"It is well known with what gallantry the officers lead
and with what vehemence the [French] troops follow ..."
- William Napier
French Infantry Under Napoleon.
"The army's infantry is its most essential component. Even today, no army can take and hold any ground without
the use of infantry." (Nafziger - "Napoleon's Invasion of Russia" p 13, 1998)
The infantry was the basis of the Napoleonic army, which was the largest army in the World in that time.
Such army was necessary as France had several powerfull enemies on land; Russia, Prussia and
Austria all had large armies. In this situation accepting only volunteers (as it was in the small Swiss and
British armies) was not enough. To meet the numbers
conscription (ext.link) was at work.
Conscription hustled to arms a lot of quivering creatures who would never have gone to war
of their own free will. The process of weeding out the weak was under way in the first
stages of every campaign. Under Napoleon the discipline of the troops greatly improved
although now and then were problems. When the 69th Demi-Brigade mutined a general arrived to see what
the trouble was. The infantrymen cheerfully explained that they had no complain except that they had nothing to do; they simply had 'bored themselves' and so kicked up a little
excitement to make life interesting ! There was no corporal punishment in the French army.
In contrast the Russians used gauntlet, and the Brits flogged the troublemakers.
In 1803-1807 France had probably the best infantry which had ever existed in Europe up until
that time. It was the Camp of Boulogne that Napoleon's greatest military ideas were executed.
The Napoleonic foot soldiers were known for agility, stubborn attacks, and the speed of their marches.
Maneuverability and speed were the characterictics of Napoleon's lightning campaigns.
The infantry performed some extraordinary marches, for example in 1805 and in 1808
during the pursuit of the fleeing British troops.
Chlapowski writes: "The arrival of the first French infantry division [to Poland], belonging to Davout's Corps, made
a strange impression on me. A dozen or so of us rode out to meet it, and about a mile outside the city we saw fields completely covered with individual soldiers, in greatcoats
of every color, carrying their muskets with the butts in the air and picking dry paths through the fields
to avoid the knee-deep mud on the road. Right outside the city [Posen], by the windmills, there was a beating of drums,
and they all came running to form ranks and in the blinking of an eye they had taken off their greatcoats, straightened
their bicornes on their heads and become the most regular armies. They then marched at a lively pace into the city with bands playing. They halted in the market square, stacked their weapons and took out little
brushes to wipe the mud from their shoes and began fooling around as if they had only been marching for a mile, not the 150 miles they had just completed.
I stared in amazement at these boisterous infantrymen, so far undefeated. They might as well have been going to a dance.
On picture: "the French arrived [at Tordesillas], 60
... headed by Cpt Guingret, a daring man,
formed a small raft to hold their arms and clothes, and plunged into the water, holding their swords with their teeth,
swimming and pushing their raft before them. Under protection of a cannonande they crossed this
great river, though it was in full and strong water, and the weather very cold, and having reached the other side,
naked as they were, stormed the tower: the Brunswick regiment then abandoned the wood, and the gallant Frenchmen
remained masters of the bridge." (Napier - "History of the War ..."
Vol IV, p 138)
Many napoleonic battles were very bloody and cost many lives. In 1812 after the battle of Valutina Gora "Gudin's division were drawn up on top of their companions' and Russian corpses, amidst half-broken trees, on ground ripped up by roundshot ... Gudin's battalions were no longer more than platoons. All around was the smell of powder. The Emperor couldn't pass along their front without having to avoid corpses, step over them or push them aside. He was lavish with rewards. The 12th, 21st and 127th Line and the 7th Light received 87 decorations and promotions." (Britten-Austin - "1812 The March on Moscow" p 214)
At Borodino the infantry have suffered even more. Sergeant Bertrand of 7th Light Regiment writes:
"A roundshot took my captain's head off, killing or mortally wounding four men in the first rank.
The lieutenant takes the captain's place; scarcely is he at his post than he's himself stricken by a piece of grape which shatters his thigh.
In the same instant the sous-lieutenant's foot is shattered by another shell fragment. The officers hors
de combat, the sergeant-major absent, I, as senior sergeant, take command of the company."
In 1812 the majority of veterans was swallowed up in the bloody battles and the snows of Russia. The casualties were horrible and it required a heart of stone to look on those gallant men, mangled, frozen and torn, and heaped in thousands over the fields and roads. (ext.link).
