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

The Eagle's Talons: Generalship in La Grande Armée

By Kevin Kiley

Generalship: Demonstrated skill in the conduct of the higher levels of warfare, such as the operational art.

Leadership: The art or capacity of being able to persuade or influence others to do your will.

The court-martial which sits round a bivouac fire may be very informal, but it has an 'instinct for reality.' I pin my faith to the judgment of the grognards of the Old Guard. They spoke of him as "l'Homme." -Anonymous

"Theirs was a case of the 'survival of the fittest' in a terribly hard school of selection...Only born leaders of men could have survived such an ordeal. They may have been, indeed they often were, illiterate, rapacious,jealous, and vindictive, but they all possessed that power which defied all examinations to elicit -vis. the power to get the last ounce of exertion and self-sacrifice out of the men under them, without recourse to legal formalities, or the application of authorized force." -Frederick N. Maude

"Together, they put fear into the souls of Europe's kings and foreign generations-a terrible reality and an enduring legend." -John Elting

Across Europe they strode like colossus. Undisciplined, mutinous regulars led by former sergeants and still wet-behind-the-ears subalterns; inexperienced volunteers dragged along by unwashed, fanatic sans culotte generals, followed by the grimmer Representatives on Mission and the spectre of the guillotine; willing, but rebellious, conscripts led by officers who were now professionals in all but name, all tributaries forming in a gigantic torrent to rid Europe of its kings. All Europe momentarily defeated, they again went forward to spread liberté, egalité, and fraternité among all of Europe's peoples. Ragged conscripts and the remnants of the regulars and volunteers swarming forward under their now experienced generals, who operated under the threat of a 'Republican shave.' Somehow they triumphed. The kings were now alarmed and vowed not to let the fledgling Republic survive. Giants rose among them to again lead them into the fire behind tattered battle flags with honors such as 'l'Terrible' and 'Incomparable' emblazoned on their tricolors. Desaix, Richepanse, Davout, and Decaen emerged from the masses in the armies on the eastern marches, where most of them served Moreau who turned traitor. Hoche, La Harpe, Joubert, Kleber, and Kleber's friend, the gallant young Marceau, thumped their raw troops into shape and led them against the enemies of the Republic. All five of these promising officers were dead on the field of honor, or by disease and assassination before Napoleon emerged as First Consul.

In the secondary theater of Italy, a young, nondescript Corsican general named Bonaparte was taking apart Austrian and Sardinian armies with terrifying regularity. Knocking Sardinia out of the war and setting up client states in Northern Italy, this grim general, and his even grimmer subordinates, led their starving, half-mutinous demi-brigades to a string of victories and humbled the pope. Experienced generals, the talented Berthier, the 'Big Prussian' Augereau, and the wily Massena, willingly served their general in chief and they dictated peace at the very gates of Vienna.

Out of misty legend to the terrifying rumble of the Grande Armée's drums come vague and dusty images of the generals who led it. Old before their time, they damned and led the eager volunteers of 1792, the sullen conscripts of 1800, the determined veterans of 1805, the ragfed, frozen scarecrows their Emperor called his 'men of bronze' through snow, ice, and masses of revenge-minded Muscovites in 1812, and the scared, much too young conscripts and the older National Guard 'fathers of families' through the heartbreak, bitterness, mud, and despair of 1813-1814, finally to the last desperate days of 1815. Professionals because they learned their trade if they survived, these sometimes half-educated, iron-hard men led one of the greatest armies in history the length and breadth of Europe and finally to the Valhalla of enduring legend to stand beside Arthur, Roland, and the Cid and their immortal legions.

Who were these men who led the first mass armies in history to defeat the professional armies of Europe? They came from varied backgrounds and maintained different beliefs, but they all rallied to the tricolor when La Patrie was in danger. They were honed by war and hardship, and many knew no other life. They marched behind the Grande Armée's drums, and their terrible Emperor on his grey horse, and repeatedly led their men into the fire. Their survivors became Marshals or commanders in the formidable Imperial Guard, packing their kit year after year to make war on the enemies of what became the French Empire. But who, really, were they, and what has been their contribution to the art of war?

The Revolution sewed the dragon's teeth and what arose from them has not been seen since. Some of these commanders were former enlisted men from the old Royal Army, such as Massena and Lefervre. Massena was noted as being able to maneuver his regiment better than any of its officers. Lefebvre was an excellent tactician and an outstanding combat leader. When occupying a German town he announced to the populace that they had come to bring them liberté, fraternité, and egalité. However, if anything took place without his permission, they would be shot!

