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Alexander Berthier as Chief of Staff

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  • Alexander Berthier as Chief of Staff

    Marshal Berthier has been maligned through history, prompted by Jomini's almost pathological hatred of him because Berthier gave him some stern, and much needed, lessons on how to be a proper staff officer.

    Berthier was never a 'chief clerk' in any sense of the word, and applying that epithet to him only exposes the ignorance of the author/historian himself to the duties and responsibilities of a chief of staff, especially one who is the chief of staff to a commander-in-chief. Napoleon and Berthier were one of the most successful command teams in military history and perhaps the definition of a chief of staff would be helpful:

    'Berthier's operational instructions were simple and should be engraved inside every modern staff officer's skull. The chief of staff is the headquarters pivot. He must see everything that comes in and sign (or at least approve) everything that goes out. The assistant chiefs of staff must keep abreast of the general situation in addition to running their own sections. Speed and accuracy are the most important factors in staff work. The staff exists only for the good of the army and so has no regular office hours. It works as long as may be necessary, rests when it has nothing left to do, takes care of the troops before consulting its own comfort, and is always ready to move out, regardless of the hour or 'pain' involved. Up-to-the-minute intelligence on enemy forces and actions must always be available; therefore reconnaissance must be continuous to the front and flanks, and its results reported promptly...Finally, the commander-in-chief must always be told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing else-no matter how unpleasant the results may be.'-John Elting, Swords Around A Throne, 83.

    Napoleon and Berthier were a successful team-and that is proven by an 18-year professional collaboration that was one of the most successful in military history. They worked together far longer than Blucher and Gneisenau (and it should be remembered that the Prussian general staff was still in the embryonic stage in 1813-1815: as Shanahan mentioned, there was no Prussian Minister of War, no actual general staff during that period, and the title of Chief of the General Staff was largely honorary-you cannot be chief of something that does not yet exist).

    The following material, taken from both primary and reliable secondary accounts on Berthier is much more illustrative of what Berthier was and what he actually did. In actual fact, Berthier seldom gets the credit he deserves, and is usually blamed by some authors for the ‘staff muddle’ at the beginning of the campaign of 1809, which was Napoleon’s fault, not the chief of staff.
    And it was Berthier who settled it, by bluntly telling Napoleon he needed to get into the theater of operations. And it was Berthier who handled the mess in eastern Europe at the end of the Russian campaign when Murat left on his own. Berthier convinced Eugene to take over, and told Napoleon he needed to confirm it immediately.

    And as a planner, Berthier was excellent-it was he and his staff that planned the movement of the Grande Armee from the English Channel into Germany in 1805 as well as the huge concentration in eastern Europe for the invasion of Russia. Too much of what he did is overlooked or underestimated, and his reputation as a ‘chief clerk’ is largely Jomini’s doing-that from a man who was a failure as a corps chief of staff and military governor.

    ‘Quite apart from his specialist training as a topographical engineer, he had knowledge and experience of staff work and furthermore a remarkable grasp of everything to do with war. He had also, above all else, the gift of writing a complete order and transmitting it with the utmost speed and clarity…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.’-Thiebault
    ‘All the problems connected with the needs of the army and their transport…were thrown on him…The armies were scattered from Bayonne to the Bug, from Calabria to the Helder, and as far as Stralsund; they were shifting their positions incessantly, had to be supplied and directed, and the whole of it passed through [Berthier's] hands…He always was the clearing house through which all business was transacted…the infallible day book to which Napoleon was referring every minute of the day to make sure how his balance stood. For this reason he had to be in attendance on him on every battlefield, on reconnaissance, at every review…without fail on every study of terrain.'-Ferdinand von Funck

    Berthier had ‘incredible talent…hard and irascible…amendable to reasonable representations.’-Ferdinand von Funck

    'If Berthier had been there, I would not have met this misfortune.'-Napoleon after Waterloo

    ‘I can speak of him with more knowledge than anyone else, for it was I who formed him in America…I know of no one who has more skill or a better eye for reconnoitering a locality, who accomplishes this more correctly, and to whom all details are more familiar. I shall perhaps find someone who can replace Berthier, but I have not yet discovered him…'-General Custine
    [Berthier] ‘has all the necessary qualifications for making an excellent chief of staff.' –Duc de Lauzan

    Napoleon, with whom Berthier served for 18 years through victory and defeat stated in 1796 that Berthier had ‘talents, activity, character…everything in his favor.’ After the action at Lodi in 1796, Napoleon also stated that 'the intrepid Berthier, who was on that day a cannoneer, cavalier, and grenadier.'

