Antoine Charles Louis Lasalle

Antoine Charles Louis Lasalle

General Antoine Charles Louis Collinet, comte de Lasalle (10 May, 1775 – 6 July, 1809) was a French cavalry General during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars known as “The Hussar General.” He is regarded as the greatest light cavalry commander of all time, often an asset and inspiration to the men he commanded. He led from the front and was a brilliant commander of large formations of cavalry. Lasalle was a brave man and carried out many daring exploits and adventures behind enemy lines including sneaking deep into Austrian territory to spend the night with a noblewoman and capturing Stettin, a heavily fortified city, and its garrison with fewer than 500 hussars. Lasalle was an ultimate showoff and the archetypal hussar and high ranking French cavalry officer — superbly attired in a brilliant, colorful uniform with sparkling and highly decorative accoutrements that would make women’s hearts pound wildly and was always riding a magnificent horse, some of which were the best in the French Empire. He was full of confidence, self-assured in his movements and actions, he evoked authority, bravery and élan — all one would expect of a highly successful and respected commander.

Early career

Antoine Charles Louis Lasalle was born in Metz, Lorraine to an aristocratic family of small nobility on May 10, 1775 to Pierre Nicolas de Lasalle d’Augny and Suzanne Dupuy de la Gaule. His father was an officer in the French Army under the Ancien Régime and a chevalier in the Royal Military Order of Saint Louis. He was a maternal descendant of the famous Abraham de Fabert d’Esternay, a Marshal of France. His inclinations for war showed at an early age, as he immediately showed a great facility for horseback riding, shooting and handling the sword. Thanks to his family’s status, at just eleven years old he joined the Foreign Infantry Regiment of Alsace (German) as a second lieutenant replacement on June 19, 1786 and rising to the rank of second lieutenant by the age of fourteen.

When the French Revolution broke out, Lasalle, eager to fight, he sprang joyfully towards a new future. He was placed as a second lieutenant in the 24th Cavalry Regiment on May 25, 1791. Being an officer in the French Army was always a privilege of nobility, but this was all soon reversed by a government decree in 1792 to the point of forbidding people with aristocratic origins to have military command. As an aristocrat, he lost his commission. Lasalle had to abandon his grade, but he remained loyal to his flag, which was that of France, and the incident did not deter his love of war so he waited to earn back his rank through personal merit and good services. He enlisted as a private in 1792 and moved to Paris.

He joined the section des Piques, a group of radical Parisian revolutionaries in the National Guard. By 1793, he joined the Army of the North in Italy as a mere volunteer in the 23rd Regiment of Chasseurs à Cheval. He was soon elected sergeant and with his company he attacked and captured a battery of enemy cannons. The general in command witnessed the fearlessness Lasalle demonstrated and addressed him for praise and proposed positions as officer. Lasalle rejected this because it would separate him from his men, but continued to earn these proposals.

Campaign in Italy

Lasalle campaigned in Belgium and through family friendship with François Christophe Kellermann he won back his grade of lieutenant and became aide-de-camp of then General Kellermann on March 10, 1795. Flourishing with the challenges of staff work, the young soldier stayed with Kellermann when he transferred to the Army of Italy on May 6, 1795. Kellermann, the Grand Archivist of the Grand Orient de France initiated Lasalle in freemasonry. He was employed as assistant to Kellermann’s son, Adjutant-General François Etienne Kellermann in May, 1796. Lasalle was quickly promoted to Captain on November 7, the same year. Quite the drinking and swearing master, Lasalle was actually charming and witty but preferred to cultivate an image of a rough, swaggering soldier. He was known to sneak behind enemy lines to enjoy some entertaining times with women, even ones of the enemies. His weakness, especially in his early years was in fact his flamboyance, which time and again verged on the reckless. He worked hard and played hard and before his marriage was a notorious womanizer.

Lasalle was known for always ousting the commander-in-chief, spending two or three hours a day playing music with General Thiébault, and being an incomparable prankster within the army. At dinner he once told General Leclerc, “I have a unique destiny in your army, my general. I have given you a taste for hunting, given General Thiébault a taste for music, and all that remains is to give General Monnet a taste for spirit!” Captured early on in Italy, Lasalle was exchanged and took up a love affair with an Italian marquise in Vicenza. This led to an incident on December 17, 1796 in which he led a party of troopers to his lover's house — deep within Austrian lines. Lasalle was a good nobleman and fluent in many languages, including German, so he deceived the various patrols that gave him and his men trouble. After making love to his marquise, he left at dawn revealing his French uniform in the light. Lasalle and his men were found and surrounded by 100 Austrian hussars. Once he was discovered he escaped by bluffing and fighting his way out eventually leaping his horse over the parapet of a bridge to avoid capture. With only 18 men he routed 100 Austrian hussars but in the heat of the pursuit he found himself isolated.

