Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics

 

31e Régiment de Chasseurs:  La phalange infernale   (The Hellish Phalanx)

By Roberto A. Scattolin, Italy

Introduction

One of the books I most treasure in my Napoleonic history collection, is the work of late Colonel Elting (15 February 1911 - 25 May 2000).   

It is placed on one of the many shelves in my library, and, in spare time, I appreciate taking it in my hands, and having the pleasure re-reading some written passages from this outstanding masterpiece (1989). However, I cannot hide a feeling of deep nostalgia and the sweet breathing of past memories when looking at John’s original handwriting. My attention is further diverted when reading some letters we exchanged over the years. I know, traditions of a time never die, days gone by and good friends too.

Colonel John R. Elting, in his brilliantly researched work entitled Swords around a Throne, wrote at p. 239:

“The 31st – French cavalry – Regiment also was formed in 1811, from two provisional regiments of light cavalry in Spain; since part if not all of its men were armed with the lance, it sometimes was termed the “31st Chasseurs-Lanciers” [15-18].

Occasionally, I read this short passage and marvel at its significance. With reference to the aforecited statement, I share it as a duty and a tribute to John to present this article.  Hopefully, it will be of interest to any discerning reader and enthusiast of history – and of the Napoleonic times.

The 31e Régiment de Chasseurs

The 31e Régiment de Chasseurs was a French cavalry force at regimental level, and throughout the two-years conflict of 1813-1814 it valiantly served with the Armée d’ Italie. The unit was usually counted among the best troops de cavalerie of the French Army contingents.[1]

Placed under the authorithative leadership of Desmichel, the Colonel commanded an active combat-manpower of 1187 men.

" ... le Vice-roi pensa que nous avions besoin de repos et nous envoya en cantonnements sur la rive droite de l’ Adige, à quelques lieues de Vérone, ...  nous eûmes aussi la visite du génèral Bonnemains,[2]  envoyé par le Vice-roi pour faire reconnaître, à la satisfaction générale du régiment, le brave capitaine Jouanet, de la compagnie d’ élite, comme chef  d’ escadron, et organiser un escadron de lanciers choisi parmi les plus braves et meilleurs sujets du régiment.

Cette émulation, sans être nécessaire, produisit cependant un grand encouragement et servit de véhicule aux chasseurs qui, outre une haute paye, porteraient avec orgueil un galon de laine sur la manche.

Le commandement en fut donné au capitaine Couget, brave et intrépide militaire, . . . " [Vide: D’Espinchal, Souvenirs Militaires].

To know how dangerous were the risks of continued warfare, and the high proficiency level in combat actions of the chassueurs-lanciers, easily can be determined through the narratives of that eventful military campaign.

Among the many exploits de guerre, worth mentioning is the following episode, whose reverberations and martial echoes of glory resounded throughout the whole French army.

One occasion, in the early year 1814, Prince Eugene de Beauharnais – stepson of Napoleon and son-in-law of the King of Bavaria – found himself unexpectedly at extreme risk, and his life was in peril under the dashing Austrian threat.

"Le prince, dirigeant lui-même la division du général Marcognet[3],  fut un moment exposé au danger d’ être pris ou tué, sans un détachement de 25 lanciers du 31e Chasseurs formant son escorte, . . . " [Vide: D’Espinchal].

The light cavalry detachment of the chasseurs-lanciers suddenly reacted to the Austrian forces, and thus ensued an unparallelled devotion and bravery.

Under the circumstances, promptly given dispositions by the French “squadron” commander which permitted him to save Napoleon’s stepson who was in a breath of being sabred.

However, ". . . le chef, nommé Path, ne balança pas à se sacrifier pour le sauver; . . . " [Vide: D’Espinchal].

Heavy fighting occurred; and the stern and disciplined cavalry bodyguard of Prince Eugene perfomed prodigiously and with valour against overwhelming Hungarian troops. In a display of determination and enduring perseverance, the uncontained French lanciers immortalized the honour of the newly born cavalry corps – which just a short time before had been organized at squadron level. Sadly enough, the chasseurs-lanciers of the escort were virtually annihilated in action.

