Several years before Napoleon’s ill-fated battle at Waterloo, he suffered another humiliating defeat. This time at the hands (or paws) of little, furry bunny rabbits.
Louis-Alexandre Berthier (let’s just call him Berti) was Napoleon’s Chief of Staff and Minister of War. He was the man in charge of the army, and it was said of him, that “no one could have better suited General Bonaparte, who wanted a man capable of relieving him of all detailed work, to understand him instantly and to foresee what he would need.”
But there was one unfortunate instance where Berti’s attention to detail let him (and his Emperor) down. It was late summer 1806 and the hunting season had just begun. Napoleon liked a good hunt – just like the kings before him had. And many of those vying for the Emperor’s favor would offer him a wonderful hunting experience.
Berti also wanted to host an event to impress and entertain his Emperor, so he organized a rabbit hunt. He owned a piece of land outside Paris that was just perfect. Except for one minor detail… there were no rabbits on the land.
But Berti didn’t let the lack of rabbits worry him – rabbits could be bought easily enough. He had organized so many complicated military matters for the Emperor, that a little rabbit hunt would be a doddle. So, he sent out his servant to buy 1,000 rabbits – that should be more than enough to make sure that everyone could get a few and ensure that the Emperor would have a jolly good time.
However, Berti didn’t specify which kind of rabbits the servant should buy. Perhaps he (like the servant) assumed that all bunnies would be the same. Surely tame rabbits that had been raised in hutches would be just as much fun to hunt as their wild cousins – and they were easier to obtain.
The morning of the hunt rolled around and Berti checked his list. All was going to schedule. Breakfast was being cooked and the rabbits were in the field. Everything was ready for the Emperor. At the appointed hour, Napoleon’s carriage rolled up. He was accompanied by some of his high-ranking military officers and other important men, and they were all looking forward to a good day of sport.
The Rabbit Hunt
After a hearty breakfast, they headed out for the hunt. The 1,000 tame rabbits had been turned loose in the field, but those poor bunnies had never been alone in a big, open field. They didn’t know what to do, so they huddled together in one large mass. And when they saw the hunters arrive, instead of fleeing in fear, as wild rabbits would have, they were happy to see people that they could only assume were there to feed them.
They hadn’t had breakfast that morning, and they were hungry. They bounded in one large furry mob toward a surprised Emperor Napoleon and his band of hunters. At first the men were shocked and amused. They had never seen rabbits act like this – no one had.
The laughter subsided as the throng of rabbits drew closer and showed no signs of stopping. One little furry bunny would be nothing to fear, but 1,000 hungry, bouncing ones was a different story. The men started to hit at them with their rifles and sticks, but they just kept hopping all around them.
Who is Hunting Whom?
Berti who was dismayed at the turn of events, took control with military precision. He called for the coachmen to bring their whips to drive away the scary bunnies. The whips did frighten the rabbits and they turned around and fled. The hunters laughed again at this strange occurrence and thought it was just a humorous little delay to the start of their hunt.
The rabbits, who seemed to have tactical maneuvers as good as any army, split into two sections, one went to the right and the other to the left. The hunters were collecting themselves and Berti was apologizing profusely for this strange occurrence, when suddenly they were attacked from behind. The rabbits had just circled around and come back after Napoleon.
The little man in the big hat looked like he was in charge, so they thought he probably had the food. And the hungry bunnies weren’t leaving until they had had their breakfast. They were bouncing in famished impatience all around Napoleon. Everyone tried to beat them away. But they were so eager to find their food that they were hopping up on top of each other and were halfway up Napoleon’s legs so that he could only stagger as he tried to escape toward his carriage.
The mighty Napoleon and his men were forced to retreat. The Emperor was exhausted when he finally reached the safety of his carriage. But even there, a few bunnies had managed to enter by hopping on the heads of the others. Apparently, they were looking for a ride back to their nice safe hutch and a quiet lunch. Instead, they were unceremoniously thrown out the carriage window as the Emperor was hurried away from the battlefield.
Everyone met back at Berti’s place to have a good stiff drink to recover from their ordeal and to talk about their bizarre experience. Rabbits weren’t supposed to behave like that. Were the animals mad? Possessed by some evil magic? No one could come up with an explanation.
Berti was horrified that his carefully plotted event had gone so wrong. He called the servant in charge of procuring rabbits. The servant admitted that his knowledge of rabbits was limited, and he thought one rabbit was as good as another. So he had purchased rabbits that had been raised in a hutch. So that explained why those bunnies looked at humans as their source of food instead of a source of danger.
Berti was embarrassed, and the rest of them had a good laugh at his expense. However, they didn’t really want word to get out that the great Napoleon, who had been defeating armies all over Europe, had been forced to retreat by a bunch of bunnies. So, they all pinky-swore never to speak of it again.
But somehow Baron Thiébault got word of it. He didn’t like Berti, so he relished the tale of his bunny blunder and wrote it down in his memoirs so everyone could have a laugh at him and his Emperor running from the rabbits. However, it didn’t go to print until after all those involved were long gone.
I can’t help but wonder… when Napoleon was at that fateful Battle of Waterloo and it all started to go wrong for him, did his mind go back to his earlier defeat at the Battle of Bunnyloo?
This story is adapted from The memoirs of Baron Thiébault (late lieutenant-general in the French army) Translated and condensed by Arthur John Butler – Publication date 1896. Internet source
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Read more stories like this in my book Bowlers, Brollies, and Brits: Curious Histories of England
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