General Desaix

General Louis Desaix

Others were former nobles and had been commissioned before the Revolution. Davout, Grouchy, Nansouty, Narbonne, and Desaix were in this category. Davout, originally a cavalryman, would become Napoleon's best Marshal, and was a protege of Desaix. Grouchy, an excellent cavalryman, would eventually be blamed for Waterloo. Nansouty, formerly of the Maison du Roi, would become a noted heavy cavalryman and would command the Guard Cavalry in the dark days of the later Empire. Desaix, who Napoleon considered the best balanced of his generals, gained a solid reputation in Germany, conquered Upper Egypt, and saved the day at Marengo, being shot dead leading the 9th Legere to the attack. Napoleon mourned his loss. Narbonne, former royalist, would make the Russian campaign at the age of 57 only to die in Germany the next year from a fall.

Others joined up when the tocsin sounded in '92, Lannes being a perfect example. Joining a volunteer unit he was quickly elected lieutenant and earned his subsequent promotions on the battlefield. Blunt and loyal in his relationship with Napoleon, he was also a close friend. Despising politicians, he once told Talleyrand to his face that he was nothing but a silk stocking full of fresh manure.

Marshal Lannes

Marshal Jean Lannes

These soldiers were hard used by the wars. Oudinot took thirty-four wounds in twenty-three years. Lannes took ten, including one in the neck at Acre. Rapp was wounded so often that he was referred to as a piece of fine lace. Pajol and Grouchy were so crippled by wounds at various times during their careers they had to be sent home. Oddly, Massena was never wounded, but was badly hurt after Essling, commanding his corps from a carriage and four at Wagram, launching it, his terrified domestics, and himself into the fire to inspire his troops. He lambasted his troops, "Scoundrels! You get five sous a day, and I am worth 600,000 francs a year- yet you make me go ahead of you!" Latour-Maubourg had a leg blown off at Leipzig after piecing the allied center and told his weeping orderly, 'What are you crying about imbecile, you have one less boot to polish.'

Many fell and could not be replaced. After Lannes death at Essling, Napoleon promoted three Marshals after Wagram: Marmont, Oudinot, and MacDonald. The army dubbed them 'Lannes small change.' Bessieres was killed in 1813, before the campaign was well begun. Desaix has already been mentioned. St. Hilaire was mortally wounded at Essling, as was d'Espagne. Montbrun, probably the most skillful of Napoleon's cavalry commanders, was knocked out of the saddle by a Russian roundshot at Borodino; his replacement, Caulaincourt's brother, was killed leding his troopers against the Great Redoubt. The two mauvais tete's of the artillery, Senarmont and Eble both died before their time: Senarmont at the siege of Cadiz (oddly, the same way his father was killed at Valmy); Eble, after building the bridges that enabled the Grande Armée to escape from Russian in 1812, died of exhaustion with most of his gallant pontonniers after the retreat.

Their reputations and abilities, along with their Emperor's, have been repeatedly sullied after the wars by their enemies and some latter day historians (or, rather, pseudo-historians who were not too careful with their research). The generalizations have been many and varied: Napoleon intentionally kept his subordinates in the dark as to his operational plans and method of making war; Napoleon was fortunate that Desaix died early because he was jealous of him; the French won repeatedly solely because of 'their superiority in sheer pugilism'; Napoleon discouraged original thought amongst his generals; Napoleon's method of waging war intentionally was focused to squelch initiative at the higher echelons of command; that French artillery officers were not good commanders at division or higher level (I wonder what Napoleon would have thought of that comment).

Marshal Louis Davout

Marshal Louis-Nicholas Davout

What one finds if careful research is done that both leadership and generalship levels in the Grande Armée were high. Certainly, the Grande Armée had its share of incompetents, but they usually didn't last long. Napoleon did make some odd command choices in the latter days of the Empire, counting too much on Oudinot, Ney, and Augereau, and leaving Davout bottled up in Hamburg. However, the successes by these generals on the battlefield and on campaign far outweigh their failures. As Frederick the Great once mentioned, offensive generals and those who could command independently are few in any army. This is also true of the Grande Armée. However, those with which it was blessed are among the best commanders in any age. Desaix was a superb independent commander, capable of taking on any mission and successfully completing it. Conqueror of Upper Egypt, he was know as the 'Just Sultan' and imbued Rapp, Savary, and Davout, with his expertise in military intelligence.