He was then alone and surrounded by four of these Austrian hussars that refused to surrender. Lasalle fought his way out, injuring all four hussars, lost his horse, and swam across the Bacchiglione River. He arrived on the banks of the Bacchiglione regrouped with his men as they gave him a captured Austrian horse to ride back to camp uninjured. This incident brought Lasalle to Napoleon Bonaparte's attention the morning after when he rode a captured Austrian horse on parade. Napoleon questioned Lasalle and Lasalle told him it was a horse from an Austrian hussar patrol in Vicenza. Napoleon shouted “Are you crazy?” and was preparing a court martial until Lasalle gave him the information that he obtained during the skirmish. Napoleon saw in Lasalle a daring and courageous man that could be a useful in missions of infiltration behind enemy lines where one needs to make his own decisions with haste and good judgment. Napoleon pardoned Lasalle and even made him chef d'escadron of the 7th Regiment of Hussars on January 6, 1797 by only saying “Commandant Lasalle, remember that name.”

He justified his rapid progress and reputation when at the Battle of Rivoli the young daredevil spurred ahead with the entire available cavalry — 26 horsemen of the 22nd Chasseurs à Cheval. As a result, an entire battalion of the Deutschmeister Regiment threw down its arms in panic and fled. A battery of 15 Austrian guns blasted French dragoons, while two columns of infantry, one going towards the gorge and the other the Trambasore Heights were led forward supported by cavalry under Charles Leclerc and Lasalle. The packed Austrian soldiers in the gorge fled when their own dragoons were trampling them over in panic. And likewise the dispersed infantry on the Heights were unable to hold once Lasalle and the French cavalry got in their midst. Lasalle and his men continued to support Generals Lebley and Vial until the battle was over.

The Battle of Rivoli was won with 5,000 French casualties and 14,000 enemy Austrian casualties including eleven captured flags, six of which were captured by Lasalle. After the battle all of the battle trophies were piled up before Napoleon and Lasalle lay exhausted a few feet away lying on top of his six flags. Napoleon excitedly stated, “Go to sleep on your flags, Lasalle, for it was well-deserved!” Lasalle was best friends with one of the most unpredictable and unstable men of the army, François Fournier. François Fournier, later General François Fournier-Sarlovese, was probably the most daring, unruly, and unpredictable senior officer ever to serve Napoleon. Discipline appeared to be an anathema to him, and rules and indeed orders, were to be flouted or ignored, should he consider them unnecessary or troublesome. He grew into a master of all arms and became a noted and feared duelist. Lasalle and Fournier got into many scrapes together in the pursuit of women and drinking exploits. They also got themselves into and out of a whole series of potentially serious and dangerous incidents.

Lasalle then took up a dangerous affair with Joséphine Berthier, wife of Victor-Lèopold Berthier and sister-in-law to Marshal Berthier. She gave birth to Lasalle’s son in 1797 but he was raised by Berthier. Whatever potential damage that did to his career paled when considered on a personal level — as he later married her and is reported to have remained passionately devoted to his wife. In March, Commandant Lasalle is reported to have many exploits along the Piave River. The following month, following the lead of 16 men from the new Corps of Guides, Lasalle entered the Vadrozone, occupied by enemy Uhlans. He charged with intrepidity, forcing them to evacuate the city and retake the Tagliamento. Lasalle was the first to cross the river for further prosecution of the fleeing Uhlans. Lasalle and his men successfully drove the enemy out of the Tagliamento River. The campaign in Italy ended with an overwhelming French Victory.

Campaign in Egypt

Napoleon Bonaparte personally requested Lasalle to participate in the Campaign in Egypt. Excited about participating in this exotic expedition, Lasalle began to profess a real fervor for the army and joined the Army of the East after making his mistress, Joséphine, pregnant. Lasalle participated in the capture of Malta on the expedition to Egypt. They reached and invaded Alexandria and from there marched to Cairo. On July 21, 1798, the Battle of the Pyramids, the Turks, reassured by the easy retirement Embabeh provided for them, bravely resisted the efforts of the French Army. Their fearless leader renewed his attacks impetuously, but each attempt was repelled with force, and the outcome of the battle was indecisive. Lasalle, at the head of 60 men, charged the village of Embabeh and routed the garrison chasing them wildly. He cut off the retreating army by taking a secret route through the Giza Pyramids allowing Napoleon to crush his opponents.

This bold move decided victory and because of this General Bonaparte promoted Lasalle to Lieutenant-Colonel of the 22nd Brigade of Chasseurs à Cheval and 7th Hussars. While in Cairo on August 7, Lasalle wrote a letter to both his mistress Joséphine and his mother. Lasalle said he had written letters at Malta, Alexandria, and two in Cairo. He traveled back to the Nile with General Desaix and fought at the Battle of Salalieh on August 11. During this burden of a battle Lasalle gave the best idea of his courage and cold-bloodedness. While bravely battling and besting a group of Mamelukes the cord that attached his sabre to his wrist snapped leaving the sabre on the ground. He calmly dismounted and picked it up in the middle of the fray, quietly mounted his horse and continued fighting. On January 3, during the Battle of Souagui he gave further evidence of this chivalrous intrepidity which was the admiration of the whole army.

