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Napoleon's soldiers: an army of marchers


From 1792 to 1815, France experienced more than twenty years of almost uninterrupted wars. In this context, the vie daily of Napoleon's soldier obviously took on particular importance and relief. More than a million soldiers had to be recruited, dressed, fed and armed. How did the Emperor go about overcoming the difficulties encountered? What were the reactions of the population and the army? How to explain that in 1815, despite the sacrifices endured and the suffering endured, so many men rallied again to the imperial regime? So many questions that we will try to answer.

Napoleon's soldier

As soon as he came to power, Napoleon had thought of drawing on the reserves constituted by foundlings hospices, but the mortality there was such that he had to give up this idea. The imperial soldier was therefore recruited by conscription; the legislation provided, since 1796, that a personal and obligatory military service was necessary for all Frenchmen between 20 and 25 years. During the relatively peaceful period of the Consulate, the 1er Consul attached himself to the wealthy layers of the population by authorizing the replacement: conscripts could escape their military obligations by buying a replacement on condition of not taking it from the reserve; this inegalitarian arrangement had the drawback of filling the executives with men mostly from the working classes. The long period of war which began after the rupture of the peace of Amiens led to recruitment difficulties which led Napoleon to free himself from the rules imposed on him by law. He began to call classes in advance and to incorporate young people belonging to earlier classes released from any military obligation; an article was introduced in the imperial catechism threatening with damnation Christians refusing to serve; school children were corporalized and provided with uniforms to develop discipline and military spirit in them; the conditions for reform were tightened so that individuals previously recognized as unfit were recruited, the weakest being destined to fill the employment of nurses. After the disastrous Russian campaign, the creation of the Guards of Honor forced young people from the wealthy classes to serve with the Emperor with the intention of linking their fate to that of the regime. In 1813, many recruits were just emerging from childhood; referring to the Empress, they were called "Marie-Louise".

During the first campaigns of the Empire, the question of military training did not arise, as the army consisted largely of soldiers who had been fighting for a good ten years. However, as time passed and the battles thinned the ranks of the veterans, recruit training became more and more problematic. This situation caused frequent accidents. Thus, during the German campaign, in 1813, Napoleon suspected voluntary mutilation of many soldiers who had wounded their hands while loading their rifles; he did not give up decimating them until after Larrey had intervened; the famous surgeon demonstrated to him that these wounds were accidental and resulted solely from the incompetence of the conscripts; The Emperor was grateful to him for his frankness in avoiding the death sentence of innocent people. Over time, the high proportion of inexperienced soldiers forced the Emperor to adapt his tactics; to reinforce the feeling of security, as well as the cohesion of troops who had become less maneuverable, he resorted more and more to the use of massive formations; these compact masses had the advantage of acting like rams to break through the enemy front, but at the same time they offered the latter perfect targets in which each ball of his artillery removed entire lines. This is why the battles of Eylau, Wagram and Moskva were much more deadly than that of Austerlitz, without however achieving such decisive results.

From the beginning of the Empire until its fall, no victory was ever likely to lead to peace, England remaining out of reach. Victories never led to anything but fragile truces. However, the enormous consumption of men brought about by these perpetual conflicts was tiring the country. The refractories were more and more numerous. Young people went so far as to have all their teeth pulled out, to make themselves sick or to simulate malformations in order to escape conscription. The prefects received orders of severity; the relatives of the deserters were hit with heavy fines. These measures had no effect; in 1813, Napoleon himself estimated the number of refractories at 100,000 and this number was certainly much higher. The population was turning away from the regime at a time when the revolutionary ardor of the soldiers of Year II should have been rediscovered. The huge massacres partly explained this turnaround: more than 450,000 dead in Spain, of which at least 80% were French, more than 300,000 in Russia, including around 200,000 French, to name just these losses. Another cause of public disaffection was the quarrel with the Pope, which disoriented a population that remained largely Catholic, and the invasion of Spain with which regions of France, Auvergne in particular, maintained close relations. due to traditional economic emigration.

1.6 million called

During his reign, Napoleon called up more than 1.6 million French people to serve. Dressing, feeding, fitting, arming so many men was no easy task. General Bonaparte had for principle that the war must feed the war, the troops providing on the ground. However, this principle was not applicable in all parts of Europe. The Emperor knew this and he was not disinterested in supplies, on the contrary; the orders to install mills to grind grain, to build ovens to bake bread ... which have come down to us attest to how carefully he was concerned with the vital problem of supplying the Grand Army. During the invasion of Russia, it was accompanied by herds of slaughter animals and many supply vans, unfortunately they could not follow!