    ''Berthier was also the most indefatigable person I knew, and when I one day congratulated Count Daru on his wonderful power of sustaining fatigue and doing without sleep, he said to me, 'The Prince of Neufchatel is even stronger than I am; I never spent more than nine days and nights without going to bed, but Berthier has been in the saddle for thirteen days and nights at a stretch…' –Baron Lejeune

    Scherer to the Directory, 6 January 1796:

    ‘General Berthier, now employed as Chief of Staff with the Army of the Alps, seems to me by his knowledge of the country and by his military qualifications very suitable to meet this requirement [army command]. I would make him commander of the reserve. He would be incomparably more useful to this army than to the Army of the Alps.’

    ‘Be so kind, citizen directors, as to accede to my request. It is entirely based on the benefits that will accrue to this army by transferring this general officer whose military talents I have come to know since the war.’

    From By Command of the Emperor by SJ Watson:

    ‘…Frequently one hears that the successful commander is born and not made. Even more is this true of the ideal staff officer; for, to be content to work for another and to see fame and honor always falling to another, demands qualities of loyalty, self-effacement and strength of character which are very rare in human nature.’ 8-9.

    ‘These are the very qualities that Berthier displayed throughout his long and adventurous career. Joining the army when he was scarcely twelve years old, he served in the infantry, in the cavalry, as a topographical engineer and a general staff officer. He fought on four continents. Yet his career was by no means an unbroken sequence of successes; for, during the French Revolution, he was in his fortieth year summarily demoted from general to private, and shortly afterwards dismissed from the army altogether. But within nine years of his reinstatement he became the first of Napoleon’s marshals.’-9.

    ‘The Emperor employed Berthier not only as his trusted chief of staff, but also as a commander-in-chief, as minister of war, and as an ambassador extraordinary; and in every assignment he invariably demonstrated meticulous efficiency and prodigious capacity for work that made him indispensable and irreplaceable…Amid the sunlit vineyards of Italy, the burning sands of Egypt, the bleak plateaus of the Guadarrama and the icy wastes of Russia, he was always ready at any hour of the day or night to appear properly dressed in uniform to give advice to, or to take orders from, his master.’-9.

    ‘Transcending all his other qualities were Berthier’s self-effacement and his loyalty. While in private he was Napoleon’s confidant and often his outspoken advisor, he was always careful to appear as his deferential servant in public…So it is hardly surprising that Berthier has been eclipsed by the legend of Napoleon’s infallibility; and in general military commentators have either scorned him as a pen-pushing nonentity, or have criticized him for not making decisions which in fact were the prerogative of his commander-in-chief, or have even reviled him for not countermanding, on one occasion in 1809, the explicit order of his Emperor.’-9

    ‘…if the study of Napoleon and Berthier does nothing else, it convincingly demonstrates theat the strength of a successful partnership between a commander and his chief of staff is ever greater than the sum of their strengths as individuals.’-11.
    ‘Throughout 14 January there was a fierce ‘dog fight’ on the plateau of Rivoli, where Berthier once more played the part of an assistant commander as well as a staff officer. He first of all took over the 14th demi-brigade of Joubert’s division with its supporting arms, and later directed a cavalry charge supported by artillery against an Austrian counterattack: as Bonaparte wrote to the Directory four days later, ‘he displayed on this occasion the bravery that he has so often shown in this campaign.’-59

    ‘In this campaign, too, Berthier proved that he was a great chief of staff as Bonaparte was a great commander. In particular, during the final advance into Austria he successfully performed the most difficult task of maintaining communication with the three widely separated columns, and so coordinating their movements that, unlike Alvintzi’s forces the previous year, they could not be defeated in detail. As in normal military practice, Bonaparte made the commander’s decision and decide the concept of his operations; while Berthier unfailingly provided the information on which the decisions were based, and he then compiled, transmitted, and supervised the execution of the detailed orders for their implementation.’-63

    From Swords Around A Throne by John Elting, 128-130

    ‘…Napoleon took Berthier as his chief of staff only after his first choice…refused the assignment. Their relationship quickly became one of mutual dependence…Because he worked in his Emperor’s shadow, Berthier’s accomplishments seemed matters of routine. In 1800 he organized the Army of the Reserve and moved it across the St. Bernard Pass into Italy; in 1805 he planned the Grande Armee’s march from the English Channel into Austria; in 1809 set up the assault crossing of the Danube before Wagram; and in 1812 handled the unprecedented concentration for the invasion of Russia.’

