Napoleon's Grand Army: the infantry

The term " Great Army Is given by Napoleon I Emperor in the army he united in 1805 at the Boulogne camp to invade the United Kingdom. It was this army which was redirected towards Austria at the end of the year and which won the meteoric victories of Ulm and ’Austerlitz. From then on, the term "Grande Armée" was associated with the imperial army until 1815, this army considered to be the best in the world which entered Madrid, Berlin, Rome, Vienna, Moscow... The infantry, queen of battles, forms the backbone of this war machine.

The grand army: recruitment

Napoleon inherited seasoned soldiers from the revolutionary wars and a conscription system which enabled him to quickly fill the ranks in the regiments purified on the battlefields. Conscription obliges any citizen of 20 to 25 years to do military service for an indefinite period. In other words, any young man entering this age range may be called upon to join the army. This prospect is far from enchanting the majority of conscripts, most often the end of service is only justified when the soldier is mutilated ... Or dead ... When a lifting is decided, the prefect of the department is informed of the number of men. to be provided, and each sub-prefect organizes the lifting. We then organize a review of conscripts to check for any incapacity related to height or a handicap, we also note the exempted (sons of widows, elders of orphans ...) and then a drawing of lots. When families are rich enough, they can sometimes pay a replacement who will exchange his correct number for that of their son. In such cases of course everything is done for a fee and the family also pays a sum for the equipment.

While this conscription is going quite well in the regions of the North-East, more directly threatened by invasions, the same is not true of regions like the Massif Central. There the refractories are numerous, they hide in farms, in barns, most often with the support of the local population. We go so far as to organize mobile columns to track them down, we also play a lot on the guilt of those who are in hiding, forcing the state to call on others to do their civic service for them.

The conscripts are then theoretically sent to the depot, the fifth battalion of the regiments, to receive basic military training prior to their incorporation into a combat battalion. But it takes time, to fill his war battalions more quickly with trained soldiers. Napoleon sometimes draws directly from the departmental reserve companies. These companies, of the order of one per department (except the Seine which has two and Corsica which has none), are made up of conscripts who do active service, but local: guard of public buildings, escort refractories or prisoners ... They are made up of men trained and experienced in military life and exercise, men who can quickly be used in combat. It is up to the reserve companies to reform new soldiers themselves until the next levy.

Military organization, from squad to regiment

The young conscript finds himself incorporated into a squad, a small unit of ten or a dozen men under the command of a corporal. Above this corporal is the sergeant who commands two squads. This sergeant may have been promoted for fact of weapon, by seniority, or out of the non-commissioned officer school in Fontainebleau. Above this sergeant is the second lieutenant or lieutenant who leads a section, made up of four squads. When two sections are united, we have a company, commanded by a captain. Several companies form a battalion and several battalions form a regiment. The number of battalions per regiment is variable, it is generally three. Battalions can intervene individually and be separate, so the same regiment can have one battalion in Spain and another in Austria.

In December 1807 Napoleon planned to replace the regiments with legions, larger corps of eight or nine battalions. But this reform remained in the draft stage and only materialized in the case of a few reserve legions in Spain. In 1808, however, the Emperor reformed his regiments: 140 men per company, 3,970 men per regiment, the latter now comprising five battalions. Even if in fact these figures were not always reached ... In 1809 the capture of the arsenals of Vienna, the Austrian capital, allowed Napoleon to increase the firepower of his infantry by equipping two light guns of 3 or 4 pounds all the regiments deployed in this campaign! These artillery companies within the infantry regiments were disbanded at the end of the campaign, but reappeared the following year in the Elbe Observation Corps. Finally, towards the end of the Empire, the number of battalions per regiment was further increased to six in 1811 and up to seven in 1813 ...

Infantry regiments are divided into two broad categories: line infantry regiments (135) and light infantry regiments (35). Line infantry are riflemen and light infantry are hunters. Yet other than the uniform and name, there is nothing to differentiate the two types of regiment with respect to weaponry and tactical use. Light infantry regiments are used in the same way as line infantry regiments. On the other hand, where there is a difference between types of soldiers, it is indeed within the battalions where there are elite companies.

