The Waterloo Association: Members Area

Get Involved:

Facebook Twitter Email




Odds, Bobs, Hammer And Tongs

The Grand Quartier-General Imperial and the Corps d'Armée

Developments in the Military Art, 1795-1815

By Kevin Kiley


Part II: The Corps d'Armée

The French Army entered into the Revolutionary Wars with a thorough doctrinal background, backed by publications and practical field exercises, on how to fight the next war. Wracked by an explosive political situation, and the overwhelming numbers of virtually untrained recruits, backed up by sullen regulars who may or may not fight, the surviving generals, elected officers, and the remnants of the officer corps of the ancien regime put theory into practice, albeit with many fits and starts, stampedes and victories. The basic tactical and operational organization was the division of all arms. Grouped into armies, these were a great improvement over the collection of regiments that made up the armies of the kings.

As the wars continued, casualties mounted, and officers and generals became more experienced, thoughtful officers as diverse as Hoche, Napoleon, and Moreau were developing ideas to make the organization of their armies to operate and fight more effectively.

Divisions of all arms, cavalry included were proving to be awkward and not the best use of the available cavalry, it being wasted both on escort and courier duty, and in small actions. Cavalrymen were grumbling that maybe their troopers would be more effective in mass. In 1797 separate divisions of infantry and cavalry were beginning to appear on the Rhine frontier and in Italy, with their own artillery to support them. In Italy, Napoleon's divisions were organized in three brigades, one of them being of light infantry. Hoche was forming cavalry into divisions, Napoleon, because of the peculiarities of the Italian terrain, into separate brigades, first under Stengel, then under Kilmaine.

The Revolutionary divisions were organized into temporary 'wings'; left, right, center, and sometimes a reserve and/or advance guard. The problem with these temporary organizations is that they didn't have a permanent staff, and the temporary commander still commanded his own division as well as the entire 'wing.' This begged a solution, and the embryonic corps d'Armée system was thought up. It would have a permanent staff, two or more infantry divisions, artillery assigned to the divisions, an artillery reserve, as well as support troops as needed, and either a cavalry division or brigade for scouting and security. This system was implemented and definitely in place in 1800 on both the Rhine frontier and the Armée de la Reserve that went into Italy in May and June and fought at Montebello and Marengo.

There is a general opinion that these corps organizations were only temporary in nature, and that they only became permanent during the long training in the Boulogne camps along the Channel in 1803-1805. Hopefully the documentation shown in this essay will demonstrate otherwise.

Napoleon's philosophy behind the corps d'Armée system was this:

'This is the general principle at war. A corps of 25,000 to 30,000 can be isolated; well led, it can either fight, or avoid battle and maneuver according to circumstances without experiencing any misfortune, because it cannot be forced into battle and finally it should be able to fight for a long time.'

This appears to be an apt description of Lannes' corps at Saalfeld or Friedland and Davout's corps at Auerstadt and Moghilev.

'The Army of the Rhine (infantry) will be divided into four Grand Corps d'Armée

The First and Third Corps, each comprising three divisions:

The Second and Fourth Corps, each of four divisions:

The first three Grand Corps will be designated corps d'Armée of the Army of the Rhine; the fourth, reserve corps.

The cavalry will be divided in divisions each comprising form 2,000 to 3,000 horses.

The cavalry division attached to the reserve corps will be 3,000 men strong, two thirds of which will be chasseurs or hussars, and the rest dragoons and cavalry.

Each small division will have six guns and each large on etwelve. There will be three guns for each cavalry division.

The reserve artillery will have six 4-pounders.

'My to organize an army of the reserve, the command of which will be at the disposal of the first consul. It will be divided into a right, center, and left. Each of these three large corps will be commanded by a lieutenant general who will have, in addition, one cavalry division likewise commanded by a lieutenant general.

Each of these three large corps will be divided into two divisions, each commanded by a major general and two brigadier generals, and each of the Grand Corps will have in addition, a high ranking artillery officer...

Each corps will comprise 18,000 to 20,000 men, including the two regiments of hussars or chasseurs and sixteen guns, a dozen of which will be served by foot companies and four by the horse artillery.

