Doctor Dominique-Jean Larrey

Dominique-Jean Larrey
Inventor of battlefield ambulances and Chief Surgeon to the Imperial Guard

Born: July 8, 1766

Place of Birth: Beaudéan, Hautes-Pyrénées, France

Died: May 25, 1842

Cause of Death: Illness

Place of Death: Lyon, France

Arc de Triomphe: LARREY on the south pillar



Known for his humane treatment of wounded soldiers, regardless of their nation, Dominique-Jean Larrey was the son of a shoemaker who began his medical career when his father died and he was sent to live with his uncle. Trained as a surgeon by his uncle, Larrey served aboard a ship for a brief time but by the time of the Revolution he had arrived in Paris. Believing in the ideals of the Revolution, Larrey led a group of medical students and took part in the storming of the Bastille. During the violent days of the Revolution, he practiced his skills and became convinced of the need to immediately amputate if necessary, instead of the tradition of delaying the surgery. In the meantime he met his sweetheart Charlotte Laville whom he would later marry in 1794.

In 1792 Larrey received a position with the Army of the Rhine and he traveled to Strasbourg. After witnessing the speed at which the horse-drawn artillery could move on a battlefield, he proposed to General Custine the construction of a similar system, an ambulance to transport wounded soldiers from the battlefield for medical treatment. General Custine, anxious to show concern for his citizen soldiers, approved Larrey's plans. Initially the ambulance was a simple horse-drawn cart which Larrey led into battle to save the lives of wounded soldiers. Despite being exposed to danger, he worked tirelessly to rescue soldiers, sometimes participating in combat. At one battle in 1793, a group of French soldiers began to run away from the battle. Larrey drew his sword and charged after them, yelling at them for so cowardly leaving their comrades to fight while they ran, and this act convinced them to return to the battle. Later during the same battle, seeing four wounded soldiers being stripped of valuables by the Prussians, Larrey led a charge of his dragoon escort against the Prussians and rescued the soldiers. The wounded were loaded into his ambulances and escorted to the rear, where he operated on them and saved all their lives.

In 1797 General Bonaparte requested Larrey be attached to the Army of Italy. During this time, Larrey began to establish a clear policy on the ambulances. In the midst of battle and at risk to themselves, teams of his ambulances would hurry around the battlefield, picking up the wounded whose lives might be saved and transporting them to the rear of the battle where they could be operated upon. While at times his teams would perform first aid right there in the middle of the battle, the most critically wounded were usually retrieved and taken to relative safety before operating on them. This kept the best surgeons safely out of harm's way while enabling them to perform their duties at stations set up specifically for saving lives. Overall, his system of transporting wounded soldiers away from the battlefield significantly reduced death rates, as almost all critically wounded soldiers were operated on within 24 hours, oftentimes before the fighting had ceased.

Expedition to Egypt

In 1798 Larrey was appointed Surgeon-in-Chief to the expedition to Egypt. As the army disembarked from its long voyage west of Alexandria, General Maximillien Cafffarelli du Falga unfortunately got his wooden leg caught in the rigging and fell overboard. Larrey immediately dove into the water after him and dragged him to the beach, saving his life. Later that month at the Battle of the Pyramids , as during all times, Larrey was willing to treat enemy wounded. One wounded mameluke came to the French for help, and Larrey treated his wound. Thankful, the man gave Larrey a brilliant ruby ring, which Larrey wore until it was taken from him years later at the Battle of Waterloo.

Before the Army of the Orient began its march into Syria, Larrey noticed the plight of some British prisoners of war who had been captured when their ship ran aground. Held in deplorable conditions, Larrey asked General Dupas to improve their treatment, but he refused. Undeterred, Larrey went to General Bonaparte and told him of their conditions, and Bonaparte allowed for the men to be returned to the British on the grounds that they had not directly fought the French.

