Dominique Vandamme (1770-1830) was one of Napoleon's more capable generals, rising to command corps from 1809 until the final end of the wars in 1815. The main blemish on his record was his reputation for looting, which stood out even amongst his notoriously acquisitive colleagues. He was suspected for looting in June 1795 and for misappropriation of funds in 1799, and was accused of looting by Napoleon in 1800, as well as by Ney, Soult and Jerome Bonaparte. He was also often a disruptive influence, and argued with both Soult and Jerome. Only Napoleon and Davout appear to have been able to restrain his behaviour.
Dominique René Vandamme was born in Cassel, in the Nord département, on 5 November 1770, the son of a Flemish surgeon from Poperinghe.
Vandamme was heading for a military career before the outbreak of the French Revolution. In 1786 he enrolled at Marshal de Biron's military school, before on 27 July 1788 enlisting in the army. This first period of military service was short-lived - Vandamme was sent to Martinique, where he remained for fourteen months before deserting and returning to a now revolutionary France.
In 1791 he reenlisted in the army, and was promoted to captain. Further promotions came rapidly after the outbreak of war against Austria and Prussia early in 1792. Vandamme served with the Army of the North, where as an enthusiastic republican he was promoted to lieutenant colonel on 5 September 1793. Two days later he took part in the Battle of Hondschoote (7-8 September 1793), where he clearly impressed, for on 27 September he was promoted to général de brigade. He was then sent to besiege the port of Nieuport (22-29 October 1793), an attack that failed because of a quick Allied response.
Vandamme's brigade took part in the French invasion of western Flanders in 1794. It was forced back towards the rest of the army on the day before the battle of Courtrai (11 May 1794), but then went on to play an important role in the French victory at Tourcoing (17-18 May 1794), which halted an Allied offensive. He then returned to Nieuport, taking it after a second siege (4-18 July 1794). This was followed by a massacre when around 500 French émigrés were taken into the ditch outside the port and shot.
In the Autumn of 1796 he was moved to the Army of the Rhine and Moselle, taking part in the campaigns in German in 1796-97. He fought at the battle of Diersheim (20-21 April 1797), a French victory that came two days after Napoleon had negotiated the Preliminary Peace of Leoben, ending the war. After the Treaty of Campo Fornio he was moved to the Army of England, before in September 1798, after the outbreak of the War of the Second Coalition, he was moved to the Army of Mayence (Mainz).
On 5 February 1799 he was promoted to général de division, and commanded his new division in the unsuccessful French invasion of southern Germany in the spring of that year. Vandamme commanded the forces defending the Danube on the left flank of Jourdan's main line of advance. He led a successful attack on the Austrian right wing at the first battle of Stockach (25 March 1799), but the Austrians were able to restore the situation and eventually won the battle, forcing Jourdan to retreat back across the Rhine.
In the aftermath of this campaign Vandamme was accused of misappropriating funds in German and Alsace and was relieved of command. He was exonerated on this occasion, and in September 1799 was appointed to command a division in General Brune's Army of Batavia (Holland).
Vandamme played an active part in the defeat of the Anglo-Russian army that had landed in Holland in the summer of 1799, commanding the victorious French column that saved the day during the battle of Bergen (19 September 1799), turning a possible defeat into a victory.
In January 1800 Vandamme returned to the Army of the Rhine, commanded by Jean Moreau, where he led a division. At the second battle of Stockach (3 May 1800) Vandamme's division helped cut communications between the two halves of the Austrian army, contributing to a significant French victory.
During the brief piece of Ameins Vandamme commanded the 16th Military Division at Lille. After the war resumed in May 1803 he was given command of a division in Soult's corps. Although Vandamme performed well under Soult during the 1805 campaign, the two men argued frequently, and relations between them were poor.
At the start of the 1805 campaign Vandamme's division crossed the Danube at Neuburg, and occupied towns to the east and south of Ulm, part of the trap that forced the unfortunate Mack to surrender his isolated army.
