Monday, 27 April 2015

27 April: Jean Rapp (1772-1823)

General Rapp at the battle of Austerlitz (detail from the painting by Gérard)

Rapp (Count Jean), lieutenant-general, born in Alsace, on 26 April 1772*, had a firm taste for military life, and he enlisted on 1 May 1788. He was noticed from the beginning of the Revolutionary wars for his bravery and intelligence; he became General Desaix’s aide-de-camp, and as such, he fought by his side in Germany and Egypt. He was near General Desaix when he was fatally wounded in Marengo, and he had to carry the dire news to General Bonaparte, who took him in his service. In 1802, he had to announce to the Swiss cantons that France would intervene in their civil war, and demanded that the Bernese insurgents lay down their arms. A few days later, he evacuated Fribourg, which had been taken during the armistice, forced the Schwyz Diet to clarify its positions and installed it as mediator. The Bernese Senate sent General Rapp a deputation to thank him for France’s intervention. In November, General Rapp went to Coire, summoned the town’s small council, and forced the municipality to disband. Back to Paris in 1803, he accompanied Bonaparte in his travels to Belgium, and left to visit the banks of the Elba and build redoubts there in order to fortify it. He later became a commandant of the Legion of Honour; in April 1805, he married Mlle Vanderberg, the daughter of a supplier, whom he divorced a few years later, and on the following month, the electoral college of the Haut-Rhin elected him as a candidate for the Senate. When hostilities resumed with Austria, he followed Emperor Napoleon to Germany, and gave proof of his eminent bravery at the battle of Austerlitz. With two squadrons of the chasseurs of the Guard, he routed the Russian Imperial Guard in a bold charge and captured Prince Repnin; his fine conduct was rewarded with the rank of divisional general on 24 December 1805. In 1806 and 1807, he led a dragoon corps and singled himself out in every fight of these campaigns, especially at Golymin, where he was wounded. On 2 June 1807, he replaced Marshal Lefebvre as the governor of Dantzig, which he remained for two years, to the inhabitants’ great satisfaction; they gave him a magnificent sword as a token of their esteem and gratitude when he left in August 1809. In the campaign of 1812, he led Daendels’ Dutch division and made miracles at its head; but nowhere was he more brave and talented than at Malo-Iaroslavetz, where he had a horse killed under him. After this disastrous campaign, he was ordered to shut himself into Dantzig, where he gathered 30,000 men of the garrison. All the means of defence, all of his genius and heroism were mobilised for this harsh siege that lasted a whole year; after struggling against famine and a cruel pandemic that killed two thirds of his garrison, General Rapp had made his name truly glorious. Finally yielding to the inhabitants’ prayers, he decided to capitulate. A convention was signed on 27 November 1813, saying that the fortress would surrender on the 1st of January if no relief force had come by then; that the garrison would leave with full war honours; that it would retain artillery, rifles and all of its baggages. But the convention was flouted, the soldiers of the garrison were made prisoners and taken to Muscovy, while the general was sent to Kiev, in Ukraine. It was from there that he sent his adhesion to Napoleon’s fall and the Bourbons’ restoration on 4 June 1814. Upon returning to Paris on the following July, he received a distinguished welcome from the King and on the 23rd of the same month, he was made a knight of Saint-Louis and grand-cordon of the Legion of Honour. After Napoleon’s landing in March 1815, General Rapp was put at the head of the I Corps to stop his march; but it was so quick that all resistance soon became futile. General Rapp himself swore allegiance to Napoleon, accepted command of the 5th division, was made a Peer, a member of the Chamber of Representatives and also the commander-in-chief of the Army of the Rhine. His army, 10,000 men strong, included all the corps stationed in Alsace, as well as the national guards of the Haut-Rhin and Bas-Rhin led by General Molitor. This army, whose left rested upon the lines of Lanter and Weissemburg, stretched along the Rhine from Spire to Huningue, and its right tied into the Jura corps, under orders of General Lecourbe; all it could do was delay the march of a much stronger enemy, and it was forced to give up on its lines and withdraw under the cannons of Strasbourg. The second Restoration did not immediately terminate General Rapp’s functions; he remained in position until the month of September, at which point the army was disbanded. In 1816, he sought shelter from partisan clashes in Aargau and bought Wildenstein Castle. It was there that an Englishman gave him a beautiful horse. This Englishman had won 10,000 guineas by betting that Dantzig would hold on for a certain amount of time, and he thought he should express his gratitude to the man whose courage had made him richer. General Rapp came back to Paris in 1817 and the King received him in a private audience. The ordnance of 22 July 1818 put him at the disposal of the Ministry of War. He was made a Peer of France. Count Rapp died prematurely in 1823. The Memoirs he left behind make for a very interesting read.
*[The memorial plate on the house where he was born says 27 April, though. More proof that this was written in the pre-Wikipedia era!
Additional browsing shows that nobody can even agree on his years of birth and death. Great, and I thought Sébastiani was the only one.]

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