The French Army 1600-1900
Royal ~ Revolutionary ~ Imperial
"The army will never forget that under Napoleon's eagles,
deserving men of courage and intelligence were raised
to the highest levels of society. Simple soldiers became
marshals, princes, dukes and kings. The French soldier
had become an equal citizen by right and by glory."

- - Introduction.

1. King Louis XIV's (Sun King) Royal Army.

2. The Royal Army in 1700-1790.

3. The Revolutionary Army.

4. The Imperial Army. (Napoleonic)
. . 1803-1807 1808-11 1812 1813 1814 1815

5. The Royal Army is Back.

6. The French Army in 1850-1900.

French military success provided
a model of standardization and
professionalism followed by many
European armies and leaders.
Until World War I, commanders and nations
throughout the world hoped to reproduce
Napoleon's lightning campaigns.
French military expertise was often
sought by other nations.

General Delzons at Maloyaroslavetz, 1812.
Picture by Avierianov, Russia.
Picture: General Delzons with Napoleonic infantry in the
battle of Maloyaroslavetz. Russia 1812. Picture by Avierianov, Russia.

"The attack was the natural way for Frenchmen to fight.
British beef and German sausage might create specialists
in the art of standing still under fire but the mercurial
Frenchman could not be so inhibited." Griffith - "Military Thought ..."

"My soldiers are as brave as it is possible to be,
but they argue too much. If they had the
impassible firmness and the docility of the Russians
the world not be great enough for me." - Napoleon

"French military success provided
a model of standardization
and professionalism followed by
many European armies and leaders."
- 2005

"... the French soldier is everywhere acknowledged
to be the first for elan and movement"
- Lamartine in Chamber of Deputies

"Conceptions about French military prowess go back for centuries, but they first became prevalent during the reign of Louis XIV, when French military hegemony both inspired and angered many Europeans. A series of coalitions formed against France in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, but all failed in their stated objectives of rolling back the extensive French territorial conquests. French military success provided a model of standardization and professionalism followed by many European armies and leaders, who regarded the likes of Turenne and Vauban as the foremost military men of the age.
Emperor Napoleon and French infantry
with captured Allies Colors. During the reign of Napoleon in the early nineteenth century, France reached the height of its power. By 1807, after spectacular triumphs at Austerlitz, ( Jena ( and Friedland, many Europeans believed the French were invincible. The French Empire was eventually defeated, but memories about the Napoleonic Wars lingered.
Until World War I, commanders and nations throughout the world hoped to reproduce Napoleon's lightning campaigns. Several military leaders in the American Civil War, like George McClellan, often styled themselves after the erstwhile French Emperor and hoped to emulate his triumphs.
French military expertise was often sought by other nations. In the 1730s, French delegates attempted to modernize and improve Ottoman artillery. In the 19th century, while undergoing modernization, Japan requested guidance from French military officers about how to best restructure its armed forces. In the Polish_Soviet War, the French were part of an interallied mission to Poland and even started a military mission in that nation which attempted to improve Polish organization, logistics, and planning." (- 2005)


"The Section historique of the French general staff,
... provides one measure of the military's interests;
it published 80 volumes on the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars
but only 6 specialized studies dealing with the reign of Louis XIV."
- John Lynn - "Giant of the Grand Siecle"

King Louis XIV (Sun King) and His Army.
Under Louis XIV France became World power.
France's cultural influence had never been so profound
and French language spread across Europe.

"The glare of Napoleonic brilliance outshone the radiance of the Sun King. The Napoleonic Wars have probably attracted more attention from 19th and 20th century readers than any other period of French military history. Library shelves groan under the weight of works on the campaigns of Napoleon, yet to my knowldge the only complete history of the campaigns of Louis XIV was written in the first half of the 18th Century ... The Section historique of the French general staff, which operated between 1899 and 1914, provides one measure of the military's interests; it published 80 volumes on the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars but only 6 specialized studies dealing with the reign of Louis XIV.
After all, the emperor had marched his armies across Europe, from Lisbon to Moscow, while Louis' forces ventured less far from home. Napoleon's wars were short and decisive, brought to a hea in climatic battles, at least until the debacle of 1812 (Invasion of Russia), while Louis' conflicts dragged on as long, indecisive, and costly wars of attrition. In short, there seemed to be more to be learned from a study of Napoleon's military genius. To this day, war colleges dissect the Ulm-Austerlitz and Jena-Auerstadt Campaigns, but they have little interest in the siege-dominated wars fought by Louis' great generals." (Lynn - "Giant of the Grand Siecle: The French Army")

King Louis XIV, The Sun King Under King Louis XIV "The Sun King" the French army had been the world's finest army. Military service represented a living of sorts for the French nobility and gentry, a source of prestige. The classification of 'French' infantry denoted troops recruited from men born and raised in France. These regiments were called infanterie francaise as opposed to the mercenary infantry recruited elsewhere. The officers and men were to be of the Roman Catholic faith, the official state religion. Recruiting parties went to towns and villages looking for likely volunteers, inducing them to enlist with the usual promises – wines, money, fast women, and glory.

The greycoats led by de Turenne (picture, won numerous battles until Eugene of Savoy (picture, and Duke of Marlborough (picture, broke their reputation but not their spirit. Louis XIV regarded himself a soldier. From the age of 12 he spent a great deal of time with his troops. Only advancing years forced him to forgo such activity. Louis never commanded a battle in the open field, though he came close to doing so at Heurtbise in 1676. He was excellent organizer and administrator.

Louis' wars were great conflicts, mobilizing huge armies for long periods of time. "The period 1661-1715 saw diminished violence within the borders of France because better-paid and better-disciplined soldiers didn't prey on Louis' own subjects, because the success of French arms meant that wars were fought primarily outside his realm, and because France was largely spared internal rebellions. ...
Richelieu classed war as 'an inevitable evil' but 'absolutely necessary'; it was, in short, a fact of life. [In 1624, Louis XIII elevated ... Cardinal Richelieu to the powerful position of first minister. Richelieu harbored a strong and lasting desire to increase French prestige by toppling the Spanish. He saw France encircled on her land borders by Hapsburg holdings; Spain to the south, the Spanish Netherlands to the north, and a string of territories belonging to Spain and her Allies running from the Netherlands down through Italy, what was known at the time as the Spanish Road ...] (Lynn- "Giant of the Grand Siecle: The French Army" pp 13-14)

After war broke out in Europe between France and England in the 1680s, the two nations regularly sent expeditions to raid and capture each other's fur trading posts in America. In March 1686, the French sent a raiding party under des Troyes over 1300 km to capture the British Hudson Bay Company's (map, posts along James Bay. (HBC is the oldest commercial corporation in North America and is one of the oldest in the world.) The French appointed Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville, who had shown extreme heroism during the raids, as commander of the company's captured posts. In 1697, d'Iberville commanded a French naval raid on the company's headquarters at York Factory. (picture, On the way to the fort, he defeated the ships of the Royal Navy in the Battle of the Bay, the largest naval battle in the history of the North American Arctic.

Spanish invasion in 1636 threatened Paris.
The Battle of Rocroi put an end to the supremacy of Spanish military
and inaugurated a long period of French military predominance.

A Spanish invasion in 1636 threatened Paris and years of indecisive campaigns followed. Richelieu died in 1642, and Louis XIII died in the next year, passing the throne to his 4 years old son, Louis XIV. A few days later the French army won a victory of major proportions at Rocroi. At Rocroi the French led by Duke d'Enghien defeated the hated Spaniards.
Battle of Rocroi 1643 The Battle of Rocroi 1643 was the first major defeat of the Spanish army in a century, although historians have noted that German, Walloon, and Italian troops actually surrendered first, while the Spanish infantry cracked only after repeated cavalry charges. The French carried out a huge cavalry encirclement, sweeping behind the Spanish army and smashing their way through to attack the rear of the Spanish cavalry that was still in combat with the reserves. The Battle of Rocroi put an end to the supremacy of Spanish military doctrine and inaugurated a long period of French military predominance.

Louis XIV enjoyed a great military inheritance as he began his personal reign. Even after demobilization, his army remained large and skilled, in Turenne (picture, and Conde, now back in Frencgh service, he probably had the best field commanders in Europe.
"A young king with a lust for glory would not let such a fine military instrument grow dull from disuse. ... Louis plotted to chastise the Dutch and continue his acquisitions of Spanish lands. He carefully isolated the Dutch from their allies and struck in 1672. This Dutch War, 1672-8, began with an invasion, masterfully supported and supplied by Louvois ... Louis intended to defeat and humble the Dutch so as to force them to give him a free hand in the Spanish Netherlands, but he failed." (Lynn, - pp 16-17)
The Dutch War 1672-8 was also called the Franco-Dutch War. The British were France's ally, having fought already two wars against the Dutch For the British, this war became the Third Anglo-Dutch War. (However, in 1674 the British switched alliances and fought for the Dutch.)

The era 1610-1715 was an age of warfare throughout.
At Neerwinden casualties were heavy: 9,000 French and 19,000 British and Allies
French Marshal Luxembourg captured so many British and Allies flags that
he could make a "tapestry" with them inside the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris.

Battle of Neervinden in 1693,
great French victory In 1693 at the famous battle of Neerwinden (also called Battle of Landen) Marshal Luxembourg led 75,000 men in victory over William III of England's 50,000 men protected by field fortifications. The French assaulted the allied position three times before the French cavalry penetrated the allied defenses. The French surprising the British and Allies in the act of maneuvering, rode over every body of troops they met, and nothing remained for the Allies but a hurried retreat over the Gete River. Casualties were heavy: 9,000 French and 19,000 British and Allies were killed, wounded and taken prisoner. Luxembourg captured so many British and Allies flags that he could make a "tapestry" with them inside the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris. For this reason he was nicknamed le Tapissier de Notre-Dame. Several flag trophies of the colonial period are still displayed in the St. Louis-des-Invalides' church.

Battle of Turin 1706.
Eugene of Savoy 
drove the French 
out of Italy. The era 1610-1715 was an age of warfare throughout.
"The War of the Spanish Succession, 1701-14, proved to be the longest and most exhausting war of Louis' personal reign. The Duke of Marlborough, perhaps England's greatest general, led British forces, while Prince Eugene of Savoy, an excellent general in his own right, commanded the main Imperial armies. For years, the French could not find a winning commander, and disaster followed didaster. At the Battle of Blenheim, 1704, (picture, the allied team of generals so devastated the French army before them that the French would not again venture deep into Germany. At the battle of Turin in 1706, (picture, Eugene essentially drove the French out of Italy, while Marlborough and Eugene won battles at Ramilles, 1706, and Oudenarde, 1708, that secured the Spanish Netherlands for the Allies. ... In September of that year [1709] at the battle of Malplaquet, Villars (90,000 men) confronted Marlborough and Eugene (100,000-120,000 men). Although the French lost that battle, they retired in good order and inflicted such great casualties that Marlborough would not again face the French in the open field." (Lynn, - p 19)

Villars then defeated the Allies at Denain in 1712 (picture, and captured number of cities and fortresses along the Rhine River. It was a bloody battle. Eugene of Savoy with 100,000 men intended to force a battle with Villars' 120,000 troops. However, the sudden withdrawal of English troops, led to the allied army being halted. Villars took advantage to launch a bayonet attack on a portion of Eugene's army. Chaos filled the scene. The attack however, was repulsed by the reserves. The French counterattacked, pushing the Allies into the river. The Allies suffered 18,000 casualties, the French 5,000.

Strength of the French Army.
In the end of XVII century, European warfare pitted collosal armies
against one another - armies that dwarfed those of the past.

According to John A. Lynn in the end of XVII century, European warfare pitted collosal armies against one another - armies that dwarfed those of the past. France boasted the greatest of these Goliaths, a force that totaled as many as 420,000 soldiers, at least on paper.

The Dutch War high attained 279,610 men. This combined 219,000 infantry with 60,360 cavalry, while 116,000 of the total served in garrisons. A financial etat dating from the 1690s gives a detailed accounting of 343,300 infantry and 67,300 cavalry, not including officers. After war the strength of the army sharply decreased and numerous regiments had been disbanded. The size of individual French armies in the field varied. During the Dutch War the average size of army in battle rose to 24,500 men.

