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The Napoleon Series > Military Information > Organization, Strategy & Tactics

French Voluntary Foreign Pioneers

By Yves Martin

On 15 February 1806, a unit called "Pionniers Blancs" (white pioneers) was created with 2 battalions of 4 companies each. It's soldiers were Austrian prisoners-of-war who wanted to stay in France after the Austerlitz campaign.

On 1 September 1810, this regiment was disbanded and reorganized into 5 companies and named Pionniers Volontaires Etrangers (Foreign Pioneer Volunteers). On 16 February 1811, a sixth company was raised and on 12 September 1811 two more companies were added from the prisoners taken in Germany from the units of Von Schill and the Duke of Brunswick-Oels.

The Decree of 23rd February 1811 called for use of POWs in a total of 38 pioneer battalions: 15 were to be used for fortifications, 15 for roads, and 8 for seaport service. Units included:

  • 27 June 1811: Spanish Pioneers from the men of the Regiment Joseph-Napoleon.
  • 1812: Portuguese pioneers from whatever was left of the Portuguese Legion; disbanded 1814.
  • 25 November 1813: battalion of Croatian pioneers from the regiment of Croatian hussars; disbanded in 1814.
  • 19 December 1813: from the remnants of the 4th Foreign Regiment (4eme Regiment Etranger or Regiment de Prusse.) It was disbanded on 26 May 1814.

All these units were dressed as follows:

Iron-gray opened coatee (no turnbacks), pants and shirt of the same color. Cloth buttons also gray. Overcoat iron-gray but with copper buttons. Short gaiters in the same cloth as the overcoat. A shako with a blue round tuft, a losange-shpaed brass plate and a forage cap. The pioneers had only entrenching tools - no weapons. Only the NCOs and officers were armed. The NCO were equipped with a Dragoon musket complete with bayonet. This musket was a shorter version of the traditional 1777 Modifie An IX infantry musket. Its fittings were brass with the exception of the central barrel fitting which was a double iron band.

The original unit was called Pionniers Blancs to differentiate itself from the Pionniers Noirs. The Pionniers Noirs were a unit raised in 1802 and had been transfered to the service of the Kingdom of Naples on 4 August 1806 where it became the Royal-African. It was composed of blacks and wore a uniform that was brown with red facings and turnbacks.


Lienhart & Humbert. Les Uniformes de l'Armee Francaise Vol 4; Leipzig: Ruhl; 1902.