Eyewitness Account: French Tactics in 1807
by Keith Raynor
This interesting letter, written by an anonymous German, gives evidence to the French Army's system of tactics employed during Napoleons ascendancy. Though the facts contained in the letter are sometimes at odds with actuality, there is nevertheless a thread of truth running through the contents. The main theme of the letter appears to be the combined use of Light Infantry, Artillery and Cavalry to break an opponents line at a given point; thus enabling the line Infantry to exploit the break and attack the opposition from the rear.
Whether he knew it or not, what our correspondent was attempting to describe, was the organization of a French Corps d'armee, and how it was used tactically on a battlefield. A Corps d'armee is usually described as an army within an army, consisting of three or four Infantry Divisions together with a Light Cavalry Division and several batteries of artillery. Usually a Light Infantry Regiment was attached to each Infantry Division ( 1 ). Each Infantry Divisional Commander had besides his Infantry Brigades, a battery of Medium field artillery ( 8 pounders ), whilst the Cavalry Divisional Commander had a battery of Light Horse artillery ( 4 or 6 pounders ). The Corps Commander also had a reserve battery of 12 pounders available to him.
A simplified theoretical description of a French assault on opposition ( bearing in mind no two attacks were usually the same ), was for the French artillery to soften up the point of attack with a preliminary bombardment. Skirmishers, consisting of the various Light Infantry would then advance, sometimes whole regiments being employed in this role. These skirmishes would weaken the enemies line with their fire so giving advantage to the following French columns of infantry, who on arrival near the enemies line would rapidly deploy from column into line themselves. A firefight followed, the French usual being supported by accompanying artillery, and if all went to plan, the opponents line would be broken. This tactical system meant French troops could be retained in more versatile column formations for longer, giving them greater flexibility than their opponents. It was also this system and not the rate at which the French Infantry marched, which gave them their reputation for speed in battle. These tactics were one of the ingredients which astonished, perplexed and had helped defeat France's enemies by the time the following letter was written.
Hamburg the May 5th 1807. Anonymous.
My Lord, An honest German stung and overwhelmed by the aspect of the misery and degradation of his Country, but who would think himself unworthy of, and past regeneration, if on the edge of despair even, he would not steadfastly look forward for better times -- takes the Freedom to transmit, your Lordship the enclosed sketch of the actual organization of the enemies armies. The same is the result of an unintermitted Investigation, and also of occasional conversation, with some eminent, and most instructed French Officers. To draw good and solid knowledge from the enemy, is the first step and the easiest and surest way, towards hurting and weakening him. It is obvious, My Lord, that the system adopted by the French, will so long be triumphant, until their adversaries, adopt the same mode, and until they incorporate to their Forces, an equal number of clever and expert sharpshooters to answer the same purpose : as in such case, ( provided the chief command be likewise on an equal footing ) the Fate and succefs of battle could be ruled and mastered, or at least be reduced to be at the dependence of chance and fortune.
Your Lordship will I hope pardon my retaining the shield of Anonymous. Your Lordship's candour will find the apology in my civil situation. A man of honor in a free country, there I too will not boggle [ie. hesitate] to show my face. I submit this sketch to your Lordship's strictest Inquiry, and powerful influence. Most happy, I Should be, nay, amply rewarded above my state of slavery, if I should experience to have furnished matter, to effect some good. With the most profound veneration I shall never cease to remain,
My Lord, your Lordships devoted Humble servant.
To the Right Honble. Lord Viscount Castlereagh, etc, etc, etc,
A Look into the Modern Tactics of the French, being an outline and account of the newly adopted organization of the FrenchArmies.
The Corps Elite of the French Land Forces, tho' well known actually to exist, has ever since its establishment been made an object of jealous secrecy by the French, and consequently a subject of curiosity and speculation of the military men of Europe. The nature and purport thereof has always been problematical, and yet it is evident that the French are, but with very few exceptions, merely owing to the new organization of their armies, the last uninterrupted Victories. The following sketch will it is trusted, throw a sufficient and adequate Light on this question, and on the mode, how they made it possible and practicable, continually to appear Victorious, on the stage of hazardous war.
