Marshal Soult was one of the most able of all Napoleon’s marshals, rising from the ranks to become the Grand Old Man of the French Army, and only the fourth man to be created Maréchal-général of the French army. In 1785 he enlisted as a private solider in the royal regiment of infantry.
In 1792, during the first military crisis of the revolution, he was commissioned in the grenadiers. Over the next four years he proved himself to be brave but not reckless, and in 1796 was promoted to general of brigade. In 1799 he took part in the Swiss campaign, fighting under General Masséna. Soult was prominent in this victory, and was promoted to general of division.
In 1800 Soult took part in the Italian campaign, once again serving with Masséna. This first campaign ended with the outnumbered French besieged in Genoa. This was when Soult first came to the attention of Napoleon, who up until this point only knew him by his reputation. Napoleon asked Masséna if Soult deserved his reputation, to which Masséna replied that “for judgement and courage his scarcely has a superior”. This high praise earned Soult a high command for the rest of the Italian campaign.
Soult was promoted to marshal in the “great creation” of 1804, part of the creation of Napoleon’s Empire. After the end of the Peace of Amiens, Soult was appointed to command the Army of England at Boulogne. Although the invasion never took place, in 1805 that army became the Grande Armée and would go on to win some of Napoleon’s most famous victories.
Soult commanded the right wing of the army at the battle of Austerlitz (2 December 1805). It was this wing that captured the Pratzen heights, the key to the entire battle. This success won him great praise from Napoleon, who called him “le premier maneovrier de l’Europe”. Soult would also go on to play a prominent role at the battles of Jena (1806) and Eylau (1807).
Soult would spend most of the rest of the war fighting in Spain and Portugal, and would be one of the few French generals to emerge from the Peninsular War with his reputation largely intact.
Soult first entered Spain in 1808 during Napoleon’s personal intervention in the country. This campaign began with a series of French victories that allowed Napoleon to enter Madrid, but the French campaign was then disrupted by a British army under Sir John Moore. Believing that Napoleon was being delayed at Madrid, Moore decided to move north and attack Soult, whose army was defending the main line of communication back to France. The British reached Soult’s cavalry screen, winning a cavalry battle at Sahagun on 21 December 1808, before receiving news that Napoleon had left Madrid and was on his way north.
Moore’s response was to head north west towards Corunna, from where his army could be evacuated to safety. At first both Soult and Napoleon were in pursuit, but when Moore escaped across the river Esla, Napoleon dropped out of the race, leaving Soult in command.
Although Soult was able to defeat Moore’s Spanish allies at Mansilla on 30 December 1808, the British were able to reach Corunna. On 16 January Soult attacked the British position at Corunna and was repulsed. Moore was killed in the battle, but what was left of his army was safely evacuated.
Soult’s attention then turned to Portugal. In March 1809 he defeated a Portuguese army at Oporto, a victory marred by the collapse of a bridge carrying refugees out of the city. Once again the British responded by sending an army to Portugal under the command of Arthur Wellesley (soon to become Viscount Wellington). The British quickly moved against Soult, who was unable to prevent them from crossing the river Douro (battle of Oporto, 12 May 1809), and was forced to retreat back into Galicia.
The French response to the British intervention was to concentrate their armies. However, on 27-28 July 1809 at Talavera Marshal Victor attacked Wellington without waiting for Soult to arrive, and was defeated. When Soult, Ney and Mortier’s forces came together, Wellington was forced to pull back into Portugal.
Soult now became chief-of-staff to King Joseph, Napoleon’s brother. In this role he played a major part in the French victory at Ocana on 19 November 1809, which ended a Spanish campaign aimed at Madrid.
At the start of 1810 Soult was appointed to command the military district of Andalusia. Although he had 70,000 men in three corps, he was badly stretched. The Spanish had armies to his north and east, while a massive Allied garrison defended Cadiz. Soult spent most of 1810 involved in futile attempts to deal with these multiple threats.
He was also coming under increasing pressure to help Massena, who was struggling in Portugal. Soult responded by attacking the border fortress of Badajoz (French siege of Badajoz, 27 January-9 March 1811). A Spanish attempt to relief the siege was defeated (battle of the Gebora River, 19 February 1811), and the fortress fell on 9 March 1811. Soult then left a garrison in the fortress, and returned to Andalusia.
The British responded by besieging Badajoz themselves. Soult in turn attempted to relieve the siege, but on 16 May 1811 was defeated by Beresford (battle of Albuera). Despite this victory, the Allies were eventually forced to abandon the siege of Badajoz, which would not fall until the next year.
In the spring of 1813 Soult was summoned to Germany, to take part in Napoleon’s final campaign in Germany. He performed well at Lützen (2 May 1813), where he commanded the Guards, and at Bautzen (20-21 May 1813), but soon after that Napoleon learnt of Wellington’s great victory at Vittoria. Soult was dispatched back to Spain with orders to defend the frontier.
The result was the battle of the Pyrenees, a series of battles in the mountains that saw Soult attempt to force his way back into Spain. Soult himself was unable to break through at Roncesvalles on 25 July 1813, and the entire campaign ended with the British pushing towards the French border. During these battles Soult had sizable armies, but they were almost always made up of raw recruits, the last manpower available to the French.
Soult made a series of attempts to slow this invasion, but he was defeated at the Nivelle River (10 November 1813) and the Nive River (9-12 December 1813), and at the start of 1814 the Allies were besieging Bayonne. The final battle of the Peninsular War came on 10 April 1814 at Toulouse, where once again Soult was defeated. This battle came after Napoleon’s first abdication, but before the news had reached either Wellington or Soult.
After Napoleon’s first abdication Soult submitted to the government of Louis XVIII, but during the Hundred Days he returned to Napoleon’s side, serving as his chief of staff. This was not a happy appointment – Soult was ill at ease in the job. He fought at Ligny and Waterloo, and after Napoleon’s second abdication went into exile.
His exile ended in 1819. His honours were restored over the next few years, starting with the marshal’s baton in 1820, but he did not return to favour until the period of the July Monarch (1830-1848). Louis Philippe raised him to the peerage in August 1830, and he served as Minister of war (1830-4 and 1840-5) and Prime minister.
In 1838 he represented Louis-Philippe at the coronation of Queen Victoria where he met his old adversary Wellington, who is said to have seized his arms and said “I have you at last”, a tribute to his difficulties in Spain. In 1847 he was made Maréchal-général of the French Army, a title previously only granted to Turenne, Villars and Saxe.