Theorists, Instructors, and Practitioners: The Evolution of French Doctrine in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars 1792-1815
By Kevin Kiley
1100 Hours 14 October 1806, southeast of Hassenhausen, Saxony
The smoke and roar of the battle to the division's front was a growing crescendo that seemingly threatened to swallow them whole. They knew they were marching into a fight, but not to face the dreaded main Prussian Army. Frantic, hard riding couriers and even harder-faced aides-de-camp had pounded up and down the road towards Hassenhausen all morning, and General Morand had hustled the division down the same road since dawn.
At the head of the column of Morand's 1st Division of Davout's III Corps, the panting 13th Légère sweated under their heavy packs as they hastened to the vulgar uproar in front of them. They realized the rest of the corps was engaged with the Prussians. They also knew the situation was undoubtedly desperate-why else were their officers urging them on at this speed?
Orders barked out at the head of the column, and the lead companies of the 1st Battalion shook out as skirmishers in open order. So, it was to be that way, was it? As they double-timed down the road, men reached back to pull cartridge boxes closer round to their hips for easier access. Others touched bayonets to ensure they were still there. Still others spat and wiped their sweat-streaked faces as they rushed towards the smoke and roar of what would be for some of them, their last battle. The rookies among them were visibly upset, fresh-faced conscripts and downy-cheeked sous-lieutenants alike, yet their young faces were set and determined. At least Davout had ensured they were well trained and could shoot. They still had no idea what kind of hell they were walking into.
As they reached the battlefield, they saw their comrades off to their right, at least one division formed in squares fighting off clouds of Prussian cavalry. Cannon on both sides belched fire and death, ordered volleys of musketry from the Prussians and the more individual fire of their comrades in Gudin's and Friant's divisions threw clouds of smoke over the battlefield.
Morand's divisional artillery clattered past, trumpeters and drummers playing them into action, both instruments clear through the sacre noise. Battery commanders mounted on skittish horses were waving their swords and bellowing commands, the foot artillerymen double-timing to keep up with the gun teams. Team horses snorted in the early morning dust, sometimes tripping, but gathering themselves up with their drivers urging them on with a word and sometimes a whip. Guns and limbers followed by ammunition caissons slid around bends in the road, oblivious to the hustling infantrymen now on either side of the one good thoroughfare.
More commands were barked by their regimental and battalion commanders, and swiftly and expertly each light infantry company, urged on by their NCOs, each battalion led by their chef, deployed as skirmishers until the entire regiment was in a thick skirmish line, meant to cover the division front while the other four regiments behind them deployed to fight.
The companies and battalions of the 13th Légère shook out in skirmish order along the entire front of the division. Company commanders took their places behind their deployed companies, with a handy reserve of ten to twelve picked men and their company cornet, to enable the company to rally if necessary, and to control their skirmishers. Smart company commanders had kept their drums when ordered to turn them in-the cornet was a very weak-sounding instrument and not as martial as the drum. Every company had one cornet, but some kept the drum and used it, undoubtedly to the chagrin of their company drummer who had to lug it around to keep up with his more lightly accoutered company commander.
The companies moved forward on the left flank of what they later discovered was Gudin's division. Muskets started to bark all along the line as the lead companies ran into, or rather, went after any hostile Prussians. The other four regiments of their division, all ligne, deployed in column behind them. Suddenly, as if on cue, the voltigeur companies of the ligne battalions were shaking out as they had done, behind them, deploying in open order to replace them along the division front. The kleine manner were an efficient, aggressive, and cantankerous lot, ready to fight with musket and bayonet or fist and wine bottle as the occasion demanded, undoubtedly because they were all so short-light infantry with an attitude. They hustled to catch up with the now deployed 13th Légère, replacing them covering their own battalions. Chasseurs in the center companies of the légère regiment started shouting at the newly arrived voltiguers that it took more than haute pay to make a light infantryman, getting quick, nasty looks in return. That argument would have to be settled later.
Orders were again barked, cornets blew and drums beat away, and the companies and battalions reassembled and shifted to the left flank of the division, to screen it from any hostile Prussian movement. Companies and battalions moved off with the fluid ease of veterans, some chasseurs turning for one last insult to the ligne's voltigeurs before being cuffed along by their NCOs
On the far-left flank of the regiment, one dapper, veteran company commander, in a light cavalry colpack with a green and yellow plume and yellow bag decorating it, calmly nodded to his company first sergeant. The redoubtable, veteran NCO barked a few concise orders, and the company began to shift smoothly and expertly to the left. Satisfied, monsieur le capitaine spoke a few quiet words to his drummer, and the two of them trotted off to rejoin the company reserve.
The Need for Reform
The French Royal Army's slide into inefficiency, defeat, and ignominy that began at the beginning of the 18th Century during the War of the Spanish Succession finally hit bottom in the Seven Years' War. Neglect, a grossly overstrength and increasingly cavalier officer corps, petticoat influence, and a general malaise and lack of determined leadership had culminated in defeat and humiliation in central Europe at the hands of toughly disciplined British Regulars and Frederick's Prussians. Montcalm's veterans had done well in North America, but they were the exception, not the rule. Thoughtful officers, including de Broglie, who had performed well in Europe, and Gribeauval, who had served with distinction with the efficient Austrian artillery, were increasingly reform minded and wanted an army that could compete with and defeat the dreaded, iron-disciplined Prussians on the battlefield.
Defeat and disgrace is a great catalyst for military reform, improvement, and inventiveness. France had emerged form the Seven Years' War defeated, humiliated, and shorn of her colonial empire. Her navy destroyed in the disaster of Quiberon Bay, she was reduced to the status of a second-rate power, undoubtedly to the relief of the rest of Europe, for France was a large, aggressive, and restless neighbor. French military reformers, with vengeance very much in mind, set to work with a will. These proposed reforms generally took two forms, the first intellectual, and the second practical. Guibert wrote and thumped on with his Essai de Tactique, Bourcet turned his genius to staff procedures and mountain warfare, while Mesnil-Durand wrote and stumped over maneuvering and fighting with heavy columns. The du Teil brothers wrote and taught about new, aggressive artillery tactics, for which Gribeauval was laboring mightily to provide new guns and equipment that could keep up in a rapid, offensive war of movement and have interchangeable, standardized spare parts. One of the du Teil's greatest pupils was a quiet, studious young man from the newly acquired island of Corsica named Bonaparte.
An underlying current of discontent flowed through the Royal Army, somewhat different than the general unhappiness that had begun to infect the French people as a whole. Thoughtful officers believed they could revitalize the army to the glory days of Turenne and his invincible white coats. Successful French generals from the late war, and there were a few, de Broglie and Gribeauval among them, saw the need for drastic changes and set out to achieve it. Training, tactics, and organization all became targets for those who wanted the French army to resume its place of preeminence in Europe. Some, such as Guibert, began to put their new ideas on paper.
As with many defeated armies, disaster sowed the seeds of reform. It's an old truism that it is easier to promote internal reform when you can literally start from the beginning. The artillery needed to be completely rebuilt, not just with new weapons and equipment, but also with a new spirit, a new way of doing business. Along with the talented Gribeauval, the du Teil brothers, Jean, and Jean-Pierre, wanted an artillery arm superior to the excellent field artillery of the Austrian Army, with whom Gribeauval had served during the late unpleasantness.
In a military sense, disaster could be said to be the mother of invention. Officers not only wrote and argued about the best way to reform the army, but also became specific about ways to improve discipline, morale, and training. The writings of older, venerated practitioners and theorists, such as Folard and de Saxe were dug out, dusted off and put to good use. Folard's ideas greatly impressed a young, unruly, and talented officer from Burgundy with incredibly bad eyesight, Louis N. Davout.
These writings provided food for thought, which, in the normal Gallic way, progressed into, sometimes, enlightened, and animated, argument. It was finally decided to launch a series of experiments to try out the new tactics of l'ordre profond, fighting and moving in columns relying on shock action over firepower, backed by de Broglie, and compare it to the traditional linear evolutions of l'ordre mince, backed by almost everybody else. Each system had its adherents, de Broglie himself favoring columns supported by skirmishers, others preferring to turn the French infantry into ersatz Prussians, as the only tried and true method of defeating the seemingly invincible Frederickan host.
One French officer of Prussian origin, Pirch, wanted to make the French Army into a copy of the Prussian, but there was not widespread support for this. Prussian style uniforms, cheap and tight, were not popular. There was even an attempt to introduce Prussian-style corporal punishment into the ranks, but that was not popular with either officers or men. The experiment was an aberration in the evolutionary practice, and the serious reformers soon sorted it out and got back on track.
The Maneuvers at the Camp of Vaisseux
The first of the series of 'maneuvers' that were to test one theory against the other were to take place using the two regiments of the garrison of Metz in 1775. They merely demonstrated that Mesnil-Durand's theories were plausible. More extensive testing was planned and took place in August and September of 1778 at a training area established in Normandy at Vaussieux. Forty-four infantry battalions, six dragoon regiments and a considerable artillery train were assembled, trained in the maneuvers through August, and the tests began in earnest on 9 September, and ending on the 28th.
De Broglie was in command, and serving with him was an impressive array of general officers including Luckner, Rochambeau, Conflans, Wimpfen, Chastellux, and Guibert Pere. Guibert fils, along with Mesnil-Durand, and the Chevalier de Broglie were assigned to the staff.
The training started with the battalions, then worked up through the regiments, brigades, and divisions. The first trial had thirty-two infantry battalions organized in four divisions, each of two brigades of four battalions each. Each 'maneuver,' eight of them through September, ending on the 28th, was designed to test linear movements of troops against that of columns, using the Reglement of 1776.
The Line versus Column Debate
Military conservatism is hard to overcome in any age, in any army. So it was in the aftermath of the experiments of the Camp of Vaisseux. The proponents of l'ordre mince proclaimed that not only had linear formations looked much more orderly and disciplined, which they had, they had done better against Mesnil-Durand's clumsy columns. Based on these 'maneuvers,' the adherents of the linear school of thought 'won.'
Mesnil-Durand, among other proponents of the column, de Broglie being one, was both disappointed and incensed. Wimpfen, who was a conservative proponent of the linear system, wrote condemning both de Broglie and Mesnil-Durand, respectively:
'In reflecting carefully upon all that which was done at the camp of Bayeux, the details of which have just been read, the talents that fame and public opinion ascribed to marshal de Broglie are not apparent, and one will not find there the lesson which he appeared to have had as an aim, since no military insight can be perceived. Far from having accomplished the slightest good, he has produced a real evil by the false ideas which he has given to young people who have never made war and above all by the disparagement of the general in the minds of the officer and of the soldier. The marshal added to this exceedingly by his ill temper, to such an extent that everyone withdrew from him. He has, moreover, proved incidentally, in various circumstances that he understood nothing of the mechanism of the maneuvers; the least disorder troubled him, and he found with difficulty the remedy. It is also certain that his obstinacy in upholding a new [system of] tactics, recognized as vicious, and condemned as such by the entire army, might have contributed to it. He always laid the blame on the general officers, the superior officers of the corps, and on the troops, when the whole evil had its course in these new maneuvers themselves. Whatever objections were made to him, he persisted in his opinions. In his public or private conversations, and in all discussions, he showed little understanding and little dignity, which added greatly to his disparagement, and his enemies ought to draw a great advantage from this camp.'
De Broglie's report stated that:
'The trial made at Metz, by the order of Marshal de Muy, of the maneuvers of M. du Mesnil-Durand, persuaded me that they were preferable to those that have, each year, been given to the infantry. I was convinced of it during the continuance of the camp by the facility which they gave me of moving thirty-two battalions together, without prepatory instruction, without having reconnoitered the country, without knowledge what the corps which represented the enemy intended to do, and commanded by general officers to whom that order of tactics was entirely unknown.'
After the 2nd Maneuver, which occurred on 12 September, in which Rochambeau commanded the brigade which operated with l'ordre mince, and performed much better than its opponent, Wimpfen wrote:
'A facility of execution, an ease, was seen which it was impossible to hope for from the order which M. Dumesnil-Durand wished to introduce, and one could not conceal from oneself that these maneuvers, that the troops regretted, were within range of intelligence of each officer and even of each soldier, who easily perceived their end, and that they presented the double advantage of l'ordre mince and l'ordre profond. Finally, it was also seen by all that which happened in that trial that terrain was entirely subordinated to them, that they merited the greatest confidence and could procure the greatest success.
