Empire marshal Louis-Nicolas d'Avout (10 May 1770 – 1 June 1823), better known as Davout, 1st Duke of Auerstaedt, 1st Prince of Eckmühl, was a Marshal of France during the Napoleonic Era.
Davout was born at Annoux, the son of Jean-François d'Avout and wife Françoise-Adélaïde Minard de Velars.
He joined the French army as a sub-lieutenant in 1788. On the outbreak of the French Revolution, he embraced its principles.
He was chef de bataillon in a volunteer corps in the campaign of 1792, and distinguished himself at the Battle of Neerwinden the following spring. He had just been promoted to general of brigade when he was removed from the active list because of his noble birth.
He nevertheless served in the campaigns of 1794-1797 on the Rhine, and accompanied Desaix in the Egyptian expedition of Napoleon Bonaparte.
On his return he took part in the Battle of Marengo under Napoleon, who had great confidence in his abilities, made him a general of division soon after Marengo, and around 1801 gave him a command in the consular guard.
At the accession of Napoleon as emperor, Davout was one of the generals who were created marshals of France.
As commander of the III Corps of the Grande Armée, Davout rendered his greatest services. At the Battle of Austerlitz, after a forced march of forty-eight hours, the III Corps bore the brunt of the allies' attack. In the subsequent War of the Fourth Coalition, Davout with a single corps fought and won the Battle of Auerstädt against the main Prussian army, which had more than twice as many soldiers at its disposal (more than 63,000, to Davout's 28,000). Historian François-Guy Hourtoulle writes: "
At Jena, Napoleon won a battle he could not lose. At Auerstädt, Davout won a battle he could not win".
Davout added to his renown in the campaign of Eylau and Friedland. Napoleon left him as governor-general of the newly-created Duchy of Warsaw following the Treaty of Tilsit of 1807, and the next year created him Duke of Auerstädt. In the war of 1809, Davout took part in the actions which culminated in the Battle of Eckmühl, and also distinguished himself in the Battle of Wagram.
He was created Prince of Eckmühl following this campaign. He was entrusted by Napoleon with the task of organizing the "corps of observation of the Elbe," which was in reality the gigantic army with which Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812. In this, Davout commanded the I Corps, numbering over 70,000, and defeated the Russians at Mohilev before he joined the main army, with which he continued throughout the campaign and the retreat from Moscow. In 1813 he commanded the Hamburg military district, and defended Hamburg, a poorly fortified and provisioned city, through a long siege, only surrendering on the direct order of the new King Louis XVIII, who had come to the throne after the fall of Napoleon in April 1814.
Davout's military character has been interpreted as cruel, and he had to defend himself against many attacks upon his conduct at Hamburg. He was a stern disciplinarian, who exacted rigid and precise obedience from his troops, and consequently his corps was more trustworthy and exact in the performance of its duty than any other. For example, Davout forbade his troops from plundering enemy villages, a policy he would enforce by the use of the death penalty. Thus, in the early days of the Grande Armée, the III corps tended to be entrusted with the most difficult work. His loyalty and obedience to Napoleon were absolute. He was regarded by his contemporaries as one of the ablest of Napoleon's marshals. On the first restoration he retired into private life, openly displaying his hostility to the Bourbons, and when Napoleon returned from Elba, Davout rejoined him.
Appointed minister of war, he reorganized the French army insofar as time permitted, and he was so indispensable to the war department that Napoleon kept him in Paris during the Waterloo campaign. To what degree his skill and bravery would have altered the fortunes of the campaign of 1815 can only be surmised, but Napoleon has been criticized for his failure to avail himself in the field of the services of the best general he then possessed. Davout directed the gallant, but hopeless, defence of Paris after Waterloo, and was deprived of his marshalate and his titles at the second restoration. When some of his subordinate generals were proscribed, he demanded to be held responsible for their acts, as executed under his orders, and he endeavoured to prevent the condemnation of Michel Ney. After a time the hostility of the Bourbons towards Davout faded, and he became reconciled to the monarchy. In 1817 his rank and titles were restored, and in 1819 he became a member of the Chamber of Peers.
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