A French General Views His Enemy: Général de Division Maximilien Foy Analyzes the British Army
By Donald Graves
Maximilien-Sebastien Foy (1775-1825) was a graduate of the artillery school at La Fere and saw his first action at Jemappes in 1792 before campaigning in Holland, Germany and Switzerland in the 1790s. A friend of Moreau, one of Napoleon’s enemies, Foy narrowly escaped being arrested for treason but his qualities as an artillery officer, clearly evident in the campaigns of 1805 and 1806, were such that he continued to serve. IN 1807 he was sent on a technical mission to Constantinople and on his return in 1808, he joined Junot’s Army of Portugal as a colonel. For the next six years Foy served in the Peninsula, fighting at Vimiero in 1809, Bussaco in 1810, Salamanca in 1812, Vitoria in 1813 and Orthez in 1814, being wounded twice but reaching the rank of général de division. Foy’s last battle was Quatre Bras in 1815 where he was badly wounded.
After 1815, Foy turned to writing and having fought the British soldier for so long, he was in a good position to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of both his opponent and the army in which he served. In his Histoire de la Guerre de Peninsule sous Napoléon, translated and published in London in 1827 as History of the War in the Peninsula under Napoleon, Foy added an appendix which contained “Observations on the Character and Composition of the French, British, and Spanish Armies,” from which the following excerpt was taken. It was also reprinted by W.H. Maxwell in his Victories of Wellington and the British Armies published in 1852.
Foy’s comments are, of course, highly coloured by his own experience in the Peninsula as one can gather from his discussion of the qualities of British infantry (“the best portion of the British army”) and the uselessness of British cavalry (“In cavalry service it is not sufficient for the soldiers to be brave ... there must also be science and unity”). On the whole, he is more admiring than critical but then he had good reason to respect an enemy he had fought many times and his observations are a critical analysis of Wellington’s army an enemy who had reason to know both that army’s good and bad aspects.
"The English were looked upon by the French as sea-wolves, unskilful, perplexed, and powerless, the moment they set their foot on land.. If their national pride appealed to the victories of Cressy, Poitiers, and Agincourt, they were reminded that the armies of Edward III, and of Henry V, were composed of Normans, of the people of Poitou, and of Gascons. There were, for all that, among the conquerors, a goodly number of native Englishmen, and certainly, the blows which they dealt were not the weakest. The Black Prince and Talbot were born in Albion. Nearer our times, Marlborough and his twelve thousand soldiers were not the least formidable enemies of Louis XIV. The celebrated column of British infantry at Fontenoy had suggested to a second Bossuet the image of a tower repairing its own breaches." 
"Ever since the éclat of French glory had thrown into shade both ancient and modern history, there had been remarked in the British troops employed in Flanders, and in Holland, though feebly commanded, repeated instances of vigour and audacity. The French soldiers, who had returned from Egypt, talked to their comrades of the indomitable valour of the English; moreover, it was easy to suppose that enterprise, capacity, and courage render the possessors fit for other purposes than the duties of the sea service. Their skill and intrepidity in braving the dangers of the ocean have always been unrivalled. Their restless disposition, and fondness for travelling fit them for the wandering life of the soldier; and they possess that most valuable of all qualities in the field of battle – coolness in their strife."
"The glory of the British army is based principally upon its excellent discipline, and upon the cool and sturdy courage of the people. Indeed we know of no other troops as well disciplined. The principal cause of their pre-eminence in this respect, would, if applied to the French army, most likely produce an effect diametrically opposite. Varieties of character and condition, require the employment of different means to obtain the same end."
"The English non-commissioned officers are excellent; but their courage and their talent are not encouraged by promotion to higher grades. They are nominated by the commander of the regiment, and cannot be broke but by the sentence of a court-martial. Their authority is extensive, comprehending the minute details of inspection, of discipline, and of daily instruction -– duties which, in other armies, would not be committed to them."
"In the British army will not be found either the strong sympathy between the leaders and the soldiers, the paternal care of the captains, the simple manners of the subalterns, nor the affectionate fellow-feeling in danger and suffering which constituted the strength of the revolutionary armies of France; but unshaken patriotism, and tried and steady bravery, are to be met with everywhere amongst them."
"The infantry, when in active service, is distributed into brigades of two, three and even four regiments, according to the number and strength of the battalions. The grenadiers are not distinguished among the other soldiers for the eclat* and pre-eminence so striking in the French and Hungarian grenadiers; and it is not customary to unite them into separate corps, in order to attempt bold strokes. The light companies of different regiments are sometimes formed into provisional battalions,-- a practice directly in opposition to the purpose for which that species of troops was originally intended."
"Several regiments of the line, such as the forty-third, the fifty-first, the fifty-second, etc., are called light infantry regiments. These corps, as well as the light companies of the battalions, have nothing light about them but the name; for they are armed and with some slight change in the decorations, clothed like the rest of the infantry. It was considered that the English soldier did not possess sufficient intelligence and address to combine with the regular duty of the line the service of inspiration of the sharp-shooter. When the necessity of a specialist light infantry began to be felt, the best marksmen of different corps were at first selected; but it was afterwards found expedient to devote exclusively to the office of sharp-shooters the eight battalions of the sixtieth, the three of the ninety-fifth, and some of the foreign corps. The echoing sound of their horns answered the twofold purpose, of directing their own movements, and of communicating such manoeuvres of the enemy as would otherwise be unobserved by the general in command."
