Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics

Napoleon & Berthier

Grand Quartier-General

 

Odds, Bobs, Hammer And Tongs

The Grand Quartier-General Imperial and the Corps d'Armée

Developments in the Military Art, 1795-1815

By Kevin Kiley

'I am too good and experienced a soldier to wish to direct the war five hundred leagues away myself. I send orders and instructions to my ambassadors, but I choose my generals and give them my confidence.'
                                      -Napoleon

'These reports, as you know, Monsieur le Marechal, are not for my personal benefit; for I am nothing in the army. I receive in the Emperor's name the reports of the marshals and I sign on his behalf, so personally I have no axe to grind. But His Majesty stipulates that detailed reports on everything which occurs are to be sent to me: for better or worse, nothing should be concealed form the Emperor. I require you therefore to be so kind as to keep me advised of all that occurs in your corps, in the same way as the other marshals.'
                                      -Berthier

'People who think of retreating before a battle ought to have stayed home.'
                                      -Ney

'Nothing should be concealed from the Emperor, either good or bad: to deceive him, even about things that are likely to be disagreeable to him, is a crime.'
                                      -Berthier

'I have shown the Emperor, Monsieur le general Pino, the report which you have sent me. It is essential that you write your reports more legibly, and especially show the date plainly; that which you have written is not clear; one cannot tell whether it is the 11th, the 21st, or the 22d. Besides the date, it is always necessary to show the hour at which your write, and the place.'
                                      -Berthier

'You must be a soldier, and then a soldier, and again a soldier; bivouac with your advance guard, be in the saddle night and day, march with your advance guard to have the latest information, or else stay in your harem. You make war like a satrap. Good God, is it from me that you have learned that? From me who, with an army of 200,000 men, am at the head of my skirmishers.
                                      -Napoleon to Jerôme

 

1020 10 October 1806, near Saalfeld, Saxony

The advance guard of Lannes' V Corps, the 10th Hussars, in dusty blue and white, blending in with the dirt and dust of the countryside and the road on which they traveled, trotted through the Saxon countryside looking for a route to, and a crossing over, the River Saale. Suddenly, shots rang out to their front, and their advance piquet came pounding down the road towards then, one of the troopers being held in his saddle by his comrades. Immediately whistling up a courier, the chef d'escadron in command of the advance guard gave him a quickly penciled dispatch for both the corps commander and for the commander of the 17th Legere, which was close behind them. Deploying his command, the experienced cavalry commander trotted forward with his trumpeter and a certain experienced marechal des logis to see what the disturbance was about on this cool, crisp autumn morning in what had been until a few minutes ago, a rather routine morning for a light cavalryman.

The roar of Prussian cannon split the morning tranquillity with more finality that the pistol and musket shots of a few minutes earlier. Rounds whistled overhead, striking the road and ricocheting across it into a tree line, where, thankfully, none of his troopers were. Looking at his experienced marechal-des-logis, he merely nodded, causing the sergeant to rein his mount around and gallop back down the road, looking for Marshal Lannes. No written communication was needed - he and the NCO had been together for a very long time, and the man knew exactly what to do. A sizable Prussian force had been found, and they were going to have a very busy morning.

 

1025 10 October 1806, near Schleiz, Saxony

The sudden explosion of cannon fire caused the heads of the Imperial staff to jerk northwest all at once. Loud and completely unexpected, it was evident to even the most casual observer that the advance guard of the Grande Armée was in a fight. Lannes had gone looking for one, and he had evidently found it. Arguably the most combative general in the army, hopefully he hadn't bitten off more than he could chew.

The staff, as if on command, burst into activity. Orders were barked for couriers and aides-de-camp, escorts were gathered from the available squadron of the 1st Hussars that was the Emperor's mounted escort, as the Guard cavalry had not yet arrived. Finally, the Emperor, conferring with Berthier, dictated an order for 'Augereau to join Lannes by forced marches; Davout, Lefebvre, nansouty, Klein, and d'Hautpoul to move on Schleiz; Soult top advance through Weida on Gera; Jerome to advance to Hof istead of Lobenstein.' Berthier patiently took notes in his ubiquitous green notebook. When Napoleon finished, Berthier motioned to an aide, gave him quick, careful instructions, mounted his horse and followed his Emperor, with the escort of the light blue and white uniformed hussars, led by a tough-looking, one-eyed, scarred lieutenant following in their wake.

