Louis-Alexandre Berthier

Louis-Alexandre Berthier
Louis-Alexandre Berthier
Marshal Louis-Alexandre Berthier.
Born 20 February 1753(1753-02-20)
Versailles, France
Died 1 June 1815(1815-06-01) (aged 62)
Bamberg, Bavaria
Allegiance Royal Standard of the Kingdom of France.svg Kingdom of France,
Flag of France 1790-1794.PNG Kingdom of France (1791-1792),
France French First Republic,
France First French Empire,
Flag of the Kingdom of France (1814-1830).svg Bourbon Restoration
Years of service 1764-1815
Rank General of Division
Battles/wars American Revolutionary War,
French Revolutionary Wars,
Napoleonic Wars
Awards Marshal of France,
Légion d'honneur (Grand Cross),
Order of Saint Louis (Commander),
Name inscribed under the Arc de Triomphe,
Prince of Neuchâtel and Wagram,
Duke of Valangin,
Constable of France
Relations Jean Baptiste Berthier (father),
César Berthier (brother),
Victor Léopold Berthier (brother),
Joseph-Alexandre Berthier (brother),
Napoléon Alexandre Berthier (son)
Other work Peer of France,
Minister of Defence

Louis Alexandre Berthier, 1st Prince de Wagram, 1st Duc de Valangin, 1st Sovereign Prince de Neuchâtel (February 20, 1753 – June 1, 1815), was a Marshal of France, Vice-Constable of France beginning in 1808, and Chief of Staff under Napoleon.


Early life

Alexandre was born at Versailles to Lieutenant-Colonel Jean Baptiste Berthier (1721 – 1804), an officer in the Corps of Topographical Engineers, and first wife (married in 1746) Marie Françoise L'Huillier de La Serre. He was the eldest of five children, with the three brothers also serving in the French Army, two becoming generals during the Napoleonic Wars.[1]

Military career

As a boy he was instructed in the military art by his father, an officer of the Corps de genie (Engineer Corps), and at the age of seventeen he entered the army, serving successively in the staff, the engineers and the prince de Lambesq's dragoons. In 1780 he went to North America with Rochambeau, and on his return, having attained the rank of colonel, he was employed in various staff posts and in a military mission to Prussia. During the Revolution, as Chief of Staff of the Versailles National Guard, he protected the aunts of Louis XVI from popular violence, and aided their escape (1791).

In the war of 1792 he was at once made Chief of Staff to Marshal Lückner, and he bore a distinguished part in the Argonne campaign of Dumouriez and Kellermann. He served with great credit in the Vendéan War of 1793-95, and was in the next year made a general of division and chief of staff (Major-Général) to the army of Italy, which Bonaparte had recently been appointed to command. He played an important role in the Battle of Rivoli, relieving Barthélemy Joubert when the latter was attacked by the Austrian general Jozsef Alvinczi. His power of work, accuracy and quick comprehension, combined with his long and varied experience and his complete mastery of detail, made him the ideal chief of staff to a great soldier; and in this capacity he was Napoleon's most valued assistant for the rest of his career.

Marshal Berthier was Napoleon's Chief of Staff from the start of his first Italian campaign in 1796 until his first abdication in 1814. The operational efficiency of the Grande Armée owed much to his considerable administrative and organizational skills.

He accompanied Napoleon throughout the brilliant campaign of 1796, and was left in charge of the army after the Treaty of Campo Formio. He was in this post in 1798 when he entered Italy, invaded the Vatican, organized the Roman republic, and took the pope Pius VI as prisoner back to Valence (France) where, after a torturous journey under Berthier's supervision, the pope died, dealing a major blow to the Vatican's political power which, however did not prove as ephemeral as that of the First Empire. After this he joined his chief in Egypt, serving there until Napoleon's return. He assisted in the coup d'état of 18th Brumaire, afterwards becoming minister of war for a time. In the campaign of Marengo he was the nominal head of the Army of Reserve, but the first consul accompanied the army and Berthier acted in reality, as always, as Chief of Staff to Napoleon.

Lest one think this was a relatively safe job, such as modern staff officers, a contemporary subordinate staff officer, Brossier, reports that at the Battle of Marengo:

"The General-in-Chief Berthier gave his orders with the precision of a consummate warrior, and at Marengo maintained the reputation that he so rightly acquired in Italy and in Egypt under the orders of Bonaparte. He himself was hit by a bullet in the arm. Two of his aides-de-camp, Dutaillis and La Borde, had their horses killed."[2]

At the close of the campaign he was employed in civil and diplomatic business. This included a mission to Spain in August, 1800, which resulted in the retrocession of Louisiana to France by the Treaty of San Ildefonso, October 1, 1800, and led to the Louisiana Purchase.

