Claude Perrin Victor, duc de Bellune (1764-1841)

Marshal Claude Perrin Victor, duc de Bellune (1764-1841) was a capable battlefield commander who was never part of Napoleon's inner circle, and tarnished his reputation by voting for the condemnation of Marshal Nay in 1815.

Early Career
Italy
War of the Fourth Coalition
Spain
1808
1809
1810-1812
Russia
Germany
France

Early Career

Victor was born in La Marche, Lorraine, on 7 December 1764. He was originally called Claude-Victor Perrin, although later reversed his names and is now always known as Victor.

Victor was the son of a court usher. He joined the Royal army on 16 October 1781, enlisting as a clarinettist in the 4th Artillery Regiment. He served for ten years, and was discharged on 1 March 1791. He married Jeanne Marie Josephine Muguet on 16 May 1791, and the couple had four children.

Victor soon returned to the military, joining the National Guard as a grenadier on 12 October 1791. On 21 February 1792 he became adjutant in the 3rd Battalion of Drôme Volunteers, then on 4 August 1792 he moved to the 5th Bouches-du-Rhône battalion as adjutant major with the rank of captain. He was promoted to lieutenant colonel on 15 September 1792.

In 1792-93 Victor served with the French Army of Italy. He fought at the Siege of Toulon (August-December 1793), and was promoted twice for bravery by the political commissioners Antonio Salicetti and Thomas Gasparin. On 1 December 1793 he was promoted to chef de brigade (colonel), and appointed adjutant général. On 17 December he helped capture the 'Little Gibraltar' fortress, and on 20 December he was promoted to général de brigade. He was wounded during this fighting, as was the young Napoleon, but despite this early encounter Victor never seems to have become part of Napoleon's inner circle.

After recovering from his wounds Victor joined the Army of the Eastern Pyrenees. He fought at the battle of Le Boulou (30 April-1May 1794), a French victory that helped force the Spanish to retreat back across the border. On 13 June 1795 his promotion to to général de brigade was confirmed.

Italy

In 1795 he returned to the Army of Italy. He fought at the battle of Loano (22-25 November 1795). He was then given command of the advance guard by General Schérer.

Napoleon's entry into Italy, 1796
Napoleon's entry into
Italy, 1796

In the spring of 1796 Napoleon arrived to take command of the Army of Italy. Victor distinguished himself during Napoleon's first campaign in Italy. At the battle of Dego (14-15 April 1796) he arrived on the afternoon of the second day of the battle and helped force the Austrians abandon the positions they had defended so determinedly for two days. In the aftermath of this battle the Austrians retreated towards Alessandria, leaving the Piedmontese to face Napoleon alone. 

At the start of 1797 Victor commanded Napoleon's small reserve, posted at Castelnuovo and Villafranca, part of the forces covering the siege of Mantua. When the Austrians made their last attempt to lift the siege, Victor's troops were ordered to march towards the battlefield at Rivoli (14-15 January 1797), but the battle was won before they could arrive. Napoleon then took Massena's and Victor's troops back to deal with another Austrian column that had reached close to Mantua.

He took part in Napoleon's brief expedition into the Papal States early in 1797, and fought alongside Napoleon at the action of Faenza (4 February 1797). At the action of Saint-George (15 February 1797) he led an attack by the 57th Line that earned it the nickname 'The Terrible' and won Victor a field promotion to général de division, confirmed on 11 March.

On 12 January 1798 he was assigned to the Army of England, which was being created with an invasion in mind. This might have moved him into Napoleon's inner circle, but while the future Emperor carried out his unsuccessful invasion of Egypt, Victor was given command of the 12th Military District (Nantes) on 18 March 1798 and then was sent back to the Army of Italy (3 May 1798). He was thus in Italy for the series of defeats that saw an Austro-Russian army undo most of the achievements of Napoleon's first campaign.