Growth of the French army 1600-1760
Time period
peace high
war high
war high
(1610-15) 10,000 55,000 ?
Thirty Years' War (1635-1648) ? 200,000 125,000
War of Devolution (1667-8) ? 134,000 ?
Dutch War (1672-8) ? 279,600 253,000
Nine Years' War (1688-1697) ? 420,000 340,000
War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) 145,000 380,000 255,000
War of the Austrian Succession (1740-8) 145,000 390,000 ?

King Louis XIV achieved greater regularity; early in his reign, French infantry battalions usually included 12 companies, 50 men each. The German mercenary companies claimed 100 men each. Before long, grenadier companies were added to French battalions. The number of companies in battalion increased to 16 by the close of the Dutch War. Regiments varied in size, majority included 3 battalions. The regiments of the Guard had 6 battalions each. In 1710 one infantry regiment had 5 battalions, one had 4, and eleven had 3, the rest had only 2 battalions or a single battalion.

Uniforms and Weapons.
In 1685 was issued order prescribing
particular colors for regiments.

Army of King Louis XIV.
Picture by Eugene Leliepvre. Picture: army of King Louis XIV, by Eugene Leliepvre.

The dress of the soldiers was standardized. Musketeers were more likely to wear simply a loose coat and broad brimmed hat. The infantrymen and officers wore stocking and shoes rather than boots, unless the officers were mounted. Durign the reign of Louis XIV the most prominent piece of military clothing became the justaucorps, a coat reaching to the knees, decorated with a row of buttons down the front. Cavalry wore heavy tall bots and spurs, while dragoons wore shoes and gaiters to allow them to move more freely on foot. Cavalry were likely to adorn themselves more elegantly than infantry. Instead of regimental and national uniforms, regiments and entire armies declared their allegiance by wearing emblems or tokens stuck in the hatband or some other convenient place.

In 1685 was issued order prescribing particular colors for regiments, blue for the Guard and the royal regiments, red for the Swiss regiments and gray-white for regular French infantry. In 1690 was prescribed color for each regiment; for eighty eight regiments it was gray with red reverses and for fourteen royal and princely regiments it was blue. Although the army would seem to have adopted uniforms for regular regimens during the Nine Years' War, the first regulation detailing the fabric, color, and cut of uniforms in detail appeared
in 1704.

The infantry was armed with muskets, fusils and pikes. Musket was the basic weapon, while fusil became the standard firearm by 1700. There was no shortage of weapons, the army may have been bootles, shoeless and very hungry but they had firearms and gunpowder.

Privates and Officers.
France was 'always filled with an idle and seething [aristocratic] youth,
ready to undertake anything, and who seek to exercise their valor
regardless of the expense.'

"The most common method of recruitment in wartime, recolage, relied neither upon personal contacts of officers in their home provinces not upon compulsion organized by royal officials, but upon the labor and lure of recruiting parties dispatched to the towns and cities of France. When a recruiting party arrived in a town, the officer in charge had first to secure permission from the local authorities, who might be highly reluctant to grant it. Once given the right to proceed, recruiters advertised their presence. Recruiters' drums must have been a common sound in the larger towns ... After a dramatic drum roll, the recruiter addressed those attracted by the racket, urging the young men to sign up ... Recolage was open to many abuses, and military authorities did little to stop them, save for issuing pious words. Liquor played more of a role than simply solemnizing a contract. Many a recruiter got his prey drunk, before springing the trap." (Lynn, pp 358-9)

Recruiters not only grabbed men off the streets, they sometimes invded private homes and churches to kidnap male inhabitants ! On average, the French soldiers enlisted during the Thirty Years' War at the age of 24. Approx. 55 % of Louis' soldiers were between the ages of 20 and 30. The king did not set height requirements, except for the Guard. The average height of French soldier was 5'3" (or English 5'7") and was in that time an average height. In comparison, the average American soldier during the Civil War was 5'8" tall.

Composition of the French army in 1716
urban (%)
rural (%)
infantry corporals
dragoons corporals
cavalry corporals

The officers led from the front, braving the same dangers that their men faced. There was honor to be won on the battlefield - honor to be won at any price. Like Louis XIV, his officer corps pursued gloire. According to John A. Lynn the quest to attain glory by publicly fulfilling the demands of honor explains the undeniable taste for war on the part of the French aristocracy. A 1601 Guide des courtesans noted: 'I hear our young nobility murmur against the peace which limits them from displaying what they have of good in their souls. They can appease their warrior ardors by taking themselves, with the leave of their prince, to some just war outside their country.' Louis XIV noted the enthusiasm of nobles to raise units to serve him.

A young man intent on an officer's career could serve an apprenticeship as a cadet or a volunteer.The ensign ranked as the lowest commissioned officer with command responsibility in the infantry, a position paralleled by the cornet in the cavalry. Captains led companies. They bought their commands and thus owned venal charges. Grenadier companies stood outside the purchase system, therefore their commissions belonged to the king. It opened the door to men promoted from the ranks. Colonels commanded, and almost always, owned regiments.
The French repeatedly claimed a suppossedly rare and special fighting spirit for their nobility. Vauban considered that French officers were 'the best in the world' and that 'all the nation loves war and takes up the profession of war every time that it finds in it some promise of elevation and of the ability to subsist with honor.

Lisola, a Spaniard (and enemy of France), described France as 'always filled with an idle and seething [aristocratic] youth, ready to undertake anything, and who seek to exercise their valor regardless of the expense.' But the aristocracy's code of honor assumed a strictly hierachical society and disregarded the lower classes as unworthy. Officers seemed to expect deferences and turned to violance to punish those who refused to grant it. For example, several subaltern officers of artillery ran amok in Grenoble in 1694 and attacked passerby, eventually, a crowd cornered them and killed two in the final fray.

The soldiers were expected to embrace obedience and display courage out of desire to avoid coercion if they could not be inspired by higher appeals. Troops that had behaved disgracefully were punished by executing soldiers drawn by lot from the offending unit. The army was better paid than under Louis XIII. The consequences of lack of pay went beyond the privations of individual soldiers and officers. Pushed to its extreme, lack of pay inspired mutiny. In 1635 the French army mutined and sacked Tirlemont, massacring its inhabitants. The war with Spain was filled with countless acts of mutiny on a small scale in which troops simply went on rampage.

Three Musketeers. In 1600, King of France Henry IV formed the Musketeers, an elite force to serve as his guard. They had a strict code of ethics that they lived by and were held to be the most renown fighters of their day. Without Dumas' great tale of the 'Three Musketeers', this group of military men would have doubtless faded into history. The Three Musketeers (Les Trois Mousquetaires) is a novel by Alexandre Dumas. It recounts the adventures of a young man named d'Artagnan after he leaves home to become a musketeer. D'Artagnan is not one of the musketeers of the title; those are his friends Athos, Porthos, and Aramis - inseparable men who chant the motto "One for all, and all for one." The Three Musketeers continues, after a century and a half of continuous publication, to define the genre of swashbuckling romance and historical adventure. In "Great Foreign Language Writers", Barnett Shaw wrote, "Two hundred years from now, you can be sure that at any given moment, someone, in some far-off place, will be reading "The Three Musketeers" or "The Count of Monte Cristo" in one of the dozens of languages into which Dumas has been translated."


"Another problem was the drastic differences
between French and American attitudes toward,
and treatment of British POWs. For the French,
the current conflict was but the latest in a long
series of conventional wars against a traditional enemy ...
The officers of the French and English armies shared
a comparable social background a cosmopolitan culture,
and the same professional values. Consequently, the French
socialized with, entertained, and even loaned funds
to their unfortunate brothers in arms from Cornwallis' forces."
Scott - "From Yorktown to Valmy" 1998

The Royal Army in 1700-1790.
Wars in Europe, America, Asia and Africa.

Under the careless and profoundly timid King Louis XV
the army slumped into slow decay.
The skilled generals were replaced with those whose
ability was that of pleasing Madame de Pompadour.
She was king's mistress and ruled France and its armies
with a pout and smile. They were more concerned with
hair powder, dances and women.

King Louis XV. The 18th century saw France remain the dominant power in Europe, but begin to falter largely because of internal problems. The country engaged in a long series of wars, such as the War of the Quadruple Alliance, the War of the Polish Succession, and the War of the Austrian Succession.

The Royal Army was a typical 18th century force. The ranks were filled with mercenaries, volunteers, adventurers and others. The discipline was harsh (a soldier who struck an officer had his offending hand chopped off before he was hanged) and the morale low. The Royal Army used linear tactics, copied from Prussian system.

King Louis XV's army.
France maintained the largest
standing army in Europe.

The first 20 years of Louis XV were generally peaceful, a marked contrast to the war-like disposition of Louis XIV (Sun King). France had a population of 25 million and maintained the largest standing army in Europe. It consisted of the following trops:

  • - guard cavalry
    - - - - - - Life Guards (Garde du Corps) had 4 companies (350-420 each) on black horses
    - - - - - - Gendarmes (Gendarmes de la Garde) had 1 company (220 men) on bay horses
    - - - - - - Lighthorse of the Guard (Chevauxx-legers de la Garde) had 1 company (220 men) on bay horses
    - - - - - - Horse Grenadiers (Grenadiers a Cheval de la Garde) had 1 company (140 men) on bay horses
    - - - - - - Musketeers (Mousquetaire de la Garde) had 2 companies (240 men each) on black and grey horses
    - - - - - - Life Guards of the King of Poland had 2 companies (75 men each) on bay horses
    - - - - - - [Queen of France was a Polish princess, whose father, King Stanislav Leszczynski, was exiled in 1737.]
  • - guard infantry
    - - - - - - - French Guards (Gardes-Francaises) had 6 battalions (1000-1200 each)
    - - - - - - - Swiss Guards
  • - cavalry
    - - - - - - - - Gendarmes of France (Gendarmerie de France) had 16 companies
    - - - - - - - - heavy cavalry had 60 regiments (incl. 3 German, 1 Irish, 1 Belgian)
    - - - - - - - - carabiniers had 5 regiments called brigades
    - - - - - - - - dragoons had 17 regiments
  • - line infantry
    - - - - - - - in 1740 were 155 battalions (on average each had 540 men)
    - - - - - - - in 1747 were 227 battalions
    - - - - - - - in 1750 were 172 battalions
    - - - - - - - in 1762 were 187 battalions (on average each had 630 men)
    The battalions were formed in regiments. Only the senior regiments had more than one battalion, but most had a single battalion. "Until 1718 each battalion had 1 grenadier and 14 fusilier companies, this was then reduced to 1 grenadier and 8 fusilier. This was raised agan to 15 companies in 1734, then dropped to 13 companies from 1749. In 1756 the number of companies was raised to 17 per battalion." (Chartrand - "Louis XV's Army (2) French Infantry." p 5) The company had approx. 40 men. In 1757 each battalion going on campaign in central Europe received a light-calibre cannon with limber and 3 horses.
  • - militia
    - - - - - - - Provincial Militia had 100-120 battalions (on average each had 600 men)
    - - - - - - - Coast Guard Militia
    - - - - - - - Bourgeois Militia
    The Provincial Militia was drafted for garrison duty but they were also used as army reserves and considered part of the royal forces and listed as such in the army registers.

    In 1780s reaction reigned supreme over the French military administration. In 1781 the courtiers extorted from Segur, the Minister of War, against his will, a royal decree to the effect that every candidate for a commission must satisfy the court genealogist that he was possessed of 16 quarters of nobility ! The effect of this was to shut the doors of the army in the face of the rising middle class.

    The Seven Years' War (1756–1763)
    "The inglorious performance of French arms
    in the wars of the mid 18th century
    - particularly in the disastrous Seven Years' War
    sent shockwaves through French society.

    The Prussian army in that time enjoyed reputation as one of the best trained, the most disciplined and one of the best led (Frederick the Great, Zieten, Seydlitz and other generals). The Prussians wore simpler dress than the French army with its many lackeys, cooks, courtesans, actors and chaplains, friseurs and valets, chests full of perfumes, hair nets, sun shades and parrots.

