Napoleon’s 5 Greatest Marshals: The Best of the Best

Napoleon Bonaparte was one of the greatest generals in world history, but he owed much of his success to the marshals who served under him.

Apr 6, 2024By Jimmy Chen, MPhil Modern European History, BSc Government and History

napoleon greatest marshals


In May 1804, after being proclaimed Emperor of the French, Napoleon Bonaparte awarded the title of Marshal of the French Empire to eighteen of his generals. He would go on to appoint another eight marshals before his second abdication in 1815. While Napoleon is often considered the greatest military commander of his time, many of his marshals were brilliant military leaders in their own right. This article highlights the careers of five of these men.


1. Louis-Nicolas Davout: The Iron Marshal

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Marshal Louis-Nicolas Davout (1770-1823) by Tito Marzocchi de Belluci after Pierre Gautherot, 1852-59. Source: Palace of Versailles, Paris


Marshal Louis-Nicolas Davout is often considered Napoleon’s greatest subordinate commander. A strict disciplinarian who earned the nickname “Iron Marshal,” he was a master of defensive warfare, and his men often saw the heaviest fighting in Napoleon’s greatest victories.


Born in 1770 to a minor noble family, Davout was a junior officer in King Louis XVI’s army at the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. He was an enthusiastic supporter of revolutionary ideas and became a general in 1793 but was then imprisoned due to his aristocratic origins. Upon his return to the army in 1794, he befriended General Louis Desaix in Germany and accompanied him on General Bonaparte’s Egyptian Campaign in 1798. Davout and Desaix returned to France in March 1800, but the latter was killed at the Battle of Marengo in June.


When Napoleon re-established the marshalate in 1804, Davout was the youngest officer to be awarded the title. While his fellow marshals believed he was too inexperienced, Davout soon put any doubts to rest in 1805. During the run-up to the Battle of Austerlitz, Davout led his III Corps on a forced march from Vienna and arrived on the morning of the day of battle on 2 December, covering 70 miles in less than two days. His 10,000 men bore the brunt of the Austro-Russian army’s attacks against the villages of Telnitz and Sokolnitz on Napoleon’s right but managed to hold on and allow Marshal Soult’s IV Corps to strike the decisive blow against the allied center.

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Napoleon gives his orders to the marshals of the empire, the morning of the Battle of Austerlitz by Carle Vernet, 1808. Source: Palace of Versailles, Paris


Marshal Davout’s greatest hour came on October 14, 1806 in battle against the Prussians. Napoleon believed that the main Prussian army was concentrated around Jena and issued orders accordingly. While Napoleon did defeat a Prussian army at Jena, some ten miles to the north at Auerstedt Davout’s III Corps ran into the Duke of Brunswick’s main Prussian army of 65,000 men. Despite being outnumbered almost three-to-one, Davout not only repulsed the Prussian attacks but launched a successful counterattack after Brunswick was mortally wounded, driving the Prussians from the field.


Following his heroics at Auerstedt, Davout continued to distinguish himself in battle against Prussia’s Russian allies in 1807, with his timely arrival at Eylau in February saving Napoleon from likely defeat, and at the decisive Battle of Friedland in June, he turned the Russian left. In the spring of 1809, when Austria resumed hostilities against Napoleon, Davout’s victory over Archduke Charles at Eckmühl on April 22, 1809 turned the tide of the campaign in Napoleon’s favor, culminating in a close-fought but decisive victory at Wagram on July 5-6.


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The Battle of Krasny on 5 (17) November 1812 by Peter von Hess, 1859. Source: State Hermitage Museum, Russia


Like most of the French army, Davout and his men suffered terribly during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812. Although the Iron Marshal’s I Corps managed to break the Russian front line at the Battle of Borodino on September 7, Napoleon did not effectively exploit the breakthrough, allowing the Russians to retreat beyond Moscow in good order. After Napoleon withdrew from Moscow in October, Davout led the rearguard and sustained heavy losses at the Battle of Vyazma on November 3. Later that month, he suffered another mauling at Krasny, where his marshal’s baton was captured by Russian Cossacks.


