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Reportedly a brutal and violent soldier, renowned for insubordination and looting, Napoleon is said to have told him, "If I had two of you, the only solution would be to have one hang the other". Napoleon added that he would give Vandamme command of the vanguard were he (Napoleon) to launch a campaign against Lucifer in Hell.
Vandamme enlisted in the army in 1786 and rapidly rose through the ranks. At the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars in 1793 he was a Brigadier General. He was court-martialled for looting and suspended. Reinstated, he fought at the First Battle of Stockach on 25 March 1799, but disagreement with General Jean Moreau led to his being sent to occupation duties in Holland. At the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805 he led the charge that recaptured the Pratzen Heights.
He was named Count of Unseburg by Napoleon I after the Silesian campaign during the War of the Fourth Coalition. In the campaign of 1809, he fought in the battles of Abensberg, Landshut, Eckmuhl.
In the campaign of 1813, Vandamme's I Corps attacked the Allied Bohemian Army as it tried to retreat after the Battle of Dresden. While his troops were engaged in the Battle of Kulm, a corps led by the Prussian General Friedrich Graf Kleist von Nollendorf fortuitously attacked the French from the rear. In the consequent disaster, Vandamme and 13,000 of his men were captured. Taken to Tsar Alexander I of Russia, Vandamme was accused of looting, but is alleged to have replied, "I am neither a plunderer nor a brigand but in any case, my contemporaries and history will not reproach me for having soaked my hands in the blood of my father". This was an allusion to the Alexander's alleged involvement in the murder of Paul I of Russia.
In the campaign of 1815 Vandamme was in command of the III Corps, under the direction of Marshal Emmanuel Grouchy. He urged Grouchy to join Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, but Grouchy preferred to pursue the Prussian 3rd Corps under General Johann von Thielmann, winning the Battle of Wavre, but losing the war. After the restoration of Louis XVIII of France Vandamme was exiled to America and settled in Philadelphia amongst other French military exiles. General Vandamme was allowed to return by the ordinance of 1 December 1819. He was re-established in the service in the Ètat-major Général, until his final retirement on 1 January 1825. Afterwards he lived alternatively in Cassel and Ghent, occupying himself with the writing of his memoirs. He died in his native Cassel, aged 59. VANDAMME is one of the names inscribed under the Arc de Triomphe.
- Berthezène, Pierre (1855), Souvenirs militaires de la République et de l'Empire 2, Paris, p. 279 (there is a recent edition: Souvenirs militaires par le baron Berthezène lieutenant général, pair de France, Grand-croix de la légion d'honneur, Paris: Le Livre chez vous, 2005, ISBN 2-914288-24-7)
- Gallaher, John G. (2008), Napoleon’s Enfant Terrible. General Dominique Vandamme, University of Oklahoma Press, ISBN 978-0-8061-3875-6
- Rosengarten, Joseph George (1907), French colonists and exiles in the United States, Philadelphia & London: J. B. Lippincott, pp. 166–167
- Casse, Albert Du (1870), Le général Vandamme: et sa correspondence (in French) (five books ed.), Paris
- Mullié,, Charles, ed. (1852), "Dominique-Joseph René Vandamme", Biographie des célébrités militaires des armées de terre et de mer de 1789 à 1850 (in French)
- Horne, Alistair (1996), How far from Austerlitz, Macmillan