The reconstruction of the infantry in 1813 was not a simple task. One cannot just strike the earth and expect legions, armed, clothed and trained. Napoleon used everything he had.
In 1813 the young soldiers were called "infants of the Emperor." Thousands of the footsore men entered Dresden, wore their battle dress and marched into battle singing "Victory is Ours".
Marshal Davout wrote: "in spite of their youth ... I cannot recall having found more ardor
in our old troops." They have fought bravely at Dresden and
Leipzig. At Leipzig the defense
of Probstheida was incredible. Digby-Smith writes: "The courage and ferocity shown by both sides in the battle of
Probstheida was truly unique, as were the losses they suffered.
An attempt by the Old Guard to advance south, however, was stopped by the Allied artillery on the low hill about 500 m away.
Generals Baillot, Montgenet and Rochambeau were all killed during the fighting here, while
French regiments which especially distinguished themselves were the 2nd, 4th and 18th Line and the 11th Light.
Even Prinz August von Preussen wrote most flatteringly of the enemy's valour ..."
In 1814 the French infantry found itself in heavily reduced size. A handful of heroes faced all of Europe to whom they themselves had taught the art of fighting over the past decade. In 1815 it was no more than a glorious memory. After the 100-Days Campaign the French King Louis XVIIIth decided that no reminder of the Republic or the Empire would be allowed to survive in the army. The organization of the army and the uniforms from the Empire were banned.
Napoleonic infantryman was easy everywhere, little or nothing
worried him, neither the pyramids of Egypt nor the vast plains of snowy Russia.
No matter where he found himself, he considered himself
to be a representative of the French way of life.
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.
Differences Between Light and Line Infantry.
There were two types of infantry, line and light. Both were able to execute all maneuvers, incl. skirmishing. The light infantryman however was more intensively trained in marksmanship and in executing all maneuvers in higher speed. The light infantry formed advance guards and scouting parties. This kind of service had fostered the soldier's intelligence and independent judgement. No longer he was a mindless robot in a lock-step formation, moving and firing only upon order.
Napoleon's light infantry enjoyed a great reputation in Europe.
In his "Basic Reason for the French Success" Prussian general Scharnhorst maintained that the individual French soldier, epitomized by the light infantryman, had decided most of the tactical engagements of the war. Scharnhorst wrote: "The physical ability and high inteligence of the common man enables the French light infantryman to profit from all advantages offered by the terrain and the general situation, while the phlegmatic Germans, Bohemians and Dutch form an open ground and do nothing but what their officers order them to do."
Major K.F. von Knesebeck saw the French in six engagements, deploy "their entire infantry" in open order as skirmishers "with decided superiority." Knesebeck believed that the Prussians and Austrians could learn a great deal from the French light infantryman.
According to author Gunther Rothenberg "Rigidly controlled and regimented, the Austrian skirmishers rarely were equal to the French."
Average height of infantryman:
grenadiers - 170.25 cm
fusiliers - 164.66 cm
voltigeurs - 159.40 cm
(Average height taken from 3.503 recruits)
carabinier - 168.25 cm
chasseur - 162.98 cm
voltigeur - 158.1 cm
(Average height taken from 900 recruits)
"Other men - so many of them dead, worn out, shunted aside, or exiled - had shaped the French armies as much as those new marshals of 1804. There were the might-have-beens, the men who should have been marshals had they survived - high-hearted Dessaix, whom Napoleon thought the best-balanced of his lieutenants, and gallant young Marceau. Whether the sharp-mnded Hoche and resentful Kleber would have accepted a baton is an unswered question, but there were other first-rate generals who certainly would have. ... During 1800-1803 Napoleon gradually cleaned out the deadwood from among his officers, a task complicated by the general confusion in which the Directory had left the War Ministry's records. Approx. 170 general officers were retired; some were good men, but too old or too disabled to continue on active duty. .... Many however were incompetents ... In 1805 Napoleon wanted only 120 generals of division and 240 of brigade." (Elting - "Swords Around a Throne" p 167)
Philippe-Guillaume Duhesme (1766-1815).
Louis-Charles Saint-Hilaire (1766-1809).
Dominique-Joseph Vandamme (1770-1830).
Jean-Dominique Compans (1769-1845).