In the campaigns of 1813-14, Marshal Davout was relegated to commanding the besieged French garrison at Hamburg, where he held out until after Napoleon’s abdication in April 1814. He was appointed Minister of War during Napoleon’s Hundred Days in 1815, and after Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, he made a show of resistance in defense of Paris but soon came to terms. He died in June 1823 at the age of 53.


2. Jean Lannes: The French Achilles

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Marshal Jean Lannes, Duke of Montebello by Jean-Charles-Nicaise Perrin, 1805-09. Source: Palace of Versailles, Paris


A brave soldier and inspirational leader, Marshal Jean Lannes is ranked alongside Marshal Davout as one of the two greatest fighting generals among Napoleon’s subordinates. He was a personal friend of the emperor, and his death in May 1809 left the emperor bereft.


Born in Gascony in April 1769 to a family of modest means, Lannes was four months older than Napoleon. The two met during Bonaparte’s First Italian campaign of 1796-97 and soon became close friends. After accompanying Napoleon to Egypt, Lannes joined him on his return to France in 1799 and was given command of the consular guard after the latter took power in November. At the Battle of Marengo on June 14, Lannes commanded the French right and fell under heavy pressure before General Desaix arrived with reinforcements to turn the tide of battle.


In the 1805 campaign, Lannes commanded V Corps, serving as leader of the vanguard alongside Marshal Joachim Murat. On the French left at Austerlitz, Lannes repelled an attack from Prince Bagration’s Russians before forcing the Russian general to fall back.


Marshal Lannes’ career reached a peak during the War of the Fourth Coalition against Prussia and Russia in 1806-07. At the Battle of Jena, Lannes commanded Napoleon’s center and was the first to engage Prince Hohenlohe’s Prussians. At Friedland on June 14, 1807 he enticed Bennigsen across the River Alle to engage him in battle. With only 10,000 men at the start of the engagement, Lannes fought an effective defensive action and allowed Napoleon to bring reinforcements into action, trapping Bennigsen against the river and gaining a decisive victory that ended the campaign.


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Marshal Lannes’ last moments at the battle of Essling, 22 May 1809 by Albert-Paul Bourgeois, after 1810. Source: Palace of Versailles, Paris


In late 1808, following the outbreak of the Peninsular War, Lannes was transferred to Spain and captured Zaragoza after a brutal siege in February 1809. Following renewed hostilities with Habsburg Austria, Napoleon recalled Lannes as the commander of a new II Corps. At the Battle of Ratisbon on April 23, Lannes rallied his men to scale a breach in the city walls by personally taking hold of a ladder. His men advanced out of shame and soon overwhelmed the defenders.


Having seized the initiative, Napoleon’s troops advanced down the Danube and occupied Vienna on May 13. With Archduke Charles’s Austrians deployed on the plain across the Danube, Marshal Lannes crossed the river at Aspern on May 21. On the morning of the 22, Lannes’ men were on the verge of breaking through the Austrian center when they were thrown back by a strong counterattack led by the archduke. Napoleon ordered his army to retreat, and Lannes was obliged to fight a rearguard action. That afternoon, he was mortally wounded by an Austrian cannonball which shattered his legs, dying on May 31 at the age of 40.


3. André Masséna: Dear Child of Victory

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Marshal André Masséna, Duke of Rivoli, Prince of Essling by Edmé-Adolphe Fontaine after Antoine-Jean Gros, 1852-59. Source: Palace of Versailles, Paris


When Napoleon created the marshalate in 1804, André Masséna was surprised to learn that there were eighteen men on the list. As one of the most successful generals of the French Revolutionary Wars, Masséna was disappointed that he had to share his glory with so many other men.


Masséna was born in 1758 in Nice, then part of the Kingdom of Sardinia, and grew up speaking Italian. Nevertheless, he joined the French army and had already served in French uniform for over a decade when revolution broke out. In 1796, he performed brilliantly as Napoleon’s subordinate in Italy during the campaign of 1796-97, spearheading the French attack that defeated the Austrians at the Battle of Rivoli on January 14, 1797 before defeating a final Austrian attempt to relieve the Siege of Mantua at La Favorita. For these exploits, Bonaparte hailed Masséna as “the dear child of victory.”


