Napoleon Bonaparte’s legacy looms large in history. He was a man whose ambition and military prowess reshaped the map of Europe and the world.
Of all the stories and legends told about him, perhaps none is as bizarre and unexpected as Napoleon’s unfortunate run-in with some bunnies.
Napoleon Bonaparte was a conqueror of nations and a renowned military strategist. He was fearless in the face of battle. But when he found himself facing an army of fluffy rabbits, the mighty emperor met his match.
Yes, you read that right: rabbits. It’s a story that sounds too strange to be true. Yet, it has been recounted by historians and chroniclers of the time, as well as by Napoleon’s generals.
How did the emperor of France, a man who faced down armies and plotted the conquest of entire nations, end up on the receiving end of an attacking horde of rabbits?
How did he make out? Was he victorious? Or was the outcome more like the infamous Battle of Waterloo, forcing him to flee in defeat?
From the sheer absurdity of it all to the insights into Napoleon’s character, this is surely a story that captivates and confounds in equal measure.
From Celebrating, to Battling Bunnies
Napoleon Bonaparte was a charismatic and brilliant military leader. He was widely considered to be a master strategist and tactician. He won numerous battles and conquered much of Europe during his reign as Emperor of France.
Napoleon remains a fascinating and complex figure. His legacy continues to equally inspire and challenge. However, there is one rabbit-related aspect of his legacy that does not receive as much attention.
In July 1807, Napoleon Bonaparte had just signed the Treaties of Tilsit. This ended the ongoing conflict between France and Russia. The Treaty of Tilsit was a significant achievement in his career and marked the end of one of the most challenging conflicts he faced.
Napoleon decided he would very much like to celebrate this great accomplishment.
This sort of celebration was quite common. The Imperial Court was full of grandeur and entertainment. There were parades and court functions – always something happening to entertain the elite.
In this case, Napoleon ordered his chief of staff, Alexandre Berthier, to organize a festive luncheon and a rabbit hunt. This was not unusual, as Napoleon was known to enjoy hunting and shooting in his leisure time.
The hunt was well-arranged. There were beaters, gunbearers, and hundreds of rabbits who were specially imported for the occasion. What began as a seemingly ordinary hunt soon spiraled into mayhem. It would forever be remembered as one of the most bizarre events in history.
And the bunnies would emerge as the victors.
The Hunt Begins
Napoleon’s rabbit hunt started with fanfare and preparation. Berthier, Napoleon’s chief of staff, arranged everything to ensure that the hunt went smoothly.
This included collecting hundreds if not thousands, of rabbits and caging them on the fringes of a grassy field.
When Napoleon and his men began the hunt, the rabbits were released from their cages. However, Berthier had made one key, almost unnoticeable mistake: the bunnies were tame ones, not wild.
Instead of running away in fear of Napoleon and the hunters, the hungry, ravenous rabbits charged the group.
At first, it seemed like a comical scene. The bunnies nipped at their heels expecting a meal. Napoleon and his men had a good laugh. But the rabbits kept coming.
With scores of rabbits storming towards Napoleon, the mood turned from amusement to concern.
Napoleon tried helplessly to shoo them with his riding crop. His men grabbed sticks and attempted to chase them away. The coachmen cracked their bullwhips to scare the rabbits. Yet, the rabbits weren’t deterred.
After a short while, it seemed like the group had fought off enough of the rabbits and the hunt could proceed. But the rabbits were far from finished.
Rabbits: 1, Napoleon: 0
The attack did not stop there. The rabbit horde, released from their cages, continued to grow in numbers. There were hundreds or thousands.
Napoleon, in particular, seemed to be their target. Despite their harmless appearance, their numbers quickly overwhelmed the Emperor of France.
The bunnies gnawed at his feet and his legs. They hopped onto his arms and shoulders. In the massive crowd of rabbits, they likely almost took him to the ground.
Forced to flee, Napoleon and his men darted towards their carriages, but the rabbits followed.
They divided into two wings and poured around the flanks of the party, heading straight for the imperial coach. The bunnies were so numerous and aggressive that some reportedly leaped into the carriage. This left Napoleon no choice but to flee.
The once mighty Emperor of France, the great Napoleon Bonaparte, was reduced to hastily retreating from a horde of rabbits. It turns out that even one of the greatest conquerors in history can be bested by small, fluffy, carrot-loving creatures.
Humiliation and Blame
What caused the ravenous swarm of rabbits to attack Napoleon in the first place? Well, it turned out that the rabbits, which were purchased from local farmers, had mistaken the Emperor for their keeper, who would normally bring them lettuce every day.
Within seconds of being released from their cages, the rabbits, who were long past their mealtime, began to race toward Napoleon. He was then forced to beat a hasty and disgruntled retreat to his coach.
The incident proved to be a source of amusement for many of Napoleon’s contemporaries. Berthier, who had been responsible for acquiring the rabbits, never lived down the embarrassment.
Napoleon wouldn’t let him live it down either. When the emperor mistakenly shot one of his marshals in a subsequent hunt, he forced Berthier to take the blame.
As for Napoleon, he was taken aback by the unexpected attack but escaped unharmed.
One of his men, General Thiébault wrote in his memoirs that the rabbits “forced the conqueror of conquerors, fairly exhausted, to retreat and leave them in possession of the field.”
Thus, at the end of the day, Napoleon suffered his worst defeat until Waterloo. And the rabbits emerged victorious.
Chandler, David. The Campaigns of Napoleon. Vol. 1. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1995.
Delderfield, R. F. Napoleon’s Marshals. New York: Cooper Square Press, 2002.
Reilly, Lucas. “The Time Napoleon Was Attacked by Rabbits.” Mental Floss. Mental Floss, March 21, 2023. https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/51364/time-napoleon-was-attacked-rabbits.