History tells us that Napoleon Bonaparte’s most upsetting defeat came at Waterloo. But it may have actually occurred eight years earlier, after the French emperor was attacked by a relentless horde of rabbits.
There are a couple versions of the story, but most agree it happened in July 1807. Napoleon had recently signed the Treaties of Tilsit, which ended the war between the French Empire and Imperial Russia, and in celebration, a rabbit hunt was organized by Napoleon’s chief of staff, Alexandre Berthier. He arranged an outdoor luncheon, invited some of the military’s biggest brass, and collected a colony of rabbits.
Some say Berthier took in hundreds of bunnies, while others claim he collected as many as 3000. Regardless, there were a lot of rabbits, and Berthier’s men caged them all along the fringes of a grassy field. When Napoleon started to prowl—accompanied by beaters and gun-bearers—the rabbits were released from their cages.
The hunt was on.
But something strange happened. The rabbits didn’t scurry in fright. Instead, they bounded toward Napoleon and his men. Hundreds of fuzzy bunnies gunned it for the world’s most powerful man.
Napoleon’s party had a good laugh at first. But as the onslaught continued, their concern grew. The sea of long-ears was storming Napoleon quicker than revolutionaries had stormed the Bastille. Napoleon tried shooing them with his riding crop, as his men grabbed sticks and tried chasing them. The coachmen cracked their bullwhips to scare the siege.
After a bit, it seemed as though they had succeeded in fighting off the rabbits, and that the hunt could begin. But the rabbits were not done.
General Paul Charles François Adrien Henri Dieudonné Thiébault described the scene in his memoirs: “[T]he intrepid rabbits turned the Emperor’s flank, attacked him frantically in the rear, refused to quit their hold, piled themselves up between his legs till they made him stagger, and forced the conqueror of conquerors, fairly exhausted, to retreat and leave them in possession of the field.”
Napoleon fled to his carriage—but even then, it didn’t stop. According to historian David Chandler, “with a finer understanding of Napoleonic strategy than most of his generals, the rabbit horde divided into two wings and poured around the flanks of the party and headed for the imperial coach.” The flood of bunnies continued—some reportedly leapt into the carriage.
The attack ceased only as the coach rolled away. The man who was dominating Europe was no match for a battle with bunnies.
It was Berthier’s fault. Rather than trapping wild hares, his emissary had bought tame rabbits from local farmers, “not aware that there could be any difference between one rabbit and another,” according to Thiébault. As a result, the rabbits didn’t see Napoleon as a fearsome hunter—they saw him as a waiter bringing out the day’s food. To them, the emperor was effectively a giant head of lettuce. “The poor rabbits … had flung themselves on them with all the more eagerness that they had not been fed that day,” Thiébault wrote, adding. “The laughter which this revelation elicited may be guessed.”
A version of this story ran in 2013; it has been updated for 2023.