    "At the time of the Seven Years' War the constitution of the royal army was as heterogeneous as that of the France which maintained it. There were, first of all, a number of regiments of household troops doing duty at the palaces, and of French and of Swiss Guards. Of the line regiments some bore titles of the great noblemen who had originally raised them, others names of the several provinces of France. Some were managed under the authority of the Minister of War, while in others the companies were farmed by their captains, who were allowed and accustomed to make a profit on the transaction. A quarter of the regiments were composed of foreigners, Germans, Swiss, Scots, Irishmen, and Flemings, and these were governed by the military laws and customns of their own countries.
    The ranks of the French regiments were filled by voluntary enlistment, that is by the wles of the recruiting sergeants and the temptations of bounty. The recruits were engaged for 8 years on a pay of six or eight sous a day, from which deductions were made for provisions and clothing. They were drawn from among the less fortunate of the poorer class, the idlers of the towns, and the unemployed of town and country. The bourgeoisie remained outside the army."
    Besides the regular army there was a militia, raised among the rural population by ballot, from which, however, there were so many exemptions that it prssed heavily on the poorer classes and was intensely disliked. ... After the Seven Years' War the Duc de Broglie said one day that the principal cause of the mistakes which he had seen committed was the complete ignorance of the officers, from the sub-lieutenants to the lieutenants-generals, of the duties of their position and of the details of which they ought to be masters. Most of the officers were as extravagant and luxurious, even in the field, as they were ignorant, too ready to satisfy their inordinate wants by plunder, and thus to set to their men an example of indiscipline which, when it was followed, they were unable to repress.
    Yet in spite of this and other elements of weakness, the army of the Seven Years' War, when commanded by good soldiers, had proved capable of rapid movements, of complicated evolutions, and of prolonged endurance. Its failures were due not so much to the defects of its organization, equipment, and training, as to the lack of unity of command. In the 18th century the French state was the French monarchy, and the King himself the main-spring of the machine. If it was to work the King must give the impulse. But Louis XV was there to enjoy himself, and he handed over the State to those who amused or distracted him - during the Seven Years' War, chiefly to Madame de Pompadour. ... (see picture -->)
    Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, 
Marquise (later Duchesse) 
de Pompadour Ministers and generals were appointed, not for their aptitude to administer France or to command armies, but according to their attitude toward the lady at the head of affairs. In 6 years the armies were commanded by 6 generals, only one of whom, the Marechal de Broglie, understood his business, and his success was rewarded, first by the division of his command and then by his dismissal and exile.
    The first effect of this system was to destroy the discipline of the army, which could have no confidence in commanders, the causes of whose appointment were no secret, and whose incompetence was manifest. Even those officers who knew their business were aware that their career depended not upon success but upon favour. The army became a hotbed of intrigue, and great strength of character was required to enable an officer in any position of responsibility to be guided solely by his sense of duty." (Wilkinson, Spenser - "The French army before Napoleon; lectures delivered before the University of Oxford ..." pp 84-88)

    Battle of Rossbach.
Prussian victory. In 1757 at Rossbach the Prussian army (22,000 men) under Frederick the Great defeated the French and German armies (54,000 men) under Marshal Prince de Soubise. About 3,500 Prussian horsemen had defeated an entire army of two combined European superpowers. Frederick was heard to say "I won the battle of Rossbach with most of my infantry having their muskets shouldered." Casualties: 550 Prussians and 5,000 French and Germans !

    "The inglorious performance of French arms in the wars of the mid 18th century - particularly in the disastrous Seven Years' war - sent shockwaves through French society. Nowhere was the humiliation of defeat felt more sharply than in the army. There, the perception of military decline prompted reformers to enact a series of profesionalizing measures which transformed the French army." The Seven Years War sparked genuine progress in military. And it was in France most particularly that substantive developments occurred. Merely noting the contributions of the various individuals involved gives some idea of the scale and scope of the reforms undertaken by the French. Thus, Marshal de Broglie, a veteran commander of The Seven Years' War, developed the idea of the division as an administrative and tactical formation and introduced the use of light infantry and skirmish tactics into the French service.
    Jacques Antoine Hippolyte, 
Comte De Guibert Jacques de Guibert, scion of a military family, wrote extensively on tactics, proposing reliance not on column or on line, but rather a series of flexible tactical formations, each suited to particular circumstances. De Guibert supported the idea of light infantry and skirmish tactics and advocated reform of the artillery and the establishment of permanent divisions. He also advanced the revolutionary notion that all citizens were liable for military service. Jean Baptiste de Gribeauval, a seasoned gunner, sparked and sponsored a total reorganization and reform of the French artillery upon attaining the lofty status of Inspector General of that arm. He promoted the redisign of guns and carriages, standardized calibers, and introduced new approaches to tactical deployment. To foster increased professionalism and reliability de Gribeauval secured the replacement of the customary civilian contractor gunners with trained soldiers. (- Loraine Petre)

    Pierre Joseph de Bourcet, a seasoned campaigner and military educator, wrote extensively on organization and strategy, advocating the permanent division of armies into self-contained, relatively large subordinate bodies of all arms capable of undertaking limited independent operations for short periods. He suggested that in this fashion an army of considerable size could advance with great speed, agility, and flexibility, for each body of the army - corps d'armee - could move along parallel routes of march toward the same objective, while remaining within supporting distance of the balance of the army.

    Jean du Teil and his brother Jean-Pierre, both gunners, advocated increased mobility on the battlefield, the use of artillery as an offensive arm, to prepare and support infantry attacks, and sounder preparation of officers.

    None of these changes came easily. Most of the reformers believed that France's weakness was not merely the result of the inadequacy of her military institutions, but was due also to her antiquated political, social, and economic institutions. So most of them supported the Revolution when it came in 1789. In the process of rebuilding France, the Revolutionary government put the finishing touches on the military reforms.

    War in America and Canada.
    France's major weakness in Americas was in numbers,
    there were only 80,000 French colonists.
    In contrast there were 1,500,000 mln British colonists.

    Map: Territory and population of French (blue), British (red), and Spanish (yellow) colonies in North America.

    In the late 17th and much of the 18th century, the colonial powers (Spain, Britain, and France) fought a series of wars for control of America: King William's War (1689-97), Queen Anne's War (1702-13), King George's War (1744-48), and the French and Indian War. They are usually referred to en masse by the name of the last war; bestowed from the Anglo-American perspective.

    The whole american continent, with the exception of the few British colonies on the east cost and Spanish holdings in the south was claimed by France as 'New France.'
    By 1663 France out of a population of 16 million, approx. double the size of England which sent out 40,000 settlers to New England, had provided Canada with only 2,500 settlers (!). Most of these were confined to three small settlements: Quebec, Montreal and Three Rivers.

    As the 17th century drew to a close the French were filled with a sense of accomplishment. They could contemplate a colony stretching along the St. Lawrence for a couple of hundred miles as well as other smaller settlements in Acadia, Cape Breton, Isle de St. Jean and Terre-Neuve. In addition French explorers had penetrated into the distant recesses of the continent, writing as they did so a chapter in exploration that ranks with the greatest. Great figures of New France "that emerged into the white light of historical importance" began with Cartier and Champlain and included La Salle, Talon, Frontenac and Laval. They found in Canada the chances and the challenges to match their talents and characteristics and they used these to open a vast new continent and create a great new country - Canada. (W.R.Wilson - "Early Canada Historical Narratives -LA BELLE PROVINCE")

    With strategic points along the St.Lawrence River in Canada, and the Great Lakes, and along the Mississippi River down to New Orleans, France could throw a noose around the British and Spanish colonies. The British westward expansion was frustrated by chain of French forts, trading posts and the Indian tribes manipulated by France. France's weakness was in numbers, there were only 80,000 colonists. In contrast there were 1,5 mln British colonists.

    Essentially a land power, France fought in America at great disadvantage. Once the conflict began, the resources she could commit were limited; the logistical problems were insuperable. Second, the French themselves saw the war as one to be won or lost in Europe. Almost the totality of the French army was committed in Germany. There the maximum effort was made and there the government sought victories and conquests.

    The French in North America concentrated on the Ohio Valley already penetrated by the British fur traders. The Indians of the region incl. Delawares, Mingos, Shawnee and Ottawas were visited by French officers, priests, traders and officials. War parties of Indians and wild Canadian bushrangers were soon organized. Many British settlers were tomahawked, scalping-knifes were used in every opportunity. The Indians were infected with scalp-fever as never before and the British traders were quickly expelled.
    British troops tried to establish a fort on Ohio but were chased off in 1754 by the French who promptly erected Fort Duquesne on the site so conveniently cleared. The number of skirmishes between the French and Indians and the British from Virginia increased. Great Britain and France decided that more troops should be sent to America.

    Marquis of Montcalm - 
commander of the French 
troops in North America. "On 6 July 1755 an Indian scout reported to Cpt. Contrecoeur ... commandant of Fort Duquesne, that a huge body of British was approaching. This was Braddock's column, it consisted of 1,200 redcoats with engineers and artillery, some Virginian 'bluecoats' under George Washington, and much baggage and impedimenta. ... 300 axmen carved a track for it through the wilderness. Cpt. Contrecoeur had but a few companies ... and some militia - tough forest fighters, but no match for redcoats trained to European standards. ... The French had about 800 Indians with about 36 French officers scattered among them - many greased and painted like their allies - incl. particularly the gallant Cpt. de Beaujeu and the guerilla, Langlade. They were supported by 72 men of the Compagnies Franches and some 140 militiamen. ...
    In minutes the British were driven back like bewildered cattle, unable to see the enemy who were firing into their ranks from behind thick cover. ... Braddock fell shot through the lungs ... he had already had 4 horses shot under him. ... Only about 23 officers and 460 men escaped alive and able to walk, out of 1,450 odd. The wounded were abandoned..." (Martin Windrow - "Montcalm's Army")

    British General Braddock Edward Braddock was commander-in-chief of the British forces for North America during the actions at the start of the French and Indian War. His military career started with the Coldstream Guards. ( In 1754 he became a major-general. Appointed shortly afterwards to command against the French in America, he landed in Virginia with two regiments of British regulars and was persuaded to undertake vigorous actions against the French. Braddock's troops were routed at Monongahela, and Braddock, rallying his men time after time, fell at last, mortally wounded by a shot through the right arm and into his lung. Braddock was carried off the field by Washington ( and another officer, and died, just four days after the battle.

    The struggle for Fort Ticonderoga was long and bitter. The fort controlled both commonly used trade routes between the English-controlled Hudson River Valley and the French-controlled St.Lawrence River Valley. The first Battle of Ticonderoga happened in 1758, when General Abercrombie of the British Army attempted to subdue the fort with 16,000 men. They were soundly defeated by a mere 4,000 French soldiers. In 1759, the fort was finally captured by the British under General Amhurst. There were more successes for the British. They ambushed several French vessels at sea and captured 400 soldiers and sailors.

    In May 1756 the war was formally declared. France however was still focused on central Europe (especially on Prussia) and the war in America was regarded as a sideshow. The French troops in America were led by Marquis Montcalm, a short man with a great predatory beak of a Roman nose. He was one of these rare generals whose men love him as well as respecting him. Montcalm's army numbered 2,500 regular troops. A French battalion had 500 men in 10 companies. (Due to sickness some battalions had only 200-300 men.) Montcalm had also small number of engineers and gunners. There were also 1,850 in local troops in garrisons, forts and sea ports. These men however were under the Governor and were not always placed at Montcalm's disposal. Third category of troops was militia. Approx. 4,000 militiamen were employed in transporting and supplying the regular and local troops. Fourth category were Indians and coureurs de bois, backwoodsmen, (picture, they were employed for scouting and patrol work. Their knowledge of the forest and guerilla warfare were admirable.

    Shawnee Indian and 
a French soldier in America.
Picture by ? Marquis de Duquesne who became governor-general of New France in 1752, had used Shawnee, Ottawa, and Delaware Indians to harass and hold back British attempts to trade or settle in the Ohio valley. Other tribes, including the Iroquois Confederacy, assisted the British. The French small war parties played bloody havoc with British settlements along the border. These parties consisted of coureurs de bois, Indians, few militiamen and local troops, and were led by officers of the regular army. The coureurs-de-bois gloried in their physical prowess, fought in the Indian manner, travelled by canoe and snowshoes, and wore dearskin and moccasins.
    The war parties raged virtually unchecked and scalp-hunting for bounty wa sthe order of the day. The British responded with their own guerillas; Rogers' Rangers and the ruthless Iroquis warriors. Their operations took deep into French Canada.

