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Emperor Napoleon and the Wends

by John Noack

Some Wendish families have handed down stories about how their family’s male members were required for war service in a decade of Wars between 1805 and 1814 and that canon-balls have been part of the family’s heritage. Very soon, the name of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte emerges, along with the town of Bautzen as a battle-ground and the role of the Saxon Wends as “dragoons”, a name which is derived from “dragon”. It appears that mounted infantry or cavalry used a short-barrelled fire-arm known as a carbine, whose firing action involved fire, like a dragon.

Napoleon was born on the Island of Corsica in 1769 and his education related to military training and involvement in the campaign by the French against the Italians. As a commander there, he captured Toulon in 1793.

In relation to the French Revolution, Napoleon early expressed his agreement with the republican concepts. However, he supported a desire to defeat and control Britain, so in 1798, he landed at Alexandria with the French army and within three weeks had captured Egypt from the British. When he returned to France, the ruling Directorate could not function efficiently so on 9 Nov 1799, he took over and was soon elected the First Consul. By 1804, he was ready to crown himself the “Emperor of France” and he then made his European military plans for campaigns and conquests, which were to last for nearly a decade from 1805 to 1814.

These plans eventually resulted in five wars against the Austrians, the Prussians, the Poles, and the Russians. Napoleon’s Austrian War in 1805 also involved the British and the Russians, but Napoleon was victorious at the battle at Austerlitz on 2 Dec 1805.

His campaign against the Prussians and the Poles in 1806 and 1807 resulted in a defeat of the Prussians at the battle of Jena on 14 Oct 1806 and a surrender at Prenzlau on 28 Oct. Napoleon then moved into Warsaw in Poland.

A second attack on Austria in 1809 resulted in a victory for Napoleon at Eckmuhl on 22 April 1809. Then followed the plans and the campaign into Russia in the famous year of 1812 and its “1812 Overture”. Napoleon soon found that Moscow had been deserted, supplies had been destroyed and the army wisely used the tactic of retreating. Napoleon also had to retreat. He left Moscow and he tried to assemble his army for the conquest of St Petersburg. The Russians then attacked and defeated the French at Malouyaroslavetz on 24 October, who then had to retreat back to Vilna and then Posen. As the soldiers returned during the very cold and wintry weather conditions, this retreat resulted in the deaths of nearly half a million of Napoleon’s soldiers and staff.

The loss of his Grand Army may have inspired him to rebuild it and to again move north in retaliation against the Prussians, Russians, Swedes and the Austrians. In his “War of Liberation” during 1813 and 1814, the Bavarians and Saxons, who had included the Wends in Upper Lusatia and who had supplied Napoleon with “dragoons”, both deserted Napoleon. At first, the Russians were defeated at Lutzen on 2 May but when they encountered the French at Bautzen in Saxon Upper Lusatia, the Russians wisely withdrew. In the battle at Dresden on 27 August, both the Russians and Austrians were defeated by Napoleon but at the well known “Battle of all the Nations” at Leipzig from 16-19 October, Napoleon was finally defeated. It was then the turn of the Prussians and the Austrians to head for Paris, where Napoleon surrendered and abdicated. He was then exiled and eventually died in 1821.

It is no wonder that the Wendish and Germanic families, who had experienced this decade of fierce and deadly warfare and the huge loss of life, had in their family heritage, stories relating to Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.