Depesche Issue #1: The 3rd Line Regiment and its white uniform – Part 1
By: Hans-Karl Weiβ
Translator: Justin Howard
This article previously appeared in Issue 1 of the German-language magazine Depesche, which is published by our partner, Napoleon Online. We appreciate the kindness of the editor, Markus Stein, for giving us permission to publish the translation.
White or Blue?
There exist several vague suspicions for the introduction of the white uniform. First of all, several officers and older soldiers probably missed their nice white uniforms from the pre-Revolutionary royal army and so there were calls every now and then in the French army for a re-introduction of the white coat. What opposed this move was the fact that the new blue coat had become a symbol of the Revolution within the army and was thus enormously popular, even in the Napoleonic armies, which were still largely of republican sentiment.
However, due to the naval blockade by England, indigo – the most important dye for the blue uniform – became increasingly scarcer, and so the idea of introducing a uniform in his favourite colour – namely white – grew more attractive to Napoleon.
As early as 1805 the third battalions of the 18th Line and the 4th Light Infantry were supplied with white coats as an experiment. Eventually, on 25 April 1806, global introduction of the white uniform was decreed. At first only the line infantry regiments 3, 4, 8, 12, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 21, 22, 24, 25, 27, 28, 32, 22, 34 and 36 were foreseen to have the white uniform, but at the latest by 1 January 1809 the complete infantry should have swapped their blue for white coats.
In practice, only 12 regiments were equipped with the new coats, namely the line regiments numbers 3, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 21, 32, 33, 46 and 53 – thus including three regiments that were not originally foreseen. It is probable that officers of other regiments also had white coats tailored at their own expense.
It would be interesting to know how much of the French line infantry, at least of the regiments named above, was already equipped with the white uniform for the 1806 campaign. So far, the only clue I have found to this is in one source, namely an article by Hans M. Brauer, who quotes Captain Luk of the Prussian Fusilier Battalion Pelet at Jena: “… as we suddenly saw a battalion with white coats and bearskins approaching, which we took for Saxons (grenadiers). This notion changed rapidly when the battalion greeted us with a salvo from a distance of 80 to 100 paces”.
Brauer suspects it was the 36th Line Regiment or even a battalion made up of the elite companies of this regiment. Were they really French or Saxons after all? A clarification of this case as well as further examples of French infantry in white uniform would be very welcome.
However, we move on now to the characteristics of the new uniform.
Following an ingenious system, each regiment was to be distinguished by different facings, or rather by variations of these on the collar, lapels, cuffs, cuff flaps, and turnbacks as well as the form of the coat pockets (horizontal or vertical) and by the colour of the buttons ( tin or brass).
However each source I know of – as usual, one could add – shows variations from the regulations.
Napoleon was allegedly so sickened by the blood-spattered white uniforms of his infantry during and after the Battle of Eylau that he ordered the blue coat to be reinstated. This is however probably only part of the great Napoleonic legend, because lapels and leather items had anyway always been white – Napoleon must have been well used to this “bloody” sight – and in addition the majority of soldiers at Eylau probably fought in overcoats. As with their introduction, the phasing out of the white coats probably took place gradually. For instance the so-called “Otto Manuscript” shows white-coated infantry for 1808, while the Carl Collection shows the 3rd Regiment– or at least part of it – wearing the blue uniform in 1809.
Consequences for the 3rd Regiment
The dates during which the 3rd regiment wore the white uniform are provided in a sufficient number of sources.
The white coat and the shako were both only introduced gradually. On 11 November 1807, companies of the regiment could be found with either blue or white coats, and also with either the shako or the old bicorn. In his card series, Bucquoy shows a “white” infantryman with bicorn, whereas in the Manuscript, the white infantry is depicted with shako. However, there were certainly also infantrymen in the regiment with blue uniform and both types of headgear.
The 3rd Line Regiment was allocated green facings as follows:
Collars, lapels, turnbacks and cuff flaps are green – white cuffs – horizontal coat pockets – brass buttons. However, as already mentioned, contemporary sources show variations from this regulation.
My most important source is the so-called “Otto Manuscript”, in one case in the form of a facsimile by Henri Achard and in another case as an interpretation by RIGO in his Plate U 5. Even though both gentlemen refer to the same manuscript, even here there are variations, which I will discuss in the next section.
Achard’s grenadier wears a white coat with light green collar, lapels, cuffs and French cuff flaps. Turnbacks are white, as are the buttons, which are made of tin. The piping is white on cuffs, cuff flaps and lapels and green on the turnbacks. Red epaulettes.
RIGO’s grenadier is the same as Achard’s, but the collar also has white piping. I take the facing colour shown by RIGO to be green.
