He was fairly well-educated, and intended for the bar, but his father's death when he was still a boy made it necessary for him to seek his fortune, and he enlisted as a private in the French infantry in 1785. His superior education ensured his promotion to the rank of sergeant after six years' service, and in July 1791 be became instructor to the first battalion of volunteers of the Bas-Rhin. He served with his battalion in 1792. By 1794 he was adjutant-general (with the rank of chef de brigade). After the Battle of Fleurus (1794), in which he greatly distinguished himself for coolness, he was promoted general of brigade by the representatives on mission.
For the next five years he was constantly employed in Germany under Jourdan, Moreau, Kléber and Lefebvre, and in 1799 be was promoted general of division and ordered to proceed to Switzerland. It was at this time that he laid the foundations of his military fame, and he particularly distinguished himself in Masséna's great Swiss campaign, and especially at the Battle of Zürich (1799). He accompanied Masséna to Genoa, and acted as his principal lieutenant throughout the protracted siege of that city, during which he operated with a detached force without the walls, and after many successful actions he was wounded and taken prisoner at Monte Cretto on April 13 1800.
The victory of Marengo restoring his freedom, he received the command of the southern part of the kingdom of Naples, and in 1802 he was appointed one of the four generals commanding the consular guard. Though he was one of those generals who had served under Moreau, and who therefore, as a rule, disliked and despised Napoleon Bonaparte, Soult had the wisdom to show his devotion to the ruling power; in consequence he was in August 1803 appointed to the command-in-chief of the camp of Boulogne, and in May 1804 he was made one of the first marshals of France. He commanded a corps in the advance on Ulm, and at Austerlitz he led the decisive attack on the allied centre.
He played a great part in all the famous battles of the Grande Armée, except the Battle of Friedland (on the day of which he forced his way into Königsberg), and after the conclusion of the Peace of Tilsit he returned to France and was created (1808) duke of Dalmatia. In. the following year he was appointed to the command of the II corps of the army with which Napoleon intended to conquer Spain, and after winning the Battle of Gamonal he was detailed by the emperor to pursue Sir John Moore, with whom he only caught up at Corunna.
For the next four years Soult remained in Spain, and his military history is that of the Peninsular War. In 1809, after his defeat by Sir John Moore, he invaded Portugal and took Oporto, but, busying himself with the political settlement of his conquests in the French interests and, as he hoped, for his own ultimate benefit as a possible candidate for the throne, he neglected to advance upon Lisbon, and was eventually dislodged from Oporto by Arthur Wellesley, making a painful and almost disastrous retreat over the mountains. After the Battle of Talavera (1809) he was made chief of staff of the French troops in Spain with extended powers, and on November 19 1809 won the great victory of Ocafia.
In 1810 he invaded Andalusia, which he speedily reduced, with the exception of Cádiz. In 1811 he marched north into Extremadura, and took Badajoz, and when the Anglo-Portuguese army laid siege to it he marched to its rescue, and fought the famous battle of Albuera (May 16). In 1812, however, he was obliged, after the Duke of Wellington's great victory of Salamanca, to evacuate Andalusia, and was soon after recalled from Spain at the request of Joseph Bonaparte, with whom, as with the other marshals, he had always disagreed.
In March 1813 he assumed the command of the IV corps of the Grande Armée and commanded the centre at Lützen and Bautzen, but he was soon sent, with unlimited powers, to the south of France to repair the damage done by the great defeat of Vittoria. His campaign there is the finest proof of his genius as a general, although he was repeatedly defeated by the English under Wellington, for his soldiers were but raw conscripts, while those of Wellington were the veterans of many campaigns.
Such was the military career of Marshal Soult. His political career was by no means so creditable, and it has been said of him that he had character only in front of the enemy. After the first abdication of Napoleon (1814) he declared himself a Royalist, received the order of St Louis, and acted as minister for war from December 3 1814 to March 11 1815. When Napoleon returned from Elba, Soult at once declared himself a Bonapartist, was made a peer of France and acted as major-general (chief of staff) to the emperor in the campaign of Waterloo, in which role he distinguished himself far less than he had done as commander of an over-matched army.
At the Second Restoration (1815) he was exiled, but not for long, for in 1819 he was recalled and in 1820 again made a marshal of France. He once more tried to show himself a fervent Royalist and was made a peer in 1827. After the revolution of 1830 he made out that he was a partisan of Louis Philippe, who welcomed his support and revived for him the title of marshal-general. He served as minister for war from 1830 to 1834, as Prime Minister from 1832 to 1834, as ambassador extraordinary to London for the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1838, again as Prime Minister from 1839 to 1840 and 1840 to 1847, and again as minister for war from 1840 to 1844. In 1848, when Louis Philippe was overthrown, Soult again declared himself a republican. He died at his castle of Soultberg, near his birthplace.
Soult himself wrote but little. He published a memoir justifying his adhesion to Napoleon during the Hundred Days, and his notes and journals were arranged by his son Napoleon Hector (1801 - 1857), who published the first part (Mémoires du maréchal-général Soult) in 1854. Le Noble's Mémoires sur les operations des Français en Galicie are supposed to have been written from Soult papers.
See A Salle, Vie politique du maréchal Soult (Paris, 1834); A de Grozelier, Le Maréchal Soult (Castres, 1851); A Combes, Histoire anecdotique du maréchal Soult (Castres, 1869).
This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.