The stewardship was far from obeying the will of the master. The suppliers were not foolproof: the soles of the shoes were often little better than cardboard and whoever wore these carnival shoes was soon walking on the soles of their feet! Pay was paid very irregularly, especially in regions such as Spain and Portugal, where the guerrillas disrupted communications. The shortage very often forced the soldiers to maraud. The inhabitants of the regions crossed, even those which were deemed favorable, as in Poland, hid their provisions for fear of being stripped of their last resources. During the 1807 campaign, the soldiers demanded bread in Polish from Napoleon (aunty, chleba) and he answered them in the same language that he did not have (chleba, deny my).

In Portugal in 1811, famine forced Masséna to return to Spain in disaster, with an army considerably reduced by malnutrition and desertion. In Spain, acorns and pigeon vetch were eaten while Marmont ostensibly ate himself on silver dishes in front of his starving soldiers! Raiding obviously weakened discipline and put those who indulged in it at the mercy of the guerrillas. During the crossing of Poland and then Russia, in 1812, the soldiers were led to eat a tough meat that had been salted for several years, almost spoiled, and to quench their thirst in the puddles of water soiled with urine. horse; the requisitions not being sufficient, the army was disorganized and the disorder was a source of waste.

The stewardship struggles to follow

Davout was the only marshal who, by maintaining rigorous discipline in his army corps, succeeded in supplying his troops more or less correctly. Let us add that the privileges enjoyed by the Guard deprived the other bodies of part of the food and equipment that should have come to them if the sharing had been fair. The Grand Army melted along the way so that, on the eve of the Battle of the Moskva, it already numbered only 120 to 130,000 combatants out of the more than 500,000 who had crossed the Niemen; it is true that part of his forces had to be left to protect the flanks and rear, but the loss was still considerable.

The Napoleonic soldier willingly spent money without thinking about the next day. Arrived in a cellar, instead of drawing the wine from the taps, he pierced the barrels with gunshots in order to taste all of them; what did it matter what was left to those who came afterwards as long as he could drink the best! On the eve of a battle, he relieved himself of anything that might hinder him during the confrontation so that, the morning before an affair, the ground of the bivouac was littered with heterogeneous objects, as after the passage of a tornado. It was easy to re-equip with the effects of the dead after winning!

During the Italian campaign, it was said that Bonaparte won battles with the legs of his soldiers. Speed ​​continued to play a determining role in Imperial strategy. You had to get to where you were not expected quickly and muster as much force as possible to overwhelm a disoriented enemy. It was by the unexpected arrival of Desaix on the battlefield, when the Austrians were thinking of the day, that the battle of Marengo was won. And, conversely, it was because Grouchy was not at the rendezvous that the one in Waterloo was lost. The infantrymen traveled long distances, in general about forty kilometers a day, but sometimes also sixty to seventy kilometers, loaded like mules with a heavy rifle and a whole kit (haversack, blanket, cartridge, cartridges, provisions of mouth, shirts and spare shoes ...).

The walk was so painful that the bones of the weakest feet broke. To go faster, without tiring the infantry, we sometimes organized tank transport by requisitioning the peasants, but this was rarely possible outside France: in belligerent countries, the countrymen fled with their animals into the forests. approaching troops; abandoned houses, handed over to a frantic soldiery, were then looted and sacked. The material conditions were sometimes so appalling that the soldiers murmured, hence the nickname of grognards which was attributed to them during the Polish campaign in 1807. In Spain, during the pursuit of the English army, in 1808, in the crossing the Sierra de Guadarrama, these grumpy, cold and exhausted people encouraged each other to shoot at Napoleon; The Emperor heard anger growl, but remained unmoved; at the stage, a good word and improvement of the ordinary were enough to make the cry of "Long live the emperor"Rises again as powerful and sincere as ever. The veterans of the wars of the Republic, who had yet seen others, sometimes found their situation so painful that they committed suicide, as was the case in particular, still in Spain, in the mud of Valderas.

An army of marchers

To be more mobile, the Imperial Army did not have tents. At the bivouac, we slept on the ground, under the stars, or on straw when we found it in some barn. If necessary, we protected ourselves by making a basic hut with branches. When the stay was prolonged, the ingenuity of the French soldier was given free rein and makeshift barracks arose, aligned with a line like the houses of a village. The English admired these constructions, in 1814, in the Pyrenees, during the border battles. In the towns, accommodation tickets were distributed; the designated inhabitant was required to provide board and lodging; the good Germans were the most appreciated of these imposed guests (I said right, the Germans and not the Prussians). The ordinary of the troop was improved by the canteens and other vivandières dispensers of brandy; this feminine presence comforted the warriors for want of resting them.

