The Grande Armée was Napoleon’s creation and he alone his own commander-in-chief. He alone created Marshals of the Empire or retired them to pastures of varying degrees of lushness. He was absolute, his authority unfettered. He took no one into his confidence, and was beholden to no one. He utterly discredited the old 18th century concept of lengthy councils of war attended by all the senior officers. It is true that before the Battle of Castiglione (1769) he did hold such a council and accepted Augereau’s advice, for which he was ever after grateful, but such occasions were rare. In consequence his decisions had a speed and certainty initially lacking among his contemporaries. The great Duke of Wellington, however, was an exception. He welcomed advice even less than the Emperor.
The Grande Armée of 1813 consisted of the Imperial Headquarters, the Imperial Guard, 12 Corps and 5 Cavalry Corps. The Corps were commanded either by marshals, or by generals of division, men ranging in age from 35 to 56, the majority being in their mid-40’s and therefore well able to sustain the rigors of campaigning. These calculations do not include the Chiefs-of-Staffs, Marshal Berthier, who was 60, or Prince Eugène, who was 33. The former lived a relatively sheltered life at Napoleon’s headquarters, while the latter, being Viceroy of Italy, was sent back to his charge in May 1813.
Against these men, in the immense drama that concluded the Napoleonic era, were ranged armies of many nationalities, sizes and abilities. They were commanded variously by Prussian, Saxon, Austrian, and British generals and in Bernadotte, benefited from the strategic advice of a former French marshal who changed sides and in 1810 became Crown Prince of Sweden.
The successful general, provided he escaped death or mutilation, might expect honors and riches, the soldier little but hardship and a pittance. Why then did he enlist or fight? It was true that those ready to soldier were always few, and that their numbers had to be supplemented by persuasion and often coercion. But why then did they fight.
The penalty for desertion in almost every army was death, and savage punishments, particularly in the Prussian Army, were meted out for lesser crimes. But no articles of war could make a soldier fight, wholeheartedly if he did not want to, especially of his non-commissioned officers, that backbone of any army. Were discontented, indeed in some armies the men were generally unwilling to fight with enthusiasm; in consequence their contemporaries referred to them mockingly as cowards, although the individual men might be courage enough.
It was one of the most powerful motives for behaving well that if a regiment or army failed to do so, this was regarded as a slur on the courage of its members. In addition to the pressures of public opinion upon him, the solider was clad in colorful uniforms, involved in the splendours of military pageantry, and instilled with the reverence for regimental tradition; patriotism might also play a prat, but at that time nationalism, except in England and France, lay largely dormant.
In the 18th century, battles were fought in accordance with well-established rules; was accepted that where a man of sense saw no prospect of ultimate success it was reasonable for him to surrender. Wars were fought not to a finish but to achieve some strictly limited aim. Then came the wars against Revolutionary France. The young untrained soldiers of France, fighting with the fervor of those pursuing an idea, overthrew the massed veterans of Europe. It was demonstrated unmistakable that an army fighting to establish an idea enjoyed an immense superiority over any other, irrespective of its weapons and the standard of its training.
By 1813 the old gladiatorial contest were giving way to the bitter national conflicts of the 19th and 20th centuries. The year 1812 marked the watershed. After the invasion of Russia, the Russian soldier fought not solely from national or regimental pride; he fought, and more ferociously, to avenge the wrongs the French had done him personally and his country. In Germany, where initially Napoleon had come as a liberator from petty tyranny (or so he claimed), now he was detested as a foreign oppressor. The European monarchs, not entirely to their delight, were dragged along by a great tide of nationalism that the more far-seeing realized might eventually overwhelm them. Before, the rulers of the many small German states had dreaded the power of Austria and viewed with apprehension the rise of Prussia. Now their subjects insisted that they combined against the French despoiler-a viewpoint quite alien from that of former times. This spirit of nationalism gave contending armies a new purpose.