" . . . 8 hommes furent tués, 9 blessés, et le prince parvint à se dégager de plus de 300 Hongrois dont il était entouré" [Vide: D’Espinchal].

This epitaph of glory remained a laurel of remembrance to the bravery of the fallen French troopers.[4]  

I recall stunning details about the magnificence of the Chasseurs uniform, which bore significant resemblance to the attire à la polonaise.

"L’uniforme du 31e Chasseurs, de la plus grande élégance, consistait dans une veste verte à la polonaise; collet, parements et passepoils chamois, pantalon rouge à bande chamois. Pour les officiers supérieurs, giberne or et argent aussi bien que le baudrier et ceinturon, ceinture en réseau or et argent avec deux glands d’ or en grosse torsade, le schako polonais, brodé en argent, surmounté d’ une aigrette blanche. Les officiers et les chasseurs, la ceinture rouge pour la compagnie d’ élite; verte et chamois pour les lanciers, et chamois pour les compagnies du centre qui avaient, au lieu de pattes sur les épaules, des nids d’ hirondelle vert et chamois. Pour armes, le sabre demi-coube, la carabine et deux pistolets; l’ escadron de lanciers, la lance" [Vide: D’Espinchal, Souvenirs Militaires].

Bibliography and further reading 

1. English works:

Elting, John R.. Swords Around A Throne. Napoleon’s Grande Armée. George Weidenfeld & Nicolson Limited, London 1989.

2. French works:

Autin, Jean. Eugène de Beauharnais. De Joséphine à Napoleon. Paris, Perrin, 1989.

Beauharnais, de, Eugène. Mémoires Et Correspondance Politique Et Militaire Du Prince Eugène. Publiés, Annotés Et Mis En Ordre Par A. Du Casse. Tome Dixième. Paris. Michel Lévy Frères, Libraires-Éditeurs. 2 Bis, Rue Vivienne. 1860.

Blémus, René. Eugène de Beauharnais. L’ honneur à tout vent. Édition France-Empire, Paris, 1993.

Dumonceau, François (compte). Mémoires Du Général Comte François DUMONCEAU. Publiés d’après le manuscrit original par Jean Puraye, Bruxelles, Brepols, 1958.

Espinchal, D’, Hippolyte. Souvenirs Militaires 1792-1814. Publiés par Frédéric Masson et François Boyer. Librairie Paul Ollendorff, 1901.

Levy, Arthur. Napoléon et Eugène de Beauharnais. Paris, Calmann-Lévy, 1926.

Oman, Carola. Napoleon’ s Viceroy: Eugène de Beauharnais. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1966.

Pelleport, Pierre. Souvenirs Militaires Et Intimes Du Général Vte De Pelleport, De 1793 À 1853. Publiés Par Son Fils Sur Manuscripts Originaux, Lettres, Notes Et Documents Officiels Laissés Par L’auteur. Paris. Didier & Ce. Libraires Éditeurs, Quai Des Augustins, 33. Bordeaux. P. Chaumas, Lib.-Édit., Fossés Du Chapeau-Rouge, 34. 1857.

Susane, Louis (Général). Histoire De La Cavalerie Française. J. Hetzel Et Cie., 1874.

Weil, Maurice-Henri. Le Prince Eugène Et Murat, 1813-1814. Opérations Militaires. Négociations Diplomatiques. Paris, A. Fontemoing, 1902.

3. German works:

Bayern, von, Adalbert (Prinz). Eugen Beauharnais. Der Stiefsohn Napoleons. München, Bruckmann, 1950

Notes:

[1] Cavalry officers: Mermet, général de division, commandant en chef; Gisbert, capitaine, aide de camp; Mermet, lieutenant, aide de camp; Castelli, lieutenant, ordonnance; Edouard De Melfort, lieutenant, 1er Hussards; Desrivaux, coloneld’ état-major; baron Bonnemains, commandant général de brigade; Serville, capitaine aide de camp; Olivier, lieutenant aide de camp; Perreimond, général de brigade; Chateauneuf, lieutenant aide de camp.

