Charles Fabvier: Napoleonic soldier & Greek hero
Charles Fabvier was a hotheaded French soldier who began his career under Napoleon Bonaparte. After Napoleon’s defeat, Fabvier tried working for King Louis XVIII. He was so outraged by ultra-royalist excesses that he wound up plotting against the crown. A disastrous attempt to subvert the French army at the Bidassoa River led to Fabvier being branded as a traitor. He salvaged his career by serving with distinction in the Greek War of Independence. Fabvier finished his days as a respected French politician and diplomat. He even gets a mention in War and Peace.
A Napoleonic soldier
Charles Nicolas Fabvier was born on December 10, 1782, at Pont-à-Mousson in northeastern France. His parents, Jean-Charles Fabvier and Anne Christine Richard, were devoted royalists. They suffered during the French Revolution.
After a stint at the École Polytechnique in Paris, Charles Fabvier studied at the artillery school in Metz. In 1804, he joined a French artillery regiment. He fought in the Ulm Campaign and was wounded at the Battle of Dürenstein.
In 1807, Fabvier was among the officers sent by Napoleon to help the Ottoman sultan defend Constantinople against a threatened British attack. Later that year, Fabvier joined a French diplomatic mission to Persia. The intent was to reduce British and Russian influence in the region. Fabvier was tasked with creating an artillery park and corps at Isfahan, despite the opposition of the inhabitants.
When that mission was withdrawn, Fabvier headed back to Europe. In 1809, he served as a volunteer with the Polish troops who were advancing into Austria. At Vienna, he rejoined his countrymen as a captain in the Imperial Guard. Two years later, Fabvier became an aide-de-camp to Marshal Auguste de Marmont in Spain. Marmont sent Fabvier with dispatches to Napoleon when the latter was invading Russia. Fabvier arrived at Napoleon’s headquarters on September 6, 1812, on the eve of the Battle of Borodino. Leo Tolstoy mentions the encounter in War and Peace:
[Napoleon] called Fabvier to him, listening silently and with a stern frown to what Fabvier told him of the heroism and devotion of his troops fighting at Salamanca, at the other end of Europe, with but one thought – to be worthy of their Emperor – and but one fear – to fail to please him. The result of that battle had been deplorable. Napoleon made ironic remarks during Fabvier’s account, as if he had not expected that matters could go otherwise in his absence. (1)
Fabvier distinguished himself at the battle, in which a ball fractured his right foot. When a surgeon talked of cutting off his leg, Fabvier declared that he would rather die. (2)
Charles Fabvier’s conduct at the battles of Lützen and Bautzen in May 1813 resulted in his promotion to colonel. In 1814, he fought at the Battle of Leipzig. As Napoleon’s empire crumbled, Colonel Fabvier retreated into France and participated in the defence of Paris under Marmont. On March 31, 1814, Fabvier signed the capitulation of Paris on Marmont’s behalf.
Marmont instructed Fabvier to report the situation in Paris to Napoleon, who was at Fontainebleau. They met on April 1.
[Colonel Fabvier] omitted nothing and did not hide the shameful scenes he had witnessed; he spoke of Frenchmen wearing white cockades and cheering foreigners. ‘You can name them for me,’ said the Emperor. ‘Sire,’ replied the noble soldier, ‘I would run my sabre through these individuals if I found myself face to face with them, but I will not name them to Your Majesty.’ … During the whole course of this conversation, the sovereign affected the greatest calm. The colonel confessed to him that the population of Paris spared him little in their remarks and their cries. ‘The Parisians are unhappy,’ [Napoleon] said simply, ‘and the unhappy are unjust.’ (3)
After Napoleon’s abdication, Charles Fabvier continued to serve in the French army. He remained with Marmont, who was named a commander in King Louis XVIII’s royal guard. When Napoleon escaped from Elba and returned to the throne of France in 1815, the Emperor offered Fabvier a command in the forces that were heading to Belgium for the Waterloo campaign. Fabvier refused. At that point he was neither a supporter of Napoleon (whom he referred to as an “infernal scoundrel”) nor the King, but simply a Frenchman interested in fighting for his country. Thus he went to Lorraine, his home region in eastern France, to raise a corps of volunteers to resist the allied invaders. Fabvier fought alongside Colonel Pierre Viriot, among others.
