Duke of Istria
|Born||6 August 1768|
|Died||1 May 1813 (aged 44)|
|Allegiance|| Kingdom of France|
Kingdom of the French
French First Republic
First French Empire
|Years of service||1791–1813|
|Rank||Marshal of the Empire|
|Battles/wars||French Revolutionary Wars,|
|Awards||Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour|
Commander of the Order of the Iron Crown
Knight of the Order of the Crown
Grand Cross of the Military Order of St. Henry
Knight of the Order of Christ
|Relations||Bertrand Bessières (brother),|
Julien Bessières (cousin)
Jean-Baptiste Bessières, 1st Duke of Istria (6 August 1768 – 1 May 1813) was a French military commander and Marshal of the Empire who served during both the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars. His younger brother, Bertrand, followed in his footsteps and eventually became a divisional general. Their cousin, Géraud-Pierre-Henri-Julien, also served Emperor Napoleon I as a diplomat and imperial official.
Bessières was born in Prayssac near Cahors in southern France. He served for a short time in the Constitutional Guard of King Louis XVI and as a non-commissioned officer took part in the war against Spain.
While serving in both the Army of the Eastern Pyrenees and the Army of the Moselle, Bessières repeatedly distinguished himself for valour, and in 1796, as captain, he served in Napoleon Bonaparte's Italian campaign. At Rovereto, his conduct brought him to his chief's notice, and after the Battle of Rivoli he was sent to France to deliver the captured colours to the Directory. Hastening back to the front, he accompanied Napoleon in the invasion of Styria in command of the Guides, who formed the nucleus of the later Consular and Imperial Guards.
Returning to Europe with Napoleon, Bessières was present at the Battle of Marengo (1800) as second-in-command of the Consular Guard. General Jean Lannes, commanding a corps at Marengo, felt he didn't support his faltering troops sufficiently and a long running feud arose between them. At the close of the battle, Bessières led a successful cavalry charge with the Guard Cavalry though its effect on the battle was not as decisive as Napoleon pretended. It was General François Étienne de Kellermann´s cavalry charge that won the battle for Marengo but Napoleon gave the credit largely to his own Guard Cavalry.
Promoted to general of division in 1802, he was subsequently made a Marshal of the Empire in 1804, a wholly undeserved distinction based on his loyalty and friendship with Napoleon. General Auguste de Marmont, a future marshal, said that if Bessières could be made a marshal, then anyone could be one as well. He was also made colonel-general of the Guard Cavalry and would command them in all future campaigns where he proved a very able cavalry commander.
In 1805, Bessières was awarded the Grand Eagle of the Legion of Honour, and in 1809 was entitled Duke of Istria. It was a duché grand-fief, a rare, nominal, but hereditary honor (extinguished in 1856) in Napoleon's own Kingdom of Italy.
With the outbreak of the Peninsular War in 1808, Bessières had his first opportunity at independent command. He did well against the Spanish, scoring a crushing victory in the Battle of Medina del Rio Seco, but proved slow and hesitant in command of a large force. Bessières was thus soon recalled to lead the Guard Cavalry during Napoleon´s invasion of Spain, a task more befitting his talents.
As war erupted in 1809 against Austria, he was again with the Grande Armée in the Danube valley as a cavalry leader, a position in which he excelled. At the Battle of Aspern-Essling, he led the cavalry in the centre and did well holding it against superior numbers, but once again fell foul of Lannes. Lannes again felt that Bessières was not providing sufficient support to his faltering troops and ordered him to charge home instead of malingering. Bessières then challenged Lannes to a duel, but Marshal André Massena intervened and prevented the duel between the two marshals in front of their troops.
At the subsequent Battle of Wagram, Bessières once again led the cavalry reserve and had a horse killed under him which caused consternation amongst the Guard. Napoleon congratulated him on making his Guard cry but also chided him for not netting more prisoners because he lost his horse.
Replacing Marshal Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte in command of the Army of the North later that same year, the newly created Duke of Istria successfully drove back the British in the Walcheren Campaign. In 1811, he was sent back to Spain again to lead the Army of the North. He mostly fought counter-insurgency operations and proved a difficult and touchy colleague to his fellow army commanders, especially Masséna who was in dire need of support after his failed invasion of Portugal in 1810-1811. He was recalled in some disgrace and once again reverted to his habitual Guard Cavalry post.
For the Russian campaign in 1812, Bessières commanded the enlarged Guard Cavalry. Hardly engaged at the Battle of Borodino, he destroyed his reputation with the rest of the army when he advised Napoleon not to use his Guard for a decisive breakthrough. Although this left the Imperial Guard intact for future battles, it prevented a decisive victory which might have successfully ended the Russian campaign.
Three days after the opening of the campaign, while reconnoitering the defile of Poserna-Rippach, Bessières was killed by a cannonball which ricocheted off a wall and hit him in the chest.  He died instantly. Napoleon deeply felt the loss of one of his truest friends while the remaining Marshals considered it a good death for a soldier.
After his death, Bessières was found to be heavily in debt after spending his fortune on his mistress. Napoleon oversaw his inheritance, settled most of his debts, and looked out for the future of his children. His eldest son Napoléon Bessières was made a member of the Chamber of Peers by King Louis XVIII.
As a commander, Bessières proved out of his depth when leading armies. His background as the commander of Napoleon's headquarters guard, the Guides of the Army of Italy, deprived him of the wide experience his fellow marshals had earned before assuming high command. Like Murat, he was however an excellent cavalry commander and he also proved an able administrator of the Imperial Guard. His few attempts at independent command were not a success however and Napoleon thereafter preferred using Bessières as a cavalry commander.
Bessières was not of high birth but he adopted the manners and looks of a gentleman as befitting Napoleon's closest Guard commander. He typically wore the uniform of Napoleon´s old Guides of the Army of Italy with marshal´s distinctions and wore his hair long with white powder in Ancien Régime style, even when the latter went out of fashion. He was known to be well mannered and kind and generous to subordinates but very touchy about his privileges and position.
This article includes a list of general references, but it remains largely unverified because it lacks sufficient corresponding inline citations. (April 2008) (Learn how and when to remove this template message)
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Bessières, Jean Baptiste". Encyclopædia Britannica. 3 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 823–824.