Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics

The Forgotten Army?  Napoleon’s Foreign Troops in 1815

By Paul L. Dawson BSc Hons MA FINS

In 1815 the French armed forces contained 8 foreign regiments, and many non-French men served in the Armee du Nord. This paper seeks to outline what we know about these foreign regiments that served France in 1815.

Under the Royalist restoration of 1814 had four very weak Swiss regiments and three generic ‘Foreign’ regiments. The four Swiss regiments combined mustered 308 officers and 2,195 men. The three foreign regiments fared little better with a motley collection of 264 officers and 294 other ranks. A further 33 officers and 116 men formed the ‘Foreign Colonial’ regiment. [1]

With the first restoration, the majority of the non-French officers and men then serving in the army were discharged or placed on indefinite leave on half pay. For example, of the remaining 554 men in the Grenadiers à Cheval, upon formation of the Royal Corps of Cuirassiers of France, some 189 were discharged. Of these 23 were invalided out of the corps and 124 none French were removed. In addition 42 troopers were discharged.  Some of 124 none French men repatriated were:[2]

Joseph Van Assche was born in Brussels. He was admitted into 5th company in March 1813, and was removed from the regiment as being none French.

Jean Baptiste Delcourt was born at Jemmappes on 9th May 1778. Enlisted in the 16th Dragoons in 1798, admitted to the Grenadiers à Cheval on 8th July 1808, awarded the Legion of Honour on 27th April 1813 upon returning from the Russian campaign. He was admitted to the Cuirassiers of France on 25th July 1814, and dismissed on 3rd September as he was a Belgian.

Charles Gillet was born on 25th October 1778 at Hestatt in the Netherlands. He was admitted to the Grenadiers à Cheval in the new year of 1813 and was awarded the Legion of Honour on 14th September 1813. He was dismissed from the regiment in July 1814 for being none French. Returned to the place of his birth he was appointed sergeant in the 2nd regiment of Carabiniers of the Dutch Army. He served at Waterloo with the allies and passed to the 2nd regiment of Cuirassiers on 26th February 1818.

Benoit Joseph Gremez was born at Certfontaine in Belgium on 6th January 1790. He was the son of Jean Jacques Gremez and Marie-Barbe Mathieu. He was a conscript of the class of 1810. He stood 1.75 meters tall, had an oval face, ordinary forehead, grey eyes, medium sized nose and mouth, round chin. Admitted to the 5th Cuirassiers on 13th February 1813 with the matricule number of 2072 in 9th company of 5th squadron, he passed on 8th April 1813 to the Grenadiers a Cheval. He fought at Leipzig, Hanau and La Rothiere on 1st February 1814. He was captured on 14th February 1814. Released in the summer of 1814 and admitted to the Dutch-Belgian Army in 1831.

Jean Baptitse Prail was born at Grand-Rosiere on 1st August 1792. He was a conscript of the class of 1812. Admitted to the 1st regiment of Carabiniers at the regiment’s depot at Lunneville on 21st March 1813, he passed to the 2nd regiment of Grenadiers à Cheval with the matricule number of 560 on 6th April 1813. He saw action at Mayence, Frankfurt, Dresden and Leipzig. Captured at the fall of Paris in 1814, released on 26th April 1814. He was returned to the place of his brith and was admitted to the service of the Dutch Belgian artillery in May 1815, fought at Waterloo, and was dismissed on 26th June 1817.

Jean Schmitt, born 26th September 1777 in Colmar. Admitted to the regiment  1800 from the 8th Hussars with which he had served since 1798. Promoted to corporal 1st August 1806, sergeant 1st January 1810 and sergeant-Major 3rd April 1814. Discharged 23rd August 1814 re-admitted 31st May 1815, and served in 9th company, 5th squadron which formed part of the Young Guard or 2nd regiment.

Jean Pierre Wery. He was born at Liege in Belgium. He was conscripted into the 13th Dragoons in 1803, and passed in March 1813 to the Grenadiers à Cheval. He died at Liege in November 1860.

This exclusion of none-French soldiers, who had served the French Empire loyally in some cases for decades, represented a large pool of veteran soldier’s, who were discontent  with their lot, no longer able to be soldiers, the only profession most probably ever knew, or even being paid, who with Napoleon’s return, returned to the tricolour.