In June 1815, Napoleon was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo. Though Fabvier’s parents urged him to return to Paris and resume his service under Louis XVIII, Fabvier was reluctant to do so. He wrote to his brother:
I refused the service the Emperor offered me. I didn’t want to make an oath of loyalty; however, when the miserable one was overthrown and everyone saw that the King would ascend the throne, I made a vigorous attack, and if I didn’t slay 800 men, it’s not my fault. All against the foreigner! However bad…the government, we all unite around it, no matter what the colour. I will not return to the King’s household for anything in the world. If the minister calls me to other functions in which I can be useful, I will accept, although with repugnance; otherwise, they can leave me on half-pay. I don’t want to find myself mixed in with foreigners, with the emigrés who return with their baggage… One must have the devil in oneself to want favours again after all that. (4)
In early September, Fabvier returned – at his parents’ insistence – to Paris. He was disgusted by the subservience of the Bourbons to the allied coalition. He also resented their failure to promote him for his loyalty. Fabvier was a big man, about six feet tall, with a reputation as a hothead. The Bourbons suspected him of being a Bonapartist. Marmont came to Fabvier’s defence and attached him to his staff.
In 1817, Marmont put Charles Fabvier in charge of investigating the conduct of the ultra-royalist mayor of Lyon, General Simon Canuel. Canuel had introduced extremely repressive measures to deal with unrest in the area, on the grounds that he was preventing a wider insurrection. Fabvier concluded that Canuel had fabricated the conspiracy in order to suppress moderate royalists and liberals. In 1818, he published a pamphlet on the affair, “Lyon en 1817.” Fabvier accused Canuel and the police of entrapment. Canuel charged Fabvier with calumny. Fabvier was suspended from his military duties.
Charles Fabvier became involved in a series of intrigues against the government. In September 1820, he was arrested and charged with participation in a plot (known as the conspiracy of August 19 or the conspiracy of the French Bazaar) to “overthrow the throne and the benign institutions that France owed to its king.” (5) The conspiracy was linked to Fabvier’s friend, the Marquis de Lafayette and to other liberal members of the Chamber of Deputies. Fearing that Fabvier might squeal if he were questioned, the defence succeeded in removing his name from the list of the accused. In 1822, Fabvier was arrested and tried for attempting to effect the escape of the four sergeants of La Rochelle. He was acquitted.
Fabvier turned his attention to Spain, where a constitutionalist government was trying to resist efforts to return Bourbon King Ferdinand VII to the throne (see my post about the 1823 French invasion of Spain). Fabvier and his fellow conspirators hoped to bring down the French Bourbons by undermining the resolve of the French army that was poised to invade Spain. They distributed leaflets and placards to soldiers in garrison and to troops on the march. They decried the policies of the government and ridiculed Louis XVIII and the Duke of Angoulême. They exhorted French soldiers to desert. They begged them not to enter Spain unless it was to join the Spanish liberals. They went so far as to claim that Napoleon was not dead; he awaited the French beyond the Pyrenees and would put himself at their head to march on Paris. The conspirators did not restrict themselves to the army on the Spanish border. They extended their propaganda to some regiments in the interior. (6)
Fabvier knew that soldiers were unlikely to revolt unless they received encouragement from their leaders. He thus directed efforts to winning over the officers. Some officers claimed to be ready to join the insurrection, but only after another regiment (or brigade or division) did so. They also wanted money: not just the equivalent of their salary, but a bonus proportional to their importance and the services expected of them.
The Affair at the Bidassoa
In December 1822, Fabvier left for Spain without advising Lafayette, whom he suspected of being indiscreet. The constitutionalist Spanish government received him with courtesy, but promised him nothing. Fabvier received little help from his friends in Paris. The conspirators disagreed about how to proceed, with Fabvier and Lafayette on opposing sides of the argument.
