"The forced marches of our army often continued till late at night, and in passing the troops we frequently heard Italians, Germans or Frenchmen, singing their national airs to lull their fatigue, or, in this distant and hostile land, to recall a lively remembrance of their absent country." - Albert-Jean-Michel de Rocca
1. Introduction - Foreigners in French Service
2. Tirailleurs du Pô
3. Tirailleurs Corses - "Les Cousins de l'Empereur"
4. Swiss Regiments
5. Polish 'Vistula Legion'
6. Croatian Regiments
7. 'Regiments Etrangers'
Introduction - Foreigners in French Service.
According to Colonel John Elting, the French, being practical people, have always been eager to let any available foreigners assist them in any necessary bleeding and doing for France. The foreigners served for the French kings, for Napoleon and during the 20th Century.
Today the French Foreign Legion is an elite unit. This is a military formation of approximately 8,500 men serving as a branch of the regular Armed Forces of France. It differs from other military units by accepting foreigners from any country in the world into its ranks.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was traditionally responsible for the procurement of foreign troops. Most of the foreigners were contingents from allied or vassal states, others were individuas of foreign birth serving in oficially French units. There were also foreign troops recruited for service as part of the French army. In 1803 were formed Bataillon de Tirailleurs du Po (Italians) and so-called Legion du Midi and Legion Hanovrienne (Germans). Groups of volunteers found their way over from Ireland. They formed "Legion Irlandaise" (Irish Legion) and recruited among British prisoners of war. According to magweb.com the Irish Legion, was raised as a light infantry "from the almost endless stream of enthusiastic Irishmen that appeared any time there was an Englishman to be shot." In 1807 were formed Regiment de Westphalie (Germans), Regiment Albanaise (Balkans), Batailllon de Neuchatel and Bataillon de Valaisan (Swiss). There were also four regiments of Swiss infantry, four regiments of Polish 'Vistula Legion' and four regiments of Croats.
Napoleon's foreign troops comprised three categories:
(When German, Dutch and Italian territories were annexed the foreigners became very numerous.)
(For example the Dutch 'Red Lancers' of the Guard, the Swiss and Croatian regiments, the Polish 'Vistula Legion', Hannoverian Legion, Portuguese Legion, Irish Legion etc. etc.)
(For example the Westphalian, Bavarian and Saxon troops participating in 1812 in Napoleon's invasion of Russia. They formed separate corps, or the Polish 8th Corps at the Battle of Leipzig.)
List of French light regiments formed of foreigners:
French line regiments formed of foreigners:
The foreigners also served in Napoleon's Imperial Guard. The Dutch formed 3e Regiment de Grenadiers-à-Pied de la Garde and 2e Regiment de Chevau-Legers-Lanciers de la Garde ("Red Lancers"). The Italians formed Velites of Turin and Velites of Florence. The Poles formed the 1er Regiment de Chevau-Legers-Lanciers de la Garde and in 1812 Napoleon attached the entire 'Vistula Legion' to his Guard. The Germans in the Guard in 1813 were represented by the Saxon Grenadier Battalion and the Westphalian Guard Fusilier Battalion. Earlier on the Berg lancers were attached to the Guard.
The numebr of foreigners in major battles was often significant. Below is a comparison list for the Battle of Borodino (1812):
With the exception of desertion of Saxons at Leipzig, followed by the defection of the Bavarians, the foreigners were loyal and fought well. Below is a comparison list showing average officer casualties per battalion suffered at the Battle of Leipzig. The more battalion or regiment was involved in fighting the heavier were their casualties.