"The English, the Scotch, and the Irish are usually mixed together in the regiments. Ireland supplies more soldiers, in proportion to its population, than the other two kingdoms. It might be supposed that the general character which we have attributed to the English troops would be altered by this mixture; but the English discipline is like the bed of Procrustes to all who come within its sphere, -- the minds as well as the bodies of their fellow-subjects obey their law as the ruling people."
"Four Highland regiments, consisting of nine battalions, are, however, recruited almost exclusively from the mountains of Scotland, and their officers are selected in preference from the natives of that country. The Highlanders wear their national kilt instead of small clothes; this neither harmonizes with the rest of their dress nor is it convenient for war; but this is of little moment compared with the moral advantages gained by adopting the national costume; a distinction which has its source in popular feeling and custom, generally imposes the performance of additional duty: there are no troops in the British service more steady in battle than the Scotch regiments."
"The infantry is the best portion of the British army. It is the peditum, -- the expression applied by the Romans to the triarii of their legions. The English do not scale mountains, or scour the plain, with the suppleness and rapidity of the French; but they are more silent, more orderly, and more obedient, and for these reasons their fire is better directed, and more destructive. Though not so resigned under a heavy fire as the Russians, they draw together with less confusion, and preserve their original formation better. Their composition exhibits something of the German mechanism, combined with more activity and energy. The system of manoeuvres which they have adopted since the year 1798, is borrowed from the Prussians. The infantry, although on system formed three deep, like the other nations of Europe, is more frequently drawn up in two ranks; but when making or receiving a charge, it is frequently formed four deep. Sometimes it has made offensive movements, and even charged columns, when in open order. In retreat it stands firm, and commences its fire by volleys from the battalions, followed by a well-supported file-firing. It turns round cooly to check the enemy hanging on its rear; and while marching, it fires without separating."
"The English infantry does not hesitate to charge with the bayonet; the leader, however, who would wish to employ British infantry to advantage, should move it seldom and cautiously, and reckon more upon its fire than its manoeuvres."
"The pains bestowed by the English on their horses, and the superior qualities of their native breeds, at first gave a more favourable idea of their cavalry than the experience of war has justified. The horses are badly trained for fighting. They have narrow shoulders and a hard mouth and neither know how to turn or to halt. Cropping their tails is a serious inconvenience in hot climates. The luxurious attentions which are lavished upon them, render them quite unfit to support fatigue, scarcity of food, or the exposure of the bivouac. The men, however, are excellent grooms."
"The heaviest English cavalry is far from possessing the uniformity and the firm seat of the French and Austrian cuirassiers; and their light-horse is still more inferior in intelligence and activity to the Hungarian hussar and the Cossack. They have no idea of the artifices of partisan warfare, and they know little how to charge en masse. When the fray commences, you see them equally vulnerable and offensive, cutting instead of thrusting, and chopping with more fury than effect at the faces of their enemies."
"During the war in the Peninsula, the French soldiers were so struck with the elegant dresses of the light dragoons, their shining helmets, and the graceful shape of men and horses, that they gave them the name of Lindors. In 1813, this dress, which was peculiar to the British troops, was exchanged for the head-dress and jacket of the German light cavalry. The Polish lancers at Albuera, and the French cuirasses at Waterloo, have induced the English to add these modes of arming and equipment to their cavalry."
"In cavalry service it is not sufficient for the soldiers to be brave, and the horses good; there must be science and unity. More than once, in the Peninsular war, weak detachments of British cavalry have charged French battalions through and through, but in disorder; the squadrons could not again be re-formed; there were not others at hand to finish the work; thus the bold stroke passed away, without producing any advantage."
"The artillery holds the first rank in the army; it is better paid, its recruits are more carefully selected, and its period of enlistment is limited to twelve years. The gunners are distinguished from other soldiers by their excellent spirit. In battle they display judicious activity, a perfect coup d’oeil, and stoical bravery."
"The English got the start of the French in the formation of the artillery-train: the first trials of it were made in 1793, under the auspices of the Duke of Richmond, then Master-general of the Ordnance. The corps of Royal Artillery Drivers is organized as soldiers. Very high prices are paid for the horse employed to draw the guns, and they are, consequently, extremely good. The harness is as good as that used in French carriages. No nation can rival the English in the equipment and speed of their conveyances."
"English troops take few pieces into the field with them; the most that Lord Wellington ever had in the Peninsula, barely amounted to two for every thousand men. Frames, caissons, barrels, and bullets, powder, and every part of the equipage, are remarkable for the goodness of the materials, as well as excellent workmanship. In battles, the artillery made most copious and effective use of a kind of hollow bullet, called Shrapnell’s spherical case-shot, from the name of the inventor".
"In conclusion it may be said, that the English
army surpasses other nations in discipline, and in some particulars
of internal management; it proceeds slowly in the career of improvement,
but it never retrogrades; and no limits can be affixed to the power
of organization to which a free and intelligent people may attain."
. Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt were famous English victories in the Hundred Years' War with France in the 14th and 15th centuries.
. The "Black Prince" was the heir to Edward II of England and, along with Talbot, among the foremost military leaders in the war with France.
. The battle of Fontenoy, a British victory against the French in 1745/
. In actual fact, only a few of the battalions of the 60th Foot were equipped with rifles.
. In the Roman legions of the republic, the triarii or third line was composed of the most veteran and experienced soldiers.
. The lindors were figures from Greek mythology, half man, half horse.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: September 2005
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