La Grande Armée

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: General history

La Grande Armée

Active 1805–15
Country France
Size At its height in 1812, consisted of:
• 300,000 Frenchmen, Belgians and Dutchmen
• 95,000 Poles
• 25,000 Italians
• 24,000 Bavarians
• 20,000 Saxons
• 17,000 Westphalians
• 20,000 Prussians
• 35,000 Austrians
• 15,000 Swiss
• 3,500 Croatians
Total: 554,500 men
Patron Napoleon I of France
Motto Valeur et Discipline
(Bravery and Discipline)
Colors Le Tricolore
March La Victoire Est a Nous (Victory is ours/upon us),
La Marseillaise
Mascot French Imperial Eagle
Battles/wars Ulm, Austerlitz, Jena-Auerstedt, Eylau, Friedland, Invasion of Russia 1812, Smolensk, Borodino, Berezina, Lützen, Dresden, Leipzig, Vauchamps, Arcis-sur-Aube.
Napoleon I of France

The name La Grande Armée (French for "the Big Army," "the Great Army," or "the Grand Army") first entered the annals of history when, in 1805, Napoleon I renamed the army that he had assembled on the French coast of the English Channel for the proposed invasion of Britain and re-deployed it East to commence the Campaign of 1805 against Austria and Russia.

Thereafter, the name was used for the principal French army deployed in the Campaigns of 1806- 07, 1812, and 1813- 14. In practice, however, the term "Grande Armée" is used in English to refer to all of the multinational forces gathered by Napoleon I in his campaigns of the early nineteenth century (see Napoleonic Wars).

The first Grande Armée consisted of six corps under the command of Napoleon's marshals and senior generals. When Napoleon discovered that Russian and Austrian armies were preparing to invade France in late 1805, the Grande Armée was hurriedly ordered across the Rhine into Southern Germany, leading to Napoleon's victories at Ulm and Austerlitz.

The army grew in size as Napoleon's might spread across Europe. It reached its maximum size of 600,000 men at the start of the invasion of Russia against the Sixth Coalition in 1812. All contingents were commanded by French generals, except for a Polish and an Austrian corps. The huge multinational army marched slowly eastwards, with the Russians falling back before it. After the capture of Smolensk and victory in the Battle of Borodino, Napoleon and a large part of the Grande Armée reached Moscow on 14 September 1812. However, the army was already drastically reduced in numbers due to disease (principally typhus) and hunger caused by the Russian scorched earth strategy which left no forage for the French troops. The army spent a month in Moscow, but was ultimately forced to march back westwards. Assailed by cold, starvation and disease, and constantly harassed by Cossacks and Russian irregulars, the retreat utterly destroyed the Grande Armée as a fighting force. As many as 400,000 died in the adventure and only a few tens of thousands of ravaged troops returned.

Napoleon led a new army to the Battle of Nations at Leipzig in 1813, in the furious defence of France in 1814, and in the Waterloo campaign in 1815, but the Napoleonic French army would never regain the heights of the Grande Armée in June 1812.


One of the most important factors in the Grande Armée's success was its superior and highly flexible organization. It was subdivided into several Corps (usually from five to seven), each numbering anywhere between 10,000 to 50,000, with the average size being around 20,000 to 30,000 troops. These Corps d'Armée were self-contained, smaller armies of combined arms, consisting of elements from all the forces and support services discussed below. While capable of fully independent operations, the Corps usually worked in close concert together and kept within a day's marching distance of one another. A Corps, depending on its size and the importance of its mission, was commanded by a Marshal, or Général de division ( Major General).

Napoleon placed great trust in his Corps commanders and usually allowed them a wide freedom of action, provided they acted within the outlines of his strategic objectives and worked together to accomplish them. When they failed to do this to his satisfaction, however, he would not hesitate to reprimand or relieve them and in many cases took personal command of their Corps himself. Corps were first formed in 1800, when General Moreau divided the Army Of The Rhine into 4 Corps. These were only temporary groupings, however, and it was not until 1804 that Napoleon made them permanent units. He would sometimes form the cavalry into separate Corps, so they would be able to move and mass more quickly without being slowed by the infantry.

The main tactical units of the Corps were the Divisions, usually consisting of 4,000 to 6,000 infantry or cavalrymen. These in turn were made up of 2 or 3 Brigades of 2 Regiments apiece and supported by an Artillery Brigade of 3 or 4 Batteries, each with 4 field cannons and 2 howitzers, making 18 to 24 guns in all. The Divisions were also permanent administrative and operational units, commanded by a General de Division ( Major General) and likewise capable of independent actions.

Forces of La Grande Armée

Imperial Guard

France's Imperial Guard (Garde Impériale) was the elite military force of its time and grew out of the Garde des Consuls and Garde Consulaire. It was, quite literally, a Corps d'Armée itself with infantry, cavalry and artillery divisions. Napoleon wanted it also to be an example for the entire army to follow, and a force that, since it had fought with him over several campaigns, was completely loyal. Although the infantry was rarely committed in mass, the Guard's cavalry was often thrown into battle as the killing blow and its artillery used to pound enemies prior to assaults.

From a single regiment in 1800, it was steadily expanded until it was the size of a field army.

Banner of the Grenadiers à Pied.
Banner of the Grenadiers à Pied.
Size Of The Guard Over Time
Year Number Of Soldiers
1800 3,000
1804 8,000
1805 12,000
1810 56,000
1812 112,000
1813 85,000 (mostly Young Guards)
1815 28,000

Infantry of the Guard

There were three sections:

