Marshal Jean Lannes, 10 April 1769-1809

Marshal Jean Lannes (1769-1809) was one of Napoleon's most able generals, and probably his closest friend amongst his marshals. His death at Aspern-Essling meant that Napoleon had to fight his later campaigns without one of his most capable subordinates.

Lannes was short, blunt, outspoken, profane and ill mannered, but his rise was an example of the benefits of allowing talent to rise to the top. He was best known for his abilities on the offensive. He was the marshal held in the highest esteem by Napoleon, and the only one allowed to address Napoleon using the informal 'tu'.

Portrait of Marshal Jean Lannes, 10 April 1769-1809
Portrait of
Marshal Jean Lannes,
10 April 1769-1809

Lannes was the son of a farmer and livery-stable keeper from Lectoure, in the south-west of France. He was apprenticed to a dyer, but in 1782 he joined the 2nd Gers volunteer regiment. He was soon elected as sergeant-major of the battalion, then as lieutenant. He was promoted to colonel by the end of 1793 and command of his battalion by 1795.

Between the spring of 1793 and the spring of 1795 he fought with the Army of Pyrenees. He performed well at the battle of St. Laurent (13 August 1794), a French victory that ended the last major Spanish offensive of the war, where he commanded a battalion of grenadiers.

After the end of the war against Spain he was ordered to join the French Army of Italy, and in November 1795 he was given command of a brigade. 1795 also saw his first marriage, to the daughter of a family with whom he had stayed while fighting against Spain. This was an unsuccessful marriage.

Lannes took part in the moderately successfully French offensive of 1795, advancing along the coast and endangering the Austrian left wing. However this campaign ended after the indecisive French victory at Loano.

Lannes distinguished himself during Napoleon's first campaign in Italy in 1796-97. In May 1796 he was promoted to general of brigade. He took part in the move along the south bank of the Po to Piacenza, where he was the first man to reach the north bank of the river on 7 May (before being promoted). He fought at Bassano (8 September 1796), commanding the leading demi-brigade in Masséna's division during a French victory that ended the second Austrian attempt to raise the siege of Mantua. He performed well at Arcola (15-17 November 1796), where he was wounded twice. During this period he was also used to defeat Royalist factions in Marseilles and against Italian partisans in the areas around Pozzolo and Arquarta, where he demonstrated his ruthless streak.

Lannes was chosen to take part in Napoleon's expedition to Egypt in 1798. He was wounded in the neck during the siege of Acre and again at the battle of Aboukir (25 July 1799), where he led an infantry force that captured a key Turkish redoubt. He also brutally crushed a revolt in Cairo. He was one of only a handful of men chosen to accompany Napoleon when he returned to France in August 1799. Of his fellow generals only Murat and Berthier accompanied the party.

Marshal Lannes at Essling, 1809
Marshal Lannes at Essling, 1809

Lannes supported Napoleon's coup d'etat of 18 Brumaire, late in 1799, commanding the troops posted in Paris. He was rewarded with command of the Consular Guard. Soon afterwards he divorced his wife, after she gave birth to a child conceived while Lannes was in Egypt.

Lannes, now a general of division, commanded the advanced guard during Napoleon's march across the Alps into Italy in 1800. He led the Consular Guard through the Great Saint Bernard Pass. On 16 May he defeated an Austrian outpost at Saint Remy near the top of the pass. On 18 May he defeated the garrison of Chatillon. He was then held up by the fortress of Bard, but after Napoleon arrived Lannes was sent on past the fort, defeating another small Austrian force at Ivrea (24 May 1800). Fort Bard itself held out until 2 June, blocking Napoleon's artillery which couldn't use the same rough road as the rest of the army.

He defeated the Austrians at Romano-Chiusella (26 May 1800) and Montebello (11 June 1800) in his first independent command. This victory was later commemorated when he was made duc de Montebello in Napoleon's Imperial Aristocracy. Lannes went on to play a major part in the French victory at Marengo, taking part in the first part of the battle, and in General Desaix's victorious counterattack.

The next few years weren't so successful. He was conned by military contractors who overcharged him for the uniforms of the Consular Guard. Napoleon insisted that Lannes repay the extra money himself, and he needed help from General Augereau to clear his debts. He resigned his command of the Consular Guard. Possibly in an attempt to keep him away from the increasingly formal Consular and then Imperial Court, Lannes was appointed as Ambassador to Portugal, where he wasn't a great success. He was able to bully the Portuguese into firing hostile officials and signing a treaty of neutrality.

On 19 May 1804 Lannes was created a Marshal, one of the first batch of new Marshals to be created since the revolution. He was given command of a corps in the army at the Camp of Boulogne in March 1805 and would have commanded the advance guard during the planned invasion of Britain.

During the War of the Third Coalition Lannes commanded V Corps of the Grande Armée. His infantry and Murat's cavalry made the first French move, a diversionary advance designed to draw the Austrians as far west as possible. He then took part in the encircling movement that forced the Austrian surrender at Ulm. His troops took part in the first significant fighting of the campaign, at Wertigen (8 May 1805), where 2,000 prisoners were taken.