Interestingly, Rochambeau was de Broglie's son-in-law.
Wimpfen continued to disagree with the procedures and as the results apparently favored l'ordre mince, this is what went into the 1791 Reglement as finally written. Some officers, however, were impressed with the possibility of columns supported by aggressive skirmishers in the attack, and filed it away for further use and employment at a later time.
Some of Wimpfen's more pointed comments were:
'The Comte d'Egmont and under him the Baron de Luckner, lieutenant-generals, had been given the infantry brigades of Aquitaine and Aunis and six squadrons of dragoons to represent the enemy army, in order to impress the advantage of that new method of fighting better; but these generals, master of their dispositions, having always opposed genuinely military movements to the prescribed movements, had by this demonstrated their defect, that there did not exist in the principles of Dumesnil-Durand any means of taking advantage of ground because they are of a nature never to command it. There resulted therefrom a necessary change in the general disposition and a contradiction of orders, nothing of which could be executed, which led to inconceivable confusion and disorder. It is certain that in reality, the entire destruction of the army would have been the result. When the impossibility was seen of disentangling this chaos, which presented the most deplorable spectacle of an army truly in rout, the marshal found no other remedy but to order the troops back to camp.'
De Broglie generally expressed content and satisfaction with the maneuvers and Wimpfen opposed and disagreed with him at every turn, generally attacking the maneuvers in column in general and Mesnil-Durand in particular. There were glaring errors with the columns as formed and which did show up in the maneuvers. Wimpfen's conclusion was:
'In reflecting carefully upon all that which was done at the camp of Bayeux the talents that fame and public opinion ascribed to Marshal de Broglie are not apparent, and one will not find there the lesson which he appeared to have had as an aim, since no military insight can be perceived.'
Despite opposition from the conservative generals and their adherents, de Broglie still thought the new system of Mesnil-Durand had merit, but it had to be fine-tuned. The columns used in Normandy were too large and clumsy, and skirmishers in larger numbers than usually expected had to be employed to protect the column, which had little protective firepower.
De Broglie also thought that some of the general officers that participated agreed with him, among them von Luckner, who had served Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick during the Seven Years' War, and who was Frederick the Great's brother-in-law. It did impress a generation of younger officers, however, who not only witnessed or participated in the maneuvers, but also read the related manuals and treatises.
There were flaws in the system that Mesnil-Durand was proposing, which was one reason why there was so much opposition to it (the other was undoubtedly the inherent conservatism of the officer corps-however, this time the system was broken). However, the experienced de Broglie undoubtedly stubbornly supported it because he took the larger view, that is, something that could put the whole army in motion, and not just minor tactical problems that could be worked out later. There was virtue in having the experiments at all, and even the condescending comments and disagreements of Wimpfen and other critics bore fruit. The armies of the Revolution and the Grande Armée in particular all benefited from both the maneuvers and the argument.
De Castries and de Puysegur were just two of the officers that saw promise in the new tactics, and were proponents of l'ordre profond. These two recommended a compromise between the two extremes of profond and mince, and this was gradually and generally accepted by the majority of the younger officers. De Castries favored making the columns smaller, such as the march columns already authorized by the 1776 Ordinance: 'it is preferable to adopt the march column of the ordinance which gives all the conditions that can be desired in an order in depth.' De Puysegur mentioned that 'The best tactics are those of which the maneuvers adapt themselves with promptness and ease to all circumstances and to all ground. Those which have just been tested do not appear to me to have these properties.' The small, compact battalion columns which eventually were used could move over rough terrain quickly and to either flank if necessary, and it was relatively simple to form square against cavalry from them. This is the movement and attack formations eventually employed during the Revolutionary and early Empire period, either in a column of companies or a column of divisions.
Joly de Maizeroy finally seemed to sum up what was needed and attempted to end the controversy between l'ordre profond and l'ordre mince:
'To tactics belongs the art of drilling troops, of marshaling them, and of making them move; the art of attack and defense in all circumstances and in all positions, that which comprehends several parts based on geometry. Strategy is something more elevated. In order to form its projects, it combines time, places, means, various interests, and considers all that which I have said previously to be the province of dialectic, that is to say, of the most sublime faculty of the mind, of the reason. The one reduces easily to firm rules, because it is entirely geometrical like fortification; the other appears very much less susceptible of it, because it is related to an infinity of circumstances, physical, political, and moral, which are never the same and which pertain entirely to genius. Nevertheless, there are certain general rules which one can pose with safety and regard as an invariable base.'
Maizeroy believed that any officer who attended the maneuvers who had an iota of common sense and experience would recognize the superiority of Mesnil-Durand's system and his arguments for its use.
French light troops, as we would come to know them in the Napoleonic period were first formed in the 1740s to oppose the clouds of excellent Austrian grenzers, pandours, and hussars. Both the French and the Prussians had trouble with these freebooters, who generally were not paid and had plunder rights. They played havoc in rear areas, on raids and ambushes, and were expert in la petite guerre. A French officer, François de Grandmaison reported quite bluntly:
'they overflowed Bohemia, Bavaria, and Alsace incessantly harassed us and carried off our convoys, hospitals, baggage, foragers, detachments in great numbers, by which the finest armies we ever sent beyond the Rhine were ruined without seeing or fighting against any other troops but Hungarians, Sclavonians, Woradins, Licanians, Croatians, Rusicans, Banalists, and Pandours. The Austrian hussars [carried] off generals and other officers from between two columns.'
At first, the French were singularly unskilled in this type of warfare, but they gradually improved, the Royal Army finally forming twelve battalions of green uniformed chasseurs-a-pied which eventually became the older, famous regiments of light infantry in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic period.
Interestingly, the Grenzers lost much of their effectiveness by the late Revolutionary period because of successive attempts by the Austrians to regularize them, thereby losing much of their skirmishing and other skills. Austrian Field Marshal Lacy commented in 1782 that 'it must be decided once and for all whether the Grenzer are to be considered regular troops or a mere militia. If they are considered regulars they must be properly exercised and trained and this will give them very little time to devote to agriculture.' General Klein remarked after the first campaign of the Revolutionary period that even as late as the Seven Years' War the Grenzer had been 'a much better light infantry than the present regulated and drilled Grenzer.' After some Grenzer mutinies in June 1800, about the time of Marengo, the view among many senior Austrian officers was that the Grenzers were
'shiftless, false, and totally undisciplined.' The Archduke Charles believed them to be valuable, and their attempted transformation of them into regular line infantry a waste of time and that they could 'not be effectively trained or employed as troops of the line, but that their natural aptitudes make them highly suitable as scouts, vedettes, and skirmishers.'
