Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics

The GQG [Headquarters] of Napoleon I: Part I

By Lieutenant Colonel René Tournès

Translation and Comments by John Hussey

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the Revue de Paris, 1 May 1921, pages 134-158. Notes by Colonel Tournès are identified numerically; those of John Hussey are in red. Additional comments in square brackets are by John Hussey


The composition and functioning of the General Staff of a supreme commander does not depend solely on the importance of forces in the line and the perfection of its technical support, they depend much more on the influence coming from the personality of the chief; it is that which constitutes the dominant element in the case.  In July 1918 General Foch, commanding all the Allied Armies had only a small staff, comprising less than 30 officers and 200 men; at the same date General Pétain, commanding solely the French Armies of the North and North-East, kept at his GQG 386 officers and 3000 men.  Of course, if French GQG was so numerous it was in part that until recently it had been supreme headquarters of French armies; but when looking closely at the staff of the two generals one sees a difference in their ways of working and in their composition, for their conceptions differed and what was appropriate for the staff of the one was not so for the staff of the other.

Napoleon I, even more than his illustrious successors in the French army, imposed his powerful genius on his general staff and gave it a special shape.  I shall outline the essential characteristics of this imperial GQG.  Understandably a justifiable national pride in the Napoleonic Era and the centenary of the great Emperor’s death makes me think that a study of this aspect of his legacy may be of interest, for until the recent war of 1914-18 his was the largest staff French armies ever knew.  However, to be of value we need to examine Napoleon’s staff at a precise epoch and so I have chosen the campaign of spring 1813.  The Emperor was then at the summit of his art, commanding considerable forces (some 300,000)[1] in Germany, operating in a theatre that at its narrowest part measured 470 kms [294 miles] from the mouth of the Elbe (Davout’s objective), to the frontier of Bohemia where his right wing was, the army of the Main marching towards the Saale.


In this imperial headquarters the dominant factor and one that cannot be over-stated was the importance of the Emperor’s role; beside that central character of the supreme commander everything else in the picture is flat.  History has already shown us staffs among whom some men have come to exercise a decisive influence upon their chiefs: in the recent war Ludendorff upon Hindenburg, and doubtless there are instances in other armies.  There was no such instance under the Empire.  Those around the master were mere executants; this man dazzled his immediate entourage as he did the whole world.  The catastrophe of 1812 in no way reduced his military renown; if it is true that for the first time he suffered the test of defeat, no general could claim to have defeated him: the Russian winter alone[2] had triumphed over his genius.

The Emperor emerged from that torment without  any visible physical or intellectual damage.  He was 43 years old and was not worn down by the fatigues of the Russian campaign; it was not solely calculation on his part when he declared to Schwarzenberg, ambassador of Austria, that during the retreat he was preserved “by his happy constitution, by the force nature had blessed him with”.[3] Since his return to Paris on 18 December 1812 he had thrown himself unceasingly into a prodigious task; there was no sign of that illness that carried him off eight years later; never had he been more active than in this period where he passed whole nights without sleep.  From 29 April until the armistice [that began on 4 June, and lasted eventually till 10 August] he made no use of his carriage and went everywhere on horseback.

The Russian campaign and its consequences do not seem to have affected Napoleon intellectually.  For thirteen years he had kept in his own hands both the supreme command of the armies of the Empire and the most absolute political power, yet never had his genius been greater.  The work accomplished in these four winter months of 1812/13, setting up a considerable army capable of entering on campaign in the spring, represents for this epoch a true marvel.  The Emperor’s thought is always definite, as one sees when reading his correspondence, where he lavishes military advice on Prince Eugène.  It is always supple, admirable in its harmonising the idea with the execution.  Napoleon’s plans of campaign were never more grandiose than those he thought out and studied long before the time when operations could start in Germany; never did he show more the gift of altering his concepts when conditions required it due to changed circumstances.