    The year of 1756 brought with it William Pitt of Great Britain. His leadership, and France's continued neglect of the North-American theater, turned the tide in favor of the British. The French were driven from many frontier posts such as Fort Niagara and Fort Louisbourg. The Battle of the Plains of Abraham gave Quebec City to the British. Though the war in North America ended in 1760, when de Vaudreuil surrendered Montreal, indeed all of Canada to Britain, the war officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1763. The treaty resulted in France's loss of all its North American possessions east of the Mississippi.

    France regained the Caribbean islands of Guadelupe and Martinique, which had been occupied by the British. The economic value of these islands was greater than that of Canada at the time, because of their rich sugar crops. On the whole, however, there was little interest in Canada, Voltaire disdainfully dismissed as "several acres of snow." The British provided medical treatment for the sick and wounded French soldiers and French soldiers were returned to France aboard British ships with an agreement that they were not to serve again in the present war.

    French-American Victory in America.
    British Prime Minister resigned after
    receiving news of the defeat at Yorktown.
    The British signed the Treaty of Paris,
    recognizing the United States.

    French General Rochambeau Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau was a French aristocrat and general. He was originally destined for the a career in the Roman Catholic Church. However, after the death of his elder brother, he entered a cavalry regiment, and served in Bohemia and Bavaria. In 1780, Rochambeau was given the command of French troops sent to join the American colonists under George Washington fighting the Kingdom of Great Britain. He had four infantry regiments for his expedition to America:

  • - Soissonnais (40th Line in 1790s)
  • - Bourbonnais (13th Line in 1790s)
  • - Saintonge (82nd Line in 1790s)
  • - Royal Deux-Ponts, a German unit in the service of France (99th Line in 1790s)
    Each regiment was allowed to take 1,000 men "chosen among the most robust." He also had a small mixed unit consisting of infantry, hussars and gunners called Lauzun's Legion, and part of the Regiment of Auxonne Artillery. The total strength of Rochambeau's corps was approx. 5,000 men ready for combat.
    In the Bourbonnais Regiment served sublieutenant Louis-Alexandre-Andrault Langeron. Few years later he emigrated from France and served in the Russian army, eventually becoming a famous general. Langeron led one of the Allies' armies fighting at Leipzig in 1813 and participated in the storming of Paris in 1814.

    None of the 5,000 men had volunteered to fight for American Independence; indeed, they were at sea for weeks before being informed of their destination. They cheered as they were happy that they were not bound for the West Indies, whose inhospitable climate had been deadly to tens of thousands of their comrades
    Rochambeau's corps (8 battalions and few squadrons) was somehow neglected by the French government from military point of view. In comparison in March 1781 a powerful French fleet departed from Brest, it was composed of 190 warships, transports and merchantmen, whose destinations included West Indies, South America, Africa and Indian Ocean. Even in the New World, North America ranked behind the Caribbean in French priorities. For example, to Martinique, ( Guadeloupe, and Santo Dominque ( were sent 29 battalions to join the 19 battalions already garrisoning those islands. The French military activities beyond United States forced Britain to extend her own military efforts considerably, thereby contributing to the American cause - a contribution only few Americans appreciated, however.

    "The American rebellion became a global war, and the French monarchy entered the last phase of its ancient rivalry with England. ... In their conception - and consequently their strategy - of the war against Britain, French and American authorities had entirely different approaches. In contrast to the Americans, the French did not conceive of this conflict as a war waged solely for US independence; for them, the stakes involved the balance of power in Europe and in the European-dominated world. As far as Americans were concerned, the struggle was confined to North America.
    For the French, the scene of operations stretched from India - where Pierre Andre, bailli de Suffren, won some of the most impressive victories of the war near the end of hostilities - to Africa, where a French expedition succeeded in recovering Senegal, ( from the English in late January 1779; from the Caribbean, the most crucial region for French interests at that period, to Nova Scotia, which throughout the war remained a potential area for French operations; and from North America, where the French hoped to alternate the employment of West Indian garrisons during appropriate seasons, to Europe, where a cross-channel operation against England continued to attract continental strategists. The last of the Old regime's projects for an invasion of Britain (anticipating Napoleon's plans by a quarter of a century) was a Franco-Spanish project that antedated Spain's entry into the war against England in July 1779. Typically, the extensive preparations for this attack were frustrated by Spanish slowness, disease, and weather." (Scott - "From Yorktown to Valmy" pp 5-6)

    The Battle of Yorktown was a victory by a combined American and French force led by Washington and Marquis de Lafayette, and the French under Rochambeau over the British army. A formal surrender ceremony took place on the morning following the battle. Cornwallis ( refused to attend out of pure embarrassment, claiming illness.
    News of Yorktown was greeted with joyous celebration throughout the United States and France. In Boston were demonstrations and fireworks. King Louis XVI ordered all bishops of his kingdom to have Te Deum celebrations in the churches. American Congress thanked Rochambeau.

    Surrender at Yorktown 1781, by Rocco Picture: The Surrender of the British at Yorktown. Picture by K. Rocco.
    The French commander is in white uniform, the American in dark blue. Both are mounted. According to legend, the British forces marched to the fife tune of "The World Turned Upside Down," though no real evidence of this exists. British Prime Minister Lord North resigned after receiving news of the surrender. The British signed the Treaty of Paris, recognizing the United States.

  • ~


    Perhaps 2/3 of the officers of the Royal army
    had fled the country to escape guillotine.

    The Revolutionary Army (1790 - 1799)
    Revolutionary France had been the first to adopt
    the principle of universal conscription,
    according to which all young men of draft age
    were subject to being called up.

    The French Revolution was a political upheaval of world importance in France that began in 1789. On July 14 1789, the Bastille was stormed. The regular garrison consisted of about 80 veteran soldiers no longer capable of service in the field. They had however been reinforced by a detachment of 32 grenadiers from one of the Swiss mercenary regiments When the rioters had entered the Bastille, they collected cartridges and gun powder for their weapons and then freed the prisoners. The storming of Bastille is considered the beginning of the French Revolution. (See picture ->)

    During the course of the Revolution, France was temporarily transformed from an absolute monarchy, where the king monopolized power, to a republic of free and equal citizens. The effects of the French Revolution were widespread, both inside and outside of France. The more moderate American Revolution, (picture, in comparison, was much less influential upon the world of its time - even if it was more successful and less bloody. The French Revolution was a failed revolution: Liberté, Egalité, and Fraternité descended to the figure of Robespierre and his Reign of Terror as the revolution spun out control and began to murder itself. First the royalists were beheaded, next the moderate girondists, and by then the violence and suspicion was totally out of hand as the revolution devoured itself.

    In 1792, every able-bodied Frenchman was declared liable for military service, and National Guard was formed. Revolutionary France had been the first to adopt the principle of universal conscription, according to which all young men of draft age were subject to being called up; in fact, however, a system of drawing names was in place, and as a result, only the minority of those eligible were enrolled every year.

    Even though entering the draft lottery was theoretically required of all male citizens, malfunction exemptions, favors and bribes - together with every man's perfectly legal right to buy a replacement if he could afford one - guaranteed that the burden of conscription fell principally upon the country and town folks. Nevertheless, the army considered itself as representative of the entire society.

    Motherland in danger 1792. 
Picture by Rousselot In the beginning the new French armies, composed of demoralized regulars and untrained volunteers, refused to face the disciplined Austrian troops and were more dangerous to their own officers than to the enemy. The victory at Valmy stimulated the French morale, then the Jacobin fanatics infused the French soldiers with something of their own demonic energy. Untrained but enthusistic volunteers filled the ranks. In the spirit of liberty and equality, the volunteers elected their officers, and discipline all but disappeared.

    "In the summer of 1790, the army was rocked by a wave of troop mutinies that shattered the officers' authority and set in motion a series of events that would ultimately destroy the National Assembly's carefully constructed military constitution. Ironically, it was the officers themselves who had given the first examples of insubordination in mid-1788 during the royal government's attempt to dissolve the parlaments. ... In the spring of 1790, insubordination returned to the army with a vengeance. This new burst of disturbances was characterized by increasingly direct confrontations between soldiers and officers. Most incidents were provoked by disputes over pay which, the soldiers claimed, had been illegaly withheld from them." ( Blaufarb - "The French Army 1750-1820" pp 75-77)

    Carnot Lazare Carnot, de facto minister of war in the ruling "Committee of Public Safety", ( became the Organizer of Victory. Lazare Nicolas Marguerite Carnot was an organizational genius. He was born in 1753 and educated at the College d’Autun, an artillery and engineering prep school. On August 14, 1793 he was elected to the Committee of Public Safety where he took charge of the military situation as one of the Ministers of War.
    Carnot established a general staff to facilitate planning and coordination for the armies; he set up a nationwide semaphore telegraph system, permitting more rapid communications; and he created the first unified engineering corps. Lacking time to train the vast masses of conscripts and volunteers, Carnot fostered the amalgame, which used the Royal Army as the hard core around which new regiments were formed, thereby greatly facilitating the implementation of the new tactics; the recruits could be used in line and as skirmishers, where discipline and training were more important than elan. Everything was in short supply, so the armies did without tents, trains, and similar impedimenta, learning to live off the land, and were thus able to move more rapidly than their foes. Carnot was also ruthless. Trusting no one, he used a system of political commissars, to keep an eye on the reliability of generals Success was the only criterion for rank. Bonaparte was a product of his times.

    Revolutionary infantry.
Picture by Myrbach. "On 1 Jan 1791 the infantry was reorganised into 104 line regiments and 12 chasseur battalions (light infantry). A report to the Assembly noted that these units were woefully under-strength. Initially the Assembly wanted to bring the standing army up to full strength and raise battalions of National Guardsmen as its reserve. However, many politicians distrusted the army after the mutinies of 1790, the widespread desertion and the inability of officers to control their men ... Consequently, on 21 June (the day after the King's failed attempt to flee France) and on 22 July 1791, the formation of 185 battalions of gardes nationaux volontaires was ordered." (Crowdy - "French Revolutionary Infantryman 1791-1802" p 8)

    On the night of 20-21 June 1791, King Louis XVI made an unsuccessful attempt to flee from France. This provoked a crisis in the army. "Interpreting their sovereign's action as a repudiation of the Revolution, the officers began to abandon their posts, some resigning from military service and others crossing the frontier to swell the ranks of the emigre armies. Emigration confirmed the soldiers' doubts about the officers' patriotism and provoked a new wave of mutinies. ... Emigration and indiscipline fed each other as the army descended into a state of chaos." (Blaufarb - "The French Army 1750-1820" p 85)

    Guillotine. Perhaps 2/3 of the officers of the Royal army had fled the country to escape guillotine. The replacement of emigre officers began in 1791 when the Assembly authorized generals to make emergency nominations.
    The guillotine, also referred to as "The National Razor", ( was a device used for carrying out executions by decapitation. It consists of a tall upright frame from which a heavy blade is suspended. This blade is raised with a rope and then allowed to drop, severing the victim's head from his or her body. The crowds marveled at the machine’s speed and precision. :-)

    Battalions of National Guard volunteers were formed in three successive levies between 1791 and 1793. The first battalions were raised in response to King's flight. In 1791 the National Assembly called upon the departments to raise battalions to maintain internal order and defend the frontiers from expected invasion. "Two structural differences - the organization of the battalions along territorial lines and the designation of their officers by election - distinguished the volunteers from the regular army and lent their cadres particular characteristics. ... Officials who tried to shuffle volunteers between the companies could face stiff resistance." (Blaufarb - "The French Army 1750-1820" p 101)

    French troops in Holland in 1795. During 1793-1796, the infantry was reorganized into demi-brigades, each with 1 battalion of old soldiers and 2 battalions of volunteers, in the hope of combining regular steadiness with volunteer enthusiasm. Initially, the result was that each element qcquired the other's bad habits. There was no time to drill the disorerly recruits into the robot steadiness and precision demanded by linear system. (Esposito, Elting - "A Military History and Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars")

