Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was not as murderous as Genghis Khan or Hitler. In his day, however, the French ruler was feared and loathed by his foes just as much as contemporaries feared the Fuhrer and the great Mongol conqueror. As he roamed Europe at the head of his armies and gobbled up countries as if they were popcorn at a movie theater, Napoleon was scary enough to serve as a boogeyman. Indeed, English parents used to scare their children into obedience with “Boney the Bogeyman”.
Le Empereur, who was often derided in newspapers read by adults as “Little Boney” in a bid to belittle and play down his threat, was portrayed as a larger-than-life figure to England’s kids. He was portrayed as a giant ogre who would take away naughty children and eat them for breakfast. “If you don’t behave, Boney will come for you” often sufficed to get rambunctious youngsters to pipe down. For such a scary figure, it is surprising that he was once routed by an army of small opponents. Napoleon was famously defeated at Waterloo, but it was not his only loss. A smaller – albeit perhaps more awkward – defeat was once dealt Boney by, of all things, bunny rabbits.
The Battle of Waterloo in 1815 was Napoleon’s worst defeat. However, his most awkward loss was dealt him years earlier, when the mighty Bonaparte was put to flight in a bizarre incident by a horde of cute bunny rabbits. It happened in 1807 when he was at the height of his power and bestrode Europe like a colossus. He had vanquished the Austrians and Russians at the Battle of Austerlitz and humiliated the Prussians at the twin battles of Jena-Auerstedt. He capped off his victories with the Treaties of Tilsit, which ended the War of the Fourth Coalition against him.
In an understandably good mood, Napoleon decided to celebrate, and what better way to celebrate than to kill small animals? So Napoleon ordered his chief of staff, Alexander Berthier, to arrange a rabbit hunt and invite the top military brass. Berthier prepared an outdoor luncheon and collected about 3000 rabbits. They were arranged in cages along the fringes of a grassy field, to be released for the bigwigs to shoot as they fled. It went wrong, however. When the bunnies were released they did not jump away in terror, but bounded in their thousands towards Le Empereur.
As thousands of bunnies bounded towards them rather than flee for their lives, Napoleon’s party laughed at first. The laughter stopped and concern grew, however, as the onslaught continued. The rabbits swarmed the Emperor’s legs and climbed up his jacket. He tried to shoo them with his riding crop, while those around him tried to chase them away with sticks. There were just too many of them, however, and Napoleon was forced to flee to his carriage. As one account described it: “with a finer understanding of Napoleonic strategy than most of his generals, the rabbit horde divided into two wings and poured around the flanks of the party and headed for the imperial coach“.
Even in his carriage, Napoleon was not safe. Some rabbits jumped in with Le Empereur, who ordered his coachmen to whip the horses into a hasty retreat. In an awkward defeat, Europe’s hegemon had been beaten by bunnies. It turned out that the bizarre debacle had been Berthier’s fault. Rather than capture wild hares, he had bought tame rabbits from nearby farms, that were accustomed to people. When released from their cages, they did not fear Napoleon’s party as potential predators. Instead, they bounded towards them in the expectation that the Emperor of the French and his companions would feed them their dinner.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading