French Infantry

Numerically the largest element of the army was the infantry, which (excluding the Guard) was divided into line and light regiments (infanterie de ligne and infanterie légère respectively). During the period of the French Revolutionary Wars the term ‘regiment’ had been thought redolent of aristocratic privilege, so the term ‘Demi-Brigade’ had been substituted; but after successive reorganizations the title ‘Regiment’ was restored on 24 September 1803. Originally there were ninety regiments, numbered from 1 to 111, some numbers, beginning with 31, being vacant. Each regiment consisted of a number of battalions, usually three or four, each capable of operating separately, although throughout the empire period it was usual for two or more battalions of the same regiment to take the field together, in the same brigade.

Originally each battalion consisted of nine companies, but from February 1808 a reorganization was instituted, by which each regiment was to comprise four service battalions (bataillons de guerre) and a depot battalion of four companies commanded by a senior captain, with a major in command of the depot itself. Each bataillon de guerre was composed of six companies, four of fusiliers (the ordinary line infantry, named from the fusil or musket) and two elite companies, one of grenadiers (theoretically the most stalwart veterans) and one of voltigeurs (lit. ‘vaulters’), light infantry trained in skirmish tactics. Each company had an establishment of three officers and 137 other ranks, and each battalion was led by a chef de bataillon, a rank that does not translate easily but which, as it represented a battalion commander, might equate with a British lieutenant colonel. The regimental staff comprised the chefs de bataillon, the regimental colonel, a major, administrative personnel, craftsmen, and the tête de colonne (lit. ‘head of column’, the band, Eagle-escort and the four sapeurs (pioneers) who formed part of each grenadier company, with a sapeur corporal per regiment). None of the line regiments had a territorial or other title.

During the recent campaigns, the strength of the infantry had been augmented by two methods: the creation of additional battalions – 5th, 6th and even 7th bataillons de guerre for existing regiments, and the creation of entirely new regiments. Some had been formed by changing the title of newly recruited ‘provisional’ regiments or similar, assembled for a particular campaign; this took the numbered sequence to 122 by 1808–9. Regiments 123–126 were formed in 1810 by the incorporation of the army of the Kingdom of Holland into the French army, and by 1814 the number had risen to 156 by the conversion of National Guard to line regiments.

A reorganization occurred upon the restoration of the monarchy. In May 1814 the number of line regiments was reduced again to ninety, each of three battalions of six companies each as before, but with a reduced strength of seventy-five men per company (three officers). The first thirty regiments retained their numbers, but succeeding regiments in the sequence were renumbered to fill the gaps in the original list, so that, for example, the old 32nd Regt, became the new 31st, the old 45th the 42nd, the old 111th the new 90th, and so on. In addition, the ten senior regiments were given royal titles, from 1st to 10th respectively: du Roi, de la Reine, Dauphin, Monsieur, d’Angoulême, Berri, Orléans, Condé, Bourbon and Colonel-Général.

Upon Napoleon’s return in 1815 the royal titles were discarded and the old regimental numbers reinstated, the latter to emphasize the regiment’s prior service under Napoleon, as an aid to preserving regimental esprit de corps. The infantry was very under-strength and as before Napoleon augmented their numbers by creating new battalions for existing regiments, utilizing their regimental depots, rather than forming new regiments. Initially most regiments could muster two combat battalions (albeit often under-strength) and a 3rd Battalion of recruits in training. Napoleon determined to use the latter as garrison troops while they completed their preparations, and when at a practicable strength (500 men) they were to join the other battalions in the field; regiments were ordered to form a 4th Battalion, a 5th of four companies as a depot, and a 6th in cadre. In time this would have produced a greatly augmented force of infantry, although in the Armée du Nord most regiments actually fielded only two battalions (twelve had three, the 3rd Line four, and three just one, plus the single ‘foreign’ battalion). (In the light infantry, the 2nd fielded four battalions, five had three, four had two and the 6th just one.) Average battalion strength was just less than 600.