The damage, however, had been done. Austrian attempts at regular infantry being employed as tirailleurs was rarely successful, being drawn from the proverbial third rank of the linear formation, but were recommended to be the 'brightest, most cunning, and reliable' of the battalions, as stated in the 1807 Regulations. General Radetzky observed that 'operations en tirailleure can only be conducted in a very limited manner because we do not understand this kind of fighting.' Some disagreed; one German officer stating the problem was 'too much drill.' The Austrian official history states that 'it was not realized that the soldier, unless he has a natural aptitude for skirmishing, must be carefully trained for independence.' Rothenburg, the authority on the Austrian Army concludes that 'the Austrian skirmishers were rarely equal to the French.'
Napoleon remarked that
'The Hungarian insurrection that we saw in 1797, 1805, and 1809 was pitiful. If these light troops in the days of Maria Theresa made themselves formidable, it was because of their good organization and especially their large numbers.'
The practitioners of the new French 'system' apparently did experiment with the use of the third rank as skirmishers, but probably found it unsuitable, as it was not a cohesive unit that was being deployed in open order, only a fragment of one. Hence, while the Prussians and Austrians, as well as the Russians, continued to employ this unsatisfactory solution, the French went ahead, both by accident and design, trying different methods to see which one would work, ending up with their deployed companies, battalions, and regiments, which was satisfactory, and attacking with battalions in column, supported by artillery and skirmishers, becoming a system that was difficult to defeat, especially when the French commanders were skilled. In the hands of a commander such as Davout or Lannes, the instrument was effective and deadly. In the hands of less skilled generals, such as Oudinot or Ney, it could become clumsy and rely more on mass, and neglect the time honored application of combined arms techniques, to win and not on the innate skill of the subordinate officers and men who knew their business, and how to apply it.
Neither the Reglement of 1776 nor that of 1791 covered the employment of massed skirmishers, nor was the use of columns in combat covered, at least not how they were going to be employed when the shooting started. The 1791 Reglement was essentially written by the adherents of l'ordre mince, and it covered in detail, complete with detailed diagrams, every possible movement for every possible eventuality up to the battalion level. When war came in 1792, shortly followed by the huge mass armies allowed by the levee en masse, there was simply no time to thump both the volunteers and conscripts into the mindless discipline required to perform and master the necessary, myriad movements of made necessary by the linear system of 18th century warfare. The only mention of tirailleurs, per se, in the 1791 Reglement is about using the ubiquitous third rank for flank guards when a column on the march may be threatened by cavalry, hardly a guide for how skirmishers came to be employed in mass as an offensive weapon. The 1792 provisional instruction mentions tirailleurs being used in open order against artillery gun crews, again, not what they would be used against when the Great Wars actually exploded across Europe. The bottom line with the Reglement of 1791 is that there is virtually no reference to tirailleurs employment, at least the way they were going to be used, in the Reglement at all.
Therefore, what was resorted to was any way possible to get the greatest amount of troops, trained or otherwise, forward into the firing line and to launch them into the attack. That solution, quite simply, was open order formations backed up by battalion columns. Initially, there were disgraceful stampedes, but the new 'system' sorted itself out. Battalion columns were handy formations capable of forward and lateral movement. They could cover ground swiftly without too much loss of cohesion. Skirmisher fire, and the skirmishers themselves, were hard to combat by an enemy in perfect, symmetrical lines, firing away in controlled volleys on command. Their skirmisher screen, if they used one at all, was usually driven in or overwhelmed by entire battalions and regiments deployed as tirailleurs en grandes bandes. Sometimes French units just dispersed into open order as skirmishers, by command or not, formed into clouds or swarms, and proceeded to shoot the enemy's line to pieces.
Pastor Vincentius Zahn saw a French army pass through the Black Forest in 1796:
'One did not see [compared to the Austrian Army] so many wagons or so much baggage, such elegant cavalry, or any officers on horseback below the grade of major. Everything about these Frenchmen was supple and light-movements, clothing, arms, and baggage. In their ranks marched boys of fourteen and fifteen; the greater part of their infantry was without uniforms, shoes, money, and apparently lacking any organization, if one were to judge by appearances alone. But each man had his musket, his cartridge box, and cockade of national colors, and all were brave and energetic. On duty, the soldier punctiliously obeyed his officer These French rather resembled a savage horde [but] kept good order, and only some marauders who followed the army at a distance terrified the inhabitants.'
Thoughtful French officers trained their troops as much as possible, from 'la petite guerre' of ambushes, raids, and patrolling, to fighting in line, column, and when deployed in open order. General Custine went so far as to establish a training school at Cambrai, staffed with a bataillon d'instruction that was used to train cadres from units and then sent back to help train their own units.
Some commanders, such as Duhesme, would state that the French armies were made up 'only of light infantry' but as the fighting continued, and the troops and their officers became more skilled, attacks in line became more common. However, it did become standard practice to deploy whole battalions, and even whole demi-brigades as skirmishers, termed tirailleurs en grandes bandes. Attacks on strong points were sometimes delivered in this formation, though using columns against villages and strong points was more common. Some commanders would fight defensively with a strong line of skirmishers, backed up by their reserves in battalion columns.
French use of tirailleurs and light infantry became so necessary to their new method of making war that they evolved into elite troops, at least being considered that by their commanders, including Napoleon. Additionally, there was a definite difference between légère and ligne units. John Lynn, in his excellent study of the Armée du Nord in 1794 stated that 'Without question, light infantry battalions constituted something apart from the general run of line infantry. Commanders constantly differentiated between heavy and light troops and ascribed a certain elite quality to the latter.' Some believe this difference declined sharply after 1800, and the only difference remained one of uniform. Colonel John Elting strongly disagrees with that assessment:
'Though line and light infantry had the same organization, weapons, equipment, and drill regulations, there was a difference between them, as definite as it was intangible. Infanterie légère had acquired a tradition of dash and aggressiveness, of advance guard and flank guard service, of rapid deployment and expert skirmishing. It asserted the right to lead all attacks '
Scharnhorst remarked that
'The French armies, compelled by the situation in which they found themselves and aided by their national genius, had developed a practical system of tactics that permitted them to fight over open or broken ground, in open or close order, but this without their being aware of their system.'