Armée d’ Italie, cavalry corps composition: Guardie d’ onore, 100 horses; Dragoni Napoleone, Italian unit, 300 horses; 3rd Cacciatori, Italian unit, Major Dubois, 500 horses; Dragoni Regina, Colonnello Narboni, 600 horses; Dragoni della Guardia Reale, 300 horses; 4th Cacciatori, Italian unit, Colonnello Erculei, 600 horses; 19e Chasseurs, French unit, Colonel Grouchy, 800 horses; 1er Hussards, Colonel Clary, 1000 horses; 31e Chasseurs, Colonel Desmichels, 1000 horses; Gendarmeria, 150 horses; batterie légère, chef d’ escadron Delort, 237 horses; batteria italiana, chef d’escadron Mussita, 290 horses.  Grand total : 6064 horses.

[2] Pierre Bonnemains was born at Tréauville (Manche), on 13 September 1773 and died at Le Mesnil Garnier (Manche) – November 9, 1850.  He was a pupil in the collége of Valognes; 1792, 1 April: entered into service as adjudant-major in a battalion of National Guards de la Manche; 1793, 20 May: passed sous-lieutenant in the dragoons of the Manche; 1793-1795: served in the armée du Nord; 1794, 25 March: passed in the ranks of the 12e dragons; 1796, 11 January: aide-de-camp of général Tilly, he extensively campaigned in the armée du nord and in the armée de Sambre-et-Meuse; 1799, 9 July: capitaine; 1806, 20 September: colonel in the 5e chasseurs à cheval, division Tilly; 9 October: distinguished himself at Schleiz; 14 October: Iena; 6 November: Lubeck; 1807, 25 January: Mohrungen; 26 February: Braunsberg; 14 June: Friedland; 1808, 19 March: Baron de l’Empire; 7 September: passed to the 1er Corps of the armée d’ Espagne; 10 November: served at Burgos; 1809, 28 March: at the combats of the bridge of Almaraz, Truxille, Villamesia, Medellin; 27-28 July: at the battle of Talavera; 1810-1811: served in Andalusia; 1811, 6 August: Général de brigade; 1812: Algesiras; 1813: passed in Italy under prince Eugene de Beauharnais; 31 October: served at Bassano; 12 November: served at Vago, then at Caldiero; 1814, 4 February: Villafranca; 8 February: commander of the 1er brigade, Mermet division, at the battle of the Mincio; his name is written in the southern façade of the Arc de triomph de l’ Étoile, in Paris.  The grave of Général Bonnemains is located in the cemetery of Mesnil-Garnier (Le) – on the southern wall of the church.

[3] Pierre-Louis Binet De Marcognet was born on November 14, 1765, at Croix-Chapeau (Charente-Inférieure). He died in Paris – December 19, 1854. 1781, 30 March: cadet in 1er bataillon of the régiment de Bourbonnais-infanterie; 1782, 1 July: sous-lieutenant in the same regiment; 1781, 1782, 1783: he campaigned extensively in America under Rochambeau; 1787, 3 July: lieutenant; 1792, 1 March: capitaine in the 13e infanterie; 1792-1801: served in the armée du Rhin; 1793, 14 September: distinguished at the taking of the camp de Bodenthal; 1793, 17 November: at Filligen; 1795-1796: in the armée de l’ Ouest; 1796 in the armée du Rhin; 9 July: at the combat of Ettlingen; 10 July: appointed chef de bataillon provisoire; 11 August: served at Neresheim; 1 September: Geisenfeld; 2 October at Biberach; 28 November: at the siege of Kehl, where he was wounded at the right arm; 1798, 15 November: General Pichegru appointed him chef de bataillon titulaire in the 95e demi-brigade d’ infanterie; 1798-1801: serving in the armée du Rhin; 1799, 15 May: promoted adjudant-général chef de brigade provisoire; 13 September: confirmed in his rank; 1800, 5 May: chef de brigade of the 108e de ligne; 3 December wounded and taken prisoner at Hohenlinden; 1801, 2 February: confirmed in this rank in the 108e de ligne; 1803, 29 August: Général de brigade; 1803-1805: in the camp de Montreuil; 1805, 30 August: brigade commander in the 1er brigade of the 2e division (Malher) of the 6e corps under Ney in the Grande Armée; 1806, end December: in the 6e corps of the Grande Armée; 1808, 26 October: Baron of the Empire; 1809, 18-19 June: served at Oviedo; 1811, July 13: général de division; 1812, 6 February: commander of the 14e division militaire at Caen; 1813, May 30: in the corps d’ observation of the Adige; 15 November: chef of the 4e division at Caldiero; 19 November: won at San Michele; December: lost at Rovigo, and Boara; 1814, 8 February: at the battle of the Mincio; 8 July: chevalier de Saint Louis; 27 December: grand officier of the Légion d’ honneur; 1815, 6 April: commander of the 3e division in the 1er Corps d’ observation under Drouet D’Erlon; his name is written in the northern façade of the Arc de triomph de l’ Étoile, in Paris.