The infantry uniform was of a style regulated in January 1812, although its issue had often been delayed until 1813 or 1814. It comprised a short-tailed jacket or habit-veste with lapels closed to the waist, in dark blue with red collar and cuffs (with usually blue flaps), white lapels piped red, white turnbacks and blue shoulder straps piped red. Grenadiers were distinguished by red epaulettes, and voltigeurs by a chamois (yellow or yellow-buff) collar and shoulder straps or epaulettes. The head-dress was a shako bearing a brass plate in the form of an eagle atop a semi-circular shape representing an Amazon’s shield, into which the regimental number was cut; some voltigeurs had the number within a horn device upon the shield. Fusilier companies within a battalion were distinguished by a padded cloth disc at the front of the shako, dark green, sky-blue, aurore (orange) and violet for the lst-4th companies respectively. Grenadiers’ shakos had red lace upper and lower bands and side chevrons, and a red pompom or plume; for voltigeurs these distinctions were yellow. Officers had long coat-tails and gold shako lace and epaulettes, but unlike those of most other armies did not wear sashes. Leg wear consisted of white breeches and black gaiters that extended to below the knee, but as with the Imperial Guard long trousers could be worn on campaign.

Upon the restoration of the monarchy the imperial tricolour cockade carried on the front of the shako was replaced by the white cockade of the Bourbons, and other imperial symbols were removed; there is some evidence, for example, that some shako plates had the eagle removed, leaving just the numbered shield. New shako plates and badges for fusiliers’ cartridge boxes, bearing royalist devices, were introduced in February 1815, but it is unlikely that many alterations could have taken effect before Napoleon’s return, when any royalist insignia would have been removed, and the tricolour cockade was restored.

Although there had been minor, unregulated distinctions in the uniforms of some regiments, the number on the shako plate was the most visible sign of regimental identity. The officer quoted before concerning the failings of the French army in the campaign included an appeal for some form of more obvious uniform distinction, such as different facing colours, which he believed was an important consideration when officers were trying to rally broken troops and needed to recognize their own men. He also advised that each battalion should have a colour as a rallying point; the prevailing system gave only one Eagle to each regiment, not each battalion, and he claimed that some regiments kept their Eagles in the regimental baggage vehicles so as not to risk their loss in action. Previously regiments had battalion marker flags or fanions for rallying purposes, but though some seem to have been used in 1815 not all regiments would have had them.

The standard infantry weapon was the 1777-pattern musket, modified in the years IX and XIII of the Revolutionary calendar; it had iron fittings, was 151.5cm long and weighed 4.375kg; voltigeurs might carry the shorter dragoon musket (141.7cm long) as being handier for skirmishing. The short sword or sabre-briquet had been carried by NCOs, musicians and elite companies, but although it was ordered to be withdrawn from voltigeurs in 1807 the practice continued. The presence of the sabre-briquet required a second shoulder belt, over the right shoulder; otherwise only a single belt was worn, over the left shoulder, supporting both the cartridge box and bayonet. All leatherwork was whitened.

There was a separate list of light infantry regiments (infanterie légère, with regimental titles often expressed as —me Légère). In theory these regiments were more adept at skirmish tactics than the ordinary infantry, though in practice the line regiments were also able to skirmish effectively. The light regiments, however, enjoyed a distinct esprit de corps and uniform features, even if their tactical role was in practice not so different.

Under the empire, the number of light infantry regiments had risen to 34 (numbered 1–37, three numbers being vacant), but at the restoration of the monarchy only the senior fifteen regiments were retained, keeping their original numbers, while the first seven regiments were granted ‘royal’ titles, du Roi, de la Reine, Dauphin, Monsieur, d’Angoulême, Berri and Colonel-Général for the 1st–7th respectively. Organization was like that of the line regiments, with the distinction that the ordinary companies were styled chasseurs, and the grenadier companies, carabiniers.

Light infantry uniforms were similar to those of the line, the habit-veste dark blue throughout (including the lapels), with pointed cuffs and red collars (chamois for voltigeurs); breeches were also dark blue. Carabiniers had red epaulettes, chasseurs and voltigeurs blue and chamois shoulder straps respectively, though some retained the epaulettes that they had worn prior to the introduction of the 1812 uniform. All ornaments were in white metal, including the shako plates which carried the regimental number within a hunting horn device upon the shield; officers’ epaulettes and lace were silver. Arms were similar to those of the line, though initially there was more extensive use of the sabre-briquet, other than the authorized use by carabiniers, NCOs and musicians, and there was probably greater use of the lighter Dragoon musket.

For manoeuvre, a French infantry battalion could be divided into ‘divisions’ (units of two companies), ‘platoons’ (a single company) and ‘sections’ (half companies). They normally fought in three ranks, though a two-rank line had been authorized for peace-time manoeuvres as early as the 1791 regulations, and in October 1813 Napoleon had himself recommended a two-rank line, stating that the third rank was largely useless for delivering fire and using the bayonet, and that as the enemy were used to opposing French infantry in three ranks, by forming two and thus extending the frontage they would imagine the French to be one-third stronger than they actually were. Marshal Marmont added that in a firefight, three ranks usually resolved themselves spontaneously into two ranks anyway. It is not certain, however, at what point the two- or three-rank line was actually used; though with the need to maintain a minimum frontage, the weaker the numbers, the more likely would be the use of a two-deep line.