His fearlessness made him the perfect companion for the most risky missions. 2 weeks later at the Battle of Remedieh he chopped both hands off of a Mameluke who was fighting General Davout, saving his life. He then overthrew several Mamelukes, broke his sword over the head of Osman Bey, broke pair of pistols while defending himself, took the sword of a wounded dragoon, returned to the mêlée, rallied his troops, restored the fight, and drove the enemy to the desert. On January 22, at the Battle of Samanhout he executed some of the most brilliant cavalry charges leading to the enemy’s considerable losses. Finally on March 1, 1799 at the Battle of Gehemi he completely defeated the Arabs of Yambo and killed over 300 men. He fought at Thebes and Djehemali. Lasalle continued to follow his regiment commanded by General Desaix and played a major role in General Desaix's subjugation of Upper Egypt against Murad Bey. The 22nd Chasseurs à Cheval returned to Cairo after the victory and were tasked to contain Egypt and to ensure communications between Salahieh and Cairo. Lasalle completed this mission with desirable success. After the signing of the Convention of El-Arish on January 24, 1800, Lasalle returned home to France. Ever the one to create an impression — either good or bad — Lasalle adopted mameluke breeches as part of his uniform.

Return to France and Campaign in Spain

When he returned to France he received des pistolets et un sabre d'honneur from the hands of Napoleon himself on August 5, as a testimony of government satisfaction. On August 25 of the same year he received the command of the 10th Hussars as Colonel or chef de brigade. In some respects he was a strange contradiction: one of the best commanders of light cavalry, he was extremely talented both on the battlefield and in outpost duty, was handsome, intelligent, well-educated, and witty; yet, according to Marbot, he posed as a libertine and ruffian who “might always be seen drinking, swearing, and smashing everything.” In this regard he was the archetypal hussar, flamboyant and fearless, with a cultivated swagger – an attitude epitomized by his remark that any hussar who was not dead by the age of thirty is a blackguard.

He appeared as the “bad boy” of the light cavalry and carefully maintained the hussar image and reputation. He also founded the “Society of Alcoholics” an initiative that shocked the entire high society of Paris except for Napoleon. It is reported that in one month they drank all that existed of foreign wines in Salamanca. One evening Lasalle made Thiébault count all the empty wine bottles. Thiébault asked “Do you want to kill yourself?” which prompted the famous reply from Lasalle: “My friend, any hussar who does not die by thirty is a blackguard and I’ve arranged not to die this year.” At Napoleon’s table Lasalle wrote the lyrics to the famous French drinking song “Fanchon.” On January 17, 1801 he commanded the cavalry at the Battle of Vilnadella and had three horses killed under him and broke seven swords on the enemy.

It was never a rare sight to see him in the forefront of a hack-and-slash mêlée, gripping his reins with his teeth, a pistol in one hand and saber in the other. On his way back to France from Spain, he met up with another hussar regiment in a city in Spain and gave the two officers dinner consisting of two Burgundy wines he had put on the table. Lasalle was well-built and looked every inch soldier though he was only 5 foot 8 inches tall, and throughout his career had a succession of flamboyant moustaches. He was a superb horseman and once rode into a ball where he made his mount dance. Back in Egypt Lasalle had been intimately connected with Joséphine Berthier, wife of General Victor-Leopold Berthier, the then Minister of War and Chief of Staff. Joséphine and Berthier divorced in which Lasalle proposed to her. Napoleon gave Lasalle 200,000 francs as a reward. When they met at the Tuileries Palace, Napoleon asked “When is the wedding?” Lasalle replied saying “Sire, when I have enough money to buy the wedding presents and furniture.” Napoleon said “But I gave you 200,000 francs last week, what did you do with them?” Lasalle replied “I used half to pay my debts and have lost the rest gambling.”

Such a confession would have broken the career of any other soldier but coming from Lasalle made the Emperor smile. Napoleon merely ordered Marshal Duroc to give Lasalle another 200,000 francs. Napoleon thought highly of Lasalle and would pay off his debts and forgive his rowdy behavior unfitting of an officer. When a prefect asked why Napoleon didn't discipline Lasalle for his conduct, Napoleon responded saying that “It only takes a stroke of a pen to create a prefect, but it takes twenty years to make a Lasalle.” A commander, who was known, on occasion, to charge with nothing more than his pipe in his hand, mellowed a little and became more responsible after he married Joséphine-Jeanne-Marguerite d'Aiguillon in 1803. This also put Lasalle in a new circle of nobility, furthering his ties with the Emperor. Lasalle possessed a keen sense of duty and responsibility and cared for Berthier's three boys, Alméric-Alexandre (b. 1797), Oscar (b. 1799), and Alexandre-Joseph (b. 1802) as if they were his own even though Alméric-Alexandre and Oscar were his illegitimate sons. On June 14, 1804 he was made a member of law in the 5th Cohort of the Legion of Honor as a Commander. Lasalle traveled back to Salamanca, Spain that year.

The captain of engineering in Salamanca had a very beautiful Spanish wife. Lasalle, though he was a tender and caring husband who wrote love letters daily to his wife, had his infidelities. He entered the home of the young Spanish lady without warning giving off slight surprise and fear. He charmed and wooed her, eventually making love to her unbeknownst to her husband who then walked in on them in the act. He was outraged and furious, insulting and screaming at Lasalle, which resulted in a duel by sabre, though Lasalle was the most skilled and terrifying duelist of the time. He considered himself as better horseman and swordsman than everybody else and was said to be “a man for high adventure and reckless deeds.” Lasalle was generous enough not attack the man, but contented himself with parrying. But he did so with such vigor that it broke the poor engineer’s wrist. As the engineer was doubled over with fatigue and pain, Lasalle let down a hard blow with the flat edge of his sabre on the man’s back and circled around the engineer amid countless jokes.

