How history is written: Maréchal Lannes "last" words to Napoleon

Author(s) : GODLEWSKI Guy, LINDEN Jean
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How history is written

In 1818, a book called Voyage en Autriche, en Moravie et en Bavière fait à la suite de l'armée française pendant la campagne de 1809, par le chevalier C.L. Cadet de Gassicourt, pharmacien, docteur de la faculté des Sciences, membre de la Légion d'honneur… [what follows are two lines of academic titles]” appeared in a bookshop called l'Huillier, based at n°16, rue Serpente, in Paris.
Cadet de Gassicourt, who was born in 1769, was forty years old when Napoleon was fighting his Austrian campaign. Son of a well-known chemist, he had worked as a lawyer before taking over his father's dispensary. Corvisart named him as First Pharmacist to the Emperor and it was in this function that he served the Emperor on the 1809 campaign. During the Cent-Jours, he directed the Imperial Pharmacy and during the Restoration he was inducted into the Légion d'honneur. He died in 1821, at the same age as Napoleon.
His campaign memoirs, which have since been lost, have endured and have been reused by others, thanks to a certain passage in which he attributes to Maréchal Lannes, fatally wounded, some rather harsh words in the direction of Napoleon, who had hurried to his general's bedside. These words are reproduced here, as far as we can trace them back to page 127 of Gassicourt's work:
“It is not to concern you of my wife and children that I talk to you thus. In dying for you, I do not need to commend them to you, your glory makes it your duty to protect them, and in addressing you these final criticisms I do not fear that I shall change your disposition towards them. You have just committed a grave error, one which has deprived you of your best friend, but it will not change you. Your insatiable ambition will finish you. You sacrifice, without need, without attention, without regret, the men who serve you best. Your ingratitude pushes away those very people who admire you; those that are left around you are nothing but fawners. I see not one friend who would dare to tell you the truth. You will be betrayed, you will be abandonned. Hasten to bring this war to an end: it is the wish of your generals, and it is the wish of your people. You will never be more powerful, but you can certainly be more loved! Forgive a dying man these truths, for he cherishes you so…”
Gassicourt then added: “The Maréchal, finally succumbing, offered his hand, and the Emperor embraced him, crying, but without offering a reply. I take this account from a number of witnesses who heard [his words] and who reported them to me in the same terms, or, at the very least, in the same vein.”
And yet this paragraph does not figure in the manuscript that Gassicourt, in his Réflexions préliminaires, is said to have written in 1812.
It is at this point that I must thank my friend Martial Lapeyre, who holds the manuscript, for informing me of it. It (the manuscript) is in the form of a 306-page quarto, bound in red cardboard of the period. It is probably a copy made by a letter writer, with each page framed with an ink line which attests to its conscientious and professional presentation. The text includes a number of corrections, made by the author, faithfully recorded in the copy. The fact that a number of popular Viennese engravings, maps and a charcoal sketch have been added at the end proves that this was a unique copy to which Gassicourt was very attached and over which he took great care before sending it away to be made up and bound.
Page 133 of the manuscript (cf. reproduction n°2) finishes with these words:
“to which we prudently feigned not to pay attention”, and which is directly afterwards followed by “6 June, Montebello died. I embalmed his body (crossed out by the author) with Messieurs Larrey and Vareliand.” In the text printed in 1818, new pages were inserted between these two phrases: at the bottom of page 124 and pages 125, 126 and 127 carry this last paragraph documenting Lannes' vindictive words cited above.
Why did Gassicourt introduce, six years later, this poisonous paragraph, when, by his own admittance, he was not even witness to the conversation that took place between Lannes?
First hypothesis: during the first few years of the Second Restoration, it was difficult to obtain from the Royal Censure authorisation to publish any work on the Empire, unless it was anti-bonapartist in tone. It is thus very possible that he added the paragraph in order to get it accepted by the printer. This conciliatory gesture may even have been suggested by the police, which basically comes down to the same thing.
Second hypothesis: he may have have received his Légion d'honneur decoration (which he had just been awarded) in exchange for this hardly honorable concession.

Third hypothesis, one which is not incompatible with the other two: he was simply exploiting the rumours concerning Lannes' diatribe that were already rife even during the Empire.
These rumours were formally refuted by two officers who were part of his [Lannes'] military staff and therefore eye-witnesses to his drawn-out death: Chef d'escadron Pelet, and Captain Marbot, the future memorialist, who argued thus:
“Some illintentioned people have written that Maréchal Lannes, in reproaching the Emperor, begged him to put an end to his warmongering; but I, who was supporting at that moment the upper body of the Maréchal and heard everything that he said, declare that to be wrong. On the contrary, the Maréchal was very sensitive to the show of concern that he received from the Emperor, and the latter, obliged to go and give his orders for the good of the army, departed, saying to him [Lannes]: “You shall live, my friend, you shall live!” The Maréchal, clasping his hands together, gave in response: “I wish it so, if I can yet be of service to France and your Majesty!”

