“Napoleon… had prepared the future defection”

Continuing with Murat-related extracts from the memoirs of Baron de Dedem, Dutch ambassador to the court of Naples. Dedem discusses Murat’s 1810 expedition to conquer Sicily–the general perception of the populace (and Napoleon) that it would not succeed, and Murat’s reaction to its ensuing failure (which Murat would blame at least partially on Napoleon).

Source: Un Général Hollandais sous le premier empire: Mémoires du Général Baron de Dedem de Gelder, 1774-1825; Paris, 1900. Pages 180-183.


The failure of the coup de main led by the Prince Royal of Sicily*, and the certainty of no longer being worried on the side of Upper Italy, would decide King Joachim to begin an expedition which had been in question for a long time, but prudence and the lack of material resources had caused the postponement. I want to speak of the conquest of Sicily. The marriage of the Emperor with the archduchess Marie-Louise had displeased him greatly, and the alliance with Austria gave him umbrage. He feared, with reason, the influence that the relation of the new empress with the queen of Sicily might have on the Emperor, because he had opined in the family council for the union with a princess of Russia, and he unleashed himself vehemently against the union with the archduchess. The Queen, although she had been sent to Braunau, she had not known how to captivate her; she was even frowned upon. She had too much penetration to not sense the double danger that her crown ran, whether by incorporation to France, that favored project of Napoleon, or by the abandonment of Sicily in favor of the Emperor’s new aunt. She warned her husband of it, who guaranteed her the success of the expedition; but, when she returned to Naples in the month of July, it was not difficult for me to prove to her the near certainty of non-success. I had made it the object of long reports to His Excellency M. Roell, my government’s minister of foreign affairs. Without a military flotilla, without transports other than small barques, without great resources either in rations or in munitions, could one succeed on an expedition which became all the more hazardous if one were not master of the sea? In Naples, although one did not dare to discuss it openly, seeing that the inquisitorial police weighed even on thoughts, it was not difficult to discover that public opinion regarded this expedition as a stroke of despair, inspired by fear that an approaching peace with England would change the face of affairs and deprive the King of the hope of seeing himself in possession of this interesting half of his kingdom. Unfortunately, when the Queen was back and I was able to share all these doubts with her, it was too late. Already the King was struggling in Calabria against the English and the Sicilians, and, who were more difficult to overcome, against the elements, treason, the lack of food and the discouragement of his soldiers.

Instead of profiting, as she had believed, from the marriage of her grand-niece with the Emperor, Queen Caroline [of Sicily] had met the news of it with indignation; she had not wanted to make peace, and the Emperor had thus consented to the expedition his brother-in-law was attempting. 

He did not believe in its success, but, he hoped that a daring blow against Sicily would serve as a diversion in favor of Corfu. This island was closely surrounded, General Donzelot called for help in troops and food, and the plan was to send the regiment of Isembourg, which was replaced in Ischia by that of the Tour d’Auvergne.

The Emperor, in sending troops, had placed them under the command of Lieutenant General Grenier, who was to play above all the role of counsel. For several months we had seen the preparations being made; convoys of artillery, munitions, and rations moved continuously along the coast, and, to the great astonishment of the Neapolitans, the English rarely disturbed them. Perhaps they were waiting for the whole expedition to be assembled before trying to destroy it in one blow, which was possible, since from Naples to Sicily it had no shelter to speak of, having no convenient port to which to retire. The expedition had the fate which had been expected of it. The King–having departed for Calabria on 16 May–fought some partial battles there, where he and the generals under this command showed all the courage and intrepidity imaginable; but the elements thwarted the wishes of the prince, and besides everything proved that his means were not sufficient. General Grenier, who was there as the Nestor of the French troops, objected to their embarkment, when he saw how far Joachim’s imprudent valor might go. He showed the full powers of the Emperor. The King, in the first moment of his anger, tore them up; but, returned to himself, he perceived too late that Napoleon, in permitting him to attempt the expedition, had not believed in its success. 

He returned to Naples, heartbroken from having uselessly spent his treasure, from having sacrificed his navy, from having lost a great part of his artillery and his best soldiers, and from having seen himself played, so to speak, by his brother-in-law. Murat was Gascon, not malicious at first, but hateful and vindictive. He never forgave me for having disapproved of the expedition, and Napoleon, by counteracting his pet project of the conquest of Sicily, or at least by not supporting it with ardor, had prepared the future defection of a prince who wanted absolutely to be independent. 


*Dedem is referring to an earlier, unsuccessful attack on Naples by a Sicilian/British force, in 1809. Dedem credits Caroline’s “firmness and audacity”, as well as Murat’s minister Salicetti and general Lacroix, for being the primary figures responsible for preserving Naples from disaster during this episode. Regarding Murat’s conduct, Dedem makes the following scathing observation (pages 178-9): 

His Majesty had lost his head; his dispositions were bad and vacillating…. King Joachim appeared to me, on that day, little suited to be placed on the front line. The event had proven that he was, like nearly all who surrounded and were students of Napoleon, made to obey him and to execute his projects, but incompetent to lead them alone.


For Louise Murat’s views on her father’s Sicilian expedition and the effect its failure had on Murat, see here.

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