General Louis Vallin, a man for all masters

Louis Vallin (portrait in the city hall of Châlons-en-Champagne)

Louis Vallin (portrait in the city hall of Châlons-en-Champagne)

Louis Vallin was a competent and long-serving French cavalry officer whose career spanned the French Revolution, Napoleon’s Empire, the Bourbon Restoration and the government of Louis-Philippe. Unlike many of his compatriots, he managed to distinguish himself under all of his various political masters. In 1823, Louis Vallin confronted Charles Fabvier’s band of insurrectionists at the Bidassoa River, both in real life and in Napoleon in America.

A postmaster’s son

Louis Vallin was born on August 16, 1770 in Dormans (Marne), France. He was the son of postmaster Joseph Edmond Vallin and his wife Marie Anne Labouret. Louis Vallin had just completed his law studies when he was conscripted into the French army thanks to the French Revolution. He started out with a National Guard regiment in Marne and was later attached to the staff of General Jean Hardy. In 1794, Vallin participated in the Battle of Fleurus and the siege of Maastricht. (1)

Colonel of hussars

In 1807, Vallin became the colonel of a regiment of hussars. Vallin fought at the Battle of Piave River in May 1809. Marshal Jacques Macdonald mentions Vallin in his recollections of the campaign.

While our troops were halting, Colonel Vallin, of the Hussars, came and begged me to give him something to do. I told him not to stir without orders, and added that I would soon find work for him…. I gave orders to General Grouchy, who was in command of the cavalry at this point, and while he was conveying them to his men, I turned back to regain the centre. I saw Colonel Vallin and his squadron charging. I foresaw what must inevitably, and did, happen. The enemy’s cavalry hurriedly withdrew, and allowed the squadron to advance, thus exposing them to the hot fire of the masked infantry, which I alone had perceived when I commanded the halt. My intention had been to outflank it on the right, and such were my orders to Grouchy. The enemy’s cavalry, seeing Vallin’s regiment hesitate, charged, and from where I was I could see that we were not getting the best of it in the mêlée that ensued. I spurred my horse and came up with the unlucky leader, who was wounded in the hand, and fiercely reproached him for having disobeyed my positive orders. He replied that he had acted upon instructions from the Viceroy [of Italy, Napoleon’s stepson Eugène de Beauharnais], who galloped up and said unreflectingly:

‘Now then, hussars! Let me see you charge those blackguards!’

Vallin had answered that he would have done so already, had I not forbidden him to stir.

‘Never mind,’ answered the Prince; ‘charge all the same!’

And he did so. (2)

A couple of months later, Vallin fought with distinction in the Battle of Wagram. He was subsequently named a baron of the Empire.

On July 12, 1810 in Paris, Vallin married Saubade Garat (1769-1821), the daughter of Baron Martin Garat, director general of the Bank of France. They had three children, Angélique (born in 1812), Léonie (1815) and Marie Louise (1819).

Vallin distinguished himself in the Russian campaign of 1812. He was promoted to general of brigade and placed in command of the vanguard of troops led by Eugène de Beauharnais. In 1813, Vallin was named second in command of a regiment of the Guards of Honour. (See my post about Louis Lauret for more about the Guards of Honour).

The Hundred Days

After Napoleon’s 1814 abdication, Vallin commanded a cavalry brigade in the army of King Louis XVIII. When Napoleon escaped from Elba in 1815, Vallin joined the Emperor’s Belgian campaign. He took over command of the 7th Cavalry Division when General Maurin was wounded at the Battle of Ligny. In this capacity, Vallin was with General Grouchy’s forces at the Battle of Wavre. Prior to the battle, Grouchy’s subordinate General Gérard suggested to Grouchy that they should instead march in the direction of the sound of distant cannon fire. Grouchy insisted on following the Prussian forces he was chasing.

As Grouchy was preparing to mount, Gérard risked a last attempt: ‘If you do not wish to advance towards the Forest of Soignes with all the troops, at least permit me to make this movement with my army corps and the cavalry of General Vallin. I am confident that I can reach the battlefield in time to be of assistance to the Emperor.’