Scharnhorst also conducted a battle study of Marengo and engaged in discussions about the French use of, and operations with, skirmishers. He, however, had to deal with a Prussian military, especially the officers, who considered that 'skirmishing was politically suspect and militarily unnecessary.' They would eventually learn the lesson in 1806.
General Knobelsdorf's aide-de-camp remarked that in May of 1793 the French were
'still badly trained; but they were not only our equals but our superiors in the woods where the soldier doesn't keep in his ranks, executes none of the evolutions of the drill manual and, covered by the trees, needs do nothing apart from fire his musket. Our men, accustomed to fight in closed ranks on open ground found it difficult to put themselves into this apparent disorder which was nevertheless necessary if they didn't want to be just targets to the enemy.'
This could have been the comment of a Prussian officer at Jena fifteen years later. The émigré journalist Maller du Pan made a simple observation, as snide as it was accurate, on the French employment of tirailleurs en grande bandes
'Tactical plans are a pure waste of time against a vast scum of floating irregular troops whose true force consists of their impetuous torrent.'
John Elting is even more succinct
'Prussian, Austrian, Spanish, Piedmantese, Neapolitan, and English generals did their professional best and eventually found that some vulgarian of a French ex-sergeant, whom they had completely outmaneuvered, would fail to recognize the hopelessness of his situation, or that a recent captain of French artillery would show a shocking disregard for the accepted system of strategy and tactics. Thereupon another military masterpiece would degenerate into a knock-down-drag-out grudge fight.
As a Federal artilleryman at the Battle of Gettysburg in July of 1863 remarked, trying to fight skirmishers with artillery was like 'chasing a swarm of bees with a club.' Undoubtedly, allied commanders who initially saw and fought the French during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic period believed the same thing, though in all probability not in so simple a manner.
Peter Paret stated that 'In the Prussian army the introduction of light infantry battalions and company sharpshooters was undertaken in too formalistic a manner to achieve the same results [as the French had achieved]', and that 'Frederick and his generals could see little need to make extensive changes in the linear system' even though 'the French developed maneuver columns and attack columns to supplement the line' while 'At the same time paid attention to light troops, both horse and foot, whose indifference to terrain obstacles, and ability to patrol and forage,' was an important factor in the new French system.
Kleber recommended that 'all attacks will be made in column the bayonets lowered.' Against villages, attacks were to be made 'en tirailleurs.' Duhesme said that 'It is in this genre of combat that the French genius shines with the greatest brilliance,' and that the French thought that open order attacks required more intelligent improvisation than formal training.' Or more plainly said, 'Rules were few, they were expected to improvise'; many commanders thought regulations were unnecessary.
Duhesme was only half right, however. While open order fighting might have suited the French genius for improvisation, it did require well-trained troops that were aggressively led. It wasn't a job for the uninitiated or the amateur. Both Houchard and Sestrieres said that 'Elite companies that performed special duties constituted part of every regular and volunteer battalion.' Houchard specifically stated that 'From now on there will be sixty-four men per battalion selected as tirailleurs, these men to be chosed among the most valorous soldiers and the best shots; it will always be the same men who perform this genre of service; if the tirailleurs should lose a man from a company, the new man will always be chosen in the same company.'
The emphasis on marksmanship was interesting, and was a key to the entire role of skirmishers. Napoleon thought that 'the fire of skirmishers is best of all' and insisted on marksmanship training for the Grande Armée as a whole. He wrote to Marmont along the channel in March of 1804 to 'Recommend to your division commanders that they make their troops go through the firing drill twice a week, that they have target practice twice a week, and finally, that they perform the drill evolutions three times a week. Have them form columns of attack by battalion, charge in column of attack, and deploy under the covering fire of the first division, with everyone firing upon reaching a line of battle.' Napoleon also told him to 'direct that each voltigeur company be instructed in promptly forming the square and immediately opening fire by files, so that as skirmishers sent out in front of the battalion they can quickly reunite and fight off cavalry. Issue the necessary powder for these exercises and announce that these maneuvers are most especially what I will have performed in my presence.'
Sestrieres stated that 'I believe that it is indispensable that the process of bringing the battalions and regiments of this division up to strength and of organizing them begin before all else with the Chasseurs de la Meuse and the scouts whose service is the most active and necessary at the present.' So much for the whoop-de-do of the French use of the third rank as skirmishers, as the Austrians and Prussians advocated.
John Lynn authoritatively states that 'After the outbreak of war, peacetime experiments became combat reality, and the battlefield use of tirailleurs in support of heavy infantry increased in extent and frequency beyond eighteenth-century experience or expectations' and that 'Of all the ways light infantry saw service in the wars of the French Revolution, the use of tirailleurs to support close order infantry during its approach, deployment, and attack stands out as the most innovative technique.' Therefore, the use of skirmishers was not unknown before the revolutionary wars, but the unprecedented use of them on a large scale to decide issues on the battlefield, if not the battle itself, was new and innovative and had its beginnings in the Camp of Vaisseaux in the 1770s.
As an aside, American General Winfield Scott, who adapted the 1791 Reglement for American use on the Niagara Frontier in 1814, and was one of the few outstanding American general officers of the War of 1812, stated that
'Skirmishers will be thrown out to clear the way for, and to cover the movements of, the main corps to which they appertain: accordingly, they may be thrown out to the front, to a flank, to the rear, or in the several directions as may be deemed necessary They will render their movements subordinate to those of the main corps, so as constantly to cover it in the direction to which they were thrown.'
As the divisions, armies, and soldiers and their officers and commanders became more skilled, especially after taking some real whackings from the allies, the tactics became much more sophisticated, and this was as early as 1794. General Jacques Jardin noted that on an attack on a village 'The enemy's loss was much more considerable thanks to the light artillery and tirailleurs.' Infantry and artillery was starting to work together as envisioned by the reformers. Also, attacks generally now had artillery support, the lighter guns, especially the new horse artillery, being dragged up on the skirmish line if necessary. French artillerymen were perfectly willing to lose guns if it gave them the advantage, something that Napoleon, an artilleryman, was also ready to do.