Davout, perhaps the greatest of them all commanded the best troops in the Grande Armée, comparable to those in the Imperial Guard, and was usually given the hardest assignments. Ferdinand von Funck, who saw most of the Marshals in his official capacity as aide-de-camp to the Saxon King remarked that Davout was the 'only one who always maintained strict and exemplary discipline' and was 'above self-seeking' but was hated for ' his blind devotion to Napoleon whose orders he carried out with relentless severity.' His titles were from battles he fought and won on his own. His expert handling of his corps enable him to take apart the main Prussian army at Auerstadt and rout it. He almost accomplished the same thing at Eylau. His epic defense of Hamburg made him famous, and his name a synonym for loyalty and steadfastness. He was the personification of the French term Sacre Fue, the sacred fire, which was the ultimate desire to win or not come back.

Marshal St Cyr

Marshal Laurent Gouvion St. Cyr

St. Cyr, that odd general nicknamed the Owl, developed into a superb general who was capable of defeating two Russian armies, one after the other. Lacking the ability to inspire troops, or the desire to, his method of waging was was cerebral, like a chess game, and according to von Funck, 'stood for discipline' along with Davout, Soult and Suchet. Dangerous when cornered, his part in Dresden was that of a master.

Lannes continually improved during his career and learned to control a violent temper. Described by Desaix (who had seen Ney in action) as 'bravest of the brave, young, fine appearance, well-built, face not very pleasing, riddled with wounds, elegant', he was always at the head of his troops. Marbot's tale of him at the taking of Ratisbon arguing with his aides-de-camp who would take the ladder to the walls first after two failed attempts is typical. Morand's troops, exasperated, probably went forward a third time, successfully and led by the two aides, to stop the spectacle. A superb advance guard commander, alert and dangerous, he won the actions at Montebello and Saalfeld on his own, and his delaying action at Friedland was a recognized masterpiece. He displayed a talent for effective siege warfare in Spain at Saragossa, and handled his corps expertly in Austria in 1809. His death irreparably hurt the Grande Armée. His loss was never made good.

Suchet was the only Marshal to come out of the Peninsula with his reputation enhanced. He pacified eastern Spain (as Soult did in Andalusia -he was remembered by Ameil as 'imperturbable in good or evil fortune, observing, seeing all, comprehending all; silent, but hard...'), repeatedly defeating Spanish armies, taking cities, and defeating two British amphibious expeditions from Sicily, earning his baton and title. An honest and efficient administrator, Napoleon remarked that if he had two like Suchet he could have held Spain.

Marshal Louis Suchet

Marshal Louis Suchet

Louis Alexander Berthier was Napoleon's chief of staff from 1796-1815 and was the one indispensable Marshal, vital to Napoleon's method of making war. He had been on Rochambeau's staff in America during that Revolution, and was promoted for efficiency and gallantry. He had troops service, and was one of the staff corps established before the Revolution. He was originally an aggressive and imaginative officer, and was not above seizing a standard to rally defeated troops. His bravery at Fort Bard and Arcola is well documented. He was remarked upon by the Saxon Ferdinand von funck as an officer of 'incredible talent...hard and irascible', but 'amendable to reasonable representations.' He organized and planned the movement to the Rhine in 1805, the unprecedented concentration for the invasion of Russia. The first of the great chiefs of staff in history much of his work in staff organization and planning endures to this day. Careless historians blame his for the confusions at the beginning of the 1809 campaign to him, but he was not the commander of the Army of Germany, Napoleon was. It was Berthier who backed up Eugene upon his assumption of command of the wrecked Grande Armée in early 1813 after Murat's desertion that enabled an effective army to be built up before Napoleon's arrival. His absence from Waterloo was a definite cause of Napoleon's defeat.

