Commissioned into the French army as an engineer officer in 1793, Bertrand served in the Egyptian Campaign and was frequently in contact with Napoleon on engineering matters. At the Battle of Abukir in 1799, Bertrand was struck on the head and was treated by Dr. Larrey who reported to General Bonaparte about Bertrand's courage and distinction in the fighting earning him his second battlefield promotion of the campaign.
Between 1802-04 carried out a review of entire the French coastal fortifications before being tasked with constructing ports and defences for the army at the camp de Boulogne in preparation for the invasion of England, a project of immense proportions. He was so successful Napoleon remarked that Bertrand had "conquered the ocean" and the British were to label the area as the "Iron Coast". Bertrand was rewarded with the Legion of Honor and appointed as an ADC to Napoleon in March 1805.
In 1805 Napoleon sent him undercover into Bavaria and Austria to gain intelligence on roads and bridges. Later when the Grande Armee returned to Austria during the Danube campaign of 1809, Bertrand was the chief engineer and oversaw the building and repair of the bridges the French army put across the Danube for both Aspern-Essling and Wagram.
In 1811, the Emperor appointed him to serve as the Governor General of the Illyrian Provinces where he remained until being recalled to the army in 1813. He served in the ensuing 1813 Campaign as the commander of the 4th Corps, leading his corps in the battles of Lützen, Bautzen, Gross Beeren, Dennewitz, Wartemburg, Leipzig, and Hanau. At the end of that campaign, Napoleon elevated Bertrand to the position of Grand Marshal of the Palace. Bertrand retained that position during the 1814 and 1815 Campaigns and throughout the Emperor’s exiles to Elba and St. Helena. He remained with Napoleon on St. Helena until the Emperor’s death in 1821.
Prelude to War
Unable to ignore the increasing threat to France’s eastern frontier presented by Austria’s continuing mobilizations and preparations, the Emperor in September 1805 set his army in motion toward the heart of Europe.
In advance of his army, Napoleon dispatched three of his most trusted and capable officers – Bertrand, Joachim Murat, and Jean Savary – to Bavaria to collect intelligence and prepare for the arrival of the French army.
Napoleon’s selection of Bertrand, in March 1805, to serve as his aide, reflected the growing diversity of his aides-de-camp. Bertrand was the first engineer that Napoleon chose to serve as an aide. Napoleon was already well-acquainted with the young engineer’s qualifications and could easily envision a variety of ways in which he could employ Bertrand’s knowledge of fortifications, his eye for terrain, and his perseverance and steadfastness when confronted with obstacles. Undoubtedly he already had a clear vision of how he might make use of Bertrand’s skills as an aide.
Reconnaissance Mission in Bavaria
Bertrand received two pages of detailed instructions from the Emperor before he left. He was ordered to proceed to Munich, initially to deliver an important letter to the Elector of Bavaria. From there he was to conduct a reconnaissance of a number of routes and cities in the area. Napoleon instructed Bertrand to report on virtually every aspect of the routes leading through Bavaria. In addition to detailed information on the cities, roads, and rivers of the region, Bertrand was ordered to "make known all the rumors concerning war and peace and the movements of the Austrians." The Emperor’s instructions also contained guidance on how Bertrand was to conduct himself during the reconnaissance. Napoleon instructed his young aide to "show no inquietude, even to our own agents; to make no mention of our preparations for war with Austria . . . [and to] speak of the expedition against England as imminent – the troops already embarked."
Receiving his orders on the 25th of August, Bertrand wasted little time in beginning this important mission. By the 2nd September, Bertrand now in Munich had penned his first letter to Napoleon reporting on the progress of his trip and describing the generally warm reception that the Elector had afforded him upon his arrival. Bertrand’s report also contained intelligence he had received on Austrian army movements from the Elector and the disturbing effect that his presence had made on the Austrian envoy. While the latter seemed to sense the true purpose of Bertrand’s mission in Munich, Bertrand reported that others believed he was there to ask the Elector for the hand of Princess Auguste for Napoleon’s stepson, Prince Eugene de Beauharnais. In closing, Bertrand noted that he would be leaving that evening for Passau to begin the reconnaissance mission of that area that Napoleon had entrusted to him. Bertrand assured the Emperor that he could "count on my limitless zeal and devotion" in carrying out this assigned task.
|Reconnaissance Sketch of Passau, 1805|
Leaving Passau, Bertrand hurried westward to Ulm. Having received word that Ulm was to be evacuated, Bertrand was eager to reconnoiter the city before it fell into enemy hands. The report that he submitted on 11 September was characteristically elaborate. The accompanying sketch and notes of the city’s citadel went into great detail on the strengths and weaknesses of the city’s fortifications. Unlike Passau, Bertrand considered Ulm to be a "great place". During the last war, Bertrand noted that the Austrians had "constructed a great fort, which occupies a good position". Bertrand was also impressed with the commander of the Ulm garrison, describing him as "a young man who has fought with distinction in previous campaigns and who is generally esteemed and a man of much energy". While he admitted some weaknesses in the placement and construction of some of the city’s outer-works, Bertrand believed that it would take "much money, many works . . . and a considerable garrison" to reduce the city’s defenses.
