Last week, I wrote about the Duke of Wellington and his horse, Copenhagen. This week, it seems only fitting to write about Napoleon and his horse, Marengo.
But first a little about Napoleon.
From what I’m to gather, Napoleon Bonaparte was an unfortunate-looking man. He’s said to have had skinny legs, a full midsection and a very large head. Where he didn’t fall short, however, was his height as he was 5’6” (1.52 m), which at the time was above average.
This information does little for the “Napoleon complex” expression we throw around today, which is to say, that short men have strong personalities, like a chihuahua.
The history and humor surrounding this small man complex is down to British cartoonist James Gillray whose caricatures of Napoleon were so popular and influential that even Napoleon himself said, “Gillray did more than all the armies of Europe to bring me down.”
Napoleon was, by all accounts, an atrocious rider. He took a toes down, heels up approach to riding and apparently slid around in the saddle so much that he wore out the seat of his breeches at an astonishing rate.
Ernst Otto Odeleben describes in his book, Relation circonstanciée de la campagne de Saxe en 1813, that, “Napoleon rode like a butcher. He held the bridle in his right hand, with the left arm pendent. He looked as though he were suspended on his saddle. Whilst galloping, his body rolled backwards and forwards and sideways, according to the speed of his horse. As soon as the animal stepped aside, its rider lost his seat, and as we know Napoleon more than once was thrown.”
Though Napoleon was purportedly a dreadful rider, he did seem to get the job done. Riding was one of his greatest pleasures in life, it just wasn’t an attribute. He was, however, a fabulous swimmer, not that that was going to help him win any battles, but I felt it was worth mentioning.
Due to his weakness in the saddle, it was necessary that his horses be trained to the hilt. Napoleon’s trainers made sure that a sack of potatoes could ride one of his horses successfully into battle.
The horses were subjected to sudden bursts of trumpets, drums, fireworks and pistol shots. Dogs and pigs were set loose and driven beneath the horses’ legs. The horses were taught not to balk. They were not to neigh or stop suddenly or run from the smell of burned flesh or gunpowder. The steadier the horse the safer the rider and no one wanted Napoleon to come a cropper during the first cannon shot or cries of “Let the battle commence!”
Marengo was, allegedly, Napoleon’s favorite horse. I say allegedly because, for all the research done on the horse, of which there is a fair amount, no one can say for certain if he existed.
Napoleon had a penchant for small grey Arabs, which Marengo was said to be, but he was also a stallion because no famous horse can be anything but. It’s believed Napoleon came across the six-year-old Marengo in 1799 during the Battle of Aboukir in Egypt. He and his men procured the horse who had just the right look with suitable war miles and he was duly added to the stable of other grey Arabs.
It’s thought that Napoleon and Marengo fought together during the battles of Austerlitz (1805), Jena (1806), Wagram (1809), the Russian Campaign (1812) and finally Waterloo (1815) and likely a few others.
If this is true, that means Marengo was 22 when he fought at Waterloo. That seems pretty old for a horse to be fighting in wars, but if any breed could manage it, it would be an Arab. I just feel that in the 1800s with vet care not being what it is today and with Marengo having survived at least six battles, that makes him what, lucky, extraordinary, mythological? It’s hard to say.
To complicate things, Napoleon often gave his horses nicknames, as well as his mistresses. For example, his horse Mon Cousin was also called Wagram and his horse Cirus was also Austerlitz. And since Napoleon owned about 80 personal horses, all of whom were said to be small grey Arabians and many of which were stallions, it seems reasonable that some names got lost in the shuffle.
There has yet to be any written documentation found that mentions a horse named Marengo. There is a theory that Napoleon gave his horse Ali the nickname of Marengo, after the battle of the same name and that perhaps they are one and the same.
The Legend of Marengo Lives On
After the Battle of Waterloo, Marengo was once again procured, this time by the English, specifically Lord Petre, who, according to some, found the poor horse lying wounded in a sunken road after Napoleon had fled the Waterloo scene. Petre noticed the Imperial brand on the horse’s haunches and set about nursing him back to health. What better war trophy to bring home to the family in England than Napoleon’s favorite horse.
There is some vagary surrounding Marengo’s life between 1815 and 1823, but what is certain is that Petre had organized Marengo to be on display in the Waterloo Rooms on Pall Mall Street in London. The public paid an admission fee to look at and even pet Marengo, who was said to be quiet and calm, which would be expected given his life.
After his stint in the Waterloo Rooms, he was sold to J. W. Angerstein, the grandson of the founder of Llyods of London, who clearly had more money than sense as he decided to use the now 30-something horse as a breeding stallion. Needless to say, poor Marengo failed and was put out to pasture. Finally.
Eventually, Marengo died, and it has to be said, questionably, at the age of 38. Horses rarely live that long today. I’m not sure how a war horse from the 1800s managed it, but it’s not for me to dispute. Anyway, after Marengo died, he was once again put on exhibition, though this time only his skeleton. And he is still there today, standing proudly at the National Army Museum in London, if you’re so inclined.
In the End
I don’t really know what to believe when it comes to Marengo, but what I will say is that I like the idea that these hardened men of war have a soft spot for horses, or at least some of them.
Thousands upon thousands of horses died during war times and though most were forgotten, horses such as Copenhagen and Marengo carried the flame for all those that fell before and after them. We may not remember them all, but we will never forget any of them.