    The rapid conversion of these masses of recruits into efficient fighting units was a problem. The reign of Terror left a bitter legacy of fratricidal hatred which swept across France in the weeks following Robespierre's ( demise. Armed with the law of 1795, which authorized the officials to dismiss personnel who had participated "in the horrors committed under the Tyranny" the Thermidorean representatives-on-mission began to purge the army of its most pronounced "terrorists." In troops hard-hit by campaign losses and political actions, it was not uncommon to find large groups of officers promoted two steps in the hierarchy - from sergeant to lieutenant in a single day ! Some claimed that this process would only "increase the number of idiots" and give the Republic officers "unworthy of commanding free men."
    "It had been obvious for some time that firm action was needed to give the army a cost-efficient and militarily sound organization. Sonsequently, as its last act, the Thermidorean Committee of Public Safety approved a drastic consolidation of under-strength units and a corresponding reduction of officer strength. ... The 952 existing battalions were to be consolidated into 140 new demi-brigades of 3 battalions each. As a result 532 battalions were to be dissolved ... A similar consolidation of the cavalry was to eliminate 145 squadrons, reducing their number from 323 to 178. ... The impact on the officer corps was profound. ... The climate of professional insecurity created by the second amalgame would dominate the mentality of the officer corps for the duration of the Republic." (Blaufarb - "The French Army 1750-1820" pp 142-3)






    "During the reign of Napoleon ... France reached the height of its power.
    By 1807, after spectacular triumphs at Austerlitz, Jena and Friedland,
    many Europeans believed the French were invincible.
    The French Empire was eventually defeated, but memories
    about the Napoleonic Wars lingered. Until World War I,
    commanders and nations throughout the world hoped to
    reproduce Napoleon's lightning campaigns."
    - 2005

    The Imperial Army (1804 - 1815)
    Gone were the republican days "when any officer
    under the rank of major had had to hoof it with his men.
    ... Colonel Francois Roguet of the 1st Grenadiers...
    has brought with him 6 servants, 12 horses and 2 wagons
    filled with his personal effects ..."
    (Austin - "1812: The March on Moscow" p 49)

    France had been aggressive neighbor, and other nations (especially Russia, Austria Prussia, and Britain), were willing enough to see her weakened. The European powers formed alliance and France was forced to dramatically strengthen her army. Conscription was the solution. Generally speaking, under the empire 100.000 conscripts were called annually, which meant that about 1 name in 7 was drawn. The last conscripts to join their units en masse were those of 1814, whose call-up had been advanced to the preceding year. (Barbero - "The Battle" p 20, 26)
    Conscription allowed the French to form the Grande Armee, what Napoleon called "the nation in arms", which successfully battled European professional armies. Under Napoleon many new regiments were formed, the discipline and morale greatly improved. The troopers were well dressed, fed, armed to teeth and very eager to fight. In 1805 the French army was the largest and the most powerful in Europe and in the World. The Napoleonic period (1805-1813) saw France's influence and power reach immense heights.

    But gone were the republican days "when any officer under the rank of major had had to hoof it with his men. For the top brass alone the famous Parisian coach builder Gros-Jean has built no fewer than 300 carriages ... Colonel Count Francois Roguet of the 1st Grenadiers... has brought with him 6 servants, 12 horses and two wagons filled with his personal effects, among them books and a great many maps." (Austin - "1812: The March on Moscow" p 49)

    The Glory Years 1803-1807
    The French Grand Army demolished the
    armies of the powers of Europe.
    Their victories were easy and decisive;
    Ulm, Austerlitz, Jena and Friedland.

    Military grand parade 
in Boulogne Camp During the early period of Empire (1803-1807) Napoleon's army reached its peak. Following the breakdown of the Peace of Amiens Napoleon took the opportunity to assemble an Army of the Ocean Coasts along the English Channel in preparation for an invasion of Great Britain. Approx. 100,000-150,00 troops (of total 450,000) gathered in training camps for 18 months and went through intensive training and maneuvers on large scale. The remaining 300,000 were spread along the long borders, busy with occupying Hanover, Italy etc. These fought in some small engagements like Maida etc.

    The top class troops from Boulogne Camps and those occupying Hannover were put together and formed a new army that would soon become legendary - the Grand Army (Grande Armee). These troops had had close to 3 years of training and drill. Approx. 1/3 were veterans of at least 6 years' service. According to de Segur the old-timers could easily be recognized "by their martial air. Nothing could shake them. They had no other memories, no other future, except warfare. They never spoke of anything else. Their officers were either worthy of them or became it. For to exert one's rank over such men one had to be able to show them one's wounds and cite oneself as an example." They stimulated the new recruits with their warlike tales, so that the conscripts brightened up. By so often exaggerating their own feats of arms, the veterans obliged themselves to authenticate by their conduct what they've led others to believe of them.

    'Even though a large part of the troops there were veterans, they began with a month of "refresher" training in the schools of the soldier and of the company. Then came 2 days of battalion and 3 days of division drill every week; on Sunday the entire corps drilled - infantry, cavalry, and artillery together. That training well absorbed, there were large-scale maneuvers twice a month. There was also much target practice; artillerymen were sometimes able to use British warships as moving targets. Davout added practice in night fighting and firing. (Elting - "Swords Around a Throne" p 534)

    Napoleon also cleaned out the 'deadwood from among his officers', approx. 170 generals (too old, or simply incompetent) were retired. It left him with such talented generals like Massena, Davout, Lannes, St. Cyr or Suchet.

    The soldiers of Boulogne Camps outmarched and outfought every opponent. This is not surprising that Napoleon was very proud of his army. In 1805 after the victory at Austerlitz he wrote: "Soldiers ! I am pleased with you. On the day of Austerlitz you have justified what I had expected of your intrepidity. You have decorated your Eagles with an immortal glory two months the Third Coalition is conquered and dissolved." (After Austerlitz, Tsar of Russia Alexander was extremely depressed. He dismounted "and sat on the damp ground beneath a tree, where he covered his face with a cloth and burst into tears." (Chritopher Duffy - "Austerlitz")

    Battle of Ulm, 1805. Picture: Battle of Ulm, 1805. Through rapid marching, Napoleon conducted a large wheeling maneuver that captured an Austrian army under General Mack at Ulm. Napoleon had surrounded the Austrians and three days later Mack surrendered with 30,000 men. Some 20,000 escaped, 10,000 were killed or wounded, and the rest made prisoner. About 6,000 French were killed or wounded.
    At the surrender, General Karl Freiherr Mack von Leiberich offered his sword and presented himself to Napoleon. The Ulm Campaign is generally regarded as a strategic masterpiece.

    Battle of Austerlitz, 1805. Picture: Battle of Austerlitz, 1805. It was one of Napoleon's greatest victories, effectively destroying the Third Coalition. Austerlitz Campaign profoundly altered the nature of European politics. In three months, the French had occupied Vienna, decimated two armies, and humbled the Austrian Empire. These events sharply contrast with the rigid power structures of the 18th century. Austerlitz set the stage for a near-decade of French domination on the European continent. Napoleon wrote to Josephine, "I have beaten the Austro-Russian army commanded by the two emperors. I am a little weary...." Tsar Alexander perhaps best summed up the harsh times for the Allies by stating, "We are babies in the hands of a giant."

    Battle of Jena, 1806. Picture: Battle of Jena, 1806. Jena cost Napoleon 5,000 losses, but the Prussians had a staggering 25,000 casualties. On the same day, further north at Auerstadt, Marshal Davout defeated the main Prussian army. Napoleon did not believe that Davout's single Corps had defeated the Prussian main body unaided, and responded to the first report by saying "Tell your Marshal he is seeing double", a reference to Davout's poor eyesight. As matters became clearer, however, the Emperor was unstinting in his praise.
    The decisive defeats suffered by the Prussian army a mere 19 days after its mobilization resulted in Prussia's elimination from the Fourth Coalition. The Prussians were scatterred all across the country and the remainder of the campaign was a mopping-up operation.

    The campaigns however were costly, there were not only killed and wounded, but also injured and sick men. In 1806-7, during the campaign in Eastern Prussia and Poland: "The rank and file of the army was but little, if at all, past its best. In the earlier part of the campaign, its youngest men were the conscripts of 1806 who had, owing to their premature enrolment, already undergone a years' training. Many of the troops had been with Napoleon in his earlier campaigns and in Egypt, very many had been at Ulm and Austerlitz, the majority had just emerged from the briliant campaign of Jena. They were now preparing for a renewed war against fresh enemies; the hardest task that an army can undertake.
    The Grumblers and Napoleon
on the road. Picture by Job. Even these hardened and enthusiastic warriors contemplated with dread the prospect of a fresh winter campaign in an inhospitable and difficult country, and Napoleon was often remonstrated with, as he rode alongside of his men, for insisting on their advance to Poland. To such complaints he would reply with the rough jests which his veterans loved to hear from him ... In action, the infantry was still splendid, and did not as yet require to be formed in deep columns of many battalions, such as was macdonald's at Wagram, three years later. The cavalry was excellent and well mounted, though, in the latter respect, they fell short of many Russian cavalry regiments. The artillery was highly trained and invariably made good practice." (Petre - "Napoleon's Campaign in Poland, 1806-1807" pp 27-28)

    The battles of Eylau and Heilsberg were very bloody and inconclusive contest between the French and a mostly Russian army under Benigssen. At Heilsberg the French lost 12,000 killed and wounded. At Eylau they have suffered 15,000-25,000 killed and wounded, this is about 1/3 of their forces. Riding over the battlefield one of the French commanders said: "Quel massacre ! Et sans resultat" (What a massacre! And for no outcome.) The French soldiers cried out for peace after Eylau. Eylau was the first serious check to the French Grand Armee, which in the previous two campaigning seasons had carried all before it.

    In spring 1807 though the weather was still severe, so Napoleon rousted his troops out of their winter quarters for drills and frequent field exercises. The army was weakened as many veterans were killed, wounded or sick and in hospitals. Meanwhile in France thousands of young men were called to arms. Napoleon caused these to be despatched to the front as soon as possible and they were drilled en route. The harsh winter campaign of 1806-1807 and the bloody battles at Eylau and Heilsberg exhausted the French troops mentally and physically.

    Battle of Friedland, 1807. Picture: Battle of Friedland, 1807. On 14th June, the French army finally scored a decisive victory over the Russians. By the end of the battle, the French were in complete control of the battlefield and the enemy was retreating over the Alle (Lyna), where many soldiers drowned while trying to escape. French casualties were approx. 7,500 while the Russians suffered almost 20,000 in dead and wounded.
    The thorough destruction of Bennigsen's army persuaded Tsar Alexander to seek peace terms 5 days after the battle.


    "After 1808 fewer French soldiers
    received extensive training."
    - Colonel J. Elting

    The death of Marshal Lannes
in 1809. In this period the army was still in good shape, although not as good as few years ago. Much of the revolutionary ardour that had fired the French troops of the 1790s and early 1800s had been quenched by 1808. Napoleon himself sensed a lack of enthusiasm for the forthcoming campaigns.

    In 1808-09, for the new war with Austria tens of thousands of new recruits joined the field armies. The influx of conscprits diluted the old ideals of austerity, self-respect and duty. After 1809 drunkenness and indiscipline increased, especially in the cavalry. They were hastily trained. "After 1808 fewer French soldiers received extensive training." (Elting - "Swords Around a Throne" p 534)

    In 1809 Napoleon chastised the lack of discipline in some infantry divisions. He noted that since the battle of Wagram, Tharreau's division had attended neither battalion school nor target practice. Henceforth, the Emperor ordered, the men would perform the basics of the soldier's school and practice platoon drill each morning. They would fire 12 cartridges daily at the marks and for 2 hours in the evening perform battalion maneuvres. (Arnold - "Napoleon Conquers Austria")

    Napoleon bolstered the morale of young soldiers by forming regimental artillery and attaching 2-3 light guns to every infantry regiment.

