Jacques Chevillet (1786-1837), a rare emotional voice of a Napoleonic amputee

By Bert Gevaert

L’invalide (around 1823) by Nicolas Toussaint Charles (Musée de l’Armée, Paris)
L’invalide (around 1823) by Nicolas Toussaint Charlet
(Musée de l’Armée, Paris)

Under Napoleon (1769-1821) the face of warfare changed dramatically: huge armies consisting of thousands of soldiers, equipped with firearms, were involved in massive battles resulting in more (deadly) casualties. While edged weapons, which were still the main weapon of the cavalry, caused ‘clean’ and easy to be treated wounds, the nature of gunshot wounds was completely different. Bullets penetrated the body and drove pieces of clothes inside the wound, this, usually in combination of severe fracture of bones, increased the risk of gangrene. More serious wounds were caused by artillery in the shape of iron balls, canister (small pieces of iron or balls) or explosive shells and grenades. This kind of ammunition caused such serious damage that entire limbs could be blown away or shredded to pieces. In the eyes of surgeons, only an immediate amputation could save the life of soldiers inflicted by gunshot wounds or artillery fire.

Terry Crowdy (2014) provides us a very faithful number of amputees in one battalion consisting of 995 effective soldiers. After the famous Battle of Wagram (5-6 July 1809) in Austria 152 soldiers of this Battalion were wounded, amongst them 12 soldiers became amputees. At the same battle the famous French surgeon Dominique Larrey (1767-1842) performed 300 amputations on the 1200 wounded soldiers he treated. Larrey, who even made his doctoral thesis on amputation as treatment for gunshot wounds (Dissertation sur les amputations des membres à la suite des coups de feu, 1803) proudly claims that he performed about 200 amputations in 24 hours at the Battle of Borodino (7 September 1812) in Russia. During this Russian campaign in the year of the same battle, amputation had to be applied several times in the case of toes, fingers or noses inflicted by frostbite.

Without modern anaesthetics, amputation was horrible, not only the process of being amputated, but many people also considered life as an amputee as a ‘useless’ life. Nevertheless, there are some examples of officers with amputated limbs who continued their service as commander of a fortresses (e.g. Pierre Daumesnil, 1776-1832) or as instructor in a military school (e.g. Clément de la Roncière, 1773-1854).

Doctors were encouraged to remove amputated limbs out of sight of approaching soldiers to make sure that they were not discouraged for the next battle. General Jacques Casimir Jouan (1767-1847) was wounded at Dresden (26-27 Augustus 1813) and still remembers the pain when his left arm was amputated:

“I always heard that when one was sawing the bone, the pain was the worst. I don’t consider myself to be differently built than other men, but it is still that the amputation of the bone of my arm was not as painful compared with the cutting of my flesh.”

Soldier wounded at Waterloo (18 June 1815) with missing left arm, lying on his side, grasping a rope, watercolor made by the Scottish surgeon Charles Bell (1774-1842). The rope was used by the patient to change from position or to rise up from his bed. (© Wellcome Library, London)
Soldier wounded at Waterloo (18 June 1815) with missing left arm, lying on his side, grasping a rope, watercolor made by the Scottish surgeon Charles Bell (1774-1842). The rope was used by the patient to change from position or to rise up from his bed. (© Wellcome Library, London)

It was a custom in the French army to give a compensation to all amputees. This could be an honorary rank for a private (e.g. lieutenant) or a sum of money. This amount of money was not fixed and it depended on the years of service, the soldier’s rank and even on the outcome of a battle. Doctor Pierre-François Percy (1754-1825) mentions how an infantry soldier, who lost both arms, received the small sum of 60 francs in 1806 1. During his banishment on Elba from the 4th May 1814 till the 26th of February 1815, Napoleon proclaimed that disabled soldiers had the right to obtain 400 francs for two arms, 500 for two legs and 600 for three body parts. Disabilities were also taken into account when a soldier retired from the army and a lost limb made it possible to have a higher pension. Soldiers could also apply to stay in the famous Hôtel des Invalides in Paris, or other places for poor, retired and disabled soldiers. Besides that, private initiatives also existed to support disabled soldiers. General d’Aboville (1776-1843), who had lost an arm at Wagram, funded 1000 francs for ten year to a manufacturer who employed blind soldiers or amputees. It was also a custom to give disabled soldiers an honorary place at festivities and they were highly respected by their comrades. In 1810, due to the occasion of his second marriage, Napoleon offered 6000 dowries of 600 francs to all disabled soldiers who married. It took six months delay for about 4000 veterans to actually receive this money. Later, Napoleon even gave land – ‘veteran camps’ - in the conquered countries to his disabled veterans.

Despite the high number of amputees, not so many soldiers described in detail how it felt to be amputated and how they looked at their life as a disabled person. A notable exception is Jacques Chevillet (1786-1837), trumpeter of the 8th Chasseurs à cheval, who was engaged at the Battle of Wagram.