After the battle, the dead were not buried. The wounded were only treated very late, some were even forgotten where they had fallen. During the retreat from Russia some were still found alive a month and a half later on the battlefield of the Moskva River! One of them had taken refuge in the belly of a dead horse; half mad, he violently attacked the Emperor. Amputations were numerous: they were often the only way to save the life of an injured person; they were obviously carried out without anesthesia, the patient was given a glass of brandy, if there was any, and a smoking pipe, hence the expression "breaking his pipe" when the intervention went wrong. Hospitals were vast dying places where sick and wounded were thrown jumbled together, often on the floor. Promiscuity favored epidemics and hospital officials, often corrupt, sometimes deprived their unfortunate hosts of food and fuel, to sell for their profit. During the winter of 1813-1814, the losses of the Grande Armée by disease far exceeded those of the battles of 1813 and it was not a novelty, the same thing had happened in Spain!

The fate of those who fell into the hands of the enemy was even worse. In the Iberian Peninsula and in Russia, they faced the risk of being put to death after suffering horrific torture. In Russia, hordes of fanatical peasants beat them down with sticks. In Spain, they were put to death slowly, accommodating them in all kinds of sauces: in sandwiches, roasted like poultry, boiled like lobsters, fried like fish, smoked like hams! They were poisoned, sawn between planks, emasculated, buried alive up to the head, after having had their hands cut off, so that they could not escape. The prisoners of the English were crammed into half-rotten boats, the pontoons, floating prisons of sinister reputation, or were deported to a deserted island in the Balearic Islands, Cabrera, a cursed place which saw a large number of victims perish of thirst and hunger. . It would take an entire book to describe what these unfortunate people endured in an environment that heralded the concentration camps of the Second World War.

The emperor and his soldiers

In the French army of that time, corporal punishment, still in force in other European armies, was prohibited. They were considered degrading. For the most serious offenses, only one sanction was considered worthy of a soldier: death by shootings and this treatment was demanded by prisoners punished in England with lashes. Marbot, sent as emissary to the enemy camp, saved a French prisoner in the hands of the Prussians from beating during the campaign of 1806; he assured the Prussian officers that if the Emperor learned that they had inflicted this kind of punishment on one of his soldiers, any accommodation would become impossible and that the King of Prussia would have ceased to reign.

Napoleon demanded such heavy sacrifices from his soldiers that one wonders how they could not only endure him, but also devote a real cult to him. The answer is in a few words, and it was expressed by one of them: the Emperor brought dignity to these men, for the most part from the common people. If he did not admit familiarity on the part of his marshals, with rare exceptions, court etiquette obliges, Lannes being almost the only one who spoke to him, the one his men called the little corporal, tolerated her, the even encouraged, on the part of ordinary soldiers. Gifted with a prodigious memory, he remembered their names and reminded them of the places where they had fought before his eyes; he affectionately tugged at their ears; it even happened that he kept guard at the Tuileries in place of a sentry whom he had sent for a drink to warm up; he laughed at their projections: a few days before Austerlitz the wrathful Emperor exclaimed: "Wouldn't we think that these fellows would want to swallow us up!», In front of a sentry, after his interview with an arrogant Russian whipper who came to present to him the exorbitant claims of the Tsar; the sentry replied: "Oh, but we'll get right through their throats!», Repartee which had the gift of cheering up the Emperor and restoring his best mood.

The soldiers did not hesitate to analyze what they believed to be their general's strategy, and even to criticize it, even if it meant attracting reprimands when they left their role, as was the case in Jena when an impatient youth cried: "ForwardAs Napoleon walked by and he told him to wait until he had participated in a hundred battles and won twenty pitched battles before daring to give advice. The Emperor placed such great confidence in his men that, on the eve of the Battle of Austerlitz, he explained his plan to them, an event unique in the annals of the war. After the action, he sometimes asked the infantrymen of units which had distinguished themselves to nominate themselves the most valiant, who deserved a reward, and he even untied his Legion of Honor one day to pin it on the jacket of 'a brave. In short, the Emperor knew the psychology of the soldier and possessed the art of enthusing him perfectly.

Poet, History buff and great traveler, Jean Dif wrote historical works and travelogues (see his site)

Non-exhaustive bibliography

- Napoleon's army: Organization and daily life of Alain Pigeard. Tallandier Editions 2003.


Video: British grenadiers march British line infantry attack (July 2021).