The command group of the Grande Armée was galloping up the road to the northeast from Ebersdorf to Schleiz. Seeing Davout's escort, they reined in and asked for the marshal, he being in the midst of his staff, listening to the reports of a courier from the III Corps cavalry screen. Walking over to talk to the Emperor, who himself had now dismounted, surrounded by the silent protective screen of hussar troopers, the two men discussed the situation. The conclusion drawn was to order Davout to Possneck, just northeast of Saalfeld, to be ready to support Lannes if he was in trouble. Milhaud's light cavalry brigade and Dupont's division of Ney's VI Corps would be attached and go with him. Davout nodded, concurring, and headed off, calling to his chief of staff and his senior aide-de-camp, Colonel Burke.

There were two innovations, both of them organizational which would give the Grande Armée greater operational flexibility, that gave the Grande Armée a great advantage over its opponents throug the course of the wars, above and beyond the operational capabilities of the allies. First, was the existence of a permanent army-level staff, echoed at corps, division, and brigade levels. Second, was the development of the corps d'Armée, which was a tactical and operational organization consisting of a permanent staff, two or more infantry divisions, supporting artillery, and enough cavalry to scout for it and perform security missions.

This study will cover the development of the Grand Quartier-General Imperiale and that of the corps system that developed somewhat later. Both were equally important to Napoleon's method of waging war, and both are still in use today, perhaps refined and more sophisticated, but still based on the developments first taught by Bourcet and Berthier, and refined by the French Emperor.

 

Napoleon and Berthier

Bourcet was the premier staff officer of his time, and the development of the modern staff definitely dates from him. His work and publications mark the beginnings of the development of the modern staff system. Bourcet's importance to Napoleon's developing method of making war cannot be overestimated. Spencer Wilkinson aptly stated, regarding Bourcet, that 'On every occasion when an important decision had to be made Bourcet would write a memorandum in which he analyzed the situation and set forth in detail, with full explanations and reasons, the course which seemed to him best. In very many cases, his suggestions were adopted and were usually justified by success, and when they were rejected the results were seldom fortunate.' Not only was Bourcet the most expert staff officer of his day, he was the first to come up with what is called today an estimate of the situation, as illustrated above. From him, and the staff school at Grenoble, of which he was the director from 1764-1771, came the embryo from which evolved the Napoleonic staff, of which Berthier was the preeminent product.'

Berthier was the first of the great chiefs-of-staff in history. His work in staff functioning still endures and is entirely recognizable. As John Elting so aptly stated:

'Berthier's operational instructions were simple and should be engraved inside every modern staff officer's skull. The chief of staff is the headquarters pivot. He must see everything that comes in and sign (or at least approve) everything that goes out. The assistant chiefs of staff must keep abreast of the general situation in addition to running their own sections. Speed and accuracy are the most important factors in staff work. The staff exists only for the good of the army and so has no regular office hours. It works as long as may be necessary, rests when it has nothing left to do, takes care of the troops before consulting its own comfort, and is always ready to move out, regardless of the hour or 'pain' involved. Up-to-the-minute intelligence on enemy forces and actions must always be available; therefore reconnaissance must be continuous to the front and flanks, and its results reported promptly. (In broken country, where infiltration is easy, reconnoiter to your rear also). Finally, the commander-in-chief must always be told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing else-no matter how unpleasant the results may be.'

Berthier himself, was highly valued by Napoleon, and was the only marshal that couldn't be replaced. Napoleon remarked that had Berthier been at Waterloo, he would have won.

