Did you Ever Wonder...

Which of Napoléon Bonaparte's generals did he nicknamed the "Achilles" of the Grande Armée?

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Jean Lannes was born on 10 April 1769 – the same year as one of the most influential leaders in the history of the West, Napoléon Bonaparte (1769-1821). Called by the French Emperor the "Achilles of the Army, his exterminating sword", this mere volunteer who became a soldier of extraordinary bravery would rise rapidly to the highest military ranks becoming a Grand Dignitary of the Empire, literally covered with scars, and a key figure in Napoléon's military success.

Lannes was the son of a groom from Lectoure, a village in the Province of Gascony. He learned to read and write from the village priest and indentured as an apprentice dyer. However, he could not resist the call of the French Revolution as European powers formed a coalition to bring it to an end. The Spanish engaged France from the west and Lannes enlisted in June 1792 serving soon on the Pyrenees frontier as a second lieutenant in the Army of the Pyrenees-Orientals. His fighting spirit became legendary during the 1792-1802 campaigns of Italy to exemplify a standard to duty to front-line leadership. On 14 April 1796, Lannes' outstanding talent caught General Bonaparte's eye, when still a battalion officer at the second Battle of Dego, and decided that he should have his own command. At the famous three-day Battle of Arcole (15-17 November 1796), a wounded Lannes aided Bonaparte to escape the Austrian advance. "No man has ever been or still is more attached to me than Lannes is at heart" assured Napoleon. "More than once he has given me proof of this by exposing himself in perilous circumstances. [...] He has made a rampart of his body in my defense." The Achilles of the Grande Armée reached his zenith of popularity in April 1800 when he was appointed Inspector General of the Consular Guard. The First Consul made him a Maréchal d'Empire in 1804. At Montebello, his 8,000 strong vanguard of the French Army dispersed the 20,000-strong corps of Austrian Field-Marshal Ott, on 10 June 1800, for which he was awarded the title of Duke of Montebello in 1808. In Egypt, he became a close friend of Bonaparte, while during the 1805-1809 campaigns he was his right-hand man. Lannes contributed to Napoléon's political success too. Over the course of the coup d'État of 9-10 November 1799, Bonaparte entrusted him with the task to rally infantry officers and remain in command of the Tuileries. Lannes' companionship during peace time was however not altogether congenial to Napoléon. The Marshal's popularity was seen by the First Consul as a challenge. The future Emperor who wished to distance himself ceased to address Lannes in the second person singular but Lannes continued the practice, treating the First Consul as a fellow soldier and telling him the truth without ceremony.

Though Lannes was known for his exceptional courage, this brilliant commander who forced admiration of his comrades-in-arms on the battlefield hated warfare. He loathed the sight of destruction and violence against civilians, and said to have told his personal doctor: "I fear war and I have told the Emperor. The first sounds of a battle make me shiver, but once I have taken the first step forward, I think of nothing but the task at hand." Also, Lannes remained an ardent republican. On his deathbed, he reproached the Emperor for his political ambitions and martial spirit. Toward the end of the first day of the Battle of Aspern-Essling (21-22 May 1809) near Vienna, he was struck on the legs by a cannon ball which ricocheted off the ground. Despite a swift and competent amputation performed by Dominique-Jean Larrey, Lannes died in agony ten days later at Ebersdorf. Hence, Lannes became the first Maréchal d'Empire to die in combat. Coincidentally on 31 May 1809, Joseph Haydn - composer of the "Mass for Troubled Times", forever associated with Admiral Nelson's victory, on 21 October 1805 – died in Vienna on the same day as that of the Marshal. Lannes' death, with other prominent military personalities, greatly affected the structural organization of the Grande Armée. The 1809 Austrian campaign questioned the French hegemony over most part of the Continental countries. These irreplaceable losses weakened the army's effectiveness in the final period of military campaigns (1809-1815). Lannes' interment in the Panthéon had been planned soon after his death by Napoléon. The procession carrying his corpse departed from Strasbourg on 22 May 1810 to arrive at Les Invalides in Paris on 2 July. On the day of the State Funeral, 6 July 1810 (anniversary date of the Battle of Wagram), Marshals Davout, Moncey, Sérurier and Bessières acted as pallbearers. As shown in the photograph, Lannes was placed in vault number XXII within the crypt at Les Invalides. His heart rests in his in-laws (Guéhéneuc) chapel in the Montmartre Cemetery, third largest necropolis in Paris.

On this day, 31 May 2022, we commemorate the 213th anniversary of the death of Marshal Jean Lannes, the "Achilles" of the Grande Armée.

Christophe Kervégant-Tanguy and André M. Levesque

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