Fabvier quickly ascertained that Spanish liberalism was confined to a very small middle class. He thus thought the only chance of success was to subvert the French army before it crossed into Spain. Once French soldiers entered Spain, they would realize that the Spanish people were not disposed to resist them. Spain would capitulate and the army would return to France “with lilies and laurels.” (7)
In February 1823 Fabvier travelled to Irun, in northern Spain, across the border from where the French army was stationed. He spread leaflets, trying to incite the French troops. Why should they fight for monks and nobles? Why spill their blood for a cowardly king who would restore the Inquisition? Did they not fear that the crushing of liberty in Spain would be the prelude to a religious and political counter-revolution in France? Would the defeated of Waterloo slavishly execute the decrees of the Holy Alliance? Who would guarantee, once they crossed the Pyrenees, that an allied army would not cross the Rhine and dismember France?
Meanwhile, the French police were onto the plot. They dismissed suspect officers or moved them out of their regiments. In March, they stopped a coach that was carrying General Piat and others on their way to join Fabvier. The seized baggage included tricolour sashes and cockades, and a regimental eagle.
On the night of April 5, Fabvier learned that the Duke of Angoulême had ordered the first French corps to cross the Bidassoa (the river dividing France from Spain) on April 7. On the morning of April 6, 1823, Charles Fabvier led a group of 110 men, dressed in French uniforms and flying the tricolour, to the river. The event unfolded pretty much as it does in Napoleon in America. Fabvier didn’t have time to get his little troop across the Bidassoa, so he was unable to execute his original plan. Instead, he stood on the Spanish bank and yelled a speech across the river, exhorting the French to desert. His men sang “La Marseillaise” and shouted “Vive la liberté!” General Louis Vallin, commanding the French forces, gave the order to fire. Fabvier forbade his men to load their arms. Ten of his men were killed and eight were gravely wounded.
The French War Minister, the Duke of Belluno, reported on April 7:
Yesterday, towards midday, the Spanish Imperial Alexander Regiment was arranged in battle on the heights of Irun and appeared disposed to defend the crossing of the river. A pack of 100 men, recognized as French refugees, with a tricolour flag, descended near the Bidassoa and offered a drink to the soldiers of the 9th Regiment of Light Infantry. The defectors tried by all sorts of means to debauch our soldiers. These did not accept any of their offers and did not respond in any way to their provocations. General Vallin, finding himself present at this scene, advanced a piece of cannon and ordered it charged with grapeshot. While the cannoneers were executing this order, the defectors continually shouted: ‘Vivent nos brave cannoniers! Vivent nos amis de l’artillerie!’ Seeing General Vallin advance close to the river, they uttered terrible screams, crying: ‘Vive Napoléon!’ At the same time General Vallin responded to their insults with ‘Vive le roi!’, which was repeated by all of our soldiers, and ordered the artillery to fire. The first shot struck down 10 men, the second 3. The others soon dispersed and threw themselves into the mountains. A company…of the 9th Regiment hurried…to cross the Bidassoa and pursue these miserable provacateurs. But it couldn’t find them, neither could the Spanish Imperial Alexander Regiment. (8)
Fabvier and his friends were denounced in the French press as traitors. Fabvier wrote to his nephew, then a law student in Paris:
The only personal pain that I felt was to think that my mother might suffer because of me. She is untroubled, that made me able to bear the rest. You are wrong to think me unhappy. Know, my dear, that a good man is never unhappy when his conscience is at peace….. (9)
Fabvier in Greece
Charles Fabvier went to Lisbon (where he met with Charles Lallemand) and to London, trying to gather refugees to return to Spain. He considered starting a revolutionary diversion in the interior of France. Instead, he decided to go to Greece, which was fighting its war of independence against the Ottoman Empire.
Fabvier obtained a contract from the Greek government to establish an agricultural and industrial colony. He was to be given a concession of 3,000-4,000 acres of land. In return, he undertook to start a training program for the Greeks, helping them introduce modern agricultural techniques and establish manufacturing. He also agreed to provide a range of military assistance.