THE RUSSIAN ARMY
Normally the rank and file joined the army for the rest of their working days. Military life was not a particularly disagreeable alternative to serfdom. However he lived it, the life of a Russian peasant was almost invariably frugal and hard. Sir Robert Wilson, serving with the Russian forces in 1812 noted that the Russian soldier was small but stocky, hardy and strong, ‘inured to the weather and hardship…ferocious but disciplined.’ Surprisingly, Wilson observed that punishments were less serve than in other armies, and that officers treated their men kindly and though of them as human beings rather than machines. The officers however were inclined to indolence, courage enough in battle but careless and indifferent about training. The Russian soldier was probably the worst trained and armed of the Allies, relying on the bayonet rather than gun powder. He would contest a battlefield obstinately, if unskillfully, and served his officers cheerfully and loyally-accepting, it seems, their rather casual approach to human life without resentment.
The Infantry comprised regiments of Guards (who rather resembled personal toys of the Tsar), light infantry, grenadiers, and infantry of the line, each composed of two battalions of 700 men. Six regiments, including one or two of light infantry, went to form an infantry division. Two or more divisions might be grouped together to form a corps-which had no cavalry component. Authorized strengths were seldom kept up and at Montmirail, for instance, Sacken’s five infantry divisions only amounted to 18,000 men, an average of fewer than 3,500 to a division.
The Russian artillery, perhaps to compensate for the poor standards of musketry, was organized in 12-gun batteries and included a proportion of heavy and cumbersome pieces. Technically the Russian gunner lacked skill, but he fought his guns with the greatest stubbornness.
As for the cavalry, the Russians followed the current European fashion of having cuirassiers, carabineers, dragoons, and hussars, and keeping them in massed cavalry corps perhaps 2-3000 strong; in addition they had Cossacks, fierce bands of tribal freebooters who owed no allegiance except to their chiefs. Not at this time amenable to discipline, they were of little use on the battlefield, but were excellent for patrolling and controlling the countryside. Their barbaric behavior, their thieving and plundering were always likely to provoke the French peasantry to rise against the invaders rather more effectively that did Napoleon’s decrees.
THE AUSTRIAN ARMY
This army had a proud tradition, but Emperor Francis I, ruling a multi-national Empire, distrusted nationalism. After the Battle of Austerlitz (1805) the Archduke Charles reorganized it on the lines of the French Army. But it was still and 18th-century army and lacked any greater driving force that its pride in its own past and traditions. There was a reluctance to decentralize into corps and divisions. Army headquarters enjoyed writing voluminous instructions, laying down great detail what should be done in almost every conceivable circumstance-except, usually, those that occurred. In outlook at this time the Austrian Army was rather defensive-minded.
THE PRUSSIAN ARMY
Under Frederick the Great, by dint of probable the most rigid and inhumane discipline in the world, the Prussian Army had scored many notable successes. The men were treated as automatons and cruelly punished if they showed any signs of wanting better. With Frederick in command, they had triumphed many times over numerically superior enemy armies. In the Napoleonic Wars, early reverses against the French were attributed to bad luck. The in 1806 came the battles of Jena and Auerstädt, after which French soldiers swaggered through the streets of Berlin. The army of automations fell apart and Prussia was dismembered.
Now came a bitter analysis. The army was old-fashioned, its tactics out of date. Worse, its officer structure was hopelessly rigid. Only proud and often ignorant members of the aristocracy were admitted. General Müffling, serving with the Prussian Army, noted that the junior officers of the Grande Armée marched with their men and carried packs on their backs, while a Prussian officer would think beneath his dignity to dismount from his horse.