  • Old Guard (Vieille Garde): This was the crème de la crème of Napoleon's army. The Old Guard was made up of the longest serving veterans (3-5 campaigns) and consisted of two regiments:
    • Grenadiers à Pied de la Garde Impériale: The Grenadiers of the Guard was the most senior regiment in La Grande Armée. During the 1807 campaign in Poland, the Grenadiers were given the nickname les grognards ("the grumblers") by Napoleon himself. They were the most experienced and brave infantrymen in the Guard, some veterans having served in over 20 campaigns. To join the Grenadiers, a recruit had to have been under the colours for at least 10 years, have received a citation for bravery, be literate and be over 178cm tall. The Grenadiers à Pied did not see combat as often as the infantry of the Young or Middle guard, but when they did they performed admirably. In 1815, The Old Guard grenadiers were expanded to four regiments. The new regiments, the 2e, 3e and 4e Grenadiers were immediately classed as Old Guard, despite the fact that they were nowhere near the calibre of 1er Grenadiers. In fact, the army referred to them as Middle Guard. It was these regiments which were defeated by the British Guards at Waterloo. The 1er Grenadiers was engaged in fighting the Prussians at Placenoit. The Grenadiers à Pied wore a dark blue habit long (coat with long tails) with red turnbacks, epaulettes and white lapels. The Grenadiers most distinguishing feature was the tall bearskin hat, decorated with an engraved gold plate, a red plume and white cords.
    • Chasseurs à Pied de la Garde Impériale: The Chasseurs of the Guard were the second most senior regiment in La Grande Armée. The 1er Chasseurs were the sister formation to the 1er Grenadiers à Pied. They had the same entry criteria, however accepted men who were 172cm and taller. The Chasseurs performed just as well as the Grenadiers in combat, seeing action in several crucial battles. Following Napoleon's return in 1815, the Chasseurs was expanded to four regiments also, with the 2e, 3e and 4e regiments being formed from recruits with only four years experience. These regiments, together with 'Middle Guard' regiments of Grenadiers à Pied, formed the assault of the Guard during the final phase of the battle of Waterloo. As with the 1er Grenadiers à Pied, the 1er Chasseurs à Pied was engaged at Placenoit. The Chasseurs à Pied wore a dark blue habit long (coat with long tails) with red turnbacks, red epaulettes fringed green and white lapels. On campaign, the Chasseurs often wore dark blue trousers. As with the Grenadiers, the Chasseurs most distinguishing feature was the tall bearskin, decorated with a red over green plume and white cords.
  • Middle Guard (Moyenne Garde): Consisted of veterans of 2-3 campaigns.
    • Fusiliers-Chasseurs: In 1806, the Fusiliers-Chasseurs was formed as a regiment of middle guard infantry. All members of the Middle guard were veterans of 2-3 campaigns, and were commissioned as NCOs in the Line regiments. Arguably the best infantry of the entire Guard, the Fusiliers-Chasseurs most often operated together with its sister formation, the Fusiliers-Grenadiers, as part of a Guard Fusilier-Brigade. The Fusilier-Chasseurs saw extensive action, proving their worth time and time again, until they were disbanded in 1814 following Napoleon's abdication. The Fusiliers-Chasseurs were not reformed in 1815 for the Waterloo campaign. Fusiliers-Chasseurs wore a dark blue habit (or coat) with green epaulettes fringed red, red turnbacks and white lapels. Under this they wore a white waistcoat and either blue or brown trousers. The Fusiliers-Chasseurs shako had white cords and a tall red over green plume. The Fusiliers-Chasseurs were armed with a Charleville modele 1777 musket, bayonet and a short sabre.
    • Fusiliers-Grenadiers: Formed in 1807, the Fusiliers-Grenadiers was a regiment of middle guard infantry. The Fusiliers-Grenadiers was organised in the same way as the Fusiliers-Chasseurs, being a slightly larger formation. The Fusiliers-Grenadiers most often operated together with its sister formation, the Fusiliers-Chasseurs, as a part of a Guard Fusilier-Brigade. The Fusilier-Grenadiers saw extensive action, proving their worth time and time again, until they were disbanded in 1814 following Napoleon's abdication. The Fusiliers-Grenadiers were not reformed in 1815. Fusiliers-Grenadiers wore a dark blue habit (or coat) with red epaulettes, red turnbacks and white lapels. Under this they wore a white waistcoat and white trousers. The Fusiliers-Grenadiers shako had white cords and a tall red plume. The Fusiliers-Grenadiers were armed with a Charleville modele 1777 musket, bayonet and a short sabre.
    • Marines of the Guard (Marins de la Garde): Sometimes translated as The Seamen of the guard, were formed in 1803, with their initial purpose being to man the vessel transporting the Emperor during the expected crossing of the English channel prior to the invasion of the British Isles. The battalion was formed with five equipages (or crews), companies in all but name. After the cancellation of the invasion, the Marins remained a part of the Guard, manning whatever boat, barge or other water vessel Napoleon travelled in, as well as acting as a combat unit. Seamen of the Guard wore navy blue hussar-style dolman jackets, laced gold, with navy blue Hungarian style trousers decorated with gold lace. They wore a shako trimmed in Gold with a tall red plume. Seamen were armed as infantry, with a Charleville modele 1777 musket and bayonet, and many seamen were also equipped with pistols, less cumbersome during their engineering tasks.
  • Young Guard(Jeune Garde): Initially was made up of veterans with at least one campaign under their belts, together with bright young officers and the best of the annual intake of conscripts. Later its ranks would be filled almost entirely by select conscripts and volunteers. They were known for their enthusiasm more than their combat abilities.
    • Tirailleurs-Grenadiers: In 1808, Napoleon ordered the most intelligent and strongest recruits to be formed into the first regiments of the Young Guard. The taller of the recruits were inducted into the Tirailleurs-Grenadier regiments (renamed to Tirailleurs in 1810). All officers of the Tirailleurs-Grenadiers were drawn from the Old Guard, and as such were entitled to wear bearskins. The NCOs were drawn from the Middle Guard. Having this leavening of hardened veterans helped to increase the morale and combat abilities of the Tirailleurs-Grenadiers, and its sister formations the Tirailleurs-Chasseurs. Tirailleurs-Grenadiers wore a dark blue habit (or coat) with red epaulettes and dark blue turnbacks and lapels piped white. The Tirailleurs-Grenadiers' shako had red cords, with a long red plume.
    • Tirailleurs-Chasseurs: The shorter recruits of the Young Guard were inducted into the Tirailleurs-Chasseurs (renamed to Voltigeurs in 1810). The formation was identical to that of the Tirailleurs-Grenadiers, with all officers being drawn from the Old Guard, and NCOs coming from the Middle Guard. Tirailleurs-Grenadiers wore a dark blue habit (or coat) with red turnbacks and dark blue lapels piped white. This was further decorated by green epaulettes with red fringing. Their shako was decorated with a large plume, which could be coloured either green or red over green.

Cavalry of the Guard

In 1804, the Cavalry of the Guard consisted of two regiments, the Chasseurs à Cheval and the Grenadiers à Cheval, along with a small unit of elite Gendarmes and a squadron of Mamelukes. A third regiment was added in 1806, the Regiment de Dragons de la Garde Impériale (Later known as the Dragons de l’Imperatice, the Empress Dragoons). Following the Campaign in Poland in 1807, a regiment of Polish Lancers, the Regiment de Chevau-Légers de la Garde Impériale Polonais was added. The final addition was made in 1810, with another Regiment of Lancers, this time drawn from French and Dutch recruits, the 2e Regiment de Chevau-Légers Lanciers de la Garde Impériale or Red Lancers. The cavalry of the Guard was involved in combat numerous times, and with few exceptions proved its worth in action. Perhaps the most famous episode in the history of the Guard cavalry was the charge of the Polish Lancers at the Battle of Waterloo, where, alongside line cuirassiers, they routed the Scots Greys and the Union Brigade.