While Bertrand had been busy conducting his invaluable reconnaissance of the very region that would become the center of the coming campaign, Napoleon was massing his army on the French frontier and making his final preparations to cross the Rhine River. The information that Bertrand had collected would be of incalculable value during the coming campaign. On 15th September, the Emperor sent additional instructions to his young aide, ordering him to establish communications with Marshal Bernadotte and General Marmont and to keep them informed of all enemy movements on both banks of the Danube. Napoleon also instructed Bertrand to send information regarding the bread-making capabilities of the area and to make the acquaintance of "one or two Bavarian engineers who know the land well" and to send them to Strasbourg by the 25th or 26th of September.
|Reconnaissance Sketch of Rednitz River, 1805|
On the same day that the Emperor sent these instructions, Bertrand submitted another report that he postmarked from Wurzburg. In this dispatch, Bertrand provided sketches and information on the Lech and Rednitz rivers. Bertrand’s maps included notes on distances between villages located along the rivers and also precisely pinpointed the location of bridges, fords, and other potential crossing points. Bertrand also reported that the Bavarian general in command of the Ulm garrison, Karl Wrede, had begun the evacuation of that city thirty-six hours after Bertrand’s own departure. Bertrand concluded his report by stating that he would be returning to Ratisbonne and following the Danube from there to Ulm so that he could gather information on the routes along the left bank of the Danube that he had thus far been unable to collect. Bertrand continued his whirlwind intelligence gathering mission. On 20th September he reported from Geislingen that he was expecting to complete his reconnaissance of the route from Ulm to Rastadt by the evening of 22nd September. Bertrand’s dispatch from Geislingen contained a wealth of information on enemy troop movements as well. Reporting that the Bavarians had evacuated Ulm on 16th or 17th September, Bertrand noted that the city had subsequently been occupied by Austrian troops from the division of General Johann Klénau. Bertrand also provided Napoleon with information regarding the overall troop strength of Austrian forces in Bavaria. Bertrand gave this number as five divisions consisting of fourteen infantry and six cavalry regiments. Finally, Bertrand informed Napoleon that he had viewed letters in Ratisbonne on 17th September indicating that as many as 100,000 Russians were fast approaching from the east and had already reached Bohemia.
The war begins - Ulm
After completing his assigned reconnaissance mission, Bertrand rejoined Napoleon at Strasbourg at the end of September. During the ensuing campaign, his knowledge of the Bavarian terrain proved useful to the grande armée as it followed many of the very routes that he had so recently surveyed. The information he had gathered regarding the location of the Russian army also proved useful to Napoleon because it allowed him to maneuver freely, without concern for his rear or his lines of communication as he encircled the Austrian army from the east.
The Emperor rewarded his aide singling him out by name, the 12th Army Bulletin published on 27th October 1805 noted that "His Majesty is extremely satisfied with the zeal and activity of the General de Brigade Bertrand, his aide-de-camp, whom he frequently employed on reconnaissance missions". Bertrand continued his efforts on behalf ofFrance and Napoleon during the second half of the 1805 Campaign.
The greatest victory - Vienna and Austerlitz
With a large portion of the Austrian defeated at Ulm, the Emperor turned his attention and his army eastward. The Austrians who had not capitulated at Ulm retreated toward their Russian allies who had stopped their westward advance after learning of Napoleon’s victory over Mack. As the French began the relentless pursuit of their adversaries, Bertrand was frequently dispatched forward of the main army to conduct reconnaissance missions.
On 13th November, the Emperor afforded his eager young aide another opportunity to distinguish himself. On that day, Bertrand was ordered to proceed to Vienna to help secure the bridges over the Danube River.
The Austrian and Russian armies had abandoned the Austrian capital, retreating to the north bank of the Danube to escape the advancing French army. In order to continue the pursuit in a timely fashion, it was absolutely essential that the French gain control of the bridges of Vienna before they were destroyed. Failing to do so would prevent the French from completing the campaign before the onset of winter, thus leaving them stranded far from France and with hundreds of miles of precarious lines of communication stretching out behind them. A delay at the Danube would also give both Russia and Austria much needed time to rally their demoralized armies and to unite approaching elements of their armies.
