August 15, 2011

Illuminations: Dueling in Napoleon’s Grand Army


Napoleon On The Battlefield of Preussisch-Eylau by Jean-Antoine Gros (1771-1835).

With the release of The Duel x5 (Today!), Melville House is launching a new digital innovation, HybridBooks, which combines the concept of a digitally enhanced eBook with the printed book. For more information on HybridBooks please click here.

Throughout August we will be posting samples from the Illuminations — additional material that will appear exclusively in the first releases in our Hybrid Books series. So sharpen your sword, keep your powder dry and get ready for a month of dueling history, lore and technique. That’s right. Dueling technique…

Joseph Conrad‘s Napoleonic tale, for all its lurid extremes, is actually founded in a true story from Napoleon’s army. Two lieutenants, François Louis Fournier Sarlovèze and Pierre Dupont de l’Étang, began a duel that ran from 1794 to 1813. The men were accomplished soldiers and both attained the rank of General by the war’s end. Despite their ranks, and the supposed decorum such a rank should imply, the two men continued to schedule meetings with one another. In some cases they would meet in the countryside, dine together, and then duel one another first thing in the morning.

An article about the real-life Feraud (Founrier) and d’Hubert (Dupont) is included in the Illuminations for The Duel by Joseph Conrad. It is fascinating to read about how closely the two stories follow one-another. They were certainly not the only ones in Napoleon’s army that engaged in extracurricular fighting. Throughout the Illuminations for this title there are stories, anecdotes and description of the dueling culture that was both celebrated and condemned by Napoleon himself. He banned dueling amongst his officers because he did not wish to lose any of them prior to a battle, but he also did not readily reward those that did not show, well, the temerity to break this rule and readily defend their personal honor.

My favorite dueling story hails from Catherine Bearne’s biography of one of the era’s most prolific socialite’s, which is titled A Queen of Napoleon’s Court: The Life-Story of Dèsirèe Bernadotte.


The defeat of Junot by the English at Vimiero and the capitulation of Cintra were a blow to Napoleon, and although he went to Spain himself, and by his presence brought a transient success to the French arms, he had not been there more than two months when he heard from a clerk, a paid spy in the War Office of Vienna, that Austria was preparing for war. He left at once for Paris, and after his departure the tide of misfortune rose again over the armies of France. The quarrels and jealousies amongst his marshals and generals were not only a scandal but a public danger, and excited the indignation of Napoleon, who forbade his officers to fight duels with each other.

Two young officers, disregarding this order, fought a duel in the front of their battalion, amidst a shower of enemy’s bullets. Their colonel sent them under arrest to the citadel of Burgos. Shortly afterwards the regiment was reviewed at Madrid by the Emperor, who ordered the colonel to present him the officers recommended for promotion in the place of those killed. Amongst those presented was one of the young sous-lieutenants, who had received a sword-cut on the cheek in the unlucky duel. The Emperor, on seeing him, remembered the story, and asked in a stern voice—

“Where did you receive that wound?”

“Sire,” replied the young man, laying his finger on his cheek, “I got it here.”

Pleased with the quickness and presence of mind shown in his answer, the Emperor smiled and said—

“Your colonel proposes you for the rank of lieutenant; I grant it you, but be more discreet in the future, or I shall cashier you.”

Clearly Napoleon’s anti-dueling legislation were highly susceptible to double standards. Tomorrow we move on from Conrad’s novella to Anton Chekhov‘s The Duel, which is a masterpiece of philosophical satire.