French Army Staff and Officers II

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Napoleon’s Doctrine

Napoleon inherited a functional army from his predecessors, and upon it he imposed a very functional staff system. But what of his doctrine of war? Once more the fact that he was rarely an innovator is apparent, but what he did do would make the French Army into a fighting force that won battles.

Tactical doctrine after the Seven Years’ War and the defeat of France focused on discussions of new ways of deploying and maneuvering infantry. Fighting could be conducted in line (where the majority of the infantry was spread out to face the enemy) or in column (where the shock and weight of the column was used to break an enemy line). Many officers were skeptical about the effect of musket firepower, regarding the massed bayonets of the column as more effective. The duc de Broglie tried out the new tactic of deploying men in line in 1778, but at that time the results were not conclusive. Nevertheless the drill books of 1788 (provisional) and 1791 showed the advantages to be gained from using l’ordre mixte, a combination of line and column. This method was successfully used by Napoleon’s troops right through to the end of the First Empire.

Napoleon himself had learned much from books, and very little initially from experience. In 1788-1789, however, he was given charge of the demonstration unit of the Artillery Training School at Auxonne, where he had the job of trying out new ideas in artillery. Napoleon’s extensive reading led him to base his plans on maneuvering and flexibility. Whenever possible he attacked before his enemies were ready, defeating the component parts of his enemy’s armies before they could combine to create a dangerous mass. He pushed his men to move as fast as possible, working on the principle that if the French arrived unexpectedly they would always have the advantage of surprise-perhaps the fundamental element of good campaigning.


Originally part of the artillery, the Engineer Corps of the French Army was formed in 1793, and in 1799 there were two sapper (sapeur) battalions and six mining companies. The engineers of the period were in part a continuation of the engineers of the days of siege warfare, but with artillery more mobile the need for bridging in particular rendered these men more functional all over the battlefield, rather than occupying them solely with walls and fortified positions. By 1812 there were eight sapper battalions-units composed of experts in field fortification, entrenching, mining, and demolition-plus two of miners, but losses in Russia reduced the number of sapper battalions to five, with two understrength battalions of miners remaining. The engineers also provided the expert topographers mentioned above.

Napoleon’s grasp of the needs of the French Army extended even to education. He realized that there was a need for centralized training of military engineering, and to provide this he set up the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris. “The advancement and perfection of mathematics are intimately concerned with the prosperity of the state,” he is reported to have said (quoted in Chandler 1998, 235). Thus, French mathematicians were to dedicate themselves to the solution of ballistic and hydraulic problems.


Immediately after the Revolution, with French armies ranging across Europe, there was no method of supplying the men in the field. For this reason the troops took to foraging, a method of supply accepted by the army, and even during the Empire there was no creation of a supply system until the troops in the 1807 campaign came close to starvation. The Breidt Company had been used to transport supplies to the army, but it was so inefficient that after the Battle of Eylau Napoleon created the Train d’equipages, a military supply command that had eight battalions of four companies, each with about 140 wagons. By 1812 this had risen to twenty-two battalions of six companies, but these were still insufficient. Losses in Russia cut the total to nine battalions. The system was never fully effective, and foraging never completely stopped.


The French Army was, for many years, able to defeat its enemies by virtue of its ability to move quickly about the theaters of war. However, the demand for manpower eventually began to outstrip the supply, and Napoleon was forced more and more to rely upon his cavalry to bring a decision in battle. The army, however, always remained loyal to the Emperor, and there can be no doubt that it was, under Napoleon, the single decisive factor in his campaigns, except at the every end.

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