There was still disagreement on the both the use and utility of the 1791 Reglement. Both St. Cyr and Duhesme reputedly thoroughly hated it, and thought there were too many useless movements in it. This attitude may have come from the fact that they had too little regimental service before the Revolution. Lannes and Augereau were both expert drillmasters, and could, and did, use the Reglement successfully in combat. Massena as a sergeant before the Great Wars could reputedly maneuver his regiment better 'than any of its officers.' This later showed in the tactical skill displayed by all three of these officers.
Generally speaking, the French attacks evolved into something along the lines of the following generalized scenario. Skirmishers would deploy in clouds against the enemy line, generally starting to shoot it to pieces. As the line became unsteady, through the noise and smoke, the French commander would order the battalions, in battalion columns, forward, sometimes moving to the attack in checkerboard fashion, generally in two lines. At the double, going for the enemy line, the friendly skirmishers would fall back into the intervals between the columns and keep firing at the enemy line, following the battalion columns of the attack home. Artillery would come forward with the battalions making a run for the enemy line. Relying on shock and the firepower of the skirmishers, the battalions in column would shatter the enemy's line at first impact, the battalions of the second line of columns exploiting the breach in the enemy line. The key to this was the continued firing of the rallied skirmishers that reformed in the column intervals and kept up their accurate, rapid fire. The charging columns had little defensive firepower, and without the skirmishers were likely to be defeated.
The Grande Armée generally formed for battle in two lines of battalion columns. These were placed checkerboard fashion, so that cavalry and artillery could move up between the intervals. This also aided the difficult passage of lines, which Lannes performed under fire at Jena in perfect parade ground order. Companies were formed so that:
'Each company formed in three ranks, with some three feet between ranks; it had a front of approximately 254 yards, thus giving a division (two companies abreast) a fifty yard front. When it was formed in 'closed column' (colonne serrée) there was three yards between divisions. During an advance the column's width would increase somewhat as the men (originally ranked elbow to elbow) would instinctively open out. In the final moments of a charge the lines often became intermixed. 'Deployment interval' for a column of divisions was approximately 150 yards; a brigade attacking with six battalion columns in line would have a front of approximately one-half mile. The second line would be 300 to 400 yards behind the first. The column was accepted as the best formation for attacking a defile, a village, or any strong point.'
Companies formed into column of either columns of companies, one directly behind the other, or in column of divisions, which was two companies abreast, four divisions deep. The same two companies always formed together. If the grenadier company was with the battalion, it was divided into two, and they formed on either side of the leading division. The column of divisions was the most used, as it was the easiest to maneuver. There can be some confusion during the period as to army organization and the term 'peloton.' This is commonly translated as 'platoon.' However, it was not the same as the definition used today, a tactical subdivision of a company. There was no such organization in the Grande Armée, and 'peloton' is either a synonym for company, or a tactical subdivision of the battalion.
Up to 1808 there were nine companies per battalion: eight of fusiliers/chasseurs and one grenadier (the 3d company officially becoming the voltiguer company after much hemming and hawing, Napoleon originally deciding to add a 10th company which would be the voltigeurs). After 1808 there were four fusilier/chasseur companies, one grenadier/carabinier company, and one voltigeur company. Regiments originally had two battalions, then a third was added and a depot battalion. After 1808 regiments were to have four battalions, with a depot battalion, the depot battalion would have no elite companies.
Brigades were made up of two or more regiments, although a good number of brigades had only one regiment. Divisions would be made up of two or more brigades, and a corps (after 1808) of two or more divisions. Divisions prior to 1800 were made up of all three combat arms: infantry, artillery, and cavalry. The corps came into use in 1800 by Napoleon during the Marengo campaign. Divisions were now either infantry or cavalry with both having attached artillery. There was also a cavalry reserve and an artillery reserve under army control.
Training and drilling during the Revolutionary period was catch-as-catch-can, conscientious officers ensuring it was done. The most intensive period of drill was the three years in the Channel camps before the Ulm/Austerlitz campaign. While the French armies had become more professional during 1798-1799, they were probably at their professional best in 1805-1807. The Grande Armée that marched east in August 1805 was the best Napoleon ever commanded, one-third being veterans of at least six years' service, over half of the cavalry and over forty percent of the infantry having seen the owl and heard the elephant. The remainder were new soldiers but 'thoroughly trained and indoctrinated.'
The Grande Armée's battles would generally start with units shaking out their light infantry, either the individual battalions and regiments, or the battalions their voltigeur companies to make jarring, local attacks on the enemies positions all along the line. Behind this screen artillery would move up to support the skirmisher swarms, and to prepare the way for the main attack, sometimes in front of the infantry. As the battle 'ripened' to the Emperor's satisfaction, the corps, or other units selected for the main attack would move into their attack positions in battalion columns prepared to advance on order. When the enemy was sufficiently 'prepped' out of the smoke and noise the infantry would come at the double, sometimes with a whoop and a holler, and follow the skirmishers or the artillery to the objective, smashing into the enemy's hopefully shredded infantry, rupturing their defensive line. Heavy cavalry, dragoons, and even available light cavalry would quickly charge to open the breech, rolling back the now shattered shoulders of the breech back on top of the enemy's line. Supporting infantry and artillery would then advance to consolidate the victory while designated light cavalry units would pick up the pursuit.
In the Revolutionary armies, and in the early Empire, the columns most used to advance and attack were either, what the Reglement called a 'column of attack' or a closed column. The difference being a column of attack had twice as much distance between its divisions as a closed column did. The column of attack was used when coming under fire because it was harder to hit. The closed column, while easier to control, was an easy, compact target.
The columns advancing behind the skirmisher swarms would get within striking distance, close ranks, and go for the enemy line at the double with a shout, and with bayonets at the charge. Emerging out of the smoke of the prolonged firefight, still with supporting skirmisher fire and artillery support, would shatter the enemy line at first impact, even if suffering heavy losses, as MacDonald's large, hollow oblong did at Wagram.
Sometimes, as at Friedland, Lützen, Ligny, and Wagram, large concentrations of artillery would advance, or as Senarmont's corps artillery did at Friedland, conduct a 'charge,' unlimber within 150 paces of the enemy's line, and blow out their center with rapid fire volleys, clearing the way for the infantry and supporting horsemen.
