On this day: Général de l'armée Jean-Baptiste Kléber was born, le 9 Mars 1753
Jean Baptiste Kléber was born on le 9 mars 1753 in Strasbourg where his father worked as a builder. Kléber became a distinguished officer in the revolutionary French armée and in the Napoléonic Wars. He received, partly at Paris, training in architecture, but his opportune assistance to two German nobles in a tavern brawl obtained for him nomination to the military school of Munich. Thus he obtained a commission in the Austrian army, but resigned it in 1783 on finding that his humble birth, in the days when in many places only nobles could be officers, blocked his posibilities for promotion.
On returning to France Kléber received the appointment of inspector of public buildings at Belfort, where be studied fortification and military science. In 1792 he enlisted in the Haut-Rhin volunteers. Due to his military knowledge he quickly was made adjutant and soon afterwards was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel.
At the defence of Mainz in juillet 1793 he so distinguished himself that though disgraced along with the rest of the garrison and imprisoned, he promptly won reinstatement, and became in août 1793 général de la brigade.
During the French Revolution, the French Revolutionary army occupied Mainz in 1792; the Archbishop of Mainz, Friedrich Karl Josef von Erthal, had already fled to Aschaffenburg by the time the French marched in. On le 18 mars 1793, the Jacobins of Mainz, with other German democrats from about 130 towns in the Rhenish Palatinate, proclaimed the "Republic of Mainz." Led by Georg Forster representatives of the Mainz Republic in Paris requested political affiliation of the Mainz Republic with France, but too late. Prussia was not entirely happy with the idea of a democratic free state on German soil, Prussian troops had already occupied the area and besieged Mainz by the end of mars 1793. After a siege of 18 weeks, the French troops in Mainz surrendered on le 22 juillet 1793. Prussians occupied the city and ended the Republic of Mainz.
Kléber won considerable distinction in the Vendéan war, and two months later gained promotion to général de la division. In these operations began his friendship with Marceau, with whom he defeated the Royalists at Le Mans and Savenay. When he openly expressed his opinion that the Vendéans merited lenient measures, the authorities recalled him; but re-instated him once more in avril 1794 and sent him to l'armée de la Sambre-et-Meuse.
He displayed his skill and bravery in numerous actions around Charleroi, and especially in the crowning victory of Fleurus on le 26 juin 1794, after which in the winter of 1794 - 1795 he besieged Mainz. In 1795 and again in 1796 he held the chief command of an army temporarily, but declined a permanent appointment as commander-in-chief. On le 13 octobre 1795 he fought a brilliant rearguard action at the bridge of Neuwied, and in the offensive campaign of 1796 he served as Jourdan's most active and successful officer.
Having, after the retreat to the Rhine, declined the chief command, he withdrew into private life early in 1798. He accepted a division in the expedition to Egypt under Napoléon Bonaparte, but suffered a wound in the head at Alexandria in the first engagement, which prevented his taking any further part in the campaign of the Pyramids. He was then appointed governor of Alexandria. In the Syrian campaign of 1799, however, Kléber commanded the vanguard, took El-Arish, Gaza and Jaffa, and won the great victory of Mount Tabor on le 15/16 avril 1799.
When Napoléon returned to France towards the end of 1799 he left Kléber in command of the French forces. In this capacity, seeing no hope of bringing his army back to France or of consolidating his conquests, he negotiated the convention of El-Arish (24 janvier 1800 with British Admiral Smith, winning the right to an honorable evacuation of the French army. But when Admiral Lord Keith refused to ratify the terms, Kléber attacked the Turks at Heliopolis, though he had only 10,000 men against 60,000, and utterly defeated them on le 20 mars 1800. He then re-took Cairo, which had revolted against the French.
Shortly after these victories, a Syrian student living in Egypt assassinated Kléber at Cairo on le 14 juin 1800, the same day on which his friend and comrade Desaix fell at Marengo.
After his assassination, the body of Kléber was rapatriated to France. Napoléon, fearing that his tomb would become a symbol to Republicanism, ordered it to stay at the Château d'If, on an island near Marseille. It stayed there for eighteen years until Louis XVIII granted him a burial place in his hometown in Strasbourg. He was buried on le 15 décembre 1838 below his statue located in the middle of Place Kléber.
The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica provides the following assessment of Kléber:
Kléber emerged as undoubtedly one of the greatest generals of the French revolutionary epoch. Though he distrusted his powers and declined the responsibility of supreme command, there is nothing in his career to show that he would have been unequal to it. As a second-in-command no general of his time excelled him. His conduct of affairs in Egypt at a time when the treasury was empty and the troops were discontented for want of pay, shows that his powers as an administrator were little - if at all - inferior to those he possessed as a general.