  • Horse Grenadiers (Grenadiers à Cheval de la Garde Impériale): Known as the Gods or the Giants, these troopers were the elite of Napoleon's guard cavalry and the mounted counterparts of the Grognards. The Horse Grenadiers wore tall bearskins, dark blue coats and collars, white lapels and tall boots. The entire formation was mounted on large black horses. A prospective recruit had to be over 176cm tall, have accrued 10 years of service serving in a minimum of four campaigns, and have received a citation for bravery. The Grenadiers performed admirably at Austerlitz, where they defeated the Russian Guard Cavalry, but their most famous combat was at the Battle of Eylau. After standing under the fire of sixty Russian guns for a time, the troopers began to search for cover. Their commander, Colonel Louis Lepic, ordered the troops "Up with your heads gentlemen, those are only bullets, not turds". Soon after they joined Murat's charge into the Russian lines. The Horse Grenadiers, together with the Polish Lancers, were the only Guard Cavalry units never beaten in battle.
Le Chasseur de la Garde (Chasseur of the guard, often mistranslated as The Charging Chasseur), 1812 by Géricault.
Le Chasseur de la Garde (Chasseur of the guard, often mistranslated as The Charging Chasseur), 1812 by Géricault.
  • Chasseurs à Cheval of the Guard (Chasseurs à cheval de la Garde Impériale): Known as the "Favoured Children" (connotations of Spoiled Brats), the Chasseurs à Cheval of the Guard were the light cavalry of the Guard, Napoleon's favourites and one of the most recognisable units in La Grande Armée. In 1796, during the Italian Campaign, Napoleon ordered the formation of a bodyguard unit after he narrowly escaped an attack by Austrian light cavalry at Borghetto while at lunch. This 200 man unit of Guides was the forerunner of the Chasseurs à Cheval of the Guard, and their close affiliation with the Emperor was shown by the fact that he often wore the uniform of a Colonel of their regiment. In their flamboyant green, red and gold hussar style uniforms, the chasseurs were known to exploit their position as the emperor's favourites, showing poor discipline and even insubordination on some occasions. They first saw combat during the battle of Austerlitz, where they played a role in defeating the Russian Guard cavalry. During the Peninsular Campaign the Chasseurs were ambushed by a large British cavalry force at Benavente in 1808 and defeated. They regained their reputation by showing extreme bravery during the Battle of Waterloo.
  • Elite Gendarmes (Gendarmerie d’Elite): Nicknamed The Immortals due to the fact that they rarely saw combat, the Gendarmes nonetheless performed a vital role. Gendarmes were the military police of La Grande Armée. Along with maintaining security and order near the headquarters, the Gendarmes would provide honour guards for high ranking visitors, interrogate prisoners and protect the Emperor's personal baggage. The Gendarmes wore dark blue coats with red lapels and tall boots, along with a bearskin slightly smaller than that of the Horse Grenadiers. After 1807, the Gendarmes began to see more combat, distinguishing themselves in guarding the Danube bridge at Aspern-Essling in 1809.
  • Squadron of Mamelukes (Escadron de Mamalukes): Fearsome desert warriors, whose loyalty Bonaparte purchased during his Egyptian campaign. They combined superb horsemanship and swordsmanship with fanatical courage. Often romantically viewed as "authentic sons of the desert" or even "head-hunters", their officers were French, the NCOs and ranks were comprised of not only Egyptians and Turks but Greeks, Georgians, Syrians and Cypriots as well. Originally they were an attached company (or "Half-Squadron") of the Chasseurs-a-Cheval de la Garde. They distinguished themselves at Austerlitz in 1805, winning their own standard, a second trumpeter and promotion to full Squadron. This unit eventually became part of the Old guard, and served the Emperor right up to Waterloo. In 1813, a second Mameluke company was raised and attached to the Young guard. As with their predecessors, they were incorporated into the Chasseurs, and served along side with them during the Hundred days in 1815. Their distinct and colourful uniforms consisted of a green (later red) cahouk (hat), white turban, a loose shirt and a vest and red saroual (pants), with yellow, red or tan boots. Their weapons consisted of a long, curved Scimitar, a brace of pistols and a dagger. Their hats and weapons were inscribed with a crescent and star insignia of brass.
  • Lancers of the Guard (Chevau-Légers-Lanciers de la Garde Impériale):
    • 1e Regt (Polish) In 1807 Napoleon authorized the raising of a guard regiment of Polish light horse. They were to be given French instructors and training. But during their first review before the Emperor, their ranks became so entangled that Bonaparte quipped, "These people only know how to fight!" and dismissed their instructors on the spot. But he kept his Poles by his side and the following year at Somosierra they would have another opportunity to prove themselves, on the battlefield instead of the parade ground. Napoleon ordered them to charge against a heavily fortified Spanish artillery position. Armed with only sabres and pistols, they overran four batteries, capturing over 20 cannons and decisively turned the tide. Following this, almost legendary, feat Napoleon proclaimed "Poles, You are worthy of my Old Guard I proclaim you my bravest cavalry!". Promoted to the Old Guard, they were then given lances, remained at the Emperor's side until Waterloo, and were never defeated by enemy cavalry. The 1e Regiment of the Guard developed a rivalry with their fellow Poles of the 1e Vistula Uhlans of the regular Armee. This was not simply based on who was the better unit, but on deep political differences as well, with the Lancers fanatical Bonapartists, while many, if not most, of the Uhlans held fiercely Republican sentiments. Such differences, political and otherwise, between units were not unusual and are well illustrated here. From being instructed by the French, they, along with their Vistula rivals, would go on to serve as instructors and models for the French and most other lancer regiments of the Armée, thus greatly multiplying their fearsome effectiveness.
    • 2e Regt (French-Dutch) Formed in 1810 from a French and Dutch cadre. They were called Les Lanciers Rouges (the Red Lancers) due to their distinctive uniforms. They too suffered heavily in Russia at the hands of the Cossacks and the hardships of the winter, with most of its men and all but a handful of the horses lost. The regiment was rebuilt in 1813 and it became a powerful unit with its first four squadrons of veterans in the Old Guard and the new recruits of 6 junior squadrons in the young. They would distinguish themselves in numerous engagements, including, finally, Waterloo.
    • 3e regt (Polish) was formed in 1812 as part of the Young Guard. Its officers and NCOs were veterans, but its ranks were filled by enthusiastic yet inexperienced students and sons of Polish and Lithuanian landholders. With little training, they were thrown into the Russian campaign where they were surrounded and the entire regiment wiped out at Slonim, later that year by Cossacks and hussars.
  • Empress Dragoons (Dragons de l’Impératice): Formed in 1806 as the Imperial Guard Dragoon Regiment (Regiment de Dragons de la Garde Impériale), it was renamed in honour of Empress Josephine the following year. Originally candidates had to have at least 6 (later 10) years of service, participated in no fewer than 2 campaigns with citations for bravery, be literate and at least 173 cm tall (slightly shorter than for the Horse Grenadier Guards). No more than 12 candidates from each of the 30 regular Dragoon regiments were allowed to apply at any one call, this quota would later be reduced to 10. Volunteers from other guard regiments were also allowed to transfer. Since this was as much a ceremonial as a combat unit and was rarely committed in battle, billets in the Empress Dragoons were highly sought after positions. As with the Red Lancers, it had squadrons in both the Old and Young guards and served with the Emperor until the end.


By decree of the Emperor himself, cavalry typically comprised between a fifth and a sixth of the Grande Armée. Cavalry regiments of 800-1,200 men were made up of three or four Escadrons of two companies each, plus supporting elements. The first company of the every regiment's first escadron, was always designated as 'Elite', with presumably, the best men and horses. In the revolution's wake, the cavalry suffered the greatest from the loss of experienced aristocratic officers and NCOs still loyal to the crown of the Ancien Régime. Consequently, the quality of French cavalry drastically declined. Napoleon rebuilt the branch, turning it into arguably the finest in the world. Until 1812 it was undefeated in any large engagements above the regimental level. There were two primary types of cavalry for different roles, heavy and light.

Heavy cavalry

  • Cuirassiers: The heavy (Lourde) cavalry, equipped and armed almost like the knights of old with a heavy cuirass (breastplate) and helmets of brass and iron and armed with straight long sabers, pistols and later carbines. As with the knights, they served as the shock troops of the cavalry. Because of the weight of their armour and weapons, both trooper and horse had to be big and strong, and could consequently put a lot of force behind their charge. However, they mostly served to support the light cavalry and dragoons. Despite this, they proved a potent force on the battlefield, leaving their opponents impressed if not awestruck. The British, in particular, who mistakenly believed the cuirassiers were Napoleon's bodyguard, and would later come to adapt their distinctive helmets and breastplates for their own Horse Guards. There were originally 25 cuirassier regiments, later 18.
  • Dragoons (Dragons): The medium-weight mainstays of the French cavalry, although considered heavy cavalry, who were used for battle, skirmishing and scouting. They were highly versatile being armed not only with traditional sabres (the finest with three edges made of Toledo steel), but also pistols and muskets (which were kept in a saddleboot when riding), enabling them to fight on foot as infantry as well as mounted. Part of the price for this versatility was their horsemanship and swordsmanship were often not up to the same standards as that of the other cavalry troops. Which made them the subjects of some mockery and derision. Finding enough of the right kinds of horses for these part-time cavalrymen also proved a challenge. Some infantry officers were even required to give up their mounts for the dragoons, creating resentment towards them from this branch as well. There were 25, later 30, dragoon regiments. In 1815, only 15 could be raised and mounted in time for the Hundred Days.
  • Carabiniers-à-Cheval: Similar in arms and role to Dragoons. However, being more lightly armed and (initially) unarmored, they were less suited for close-quarters, melee combat. This made them less versatile, and therefore less numerous (only 2 regiments originally) and less regarded than the Dragoons. In 1809, appalled by their mauling at the hands of the Austrian Uhlans, Napoleon ordered that they be given armour. But this did not prevent them from being defeated by the Russian cuirassiers at Borodino in 1812, and panicking before the Hungarian hussars at Leipzig the following year.