It is undoubtedly true that Napoleon would not have achieved what he did without the generals and marshals. Some, it is quite true, were 'human projectiles who required the Emperor's aim and impulse.' Others were definite millstones around the Imperial neck. However, as a group they were arguably the greatest collection of military talent to ever serve one man. Additionally, few commanders were better served by their subordinates. Baron Ernst Odeleben, another Saxon officer attached to Napoleon's staff remarked that Napoleon had the knack of training commanders; Carl von Clausewitz, no lover of the French or Napoleon, stated, 'you have to have seen the steadfastness of one of the forces trained and led by Bonaparte...seen them under fierce and unrelenting fire-to get some sense of what can be accomplished by troops steeled by long experience in danger, in whom a proud record of victories has instilled the noble principle of placing the highest demands on themselves. As an idea alone it is unbelievable.' Odeleben remarked of the 1813 army that 'the good military bearing, which predominated in this raw army, sprung, as it were, from the earth and assembled by the wave of a wand, was truly admirable...the military spirit, the activity in marches, and the bravery of the young troops so rapidly formed and opposed to experienced soldiers excited no less astonishment.'

Napoleon's Generals Aides-de-Camp, one of his innovations, were specialists in their own branch of service and were capable of, and expected to, undertake any mission assigned to them, from leading a task force of all arms on the battlefield to negotiating a treaty. Their successes were impressive; Rapp and Mouton routing an Austrian corps at Essling with the oputnumbered Young Guard, Druout leading the artillery assault at Lutzen, blowing the center out of the allied line; Lauriston defending the city of Ragusa against hostile hill tribes and the Russians; Rapp leading the Guard cavalry at Austerlitz and defeating the Chevalier Guard, capturing their commander; Savary assuming command of the V Corps at Ostrolenka in 1807 and destroying a Russian Army. these officers were trusted by Napoleon and trained by him in his own methods of warfare. No courtiers, they often disagreed and told the Emperor so, remaining loyal. Many ended up as corps commanders, while new aides were selected and trained. They were a definite asset to the efficiency and combat power of the Grande Armée.

Down through the years legend has enhanced achievements that today would be called unbelievable and extraordinary. The levels of both leadership and generalship in the Grande Armée were very high, more so the longer the odds became. Again and again, officers and NCOs led their men to the beckoning call and rumble of the cannon, to follow the drum and defend La Patrie. Valor became commonplace: the one-legged battery commander at the Berezina, having his wooden leg shot off by a Russian bullet, calmly telling his open-jawed trumpeter to fetch another from the battery wagon; the commandant of Vincennes in the dark days of 1814 refusing to surrender until the allies returned his amputated leg; Lepic chiding his Horse Grenadiers to stop ducking incoming Russian artillery at Eylau; Lannes telling the terrified conscript on sentry duty who had just mistakenly shot at him and missed that he was sure it had been a mistake; the alert French sentry who shot at Bernadotte under a flag of truce in 1814, stating he was merely trying to apprehend a French deserter; Murat riding through the Prussians at Jena leading his cavalry with only a light whip in his hand; Senarmont leading the artillery assault at Friedland, losing half his gunners, and blowing a huge hole in the Russian center; Eble repeatedly leading his frozen scarecrows into the ice-choked Berezina to repair rickety bridges that had once again broken; 'Pere' Roguet telling the grenadiers at Ligny that anyone who brought him a prisoner would be shot; the drum major, swinging his loaded mace at every Prussian head in range, at Waterloo leading the two battalion bayonets-only assault at Plancenoit to throw fourteen Prussian battalions out of the burning village; the kick of a heavy musket, the frenzied rush of closed columns, the excitement of cavalry breaking into the charge, manhandling artillery to 100 yard range to demolish British squares at Waterloo's ending, this was the experience of close combat and the leadership, and a very high level of generalship, that made the Grande Armée one of the greatest military organizations in military history.

"The French soldier is the most difficult of all to lead. He is not a machine to set in motion, but a reasoning being which you must govern...The French soldier loves to argue because he is intelligent. He is a severe judge of his officers' ability and courage...When he approves of the operations and respect his commanders there is nothing he cannot do...The French soldier is the only one in Europe who can fight on an empty stomach [but] he is more demanding than any other when he is not in combat...A French soldier has more interest in winning a battle than a Russian officer...the art of retreating is more difficult with the french...A lost battle destroys his confidence in his leaders and incites him to insubordination...[He is ] humiliated...The French soldier's only motivation is honor; it is that motivation which must be the source of punishments and rewards." -Napoleon

"Their service was hard. Their names are remembered." -John Elting



Unless cited in the text, all quotes are from Swords Around A Throne by John Elting.

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