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Fusiliers from a Line Regiment of the Grand Army in action

'You must be a soldier and then a soldier and again a soldier' - Napoleon to Prince Jerome

The Line

The bulk of the French army, which in 1803 numbered some 350,000 men, was made up of line regiments of regular Infantry.  These troops were generally conscripted from those aged between 18 and 25.  Their regiments, known as demi-brigades during the Revolution, were divided into three or four battalions and in 1808 were at full strength with approximately 110 officers and 3,850 NCOs and lower ranks.

Light infantry officially became part of the army in 1801 when `Voltigeurs' (shock troops) were added to the Line regiments. Voltigeurs were usually fighters of superior agility whose job it was to advance in front of the Line regiments and try to disrupt enemy formations or artillery crews. 

The `Tirailleurs' were introduced as skirmishers to every regiment in 1804 and they usually had the run of the field, except when they ran into British riflemen. The French army's premier marksmen, the Tirailleurs (though their rifles were spurned by Napoleon as being too slow to reload) exacted a heavy toll during the Peninsular War and again at Waterloo.

The Imperial Guard

Napoleon's Imperial Guard was the elite military force of its time and evolved out of the `La Garde de Corps Legislatif' (the men who bailed Napoleon out at St. Cloud on the 18th Brumaire) and `La Garde Consulaire', the stalwarts who held off the advancing Austrians at Marengo giving Desaix time to bring up his division and save the day. Napoleon wanted the Guard to be the model for the army, which it most certainly was. All Line soldiers dreamed of scoring duty in the Guard.  It was a force that had fought with Napoleon over several campaigns long before he became their Emperor and was utterly loyal to him personally, a power bond never to be broken in either good times or bad, no matter how often they griped.

Though the harsh realities of war near the end of the Empire forced a reduction in standards to keep the regiments at least moderately up to strength, originally to join the Imperial Guard a soldier had to be over 25 years old, had to be at least 5' 10" tall, had to be literate and had to have fought in a number of campaigns in addition to having served at least ten years in the army.  In return for such stringent requirements, the benefits of life in the Guard were substantial, including better lodging, food, clothing and pay. Generally kept in reserve when on campaign, the Guard was on rare occasions thrown into a battle either to plug a hole in the line at a desperate moment or to deliver a coup de grace.  Naturally, the morale of line troops soared to the heavens whenever the Emperor's warhorses in their legendary bearskin bonnets marched into battle.

Absolutely professional amazons, the best and most feared soldiers of their age, Napoleon's Imperial Guard was the last thing France's enemies ever wanted to see coming at them on a battlefield. Wellington, Blucher, the Archdukes Charles and John of Austria, Frederick of Prussia, Alexander of Russia...all feared the Guard enough to demand as a condition of peace that special attention be paid to first getting the Guard away from Paris well behind the Loire and eventually disbanding it, first after the Campaign of 1814 and again after Waterloo...yes, they were that dangerous, especially where the safety of the Emperor was concerned. You could mess with the Marshals and the Line regiments, but you sure as hell couldn't mess with Napoleon and his Guard.

Infantry Weapons

The primary weapon of French soldiers throughout the Napoleonic Wars was the Model 1777 Charleville musket - 1801 version. This model was the last in a long line of modifications to the 1728 model French Infantry Musket commonly referred to as the "Charleville" musket (named after one of the arsenals that manufactured them).

The Charleville smoothbore being a slow muzzle-loader, something which greatly annoyed Napoleon, trained infantry could typically crack off about three shots a minute, but even then it was terribly inaccurate...as was the equally notorious British `Brown Bess' musket, for that matter.  A skilled marksman may hope to hit a man at eighty paces, but at a hundred the odds weren't good.

Some of the unique elements of the Charleville are the finger ridges on the trigger guard, the brass frizzen, and the cheek piece carved in the stock's butt.  The Napoleonic era version, version 1801 as mentioned, had a straightened frizzen cover and a slightly different front band.

The .69 calibre barrel is 44 3/4 inches long and the musket's total length is 60 inches. The lock plate has the St. Etienne arsenal markings, along with the appropriate stampings on the breech. This musket was used by Napoleon's infantry during the 1st Empire. As for North America, it would have seen limited service in the later part of the American Revolution.

One of the problems with muskets of the period was their reliance, obviously, upon coarse black gunpowder. Despite the efforts of oustanding French chemists of the period such as Antoine Lavoisier to improve the overall quality and explosivity of French powder, the main problem faced by French troops on and off campaign was being able to keep powder dry, as the only other way of getting at their enemies was to go in with the bayonet.

Other weapons employed by Napoleonic infantry were sabers which virtually every Line soldiers and Guardsman carried, Gribeauval flintlock pistols and crude black powder hand grenades, and good luck to anyone handling those death traps.

The famous 1777 Charleville musket, primary infantry weapon of the Grand Army


During the Revolution, France abolished the Royalist army's term "regiment" for its infantry groupings and replaced it with demi-brigade.  Officially, a demi-brigade should consist of some 3300 men, with 100 officers, but in reality many were just a third of that strength.

From 1791 to 1799, more than 1.5 million men were conscripted into the military. Under Napoleon, a further 2.5 million took up arms.  In 1804, the French had more than 350,000 soldiers, organised into Corps that were independent armies of varying sizes. Each contained infantry, cavalry, artillery and engineers and was capable of fighting at least a delaying action against most formations until reinforcements came.

To this system, Napoleon added his own `battalion carre' (battalion squares) which involved individual corps moving  towards a predetermined point separately in relatively safety, within a day's march of the other operational corps.  This strategy not only gave corps commanders confidence that support was not far away, but also lessened the strain a single army marching along a single route placed upon local food supplies.  This was particularly important in nations like Spain and Russia where the land was poor and barely able to sustain the population let alone huge armies. It also allowed for speed and flexibility of maneuver.

A Grenadier of the Imperial Guard on sentry duty, by Detaille

Infantry Formations

Effectively there were three types of infantry formation, the column, line or square. Each had an important part to play in battlefield tactics and required lengthy drilling so it could be adopted quickly while in combat.

The Column

The column was favoured by the French for its manouevrability and the way it would maintain unit morale for longer periods under fire.  A French column would advance upon an enemy position and either overwhelm it with numbers or frighten the defenders into retreating. It lacked firepower - only the front ranks and troops on the outside could fire and if a column moved against in-line infantry that could not be cowed - most British troops, for example - then the column was likely to be the one to break.  To add musket power the French developed the ordre mixte where two columns would flank and be supported by infantry in line.

The Line

The line formation offered a commander the best firepower at his disposal. Infantry units would form lines - three for French and most continental armies, two for British - enabling all available muskets to be fired at the enemy. The two-rank line favoured by Britain gave a wider front while the three-rank system reportedly often led to those in the front being accidently shot by those in the rear.  While good against infantry, the line was weak against cavalry and troops caught in the open by horsemen would usually suffer horrendous casualties.

The Infantry Square

The square was the battlefield refuge for infantry being attacked by cavalry and would present a hedge of bayonets to ward off the mounted killers whose best options then became to employ lances or cavalry firearms. On order to form a square, the well-practised infantry would form an oblong with the front ranks jamming their musket butts into the ground to begin the process of building an almost impregnable hedge of steel.  It was rare for cavalry to break a square, but if it happened, such as at Quatre Bras when a Highlander Regiment was overrun by French Lancers, then the infantry was pretty well doomed.

Vive L'Empereur!