History tells us that Napoleon’s most upsetting defeat came at Waterloo. Or it may have occurred eight years earlier, after the French emperor was attacked by a relentless horde of rabbits.
There are a couple versions of this story. Most agree it happened in July 1807, after Napoleon signed the Treaties of Tilsit (which ended the war between the French Empire and Imperial Russia). Looking to celebrate, the emperor proposed a rabbit hunt, asking Chief of Staff Alexandre Berthier to make it happen.
Berthier 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. The rabbits allegedly swarmed the emperor’s legs and started climbing up his jacket. 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. But it kept coming.
Napoleon retreated, fleeing to his carriage. But 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 men had bought tame rabbits from local farmers. 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.