A French Infantry Battalion at Wagram, 1809
By Terry Crowdy
In 2009 I presented a paper in Vienna to the Napoleonic Symposium ‘Feldzug 1809’ marking the bicentennial of the battle of Wagram. This paper told the story of Napoleon’s 1809 Austrian campaign through the eyes of one soldier, Corporal Nicolas Page of the French 9th Light Infantry. Page served in the 4th Battalion, a formation which the oral history of the regiment made clear was only assembled at the last moment and was largely composed of ill trained and hastily equipped troops.
The conclusion of the paper was that in 1809 Napoleon still had sufficient manpower resources to raise an army at short notice, but that the quality of the troops suffered from the lack of training and also from a less experienced officer corps. It also explored the possibility that due to the lack of experience among soldiers, the officers ran more risks, were more conspicuous in exposing themselves to danger and therefore suffered increased casualties.
In this paper I wish to build on these conclusions and study the formation of the 4th Battalion in greater detail based on the surviving documentary evidence and oral history. It also presents an opportunity to study the imperial decree of 18 February 1808, perhaps the greatest single reform of France’s infantry regiments under Napoleon’s reign. Although such a study might first be dismissed as too narrow a field of research to draw wider conclusions from, one imagines the story of this battalion was not unique.
Traditionally we have derived a great deal of our knowledge of the Napoleonic period from a smattering of popular oral history sources such as Coignet, Marbot, de Bourienne, Bourgogne, Blaze and similar. This is particularly true among English-speaking enthusiasts of the period to whom many French language memoirs are inaccessible. These memoirs remain popular and in circulation because they are well written and, by and large, entertaining pieces of literature. When compared to the stacks of regulations, manuals, instructions and orders which have survived the period, these memoirs form a useful counterbalance, helping us to understand what actually occurred. However as sources, memoirs do have limitations.
Memoirs are works of anecdote and are therefore susceptible to the usual inaccuracies of memory, false beliefs and exaggerations which cloud the human mind: indeed, hard facts are often the first to fall victim to a good story. Also, it is perhaps true to say that memoirists tend not to dwell on the mundane rituals of daily life, or the extreme horrors of combat, but exist instead somewhere between, preferring to record experiences which amused them, or (in the days before railways made international tourism affordable) the exotic character of places they had visited and the strange inhabitants they encountered.
A much more reliable gauge of reality can be found in the surviving records of Napoleon’s army at the Service Historique de la Défense (SHD) at the Château de Vincennes on the outskirts of Paris. If one cares to probe deeply enough, a wealth of unpublished primary source material on the period remains as yet untouched, by way of regimental inspection reports and general correspondence between the individual regiments and the various bureaus of the Ministry of War. Perhaps one day some automated research tool will be able to read and transcribe the thousands of handwritten entries in the regimental rolls - the registres matricules. Perhaps one day we might be able to compile a complete casualty roll of the French dead at great battles such as Wagram and Waterloo, or map the desertion rate of Napoleon’s army. All this information exists, but has yet to be harvested, because, what can the records of a single regiment tell us, after all?
Although I have a general passion for military history and a particular fondness for the Napoleonic era, my most detailed research has concentrated on the story of a single regiment in Napoleon’s army, the 9e régiment d’infanterie légère (often abbreviated in the First Empire to 9e léger). This regiment earned the title l’Incomparable after its sterling intervention at Marengo in 1800. The Duke of Rovigo described how this regiment was ‘wont to fix its name on every action and never flinched in the face of the enemy’ (a statement I might contest after discovering from casualty returns at S.H.D. that the Ninth’s second battalion ran from a Russian attack at Mohrungen in 1807 and lost an ‘eagle’ standard in the process); but Rovigo’s statement nonetheless indicates the regiment was perceived as being of good standing by its contemporaries.
