What Did Cambronne Say at Waterloo? by Mark Simner
This entry was posted on June 18, 2015.
There are many myths and controversies surrounding the Battle of Waterloo, fought on 18 June 1815. Indeed, a number of books have been written that solely focus on these fascinating, yet sometimes frustrating, aspects of the Hundred Days campaign. Some of these myths have since been proved false or otherwise finally laid to rest, but many persist, with military history experts still no nearer to the truth than at any time in the past 200 years. One, which continues to be debated by professional and amateur historians alike, is the alleged words of Pierre Cambronne during the final stages of the battle. But who was Cambronne and what did or didn’t he say at Waterloo?
Born in 1770 at Nantes, France, Cambronne enlisted into the French army in 1791 shortly before the outbreak of the War of the First Coalition. He would rise rapidly through the ranks, becoming a lieutenant in 1893, and took part in the campaigns in the Vendée, the Rhine and in Switzerland. More promotions would follow, including chef de batallion in 1805, and he was present at the battles of Austerlitz and Jena before being sent to Spain. However, he was recalled to France in order to assist with the enlargement of the Garde Impériale, later participating in the battles of Aspern-Essling and Wagram before returning to the Iberian Peninsula. Perhaps luckily, he did not take part in Napoleon’s ill-fated campaign in Russia in 1812, but he did play an important part in the rebuilding of the French army the following year. After the Battle of Hanau, fought in October 1813, he was again promoted, to général de brigade, and placed in command of the 1st Chasseurs of the Old Guard. When Napoleon was defeated in 1814, he faithfully accompanied his emperor in his exile to the island of Elba as head of the Guard Grenadiers.
With Napoleon’s subsequent escape from exile and return to France in early 1815, Cambronne was again offered promotion, but this time he refused the honour, insisting that he would stay with his men. However, he would, as colonel-major, take command of the two battalions of the 1st Chasseurs during the Hundred Days campaign, seeing action at both Ligny and Waterloo. Thus, the somewhat incredible and long military career of Pierre Jacques Étienne Cambronne was about to reach its climatic end and become firmly entwined with the Waterloo legend.
There is little room within this brief article to offer any detailed description of the advance of the Garde Impériale late in the Battle of Waterloo. Countless books have already dealt with the subject and many different interpretations of the assault exist. Suffice to say, the attack was repulsed by Wellington’s Anglo-Allied army and Napoleon’s last throw of the dice ultimately failed. However, it was following the repulse of the Guard that Cambronne was later alleged to have said, when invited to surrender, ‘la Garde meurt mais ne se rends pas!’, which translates into English as ‘the Guard dies but does not surrender!’ Other eyewitnesses claimed that he simply said ‘Merde!’, meaning ‘Shit!’. Both, particularly the former, quickly became one of the Waterloo myths that were readily believed by so many in the years following the battle. However, these words were later denied by Cambronne himself who, according to the French historian Henry Houssaye, stated ‘I did not say what is attributed to me, I replied with something else.’
Following such a denial, it, therefore, might seem odd why the myth of what Cambronne said during his capture at Waterloo persisted for so long. However, looking back from the distance of 200 years, we should remember that Waterloo was an embarrassing defeat for France, and nothing short of a humiliation for the men of Napoleon’s elite Old Guard to be taken prisoner in battle. To counter this, what followed was an attempt by some to portray the defeat in a glorious light, or as an act of courageous defiance in the face of the enemy. Houssaye himself believed the whole thing was made up by a French journalist who worked for the Journal général de France. To further muddy the waters, those, on the Anglo-Allied side, who did witness the capture of Cambronne and his Old Guard comrades do not always agree on the details, some accounts even proving to be completely unreliable. All of which acted to merely perpetuate the myth.
Whatever the actual circumstances of Cambronne’s capture, we do know he suffered a serious head wound at Waterloo and was later attended to by a British doctor. Following the battle, he was taken to England but longed to return to France, which he did in late 1815, where he was arrested on allegations of treason. Later cleared of the charges, Cambronne would resume his military duties for a short period before retiring and spending the last two decades of his life helping veterans of the Garde Impériale. On 29 January 1842, aged 71, Cambronne died, and, in 1848, a statue of him was erected in his honour in his home city of Nantes, where it still stands today.
An Illustrated Introduction to The Battle of Waterloo by Mark Simner is available for purchase now.