Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics

Reforms prior to 1763

Reforms after the Seven Years' War

Reforms after the Revolution

Using the Reforms



Napoleon and the Grande Armée: Military Innovations Leading to a Revolution in 19th Century Military Affairs

By David J. Gibson

Napoleon Bonaparte is the embodiment of the right man at the right time. His innovations in the art of warfare were firmly grounded on the great military thinkers that preceded him and whom he studied. But this alone was not enough to catapult him to the rank of military genius he is held by so many to be. Rather, it was the confluence of his study and aggressive instincts with a new "technology" - the Republican Army.

I hope to demonstrate that the great innovations represented by the Grande Armée gave Napoleon a tool that fit perfectly with his emphasis on speed, maneuver, and maintaining the offensive (and conversely, influenced his thinking to include that emphasis). I will begin by examining the state of the Grande Armée prior to his assumption of command as well as some of its innovations that provided the foundations for his transformation of strategy. Next, I will examine Napoleon's development of a new type of warfare made possible by such an army. I will illustrate his new style of warfare by briefly describing the Maneuver of Ulm in the Austrian campaign.


State of the French Army Prior to 1763

The French Royal Army of the Ancien Régime was typical of armies of the continent at that time. The nobility dominated the officer corps and enlisted soldiers were culled primarily from the lower classes and often joined to escape poverty, unemployment, and sometimes the law. These soldiers felt little loyalty to the crown and desertion was a severe problem. [1] Consequently harsh punishment and brutal discipline were the norm.

The infantry weapon these soldiers carried into battle was the smoothbore flintlock musket. Under optimum conditions a trained soldier could expect to fire his weapon two to three times a minute and with luck, hit a target up to 150 yards. To make the most out of this short range, inaccurate, slow firing weapon, troops were typically arrayed in linear formation three ranks deep to bring the greatest volume of fire to bear. The key to training then was to move the troops rapidly from marching columns to linear formations using rapid volley fire. [2] Soldiers were discouraged from showing individual initiative and officers focused their efforts on keeping formations aligned and directing its fire.

While infantry was the centerpiece of warfare at the time, specially formed light infantry units performed a support function. Their tasks included scouting, capturing prisoners and deserters, and harassing a retreating enemy. These light troops were not integrated into the line battalions and seldom participated directly in major battles.

Cavalry regiments served on the army's flanks and were employed as a shock force, focused on breaking the rigid discipline inherent in maintaining and moving the linear formations, to be exploited by the infantry. The cavalry was a socially prestigious organization but were for all intents and purposes, a support for the infantry. [3]

Artillery was dominated by unwieldy heavy guns. These guns usually provided a preliminary bombardment but fell silent when the army was fully engaged. The French Royal Army did have lighter regimental guns that moved with the infantry but were few in number and significance.

Ancien Régime battles were marked by rigid tactics, with the linearly arrayed troops exchanging volleys at close range until on side broke. At close range, typically against unconcealed targets, volley fire was punishing to victors and vanquished alike. Battles were rarely decisive since the victors were usually too "beaten up" to effectively pursue and finish off the defeated army. The vanquished could usually escape annihilation and live to fight again. The very nature of this costly and punishing warfare made commanders reluctant to risk all-out battle. Therefore, battles were rare and wars often inconclusive.

Reforms in the French Army After the Seven Year's War

For France, the beginning of reforms followed in the wake of the Seven Year's war. The Seven Year's war ended in French disaster in 1763. Clearly reform was necessary to field an army that could defend French honor and interests. The government called for an increase in light infantry. This would later lead to efforts to train conventional infantry in light infantry tactics, creating a soldier who could fight in either close or open order. For the artillery corps, the numerous gun calibers were reduced to four. New guns were introduced which were lighter and more mobile than their predecessors and featured standardized parts and packaged rounds. According to Lidell-Hart, Jean du Teil argued that "light mobile field guns used in large concentrations against infantry rather than in counter-battery work would be decisive in combat." Napoleon no doubt imbibed this doctrine while serving as an artillery officer under Du Teil's older brother.

Another major reform was the emphasis on developing combined arms doctrine. In 1776, the War Ministry divided France into sixteen (later eighteen) military districts. Each district had a permanent garrison with the three services branches (infantry, cavalry, and artillery) represented. Inspector generals were appointed and empowered to conduct combined arms maneuvers. In campaigns, they could create task forces composed of two or more branches.

Reforms in the Army After the Revolution

The first few years after the 1789 Revolution saw a continuation of the reforms of the Ancien Régime. Infantry drill regulations still detailed line and column formations but encouraged commanders to tailor formations to the geographic and tactical circumstances. The artillery corps introduced horse batteries with mounted gunners accompanying their guns into battle, dramatically increasing mobility and responsiveness in artillery support. However, it was the war that began in 1792, coupled with counterrevolutionary insurrections in various provinces of the country that forced the government to make the dramatic reforms to save the nation (i.e., save the revolution).