Strength and Recruitment of Infantry.
On picture: Voltigeur of Line Infantry, 1812 Musee de l'Armee, France. Napoleonic infantryman was armed with 'Charleville' musket model 1777 (AN IX), with overall length 151.5 cm, (barrel length 114 cm) and a triangular bayonet 45.6 cm.
The strength of infantry varied. In the beginning of Napoleon's reign France had 90 line and 26 light regiments. In 1813-1814 it reached a massive 137 line (numbered 1er-157e) and 35 light (numbered 1er-37e) regiments. Only in 1815 the strength of infantry fell below even the initial numbers: 90 line and 15 light.
In 1803 the French army had 89 regiments of line infantry, numbered 1er-112e. Twenty three numbers were vacant: 31, 38, 41, 49, 68, 71, 73, 74, 77, 78, 80, 83, 87, 89, 90, 91, 97, 98, 99, 104, 107, 109, 110. The majority of vacant regiments were due to yellow fever and casualties suffered on San Domingo.
Weapons and Organization.
On picture: French musket 'Charleville' used by Napoleonic infantry.
The French infantry was armed with musket, cartridge box, bayonet and some with short saber. One white leather belt went over the left shoulder to support the cartridge box on the right hip. Other belt supported the short saber and bayonet. When the saber was taken from some troops, the bayonet was transferred to the other belt. The natural color of the leather belts was buff, but they were whitened with pipeclay. The infantryman's cross belts were characteristic of the Napoleonic period. (Officers wore no cross belts).
Musket and Bayonet.
Regiment [1.000-4.000 men]
Prior to the Revolution, the French Army was composed of three-battalion regiments.
In 1792 before the Battle of Valmy, it was decided to form demi-brigades instead of regiments. Each demi-brigade was made up of one regular battalion from a pre-revolutionary regiment combined with two battalions of volunteers. The demi-brigades were adopted by the entire French army two years later. In 1803 Napoleon was re-instated the term "regiment", the "demi-brigade" being applied henceforth only to provisional troops.
War Battalion Before 1808
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1 Chef d'bataillon (mounted)
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1 Adjudant-Major - in the rank of captain
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1 Sous-Adjudant-Major - in the rank of lieutenant
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1 Adjudant Sous-officer - in the rank of senior NCO
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1 Drum-corporal
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . Grenadier Company (Carabinier Company in light infantry)
. . Fusilier Company - Fusilier Company (Chasseur Company in light infantry)
. . Fusilier Company - Fusilier Company (Chasseur Company in light infantry)
. . Fusilier Company - Fusilier Company (Chasseur Company in light infantry)
. . Fusilier Company - Voltigeur Company
In this formation the French won the most and the greatest battles. The battalions had a very high ratio of battle-hardened veterans. The time between 1804 and 1807 is called The Glory Years. For comparison, in 2005 US Army battalion has between 300 to 1000 Soldiers or Marines, and consists of several companies. It is commanded by a lieutenant-colonel.
War Battalion After 1808
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1 Chef d'bataillon (mounted)
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1 Adjudant-Major - in the rank of captain
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1 Sous-Adjudant-Major - in the rank of lieutenant
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1 Adjudant Sous-officer - in the rank of senior NCO
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1 Drum-corporal
. . . . Voltigeur Company - Grenadier Company (Carabinier Company in light infantry)
. . . . Fusilier Company - Fusilier Company (Chasseur Company in light infantry)
. . . . Fusilier Company - Fusilier Company (Chasseur Company in light infantry)
"Each company [of depot battalion] had different specific duties. The 4th Company of the battalion rarely if ever left the depot. It was charged with training recruits and included in its ranks the regiments's artisans, the enfants de troupe (soldiers' sons carried on the battalion payroll), and any veteran soldiers awaiting retirement, discharge, or pensioning. The 1st and 3rd Companies were responsible for transporting newly trained recruits to the field battalions. ... The 2nd Company of the battalion was generally assigned to act as guards for naval vessels as well as for the garrisons to man them." (Nafziger - "Napoleon's Invasion of Russia" p 14)
French company (platoon) formed on 3 ranks and battalion (of 6 companies) formed in line.
When the Chef of Battalion gives order "Forward !":
the left and right battalion guide ("guide generaux") and the first rank of fanion's (or flag's) guard
place themselves 6 paces ahead of the line of battalion. They set up the alignement of the battalion.
