Napoleon Bonaparte was well-known as one of the foremost military minds of his age, but there was one group he couldn’t outsmart: rabbits! One epic conflict pitted the emperor against the lusty lagomorphs, and to the Corsican-born ruler’s great surprise, the bunnies came out on top.
During his down time, Napoleon, like many wealthy men of the time, enjoyed hunting; in particular, he liked tracking down rabbits. The animals being hunted weren’t as fond of the humans’ pastime, however. According to the memoirs of a Napoleonic general, Paul Thiébault, a courtier named Alexandre Berthier devised such an amusement for his master in July 1807. “He had the idea of giving the Emperor some rabbit-shooting in a park which he possessed just outside of Paris, and had the joy of having his offer accepted,” Thiébault wrote.
But the not-so-bright Berthier had one problem: his property had no rabbits on it! So Berthier ordered one thousand rabbits “to be turned down in the park on the morning of the day” of the hunt. On the very day, Napoleon arrived to a lovely picnic and everything was going smoothly, but the bunnies had another idea. Instead of scattering across the park and making themselves targets for eager shooters, the rabbits “suddenly collected first in knots, then a body.” Then the buns “all faced about, and in an instant the whole phalanx flung itself upon Napoleon.”
Berthier was humiliated and furious, so he turned his coachmen on the rabbit army. But although their whips initially dissuaded the hippity-hoppers, the critters soon wheeled about as a group and “turned the Emperor’s flank” and “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…” It was lucky for Napoleon,Thiébault quipped, that the bunnies left Napoleon intact and didn’t themselves proceed in triumph to Paris!
How did one thousand rabbits wind up defeating Napoleon? According to Thiébault, Brethier, ignorant of the differences between domestic and wild rabbits, bought the wrong kind of bunny: he purchased one thousand hutch-raised hoppers, rather than the wild buns that were afraid of humans. As a result, the rabbits “had taken the sportsmen, including the Emperor, as purveyors of their daily cabbage,” and since the bunnies hadn’t yet been fed, eagerly sprang on the humans in the hopes of food.
As funny as this incident was, Napoleon was not amused. Apparently, the upstart emperor didn’t have the greatest sense of humor. But everyone else had a pretty good laugh at his expense.