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Berthier was one of Napoleon's clossest comrades and although he proved poor at commanding troops on the field of battle he excelled at staff work and was a great asset to his master. Born 20th November 1753 at Versailles he joined the army at the age of thirteen and initially served in a technical branch of the army as an ingenieur geographe although he did serve in variety of corps both in infantry and cavalry and was wounded twice during his service.
He also served under Lieutenant-General Count Jean Rochambeau during the American War of independence and fought along side the American Colonists. He saw little battlefield service after this and was a small, rather portly man who bit his nails. He survived the period of the Terror in France with only a brief suspension from duties and returned to duty in March 1795 as a general of Brigade and chief of staff of the Armies of Italy and the Alps. Later that year he was promoted to General of a Division.
From when Napoleon arrived in Italy until 1814 he was employed by Napoleon as his chief of staff. For his service he was well rewarded with money, a princedom and a wife of royal blood. He and Napoleon were inseparable and many soldiers nicknamed him the Emperor’s Wife. His attention to detail and skill as a staff officer were essential to Napoleons success. Napoleons armies required vast amounts of logistical support and organisation and Berthier and his staff provided this and a real advantage over many of Napoleon’s foes. Despite his logistical brilliance when given a field command in 1809 he admitted he was unsure of what to do next and had to ask Napoleon for aid.
He proved loyal and efficient to Napoleon till the end but the 1812 and 1814 campaigns took a terrible price on France and Berthier was in a position to know exactly what this cost was. He was glad of Napoleon’s first Abdication and was rewarded by the restored Bourbon monarchy, even escorting the King to safety during the 100 Days campaign. Napoleon was shocked when Berthier did not rally to his cause in 1815 and his unwise appointment of Marshal Soult as his chief of staff contributed to his defeat at Waterloo.
Berthier died under suspicious circumstances in 1815 after falling from a high window. Some claim he was assassinated, others that he committed suicide at the thought of allied troops marching towards France, others that he fell due to ill health. The idea that he was killed on Napoleon’s orders seems unlikely, as Napoleon was distraught when informed of Berthier’s death.
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