Since the figures in the Otto Manuscript are only shown from the front, one can only guess at the decorations on the turnbacks – RIGO shows red grenades.
For the voltigeurs, Henri Achard shows the same uniform as for the grenadiers, but that the collar is yellow with white piping. In addition, the cuff flaps are shown as straight – following the Prussian style – and with three tin buttons. Green epaulettes with yellow crescent.
RIGO’s voltigeur is the same as Achard’s except for the cuff flaps, which are also straight and green, but without buttons. As decoration for the turnbacks, RIGO shows green hunting horns.
I am grateful to Edmund Wagner from Karlsruhe, who allowed me access to several documents from his extensive collection, which provide hitherto unknown information. For instance, a sketch from the Knötel Estate in Rastatt shows a voltigeur from 1806 after an anonymous drawing from Spain. This drawing confirms Achard’s type, i.e. yellow collar with white piping and straight cuff flaps with three tin buttons. I will return to this source later.
Relying on other sources, RIGO depicts a fusilier, which is not represented in the Otto Manuscript. This figure wears the same uniform as the grenadier, but with Prussian cuffs – therefore with straight cuff flaps and three tin buttons. The shoulder strap is white with green piping. On the outer turnbacks there is a red “3”, on the inner ones a red star.
However, these decorations could also be green or not used at all. The coat pockets are shown, as with all infantry of the 3rd regiment, as horizontal with green piping. Another fusilier can be found in the series by Bucquoy – this one has brass buttons, green turnbacks with the red decorations mentioned above, French cuffs, but without piping on the collar, lapels or cuff flaps. This type was drawn by Boisselier after an ordnance book, which was copied by a Monsieur Millot.
After this source, Boisselier also shows a grenadier in white uniform with shako. His coat is the same as the fusilier coat, but the green collar seems to be piped green. The grenadier is of course distinguished by red epaulettes.
During this period, French infantry coats had three large buttons, each 23 mm in diameter, under the right lapel. RIGO relates an interesting anecdote whereby the then commander of the 3rd regiment – Colonel Schobert – ordered these buttons to be removed from the white uniform. Whilst these buttons were still worn on the coat in Strasbourg, in the Otto Manuscript, which pertains to the period from summer 1806 to 1808, they are no longer to be seen. However, Bucquoy shows them again. The Otto Manuscript also shows tin buttons for the 3rd Line Regiment, although brass ones were regulation. RIGO even shows a tin button in a detail sketch, so it would be interesting to know which source he used for this.
On one hand, the various wild hairstyles of the revolutionary period are well known, as is the Napoleonic period’s short haircut à la Titus (named after a dramatic figure played by the well-known contemporary actor Talma). However, many regiments kept the queue even under Napoleon, although in shorter form. For instance the Zimmermann Manuscript still shows many soldiers with queue in 1805 – 1807; also in our 3rd Regiment it was still worn for a long time – even powdered for parades. In this regiment it even reached the point that on 24 May 1807 all soldiers whose hair was too short were ordered to have false queues made.
As already mentioned above, in the period from 1806 to 1809, the old bicorn as well as the shako were worn.
The shako was the 1806 model and was worn without chin straps. In the case of the 3rd Regiment, the various shako plates which the soldiers of this very large regiment wore on their headgear are especially interesting. I have made some drawings of several of these, which are distributed among the text. The reader is requested to excuse the artistic shortcomings.
First of all the regulation plate must be mentioned – see Figure 1 – a brass diamond with stamped eagle and also stamped number.
In Christian Blondieau’s work, a plate in the form of a shield is shown, probably brass (see Figure 2).
The so-called sunburst plate, made from brass (see Figure 3), is shown on a card of the Bucquoy series, based on Martinet.
The Otto Manuscript shows a further variant, also brass – see Figure 4. RIGO states that, according to the Otto Manuscript, this plate was fixed so that its lower edge lay directly on the peak of the shako. However, this displeased Colonel Schobert so much that on 22 February 1808 he ordered that this plate be fixed above the lower leather strap. Nevertheless, the anonymous source from the Knötel Estate shows it worn as in the Otto Manuscript.
However, which plate was worn at which time – and by which battalion and company – is something I don’t know. The Otto Manuscript shows yet another shako plate for the grenadiers, namely a flaming grenade. At least one grenadier company kept their old, imposing grenadier bearskins though. For 1809, the Carl Collection shows a grenadier of the 3rd Regiment wearing a bearskin. It is very unlikely that this headgear was recently acquired, which means that the bearskin was probably also worn prior to 1809. This grenadier’s bearskin – though they were also manufactured from other types of fur – is black and has a brass plate with stamped, flaming grenade. The cords are white and the plume is red.