A small, dedicated group led politically by Baron Stein and composed militarily of such officers as Gneisenau, Grolman, and Clausewitz, the latter group being led by General Scharnhorst, at that time Chief-of-Staff to the Army, set about a political and military regeneration. The middle classes, hitherto forbidden to be officers and reluctant to become privates, hd to be inveigled into the Army. Political stratification had to be broken down. Every man should be proud to serve in the Army. The reforms met with considerable opposition. The King felt his own position might be threatened. The reforms had one unexpected result. When Scharnhorst was mortally wounded at the Battle of Lützen, in May 1813, his followers and would-be successors were mostly high-ranking staff officers, not field commanders. The finest commander in the field, the man the soldiers would follow anywhere was undoubtable that splendid ex-hussar, Blücher. Blücher had long ceased to trouble himself about politics: he thought all politicians rascals, and had scarcely more time for military theory. He became the commander in the field. Gneisenau the Chief-of-Staff. He described their relationship thus: ‘Gneisenau reports to me on the maneuvers that need to be done. Once convinced I never stop until the objective is achieved.’ The peculiar position of authority later held by Chiefs-of-Staffs in the Prussian army may well have developed from these circumstances.
After its overthrow by Napoleon, the rump pf Prussia had been permitted an army of only 42,000 men. Scharnhorst had then inaugurated a system of short-term enlistments to build up a reserve of trained manpower; even so, the Prussian Army that was born anew in 1813 went through a period of bewildering change. The Army was only semi-trained and had yet to build up its self-confidence. A short time before the Battle of Waterloo, Blücher confided to Wellington that his men, deployed in line, cloud not yet be trusted to stand up to a French column. However, a new spirit was abroad and the Prussians desired passionately to take their revenge on the French.
The army was organized in army corps, but at that time had not adopted a divisional organization. Prussian infantry brigades usually consisted of three battalion regiments, each battalion being about 800 strong. With regiments at their full strength of approximately 2,400 men, a brigade might total nearly 7,500 men, as opposed to the French infantry division which by 1814 seldom much exceeded 4,000. Two cavalry brigades each nearly equivalent to a French cavalry division, were integral to each corps. No cavalry was held centrally. The artillery was organized in eight-gun batteries composed of six guns and two howitzers. It was held centrally at a scale of about one battery per regiment and one per cavalry brigade.
THE BRITISH ARMY
The British army, like the Austrian, was composed of men seervering long periods of regular service. They came from a variety of sources. Some were offered the army as an alternative to gaol, others were apprentices or employees fleeing from intolerable employers, and yet others enlisted as an alternative to destitution. A few enlisted from a sense of adventure, and a significant number felt that Napoleon, ‘the Orge’, had to be checked.
Whatever their original motives, they almost all nourished a keen sense of patriotism and developed a fierce pride in themselves and their regiments. Under Wellington they were confident that they were the finest soldiers in the world, and were happy to have a chance to prove it. Their chief, in a moment of exasperation, described them as the ‘scum of the earth’, a phase which unfortunately was recorded. His true opinion of his soldiers was that they were magnificent in battle, splendid on parade, but almost uncontrollable off it. He regarded the use of the lash as essential for his men, but thought that the French could forego it because conscription, drawing from all levels, brought a superior type of man into their ranks.
While his army was organized in divisions of two or three brigades, he kept his cavalry in brigades with a supreme cavalry commander living at his headquarters. He had suffered at the hands of some eccentric divisional commanders of cavalry in the Spanish Peninsula, and disliked the divisional system of organization-as he disliked the divisional system of organization-as he disliked the army corps, for he was not fond of decentralization. His artillery he parceled out to divisions, normally at a scale of one battery per division, and a proportion of light artillery was placed in support of the cavalry brigades as might be advisable. Against Napoleon in the Low Countries he increased his scale of batteries to two per division. Müffling, the Prussian who served with Wellington as a liaison officer, left the description of the British soldier: It was not the custom in this Army to criticize or control the Commander-in-Chief. Discipline was strictly enforced….Our infantry does not possess the same bodily strength as yours as yours (British)….The greater mass of our troops are too young and inexperienced.’