Light cavalry

  • Hussars (Hussards): These fast, light cavalrymen were the eyes, ears and egos of Napoleonic armies. They regarded themselves as the best horsemen and swordsmen (beau sabreurs) in the entire Armée. This opinion was not entirely unjustified and their flamboyant uniforms reflected their panache. Tactically, they were used for reconnaissance, skirmishing and screening for the army to keep their commanders informed of enemy movements while denying the foe the same information and to pursue fleeing enemy troops. Armed only with curved sabres and pistols, they had reputations for reckless bravery to the point of being almost suicidal. It was said a Hussar who lived to be 30 was truly old guard and very fortunate. There were 10 regiments in 1804, with an 11th added in 1810 and two more in 1813.
  • Chasseurs-à-Cheval (Mounted Hunters), were light cavalry identical to Hussars in arms and role. But, unlike the chasseurs of the Imperial guard discussed previously and their infantry counterparts discussed below, they were considered less prestigious or elite. Their uniforms were less colourful as well, consisting of infantry-style shakos (in contrast to the hussars' distinctive bearskins), green coats, green breeches and short boots. They were, however, the most numerous of the light cavalry, with 31 regiments in 1811, 6 of which were comprised of non-French Belgians, Swiss, Italians and Germans.
  • Lancers (Lanciers) : Some of the most feared cavalry in Napoleon's armies were the Polish lancers of the Vistula Uhlans. Nicknamed Hell's Picadors or Los Diablos Polacos (The Polish Devils) by the Spanish, these medium and light horse ( Chevau-Légère Lanciers) cavalry had speed nearly equal to the Hussars, shock power almost as great as the Cuirassiers and were nearly as versatile as the Dragoons. They were armed with, as their name indicates, lances along with sabres and pistols. Lancers were the best cavalry for charging against infantry in square, where their lances could outreach the infantry's bayonets, (as happened to Colborne's British brigade at Albuera in 1811) and also in hunting down a routed enemy. They could be deadly against other types of cavalry as well, most famously demonstrated by the fate of Sir William Ponsonby and his Scots Greys at Waterloo. Excluding those of the guard, there were 9 lancer regiments. After the wars, the British were impressed enough to create their own lancer regiments.


While the infantry was perhaps not the most glamorous arm of service in the Grand Armée, they bore the brunt of most of the fighting, and their performance resulted in victory or defeat. The Infantry was divided up into two major types, the Infantry of the Line (Infanterie de Ligne) and the Light Infantry (Infanterie Légère).

Infantry of the Line

The Infantry of the Line made up the majority of the Grande Armée. In 1803, Napoleon had reinstated the term Regiment, the revolutionary term demi-brigade (due to the fact there were two per brigade and it lacked the royal connotations) was now only used for provisional troops and depot units. At the time of the formation of the Grande Armée, the French Army had 89 Régiments de Ligne, a number which roughly corresponded with the number of départements in France. There would eventually be 156 Ligne regiments.

The Régiments de Ligne varied in size throughout the Napoleonic Wars, but the basic building block of the Infanterie of the Line was the battalion. A line infantry battalion was numbered at about 840 men; however, this was the battalion's 'full strength' and few units ever reached this. A more typical strength for a battalion would be 400-600 men. From 1800 to 1803 a line infantry battalion had eight fusilier companies, and one grenadier company. From 1804 to 1807 a line infantry battalion had seven fusilier companies, one grenadier company, and one voltigeur company. From 1808 to 1815 a line infantry battalion had four companies of fusiliers, one company of grenadiers, and one company of voltigeurs.

  • Fusiliers
Fusilier of the Line, c.1812.
Fusilier of the Line, c.1812.

The Fusiliers made up the majority of a line infantry battalion, and may be considered the typical infantryman of the Grande Armée. The Fusilier was armed with a smoothbore, muzzle-loaded flintlock Charleville model 1777 musket and a bayonet. Fusilier training placed emphasis on speed of march and endurance, along with individually aimed fire at close range and close quarters combat. This differed greatly from the training given to the majority of European armies, which emphasised moving in rigid formations and firing massed volleys. Many of the early Napoleonic victories were due to the ability of the French armies to cover long distances with speed, and this ability was thanks to the training given to the infantry. From 1803, each battalion comprised eight Fusilier companies. Each company numbered around 120 men.

In 1805, one of the Fusilier companies was dissolved and reformed as a Voltigeur company. In 1808, Napoleon reorganised the Infantry battalion from nine to six companies. The new companies were to be larger, comprising 140 men, and four of these were to be made up of Fusiliers, one of Grenadiers, and one of Voltigeurs.

The line Fusilier wore a bicorne hat, until this was superseded by the shako in 1807. The uniform of a Fusilier consisted of white trousers, white surcoat and a dark blue coat (the habit long model until 1812, thereafter the habit veste) with white lapels, red collar and cuffs. Each Fusilier wore a coloured pom-pom on his hat. The colour of this pom-pom changed depending on the company the man belonged to. After the 1808 reorganisation, the First company was issued with a dark green pom-pom, the second with sky blue, the third with orange and the fourth with violet.

  • Grenadiers

Grenadiers were the élite of the line infantry and the veteran shock troops of the Napoleonic infantry. Newly formed battalions did not have a Grenadier company; rather, Napoleon ordered that after two campaigns, several of the strongest, bravest and tallest fusiliers were to be promoted to the Grenadier company, so each line battalion which had seen more than two campaigns had one company of Grenadiers.

Regulations required that Grenadiers recruits were to be the tallest, most fearsome men in the regiments, and all were to have moustaches. To add to this, Grenadiers were initially equipped the a bonnet à poil or bearskin, as well as red epaulettes on their coat. After 1807 regulations stipulated that line Grenadiers were to replace their bearskin with a shako lined red with a red plume; however, many chose to retain their bearskins. In addition to the standard Charleville model 1777 and bayonet, Grenadiers were also equipped with a short sabre. This was to be used for close combat, but most often ended up serving as a tool to cut wood for campfires.

The Grenadier company would usually be situated on the right side of a formation, traditionally the place of greatest honour. During a campaign, Grenadier companies could be detached to form a Grenadier battalion or occasionally a regiment or brigade. These formations would then be used as a shock force or the vanguard for a larger formation.

  • Voltigeurs

Voltigeurs (literally, Vaulters or Leapers) were élite light infantry of the line regiments. In 1805, Napoleon ordered that the smallest, most agile men of the line battalions be chosen to form a Voltigeur company. These troops were to be second only to the Grenadiers in the battalion hierarchy. Their name comes from their original mission. Voltigeurs were to combat enemy cavalry by vaulting up onto the enemy's horses, a fanciful idea which failed to succeed in combat. Despite this, the Voltigeurs did perform a valuable task, skirmishing and providing scouts for each battalion, as well as providing an organic light infantry component for each line regiment. In Voltigeur training, emphasis was placed on marksmanship and quick movement.

Voltigeurs were equipped with large yellow and green or yellow and red plumes for their bicornes. After 1807, their shakos were lined with yellow and carried similar plumes. They also had yellow epaulettes lined green and a yellow collar on their coats.

Originally, Voltigeurs were to be equipped with the short dragoon musket, however in practice they were equipped with the Charleville model 1777 and bayonet. Like Grenadiers, Voltigeurs were equipped with a short sabre for close combat, and like Grenadiers this was rarely used. Voltigeur companies could be detached and formed into regiments or brigades to create a light infantry formation. After 1808, the Voltigeur company was situated on the left of the line when in combat. This was traditionally the second highest position of honour in the line of battle.

Light Infantry

While the Infantry of the Line made up the majority of the Grande Armée's infantry, the Infanterie Légère ( Light Infantry) also played an important role. The Légère regiments never numbered more than 35 (compared with the 155 of the Ligne regiments), and the Ligne could perform all the same manoeuvres, including skirmishing. The difference lay in the training and the resulting high esprit de corps.

Training for Légère units placed a strong emphasis on marksmanship and fast movement. As a result, the general Légère soldier was able to shoot more accurately and move faster than his Ligne counterpart. Légère regiments tended to see more action and were often used to screen large manoeuvres. Naturally, due to the fact that commanders turned to the Légère for more missions than the Ligne, the Légère troopers enjoyed a higher esprit de corps and were known for their flamboyant uniforms and attitude. Also, Légère troops were required to be shorter than line troops, which helped them to move quickly through forests as well as to hide behind obstacles when skirmishing. The formation of a Légère battalion exactly mirrored that of a battalion of line infantry, but different troop types were substituted for the Grenadiers, Fusiliers and Voltigeurs.

