A comparison of British and French Military Identity and Organization during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars Timothy Paul Candlish Phd university of York History March 2012



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The Role of Battle

French accounts of battle, and of service in general, have a great deal in common with those from the British side. Experiences of actual combat are often described in a similar fashion to British accounts, that is to say generally briefly, but with some detail. Albert de Rocca follows this pattern in In the Peninsula with a French Hussar, describing the Battle of Medellin on 28 March, 1809;


In the midst of the whizzing of the bullets, and the deeper sound of the

bombs, which, after cutting through the air, ploughed up the earth around us,

the voices of the officers alone were heard; the closer the enemy pressed, the

more coolly and collectedly did they give their orders.

As we retired, the cries of the Spaniards redoubled; their skirmishers were

so numerous and so bold, that they frequently forced ours back to their

ranks. They shouted to us from afar, in their own tongue, that they would

give no quarter, and that the plains of Medellin should be the grave of the

French. Had our squadron been broken and dispersed, the Spanish horse

of the right would have burst through the opening, on the rear of our army,

and surrounded it; the plains of Medellin would then, indeed, have become,

as our enemies hoped, the grave of the French.0

The mention of the Spanish battle cries, and of what might have happened and he and his unit not been there, carries a mild hint of self-aggrandizement. His willingness to admit the threat posed by the Spanish skirmishers suggests otherwise. Sergeant Bourgogne, for his own part, follows a broadly similar style in describing an action on 27th July 1812 near Witebsk;
The cavalry, commanded by Murat, had already made several charges.

Just as we arrived we saw 200 Voltigeurs of the 9th Regiment, who had

ventured too far, met by a portion of the Russian cavalry, which had just

been repulsed. Unless help arrived speedily to our men, they were lost, as

the river and some deep gullies made access to them very difficult. But

they were commanded by gallant officers, who swore, as did also the men,

to kill themselves rather than not come honourably out of it. Fighting as

they went, they reached a piece of favourable ground. They formed a

square, and having been under fire before, their nerves were not shaken by

the number of the enemy. They were quite surrounded, however, by a

regiment of Lancers and other horse trying in vain to cut through them, and

soon they had a rampart of killed and wounded all around them, both of men

and horses. This formed another obstacle for the Russians, who, terrified,

fled in disorder, amid cries of joy from the whole army.0


Like Rocca, Bourgogne makes much of the danger posed by the enemy. But he is also similar to Rocca in that he does not do so in a dismissive fashion. The focus here is more on the courage and prowess of the French troops than on any failing on the part of the Russians. Neither of these examples should be taken as proof of a general unwillingness to criticize or condemn the enemy, whomsoever they happen to be. Rocca’s language takes a turn for the emotive when describing what Spanish peasants infamously got up to with any French soldier who fell into their clutches;

Nothing can be more horrible than the spectacle which shortly-after

presented itself before my eyes. At every step I beheld the mutilated

bodies of Frenchmen, assassinated during a few previous days, and bloody

fragments of clothing strewed up and down. Traces, still recent in the dust,

indicated the struggle that some of those wretches had made, and the long

tortures they had suffered before they expired. The brazen plates of their

military caps were the only marks either of their having once been soldiers,

or of the regiments to which they belonged. Those who thus attacked the

French on the road to Toledo, were the keepers of the royal stud, and such

peasants as had deserted the villages on the arrival of our troops. They had

acquired a great ferocity of manners, from the habits of a wandering and

solitary life.0

It is unclear to what extent Rocca was trying to elicit sympathy from the reader through such emotive language. The literary sensibilities of French readers were not necessarily the same as those of the British at the time. What this segment does at least imply is that Rocca was emotionally affected by what he witnessed, and that it may have played a role in the development of his military identity.