He took part in the advance along the south bank of the Danube towards Vienna, and along with Murat managed to trick the Austrians into surrendered the Tabor bridge over the Danube intact. He then took part in the pursuit of the Russians who were retreating north from Vienna towards reinforcements, and fought at the action of Hollabrunn (15-16 November 1805), a delaying action that allowed the two Russian forces to unite.

In the build-up to Austerlitz he was sent forward to that town, to attract the Russian's attention and make sure that they moved into Napoleon's trap. At the battle of Austerlitz (2 December 1805) he commanded on the French left, and helped pin down Bagration's right flank of the Austro-Russian army. However he was angered by the limited credit he received for this victory in official reports and left the army in something of a sulk.

He was back for the War of the Fourth Coalition, leading V Corps and once again forming the advance guard of the left-hand column, followed by Augereau's VII Corps. Lannes soon got ahead of Augereau, and defeated the Prussians at Saalfeld (10 October 1806), where Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia was killed. He then performed well at Jena (14 October 1806), where his corps seized a key feature on the battlefield, the Landgrafenberg, on the day before the battle, fought throughout the battle itself and then took part in the pursuit of the defeated Prussians, eventually reaching Stettin on the Baltic coast.

During the winter campaign of 1806-1807 he suffered from an illness, possibly typhus. He was wounded at the battle of Pultusk (26 December 1806), where he fought off an attack by a larger Russian army under General Bennigsen, and thus missed the costly drawn battle of Eylau (7-8 February 1807).

He returned in time to take part in the spring campaign. He took part in the later stages of the siege of Danzig, on the Baltic coast (18 March-27 May 1807. He took part in the Russian victory at Heilsberg (10-11 May 1807). This wasn't one of Lannes's finest moments, and he lost over 2,000 men in a rather pointless attack on the Russian defences. In the aftermath of this defensive success the Russians were forced to retreat by an outflanking manoeuvre. Napoleon then misjudged their probable line of retreat, and sent Lannes to occupy Friedland on the Alle, which he expected to find undefended. Instead Lannes found the Russian army of General Bennigsen. Bennigson outnumbered Lannes and decided to cross the river and try to destroy the isolated French corps. Lannes managed to hold his ground until Napoleon was able to reach the battlefield with reinforcements (battle of Friedland, 14 June 1807). The Russians were then trapped west of the Alle and suffered a major defeat. This time Lannes was well rewarded, receiving a Polish principality and with it an income of 2 million francs. In May 1808 he was made Duc de Montebello.  

In 1808 Lannes took part in Napoleon's only direct intervention in Spain, despite having advised the Emperor not to get involved in the country. Lannes suffered a serious injury when he fell from his horse during the crossing of the Pyrenees, but stayed with his troops. Lannes fought on the north-eastern end of Napoleon's offensive, defeating the Spanish at Tudela (November 1808). He was then put in charge of the Siege of Saragossa, where he took the city after a prolonged period of street fighting, ending with the surrender of the city of 20 February 1809. This ended his Spanish period, and he returned to Paris in April 1809.

Lannes had been recalled to take part in Napoleon's last successful campaign, the Franco-Austrian War of 1809 (or War of the Fifth Coalition). Lannes was given command of one of two major columns, and given the task of advancing toward Rohr. On 20 April he defeated an Austrian force at Abensberg, helping to open up a gap in the Austrian lines. However Napoleon misjudged which of the two halves of the Austrian force was the larger. At first Lannes was sent against the smaller half, leaving Davout outnumbered and exposed to attack by a larger Austria army under the Archduke Charles. Lannes won another victory at Landshut on 21 April 1809, defeating Hiller's retreating Austrians.

Lannes and Masséna were ordered to rush north to save Davout, winning a key battle at Eggmühl (22 April 1809). During the battle Lannes lost his friend and chief of staff General Jean-Baptiste Cervoni, who was killed at his side by a cannon ball. On 23 April Lannes took part in the assault on Ratisbon (now Regensburg). After several earlier attacks failed he seized a ladder himself, led the successful attack over the walls and then played a major part in the street fighting that followed.

After the fall of Ratisbon Lannes led his II Corps east along the south bank of the Danube, retracing his steps of 1805. Once again Vienna fell, but this time the bridges were destroyed. Napoleon was faced with the task of fighting his way across the Danube. His first attempt was carried out too quickly and without adequate planning or preparation, and led to Napoleon's first major military defeat (battle of Aspern-Essling, 21-22 May 1809). On 20 May Masséna's corps cross the Danube, and on 21 May Lannes followed. He was given the task of defending Essling village, and held it against a major Austrian attack on 21 May. However the Austrians also broke the single French bridge across the Danube, and on 22 May the French were forced to retreat back to the south bank. During the fighting retreat Lannes's friend General Pierre Pouzet was beheaded by a cannon ball while talking to Lannes. While Lannes was recovering from this blow, he was hit by a cannon ball that smashed one knee and tearing the ligaments behind his other knee.

Lannes survived the initial wounding. One leg was amputated, and for a time it looked as if he might survive under the care of the famous surgeon Baron Dominique Larrey. However gangrene set in, and on 31 May, after nine days of suffering, he died. Napoleon was genuinely moved by his loss, and even wept in public. Napoleon certainly missed Lannes in his later campaigns, where his ability to carry out his orders without needed close supervision would have been invaluable.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (17 June 2016), Marshal Jean Lannes, 10 April 1769-1809 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_lannes.html

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