Bertrand’s mission was thus vitally important for the overall success of the French campaign. The importance of the mission was apparent in the manner of reckless abandonment with which he undertook to accomplish it. On 13th November, Bertrand led an advance guard company of hussars and sappers forward from Schonbrünn. He was followed in turn by the two corps commanded by Marshals Lannes and Murat. Bertrand later provided the following account of his actions during this mission:
Following the right bank of the river, [I] arrived at the head of a bridge, the entry to which was blocked by a strongly established barrier. Viennese militiamen had been positioned on the right bank to guard the barrier. [I] gave the order to the captain of the sappers to take down the barrier and to inform the Austrian officer [in charge of the guard] that the Prince of Lichtenstein was at Schonbrunn negotiating an armistice. The barrier was very solid and difficult to tear down. [I knew that] there was not a moment to lose; with soldiers, anything can happen. It would only take an instant – once the alarm was given – for the bridge to be consumed in flames. We counted the minutes and tried to prolong the discussions as long as we could. Finally the barrier was broken and the passage opened. Immediately the Austrian guard fired a pistol to sound the alarm after which he galloped quickly across the bridge. Accompanied by chefs de bataillon Dode and Garbé, I followed the hussars closely [to the far side of the bridge].
[Making our way to the end of this bridge] we soon ran into another, more hazardous obstacle. Here we came upon another branch of the Danube across which stretched another bridge. Cannons and troops positioned on the far side guarded this bridge. Continuing forward at a gallop, we moved toward the artillery pieces. In the middle of the bridge, however, we soon discovered that the bridge planks had been removed. A bed of fascines and other flammable material had been laid down across the entire width of the bridge in place of the planks. A cannoneer stood at the far end of the fascines, his match lit, ready to set the bridge on fire. If we continued to gallop forward, we knew that our horses would undoubtedly fall through the fascines and that we would subsequently be thrown into the Danube where we would probably all perish. If we hesitated, if we lost a moment, however, the fascines would be set on fire, the bridge would be destroyed, and the passage of the French army would become impossible.
Without slowing the pace of our horses, we spurred them onto the fascines. Amazingly, the fascines held and we continued to move forward toward the far bank. (We later examined the bridge and found that a row of beams had been left under the fascines which explained why we had not fallen through them). After getting over the fascines, Dode seized the cannoneer charged with setting the bridge on fire and dragged him away from the fascines. Finally reaching the far side of the bridge, I and the two officers who had accompanied me were quickly surrounded and taken to the Austrian headquarters. It was announced to us there that an armistice was in the process of being concluded. At this point, Lannes and Murat, having arrived with their soldiers behind us, entered into discussions with the Austrian officers. During these discussions, Lannes and Murat’s soldiers advanced and gained complete control of the bridge. The French army was now able to continue its pursuit of the Russian army.
Bertrand’s efforts in this vital mission allowed the French army to continue its pursuit of the Austrian and Russian armies. His bold actions at the Tabor Bridge along with Lannes and Murat essentially cleared the way for Napoleon’s astounding victory at Austerlitz. Bertrand’s contributions to France’s success on this campaign did not end at Vienna. With the passage over the Danube now secure, the French army poured across. They quickly caught up with the combined Russian and Austrian armies northeast of Vienna near the town of Brünn. Having overextended himself and facing the onset of winter, Napoleon was desperate for a battle to conclude the campaign. Settling on a plan of action, the Emperor sent Bertrand and Colonel Louis Bacler d’Albe, (Napoleon’s personal geographer and mapmaker) forward to survey the area between the French and Austrian-Russian positions.
After accompanying Napoleon on this celebrated review of the grande armee at Austerlitz, Bertrand returned with the Emperor to his quarters. He spent the night on some straw at the entrance to Napoleon’s sleeping chambers. He arose with the Emperor at 4:00 a.m. on 2nd December 1805, mounted his horse, and rode with his commander to a vantage point where he could watch the fast-approaching battle unfold. Bertrand remained with Napoleon throughout the day, leaving the Emperor’s side only at the close of battle when Napoleon instructed him to lead a squadron of the Imperial Guard forward in pursuit of the retreating Russian and Austrian armies. Although an engineer by trade, Bertrand distinguished himself on this undertaking in the same valorous manner that he had on all other missions that he had performed throughout the campaign. His actions won him another citation in the Army Bulletin which praised him for "taking a great number of prisoners, nineteen pieces of cannon, and many wagons full of supply" during his pursuit.
Peace but for how long?
Napoleon met with the defeated Austrian Emperor at a small mill near the village of Spaleny on the 4th Decemeber and finally at Pressberg on 26th December 1805 a formal treaty was signed. While waiting for the peace negotiations to be concluded, Bertrand kept himself occupied by conducting a reconnaissance of the fortifications of Vienna and the nearby bridges over the Danube. The resulting report that he submitted on 16th December 1805 contained much valuable information. After carefully considering the city’s twelve major bastions, its seven gates, and the communications between these points, he concluded that the best "point of attack [of Vienna] appears to me to be to the front, by the upper Danube." Bertrand’s report also contained a discussion of the terrain, distances, and lines of communications to Vienna’s suburbs as well as a synopsis of what he considered to be the strengths and weaknesses of the bridge across the Danube located at Nussdorf.
All of this information would prove to be extremely valuable during the 1809 Campaign.
This was extracted from "Witness To Glory" by Steven Laurence Delvaux.
Witness To Glory - General Bertrand 1791-1815 by Steven Laurence Delvaux