Philibert Guillaume Duhesme, 1766-1815

Philibert Guillaume Duhesme (1768-1815) was a French general who fought on the Rhine, in Spain and at Waterloo, where he was killed while commanding the Young Guard. He gained a poor reputation as a plunderer, but was also a capable divisional commander, especially late in his career.

Duhesme was born at Bourgneuf in Saone-et-Loire. He was elected as an officer in the French National Guard in 1789, and served with the army in the Austrian Netherlands. He was promoted to général de brigade in 1793 and général de division in November 1794. He served under Moreau, but was accused of cowardice.

In 1796 he served with Moreau’s main force until the victory at Ettlingen allowed Moreau to send him south to support General Férino, facing the Black Forest. With Duhesme’s help, Férino defeated the Austrians (combat of Haslach, 14 July 1796), and forced them to retreat out of most of the southern Black Forest. Moreau then began an invasion of southern Germany, reaching the Danube. Duhesme played a major part in Moreau’s last significant victory of the campaign, at Friedberg on 24 August 1796, helping to defeat the Austrian centre.

By the autumn Moreau was on the back foot, and was forced to retreat. By late September the French had reached the Federsee and Ravensburg, where Moreau decided to make a stand. The Austrians attacked Duhesme’s division (combat of Schussenreid, 30 September 1796), but were repulsed after Duhesme received reinforcements. This encouraged Moreau to go back onto the offensive, but after a short period of success, peaking at the battle of Biberach (2 October 1796) he was forced to retreat when the Archduke Charles approached from the north with another Austrian army. Moreau was forced to retreat back to the Rhine, fighting a rearguard action at Schliengen (24 October 1796) before escaping across the Rhine at Huningue.

In 1797 Moreau launched another attack across the Rhine. Duhesme commanded one of the first waves, and was wounded during the fighting around Diersheim (20-21 April 1797). The battle ended as a French victory, but came two days after Napoleon had negotiated the peace of Leoben, so had little impact on the outcome of the overall campaign of 1797.

From 1798 he was posted to Italy, where he gained a reputation for plundering. He was thus present when the Austrians and Russians attacked in 1799, inflicting a series of defeats that forced the French to pull back into the Alps and Apennines.

In the aftermath of the battle of Novi, General Championnet, commander of the Army of the Alps, was also given command of the defeated Army of Italy. Duhesme’s division was based in the mountains west of Turin, and Championnet ordered him to move east then south to get closer to Grenier’s division. The resulting combat of Pignerol (15 September 1799) saw Duhesme forced to retreat back to his starting position. Championnet then decided to move Muller’s and Duhesme’s divisions towards Cuneo, to try and give the French a better defensive line north of the Apennines. This advance also failed, after Victor was defeated at Mondovi (28 September 1799).

He took part in the battle of Genola (4 November 1799), the last in the series of French defeats.  

He commanded part of the Army of the Reserve during the Marengo campaign, but didn’t take part in the battle. By now his radical republicanism meant that he was out of step with Napoleon’s government, and he spent the next few years holding relatively unimportant posts in Italy.

In 1805 Duhesme commanded a division in Masséna’s army in northern Italy. On 17 October Masséna ended the armistice with the Austrians, and on 18 October Duhesme and Gardanne crossed the Adige at Verona and seized the suburb of Veronetta. On the night of 28-29 October Duhesme’s division took part in the main French attack at the start of the second battle of Caldiero (29-31 October 1805). His column attempted to outflank the Austrian left early on 29 October, before the fighting extended along the entire front. The French attacks ended in failure and Massena withdrew, but news of the surrender at Ulm had reached the Austrian commander, the Archduke Charles, and he also had to retreat.

In 1808 he led 14,000 men to Barcelona, which quickly fell to him. However in the spring of 1808 the Spanish uprising meant that Duhesme was cut off from the main French forces around Madrid. In an attempt to secure his lines of communication with Perpignan he laid siege to Gerona. His first attack was quickly repulsed (first siege of Gerona, 20-21 June 1808), although he did manage to storm Mataro (17 June 1808) on the way. His second attempt lasted a little longer (second siege of Gerona, 24 July-16 August 1808), but also ended in failure after a Spanish relief army threatened his position, and he had to retreat to Barcelona. He was then blockaded in Barcelona for four months (20 August-17 December 1808, although the siege began on 1 August while he was still at Gerona), before Gouvion Saint-Cyr arrived with a relief army. Their combined armies then defeated the Spanish Army of Catalonia at Molins del Rey (21 December 1808).

At the start of 1810 Marshal Augereau, the French commander in Catalonia, decided to take advantage of the fall of Gerona (third siege of Gerona) to clear the roads between Gerona and Barcelona. Duhesme was ordered to take troops to Granollers to meet up with two new French columns. After waiting there for four days, Duhesme returned to Barcelona leaving a small force behind. This was then attacked and almost destroyed by the Spanish (combat of Granollers, 21-22 January 1810).

Duhesme’s behaviour as Governor of Barcelona was so bad that he was eventually dismissed by Augereau (his case wasn’t helped by the defeat at Granollers) and sent back to France in disgrace. Napoleon refused to put him on trial as it would give too much satisfaction to the Catalans.

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

Late in 1813 Duhesme was recalled to the army, after the campaigns of 1812 and 1813 saw Napoleon lose two massive armies in Russia and Germany. He served as a divisional commander under Victor during the French campaign of 1814 (commanding the 3rd Division of II Corps) and was made a comte for his efforts, but then accepted the Bourbon restoration. He fought at St. Dizier (27 January 1814), where his troops helped defeat a Russian detachment. He then fought at the battle of Brienne (29 January 1814), where his attack was repulsed by a large Allied cavalry attack. At La Rothiere (1 February 1814) he managed to hold onto the market square and the northern end of the village throughout the day, helping to prevent the Allies from winning a major victory. He fought at Montereau (18 February 1814), Napoleon’s last significant victory over Schwarzenberg’s Army of Bohemia. He also fought at Bar-sur-Aube (27 February 1814), one of a series of battles in which Napoleon’s subordinates were defeated, leaving Paris exposed to attack.

In 1815 Duhesme commanded the Young Guard. At Ligny his division was sent to investigate the appearance of d’Erlon’s corps approaching the French left flank, helping to save the Prussians from a worse defeat. He was mortally wounded near Plancenoit on Napoleon’s right flank during the battle of Waterloo, during an attempt to delay the Prussian approach to the main battlefield.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (25 June 2018), Philibert Guillaume Duhesme, 1766-1815 ,

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