When he was fighting for his life, around 9 PM on the first day of this famous battle a shell exploded in front of his horse. Chevillet, who was just promoted sergeant, writes:

“Ahh!” I cried, feeling myself struck in the arm. My horse was struck down at the same instant and I found my leg stuck underneath him. My first action was to try to get myself up and to bring my left hand to my arm… But alas! I felt that my arm had been cut off. My horse, my poor Rondeau made several movements of his feet and head while moaning. In less than five minutes he was dead. (…)" (translation T. Cardoza, 2017, p.177)
While the battle between French and Austrians continued in all vigour, Chevillet had to stay on the battlefield and witnessed the horrors of war, unable to move because his leg was stuck under his dead horse. Meanwhile he had to watch how the horse of his friend had lost his two front legs and was lying next to him and how several wounded French and Austrian soldiers were hit by fragments of the shell and died around him.

After the fight Chevillet’s comrades discovered their friend between the corpses, they lifted his dead horse and Chevillet was put on a captured Austrian horse, while his arm was still hanging on his shoulder by a bit of flesh. One hour after midnight they finally found a doctor who could dress his wound, but since there were so many wounded, Chevillet had to wait for treatment until 5 AM. The surgeon, Mr. Valette, trimmed the flesh and the nerves, after tying off the bleeding artery in the wounded arm of our wounded chasseur.

As said before, Chevillet is one of the very few soldiers who expressed how it felt to be an amputee:
“I cannot tell you thee emotions I felt seeing myself an amputee for the first time. Then, taking my right arm in my left hand, I looked for the last time on the most beautiful flower of my life that I had to lose forever. The biggest of my regrets was to think that with my arm, I lost all hope of being happy, the talents that I had acquired in music, playing the clarinet, good handwriting, and finally all means of working.” (translation T. Cardoza, 2017, p. 180)
Chevillet gave his right arm to an Austrian peasant and asked him to bury the arm at the foot of a tree in his garden, saying that his arm was the arm “of a French soldier, who gave a good beating to the Kaiserlicks (the Austrians), but that is now over. He won’t beat anyone anymore…” (translation T. Cardoza, 2017, p.181)

Chevillet, and many other amputees, received a bonus of 100 franc from emperor Napoleon, but this was – in his opinion - not enough compared to the sacrifices he made for the Empire. Thus, when the birthday of Napoleon on the 15th of August came close, Chevillet put all his hope and efforts in obtaining the Legion of Honor. After a failed attempt to give his petition personally on the 15th, Chevillet succeeded four days later. In front of Napoleon, he was called a ‘hero’. Napoleon spoke to Chevillet ‘like a good father’ and granted an annuity of 500 francs from the domains of the crown, because this would – financially - be a better compensation than the Legion of Honor, which would only bring half of this sum. Even the descendants of Chevillet could benefit from these 500 francs in perpetuity.

For Chevillet meeting his beloved Emperor and hearing of the promise of receiving the annual sum of 500 francs, must have been one of the most beautiful moments of his life.
Another beautiful moment was his arrival home after almost six months of travelling, including a sickness which forced him to stay in the hospital for three months.

Chevillet doesn’t mention what happened to him after his amputation. When a leg was amputated, soldiers had to help themselves with simple peg legs, though certain officers could even use more sophisticated artificial legs. But in Chevillet’s case, his amputated limb could not be replaced by a piece of wood. As so many other soldiers who had lost an arm, he continued his life wearing a shirt or jacket with an ‘empty sleeve’. For many family members of Napoleonic veterans, the sight of a disabled veteran was not uncommon, so they had no other choice than to help Chevillet and other veterans in their needs. It may certainly not be forgotten that disabled veterans as Chevillet also provided a substantial income with their military pension.

Amputated Napoleonic veteran by Nicolas Toussaint Charlet detail from Réjouissances Publiques, 1822 (© National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne)
Amputated Napoleonic veteran by Nicolas Toussaint Charlet detail from Réjouissances Publiques, 1822 (© National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne)

But how would Chevillet feel when he looked at his stump, years after the fall of Napoleon in 1815? Did he feel pride, thinking about the French victories in which he participated? Or did he feel regret, thinking about that final battle which caused him to lose his right arm? Given the fact that he knew many other disabled veterans, he certainly didn’t feel isolated or marginalised. He was mutilated, he was a survivor and as so many people with disabilities, he tried to make the best of his life…

Bert Gevaert (Bruges, 1978) wrote a PhD on disabilities and deformities in ancient Rome and combines teaching in a secondary school with writing books and articles about various kinds of subjects (e.g. martial arts, disability studies, classical antiquity,...).

[1] In 1806 the price for bread was around 60 centimes and most men earned a daily salary between 75 centimes and 4,5 francs. Compared to men, the salary of women was usually much lower, sometimes even less than one third.

Recommended citation
Bert Gevaert (2019): Jacques Chevillet (1786-1837), a rare emotional voice of a Napoleonic amputee. In: Public Disability History 4 (2019) 6.

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