The Decree of 11th and 15th April 1815 created six foreign regiments, there role being main to spread pro-Bonapartist propaganda in the frontier regions. The existing foreign regiments were retained, but were consolidated, so that the four Swiss regiments provided the cadre for a single regiment, the 2nd Foreign regiment (Swiss). The 3rd Foreign Regiment, the ‘Legion Irlandais’ was retained. The officers were to be recruited from the foreign officers living in France, as were the other ranks. Crucially, deserters from the fledgling Dutch-Belgian Army, as well as from former Confederation of the Rhine States were allowed to be enlisted as ‘volunteers’. [3] Napoleon was trying to weld back to the Empire, the former allied states, who were now arrayed against him, most notably Russian occupied Poland, and Prussian controlled Saxony. In previous years Napoleon had relied upon troops from allied and satellite states to bolster his troop numbers, something he endeavoured to do so again in 1815. The Poles formed three regiments in 1815, one infantry, one Line cavalry and a squadron of Lancers in the Imperial Guard. The Belgians were for the second time made to feel part of the Empire as a distinct people with the foreign regiment and the 16th Chasseurs a Cheval. Before this, the only distinctly Belgian regiment in the Grande Armee had been the 27th Chasseurs a Cheval d’Arenberg. By once more honouring the Belgians, and allowing deserters to his cause, Napoleon was hoping to attract large elements from the Dutch-Belgian Army, perhaps in a limited way to cause discontent between the Dutch and the Belgians, and to try and draw the Belgians, who had been part of the French Empire for far longer than the Dutch, back into the French sphere of Influence.

The 31st Light Infantry, formed in Piedmont, and primarily manned by Piedmontese citizens, was reformed as the 1st Foreign Regiment. A second Italian Peninsular regiment was raised with the decree  of 20th May, and was to comprise former soldiers from the Kingdom of Italy and other provinces, excluding the Piedmontese. [4]

The 1st Foreign regiment, formed from the cadre of the disbanded 31st Light Infantry was commanded in 1815 by Colonel Esprit Cacherano de Bricherasio, assisted by Adjutant-Commanded Martinet. Major Bourbaki commanded the 1st Regiment bis, formed outside of the official decree, by former members of the 31st Light Infantry keen to fight for Napoleon once more. By the 1st May the cadre of 3 battalions was some 217 other ranks, increasing to some 281 men by the 28th May.

Each of the 8 Infantry regiment was in theory to comprise some 1,000 men and was to be organised as a standard Line Infantry regiment.  Further two regular army units were formed, the 7th Regiment of Light Horse Lancers, from the former 7th, 8th and 9th Light Horse Lancer Regiments which had been disbanded in 1814, and the 16th Chasseurs a Cheval which was made up entirely of Belgian volunteers By the 15th June, the number of foreign soldiers exceeded 4,000 officers and men, some of whom seeing service in the fighting of 1815. The strength of the regiments on the 15th June was as follows: [5]

Regiment

Depot

Officers

Men

Notes

1st Piedmontese

Chalons Sur Saone

130

281

 

2nd Swiss

Amiens

29

181

 
 

Armee du Nord

21

387

Fought at Ligny, and Wavres

3rd Polish

Soissons

29

476

Moved to Paris 28th June. Fought in the battle of Paris under the orders of General Pully.

4th German

Tours

23

327

 
 

Sarthe

3

92

Mobile column with local gendarmes

5th Belgian

Amiens

35

210

 

6th Spanish and Portuguese

Tours

88

625

 
 

Sarthe

24

429

Mobile column with the local gendarmes

7th Irish

Montreuil sur Mer

94

257

 

8th Italian

Aix

 

1st Bis Piedmontese

Grenoble

15

192

Served under Suchet

Total

 

491

3,457

 
   
 

7th Light Horse Lancers

Soissons

23

327 or 334

At Soissons under orders of Colonel Gerard, fought in Paris under the orders of General Pully

16th Chasseurs a Cheval

Amiens

4

72

 

Total

 

27

406

 

Combined Total

 

518

3,863

In total 4,381 officers and men.

The Duties Undertaken

The 1st Foreign Regiment was ordered to join the 3rd Corps of the Armee du Nord, and numbered 225 men, which by the 20th May had re-christened itself the ‘31e Legere’.[6] Major Bourbaki with the 2nd Battalion of the 31st Light Infantry served under Marshal Suchet in the Alps.  The 1st Battalion was disbanded on 6th September 1815, and the 2nd Battalion 15th October 1815. By this date the 1st Battalion mustered 493 men. Of the men that made up the re-activated 31st Light Infantry, 10 came from the Sacred battalion on Elba [not the 1st Grenadiers but the men instead came from the Elban Chasseurs that formed the 1st Voltigeurs of the Imperial Guard on 8th April 1815 which many at the time considered part of the ‘sacred battalion’] , 80 from the former 1st and 2nd foreign regiments in French service, 93 from the 2nd Piedmontese Regiment, 2 former prisoners of war, 26 transferred from other commands, and 382 deserters from the new Piedmont army.  In terms of national origins, not all were from Piedmont, 294 were Piedmontese, 52 from Liguria, 29 from Lombardy, 68 other Italian regions, 29 from Nice, 25 Savoyards, 87 French, 16 Poles, 13 Swiss Austrian, 7 Swiss, 2 Maltese, 2 Spanish, 1 Austrian, 1 Belgian, 1 Hungarian, 1 Dutch. Of these men, at the time of disbandment about 306 had already deserted, 211 were discharged , 25 sent back to their country of origin, 86 transferred to other military bodies [35 to the Royal Foreign Legion, 39 to Departmental Legions, 12 to Polish and German Depots of Reims and Tours].[7]

The 1st Battalion of the 2nd Swiss regiment was attached to 3rd Corps with the Armee du Nord, and fought well at Ligny and Wavres. 