Unit Identities


It can be safely argued that unit identities in the French army developed in much the same way as in the British army. The first and most obvious reason for this is that both armies were structured in essentially the same fashion, using the regimental system developed in the seventeenth century. As with British regiments, the regiments of the French royal army often possessed individual names. The Régiment du Roi, specifically the one established in 1663 and later commanded by the infamous lieutenant colonel Jean Martinet, was created as a new model regiment as part of a series of military reforms carried out by Louis XIV.0 Some regiments were named after their colonels, such as the Dillon, Berwick, and Walsh regiments that made up the Irish Brigade. Others, such as the Champagne or Picardie regiments, were named after the localities in which they were originally raised, though by the Revolution this had little bearing on the origins of their recruits. The Comte de Bombelles, writing in 1756, blamed high rates of desertion on the mixed backgrounds of soldiers within regiments, arguing ‘a Gascon has no reason to feel fondness towards a Norman, and give him the helping hand that he needs, not even just advice.’0 They even used the same means of identification as British regiments, including distinctive banners and uniforms.


Like British uniforms, pre-Revolutionary French infantry uniforms were differentiated along regimental lines by facings, which included collars, cuffs, and lapels. The primary colour was white for the majority of regiments, while German regiments wore sky blue, the Swiss and Irish regiments wore red, while colonial regiments often wore dark blue, as did the artillery. Officers and men alike generally wore black cocked hats, apart from grenadiers who wore bearskin caps until their abandonment in 1779, though this was often ignored. The distinctly French practice of distinguishing companies by coloured pompons in their hats began at that time.0 The French cavalry by the time of the Revolution saw considerable variation in uniform colours and styles, though the means of distinction were similar to those of the infantry. The two carabineer regiments, the most senior of the cavalry, wore dark blue with red facings. Dragoons wore dark green with red or blue lapels, and distinctive Grecian helmets with black plumes. The cuirassier and Royal Horse regiments wore dark blue, with black bicorn hats, though only the Cuirassiers du Roi actually wore armour. The Chasseurs à Cheval first appeared in 1779, and by the Revolution were wearing green, and in styles similar to those of the Hussars. These were the most distinctive of all the French cavalry in the period, with uniforms closely modelled on the famous Hungarian cavalry of that name. Hussar uniforms were distinguished by the dolman jacket, with its distinctive gold braiding, and the fur-lined pelisse, or outer jacket generally worn slung over the left shoulder. Another feature largely unique to hussars was the sabretache, a flat bag worn hanging from the belt. Chasseurs were distinguished by a lack of pelisses. Headgear consisted primarily of the mirliton, a conical felt cap similar to a fez or shako with a long flap of cloth that could be either wrapped around or left hanging loose.
The single biggest change brought about by the Revolution in terms of uniforms was the replacements of white coats with blue, complete with red cuffs and collars and white lapels. The only regimental distinction permitted was the regimental number on the buttons. The same was true of the light infantry in their green coats, but that their buttons included a hunting horn to symbolize their speciality. Fusiliers, as the basic French line infantrymen were known, wore bicorn hats, while grenadiers were privileged with black bearskins. Artillery and engineers wore dark blue throughout the period.0 The Napoleonic period saw the simplification of infantry uniforms, with coats being shortened and bicorn hats being replaced with shakoes, their brass plates bearing a crowned Imperial eagle and the regimental number. Specialist symbols, such as the hunting horn of the light troops and the flaming grenade of the grenadiers, were also worn on shako or cap plates. Another method of identification within battalions was coloured pompons, with grenadiers wearing red, voltigeurs wearing green or yellow, the first fusilier company wearing green, the second in blue, the third in orange, and fourth in violet. The first and second battalions were distinguished by plain pompons for the first, and white-centred pompons for the second.
Officers of all branches were distinguished by epaulettes, with exact rank distinguished in a codified system. Napoleon added whole new units with their own distinctions, including the Chevaux-Légers, themselves converted from dragoon regiments in June of 1811. These generally wore the same helmets, but with larger crests and fur covers, and green uniforms. Three more regiments, in dark blue uniforms, were added that same year, two of which were the famous Polish lancers in their distinctive flat-topped czapka hats. The Imperial Guard uniforms were not much different from those of the line, with minor variations such as more elaborately-decorated shakoes. The most distinctive were the grenadiers of the Old Guard, in their oversized bearskins. More conventional bearskins were worn by the grenadiers à cheval and the grenadiers of the Middle Guard, and also curiously the chasseurs á pied. The one feature all Imperial guardsmen had in common was the distinctive brass button bearing the Imperial eagle.
The development of flags, as described by Elting, went along similar lines to uniforms. Whereas all British line regiments carried two flags, one for the battalion and one for the crown, French units were limited to one flag per battalion. By a decree of 1791 all first battalion flags had to be tricoloured and distinguished by a cravat, a scarf tied to the flagstaff above the flag. The new flags were also required to show the unit’s number, along with a suitable motto, such as ‘Discipline’ or ‘Obedience to the Law.’ Making sense of army flags during the republican period can be a tricky business, as many demi-brigades treated the stipulations as broad guidelines rather than hard-and-fast regulations, leading to many variations. Flags were finally standardized under the 1804 regulations, with flags to be eighty-one centimetres square. The exception was the dragoons, chasseurs a cheval, and the gendarmerie, who carried guidons. Each flag would consist of alternating blue and red triangles, containing the unit number in a gold laurel wreath, around a white lozenge in the centre. This bore the legend L’Empereur des Français au (insert number) Regiment on one side, and Valeur et Discipline on the other.
The most distinctive feature of the new flags were the gilded bronze eagles that topped them, arguably the best-known feature of Napoleon’s army. Until December of 1811, each battalion, cavalry squadron, and gendarmerie company carried its own eagle. From then on, eagles were limited to one per regiment, and then only to be carried by the first battalion. Though the soldiers were initially sceptical of their new standards, dubbing them ‘cuckoos’, they came over time to treat their eagles with at least as much reverence as British troops treated their own regimental flags, if not more so.0 Tales abound of desperate battles to protect eagles, and of daring escapes by small bands or lone survivors. An example is that of William Lawless, chef de bataillon of the first battalion of the Irish regiment, who managed to escape from the fall of Flushing in November of 1809, carrying the regiment’s eagle with him. This earned him and his companion lieutenant Terrence O’Reilly the Legion of Honour.0 A less dramatic example of this devotion can be found in sergeant Bourgogne’s memoirs:

We had been walking about an hour since our last rest, when we came upon

several groups of forty or fifty men, more or less composed of officers, non-commissioned officers, and some men, carrying in the midst of them the

regimental eagle. These men, miserable though they were, seemed proud to

have been so far able to keep and guard this sacred trust. 0
Considering the similarities of the environments in which they lived, and the means by which they identified themselves, it would be surprising if British and French soldiers did not develop identities very similar in their structures and dynamics. A temporary divergence from this began on January 1st 1791, when the order was given for all regimental names to be replaced with numbers.0 In practice this seems to have changed very little, as the regiments themselves remained structurally unaffected at that point. Many even retained their white coats due to supply complications, and the wider uniform issue was never entirely resolved. The real change in unit identity came with the amalgamation policy, announced on February 21 1792. This policy was to combine each battalion of regular infantry with two battalions of volunteers, with the intension of combining the Revolutionary vigour and political reliability of the volunteers with the firm discipline and experience of the regulars. In replacing the regiments the new demi-brigades were actually formalizing the current situation, as volunteer and regular battalions had served side-by-side from the beginning.0 Each demi-brigade became in effect a new regiment, and the soldiers within it a new collective. Their shared experiences of campaign and combat had much the same effect as they did on British regiments and battalions, helping to create a shared identity based on shared circumstance. The Abbé Cognet describes how the experience of campaigning gradually shaped himself and his comrades:
Until then, it must be admitted, we had known the common life, but not the military life. We are now fully initiated. Exercises, reviews, service,

everything is done order with the most severe order. The veterans are content with our progress, and claim that very shortly, we will be able to assist them.0

As in the British army, French soldiers remained primarily within the units to which they had been first posted, with only officers tending to move around, and to a somewhat lesser extent than their British counterparts. Blaze describes how he and his fellow officers would draw lots to see who would advance when the next vacancy appeared, only for new officers arriving from Paris to take all the best vacancies.0 Promotion on merit, as opposed to the sale and purchase of commissions, meant that there was less reason for an officer to move from one unit to another unless he was promoted outside of its rank structure. It is through the prism of these units, as in the previous chapter, that the relations between officers and enlisted men can be effectively examined and compared with those of their British counterparts. A few points have already been established, including the differences in background between British gentleman officers and their French counterparts, a significant proportion of whom rose from the ranks, while a smaller but still noteworthy proportion received something approximating to modern professional training.

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