'Berthier, the chief of staff, always spent the day around me in combat and the night at his desk: it is impossible to combine more activity, goodwill, courage, and knowledge. He was very active and followed his general on all reconnaissances without neglecting any of his work at the bureauŠhe had all the qualities of a good chief of staff. He knew topography well, understood reconnaissance detachments, attended personally to the expedition of orders, and was accustomed to briefing the most complicated movements of an army with simplicity.'

The Grande Armée did not have a permanent staff corps that the Prussians were starting to develop after the catastrophe of 1806. One had been started in the old Royal Army, but it had been abolished by the Revolutionary government as being 'Royalist', much like throwing the baby out with the bath water. A draft copy of their written regulations covering staff organization and operations vanished with them. However, a provisional instruction could have been issued in 1791. Officers assigned to the staffs of divisions and armies in the Revolutionary armies generally had to rely on 'the advice of older officers and the expensive lessons of their own experience. Berthier, who was chief of staff of the Armée des Alpes in 1795 issued simple instructions for the operation of an efficient staff, later to be reissued to the staff of the Armée d'Italie in 1796. These were apparently derived from the draft regulations of 1788 'on which Berthier may have worked.'

Berthier also started the operational tradition, while chief of staff of Italie, of direct communications between chiefs of staff of different armies without either the permission or knowledge of the respective army commanders. He initiated this precedure with Reynier, also an expert staff officer as well as an excellent planner, who was then chief of staff of the Armee des Alpes. It was one of the French innovative staff procedures that the Prussians later adopted in their staff operations sometime after Scharnhort's reforms. It made for faster communication, relieved the army commanders of unnecessary minutaie, and usually worked very well.

Whatever the case, Berthier developed, obviously with Napoleon's approval and tailored to Napoleon's method of waging war, an efficient, smoothly operating general staff that was the best of its time, and which later became something of a model for the Prussian General Staff. It operated efficiently from 1796 through 1814, enabling the Grande Armée to conduct its sweeping campaigns across Europe, Berthier and his staff being responsible for such under-appreciated accomplishments as the movement over the Alps in 1800, the movement from the Channel to Austerlitz in 1805, and the unprecedented concentration for the invasion of Russia in 1812, including the very successful logistic preparations.

One imperial foul-up Berthier is usually blamed for is the command mess at the beginning of the Campaign of 1809. Berthier was never in command of the Army of Germany. He was sent ahead by Napoleon to act as chief of staff and Army Major General, as usual. Napoleon still communicated through him to the corps commanders. However, Napoleon caused the ensuing confusion by communication directly by mail and semaphore, which, because of their different arrival times to Berthier's headquarters (they didn't arrive in sequence), caused conflicting orders to be issued. Fortunately two things happened: Berthier finally became fed up and told Napoleon his presence was required immediately with the army, and Davout kept his head and a wary eye out for both the Austrians and the changing operational situation. Thus done, the crisis passed.

 

The Grand Quartier-General

The Grand Quartier-General, or the army general staff, itself consisted of three main sections: Napoleon's Maison, the Grand Etat-Major General, and the Indtendance. The Intendance was the Grande Armée's administrative staff, which will not be covered in this study, and deserves a paper on its own. The Intendance was headed by the Intendant General and was never fully militarized, much to Napoleon's chagrin, and this caused much wastage, incompetence, and plain dishonesty, to the ordinary soldier's disgust and detriment.

Napoleon's Maison, or household consisted of his personal staff which included what was referred to as the 'General Officers neat His Majesty' such as Duroc and Culaincourt, the Master of the Horse to the Empress, Constant Corbineau, and the Governor of the Pages, Mathieu Gardane, whose billet eventually went away with the pages themselves. Also in the Maison were the officiers d'ordonnance, which was a junior type of aide-de-camp, headed by chef d'escadron Gaspard Gourgaud (who left a valuable memoir of the Russian campaign, attacking the less than accurate one left by de Segur, and calling de Segur out for a duel and shooting him as a 'final form of literary criticism).

