the same, Lady Mary had a reputation that made her dangerous to know, especially if you were a bumptious young Frenchman on the make in revolutionary times.

That was a whole paragraph theoretically about Dumouriez in which I mentioned his name only once. Dumouriez was the architect of the French victories at Valmy and Jemappes when – to everyone’s surprise – untrained but enthusiastic French levies defeated the royalists in exile and their Austrian allies. The spirited and entirely unrealistic image above is from Charles Morris’ One Hundred Years of Conflict. It depicts the Duke of Chartres directing an attack on the Austrian centre. Dumouriez should have been riding high at the beginning of 1793. He wasn’t. The Jacobins in Paris didn’t like his expensive military tactics which involved little more than launching repeated frontal attacks. They also distrusted him for speaking out against the execution of the king. For his part Dumouriez reacted strongly to the decree of 15th December 1792 allowing French armies to loot in conquered territories. He pointed out that this put paid to any chance of collaboration from the Belgians. It was clear that the Jacobins would move to be rid of him as soon as he lost a battle which he did at Neerwinden on 18th March 1793. Sure as the guillotone’s blade the Jacobins responded to the news by sending delegates from Paris. Dumouriez, who had retreated with his army from Tournai to Saint-Amand will have expected their arrival. He and his friends will certainly have been planning to arrest them which is indeed what they did when the delegates arrived.

Towards the end of March Thiebault received a handsome offer from Jean-Baptiste Cyrus de Valence who had commanded the right wing at Neerwinden. One of Valence’s aides de camp had been killed in the battle. Valence offered Thiebault the vacant post and with it an appointment as captain in the crack Chamborant Hussars. According to Thiebault, Valence then gave him four days leave so that he could visit Betzy Walker and his father who were at Lille. Four days is a generous allowance from a general to his new aide de camp especially when the general is well aware that Nemesis is on its way from Paris. It’s more likely Thiebault was given one day’s leave. He does his best to account for the other three. He needed a new uniform. Saint-Amand to Lille is a long journey – 25 miles as a matter of fact. He proposed to Betzy on 1st April – as though that lady gave a toss about formalities of that sort.

Chapter 9 of Thiebault’s volume 1 (English edition) begins

This is typical Thiebault. It neatly avoids mentioning Valence by name although Valence and his divisional commander, the Duke of Chartres, were two of Dumouriez’ main supporters. So we are not required to ask ourselves why Valence hasn’t said a word to his newly appointed aide-de-camp about the impending arrest of the delegates. Also, we’re required to believe that Thiebault has been kept in the dark by Madame de Genlis who was Valence’s mother-in-law. Betzy and her mother have also – and most unusually – held their tongues. Uneasily aware that this farrago of self-exculpating nonsense won’t stand a moment’s scrutiny, Thiebault repeats his claim that Valence had given him four days leave. Later in chapter 9 however he reveals

Number 3 suggests Thiebault had indeed overstayed his leave. The truth of the matter is that Thiebault took himself off to Lille, leaving Valence and Dumouriez in the lurch.

Dumouriez’ coup failed. Quite what he was up to isn’t clear. Most likely he intended to set himself up as a strong man, lead his army to Paris and restore moderate – or at least Girondin – government. He, Chartres and Valence together with Madame de Genlis and others fled to the Austrians. Thiebault had his work cut out explaining away the documents intercepted at Lille. (Dumouriez eventually found refuge in England. He returned to France in 1816 and somewhat tactlessly petitioned to be made a marshal. The Duke of Chartres is better known as Louis Philippe who reigned as King of France from 1830 to 1848. Valence reconciled with Napoleon and led a heavy cavalry division at Borodino. Madame de Genlis also reconciled with Napoleon and spent her declining years writing novels and quarrelling with other authors.)

Thiebault’s concern for his own skin in April 1793 was repeated on 9th November 1799, better known as the 18 Brumaire of the revolutionary calendar. 18 Brumaire was the coup that brought Napoleon Bonaparte to power as First Consul. After General Napoleon Bonaparte returned from Egypt on 16th October, Thiebault met him several times. On 24th October, over breakfast, Napoleon offered him a post on his staff. In his Memoires Thiebault claims not to have understood the offer for what it was, adding “the thought did not occur to me”. However, that seems rather unlikely since Thiebault also wrote, that while escorting him to the door, Napoleon said, “Go and give your address to Berthier.” There had been seditious talk over breakfast. Thiebault resolved to stay well clear. On 6th November he said he was too ill to attend the dinner given by the Directory at the Temple of Victory to honour General Bonaparte.