    Battle of Wagram, by Bellange. Picture: battle of Wagram, 1809. Artillery was a major factor in this battle and casualties soared above 80,000, with the Austrians losing slightly more than the French. Wagram was the first battle in which Napoleon failed to score an uncontested victory with relatively few casualties. This would be indicative of the gradual decline in quality of Napoleon's troops and the increasing experience and competence of his opponents, who were learning from previous errors. (-

    The first provisional regiments, squadrons and battalions appeared already in October 1807. Napoleon, when he needed, took one or two squadrons/battalions from one regiment and one or two from another regiment, named a field officer and thereby formed a provisional regiment. Rarely these troops returned to their parent regiments. The temporary regiments had no Colors, no Eagles, no esprit de corps and no tradition. They served mainly in Peninsula against the Spaniards and the British.

    Among the French troops occupying Spain looting was rampant, discipline was poor. The veterans were demoralized by plunder and waste and by the cruel war with Spanish guerillas. They had got out of the habit of being inspected. Training had fallen off during the years. Several hundred of veterans were selected from the troops in Spain and sent to join the Middle Guard. Although they looked good with tanned faces, some of them went around and stole things in Paris. General Michel arrested them and sent to prisons.

    War in Spain. John Arnold wrote on the French failure in Spain: "A young French conscript, Phillipe Gille, provides a detailed account of the inadequate manner in which French soldiers were rushed to the front. Mobilized in France in 1808, Gille apparently did not even receive his musket until arriving at the Spanish border. There he joined a provisional unit composed of fellow conscripts, crossed the border, and soon engaged in combats with guerilla. ... During the Peninsula years, how large a numerical contribution to the French armed forces were conscripts such as Gille? For the decisive years 1808 to 1812, French annual conscript calls ranged from 181,000 to 217,000. During 1810 and 1811, when France was at peace in the rest of Europe, the majority of these conscripts went to the Peninsula and substantially diluted the quality of the French forces serving there. Simultaneously, troop quality declined further as veterans suffered some of the nearly 100,000 casualties sustained in the Peninsula in 1810-1811. The impact of this dilution is clearly stated by General Anne Savary. Savary's report on the 1809 Battle of Essling, where he fought with troops substantially better than the average Peninsula soldier, observes, "if instead of troops consisting of war levies [raw conscripts], we had opposed to them such soldiers as those of the camp of Boulogne [the Grande Armée], which we might easily have moved in any direction and made to deploy under the enemy's fire without any danger their being thrown into disorder". Innumerable Peninsular battlefields demonstrated this need....
    The problem worsened as the Peninsula became a secondary front. A typical Peninsula regiment of 2,500 men would send 120 to 200 men back to France as a depot unit, 50 to the artillery, 10 to the gendarmes, and 12 of the best men to the Imperial Guard. These subtractions, coupled with the unprecedented guerilla-inflicted losses experienced in the never secure rear areas, seriously eroded the staying power of the infantry regiment. It got worse in 1811 and thereafter when Napoleon withdrew the best troops from the Peninsula to prepare for the Russian invasion." (Arnold - "A Reappraisal of Column Versus Line in the Peninsular War")

    1812: Invasion of Russia.
    The Grand Army of 1812 was almost as good
    as the famous Grand Army of 1805. In 1812 however
    there were less veterans in the ranks.
    The army of 1812 was the most carefully and completely
    organized force Napoleon had ever commanded.

    In 1811, except the rather low-intensity guerilla war in Spain, Europe was in peace. Napoleon had time to train the young soldiers. They were clothed and well armed. The cavalry was supplied with thousands of German, Polish and French horses. The artillery and engineers were well equipped and trained. The Grand Army of 1812 was almost as good as the Grand Army of 1805. In 1812 however there were less veterans in the ranks. "The veteran troops were sadly diluted by the influx of recent recruits and the demands of the Spanish campaign. A similar expansion had occurred in 1809 when the French army was largely composed of new recruits. In both instances the recruits lacked the discipline and savoir faire to be able to sustain themselves in a foraging situation, but as the 1809 campaign was fought in Austria, the impact of this indiscipline on supplies was minimal compared to what it was to be in 1812." (Nafziger - "Napoleon's Invasion of Russia" p 88)

    Before the campaign began General Dejean wrote to the Emperor that up to a third of the horses in cavalry were too weak to carry their burden, while nearly half of the men were too puny to wield a saber. Colonel Saint-Chamans wrote: "I was not happy with the way the cavalry was being organised. Young recruits who had been sent from depots in France before they had learnt to ride a horse or any of the duties of a horseman on the march or on campaign, were mounted on arrival in Hanover on very fine horses which they were not capable of managing." The result was that by the time they reached Berlin, the majority of the horses were suffering from lameness or saddle sores induced by the riders' bad posture or their failure to take care in saddling up. More than one officer noted that recruits were not taught about checking whether their saddle was rubbing or how to detect the early signs of saddle sores.

    Napoleon however liked the big numbers of soldiers, even if they were young recruits mounted on weaker horses. He wrote: "When I put 40,000 men on horseback I know very well that I cannot hope for that number of good horsemen, but I am playing on the morale of the enemy, who learns through his spies, by rumour or through newspapers that I have 40,000 cavalry... I am preceded by a psychological force..."

    Most military experts agree that the Grand Army of 1812 was the most carefully and completely organized force Napoleon had ever commanded. It had the most thoroughly prepared supply system (The baggage was hauled by 18,000 heavy draft horses). The army was also bigger than any other army Napoleon had before. One of the conscripts wrote: "Oh Father !, this is some army ! Our old soldiers say they never saw anything like it." But only half of the troops were French, the rest were made up of Poles, Italians, Germans, Swiss, and Austrians. Napoleon passed the Imperial Guard in review at Dresden, before a throng of vassal rulers, including many princes, five kings and one emperor (of Austria).

    The multinational Grande Armee
crossing the border with Russia.  
Source: Britten Austin "... the 200,000 French soldiers arrived on the Niemen in company with 200,000 allies. ... assembled by this wonderful man, all disciplined warriors, and notwithstanding their different national feelings, all proud of the unmatched genius of their leader." (Napier - "History of the War in the Peninsula" Vol III, p 447)

    Russia was a remote giant land with poor road system and once the campaign began there were numerous problems with supplies. "As supplies became scarce in 1812, discipline broke down and the control over the troops diminished. They plundered indiscriminately instead of carefully requisitioning the supplies they found. Surprisingly, the officers refused to take part in the excesses and often suffered to a greater degree than the men they led. This lack of discipline forced the inhabitants of the region to flee and hide those supplies that might have assisted the French army." (Nafziger - "Napoleon's Invasion of Russia" p 88, 1998)

    The discipline of the troops decreased while the amount of stragglers and sick rapidly increased. At Niemen River Davout's I Corps had 79,000, but at Smolensk only 60,000. The situation in other troops was even worse. Ney's III Corps had 44,000 at Niemen and only 22,000 at Smolensk. Murat's Reserve Cavalry numbered 42,000 at Niemen and 18,000 at Smolensk. Before the army reached Moscow it lost half of its strength.

    In the battle of Borodino more than 30,000 were killed and wounded. It was THE bloodiest battle of Napoleonic wars. But hunger, Cossacks and weather decimated the troops more than the regular Russian army. After Napoleon left Moscow the situation changed from bad to worse. The debris of the Grand Army which in June 1812 had crossed the Niemen River was now chased back by Cossacks and armed peasants. The Russians captured thousands of POWs.

    GRANDE ARMEE in Borodino 1812
    Commander: Emperor Napoleon
    Chief-of-staff: Marshal Berthier

    - - - Infantry Division of Old Guard
    - - - Infantry Division of Young Guard
    - - - Division of Guard Heavy Cavalry
    - - - Division of Guard Light Cavalry
    - - - Guard Artillery
    - - - Infantry Division of [Polish] Vistula Legion

    I CAVALRY CORPS - General Nansouty
    - - - 1st Light Cavalry Division - General Bruyeres
    - - - 1st Heavy Cavalry Division - General St.Germaine
    - - - 5th Heavy Cavalry Division - General Valence
    II CAVALRY CORPS - General Montbrun
    - - - 2nd Light Cavalry Division - General Pajol
    - - - 2nd Heavy Cavalry Division - General
    - - - 4th Heavy Cavalry Division - General Defrance
    III CAVALRY CORPS - General Grouchy
    - - - 3rd Light Cavalry Division - General Chastel
    - - - 6th Heavy Cavalry Division - General Lahussaye
    IV CAVALRY CORPS - General Latour-Maubourg
    - - - 4th Light Cavalry Division - General Rozniecki
    - - - 7th Heavy Cavalry Division - General Lorge

    - - - 1st Infantry Division - General Morand
    - - - 2nd Infantry Division - General Friant
    - - - 3rd Infantry Division - General Gerard
    - - - 4th Infantry Division - General Desaix
    - - - 5th Infantry Division - General Compans
    - - - Light Cavalry Division - General Girardin
    - - - 10th Infantry Division - General Ledru
    - - - 11th Infantry Division - General Razout
    - - - 25th Infantry Division - General Marchand
    - - - Light Cavalry Division - General Beurmann
    IV ARMY CORPS - Eugene Beauharnais
    - - - 13th Infantry Division - General Delzons
    - - - 14th Infantry Division - General Broussier
    - - - Light Cavalry Division - General Ornano
    - - - Light Cavalry Division - General Preysing-Moos
    - - - Italian Royal Guard - General Lecchi
    V ARMY CORPS - Prince Poniatowski
    - - - 16th Infantry Division - General Krasinski
    - - - 18th Infantry Division - General Kniaziewicz
    - - - Light Cavalry Division - General Kaminski
    VIII ARMY CORPS - General Junot
    - - - 23th Infantry Division - General Tharreau
    - - - 24th Infantry Division - General Ochs
    - - - Light Cavalry Division - General Hammerstein

    "I have no army any more!" - Napoleon
    "Of the 680,500 men that Napoleon had organized
    for his invasion of Russia, barely 93,000 remained.

    George Nafziger writes: "Of the 680,500 men that Napoleon had organized for his invasion of Russia, barely 93,000 remained. The main army had suffered the harshest casualties and had dwindled from 450,000 to 25,000 men. The flanking and rearguard forces under Schwarzenberg, Reynier, MacDonald, and Augereau had returned with a total of 68,000 men, but many of these men had not ventured very far into Russia, and those of Schwarzenberg, Reynier, and MacDonald had not been as heavily engages as the main army. Records suggest that 370,000 French and allied soldiers died either from battle or other causes, while 200,000 were taken prisoner by the Russians. Of those taken prisoner, nearly half died in captivity. Napoleon had taken 176,850 horses with him into Russia, and barely any of them survived the campaign.
    The Russians reported burning the corpses of 123,382 horses as they cleaned up their countryside of the debris of war. So heavy were the horse losses that one of Napoleon's most serious handicaps in the 1813 campaign was his inability to reconstitute his once-powerful cavalry.
    Of the 1,800 cannon taken into Russia, the Russians reported capturing 929 of them, and only 250 were brought out. The remainder were lost or thrown into swamps and lakes so that they might not be captured. Though the loss of cannons was serious, the loss of horses was more devastating to Napoleon. France's arsenals and industrial facilities would soon replace the lost weaponry. Of the 66,345 men that had belonged to Davout's corps in June 1812, there remained only 2,281. The 50,000-man Imperial Guard had been reduced to 500 men under arms and a further 800 sick, of whom 200 would never return to arms. Similar casualties were suffered by the II, III, and IV Corps ..."

    French army crossing 
the Beresina River. Picture: Battle of Berezina, 1812. Napoleon's plan was to cross the Berezina and head for Poland, while the Russians wanted to trap him there. While some 25,000 French troops and a further 15,000 Russians became casualties, their losses paled next to that of the French stragglers, about 10,000. Approx. 10,000 were massacred by Cossacks, while another 20,000 died in the near freezing water or were crushed to death in the panic to cross the bridges. Since then Bérézina has been used in French language as a synonym of disaster (meet your berezina).

    Many regiments ceased to exist. For example the 5th Regiment of Cuirassiers had 958 men present for duty on June 15th, 1812. On Feb 1st 1813 had only 19 ! The French cavalry never recovered from the massive loss of horses. Nine out of ten cavalrymen who survived walked much of the way home; most of those who rode did so on tiny, but tough, Russian and Polish ponies, their boots scuffing the ground. Napoleon wrote: "I have no army any more! For many days I have been marching in the midst of a mob of disbanded, disorganized men, who wander all over the countryside in search of food."