He was part of General Schérer's army early in the War of the Second Coalition. By late March the Austrians were at Verona, and were waiting for Russian reinforcements. Schérer decided to try and retake Verona by attacking across the Adige. The Austrian commander Kray prepared to attack the French as they crossed the river, but problems with the crossing forced Schérer to change his plan. Instead he decided to attack Verona from the west and the south-east, with a reserve in the centre. Victor's troops were posted to the French right. Kray responded to this attack by splitting his force into three columns, one for each French force. Victor and Grenier were the first to clash with the Austrians, and defeated the Austrian left at Pozzo. Elsewhere the battle went badly for the French, and Kray was able to reinforce his left. Grenier's troops were hit on their left flank, and the French right broke and fled. Scherer was forced to begin a retreat back to the Adda (battle of Magnano (5 April 1799).

Victor commanded a division at the battle of Cassano (26-28 April 1799), where he was unable to stop the Austrians and Russians establishing a bridgehead across the Adda at Trezzo.

By now Schérer had been replaced by General Moreau, but he was unable to do much better. The Austro-Russian army, now under Suvorov, began an advance into Piedmont. Victor managed to inflict one defeat on them, defeating Rosenberg at Bassignana on 12 May 1799 as the Austrians attempted to cross the Po east of Valenza, but Allied reinforcements soon arrived. On the night of 15-16 May Victor crossed the Bormida and advanced east towards the Maregno area. He ran into a much larger allied army, and his probe was stopped (battle of San Giuliano, 16 May 1799). The French were soon forced back to Genoa.

A second French army, under General Macdonald, advanced up from the south of Italy. Victor was sent from Genoa to join Macdonald, and managed to reunite with him. The combined army then suffered a heavy defeat at the battle of the Trebbia (18-19 June 1799), where Victor was wounded. He was able to retain his command, and was able to hold off the Allies at the combat of San-Giorgio (20 June 1799) during the French retreat to the coast. Macdonald blamed Victor for the defeat, and Victor nursed a grudge against him for the rest of their careers.

Victor then fought under General Championnet, during the French attempts to save Cuneo, their last major possession in Italy. Championnet decided to conduct a general advance to a line north of the Appennines. Victor was given the task of capturing Mondovi, but although he reached the outskirts of the town (combat of Mondovi, 28 September 1799), the rest of his division didn’t support him. The Austrians reinforced the town, and in early October they pushed Victor and Lemoine back for four miles. The French regained some of the lost ground, but the overall campaign had failed. At the start of November Championnet decided to concentrate his army and make a larger scale attack that would save Cuneo. Victor was given command of one of three columns during this advance. At the battle of Genola (4 November 1799) he fought well, but failures elsewhere meant that his flanks were exposed to attack and he was forced to retreat. In the aftermath of this battle the French were forced to retreat from Cuneo, which then fell to the Austrians.  

In 1800 he fell foul of General Masséna, who in January told Napoleon that Victor had opposed his coup of Brumaire and was telling his troops to desert. Masséna successfully got Victor removed from the Army of Italy, but it is clear that Napoleon didn't actually believe his stories, as on 1 April Victor was given command of a division in the Army of the Reserve, the force that Napoleon intended to lead to Italy.

Victor played a major part in the Marengo campaign. Together with General Lannes he won the battle of Montebello (9 June 1800), defeating Feldmarschalleutnant Ott and forcing him to retreat towards Alessandria. In the aftermath of this setback the Austrians managed to mislead Napoleon into believing that they were going to try and move north to cross the Po and move to Milan, when in fact they intended to break out to the east. Napoleon spread his forces out, and sent Victor to Marengo, where on the afternoon of 13 June he expelled O'Reilly's Austrian brigade. At the battle of Marengo (14 June 1800) Victor's troops were thus in the front line when the Austrians attacked. Victor's troops managed to hold off the initial Austrian attack, and were reinforced by Kellermann's cavalry and then Lannes's infantry. Just after noon, after several hours of fighting, Victor was attacked in the wings, and after another couple of hours was forced to retreat south-east, with Lannes moving in parallel. Victor's resistance had delayed the Austrian advance long enough for Desaix to arrive and save the day.

