La Grande Armée (French pronunciation: [ɡʀɑ̃d aʀme]; French for The Great Army) was a field army commanded by Napoleon Bonaparte during the Napoleonic Wars. From 1804 to 1809, it won a series of military victories that allowed the French Empire to exercise unprecedented control over most of Europe. Widely acknowledged to be one of the greatest fighting forces ever assembled, it suffered terrible losses during the disastrous French invasion of Russia in 1812, after which it never recovered its tactical superiority.
|Size||685,000 men before the invasion of Russia. 2,175,335 conscripted 1805-1813|
|Motto(s)||Valeur et Discipline|
|March||La Victoire est à nous (from the ballet-opera La caravane du Caire)|
|Engagements||War of the Third Coalition |
War of the Fourth Coalition
War of the Fifth Coalition
War of the Sixth Coalition
War of the Seventh Coalition
|Supreme commander||Napoleon I|
Auguste de Marmont
Józef Antoni Poniatowski
The Grande Armée was formed in 1804 from the L'Armée des côtes de l'Océan (Army of the Ocean Coasts), a force of 413,000 soldiers that Napoleon had assembled for the proposed invasion of Britain. Napoleon later deployed the army in eastern Europe to eliminate the threat of Austria and Russia, which were part of the Third Coalition assembled against France. Thereafter, the name Grande Armée was used for the principal French Army deployed in the campaigns of 1805 and 1807, where it earned its prestige, and in 1809, 1812, and 1813–14. In practice, however, the term Grande Armée is used in English to refer to all the multinational forces gathered by Napoleon in his campaigns.
The first Grande Armée consisted of six corps under the command of Napoleon's marshals and senior generals. When the Austrian and Russian armies began preparations to invade France in late 1805, the Grande Armée was quickly ordered across the Rhine into southern Germany, leading to Napoleon's victories at Ulm and Austerlitz. The French army grew as Napoleon seized power across Europe, recruiting troops from occupied and allied nations; it reached its peak of one million men at the start of the Russian campaign in 1812, with the Grande Armée reaching its height of 413,000 soldiers, who would take part in the invasion.
In addition to its size and multinational composition, the Grande Armée was known for its innovative formations, tactics, logistics, and communications. Unlike most armed forces at the time, it operated on a strictly meritocratic basis; while most contingents were commanded by French generals, except for the Polish and Austrian corps, most soldiers could climb the ranks regardless of class, wealth, or national origin.
The huge multinational army marched slowly east, and the Russians fell back with its approach. After the capture of Smolensk and victory at Borodino, the Grande Armée reached Moscow on 14 September 1812. However, the army was already drastically reduced by skirmishes with the Russians, disease (principally typhus), desertion, and long communication lines. The army spent a month in Moscow but was ultimately forced to march back westward. It started to suffer from cold, starvation and disease, and was constantly harassed by Cossacks and Russian partisans, resulting in its utter destruction as a fighting force. Only 120,000 men survived to leave Russia (excluding early deserters); of these, 50,000 were Austrians, Prussians, and other Germans, 20,000 were Poles, and just 35,000 were Frenchmen. As many as 380,000 died in the campaign.
Napoleon led a new army at the Battle of the Nations at Leipzig in 1813, the defence of France in 1814, and the Waterloo campaign in 1815, but the Grande Armée would never regain its height of June 1812. From 1805-1813 2,175,335 men were conscripted for the Grande Armée.
For a history of the French Army in the period 1792–1804 during the wars of the First and Second Coalitions see French Revolutionary Army.
The Grande Armée was originally formed as L'Armée des côtes de l'Océan (Army of the Ocean Coasts) intended for the invasion of Britain, at the port of Boulogne in 1803. Following Napoleon's coronation as Emperor of the French in 1804, the Third Coalition was formed against him and Grande Armée turned its sights eastwards in 1805. The Grande Armée left the Boulogne camps late in August and through a rapid march surrounded General Karl von Mack's isolated Austrian Army at the fortress of Ulm. The Ulm campaign, as it came to be known, resulted in 60,000 Austrian prisoners at the cost of just 2,000 French soldiers. By November, Vienna was taken but Austria refused to capitulate, maintaining an army in the field. In addition, its ally Russia had yet to commit to action. The war would continue for a while longer. Affairs were decisively settled on December 2, 1805, at the Battle of Austerlitz, where the numerically inferior Grande Armée routed a combined Russo-Austrian army led by Emperor Alexander I. The stunning victory led to the Treaty of Pressburg on December 26, 1805, with the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire the following year.
The alarming increase of French power in Central Europe disturbed Prussia, which had remained neutral in the conflicts of the previous year. After much diplomatic wrangling, Prussia secured promises of Russian military aid and the Fourth Coalition against France came into being in 1806. The Grande Armée advanced into Prussian territory with the famed bataillon-carré (battalion square) system, whereby corps marched in close supporting distances and became vanguards, rearguards, or flank forces as the situation demanded, and decisively defeated the Prussian armies at Jena and Auerstedt, both fought on October 14, 1806. After a legendary pursuit, the French captured about 140,000 Prussians and killed and wounded roughly 25,000. Marshal Louis-Nicolas Davout's III Corps, the victors at Auerstadt, received the honours of first marching into Berlin. Once more, the French had defeated an enemy before its allies could arrive, and once more, this did not bring peace.
Napoleon now turned his attentions to Poland, where the remaining Prussian armies were linking up with their Russian allies. A difficult winter campaign produced nothing but a stalemate, made worse by the Battle of Eylau on February 7–8, 1807, where Russian and French casualties soared for little gain. The campaign resumed in the spring and this time General Levin August von Bennigsen's Russian Army was soundly defeated at the Battle of Friedland on June 14, 1807. This victory produced the Treaties of Tilsit between France and Russia and Prussia in July, leaving Napoleon with no enemies on the continent.
