Jean Rapp was born on 27 April, 1771, in Colmar (Haut-Rhin), into a bourgeois family. Although two of his uncles served in the royal army, Rapp’s parents, being Lutherans, wanted him to become a pastor. A difficult but incredible strong child, he was not cut out for a sedentary profession and in 1788 enrolled in a French cavalry regiment (the Chasseurs des Cévennes) which had a barracks at Ostheim, to the north of Colmar. From then on, he served as a soldier, during which time he became known for his bravery and the wounds he received. At Ligenfield (28 May, 1795), whilst serving in the Armée du Rhin, he received numerous cuts to the face and arms, prompting him to ask to be retired from the army. His uncle, Elie Graff, captain in the Garde Nationale, intervenes and secures him the post of temporary aide-de-camp to Desaix (19 December 1796). He defended the fort at Kehl alongside Desaix and was shot in the right knee. Confirmed as aide-de-camp and named captain, thanks to the support of General Moreau, Rapp came in contact with the elite officers of the various armies. He accompanied Desaix to Italy (September 1797) where he met Napoleon Bonaparte at Passariano, near to Campo-Formio. He joined Desaix on the Egyptian campaign and served with distinction in the major battles, including the assault on Malta (10 June, 1798) and the Battle of the Pyramids (21 July, 1798).
At Sediman (8 October, 1798), he led the capture of an enemy battery and was rewarded with a squadron command. He was also wounded at Samahoud (22 January, 1799) which saw him conferred the rank of chef de brigade. After Bonaparte’s return to France, Desaix was given the task of negotiating with Sidney Smith the French evacuation of Egypt. Up until the signature of the Treaty of Al-Arish (28 January, 1800), Rapp liaised between Desaix and Kleber, whom Napoleon left in command of the French forces. Rapp left Egypt with Desaix on 4 March, 1800, but only returned to France on 5 May, 1800, following capture by the English navy en route home. After a short period of quarantine, he was released back into the army. On 14 June, 1800, both Desaix and Kleber were killed: the former at the Battle of Marengo, and the latter assassinated in Cairo. Rapp was taken by Napoleon to be his aide-de-camp, a role which he fulfilled until 1814. He was given a number of confidential missions, notably in the Vendée region (July to August, 1800), and was also put in charge of the organisation and command of the mamluk squadron based in Marseille. He also completed a number of missions in Belgium (February – March, 1803) and Switzerland (March, 1803) before being posted to Hanover and the Elbe river mouth, where he oversaw the defence preparations against an English expedition.
As aide-de-camp to the Emperor, Rapp participated actively in the 1805 Austrian campaign. At Ulm, he was sent to speak with General Mack after Napoleon commented “You speak their language, go and see what he is up to.” At Austerlitz, he led the Cavalerie de la Garde; at the head of the Emperor’s mamluks, he broke the Chevalier Guards of the Russian Imperial Guard. This charge became famous thanks to the painting by Gérard, commissioned by Napoleon, which depicts the scene. Rapp was wounded, and received further honours, becoming Général de division (24 December, 1805). Barely recovered, he left to inspect Marmont’s troops stationed in Graz and Maréchal Masséna’s divisions, and returned to Munich for the marriage of Prince Eugène (13 and 14 January, 1806). He was immediately afterwards dispatched to inspect conscripts in Strasbourg, Hanover, Hamburg and Hameln before being launched into the Prussian campaign of 1806. He participated in the battle at Schleiz (9 October, 1806) and entered Weimar with Murat (14 October, 1806) following the Battle of Jena. He also served in the advance guard in Poland and in action near Borkowo destroyed the Russian cavalry under General Kamensky (24 December, 1806), as well as forcing the Russians to evacuate Golymin (26 December, 1806). During this he was wounded and evacuated to Warsaw.
In Warsaw, he refused to have his arm amputated, which had been shattered by a bullet, or to return to France. Instead, as governor of Thorn, he directed the troops, the wounded and the sick which were arriving from all over, and was involved in the creation of the Polish light-cavalry. On 28 May, 1807, he took possession of the city of Danzig, becoming governor general and commander in chief. He maintained these titles until 1814, and answered only to the Emperor. Danzig was of vital importance to Napoleon and Rapp was charged with watching over the “boulevard du nord”. After the meeting at Tilsit, the surrounding territory became part of the “Republic of Danzig”, an independent enclave surrounded by Prussian lands. It became an advance-guard for the French, serving as a fortress, port and arsenal on the Baltic.
In 1809, Napoleon invited Rapp to join him for the Austrian campaign. At Essling (22 May, 1809), he led the fusiliers de la Garde, but was injured in a carriage accident. He was sent to recover in Schönbrunn and, on 12 October, 1809, he prevented Friedrich Staps from assassinating Napoleon. He returned to France in 1810, but was ordered to take up his post again in Danzig, arriving there on 10 June. Upon his return, he re-established his intelligence networks on Sweden, Russia and trade in the Baltic, and organised the postings of troops from Poland, Saxony and Baden-Württemberg.
Napoleon arrived in Danzig on 7 June, 1812, informing Rapp that war with Russia had begun. Rapp rejoined the emperor at Smolensk and participated in the Battle of Valoutina-Gora. During the Battle of Borodino, Rapp received four wounds in ninety minutes. Upon departure from Moscow on 19 October, although barely recovered again, he saved the life of Napoleon for a second time, pushing back a Cossack attack at Gorodina. Fighting a rear-guard action with Ney at Berezina (28 November), he was injured again. On 5 December, Napoleon announced to Rapp that he was returning to Paris and that he (Rapp) was to remain in Danzig, which was to serve as a point of refuge for the survivors of the retreat. He remained as commander in chief of the 10th corps and noted: “I defended Danzig for eleven and a half months. I was left with 5,600 men out of 32,000. I lost 17,000 to disease, three to four thousand to the sword and the rest have remained in Poland, Germany, Spain, Naples. […] Despite this, the enemy was still four hundred fathoms from the citadel when I was obliged to surrender.” (Letter to Michel Paira, 29 April, 1814).
Upon his return to Paris (13 July, 1814), he rallied through necessity to the Bourbons. However, during the Cent-Jours, he returned to Napoleon’s service and was given the command of the 5th observation corps in Alsace, which would shortly afterwards become the Armée du Rhin (16 April, 1815). Napoleon named him Peer of France on 2 June. Charged with 30,000 men, he however did not participate in the Battle of Waterloo. Ten days later, he met troops near Strasbourg and defeated them at the Battle of La Souffel (28 June), the last French pitched battle victory of the Napoleonic wars.
In 1820, he entered into the king’s service, but died on 8 November, 1821 from cancer of the pylorus.
Source: Dictionnaire Napoléon (tr. & ed., with permission, H.D.W.)