.: Bob Williams' Verlinden Marshal Louis Nicholas Davout (1770 - 1823)

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Louis Nicolas Davout, Marshal of France (1770-1823)

With his special combat eyeglasses fastened at the back of his bald head, his pretty wife's miniature inside the cover of his watch, Davout certainly wasn't the classic image of the dashing French Marshal. His family was old Burgundian military nobility, poor country gentlefolk with little except pride, traditions, and old swords on the wall.

Davout was born in a rented farmhouse; when he was eight, his father was mortally wounded in a hunting accident. His mother and maternal grandmother saw to his education; the grandmother's library was the beginning of his love of study.

In 1780 Davout was admitted at the provincial Royal Military School of Auxerre. In 1785 he qualified for two years' advanced instruction at the Military School of Paris, passing from that to Cavalry Regiment Royal-Champagne. Royal-Champagne, like the French Army in general, was beginning to ferment, as its officer divided into 'aristocrats' and 'patriots'. Davout stood with the latter and was expelled from the army, but soon reappeared commanding a battalion of Volunteers and served with increasing effectiveness through the first fumbled battles.

When the French commander, General Charles Dumouriez, tried to turn his army against the French government, it was Davout who rapped out the order to fire and drove Dumouriez into profitless exile. His services in the north and in Vendee brought him promise of promotion to general of division in 1793, but political extremists in Paris were demanding the dismissal of all ex-noble officers.  Davout accordingly offered his resignation and went home, where first his mother and he were imprisoned as 'suspects'. In 1794 he was recalled to duty as general of brigade and sent to the Rhine, where he especially distinguished himself in some ranger-type operations around Luxembourg City.

His close friend, General Louis Desaix thought him a promising officer and persuaded him to join Napoleon's Egyptian expedition.  It was in fact during the Egyptian campaign that Davout first caught the eagle eye of Napoleon while serving under the command of General Alexandre Dumas, commander of the expedition's cavalry forces. In the fall of 1798, Davout was sent up the Nile with a detachment to join General Louis Desaix's division in upper Egypt. Though not pleased with Davout generally due to his having befriended several officers known to be hostile to his interests, Napoleon expressed satisfaction with Davout saying 'the commanding general wishes to give General of Brigade Davout a testimony of the satisfaction of the government for the service which he has rendered to the armies of the Republic.'

Davout returned to France a sincere admirer of Napoleon, who made him a general of division in 1800, gave him command of the grenadiers a pied of the Consular Guard, and married him to Aimee Leclerc, sister to General Victor Leclerc, who had married Napoleon's sister Pauline. Davout's appointment as a marshal astonished many other generals and irked not a few. But it soon was evident that his troops were the best trained, disciplined, and cared for in the Grand Army.During the Consulate, Napoleon came to like and respect Davout and gradually came to recognize in him superior military and administrative talents.  He also came to realize that Davout, as he would prove right up to the time of Napoleon's second and final abdication, was absolutely loyal to him. Both ability and loyalty were not traits Napoleon found in many of his top generals, and as First Consul he made full use of this combination which he found in Davout.

In July of 1800 Bonaparte promoted Davout to General of Division and sent him to Italy to command the cavalry during the last phase of the war with Austria which ended the following year with Moreau's victories in the north.  Davout was then given a command in the 'Consular Guard'. In 1803, Davout assumed command of the camp at Bruges and given his most famous command, that of the Grand Army's III Corps, their first major actions together coming during the Austerlitz Campaign of 1805. 

Davout's greatest personal triumph off the battlefield came on May 19, 1804 when he was named among the fourteen original Marshals of the Empire. Davout's elevation to this mostly honorary but nonetheless significant title was based on many factors.  His personal attachment to Napoleon was certainly a major reason. But Davout's obviously superior military and administrative abilities were also undoubtedly serious considerations.


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