In 1798, while Bonaparte was away in Egypt, Masséna commanded the Army of Switzerland. Although Russian Field Marshal Alexander Suvorov’s blistering campaign in Italy exposed Masséna’s southern flank and obliged him to evacuate Zurich in June 1799, in late September, he retook Zurich after defeating General Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russians before they could be reinforced by Suvorov. After Napoleon came to power, Masséna was given command of the Army of Italy. From April to June 1800, he held on desperately in Genoa while besieged by the Austrians. By the time Masséna agreed terms on June 4, Napoleon surprised the Austrians by crossing the Alps into northern Italy, defeating them at Marengo ten days later.


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Second Battle of Zurich, 25 September 1799 by François Bouchot, 1837. Source: Palace of Versailles, Paris


In 1805, while Napoleon was marching through Germany, Masséna was given command of 50,000 men in Italy, which held back Archduke Charles’s superior force at Caldiero. He joined Napoleon’s main army in March 1807 but saw little action and had to wait until 1809 for his moment of glory as a Napoleonic marshal.


In early July 1809, Napoleon made a second attempt to cross the Danube at the Battle of Wagram. During the most intense fighting on July 5, when a dangerous gap opened up in the French line, Masséna was ordered to close in from the left with his IV Corps. Though obliged to command from a carriage after falling from his horse, Masséna closed the gap while Napoleon moved his reserves forward. Once the line was steadied, Masséna led a wide outflanking maneuver to fend off Austrian general Klenau’s attack on the French left, leading to a close-fought victory the following day.


In 1810, Masséna went to Spain to take command of the Army of Portugal with orders to drive the Duke of Wellington’s redcoats out of Lisbon. After suffering heavy casualties at the Battle of Bussaco on September 27, Masséna followed Wellington into the mountains and was astonished to discover that Wellington had built an extensive network of fortifications known as the Lines of Torres Vedras. After languishing for three months, Masséna retreated into Spain in March 1811. A second invasion of Portugal in May was defeated at Fuentes de Oñoro, prompting Masséna’s dismissal. He died in April 1817, just shy of his 59th birthday.


4. Louis-Alexandre Berthier: The Indispensable Marshal

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Marshal Louis-Alexandre Berthier, Prince of Neufchâtel and of Wagram by Jacques-Augustin-Catherine Pajou the Younger, 1808. Source: Palace of Versailles, Paris


Unlike the other marshals on this list, Louis-Alexandre Berthier was not a supremely talented field commander. Nevertheless, he was Napoleon’s most important marshal, serving as his chief of staff for eighteen years between 1796 and 1814. When Napoleon promulgated his list of marshals in 1804, Berthier’s name was at the top of the list.


Louis-Alexandre Berthier was born in November 1753 at Versailles to a military family. After joining the French army, he served on General Rochambeau’s staff in the American Revolutionary War in the early 1780s and was present at the Siege of Yorktown. After the French Revolution, he served in senior staff positions and was appointed chief of staff of the Army of Italy in 1795. When Napoleon took command the following year, the two men began one of the most successful military partnerships in history.


During the Italian campaign, Berthier developed a keen understanding of Napoleon’s ambitious plans and was able to translate them into marching orders for the army. The two men spent so much time together during the Italian campaign that the men nicknamed Berthier “Napoleon’s wife.” After Bonaparte seized power as First Consul, Berthier was appointed Minister of War and began to reorganize the army.


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Siege of Yorktown, 17 October 1781 by Auguste Couder, 1836. Source: Palace of Versailles, Paris


Berthier helped Napoleon develop a system of corps d’armée in which each marshal led an independent force of around 20,000–30,000 men with its own infantry, cavalry, and artillery. With each corps taking separate roads but remaining within close contact, the army could move much faster. Each corps could be expected to stand their ground in a defensive battle, giving time for neighboring corps to come to their aid. Berthier was at the center of this system, coordinating movements on the operational chessboard during Napoleon’s greatest campaigns against Austria, Prussia, and Russia in 1805-07.


In late 1808, with rumors that Austria was preparing to resume hostilities, Napoleon sent Berthier to organize an army in Germany. When the Austrians unexpectedly invaded Bavaria in February 1809, Berthier was forced to take command. He suffered a series of reversals against Archduke Charles before Napoleon took personal command and turned the tide in April.