Tirailleurs du Pô
"The Piedmontese army is as fine and soldier-like a body of men as any in Europe. ... Of all the Italian states, Piedmont is the best situated for creating a good army. The plains of the Po and its tributaries produce capital horses, and a fine, tall race of men, the tallest of all Italians .... The mountains, which surround these plains on three sides, north, west, and south, are inhabited by a hardy people, less in size, but strong and active, industrious and sharp-witted, like all mountaineers." (Source -"The Armies of Europe" in Putnam's Monthly, No. XXXII, published in 1855)
The Tirailleurs du Pô were formed in 1803 of northern Italians. According to John Elting "they rapidly became a crack battalion". In 1811 the Tirailleurs du Po were incorporated into French 11e Regiment d'Infanterie Légère. The battalion was commanded by chef (not colonel): in 1803 - by Prince Borghese, 1804 - Cattaneo, 1805 - Hulot, and in 1809 - by Mano. This unit was one of the best in Napoleon's infantry and despite its very short existence fought in several big battles: 1805 - Holabrunn and Austerlitz, 1807 - Heilsberg, 1809 - Herttingen, Reid, Ebersberg, Essling and Wagram.
One of the very best light outfits serving in Napoleon's army was the battalion called Tirailleurs Corses. It was raised in 1803 and Philippe d'Ornano, a Napoleon's cousin (he married Marie Waleska in 1822), was chef de bataillon and they were for this reason nicknamed "les cousins de l'Empereur". It was not an italian battalion like the "Tirailleurs du Po".
All the soldiers of Tirailleurs Corses were volunteers and all Corsicans, except one officer (the quartermaster). Its depot company was located in Corsica.
According to Docteur Dominique Buresi of Ajaccio who last year wrote a "Story of Corsican regiments of light infantry" (DCL publishing march 2003) several Corsican troops fought during the period of 1792-1815. Six bataillons of chasseurs numbered 3rd, 4th (ex royal chasseurs ) and 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th battalions were drafted in 1793 and they wore blue coats.
Six batallions were drafted in 1803, five were send to Naples and the 6th was the Tirailleurs Corses. In 1806 at Eylau after the bloody battle it was down to 400 men (14 officers were killed ! Many Corsicans were enlisted in 1810 to the 1st Mediterranean Regiment.
In 1814 the garrison of Elba Island consisted of one battalion of Corsicans. According to Docteur Dominique Buresi this troop fought at Waterloo as 1st battalion of 1er Regiment of Voltigeurs of Young Guard !
The Swiss Infantry.
"The Swiss, like all mountaineers, make capital soldiers when drilled; and, wherever they have served as regular troops under foreign banners, they have fought exceedingly well. But being rather slow-headed, they need drilling much more, indeed, than either French or North Germans, to give them confidence in themselves and cohesion." (Source -"The Armies of Europe" in Putnam's Monthly, No. XXXII, published in 1855 )
The Swiss troops served Napoleon but they also served Spain, Austria and the Pope. Swiss mercenaries have played their important roles in France. Francis I of France used some 120,000 Swiss levies in his wars. Under King Louis XIV, the Swiss troops were organized in two categories, with the king's guard separate from the ordinary Swiss regiments. In August 1792 the Swiss Guards defended the Tuileries Palace in Paris during the French Revolution, when several hundred of the Guard were massacred by the Parisian mob that stormed the Palace. Their stand permitted the royal family to escape across the gardens.
The French Revolution abolished mercenary troops in its citizen army but Napoleon used them. The Swiss served loyally so long as they were paid regularly. There was saying "No money, no Swiss." They were well trained and disiplined. Their musket volleys were perfectly controlled, their shots well aimed. French General Merle said: "it was pity that the Swiss couldn't handle two muskets at once, if they only could he would issue them". The brave Marshal Lannes was titular colonel of the Swiss troops in the French service. The Swiss served Napoleon well, in 1812 they distinguished themselves in Russia. The only setbacks they suffered were at Maida and at Baylen where after some fighting they surrendered to the Spanish troops. (The French provisional and reserve troops and the Guard Marines did surrender too.)
While Napoleon was exiled on Elba (1814-1815) the grenadier companies of the Swiss regiments
in French service served as part of King Louis XVIII's royal guard.
The Polish 'Vistula Legion'.
The most numerous and particularly dedicated to Napoleon were the Poles. Among the ten or so best Polish regiments were the four regiments of Vistula Legion. They served in every major campaign - in Italy, Spain, Germany, France and in Russia. Their popular commander was Colonel Jozef Chlopicki. In 1812 the four regiments were attached to Napoleon's Guard but during the retreat from Russia they fought often and very hard. In 1813 their debris were consolidated into one regiment. This gallant unit fought ferociously at Leipzig (1813) and at Arcis-sur-Aube (1814). When the wars ended there were only few men left in the ranks.