Bust of Louis-Alexandre Berthier in the Chateau de Blois

When Napoleon became emperor, Berthier was at once made a marshal of the empire. He took part in the campaigns of Austerlitz, Jena and Friedland, and was created duke of Valengin in 1806, sovereign prince of Neuchâtel in the same year and vice-constable of the empire in 1807. In 1808 he served in the Peninsular War, and in 1809 in the Austrian War, after which he was given the title of prince of Wagram. He was with Napoleon in Russia in 1812, Germany in 1813, and France in 1814, fulfilling, till the fall of the empire, the functions of "major-general" of the Grande Armée.

Following Napoleon's first abdication, Berthier retired to his 600 acre (2.4 km²) estate, and resumed his hobbies of falconry and sculpture. He made peace with Louis XVIII in 1814, and accompanied the king in his solemn entry into Paris. During Napoleon's captivity in Elba, Berthier, whom he informed of his projects, was much perplexed as to his future course, and, being unwilling to commit him, fell under the suspicion both of his old leader and of Louis XVIII. On Napoleon's return he withdrew to Bamberg, where he later died.

The manner of his death is uncertain; according to some accounts he was assassinated by members of a secret society, others say that, maddened by the sight of Prussian troops marching to invade France, he threw himself from his window and was killed. Berthier was not a great field commander. When he was in temporary command in 1809, the French army in Bavaria underwent a series of reverses. His merit as a general was completely overshadowed by the genius of his emperor, he is nevertheless renowned for his excellent organising skills and being able to understand and carry out the emperor's directions to the minutest detail.

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed (1911). "EB Louis Alexandre Berthier". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 

Marriage and family

On 9 March 1808 Berthier married Duchess Maria Elisabeth Franziska in Bavaria (Landshut, 5 May 1784 – Paris, 1 June 1849), only daughter of Duke Wilhelm in Bavaria and Countess Palatine Maria Anna of Zweibrücken-Birkenfeld, the sister of King Maximilian I Joseph of Bavaria. They had one son and two daughters:

  • Napoléon-Alexandre, 2nd Duke (11 September 1810 – 10 February 1887) and had issue, extinct in male line in 1918
  • Caroline-Joséphine (22 August 1812 – 1905)
  • Marie-Anne (19 February 1816 – 23 July 1878)

In Popular Culture

Berthier was portrayed by English actor Ronald Hines in the 1974 mini-series Napoleon and Love.


  1. ^ Watson, p.13
  2. ^ Watson, p.92


  • Watson, S.J., By Command of the Emperor: A Life of Marshal Berthier, The Bodley Head, London, 1957

External links

Suggested Reading

  • Bukhari, Emir Napoleon's Marshals Osprey Publishing, 1979, ISBN 0850453054.
  • Chandler, David Napoleon's Marshals Macmillan Pub Co, 1987, ISBN 0029059305.
  • Connelly, Owen, Blundering to Glory: Napoleon's Military Campaigns SR Books, 1999, ISBN 0842027807.
  • Elting, John R. Swords around a Throne: Napoleon's Grande Armée Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1997, ISBN 0029095018.
  • Haythornthwaite, Philip Napoleon's Commanders (2): c.1809-15 Osprey Publishing, 2002, ISBN 1841763454.
  • Hittle, James Donald ‘‘the Military Staff: Its History and Development Military Service Publishing, 1952.
  • Macdonell, A. G. Napoleon and His Marshals Prion, 1997, ISBN 1853752223.
  • Pawly, Ronald Napoleon's Imperial Headquarters (1): Organization and Personnel Osprey Publishing, 2004, ISBN 184176793X.
  • Pawly, Ronald Napoleon's Imperial Headquarters (2): On campaign Osprey Publishing, 2004, ISBN 1841767948.
  • Watson, S.J. By Command of the Emperor: A Life of Marshal Berthier. Ken Trotman Ltd, ISBN 094687946X.
Political offices
Preceded by
Edmond Louis Alexis Dubois-Crancé
Minister of War
11 November 1799 - 2 April 1800
Succeeded by
Lazare Carnot
Preceded by
Lazare Carnot
Minister of War
8 October 1800 - 19 August 1807
Succeeded by
Henri Clarke, duc de Feltre
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Frederick William III
Prince of Neuchâtel
1806 — 1814
Succeeded by
Frederick William III

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