Some testimony suggests by contrast that Napoleon’s character suffered some change under the shock of the events of 1812.  Some observers, as little well-disposed as they were attentive, noted alternating moods of gaiety and sadness; in the midst of really serious conversations his thoughts wandered and he became visibly preoccupied, the future of his dynasty troubled him; sometimes he seemed to lose confidence in his star that for so long had been one of the secrets of his force, and that this interminable war was also beginning to weigh on him.  During an interview with Schwarzenberg he let slip this avowal: “This war is repugnant to me; . . . the nation has made efforts beyond anything I could expect or demand, but too much blood has already been shed, and even more will flow in this campaign; . . . should I be beaten, I should be forced to call on the nation for further sacrifices; these things must have a term . . .”. And the Austrian ambassador added: “Throughout nearly four hours’ of interview I found the Emperor pensive, mild, and adopting an air of trust, often using the expression mon cher ami, but more pensive and preoccupied than he had been before.  His language was less trenchant and his whole attitude less assured; he seemed to resemble a man who fears being deprived in the eyes of others of the prestige surrounding him; his look seemed to me to ask if I still saw the same man in him”.[4] [5] 


The staff grouped round the supreme commander comprised two very distinct groups: there was that strictly termed the ‘Grand Quartier général impérial’ [Imperial headquarters], and separately there was ‘L’Administration de l’armée’ sometimes called ‘Quartier général administratif’.  Let us speak briefly of the latter.

L’Administration de l’armée at this epoch fulfilled the functions that in 1914-18 were handled by our Direction of the army’s rear zone.  At its head was a remarkable man, Comte Daru, minister and secretary of state, who had exercised this role for over seven years.  He was assisted by Matthieu Dumas, councillor of state, and intendant of the army.  An important administrative group, under the orders of these two functionaries, were usually placed in some town far in rear of the region where military operations were proceeding.

Daru’s task was heavy. He administered a vast zone of stage-points that extended in 1813 from the North Sea to the Bavarian frontier, and in conformity with the Emperor’s general orders he levied money contributions and requisitioned whatever was needed to fill the supply depots.  He was responsible for supplying the army with bread, meat, forage, clothing and equipment; he was responsible for the medical service and fixing on the places for hospitals and for the evacuation of the wounded.  His offices authorised all expenses and kept all the accounts of the armies in Germany and everything relating to pay and clothing and encampments.

Except for some doctors and surgeons, l’Administration de l’armée was made up of civilians.  Daru held no military rank and had no command authority over the zone where he had administrative powers.  In 1813 the military authority over the territory between the Rhine and the front was held by general officers placed at the grands arrondissements of the staging-posts, such as Kellermann at Mainz and Augereau at Frankfort.


The ‘Grand Quartier général impérial’ was in turn divided into two distinct groups: La Maison de l’Empereur and l’Etat-Major de l’Empereur.  In the Maison itself there was a further and clear division between the Cabinet and the aides-de-camp and ordonnance officers.

The Cabinet comprised three bureaux of which the Bureau des rensignements was indisputably the most important.  Its task was to collect all information about the enemy and present it to Napoleon, and also to organise and then manage during operations an espionage service.

A modest auditeur of the Council of State, Lelorgne d’Ideville, directed this delicate service from 1812.  He had only one assistant, a Polish captain who was an interpreter of the Russian language; for the espionage service he brought from Paris a minor group of a few agents provided by the Duc de Rovigo, minister of Police.  He recruited others in Germany according to need, paying them out of a sum of two hundred thousand francs given to him for this purpose.

The information that reached Lelorgne d’Ideville came from a variety of different sources.  He received letters, papers, documents of every kind, seized by the cavalry or by the army corps; he collected the major army formations’ summarised interrogation reports on prisoners, the reports of their individual spies and the information given by the country-people.  These various items were complemented by information that Lelorgne d’Ideville obtained from his own spies whom he had directed to those points in the enemy zone where it was most likely that precious information could be gathered.  Thus it was that on 22 April 1813 from Erfurt, where he had arrived before the Emperor (who arrived only on the 25th), Lelorgne d’Ideville let loose his agents: they were ordered east of the Saale towards Leipzig, on the rear of the Russo-Prussian army towards Wittenberg, Dessau, Dresden, some to attach themselves to a particular major enemy formation so as to establish its objectives and routes.[6]

