Napoleon's return from Austerlitz had been triumphant. As he traversed the German states, crossing the Rhine, church bells rang as he passed beneath a long series of triumphal arches of flowers in one city after another. The people of Paris cheered even more loudly, giving balls and elegant dinners for this man who, only a few weeks earlier, had been thought to be finished, and with him his tinsel empire. As a part of these celebrations, Imperial Master of the Hunt Marshal Berthier gave hunting parties for Napoleon, including one of his Corsican favorites, a rabbit hunt. Berthier, who personally preferred stag, had gone to considerable trouble to buy approximately one thousand "hares."
On the day of the hunt all was in readiness, the rabbits in massive cages along the wooded sides of an open field, as several carriages finally appeared, Napoleon and his staff soon emerging in full hunting regalia. As Napoleon walked across the field, the signal was given to release the rabbits, and hundreds upon hundreds of black-and-white rabbits leaped forward, enjoying their new freedom. But as the intrepid hunters prepared to go in for the kill, the animals, instead of fleeing the the opposite direction, perversely turned straight for the hunters, coming at them in magnificent bounds.
At first Napoleon could not believe his eyes, nor could anyone else, laughing at the comic absurdity of the whole thing. But laughter soon gave way to perplexity, and perplexity to concern, as the hundreds of animals continued to head directly for Napoleon. Finally a bit anxious himself, he turned and ordered those around him, even the coachmen and postilions, to grab sticks and chase away the insolent animals now poking fun at the emperor's reputation as a distinguished huntsman. But all to no avail. They swarmed around Napoleon, entwining themselves between his legs, even leaping into his arms. He tried beating them off with his riding crop, but more arrived. At last his aides-de-camp and coachmen came to his rescue and got him back safely into his carriage, though it too was quickly besieged.
It had been a narrow escape! A furious Berthier, humiliated by the absurd event, learned only afterward that his men, instead of trapping hares, had purchased a thousand tame rabbits--due to be used for pâté--from farmers. And the mighty victor of Austerlitz, who had soundly defeated a combined force of 85,000 Russian and Austrian troops armed with cannon, muskets, and sabers, had now ignominiously scurried off another battlefield, pursued by a a thousand unarmed rabbits, who had mistaken him for the kindly man who was due to give them their daily feed.