Then the Chef of Battalion gives second order: "March !" and the entire battalion starts marching
If there are several battalions advancing side by side the intervals between them are 15,6 m.
Space between 1st, 2nd and 3rd rank:
French infantry - 0.325 m
Russian infantry - 0.35 m
British infantry - 0.63 m
Prussian infantry - 0.66 m
Austrian infantry - 1.25 m (!)
Both columns have the same width: 2 companies (platoons), but different depth.
The column on the left has 'full intervals', the one on the right is compact with no intervals.
Drummers and Cornets.
Just as modern company commander relies on his radio operator, his Napoleonic counterpart
depended on his drummers and cornets. During a battle it was very noisy and not everyone could hear
a officer's voice. For this reason every company had drummers and cornets.
They also performed a service that went beyond supplying a rhythmic musical accompaniment to the
marching infantry. The musicians carried wounded officers out of danger zone and after battle
stacking their drums, they would await the grim task of carrying their stricken comrades to field
Musicians (Regimental Band)
Sappers (Combat Engineers).
Each battalion had 1 corporal sapper and 4 privates sappers. These strong men with facial hair marched together with regimental band and near the Eagle/flag. Sappers were picked men from grenadier (carabinier) company. They were equipped with axes. Sappers wore grenadier uniform with crossed axes and grenade badges on the sleeves. Their fur cap was without front plate. Beards were mandatory.
During combat they broke in gates, chopped gaps in palisades, built small bridges or destroyed them, broke garden walls or loopholed them to provide protected firing positions for the infantry. Before Waterloo Napoleon have ordered the sapper companies of I Army Corps (d'Erlon's) to be ready to construct barricades around the conquered buildings of La Haye Sainte and prevent the enemy from reoccupying them.
Grenadiers & Carabiniers.
Each field battalion had only one grenadier company (carabinier in light infantry). They were the elite shock troop often used as spearhead of attacking force. They were also granted a higher pay. The Prussian King Frederick the Great, required from his grenadiers to be brave, good marchers, with black hair and moustaches, not appear too amiable or laugh too easily and not have an effeminate aspects. He formed them in battalions and used as crack troops on battlefield.
Napoleon's grenadiers (and carabiniers in light infantry) were also elite troops, selected for their stature and war experience. The Imperial Decree of February 18th 1808 stated in Article 9th: "The Grenadier Company (...) shall be taken from the totality of the corps, from among the men most appropriate by their height (...) and shall be accepted only if they have 4 years of service and have participated in at least 2 of the following campaigns: Ulm, Austerlitz, Jena or Friedland." Newly formed regiments and battalions didn't have grenadiers as they not had been in enough combat.
As for their appearance it was stipulated that they must present a formidable sight, with moustaches, red epaulettes and tall fur caps. The epaulettes broadened their shoulders and the tall headwears made them look even taller. Of course not everytime and everywhere were such strict rules: Coignet went from his auxiliary battalion straight into grenadier company basically he was taller than average and strong. The grenadiers were also trained how to operate guns.
According to the Regulations of Internal Economy and
of Infantry [Section IX, Article 1] issued in 1791:
Fusiliers & Chasseurs.
Each field battalion had only 1 grenadier and 1 voltigeur company, the remaining 4-8 companies were made of fusiliers (chasseurs in light infantry). Until 1805 there were 8 fusilier companies per battalion, between 1805 and 1807 were seven and in 1808-1815 only four per battalion. The fusiliers (chasseurs in light infantry) occupied the center of battalion line.
The fusiliers (chasseurs) were without prestige and priviledges. But those of them who served at least 2 campaigns, and were brave, tall and strong were admitted into the elite grenadier company.
Until 1806-1807 the fusiliers wore bicorn hats. By 1807 it was replaced with shako. The fusilier also wore white trousers, dark blue coat with white lapels, red collar and red cuffs. In cold weather they wore beige or grey greatcoats. Oficially the epaulettes were worn only by the grenadiers and carabiniers. But already since the beginning the chasseurs (centre companies of many light infantry regiments) wore them until 1812-1813.
The voltigeurs were a new branch of infantry and were introduced by Napoleon in 1803.