But in this German campaign it was possibly more important to learn of what was happening in the rear of the enemy armies than in the theatre of operations itself.  The Russo-Prussian forces were constantly being joined by significant reinforcements coming either from new levies or from siege troops released by the fall of French strongholds in Germany or Poland.  Such reinforcements could have a considerable repercussion on events and had to be watched closely.  Long experience of war had taught Napoleon that it was often from an enemy army’s rear that one gathered the most interesting indications of the enemy high command’s thinking.  So Lelorgne studied closely all German and Austrian journals and above all he carefully drew together the information sent by French diplomatic agents.

To the Emperor’s mind the renseignements service should be greatly helped by the assistance of his ambassadors or ministers in Germany, Austria and Denmark, from whom when they were close to a war zone he demanded news of the principal enemy armies; those others who were too distant to gather information of this sort, had to supply information on the numbers of allies, formations left in the rear, reserves on the march or being organised in Prussia, Silesia and Poland; he sought also to open communication with the French garrisons besieged on the Elbe, Oder or Vistula.

The Emperor considered Narbonne, French ambassador in Vienna, particularly well placed to furnish valuable intelligence, and from the beginning of April he ordered him to establish a network of agents in Bohemia, and when active operations were about to start he repeated to him, “Your legation must be on the frontiers of Bohemia and Silesia to gather news”.

But it was Serra, the French minister who was attached to Napoleon’s ally the King of Saxony, now a refugee at Ratisbon and then at Prague, who seemed best placed to gather useful information about the Allied army from his near position on its flank.  Serra was ordered to report everything that was passing at Dresden, Kalisch, Breslau; no detail could be too much nor send too many couriers, and Caulaincourt wrote to him: “At present nobody is better placed than you to know everything”.  To the French minister in Bavaria the Emperor demanded that he should send a diplomatic attaché to Nuremberg “ to gather news.  It is a commercial centre where it must be easy to procure it”; another was to be sent to Bayreuth – these two agents were to obtain information on the movements of enemy forces operating in Saxony, and equally about the Austrian corps being formed in Bohemia, and particularly about “its strength . . . its assembly points     . . . its leaders  . . . its make up in artillery . . . depots . . . armaments of the fortresses”.

Alquier, French minister in Denmark, was charged with the task of watching the levies raised in north Prussia, reporting on the situation in the strongholds of Colberg, Spandau, Thorn, Danzig, Stettin, Custrin; clearly information sent by this route would take a considerable time to arrive, but as Bassano, Minister of Foreign Affairs, wrote to Alquier: “If they do not reach His Majesty from you, they will come to him from no-one else, for you are the only one in a situation to set up and run this system of observation”.  To those legations closer to the zone of initial operations Napoleon demanded information even about the enemy army.  To this end Baron Reinhardt, French minister in Westphalia, was asked on 20 April to send the largest possible number of agents; a secretary of the legation at Frankfort was to organise an intelligence service at Bamberg; Saint-Aignan, minister to the ducal Saxon courts was told to return as soon as possible to Weimar “to find out where the enemy is”.