‘No,’ replied Grouchy. ‘It would be committing an unpardonable military fault to divide my troops and cause them to operate upon both banks of the Dyle. I would expose both of these bodies, which would be unable to support each other, to the danger of being crushed by forces two or three times more numerous.’ (3)

The battle in which Vallin might have assisted was the Battle of Waterloo. After the French defeat, Vallin’s cavalry flanked the army in its retreat towards Paris, pursued by the Prussians. The French provisional government promoted Vallin to lieutenant general. On July 1, 1815, on the plain of Montrouge outside Paris, Vallin made one last attempt to defend the city.

The Bourbon Restoration

Louis Vallin initially resisted serving under the restored Bourbons, but he soon rallied to the new government. He was rewarded with the post of inspector general of cavalry and the title of viscount. In 1822-23, Vallin was one of the commanders of the army on France’s border with Spain. Initially an observation corps, this became the Army of the Pyrenees (see the 1823 French invasion of Spain). Vallin led the vanguard of the invading force. On April 6, 1823, at the Bidassoa River, he was confronted with a small band of insurgents led by Colonel Charles Fabvier. While Fabvier tried to convince the French soldiers to desert,

General Vallin galloped up to a piece of artillery in battery on the French abutment of the broken bridge, and, without parleying an instant with the refugees, ordered them to be immediately fired upon. A round shot was accordingly fired from across the river, but whether from accident or forbearance, it passed wide of the party. Fabvier and his men looking on the absence of a shower of grape shot as a signal of seditious complicity with them, waved their flag and cried ‘Vive l’Artillerie!’ But the only answer they got was a discharge of grape shot, by order of General Vallin, which brought down an officer and several of the refugees. The rest stood their ground, however, till a third discharge tore the tri-coloured flag, killed the bearer of it, and covered the Spanish bank of the river with killed and wounded. The fate of Spain, of France, and of Europe…depended on the resolution of the general, and the obedience of a few artillerymen. This first exchange of fire between the army of the King and the army of the revolution caused a long separation between the two causes. ‘General Vallin,’ said Louis XVIII, on seeing this brave soldier again after the campaign, ‘your cannon shot saved Europe!’ (4)

After entering Madrid, the Duke of Angoulême sent a detachment under Vallin in pursuit of the Spanish corps that had formed the garrison there. Vallin caught up with the Spanish corps outside Talavera and defeated them. The Spanish campaign resulted in Vallin becoming a grand officer of the Legion of Honour.

Louis Vallin continued to serve off and on as an inspector general of cavalry until 1828. After a period of inactivity, he served as an inspector general of gendarmerie in 1834-35. In 1839 he was placed on reserve. In 1848 he officially retired.

General Louis Vallin died on December 25, 1854 in Paris, at the age of 84. His name is inscribed on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

You might also enjoy:

The 1823 French invasion of Spain

Charles Fabvier: Napoleonic soldier and Greek hero

Demi-soldes, the half-pay Napoleonic War veterans

  1. This and other biographical information about Louis Vallin comes from Louis-Gabriel Michaud, Biographie Universelle Ancienne et Moderne, Nouvelle Édition, Vol. 42 (Paris, 1865), pp. 506-507.
  2. Camille Rousset, ed., Recollections of Marshal Macdonald, Duke of Tarentum, translated by Stephen Louis Simeon (New York, 1893), pp. 144-145.
  3. Henry Houssaye, 1815 Waterloo, translated by S.R. Willis (Kansas City, Mo., 1905), pp. 156-157.
  4. Alphonse de Lamartine, The History of the Restoration of Monarchy in France, Vol. 4 (London: 1854), p. 132.

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General Vallin galloped up to a piece of artillery in battery on the French abutment of the broken bridge, and, without parleying an instant with the refugees, ordered them to be immediately fired upon.

Alphonse de Lamartine