  • Chasseurs

Chasseurs (Hunters) were the fusiliers of the Légère battalions. They made up the majority of the formation. They were armed with the Charleville model 1777 musket and a bayonet, and also with a short sabre for close combat. As was common in the Napoleonic army, this weapon was quickly blunted by being used to chop wood for fires.

From 1803, each battalion comprised eight chasseur companies. Each company numbered around 120 men. In 1808, Napoleon reorganised the Infantry battalion from nine to six companies. The new companies were to be larger, comprising 140 men, and four of these were to be made up of chasseurs.

The chasseurs had far more ornate uniforms than their contemporaries the fusiliers. Until 1806, they were equipped with a cylindrical shako with a large dark green plume and decorated with white cords. Their uniform was a darker blue than that of the line regiments, to aid with camouflage while skirmishing. Their coat was similar to that of the line troops, but their lapels and cuffs were also dark blue, and it featured dark green and red epaulettes. They also wore dark blue trousers and high imitation hussar boots. After 1807, the cylindrical shako was replaced with the standard shako, but was still embellished by white cords. As with the line fusiliers, chasseur companies were distinguished by coloured pom-poms, but the colours for the different companies changed from regiment to regiment.

  • Carabiniers

The Carabiniers were the grenadiers of the Légère battalions. After two campaigns, the tallest and bravest chasseurs were chosen to join the Carabinier company. They performed as élite shock troops for the battalion. As with the grenadiers, Carabiniers were required to wear moustaches. They were armed with the Charleville model 1777, a bayonet and a short sabre. The Carabinier uniform consisted of a tall bearskin cap (superseded in 1807 by a red trimmed shako with a red plume). They wore the same uniform as the chasseurs, but with red epaulettes. Carabinier companies could be detached to form larger all Carabinier formations for assaults or other operations requiring assault troops.

  • Voltigeurs

Voltigeurs performed exactly the same mission in the Légère battalion as they did in the line battalions, only they were more nimble and better marksmen. The Légère voltigeurs were dressed as chasseurs, but with Yellow and green epaulettes and before 1806, a colpack (or busby) replaced the shako. The colpack had a large yellow over red plume and green cords. After 1807, a shako replaced the colpack, with a large yellow plume and yellow lining. As with the line voltigeurs, légère voltigeurs could be detached and used to form larger formations as needed.


The Emperor was a former artillery officer, and dubbed it "The King Of The Battlefield". As may therefore be expected, French cannons were the backbone of the Grande Armée's forces, possessing the greatest fire-power of the three arms and hence the ability to inflict the most casualties in the least amount of time. The French guns were often used in massed batteries (or grandes batteries) to soften up enemy formations before being subjected to the closer attention of the infantry or cavalry. Superb gun-crew training allowed Napoleon to move the weapons at great speed to either bolster a weakening defensive position, or else hammer a potential break in enemy lines.

Besides superior training, Napoleon's artillery was also greatly aided by the numerous technical improvements to French cannons by Jean Baptiste de Gribeauval which made them lighter, faster and much easier to sight, as well as strengthened the carriages and introduced standard sized calibres. In general, French guns were 4- pounders, 8-pounders or 12-pounders and 6- inch howitzers with the lighter calibres being phased out and replaced by 6-pounders later in the wars. French cannons had brass barrels and their carriages, wheels and limbers were painted olive-green. Superb organization, fully integrated the artillery into the infantry and cavalry units it supported, yet also allowed it to operate independently if the need arose. There were two basic types, Artillerie à Pied (Foot artillery) and Artillerie à Cheval (Horse artillery).

Foot artillery

As the name indicates, these gunners marched alongside their guns, which were, of course, pulled by horses when limbered (undeployed). Hence they travelled at the Infantry's pace or slower. In 1805 there were 8, later 10, regiments of foot artillery in the Armée plus 2 more in the Imperial guard, but unlike cavalry and infantry regiments, these were administrative organizations. The main operational and tactical units were the batteries (or companies) of 120 men each which were formed into brigades and assigned to the divisions and corps.

  • Divisional artillery: Every division had a brigade of 3 or 4 batteries of 6 guns (4 cannons and 2 howitzers) each.
  • Corps artillery reserve: Each Corps would also have its own artillery reserve, of one of more Brigades, armed mostly with the larger, heavier calibre pieces.

Battery personnel included not only gun crews, NCOs and officers but drummers, metal workers, woodworkers, ouvriers, furriers and artificers. They would be responsible for fashioning spare parts, maintaining and repairing the guns, carriages, caissons and wagons, as well as tending the horses and storing munitions.

Horse artillery

The cavalry were supported by the fast moving, fast firing light guns of the Horse artillery. This arm was a hybrid of cavalry and artillery with their crews either riding on the horses or on the carriages into battle. Because they operated much closer to the front lines, the officers and crews were better armed and trained for close quarters combat, mounted or dismounted much as were the dragoons. Once in position they were trained to quickly dismount, unlimber (deploy) and sight their guns, then fire rapid barrages at the enemy. They could then quickly limber (undeploy) the guns, remount, and move on to a new position. To accomplish this, they had to be the best trained and most elite of all artillerymen. The horse batteries of the Imperial guard could go from riding at full gallop to firing their first shot in just under a minute. After witnessing such a performance, an astounded Duke of Wellington remarked, "They move their cannon as if it were a pistol!" There were 6 administrative regiments of horse artillery plus one in the guard. In addition to the batteries assigned to the cavalry units, Napoleon would also assign at least one battery to each infantry corps or, if available, to each division. Their abilities came at a price, however, horse batteries were very expensive to raise and maintain. Consequently they were far fewer in number than their foot counterparts, typically comprising only 1/5 of the artillery's strength. It was a boastful joke among their ranks that the Emperor knew every horse gunner by name. Besides better training, horses, weapons and equipment, they used far more ammunition. Horse batteries were given twice the ammo ration of the foot, those of the guard three times.

Artillery Train

The Train d’artillerie, was established by Bonaparte in January 1800. Its function was to provide the teamsters and drivers which handled the horses that hauled the artillery's vehicles. Prior to this the French, like all other period armies, had employed contracted, civilian teamsters who would sometimes abandon the guns under fire, rendering them immobile, rather than risk their lives or their valuable teams of horses. Its personnel, unlike their civilian predecessors, were armed, trained and uniformed as soldiers. Apart from making them look better on parade, this made them subject to military discipline and capable of fighting back if attacked. The drivers were armed with a carbine, a short sword of the same type used by the infantry and a pistol. They needed little encouragement to use these weapons, earning surly reputations for gambling, brawling and various forms of mischief. Their uniforms and coats of grey helped enhance their tough appearance. But their combativeness could prove useful as they often found themselves attacked by cossacks, Spanish and Tyrolian guerillas.

Each train d’artillerie battalion was originally composed of 5 companies. The first company was considered elite and was assigned to a horse artillery battery; the three "centre" companies were assigned to the foot artillery batteries and "parks" (spare caissons, field forges, supply wagons, etc.); and one became the depot company for training recruits and remounts. Following the campaigns of 1800, the train was re-organized into eight battalions of six companies each. As Napoleon enlarged his artillery, additional battalions were created, rising to a total of fourteen in 1810. In 1809, 1812 and 1813 the first thirteen battalions were "doubled" to create 13 additional battalions. Additionally, after 1809 some battalions raised extra companies to handle the regimental guns attached to the infantry.

The Imperial Guard had its own train, which expanded as La Garde's artillery park was increased, albeit organized as regiments rather than battalions. At their zenith, in 1813-14, the Old Guard artillery was supported by a 12-company regiment while the Young Guard had a 16-company regiment, one for each of their component artillery batteries.

Support services


While the glory of battle went to the cavalry, infantry and artillery, the army also included military engineers of various types.

The bridge builders of the Grande Armée, the pontonniers, were an indispensable part of Napoleon's military machine. Their main contribution was helping the emperor to get his forces across water obstacles by erecting pontoon bridges. The skills of his pontonniers allowed Napoleon to outflank enemy positions by crossing rivers where the enemy least expected and, in the case of the great retreat from Moscow, saved the army from complete annihilation at the Beresina.