Elite companies in the grand army

Each line infantry battalion comprises a company of Grenadiers (called Carabiniers in the light infantry), tall men, wearing teddy bear caps, wearing epaulettes, exempt from drudgery, keeping watch at the post of honor, being more paid than the other infantrymen (companies known as of the center as opposed to those placed on the right)… But, in return for all these honors, the Grenadiers are considered as elite soldiers who are hired at worst moment to open a breach in the enemy lines… All these elite units are equipped with light sabers, a small short saber reserved for non-commissioned officers in the rest of the battalions. The harness of the saber and that of the cartridge belt form a crossed buffalo style that allows you to recognize at first glance an elite company.

The third company of each line infantry battalion is a company of Voltigeurs, made up of men selected for their small size, agility, and combat value. Napoleon thus offered small soldiers an opportunity to distinguish themselves elsewhere than in the companies of Grenadiers to which they had no access. They will eventually get the same pay as the Grenadiers and, placed on the left of the formation, they will continue to compete with the Grenadiers placed on the right. Each of these companies is made up of a captain, a lieutenant, a sergeant-major, four sergeants, a quartermaster, eight corporals, one hundred and four voltigeurs and two instruments, cornets, which replace the drums which serve in the rest of the 'infantry. It is to these men that we really entrust all the missions of a light infantry: deployment in skirmishers, lightning strikes, reconnaissance, patrols ... Like the Grenadiers, the Voltigeurs are equipped with the saber-lighter. . However in 1807 Napoleon removes this saber from them, but in fact many keep it at least until 1809. The voltigeurs are seasoned soldiers, of great quality, and Captain Desboeufs wrote in his memoirs that he much preferred to command at 300 voltigeurs that 500 men of the Guard ...

The Imperial Guard

« The Guard was my human treasure "Writes Napoleon to Saint Helena, it has become a real myth of the unbeatable old soldier, loyal to the Emperor until death, refusing to go to Waterloo. The Guard is an army within the army, made up of seasoned men chosen from the other regiments. They generally carry the saber-lighter, have a higher pay than other soldiers, and enjoy boundless prestige. Yet the Guard is as admired as it is frowned upon by the rest of the military. Indeed, this elite corps is so preserved by Napoleon that he sometimes refuses to employ it. Thus during the Prussian campaign in 1806 the Guard remained in reserve. But we must not believe that the men of the Guard were hiding places, far from it, they were put to the test in Spain, but also during the German campaign (1809), at Essling, at Wagram, during the campaign of russia (1812), during the campaign of Saxony (1813), that of France (1814) and of course in Waterloo when it will be reconstituted during the Hundred Days.

The Guard infantry is constantly evolving during the period. In 1810, in the infantry of the Old Guard, there was a regiment of Grenadiers à pied and a regiment of Chasseurs à pied. In the Middle Guard two regiments of Grenadiers on foot, as many regiments of Chasseurs à pied, and two battalions of velites. In the Young Guard, a regiment of Pupils, a regiment of the National Guard, regiments of Voltigeurs, Tirailleurs, Flankeurs ...

The other infantry

The Guard, the line infantry and the light form the heart, the soul, of the French army. We have not gone into the details of the many special cases here, provisional regiments, marching regiments and other atypical units… But it should all the same be pointed out that on occasion Napoleon could have other types of infantry, such as National Guards, Reserve Companies, the Municipal Guard of Paris, or even Guard of Honor companies made up of volunteers in large cities, responsible for welcoming personalities, but which sometimes, exceptionally, made a active service.

