Grenadiers, come and seek your colour

Sunday, June 2nd, 2024

Napoleon by Andrew RobertsNapoleon arrived at the bridge at Arcole, Andrew Roberts explains (in Napoleon: A Life), just as Augereau’s attempt to capture it had been beaten off:

He ordered another attack, which stalled under heavy fire. Augereau then seized a flag and walked out fifteen paces in front of his skirmishers, saying, ‘Grenadiers, come and seek your colour.’ At that point Napoleon, surrounded by his aides-de-camp and bodyguard, grasped another flag and led the charge himself, haranguing the troops about their heroism at Lodi. For all his statements to the Directory two days earlier about not exposing himself to danger, he certainly did at Arcole. Yet it failed — the men displayed ‘extraordinary cowardice’ according to Sulkowski — and they didn’t rush the body-strewn bridge, although his aide-de-camp Colonel Muiron and others were killed on it at Napoleon’s side. During an Austrian counter-attack, Napoleon had to be bundled back into the marshy ground behind the bridge and was saved only by a charge of grenadiers. He was a brave man, but there was only so much anyone could do in the face of concentrated fire being directed by a stalwart Austrian resistance, which would continue for two more days.


The bridge at Arcole wouldn’t be captured for another two days, by Augereau and Masséna, who returned there on the 17th, and Napoleon wasn’t present when it fell.


  1. Gwern says:

    A good example of the historical contingency of someone like Napoleon and the truly breathtaking levels of survivorship there must be in any career like his. If he had died at Arcole, hardly even specialists in that period of Italy would know much about him. And people died left and right within feet of him as they were left alone and fired upon in this anecdote — so the odds of him dying there must have been substantial, easily >1%. And that is but one of countless places Napoleon could have died. But at each step, the rolled dice didn’t come up snake-eyes, while for all the other possible Napoleons, sooner or later the dice did come up snake-eyes and no one ever heard of them…

  2. Jim says:

    Fortune rules the day.

  3. Lucklucky says:

    Gwern, then the question is, how many Napoleons, hannibals, Alexanders, Da Vinci’s, etc. have died, and we don’t know?

  4. Jim says:

    Galois died at twenty in a duel of unremembered cause.

  5. Bomag says:

    Galois… who, as a teenager, introduced the world to unsolvable number fields. Astonishing. Spooky.

    Claudine de Tencin was arguably the smartest woman in 1717 France. Of thoroughly modern sensibility, at age 35, she let her birth control regime slip, had a Child; promptly abandoned the two-day old to a church step on a cold and wet night; the child came close to death. Tsk. Starting life in an 18th century French orphanage, what chance for greatness? Think what he could have become if nurtured by a smart woman. Wait… (d’Alembert.)

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