Below is a list of Polish 'Vistula Legion' regiments and their war record during Empire (1804-1815).
The Croats lived in the mountains and formed good light infantry serving in the Austrian and French armies. French general Teste said: "they were always organized and always ready." The Croats were experts in skirmish-order hill fighting but had very little passion for fighting for France. Some troops even mutined. Under Napoleon served four regiments of so-called provisional regiments of Croat infantry. The 1er Regiment d'Infanterie Provisories Croate was formed in 1811 from the 1st btns. of 1er and 2e Regiment de Chasseurs Illyriens. The 2e Regiment d'Infanterie Provisories Croate was raised in 1813 from the 1st btn. of 4e Regiment de Chasseurs Illyriens and 2nd btn. of 3e Regiment de Chasseurs Illyriens. The 3e Regiment d'Infanterie Provisories Croate was formed in 1812 from the 1st btns. of 1er and 2e Regiments du Banat. The 3e Regiment d'Infanterie Provisories Croate was formed in 1813 from the 2nd btns. of 1er and 2e Regiments du Banat. All four regiments were disbanded in 1813.
Below is a list of Croatian regiments and their war record in French service during Empire (1804-1815).
The 'Regiments Etrangers'.
There were also so-called regiments etrangers - for some reason considered light infantry though seldom if ever specifically so employed. They were given very showy uniforms to attract recruits. One Frenchman wrote about the 1st Foreign Regiment: "in their handsome green uniforms, they made a large number of female conquests, especially among cooks." (Source: Elting - "Napoleonic Uniforms" Vol 2) Their drum majors wore the most flamboyant outfits in Napoleonic infantry.
In 1805 was raised Regiment de La Tour d’Auvergne in 1811 renamed to 1er Regiment Etrangers (1st Foreign Regiment). In 1805 was also formed Regiment d’Isembourg, in 1812 renamed to 2e Regiment Etrangers (2nd Foreign Regiment). It was named for the German princeling who organized it for Napoleon). Both regiments were commanded by princes. In these units served men of various nationalities, Germans, Hungarians, Brits, Swedes, Greeks, Danes, Spaniards and even French royalists. Many were prisoners of war, others were deserters, the third group were volunteers and so-called "soldiers of fortune".
In 1806 were raised two more foreign regiments; 3rd and 4th.
In 1806 the Regiment de Prusse was renamed to the 4e Regiment Etrangers (4th Foreign Regiment) was raised after Napoleon's victory over Prussia and consisted of Prussian deserters and prisoners of war. It made a considerable use of captured Prussian weapons and articles of clothing. Senior sergeants retained the Prussian custom of carrying canes for disciplinary problems. They were well trained soldier but without much love for France and Napoleon.
Majority of the foreign troops served on secondary theaters of war, in Holland, Italy and Spain, and on Corfu Island. Their performance was below the French average. In early September 1813 the Austrian infantry took the fort Muhlbach that guarded the mouth of the Pusteria Valley, capturing the voltigeur company of the 1st Foreign Regiment (1er Regiment Etrangers) posted there. The voltigeurs behaved very poorly, and many simply ran away at the approach of the Austrians. The remainder of the company was taken prisoner. (Source: Nafziger and Gioannini - "The Defense of the Napoleonic Kingdom of Northern Italy 1813-1814" p53).
Below is war record of these regiments during Empire (1804-1815):
Links and Sources.
Elting - "Swords Around a Throne"
Fieffe - "Histoire des Troupes Etranger au service de France"
Mageraud - "Armement et Equiement de l'Infanterie Francaise"
Martinien - "Tableaux par Corps et par Batailles des Officiers tues et blesse pendant les guerres de l'Empire 1805-1815"
Susane - "Histoire de l'Infanterie Francaise"
napoleonseries.org and napoleon-series (articles by Tony Broughton).
Napoleon, His Army and Enemies