So far as we can tell from his book, Thiebault did nothing at all on 18 Brumaire itself. He has nothing to say about Napoleon persuading the Council of Five Hundred that a Jacobin coup was imminent and that they must withdraw from Paris to the Chateau of Saint-Cloud for their own safety. He is silent about the resignation of three of the five Directors of Public Safety, the elevation of the two others to the rank of Consul and the appointment of Napoleon himself as First Consul.

Thiebault’s account resumes on 19 Brumaire (9th November) when a friend tells him Napoleon has left for Saint-Cloud with his entourage. This is the vital moment. Will the Council accept the shenanigans of the day before or will they outlaw Napoleon? Thiebault, who has abruptly recovered his health, hurries to the scene. It’s all very tense. Napoleon is looking worried. He asks a major why he has moved his troops. The major replies that he has been ordered to do so by his superior officer. Napoleon snaps, “There are no orders here but mine.” And Thiebault gets it wrong. “Are we to see things like this?” he demands and leaves the room.

But Napoleon was no Dumouriez. He had his own way of dealing with political opposition as the Gillray cartoon above demonstrates. Grenadiers commmanded by Murat emptied the chamber. The Parisian mob did nothing. The revolution was over.

As for Thiebault, though he didn’t realise it, there was no going back. Napoleon often forgave failure on the battlefield, but he never forgot disloyalty. Jean Tulard, author of Nouvelle Bibliograhie Critiques des Memoirs sur l’epoque Napoleoniennes, was no fan of Thiebault. He comments, “His memoirs have eclipsed his other books. Their success has been prodigious. This is undeserved despite some useful remarks on occupied Germany and the war in Spain. Thiebault makes judgements full of bias against his superiors, Soult in particular, and tends to exaggerate his own exploits.” Fair enough. But he was a good soldier who deserved to get further than he did. The shape of his future should have been apparent to him when a week later he offered Napoleon a plan of campaign for Italy. “You know the roads well,” the great man said and nothing more.

lithograph by Carle Vernet – Wiki Commons

And so to Austerlitz, the high point of Napoleon’s career. Thiebault was now a brigadier with the Grande Armee commanding the 1st Brigade of the 1st Division of Marshal Soult’s IV Corps. He was already established as a leading military theorist. His Manuel des Adjudants Généraux et des Adjoints employés dans les Ètat-major (1804) was an early version of the Manuel General du service des Etats-majors (1813) which was rapidly accepted as the standard work on the subject and was used as a textbook when a French staff corps was formed in 1816 by Gouvion Saint-Cyr with Thiebault as its chief. Thiebault’s Journal des opérations militaires du siège et du blocus de Gênes was an eyewitness account of Massena’s defence of Genoa in 1800 which held up the Austrian army for long enough to enable Napoleon to cross the Alps and ultimately win the Battle of Marengo. This book was also well regarded. Unfortunately Thiebault had criticised Soult’s role during the siege. In 1805 he became convinced the Marshal had it in for him. He told his wife Zozotte all about it and she told the world.

By his own account, Thiebault’s first quarrel with Soult in 1805 was on a point of punctilio. Soult put Charles Morand in command of the 1st Brigade of Saint-Hilaire’s 1st Division. Thiebault protested on the ground that he was senior to Morand as a general of brigade. Then, according to Thiebault, Soult said that as a general-in-chief, he had the right to assign officers as he wished. Thiebault pointed out that Soult was a corps commander rather than a general in chief. Soult responded by putting Morand in charge of the divisional advance guard so that Morand could continue to march at the front of the column. When telling this story in his Memoires, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to Thiebault that he’d given the marshal a more immediate reason to be irritated with him.

The main thing Thiebault had to do in the early stages of the 1805 campaign was to march. The Grande Armee left its encampments near Boulogne in late August and reached Vienna, 900 miles away, on 12th November. On the way they overwhelmed an Austrian army at Ulm before a Russian army under Kutusow could help them. The French took 60,000 prisoners at the cost of 2,000 men of their own. No doubt Napoleon expected the Austrians to surrender when they lost their capital. Instead the remaining Austrian forces in Central Europe together with Kutusow’s Russians retreated to join the Russian main force. Napoleon pursued, but was unable to catch them, On 23rd November, recognising that his army was exhausted, Napoleon called a halt at Brunn.