Whatever rage this unhappy officer had, he could do nothing for he was exhausted. When it was obvious the engineer could take it no more, Lasalle opted to end the battle by saying, “If you had known me better you would have attached less importance to the fact you have been injured, and if I had known better, I would have refrained from continuing to fight after you had been injured. Let us finish this fight for it is far too unequal, but I now know because of your actions I now know you are a man of honor.” There was a saying: “The hussars were loved by every wife and hated by every husband.” Another time, Lasalle showed off his weapons to his men and one of these weapons was a very beautiful black sabre from Damascus that had cost around 12,000 francs. He wanted to show his men the superior quality of the blade by striking it on iron bars and tree branches. Lasalle then struck it so hard the blade broke in two as his men stood petrified at the fact he just single handedly broke a fine blade that was worth 12,000 francs. Lasalle then without a moment’s notice threw the broken pieces, scabbard and all, over his head and walked on, continuing these acts of showmanship with other weapons.

Being the prankster he was Lasalle once saw servants emptying garbage by carrying it in pots over their head instead of dumping it from the window. These maidservants would carry the pots and dump the garbage in a certain spot giving Lasalle the crazy idea to have a group of hussars block this spot forcing them to dump their disgusting garbage in the adjoining street. When his hussars arrived the crowd of people emptying their garbage panicked, running into each other, smashing pots, and subsequently covering themselves in revolting trash creating a huge mess. This caused appalling results, which to Lasalle and his men was quite amusing. His hell raising ways brought him notoriety, but didn't stop his brilliance handling light cavalry from shining and by February 1, 1805 he was promoted to Brigadier General. A month and a day later he took command of the 2nd Brigade of Dragoons stationed in Amiens. Lasalle enjoyed bragging, smoking a pipe, drinking, sabering champagne bottles, and dueling. There were many deaths in duels when the Army was encamped — especially in 1805, when Lasalle was sick of drilling and parades while waiting in Amiens. But things changed when Napoleon set his sights on the new Austrian and Russian threats along the Rhine sending Lasalle and his men into action.

Campaign in Prussia and Poland

He fought bravely at the Battle of Austerlitz with his dragoons under the command of Divisional General Klein who commanded the 1st Dragoon Division in the Cavalry Reserve of Marshal Murat. Because of his success he was given command of a Light Cavalry Brigade consisting of the 5th and 7th Hussar Regiments under the command of Marshal Murat. He and Joséphine-Jeanne had their own little girl, Charlotte-Joséphine who was born in May 1806. Lasalle’s star was high during the 1806 campaign for Prussia where his hussars became known as the “Brigade Infernale” or “Hellish Brigade” with Colonels François-Xavier Schwarz and Ferdinand-Daniel Marx as his regimental commanders. Lasalle also became good friends with Napoleon’s most famous spy, Charles Louis or Karl Ludwig Schulmeister. Lasalle and his men liked to sing songs that insulted dragoons and they considered themselves distinctly more dashing than chasseurs. Lasalle was known for being utterly brave, loving of danger, often laughing at his own hardships, and frequently charging with a long pipe instead of a saber in his hand.

He fought at Schleiz and Jena-Auerstädt where he captured the bodyguard of the King of Prussia and forced the Prince of Hohenloe to Prenzlau. Lasalle and the 7th were notorious for riding up to the lines of the enemy and asking for a single combat duel just to break the boredom of the wait between battles. He and his brigade performed prodigies while relentlessly pursuing the Prussians after Jena. On October 26, 1806 Lasalle was currently in pursuit of Hohenloe’s defeated army that was heading to Prenzlau. At noon he departed for Zehdenick and observed Prussian infantry north west of himself at the edge of the forest. Without worrying about the enemy’s huge numerical superiority and convinced that these troops had already been beaten he charged with his usual impetuosity. After fierce fighting the Prussians managed to beat back Lasalle's hussars until cavalry reinforcements arrived. General Grouchy arrived around the same time as the reinforcements and the combined attacks by Lasalle and Grouchy destroyed the Prussian cavalry. Soon, the entire division broke and sought out salvation in the outskirts of the village of Zehdenick. The Prussian infantry moved into the woods and then withdrew.

On October 28, after trying to run Hohenlohe’s army to the ground and as they approached Prenzlau they realized the Prussian Army had been inside the city for some time now. Marshal Murat arrived at 10 a.m. and ordered Lasalle to cut the road from Gustow and to storm the northern gates of the city. The approaching French set off a panic amongst the Prussians who quickly closed the city gates. Grouchy was ordered to support Lasalle. Lasalle took his troopers right up to the city gates and burst them open. He continued on through the city and out the east gates where he could see Hohenlohe’s army forming in a plain north east of the city. Shortly after 1 p.m. it was confirmed that the Prussian column was only the rearguard of Hohenlohe's army under Prinz August. The Prinz asked for terms and was informed he would be treated in the same manner as the rest of the Prussian army when they surrendered. Thinking this was not acceptable the Prinz ordered his men to press forward and cross the bridge. Lannes reacted swiftly and ordered Beaumont to hold the bridge while he attacked with his infantry. The counter attack was too much for the Prussians; they threw down their arms and surrendered. Seeing that all was lost Von Hirschfeld also laid down his arms and surrendered. A few hours later Murat managed to convince Hohenlohe that his army was surrounded and he surrendered. The next day Lasalle and his troops marched to the fortress of Stettin. He prepared to attack the fortress though extremely outnumbered and despite the fact that many of his men were armed with fake wooden carbines due to their low amount of resources. Stettin was well defended with extensive fortifications to protect them from their enemies and a garrison of 6,000-10,000 experienced soldiers, not raw recruits, together with 120-300 guns. In the port, there were several ships of the Royal Navy, the great supplier of arms, ammunition, uniforms and subsidies to the Prussian Army. Lasalle ordered his men to cut down numerous trees and paint them black to look as if they were cannons. As everyone was about to retire for the night on October 29, 1806 the shrill sound of a trumpet was suddenly heard within the fortress. It was undoubtedly a messenger who had been sent to negotiate.