As the army besieged Jaffa, one day an Egyptian entertainer who was caught in a skirmish came to the temporary French hospital for treatment. After treating the man, Larrey noticed the man's pet monkey, both his companion and his livelihood, was also wounded and Larrey offered to patch the animal up. With tears streaming down his face from happiness at this unexpected gentleness and generosity, the man accepted and held the monkey while Larrey bandaged it up. The monkey returned many times to have its bandages replaced, and each time it would run up and hug Larrey.

Later during the campaign during the Siege of Acre, one evening the senior officers including General Bonaparte and Dr. Larrey were invited to General Verdier's quarters for a dinner. As everyone but Larrey had arrived, Madame Verdier began to signal that dinner would be served, as it would be rude to keep General Bonaparte waiting. Napoleon insisted that dinner not start without Larrey, to which the Verdiers replied that Larrey was at the hospital and no one knew when his work would be completed. Bonaparte continued to insist that they wait for him, and the dinner finally went ahead when Larrey arrived an hour later.

During the fighting at Acre, Arrighi de Casanova arrived at the front only to be hit by a ball that passed through his neck. Blood spurting everywhere, he fell to the ground, and a soldier rushed to him and put a finger in each hole on the sides of his neck, slowing the bleeding. Dr. Larrey was called for, and he quickly applied bandages while ignoring the shots falling all around them. Larrey didn't even bother to look up from his patient when his hat was shot off, and he saved Arrighi de Casanova's life.

When Napoleon decided to leave Egypt and return to France, Larrey was one of the select few chosen to accompany Napoleon. However, Larrey informed Napoleon that if Napoleon insisted he would accompany him, but in his opinion the army needed him more than the general did. Napoleon accepted Larrey's suggestion, and Larrey stayed in Egypt with the army. After the French surrendered in August of 1801, Larrey returned to France to receive the position of Surgeon-in-Chief to the Consular Guard. When Napoleon became Emperor of the French, Larrey became the Chief Surgeon to the Imperial Guard and he was named an Officer of the Legion of Honor.

Battle of Eylau

Over the next few years, Larrey fulfilled his duties in treating the wounded during the campaigns across Europe of 1805 through 1807. Before the Battle of Eylau in 1807, Caulaincourt attempted to commandeer the building Larrey had set up as a hospital for the Emperor's quarters. Larrey refused to surrender his hospital, and Caulaincourt threatened to go to Napoleon, to which Larrey replied, "As you please, but you may be sure that his majesty will decide in my favor."1 When Caulaincourt did go to Napoleon, Napoleon sided with Larrey, preferring that Larrey's work for the wounded take priority over his own comfort.

During the battle, the Russian attack on the French left flank almost overran Larrey's hospital. As French soldiers reeled back from the Russian onslaught, Larrey calmly finished the operation he was performing and announced that he would die with his casualties if need be. That very morning Larrey had assisted General Lepic with his arthritis so Lepic could fight, and it was lucky that he had done so. As the French soldiers reeled back, Lepic's cavalry rode to the rescue in a successful counterattack, driving the Russians back and keeping the hospital out of harm's way.

Later the same day, a colonel badly wounded at Eylau had to have his leg amputated, but as Larrey attempted to perform the operation, the man's leg would not stop shaking from his fear of the operation. Larrey slapped him in the face, and the officer demanded satisfaction for such an insult to his honor. As the man angrily spoke of honor, Larrey performed the operation, then apologized and explained that he knew the affront to the man's honor would cause him to forget the operation for a moment which was all the time Larrey needed to carry out the operation.

As the Emperor and Larrey left Eylau on the 17th, Napoleon noticed that Larrey no longer wore a sword. "You don't have a sword?" Napoleon asked. Larrey explained that his sword was lost during the battle as the Russians had overrun his baggage wagon. Napoleon removed his own sword and held it out to Larrey, telling him, "Here is mine. Accept it as a reminder of the services you rendered me at the Battle of Eylau."2

Campaigns of 1808 - 1814

Rewards followed for Larrey, as he was made a Commander of the Legion of Honor and given the military rank of general. The next year he traveled with the Imperial Guard to Spain, and after participating in the campaigning, he returned with them to address the new threat from Austria. During the Danube campaign of 1809, at the Battle of Aspern-Essling Larrey personally amputated one of the legs of his good friend Marshal Lannes whom he had patched up numerous times before. Despite the emotions of performing such a procedure on a good friend, Larrey carried out the operation successfully, though the wound became infected and Lannes died within a matter of days.

