Marshal Jean Baptiste Bessières, duc d'Istrie (1768-1813) was one of Napoleon's most loyal and popular subordinates, and spent much of his career serving with the Imperial Guard.
Bessières was born in Preissac in Gascony in 1768, the son of a doctor. He was a school friend of Joachim Murat, and was originally intended to enter his father's trade. Although he was a catholic and a conservative (powdering his hair throughout his military career, long after other officers had stopped), he joined the army soon after the revolution.
Bessières was a member of Louis XVI's Constitutional Guard and played a part in the failed defence of the Tuileries in August 1792. He escaped the massacre that followed the fall of the palace and fled from Paris to enlist in the Legion of the Pyrenees. He fought with this unit during the War of the First Coalition, taking part in the war against Spain in 1793-95. He was promoted to captain during this conflict.
In 1795 Bessières's unit was transferred to the Army of Italy. This move played a major role in his future career - the army was commanded by Napoleon, and Murat was on his staff. Murat was able to make sure Bessieres was appointed commander of Napoleon's Guides (the general's bodyguard, formed after Napoleon was nearly captured at the village of Vallegio). He also served with Napoleon in Egypt, now as a colonel on the general's staff. Bessières was fortunate to be one of the few officers to accompany Napoleon on his return to France in 1799 and took part in the coup of 18 Brumaire. In the aftermath of the coup Bessières became second in command of the Consular Guard.
Bessières led the Guard Cavalry at the battle of Marengo, where he took part in the counterattack that turned the tide of the battle.
Although Bessières had never led a unit larger than a regiment in battle he was one of the first batch of marshals created in 1804. In 1805 he was appointed commander of the Imperial Guard (then a comparatively small unit) and led a crucial cavalry charge at Austerlitz, helping to defeat a Russian attack on the Pratzen heights.
Bessières commanded a cavalry corps during the invasion of east Prussian in 1807. Although he didn't perform that well as a corps commander he did lead the charge that saved Murat at Eylau. After Eylau he was once again given command of the Imperial Guard.
By this point in his career Bessières was attracting a certain amount of criticism for his lack of battlefield experience when compared to his fellow marshals (mainly because Napoleon was always reluctant to commit the Guard). In the winter of 1807-1808 he was given command of a corps in an army that was sent into Spain. This gave him a brief chance to shine as an independent commander, and he was victorious in his only battle in that role, at Medina de Rio Seco (14 July 1808).
In March 1809 Bessières was recalled from Spain and given command of the reserve cavalry of the Grande Armée for the campaign against Austria. This gave him a chance to actually take part in the Emperor's battles, and he played an important role at both Aspern-Essling and Wagram.
Just before the battle of Aspern-Essling, Bessières got involved in a major argument with Marshal Lannes, his most bitter opponent in the marshalate. Lannes is said to have accused Bessières of being an incompetent toady. Before the battle Bessieres's cavalry failed to find the Austrians who were close to the Danube. During the battle Bessières led a cavalry charge that helped stop the Austrian centre from splitting the French army in two, while Lannes was mortally wounded. Bessières also carried out a similar cavalry charge at Wagram, Napoleon's last major victory.
Bessières was created Duke of Istira in May 1809, and succeeded Bernadotte as the commander of the forces opposing the disastrous British Walcheren expedition.
In 1810 Bessières opposed Napoleon's divorce from Josephine, partly on religious grounds and partly because of his friendship with the Empress. He was soon back in action and in January 1811 was sent back to Spain as Commander of the Army of North. He had the difficult task of cooperating with Marshal Massena during the Fuentos de Onoro campaign, and was blamed for the Allied victory in the battle. He was recalled to Paris, but was clearly still highly regarded, and he was appointed to command the Imperial Guard cavalry during the Russian campaign of 1812.
During the advance on Moscow the Guard wasn't used, although at Borodino Napoleon was said to have decided to commit the Guard Cavalry but Bessières couldn't be found for an hour and the moment passed. Bessières and the Guard Cavalry were heavily committed during the retreat from Moscow, and the Marshal was personally engaged in a skirmish at Kaluga on 25 October when Cossacks attacked Napoleon's party. By the end of the campaign on 800 of the 6,000 strong force was left.
In the aftermath of the Russian campaign Bessières was appointed commander of the Imperial Guard, but on 1 May 1813 he was killed by a ricocheting ball while inspecting the enemy positions at Weissenfels near Lutzen. Bessières death was seen as a heavy blow in the army, and especially in the Imperial Guard where he had been adored. He was perhaps typical of many of Napoleon's Marshals - a brave capable subordinate who was less able when given an independent command.