General Henri Gratian, Count Bertrand, 1773-1844

General Henri Gratian, count Bertrand (1773-1844) was one of the most loyal of Napoleon's followers and served under him in most of his campaigns as well as accompanying him into exile twice and accompanying his remains back to France in 1844.

Bertrand was probably one of Napoleon's few close friends, and Napoleon held him in high regard. He became famous for his loyalty to Napoleon, but was also a significant military leader in his own right.

Bertrand was born at Château Roux. He was a student at the outbreak of the revolution and in 1792 he volunteered to join the Paris National Guard.

Napoleon promoted Bertrand to Colonel in 1798, during the Egyptian campaign.

He was promoted to général de brigade in 1800.

In 1804 Napoleon made Bertrand Inspector-General of Engineers and one of his aide-de-camps.

Just before the 1805 campaign Bertrand, Savary and Murat travelled in disguise through Bavaria to gather information about the campaign area. Bertrand and Murat investigated the area between the River Main and the Tyrol. He then fought at Ulm and at Austerlitz.

Bertrand fought at the battle of Jena (14 October 1806), where at one point he was used to help save Ney from the results of a rash charge. He was promoted to général de division in May 1807, and then fought at Friedland (14 June 1807), where Napoleon made up for the drawn battle of Eylau by inflicting a heavy defeat on the Russians.

In 1808 Bertrand was made a comte.

Bertrand made two notable contributions to the 1809 campaign against Austria. At the end of the Bavarian phase of the fighting the French attacked the defenders of Ratisbon or Regensburg (23 April 1809). The Austrians were able to hold the city long enough for their troops to escape into Bohemia, but the French were able to get into the city though a breach blow through the walls by Bertrand's heavy artillery.

The second phase of the campaign saw the French occupy Vienna and the south bank of the Danube while the Austrians held the north bank. Bertrand's engineers built the bridges that the French used to cross the Danube during their two attempts to defeat the Austrians. The first attack ended with Napoleon's first serious defeat, at the battle of Aspern-Essling. One of the reasons for the French defeat was a lack of bridges across the Danube and the Austrian's ability to damage the few that had been built (in part because Bertrand had responded to the need for speed by failing to protect the bridges properly). The second French attack, which ended in victory at Wagram, was better prepared, with sturdy bridges to Lobau Island on the northern side of the river, and a series of bridges built between the island and the northern shore.

In 1811-1812 Bertrand served as Governor of Illyria, on the eastern shores of the Adriatic, and thus missed the disastrous Russian campaign.

During the 1813 campaign in Germany Bertrand was given command of IV Corps, largely made up of 30,000 Italians. This featured in several of the main battles. At the battle of Lützen (2 May 1813) the Allies attempted to defeat Ney's isolated corps. Bertrand's corps was one of several that were sent to his aid. Bertrand approached the battlefield from the south-west and hit the Allied left fairly late in the day. Facing fresh troops, the Allies were forced to retreat, although a lack of cavalry meant that Napoleon was unable to take full advantage of his victory.

His corps was engaged again at Bautzen (20-21 May 1813), where it was one of four available to Napoleon on the first day of the battle, and was placed at the northern (left) end of the French line. He was given the task of launching a frontal assault on the Allied position to pin them in place until Ney could arrive to launch a flank attack. This attack made some progress, but eventually came to a halt after the corps suffered very heavy losses. The Allies were defeated, but they managed to escape with their army fairly intact. General Duroc, Grand Marshal of the Court, was killed during this battle, and Bertrand was appointed as his replacement.

Bertrand's corps took part in the two French attempts to capture Berlin. The first, commanded by Oudinot, ended in defeat at Grossbeeren (23 August 1813). Bertrand's IV Corps was placed on the French right as the army advanced north towards Berlin in three columns. The difficult terrain meant that the three columns couldn't easily support each other, but even so Bertrand's 20,000 strong corps should have been able to defeat the 13,000 Prussians it encountered. Instead the Prussians held their ground, and Bertrand was unable to deploy his entire corps. By 2pm he had to fall back, and the Prussians were able to concentrate on the other two French columns, winning their first battlefield victory since the disastrous 1806 campaign.

The second attempt to take Berlin was conducted by the Army of Berlin under Marshal Ney. This ended at the battle of Dennewitz (6 September 1813), where Bertrand's corps became involved in some of the hardest fighting of the entire campaign. His men were successful at Dennewitz, and cross the Ahe. They were then attacked by the Prussians, but managed to hold out until the Prussians ran out of ammo. However a fresh Russian force then arrived, and Bertrand's defence was broken by the Russian artillery. The French suffered a heavy defeat, losing around 22,000 men in the battle.

Bertrand's corps took part in the massive battle of Leipzig (16-19 October 1813). On the first day (16th October) Bertrand was posted to the north-west of Leipzig, to defend the route west across the River Elster to Lindenau. Napoleon hadn't expected to face an attack from this direction on this day, but Bertrand's men came under attack and had to fight hard to keep the French escape route open.

17 October was a quiet day, but on 18 October the Allies attacked in overwhelming strength from several directions. Once again Bertrand was posted to the west of the city, where he had to fight to reopen the road to Weissenfels and to occupy key bridges over the River Saale.

On 19 October Napoleon decided to retreat through Leipzig and west across the bridges that had been kept open by Bertrand's men. 

During the French retreat from Leipzig the Allies attempted unsuccessfully to intercept the French. The nearest they came was the battle of Hanau (30-31 October 1813), but here they failed to realise that they had found Napoleon's main army. Bertrand's corps served as part of the rearguard on 31 October, and spent the morning and early afternoon engaged in inconclusive fighting that allowed the main army to slip away.

During the 1813 campaign Bertrand also reverted to his earlier career as an engineer, building a lengthy bridge across the Elbe to connect Hamburg on the north bank with Harburg on the south bank. This was said to have been 2,529 fathoms (15,174 feet) long, not including sections across two islands

In 1814 Bertrand and his half-English wife Fanny accompanied Napoleon into exile on Elba. While on Elba Fanny lost a child.

Bertrand accompanied Napoleon on his return from exile, and held a command during the Waterloo campaign.

After Napoleon's second abdication Bertrand followed him into exile. Unsurprisingly his wife opposed this, and even threatened to throw herself off HMS Bellerophon, where Napoleon and his party were being held. Napoleon's comment on this ('Is she not mad?') rather demonstrates his lack of genuine interest in other people's problems in his later career.

Bertrand remained on St Helena until Napoleon died, and was present at his post-mortem, where he objected to the British doctors calling him General Bonaparte.

He returned to France after Napoleon's death, and Louis XVIII allowed him to retain his rank. In 1830 he was elected a deputy.

In 1840, in recognition of his loyalty to Napoleon he was part of the party sent to St Helena to exhume Napoleon's remains (along with the Prince de Joinville). He then helped organise Napoleon's re-burial in Paris. Bertrand died four years later.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (9 November 2015), General Henri Gratian, Count Bertrand, 1773-1844 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_bertrand.html

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