Finally, let us not forget that Napoleon's army was not only made up of French regiments, but that the Grande Armée brought together a multitude of nationalities allied voluntarily or by force and called to participate in military campaigns of France. 'Empire. Among the foreign units, we note the Legion of the Vistula (attached to the Young Guard)

The infantry in combat in the grand army

We will not go into the description of the soldier's living conditions here, already extensively detailed in another article on the site. But let's take a look at the use of infantry in battle. The infantryman is equipped with a model 1777 flintlock rifle, modified in Year IX. A 1.52m (without bayonet), 4.6kg and 17.5mm caliber weapon, projecting a 23g spherical lead bullet. To fire, the weapon is loaded in twelve steps:

- Loading the weapon: position the rifle perpendicularly, with the plate facing outwards

- Open the basin and the cartridge case containing the cartridges

- Take the cartridge (paper envelope containing the powder and the bullet)

- Tear the cartridge

- Prime: fill the basin with powder

- Close the bassinet

- Pass the weapon on the left

- Pour the rest of the powder into the barrel then introduce the rest of the paper with the bullet

- Pull the rod of the gun

- Stuff the ball with the stick

- Put away the wand

- Put yourself in the "carry arms" position

Once the weapons are loaded three orders trigger the salvo:

- « Prepare your weapons! »: The gun is carried forward, the thumb cocking hammer.

- « Play ! ": The soldiers aim and aim the target with their thumbs (the rifle is not equipped with sights)

- « Fire! »: The soldiers pull the trigger, the hammer falls, ignites the powder from the basin which ignites that of the cannon through a small hole called the light, the powder in the cannon explodes and the pressure released expels the bullet in a cloud of smoke.

In doing so a Napoleonic soldier could fire about two or three shots per minute. This pace is of course variable depending on the training, and the fighter's state of stress. Whenever possible we try to fire a salvo, which has a greater psychological effect. It is generally unnecessary to open fire more than 200m, and it is better to wait for much shorter distances for better efficiency. This rifle had a smooth barrel, yet rifled weapons, rifles, already existed. However, the loading of a rifle required a mesh and was only effective if the loading was perfectly successful with a small oily rag, all elements that become difficult in the stress of combat and with the fouling of the weapon. caused by black powder. Consequently, the Napoleonic infantry was not a big consumer of rifles ...

In terms of tactical settlement, the Napoleonic army did not innovate and the settlement remained that of 1791. If Napoleon did better than his predecessors it was not by deploying his troops in other ways, it was by deploying them in the right place and in the right place. moment…

The soldiers generally advanced in a tight line, each soldier occupying a space of about one step and lightly touching the elbows of his neighbors. The back line was not more than a foot away. The battalion was generally deployed in three lines where the platoons (companies) were aligned. When the number of soldiers per platoon was not necessarily equal, they were divided into tactical platoons. The formation of the battalion in battle, in close ranks and in three ranks, is the main formation used by the Napoleonic armies. When it kicks in, the line advances in quick time at a fairly slow pace of 76 steps per minute. This is obligatory slowness to try to keep a straight line 100 to 120 meters long, knowing that in some places the soldiers may encounter obstacles (stones, bushes, etc.). You could also order a slant to move the line a little more to one side or the other, while keeping it perfectly aligned in front of the enemy.

If it needed to move quickly, the line could make a straight U-turn to end up in a walking column. There the cadenced step was faster, about 100 steps per minute. If necessary, we could also progress at the charge step, that is to say about 120 steps per minute. Finally, during long journeys, the battalion was brought into line with the pace, which is not in rhythm. It is a freer march with a pace of about 85 to 90 steps per minute, the soldiers could then carry the weapon as they wished, discuss among themselves, sing ...

A third formation was common at the battalion level: the square. This formation, which was particularly effective during the Battle of the Pyramids, mainly helps to protect against cavalry attacks. The battalion is then formed in a square shape with two platoons per side arranged in six ranks, the officers, flags and drums in the center. The corners of the squares were the most vulnerable, and they had to be protected with vans if possible, as Davout recommended. Finally, we had to pay attention to the positioning of the different squares so that they could support each other without risking fratricidal fire.

