Napoleon Series Archive 2005

No. of skirmishers deployed by French commanders

Dear all,

Forgive the question if it has already been posed, but does anyone have a view on the number / proportion of skirmishers deployed by French armies in the Peninsular.

In chapter 11 of Vol. IX, Modern Studies of the War in Spain and Portugal, Arthur Harman states (p 270) “Massena’s orders for Buçaco may be revealing, the Prince of Essling specifically mentions that the attacks by the II and VI Corps should be screened by skirmishers. Why should he feel it necessary to order two such experienced officers – Reynier commanding II Corps, and Ney VI corps – to take such an elementary precaution, if by this he meant no more that that they were to follow standard practice and deploy only the volitigeurs of each regiment?”

Hayman, in the ensuing discussion, sets up two possible interpretations
1) the orders confirm Oman’s view that, during the Peninsular War, French commanders rarely deploy more than the (usual) voltigeur companies, ie from each respective regiment engaged to precede their columns of attack
2) the orders refer to other orders or discussions (i.e. discussions about and agreements made, orally between the Marshals, prior to the battle to deploy additional skirmishers

There could always be a further explanation: ie the orders confirm the use of all possible tiraileurs (i.e. taking into account the columnar formation adopted), the voltiguers of all regiments in each column are to be deployed and not just those of the leading units. There woudl be a substantial number avaialbe as each attacking column was to comprise an entire division, Reynier’s two divisions in the centre-left, using the track leading over the ridge via São Antonio de Cantaro and Ney’s leading two divisions, by the better Mortagoa-Coimbra chaussée.

Of course, a fourth possibility is that during the time that the Prince of Essling has been in command, he developed a sufficient level of wariness of his subordinates that rendered it necessary to specifically set out his orders for deployment (i.e. in case he needed to refer to them after the battle (either in dispatches or in council of war)

Le 2eme Corps attaquera la droite de l’armée ennemie: il tentera a cet effet de couper la ligne, en gravisssant un des points de la montagne le plus accessible. Il y arrivera par une ou deux colonnes, en se faisant preceder par des tirrailleurrs…

Une fois arrivé sur le sommet, du point qu’il aura decide d’attaquer, il se formera en collone serré et descendre par le crête de la montagne sur le chemin de Coimbre.

… et son artillerie sera place par differentes positions, pour pouvoir le soutenir au besoin.

“Ce sera M. le Maréchal Ney disposera ses deux collonnes d’attaque de manière á presser son attaque s’il voit que l’ennemi s’avance pour faire un mouvement sur le général Reynier, our pour faire un movement de retraite.”

…il se fera preceder par ses tiraileurs. … Arrivé sur la crête de la montage il se mettra en bataille pour l’ensemble des mouvements ulterieurs de l’armé.

Sorry for any missing accents, I don’t have a French keyboard.

Best wishes


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