The Reserve Companies of the Départements
By: Markus Stein, based on the original article by Claude Achard
Translator: Justin Howard
This article previously appeared in Issue 3 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. It is based on an article in the French-language magazine Le Briquet.
This time I would like to present a longer study, taken from the magazine of our French colleagues from Le Briquet, about some units of the French army which are encountered quite often during research, but about whose exact appearance nothing definite can be stated.
General military service for all Frenchmen between the ages of 20 and 25 was introduced by means of the “Jourdan Law” of 19 Fructidor in Year VI of the Republic (5 September 1798). However not everyone eligible for service was called up, because each year the Legislative Assembly set a quota of soldiers required to reinforce the active troops. Even if an eligible man was lucky in the draw or could avoid service by providing a substitute, he would later discover to his surprise and bitterness that Napoleon had foreseen an alternative form of military service for him. For he would then be assigned to a regional unit or even to combat troops, for instance the National Guard, Coast Guard, Honour Guard of 1813, etc. The Reserve Companies of the French départements were also among those units which were provided with eligible men who had not been called up.
These were called into being by the decree of 24 Floréal in Year XIII of the Republic:
The prefects of the départements were supposed to be the commanders of these reserve companies, similar to a colonel; however they were inspected by the colonels of the Gendarmerie – and for this reason Malibran counts them in his work as auxiliaries of the Gendarmerie.
The soldiers of the reserve companies couldn’t really grumble about the duties specified in Article 2 of the above decree, however Napoleon took their designation as reserve companies literally and continually drew off men from them to reinforce his active troops. According to Buttner, 1600 men were detailed to the cavalry in 1808 and in 1812 4000 men were sent to the infantry regiments of the first contingent of National Guard cohorts. However, these figures seem to me to be much understated, because in the départements which I have studied in some depth, (Pyrénées-Orientales, Ariège, Gard, Hérault and Haute-Loire), three times the company strength swapped to the active army during a ten year period. The company of Gard, for example, supplied 366 soldiers between 1806 and 1813.
The companies of the southern départements suffered especially under this constant drawing off of men, because first of all they had to provide several strong detachments for the reserve legions of the Spanish Army and later even raise a complete battalion of 808 men for the Army of Catalonia – this battalion is well known to us thanks to Sarramon. According to an order from the Minister of War on 18 July 1808, the reserve companies of the départements Basses-Pyrénées, Landes, Hautes-Pyrénées, Ariège, Gers, Haute-Garonne, Aude, Pyrénées-Orientales, Tarn, Hérault, Aveyron, Lozère, Ardèche, Gard, Lot and Lot-et-Garonne were to make their way to Perpignan, where they would be attached as a combined provisional battalion to General Ritay’s mobile column, which operated in the frontier region with Spain. However the battalion was soon commanded to Spain, where it was first employed in Reille’s division, later in Chabran’s division around Ampurdan and Gerona. After this the battalion were garrisoned in Barcelona, where in July 1810 its remnants (252 men) were integrated into the 4th Battalion of the 7th Regiment of Line Infantry. Of the initial complement of 117 men in the company of Gard, only 54 remained at the time of this reorganisation.
In addition, several reserve companies patrolled with various mobile columns in the frontier region – especially those of Basses-Pyrénees, Hautes-Pyrénées, Gers and Ariège.
As well as this active participation in the war, the reserve companies were also called upon for other special duties, e.g. guarding recruits, conscientious objectors and prisoners of war, as well as forming mobile columns against rebels and deserters and guarding, or rather monitoring, the parents of these rebels.
Towards the end of the Empire, the troops of the reserve companies must have been integrated en masse into the active army, because at the turn of the year from 1813 to 1814, the companies had practically ceased to exist. For instance, the company of Pyrénées-Orientales included scarcely 40 of originally 60 soldiers at this time, while that of Gard only had 65 of originally 120.
In line with the order of 31 May 1814, the reserve companies were disbanded in June and July 1814. However the Restoration reinstated them by the decree of 8 January 1816, only to finally disband them with the circular of 16 April 1818.
The circular of 3 Thermidor in Year XIII of the Republic (25 July 1805) specified the smaller items of the uniform as follows:
2 shirts, 1 black cravat, 2 pairs of gloves, 2 pairs of shoes, 1 pair of grey linen gaiters, 1 pair of black gaiters, 1 calfskin knapsack, 2 cockades.