In order to order these maneuvers, to slow down, we understand the crucial importance of drums in the infantry. When they mounted the assault soldiers were sometimes made to sing very rhythmic chants that allowed them to focus on the rhythm, the mass effect, rather than the danger. Singing at full throttle also made it possible to impress the enemy while drowning out the noise of the wounded. The lyrics are generally relatively simple, accessible to all, like this song sung by the French infantrymen assaulting the Pratzen plateau during the Battle of Austerlitz:

« We're going to pierce their side!

ran tan plan tire read lan plan

We're going to pierce their side!

ran tan plan tire read lan plan

oh what are we going to laugh about

ran plan tire read

We're going to pierce their side!

ran tan plan tire read lan plan

We're going to pierce their side!

ran tan plan tire read lan plan

will the little shorn be happy? (bis)

ran tan plan tire read lan plan »

And finally, what to say about this famous walking song:

« I like fried onion in oil

I like the onion when it's good.


At the step comrade, at the step comrade

At a walk, at a walk, at a walk.

A single onion fried in oil

A single onion turns us into a lion.


But no onion to the Austrians

No onion to all these dogs. »

When the battalion moves in column the voltigeurs can be deployed as skirmishers in front of the column to prevent ambushes. They are the ones who search the houses, inspect the groves, recognize the ravines ... In fact only 2/3 dispersed in skirmishers, the others remained grouped so much so that in the event of an attack by the enemy cavalry, the remaining third group could face and the men deployed in skirmishers could come and take refuge with them. When the rest of the army is in line, the skirmishers (Voltigeurs, but this work can go to any other soldier if the circumstances dictate) can be deployed to harass the enemy: they deploy, hide if possible behind the slightest obstacle, shoot constantly, and must be able to take cover or to withdraw quickly if the enemy cavalry pursues them.

As a general rule, complicated maneuvers should be kept to a minimum, especially when there are young soldiers in the battalion who have not or little been trained and risk breaking the formation, offering the enemy the opportunity to attack. and cause panic. However, as we have seen, the movements of Napoleonic infantry do not consist simply of lining up soldiers in close ranks and advancing them against the opposing line. The infantrymen do not stop maneuvering, from line to column, from column to square ... Progressing in quick time, at oblique step, or dispersing in skirmish, adapting to the terrain, harassing the enemy, in modes of fights much closer to those of the following centuries.

If in 1804 Napoleon had the best army with the most seasoned soldiers in Europe, the heavy losses of the multiple campaigns, and in particular the Spanish quagmire where he engaged his army in 1808, forced to incorporate an increasingly important part of young recruits more or less well trained according to the time that elapsed between their enrollment and their first engagement. Nevertheless, the imperial machine worked for the best until the disastrous campaign of 1812 in Russia, when Napoleon lost most of the vital force of his army. The troops raised in 1813, known as the "Marie-Louise", are only adolescents who do not have time to properly train and who are hardened by fire. They will nevertheless show incredible heroism in these particular conditions where France was threatened and where everyone believed to relive the great hours of 1792 and 1793. Paradoxically, we noted locally an increase in voluntary enlistments in these last hours of the Empire , as the nature of the war had changed as it focused on national territory.

At the end of the Empire, romantic nostalgia, fueled by the memories of old soldiers and the disarray of the half-sales, will make Napoleon's infantryman a mythical figure and the Grand Army an ideal. From then on, all the soldiers and all the heads of state will dream of having at their disposal these adventurers who grunted, but always marched, these "grognards", forming this Grand Army which carried its Eagles triumphantly to the four corners of Europe. .

To go further on the great army

- PACAUD Fabien, “From the heart of volcanoes to the crash of fighting. The Puy-de-Dôme Departmental Reserve Company ”, Research Thesis, 2010.

- PIGEARD Alain, Dictionary of the Grande Armée, Editions Tallandier, 2002.

- PIGEARD Alain, "The Napoleonic infantry 1791 - 1815", Tradition Magazine HS n ° 19, 2001.

- SOKOLOV Oleg, The Army of Napoleon, Editions Commios, 2003.

Video: Infantry During the Napoleonic War (January 2022).