The Decree issued in March 1803 ordered raising a 10th Company in the regiments of
light infantry. These were voltigeurs and were formed by taking the 6 smallest men from every
chasseur company in the battalion. In December was decided that the voltigeurs won't be
taller than 4'11' (French) and their officers not exceed 5'.
The voltigeurs were the best suited troopers for skirmishing, ladder climbing, urban combat, and for scouting. The voltigeurs were trained in firing rapidly and accurately and were expected to be able to march at the trot. Napoleon also wanted them to vault up behind cavalrymen on horses but in real combat this happened only very few times.
Sometimes the voltigeur companies were taken from their parent battalions and formed
in large formations for specific tasks.
Chlapowski writes: "... the Emperor himself arrived there and sent Talhouet with 200 voltigeurs across
the Danube River on boats to the crossroads of Pratern. From there, Pourtales, who was Berthier's ADC,
then swam with a dozen or so voltigeurs across the stretch of the Danube separating Pratern from Vienna. This all
happened as night was falling." (Chlapowski, - p 65)
Theoreteically voltigeurs were armed with 141.7 cm long dragoon muskets (it was a shorter version of musket, easier to load and carry for a small guy). But it was rare and voltigeurs were armed as the rest of infantry, with long muskets. They also carried a bayonet and short saber. The voltigeurs wore yellow epaulettes and yellow collars. Wearing epaulettes by voltigeurs was never oficially allowed - actually it was prohibited. The Ministry of War even complained that voltigeurs were "entitled to no other dress distinctions than yellow collar." Order issued in September 1808 prohibited the use of regimental funds for the purchase of epaulettes for voltigeurs. Between 1804 and 1809 some voltigeurs wore the unofficial colpacks, sort of fur cap replaced by 1809 with shakos.
Uniforms of French line infantry worn during campaigns between 1800 and 1807.
The uniforms detailed on this picture should not be regarded as the only ones in existence.
The grenadiers and voltigeurs were distinguished with:
1 - red and yellow/green eppaulettes
2 - red and yellow/green plumes
3 - short sabers
4 - bearskins
After 1807 shakos replaced the bicorn hats.
Eagles and Flags.
"A month after being proclaimed Emperor in May 1804, Napoleon decided on the emblem of Empire. He considered the cock and the lion but rejected both in favour of an eagle with wings spread. It became the design of the Great Seal of State and the emblem of the army and navy. In the army the Eagle would be carried on top of a pole with a standard underneath. The Eagle was the supreme importance. When writing on the subject to Marechal Berthier he stressed that it was the priceless symbol of France and the Empire, while the standard below it was of lesser importance and could be replaced if necessary. ... Because the Consular Guard, and then the Imperial Grenadier and Chasseur Guard regiments, were normally in barracks in Paris or on palace duties, their Eagles were kept in a room next to the throne room in the Tuileries." (Adkin - "The Waterloo Companion" p 200)
In 1814 Napoleon reissued Eagles to regiments who had had them confiscated or/and destroyed by the Bourbons. The eagles and tricolor flags were bigger but much simpler. All the regiments of Young Guard carried simple fanions.
During the Civil War in USA, the 8th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry carried into battle a
wooden perch to which a bald eagle (named Old Abe) was tethered. The bearers caried their macot in the front rank of the color guard.
On Oct 3 1863, a bullet severed the cord that held the eagle to his perch, and Old Abe flew along the flaming battle line,
losing several of his feathers to enemy fire. (- Don Triani "Civil War" p 76)
The Best Regiments of Light Infantry.
The French army contained many regiments of line (on picture) and light infantry whose soldierly skills and deeds of daring reflected the unsurpassed devotion of the soldiers to their cause. The 9th, 10th, 13th, 15th, 16th, 24th, 25th, 26th amd 27th - all won immortal fame in those ten terrible years of strife.
Links and Sources.
Elting - "Swords Around a Throne"
Britten-Austin - "1812 The March on Moscow"
Susane - "Histoire de l'Infanterie Francaise"
Barres - "Memoirs of a Napoleonic Officer"
Adkin - "The Waterloo Companion"
Mageraud - "Armement et Equiement de l'Infanterie Francaise"
Napier - "History of the War in the Peninsula 1807-1814"
Chlapowski - "Memoirs of a Polish Lancer" (transl. by Tim Simmons)
Napoleon, His Army and Enemies