In 1801 Victor divorced his first wife. On 25 July 1801 he was made lieutenant to the commander-in-chief of the Army of Batavia (Holland), and on 9 August 1802 he was give command of a planned expedition to Louisiana. In June 1803 he married Julie Vosch van Avesaat, the daughter of a Dutch rear admiral. On 14 June 1804 he was made a Grand-Officer of the Legion of Honour and president of the Maine-et-Loire Electoral College, but he wasn't amongst the first batch of Napoleonic Marshals. On 19 February 1805 Victor was sent as a plenipotentiary to the Danish court.

War of the Fourth Coalition

In 1806 Victor resumed his active military career, serving as chief of staff to Marshal Lannes. During the War of the Fourth Coalition he fought at Saalfeld (10 October 1806) and Jena (14 October 1806), where he suffered a wound. He then took part in the pursuit of the defeated Prussians, and signed the capitulation of Spandau (25 October 1806).

During the winter campaign of 1806-7 he fought at Pultusk (26 December 1806), and on 5 January 1807 he was given command of X Corps, based in Poland. He was on his way to take up this command when he was captured (20 January), but he was exchanged on 8 March, and was thus free to resume his career. He was given command of the siege of Graudetz, and then replaced Bernadotte as temporary commander of I Corps. He led this corps at the battle of Friedland (14 June 1807). At this battle Ney was given the task of driving in the Russian left and seizing the bridges at Friedland, in the hope that this would trap the Russians against the River Alle. Ney's corps made early progress, but was then hit by a Russian counterattack and was in some difficulty until Victor's I Corps arrived and restored the situation. General Senarmont, Victor's chief of artillery, then created his famous grand battery, which he advanced to within 60 paces of the Russian lines.

Victor was rewarded by being created a Marshal on 13 July 1807, the first new marshal since the original creation in 1804.

After the Peace of Tilset ended the War of the Fourth Coalition Victor was made governor of Berlin, where he remained for fifteen months. He was created duc de Bellune in the new Imperial aristocracy in 1808, allegedly as a pun on his earlier nom de guerre of 'Beau Soleil', or beautiful sun. According to the story Napoleon's sister Pauline chose Bellune because it sounded like the French for 'beautiful moon'.

Spain

1808

Spain and Portugal during the Peninsular War
Spain and Portugal during the Peninsular War

In 1808 Victor took part in Napoleon's only campaign in Spain, where he commanded I Corps. After easily occupying large parts of Spain the French had become overconfident, and had been forced to retreat back to the Ebro, which rose near the north coast of Spain and ran south-east into the Mediterranean. The Spanish commanders came up with an over ambitious plan for a double envelopment of the French. General Blake was given the task of attacking on the Spanish left, close to the Biscay coast. The remaining Spanish armies were to operate to the south-east, leaving a gap in the centre of the Spanish line.

Napoleon quickly realised what was going on, and came up with a plan that he hoped would destroy all of the Spanish armies on the Ebro. While other troops pinned down the Spanish, Napoleon would lead his main forces through the gap in the middle. They would then fan out to left and right and trap and destroy the Spanish armies.

Victor was posted to the French right, where he faced Blake. Blake had orders to advance along the coast, but on 29 October his advance guard was defeated by Marshal Lefebvre at Zornoza (31 October 1808). Blake retreated south-west to Espinosa de los Monteros, where he decided to stand and fight. During the retreat General Vilatte's division from Victor's corps caught up with some of the retreating Spanish troops at Valmeseda (5 November 1808), but suffered a defeat. As a result Victor was reprimanded by Napoleon.

Blake didn't realise how much danger he was in at this stage - Lefebvre was now advancing around his right, Soult was advancing from Burgos having taken part in the breakthrough in the centre, and Victor was in his front.

Victor attacked the Spanish position at Espinosa de los Monteros (10-11 November 1808). The Spanish repulsed every French attack on 10 November, partly because the French attacks weren't well coordinated. On 11 November Victor performed better, and Blake was forced into a rapid retreat. At first the Spanish moved west, but their escape route was blocked by Soult. Blake then led part of his army north across the Cantabrian Mountains, and managed to escape with a handful of his men, having lost as many as 20,000 of his 23,000 soldiers.