The 3rd Foreign Regiment and the 7th Line Lancers were based at Soissons, along with the National Guard garrison under the orders of Colonel Gerard. The Lancers was placed in the places barracks and the National Guards had to be billeted upon the local citizenry. [8]  When the French army evacuated Soissons on the 24th and 25th June, elements of the garrison, most notably the Poles, and whatever soldiers returned to the army but not their own regiments, made their way back to Paris. On the 30th June, some 2,031 infantry, primarily the 3rd foreign regiment and who knows what, and the 334 officers and men of the 7th Light Horse Lancers, and were placed under the orders of General Pully.  They fought under the walls of Paris, and took part in General Vandammes spirited defence of the capitol. [9]

The 4th  and 6th  Foreign Regiments were deployed in the Sarthe in mobile columns to help police the interior as an auxiliary force to the local Gendarmerie. The Spanish-Portuguese regiment was the strongest single formation of the 10 foreign regiments in French service in 1815. Clearly those who had served in the Portuguese Legion upto 1814, as well as those who had served in the Royal Guard of the King of Spain or Spanish origin, had remained in France, and it seems some took the opportunity to fight for Napoleon once more, or perhaps were realists and simply knew no other profession other than a soldier, and here was an opportunity to be paid.

Foreigners in the French Army.

As well as these specific foreign regiments, the Imperial Guard contained the Polish Squadron from Elba, as well as the Elban Chasseurs which was transformed into the 1st Regiment of Voltigeurs. Non-French officers and men also served throughout the army.

One officer was Chrstophe O'Keeffe, a lieutenant in the 25th Line. At Waterloo he was wounded with a sabre cut to the head. He was made a prisoner of war and transported to England, being returned on the 29th December 1815.[10] Although he was born in Calais in 1794, his family was in fact Irish. His father had joined the French army in 1760, and he had been born in Ireland at Castelly on 17th March 1740.[11] One wonders what his English captures made of this French soldier of Irish descent!

In the 1st Carabineers was an  citizen of the Ottoman-Turk Empire. Pierre Phitily was born a Smirne in Greece on 25th April 1786. He was a guide of General in Chief Bonaparte in 1799, and was admitted to the regiment in 1802. Promotion to corporal came on 26th February 1806, sergeant on 19th May 1808 and sergeant-major on 16th December 1811. He was promoted thence to 1st lieutenant on 1st April 1812. Passed to the 1st Carabiniers as captain on 1st December 1813. 

Despite the Royalists decreeing all non-French officers and men were to leave the army, many obviously got around this. The French Army of 1815 was a cosmopolitan force, just as it had been in the years prior to 1814.

Summary

In 1815 Napoleon was faced with a lack of experienced soldiers. The ‘Corps Francs’ filled out with volunteers, the Battalions of Retired Soldiers, the ‘Federes’ and these ‘Foreign’ troops were all part and parcel of Napoleon endeavouring to attract experienced soldiers back to his ‘Eagles’ at a time when money, horses, muskets, gun-powder and experienced soldiers were lacking. Like a lot of the projects of 1815 [the projected three lancer regiments for the Imperial Guard were never raised, and the Young Guard Artillery and Cavalry were barely more than skeletal cadres by the time of Napoleon’s abdication], these regiments never reached full strength and many never were never involved in any fighting, and were overall net drain of resources. However when viewed as part of Napoleon’s wider ambitions once he had defeated the allies, he clearly aimed to draw back to him from the Allies, the Belgians, Northern Italians, and many other former allied states. These non-French troops have often been overlooked by many historians, and I hope to have demonstrated that in 1815 the War was simply not France verses the allies, but actually France and her supporters against the Allies which also included Frenchmen. France was not dominated solely by Napoleon as many French men chose to fight for the King, just as many Poles, Saxons, Italians and some Portuguese and Spanish fought for Napoleon.

Notes:

[1] SHDDT 15C4 report 11th April 1815.

[2] SHDDT YC20 148 Registre Matericule Grenadiers a Cheval  de la Garde Imperiale 1815

[3] SHDDT 15C4 report 11th April 1815.

[4] SHDDT 15C4 decree 20th May 1815.

[5] SHDDT 15C4 situation report 15th June 1815

[6] SHDDT C15 23 Register of Orders of General Vandamme. The 31st Legere appears not to have joined 3rd Corps.

[7] SHDT 22yc Regsitre Matricule 31e Legere

[8] SHDDT 15C4 Davout of Gerard 7e Juin 1815. See also Gerard to Davout 7e Juin 1815

[9] SHDDT 15C4 situation report 30th June 1815

[10] An LH 2012/57

[11] An LH 2012/58

 

Placed on the Napoleon Series: October 2013

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