Shortly afterwards, General von Romberg was informed of the arrival of a French officer, Colonel François-Xavier Schwartz, commanding the 5th Hussars under General Lasalle. The Military Governor, General von Romberg, was an old soldier and a veteran of Rossbach, the Prussian victory over the French in 1757. “I’ve been sent by my superior, the Grand Duke of Berg, who summons you to surrender to him tomorrow morning. You will be granted the honors of war.” Not forgetting he was Prussian, von Romberg immediately retorted, “Tell your master that the town of Stettin was entrusted to my safeguard and that I shall defend it to my last man.” An hour later, the same messenger returned with another, more precise and far more alarming ultimatum. “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.” 10,000 Prussians surrendered too — 500 hussars. It was Lasalle’s greatest bluff which made him enormously famous and a national hero.

All the men of the garrison appeared in perfect order, spruced up as if they were about to go on parade in front of Frederick the Great himself, preceded by their old Commander and their officers in their superb dress uniforms, and as they marched past the French the Prussians threw down their rifles one by one. When von Romberg came up to Lasalle he was so startled he gave a little jump for 10,000 soldiers in perfect fighting condition defending the garrison together with 300 guns and a town of 23,000 inhabitants had just surrendered to…a handful of hussars. Not only that but the 500 hussars, who belonged to the 5th and 7th Regiments also known as the “Hellish Brigade”, were spattered with mud as a result of their forced marches and mounted on horses that were even more exhausted than they were. General Lasalle later wrote: “Who could recognize the brilliant hussars from Kronach fourteen months ago, those of the 5th Regiment with their white pelisses with lemon-yellow braids and their sky-blue breeches, those of the 7th Regiment with their green pelisses with daffodil-yellow braids and their scarlet breeches? Today the whole brigade, men and horses adorned alike in mud, have neither form nor color.

Their uniform is misery.” These filthy mud-spattered hussars belonged to the Light Cavalry Brigade of the famous French hussar general, Antoine Charles Louis Lasalle, aged thirty-one. Forced to keep his word and sign the act of capitulation, von Romberg decided to be philosophical and make the best of the situation. Apparently, he bore Lasalle no grudge for he gave him a superb porcelain pipe that Lasalle would carry to the death. As a result of Lasalle’s incredible achievement, Napoleon, admiringly wrote to Murat, Lasalle’s superior, “If your Light Cavalry captures fortified towns, I’ll have to discharge my Engineer Corps and have my heavy artillery melted down.” The capitulation of Stettin which had blocked the passage over the River Oder had prevented Prussian General Blücher from passing the frontier into Eastern Pomerania. Now Blücher was determined to escape from the French at any cost. Among the French in close pursuit was Lasalle, who had a personal vendetta with the Prussian, for it was to him that Blücher had told the lie about the armistice and this episode had earned the dashing hussar a letter from the Emperor, severely reprimanding him, which Lasalle had not appreciated. Blücher now led his troops in the direction of Lübeck, near the Baltic coast and the Danish frontier. Murat, together with Lasalle, Bernadotte and Soult were hot on his heels. Blücher was forced farther and farther to the north by his pursuers.

At last, he ran out of Prussian territory. On November 5, he marched into the neutral Hanseatic City-state of Lübeck, where he demanded money and food from the city authorities. The next day, Bernadotte's men attacked the walls. Lasalle was among these men and fought bravely during the French victory. Although adventure and war were the breath of their nostrils they were also boasters as no troops are invincible. During the Battle of Golymin, General Lasalle led his legendary “Hellish Brigade” against Russian battery of 12-15 guns as the first men to fight. The hussars charged with vigor but then were abruptly seized with panic. The two regiments turned about and, in an indescribable disorder, officers and men mixed, stampeded back to the rear. Of the whole brigade only the elite company of the 7th Hussars, placed immediately behind Lasalle himself, remained firmly at their posts. Lasalle was furious. He rode after them, screamed “Halt!” and brought them back. Lasalle kept them within a short range from the Russian guns as punishment for their earlier behavior standing 20 paces in front of his men remaining motionless and calm although under enemy fire. Now nobody dared to leave his post and for two hours they stood there under heavy fire while Lasalle had two horses and ten hussars killed under him.