They may not have had the glory, but Napoleon clearly valued his pontonniers and had 14 companies commissioned into his armies, under the command of the brilliant engineer, General Jean Baptiste Eble. His training along with their specialized tools and equipment, enabled them to quickly build the various parts of the bridges, which could then be rapidly assembled and reused later. All the needed materials, tools and parts were carried on their wagon trains. If they did not have a part or item, it could be quickly made using the pontonniers' mobile wagon-mounted forges. A single company of pontonniers could construct a bridge of up to 80 pontoons (a span of some 120 to 150 metres long) in a just under seven hours, an impressive feat even by today's standards.

In addition to the pontonniers, there were companies of sappers, to deal with enemy fortifications. They were used far less often in their intended role than the pontonniers, however, since the emperor had learned in his early campaigns (such as at the Siege of Acre) that it was better to bypass and isolate fixed fortifications, if possible, than to directly assault them, so the sapper companies were usually put to other tasks.

The different types of engineer companies were formed into battalions and regiments called Génie, which was originally a slang term for engineer. This name, which is still used today, was both a play on the word (jeu de mot) and a reference to their seemingly magical abilities to grant wishes and make things appear much like the mythical Genie.


One of Napoleon's most quoted lines is his dictum that "An army is a creature which marches on its stomach". This clearly illustrates the vital importance of military logistics. The troops of the Grande Armée each carried 4 days' provisions. The supply wagon trains following them carried 8 days', but these were to be consumed only in emergency. Insofar as possible, Napoleon encouraged his men to live off the land through foraging and requisition of food (which was known as La Maraude).

Additional supplies would be stockpiled and stored at forward bases and depots which he would establish before the start of his campaigns. These would then be moved forward as the army advanced. The Grande Armée's supply bases would replenish the Corps and Divisional depots, which in turn would replenish the Brigade and Regimental supply trains, which would distribute rations and ammunition to the troops as needed to supplement their foraging. The reliance on foraging was sometimes determined by political pressures. When marching over friendly territory armies were told to "live off what the country can supply", but when marching over neutral territory they were issued with supplies. It was this system of planned and improvised logistics which enabled the Grande Armée to sustain rapid marches of up to 15 miles per day for up to 5 weeks. The logistical system was also aided by a technological innovation in the form of the food preservation technique invented by Nicolas François Appert, which led to modern canning methods.

Medical staff

Cuirassier blessé quittant le feu (Wounded Cuirassier leaving the battle), 1814 by Théodore Géricault.
Cuirassier blessé quittant le feu (Wounded Cuirassier leaving the battle), 1814 by Théodore Géricault.

The medical services had the least glory or prestige, yet they were required to deal with the full horrors of war's aftermath. Every regiment, division and corps had its own medical staff, consisting of corpsmen to find and transport the wounded, orderlies to provide assistance and nursing functions, apothecaries, surgeons and doctors. These staffs were often filled by poorly-trained and inept men, unfit for any other work. Conditions in the Grande Armée, as in all armies of the time, were primitive at best. Far more soldiers died of their wounds or from sickness than in battle (see Napoleonic Wars casualties). There was no knowledge of hygiene or antibiotics. Virtually the only surgical procedure was amputation. The only anaesthetic consisted of strong alcoholic drink or even, in some cases, knocking the patient unconscious. Typically only a third survived the operation.

While the technology and practice of military medicine did not advance significantly during the Napoleonic wars, the Grande Armée did benefit from improvements in the organization of staffs and the establishment of a Flying Ambulance system, by its Surgeon General, Baron Dominique Jean Larrey. After seeing the speed with which the carriages of the French flying artillery manoeuvred across the battlefields, General Larrey adapted them for rapid transport of the wounded and manned them with trained crews of drivers, corpsmen and litter bearers. This forerunner of the modern military ambulance system, was eventually adapted by armies throughout the world in the following decades. In addition, Larrey increased the mobility and improved the organization of field hospitals, effectively creating a prototype for the modern Mobile Army Surgical Hospital.

Accounts of the ordeals of the wounded are horrific reading. Napoleon, himself, once noted "It requires more courage to suffer than to die", so he made sure those who did survive were given the best treatment available at the best hospitals in France while they recuperated. In addition, the wounded survivors were often treated as heroes, awarded medals, pensions and provided with prosthetic limbs if needed. Knowing that they would be promptly attended to, then honored and well looked after once back home, helped boost morale in the Grande Armée, and thus further contributed to its fighting abilities.


Communications, though described here last, were certainly not the least of essential support services. Most dispatches were conveyed as they had been for centuries, via messengers on horseback. Hussars, due to their bravery and riding skills, were often favoured for this task. Shorter range tactical signals could be sent visually by flags or audibly by drums, bugles, trumpets and other musical instruments. Thus standard bearers and musicians, in addition to their symbolic, ceremonial and morale functions, also played important communication roles.

A Chappe semaphore tower near Saverne, France.
A Chappe semaphore tower near Saverne, France.

The Grande Armée did benefit from innovations made in long range communications during the French Revolution. The French army was among the first to employ homing pigeons as messengers in any large and organized manner, and also the first to use observation ballons for reconnaissance and communications. But the real advance for conveying long range dispatches came in the form of an ingenious optical Telegraph Semaphore system invented by Claude Chappe.

Chappe's system was comprised of an intricate network of small towers, within visual range of one another. On top of each was a 9 metre mast, with three large, movable wooden rods mounted on them. These rods, called the régulateur (regulator), were operated by trained crews using a series of pulleys and levers. The four basic positions of the rods could be combined to form 196 different "signs". Provided with good crews of operators and decent visibility conditions, a sign could be sent through the 15 station towers between Paris and Lille, a distance of 193 km (120 miles), in only 9 minutes, a complete message of 36 signs in about 32 minutes. From Paris to Venice, a message could be sent in only six hours.

Chappe's telegraph soon became one of Napoleon's favourite and most important secret weapons. A special portable version semaphore telegraph travelled with his headquarters. Using it he was able to coordinate his logistics and forces over longer distances in far less time than his enemies. Work was even begun on a wagon-mounted version in 1812, but not completed in time for use in the wars.

Foreign Troops in La Grande Armée

Many European armies recruited foreign troops, and Napoleonic France was no exception. Foreign troops played an important role and fought with distinction in La Grande Armée during the Napoleonic Wars. Almost every continental European country was, at different stages, a part of the La Grande Armée. By the end of the conflict tens-of-thousands had served. In 1805 35,000 troops from the Confederation of the Rhine were used to protect lines of communications and flanks of the main army. In 1806 27,000 more troops were called up for similar purposes, plus 20,000 Saxon troops were used for mopping up operations against the Prussians. In the Winter Campaign of 1806-7, Germans, Poles, and Spaniards helped seize Baltic ports at Stralsund and Danzig on La Grande Armée's left flank. At the Battle of Friedland in 1807, the Corps of Marshal Lannes was formed considerably form Poles, Saxons, and Dutch. For the first time foreign troops had played a role in a major battle, and done so with distinction. In the 1809 Austrian Campaign possibly as many as one-third of the La Grande Armée, were from the Confederation of the Rhine, and one-quarter of the Army in Italy was Italian. At La Grande Armée's peak in 1812, more than half the troops that marched into Russia were non-French and represented 20 different countries, including Austrian and Prussian troops.

Ranks of the Grande Armée

Unlike the armies of the Ancien Régime and other monarchies, advancement in the Grande Armée was based on proven ability rather than social class or wealth. Napoleon wanted his army to be a meritocracy, where every soldier, no matter how humble of birth, could rise rapidly to the highest levels of command, much as he had done (provided, of course, they did not rise too high or too fast). By and large this goal was achieved. Given the right opportunities to prove themselves, capable men could rise to the top within a few years, whereas in other armies it usually required decades if at all. It was said even the lowliest private carried a marshal's baton in his knapsack. Here is a list of officer and enlisted ranks with their contemporary Anglo-American equivalents, followed by a gallery of some of those who rose to the top, earned their batons and played key roles in the Armée's campaigns and operations.