By all rational calculation the French had lost. Napoleon was confronted by a larger allied army that was in better shape than his own. He was over-extended and threatened from the south by the Austrian Archduke Charles who was operating against weaker French forces in Italy. An allied army, paid for by the British, was assembling in Germany to the north. Napoleon added to the impression of weakness by retreating and suggesting an armistice. The position where he took his stand was well chosen. Lannes’ Corps to the north occupied a hilltop that was exceedingly defensible. South of that, strung out along the river Goldbach for about six miles, the French forces looked temptingly weak. That was mainly because Napoleon Davout’s Corps was still out of sight yet further to the south. In addition Napoleon had carefully reconnoitred the Pratzen Heights on the far side of the river. In David Chandler’s map below, showing the position of the two armies on the night before the battle, the Pratzen Heights are occupied by Lichtenstein’s Corps of the allied army.

cut to size from David Chandler Austerlitz: The War of the Three Emperors

The allied occupation of the Pratzen Heights was of no moment. Napoleon thought correctly that the allies would be tempted to attack his weak south flank and that, in order to do so, they would strip the Pratzen Heights of troops. He intended to allow the allied attack to develop. Davout was to reinforce the south flank and hold his position. Finally Soult’s Corps was to occupy the Pratzen Heights and fall on the flank of the allied attack. The battle proceeded exactly to plan. After hard fighting, Davout stopped the allied attack; Ney occupied the Pratzen Heights, repelled a counter-attack and directed some of his brigades downhill to the south. The allied forces were trapped between the French in front and to the north and the frozen ponds and streams to the south and behind them. A third of the allied army was destroyed.

Thiebault played an important part in this overwhelming victory. He was in the thick of the fighting on the Pratzen Heights and led his brigade with distinction. He was seriously wounded by grapeshot shortly before the end of the battle while leading an attack on a Russian gun. Napoleon mentioned his injury in his Thirty-Sixth Bulletin here translated into English in Eighteen Original Journals, “General Thiebault was dangerously wounded; four Russians seized him, and were carrying him off; six wounded Frenchmen, having perceived them, drove the Russians off, and seized the wounded general, exclaiming, ‘It is an honour belonging to us alone to carry a wounded French general’.”

As the senior brigadier of Saint-Hilaire’s division who had performed well,Thiebault had every reason to expect promotion to general of division. In the upshot Morand, who had commanded Saint-Hilaire’s advance guard, was promoted and Thiebault wasn’t. Thiebault blamed Soult. On this occasion he may have been right; not because the marshal bore a grudge over Thiebault’s criticisms of him in his book on Genoa, but rather to demonstrate that he could have Morand promoted even if he couldn’t have Morand at the head of Saint-Hilaire’s first brigade. According to his Memoires, just before Thiebault was invalided to Paris, Soult visited him in hospital. Thiebault charged him directly with bearing a grievance. The marshal was embarrassed but denied it. A few pages later, in one of those jump changes which make you think the Memoires must have been composed at different times, Thiebault repeats his grievances to his friend Junot. Junot is dismissive. “Soult has nothing to do with it; he is not big enough to make the Emperor change his mind.”

And there’s the rub. The secret enemy isn’t Soult. Nor is it Berthier who Thiebault also believes to harbour an ancient grudge. (The story of this imaginary enmity is too tedious and improbable to relate.) It is the Emperor himself. Unlike Thiebault, Napoleon isn’t at all thin-skinned; however he has an elephantine memory. He is no hurry to promote Thiebault. And why? Because ever since 18 Brumaire there has been the faintest of black marks against Thiebault’s name. And that’s where Berthier really may come into the story: there may quite literally have been a little black mark next to Thiebault’s name in Berthier’s celebrated filing system.

I return to the beginning and to the obituary in the Spectateur and two other articles penned by Thiebault’s son Adolphe bound together in blue paper wrappers. Adolphe was replying to two articles written by the Russian General Danilewski and published in the Spectateur Militaire in 1846. He writes:

What Adolphe is saying here is that his father’s notes aren’t that easy to transcribe, but he’ll do his best with what he’s got, so once again it’ll be his father who speaks. I’m not going to get into the nitty gritty of Thiebault v Danilewski. The debate about who did exactly what at Austerlitz goes on to this day. What’s important is that Adolphe has difficulty making sense of his father’s notes. However, the best part of half a century later, his step-sister Claire, assisted by F Calmettes, admits to no problem at all working them up into three fat volumes 8vo.

Colonel John Elting in Swords Around A Throne smelt a rat. He says the Memoires were “ghosted” by Calmettes. At the very least, someone who isn’t Thiebault has worked on them. My thanks to Jack Sigler whose thesis I have plundered for facts. It’s well worth reading (though long) at https://fsu.digital.flvc.org/islandora/object/fsu%3A176227/datastream/PDF/view Needless to say my views – especially the wrong-headed ones – aren’t his. I’ll end with what Alain Pigeard has to say about Thiebault in Les Campagnes napoliennes, “He is the author of a celebrated memoir written with a pen dipped in vinegar not only for soldiers dead on the field of honor, but for his own few friends.”

Thiebault is buried in division 39 of Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

One thought on “T is for Paul Thiebault

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: