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|La Grande Armée|
|Country||First French Empire|
|Size||685,000 men before the Invasion of Russia (its greatest height)|
|Motto(s)||Valeur et Discipline|
|March||La Victoire est à nous (from the ballet-opera La caravane du Caire)|
|Engagements||War of the Third Coalition
War of the Fourth Coalition
War of the Fifth Coalition
Invasion of Russia
War of the Sixth Coalition
War of the Seventh Coalition
|Supreme commander||Napoleon I|
Louis Alexandre Berthier
Jean de Dieu Soult
The Grande Armée (French pronunciation: [ɡʀɑ̃d aʀme]; French for Great Army) was the army commanded by Napoleon during the Napoleonic Wars. From 1805 to 1809, the Grande Armée scored a series of historic victories that gave the French Empire an unprecedented grip on power over the European continent. Widely acknowledged to be one of the greatest fighting forces ever assembled, it suffered terrible losses during the French invasion of Russia in 1812 and never recovered its tactical superiority after that campaign.
It was renamed in 1805 from the army that Napoleon had assembled on the French coast of the English Channel for the proposed invasion of Britain. Napoleon later deployed the army east in order to eliminate the threat of Austria and Russia, which were part of the Third Coalition assembled against France. Thereafter, the name was used for the principal French army deployed in the Campaigns of 1805 and 1807, where it got its prestige, and 1809, 1812, and 1813–14. In practice, however, the term, Grande Armée, is used in English to refer to all of the multinational forces gathered by Napoleon I in his campaigns of the early 19th century (see Napoleonic Wars).
The first Grande Armée consisted of six corps under the command of Napoleon's marshals and senior generals. When Napoleon discovered that Russian and Austrian armies were preparing to invade France in late 1805, the Grande Armée was quickly ordered across the Rhine into Southern Germany, leading to Napoleon's victories at Ulm, Austerlitz and Jena.
The army grew as Napoleon spread his power across Europe. It reached its largest size of 1,000,000 men at the start of the invasion of Russia in 1812, with 680,000 men participating in the Russian campaign. The contingents were commanded by French generals, except for the Polish corps and an Austrian one. The huge multinational army marched slowly east, and the Russians fell back with its approach. After the capture of Smolensk and victory in the Battle of Borodino, Napoleon and a part of the Grande Armée reached Moscow on 14 September 1812. However, the army was already drastically reduced because of deaths and injuries from battles with the Russians, disease (principally typhus), desertion, and long communication lines. The army spent a month in Moscow but was ultimately forced to march back westward. It started to suffer from cold, starvation and disease, and was constantly harassed by Cossacks and Russian irregulars, so that the Grande Armée was utterly destroyed as a fighting force. Only 120,000 men survived to leave Russia (excluding early deserters). Of these, 50,000 were Austrians, Prussians, and other Germans, 20,000 were Poles, and just 35,000 Frenchmen. As many as 380,000 died in the campaign.
Napoleon led a new army to the Battle of the Nations at Leipzig in 1813, in the defence of France in 1814 and in the Waterloo Campaign in 1815, but the Napoleonic French army would never regain the heights of the Grande Armée of June 1812.
For a history of the French army in the period 1792–1804 during the wars of the First and Second Coalitions see French Revolutionary Armies.
The Grande Armée was originally formed as L'Armée des côtes de l'Océan (Army of the Ocean Coasts) intended for the invasion of England, at the port of Boulogne in 1803. Following Napoleon's coronation as Emperor of the French in 1804, the Third Coalition was formed against him and La Grande Armée turned its sights eastwards in 1805. They left the Boulogne camps late in August and through a rapid march surrounded General Karl Mack's isolated Austrian army at the fortress of Ulm. The Ulm Campaign, as it came to be known, resulted in 60,000 Austrian captives at the cost of just 2,000 French soldiers. By November Vienna was taken. However, Austria refused to capitulate, maintaining an army in the field. In addition, their Russian allies had yet to commit to action. The war would continue for a while longer. Affairs were decisively settled on December 2, 1805, at the Battle of Austerlitz, where a numerically inferior Armée routed a combined Russo-Austrian army led by Czar Alexander I. The stunning victory led to the Treaty of Pressburg on December 26, 1805, with the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire coming the following year.
The alarming increase of French power in Central Europe disturbed Prussia, which had remained neutral in the conflicts of the previous year. After much diplomatic wrangling, Prussia secured promises of Russian military aid and the Fourth Coalition against France came into being in 1806. La Grande Armée advanced into Prussian territory with the famed bataillon-carré ("battalion square") system, whereby corps marched in close supporting distances and became vanguards, rearguards, or flank forces as the situation demanded, and severely defeated the Prussian armies at the Battle of Jena and the Battle of Auerstadt, both fought on October 14, 1806. After a legendary pursuit, the French had captured about 140,000 Prussians and killed and wounded roughly 25,000. Davout's III Corps, the victors at Auerstadt, received the honours of first marching into Berlin. Once more, the French had defeated an enemy before allies could arrive, and once more, this did not bring peace.
Napoleon now turned his attentions to Poland, where the remaining Prussian armies were linking up with their Russian counterparts. A difficult winter campaign produced nothing but a stalemate, made worse by the Battle of Eylau on February 7–8, 1807, where Russian and French casualties soared for little gain. The campaign resumed in the Spring and this time Bennigsen's Russian army was soundly defeated at the Battle of Friedland on June 14, 1807. This victory produced the Treaty of Tilsit between France and Russia in July, leaving Napoleon with no enemies on the continent.
Portugal's refusal to comply with the Continental System led to a punitive French expedition in late 1807. This campaign formed the basis for the Peninsular War, which was to last six years and drain the First Empire of vital resources and manpower. The French attempted to occupy Spain in 1808, but a series of disasters prompted Napoleon to intervene personally later in the year. The 125,000-strong Grande Armée marched inexorably forward, capturing the fortress of Burgos, clearing the way to Madrid at the Battle of Somosierra, and forcing the Spanish armies to retreat. They then hurled themselves towards Moore's British army, prompting the British to withdraw from the Iberian Peninsula after a heroic action at the Battle of Corunna on January 16, 1809. The campaign was successful, but it would still be some time before the French were able to occupy Southern Spain.
Meanwhile, a revived Austria was preparing to strike. The War Hawks at the court of Emperor Francis I convinced him to take full advantage of France's preoccupation with Spain. In April 1809, the Austrians opened the campaign without a formal declaration of war and caught the French by surprise. They were too slow to exploit their gains, however, and Napoleon's arrival from Paris finally stabilized the situation. The Austrians were defeated at the Battle of Eckmühl, fled over the Danube, and lost the fortress of Ratisbon. But they still remained a cohesive, fighting force, which meant further campaigning was required to settle the issue. The French captured Vienna and attempted to cross the Danube via Lobau island southeast of the Austrian capital, but they lost the subsequent Battle of Aspern-Essling, the first defeat for La Grande Armée. A second attempt to cross the river proved more successful in July and set the stage for the two-day Battle of Wagram, where the French emerged victorious, inflicting some 40,000 casualties on the Austrians, but themselves suffering 37,000. The defeat demoralized the Austrians so heavily that they agreed to an armistice shortly afterwards. This eventually led to the Peace of Schönbrunn in October 1809. La Grande Armée had brought the Fifth Coalition to an end and the Austrian Empire lost three million citizens as a result of the treaty's border changes.
With the exception of Spain, a three-year lull ensued. Diplomatic tensions with Russia, however, became so acute that they eventually led to war in 1812. Napoleon assembled the largest field army he had ever commanded to deal with this menace. On 25 June 1812, before the Invasion of Russia, the assembled troops with a total strength of 685,000 men were made up of:
• 550,000 Frenchmen
• 95,000 Poles
• 35,000 Austrians
• 30,000 Italians
• 24,000 Bavarians
• 20,000 Saxons
• 20,000 Prussians
• 17,000 Westphalians
• 15,000 Swiss
• 10,000 Danes and Norwegians
• 4,000 Portuguese
• 3,500 Croats
• 2,000 Irish
The new Grande Armée was somewhat different from before; over half of its ranks were now filled by non-French conscripts coming from satellite states or countries allied to France. The behemoth force crossed the Niemen on June 23, 1812, and Napoleon hoped that quick marching could place his men between the two main Russian armies, commanded by Barclay de Tolly and Bagration. However, the campaign was characterized by many frustrations, as the Russians succeeded no less than three times in evading Napoleon's pincers. A final stand for the defence of Moscow led to the massive Battle of Borodino on September 7, 1812. There the Armée won a bloody but indecisive and arguably Pyrrhic victory. Seven days after Borodino, La Grande Armée entered Moscow only to find the city largely empty and ablaze. Its soldiers were now forced to deal with the fires while hunting down the arsonists and guarding Moscow's historic districts. Napoleon and his army spent over a month in Moscow, vainly hoping that the Czar would respond to the French peace feelers. After these efforts failed, the French set out on October 19, now only a shadow of their former selves. The epic retreat over the famous Russian Winter dominates popular conceptions of the war, even though over half of the French army had been lost during the Summer. The French were harassed repeatedly by the converging Russian armies, Ney even conducting a famous rearguard separation between his troops and the Russians, and by the time the Berezina was reached Napoleon only had about 49,000 troops and 40,000 stragglers of little military value. The resulting Battle of Berezina and the monumental work of Eblé's engineers saved the remnants of the Armée. Napoleon left his men in order to reach Paris and address new military and political matters. Of the 690,000 men that comprised the initial invasion force, only 93,000 survived.
The catastrophe in Russia now emboldened anti-French sentiments throughout Germany and Austria. The Sixth Coalition was formed and Germany became the centrepiece of the upcoming campaign. With customary genius, Napoleon raised new armies and opened up the campaign with a series of victories at the Battle of Lützen and the Battle of Bautzen. But due to the poor quality of French cavalry following the Russian campaign, along with miscalculations by certain subordinate Marshals, these triumphs were not decisive enough to permanently conclude the war, and only secured an armistice. Napoleon hoped to use this break to increase the quantity and improve the quality of his Armée, but when Austria joined the Allies, his strategic situation grew bleak. The campaign reopened in August with a significant French victory at the two-day Battle of Dresden. However, the adoption of the Trachenberg Plan by the Allies, which called for avoiding direct conflict with Napoleon and focusing on his subordinates, paid dividends as the French suffered defeats at Katzbach, Kulm, Großbeeren, and Dennewitz. Growing Allied numbers eventually hemmed the French in at Leipzig, where the famous three-day Battle of the Nations witnessed a heavy loss for Napoleon when a bridge was prematurely destroyed, abandoning 30,000 French soldiers on the other side of the Elster River. The campaign, however, did end on a victorious note when the French destroyed an isolated Bavarian army which was trying to block their retreat at Hanau.
"The Grand Empire is no more. It is France herself we must now defend" were Napoleon's words to the Senate at the end of 1813. The Emperor managed to raise new armies, but strategically he was in a virtually hopeless position. Allied armies were invading from the Pyrenees, across the plains of Northern Italy, and via France's eastern borders as well. The campaign began ominously when Napoleon suffered defeat at the Battle of La Rothière, but he quickly regained his former spirit. In the Six Days' Campaign of February 1814, the 30,000-man French army inflicted 20,000 casualties on Blücher's scattered corps at a cost of just 2,000 for themselves. They then headed south and defeated Schwarzenberg at the Battle of Montereau. These victories, however, could not cure such a bad situation, and French defeats at the Battle of Laon and the Battle of Arcis-sur-Aube dampened moods. At the end of March, Paris fell to the Allies. Napoleon wanted to keep fighting, but his marshals refused, forcing the Emperor of the French to abdicate on April 6, 1814.
After returning from Elba in February 1815, Napoleon busied himself in making a renewed push to secure his Empire. For the first time since 1812, the Army of the North he would be commanding for the upcoming campaign was professional and competent. Napoleon hoped to catch and defeat the Allied armies under Wellington and Blücher in Belgium before the Russians and Austrians could arrive. The campaign, beginning on June 15, 1815, was initially successful, leading to victory over the Prussians at the Battle of Ligny on June 16; however, poor staff work, and bad commanders led to many problems for the French army throughout the entire campaign. Grouchy's delayed advance against the Prussians allowed Blücher to rally his men after Ligny and march on to Wellington's aid at the Battle of Waterloo, which resulted in the final, decisive defeat for Napoleon and his beloved army.
Prior to the late 18th century, there was generally no organizational support for staff functions such as military intelligence, logistics, planning or personnel. Unit commanders handled such functions for their units, with informal help from subordinates who were usually not trained for or assigned to a specific task.
The first modern use of a General Staff was in the French Revolutionary Wars, when General Louis Alexandre Berthier (later the first Marshal of the Empire) was assigned as Chief of Staff to the French Army of Italy in 1795. Berthier was able to establish a well-organized staff support team. Napoleon Bonaparte took over the army the following year and rapidly came to appreciate Berthier's system, adopting it for his own headquarters, although Napoleon's usage was limited to his own command group.
The Staff of the Grande Armée was known as the Imperial Headquarters and was divided into two major sections: Napoleon's Military Household and the Army General Headquarters. A third department dependent on the Imperial Headquarters was the office of the Intendant Général (Quartermaster General), providing the administrative staff of the army.
The Maison Militaire de l'Empereur (Military Household of the Emperor) was Napoleon's personal military staff and included the department of aides-de-camp (ADCs), orderly officers (until 1809), the Emperor's Cabinet with the Secretariat, a department that collected intelligence about the enemy using spies and the topographical department. Attached was also the Emperor's Civil Cabinet that included the office of the Grand Marshal of the Palace and the Grand Écuyer.
The ADCs to the Emperor were mainly loyal, experienced generals or, at times, other senior officers whom he knew from his Italian or Egyptian campaigns. All were famous for their bravery and were experts in their own branches of service. Working directly under the supervision of the Emperor, these officers were sometimes assigned to temporary command of units or formations or entrusted with diplomatic missions. Most of the time, however, their tasks consisted of making detailed inspection tours and long-distance reconnaissances. When they had to carry orders from the Emperor to an army commander, these would be verbal rather than written. The appointment of ADC to the Emperor was so influential that they were considered to be "Napoleon's eyes and ears" and even marshals were wise to follow their advice and render them the respect due to their function.
On 29 April 1809, a decree organized their service. Every morning at 0700, the duty ADC and his staff were relieved and the new ADC for the next 24 hours had to present the Emperor with a list of names of the staff under his command. This would consist of two supplementary daytime general ADCs and one night ADC, one equerry and (through a rotation system) half the number of orderly officers, half the number of the petits aides de camp (two or three personal ADCs to the general ADCs, who might also be commanded directly by the Emperor) and half the number of pages. Their number differed from time to time, but only 37 officers were ever commissioned ADC to the Emperor and at normal times their number was restricted to 12. Each of these officers wore the normal general's uniform of his rank, but with gold aiguilettes as the symbol of his function. The appointment of ADC to the Emperor did not always last as long as the Emperor's reign; an ADC might be given another position such as a field command, a governorship, etc. and would be removed from his ADC status until recalled to that post.
The officiers d'ordonnance (orderly officers) may be considered as junior ADCs, with the rank of chef d'escadron, captain or lieutenant. They, too, were used for special missions such as reconnaissance and inspections, but also to carry written orders. In 1806, when these posts were created, they were members of the Imperial Guard; in 1809, while retaining their military status, they were taken under control of the Grand Écuyer in the Emperor's Civil Household. The decrees regulating their service were signed on 15, 19 and 24 September 1806 and finally on 19 September 1809.
Alongside the Emperor's Military Household but functioning as a totally independent organization was the Grand État-Major Général (Army General Headquarters). Since the earliest collaboration of Napoleon and Berthier, its organization was more or less fixed and it would see only slight changes during the later campaigns of the Empire. The Army General Headquarters included the office of the Major-Général's (Chief of Staff's) Cabinet with their four departments: Movements, Secretariat, Accounting and Intelligence (orders of battle). The Major-Général also had his own private Military Staff which included duty Generals and Staff aides-de-camp. Finally there was the Army General Staff with the offices of the three Assistant Major-Generals to the Major-Général.
The role of Chief of Staff in the Grande Armée became almost synonymous with Marshal Louis Alexandre Berthier, who occupied this position in almost all the major campaigns of Napoleon. The General Headquarters was Berthier's unique domain and the Emperor respected this demarcation. Its personnel received orders only from Berthier and even Napoleon did not interfere in its immense tasks; he would never walk in on Berthier's private staff while they were writing and copying the orders that he had just given. Since the Emperor was his own "operations officer", it can be said that Berthier's job consisted of absorbing Napoleon's strategic intentions, translating them into written orders and transmitting them with the utmost speed and clarity. He also received in the Emperor's name the reports of the marshals and commanding generals and when necessary signed them on Napoleon's behalf. Detailed reports on everything that occurred for good or ill were to be sent to Berthier, who would in turn select the most important ones and transmit them to the Emperor; nothing was to be concealed from Napoleon.
Lest one think this was a safe officejob of the modern staff officers, a contemporary subordinate staff officer, Brossier, reports that at the Battle of Marengo:
"The General-in-Chief Berthier gave his orders with the precision of a consummate warrior, and at Marengo maintained the reputation that he so rightly acquired in Italy and in Egypt under the orders of Bonaparte. He himself was hit by a bullet in the arm. Two of his aides-de-camp, Dutaillis and La Borde, had their horses killed."
One of the most important factors in the Grande Armée's success was its superior and highly flexible organization. It was subdivided into several Corps (usually from five to seven), each numbering anywhere between 10,000 and 50,000, with the average size being around 20,000 to 30,000 troops. These Corps d'Armée were self-contained, smaller armies of combined arms, consisting of elements from all the forces and support services discussed below. While capable of fully independent operations and of defending themselves until reinforced, the Corps usually worked in close concert together and kept within a day's marching distance of one another. The Corps would often follow separate routes on a wide front and were small enough to live by foraging, allowing fewer supplies to be carried. Through dispersion and the use of forced marches the Grande Armée was often able to surprise opposing armies by its speed of manoeuver. A Corps, depending on its size and the importance of its mission, was commanded by a Marshal or général de division (Major General).
Napoleon placed great trust in his Corps commanders and usually allowed them a wide freedom of action, provided they acted within the outlines of his strategic objectives and worked together to accomplish them. When they failed to do this to his satisfaction, however, he would not hesitate to reprimand or relieve them and in many cases took personal command of their Corps himself. Corps were first formed in 1800, when General Moreau divided the Army of the Rhine into four Corps. These were only temporary groupings, however, and it was not until 1804 that Napoleon made them permanent units. He would sometimes form the cavalry into separate Corps, so they would be able to move and mass more quickly without being slowed by the infantry or foot artillery.
The main tactical units of the Corps were the divisions, usually consisting of 4,000 to 10,000 infantry or 2,000 to 4,000 cavalrymen. These in turn were made up of two or three brigades of two regiments apiece and supported by an artillery brigade of three or four batteries, each with six field cannons and two howitzers, making 24 to 32 guns in all. The divisions were also permanent administrative and operational units, commanded by a général de division and likewise capable of independent actions.
France's Imperial Guard (Garde Impériale) was the elite military force of its time and grew out of the Garde du Directoire and Garde Consulaire. It was, quite literally, a Corps d'Armée itself with infantry, cavalry and artillery. Napoleon wanted it also to be an example for the entire army to follow, and a force that, since it had fought with him over several campaigns, was completely loyal. Although the infantry was rarely committed en masse, the Guard's cavalry was often thrown into battle as the killing blow and its artillery used to pound enemies prior to assaults.
|Year||Number of soldiers|
|1813||85,000 (mostly young guards)|
There were three sections:
In 1804, the Cavalry of the Guard consisted of two regiments, the Chasseurs à Cheval and the Grenadiers à Cheval, along with a small unit of elite Gendarmes and a squadron of Mamelukes. A third regiment was added in 1806, the Regiment de Dragons de la Garde Impériale (Later known as the Dragons de l'Imperatice, the Empress Dragoons). Following the Campaign in Poland in 1807, a regiment of Polish Lancers, the Regiment de Chevau-Légers de la Garde Impériale Polonais was added. The final addition was made in 1810, with another Regiment of Lancers, this time drawn from French and Dutch recruits, the 2e Regiment de Chevau-Légers Lanciers de la Garde Impériale or Red Lancers. The cavalry of the Guard was involved in combat numerous times, and with few exceptions proved its worth in action.
The scouts had only the time to distinguish themselves during the French Campaign in 1814 and were dissolved by Louis XVIII upon his restoration.
While the infantry was perhaps not the most glamorous arm of service in the Grand Armée, they bore the brunt of most of the fighting, and their performance resulted in victory or defeat. The Infantry was divided up into two major types, the Infantry of the Line (Infanterie de Ligne) and the Light Infantry (Infanterie Légère).
The Line Infantry made up the majority of the Grande Armée. In 1803, Napoleon had reinstated the term Regiment, the revolutionary term demi-brigade (due to the fact there were two per brigade and it lacked the royal connotations) was now only used for provisional troops and depot units. At the time of the formation of the Grande Armée, the French Army had 133 Régiments de Ligne, a number which roughly corresponded with the number of départements in France. There would eventually be 156 Ligne regiments
The Régiments de Ligne varied in size throughout the Napoleonic Wars, but the basic building block of the Infanterie of the Line was the battalion. A line infantry battalion was numbered at about 840 men; however, this was the battalion's 'full strength' and few units ever reached this. A more typical strength for a battalion would be 400–600 men. From 1800 to 1803 a line infantry battalion had eight fusilier companies, and one grenadier company. From 1804 to 1807 a line infantry battalion had seven fusilier companies, one grenadier company, and one voltigeur company. From 1808 to 1815 a line infantry battalion had four companies of fusiliers, one company of grenadiers, and one company of voltigeurs. According to the rules, every company was to have:
Grenadiers were the elite of the line infantry and the veteran shock troops of the Napoleonic infantry. Newly formed battalions did not have a Grenadier company; rather, Napoleon ordered that after two campaigns, several of the strongest, bravest and tallest fusiliers were to be promoted to the Grenadier company, so each line battalion which had seen more than two campaigns had one company of Grenadiers.
Regulations required that Grenadiers recruits were to be the tallest, most fearsome men in the regiments, and all were to have moustaches. To add to this, Grenadiers were initially equipped with a bonnet à poil or bearskin, as well as red epaulettes on their coat. After 1807 regulations stipulated that line Grenadiers were to replace their bearskin with a shako lined red with a red plume; however, many chose to retain their bearskins. In addition to the standard Charleville model 1777 and bayonet, Grenadiers were also equipped with a short sabre. This was to be used for close combat, but most often ended up serving as a tool to cut wood for campfires.
The Grenadier company would usually be situated on the right side of a formation, traditionally the place of greatest honour since the days of hoplite warfare in which a corps' right flank had less protection from the shield line of its formation. During a campaign, Grenadier companies could be detached to form a Grenadier battalion or occasionally a regiment or brigade. These formations would then be used as a shock force or the Vanguard for a larger formation.
Voltigeurs (literally, Vaulters or Leapers) were élite light infantry of the line regiments. In 1805, Napoleon ordered that the smallest, most agile men of the line battalions be chosen to form a Voltigeur company. These troops were to be second only to the Grenadiers in the battalion hierarchy. Their name comes from their original mission. Voltigeurs were to vault upon horses of friendly cavalry for faster movement, an idea which proved impractical if not outright impossible. Despite this, the Voltigeurs did perform a valuable task, skirmishing and providing scouts for each battalion, as well as providing an organic light infantry component for each line regiment. In Voltigeur training, emphasis was placed on marksmanship and quick movement.
Voltigeurs were equipped with large yellow and green or yellow and red plumes for their bicornes. After 1807, their shakos were lined with yellow and carried similar plumes. They also had yellow epaulettes lined green and a yellow collar on their coats.
Originally, Voltigeurs were to be equipped with the short dragoon musket, however in practice they were equipped with the Charleville model 1777 and bayonet. Like Grenadiers, Voltigeurs were equipped with a short sabre for close combat, and like Grenadiers this was rarely used. Voltigeur companies could be detached and formed into regiments or brigades to create a light infantry formation. After 1808, the Voltigeur company was situated on the left of the line when in combat. This was traditionally the second highest position of honour in the line of battle.
The Fusiliers made up the majority of a line infantry battalion, and may be considered the typical infantryman of the Grande Armée. The Fusilier was armed with a smoothbore, muzzle-loaded flintlock Charleville model 1777 musket and a bayonet. Fusilier training placed emphasis on speed of march and endurance, along with individually aimed fire at close range and close quarters combat. This differed greatly from the training given to the majority of European armies, which emphasised moving in rigid formations and firing massed volleys. Many of the early Napoleonic victories were due to the ability of the French armies to cover long distances with speed, and this ability was thanks to the training given to the infantry. From 1803, each battalion comprised eight Fusilier companies. Each company numbered around 120 men.
In 1805, one of the Fusilier companies was dissolved and reformed as a Voltigeur company. In 1808, Napoleon reorganised the Infantry battalion from nine to six companies. The new companies were to be larger, comprising 140 men, and four of these were to be made up of Fusiliers, one of Grenadiers, and one of Voltigeurs.
The line Fusilier wore a bicorne hat, until this was superseded by the shako in 1807. The uniform of a Fusilier consisted of white trousers, white surcoat and a dark blue coat (the habit long model until 1812, thereafter the habit veste) with white lapels, red collar and cuffs. Each Fusilier wore a coloured pom-pom on his hat. The colour of this pom-pom changed depending on the company the man belonged to, as military uniforms reached their excessive pinnacle at around this period in time. After the 1808 reorganisation, the First company was issued with a dark green pom-pom, the second with sky blue, the third with orange and the fourth with violet.
While the Infantry of the Line made up the majority of the Grande Armée's infantry, the Infanterie Légère (Light Infantry) also played an important role. The Légère regiments never numbered more than 36 (compared with the 133 of the Ligne regiments), and the Ligne could perform all the same manoeuvres, including skirmishing. The difference lay in the training and the resulting high esprit de corps.
Training for Légère units placed a strong emphasis on marksmanship and fast movement. As a result, the general Légère soldier was able to shoot more accurately and move faster than his Ligne counterpart. Légère regiments tended to see more action and were often used to screen large manoeuvres. Naturally, because commanders turned to the Légère for more missions than the Ligne, the Légère troopers enjoyed a higher esprit de corps and were known for their flamboyant uniforms and attitude. Also, Légère troops were required to be shorter than line troops, which helped them to move quickly through forests as well as to hide behind obstacles when skirmishing. The formation of a Légère battalion exactly mirrored that of a battalion of line infantry, but different troop types were substituted for the Grenadiers, Fusiliers and Voltigeurs.
The Carabiniers were the grenadiers of the Légère battalions. After two campaigns, the tallest and bravest chasseurs were chosen to join the Carabinier company. They performed as élite shock troops for the battalion. As with the grenadiers, Carabiniers were required to wear moustaches. They were armed with the Charleville model 1777, a bayonet and a short sabre. The Carabinier uniform consisted of a tall bearskin cap (superseded in 1807 by a red trimmed shako with a red plume). They wore the same uniform as the chasseurs, but with red epaulettes. Carabinier companies could be detached to form larger all Carabinier formations for assaults or other operations requiring assault troops.
Voltigeurs performed exactly the same mission in the Légère battalion as they did in the line battalions, only they were more nimble and better marksmen. The Légère voltigeurs were dressed as chasseurs, but with Yellow and green epaulettes and before 1806, a colpack (or busby) replaced the shako. The colpack had a large yellow over red plume and green cords. After 1807, a shako replaced the colpack, with a large yellow plume and yellow lining. As with the line voltigeurs, légère voltigeurs could be detached and used to form larger formations as needed.
Chasseurs (Hunters) were the fusiliers of the Légère battalions. They made up the majority of the formation. They were armed with the Charleville model 1777 musket and a bayonet, and also with a short sabre for close combat. As was common in the Napoleonic army, this weapon was quickly blunted by being used to chop wood for fires.
From 1803, each battalion comprised eight chasseur companies. Each company numbered around 120 men. In 1808, Napoleon reorganised the Infantry battalion from nine to six companies. The new companies were to be larger, comprising 140 men, and four of these were to be made up of chasseurs.
The chasseurs had far more ornate uniforms than their contemporaries the fusiliers. Until 1806, they were equipped with a cylindrical shako with a large dark green plume and decorated with white cords. Their uniform was a darker blue than that of the line regiments, to aid with camouflage while skirmishing. Their coat was similar to that of the line troops, but their lapels and cuffs were also dark blue, and it featured dark green and red epaulettes. They also wore dark blue trousers and high imitation hussar boots. After 1807, the cylindrical shako was replaced with the standard shako, but was still embellished by white cords. As with the line fusiliers, chasseur companies were distinguished by coloured pom-poms, but the colours for the different companies changed from regiment to regiment.
By decree of the Emperor himself, cavalry typically comprised between a fifth and a sixth of the Grande Armée. Cavalry regiments of 800–1,200 men were made up of three or four Escadrons of two companies each, plus supporting elements. In light cavalry and dragoon regiments, the first company of the every regiment's first escadron, was always designated as 'Elite', with presumably, the best men and horses. In the revolution's wake, the cavalry suffered the greatest from the loss of experienced aristocratic officers and NCOs still loyal to the crown of the Ancien Régime. Consequently, the quality of French cavalry drastically declined. Napoleon rebuilt the branch, turning it into arguably the finest in the world. Until 1812 it was undefeated in any large engagements above the regimental level. There were two primary types of cavalry for different roles, heavy and light.
The elite among all French heavy cavalry line formations, the two regiments of Mounted Carabiniers had a very similar appearance with the Mounted Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard; bearskins, long blue coats, etc. and were mounted exclusively on big black horse prior to 1813. They were largely used in identical manner to the Cuirassiers, however, being(initially) unarmored, they were less suited for close-quarters, melee combat compared to their armored brethren. It should be noted though that unarmored heavy cavalry was the norm in Europe during most of the Napoleonic War, with the French being the first to reintroduce the back-and-breastplate. In 1809, appalled by their mauling at the hands of the Austrian Uhlans, Napoleon ordered that they be given armour. The Carabinier's refusal to copy the less elite Cuirassiers resulted in them being given special armor, with their helmets and cuirasses being sheathed in bronze for added visual effect. But this did not prevent them from being defeated by the Russian cuirassiers at Borodino in 1812, and panicking before the Hungarian hussars at Leipzig the following year.
The heavy (Grosse) cavalry, equipped and armed almost like the knights of old with a heavy cuirass (breastplate) and helmets of brass and iron and armed with straight long sabers, pistols and later carbines. As with the knights, they served as the shock troops of the cavalry. Because of the weight of their armour and weapons, both trooper and horse had to be big and strong, and could consequently put a lot of force behind their charge. Though the cuirass could not protect against flintlock musket fire, it could deflect shots from long range, offered some protection from pistol fire and could protect the wearer from ricochets. More importantly, in an age which saw cavalry used in large numbers, the breastplates provided protection against the swords and lances of opposing cavalry. Napoleon usually combined together all of his cuirassiers and carabiniers into a cavalry reserve, to be used at the decisive moment of the battle. In this manner they proved to be an extremely potent force on the battlefield, leaving their opponents impressed if not awestruck. The British, in particular, who mistakenly believed the cuirassiers were Napoleon's bodyguard, and would later come to adapt their distinctive helmets and breastplates for their own Household Cavalry. There were originally 25 cuirassier regiments, reduced to 12 by Napoleon initially who later added three more. At the beginning of his rule most of Cuirassier regiments were severely understrength, so Napoleon ordered the best men and horse to be allocated to the first 12 regiments, while the rest were changed into dragoons. He also reintroduced the practice of wearing body armor, which had practically disappeared in Europe during the 18th century.
The medium-weight mainstays of the French cavalry, although considered heavy cavalry, who were used for battle, skirmishing and scouting. They were highly versatile being armed not only with traditional sabres (the finest with three edges made of Toledo steel), but also muskets with bayonets (which were kept in a saddleboot when riding), enabling them to fight on foot as infantry as well as mounted. Part of the price for this versatility was their horsemanship and swordsmanship were often not up to the same standards as that of the other cavalry troops, which made them the subjects of some mockery and derision. Finding enough of the right kinds of horses for these part-time cavalrymen also proved a challenge. Some infantry officers were even required to give up their mounts for the dragoons, creating resentment towards them from this branch as well. There were 25, later 30, dragoon regiments. In 1815, only 15 could be raised and mounted in time for the Hundred Days.
These fast, light cavalrymen were the eyes, ears and egos of Napoleonic armies. They regarded themselves as the best horsemen and swordsmen (beau sabreurs) in the entire Armée. This opinion was not entirely unjustified and their flamboyant uniforms reflected their panache. Tactically, they were used for reconnaissance, skirmishing and screening for the army to keep their commanders informed of enemy movements while denying the foe the same information and to pursue fleeing enemy troops. Armed only with curved sabres and pistols, they had reputations for reckless bravery to the point of being almost suicidal. It was said by their most famous commander Antoine Lasalle that a Hussar who lived to be 30 was truly an old guard and very fortunate. Lasalle was killed at the battle of Wagram at age 34. There were 10 regiments in 1804, with an 11th added in 1810 and two more in 1813.
These were light cavalry identical to Hussars in arms and role. But, unlike the chasseurs of the Imperial guard discussed previously and their infantry counterparts discussed below, they were considered less prestigious or elite. Their uniforms were less colourful as well, consisting of infantry-style shakos (in contrast to the fur busby worn by some French hussars), green coats, green breeches and short boots. They were, however, the most numerous of the light cavalry, with 31 regiments in 1811, 6 of which comprised Flemish, Swiss, Italians and Germans.
Some of the most feared cavalry in Napoleon's armies were the Polish lancers of the Vistula Uhlans. Nicknamed Hell's Picadors or Los Diablos Polacos (The Polish Devils) by the Spanish, these medium and light horse (Chevau-Légers Lanciers) cavalry had speed nearly equal to the Hussars, shock power almost as great as the Cuirassiers and were nearly as versatile as the Dragoons. They were armed with, as their name indicates, lances along with sabres and pistols. Initially French ministers of war insisted on arming all lancers identically, real battlefield experience however proved that the Polish way of arming only the first line with lance while the second rank carried carbine instead was much more practical and thus was adopted. Lancers were the best cavalry for charging against infantry in square, where their lances could outreach the infantry's bayonets, (as happened to Colborne's British brigade at Albuera in 1811) and also in hunting down a routed enemy. Their ability to scour and finish off the wounded without ever stepping off their saddle created perfect scenes of horror for the enemy. They could be deadly against other types of cavalry as well, most famously demonstrated by the fate of Sir William Ponsonby and his Scots Greys at Waterloo. Excluding those of the guard, there were 9 lancer regiments. After the wars, the British were impressed enough to create their own lancer regiments.
A French Carabiniers-à-Cheval.
Dragoon Officer of the 21ème Régiment de Dragons
Lancer of the Régiment de la Vistule Uhlans
The Emperor was a former artillery officer, and reportedly said "God fights on the side with the best artillery." As may therefore be expected, French cannons were the backbone of the Grande Armée's forces, possessing the greatest firepower of the three arms and hence the ability to inflict the most casualties in the least amount of time. The French guns were often used in massed batteries (or grandes batteries) to soften up enemy formations before being subjected to the closer attention of the infantry or cavalry. Superb gun-crew training allowed Napoleon to move the weapons at great speed to either bolster a weakening defensive position, or else hammer a potential break in enemy lines.
Besides superior training, Napoleon's artillery was also greatly aided by the numerous technical improvements to French cannons by Jean Baptiste de Gribeauval which made them lighter, faster and much easier to sight, as well as strengthened the carriages and introduced standard sized calibres. In general, French guns were 4-pounders, 8-pounders or 12-pounders and 6-inch (150 mm) howitzers with the lighter calibres being phased out and replaced by 6-pounders later in the wars. French cannons had brass barrels and their carriages, wheels and limbers were painted olive-green. Superb organization, fully integrated the artillery into the infantry and cavalry units it supported, yet also allowed it to operate independently if the need arose. There were two basic types, Artillerie à pied (Foot artillery) and Artillerie à cheval (Horse artillery).
As the name indicates, these gunners marched alongside their guns, which were, of course, pulled by horses when limbered (undeployed). Hence they travelled at the Infantry's pace or slower. In 1805 there were 8, later 10, regiments of foot artillery in the Armée plus 2 more in the Imperial guard, but unlike cavalry and infantry regiments, these were administrative organizations. The main operational and tactical units were the batteries (or companies) of 120 men each which were formed into brigades and assigned to the divisions and corps.
Battery personnel included not only gun crews, NCOs and officers but drummers, trumpeters, metal workers, woodworkers, ouvriers, furriers and artificers. They would be responsible for fashioning spare parts, maintaining and repairing the guns, carriages, caissons and wagons, as well as tending the horses and storing munitions.
The cavalry were supported by the fast moving, fast firing light guns of the horse artillery. This arm was a hybrid of cavalry and artillery with their crews riding either on the horses or on the carriages into battle. Because they operated much closer to the front lines, the officers and crews were better armed and trained for close quarters combat, mounted or dismounted much as were the dragoons. Once in position they were trained to quickly dismount, unlimber (deploy) and sight their guns, then fire rapid barrages at the enemy. They could then quickly limber (undeploy) the guns, remount, and move on to a new position. To accomplish this, they had to be the best trained and most elite of all artillerymen. The horse batteries of the Imperial guard could go from riding at full gallop to firing their first shot in just under a minute. After witnessing such a performance, an astounded Duke of Wellington remarked, "They move their cannon as if it were a pistol!" There were 6 administrative regiments of horse artillery plus one in the guard. In addition to the batteries assigned to the cavalry units, Napoleon would also assign at least one battery to each infantry corps or, if available, to each division. Their abilities came at a price, however, horse batteries were very expensive to raise and maintain. Consequently, they were far fewer in number than their foot counterparts, typically comprising only 1/5 of the artillery's strength. It was a boastful joke among their ranks that the Emperor knew every horse gunner by name. Besides better training, horses, weapons and equipment, they used far more ammunition. Horse batteries were given twice the ammo ration of the foot, those of the guard three times.
Of all the types of ammunition used in the Napoleonic Wars the cast iron, spherical, round shot was the staple of the gunner. Even at long range when the shot was travelling relatively slowly it could be deadly, though it might appear to be bouncing or rolling along the ground relatively gently. At short range carnage could result.
Round shot were undeniably inaccurate. This was because, despite their name, round shot were never perfectly spherical, nor did they fit their gun barrels exactly. Air acted on the irregular surface of the projectile. These irregularities invariably threw them off target to some degree. It is often also a matter of confusion as to why a 12pdr shot was so much more effective than a 6pdr shot. This is because the impact of a shot was not only related to its weight but also to its velocity, which, with a heavier projectile, was much greater at the end of the trajectory.
There were two forms of close-range weapon, which were extremely useful at up to 270 m (300 yards). Grape shot and canister, or case, were the anti-personnel weapons of choice of the gunner. Grape was a cluster of large metal spheres tied together around a central spindle and base and normally sewn into a bag, whereas canister was a metal case filled with smaller iron or lead spheres. The whole purpose of these types of shot was to break up when fired from the gun forming a wide cone of flying metal that acted in the same way as a shotgun cartridge.
For longer-range anti-personnel work the common shell was also used. This was normally only fired from a mortar or howitzer and was a hollow sphere filled with gunpowder charge. The top of the shell had thinner walls than the bottom and had an orifice into which was forced a wooden fuse normally made of beechwood. The fuse was designed to be ignited by the discharge of the gun and had a central channel drilled through it filled with a burning compound. Before firing, the fuse was cut to a certain length corresponding to the desired time of burning and hammered into the top of the shell by a mallet. When it arrived over the target the fuse, if correctly prepared, exploded the main charge, breaking open the metal outer casing and forcing flying fragments in all directions. Although favoured for siege work, the common shell was not always effective against infantry.
The final type of projectile for the field artillery used by the French was the incendiary or carcass (a name for an incendiary projectile). Initially this device was composed of a metal frame, which was covered with a canvas cover and filled with a special recipe, typically saltpetre 50 parts, sulfur 25 parts, rosin 8 parts, antimony 5 parts, and pitch 5 parts. However, during the early 19th century, another form of carcass became common and this took the form of a common shell with two or three apertures in its exterior into which a similar composition was put. Carcass rounds were normally only issued to howitzers or mortars, the suggestion being they were intended to attack towns. This does not preclude them from being used on the field but quite what their purpose would have been there is not clear.
It is important to know that not all nations shared the same types of artillery projectiles. For example, the Congreve rocket, inspired from the Mysorean rocket artillery, or the Shrapnel shell, which combined the killing effect of grape shot with the ranges achieved by round shot, were used only by the British Army.
The Train d'artillerie, was established by Bonaparte in January 1800. Its function was to provide the teamsters and drivers which handled the horses that hauled the artillery's vehicles. Prior to this, the French, like all other period armies, had employed contracted, civilian teamsters who would sometimes abandon the guns under fire, rendering them immobile, rather than risk their lives or their valuable teams of horses. Its personnel, unlike their civilian predecessors, were armed, trained and uniformed as soldiers. Apart from making them look better on parade, this made them subject to military discipline and capable of fighting back if attacked. The drivers were armed with a carbine, a short sword of the same type used by the infantry and a pistol. They needed little encouragement to use these weapons, earning surly reputations for gambling, brawling and various forms of mischief. Their uniforms and coats of grey helped enhance their tough appearance. But their combativeness could prove useful as they often found themselves attacked by cossacks, Spanish and Tyrolian guerillas.
Each train d'artillerie battalion was originally composed of 5 companies. The first company was considered elite and was assigned to a horse artillery battery; the three "centre" companies were assigned to the foot artillery batteries and "parks" (spare caissons, field forges, supply wagons, etc.); and one became the depot company for training recruits and remounts. Following the campaigns of 1800, the train was re-organized into eight battalions of six companies each. As Napoleon enlarged his artillery, additional battalions were created, rising to a total of fourteen in 1810. In 1809, 1812 and 1813 the first thirteen battalions were "doubled" to create 13 additional battalions. Additionally, after 1809 some battalions raised extra companies to handle the regimental guns attached to the infantry.
The Imperial Guard had its own train, which expanded as La Garde's artillery park was increased, albeit organized as regiments rather than battalions. At their zenith, in 1813–14, the Old Guard artillery was supported by a 12-company regiment while the Young Guard had a 16-company regiment, one for each of their component artillery batteries.
The four regiments of the marines of the Ancien Régime disappeared on 28 January 1794. The Marins (French spelling) of the Grande Armée were divided into the Bataillon des Marins de la Garde Impériale, also known eventually as the Matelots de la Garde, formed on 17 September 1803, and Matelots des Bataillons de la Marine Impériale of which some 32,000 served with the French Navy at its height of expansion by Napoleon. Units of the latter were created for service on land by conscripting naval personnel surplus to requirement of the Navy. There also existed the marine artillery, which were mostly naval gunners used for coastal batteries and fortresses called bataillons de la Matelot du Haut-Bord (or Les Equipages de Haut-Bord – marines of the High Shore) created by Napoleon's decree on 1 April 1808. The flag of the 1er Régiment d'Artillerie de Marine survives today, and lists Lutzen 1813 as one of its battle honours. Some 63 artillery batteries were so manned (some numbers remaining vacant). Some examples include:
The "Marins de la Garde" (transliterated as "Sailors of the Guard", but more accurately "Marines of the Guard") were organised into five equipages (ship's company), each with five escouades, with a total strength of 737 men, the unit having been created ostensibly for the preparation of the invasion of England.
The unit was almost entirely destroyed in the Spanish Campaign of 1808 at Baylen, but was rebuilt, and in 1810 the battalion was expanded to eight equipages with a total of 1,136 men, but this was severely reduced by the casualties of the Russian Campaign, and only 350 officers and men remained in the ranks in 1813. With Napoleon's first abdication, an ensign and 21 marins accompanied him to Elba, and returned with him for the Hundred Days Campaign when their strength was increased to an equipage of 150 officers and men.
The marines were distinct in several ways from other Grande Armée units in that naval rather than Army ranks were used, the uniform was based on that of those of the Hussars, and it was the only unit of the Grande Armée in which the musicians used both the drums and the trumpets.
The battalions of marine artillery were conscripted for the 1813 campaign, and included four regiments with the 1st regiment intended to have 8 battalions, 2nd regiment 10 battalions and the 3rd and 4th regiments four battalions each, totalling 9,640 men in all serving with Marshal Marmont's 6th Corps. Combined with sailor battalions, these fought as part of the Division de Marine at the battles of Lutzen, Bautzen, Dresden, and won high praise at the Battle of Leipzig. The guard marine units were disbanded in 1815.
Many European armies recruited foreign troops, and Napoleonic France was no exception. Foreign troops played an important role and fought with distinction in La Grande Armée during the Napoleonic Wars. Almost every continental European country was, at different stages, a part of La Grande Armée. By the end of the conflict tens-of-thousands had served. In 1805 35,000 troops from the Confederation of the Rhine were used to protect lines of communications and flanks of the main army. In 1806 27,000 more troops were called up for similar purposes, plus 20,000 Saxon troops were used for mopping up operations against the Prussians. In the Winter Campaign of 1806–7, Germans, Poles, and Spaniards helped seize Baltic ports at Stralsund and Danzig on La Grande Armée's left flank. At the Battle of Friedland in 1807, the Corps of Marshal Lannes was formed considerably from Poles, Saxons, and Dutch. For the first time foreign troops had played a role in a major battle, and done so with distinction. In the 1809 Austrian Campaign possibly as many as one-third of the Grande Armée, were from the Confederation of the Rhine, and one-quarter of the Army in Italy was Italian. At La Grande Armée's peak in 1812, more than half the troops that marched into Russia were non-French and represented 20 different countries, including Austrian and Prussian troops. Grawert initially led the Prussian detachment, but was replaced by Yorck.
While the glory of battle went to the cavalry, infantry and artillery, the army also included military engineers of various types.
The bridge builders of the Grande Armée, the pontonniers, were an indispensable part of Napoleon's military machine. Their main contribution was helping the emperor to get his forces across water obstacles by erecting pontoon bridges. The skills of his pontonniers allowed Napoleon to outflank enemy positions by crossing rivers where the enemy least expected and, in the case of the great retreat from Moscow, saved the army from complete annihilation at the Berezina.
They may not have had the glory, but Napoleon clearly valued his pontonniers and had 14 companies commissioned into his armies, under the command of the brilliant engineer, General Jean Baptiste Eblé. His training along with their specialized tools and equipment, enabled them to quickly build the various parts of the bridges, which could then be rapidly assembled and reused later. All the needed materials, tools and parts were carried on their wagon trains. If they did not have a part or item, it could be quickly made using the pontonniers' mobile wagon-mounted forges. A single company of pontonniers could construct a bridge of up to 80 pontoons (a span of some 120 to 150 metres long) in a just under seven hours, an impressive feat even by today's standards.
In addition to the pontonniers, there were companies of sappers, to deal with enemy fortifications. They were used far less often in their intended role than the pontonniers, however, since the emperor had learned in his early campaigns (such as at the Siege of Acre) that it was better to bypass and isolate fixed fortifications, if possible, than to directly assault them, so the sapper companies were usually put to other tasks.
The different types of engineer companies were formed into battalions and regiments called Génie, which was originally a slang term for engineer. This name, which is still used today, was both a play on the word (jeu de mot) and a reference to their seemingly magical abilities to grant wishes and make things appear much like the mythical Genie.
One of Napoleon's most quoted lines is his dictum that "An army is a creature which marches on its stomach". This clearly illustrates the vital importance of military logistics. The troops of the Grande Armée each carried 4 days' provisions. The supply wagon trains following them carried 8 days', but these were to be consumed only in emergency. One man was allotted to 750 grams of bread, 550 grams of biscuits, 250 grams of meat, 30 grams of rice, and 60 grams of grain; one liter of wine was shared between four men. Insofar as possible, Napoleon encouraged his men to live off the land through foraging and requisition of food (which was known as La Maraude). An integral part of the French logistics system was the inclusion in every regiment of several women known as cantinières (also known as vivandières, but "cantinière" was by far the more common term among French troops). These women were married to soldiers in their regiments, and acted as sutlers, selling food and drink (especially alcohol) to the troops. They were considered "absolutely necessary" to the functioning of the army, and the Consular Decree of 7 Thermidor, Year VIII set their number at four per battalion and two per cavalry squadron. These women fed the troops when all other logistical arrangements broke down.
Additional supplies would be stockpiled and stored at forward bases and depots which he would establish before the start of his campaigns. These would then be moved forward as the army advanced. The Grande Armée's supply bases would replenish the Corps and Divisional depots, which in turn would replenish the Brigade and Regimental supply trains, which would distribute rations and ammunition to the troops as needed to supplement their foraging. The reliance on foraging was sometimes determined by political pressures. When marching over friendly territory armies were told to "live off what the country can supply", but when marching over neutral territory they were issued with supplies. It was this system of planned and improvised logistics which enabled the Grande Armée to sustain rapid marches of up to 15 miles per day for up to 5 weeks. The logistical system was also aided by a technological innovation in the form of the food preservation technique invented by Nicolas Appert, which led to modern canning methods.
The medical services had the least glory or prestige, yet they were required to deal with the full horrors of war's aftermath. Though the Emperor recognized its chief, Dr. Dominique Jean Larrey as stated in the 'Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène': "The Emperor had only the highest praise for Dr Larrey, declaring that he left him with the image of a truly good man who combined all the virtues of effective philanthropy and science to the highest degree. Every wounded soldier was a member of his family. Larrey is the most virtuous man I have ever met."
While the technology and practice of military medicine did not advance significantly during the Napoleonic wars, the Grande Armée did benefit from improvements in the organization of staff and the establishment of a Flying Ambulance system, by its Surgeon General, Baron Dominique Jean Larrey. After seeing the speed with which the carriages of the French flying artillery manoeuvred across the battlefields, Baron Larrey adapted them for rapid transport of the wounded and manned them with trained crews of drivers, corpsmen and litter bearers. This forerunner of the modern military ambulance and triage system, was eventually adapted by armies throughout the world in the following decades. And this Dr. Larrey invented the «ambulances volantes» – "flying" ambulance (so-called due to their emphasis on speedily, or "flying", rushing the critically injured back to the field hospital for surgery). However, Larrey's rival, one Baron L.P. Percy, was the first to actually introduce much needed reform to the French Army's medical services. He was the first to introduce "a regularly trained corps of field litter bearers, soldiers regularly formed and equipped for the duty of picking up the wounded...and carrying them on stretchers to the place where means of surgical aid were provided" and thus also deserving of some credit. (Longmore, p. 26.) The differences between Percy's and Larrey's systems lay in their fundamental objectives. Percy's ambulance served mainly as a means of transporting surgeons and their instruments close to the engaged elements. In turn, stretcher-bearers could radiate from such proximity to retrieve the wounded. In contrast, Larrey's flying ambulance, though a much lighter and swifter carriage, was designed to follow the advanced guard and provide initial treatment to the wounded (by applying dressings on the field of battle) while emphasizing the need to rapidly transport the more critically injured away from the battlefield. Wounded were, thus, evacuated to points in the rear where surgeons could more effectively perform lifesaving procedures within not more than half an hour (Larrey, 1814, vol I, pp. 223–24.)  The ambulances were horse-drawn wagons, modelled after the "flying artillery", for the collecting and carrying the wounded from the battlefield to the field hospitals. He first proposed this system in a report from the Italian Campaign of 1797 (Larrey, vol I, 1814, pp. 27–28.). The personnel for a given ambulance team included a doctor, quartermaster, non-commissioned officer, a drummer boy (who carried the bandages), and 24 infantrymen as stretcher bearers. As a result, Larrey increased the mobility and improved the organization of field hospitals, effectively creating a prototype for the modern Mobile Army Surgical Hospital.
Because of Larrey's efforts, and the popularity of his reforms of that of Baron Percy's, every regiment, division and corps had its own medical staff, consisting of corpsmen to find and transport the wounded, orderlies to provide assistance and nursing functions, apothecaries, surgeons and doctors which was more than any other army of the day would offer until around the time of the Crimean War and American Civil War. Even so, conditions in the Grande Armée, as in all armies of the time, were primitive at best. Far more soldiers died of their wounds or from sickness than in battle (see Napoleonic Wars casualties). There was little knowledge of hygiene and nothing of antibiotics. The main surgical procedure was amputation, since the bleeding of a limb could be more easily controlled, and curare, an anesthetic that helps relax muscles, had yet to be developed as an anesthetic (although it was under experimentation during this time). The only means of anaesthetic consisted of strong alcoholic drink, or even, in some cases, knocking the patient unconscious. Opiates such as laudanum were available (in theory) for pain control. Typically only about two-thirds survived the operation.
After 1797, the flying ambulances were always present with the advance-guard of the army and even tended to the wounded on the battlefield, even under fire in stark contrast to the long-held tradition of waiting to collect the injured until after the battle in question during which time many of the most gravely wounded would have died for lack of proper medical attention. this boosted the morale for the rank and file of the French Revolutionary, and later Imperial, armies, but its most revolutionary aspect was Larrey's attention to the wounded on both sides of the battlefield. A noble concept that survived to modern times in the form of the Red Cross and the 1864 First Geneva Convention.
Accounts of the ordeals of the wounded are horrific reading. Napoleon, himself, once noted "It requires more courage to suffer than to die", so he made sure those who did survive were given the best treatment available at the best hospitals in France, in particular Les Invalides, while they recuperated. In addition, the wounded survivors were often treated as heroes, awarded medals, pensions and provided with prosthetic limbs if needed. Knowing that they would be promptly attended to, then honored and well looked after once back home, helped boost morale in the Grande Armée, and thus further contributed to its fighting abilities.
Most dispatches were conveyed as they had been for centuries, via messengers on horseback. Hussars, due to their bravery and riding skills, were often favored for this task. Shorter range tactical signals could be sent visually by flags or audibly by drums, bugles, trumpets and other musical instruments. Thus standard bearers and musicians, in addition to their symbolic, ceremonial and morale functions, also played important communication roles.
The Grande Armée did benefit from innovations made in long range communications during the French Revolution. The French army was among the first to employ homing pigeons as messengers in any large and organized manner, and also the first to use observation balloons for reconnaissance and communications. But the real advance for conveying long range dispatches came in the form of an ingenious optical Telegraph Semaphore system invented by Claude Chappe.
Chappe's system comprised an intricate network of small towers, within visual range of one another. On top of each was a 9-metre mast, with three large, movable wooden rods mounted on them. These rods, called the régulateur (regulator), were operated by trained crews using a series of pulleys and levers. The four basic positions of the rods could be combined to form 196 different "signs". Provided with good crews of operators and decent visibility conditions, a sign could be sent through the 15 station towers between Paris and Lille, a distance of 193 km (120 mi), in only 9 minutes, a complete message of 36 signs in about 32 minutes. From Paris to Venice, a message could be sent in only six hours.
Chappe's telegraph soon became one of Napoleon's favourite and most important secret weapons. A special portable version semaphore telegraph travelled with his headquarters. Using it he was able to coordinate his logistics and forces over longer distances in far less time than his enemies. Work was even begun on a wagon-mounted version in 1812, but not completed in time for use in the wars.
While Napoleon is best known as a master strategist and charismatic presence on the battlefield, he was also a tactical innovator. He combined classic formations and tactics that had been used for thousands of years with more recent ones, such as Frederick the Great's "Oblique Order" (best illustrated at the Battle of Leuthen) and the "mob tactics" of the early Levée en masse armies of the Revolution. Napoleonic tactics and formations were highly fluid and flexible. In contrast, many of the Armée's opponents were still wedded to a rigid system of "Linear" (or Line) tactics and formations, in which masses of infantry would simply line up and exchange vollies of fire, in an attempt to either blow the enemy from the field or outflank them. Due to the vulnerabilities of the line formations to flanking attacks, it was considered the highest form of military manoeuvre to outflank one's adversary. Armies would often retreat or even surrender if this was accomplished. Consequently, commanders who adhered to this system would place a great emphasis on flank security, often at the expense of a strong centre or reserve. Napoleon would frequently take full advantage of this linear mentality by feigning flank attacks or offering the enemy his own flank as "bait" (best illustrated at the Battle of Austerlitz and also later at Lützen), then throw his main effort against their centre, split their lines and roll up their flanks. He always kept a strong reserve as well, mainly in the form of his Imperial Guard, which could deliver a "knockout blow" if the battle was going well or turn the tide if it was not.
Some of the more famous, widely used, effective and interesting formations and tactics included:
Unlike the armies of the Ancien Régime and other monarchies, advancement in the Grande Armée was based on proven ability rather than social class or wealth. Napoleon wanted his army to be a meritocracy, where every soldier, no matter how humble of birth, could rise rapidly to the highest levels of command, much as he had done (provided, of course, they did not rise too high or too fast). This was equally applied to the French and foreign officers, and no less than 140 foreigners attained the rank of Général. By and large this goal was achieved. Given the right opportunities to prove themselves, capable men could rise to the top within a few years, whereas in other armies it usually required decades if at all. It was said that even the lowliest private carried a marshal's baton in his knapsack.
Maréchal d'Empire, or Marshal of the Empire, was not a "rank" within the French Army, but a personal title granted to distinguished Divisional generals, along with higher pay and privileges. The same applied to the Corps commanders (General de Corps d'armee) and army commanders (General en chef). The highest permanent "rank" in Napoleon's army was actually Général de division and those higher than it were positions of the same rank but with separate insignia for appointment holders. The position of Colonel General of a branch (such as Dragoons or Grenadiers of the Guard) was akin to Chief Inspector-General of that branch, whose office holder used his current officer rank and its corresponding insignia.
|Grande Armée rank||Modern U.S./U.K./NATO equivalent|
|Général de division,
Lieutenant général (ancien régime rank reintroduced in 1814)
|Général de brigade,
Maréchal de camp (ancien régime rank reintroduced in 1814, equivalent of Major général)
|Colonel en second||Senior lieutenant colonel|
|Major en second||Senior Major|
|Chef de bataillon or Chef d'escadron||Major|
|Capitaine adjutant-major||Staff Captain|
|Adjudant sous-officier||Chief Warrant Officer|
|Sergent-Major or Maréchal des logis Chef||First sergeant|
|Sergent or Maréchal des Logis||Sergeant|
|Caporal-Fourrier or Brigadier-Fourrier||Company clerk/supply Sergeant|
|Caporal or Brigadier (Cavalry, Horse Artillery and Gendarmerie)||Corporal|
|Soldat or Cavalier(Cavalry) or Canonnier(Artillery)||Private or UK equivalent|
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