Honed at the training camps on the Channel coast in 1804-1805, this regiment fought with great valour in the Ulm and Austerlitz campaigns, particularly at Haslach (11 October 1805) when faulty dispositions left Dupont’s division exposed to the main force of Mack’s army; then a month later at Dürnstein (11 November 1805) when the regiment fought with great vigour and prevented a column of Russian troops cutting Marshal Mortier’s only line of retreat. Missing Austerlitz and Jena for various reasons (in the first case while being granted a period of rest after the hard fought Dürnstein; in the latter due to Marshal Bernadotte’s arrogance in ignoring orders which were not delivered directly from the Emperor), the Ninth saw several lively actions in the pursuit of Blücher to the Baltic coast. As previously described, the regiment experienced a moment of calamity at Mohrungen in January 1807, but then made a magnificent recovery in time for Friedland which was fought on the seventh anniversary of Marengo.
At the beginning of 1808 the regiment’s field battalions found themselves enjoying a moment of peace, drinking dry their polite, but unenthusiastic Prussian hosts; breaking the hearts of young ladies and making the fortune of womenfolk with less reputable designs. It was at this time Napoleon ordered a reorganisation of his infantry regiments, a reform which would see the creation of the battalion which was destined to fight at Wagram in 1809, and which forms the subject of this study.
We should commence in earnest our study of the Ninth’s 4th Battalion with a review of the Imperial Decree of 18 February 1808. This document set out the biggest single reform in the organisation of the French infantry regiments since the amalgamations of regular and volunteer battalions in 1793. It is therefore a key document in the study of the 9th Light and, more generally, the imperial army in the latter part of Napoleon’s reign.
In Napoleon’s army, the basic tactical infantry formation was the battalion. Typically a brigade of infantry was formed of two battalions and an infantry division of two brigades. Until 1808, each French battalion was composed of eight companies of fusiliers (or chasseurs in the light infantry) and a single company of grenadiers (carabineers in the light infantry). Each company was commanded by a captain, deputized by a lieutenant and a sub-lieutenant. Then came the sergeant-major, four sergeants, a quartermaster corporal (fourrier), eight corporals, two drummers and 104 fusiliers or 64 grenadiers; thus a fusilier company had a theoretical strength of 123 men, and a grenadier company 83 men.
Between 1804 and 1805 the light and line infantry regiments converted their second companies of fusiliers into voltigeurs (lit. leapers), a type of light infantry formed of men under 1.60m (5ft 2in.) in height who were, on paper at least, expected to run alongside, or leap onto the backs of passing cavalry and dismount near the enemy, fighting as skirmishers.
Since 1803, the majority of French infantry regiments had fielded two combat battalions and retained a third battalion in reserve and which formed the depot. This organisation served the French admirably well in the four campaigns between 1805-1807, but one can see a number of flaws in the set up. It was perhaps inefficient to have an entire, nine-company battalion acting as a depot. At full strength, the depot battalion would have a cadre of 27 officers and 144 sub officers and drummers and it cannot have escaped Napoleon’s attention that so many experienced men were enjoying a relatively quiet life in the depot while casualties on the front line were mounting.
The 9th Light missed the great battles of Austerlitz, Jena and the bloodbath at Eylau. Even so, its casualties from 1805 to 1807 were significant. An inspection made of the Ninth on 1 January 1808 by General Schauenburg found the regiment had lost 1,503 men since a previous review on 18 August 1805, with the losses broken down as follows:
In fact the mortality rate was higher than given in the review. The 184 men struck off for long absence would have included men who were missing and who might have died from wounds or sickness without the corps being notified. I compared this table to the regimental rolls over the same period (18 August 1805–1 January 1808) and found some discrepancies. The registers give the names of 466 men who died in this period. Of these 112 were killed in action against 325 dying in hospital. A further 29 are listed simply as having died from natural causes, wounds, or sickness.
The regimental rolls also indicate some of the strains put upon the regiment by four campaigns in quick succession. Recruit 3889, Bellavena arrived at the depot on 26 November 1806. He had travelled from Piedmont and was a citizen of the ‘French’ department of la Doire. Bellavena was followed by 151 of his fellow compatriots and enrolled in the regiment. Several months later on 6 March 1807 a second batch arrived from Piedmont, this time led by Recruit 4542, Barbonaglia, this time from the department of La Sesia. He was followed by 232 of his compatriots and enrolled in the regiment; along with the usual complements of farm boys from the very French Vosges department.