Neither zeal, initiative, nor courage were lacking in France’s diplomatic representatives, who did their utmost to satisfy the Emperor.  Saint-Aignan stayed so long at Gotha to gather intelligence that at 1 a.m. on 12 April the legation was seized by Prussian hussars, and he alone successfully escaped, taking with him the cipher and the most valuable papers.  Bignon, the former minister at Warsaw, now travelling with the Polish corps, sought by every means to procure intelligence even though far distant; he set up an intelligence service at Lemberg; he assisted to his utmost the mission of the agent sent by Lelorgne to the headquarters of General Poniatowski.  Narbonne, Serra, as soon as they received initial orders sought to send spies into Saxony and Silesia and even to the Grand Duchy of Warsaw.  Their efforts were far from fruitless, and during the campaign the Emperor received via this diplomatic route very interesting news.  But the results fell short of his expectations and during the armistice he did not disguise his displeasure when writing to Lelorgne: “It seems that your affairs are not well organised, for you succeed in nothing.  Never in any campaign have I been so poorly served”. He had already told Bassano: “In circumstances as important as these my ministers at Würzberg, at Prague where M Serra is, and at Vienna should have been able to provide intelligence; none of them could do anything because they did not have a sou nor authority to enter into any expense.  The Ministry of Foreign Affairs serves no purpose”.  In fact before the opening of the campaign the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had been unable to procure means for organising an active espionage service.  As soon as the ministers abroad received orders about this they had all unanimously signalled the difficulties that they faced: Serra was alone, for more than a year he had neither secretary nor attaché nor any money; in Munich, Mercy, who should have had two secretaries of legation, had none – and one of them flatly refused to quit Paris despite the most pressing injunctions; as to Narbonne, who did have two secretaries at the embassy, neither could be used for intelligence work; finally, Bignon had neither auditeur, nor secretary of legation, and was totally out of money.[7] As soon as he learned of this state of affairs the Emperor expressed his extreme dissatisfaction to Bassano.  He blamed him for not having sent a million to Bignon, 500,000 francs to Jerome in Westphalia and for not having kept the legations fully in funds; he wrote to him about the lack of personnel reported by Mercy: “How could you at a moment like this leave the mission at Munich incomplete! Order that everyone belonging to this mission leave Paris within twenty-four hours”.[8] No doubt these reproaches were justified, but one must recognise that the Emperor concerned himself with them very late, only at the beginning of April, seeking to establish whether the French foreign missions were in a state to render the services he required of them.  For the distances that the agents had to travel were considerable – Narbonne estimated that it would take fifteen days for each of his agents before his agents could return, and then there was the time it would take to send to the Grand Quartier général the intelligence received.  Moreover the missions in Saxony and Austria, which from their positions were the best placed to gather valuable news, did not believe themselves authorised to create without further order an espionage network.  At Vienna, Otto (Narbonne’s predecessor) “had rejected anything that might have produced information”.[9]   The reality is that the preparation of such a delicate service should have been taken in hand far earlier, and especially as in the present case there was the added difficulty of having to travel far to find the information and then to getting it back.

 Lelorgne d’Ideville presented the Emperor with a note that in general was extremely brief with the summary of intelligence received by the cabinet from such diverse sources, attaching to it the original documents used so as to provide a check on his work. (This is the equivalent of the daily intelligence reports at army headquarters or at GQG in the late war.)

The information from Lelorgne’s report went immediately to the cabinet’s Bureau topographique that worked in the same room or in the same tent.  The head of this bureau in 1813 was Colonel Bacler d’Albe, who was familiar with Napoleon’s working methods ever since the days of the siege of Toulon in 1793, and had been head of the bureau since 1796.  Like Lelorgne he had only a small staff: two geographical surveyors of whom one worked with him on the work of the bureau, while the other was constantly out on reconnaissances and drawing plans.  However in 1813 they were given also a Saxon officer, Major Odeleben, selected for his profound knowledge of the topography of Saxony, the state of the roads, and the local resources.  To Odeleben’s presence at GQG we owe an interesting volume of memoirs published in 1816, telling of his life in Napoleon’s entourage in 1813.

Bacler d’Albe, helped by Lelorgne’s information and by the reports from the army corps, marked out the situation of French, allied and enemy units on a map that was always open on the Emperor’s table.  He marked them with pins of different colours.  The map of Saxony was that of Pétri in 1763 at a scale of 1: 164,000 and was good for the period, fully adequate for strategical operations.  The Emperor’s copy was coloured and completed; Bacler d’Albe then made a certain number called “oiled” - what would later be called tracings.

The Bureau topographique carried with it all the maps that the Emperor might wish to consult; in 1813 this meant numerous copies of the topographical map of Germany in 204 sheets at 1: 700,000 published in 1807 by the Weimar geographical institute, and those of Pétri that Napoleon habitually used and above all when in the field.  Bacler d’Albe’s campaign archives also contain large-scale sketches of forts, and statistical notes of all kinds concerning the resources of different German states.