The Consular Guard's light infantry company deployed into open order and preceded the two grenadier battalions in its employment on Lannes' right at Marengo in 1800. Light infantry from Oudinot's big elite division assigned to Lannes provisional corps in 1807 outfought larger numbers of Russian jagers and light infantry in the Forest of Sortlack, in a 'fluctuating tree to tree fight,' while delaying Benningsen's Russian field army at Friedland. Davout's light regiments, cavalry and infantry, were conspicuous in the hill fighting south of Ratisbon in 1809 during the first half of the 1809 campaign. At Moghilev in 1812, Davout's light infantry continually hovered on the flanks of Bagration's army, ambushing the Russian flanking regiments. French infantry of Lannes V Corps at Jena fought in open order, continually shooting the Prussian lines to pieces, taking advantage of every scrap of cover and concealment while the Prussians stood in the open, in ranks, firing volleys on command. The Guard Chasseurs à pied attacked in open order at Hanau in 1813, their brethren in the Grenadiers a pied attacking in line to their left, both noticed by an officer in the thick of the fighting. At Plancenoit in 1815, late in the day after the Young Guard were finally ejected from the burning village by overwhelming numbers of Prussians, Napoleon sent two battalions of the Old Guard to retake Plancenoit 'with the bayonet.' Led by a baton swinging drum major, who brained any Prussian who ventured too close, the Guard battalions 'swept it clean in one rush.' The Young Guard rallied behind them, their dying commander, Duhesme, being held in the saddle by devoted Guardsmen. After inflicting 3,000 casualties on fourteen Prussian battalions, Old and Young Guard battalions held the village until the flank finally caved in, the two Old Guard battalions 'bayoneting their way out at the bitter end.' The fighting was so bitter that Old Guard infantrymen had to be stopped from slitting the throats of their prisoners. It was reported that they 'obeyed with reluctance.'
British artist Benjamin Haydon left a superb picture of these 'old sweats' when he saw them at Fontainebleau in 1814, wearing the correct uniform, 'seamed with scars, elegant,'
'More dreadful-looking fellows than Napoleon's guard I had never seen. They had the look of thoroughbred, veteran, disciplined banditti. Depravity, recklessness, and bloodthirstiness were burned into their faces Black mustachios, gigantic bearskins, and a ferocious expression were their characteristics.'
French commanders in the Revolutionary Wars had adapted their tactics for the types of terrain in which they operated. Infantry 'became deadly experts in small-scale outpost combats, raids, and foraging expeditions.' The new tactics of small columns covered by skirmishers did not replace the 1791 Reglement, but actually supplemented it. Attacks in column, line, and l'ordre mixte not only were dictated by the skill of the officers and training level of the troops by if they were in mountains, plains, forests, or combinations of all of these. When the different Revolutionary armies were ultimately combined into the Grande Armée, the army as a whole benefited from all these different methods and experiences.
In the later years, formations became heavier, and sometimes too heavy, for two main reasons: units and armies were becoming much larger, and the large number of conscripts that had to be employed, especially after the crippling losses of the Russian campaign. Still, missions were carried out properly and battles still won: Lützen and Bautzen were won by sheer combativeness, Dresden by enthusiasm and skill, fighting at Leipzig was well-done and valorous, except for an ammunition shortage and the premature detention of the Lindenau bridge it could have been an outstanding example of withdrawal under pressure. The fighting in 1814 was superb, conscripts, veterans, and national guardsmen, who were 'fathers of families' fighting at long odds and almost winning.
Regiments both line and light for years had developed, organized, and trained companies in each battalion as eclaireurs, or scouts. These were finally officially recognized by Napoleon in March of 1804 for the infanterie légère, and in September 1805 for the ligne battalions. These were to be outstanding soldiers, too short to be grenadiers, and they adopted various combinations of green, yellow, and red as their designation colors. Napoleon wrote to Berthier establishing what would become the voltigeur companies on 22 December 1803:
'There will be in every battalion of light infantry regiments a company called the 'mounted company' or 'mobile company' or 'partisan company' or some other name of this sort.
They finally adopted the hunting horn as the distinctive device on shakos and turnbacks after an official, and several unofficial, rows with the grenadiers. The combination of mustaches and grenades by the kleine manner was too much for the grenadiers, but it was matched with a dedicated efficiency, as when some were mounted on the backs of Polish lancers as they swam the Berezina amid the ice chunks to clear the opposite bank so that Eble's pontonniers could start constructing their bridges.
French tactics also developed other, more flexible formations, such as l'ordre mixte, which consisted of battalions alternately in line and in column, preceded by skirmishers. This reportedly was Napoleon's favorite formation and was used with deadly effect, for example, by St. Hilaire at Austerlitz during Soult's assault on the allied center, and Desaix's employment of Boudet's division at Marengo. L'Ordre mixte was also employed on defensive missions, also covered by skirmishers.
As the skill level of both officers and men increased, so did the tendency to fight in line, both to attack and defend, although skirmishers were still employed in the covering role. A defensive line might only consist of units completely deployed en grandes bandes, with their individual fire the more deadly as they did take aim. The Prussians complained after Jena that the French skirmisher deliberately took aim at, and hit, a large proportion of the Prussian officers and NCOs, a complaint the British made in the War of 1812 against the Americans, terming it 'unsporting' and 'savage.'
As the wars progressed, artillery took over part of the skirmisher's role. This happened for generally two reasons, the declining quality of the French infantry, mainly because of heavy losses in Russia and in 1813, and the greater employment of artillery as a whole as it grew it strength and flexibility. Still, in 1814 French attacks were preceded by swarms of skirmishers, and at Waterloo's ending, the veteran French infantry resorted to deploying as tirailleurs en grandes bandes and, working closely with artillery that had been manhandled up to within 250 and sometimes 100 yards were gradually taking apart the remnants of Wellington's line. Unfortunately, the French right flank was gradually being overwhelmed, and the entire situation caved in.
Davout issued instructions to his corps in 1811 on the use and employment of skirmishers. He wanted only whole units, especially when companies were used, to be deployed as skirmishers, believing that using the 'third rank' from ligne units was unsound. This practice of deploying the third rank as skirmishers came from the German states, and Russia (including Prussia and Austria) and wasn't often used by the French, except when their tactics were in their infancy. Davout also had his light infantry, or whomever else, fight in pairs when deployed in open order. This appears to be codifying the common practice instead of instituting a new system.