Each Marshall of the French Empire has a body of Two Thousand men of sharpshooters ( Elite ) attached to his Corps d'armee. Such sharpshooters, all of which being expert and skilled men, are each armed with a small blunderbufs ( arquebuse ), and [ are ] allways sure to hit their mark, at a distance of one hundred and fifty paces ( 2 ). In any cases, when the whole army is concentrating for a general battle, the several bodies of sharpshooters, belonging to the Corps of each Marshall, are formed into ONE separate Corps by itself, consisting together in sixteen thousand men ( Corps d'Elite ). Now, on whatever point, the Commander in Chief, is of intention, or thinks it best expedient, to break through the opposing army, on such point or spot this select corps of 16,000 men is always sure to be placed and posted, in two lines or Files, and according to the ground where the fight takes place, in one or two divisions. In most cases, the firing, kept up by this corps, thus placed, is but an irregular one, yet each charge or shot never misses its object, and within a few minutes the lines of the opposite side are shot down. Immediately after, when two, three, or four lines of the opponents have thus been disabled or killed in this manner, the Columns of Infantry and Cavalry of the French (previously placed behind and at the wings of the corps of sharpshooters ) instantly prefs and force forward thro' the openings, and speding to the right and left, attack and take the neighbouring lines of the opponents in the back. As it is, this body of sharpshooters of 16,000 men may within a short time destroy double the quantity, say an opposing army of 30 to 40,000 men.
Besides this select corps of sharpshooters, each Marshall commanding a body of Troops, has a certain number of skilled sharpshooters attached to each company of Infantry, composing the Regiments that form such body of Troops. The purport entended by these shooters, consists exclusively to shoot dead the artillery men at the guns, as also such Officers, as stand afront of the lines, but more particularly to aim at the Chief Commander of the opponents, being always sure to hit their mark at a distance of150 Military paces.
But besides the Corps Elite of 2,000 Sharpshooters, and the sharpshooters attached to each company of Infantry, as has already been stated, each Marshall possefs also, to the body of Troops which he commands ( besides the usual Field Artillery uncommonly strong with the French ) Two most select Batteries of Light Artillery ( Artillerie Volante ) which in point of quicknefs of motion, and expert dexterity at aimimg, may be fully placed in the same rank and clafs, of the Corps d'Elite, above alluded to. These batteries of Light Artillery, are but seldom seperated, but they are generally covered ( masquee ) by Cavalry and Tirailleurs; they are always worked and employed, alone and independently, and so indeed a few general charges with cartridges and grapes, is sufficient, to destroy, in a short time, a whole Regiment. But, besides all this, each of the French Marshal's, does further possess, a corps of Chasfeurs a Cheval; which have been found, may be employed with a deal of succefs, aswell against Cavalry as Infantry. Each Marshall has still moreover a certain quantity of Voltigeurs ( kind of Rifleman ) which besides of their being expert and clever at climbing, and to leap with ease over broad ditches, and high moles, have also been taught and exercised to jump on a sudden, on the back of the horses, behind the horseman or cavalry and so being in full speed, carried to the spot where they are to fight, they here alight, and place themselves behind underwood, bushes, ditches or moles, to assist at the several particular engagements, when by dint of their safe and certain fire, they in most instances, procure the advantage on such occasions ( 3 ).
In any case when a general battle is to be fought, the select corps of sharpshooters, the Chasfeurs a Cheval, the Light Artillery, in short all what is calculated, or tends best to destroy, is drawn together, from out of the several bodies of troops of all the Marshalls, to one concentring point, in order entirely to annihilate the center of the opponents. And it is by this mode only, and not by the exclusive courage, boasted of by the French, that the Fate of battles, have since the last two years been deceded. It is finally to be observed that all the remainder of the French Troops ( except as above ) do only advance to prosecute, and to push the advantage so gained, but after the center of the opponents, has thus actually been broken thro'.
1. The Light Infantry were supplemented from March 1804 by a Voltigeur company being authorized for each Light Infantry Battalion; And further strengthened from September 1805 when a Voltigeur company was also authorized for each Line Battalion.
2. A blunderbuss would be of little use on a battlefield, particularly for skirmishing at a distance quoted in the letter. Nevertheless, they were to be found in the French army, " Another type of firearm occasionally issued to the French Infantry for counter insurgency or anti-guerilla operations was a bell-mouthed blunderbuss, loaded with a handful of loose powder and whatever hard objects were readily available. However the vast majority of soldiers used the 1777 Musket "( Chandler ).
3. Napoleons specifications for Voltigeurs called for strong, active men, able to march at the trot and to vault up behind a cavalry man. ( Elting ).
4. Works consulted : The Campaigns of Napoleon by D.G. Chandler, Tactics and Grand Tactics of the Napoleonic Wars by N. Zuparko, and, Swords around a Throne by J.R. Elting.
5. The Original letter can be found in the P.R.O. Kew. Reference number WO 1/1114.
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