After the Battle of Wagram , Larrey was further recognized for his contributions by being named a Baron of the Empire. He spent the new few years in relative peace in Paris before being named Surgeon-in-Chief to the Grande Armée for the 1812 campaign against Russia. Accompanying the army, at the Battle of Borodino Larrey performed about 200 amputations throughout the day. Once Napoleon realized the Tsar Alexander would not negotiate, he ordered the retreat from Russia which was almost stopped by the Berezina River. At the crossing of the Berezina, the temporary bridge for vehicles was twice swept away, and Larrey was unable to bring his ambulances across the bridge. He repeatedly crossed the other bridge, carrying as many medical supplies as he could. As the bridge began to break, panic and a mad stampede erupted. Recognizing Larrey caught in the stampede, the soldiers began to cry out, "Let us save him who has saved us!"3 A group of soldiers pushed their way through the crowds, grabbed Larrey, held him up above themselves, and passed him above themselves to safety.

Larrey continued in his role as Chief Surgeon to the army during the campaign in Germany in 1813. In the midst of the campaign, many young soldiers were showing up with wounds on their hands. Suspecting an attempt to avoid fighting, Napoleon ordered two men from each corps to be shot as an example, and told Larrey to inspect their wounds and determine the individuals whose wounds were clearly self-inflicted. Larrey refused to do so, arguing that there wasn't enough evidence, so the Emperor ordered an inquiry into the wounds. Larrey and the surgeons analyzed the evidence and determined that none of the suspects had self-inflicted wounds. When he told Napoleon, Napoleon was very grateful and thanked Larrey for having the courage to stick to his beliefs, saying, "Happy indeed is a sovereign in having a man like you at his side."4

The Hundred Days

After Napoleon's abdication in April of 1814, Larrey was well treated by the restored Bourbons. But the next year when Napoleon returned from exile for the Hundred Days, Larrey eagerly greeted him and welcomed him back to Paris. However, when Dr. Percy was selected as Chief Surgeon to the Army, Larrey refused to accept the position of Chief Surgeon to the Imperial Guard until his friend General Drouot convinced him otherwise. He set out to join the army on the 10th of June.

During the fighting at the Battle of Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington noticed a surgeon working on the wounded while under fire. Upon asking who it was and learning that it was Larrey, he directed his men to not fire in Larrey's direction and took off his hat in a salute to Larrey. When asked who he was saluting, Wellington pointed at Larrey and explained, "I salute the courage and devotion of an age that is no longer ours."5

After the French loss at Waterloo, Larrey, his ambulances, and his escort found their retreat blocked by a Prussian unit. They launched a charge to break through the Prussians, but Larrey was hit, knocked unconscious, and left for dead. Upon waking, he set off on his own, only to have a Prussian cavalry squadron hunt him down. All alone, he surrendered, but he was immediately manhandled and stripped of almost everything on him. The Prussians then took Larrey to their general, who ordered that he be shot. As a Prussian surgeon stepped forward to bandage his wound before his imminent execution, the surgeon recognized Larrey and convinced the general to not execute Larrey. Larrey was sent first to General Bülow, who improved his condition, giving him new clothes and untying his hands, and then sent him on to Field Marshal Blücher. Larrey had previously treated Blücher's son at Dresden, and Blücher treated him with respect and sent word to his wife that he was alive, as the French had thought Larrey was killed in the retreat from Waterloo.

In Napoleon's will, he called Larrey, "the most virtuous man I have ever known."6 At another time, Napoleon said, "If the Army were to erect a monument of the memory of any one man, it should be that of Larrey. All the wounded are his family."7

Recommended Biography: Larrey: Surgeon to Napoleon's Imperial Guard by Robert Richardson.



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Updated January 2017

© Nathan D. Jensen