Expanding the army was paramount if Revolutionary France was to face her coalition enemies. The volunteer system was insufficient so France turned to conscription. The levée en masse decree made all French men and women liable for requisition for the duration of hostilities. Conscription was very effective since so many men and women had a personal stake in the Republic's survival and were willing to participate in the defense of France. By the end of 1794, the Republic boasted 1,108,000 troops, compared to the roughly 150,000 in the pre-Revolution regular army. Of the roughly 1.1 million troops, 850,000 served in the field armies and with the remainder either in training or functioning as a home guard.

Rather than seed its 150,000 strong regular army into the conscript units, the Republic choose to establish demi-brigades consisting of one battalion from the old regular army and two conscript battalions. Commanders began to combine two or more demi-brigades with supporting artillery under a single commander forming a division. This was to lead to the formation of permanent divisions. This allowed the "...fractionating of the army into self-contained parts which, while operating separately, could co-operate to a common goal." [4] This idea was not completely new. It had been put forth by Bourcet in theory and applied to a limited extent by Marshal de Broglie in 1759. It was incorporated more fully by Guibert in the reforms of 1787, two years prior to the revolution. The divisional system reached its maturity with the Army of the Republic.

The division could march and fight independently as well as a part of a greater force. This meant that commanders could seize the opportunity to wage battles quickly if the opportunity arose. The independence engendered by the divisional structure allowed contact battles where divisions could be thrown into the fray as they came on-line rather than forcing commanders to wait until their full force was deployed. The divisional system also allowed a change in military logistics. Where conventional wisdom held that one was dependent upon one's supply lines, the divisional structure, coupled with the chaotic supply system during the revolution, saw a reversion to "living off the land." Divisions would move along separate routes, de-conflicting foraging areas. This created an efficiency to living off the land unheard of in the past by a large army. Further, by traveling light (i.e., without the cumbersome logistics train), the Republican Army achieved a dramatic advantage in mobility over its adversaries.

Coupled with the increase in mobility from living off the land, the French abandoned the orthodox 70 paces per minute line of march espoused in the drill books for a quick step of 120 paces per minute. This allowed the French to march 20-30 kilometers per day. This may seem a simplistic change, but in the days before the railroad or internal combustion engine, the change was dramatic. In theory, any army could replicate the new French doctrine. But in reality, it was revolutionary spirit of the citizen army, the sense of threat to the survival to the "new" France, and the sense of French nationalism [5] that inspired the French Army to perform such feats impossible to emulate by other armies of the time.

Using the Reforms

It is against this backdrop of doctrinal and practical military reforms that Napoleon sprung to command. To a large extent it was fortune that placed Napoleon in command of the Grande Armée. A scion of an obscure lesser noble Corsican family, Napoleon received a commission as a sub-lieutenant in the artillery in 1785. His career was relatively undistinguished until the revolution. It was a stroke of luck that saw him escorting a convoy of powder wagons from Marseilles to Nice. During the trip, while stopping to visit an old comrade who had soared through the ranks in revolution-style, Napoleon found himself appointed commander of artillery during the siege of Toulon. Successful due in large part of his efforts, Napoleon was promoted to Brigadier General.

We next find Napoleon in command of the Army of Italy in 1796. Italy was a secondary theater, locked in a defensive strategy at the time Napoleon assumed command. His strategy clearly was to divide the Piedmontese Army from their Austrian senior partners. Initially, his campaign against the Piedmontese was unsuccessful and wasteful. His frontal assaults at Ceva were futile. This is not the Napoleon of legend; the aggressiveness is there, but not the tactical finesse. Italy was Napoleon's "on-the-job training." He did not spring, fully developed, into the great military mind that history holds him. But the seeds of military genius are present in this campaign. He was eventually able to neutralize the Piedmont Army by a threatened movement against Turin. His subsequent campaigns against the Austrian Army in Italy further honed his strategic and tactical skills.

Napoleon was campaigning in Egypt in 1798 when the Second Coalition against France (Russia, Austria, England, Turkey, Portugal, Naples, and the Papacy) threatened the nation. Napoleon returned to France, overthrew the Directorate, and became First Consul. His campaign against the Second Coalition culminated in victory at the Battle of Marengo. But the peace after Marengo left Coalition armies intact.