Vandamme's moment of glory came at the battle of Austerlitz (2 December 1805). His division and that of Louis-Vincent St. Hilaire, formed the centre of the French line, as part of Soult's IV Corps. Their role was to wait until the Austrians and Russians had weakened the centre of their line, and then attack and capture the key Heights of Pratzen. The two divisions successfully broke the centre of the Allied line, and were then able to turn right, and with reinforcements, crush the Allied left wing attacking Davout. Vandamme was rewarded for his part in this victory with a pension of 20,000 francs.
During the campaign against Prussia Vandamme's division didn’t take part in either of the battle of 14 October 1806 - Jena and Auerstädt - but he did arrive in time to take part in the siege of Magdeburg, which fell on 10 November 1806. He was then allocated to IX Corps, commanded by Jerome Bonaparte, king of Westphalia. Vandamme's corps besieged and took the key cities of Silesia - Glogau, Breslau, Glatz and Neissa. Vandamme was rewarded for these successes by being created comte de Unsebourg, but he quarrelled with Jerome just as he had quarrelled with Soult.
During the Franco-Austrian War of 1809 Vandamme was awarded command of VIII Corps, made up of troops from Wurttemberg. His corps took part in the succesful French attack at Abensberg (20 April 1809). He also took part in the battle of Landshut (21 April 1809) and battle of Eggmuhl (22 April 1809), but was guarding the army's lines of communication south of the Danube during the battles of Aspern-Essling and Wagram. In 1810-11 he commanded the army camp at Boulogne, facing England.
Vandamme was meant to have played a part in the disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812. He was given command of VIII Corps, which was part of Jerome Bonaparte's army on the right wing. This was a short-lived appointment. Vandamme had argued with Jerome during the campaign in Silesia in 1806-7, and now they argued again. Jerome relieved Vandamme of his command, and Napoleon ordered him back to France in disgrace.
Despite his faults Vandamme was clearly a capable commander, and after the disastrous defeat in Russia Napoleon needed every good man at his disposal. Vandamme was recalled for the campaigns in Germany, and was given command of two divisions in Marshal Davout's corps. Davout was one of the few men who could successfully control Vandamme, and gave him the task of capturing Hamburg, which he achieved. At the same time Napoleon was winning battles at Lutzen (2 May) and Bautzen (13 May), before the spring campaign ended in a truce.
When the war resumed later in the year Vandamme had been restored to command a corps - in this case I Corps in the new Army of Eastern Germany. On 26-27 August Napoleon won what could have been a decisive victory at Dresden, defeating the large Austrian Army of Bohemia. Vandamme wasn't present on the battlefield at Dresden, but his corps still played a major part in the victory, fighting a separate battle against Prince Eugen of Wurttemburg at Pirna, six miles to the south-east. Vandamme was able to prevent Prince Eugen from joining up with the main Allied army, thus contributing to Napoleon's last major success in Germany.
In the aftermath of the victory at Dresden Napoleon ordered Vandamme to pursue the retreating Austrians, as they attempted to cross the mountains between Saxony and Bohemia. The resulting battle of Kulm (29-30 August 1813) was a disaster for the French. On the first day Vandamme clashed with a weak Allied rearguard, but by the second day most of the Army of Bohemia was in front of him, while Kleist's Prussians were approaching from the rear. Vandamme soon found himself in a trap. Valiant efforts to break out past the Prussians failed, and only half of his men escaped. Vandamme was not amongst them. He was captured by the Russians and taken to Moscow, before being moved further east to Vyatka. He was only released after Napoleon's abdication in April 1814.
Vandamme reached France in June 1814, but he was harshly treated by the returning Bourbons, and retired back to Cassel. Inevitably when Napoleon made his final bid for power in 1815, Vandamme came out of retirement to join him. He was given command of III Corps during the Waterloo campaign, commanding it during the victory at Ligny (16 June 1815). His corps then made up half of Marshal Grouchy's army that was sent in pursuit of the retreating Prussians. This army clashed with the Prussian rearguard at Wavre (18-19 June 1815), but was held up for the entire day on 18 June, preventing Grouchy from sending any assistance to Napoleon at Waterloo.
Once news of that defeat reached Grouchy he ordered his two corps to retreat back to Paris. After Napoleon's second abdication Vandamme moved to the United States, stopping there from 1816-1819. He was then allowed to return to France, where he spent the rest of his life in quiet retirement at Cassel, dying on 5 July 1830.