Victor won the battles of Espinosa de los Monteros (10-11 November 1808) and Somosierra (30 November 1808), and took part in the capture of Madrid (2 December 1808). He then fought at Ucles (13 January 1809), helping to repel a Spanish attempt to retake Madrid, carried out by one of the armies defeated on the Ebro. A key feature of the Peninsular War would be the Spanish ability to raise a whole series of new armies to replace or refresh those that had suffered defeats, and this was an early sign of the threat that would pose to the French.

1809

When Napoleon left Spain in January 1809 he left behind a plan for the conquest of the rest of Spain. Victor was given the task of invading Estremadura. He was to capture Badajoz and Merida and then invade Portugal from the east. At Lisbon he would join up with Marshal Soult's force, which was to invade Portugal from the north. Victor was given his own 1st Corps, one division from 4th Corps and three cavalry brigades for this stage of operations. After the conquest of Portugal he was to take another division from Soult, return from Portugal and invade Andalusia from the west, probably in early February!  

Medellin Campaign
Medellin Campaign

Victor's invasion of Estremadura was delayed until March 1809, in part by the Spanish attack defeated at Ucles. As Victor approached the Portuguese border he found his route blocked by the Spanish Army of Estremadura under General Cuesta. Victor forced the Spanish to retreat from the Tagus with a victory at Meza de Ibor (17 March 1809). After retreating towards Badajoz, on 29 March Cuesta attacked the French (battle of Medellin). Victor was outnumbered and was fighting with his back to a river. Victor's front line was forced back by the Spanish advance, but at a key moment part of the Spanish cavalry fled, leaving a gap in the line. Victor's dragoons were sent into the gap, and hit the Spanish infantry from the side and rear, expanding the hole in the line. The entire army was soon in flight, having lost 10,000 men.

As so often happened, the French were unable to take advantage of this battlefield victory. Badajoz refused to surrender and Victor was forced to retreat back to the Guadiana valley to find supplies. He remained there until mid June, before he was forced to retreat back to the Tagus, just as Wellesley began his first invasion of Spain. During this period part of his corps attacked and defeated a Portuguese force at Alcantara (14 May 1809), a probing attack to make sure that the Portuguese weren't the vanguard of an invasion.

Talavera Campaign Mid June
Talavera Campaign
Mid June

As Victor retreated, the Spanish under General Cuesta followed, and the two forces were soon facing each other across the river. Wellesley decided to bring his army into Spain and try and cooperate with Cuesta to defeat Victor before he could be reinforced. Fortunately for Victor, Cuesta refused to agree to any of Wellesley's plans, and a chance to catch his corps alone was missed. Victor inadvertently aided his cause on 26 June when he decided to withdraw from Almaraz to Talavera to find more supplies - at this stage he was unaware that Wellesley was in the area. At the start of July Victor finally learnt of Wellesley's advance. At the same time Cuesta crossed to the north bank of the Tagus. This news convinced King Joseph to move his reserves to Toledo. Eventually Cuesta agreed to a plan, and the allies advanced on 18 July. On 22 July they reached Talavera, where they found Victor's isolated corps. On the following day Victor was outnumbered by over two to one, but Cuesta refused to attack and the danger passed. On the night of 23-24 July Victor retreated back towards Madrid. On the afternoon of 24 July Cuesta set off in pursuit, without Wellesley. On the following day Cuesta caught up with Victor, only to discover that he had been reinforced by King Joseph and General Sebastiani. Cuesta retreated to Talavera, this time with the French in pursuit.

Wellesley refused to move from Talavera, and was thus in place when Cuesta had to retreat back after suffered a defeat at Victor's hands. The combined French forces then moved back towards Talavera, where they attacked Wellesley and Cuesta. Victor, Sebastiani and King Joseph combined their troops at the battle of Talavera (27-28 July 1809).