The innovation of Napoleon's Maison was the creation of the General's Aides-de-Camp, experienced general officers, each an expert in his own branch of service, who were 'trained up in Napoleon's own school of war', and capable of significant independent assignments, from a task force of all arms on the battlefield to the negotiating of a treaty. There were generally twelve of them at any one time, but not all of them were present all the time. Lauriston defended Ragusa against the Russians and hill tribes in Dalmatia in 1806; Savary temporarily commanded the V Corps in Poland in 1806-07 when Lannes became ill, destroying a Russian field army in the process; Mouton, later Count of Lobau, who led the assault across the burning Landshut bridge in 1809; Rapp, who led the cavalry charges by the Guard at Austerlitz that broke the Russian Guard cavalry and captured its commander;Rapp and Lobau led the Young Guard into the burning hell of Essling in 1809 to shatter Rosenberg's Austrian corps and restore a critical situation at odds of five to one;Lauriston massing the huge 102 gun battery at Wagram, continuously under fire, and blowing out the Austrian center, paving the way for MacDonald's battle-winning assault. These men were obeyed by even the marshals and were Napoleon's eyes and ears. Their aides-de-camp, also called the 'little aides-de-camp, were employed by Napoleon when needed. According to John Elting, these officers were

"men for all missions, leading improvised task forces to meet unexpected emergencies, massing artillery to support a decisive attack, clearing a snarled supply line, conducting large-scale reconnaissances, and sometimes handling minor diplomatic assignments. They had authority to require even marshals to hold reviews and showdown inspections so that they might examine the state of their troops. Isolated commanders trusted them to take Napoleon a factual account of their problems. They were loyal but not courtiers; they spole the truth as they saw it and did not flatter. napoleon gave them his trust, accepted their frankest advice and comments without rancor (if not without ocassional anger), and counted them as friends."

Napoleon also had an organization, his cabinet, which was divided into three sections. The first, the Secretariat, was responsible for his correspondence and consisted of civilian secretaries, archivists, and a librarian. Next, the Bureau de Renseignments, was a military intelligence organization, responsible largely for strategic intelligence, which was passed on to Berthier's cabinet. Lastly, the Topographic Bureau, headed by Bacler d'Albe, who himself maintained the Emperor's situation map. This section also kept maps, plans of fortresses, and files on the 'resources' of the areas in which the Grande Armée operated.

There were elements of Napoleon's Maison Civile which accompanied the staff to war, and generally, Maret, Napoleon's Secretary of State, Berthier's civilian counterpart, was with the army on campaign.

Berthier's organization was the Grand Etat-Major General, which consisted of his own cabinet, his personal staff of aides-de-camp, and the Etat-Major General 'proper.' Berthier's cabinet, sometimes called the Etat-Major particular, consisted of a small group of talented and experienced staff officers generally organized in three section: troop movements, intelligence, and personnel. Monsieur Salamon was the head of the troops movements section, and Colonel Blein the intelligence section. There were also Berthier's two private secretaries. The aides-de-camp were known throughout the army as enfants terribles, who were

Hard drinkers, gamblers, duelists, rakes, great turners-up of petticoats, daredevils and heart breakers, always in debt, insufferable, but who arrived always where they intended to arrive, never got lost, knew how to speak proudly and firmly, even to marshals. A message entrusted to them was always delivered, neither obstacles nor man stopped them.'

Depending on the year, the Etat-Major General was headed by either one or more assistant chiefs of staff (premier aide-major general). In 1805 it was Andreossy, in 1809 it was Bailly de Monthion (interestingly, Andreossy's assistant in 1805 was Colonel Pascal Vallongue, the officer who had the responsibility after Marengo of writing the official history of the battle. He did so faithfully, and had Napoleon tell him to rewrite it as going exactly as planned and to destroy all the copies of the original accurate report. He did as told, but one copy of the original survived, some say under a desk blotter). Generally speaking, this section of Berthier's staff was in three 'divisions.' The first was in charge of troops movements, officer assignments, countersigns, and general correspondence. The second division handled supply, police, hospitals, and headquarters administration. The third division was responsible for prisoners of war, recruiting, deserters, and military justice. Lines of communication, as they became longer and more complicated fell under a fourth division organized in 1806. As staff responsibilities grew during the wars, so did the number of divisions in the Etat-Major General. Still, the basic organization and functioning remained.