Grande Armée rank Modern equivalent
Commissioned officers
Maréchal Lieutenant General
Général de division Major General
Général de brigade Brigadier General
Colonel Colonel
Colonel en second (Chef de brigade 1793-1803) No equivalent
Major Lieutenant Colonel
Chef de bataillon or Chef d'escadron Major
Capitaine Captain
Lieutenant First Lieutenant
Sous-lieutenant Second Lieutenant
Non-commissioned officers
Adjudant-Chef Warrant Officer
Adjudant Sergeant-Major
Sergent-Major or Maréchal des logis Chef First sergeant
Sergent or Maréchal des Logis Sergeant
Caporal-Fourrier or Brigadier-Fourrier Company clerk/supply Sergeant
Caporal or Brigadier. Corporal
Soldat or Cavalier(Cavalry) or Canonnier(Artillery) Private

Formations and tactics

Banner of the 1st Regiment of Grenadier a Pied, showing the battle honours.
Banner of the 1st Regiment of Grenadier a Pied, showing the battle honours.

While Napoleon is best known as a master strategist and charismatic presence on the battlefield, he was also a tactical innovator. He combined classic formations and tactics which had been used for thousands of years, with more recent ones such as Frederick the Great's "Oblique Order" (Best illustrated at the Battle of Leuthen) and the "Mob tactics" of the early Levée en masse armies of the Revolution. Napoleonic tactics and formations were highly fluid and flexible. In contrast, many of the Armée's opponents were still wed to a rigid system of "Linear" (or Line) tactics and formations, in which masses of infantry would simply line up and exchange vollies of fire, in an attempt to either blow the enemy from the field or outflank them. Due to the vulnerabilities of the line formations to flanking attacks, it was considered the highest form of military manoeuvre to outflank ones' adversary. Armies would often retreat or even surrender if this was accomplished. Consequently, commanders who adhered to this system, would place a great emphasis on flank security, often at the expense of a strong centre or reserve. Napoleon would frequently take full advantage of this linear mentality, by feigning flank attacks, or offering the enemy his own flank as "bait" (Best illustrated at the Battle of Austerlitz and also later at Lützen), then throw his main effort against their centre, split their lines and roll up their flanks. He always kept a strong reserve as well, mainly in the form of his Imperial Guard, which could deliver a "knockout blow" if the battle was going well or turn the tide if it was not.

Some of the more famous, widely used, effective and interesting formations and tactics included:

  • Line (Ligne): The basic three rank line formation, best used for delivering volley fire and was also a decent melee formation for infantry or cavalry, but it was relatively slow moving and vulnerable on the flanks.
  • March Column (Colonne de Marche): The best formation for rapid or sustained movement of troops and a good melee attacking formation, but it offered little firepower and was also vulnerable to flank attack, ambush, artillery and "funneling".
  • Wedge (Colonne de Charge): An arrow or spearhead shaped cavalry formation, designed to close rapidly and break the enemy's line. Classic, and effective, mounted formation used throughout history, and still used by tanks today. But if the wedge is halted, or its attack loses momentum, then it is vulnerable to counter- pincer attack on its flanks.
  • Attack Column (Colonne d'Attaque): A wide column of infantry, almost a hybrid of line and column, with light infantry skirmishers in front to disrupt the enemy and screen the column's advance. Once the column closed, the skirmishers would move off to its flanks, then the column would fire a massed musket salvo and charge with their bayonets. An excellent formation against a standard, thin line. The Attack Column was developed from the "Mob" or "Horde" tactics of the early French revolutionary armies. Its disadvantages were a lack of massed firepower and vulnerability to artillery fire.
  • Mixed Order (Ordre Mixte): Was Napoleon's preferred infantry formation. Some units (usually regiments or battalions in size) would be placed in line formation, with other units in attack column behind and in between them. This combined the firepower of the line with the speed, melee and skirmishing advantages of the attack column. It also had some of the disadvantages of both, so support from artillery and cavalry were especially vital for this tactic to succeed.
  • Open Order (Ordre Ouvert): Foot and/or horse would spread out by unit and/or individually. This formation was best for light troops and skirmishers. It allowed for rapid movement, especially over "broken" or rough terrain such as hills or forests, and offered the best protection from enemy fire since the troops were spread out. Its disadvantages were it did not allow for massed or volley fire and was terrible for melee or close quarters fighting and thus, especially vulnerable to cavalry.
  • Square (Carré): Classic infantry formation for defence against cavalry. Soldiers would form a hollow square at least three or four ranks deep on each side, with officers and artillery or cavalry in the middle. It offered infantry their best protection against charges, especially on good defensive terrain such as on the top or reverse slope of a hill. Squares were slow moving, almost stationary targets, however. This, along with their density, made squares very vulnerable to artillery and to a lesser extent, infantry fire. Once broken, squares tended to completely collapse.
  • Flying Battery (Batterie Volante): Designed to take advantage of French artillery's mobility and training. A battery would move to one area on the field, lay down a short, sharp barrage, then rapidly redeploy to another area and fire another barrage, then quickly redeploy again, etc. The combined, cumulative effect of numerous batteries doing this all along the enemy's lines could be devastating. The horse artillery were especially well suited for this tactic. Napoleon used it to great success in the Armée's early campaigns. Its flexibility allowed him to quickly mass well-aimed fire anywhere it was needed. But it required superbly trained and conditioned artillerymen and horses as well as close command, coordination and control in order to work.
  • Grand Battery (Grande Batterie): An alternative artillery tactic, when circumstances prohibited the flying batteries. Artillery would mass its fire at a single, crucial point on the battlefield (usually against the enemy's centre). It could be devastating if the enemy was caught by surprise or in the open. But massing large numbers of guns in a single area without the enemy's knowledge could be tricky. Once the batterie opened fire and its target became clear, measures could be taken to avoid it. It was also vulnerable to Counter-battery fire from enemy artillery and needed protection from cavalry attack. Although this has become the most well known French artillery tactic, Napoleon preferred the flying batteries and used it only when he had to or thought it posed a better chance of success. Often at the start of a battle, he would mass batteries into a Big Battery, then after a few salvoes, break up it up into flying batteries. In the early campaigns it was rarely used, but as the quantity of the Armée's horses and quality of its artillerymen declined, Bonaparte would be forced to employ it much more frequently in later battles.
  • Boar's Head (Tête du Sanglier): Was another hybrid formation, somewhat like the mixed order but combining all three arms into a wedge-like square, which could be used for assault or defence. Infantry would form a short, but thick, line many ranks deep on the front, which would be the boar's "snout" (boutoir). Behind them would be two groups of artillery batteries or the "eyes" of the boar. On their flanks and behind them, in oblique order, would be other infantry in column, line or square to form the boar's "face". Protecting their flanks and rear would be two groups of cavalry, which would serve as the boar's "tusk". This was a highly complex formation, which could not be formed as easily or quickly as the others. Once formed, except for the tusks, it had slow mobility. It was, however, faster moving than the traditional square and less vulnerable to artillery or infantry fire. The "tusks" also gave it stronger offensive capabilities. It would later be employed to great effect during the French conquests in North Africa during the 1830s and 1840s, and would be used up until the 1920s.



Napoleon distributing the Légion d'honneur at the Boulogne camps, in August 1804
Napoleon distributing the Légion d'honneur at the Boulogne camps, in August 1804

The Grande Armée was originally formed as L'Armée des côtes de l'Océan (Army of the Ocean Coasts) intended for the invasion of England, at the port of Boulogne in 1803. Following Napoleon's coronation as Emperor of France in 1804, the Third Coalition was formed against him and La Grande Armée turned its sights eastwards in 1805. They left the Boulogne camps late in August and through a rapid march surrounded General Karl Mack's isolated Austrian army at the fortress of Ulm. The Ulm Manouver, as it came to be known, resulted in 60,000 Austrian captives at the cost of just 2,000 French soldiers. In November Vienna was taken, however, Austria refused to capitulate, maintaining an army in the field and their Russian allies had not yet been committed to action. The war would continue for a while longer. Affairs were decisively settled on December 2, 1805 at the Battle of Austerlitz, where a numerically inferior Armée routed a combined Russo-Austrian army led by Czar Alexander I. The stunning victory led to the Treaty of Pressburg on December 26, 1805, with the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire coming the following year.

