SOULT, Nicolas Jean de Dieu

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One of an impressive pantheon of Gascon-born soldiers (including Murat, Ney and Lannes) who rose to international renowm under Napoleon, Soult was a clerk's son, and joined the royal French Army as a private in 1775. A sergeant in 1791, he was commissioned in 1792 and a battalion commander when he first achieved public distinction in August 1793, winning a minor action on the Rhine during Pichegru's advance to the Geisberg. He fought at Fleurus under Lefebvre in June 1794, and was promoted grigadier-general in October. As part of Jourdan's army on the Rhine he fought at Altenkirchen and Ukerath in early summer 1796.

Back under Jourdan's command on the Rhine in 1799, he fought at Ostrach and Stockach before trasferring to the Swiss front in April, where he led a division under Massena and took part in both battles of Zurich. He followed Masséna to the Italian front, breaking a leg and becoming a prisoner of war during the siege of Genoa. After his exchange he helped put down anti-French uprisings in Piedmont and served with occupying forces in Naples.

By now established as one of Napoleon's most trusted military subordinates, and a formidable battle tactician, Soult was appointed to the Marshalate in 1804, and commanded IV corps against the Third Coalition in late 1805. He made his international reputation leading the decisive charge at Austerlitz, and fought at Jena, Eylau and Heilsberg in 1806-07 but missed the victory at Friedland. A prime beneficiary of Napoleon's willingness to buy loyalty, he was a wealthy man before he became Duke of Dalmatia in 1808.

Soult accompanied Napoleon's invasion at Spain later that year, leading the final stages of the pursuit to Corunna and occupying Portugal in march 1809. Driven out of Oporto by Wellesley's Anglo-Portuguese force in May, he defeated Spanish forces at Ocana during the summer and was Jourdan's successor as Joseph Bonaparte's chief of staff. Unhappy in the role, he left Madrid for south-western Spain in 1810, finding himself embroiled in a defensive campaign around Badajoz while mounting a major siege at Cadiz. Forced to retire north-west after Marmont's defeat at Salamanca in 1812, Soult retook Madrid and pursued Wellington's subsequent retreat from Burgos.

Temporarily seconded to Germany in 1813, he led the Imperial Guard until after the battle of Bautzen, when he returned to the Peninsular War as theatre C-in-C, charged with recovering an almost hopeless situation after the defeat at Vitoria. He fought an epic defensive campaign over the next ten months, retreating slowly into and beyond the Pyrenees until defeat at Orthez and a final confrontation at Toulouse in April (several days after Napoleon's abdication) persuaded him to surrender.

Not given a senior command of the restored monarchy, Soult was quick to rejoin Napoleon during the Hundred Days of 1815, but was ill-employed as chief of staff to the army for the Waterloo campaign. He spent the next four years in exile east of the Rhine, was restored to the army lists in 1820 and subsenquently capitalized on his position as the most celebrated of Napoleon's surviving marshals to pursue an extremely successful political carrer.

His brother Pierre (1770-1843) saw long-term service in Spain, was a divisional general from 1813 and took part in all the final actions beyond the Pyrenees, eventually retiring as a lieutenant-general in 1825.
Source: Dictionary of the Napoleonic Wars, ed. S. Pope, London: Collins, 1999

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