Old Wives' Tales
Radio & TV
Toxin du jour
Claim: A misinterpretation of Napoleon's complaint about his cough resulted in the unintended slaying of 1,200 prisoners.
Origins: This one of our favorite legends, so much so that it inspired us to dump all our respectability down the drain and turn our hand to playwriting to dramatize this gem in one act:
Ma Sacrée Toux! - A tragedy in one actIf this sorry excuse for drama doesn't adequately highlight that this legend is merely a joke, not an account of a historical incident, then consider the telltale footprints of urban legendry marking the trail. In a mere two examples of the tale, we find a wealth of differing detail — Did this event take place at the end of the
FRENCH EMPEROR, French-speaking supreme political leader
FIELD MARSHAL, French-speaking military officer of high rank
AIDE-DE-CAMP, French-speaking military aide
MESSENGER, Non-speaking deliverer of messages
Act I, Scene I
Enter FRENCH EMPEROR, FIELD MARSHAL, and AIDE-DE-CAMP. FRENCH EMPEROR is busily engaged in giving a series of brusque orders to FIELD MARSHAL.
FRENCH EMPEROR: . . . and see that both your divisions are in position and prepared for an attack at dawn tomorrow. (Coughs.)
FIELD MARSHAL: Yes, your excellency.
FRENCH EMPEROR: That is all. You may go. (Turns his back to FIELD MARSHAL and AIDE-DE-CAMP.)
AIDE-DE-CAMP: Your excellency . . .?
FRENCH EMPEROR (testily): What now? (Turns to face FIELD MARSHAL and AIDE-DE-CAMP.)
AIDE-DE-CAMP: The matter of the disposition of the prisoners still needs attending to, your excellency.
FRENCH EMPEROR: (Coughs.) The prisoners? (Coughs again.) Ah yes, the prisoners. (FRENCH EMPEROR breaks into a violent coughing spasm lasting several minutes.) The prisoners . . . (Breaks into another coughing spasm.) Ma sacrée toux!
Enter MESSENGER. MESSENGER hands note to FRENCH EMPEROR, who quickly scans it.
FRENCH EMPEROR (to FIELD MARSHAL): Excuse me, gentlemen; a more urgent matter requires my immediate attention.
Exeunt FRENCH EMPEROR and MESSENGER.
FIELD MARSHAL (looks at AIDE-DE-CAMP with a puzzled expression): What did the Emperor order in regards to the prisoners?
AIDE-DE-CAMP: I'm not sure. I think he was complaining about his cough, but he might have said "Kill them all."
FIELD MARSHAL: Quel dilemme! Perhaps I should wait until I speak with the Emperor again.
AIDE-DE-CAMP (hesitatingly): You know how angry he can become when his orders aren't carried out
FIELD MARSHAL: Yes, you're right. I'd better kill all the prisoners, just to be on the safe side. If the Emperor was cursing his cough, well . . . I can make my apologies later.
Please inform the captain of the guard that I have issued orders to execute the prisoners; I must see to preparations for tomorrow's battle.
AIDE-DE-CAMP: Yes, sir.
Exeunt AIDE-DE-CAMP and FIELD MARSHAL to opposite sides of the stage.
This story is also a bit absurd in a linguistic sense. The command "massacrez tous" is roughly the equivalent of an English speaker's issuing the unusual order "Massacre all!" Just as an English speaker would almost certainly use the more common verb "kill" and a more specific object (e.g., "Kill them all!" or "Kill all the prisoners!"), so a French speaker would order
Even if we overlook these incongruities of detail and language, we can still dismiss this tale as a bit of humor because it doesn't match any real event in recorded history. There was indeed an incident involving the slaughter of over a thousand prisoners captured by Napoleon's troops during the French invasion of Syria in 1799, but it was a deliberate act specifically ordered by an enraged Napoleon, not a misinterpretation of an innocuous exclamation:
For the invasion of Syria [Napoleon] relied on 13,000 infantry, 900 cavalry and some fifty big guns; a garrison of barely 5,000 was left in Cairo. The march across the arid Sinai desert was grueling, even in winter, and the army had to slaughter many of its mules and camels to survive. Entry into the lemon and olive groves of the Gaza plain promised better things, but there was a disappointment in the unexpectedly strong resistance of the fortress ofWe don't find a corresponding massacre involving Napoleon's nephew,
Perhaps the frustration at El Arish was one factor in the obscene butchery Napeoleon ordered at Jaffa two weeks later. Gaza fell on
One that first day, there was virtually no resistance to the coup. AtA rather merciless killing of a few hundred (not "thousands") of the coup's opposers did take place a few days later, but again, it was the result of a deliberate order, not a misinterpretation of an innocuous exclamation:
[ . . .]
A few barricades sprang up in time-honoured Parisian fashion but there was little raw enthusiasm among the population as a whole: neither with the ordinary middle classes nor with most of the working
The only one to decide was Louis and, perhaps typically, he opted for the more devious resource. He gave the orders for the troops to withdraw and a massive counterattack to be mounted on the morrow.
And so it worked out. The next day,
According to official figures at the time, only 215 civilians were killed but the modern French estimate is 'between 300 and 400'. Ironically, about fifty of these were not directly involved in the fighting but were innocent individuals, caring little for politics, shot down indiscriminately in the middle of the afternoon in a 'Massacre on the Boulevards' in the heart of Paris.
Last updated: 12 July 2007
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