By 1807 Napoleon began plundering his depots for additional manpower, transferring the elite companies of the depot battalions out to Prussia forming an ad-hoc grenadier division under General Oudinot. However this still left seven fusilier companies to train the recruits coming in. Clearly there might be a more cost effective solution which freed up the experienced cadres for combat duties.
There may have been another stimulus for the 1808 reform. By that year the military influence of Napoleon’s rule stretched from the Iberian Peninsula to the banks of the Neman. In order to fly the French tricolour and maintain a credible military presence Napoleon needed more battalions. In the reforms set down in 1808, Napoleon was able to double the number of field battalions and streamline the depot battalion. By doubling the number of infantry battalions in his army Napoleon was able to significantly increase the number of divisions available for operational duty. What is more, this increase was achieved without significantly increasing the overall wage bill of the army, a neat administrative feat in itself.
Studying the imperial decree of 18 February 1808 in detail, the reform proposed each regiment of line and light infantry would be composed of an état-major (staff) and five battalions. The first four battalions would be classed as bataillons de guerre (combat battalions), the fifth as the depot battalion.
Each combat battalion would be commanded by a chef de bataillon (battalion commander) who had under his orders an adjutant major, two adjutant sub-officers (the men principally responsible for the policing and training of the battalion). Each battalion would be composed of six companies of equal strength: one of grenadiers, one of voltigeur light troops and four of fusiliers.
Each depot battalion would be composed of four companies each commanded by a captain. The depot would not have elite companies of its own. One of the company captains would be nominated by the Minister of War to command the depot battalion, albeit under the orders of the regiment’s major. The depot battalion would also have an adjutant major and two adjutant sub-officers.
The strength of the staff and each company was given as:
Thus the force of each regiment under the new establishment would be 3,970 men, of which there were 108 officers and 3,862 sub-officers and soldiers. Each company would now comprise of 140 men (an increase of 17 men).
Looking at the ratio of officers and sub officers to men without rank, before the reform it was approximately 1:6. The increase made the command ratio 1:7, but we have to remember companies would often fall well below their official strength on campaign, thus the ratio was probably nearer 1:5, or even 1:4. This is an important point to stress, because if casualties were increasing and men were being turned over faster, the quality of troops would reduce and a greater level of supervision would be required – particularly if the regiment was taking on men who might have a limited grasp of the French language.
A key finding at this point must be that the 1808 reform placed greater burden of supervision on the officers and sub-officers in full strength companies. When these men were experienced, the additional burden must have been modest – barely noticeable perhaps; but when the officers were fresh from military school; or recently promoted from the ranks, and the corporals were chosen from among the brighter conscripts with no experience, this additional burden of responsibility may have had an effect on the overall performance of a company.
In addition to the structural reforms given in the 1808 decree, a number of detailed clauses were given in the document. For example, the height qualification of voltigeurs had already been established in the laws of 22 Ventôse an XII (13 March 1804) and 2e Jour Complémentaire an XIII, (19 September 1805). The 1808 decree in turn confirmed the qualification of soldiers classed as grenadiers, which was to be drawn from the tallest men in the regiment and, at this initial stage, to have served for four years or taken part in two of the four campaigns of Ulm, Austerlitz, Jena or Friedland. Prior to this, conscripts may have gone straight into the grenadier companies – Jean Roche Coignet being a well known example of this.
As an elite company, the grenadiers were placed on the right of the battalion when it was ranged in line formation, this being the traditional place of honour for elite troops. Although voltigeurs drew a high pay in common with grenadiers, they had not previously been assigned any special point in the line. In the decree, the elite status of voltigeurs was officially recognised by assigning them to the left of the line, the second place of honour.
When all six companies were present, they would always march and act in a formation known as a division – in other words, as pairs of companies (different the organisation of the same name formed of several brigades). However, when the grenadiers or voltigeurs were absent from the battalion, the companies would act as individual peletons (lit. platoons). In the French army, the term ‘company’ referred to the administration of the unit; ‘platoon’ was the tactical designation of a company when it formed part of the battalion.
Article 12 of the decree outlined a classification for officers, with captains and lieutenants being classed, first, second or third, each grade being assigned different levels of pay. Henceforth a regiment would have eight first class captains, ten second class and ten third class captains; fourteen first class lieutenants and fourteen second class (sub lieutenants were not assigned a class). The four longest serving captains would be the first class captains and would command the first company of fusiliers in each battalion. The four grenadier captains would be chosen by the colonel and would also be graded first class.
