Lasalle with his pipe.
The figure is from Front Rank.
For this week’s blog post I’m leaving the trenches of Verdun, traveling only a short distance east to Metz, the birthplace of the legendary “Hussar General” – Lasalle.
Born on May 10th 1775 into a family of minor nobility, Antoine-Charles-Louis showed a flair for the military trade from an early age. Already at 14 he had joined the local regiment and merited a rank of Second Lieutenant.
Lasalle leading the 5th into battle.
When the Revolution threw France into turmoil, Lasalle was in 1792 stripped of command due to the idealistic view of the revolutionaries, wanting to wash out all the old aristocratic officers. Lasalle was however not deterred, and took this setback with great calm. He moved to Paris and enlisted in the revolutionary army as a private.
Campaign in Italy
In 1793 Lasalle joined the Army of the North on its campaign in Italy, and his conduct soon earned him advancement in the ranks. He was present at the Battle of Rivoli, where he proved to be beyond fearless, charging down and breaking an complete Austrian regiment with only 26 chasseurs at his side. The Italian campaign thus saw Lasalle’s star rise, and Napoleon personally asked the young cavalry officer to join him for the Invasion of Egypt in 1798.
Lasalle smoking his pipe.
The Invasion of Egypt
At the Battle of the Pyramids Lasalle made yet another daring charge, storming a garrisoned village at the head of no more than 60 horsemen. The wild charge bore home, and Lasalle continued his advance down an unknown path amongst the Giza Pyramids, offering him an opportunity to cut off the enemy, and serving them on a plate to Napoleon. Greatly impressed, Napoleon promoted Lasalle to Lieutenant Colonel of the 22nd Horse Chasseurs and the 7th Hussars.
Lasalle at the head of his brigade.
Lasalle would soon repay Napoleon for this advancement, when he saved the life of Davout. The General had been cornered by mamulukes at the Battle of Remedieh and was about to be cut down, when Lasalle dashed in, chopped both hands off the mameluke in front of Davout, broke his own sword over the head of Osman Bey, but kept on fighting by picking up swords and guns from the battlefield around him. The mamelukes eventually broke, and Lasalle had once again proven to have a cool head in the heat of action.
The Libertine Lasalle
Lasalle’s passions extended further than the battlefield. He consumed life in great breaths, or should I say in big gulps. A true light cavalryman he founded the “Society of Alcoholics”. Reputedly Lasalle drank, swore and was quite the libertine. After a night of heavy drinking, Lasalle proudly asked Paul Thiébault to count all the empty wine bottles. Thiébault remarked: “Do you want to kill yourself”? Lasalle answered: “My friend, any hussar who is not dead by thirty is a blackguard”
The libertine in a quiet moment of reflection.
No stranger to the passions of the flesh either, Lasalle had a long standing affair with Minister of War, Berthier’s wife Joséphine. When Berthier finally had enough and divorced Joséphine, Lasalle was quick to propose to her. To help out with the costs for the wedding, Napoleon gave 200.000 Francs to Lasalle. When the two men met up only a week after, Napoleon was keen to know how the planning was coming along. Lasalle remarked that he had spent the money on old debt and the rest he had gambled.
A view at the sabretasche and the dolman.
Normally this kind of insolence would have seen any other soldier stripped from rank and scorned, but Napoleon simply gave Lasalle another 200.000 Francs, and told him to get on with it. When Napoleon’s astonished staff asked why this Lasalle got such a soft treatment, Napoleon quietly answered: “It only takes a stroke of a pen to create a prefect, but it takes twenty years to make a Lasalle".
The “Brigade Infernale”
At the famous battle of Austerlitz, Lasalle won the admiration of Murat, who then put him in command of a Light Cavalry Brigade consisting of the 5th and 7th Hussars. Under the leadership of Lasalle, this brigade would become known to history as The Hellish Brigade – Brigade Infernale.
Detail: Lasalle raising his pipe signaling the charge.
At the Battle of Jena, Lasalle and his brigade captured the King of Prussia’s bodyguard, and pursued the Prince of Hohenlohe off the battlefield at sword’s point. Later during the Prussian campaign, Lasalle and his small contingent of hussars reached the fortified city of Stettin. The well defended city had a garrison of 5.000 men and 281 guns, but Lasalle calmly demanded their surrender stating: “If, by 8 a.m. you have not surrendered, the town will be bombarded by our artillery, stormed by 50,000 men, the garrison will be put to the sword and the town will be plundered during twenty-four hours"
The commander of Stetting believed the message from Lasalle, and surrendered his entire force to the little group of French cavalrymen. This feat made Lasalle more famous than ever, and upon hearing of the city’s surrender, Napoleon wrote to Murat: "If your Light Cavalry captures fortified towns, I’ll have to discharge my Engineer Corps and have my heavy artillery melted down"
Lasalle punishing his brigade at Golymin.
But Lasalle could be brisk as well as dashing. During the Battle of Golymin, the Hellish Brigade was charging a battery of 15 Russian guns. As they closed in on the enemy the fire on the horsemen intensified. A big portion of the brigade broke, and they fled to the rear. The furious Lasalle spurred his horse and pursued his fleeing men. Catching up with them he screamed “Halt!” - the men obeyed their enraged commander and stopped their wild stampede. Lasalle quietly brought the brigade back to the front line, positioned it across from the Russian guns, and told them to hold ground. Lasalle rode forward to a position 20 paces in front of his men, and calmly took the murderous fire from the Russian battery. The brigade accepted this punishment with no further disobedience.
The final battle and immortality
On July 5th 1809, Lasalle fought what was to be his last battle at Wagram.
On the morning of the battle he had a strange feeling, that the fight before him might be his last. When he opened his baggage he found his pipe broken and a wine glass that his wife used to be crushed. The passionate Lasalle read this as an omen of death to come.
He then wrote two letters, one to the Emperor and one to his wife.
The final charge.
Later during the battle of Wagram, while charging at the head of the 1st Cuirassiers, Lasalle was shot between the eyes, dying instantly. The farewell letter to his wife became famous. The last part of it reads: “"Mon coeur est à toi, mon sang à l'Empereur, ma vie à l'honneur" (My heart belongs to you, my blood to the Emperor, my life to honor)
The dashing libertine general had almost kept his word. He died 34 years old.
Thank you very much for reading!