The staff was stretched thin for the huge responsibilities if 1812, and it was worse after heavy losses in Russia for 1813. Still, Berthier helped Eugene reorganize the shattered remnants of the Grande Armée in early 1813 after Murat's desertion, and built up an effective army of about 60,000 awaiting Napoleon's arrival with reinforcements in April 1813 for the spring campaign.

On campaign, the staff moved generally in two echelons, the Petit Quartier-General, with Napoleon and Berthier and key staff officers, essentially what today would be called a 'jump command post' would move behind the army's advance guard. The rear echelon would move under a senior officer of the gendarmerie (something what troops today would call the 'ash and trash).

There was also a quartier-general volante, a 'flying headquarters', that would be employed from time to time that would be very small with only a few staff officers and escort, with orderlies and one senior staff officer
in charge, that would advance and set up immediately behind the advanced cavalry outposts and send back all gathered intelligence to the operational headquarters. As Napoleon and Berthier were usually found with the advanced guard of the Grande Armee on campaign, staff duty was hardly a plush assignment (the chief of staff of the Guard, a general of division, was killed in action in 1807, having his head taken off by an artillery round),and losses throught the campaigns, especially in 1809 and 1812, were particularly heavy.

Corps and division staffs and headquarters would mirror the Grand Quartier-General, although necessarily smaller. Brigade headquarters, because it had no administrative responsibilities, those being taken up by the parent divisions, appear to have been ad hoc organizations, consisting of only an aide-de-camp and a detailed officier d'ordonnance from one of its regiments. Some corps commanders, Davout being an outstanding example, used his generals of brigade much like Napoleon used his Generals Aides-de-Camp.

Staff functions at army level sometimes overlapped, and on the surface it would appear that the different section might interfere with one another, which they undoubtedly did, creating duplication of effort. There was also no equivalent of the modern operations staff, as Napoleon was his own operations officer. Still as Thiebault (whatever else he was he was an excellent staff officer) remarked about Berthier:

'Quite apart from his specialist training as a topographical engineer, he had knowledge and experience of staff work and furthermore a remarkable grasp of everything to do with war. He had also, above all else, the gift of writing a complete order and transmitting it with the utmost speed and clarityŠNo one could have better suited General Bopnaparte, who wanted a man capable of relieving him of all detailed work, to understand him instantly and to foresee what he would need.'

While it would be incorrect to state that Berthier was Napoleon's strategic planning partner, it would also be incorrect to state that no strategic planning was done in the Etat-Major General. Berthier was the Grande Armée's major general and nothing close to a chief clerk, as he has been unfairly labeled in many books and publications. Some of this undeserved reputation was because of the malice oozing from the damaged ego of the renegade Jomini, who Berthier taught a lesson in army etiquette during the Empire's early campaigns, Jomini being nothing but a gentleman aide-de-camp, and not the budding military genius he pictured himself as. Unfortunately, some uncritical admirers and writes took Jomini at his word. Fortunately, this myth was completely demolished by historian John Elting in his thoroughly researched paper, 'Berthier and Jomini.'

This, then, is the staff fashioned by Berthier on Bourcet's beginnings, and brought to maturity by both Napoleon and Berthier in the camps along the Channel before the Great Wars resumed in 1805. It was the most sophisticated general staff in history up to that time, and none in other armies approached it for either organization or efficiency. It is also the staff from which all modern staffs developed and evolved. We use its model still. The achievements of Berthier and the Grand Quartier-General Imperiale have generally been overlooked, especially Berthier's value and achievements, but without them both, the great, sweeping, and terribly devastating Napoleonic campaigns, both to the kings, their thrones and armies, would not have been possible. 

 

 

Placed on the Napoleon Series: January 2001.

 

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