He then finally rallied his troops and commanded “Break the ranks!” and with the support of Klein’s dragoon division charged the enemy from the flank. The Russians routed and fled under the cover of artillery as Lasalle pursued until the battle was won. On December 30, 1806 Lasalle was promoted to Divisional General and given command of the Light Cavalry Division in Murat’s Cavalry Reserve. In 1807 Napoleon authorized the raising of a guard regiment of Polish light horse. Applicants traveled to Paris, having established a considerable reputation for drunkenness and disorder on the way. Under General Lasalle they were given an intensive course in horsemanship and discipline becoming one of the finest regiments in the Guard. Lasalle, like many cavalry officers, enjoyed leading the Poles into combat. An officer of the Poles wrote: “It was in Lasalle's school that we learned outpost duty. We have kept a precious memory of this general in whom all the lovable and imposing qualities of a born marshal were combined ... He should have replaced Murat to whom he was vastly superior ...” In honor of the Poles, Lasalle composed a verse to the tune of their regimental march which he immortalized by singing it as he led them into battle during the Peninsular War a year later:

"The French were once in Poland, Now the Poles have come to Spain;...For Poles and Frenchmen, in one breath,Could put all men on earth to death!”

Lasalle became great friends with General Jean-Pierre-Joseph Bruyère who commanded the 3rd Brigade of Chasseurs à Cheval under Lasalle. Although Lasalle was Bruyère’s commander, he was three years Bruyère’s junior. They shared a number of similarities. Both were of medium height although Lasalle was the shorter of the two. They were equally flamboyant in their dress, both had masses of dark wavy hair, both enjoyed riotous living in their early years and both were extremely brave to the point of recklessness. Had the two lived, they would have become related by marriage as Bruyère married Joséphine-Therese-Virginie the 16 year old second daughter of Berthier's brother Louis-Cesar-Gabriel. Lasalle then fought at the Battle of Eylau commanding the 1st, 3rd, and 5th Hussars and the 13th Chasseurs à Cheval. During the Battle of Heilsberg, on June 12, 1807, Prince Murat, Grand Duke of Berg, was surrounded at the height of a mêlée by 12 Russian dragoons.

Lasalle was in command of consisting of three brigades of light cavalry which contained the “Hellish Brigade”, two lancer regiments, and five chasseurs à cheval regiments. Daredevil Lasalle saw Murat in trouble and charged at the enemies with the speed of lightning, killing the officer who commanded the detachment and put 11 dragoons on the run, saving Murat’s life. Shortly after, Murat and other members of the “Hellish Brigade” saved Lasalle from a certain death. Afterwards while shaking hands, Murat told Lasalle, “General, we are free.” Lasalle and his men fought in the Battle of Friedland. The following July, Emperor Bonaparte made Lasalle a Grand Cross Knight of the Order of the Iron Crown. Lasalle was then sent to Spain under orders of Jean-Baptiste Bessières.

Campaign in Spain

Lasalle was given command of the 1st Light Cavalry Division consisting of the 8th Hussars, 13th, 16th and 24th Chasseurs in the Cavalry Reserve of Bessières. Lasalle’s cousin, Pierre-Louis-Adolphe-Georges du Prel, became his aide-de-camp. He arrived in Spain on February 15, 1808. One of Lasalle's major faults was his willingness to repay resistance with brutality and it was said of him he “made Spain tremble.” In June, Lasalle was responsible for the torching of Torquemada, a village that resisted his troops. He then defeated all the Spanish insurgents and marched to Palencia. As his men approached all the insurgents abandoned and fled to Valladolid, supported by a column of infantry. On June 12, 1808, while Lasalle was on his way to Valladolid, in the village of Cabezón he met a resistance of about 7,000 men under General Cuesta. The battle took place when General Cuesta's small army, scraped together almost from scratch to defend Old Castile, deployed itself along the Cabezón bridge to bar the road to Burgos against oncoming French divisions.

Rather than dig in on the opposite bank of the Pisuerga River, Cuesta, swept along by the enthusiasm of his men, and rushed his troops across the bridge against almost double his number, with predictable results: Lasalle's veteran cavalry trampled Cuesta's raw recruits with ease and marched on to Valladolid. His trick of the trade was to charge at the trot, holding his men solidly in hand to meet an enemy exhausted from galloping. He left more than 1,000 dead Spaniards on the battlefield, losing only 50 of his own. The same day he reached Valladolid and restored order to the city. On July 14 at Medina de Rioseco, he fought against 21,900 Spaniards under the command of General Blake and Cuesta with 14,000 men under the command of Marshal Bessières. Lasalle led a gallant charge and set victory to the French flags capturing all of the enemy baggage. Lasalle then marched towards Vittoria commanding the rearguard protecting the French from another breach made by the enemy. By decree in September 1808, the Emperor named him Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor, and made Lasalle Count of the Empire. On November 7, he fought at the Battle of Burgos and led the French to success.

The Spanish militias, untrained and unable to form infantry squares, scattered in the face of massed French cavalry, while the stubborn Spanish and Walloon Guards stood their ground in vain and were chewed up by Lasalle and his men. A few days later at the Battle of Villa Viejo he captured seven cannons and four flags. On March 15, Leval’s division and Lasalle’s cavalry crossed the Tagus River at Talavera, and on the next day they were joined by Victor, at the head of Villatte’s and Ruffin’s divisions, at Arzobispo. The rest of the cavalry along with the artillery and the baggage was sent to Almaraz, where they were to wait for Victor to sweep away the Spanish troops guarding the river. Two days later Lasalle reached Meza de Ibor and fought the Spanish troops forcing them out of their defensive position on the Tagus. Lasalle then joined to participate in the Battle of Medellín. This battle was the most glorious day in the military life of General Lasalle when he was under the command of the left wing. Each wing was composed of a cavalry division and two infantry battalions filled with German troops from the Confederation of the Rhine. The Spanish heavily outnumbered them having an army almost twice the size of the French.

