For an hour Napoleon had sat by the corpse, tears streaming down his face. Bystanders heard him mutter several times: “What a loss, for France and for me.” It was May 31, 1809, a week after the battle of Essling, which the French had nearly lost to the Austrians. Marshal Jean Lannes had been wounded here on 22 May and transported to Ebersdorf, where he had now breathed his last.
Napoleon didn’t even care about the dramatic battle: enough time to take revenge, but he would never find a new Lannes again. That evening the Emperor wrote to Mrs. Lannes: “My pain is just as great as yours. I lose the best general of my army, my brother-in-arms for sixteen years, whom I considered my best friend.”
The deaths of Jean Lannes – hero of the battles of Montebello and Marengo (1800), Austerlitz (1805), Jena (1806) and Friedland (1807) – was particularly unfortunate. The French were engaged in a heavy fight with the Austrians at Essling and the losses were enormous. At one point, four soldiers came by, carrying the corpse of an officer in a cloak. Lannes recognized the unfortunate one. It was General Pouzet, an old friend of his. Saddened by this loss, he sat down on a stump, his legs crossed and his hand over his eyes. Because of this, he didn’t see a cannonball coming to bounce, hitting him exactly where one knee rested on the other. The bullet wreaked havoc, but Lannes kept herself tall. “I’m hurt, but it’s not much. Give me a hand and I can get up.”
It did not work. His aides were looking for a piece of cloth to carry the Marshal to a doctor and wanted to get the cloak in which Pouzet lay. “It’s my poor friend’s, it’s covered in his blood,” Lannes sputtered. “I don’t want to use it.”
Finally, his men made a stretcher of branches and took their marshal to Dominique Larrey, the best surgeon in the army. He couldn’t do anything but amputate Lannes’ right leg—in two minutes, without anaesthetic. Immediately after the operation, Napoleon reported to the bedside. He wept and embraced Lannes, whose blood stained the Emperor’s white waistcoat red. “You will live, my friend,” said Napoleon. Lannes replied: “I wish so, for I may still be of use to France and your majesty.”
After Lannes was transported to Ebersdorf, this wish seemed to come true, until the wound fever set in. It ended the life of the man known as ‘the Roeland of the Grande Armée’, after Roeland, the brave knight in the epic verse ‘Chanson de Roland’.
Lannes’ courage had made a lasting impression. In exile on Saint Helena, Napoleon mused: “When I found him he was a pygmy, when I lost him he was a giant.”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of August 23, 2021