The French also developed specialist light infantry units, two of the most famous being the Tirailleurs Corses and the Tirailleurs du Po. Usually they were brigaded together, received difficult missions, and were tough, skilled infantrymen with a knack for fighting in open order. They helped with Davout's famous fight on the French right flank at Austerlitz, where at odds of five to one, Davout held the allied main attack while the battle was being won in the center on the Pratzen Heights. These two battalions also performed expertly in the campaign in Bavaria and Austria in 1809. These two battalions lost their independence in 1811 when they were combined with the Swiss Valaison Battalion to reform the 11eme Légère, whose number had been vacant for some time.
Artillerymen did not refrain from the argument, and Chevalier Jean du Teil, and his brother Jean-Pierre, two of the greatest influences on Napoleon, stressed a war of maneuver, greater mobility for the artillery that would be assigned to the field armies, and the increased use of massed firepower. This would eventually cause greater use of artillery, and consequently firepower for the army would be greatly increased. Aggressive French artillerymen would later use their guns literally on the skirmish line to gain an advantage, even risking the guns themselves to win.
The du Teil's believed counter-battery fire to be useless and stressed that artillery should be generally used against troops. There were only two occasions that counter battery fire should be employed: when your own artillery was taking unacceptable losses from enemy artillery fire, and when there were no infantry targets. Ricochet fire was very important, and was to be used when at all practicable, as was the use of grazing fire. It should be noted that ricochet fire effectively doubled the range of the artillery being employed.
They advocated that artillery should go into action between five hundred and one thousand yards. He also thought that more guns of light caliber massed against fewer guns of lesser caliber were more effective, if counter battery firing couldn't be avoided. His theories proved quite true, the lighter guns being able to fire quicker than those of heavier caliber, and could keep this up for a sustained period of time. Additionally, French gunners in the wars when firing against enemy artillery would mass their fire against the enemy's guns one at a time until it was knocked out, then shift their massed fire to the next target, quite literally taking them out one at a time down a gunline. That had to be unnerving to the gunners of the next target. If the battery limbered up to displace, the objective had been achieved without more expenditure of ammunition. A battery moving or displacing cannot shoot.
Quite possibly, the greatest innovation undertaken by the artillery after the introduction of the Gribeauval system was the replacement of the 4- and 8-pounder guns with a newly designed 6-pounder, the system of the Year XI, which also produced a new howitzer, better vehicles, and the militarizing of the artillery train, which took place in 1800. Instead of the civilian drivers and teams that hindered battlefield mobility during the Revolutionary Wars, and sometimes abandoning them on the battlefield, Napoleon introduced the Train d'Artillerie, which greatly improved the artillery arm. The train was a 'highly efficient military organization,' organized in battalions and companies, of which one was assigned to every artillery company to move its guns and equipment. They would always take the field together and because of this long time service together, became highly efficient and cohesive. Originally the train company commanders were sergeants, but this was later changed to lieutenants. The chef de bataillon was a captain. This worked quite well, as they were one grade lower than the corresponding artillerymen. The train troops also brought along a trumpeter, which had to have come in handy.
Additionally, the introduction of horse artillery in 1792 greatly increased the mobility of the French artillery, as the gunners had their own mounts. Generally speaking, they were assigned to support the cavalry, but Napoleon always tried to assign at least one battery per corps in addition to that assigned to the cavalry.
Repeatedly during the Consulate and Empire, especially after Senarmont's wild artillery charge at Friedland in 1807, French artillery commanders made their opponents believe that, in the words of an artilleryman from the American Civil War; 'hell wasn't half a mile off.'
Staff and higher level organization weren't neglected either. Plans for, and the institution of, a permanent staff corps were made, based on Bourcet's design. A staff manual was started, but was overcome by the crushingly destructive events of the Revolution. The staff corps was dissolved, but some of its products became increasingly in demand as the wars became more violent, larger, and staff expertise became essential. Such officers as Alexandre Berthier, who may have worked on the embryonic staff manual, worked their efficient way to the top, probably with a bootleg copy of the proposed staff manual in his back pocket.
Permanent divisions were organized, to facilitate command and control in the field. This greatly streamlined army organization, especially for combat. That combined with the new rapidly developing staff organization and procedures, gave the French Revolutionary armies an immense advantage over their opponents.
The development of French tactical doctrine was an evolutionary process that began with the ashes of disaster after the Seven Years' War. Both theorists and practitioners had their input-thoughtful officers were smart enough to realize that something had to be done to correct the inherent weaknesses in the French Army that had proved fatal. The intellectual side of the argument was just as important initially as the practical side, the practical side finally taking precedence.
The Royal Army had ceased to exist before the total impact of the reforms and changes took effect. The 1776 Reglement was a step in the right direction, and the Americans gained in the short run more from the benefit of its use and the Camp of Vaisseaux than the French themselves. The French Expeditionary Force that set out in 1780 and ultimately made the victory of Yorktown possible in 1781 was well-trained, well led, and well-disciplined. Its commander, Rochambeau, who had been involved in the 'maneuvers' at Vaisseaux, was undoubtedly the right choice to lead it.
The chaos with which the French waded into during the Revolutionary Wars was generally sorted out through much trial and error. As John Lynn emphatically states, the process started with 'The theory and experimentation of the military enlightenment, represented by the Gribeauval system, the Reglement of 1791, and the tactical convictions of the generals' and this wrought a revolution in how wars were fought and won. Sans-culotte generals, junior officers who had been recently promoted, and former Royal Army NCOs who clawed their way up the promotion ladder dragged, pushed and thumped their odd mixture of old Regulars, volunteers, and conscripts into effective fighting units that developed the later standard of small, handy battalion columns supported by clouds of skirmishers and supported by whatever artillery was at hand. The system they finally perfected, led by former enlisted men, junior officers, and especially by a grim, quiet, and studious Corsican artilleryman, swept the battlefields of Europe and enabled the Grande Armée to 'stable their horses in every capitol of continental Europe,' defeating every army involved in the coalitions against France at least once, and left a legacy of hard-won victories and an enduring tradition.
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Placed on the Napoleon Series: August 2000.
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