Lasalle's position was a bit dangerous, since the Guadiana was at his back meaning his 2,000 cavalry and 2,500 infantry could not fall back more than a mile. Three Spanish cavalry regiments hovered around the bank of the Guadiana and attempted to turn the French left, but Lasalle and his men held on to their tenuous positions. Spanish cavalry supported by infantry decided to come boldly at the French. Lasalle immediately recognized how dangerous a retreat would be in the close confinements of the narrow bridge. Lasalle had been reinforced with seven infantry battalions from Villatte, and once he saw the Spanish routing to the west he too ordered a powerful counter-attack. The 2nd Hussars regiment, accompanied by a regiment of Chasseurs à Cheval, smashed the Spanish cavalry, reformed, and charged at the once-again abandoned Spanish infantry in the eastern flank. Lasalle's fresh battalions also attacked frontally and French dragoons were now rolling over the center of the Spanish army, which attempted to flee in any way it could.

Many were brutally killed in this chaotic retreat and Cuesta's army effectively ceased to exist. 8,000 dead or wounded Spaniards scattered the battlefield. 2,000 prisoners and 19 cannons were trophies due to the fearlessness of General Lasalle. That was his last act of arms in the Spanish Peninsula, where he was nicknamed “Picaro” which means “rogue or adventurer” in Spanish. Napoleon called 33 year-old Lasalle, the spirited hero of Medellín, from Spain to Germany. Lasalle’s ebullience at being ordered to join Masséna’s corps in Germany was made clear by a chance meeting with Roederer and Thiébault in Burgos. To Roederer’s question if he were traveling via Paris, Lasalle replied, “Yes, it’s the shortest way. I shall arrive at 5 a.m.; I shall order a pair of boots; I shall make my wife pregnant, and I shall depart.” He left immediately to take command of the Light Cavalry Division in the IV Army Corps commanded by Masséna.

Campaign in Germany and Austria

One of the few French generals to leave the Spanish Ulcer with a good military reputation, Lasalle joined the French Army for its 1809 Campaign along the Danube. Lasalle once asked Napoleon when he will get command of the Guard Cavalry. Napoleon replied, “When you no longer drink, no longer smoke, and no longer swear.” Lasalle arrived just prior to Napoleon's push across the Danube at Aspern-Essling and was sent to probe for the whereabouts of the Austrian army. The first stage of the operation began on May 13, 1809 and would be to lay a bridge of boats over the first arm of the Danube to Lobau. As soon as this was done, the advance guard and Lasalle’s light cavalry would pass over into Lobau, together with the material needed to bridge the Stadlau arm to the left bank. The Stadlau arm of the river was deep and swollen, and the captured Austrian pontoons and trestles just failed to stretch from Lobau to the left bank. Consequently, the final section of the bridge had to be made of tree trunks covered with joists. As soon as this was finished, Molitor’s division and Lasalle’s four light cavalry regiments passed over it to the Marchfeld. Driving off the Austrian outposts on the left bank, Molitor occupied Aspern with companies of the 67th while Lasalle’s horsemen fanned out into the plain.

The light cavalry division that should have followed Lasalle’s was now split into three parts. One squadron of the 3rd Chasseurs was already on the left bank, the rest of the regiment was in Lobau, and the other four regiments of the division were still on the Vienna bank. This division was led by a general of brigade, Jacob-Francois Marulaz, one of the toughest sabreurs and finest tacticians in the French cavalry. Since the bridging work had been carried out without serious opposition, Napoleon had decided that Charles’ army was farther away than he had originally thought, and the reports of Lasalle’s light cavalry patrols had done nothing to change his mind. There were no travelers or couriers to be intercepted on the Marchfeld, as there had always been in Prussia and Spain; consequently, Lasalle’s officers had had nothing to go on but the evidence of their own eyes and ears. Still not convinced that Napoleon was right, still not knowing how long it would take to repair the bridge, Masséna returned to Aspern and roused Lasalle from a deep sleep. The advance guard specialist could tell him nothing new.

At 3 a.m. on the 21st, repairs to the Vienna Bridge were completed and the passage of the army onto Lobau was resumed. By daybreak great masses of men, guns and wagons had assembled on the island. In the next four hours both Aspern and Essling were taken and retaken several times led by Bessières, Espagne and Lasalle, the French cavalry charged repeatedly, against the Austrian infantry, against Prince John of Lichtenstein’s cavalry, and against the enemy guns. Napoleon then ordered Lasalle's cavalry regiments to join the aide of the distressed Marulaz, but Liechtenstein anticipated this maneuver sending nine regiments spearheaded by the O’Reilly Chevaulégers, to drive off Lasalle. They did this by engaging Lasalle frontally with four regiments and used the remaining five to charge Lasalle’s flank. Still, albeit a stiff price, Lasalle and his light cavalry had made amends for not for their failure to detect the Austrian presence by forcing the Austrian Third Column to grind to a halt, thereby buying time for the hard-pressed French infantry in Aspern.