The alarming increase of French power in Central Europe disturbed Prussia, which had remained neutral in the conflicts of the previous year. After much diplomatic wrangling, Prussia secured promises of Russian military aid and the Fourth Coalition against France came into being in 1806. La Grande Armée advanced into Prussian territory with the famed bataillon-carré ("battalion square") system, whereby corps marched in close supporting distances and became vanguards, rearguards, or flank forces as the situation demanded, and severely defeated the Prussian armies at the Battle of Jena and the Battle of Auerstadt, both fought on October 14, 1806. After a legendary pursuit, the French had captured about 140,000 Prussians and killed and wounded roughly 25,000. Davout's III Corps, the victors at Auerstadt, received the honours of first marching into Berlin. Once more, the French had defeated an enemy before allies could arrive, and once more, this did not bring peace.


Napoleon now turned his attentions to Poland, where the remaining Prussian armies were linking up with their Russian counterparts. A difficult winter campaign produced nothing but a stalemate, made worse by the Battle of Eylau on February 7- February 8, 1807, where Russian and French casualties soared for little gain. The campaign resumed in the Spring and this time Bennigsen's Russian army was soundly defeated at the Battle of Friedland on June 14, 1807. This victory produced the Treaty of Tilsit between France and Russia in July, leaving Napoleon with no enemies on the continent.

Portugal's refusal to comply with the Continental System led to a punitive French expedition in late 1807. This campaign formed the basis for the Peninsular War, which was to last six years and drain the First Empire of vital resources and manpower. The French attempted to occupy Spain in 1808, but a series of disasters prompted Napoleon to intervene personally later in the year. The 125,000-strong Grande Armée marched inexorably forward, capturing the fortress of Burgos, clearing the way to Madrid at the Battle of Somosierra, and forcing the Spanish armies to retreat. They then hurled themselves towards Moore's British army, prompting them to withdraw from the Iberian Peninsula after a heroic action at the Battle of Corunna on January 16, 1809. The campaign was successful, but it would still be some time before the French were able to occupy Southern Spain.

Meanwhile, a revived Austria was preparing to strike. The War Hawks at the court of King Francis I convinced him to take full advantage of France's preoccupation with Spain. In April 1809, the Austrians opened the campaign without a formal declaration of war and caught the French by surprise. They were too slow to exploit their gains, however, and Napoleon's arrival from Paris finally stabilized the situation. The Austrians were defeated at the Battle of Eckmühl, fled over the Danube, and lost the fortress of Ratisbon. But they still remained a cohesive, fighting force, which meant further campaigning was required to settle the issue. The French captured Vienna and attempted to cross the Danube via Lobau island southeast of the Austrian capital, but they lost the subsequent Battle of Aspern-Essling, the first defeat for La Grande Armée. A second attempt to cross the river proved more successful in July and set the stage for the two-day Battle of Wagram, where the French emerged victorious, inflicting some 40,000 casualties on the Austrians. The defeat demoralized the Austrians so heavily that they agreed to an armistice shortly afterwards. This eventually led to the Peace of Schönbrunn in October 1809. La Grande Armée had brought the Fifth Coalition to an end and the Austrian Empire lost three million citizens as a result of the treaty's border changes.


With the exception of Spain, a three-year lull ensued. Diplomatic tensions with Russia, however, became so acute that they eventually led to war in 1812. Napoleon assembled the largest army he had ever commanded to deal with this menace.

The new Grande Armée was somewhat different than before; over half of its ranks were now filled by non-French conscripts coming from satellite states or countries allied to France. The behemoth force crossed the Niemen on June 23, 1812, and Napoleon hoped that quick marching could place his men between the two main Russian armies, commanded by Barclay de Tolly and Bagration. However, the campaign was characterized by many frustrations, as the Russians succeeded no less than three times in evading Napoleon's pincers. A final stand for the defence of Moscow led to the massive Battle of Borodino on September 7, 1812. There the Armée won a bloody but indecisive and arguably Pyrrhic victory. Seven days after Borodino, La Grande Armée entered Moscow only to find the city largely empty and ablaze. Its soldiers were now forced to deal with the fires while hunting down the arsonists and guarding Moscow's historic districts. Napoleon and his army spent over a month in Moscow, vainly hoping that the Czar would respond to the French peace feelers. After these efforts failed, the French set out on October 19, now only a shadow of their former selves. The epic retreat over the famous Russian Winter dominates popular conceptions of the war, even though over half of the French army had been lost during the Summer. The French were harassed repeatedly by the converging Russian armies, Ney even conducting a famous rearguard separation between his troops and the Russians, and by the time the Berezina was reached Napoleon only had about 49,000 troops and 40,000 stragglers of little military value. The resulting Battle of Berezina and the monumental work of Eble's engineers saved the remnants of the Armée. Napoleon left his men in order to reach Paris and address new military and political matters. Of the 690,000 men that comprised the initial invasion force, only 93,000 survived.


The catastrophe in Russia now emboldened anti-French sentiments throughout Germany and Austria. The Sixth Coalition was formed and Germany became the centrepiece of the upcoming campaign. With customary genius, Napoleon raised new armies and opened up the campaign with a series of victories at the Battle of Lützen and the Battle of Bautzen. But due to the poor quality of French cavalry following the Russian campaign, along with miscalculations by certain subordinate Marshals, these triumphs were not decisive enough to permanently conclude the war, and only secured an armistice. Napoleon hoped to use this break to increase the quantity and improve the quality of his Armée, but when Austria joined the Allies, his strategic situation grew bleak. The campaign reopened in August with a significant French victory at the two-day Battle of Dresden. However, the adoption of the Trachenburg Plan by the Allies, which called for avoiding direct conflict with Napoleon and focusing on his subordinates, paid dividends as the French suffered defeats at Katzbach, Kulm, Grossbeeren, and Dennewitz. Growing Allied numbers eventually hemmed the French in at Leipzig, where the famous three-day Battle of the Nations witnessed a heavy loss for Napoleon when a bridge was prematurely destroyed, abandoning 30,000 French soldiers on the other side of the Elster River. The campaign, however, did end on a victorious note when the French destroyed an isolated Bavarian army which was trying to block their retreat at Hanau.

"The Grand Empire is no more; it is France herself we must now defend" were Napoleon's words to the Senate at the end of 1813. The Emperor managed to raise new armies, but strategically he was in a virtually hopeless position. Allied armies were invading from the Pyrenees, across the plains of Northern Italy, and via France's eastern borders as well. The campaign began ominously when Napoleon suffered defeat at the Battle of La Rothiere, but he quickly regained his former spirit. In the Six Days Campaign of February 1814, the 30,000-man French army inflicted 20,000 casualties on Blucher's scattered corps at a cost of just 2,000 for themselves. They then headed south and defeated Schwarzenberg at the Battle of Montereau. These victories, however, could not cure such a bad situation, and French defeats at the Battle of Laon and the Battle of Arcis-sur-Aube dampened moods. At the end of March, Paris fell to the Allies. Napoleon wanted to keep fighting, but his marshals refused, forcing the Emperor of France to abdicate on April 6, 1814.

After returning from Elba in February 1815, Napoleon busied himself in making a renewed push to secure his Empire. For the first time since 1812, L'Armée du Nord he would be commanding for the upcoming campaign was professional and competent. Napoleon hoped to catch and defeat the Allied armies under Wellington and Blucher in Belgium before the Russians and Austrians could arrive. The campaign, beginning on June 15 1815, was initially successful, leading to victory over the Prussians at the Battle of Ligny on June 16; however, poor staff work and bad commanders led to many problems for the French army throughout the entire campaign. Grouchy's delayed advance against the Prussians allowed Blucher to rally his men after Ligny and march on to Wellington's aid at the Battle of Waterloo, which resulted in the final, decisive defeat for Napoleon and his beloved army.

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