    In 1812 Polish senior officer, Sokolnicki, was French army's intelligence chief. He thought that having thousands of warm uniforms stored in depots even before the campaign started was a must.

    1813: Campaign in Germany
    "Evidently, some of the new troops looked so bad
    in drill while still at the training centers that the
    populace referred to the army as the 'infants of the Emperor'
    - General Savary
    They were however filled with boundless confidence
    in their leader whom they loved with unflagging devotion.

    Napoleon aand infantry For his contemplated campaign in Germany, Napoleon required practically an entirely new army. It was not a case of a reorganisation of the army, for that once great force had almost ceased to exist. French military was in crisis and scrambling to raise men as quickly as possible. Napoleon turned to every possible resource at his disposal that could produce manpower, and do this quickly. It required not only time and energy but also money. The expense of organizing only the Guard amounted to 18,000,000 francs. Military service was unpopular, in the west of France it became necessary to hunt up the refractaires with mobile columns, and the generals reported that they were afraid to use their young sldiers for this purpose.

    The new army was huge but the 18- and 19-years old soldiers lacked stamina and the rapid marches and hunger weakened them physically. Camille Rousset gives the following as a common type of report on inspection: "Some of the men are of rather weak appearance. The battalion had no idea of manouveruring; but 9/10 of the men can manage and load their muskets passably."
    General Lambardiere writes: "These battalions arrive fatigued, every day I supply them with special carriage for the weak and lame ... All these battalions are French; I must say that the young soldiers show courage and good-will. Every possible moment is utilised in teaching them to load their arms and bring them to the shoulder." So poor were they in physique that the Minister of Police protests against their being drilled in the Champs Elysees during the hour of promenade, on account of the scoffing and jeering they gave rise to.

    After the disastrous campaign in Russia the quality of cavalry was low. There were too many young soldiers, hastily trained, and hardly 10-20 % of the officers were classed as capable. Retired officers had been recalled, many old NCOs had been promoted lieutenants. Nearly 80 % of the new cavalrymen had never ridden a horse. In Hamburg the young cuirassiers having been ordered to leave on reconnaissance and after few minutes all were dismounted, with their horses running free in the streets. The Germans laughed openly.
    The high stress suffered during military campaign (they were put into action without full training) exhausted many of them.

    Arresting those who attempted
to avoid conscription.
Picture by T. de Thulstrup. They fell sick by hundreds, there were also deserters and stragglers. Special detachments were formed to catch the stragglers and find the weak and 'make them walk'. In Paris alone 320 soldiers of Young Guard were arrested for desertion and sent to prisons. During Emperor's journey from Dresden, through Gorlitz to Bautzen, he saw the German roads and villages choked with thousands of stragglers. Napoleon was outraged and issued the following order: "Every soldier who deserts his flag betrays the first of his duties. As a consequence, His Majesty orders: Article 1. Evry soldier who deserts his flag without legitimate cause will be subject to decimation. To this effect, as soon as 10 deserters are returned the generals commanding the army corps will have them draw lots, and have one shot." Bautzen. 6 Septeber 1813 Napoleon." (Bowden - "Napoleon's Grande Armee of 1813" p 160)

    "The strength and physical stamina of the young conscripts, and consequently the quality of their regiments, left much to be desired; they could not march like the veterans, fell easy prey to sickness, and the standard of their training when they left the depots in the spring 1813 was frighteningly low. The ability of battalions to manoeuvre was poor, and many recruits could not even load their muskets. When the reinforcements drafts marched to the front, carts had to follow them to pick up the footsore and the exhausted." (Digby-Smith, - p 29)

    "The levy, calling upon the adolescents of France one full year before they normally would have been eligible for military service clearly illustrates Napoleon's desperate need for numbers of troops. " (- Bowden p 31)

    The new units were thrown together quickly and their men had not had the necessary time to form the interpersonal bonds within their companies that gave them the morale strength necessary to wage war successfully. Despite these problems, the army's morale was generally high. Many of the young troops who stayed in the ranks, were filled with boundless confidence in their leader whom they loved with unflagging devotion. The few veterans had regained their faith in Napoleon. The artillery and engineers were as usual excellent. When led by Napoleon in person the young soldiers won every battle (Lutzen, Bautzen, Dresden) Without Him they were routed at Kulm, Dennewitz and Katzbach.

    French versus Russians at Leipzig, 1813.
Picture by Parkhaivev, Russia. Picture: battle of Leipzig, 1813. Leipzig was the biggest battle of the Napoleonic Wars. Soldiers of more than 20 nationalities were present on the battlefield. The casualties were heavy. Teacher Sander's son writes: "Everywhere there lay thousands of dead and the returning peasants had to burry them. Big pits were dug in the village and in the surrounding fields, each designed to hold 40-50 dead. ... "
    It was one of the very few battles in which Napoleon was clearly defeated. It resulted in the destruction of what was left of French power in Germany and Poland. Never again Napoleon's army went into Germany. Digby Smith writes: "The effects of the Allied victory at Leipzig were truly momentous. It had smashed Napoleon's stranglehold on Europe for good ..."

    1814: Campaign of France.
    Many of Napoleon's marshals were weary
    and some defected to the Allies.
    Paris was taken by storm by the
    Russian and Prussian troops.

    "A decree ordering a levy of 300,000 soldiers was made, and another augmenting the Guard to 112,500 men... The levy, however, was not successful. France was exhausted not only of her men, but even of her youth, and boys were now in his greatest need to form his battalions. To add to his trouble, as fortune always seems to delight in pushing down a falling favorite, the Typhus fever broke out among his troops along the Rhine." (Headley - "The Imperial Guard of Napoleon")

    A handful of heroes faced all of Europe to whom they themselves had taught the art of fighting over the past decade. Napoleon had mixed feelings about his troops in 1814. He wrote: "The Old Guard alone stood firm - the rest melted like snow." The lack of weapons and uniforms was one of the characteristics of the French troops during this war. Napoleon wrote that the peasants had picked up on the battlefields thousands of muskets abandoned by the enemy and that commissioners should be sent to collect them. In default of muskets there were 6.000 pikes manufactured.

    Napoleon in 1814 by Meissonier Allied armies were advancing into France from every direction. With an army of only 50,000-75,000, the Emperor was faced with half a million Allied troops commanded by Barclay de Tolly, Schwarzenberg and Blucher. Napoleon put up an impressive performance, fighting on average a battle or skirmish every day, and winning many of them (Champaubert, Montmirail, Chateau-Thierry, Vauchamps etc.) However, his victories were not significant enough to make any changes to the overall strategic picture, and Allies army eventually captured Paris.

    Many of Napoleon's marshals were either weary or downright prophets of doom. In the end of campaign some defected to the Allies. Paris was taken by storm by the Russian and Prussian troops. Out of frustration, Marshal Marmont surrendered his troops to the Allies and allowed them to enter Paris unabated. For this action (or lack thereof) Marmont was (and still is) considered, by most French, as a traitor.
    At Fontainebleau, Marshal Michel Ney became the spokesman for the marshals' revolt on 4 April 1814, demanding Napoleon’s abdication. Ney informed Napoleon that the army would not march on Paris; Napoleon responded ‘the army will obey me!’ to which Ney answered ‘the army will obey its chiefs’. Napoleon abdicated on April 6. However, occasional military actions continued in Italy, Spain, and Holland throughout the spring of 1814. Part of the French army was very unhappy with the new situation.

    1815 - Hundred Days Campaign.
    "There was a prodigious gap between them (soldiers of 1815)
    and our old soldiers from the Camp the Boulogne."
    - Desales, officer of artillery of Erlon's I Corps

    French POWS in Austrian custody.
Picture by J.A.Klein Picture: French POWs in Austrian custody: the sentry on extreme right is a Hungarian infantryman. Picture by J.A.Klein.

    Some authors claim that the French army of 1815 was Napoleon's best and composed of battle hardened veterans. According to Henri Lachouque however "not all the discharged veterans returned. Some had been spoiled by civil life." (Lachouque - "Anathomy of Glory")
    Captain Duthilt thought the soldiers who had suffered the defeats of the emperor's recent campaigns and the returned prisoners of war from Russia had lost a great deal of their enthusiasm. A call for volunteers produced only some laughable 15,000 men.

    The army in 1815 was composed of soldiers who had at least one campaign behind them, although in the eyes of veterans of Austerlitz and Egypt, the soldiers of 1814 still seemed like little boys. (Barbero - "The Battle" p 20)

    There were French eyewitnesses who stated that many regiments included a high percentage of young soldiers who had never been under fire. General Lamarque complained that the Young Guard were filled with recruits and deserters who neither knew how to maneuver nor shoot. (Lasserre - "Les Cent jours en Vendée: le général Lamarque et l'insurrection royaliste, d'après les papiers inédits du général Lamarque." published in 1906.)

    In 1815 the discipline was poor, the old timers were annoyed and complained that the young men went out with girls or got drunk. The army was hastily assembled, lacked uniforms and shoes. Many soldiers wore civilian clothes under their greatcoats and forage caps instead of shakos. "For lack of shakos the 14th Light Regiment would fight the Waterloo campaign in fatigue caps." (Austin - "1815 the return of Napoleon" p 295)
    In some infantry regiments only the grenadiers were issued bayonets. Some cuirassiers had no armor. "The 11th Cuirassiers fought without them at Waterloo ... Shoes, twenty regiments had none." (Adkin - "The Waterloo Companion" p 24)

    In 1815 the French cavalry was impoverished and had considerably scaled back the strength of cavalry regiments. By contrast England had always good horses and the financial means to obtain more of them wherever they might be found.

    Worst of all, several French top rank commanders defected to the Allies already before the campaign started! For example General Bourmount rode directly over to the Prussians and surrendered with five of his staff. The old camaraderie of the French troops was replaced by suspicion. "The soldiers were upset at the excessive number of senior officers who had betrayed, or who were suspected of being ready to betray the emperor... The troops had neither confidence in their commanders nor the ability to accept discipline." (Barbero - "The Battle" pp 277-278)

    At Waterloo a French officer deserted to the Allies and informed about Napoleon's plans. "The soldiers doubted the loyalty and competence of many senior officers. They resented officers being promoted merely for going over to the Emperor while they received nothing for doing the same. Six officers of the 1st Cuirassiers who had been rewarded in this way were greeted with groans and shouts on parade. The 12th Dragoons petitioned the Emperor requesting, "... the dismissal of our colonel, whose ardour in the cause of Your Majesty is by no means equal to our own." (Adkin - "The Waterloo Companion" p 78)

    But not only officers and generals defected to the enemy, there were deserters even from the Old Guard. They formed so-called "Bourbon Cavalry Corps". With them served deserters of cuirassier and dragoon regiments. This unit was under Wellington's command but not present at Waterloo.


    "The new organization had no past, no traditions,
    no reputation, and precious little self-respect."
    Elting - "Swords Around a Throne"

    The Royal Army is Back.
    The existing army units were completely broken up.

    Maison du Roi in 1816 After Napoleon's second abdication in 1815 the Bourbons introduced many changes in the army. The existing army units were completely broken up. The term 'regiment' was abolished, and the infantry was organized into departamental legions. Instead of numbers, they were distinguished by their department's name. Each legion was to consist of:
    - 2 battalions of line infantry
    - 1 battalion of chasseurs
    - a company of horse scouts (eclaireurs)
    - a company of artillery
    - depot

    Four Swiss regiments were added to the line infantry and two to the Guard. The Swiss drew higher pay than French units, and their officers outranked French officers of the same grade.

    The French infantrymen were put in white uniforms with facings of regimental colors. That was not popular, they felt like an always-whipped Austrians. King Louis ordered all of cavalry regiments disbanded and reorganized, regarding the survival of any recognizable element of the Napoleonic army a menace to the general tranquility. Regimental numbers were replaced by departamental names. The new cavalry regiments and the infantry legions were activated with pomp and ceremony. The new organization had no past, no traditions, no reputation, and precious little self-respect.