At 7 p.m. Lasalle mustered his troops for another charge. Lasalle managed to defeat the first Hapsburg line, but the Blankenstein Hussars and Riesch Dragoons took Bruyère’s brigade in flank and drove them back in fearful disorder. The Austrian hussars captured quite a few men of the 24th Chasseurs. Outnumbered on the second day of battle Napoleon ordered Lasalle and Espagne to defend a sector the IV Corps had been thrust into. Taking advantage of the fog that wafted above the Danube’s shore, Lasalle's men fought along the good defensive ground running between the two villages charging the Austrians in a series of short, sharp charges intended not to break the solid Austrian masses but to prevent them launching a coordinated attack. These tactics worked brilliantly allowing General Boudet to gain complete control of Essling.

Later, during Marshal Lannes advance Lasalle and Marulaz’s cavalry charged at least three times in an effort to support the infantry. Marulaz, like the better-known Lasalle, routinely led from the front which cost him a severe wound. Covered by these cavalry charges Lannes’ infantry performed prodigies and what more they could have accomplished remains unknown for, at 8 a.m. a spurring courier brought orders for the marshal to halt in place. Lasalle’s determination and courage contributed to the French successful withdrawal. His next assignment was at Raab with Eugène de Beauharnais on June 14 which ended in a Franco-Italian victory.


On July 5, 1809 Lasalle fought at the massive clash of Wagram commanding a Light Cavalry Division in the IV Corps of Marshal Masséna. His regiments were the 8th Hussars and the 13th, 16th, and 24th Chasseurs à Cheval. On the morning of the Battle of Wagram, Lasalle had a presentiment about his death. He drew up a petition to the Emperor to take care of his children, and gave it to one of his friends to deliver to Napoleon if he was killed at Wagram. On the eve of the battle, opening his luggage he found his broken pipe, a bottle of liquor in his cellar and a broken glass that had been carried by his wife. He told his aide-de-camp, “I will not survive this day.” He wrote a letter to his wife that read: “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 with honor). During the battle Lasalle sent one of his brigades, the 13th and 24th Chasseurs under his best friend Bruyère, to extricate Marulaz's chasseurs.

On the night of the second day Lasalle’s men had still not been ordered to fight so Lasalle went to Marshal Masséna to ask permission to pursue the enemy. Masséna ordered him to go aid General Macdonald and with that Lasalle exclaimed “The battle is almost finished and we are the only ones who have not contributed to the victory! Let’s go, follow me!” as he rode to General Macdonald’s support but Lasalle was temporarily separated from his division. He accidentally alerted a battalion of enemy infantry so he charged them with the 1st Cuirassier Regiment. Lasalle was shot in the chest but continued to charge. The enemy infantry broke and routed as Lasalle and the 1st Cuirassier Regiment pursued the fleeing Austrian infantry. It was near the end of the battle as he led the charge carrying the porcelain pipe he had received from the Governor of Stettin. As he charged Lasalle was shot between the eyes by an Austrian grenadier and was dead before his body hit the ground.

Marulaz tried to avenge Lasalle by leading a hussar regiment against a square of Austrian infantry. The colonel of the hussar regiment was hit and Marulaz was injured but they successfully avenged Lasalle by driving the infantry to retirement. The loss of Lasalle was very much regretted by the Emperor and many under his command were distraught at the news. If he would have survived Lasalle would have most likely won a battlefield promotion to Marshal of the Empire and could have greatly changed the outcome of the Napoleonic Wars. An imperial decree on January 1, 1810 ordered that a statue of Lasalle be placed on the Concorde Bridge. 15 days later his wife received a lifetime pension of 6,000 Francs. His remains were brought over from Austria to the Invalides. A street in Metz took his name and his portrait was placed in one of the salons of the Hotel de Ville.

In 1893 an equestrian statue of him was erected in Lunéville. He has his bust in the Gallery of Battles of the Palace of Versailles and his name engraved on the pillar the Arc de Triomphe along with other legendary Napoleonic heroes. A street bears his name in the 19th Arrondissement of Paris. Marbot once remarked that Lasalle was not the best model for emulation because every lieutenant or officer that tried to imitate Lasalle would just become a “reckless, swearing, drinking rowdy”, but without possessing the merits which permitted such conduct to be tolerated. Despite his boorish, empty-headed behavior as a hell raiser, Lasalle was an intelligent man who surprised many with his personal character and wit. With the possible exception of Curély, who was in 1809 still unknown, Napoleon never possessed a better leader of light horse. Wild and irregular in his private life, Lasalle was far more than a beau sabreur. To talent and experience he added that power of feeling to the pulse of the battle which is the true gift of a great leader. When he died, France lost its best light cavalry commander.


*Lasalle's remains were brought from Austria to Les Invalides in 1891.
*In 1893, an equestrian statue of him was erected at Lunéville in Lorraine (see image).
*In Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Pit and the Pendulum" (1842), a "LaSalle" rescues the narrator by grabbing his arm as he is about to fall into a pit. This may or may not be the historical Lasalle.Fact|date=August 2007


* Haythornthwaite, Philip. "Napoleon's Commanders (1) c1792-1809." London: Osprey Publishing, 2001. ISBN 1-84176-055-2

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