The decree also made provision for some specialist troops. For example, each combat battalion was granted four sapeurs (pioneer troops) who were chosen from among the grenadiers. There would be one corporal among them who would command all the pioneers in the regiment.
Each regiment would have one eagle carried by an eagle-bearer having the grade of lieutenant or sub-lieutenant and having at least ten years service; or having made the four campaigns of Ulm, Austerlitz, Jena and Friedland. He would enjoy the pay of a first class lieutenant. The eagle-bearer would be seconded by two old soldiers with at least ten years service, noted for their bravery, but who were unable to obtain promotion due to illiteracy. These escorts were titled the second and third eagle-bearers respectively and had the rank of sergeant with the pay of a sergeant major. As a further identifying mark, these escorts would wear four rank chevrons on both sleeves. Lastly, the eagle-bearers formed part of the regimental staff and could only be named or dismissed by the Emperor himself.
According to the decree, the regiments of the line would henceforth have a single eagle (previously each combat battalion had an eagle). This eagle would always be located where the largest number of were battalions were united (in practice where the colonel was located). In addition, each combat battalion would have an ‘ensign’ which was carried by a sub-officer chosen by the commander.
In terms of enacting the reform, the new combat battalions were formed by making the following changes:
As the mathematically astute will no doubt grasp, this left just three companies to form the fifth, depot battalion. The solution to this conundrum was fairly simple. By 1808 some regiments had created a fourth battalion and these regiments would provide other regiments with the cadre of a company to make up the shortfall.
The 9th Light did not enact the reforms announced in the decree of 18 February 1808 immediately. The regiment’s two combat battalions had to be recalled to Berlin from their winter cantonments and so the creation of the first three battalions did not take place until 1 June 1808. In a grand parade before Marshal Victor and General Ruffin, the colonel formed the regiment into line formation then presented Ruffin list of the sub-officers and soldiers proposed for the new carabineer companies. The colonel then submitted the names of the soldiers proposed as the regiment’s sapeurs.
The report of the ceremony makes it clear no proposal was made for the post of eagle bearer or escorts. The light infantry had been ordered to send their eagles to the depots during the lull between Eylau and Friedland. Having lost a standard at Mohrungen on 25 January 1807 (then concealed the fact) we can safely assume the Ninth had complied with this order, and at the beginning of 1808 at least, the surviving eagle was not carried by the regiment.
Lastly the regiment had to assign twelve companies of chasseurs to the new battalions. With fourteen companies then in existence, the 6th company of the 1st battalion and the 8th company of the 2nd battalion were dissolved. The men from these companies were shared among the other companies to equalise their strength. The remaining companies were each then allocated to the three battalions in order of the captain’s seniority (i.e. first captain in seniority to 1st Company 1st Battalion; second senior captain, 1st Company 2nd Battalion and so on.).
By this time, the new 4th and 5th battalions had already been created, albeit on paper at least. The intention had been to form the 4th and 5th Battalions from the chasseur companies of the old 3rd Battalion. However when the review took place on 1 May 1808, there were only 108 men left in the depot and the two battalions therefore could exist only in name.
The carabineers and voltigeurs of the old 3rd Battalion were earmarked as the elite companies of the new 4th Battalion; but at the time of the reform they were still at Danzig and formed part of Oudinot’s corps with 203 officers and men. They were therefore not free to return to the depot and take part in the process.
On 22 November 1807 the depot had been ordered to send four companies of chasseurs to form part of the 7th Provisional Regiment which was assembling at Bayonne. This detachment of 450 men would become part of the ill-fated expeditionary force which surrendered to the Spanish at Bailen in 1808. The great majority of these men were formed by a fresh batch of conscripts sent from Piedmont.
A small success was the arrival of a 19-man company cadre which had arrived from the 20th Line. These soldiers must have been somewhat astonished to find the depot so empty of recruits.
In the summer of 1808 a batch of several hundred conscripts did materialise, but they were almost immediately removed from the 9th Light’s books and transferred to the newly created 31st Light Infantry. In fact it was not until 1 April 1809 that the reform was fully enacted. By then France’s military situation had become somewhat complex.