Misconceptions might arise from references to French attacks being mounted in column, the standard formation for manoeuvre. It would be possible to imagine such a columnar attack resembling a column of march, with a narrow frontage and greater depth; but this was very different from the actual formation used offensively. The commonest formation adopted by a battalion was ‘a column of divisions’ (colonne par division or colonne d’attaque par division) in which the frontage would be one ‘division’, i.e. two companies side-by-side. With a six-company battalion, two further pairs of companies would follow, with manoeuvring distance between the three ‘waves’ or pair of companies. If each company comprised 120 men in three ranks, the frontage of such a column would be 80 men and the depth 9 men; even a column formed of six companies, one behind the other, would have a frontage of 40 men and a depth of 18.

One of the most characteristic features of French infantry attacks was that they were usually preceded by large numbers of skirmishers, who could harass the enemy line with sharpshooting while concealing the extent of the following troops from the enemy’s view. These skirmishers were usually the voltigeur company of each battalion, but additional companies, or even whole battalions, might be thrown out in ‘open order’ to precede an attack. Only the first two ranks of an attacking column could use their muskets effectively, whereas in a line every man could deliver simultaneously. The confrontation between line and column, however, was more subtle than merely a calculation of muskets, and it is likely that, where there was space available, in most cases the commanders of attacking columns intended to deploy into line before contact, thus maximizing their firepower while still linking it to the superior manoeuvrability and cohesion of the advance in column.


Conscription was a traumatic experience for any civilian, but nowhere was it more so than in Russia, where the 20 million serfs bore the brunt. Responsibility for choosing the recruits ultimately fell on the village elders, who, although serfs themselves, invariably selected people whom they regarded as troublemakers and misfits. Russian conscripts were fated to serve for twenty-five years without leave, which was effectively a life term: such was the waste of human life through disease and combat, that only 10 per cent survived that long. In a society where less than 5 per cent of the population was literate, a soldier did not write home. He rarely, if ever, saw his family again, since those who returned, forgotten, scarred, or maimed, were treated as outcasts. A Russian conscript was therefore dead to his family: his beard and hair were shaven off, since he was no longer considered a villager, and on the eve of the departure, his family would hold a wake. When the time came, the conscript would be accompanied to the village limits by his family and friends, singing funereal songs. They then turned their backs on the recruit, as if he were already dead. If a conscript left behind children with no one to look after them, they were sent to military orphanages, where they were trained to be NCOs: conditions here were so harsh that a third never lived to see adulthood.

Unsurprisingly, civilians made determined efforts to avoid conscription. The most obvious way was desertion. Some potential French recruits tried to evade service by simply failing to register for the draft, but for those actually conscripted the best chance of desertion was on the march to the military depots, since the local territory was familiar. Eugène de Beauharnais, Napoleon’s stepson and regent in the kingdom of Italy, estimated that a third of the deserters absconded just after being recruited. The incidence of desertion across Europe varied for many reasons: it was easier to escape the army in areas which were mountainous, densely forested, or frontier regions. In the Russian Empire, the distances were so vast and a runaway conscript so obvious that desertion was a very risky undertaking, but when the Russians invaded Europe, their soldiers had more opportunity to escape. Desertion actually increased when a Russian unit received orders to return home, since conscripts knew that their chances of flight would recede once back on Russian soil.

Language was important, too: on Napoleon’s side, troops who did not speak French were more likely to desert than francophone soldiers. The rates of desertion also varied from year to year: in the French Empire, they fluctuated according to the regime’s capacity to repress it. In France, desertion rates were higher when the state was weaker, particularly in the later 1790s, when the Directory was lurching from one crisis to the other, and again when the Napoleonic regime was under the cosh from 1813 and when demands for troops fell heavily once again on the French themselves. In between, however, desertion rates plummeted to as little as 2 per cent in some areas. French deserters sometimes formed gangs to rob isolated farms and travellers: this may have been pure banditry, but it was sometimes harnessed by royalists and directed against government officials and supporters of the revolutionary order. Everywhere in Europe, deserters had a better chance of escape and survival where they were supported by their own community, hiding them from the police and keeping them fed and sheltered.

