The Emperor vs. Flopsy

February 15, 2016

We remember many things about Napoleon Bonaparte; we remember that he was the Emperor of the French for a bit (about a decade), and that he led military campaigns that swept across large swaths of continental Europe, bringing 70 million people under his direct control in a level of consolidation not seen for over a millennium.  If you’ve watched much Eddie Izzard, you remember that he suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the Russians and the frigid Russian winter.   We know that he was exiled to the island of Alba in 1814, but escaped to regain control of the French government, and was again exiled by the British, this time to the island of St. Helena, where he would die in 1821.


Most people think they know that Napoleon was short and had a complex about it, but the truth is that his supposed shortness was British propaganda.   The French pouce and the British inch were two separate units of measurement (the French measurement being 2.71 cm/inch and the British measurement being our current standard of 2.54 cm/inch), and so when the French said that he was 5’2”, they were telling the truth according to their measurements, and the British were only too happy to repeat that number without dealing with the pesky issue of unit conversion.  In reality, Napoleon was what we would call 5’6”; while he would not be considered tall today, a man of 5’6” was of a perfectly average height at the time.


Jacques-Louis David's famous oil painting, "Napoleon Crossing the Alps." Early 1800s. 


What most people don’t remember about Napoleon, however, is that – as brilliant a military commander and strategist as he was – he once lost a battle to rabbits.  Now, when I say rabbits, I’m not using any sort of code word for elite soldiers or a high-speed stream cipher, or any other misleading use of the word.  I’m talking about rabbits: Bugs Bunny, Peter Rabbit, long ears, voracious appetites, noted breeders.  You know… rabbits.


In July 1807, Napoleon had recently signed the Treaties of Tilsit, which ended hostilities between the French Empire and Imperial Russia, so naturally, he wanted to celebrate.  Celebrations were a little bit different two hundred years ago than they are today, so instead of some victorious bar-hopping or bouncy-castle jumping, Napoleon’s Chief of Staff, Alexandre Berthier, offered to set up a giant rabbit hunt.  Napoleon immediate accepted the offer; Berthier then began to puzzle out a solution to the teeny tiny issue of not having any wild rabbits anywhere on his estate.


Berthier quickly decided that his best bet was to bus in rabbits, so he started gathering.  Estimates vary, but he likely collected a herd of between one and three thousand rabbits.  He positioned them in cages along the fringes of the field where the hunt was to take place, served Napoleon and his men a grand breakfast, and released the rabbits.


That’s when things started to go horribly wrong.  The expectation that the rabbits would immediately scatter was confounded by the fact that Berthier had gathered domestic rabbits, rather than wild ones, in the hopes that it would make killing them easier.1  In other words, these rabbits were used to people, and they were fully expecting to be fed their daily cabbage… and in their little beady eyes, Napoleon was just the man to feed them.  Rather than running for their lives, the rabbits “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.”2  The rabbits swarmed Napoleon, climbing up his legs and jacket.  Napoleon tried to shake them off, but the rabbits would not be denied.


 Imagine 3000 of these things coming straight at you.  And try not to smile in anticipation.  


Berthier, shocked and horrified, gathered coachmen, each armed with a bullwhip, in an attempt to assist the stricken Emperor.  They cracked their whips, hoping to scare the rabbits, and managed to free Napoleon enough to allow him to run for his carriage.  The rabbits gave chase.  In the words of historian David Chandler, “with a finer understanding of Napoleonic strategy than most of his generals, the rabbit horde divided into two wings and poured round the flanks of the party and headed for the Imperial Coach.”3


Napoleon was left with no choice but to beat a hasty and humiliated retreat, flinging the last of the furry invaders from his coach as he went, “only thankful that some of them had not succeeded in scaling the rumble of the Emperor’s carriage and getting themselves borne in triumph to Paris.”4 


He never forgave Berthier for this experience, and found bitter amusement, from then on, in blaming Berthier for subsequent hunting accidents: when Napoleon later accidentally wounded a man in the eye during a hunt, he forced Berthier to accept responsibility for it. 


The moral of this story is: trying too hard to impress the boss has a serious chance of backfiring on you.


1 Connelly, Owen. Blundering to Glory: Napoleon’s Military Campaigns, pg. 2


2 Paul Charles François Adrien Henri Dieudonné baron Thiébault. The Memoirs of Baron Thiebault, pg. 185.


3 Chandler, David. The Campaigns of Napoleon, pg. 594.


4 Thiebault, pg. 186.

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