Although this article is only meant to cover the years 1806 – 1808, the following information may be of interest to the reader. In the Blücher Museum in Kaub, a grenadier shako of the 3rd Line Regiment is exhibited, which has a plate according to the 1812 regulation. Also in this case, the number is stamped and not cut-out.
The same model shako was used for grenadiers, voltigeurs and fusiliers, i.e. in each case the angular, so-called “chevrons” on the sides are coloured black.
The cords are white for the fusiliers, red for grenadiers and green for Voltigeurs. The sketch from the Knötel Estate however shows yellow cords!
For the grenadiers, RIGO shows a red plume in the shape of a pine cone and for the voltigeurs one in green – the sketch from the Knötel Estate however also shows yellow for this. In contrast, Achard shows a cylindrical, almost conical plume.
The cockade is in the usual national colours, i.e. blue-red-white (from inner to outer ring), but also here there were variations. For instance, RIGO mentions that Colonel Schobert insisted in 1807 that the outer ring should be white and not red. There must therefore have previously been cockades in the 3rd Regiment with red outer ring. One such example, with the colours white – blue – red (from inner to outer ring), is attached to the shako exhibited in the Blücher Museum. With museum exhibits, it’s always good to be a little sceptical, whether items like cockades might not have been added later. However, the cockade in the museum in Kaub seems to me to be an original.
For the grenadiers, Bucquoy shows a high red plume. The shako in the Blücher Museum also has one of these, however together with white cords and chin strap.
Fusiliers wore a pompom in the company colour on their shako. However, for the fusiliers of the later period, when the blue uniform was re-introduced, Bucquoy shows a red over medium-blue plume. However, this is not confirmed by the Carl Collection, which means that it is not really possible to draw any conclusions for the period when the white uniform was worn.
Waistcoat, trousers and gaiters as usual for the infantry of the period.
Both grenadiers and voltigeurs were initially equipped with the sabre-briquet. The grenadiers had a red sword knot and the voltigeurs green with a yellow slide. The sketch from the Knötel Estate shows for the voltigeurs a completely green sword knot.
RIGO shows all the overcoats light grey. Bucquoy confirms the ordnance book from 1806, which specifies grey overcoats with green collar piping. Achard shows for the voltigeurs a light grey overcoat – and for the grenadiers a dark blue one.
In the Otto Manuscript, the voltigeur’s musket is the usual 1777 model infantry musket, as slightly altered in Year IX of the Republic – i.e. all fittings are iron.
So the Voltigeurs seem to have carried this model, even though they were allowed to carry a different weapon, namely the Year IX model French dragoon carbine.
The painter of the Otto Manuscript also remembered the vent pick, which is hung through the second button hole so that the brass chain is visible. In addition, the brass chain was hung from the second button, so that the vent pick could not be dropped and was also close at hand.
As can be seen, it is astonishing how much variety a normal infantry regiment has to offer and how rewarding it can be, to occupy one’s self more intensively with a particular regiment.
In one of the next issues, I will describe the uniforms of the officers and the sappers.
To illustrate this article, Gerhard Bauer has generously provided a French infantryman in parade dress and in the marching step of the period. The reader may colour this white or blue as they please. The high plume as portrayed draws on several pictures from Bucquoy’s work. Bucquoy also shows such a plume for the 3rd Regiment, although for the period when the white coat was reintroduced. As already mentioned this plume is about ¼ red above medium-blue. Although it is unlikely to have been worn with the white uniform, Gerhard and I couldn’t resist this extra burst of colour.
Otto Manuscript – facsimile by Henri Achard.
RIGO – Plate U 5
Cdt. Bucquoy – Les Uniformes du Premier Empire, L’Infanterie – Paris, 1979
Christian Blondieu – Aigles et shakos du Premier Empire – Paris, 1980.
Musée du Château de Joux
Blücher Museum, Kaub
Hans M. Brauer – Die „blaue“ und „weiβe“ französische Infanterie von anno 1806/07 – an article which appeared in the magazine Zeitschrift für Heereskunde, March 1930.
RIGO – L’habillement, l’équipement et l’armement du 14e de Ligne en 1808-1809 – appeared in Uniformes issue 20
Guy C. Dempsey, Jr. – The white uniforms of the French Army, 1806-1807 – an article which appeared in Military Modelling January 1977
Anonymous sketch from the Knötel Estate
RIGO – Plate number 60 from the Consulat-Empire series
Carl Collection – facsimile by Henri Achard
 Translator’s Note: RIGO is the pseudonym of Albert Rigondaud
Placed on the Napoleon Series: March 2010