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Napoleon vs the Rabbits

On July 7, 1807, Napoleon Bonaparte signed the first of the Treaties of Tilsit.  This was with Emperor Alexander I of Russia, which established an alliance between the French Empire and Imperial Russia that would endure forever, or for the next five years, whichever came first.  The second Treaty of Tilsit was signed on July 9 on behalf of the King of Prussia.  Prussia had already signed an armistice with France a couple weeks earlier, but the purpose of this treaty was to demand territory from Prussia.  From this territory, Napoleon set up the puppet states of the Kingdom of Westphalia, the Free City of Danzig (now Gdansk, Poland), and the Duchy of Warsaw.  Prussia was stripped of about half of its territory, and was forced to reduce its army significantly.  Russia entered into war with Great Britain and Sweden when it aligned itself with France, which was great news for France.  France was shaping up like a military juggernaut in Europe; no continental power seemed strong enough to stand up to them.

A medallion celebrating the first Treaty of Tislit.  Emperor Napoleon (right) and Emperor Alexander (left) embrace each other rather warmly.

Naturally, Napoleon and the French army was feeling pretty good about themselves as they returned to Paris.  Hoping to profit from the emperor’s good mood, Napoleon’s chief of staff, Marshall Alexandre Berthier, invited him and all the officers to his estate at Grosbois.  He promised them a hunting expedition, since the land had plenty of game on it.  Berthier was hoping for a great rabbit hunt, but his staff told him that there weren’t many rabbits on the land lately.  He remedied this by ordering a thousand rabbits be brought to Grosbois and released for the pleasure of the hunters.

When they arrived, the hunting party headed out to the grounds, loaded for rabbit.  As Napoleon, Berthier, and the rest of the hunting party approached, they suddenly found themselves on the defensive.  A swarm of rabbits was rushing toward them, coming from all directions.  The party quailed at the sight of them, and realized that they had to escape.  The finest specimens that the French military had to offer was able to figure out how to maneuver around a horde of rabbits, but it was not easy.  Reports state that Napoleon himself was visibly shaken by the rabbit attack.  What they had for dinner that evening is not recorded, but hopefully there was something in the larder chez Berthier, because they weren’t having rabbit that evening.

Eventually someone figured out what went wrong.  When Berthier stocked his lands with live game, he chose domestic rabbits, figuring that he would guarantee a success on the hunt, since they would be easier to catch than wild rabbits.  Wild rabbits would just run and hide.  What Berthier hadn’t counted on was the fact that domestic rabbits are used to counting on human beings for food.  The imperial hunting party were probably the first humans the domestic rabbits had seen in a few days, and they were probably hungry.  Maybe it wasn’t an attack, but it certainly wasn’t what anyone was expecting.  When Napoleon said, “An army marches on its stomach,” this is probably not what he meant.

Le capitaine dînera, by Louis Albert Guislain Bacler d’Albe (c. 1820).


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