The incredible Pierre Daumesnil

18 September 2017

The month of August has recently passed and it marks the death of Pierre Daumesnil in 1832. Daumesnil was no ordinary soldier. Born in Périgueux, Dordogne on 14 July 1776, this shopkeeper’s son rose through the ranks. He saw action all over the world and survived 20 different wounds. His bravery saved Napoleon Bonaparte’s life on several occasions and Pierre Daumesnil became known as “Napoleon’s guardian angel”.

The early years of Pierre Daumesnil

Yrieix Pierre Daumesnil, (but known as Pierre for most of his life) led an extraordinary life. However, he was fortunate to survive his teenage years. At the tender age of 17, the inexperienced Pierre entered into a dual with an artilleryman who insulted him. Pierre survived but his opponent did not. Fearing the consequences of his actions, Pierre fled to Toulouse and joined his brother in the army.

As a common trooper his squadron leader was Captain Jean-Baptiste Bessières and the two became friends. It wasn’t long before Pierre Daumesnil received his first major wound during fighting against the Spanish. A bullet to his left thigh led the surgeon to conclude that amputation would be best. However, by the time they came to operate the wound had become infected and the indications were that Pierre would die anyway. Pierre recovered and kept his leg!

Pierre Daumesnil was undoubtedly a skilled combatant but it’s fair to say his attitude towards his own safety was carefree. Pierre first saved Napoleon Bonaparte’s life during the Battle of Arcola when he plunged into mud to rescue the fallen General during a dangerous charge. He further distinguished himself in the Siege of Mantua and was subsequently selected to join an elite bodyguard set up to protect the Commander-in-Chief.

An incredible act of bravery

Perhaps Pierre Daumesnil’s greatest act of bravery took place at the siege of St. Jean de Acre. Here, a shell landed at the feet of Napoleon. Without a thought for his own safety, Pierre threw himself on top of it. The shell failed to explode but this act would not be forgotten. (During the same battle Pierre was injured by a sabre and thrown from a ladder by an exploding mine!) His troubles weren’t about to end there.

Pierre Daumesnil

A Napoleon costume worn by Sir Henry Irving hangs in Le Manoir

After the abandoned siege Pierre and some friends were letting off steam in Cairo. Unfortunately, superior officers were in the same cafe and insults were traded. The military police arrested Pierre and his two friends and a court ordered them to be shot. Pierre Daumesnil refused to apologise. The three comrades were led to the firing squad and only the intervention of Napoleon Bonaparte spared Pierre’s life (his two friends were not so fortunate). A term of imprisonment followed.

After serving his time, Pierre Daumesnil was back in action at the Battle of Abukir and back saving Napoleon’s life. Pierre also distinguished himself during the fighting as he captured a flag of Captain Pasha. Subsequent battles followed and Pierre’s exploits saw him rise through the ranks and be named an Officer of the Legion of Honor.

16 years, 20 wounds and 2 horses killed from under him

When Austria attacked France in 1809, Pierre Daumesnil was once again at the side of Napoleon Bonaparte. Here, it was a lance that inflicted yet another injury to Pierre. However, worse was to follow at the Battle of Wagram. A ball struck Pierre’s left leg and it had to be amputated just below the knee. This was his 20th injury in 16 years of service. With a wooden leg, Pierre could no longer serve in the cavalry. He was awarded the title of Baron.

With time to put his personal life in order, Pierre married Leonie Garat, the 16 year old daughter of the Director General of the Bank of France. So, a peaceful retirement for Pierre then? Err no. Definitely not.

In charge of Vincennes

Thanks to his friendship with Napoleon Bonaparte and Jean-Baptiste Bessières, Pierre Daumesnil found himself in command of Vincennes. Vincennes was a fortress, a state prison and the state arsenal! (The arsenal contained around 100 field guns, 52,000 rifles, tonnes of bullets, cannonballs and gunpowder.) During a quiet few years Pierre oversaw the strengthening of these fortifications and became a dad. But peace and tranquillity were not to last.

In 1814 the Allies marched into Paris. Pierre found himself completely surrounded by Russian troops but this was not a man who was going to back down. During exchanges with the Russian commanders he is alleged to have said, “The Austrians took one of my legs. Let them return it, or come take the other.” Russian threats of starvation and bombardment were treated with disdain. Pierre eventually threatened to blow up the entire arsenal of weapons thereby killing everyone in the vicinity!

Even after Napoleon’s abdication, Pierre refused to surrender this fortress. As the war came to an end the siege was lifted and Pierre (who was considered a danger due to his loyalty to Napoleon) was relieved of his command.

The return of Napoleon in 1815 saw Pierre restored to the Governorship of Vincennes. History, however, was to repeat itself. The Allies took control of Paris again and Pierre held firm at his fortress. This time he was rewarded with retirement.

Despite his incredible life (and friends in high places) Pierre Daumesnil lived his next 15 years on a small pension and was watched by the police. In a final twist, the revolution in 1830 led to Louis Philippe becoming King. Pierre was recalled to service and placed in charge of Vincennes once again. This time – as jailer of ministers of the former king, Charles X – Pierre was confronted by a mob. They were demanding the heads of the ministers. Pierre was forced to make his customary threat of blowing up the entire building. His persuasive powers won over the rioters who ended up cheering for him.

Pierre DaumesnilPierre Daumesnil was promoted to Lieutenant General in 1831. He died of cholera, at Vincennes, on 17 August 1832.

In the 1970s, the French postal service released a stamp bearing the image of Pierre Daumesnil. Today, you will find his name on the Arc de Triomphe. In Périgueux there is a bronze statue of Pierre Daumesnil pointing proudly at his wooden leg.