By decree of 30 Thermidor of Year XIII of the Republic (21st August 1805), the uniform was specified as follows:
“The uniform of the reserve companies shall consist of a sky-blue coat with brass buttons and vertical skirt pockets, a white waistcoat and white trousers.
The buttons shall be embossed with the name of the département as well as the number of the Gendarmerie legion, in whose catchment area the reserve company is situated.
All companies, which are in the same Gendarmerie catchment area, shall wear the same uniform and shall only be distinguishable from each other by the département name on the buttons. In order to distinguish the various districts, the following facing colours for cuffs, lapels and collars are assigned:
Collar, cuffs and lapels in facing colour
Example: The département Meuse is situated in the district of the 18th Gendarmerie Legion, so its reserve company wears sky-blue coats with lemon-yellow cuffs and lapels.
In addition, the circular of 12 Fructidor in Year XIII of the Republic (3 September 1805) specified the following:
The shako was introduced by the circular of 27 November 1807:
Finally, the Prefects received the following decree, penned in Bayonne on 12 July 1808:
The companies with the old facing colour white were now to be distinguished by the colour sky-blue.
Between September 1810 and January 1811, 6 new Legions were founded, although it was only in the following five that this actually resulted in a reserve company being raised:
The 1810 report on the muster rolls, administration and accounting of the reserve companies provides us with further important details:
The overview of the facing colours (as already provided above) is then followed by the note:
On page 201, the estimate for the patterns of all articles of clothing provides the following details:
The circular of 1 October 1812 informed the prefects:
These changes become applicable, without the colour of the uniforms, lapels, turnbacks, cuffs, etc. being affected.”
Although this pre-empted the 1812 regulation, the reserve companies were among the last to actually implement it.
Ultimately, the 1812 regulation intended the following for the reserve companies:
Headgear … Rank distinctions, shoes … weapons … equipment as already described (see paragraphs 227 to 297). The horse furniture of the mounted officers is as already described (see articles 298 to 301).
Coat colours (Paragraph 1031)
White coat for all, with white turnbacks; waist and tails lined with white cadiz; the turnbacks have vertical pockets and crowned “N” in the facing colour.
Collar, lapels, shoulder straps with piping, cuffs, piping of the cuff slashes and of the skirt pockets, piping and ornamentation of the turnbacks in the facing colour, i.e. sky-blue for the 1st Legion, madder red for the 2nd Legion, green for the 3rd, lemon yellow for the 4th, orange for the 5th, crimson for the 6th and black for the 7th Legion.
8th Legion: Collar, shoulder straps with piping, lapels, piping of the skirt pockets as well as piping and ornamentation of the turnbacks are sky-blue; white cuffs with sky-blue piping; sky-blue cuff slashes with white piping.
Rest of the group: collar, shoulder straps with piping, lapels, piping of the skirt pockets as well as piping and ornamentation of the turnbacks in the facing colour; sky-blue cuffs; white cuff slashes with piping in the facing colour, i.e. madder red for the 9th, imperial green for the 10th, lemon yellow for the 11th, orange for the 12th, crimson for the 13th and black for the 14th Legion.
15th Legion: Collar and shoulder straps are white and have sky-blue piping; lapels, cuffs, piping of the cuff slashes and of the skirt pockets as well as ornamentation of the turnbacks are sky-blue.
Rest of the group: sky-blur collar; sky-blue shoulder straps with piping in the facing colour; lapels, cuffs, piping of the cuff slashes and of the skirt pockets, piping and ornamentation of the turnbacks in the facing colour, i.e. madder red for the 16th, imperial green for the 17th, lemon yellow for the 18th, orange for the 19th, crimson for the 20th and black for the 21st Legion.
22nd Legion: Collar, shoulder straps and cuffs are white and have sky-blue piping; sky-blue cuff slashes with white piping; lapels, piping of the pockets and ornamentation of the turnbacks are sky-blue.
Rest of the group: Collar, shoulder straps and cuffs are sky-blue; lapels, piping of the cuffs and of the cuff slashes, piping of the skirt pockets and of the turnbacks as well as their ornamentation in the facing colour, i.e. madder red for the 23rd, imperial green for the 24th, lemon yellow for the 25th, orange for the 26th, crimson for the 27th, black for the 28th and pink for the 29th Legion.
