So what was a regiment in the French Napoleonic Army? How many people were in it? And how was it organised? These are frequently asked questions, in what can seem a confusing and overwhelming series of numbers and names. In this article we will attempt to break down a French regiment, who was in it and how this relates the armies fielded by France during the Napoleonic Wars. The core timeline of the regiment is 1811 so this will take this as dateline of the discussion except where indicated. This therefore will reflect the post-1808 regimental structure.
The Regiment The regiment was at the heart of every French soldier’s life. When soldiers entered the army they would frequently be gone for years without seeing home again, so the regiment became their family. There was an enormous amount of pride felt by men in their regiment and regimental honour was something that could arouse very strong passions in its members. As a result, men would identify as belonging to their regiment and when asked which unit they were with they would say: “19th Line Regiment” or “26th Light Infantry Regiment.”
All three arms of service: the cavalry, infantry and artillery, were divided into regiments. The infantry had around 120 regiments and the light infantry around 30 regiments, although the number of regiments would fluctuate during the course of the war. When soldiers were conscripted they would immediately be assigned to a regiment. Volunteers could choose if they wished to serve in cavalry, infantry or artillery, however conscripts were sent where they were needed. Frequently recruits from a department (the French regional area still in use today) were allocated to one regiment, or divided between several. Once a recruit had passed his medical he would be given papers that would enable him to travel to his regimental depot where the training and equipping of new recruits would take place.
Battalions Regiments were subdivided in battalions which were identified by number. It was these units that would march off to war throughout the Napoleonic Wars. In 1811 a regiment would typically have four bataillons de guerre (field battalions) that would be deployed throughout the French Empire and one depot battalion that would remain in France.
Depot battalions were stationed at wherever the regimental depot was headquartered and it was here that new recruits would be first sent to begin their training. New arrivals would be registered into the regimental lists and provided with their uniform and equipment. They would then be assigned to one of the depot companies that would manage their training. The training period varied depending on the needs of the army.
Training would involve instruction in the various drill manoeuvres used by the French army, which were divided into three schools: soldier, platoon and battalion. When a recruit had become competent in the first, they would graduate to the second, each time drilling with larger formations. After completing their training, they would then be dispatched with a group of newly trained recruits to one of the bataillons de guerre serving out in the field.
Batailions de guerre (or field battalions) were the formations in the field that were the smallest tactical units in the French army as this was the smallest infantry unit that was used independently on a battlefield. The battalion was the building block for all the larger formations and on campaign multiple battalions would be grouped to form a brigade under a general. Multiple brigades formed a division, multiple divisions formed a corps and multiple corps formed an army. Each of these formations would be commanded by general of increasingly higher rank and this structure pioneered by Napoleon’s army remains with modern armies today.
Batallions would have an official full strength of around 850 men, but in reality would typically have about 400-600 men in their ranks. These battalions would be given orders to join French armies in the field. Individual battalions could be sent by themselves to join an army, so a regiment might have their battalions scattered across Europe. These single battalions would then join other battalions from other regiments to form brigades. However, it was not uncommon for battalions of the same regiment to serve in the same army and in this case they tended to be placed in the same brigade. At Waterloo all four battalions of the 2e Legere were all in the 1st brigade of the 6th Division.
A battalion would be led by a Chef-du-bataillon and would have its own staff, surgeons and other support services.
Companies Each battalion was divided into companies, the depot battalion would have 4 companies, whilst the battalions de guerre would each have 6.
Upon arrival at their new battalion de guerre a recruit would be assigned to one of the four chasseur companies. Chasseur (hunter) was the title given to the light infantryman to distinguish him from the normal line infantryman (called fusiliers) and came from an old tradition whereby light infantry would be recruited from professional hunters and gamekeepers. Each company had an establishment strength of around 140 men and would consist of: - 1 captain - 2 lieutenants - 1 sergeant-major - 4 sergeants - 1 corporal-fourier - 8 corporals - 2-3 drummers - 121 chasseurs
Upon arrival at their company they would be assigned to an escouade (squad) led by a corporal. The corporal was responsible for welfare, training and discipline of all men in his escouade, which could be up to 16 in size. In addition to the four chasseur companies each battalions de guerre had two elite companies made up of the most experienced men in the battalion. Each year new soldiers would be chosen from the four chasseur battalions to fill vacancies in the elite battalions based upon recommendations from their captain. There were two elite companies each with their own specialisation.
The carabinier company were selected from the biggest, bravest and most stalwart men in the battalion and functioned as the assault company. The carabiniers would lead attacks and could be expected to hold their ground in the face of an attack. As a mark of their elite status they were paid at a higher rate than the chasseurs and were permitted to wear the imposing bonnet-a-poil (bearskin) rather than the regular shako.
The voltigeur company was selected from the most agile, intelligent and the best marksmen. They would be often being deployed ahead of the battalion to skirmish with the enemy, where initiative and the ability to operate in loose formations was important. They also be taught to be specialists in fighting in woods, urban areas or broken terrain. They too received a higher rate of pay and wore brightly decorated uniforms to mark their status.
In Battle To complicate matters further, the company was only an administrative unit used outside of battle. In battle a battalion would be formed into peletons, the term given to a company-sized formation on the battlefield. Each of the six companies in a battalion might have differing numbers of men and the formations used by a battalion worked best when each of the 6 sub-units had equal numbers. The solution was to form the battalion into 6 peletons, so that the numbers would be temporarily evened out so as to provide the battalion with 6 equally-sized peletons.
Reality vs establishment The on-paper strengths of units during this period are often way higher than the actual strength of units. Frequently units were under-strength due to casualties due to enemy action, disease, accidents, shortage of replacements, distance from their depots and many other reasons. Below are the establishment strengths of units and some the actual strengths in various campaigns.
Establishment strengths Company – 140 Battalion de guerre – 850 Depot battalion – 560 Total regiment – c. 4000
Recorded strengths 14 July 1808 - 3e battalion: 600 men 26th August 1810 – 4 battalions: 2400 15th March 1811 - 4 battalions: 54 officers and 1343 men 13th January 1813 – 3e battalion: 766 men. 15th June 1815 – 4 battalions: 2200 officers and men.