Furthermore, the correspondence to and from the Armée de la Reserve prior to the Battle of Marengo, both before and during the campaign, establishes corps d'Armée with permanent staffs, and completely demonstrates the flexibility of the system by the operational needs of the army during the campaign. There was a reorganization of the army to give Desaix a command when he arrived from Egypt, and the attachment and cross-attachment of divisions between corps caused by the operational requirements of a changing situation, for example the investment of Fort Bard, and operations once the Alps were crossed and the Armée de la Reserve broke out into northern Italy. This operational flexibility was the result of the organization of the permanent corps.

Berthier, the Minister of War wrote to Moreau on 25 March 1800 ordering 'That the present Army of the Rhine shall be divided into Army Corps and Reserve Corps.' Berthier wrote to Dupont, acting as chief of staff to the Army of the Reserve on 10 May to organize the army into corps d'Armée commanded by Lannes, Duhesme, Victor, and a Cavalry Reserve commanded by Murat, directing him to 'Draw up a table of organization of the army which you will present to the First Consul at 11 o'clock.' Further, immediately after the arrival of Desaix in June, Berthier sent a directive to Dupont on 11 June, directing him to reorganize the army into a corps under Lannes, Desaix, Victor, and Duhesme, divisions being moved around under different corps headquarters reflecting the general situation. This was only three days prior to the Battle of Marengo. As a footnote, Berthier added: 'Kindly give the orders for the execution of these new dispositions: Notify General Marmont, General Marescot, and the Chief Supply Officer, my lieutenants, and each of the Generals of Division. I would like to have, as soon as possible, a report of the location of all troops composing the army and of the number present under arms.'

These excerpts from the orders and reports of the Armée de la Reserve clearly show that the corps d'armée system was being implemented as permanent organizations of the French army in 1800. The system was refined and toned during the long training period in the Channel camps before the Ulm Campaign, but the basic framework, from permanent corps staffs to the number of units assigned to the corps, and the formation of a cavalry reserve all demonstrate the effectiveness and operational flexibility of the corps system as Napoleon both envisioned it and operated with it. Basically, the organization of 1800 was what was used until the end of the Empire, albeit with continuing refinements, just as there was in the Grand Quartier-General Imperial.

Scharnhorst completed a written study of the Marengo campaign, highlighting two things that set the French apart from, and head and shoulders above, the Austrians-its corps organization and its use of its General Staff. As Charles White has stated, Scharnhorst 'understood that without changes in organization and administration, tactics and strategy, discipline and training, Prussia could never counter the French threat.' Additionally, Scharnhorst believed that 'no other campaign to date offered more conclusive evidence of this new era of warfare than did Marengo.' Scharnhorst was impressed that 'during the latter half of the eighteenth century French intellectual fervor had generated far-reaching improvements in military methods. They had learned from their defeats in the Seven Years' War.' Lastly, he stated:

'It would be very interesting to know the French order of battle and the way in which the engagement was decided. General Berthier has not enlightened us regarding this. Probably everything fell into confusion during the battle, and only the better organization of the French army and the mutual support of the arms-which distinguishes all French armies-had in the end produced the victory.'

'Experience teaches us, moreover, that on the whole, first one, then another arm of the service may have a decisive influence on the outcome of combat actions, depending upon the nature of the terrain and other circumstances, and its use; and that in most cases, a very great deal depends on the mutual operation, mutual support, and good harmony of all major arms.'

'Yet once again the study of this dismal event is extremely important for Germany; for the principles observed in this war will stand in closer connection with those which in the future may serve as the norm, than with those which were drawn from previous wars. And if we wish to make profitable use of the latter-from previous wars- then we must understand the new. Only when we know the principles from which the enemy operates are we capable of formulating our own appropriate method.'

In conclusion, the development of two operational and organizational assets set what became the Grande Armée head and shoulders above its opponents when the Great Wars came again to Europe in 1805. The French staff system and the corps d'Armée system set the Grande Armée apart, and it demonstrated an operational ability that hadn't been seen on the battlefields of Europe, and its sweeping campaigns wouldn't be matched until the Second World War, with its mechanization and use of airpower. The Grande Armée was 'a terrible reality and an enduring legend' and it and its terrible Emperor 'put fear into the souls of Europe's kings and foreign generations.'


Placed on the Napoleon Series: January 2001.