In France, local authorities protected their own by loosely interpreting the term ‘unfit for service’, although the Napoleonic regime soon grew wise to this and thrust responsibility for conscription onto ‘recruiting commissions’ of prefects and military officers. Marriage was another way out: in the Napoleonic kingdom of Italy, young men married women old enough to be their grandmothers, since under the French system a married man was classified as ‘the last to march’. More drastic measures included self-mutilation—men hacked off their index fingers so that they could not pull a trigger, or they had their teeth pulled out so that they could not bite off the seal of the cartridges needed to fire their muskets.

The surviving correspondence of French soldiers shows that those who would not, or could not, evade conscription went through a range of tortuous emotions: loneliness after being cut off from family and home, confusion as they adjusted to an alien way of life, boredom in the barracks or camp, and anxiety as they confronted the possibility of death. Comrades were therefore essential, for they shared the same hardships, offered sociability and company around the camp fire or cooking pot, and swapped stories, sang songs, and shared jokes: these are not idealizations of army life, but were the ways in which soldiers found mutual support as they confronted an uncertain and perilous future. Similarly, training not only prepared the conscripts for battle, but it also provided routine: recruits were kept busy with drill, firing practice, and sentry duty. Commanding officers well knew that one of the forces most corrosive to morale was boredom and listlessness. Through a multitude of such ways, both consciously and incidentally, all units in every army fostered an esprit de corps.

Discipline was considered essential not only to ensure combat effectiveness, but to give a soldier’s life order and direction after the shock of conscription. It could be brutal. Russian soldiers were subjected to regular beatings, since obedience was believed by most officers to be the key to success on the battlefield. Any soldier who ducked an oncoming cannonball would be whipped, for (it was argued) such attempts to dodge a shell only encouraged the enemy. A soldier deemed guilty of ‘cowardice’ could be shot immediately. One of the severest of Prussian punishments was ‘running the gauntlet’ (forcing a soldier to pass between two lines of whip-wielding soldiers). The French, who had abolished flogging as unworthy of the citizen-soldier in 1789, nonetheless retained a draconian disciplinary code in every other sense. Military justice was prompt, inflexible, and severe: the boulet involved confinement with a ball and chain, while the death penalty was passed by courts martial for a wide array of offences, from minor acts of pillage to cowardice in battle. In the British army, punishments ranged from short spells of imprisonment, flogging, ‘running the gauntlet’, ‘riding the wooden horse’ (sitting astride the sharp apex of a triangular box), and death by shooting or hanging.

Yet in every major belligerent, there were voices which urged that a change was needed in discipline, which should emphasize, first and foremost, appeals to a soldier’s honour, esprit de corps, patriotism, leadership, and mutual respect between officers and men. In the French army, two decades of revolution and war had ingrained these values anyway. As citizen-soldiers, French conscripts enjoyed a status other than as pariahs: under the Republic, they were fêted as défenseurs de la patrie, defenders of the fatherland. Napoleon honoured bravery and merit, regardless of rank, with the Légion d’Honneur. In one incident in 1814, a French captain struck one of his men with the flat of his sabre, but the furious cavalryman spun on the officer, showed him his Légion d’Honneur and shamed his superior into an apology. The two men shook hands and later shared their rations and a bottle of brandy.

Esprit de corps and discipline were ultimately geared to ensure the army’s cohesion and effectiveness when campaigning began. Yet there were some factors that even the best-trained armies struggled with. Long marches in extreme conditions could break down discipline. In its lightning strike against Austria in 1805, the Grande Armée marched 300 miles in thirteen days, but prior to that, most of the army (which had been poised to invade Britain) had to cross France by forced marches. The footsoldier (later captain) Jean-Roch Coignet described marching day and night with less than an hour of sleep, so that the exhausted men locked arms to prevent themselves from falling over. Coignet eventually succumbed to fatigue and tumbled into a ditch. The remarkable achievement was that the French were still able to land such a fast series of devastating blows at the end of it all. The effects were very different seven years later, during the long march into Russia, when the distances were so vast, the summer heat so stifling, and opportunities for foraging so sparse that men collapsed and deserted. The commander of the Bavarian contingent in Napoleon’s invading army reported that the agonies of the march brought about ‘such a widespread spirit of depression, discouragement, discontent, disobedience, and insubordination that one cannot forecast what will happen’. What happened was that troops deserted in droves: the entire army may have lost as much as a third of its strength by the time it had reached Vitebsk, scarcely halfway to Moscow.

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