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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > Books on military subjects

Napoleon's Carabiniers

Pawly, Ronald. Napoleon's Carabiniers (Men-at-Arms, No. 405). Patrice Courcelle (Illus.). Oxford, UK: Osprey, 2005. 48 pages, 8 color plates. ISBN# 1841767093. Softcover. $14.95

Napoleon's Carabiniers

Osprey's new offering comes in the Men-at-Arms series and recounts the story of gallant carabineers in the armies of Emperor Napoleon. Its author, Ronald Pawly, is well known among Napoleonic enthusiasts for his interesting study Red Lancers: Anatomy of a Napoleonic Regiment and several books in the Osprey series, including Napoleon's Guards of Honour (MAA 378) and Wellington's Dutch Allies (MAA 371).

Mr. Pawly has divided his book into six chronologically assembled sections. He starts out with a short introduction and chronology and then proceeds to narrate the origins of the carabineer regiments. Reader learns that these units emerged as armed light mounted troops in the middle 16th century and earned their name for their new weapon, carabine, a shorter version of the infantry's arquebus.

After being disbanded in 1679, carabineers were reorganized in 1691 and distinguished themselves at Neerwinden in 1693. For their actions, King Louis XIV had them organized into the Carabiniers du Roi in November 1693, and thus one of the finest French cavalry branches was born. Mr. Pawly quickly skips over the carabiniers' distinguished career during the wars of 18th century to bring the reader to the French Revolution. In 1790, cavalry forces were organized and carabiniers received seniority over the rest of cavalry. They earned further laurels serving in the French revolutionary armies on the Rhine in 1792-1795 and a new generation of talented officers emerged. After the 18 Brumaire, Napoleon paid particular attention to this elite unit and appointed his brother Louis, future king of Holland as a colonel-general of the Corps of Carabiniers. On 2 December 1804, eight carabineer squadrons opened the parade preceding Napoleon's coronation in Notre Dame.

The second part deals with the military operations the carabiniers were involved in 1805-1809. In a laconic but engaging style the author describes the carabineer service during Napoleon's famous march from the Atlantic coast to Ulm. Attached to General Nansouty's heavy cavalry division, the carabiniers were organized into two regiments under Colonels Antoine-Christophe Cochois and Pierre-Nicolas Morin and amounted to roughly 400 men each. Although they had seen no action in the first stage, the carabineer units participated in battles at Wertingen and Elchingen before engaging Archduke Ferdinand's Austrians corps and entering Vienna on 13 November. Three weeks later, they distinguished themselves at Austerlitz. Mr. Pawly then proceeds to follow the carabineer exploits in Prussia in 1806 and Poland in 1807. They did not participate in the major battles of the campaign but took part in the pursuit and entered Berlin on 29 October 1806. The following year, they luckily escaped the savage battle of Eylau but fought at Ostrolenka and later Friedland. Describing the Friedland campaign, author uses Joseph Abbeel's memoirs which add certain flavor to the narrative. After Tilsit, the carabiniers were quartered at Hanover, where they were reinforced and received new German breed horses before the onset of another war. In 1809, they remained in Vienna during the battles of Aspern-Essling in May but fought at Wagram in 5-6 July.

In a brief passage on uniforms and armour, Mr. Pawly describes the carabineer outfit up to 1810 and describes Napoleon's decision to introduce cuirasses in December 1809. He then moves on to recount Napoleon's momentous campaign in Russia in 1812. Serving General Montbrunn's 2nd Cavalry Corps, the carabiniers were organized into a brigade under General Chouard. Author notes that the opening of the campaign proved disastrous to the many thousands of horses and bad weather and lack of forage devastated the carabineer units. They had to find new mounts and often used smaller local horses; an illustration by Faber du Faur illustrates well what an outlandish sight it was to see tall and heavily armored carabiniers on these tiny horses, with their feet and sabers almost touching the ground. Author also make interesting note that some carabiniers procured no horses and had to follow the troops on foot; with no suitable shoes and in knee-high boots, they quickly exhausted themselves and fell behind. Probably the carabiniers' most memorable exploit occurred during the Battle of Borodino, where they stormed the Great Redoubt despite suffering heavy casualties. The retreat proved even more devastating and, after fighting under General Latour-Maubourg at Smolensk and Berezina, only some 200 men escape out of once valiant carabineer brigade; the 1st Regiment, numbering 941 men in July 1812, now had only 81 men.

Part Four of the book deals with the carabineer service in the 1813 Campaign in Germany. Mr. Pawly quickly outlines the status quo of forces and reorganization of the French forces. The surviving carabiniers were reorganized but they never recovered; according to Pawly, in July 1813, there were "only 122 men with 134 horses in the 1st regt. and 140 men and 143 horses in the 2nd." (p. 23) Nevertheless, they were attached to General Sebastiani's cavalry and took part in the battles of that memorable campaign. Probably because of page constraints, Mr. Pawly avoids detailed discussion of the carabineer involvement in operations in spring and summer of 1813 and instead concentrates on the Leipzig Campaign, where he produced a short but interesting account of the carabineer attacks against the Hungarian hussars.

Part Five follows Napoleon's retreat from Germany and describes the carabiniers during the 1814 Campaign in France, where they served in General Saint-Germain's heavy cavalry division at Brienne, Vauchamps, Craonne, Laon, Arcis and Fre-Champenoise, moved to Magdeburg, where they received the news of Napoleon's abdication in April 1814. During the Restoration, they were turned into Le Corps de Carabiniers de Monsieur and were placed under command of Comte d'Artois, King Louis XVIII's brother and future king Charles X. During the Hundred days, carabiniers rejoined Napoleon's army and formed a brigade in General Kellermann's 3rd Reserve Cavalry Corps. Mr. Pawly's description of the battle of Waterloo is the most detailed account of the carabiniers battle involvement and illustrates their exploits.

The final chapter of the book deals with uniforms and equipment is divided into several subsections dealing with pre-1810 uniform, the 1810 uniform and 1812 Bardin modifications. Each section is very details in its descriptions of outfits, weaponry and accessories. As it befits an Osprey, the volume is lavishly illustrated with 38 black-and-white illustrations and 8 color plates. Black-and-white images are well placed throughout the book and include the famous shot-through cuirass from the Les Invalides. Illustrations by Patrice Courcelle are simply superb and one hopes to see his works in other Osprey series as well.

In final analyses, Mr. Pawly produced an engaging and useful overview of one of the elite units in Napoleon's army. Information on unit organization and equipment will be valuable to anyone interested in the period. Two minor notes on otherwise excellent work. Author's reference to "Prince Ferdinand" probably should read "Archduke Ferdinand." While discussing the Battle of Borodino, Mr. Pawly notes that the plain of Borodino was "part of the estates of the Russian general prince Bagration." However, this Russian general owned no estates in this province. Probably the reference comes from Denis Davidov, whose memoirs mention his family possessions close to Borodino.


Reviewed by Alexander Mikaberidze, FINS
Placed on the Napoleon Series: October 2005