Honoré Charles M. J. Reille, 1775-1860

Honoré Charles M. J. Reille (1775-1860) was a French general who rose to high command in Spain, and commanded part of the French army during the defeat at Vittoria that effectively ended any chance of maintaining French rule in Spain. He also commanded a corps at Waterloo, although without much success.

Reille was born in Antibes, in the far south-east of France. He joined the French army in 1791 and was commissioned in 1792. In 1793 he fought at Neerwinder and during the siege of Toulon, and then became one of Massena's aides. He served under Massena in Italy, where he was wounded at Lodi (10 May 1796) and led a cavalry charge at Arcola (15-17 November 1796), Switzerland in 1799 and during the Siege of Genoa (1800). During the siege Colonel Reille managed to slip into the city with a message from Napoleon, informing Masséna of Napoleon's plans for a crossing of the Alps. This encouraged Masséna to hold out for as long as possible, pinning down Austrian forces that might otherwise have been used against Napoleon. After the battle of Marengo he was taken onto Napoleon's staff.

In 1803 Reille was promoted to général de brigade.

In 1805 he was the deputy commander of the troops that accompanied Villeneuve's fleet, serving under General Lauriston. He fought at Calder's battle off Finisterre, but was then sent to Paris with dispatches and thus missed Trafalgar.

In 1806 Reille commanded a brigade within Suchet's 1st Division, part of V Corps during the invasion of Prussia. He commanded a brigade at the battle of Jena against the Prussians and Pultusk against the Russians.

In December 1806 he was promoted to général de division. In February 1807 Reille (still part of Suchet's Division) was posted on the right flank of the long French front line in Poland, under General Savary.  Savary had quite complex orders, and decided to carry out a small scale offensive. The Russians moved at about the same time, and Reille found himself under attack at Ostrolenka (16 February 1807). His three brigades were forced back into the town, but the Russian attack was slowed down by French artillery and Savary returned in time to launch a counterattack and defeat the Russians. Both sides then went into winter quarters.

In 1807 Reille became chief of staff of V Corps, before in May becoming an Imperial Aide. He fought at the battle of Friedland (14 July 1807). In the same year he was sent to investigate Marshal Brune's conduct as governor of the Hanseatic Towns, a mission that must have contributed to Brune's removal from office.

Early in 1808 Napoleon decided to intervene in Spain. He was eventually able to convince both Charles IV of Spain and his son Ferdinand VII to come to him in France, and on 6 May 1808 Ferdinand abdicated. His father had already agreed to give up the throne, apparently freeing the way for Napoleon to place his own candidate on the vacant throne. Reille was involved in the political manoeuvres that helped convince Ferdinand to come to France. Reille was made a comte in June 1808.

The intervention in Spain soon triggered an uprising across the country, the start of the Peninsula War. Early in the war several French generals found themselves in trouble in parts of Spain, amongst them General Duhesme in Catalonia. At the start of the war Reille commanded a division that was based at Perpignan. He was then sent to support Duheseme, although he didn't move too quickly. He was meant to have 8,000 men, but he only had 3,000 ready by mid-July. In mid-July he attacked the port of Rosas on the coast road between Perpignan and Barcelona, but he was forced to cut this siege short when Duheseme ordered him to join in the second siege of Gerona (24 July-16 August 1808), a failed attempt to capture a town that blocked the route between Barcelona and Madrid. Duhesme arrived at Gerona on 23 July, and Reille's men began to arrive on the following day. Reille was posted north of the town and Duhesme to the south. The Spanish reacted by besieging the isolated French garrison of Barcelona, and sending a relief force to Gerona. On 16 August the Spanish attacked Reille's troops and eventually forced them back a short distance. By now news of the siege of Barcelona had reached the French, and Duhesme decided to lift the siege of Gerona. Duhesme just managed to make his way back to the city, while Reille retreated back to his base at Figueras, half way to the French border.

Napoleon sent St. Cyr to lift the siege. Reille had avoided being trapped in Barcelona, and his troops were added to St. Cyr's force. The first target of the relief expedition was the port of Rosas. St. Cyr commanded the covering forces, while Reille took charge of the actual siege. He arrived outside Rosas on 6 November, and the port was quickly besieged. A joint Anglo-Spanish garrison managed to hold out for nearly a month, before the port surrendered on 5 December 1808.

He went on to capture Rosas in December 1808, but was recalled from Spain in May 1809, just before the start of the third siege of Gerona (being replaced by General Verdier).

Reille was then appointed to Napoleon's staff during the Franco-Austrian War of 1809 (War of the Fifth Coalition). He fought at Aspern-Essling and Wagram. After the end of that campaign he was sent north to report on the progress of the disastrous British Walcheren expedition, and perhaps to watch Bernadotte, who's loyalties were already under suspicion.