30th Legion: Collar, piping of the shoulder straps and lapels, cuffs and piping of the cuff slashes are sky-blue; piping of the skirt pockets and of the turnbacks as well as their ornamentation are also sky-blue.
Rest of the group: Collar, shoulder straps with piping, lapels, cuffs, piping of the cuff slashes and of the skirt pockets, piping and ornamentation of the turnbacks in the facing colour, i.e. imperial green for the 32nd, lemon yellow for the 33rd and orange for the 34th Legion.
Uniform of 9 January 1816:
White coat without lapels with one row of 9 large buttons; pointed chestnut-brown cuffs, which are closed on the underside; chestnut-brown collar; horizontal pockets, each with three points; brass buttons with embossed département name.
The shako has a rhombus-shaped brass plate with embossed fleur de lys.
White turnbacks with chestnut-brown piping. White shoulder straps with chestnut-brown piping. White trousers. Black gaiters reaching to under the knee. Sabre-briquet, cartridge-box and musket.
Description of Plates 1-5
For all – black bicorn with yellow loop, brass button, cockade (red centre, blue middle strip and white outer strip) as well as pompom in the desired colour, i.e. red, blue, green, yellow …; white turnbacks; sky-blue coat; white waistcoat; white trousers; grey or black gaiters; iron musket with brass rings; white cartridge-box belt; brass buttons. As well as the details already provided (see above), the following should be noted:
6th Legion – sky-blue shoulder straps and cuff slashes, crimson piping on the skirt pockets, shoulder straps, cuffs and cuff slashes.
8th Legion- sky-blue shoulder straps and cuff slashes, white piping on the skirt pockets, shoulder straps, cuffs and cuff slashes.
14th Legion – sky-blue shoulder straps and cuff slashes, black piping on the skirt pockets, shoulder straps and cuff slashes.
16th Legion – sky-blue shoulder straps and cuff slashes, madder red piping on collar, shoulder straps, skirt pockets and cuff slashes.
18th Legion – sky-blue shoulder straps and cuff slashes, lemon-yellow piping on collar, skirt pockets, shoulder straps and cuff slashes.
Fusiliers 1810 – 1811
29th Legion – Collar, lapels, cuffs, piping of the skirt pockets and of the cuff slashes as well as of the shoulder straps is pink; Coat, piping of the collar, cuff slashes and shoulder straps are white.
30th Legion – Collar, cuffs, piping of the skirt pockets, of the cuff slashes and of the shoulder straps as well as of the lapels are sky-blue; collar piping, coat, lapels, shoulder straps and cuff slashes are white.
32nd Legion – Collar, cuffs, piping of the skirt pockets, of the cuff slashes, of the shoulder straps and of the lapels are green; collar piping, coat, lapels, shoulder straps and cuff slashes are white.
33rd Legion – Collar and cuffs as well as piping of the skirt pockets, of the cuff slashes, of the shoulder straps and of the lapels are yellow; collar piping, coat, lapels, shoulder straps and cuff slashes are white.
34th Legion – Collar and cuffs as well as piping of the skirt pockets, of the cuff slashes, of the shoulder straps and of the lapels are orange; collar piping, coat, lapels, shoulder straps and cuff slashes are white.
For all – black shoes; black shako with yellow loop as well as brass button, plate and chin scales in addition to cockade (see above); brass buttons on the coat; white turnbacks; white waistcoat and white trousers; grey or black gaiters; shako pompom in the desired colour as above; white cartridge-box belt; iron musket with brass rings.
For these, see the text of the “Bardin” Regulations above.
Fusilier 1816 – 1818
For these, see article 28 of the Regulation from 9 January 1816, which is reprinted above.
Description of Plate 5
a – Brass shako plate of a reserve company of the empire, to a scale of 1:1 (Plate CLXX of the Album du Guide a l’usage des artistes et des costumiers by H. Malibran 1904)
b - Silver-plated brass shako plate of an officer of the 2nd Legion (départements Seine-Inférieure, Eure, Calvados, and Manche), (Museum of the Gendarmerie in Melun – after illustration 106 in Aigles et shakos du premier Empire by Christian Blondieau).
c- Brass button, to a scale of 1:1 (also after Malibran).
(to be continued)
 Translator’s Note: This is a direct translation of the original text, though the Legislative Assembly ceased to exist in 1792. In 1798 the Directory held power in France.
 Translator’s Note: 119/100 means 119 cm (width of cloth), 50/100 means 50 cm, etc.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: October 2010