The Wars of the Revolution ended, however after a few years of uneasy peace, the Third Coalition again threatened France. The Napoleonic Wars were commencing. The year 1805 saw Napoleon's 200,000-strong Grande Armée on the coast of the English Channel threatening England. Whether it was a feint designed at pinning down English troops to defend against an invasion, or he changed his strategy in moving eastward, is unclear. What is clear is that Emperor Napoleon was head of the Nation as well the Grande Armée; an enviable position for any commander, with the resources of the state at your disposal.

One of Napoleon's oft-quoted Maxims of War states that: "The principles of war are the same as those of a siege. Fire must be concentrated at one point..." Liddell Hart argues that where Napoleon had referred to one point, he might well have used the word "joint" or "hinge." [6] The Austrian Campaign began with a forced march to the Rhine. Napoleon's strategy was to strike at the joint between coalition forces, knowing full well the difficulty of command and control in coalition warfare. His goal was to separate Austria from her Russian allies.

The Austrian Campaign began with a forced march to the Rhine. Napoleon fixed the troops of Austrian General Mack in place by feigning a line of march along the expected route through the Black Forest. Using the brilliant speed and independent lines of march made possible by the corps system, [7] the French maneuvered north of the Black Forest, south towards Augsburg, and behind General Mack's army. After some major skirmishing, Mack, realizing that his lines of communication were cut off, and the French were between him and his Russian allies, was forced to surrender 27,000 troops. This is the high water mark for Napoleon as a commander. Ulm was not even a battle, but is more rightly called "The Maneuver of Ulm." The elimination of the Austrian threat set the stage for Napoleon's decisive victory over the Russians at Austerlitz and the Prussians at Jena.

The defeat of the Third Coalition is Napoleon at his finest. In the later years, with a blank check on French manpower, the Emperor on many occasions, abandoned his strategic finesse in favor of more costly frontal engagements. One can see the influence of the campaign to defeat of the Third Coalition on military theorists such as Jomini and Clauswitz. This is the legacy of Napoleon, the influence of which is found to this day in U.S. military doctrine emphasizing speed, maneuver, surprise, offensive, and maintaining the initiative. But it was the instrument that Napoleon wielded, the new "technology" embodied in the organization of the Grande Armée, that enabled him to employ these doctrinal principles.


1. For example, according to Steben Ross, an estimated 70,000 French soldiers deserted during the Seven Year's War.

2. As illustrative examples, I would refer you to the 1963 film Zulu starring Michael Caine for an excellent example of volley fire, and Ted Turner's film Gettysburg for the marching column to linear formation transition (which could easily be argued a poor tactic in the face of the advanced nature of the rifled musket during the Civil War).

3. The prestige associated with the cavalry was handed down from medieval times when only aristocratic "knights" could afford horses and the accompanying equipment. During the American Civil War, the cavalry was "the unit to join" for any socially conscious gentlemen (with the exception of command or high ranking positions in the other branches). To this day, anyone who has served with armored "cav" units will still note the aura of elitism they project.

4. Benedict Anderson (Imagined Communities, Verso Press, London, 1983) and Georges Lefebvre (Napoleon: From 18 Brumaire to Tislit 1799-1807 New York : Columbia University Press; 1969 argue that nationalism was a product of a conjuncture of many events in the development of human society and came first to full fruition in the wake of the French Revolution. Prior to that, they argue, the world was composed of states ruled by monarchies. These states were trans-national in that they could incorporate a variety of peoples and paid no respect to ethnic, linguistic, or geographic boundaries. The boundaries were whatever area a monarch could take and hold. The concept of monarchy itself, was transnational. For instance, the divine right of kings was accepted in England to the point of having German (Hanover), Scottish (Stuart), and French (Norman) kings accepted. The French Revolution dealt a blow to the divine right of kings with the overthrow of the King, and occurred at a time when the many other prerequisites of nationalism (print capitalism, rise of local vernaculars versus the sacred Latin, etc.) reached a sufficient maturity to allow the first instance of a true, modern nation.

5. Chandler, David G. The Campaigns of Napoleon New York : Macmillan Co.; 1966.

6. Liddell Hart, pp.. 98-99.

7. One of Napoleon's few real contributions to Grande Armée structure was the evolution of the independence of the divisional system into a independent corps system.


Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities London : Verso Press; 1983.

Chandler, David G. The Campaigns of Napoleon New York : Macmillan Co.; 1966.

Lefebvre, Georges. Napoleon: From 18 Brumaire to Tilsit 1799-1807 New York : Columbia University Press; 1969.

Liddell Hart, Basil Henry. Strategy New York; 1967.

Paret, Peter (editor). Makers of Modern Strategy Princeton : Princeton University Press;1986.

Manceron, Claude. Austerlitz New York : Norton and Co.; 1966.

Ross, Steben T. Napoleon and Maneuver Warfare Colorado Springs : U.S. Air Force Academy Press; 1985.


Placed on the Napoleon Series: July 2000.

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