[4] In this case, there transpired some quite stunning analogies with the war experience of king Friedrich der Große (Friedrich II – January 24, 1712-August 17, 1786) of Prussia. In the Seven Years War (1756-1763), during the calamitous defeat suffered in the Schlacht bei Kunersdorf (the engagement was fought on August 12th, 1759; the battlefield lied four miles east of Frankfurt-on-Oder; modern name of the location is Kunowice, Poland), the Prussian monarch was nearly captured by Russian cossacks; and it was only thanks to the bravery and wild determination of the Zieten-Hussars that he was successfully extricated through this major danger of the enemy’s cavalry.  It was cavalry Rittmeister and squadron commander Joachim Bernhard von Prittwitz (Gut Lahserwitz, Kr. Wohlau, Niederschlesien, 3 February 3, 1726 - Berlin, June 4, 1793) who saved the Prussian monarch.

Vide: Archenholz, Johann Wilhelm; Bock, Jean-Nicolas-Etienne (baron de). Histoire de la guerre de sept ans, commencée en 1756, et terminée en 1763. Par M. D’Archenholtz, ancien capitaine au service de la Prusse; traduit de l’allemand par M. le Baron de Bock. À Metz, chez Devilly, À Strasbourg, à la librairie académique, À Paris, chez Berlin et Buisson, 1789; Asprey, Robert B. Frederick the Great the Magnificent Enigma . New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1986; Dover, Lord. Vie de Frédéric II, Roi de Prusse. Traduite de l’anglais par A. Enot et précédée d’une introduction par Adolph Bossange. Paris, Bossange, 1832; Frederic II, Roi de Prusse. Recueil de plans de batailles, sièges et combats, arrivés dans les expéditions mémorables de la guerre de sept ans, pour servir à l’ intelligence des oeuvres posthumes de Frédéric II, roi de Prusse. Amsterdam, Treuttel, 1789; Frederich II Roi de Prusse. Mémoires de Frédéric II, Roi de Prusse. Écrit en français par lui même, publiés conformément aux manuscipts originaux. Avec des notes et des tables par MM. Boutaric et Campardon. A Paris, chez Plon. 1866; Gaxotte, Pierre. Frederich II, Roi de Prusse. Paris, Albin Michel, 1967; Kugler, Franz. Geschichte Friedrichs des Großen. Weber, Leipzig 1840; Mitford, Nancy. Frederick the Great . London: Hamish Hamilton, 1970; Lavaux, Jean-Charles Thibault de. Vie de Frederic I, roi de Prusse. À Stasbourg, chez J. G. Treutel. 1787; Reiners, Ludwig. Frederick the Great, a Biography . New York: G. P. Putnam & Sons, 1960; Ritter, Gerhard. Frederick the Great: A Historical Profile. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974; Venohr, Wolfang. Der große König. Friedrich II. im siebenjährigen Krieg. Lübbe, Bergisch-Gladbach, 1995.

 

Placed on the Napoleon Series: June 2007

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