    ‘To the army and the world at large, Berthier was a mixture of brusqueness and courtesy, never suffering fools gladly, but never insulting, and careful of his subordinates self-respect. Always ready, properly uniformed, orderly in all things, he was a quiet example to a new, restless army of thoroughgoing individualists. His courage was beyond doubt, whether in rallying a broken column and ramming it home through keening Austrian musketry across Lodi bridge or, in 1812-just turned sixty, exhausted, and very sick-pulling the command of the retreating Grande Armee together after Murat had deserted it. His position made him the handy butt of both Napoleon’s temper and the other marshals’ anger, but neither of those affected the even tenor of his work. His health finally failed toward the end of the 1812 campaign; he was ill during much of 1813 and 1814, but his work still was well done, is orders clearly written, his insistence on proper staff procedure unrelenting.’

    Regarding the beginning of the campaign of 1809, Berthier was never the commander of the Army of Germany-that is a frequent mistake even with competent historians of the period. By the decree of 4 March 1809 Berthier was appointed as chief of staff of the Army of Germany, not its commander.

    Berthier to Napoleon 11 April 1809:

    ‘Sire, I very much desire Your Majesty’s arrival, to obviate the orders and counter-orders which circumstances, together with Your Majesty’s commands, have made necessary.’

    Berthier to Napoleon 14 April 1809:

    ‘I should have been relieved of considerable embarrassment, Sire, if your telegraphic dispatch of the 10th, which arrived at Strasbourg on the 13th and was sent on here on the 16th, had reached me earlier. I would have fulfilled your wishes. But, after carefully rereading your instruction, you seemed determined to hold on to Ratisbon: this is the position which we occupy. I would have preferred to have concentrated on the Lech.’

    Berthier to Napoleon 16 January 1812:

    ‘An aide-de-camp from the King [Murat] brought me at noon a letter from His Majesty, a copy of which is attached. I have urged the King to keep command of the army; but he has replied to me that his decision is irrevocable. I have told him that he could not leave until the Viceroy’s [Eugene] arrival, since he was due here in the evening. In spite of the Viceroy’s entreaties, His Majesty persisted in relinquishing command. The Viceroy did not wish to accept it; but finally, the King’s carriages being ready to go, I persuaded him to take command provisionally. I observed to His Serene Highness that the army could not be without a commander-in-chief for ten days. I have assured him of my zealous support despite my poor state of health.’
    ‘Your Majesty will recognize how important it is for the Grande Armee to be organized and for your deputy to be nominated by decree. I do not allow myself to make any observation on the King’s conduct; I place myself under the command of the viceroy.’
    ‘I offer Your Majesty my humble duty and my profound respect.-Alexandre’

    ‘General Prince Berthier was good enough to drive me back to Paris, and the next day I went with him to join a hunting party at Grosbois…This journey of six or seven leagues with the Prince was of deep interest to me, for I really got to know something of the General’s kind heart, which I should perhaps never otherwise have done, for he made a point of always appearing grave and severe with his young officers. He looked at me again and again with a happy, almost eager expression of affection, like a father who had regained a beloved son. He maintained, however, the dignified silence of a commander, breaking it now and then with an eager question, showing how great was his interest in what I was saying, and how much he felt for the sufferings I had endured…Prince Berthier’s career had really been more brilliant than that of any of the officers immediately surrounding our Caesar, but he never assumed any special distinction, for he was always simple, modest, polite, and natural in his manner. He was never known to utter a word that could wound the self-respect of his subalterns, but, on the contrary, he tried to the utmost of his power to increase the dignity of their position…Few men have been more fortunate throughout their military careers than Prince Berthier. I often heard him congratulate himself on having served France in all four quarters of the globe. He made his debut in the War of Independence in America and returned home with very pleasant memories, for he became the personal friend of Rochambeau and Lafayette, under whom he served with the French contingent. He told me that, of all the decorations he had received during his successful career, he had been most flattered at getting the little eagle of the Order of the Cincinatti.’-Baron Lejeune, 1811, after a particularly difficult mission to Spain and being released from imprisonment in England after being captured in Spain.
    We are not now that strength which in old days
    Moved earth and heaven; that which we are we are; One equal temper of heroic hearts
    Made weak by time and fate but strong in will
    To strive to seek to find and not to yield.

  • #2
    Originally posted by Massena View Post
    'If Berthier had been there, I would not have met this misfortune.'-Napoleon after Waterloo
    Kind of sums up the little man in the funny 'at in my 'umble opinion...
    All those thousands of bodies littering Belgium...
    nothing but a mere 'misfortune'.

    The long toll of the brave
    Is not lost in darkness
    Over the fruitful earth
    And athwart the seas
    Hath passed the light of noble deeds
    Unquenchable forever.


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