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Friday, November 28, 2014

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 bastard scares me.” He was called “Berthier the Ugly” because of his squat build, his hook nose, that arose from between his cheeks like a parrot's 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 fought with distinction under Rochambeu at Yorktown, Virginia in 1781 during the American revolution.
Napoleon, at 26, was already a blazing comet on the French political scene, while “ugly, little” Berthier, who was already 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 when they first met. Perhaps on 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 and basking in the reflected glory as Napoleon’s chief of staff and than a Marshal of France, organizing the now Emperor Napoleon’s complete victory, at "Austerlitz" in 1805.
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.The humans arrived en mass, like a column of infantrymen swarming a defensive position. The Emperor went nowhere alone anymore. A regiment of cavalry stood guard. Messengers arrived and were dispatched forth all day -  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 Marshals covered in glittering gold braid. There were Generals to carry the Marshals' eyeglasses and purses and fans. There were servants to serve the lunch and keep the Champagne 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 open air repast was digested the Emperor and his guests put away their knives and Champagne glasses and took up their weapons. Berthier had prepared this too, down to the smallest detail. Marshal Berthier had attempted to obtain wild rabbits captured locally, but the peasant farmers had been taxed so heavily to pay for all that gold braid,  that they had stripped the local woods and fields of wild game.So the ever resourceful Berthier (That's him in an 'offical' painting above, with the reality edited out of him), had bought every domesticated rabbit in the Paris market, some 30,000 of them in all. The beasts had been fattened in pens and cages all their lives. They were released the afternoon before the hunt, in the chosen 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 musket held at the ready, Berthier gave the signal, and the beaters advanced.And such was the 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 - a human being the source of all food and warmth in their entire sheltered lives. The figure must have seemed the answer to a domesticated rabbit’s hopes and prayers after a cold night in the strange, forbidding emptiness of a field. And the mother figure out front was the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.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 as he entered the field with “rodenticide” in his heart, was thirty thousand bunnies stampeding remorselessly toward him, perhaps with regicide in their hearts.Where they afflicted with a pestilence? 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 had suspected the actual cause behind the stamped of cottontails, hunting is not much of a sport when the prey rush you and demand to be butchered en mass.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. The sacrifice was futile. For the first time in his life (but not the last) the Emperor of Europe, Napoleon I, 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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