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Monday, December 15, 2008

BATTLE OF THE BUNNIES

I believe the legend that the first time Major-General Louis Berthier met Napoleon Bonaparte, in March of 1796, he confided to a fireside comrade, “I don’t know why, but the little bas---d scares me.” He was called “Berthier the Ugly” because of his squat build, his hook nose that rose out of his cheeks like a beak, and a head that seemed three times larger than it ought to. In addition he was clumsy and given to chewing his fingernails. Add in a dose of social ineptness and you have Berthier, the man. He was also a genius of detail. He spent his entire adult life in the military, rising through the ranks under the “Old Regime”. He had even fought with distinction under Rochambeu at Yorktown, Virginia in 1781 during the American revolution.
But Napoleon, at 26, was already a comet on the French political scene, while “ugly, little” Berthier, who was 42 years old, had survived the revolution by keeping his huge head so low it could not be conveniently guillotined. But perhaps Berthier sensed impending disaster on that blistery March morning. Perhaps at some level he understood that the “Little Corsican” who stood before him would use him over the next 20 years to slaughter a million Frenchmen and three million others who would die opposing Napoleon. I wonder if he also sensed the sacrifice of all those bunnies, as well.
Napoleon’s amazing string of victories began at Montenotte, in Piedmont on April 12 and continued at the bridge at Lodi on May 10, 1796. Berthier was there, sharing the hardships as Napoleon’s chief of staff, translating Napoleon’s detailed instructions into coherent orders, organizing the advance of his armies from the "Battle of the Pyramids" in Egypt to the capture of Haifa in 1798. And when Napoleon abandoned his Egyptian army in 1799 he was careful to bring Berthier back to France with him. And Berthier repaid his master, insuring the victory pulled from defeat at Marengo, in 1800.Four years later, in the spring of 1805, it was Berthier, a Marshal of France now, who meticulously directed the lightning strike of Le Grande Armiee's swing across the Rhine to crush the Austrians at Ulam, capture Vienna, and defeat the combined Austrian and Russian armies at the Emperor of France’s greatest victory, "Austerlitz". In 1806 Berthier oversaw Napoleon’s crushing of Prussia at "Jena", and the frozen bloodbath against the Russians at "Eylau", followed by the decisive victory over the Czar at "Friedland". By the summer of 1807 Napoleon was the master of Europe, referred to by his implacable English foes as "The Beast of Europe". And he would not have been so accomplished if it were not for the efforts of ugly little Berthier. And so it was obvious that when the Emperor sought an afternoon’s diversion, a summer picnic and a hunt in the countryside outside of Paris, it would be Berthier who would organize the entire affair. Surely the man who could plan the conquest of nations could arrange a simple afternoon’s hunt.They arrived en masse, like a column of revolutionary infantrymen swarming a defensive position. The Emperor went nowhere alone anymore. A regiment of cavalry stood guard. Messengers arrived and were dispatched forth, for an Empire run by one man cannot survive long without assurance that the master is always watching.
There were ambassadors and royalty and a dozen Marshalls covered in glittering gold braid. There were Generals to carry their superior's eyeglasses and purses and fans. There were servants to serve the lunch and keep the Champaign glasses bubbling over. There were chiefs to cook the lamb and fish and chicken Marengo. There were dozens of carriages and wagons to carry them all from their palaces and mansions and back home again. And once the repast was digested the Emperor and his guests put away their knives and Champaign glasses and took up their weapons.Berthier had prepared this too, down to the smallest detail. (That's him in an 'offical' painting above, with the reality edited out of him.) In regard to the hunt, Berthier tried to obtain wild rabbits captured on local farms, but the local peasants had been taxed so heavily to pay for the 'Grande Army' and all that gold braid that they had stripped the local woods and fields of wild game.
So the ever resourceful Berthier had bought every domesticated rabbit in the Paris market, some 30,000 of them in all, fattened in pens and cages all their lives. They had been released the afternoon before, in an adjacent field. There were beaters, to drive the bunnies to the guns, for an Emperor does not have all day to spend stalking his prey. So as the Emperor Napoleon advanced into the field with his shotgun held at the ready, Berthier gave the signal and the beaters advanced. And such was a sight then seen, the likes of which had never been seen before in all of history. And never would be seen again, either.Thirty-thousand Leporidae Oryctolagus cuniculus (European bunny rabbits) charged desperately toward the first human they had seen in 24 hours; humans being the source of all food and warmth in their entire sheltered lives, and the answer to a domesticated rabbit’s hopes and prayers after an endless cold night in the strange, forbidding emptiness of a field; the Emperor Napoleon Bonapart.
If they could have spoken they would have cried out in unison in their little bunny voices, “Take me home, take me home, get me out of here!” But they could not cry out. They could not speak. And so what Napoleon saw and heard, as he entered the field with “rodenticide” in his heart, was thirty thousand rodents stampeding silently, remorselessly, toward him, perhaps with regicide in their hearts. Where they afflicted? Where they part of a devilish English plot to murder him? Napoleon had no way of knowing, and little time to decide. But even if the Emperor suspected the actual cause behind the stamped of cottontails, hunting is not a sport when the prey rush you and offer themselves up to be butchered en masse. The servants thrashed at the rabbits with whips, the ambassadors and royalty snickered behind their lace cuffs and the generals and Marshals of France threw their gold braid between the homesick bunnies and their Emperor. But in the end Napoleon was forced to retreat to his royal coach, and then to withdraw back within the walls of his palace, his afternoon sport spoiled. It was prescience of the night after Waterloo, of the snowy road home from Moscow, of the voyage to exile on Elba and Helena. At a time when no force could stand up to the 'Beast of Europe', Napoleon had been defeated by an army of bunny rabbits. Vive la Peter Cottontail!
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