In May 1810 Reille was appointed Governor of Navarre, beginning a longer period of involvement in Spain. He was given command of II Corps in Suchet's Army of Aragon. He was then ordered to take part in the French invasion of Valencia (September 1811-January 1812), which ended with the successful capture of the city of Valencia on 9 January 1812. Soon afterwards Reille had to return to Aragon to restore French control in that area.

On February 1812 he was given command of a newly created Army of the Ebro, with orders to clear out Spanish resistance in the north-east of Spain. A lack of resources combined with frequent interference by Napoleon made his task almost impossible and he achieved little.

In November 1812 he was appointed to command the Army of Portugal, and he led that force in the French defeat at Vittoria (21 June 1813), where it formed one of three corps under King Joseph and General Jourdan. The battle ended in a French rout, but Reille's corps managed to remain in better order than the rest of the French army.

After Marshal Soult was given command of the remaining French armies in Spain, Reille was appointed 'Lieutenant of the Right', or commander of the right wing of Soult's army. During the battles of the Pyrenees he was given the task of attacking the pass of Roncesvalles (25 July 1813), where his columns were repulsed by troops from Cole's Division. He then fought at the Battle of Sorauren (28 & 30 July 1813), attacking on the French left on 28 July, where he was repulsed.

His troops attempted to prevent the British from crossing the Bidassoa (7 October 1813) but failed. Soult was unable to rally Reille's men, and was forced to pull back to the Nivelle, moving the scene of the fighting into France.

His relationship with Soult worsened over time, and a crisis came when he was asked to share command of Bayonne with its governor. He went as far as leaving the army, a move that forced Soult to give in and give Reille full command at Bayonne.

On 20 March 1814 one of his divisions fought at the battle of Tarbes, a partial British success that blocked one of Soult's routes to Toulouse but left a third route open.

After Napoleon's abdication Reille entered the service of the Bourbons, but at the same time married Massena's daughter Victoria.

In 1815 Reille returned to Napoleon's service. He was given command of II Corps, which initially held the frontier between Valenciennes and Avesnes, and then took part in the Waterloo campaign. His troops were placed on the extreme left of the initial French advance into Belgium and were the only ones to advance on time on the first day of the campaign, 15 June. Later in the day he was placed under Ney's command, and given the task of leading Ney's advance up the Brussels road. Late on 15 June he was ordered to pause just north of Gosselies, missing a chance to take the crossroads at Quatre Bras before it was heavily defended.

On 16 June the French were slow to get underway, giving the Allies time to get troops to Quatre Bras. Once again Reille was in the lead, and his troops carried out the first attacks of the battle of Quarte Bras. However his experiences in Spain had made him cautious (although his personal bravery wasn't in doubt, as he led his troops into combat at Quatre Bras), and he advanced very slowly in order to avoid running into one of Wellington's famous defensive positions. Even so Reille's men were close to a breakthrough by 3.00pm when Allied reinforcements began to arrive and restored the situation. Reille was left to fight without enough support at Quartre Bras by the series of orders and counter-orders that saw d'Erlon's corps spent the entire day moving between Quatre Bras and Ligny, without fighting on either field.

At the start of the Battle of Waterloo Reille's corps was deployed to the west of the Brussels Road, in the French front line. He didn't distinguish himself during the battle of Waterloo, although if Napoleon had followed his advice to advance around the Allied flanks the battle might have gone very differently. Jerome Bonaparte, who wasted a great deal of effort in a series of attacks on Hougoumont, was under his command and Reille was blamed for not bringing Jerome under control. Only one and a half of his three divisions were committed to the battle for most of the day, and as late as 6pm he still had one and a half fresh divisions who were able to support Ney's cavalry attacks on the British squares. Even with these reinforcements Ney was unable to make any progress.

Reille was out of favour for a few years after 1815, but became a Peer of France in 1819 and was given a series of government jobs. He fell out of favour again after the 1830 revolution, when Charles X was overthrown and replaced by Louis-Philippe, who ruled as a constitutional monarch. Reille  managed to return to favour towards the end of Louis-Philippe's reign, and became a Marshal of France in 1847. Early in the following year Louis-Philippe was overthrown, and by the end of 1848 Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte had been elected President of the new Second Republic. Reille remained in favour under Louis-Napoleon, and was appointed a Senator of January 1852, soon after the coup that ended the Second Republic and saw Louis-Napoleon become Napoleon III. Reille supported the new Emperor until his death in 1860.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (5 July 2016), Honoré Charles M. J. Reille, 1775-1860 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_reille.html

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