Victor was responsible for a night attack early in the battle that came close to success, but on the following day Wellesley won a significant victory. Wellesley was then forced to retreat as other French armies began to threaten his position, allowing Victor to retake Talavera. Here he earned a good reputation by making sure that the wounded British soldiers who had to be left behind received the same care as the French. Over the next few days the French missed a chance to defeat Wellesley and Cuesta on the Tagus, and the Allies were able to retreat back towards Portugal.

In the autumn he took part in the defeat of the Spanish Junta's autumn campaign. Early in the campaign his presence at Toledo stopped the dangerous advance of General Areizaga, although he missed the key battle of Ocana (19 November 1809), as he had been sent on a wide outflanking movement.

1810-1812

In early 1810 Victor took part in Soult's invasion of Andalusia. He captured Seville on 1 February 1809, but failed to capture Cadiz, arriving two days too late to have a chance of taking the city without a fight. Instead he was forced into a thirty month long siege that ended in failure (siege of Cadiz, 5 February 1810-25 August 1812). Victor was fairly active to begin with, capturing a key fort from where Cadiz could be ineffectively bombarded, and trying to build a fleet of gunboats, but the Allies had control of the seas, and so the city could be reinforced and resupplied at will.

In the spring of 1811 the Allies carried out an amphibious landing behind the French lines in an attempt to lift the pressure while Soult was absent in Estremadura. The British force, under General Graham, joined up with a Spanish force under General Lapeña at Tarifa and moved towards Cadiz. Victor led three divisions out of the siege lines to deal with this new threat, but was defeated by the Allies at the battle of Barrosa (5 March 1811). The British and Spanish failed to take advantage of their victory. 

Later in the year Victor was sent to try and capture Tarifa (20 December 1811-5 January 1812), but this siege ended in failure. The siege of Cadiz dragged on into August 1812, after Victor had left Spain.

Russia

On 3 April 1812 Victor was recalled from Spain and given command of IX Corps in the Grande Armée. This was one of the support forces for the invasion of Russia. At first his task was to hold the area between the Elbe and Oder. In August he moved east into Russia, and he then joined the Grande Armée on the retreat from Moscow. His corps was used to screen the northern flank of the retreating army.

During this period he clashed with Wittgenstein's troops near Polotsk on 14 November, the third engagement in that area during the invasion.

As the Russians attempted to trap the French on the Berezina, his corps fought at Studienka (27-28 November 1812), to the north-east of the river crossing. He then joined the army fighting at the Berezina (25-29 November 1812), where it formed the rearguard and he had to launch a series of counterattacks to keep the Russians away from the key bridges. On the night of 27-28 one of his divisions, under General Partonneaux, took the wrong road from Borisov, and was forced to surrender. This left Victor exposed to attack, and Napoleon had to send troops back across the bridge on 28 November to help maintain the French position. Victor's last troops withdrew over the bridges on the night of 28-29 November. The last French rearguard crossed at dawn on 29 November and the bridges were then destroyed, leaving a mass of stragglers trapped on the wrong bank.

Germany

In 1813 he commanded II Corps during the two campaigns in Germany, fighting at Lützen (2 May 1813), Dresden (26-27 August 1813), Wachau (16 October 1813) and Leipzig (16-19 October 1813).

War of Liberation 1813 - Spring Campaign
War of Liberation 1813 -
Spring Campaign

At the start of the year he was still in Germany, and in March he was ordered to try and hold the line of the Elbe. It soon became clear that this plan wasn't at all realistic, and once Prussia entered the war against France he was forced to withdraw further to the west.

At Dresden (26-27 August 1813) his infantry formed the French right, facing west, with Dresden itself behind him and Murat's cavalry on his right. He supported the cavalry attack that broke Bianchi's Austrian Korps, and helped convince the Allies to retreat despite success in the centre.

In the period before the battle of Leipzig his corps came under Murat's command, and was posted in the area south of Leipzig.

