Marengo and Napoleon
By Cheryl R. Lutring (Horse History Article copyrighted by Saddle & Bridle Magazine.)
Europe has a war-torn history. Up until the second world war (1939-1945) man s major ally in his battles for religion or territory was the horse. Millions have died in military service and from the melee several individual equine heroes have emerged, whose names and efforts are recorded for posterity in British and Continental history and art.
Of all the fine horses who suffered bravely , Marengo was one who inspired the British public. This in itself was strange because the noble little horse was the mount of the defeated general of the opposing army.
In the early 1800s, General Napoleon Bonaparte and his Grand Arm e had conquered most of Europe and all that stood between France and her intended European empire was Britain. The culmination of Napoleon s efforts was the Battle of Waterloo where his ambitions were finally dashed. His war charger on that fateful day was one of the grey Arabian stallions, he favored, Marengo.
Captured by Napoleon s troops during the Battle of Abouki in Egypt in 1799, an iron grey Arabian stallion, only 14.1hh, was added to the General s entourage. With the imperial crown and N motif branded on his left thigh, he took his place among Napoleon s personal mounts. The horse s 15 years of service began with the Battle of Marengo, with which he later became identified. Then followed Battles of Austerlitz in 1805, at Jena in 1806, at Wagram in 1809.
Despite being a tyrant to some, Napoleon s attitude to animals and particularly horses was remarkable for the times. He flouted the military fashion of docking and allowed all his cavalry horses to retain their natural tails. He considered them to have a link with the Deity, and queried, How do we know that animals have not a language of their own? My opinion is that it is a presumption in us to say no, because we do not understand them. A horse has memory, knowledge, and love.
It is recorded that in return his mounts honored him with their loyalty and affection, even though his horsemanship was tough on them. He lacked elegance, his toes lower in the stirrup than his heels, he slouched and slipped alarmingly back and forth and from side to side in the saddle constantly wearing holes in his breeches! But he respected horses for their natural skills: When I lost my way, I was accustomed to throw the reins on his neck, and he always discovered places where I, with all my observation and boasted superior knowledge, could not. An enthusiastic and reckless rider, he often rode merely for pleasure. If he was out of sorts or needed to wrestle with a problem, he would go for a gallop, often gone for an hour or more.
But due to his erratic riding style, loose seat and rein, his personal mounts had to undergo extreme training techniques to make them steady enough. They learned to endure dogs and pigs running through their legs, drums and trumpets suddenly sounding, flags waving, swords and bayonets slashing around them, shots winging by their heads. He required horses that were good-tempered, gentle gallopers, and easy amblers the last attribute being the long-prized but now mostly forgotten saddle gait, inherited by Saddlebreds, of course, but long-since lost to English horsemen.
Marengo must have possessed superb stamina, for not only did he carry the graceless Napoleon in warfare from the Mediterranean to Paris, Italy, Germany and Austria, but also, at age 19, the 3000 mile trek to Moscow and back. Countless horses died, but the aging Arabian, Marengo, prevailed. And the final battle was yet to come!
The Duke of Wellington (a British national hero who would later become Prime Minister) led the British Army in its bid to finally stop the progress of Napoleon Bonaparte through Europe. The Battle of Waterloo became one of those momentous occasions that linger through a society and impact on language and the culture. It is said to this day that when someone comes up against an obstacle he cannot defeat, like Napoleon, he has met his Waterloo.
For the entire day of 18th June 1815 on the battlefield on the Belgian plain south of Brussels, Napoleon partnered his grey stallion. But Marengo in his red and gold shabraque, elegantly plaited harness and gold-plated bit and buckles, eventually received disabling wounds in his hip, and had to be abandoned in the midst of the carnage. As chance would have it, one of Wellington s officers saw the horse s plight and rescued him.
Marengo certainly was a military marvel; he served a legendary leader of a fearsome cavalry force in the world s most famous battles, surviving through 15 arduous years of desert sun and winter snows, near starvation, chronic thirst, treacherous going, poor shelter and often minimal care, he nevertheless managed to outlive his master. Curiously he was ultimately honored by that master s enemy in yet another strange and foreign land.
Marengo s life in England was a complete contrast. He was possessed of a quality that touched British hearts. Perhaps the people were amazed that such a sweet tempered, small horse could have carried the leader of the world s most fearsome army. When he was paraded in Pall Mall in London, sightseers thronged in their thousands to admire Napoleon s personal charger who nobly carried the visible scars of five wounds and a bullet permanently lodged in his tail.
After his public ceremonial duties were done, he was sold and went to stud near Ely. When in 1832, Marengo died at the remarkable age of 38 his skeleton was given to the army museum in London. Articulated by Surgeon Wilmott of the London Hospital, it was viewed by Queen Victoria and became a popular public exhibit at the then Royal United Service Institution Museum. It continues its public life in the Waterloo Gallery at the National Army Museum, Chelsea.
His hooves were removed and turned into snuffboxes, one playing a daily role amongst the regimental silver at St. James Palace, London. Each day the Captain of the Changing of the Guard, lunches in the Officer s Mess with the hoof in front of him. On the silver hinged lid are the words: Hoof of Marengo, Barb charger of Napoleon, ridden by him at Marengo, Austerlitz, Jena, Wagram, in the campaign of Russia and lastly, Waterloo.
In death as in life, the name Marengo remains synonymous with equine valor and celebrity.
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