In 1812, Berthier helped to organize Napoleon’s invasion force for the Russian campaign, expressing justified concerns about whether the emperor could keep his army of half a million men adequately supplied. Berthier remained at Napoleon’s side in the 1813-14 campaigns, which ended in Napoleon’s defeat and abdication in April 1814.


Following Napoleon’s return from Elba, Berthier accompanied King Louis XVIII into exile in Ghent. He then returned to Paris to join Napoleon but was rejected for his questionable loyalties, prompting him to go to his in-laws at Bamberg Castle in Germany. On June 1, 1815, Berthier fell out of a window to his death in what was most likely an accident. A fortnight later, Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo.


5. Louis-Gabriel Suchet: The Peninsular Marshal

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Marshal Louis-Gabriel Suchet, Duke of Albufera by Frédéric Legrip, 1837-62. Source: Palace of Versailles, Paris


The Peninsular War (1807-14) was a bloody sideshow to the Napoleonic Wars that imposed a heavy cost on Napoleon in terms of men and resources. Although the emperor sent some of his finest veterans to pacify Spain and drive the British into the sea, his marshals were unable to completely restore order. The man who came closest was Louis-Gabriel Suchet.


Born in Lyons in 1770, Suchet joined the army following the French Revolution. He first came to General Bonaparte’s attention at the Siege of Toulon in 1793, where he led a valiant attack against an enemy battery. After being transferred to the Army of Italy in 1795, he served under General Masséna at Arcole and Rivoli. While Napoleon was in Egypt, Suchet served as chief-of-staff to General Barthélemy Joubert in Italy, where the latter was killed at the Battle of Novi in August. After Bonaparte took power as First Consul, Suchet returned to the Army of Italy. With fewer than 10,000 men, he successfully defended southeastern France from an Austrian invasion while Masséna was besieged in Genoa.


Although Suchet was a young and ambitious officer, he was never close to Napoleon and did not climb the ranks as quickly as the likes of Davout and Lannes. In 1805, he was a divisional commander in Lannes’ V Corps and fought at Austerlitz. At the Battle of Jena in 1806, Suchet’s 1st Division led the attack against the Prussians, but he played no part in the major battles at Eylau and Friedland in 1807.


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General Joaquín Blake y Joyes by Manuel Ojeda, 1880. Source: Museo del Prado, Madrid


In 1808, Suchet was transferred to Spain and played a supporting role in the Siege of Zaragoza. When Napoleon recalled Lannes in early 1809, Suchet was named as his replacement. He reorganized his force into the Army of Aragon and began to pacify eastern Spain. He did so not only by inflicting several defeats upon General Joaquín Blake’s regular Spanish army in battle but by understanding that he had to win the support of the local population. Suchet was alone among French marshals in having his conduct praised by the Spanish.


Although he only had some 20,000 men under his command, Suchet was ordered by Napoleon to conquer Catalonia and Valencia. In June 1811, he captured the port city of Tarragona after a two-month siege and won his marshal’s baton. He followed up this success with the capture of Valencia in January 1812.


In 1813, Suchet managed to beat off a British invasion of eastern Spain in the spring, but Wellington’s decisive victory at the Battle of Vitoria in June left him isolated. In early 1814, he retreated across the Pyrenees into France and came to terms with the British on April 14 after Napoleon’s abdication. Suchet initially transferred his allegiance to King Louis XVIII but rallied to Napoleon during the Hundred Days. He was ordered to defend eastern France from Austrian invasion but did not see any action before Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. His military career was over, and he died in January 1826 at the age of 55.

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By Jimmy ChenMPhil Modern European History, BSc Government and HistoryJimmy is an independent historian and writer based in Swindon, England. He has an MPhil in Modern European History from the University of Cambridge, where he wrote his dissertation on music and Russian patriotism in the Napoleonic Wars. He obtained a BSc in Government and History from the London School of Economics. Jimmy has written scripts for ‘The People Profiles’ YouTube channel and has appeared as a guest on The Napoleonic Wars Podcast and the Generals and Napoleon Podcast. Jimmy is a passionate about travel and has travelled extensively through Europe visiting historical sites.