French Light Infantry 1784-1815.
From the Chasseurs of Louis XVI to Napoleon’s Grande Armée
Helion & Company (2021), softcover
Images: 66 b/w illustrations, 24 pages of colour plates, 23 tables
Terry Crowdy has set himself the task of describing the history, organization, growth, and tactics of the French army’s light infantry units during the Revolutionary and Imperial periods. He has the background to do so, having written Incomparable, a well-regarded history of the 9th Light Infantry Regiment. Crowdy divides his work into seven chapters: three cover the organization and history of the light infantry in the royal, revolutionary, and imperial armies, the remaining four to tactics, uniforms, and equipment, colours including a most interesting chapter on Notes for Wargamers and Re-enactors. His text is complemented by excellent illustrations, mostly from period and 19th century sources and there are 24 pages of colour.
Crowdy is positively relentless in describing the history of the French light infantry arm. He begins his story with an account of the enfants perdus of the army of Louis XIV but his real examination of the service begins in 1784 and from that point until the fall of the empire in 1814, every change in organization, unit strengths and ranks is explained in detail, all changes being based on primary archival sources. Useful tables of personnel and ranks are provided in these sections, and they contain much interesting information. For example, in 1788, tables give the areas of recruitment, professions or trades, length of service and heights of the five light infantry battalions in the royal army. Not surprisingly, the greatest number of men were farm labourers and men with less than four years’ service were predominant. What is surprising – although it should not be – is that the mean height of the men was between 5 ft, 1 inch and 5 ft. 4 inches, indeed small but lively men.
The most interesting chapter, for this reviewer at least, was Crowdy’s account of light infantry tactics which he bases on period military commentators, once kept in the rare book collections of libraries but now available on the Internet. The names of such well-known period military commentators as Bardin, Colin, Duhesme, Gassendi, Guibert, Jarry, Marbot, Mesnil-Durand, Morand, Rogniat, and Saxe appear frequently in this chapter. Of these, perhaps the most interesting to the reviewer was Francois Jarry, a French engineer officer who served as the Director of the Prussian Kriegsakademie and as a commander of light troops, before ending up as a senior instructor at the Royal Military College at Marlow. His very useful treatise, Instructions Concerning the Duties of Light Infantry in the Field, was published by the War Office in 1803 as an addendum to the 1792 British infantry regulations. Crowdy is clearly fascinated by tactics and their intellectual sources, and his treatment is excellent but could have been improved by the addition of simple diagrams to illustrate the maneuvers he describes.
The author treats the subject of uniforms and equipment as thoroughly as the rest of his text but issues a very practical caveat (p. 138) that any study of Napoleonic uniforms…
before the advent of photography is a voyage into the unknown. On one side there are regulations and on the other, reality. Did regulations copy what already existed, or did they drive innovation? Did finances and time permit the manufacture, or what the men often dressed in what they found. It is a frustrating subject, where it is difficult to be certain of anything without supporting evidence from regimental inspection reports. Our mental image of these soldiers [from the past] is often corrupted by inexact iconography and anachronisms introduced by later artists, who often drew and painted imagery to inspire and please their own audiences.
Truer words were never written. Having delivered himself of this warning, Crowdy discusses the subject and bases most of his text on official regulations. It should be noted that he is often critical – with reason – in his captions to period and post-period images, particularly if he feels the artist were trying to please an audience, rather than document reality.
A short chapter on Colours and Eagles and a very useful collection of notes for re-enactors and wargamers completes this fine study. Crowdy includes an extensive bibliography but not an index which would be very useful in a book full of facts and information. Nonetheless, French Light Infantry 1784-1815. From the Chasseurs of Louis XVI to Napoleon’s Grande Armée
will interest not only those interested in the subject of the title but also students of 18th/19th century military philosophers and commentators.
Helion & Company should be congratulated on a fine addition to what is becoming one of the best publication lists of musket period warfare available.
Donald E. Graves