For his part, Larrey [Dominique Jean Larrey, surgeon-in-chief in the French army and initiator of modern “army surgery”] proceeded to describe in great detail the wounded's sufferings, which lasted eight days, alternating between prostration and delirium, and during which time he babbled incoherently. But not once does Larrey mention the aforementioned invective.
Finally, Napoleon himself, during his conversation with Las Cases on 14 July 1816 at St. Helena, protested indignantly at this slander:
“At each moment the unfortunate Lannes called out for the Emperor: he held on tightly to me, said Napoleon, with what remained of his strength. He wanted no-one but me, thought of no-one but me. It was his instinct, observed the Emperor. He most certainly loved his wife and children more than me; and yet he did not talk of them. He expected nothing from them; it was he who protected them, whereas, on the contrary, I was his protector. I was for him something indefinite, something superior: I was his salvation…”
“Someone pointed out that the rumours that circulated in the salons were very different: that Lannes had died in a fury, cursing the Emperor against whom he raged, and it was added that he had always been distant from him and had often shown himself insolent towards [the Emperor].
“What nonsense! resumed the Emperor: on the contrary, Lannes adored me. He was without doubt one of the men in this world that I could count upon the most. It is indeed true that in his impetuous moods he could let slip words against me; but he was not the sort to tolerate such words pronounced by others [in my direction].”
Finally we understand the cause. Cadet de Gassicourt introduced at a later date in his publication a defamatory paragraph against Napoleon that had not existed in his original manuscript. For more than 150 years, critics of Napoleon have revelled in this text which demonstrates how his ambitious warmongering and his inhumanity were repudiated by his most loyal lieutenant.
We are grateful to M. Lapeyre for the opportunity to wash this stain from the memory of Napoleon. Lannes died at peace with him.
Guy Godlewski

Regarding Cadet de Gassicourt

In response to my article “How history is written” which appeared in number 297 of the S.N., pages 25-27, I received a letter from our eminent friend, Jean Linden, of Nice:
My dear President and friend,
It is always with great pleasure that I read the latest number of the Souvenir Napoléonien; and yet in number 297 from January, the article “How history is written” in particular caught my attention. I must say, with the greatest respect, that I do not entirely agree with your conclusions. Here are my reasons:
Cadet de Gassicourt did not witness the final moments between Napoleon and Lannes, but Constant, the Emperor's principal manservant, who did hear Lannes' last words, reports them in the exactly the same terms in his memoirs. We can thus assume that Constant was Cadet de Gassicourt's source for the material.
Constant places this “diatribe” on the eve of Lannes' death and notes: “The eve of his death, the Maréchal said to me: 'My dear Constant, I know now that I am dying; I wish that your Master have around him men that are as devoted to him as I [have been]. Tell the Emperor that I wish to see him.'” Constant adds: 'I was about to leave when the Emperor appeared. There was then a great silence: everyone departed, but the door to the bedroom remained half-open [and] we were able to hear part of the conversation: it was long and difficult. The Maréchal reminded the Emperor of his services [that he had fulfilled] and finished with these words, delivered in a voice still loud and firm…” What follows is absolutely identical to Gassicourt's text.
It is clear from the previous lines that Napoleon and Lannes were alone in the room, that “everyone departed”, but that Constant heard through the half-open door Lannes' words, “delivered in a voice still loud and firm”.
On first consideration, it seems that the writings of Marbot and Constant are contradictory, and thus that one of the two fabricated his account; however, upon rereading Marbot, we discover what I believe to be the explanation. Marbot's report of the event begins thus: “the Emperor, on his knees beside the stretcher…” From this, it is clear that we are talking about the day that Lannes was injured and not the eve of his death, when the Maréchal was in his room and most certainly in a bed.