In 1824 Fabvier returned to Western Europe to obtain money from his supporters and to liaise with philhellenic societies. Fabvier arrived back in Greece in May 1825 with a few of his followers, mainly Napoleonic officers who had been purged from the French army. Meanwhile an Egyptian force had landed in Greece. Fabvier was asked to raise, train and command a small Greek regular army to combat it. According to a contemporary observer, a surgeon with the Greek fleet:
[A]rriving at the time when the alarming progress of Ibrahim Pasha had opened the eyes of the Government to the necessity of immediately raising regular troops, and being the only foreigner of any military rank or experience at hand, [Fabvier] was appointed to the command of the regiment then raising, with power to increase it. He devoted himself with ardour to the task, learned the language, and soon had by far the largest and best corps of disciplined troops, of any one that had yet been raised in Greece; for the very good reason that he had more extensive means put at his disposal.
[Fabvier] is an excellent solder, a strict disciplinarian, perfectly acquainted with all the minutiae of military science, brave, and hardy; but he is no general; his mind is not strong and capacious enough to conceive original, or embrace comprehensive ideas; and he is so thoroughly satisfied of the infallibility of his own judgement, so full of contempt for the military abilities of any one but his own, and those of Le Grand Napoleon, that he will not take advice. If counsel was given him by any one whom he was obliged to respect, he would listen with an impatient and haughty air, – and be sure to reject the plan because proposed by another; but if a person not above him should suggest any thing that ought to be done, he would interrupt them with , ‘Bah! C’est une bêtise cela vous ne connaissez pas les Grecs.’ This conduct, and his marked partiality to French officers, disgusted many foreigners, and placed on a very unpleasant footing those German, Swiss, and other officers who were then in the service, and whose Philhellenism was (generally speaking) much more pure than that of the Frenchmen who had come to Greece. (10)
Charles Fabvier became a respected and successful Greek commander. He participated in several battles, most notably the siege of the Acropolis in Athens in 1826-27. Fabvier also made up with Lafayette, who wrote to him often, expressing support for his military campaigns and introducing him to people who traveled to Greece to serve the revolutionary cause.
The need for Fabvier’s corps declined with the arrival in Greece of a French expeditionary force in 1828. Charles Fabvier returned to France in 1829. He took part in the July Revolution in Paris in 1830. On August 4, he was named the military commander of Paris. He resigned in 1831. That year he married Marie des Neiges Martinez de Hervas, the widow of General Christophe Duroc and the daughter of a rich Spanish banker. Fabvier had long been in love with Marie, who was a friend of Napoleon’s stepdaughter Hortense de Beauharnais. Fabvier and Marie had one child, Louis Charles Eugène (1831-1918).
Charles Fabvier tried to embark on a parliamentary career but was unable to get elected. His wife bought the château of Razay near Tours, and for a few years Fabvier engaged in agricultural pursuits. In 1838 he returned to military service. The following year, he was promoted to lieutenant general. In 1845, Charles Fabvier became a peer of France. In 1848, he was sent as the French ambassador to Constantinople, and then to Denmark. Back in France, he was elected to the National Assembly as a representative of Meurthe. Charles Fabvier retired from public life on December 2, 1851. He died in Paris on September 14, 1855, at the age of 73.
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- Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace (Raleigh, NC, 2007), p. 972.
- Antonin Debidour, Le Général Fabvier, sa vie militaire et politique (Paris, 1904), p. 59.
- Ibid., pp. 84-85.
- Ibid., pp. 106-107.
- Alan B. Spitzer, Old Hatreds and Young Hopes: The French Carbonari against the Bourbon Restoration (Cambridge, MA, 1971), p. 39.
- Le Général Fabvier, sa vie militaire et politique, pp. 221-222.
- Ibid., pp. 213-214.
- Ibid., pp. 240-241.
- Ibid., p. 251.
- Samuel G. Howe, An Historical Sketch of the Greek Revolution (New York, 1828), p. 295.
[Fabvier] is so thoroughly satisfied of the infallibility of his own judgement, so full of contempt for the military abilities of any one but his own, and those of Le Grand Napoleon, that he will not take advice.
Samuel G. Howe