Following Dupont’s surrender at Bailen in July 1808, Napoleon transported a sizeable proportion of his Grande Armée into Spain and began revenging the reverse his martial reputation had suffered. In a fairly swift campaign, Napoleon seized the Spanish capital and drove a British expeditionary force into the sea at Corunna. Although scathing in his criticism of Dupont for surrendering at Bailen, it is notable that Napoleon did not remain in the Iberian Peninsula long enough to invade Andalusia, or subjugate Portugal, and therefore returned to France with the job only half done. This was to prove a costly mistake – as was the whole involvement in the Peninsula.
The causes of the renewal of hostilities with Austria on 10 April 1809 are beyond the scope of this paper. It is perhaps sufficient to say that having transported his army to Spain, and in the main part left it there, Napoleon now needed to form a new army to fight in Germany. It was this need to urgently raise forces which finally acted as a stimulus for action in forming the Ninth’s 4th and 5th Battalions.
The 4th Battalion was destined to serve in a composite regiment specially created for the campaign against Austria. It would be designated as 1st Battalion, 1st Light Half-Brigade, in the brigade of General Conroux, which in turn formed part of General Tharreau’s division. The other two battalions in the half-brigade were formed by the 4th Battalion of the 6th Light and a battalion of Corsican Tirailleurs.
The first components of the battalion to arrive in theatre were the elite companies which had been released from Oudinot’s division. These carabineers and voltigeurs had seen action at Friedland and also in the siege of Danzig where they had been exposed to malaria and virtual starvation rations. They were therefore quite seasoned for the coming campaign.
As they arrived in Ausberg, a large contingent of 500 conscripts arrived in the regimental depot at Longwy on 8 March 1809. The memoirs of Nicolas Page describe how this contingent arrived and were immediately processed: that is to say entered on the rolls, given a rudimentary medical, formed into squads and then read the penal code. Over the next two days they were taught the rudiments of foot drill before, on the third day, they were uniformed and equipped. At this point approximately half the contingent was sent to Germany and received its training en route. Nicolas Page was in the other half of the contingent who remained behind and received some training. As a further boon he was promoted to corporal. In the battalions serving in Spain there were hundreds of men who had served for years without such a chance of promotion and higher pay.
Prior to the official formation of the new 4th and 5th Battalions, the 9th Light had formed a temporary organisation they called the Picquet. This was in effect the pool of men at the depot waiting to be incorporated into one of the new battalions. On 1 April 1809 there were sufficient recruits for form the two new battalions and so the Piquet was wound up. The strength of the new 4th Battalions was shown in the table below:
*At the end of the review, the Piquet was formed into the 5th Battalion comprising of four companies.
We can therefore see that at the outset of the campaign, the 4th Battalion was woefully short of men. Two companies were still in Longwy and the four companies in the field were running 212 men below strength.
From Page’s memoir, we know the two companies at the depot did not arrive in theatre until sometime after the Battle of Essling which was fought on 22 May 1809. Indeed, by the time Page left for the army, cartloads of casualties from Germany had already begun arriving back at the depot. I have not found a casualty return for Essling, but from the number of officers injured, the battalion appears to have been roughly handled.
Having seen the haste in which the battalion’s chasseur companies were assembled, we come now to the subject of the battalion’s officers. Needless to say the officer corps was assembled as hastily as the men they led. Although the officers were no doubt experienced in soldiering, they were not as well a rehearsed team, as we might find in the combat battalions which had gone to Spain.
To make a general point, the many successes of the 9th Light previous to 1809 appear to have been in large part due to an excellent, stable officer corps. The Ninth was not wrecked by the reforms of the revolution and it enjoyed continuity through the 1790s up until Marengo. Although some of the older officers were rough diamonds, susceptible to drink and without much knowledge of the higher branches of military theory, the majority of them had served together for years and were, to use modern business parlance, an effective management team.