We are thus talking about two different episodes which took place on two different dates. In addition, the fact that the Maréchal could have delivered such words as quoted by Constant just days after those reported by Marbot should not surprise us. For one, he felt a sincere and deep friendship for Napoleon. For a while, however, he had not approved of his [Napoleon's] policies and made no attempt to hide this. Sensing his imminent death and suffering from a violent fever which broke out during his final days, he would have wanted to clear his conscience in this brutal fashion that was entirely in keeping with his character.
Regarding Napoleon's words from 14 July, 1816 on St. Helena, we can compare them with the discussion that he held with Caulaincourt during his return home from Erfurt, which the latter reported: “He died a hero, even if his behaviour was that of a traitor.” It is also on St. Helena that he remarked to Gourgaud, who was in the middle of his eulogies to Lannes and Ney: “you are mistaken if you imagine Lannes as such. He, just like Ney, were men to spew forth if they saw some benefit; but on the battlefield, they were priceless.”
A final problem arises: can we actually trust Constant's memoirs, which were later rewritten by Villemarest? There are certainly some disputable points to be considered, but that does not mean that everything should be rejected out of hand. In particular, the passage that deals in great detail with Lannes' agonising death. It is hard not to imagine the reality of these moments and it would seem that Villemarest could have done nothing but copy Constant's notes.
I, for one, am compelled to accept the validity of Lannes' words, recorded by Cadet de Gassicourt, and taken, it would appear, from Constant.
You can thus see, my dear President, that our conclusions are different. But is that not the point of historical discussion, between impassioned individuals, who seek the truth?
I am sure that you will not be angry at me for having raised an opinion that differs from yours and if you feel that my point of view may interest the readers of our Revue, I shall leave you the option of bringing it to their attention.
Jean Linden

The final word: Guy Godlewski’s response to Jean Linden

Our friend Jean Linden will surely not begrudge me it if I declare that his arguments do not alter my convictions. I feel I demonstrated, and I continue to believe, that Cadet de Gassicourt added, for unknown reasons, a defamatory paragraph against Napoleon into his 1818 publication that did not originally figure in his 1812 manuscript.
M. Linden attributes this paragraph to Constant, something which I find highly improbable for the following reasons:
– Gassicourt published his work in 1818, and Constant his in 1830. Thus twelve years passed between the two publications. During that time, Gassicourt passed away, in 1821. Constant could thus take what he wanted, without fear of contradiction. And he did just that, as M. Linden has quite rightly remarked that the text has been copied, one from the other, almost word for word.
Gassicourt's anteriority is even more evident: Constant also recopied in its integrity a letter from Fortin, a young pharmacist, to his patron, Gassicourt, which follows the report of Lannes' death and which relates in great detail Lannes' wife's visit to Strasburg where the body of her husband lay. 
– The fabrication of Constant's memoirs is far more complicated that M. Linden thinks. The last two tomes (out of six in total) are, in effect, the work of Villemarest. The fourth, which contains the passage which concerns us, is, like the first three, the product of a team of ‘cleaners': the Meliot brothers, Auguste Luchet and Nisard (see Quérard: Les supercheries littéraires, tome I, p. 272).
These so-called ‘memoirs' belonging to Napoleon's manservant should thus not be taken seriously, just as suspect as those ‘belonging' to Bourrienne or Laure d'Abrantès. By the end of the Restoration, there was enough Napoleonic literature available that unscrupulous plagiarists could write something based on ‘borrowings', taken more or less word for word. This is what the ‘ghostwriters' at the Lavocat publishers did in copying and lending to Constant this scandalous passage from Cadet de Gassicourt's book
– To make it more believable, they even enlivened the passage with a subtle invention, transforming the humble Constant into the Emperor's messenger on behalf of Lannes, lying there in agony. This is to ignore protocol and the extremely strict hierarchical relationships imposed by Napoleon, who had never used his valet as an intermediary between him and a Maréchal. Even on St. Helena, where Marchand fulfilled Constant's functions, he remained until the final months a subordinate and excluded from conversations between his master and the latter's generals. That Constant could have been at Lannes' bedside and privy to the Maréchal's confidences when Napoleon entered the room is nothing but imaginative thinking from his 'literary advisors'.
– Thus remains Marbot. M. Linden is right to underline the consolatory words during the first episode between Napoleon and Lannes, moments after the fatal wound was received. But Marbot, as Lannes' ordinance officer, was a privileged witness to the Maréchal's agony. He was in and out of Lannes' room, any hour of the day or night, and it is in his arms that Lannes died. He was, as was Larrey, better placed than anyone to report what Lannes said, and whom he received. Does Marbot mention Constant's visits? Not once. Nor does Larrey, the other principal witness.
Regarding Napoleon's words concerning Lannes' treachery, reported by Caulaincourt, they need to be placed in context. Napoleon is making a vindictive allusion to Lannes' misplaced chatter which, before Erfurt, alerted the Tsar Alexander to Napoleon's so-called 'pacifistic intentions', or lack thereof.
Here are my reasons which, far from weakening my conviction, strengthen it: I am convinced that Napoleon was, in this case, slandered a posteriori and that this was done by Gassicourt and not Constant.
Guy Godlewski
(Tr. H.D.W.)

Publication Title :
Revue du Souvenir Napoléonien
Review number :
Page numbers :
p.25-27 & p.28-29
Month of Publication :
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