    The army as a whole was unreliable, it was not even proud of itself. When the new officers amused themselves by snatching an eagle-crested button from the threadbare coat of a limping veteran, there would be a sudden casualties in nearby alleys. When a group of young officers jammed into a provincial theater to heckle Talma, a friend of Napoleon, the attentive citizenry and veterans asked for a short intermission, bounced them out the handiest door, and ran them down the street to the shelter of their barracks.

    In 1823 this army managed a military promenade through Spain to overthrow an upstart Spanish constitutional government and restore Ferdinand's absolute authority. Most of the Spaniards welcomed them, and there was only little fighting. More wars followed. In 1825 the French-Trarzan War, Algeria, intervention in Mexico with battles of Puebla and Camaron, Mandingo Wars, Dahomey War, and others.

    The Franco-Trarzan War of 1825 was a conflict between Muhammad al Habib and France. In 1825, Muhammad attempted to establish control over the French-protected territory located south of the Senegal River. The French responded by sending a large expeditionary force that crushed enemy's army. The war incited the French to expand to the north of the Senegal River.

    French navy bombarded Algier. French rule in Algeria lasted from 1830 to 1962. Algeria was then part of the Barbary States, which depended of the Ottoman Empire, but enjoyed relative independence. The conquest of Algeria was initiated by King Charles X in the attempt to save his throne from increasing hostility of the French people. The monarchy planned to bolster patriotic sentiment around him and reverse his domestic unpopularity. In 1830 the French landed with 34,000 soldiers (enemy had 43,000) and established a strong beachhead. They pushed toward Algiers, thanks in part to superior artillery and better organization. The French won at Staoueli and entered Algiers. By 1848 nearly all of northern Algeria was under French control.


    "After 1893, the relative strength of forces once more turned in favor of Germany.
    Since the German population was growing much more rapidly than the French,
    the contingent mobilized every year was much more numerous, and the reserves
    at the disposition of the regular army were far larger than those the French
    high command could count on."
    - La Gorce - "The French Army; a military-political history"

    "The English fleet can't protect Paris."
    - Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany

    French infantry in 1860 Picture: French infantrymen in 1860. The red trousers had been worn by the French infantry since 1829.

    The army, elevated from obscurity, was remodelled on Napoleonic lines. What was needed to complete the resurrection was victory in the field. "It is hardly surprising that Napoleon III and the army were mindful of the great Napoleonic traditions and were anxious to emulate them.
    Their first real opportunity came with the Crimean War. In this muddled campaign the army acquitted itself well ... finally forcing the issue at Sebastopol by storming the Malakov Fort. In 1859 it was again successful, this time against the Austrians, with a couple of fumbling and costly voctories at Magenta and Solferino. The next adventure unfortunately did not go so smoothly; a protracted anti-guerilla struggle in Mexico, 1863-7, ended in a humiliating withdrawal.
    Meanwhile, back in Europe, Prussia was fast emerging as a challenge to France's military pre-eminence." (Shann and Delperier - "French Army 1870-1. Franco-Prussian War. (I)" p 3)

    Promotion in the army was determined by a law that had been passed in 1832. Approx. 66 % of the officers were promoted on the basis of seniority, up to the rank of commandant. According to Major Simon the soldiers "spent whole weeks adjusting the straps or revolver holsters and the straps around canteens, seeing to it that the former should run between the 2nd and 3rd tunic buttons ... On the range, what mattered was not to hit the target frequently but to adopt the precise posture that regulations called for, even if the marksman's physique made this uncomfortbale for him. To allow the lefthand soldier to put a rifle against his left shoulder would have seemed a grave infringement of discipline.

    ARMY (of Napoleon III)

  • - Imperial Guard
    - - - - - - Cent-Gardes - 1 squadron (150 men) [1]
    - - - - - - 1st (Voltigeur) Division - 1 Chasseur and 12 Voltigeur battalions
    - - - - - - 2nd (Grenadier) Division - 3 Zouaves and 9 Grenadier battalions
    - - - - - - Cavalry Division - 1 Guides, 1 Chasseur, 1 Dragoon, 1 Lancer, 1 Cuirassier, 1 Carabinier Regiment
    - - - - - - Artillery
  • - Army of Africa (L'Armee d'Afrique)
    - - - - - - Zouaves - 9 battalions [2]
    - - - - - - Algerian Tirailleurs - 9 battalions
    - - - - - - African Chasseurs - 4 cavalry regiments [3]
  • - Army
    - - - - - - Line Infantry - 300 battalions [4]
    - - - - - - Light Infantry - 20 battalions of chasseurs [5]
    - - - - - - Heavy Cavalry - 10 cuirassier regiments
    - - - - - - Line Cavalry - 12 dragoon and 8 lancer regiments
    - - - - - - Light Cavalry - 12 chasseur and 8 hussar regiments. Spahis regiments.
    - - - - - - Artillery - 15 field and 4 horse regiments
    - - - - - - Engineers.
    [1] --- The Cent-Gardes were charged with the task of escorting Napoleon III in the field.
    [2] --- The Zouaves were not subject to conscription, which ensured a high level of esprit de corps.
    They were formed from native volunteers of the Zouagha tribe and was quickly Europeanised.
    The Zouaves made a very favourable impression on military men and civilians alike.
    The 2nd Regiment was nicknamed "The Jackals of Oran". In the war against the Germans
    the Zouaves greatly distinguished themselves.
    [3] --- The African Chasseurs helped to extricate the British Light Brigade (
    following its disastrous charge at Balaklava. The 1st Regiment received the honour
    of being the first cavalry regiment to be awarded the Legion d'Honneur.
    In Mexico they earned the nickname of "The Blue Butchers." (
    [4] --- 3 battalions formed regiment. Each battalion had 6 field and 2 depot companies.
    [5] --- For their dash and marksmanship they were regarded as an elite troops.

    The French army in 1870 was made of almost 500,000 regular soldiers, some of them veterans of previous campaigns in the Crimean War, Algeria, Mexico, and the French-Austrian war. This strength would increase to 650,000 on full mobilisation. After receiving reports of the effectiveness of the Prussian breech-loading rifles in 1866, the French had hastily equipped their infantry with the Chassepot rifle, one of the most modern mass-produced firearms in the world. In addition, the infantry was equipped with the precursor to the machine-gun — the mitrailleuse. It was made up of 25 barrels activated by a hand crank, firing 150 rounds per minute. The Prussian army was still equipped with the Dreyse needle-gun rifle, which was not nearly as effective as the French Chassepot rifle and had shorter range, which meant that the Prussian infantry would have to make it through French fire before their rifles could threaten the enemy. The deficiencies of the needle-gun were more than compensated for by the 6 pounder (3 kg) breech-loading cannons being issued to Prussian artillery. The Prussian cannon had a longer range, faster rate of fire, and was much more accurate as compared to the French muzzle-loading cannon. The Prussian cannon was to shape the future of artillery on the battlefield.

    "At the outbreak of war many pundits were predicting a rapid French offensive and a repeat of the victorious Jena campaign of 1806. Yet within a month of the first encounter the French army had been almost totally eliminated as an effective fighting force. Much of the blame for this debacle was rightly laid at the door of the French High Command. ... Some blamed the 'Algerian experience' for France's defeat claiming that her generals had forgotten how to fight a European war after 40 years of pursuing the wily tribesmen of North Africa. This is hardly true. Three-quarters of the generals active in 1870 had seen action in either the Crimea or in Italy, and over a third had served in both campaigns ... It is certainly true that many of the lessons learned there were less than fully relevant by 1870: unlike their German opponents the French had no experience of a war fought with breech-loading weapons, although they were aware of the theoretical changes in tactics that they had wrought." (Shann and Delperier - "French Army 1870-1. Franco-Prussian War. (I)" p 22)

    Battle of Gravelotte-
St.Privat Picture: Battle of Gravelotte-St. Privat. It was the largest battle during the Franco-Prussian War. The combined German forces (188,000 men), under von Moltke the Elder defeated French Army of the Rhine (113,000 men), commanded by Marshal Bazaine. While most of the Germans fell under the French Chassepot rifles, most French fell under the Prussian Krupp shells. The Prussian Guard Division losses were staggering with 8,000 casualties out of 18,000 men ! On the French side, the troops holding St. Privat lost more then 50 % of their number. General Bourbaki refused to commit the reserves of the French Old Guard to the battle because he considered it a 'defeat'. (- 2005)

    The Battle of Sedan was fought during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. The intention of the French was to rest the army, which had been involved in a long series of marches, resupply with ammunition and then retreat, rather than giving battle in the town. The French troops were exhausted and short on ammunition. "Prussian artillery, commanding the heights above the town, bombarded the trapped French troops. The courageous General Margueritte led repeated cavalry charges in a valiant attempt to break out, but these all failed. Finally a flag of truce was sent from the fort. To the Germans' surprise they discovered that Napoleon III himself was in Sedan. All French forces surrendered at 4:15 P.M., September 1." (- Wallechinsky & Wallace)
    Battle of Sedan resulted in the capture of Emperor Napoleon III along with his army and practically decided the war in favour of Prussia, though fighting continued under a new French government. The French lost over 38,000 men killed, wounded and captured. The Prussians reported their losses at 9,000 killed, wounded and captured or missing.

    Napoleon III surrenders himself to Moltke 
and the Prussian King. Picture: Battle of Sedan. Napoleon III surrenders himself to Moltke and the Prussian King. With the Second Empire overthrown, Napoleon III was permitted to leave Prussian custody for exile in England, while, within a fortnight, the Prussian Army went on to besiege Paris.

    Deutsch-Französischer Krieg 1870-71 in Bildern
    [Franco-Prussian War in pictures]

    "Relations with the German Empire dominated France's whole foreign policy up to 1914. Every French government reached a decision on the basis of the intentions attributed to Germany, and on the danger that German political initiatives represented for France. Franco-German relations were themselves dominated by the question of Alsace-Lorraine. The territorial annexation carried out under the Treaty of Frankfort (1871) had inflicted such a wound on France that nothing could exceed in urgency the desire to avoid a repetition of the German Invasion. The lost provinces had belonged to France since the days of Louis XIV and Louis XV, and the question of national sovereignity had not been raised even after the collapse of Napoleon.
    ... Yet the relative strength of the armed forces of France and Germany was such that no French government, during the last quarter of the century, could have envisaged the notion of any aggression directed against Germany. ... From 1875 on, when the French General Staff elaborated its first plans for mobilization in the event of war, the ruling idea was entirely defensive. ... After 1893, the relative strength of forces once more turned in favor of Germany. Since the German population was growing much more rapidly than the French, the contingent mobilized every year was much more numerous, and the reserves at the disposition of the regular army were far larger than those the French high command could count on. ..." (La Gorce - "The French Army; a military-political history" pp 11-13)

    The creation of a unified German Empire ended the "balance of power" that had been created with the Congress of Vienna after the end of the Napoleonic Wars.

  • French colonies 19th-20th century.

    Sources and Links.
    Recommended Reading.

    Blaufarb - "The French Army 1750-1820"
    Chartrand - "Louis XV's Army"
    Elting - "Swords Around a Throne"
    Chandler- "The Campaigns of Napoleon"
    Bowden - "Napoleon's Grande Armee of 1813"
    La Gorce - "The French Army; a military-political history"
    Lynn - "Giant of the Grand Siecle: The French Army"
    Nafziger - "Napoleon's Invasion of Russia"
    Britten-Austin - "1812: The March on Moscow"
    Petre - "Napoleon's Conquest of Prussia, 1806"
    Blond - "La Grande Armee"
    Digby-Smith - "1813:Leipzig"
    Bielecki, Tyszka - "Dal Nam Przyklad Bonaparte"
    Shann and Delperier - "French Army 1870-1. Franco-Prussian War. (I)"
    Picture by Avierianov, Russia - "General Delzons at Maloyaroslavetz, 1812."
    French military history .
    French Army - Land Forces.
    History of France.
    King Louis XIV - "The Sun King".
    Battle of Rocroi.
    Battle of Sedan.
    Battle of Gravelotte.
    French Colonial Empire.
    French Colonies.

    Napoleonic French Infantry ~ Napoleonic French Artillery ~ Napoleonic French Cavalry