Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes, 1755-1820

Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes was a very capable French cavalry commander who fought in most major campaigns of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. He was present at Marengo and Austerlitz, fought in Spain in 1808, took part in the invasion of Russia in 1812 and was wounded at Waterloo.

Lefebvre-Desnouettes joined the army in 1792 and fought in most of the early revolutionary campaigns. In 1798 he was appointed aide-de-camp to Napoleon, with the rank of captain. More promotions followed after Marengo (1800) and Austerlitz (1805), where he was promoted to colonel. He fought in the Prussian campaign of 1806-7, and in 1808 was promoted to general of brigade and made a count of the Empire. In the same year he was part of the army that entered Spain, at the start of what would develop into the Peninsula War.

At the start of the Spanish revolt Lefebvre-Desnouettes was sent to deal with the rebellion in Aragon. The French seriously underestimated the scale of the Spanish uprising, and the armies they sent out in summer of 1808 were far too small to achieve their objectives. Lefebvre-Desnouettes was given 5,000 infantry, 1,000 cavalry and two artillery batteries, a large enough force for the police-action that he had been sent to perform, but far too small to face the entire province in arms.

At first Lefebvre-Desnouettes met with success. He defeated a series of Spanish attempts to prevent him reaching Saragossa, at Tudela (8 June 1808), Mallen (13 June 1808) and finally at Alagon (14 June 1808). Things began to go wrong when the French reached Saragossa (first siege, 15 June-13 August 1808). Expecting another easy victory Lefebvre-Desnouettes launched an immediate assault on the city. The French broke into the city but were unable to make progress in the streets of Saragossa. On 26 June General Verdier arrived with 3,000 French reinforcements, and as the senior officer took command from Lefebvre-Desnouettes.

Lefebvre-Desnouettes returned to Saragossa later in the year, as the commander of the cavalry in the army commanded by Marshal Lannes. At the battle of Tudela (23 November 1808) his cavalry made the decisive charge that broke the Spanish army. Saragossa was left exposed to a second siege.

Lefebvre-Desnouettes’s time in Spain came to a sudden end at Benavente on 29 December 1808. Napoleon’s plans in Spain had been disrupted by a British army under Sir John Moore, which had moved north into Spain, threatening the French lines of communication. Moore had rather misjudged the French position in Spain, and he soon found himself threatened by two French armies, one under Marshal Soult and one under Napoleon himself. Lefebvre-Desnouettes found himself commanding the Guard cavalry during the early part of the French pursuit of Moore.

At Benavente Lefebvre-Desnouettes’s cavalry managed to force their way across the River Esla, but they were then lured into a British ambush two miles past the river, and forced to flee back towards the Esla. Lefebvre-Desnouettes’s horse was wounded and refused to swim back across the river. The general was captured by Private Grisdale of the 10th Regiment.

After his capture Lefebvre-Desnouettes was taken to Britain, where for two years he lived on parole at Cheltenham. In 1811 he broke that parole and escaped back to France. He served as a cavalry commander with the Grande Armée during the Russian campaign of 1812. He rejoined Napoleon during the 100 days, and was wounded at Waterloo.

After the second Bourbon restoration he was sentenced to death, but escaped to safety in American. There he settled in Louisiana and took up farming. Finally, 1822 Louis XVIII gave him permission to return to France, leaving American on the Albion. Tragically on 22 April 1822 the Albion was lost with all hands off the coast of Ireland.

Napoleon's Commanders 1Napoleon's Commanders: Vol 1, Philip Haythornthwaite. Despite the emphasis on Napoleon, the scale of the Napoleonic Wars meant that his Marshals played a significant role in the early French successes. This volume covers the careers of the most important French commanders up till the Austrian campaign of 1809. [SEE MORE]
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (30 January 2008), Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes, 1755-1820 ,

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