War of Liberation 1813 - Autumn Campaign
War of Liberation 1813 - Autumn Campaign

At Leipzig (16-19 October 1813) he was posted between Wachau and Liebertwolkwitz to the south of Leipzig in the build-up to the battle. On the first day of the battle he was attacked by Prince Eugene of Württemberg and forced out of Wachau. Victor recaptured the village and then held it against a second allied attack. In the afternoon he joined with the Guard and Lauriston for Napoleon's grand attack on the Allied left. Napoleon had hoped that this attack would end the battle, but instead the Allies were able to feed in reinforcements, and the day ended with the French back in their starting positions.

On 18 October Victor was placed under Murat's overall command on the French right, and was able to repel the Allied attacks on his position, but the French had suffered heavy losses and were outnumbered and almost besieged. On 19 October Napoleon abandoned Leipzig, and retreated west towards France.

His corps was present at the battle of Hanau (30-31 October 1813) during the retreat from Leipzig but wasn't heavily engaged in the fighting.

France

In 1814 he took part in the campaign to defend France. At the start of 1814 his troops were guarding the area south of Strasbourg to the Swiss border. He was thus the first French commander to face Schwarzenberg's Army of Bohemia, and abandoned Strasbourg and then Nancy without a fight. The Austrians were soon on the Langres Plateau by 17 January, and any attempts to fight near the border had to be abandoned. He fought at the action of St. Dizier (26-27 January 1814), the battle of Brienne (29 January 1814) and La Rothière (1 February 1814). At La Rothière he held the centre of the French line, and faced Osten-Sacken's infantry and Olusiev's cavalry. He was able to hold the village against repeated Russian attacks, and the French line held, but at the end of the day Napoleon knew that he had to retreat to avoid a serious defeat.

Battles of the French Campaign of 1814
Battles of the
French Campaign
of 1814

Victor was left to defend the line of the Seine, while Napoleon marched to defeat General Dmitry Osten-Sacken at Champaubert (10 February 1814). Victor came under pressure from Schwarzenberg's Austrian forces, and Napoleon was unable to move to help because he was threatened by Blücher. Macdonald and Kellermann were sent to help Victor around Montereau, while Napoleon himself defeated Blücher at Vauchamps (14 February 1814).

Victor fought again at Valjouan (17 February 1814). While marching to Montereau as part of a general attack on the Austrians under Shcwarzenberg, Victor's son-in-law was mortally wounded. This may have contributed to Victor's decision to allow his troops to rest, a move that let the Allies arrive at Montereau in time to build fortifications north of the town. A furious Napoleon removed Victor from his command, and replaced him with General Maurice, comte Gérard, who then had to attack the entrenched Austrians (battle of Montereau, 18 February 1814).

Victor refused to leave the army and insisted that he would serve as a grenadier. Predictably this changed Napoleon's mind, and Victor was given command of two brigades in the Imperial Guard (given the misleading title of 2nd Young Guard Corps. He led his new troops at Craonne (7 March 1814), where he was wounded in the thigh by a cannonball.

Victor accepted the Bourbon restoration, and was made a Chevalier of Saint-Louis on 2 June 1814 and given command of the 2nd Military Division on 6 December,

He remained loyal to the Bourbons during 1815. During Napoleon's march on Paris Victor led his troops to Châlons to try and block the Emperor's route, but discovered that his troops didn't share his views, and was forced to flee to Louis XVIII's court in exile at Ghent.

After the second Bourbon restoration Victor was made a member of the Chamber of Peers (17 August 1815), made major general of the Royal Guard (6 September 1815) and finally made president of the commission that investigated and tried Napoleon's supporters. During this period he greatly damaged his reputation, in particular by voting in favour of the execution of Marshal Ney.

Victor's career continued for almost a decade after the second restoration. On 10 January 1816 he became governor of the 16th Military Division. On 14 December 1812 he was appointed Minister of War. In 1823 he wanted to be given command of the French army that intervened in a Spanish civil war, but wasn’t selected, and was recalled from the front. In 1824 he was offered the post of Ambassador to Austria, but he turned it down and retired. He was made a member of the Superior War Council at the coronation of Charles X. In 1830 he swore an oath to support the new government, but took no further part in public affairs.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (6 September 2016), Claude Perrin Victor, duc de Bellune (1764-1841), http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_victor.html

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