So the other day I did the vanity Google. Admit it. You have, too.
I don’t get past my first name before Google offers auto-completes like Al Jazeera, Al Pacino, and of course… Al Capone. But then right after that, Al Cambronne pops up pretty quickly. That’s me.
And if I simply search for “Cambronne?” There’s apparently a restaurant supply company called Cambro, and as long as I can remember I’ve been seeing their name on the bottom of those cheap red plastic glasses at pizza parlors. But immediately thereafter, up pops my name—Cambronne, a surname I share on the internet with a distant relative at a Minneapolis law firm, a cousin who’s an artist working in metal, and various other relatives who mostly live here in the Midwestern U.S.
In Paris, however, there’s the Paris Eiffel Cambronne Hotel, the Best Western Hotel Eiffel Cambronne, the Ibis Tour Eiffel Cambronne, the Hotel Carladez Cambronne, and dozens more hotels and very classy French restaurants—and by “French” I mean the kind that are actually located in France. They’re near the Cambronne Metro station at the Place Cambronne, and most are on the Rue Cambronne, one of my favorite streets in Paris. Theoretically, that is. I’ve never actually been there. But apparently there’s great pizza at a place on Rue Cambronne called Pizza Flora.
Nor have I been to Cambronne Street in New Orleans. But when I search for Cambronne Street, I see many real estate ads. From the prices, Cambronne Street looks like a pretty OK neighborhood. One ad describes a “large, gorgeous home” as being located on “mellow Cambronne street.” Yeah. That’s me. Not Easy Street, but Mellow Cambronne Street.
All these places, it turns out, are named after Pierre Cambronne, a heroic general of Napoleon’s who may or may not be an ancestor of mine. He fought and was wounded at the battle of Waterloo in 1815, and may or may not have said something quite noble, quite obscene, or both. The Battle of Waterloo, of course, gave us the idiom “to meet one’s Waterloo,” and that’s where Pierre Cambronne met his.
According to one newspaper account, when asked to surrender he replied “The Guard dies. It does not surrender.” After his death, these words were carved into the base of his statue. But since he surrendered at Waterloo, married the Scottish nurse who cared for him after his capture, retired to his home town of Nantes, and lived happily for 27 more years until dying there in 1842, more appropriate words might have been “The guard surrenders. It does not die.”
There is, however, another version of the story that’s gained much greater traction over the last two centuries. Legend has it that when asked to surrender Cambronne replied with more colorful language that was not later carved into the base of his statue. According to most sources, his defiant reply was brief and to the point: “Merde!” (“Shit!”). Even today, in polite company the French often use the euphemism “le mot de Cambronne” (the word of Cambronne). Although this is the version of the story told by Victor Hugo in Les Miserables, I’ve also heard vague rumors that Cambronne may have used even stronger language at Waterloo.
At any rate, on the rare occasions when I introduce myself to anyone from France who stayed awake in history class, they are always delighted to learn of my last name. I tell them I’m not sure, but yes, I might be related to Pierre. Yes, probably. I’m pretty sure.
The moral of the story: There’s nothing like a good story.
© 2014 Al Cambronne