THE FRENCH ARMY
The French army initially fought to preserve and then to spread the revolution. Gradually the ideal faded, but the men remained intoxicated by their undreamed-of success on the battlefield. Like the British, the French felt a national pride, and, unlike the British, every soldier could believe that he carried a field-marshal’s baton in his knapsack. By 1813 some of the best men in the French Army had perished. But an intense professional pride remained. In 1813 Captain Leith Hay, serving with Wellington, had been taken prisoner by the French. King Joseph’s French army was retiring on Vitoria, and Leith Hay left his description of it: ‘The discipline of the troops seemed not of the strictest description, nor did the regimental officers apparently preserve that control so necessary for its support. The same line of distinction between officers and man was not so sedulously observed as in the British Army…. Occasionally the private or non-commissioned officer was of superior grade of French society from that of the Officer placed over him. But with all this apparent laxity, it was impossible to see the French armies without being impressed with the perfectly au fait manner in which the duties were performed; ever in readiness, the soldier was instantaneously put in motion when occasion demanded celerity of movement. Under the most unenviable conditions custom had inured him to the practice of endeavouring, as far as possible, to provide for diminishing the want of comfort that prevailed, and instead of staring about to discover all the miseries of his bivouac, he had probably already half unroofed the nearest habitation for the purpose of composing his fire….In marching the French infantry appeared indefatigable: their progress was equally remarkable for the rapidity with which they passed over the ground or the distance preformed.’ A picture emerges of a flexible, highly trained army in which discipline was almost instinctively observed.
In 1814 organizations were pared to meet with diminished resources. Battalions were around 600 strong and were composed of about six line companies and possibly on tirailleur (light infantry) and one grenadier company. The tirailleur company would throw out a screen of infantry in extended order (skirmishers) if the battalion had to advance. There were no riflemen. The army was organized in tow’s there were two battalions in a regiment, two regiments in a brigade and two brigades in a division, which normally numbered between 4-5,000 men, or two-thirds the strength of a British division or Prussian brigade in 1815.
An army corps was generally composed of several infantry divisions, a light cavalry division and eight-gun batteries at a scale of one per division, one in reserve and a horse artillery battery to support the cavalry. The powerful artillery of the Guard was kept as a reserve of firepower to meet the needs of a particular situation. The cavalry had an organization somewhat similar to the infantry. Two heavy cavalry regiments 4-500 strong, formed a brigade, two brigades a division and two divisions a corps, Light cavalry might be farmed out or held centrally.
The infantry battalions of all armies, except on occasion those of the British, used columns for movement. The French rarely deployed into line, but a brigade or division launching and attack might have some battalions in line, others in column. Battalions were subdivided into companies. A French company, an average 70-80 man, formed in three ranks, a British company normally about 5-60 strong, in two. A British Battalion had 10 companies at this time, a French one about six.
Both sides screened their battle lines with skirmishers in open order. An Attacker would drive in the enemy skirmish line, then start a brief but deadly musket duel ata distance of 100 yards or less. One side might waver, and the other would clinch its success with the bayonet. For an attack in column, the attacker would generally reply more on supporting artillery fire and, ultimately, the bayonet to bring him success rather than on his own musketry.
The artillery fired shells and roundshot at ranges over 300 yards, canister at ranges below. Roundshot and shells were unpleasant but canister, often called grape, was more so: each round of canister, holding up to 1000 bullets, broke up and sprayed its contents in a lethal pattern rather like a shot from a shotgun. In musketry or artillery fire, although higher rates might be obtained under peacetime conditions, about two rounds a minute was the most that could be achieved in the field.
Cavalry in theory attacked ‘hoot to boot’ but in practice they kept a rather looser order and generally attacked in considerable depth. Except in the British Army, heavy cavalry were armoured and were reserved for shock action.
Napoleon claimed to fight each battle according to its individual characteristics, and he valued surprise above all else. He invariably attacked. In his later years a recognizable style had begun to appear. He would first mass his artillery against selected points, and then launch his infantry columns, preceded by clouds of skirmishers, against the enemy position. Later attacks might be supported by heavy cavalry. When his enemy had committed all his reserves, Napoleon would strike with his Guard at the decisive point; the sight of their bearskins was a signal to the enemy that he would be wise to depart.
THE COMMENTARY GAZETTE®
SOURCE: NAPOLEON: The Last Campaigns 1813-15
BY: James Lawford
CONTRIBUTOR: Martin F. Elkins