Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics



YEAR 1812.





A decree, returned at the end of the year 1812, instituted, in the Imperial Guard, a new corps, which was called the battalion of instruction of Fontainebleau.

The purpose of this creation was to provide the various regiments of the Young Guard with educated and experienced non-commissioned officers. After the campaigns of Russia and Saxony, in 1813, promotions of second lieutenants made at the Military Academy of Saint-Cyr, no longer being strong enough to supplement the cadres of young officers of the army, the Emperor did not hesitate to order that the battalion of instruction of Fontainebleau would provide second lieutenants for all the regiments of the army.  This number of officers was approximately a tenth of the number required; thus, one of last promotions of 1813, requested from the battalion of instruction of Fontainebleau a hundred and ninety men, to only enter the regiments of the Young Guard lately formed, and of this number of one hundred ninety, there had been chosen: nineteen second lieutenants, eleven adjutant non-commissioned officers, thirty-eight sergeant-majors, seventy sergeants and fifty-two quartermasters (fourriers).

The battalion of instruction of Fontainebleau normally was composed of thousand men, divided into ten companies of one hundred men each, commanded by a captain, a first lieutenant, a second lieutenant, four sergeants, eight corporals, a sergeant-major and a quartermaster sergeant; all, as well as the instructors, were taken from the ranks of the Old Guard.  The first company of the battalion carried the title and the uniform of the fusiliers of the Guard; the nine other companies had the title and the uniform of the tirailleurs of the Young Guard.  A senior officer attached to the Old Guard commanded the battalion.  The senior commander of the battalion was reserved for a brigadier general of Guard.*

*See in Chapter III of this book, the list of names of the senior officers composing the battalion of instruction of Fontainebleau.

This battalion was recruited from the young conscripts of the classes called up, and which, by their instruction, their education and the social position of their family, recommended for inclusion by the prefects and generals commanding the Departments; he still recruited young people from the colleges which, not being advanced enough or too poor to enter freely into the school of Saint-Cyr, were considered very happy being given the chance to be named officers in a regiment of line, or at least non-commissioned officers in the Young Guard; finally, those of the young soldiers of the regiments of the Young Guard who showed provisions to become good non-commissioned officers were received into the battalion of instruction of Fontainebleau.

Among the latter were some seminarists of the various dioceses of France, that the law of the conscription of 1813, by reaching them, had driven out of sanctuary; these young people had taken their participation philosophically, and followed, by taste, a state which they had taken initially only by force.  In 1814, when the battalion returned to Fontainebleau, that it had been forced to evacuate in the presence of the Austrian division of General Bianchi, these young soldiers found their barracks in a complete disorder; a room, among others, was full with books, and certainly, one would not have suspected the nature of these books in a military asylum: they was breviaries, epistles and Gospels, treaties of theology, etc. They remembered whereas the last promotion had taken along more than twenty seminarists who all, almost, had left sergeants-majors or quartermasters, and that these books, which had not been able to reasonably find place in their cartridge pouches, had been given up by them.

The discipline of the battalion of instruction of Fontainebleau was perhaps more severe than that observed in the Guard.  The smallest infringement of the regulations, the least reprehensible act of the life of soldier resulted in a more or less serious punishment.  Thus the guardhouse, more hideous, more dilapidated than in any other barracks, and which could contain, on the camp beds, which a dozen men normally shared, was often encumbered by twenty or thirty of delinquents.  The dungeon was ordered for successive failures of evening muster; finally, the punishment of picket duty, the extraordinary drudgeries and the instructions were widely distributed to those who left the least taken against them, either for their behavior, or for maintenance of the weapons, or for the irregularity of their conduct; but this inflexible rigor was necessary to young people who were to one day be officers in elite corps, such as those of the Guard.

The general instruction of the battalion was divided into two parts.  The first consisted in the duties and the studies properly known as that of the conscript: handling of the weapons, three schools: that of the soldier, that of group (peloton) and that of battalion; the meticulous knowledge of the rifle which one was to dismantle and reassemble in twenty minutes; the care of the ordinary, i.e. to work in kitchen in his turn, and to discharge his share of the drudgeries of barrack room.  The second part of the instruction was composed of the theory, the reading, the writing, of calculations, plus inking of the drawing and raising of the plans, the application on the ground of the various operations of the infantry, finally fencing.

 Every hour was thus taken, without it being possible to cut out one minute from it.  Military marches, marches of two, five and sometimes of seven miles, the bag on back and the cartridge pouch charged with cartridges; the passage of fords of the small rivers.  Other days, four and sometimes six hours of exercise in fire.  Here is, in summary, the system, which was followed for the instruction of this battalion which bore a beautiful name, a name which tickled young vanities agreeably, the name of first battalion of France!  What wouldn't one have done to deserve and preserve this glorious title and to leave it intact for his successors?

The days of promotion were beautiful days for all.  The commanding senior general came to place himself in front of the face of the battalion under the arms, and called from the ranks, on the indication of the senior officers of the school, the most distinguished subjects; each one of them was subjected to an oral examination, then he was given command of the battalion, no doubt he had a thin sharp voice.  One was less demanding for the men who were to leave only as sergeant-majors or quartermasters in the Young Guard; but those of them whose good conduct and their instruction intended to be officers, were made to carry out by the battalion the most complicated maneuvers and the most difficult changes of facings; thus, it was necessary that he evened out the groups of the ten companies in ten minutes, that he made them form a square in one quarter-at hour, and that the fire on all four sides started at once.

How astonishing that a similar intellectual food, as would say Montaigne, produced such good officers, becoming, with time, deep tacticians and skilful experts!

The life of the school was a true soldier’s existence.  The clothes, furnishings, the weapons, all the equipment was that of the regiments of the Young Guard.  The pupils ate the bread of ammunition, and only three times per week meat were distributed to them; the other days, only vegetables made up their meals; they did not have much of any, in any season, sometimes with only six to seven hours of sleep, the commander still made gave the alerts to get dressed and arm themselves in ten minutes; those who exceeded this time were marked by the corporals of barrack rooms and the adjutants, and were punished according to more or less repetition, either of the instruction, or of extraordinary drudgery, or even by the guardhouse.

Almost all the officers and non-commissioned officers instructors had been selected from the ranks of the old Guard; the captains were lenient, but the non-commissioned officer instructors, who left the Young Guard following receiving wounds, were of an excessive severity; however once leaving the school, all these small tribulations, all the small hatreds given birth to by malcontent or vanity, were erased from the memory; one recalled the justice of the solidity of the precepts and followed the example of these brave men to whom it well needed to be severe, since the majority of them had managed to reach forty years of age without ever having obtained any other dignity than that of the stripes of sergeant; but also almost all were decorated, and for them the stay with the battalion of instructions of Fontainebleau became a pension (vétérance) granted for long and glorious services.

To add here that the battalion of instruction was constantly charged to provide the post of honor of the castle of Fontainebleau, all during the time of the captivity of the Pope Pius VII while this imperial residence lasted.  The soldiers of the battalion showed themselves always worthy of this mission of confidence, by having for the chief of the catholic Church the regard due to his crowned character and his misfortunes.   

About the last months of the year 1813, the manpower of the battalion of instruction was increased successively from a thousand to fifteen hundred, to eighteen hundred and to two thousand men, which, in February 1814, obliged the senior commander of the battalion to place three companies in a house of the suburb of Fontainebleau, lent for this purpose by the city.

At that time fatal, one also admitted among the pupils a certain number from abroad made French by our old conquests, such as Croats, Italians, the Piedmontese one, of Styriens, etc. What was to necessarily to come, and which did not fail to occur, was that this agglomeration of men, manners and so different languages, did not make it possible any more to maintain the unit and vigorous instruction as in the past.  Napoleon, with the midst of the terrible concerns of the campaign of France, was informed of it, and he resolved to rehabilitate the battalion of instruction and to form of it the core of two new regiments of tirailleurs of the Young Guard, who would carry numbers 14 and 15; in this manner the school had been reformed with other elements, but always according to the same basis.  The capitulation of Paris, on March 30, 1814, cut short the destinies of the battalion of instruction of Fontainebleau, like those of the Imperial Guard and all the army; the village of the court of France was the place where it finished its military career, after having equipped the army, during three consecutive years, of the best non-commissioned officers who ever carried the copper banded fusil.

Placed on the Napoleon Series: June 2006


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