The personnel of the third bureau of the cabinet, the secretaries’ bureau, was no less limited than the other two.  In terms of the decree of 6 February 1813 which laid down the numbers each bureau could employ, it should have had four employees, but in fact it had only three when the campaign opened.  Mounier, one of the two recognised secretaries, stayed in Paris following an illness, and only rejoined the GQG in the month of May; the other secretary, Baron Fain,  found himself carrying out all the duties with the help of only two clerks.

Fain who had performed these duties since 1806 had a very simple role.[10] Habitually he wrote very fast at the Emperor’s dictation, making a draft that was immediately re-copied by a clerk.  This copy became the minute: Napoleon had it corrected or even corrected it himself in his own hand, then he signed a new copy drawn up from the corrections and this now became the definitive original.  The cabinet played no part in the despatch of the letter, which was given to the major-général [chief of staff], Berthier, who sent it off by the necessary couriers.

At the start of the campaign of 1813 the Emperor did not bring with him his Foreign minister, Bassano; yet there came to the cabinet a considerable amount of diplomatic correspondence as the ministers and ambassadors received orders to send all important despatches to GQG, and to send to Paris only “matters that are particular [private] and of detail”.  Thus it was that the Grand Equerry Caulaincourt was retained for this special service, which was nothing more than that of a secretary.  He himself recognised that he had “little vocation and few aptitudes” for this work for which he had been specially selected.  Napoleon rapidly realised that in so delicate a period when military operations were more than ever linked to diplomatic questions, he needed his Foreign minister at his side.  At the beginning of May he sent Bassano the order to re-join GQG, to the great joy of Caulaincourt.

The GQG [Headquarters] of Napoleon I: Part II

Placed on the Napoleon Series: April 2017


[1] Most authorities that I have read put the numbers rather lower, as little over 200,000.

[2] This is a generous view.  Clausewitz in On War and in his Campaign of 1812 took a much more critical view of the Emperor’s performance; Wellington in commenting in 1825 on Ségur’s history of the campaign thought Napoleon dangerously over-marched his men and horses during the advance.  The fateful choice of direction of retreat was Napoleon’s and it added to the hazards of the army.

[3] Schwarzenberg’s letter to Metternich, 14 April 1813.

[4] Schwarzenberg’s letter to Metternich, 14 April 1813.

[5] Tournès seems to take Schwarzenberg’s view of Napoleon at face value, but Napoleon was always capable of switching moods violently, and for effect, while in conversation.  The Emperor’s remark about the sacrifices made by France may have been designed to flush out Austrian intentions, but it was not purely pacific, for it contained a threat that despite everything Napoleon was still ready to demand more sacrifices, a distinct menace.  In any case by April the war plans were far advanced, and as Tournès himself says (p.136), “Napoleon’s plans of campaign were never more grandiose than those he thought out and studied long before the time when operations could start in Germany”.

[6] Lelorgne d’Ideville’s letter to Napoleon, Erfurt, 24 April 1813, Archives nationales, AF iv, 1652.

[7] Serra’s letters to Caulaincourt, Ratisbon, 27 April, 2 May, Affaires Etrangères [AE], Corr pol, Saxe. 84; letters of Mercy to the Emperor, Munich, 23 April, AE, Corr pol, Supp Bavière.16; Mercy to Bassano, Munich, 24 April, AE, Corr pol, Bavière.188; Bignon to Bassano, Teschen, 17 May, AE, Corr pol, Pologne.335.  

[8] Napoleon to Maret, Erfurt, 28 April 1813, Corr de Nap, No 19,923, now in Corr Gén, No 34,041.

[9] Narbonne’s letter to Caulaincourt, Vienna, 10 May, AE, Corr pol, Autriche. 395.

[10] Fain’s memoirs, written in 1829 but published only in 1908, are invaluable in providing an enormous amount of detail on his working methods and the practices of the Emperor.


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