We get a clear picture of the composition of the 4th Battalion’s officer corps at the time of Wagram (5-6 July 1809) from looking at a series of officer returns and also some individual biographies which have survived by way of correspondence of recipients of the Legion d’Honneur. The officer corps in July 1809 immediately after Wagram was as follows:
1st Chasseur Company
2nd Chasseur Company
3rd Chasseur Company
4th Chasseur Company
Analysing the data given above, it is clear the battalion was framed around several experienced captains. With Planchet nominated the day before the battle, he may have gone into action still trying to remember his subordinate captain’s names, let alone knowing their capabilities and character under fire. The loss of the adjutant major at Essling would also have had a detrimental effect on the battalion’s performance as it absorbed so many fresh faces between the two great battles.
In many cases, the officers had only been appointed a matter of days before going into action at Essling. In some cases (notably Ribeaucourt and D’houdan), it is unlikely they would have been fit enough for action at Wagram. From the letters of Jean Baptiste Cardron we learn the latter had a limb amputated, while Ribeaucourt was considered badly wounded and sent home soon after Wagram. We must therefore assume some companies went into action at Wagram short of officers – a critical factor in a newly raised battalion.
In comparison to other battles, the officer casualties for the campaign appear quite severe. This leads me to conclude that the officers were conspicuous in standing at the front leading their inexperienced troops into action. This shows the excellent quality of the officers in terms of leadership; but one wonders what the effect may have been as officer casualties began to mount and some of the shakier conscripts had to rely on the likes of Corporal Page to show initiative and leadership in the thick of action; the same Corporal Page who four months before had been tending cows on the rolling hills of the Vosges.
The losses of the battalion at Wagram are given in a situation report from 8 August 1809 gives the 4th Battalion’s strength as follows:
From reading the above table, the important piece of data is approximately one third of the battalion’s effective strength is in hospital. This is perhaps typical of the period and would have been as much down to sickness and general exhaustion than battlefield wounds.
The same table continues with various pieces of data which give a clearer indication of the losses sustained. Eighteen were killed at Wagram; with 11 officers and 152 troops wounded. Of these, 12 wounded were amputees. By the time of the review, 9 wounded officers and 102 wounded soldiers had returned to duty. It was expected that 1 officer and 40 troops would make a full recovery, leaving 45 to be invalided out of service. While these losses might appear modest, they do not tell us the losses already incurred at Essling. They must also be added to another event which occurred several thousand kilometres away.
A matter of weeks after Wagram, on 27/28 July, the 9th Light Infantry was engaged in another bloody affair this time at Talavera in Spain. This battle proved to be the costliest to the regiment since Marengo nine years before. At this battle against the British redcoats, the regiment had lost three officers (all captains) and 35 men killed, with 14 officers and 340 men wounded, plus 65 taken prisoner; a total of 457 losses in all. Unlike the conscripts thrown into action at Essling and Wagram, the casualties at Talavera were the veterans of the old Grande Armée, veterans who were increasingly hard to replace. Although the theatres were very different, both Wagram and Talavera had an impact on the central depot which fed all the battalions in the regiment. They are therefore inexorably linked.
In my study of this regiment, I have identified the month of July 1809 as a turning point for the regiment. A war on two fronts had put a great strain on the regiment and casualties had been heavy. In 1809 Napoleon had been able to stretch his resources to manage the war on two fronts, but only just. We cannot compare the army which Napoleon led at Wagram to the one he led at Ulm, Austerlitz, Jena and beyond. Yet still it succeeded, even after receiving a bloody nose at Essling. This is testimony to the power which Napoleon was able to inspire his troops, even half trained ones, but it set a dangerous precedent for later years, when enthusiasm and courage were no disguise for in experience and tactical shortcomings.
One hopes this brief study of a single battalion might show there is merit in further research at regimental level if we are truly to understand the mechanics of Napoleon’s army and the campaigns in which it fought. The archives at Vincennes are filled with dossiers waiting for a new generation of researchers to uncover a wealth of hard data.
The following dossiers were consulted at the Service Historiques de la Défense (SHD), Vincennes.
The period of 1808 to 1809 is covered in two regimental histories for the 9th Light:
The following published sources make mention of the 9th Light in the period from 1808-1809 which is covered in the paper above.
The full scope of my research on the 9th Light Infantry is available in the following publications:
The full text of the Imperial Decree of 18 February 1808 is available from:
Placed on the Napoleon Series: January 2014