Portugal's refusal to comply with the Continental System led to a punitive French expedition in late 1807. This campaign formed the basis for the Peninsular War, which was to last six years and drain the French Empire of vital resources and manpower. The French attempted to occupy Spain in 1808, but a series of disasters prompted Napoleon to intervene personally later in the year. The 125,000-strong Grande Armée marched forward, capturing the fortress of Burgos, clearing the way to Madrid at the Battle of Somosierra, and forcing the Spanish armies to retreat. They then engaged General Sir John Moore's British army, prompting the British to withdraw from the Iberian Peninsula after a heroic action at the Battle of Corunna on January 16, 1809. The campaign was successful, but it would still be some time before the French were able to occupy Southern Spain.
Meanwhile, a revived Austria was preparing to strike. The war hawks at the court of Emperor Francis I convinced him to take full advantage of France's preoccupation with Spain. In April 1809 the Austrians opened the campaign without a formal declaration of war and caught the French by surprise. They were too slow to exploit their gains, however, and Napoleon's arrival from Paris finally stabilized the situation. The Austrians were defeated at the Battle of Eckmühl, fled over the Danube, and lost the fortress of Ratisbon, but they still remained a cohesive, fighting force, which meant further campaigning was required to settle the issue. The French captured Vienna and attempted to cross the Danube via Lobau island southeast of the Austrian capital, but they lost the subsequent Battle of Aspern-Essling, the first defeat for the Grande Armée. A second attempt to cross the river proved more successful in July and set the stage for the two-day Battle of Wagram, where the French emerged victorious, inflicting some 40,000 casualties on the Austrians, but suffering 37,000 themselves. The defeat demoralized the Austrians so heavily that they agreed to an armistice shortly afterwards. This eventually led to the Treaty of Schönbrunn in October 1809. The Grande Armée had brought the Fifth Coalition to an end and the Austrian Empire lost three million subjects as a result of the treaty's border changes.
With the exception of Spain, a three-year lull ensued. Diplomatic tensions with Russia, however, became so acute that they eventually led to war in 1812. Napoleon assembled the largest field army he had ever commanded to deal with this menace. On 24 June 1812, shortly before the invasion, the assembled troops with a total strength of 685,000 men were made up of:
• 410,000 Frenchmen
• 95,000 Poles
• 35,000 Austrians
• 30,000 Italians
• 24,000 Bavarians
• 20,000 Saxons
• 20,000 Prussians
• 17,000 Westphalians
• 15,000 Swiss
• 10,000 Danes and Norwegians
• 4,000 Portuguese
• 3,500 Croats
• 2,000 Irish
The new Grande Armée was somewhat different from before; over one-third of its ranks were now filled by non-French conscripts coming from satellite states or countries allied to France. The behemoth force crossed the Niemen River on June 24, 1812, and Napoleon hoped that quick marching could place his men between the two main Russian armies, commanded by Generals Barclay de Tolly and Pyotr Bagration. However, the campaign was characterized by many frustrations, as the Russians succeeded no less than three times in evading Napoleon's pincers. A final stand for the defence of Moscow led to the massive Battle of Borodino on September 7, 1812. There the Grande Armée won a bloody but indecisive and arguably pyrrhic victory. A week after the battle, the Grande Armée finally entered Moscow only to find the city largely empty and ablaze. Its soldiers were now forced to deal with the fires while hunting down arsonists and guarding the city's historic districts. Napoleon and his army spent over a month in Moscow, vainly hoping that the Russian emperor would respond to the French peace offers. After these efforts failed, the French set out on October 19, now only a shadow of their former selves. The epic retreat over the famous Russian winter dominates popular conceptions of the war, even though over half of the Grande Armée had been lost during the summer. The French were harassed repeatedly by the converging Russian armies, Marshal Michel Ney even conducting a famous rearguard separation between his troops and the Russians, and by the time the Berezina was reached Napoleon only had about 49,000 troops and 40,000 stragglers of little military value. The resulting battle and the monumental work of General Jean Baptiste Eblé's engineers saved the remnants of the Grande Armée. Napoleon left his men in order to reach Paris and address new military and political matters. Of the 685,000 men that constituted the initial invasion force, only 93,000 survived.
The catastrophe in Russia now emboldened anti-French sentiments throughout Europe. The Sixth Coalition was formed and Germany became the centrepiece of the upcoming campaign. With customary genius, Napoleon raised new armies and opened up the campaign with a series of victories at Lützen and Bautzen. But due to the poor quality of French troops and cavalry following the Russian campaign, along with miscalculations by certain subordinate marshals, these triumphs were not decisive enough to win the war and only secured an armistice. Napoleon hoped to use this respite to increase the quantity and improve the quality of the Grande Armée, but when Austria joined the Allies, his strategic situation grew bleak. The campaign reopened in August with a significant French victory at the two-day Battle of Dresden. However, the adoption of the Trachenberg Plan by the Allies, which called for avoiding direct conflict with Napoleon and focusing on his subordinates, paid dividends as the French suffered defeats at Großbeeren, the Katzbach, Kulm, and Dennewitz. Growing Allied numbers eventually hemmed the French in at Leipzig, where the famous three-day Battle of the Nations witnessed a heavy loss for Napoleon when a bridge was prematurely destroyed, abandoning 30,000 French soldiers on the other side of the Elster River. The campaign, however, did end on a victorious note when the French destroyed an isolated Bavarian corps which was trying to block their retreat at Hanau.
"The Grand Empire is no more. It is France herself we must now defend" were Napoleon's words to the Senate at the end of 1813. The emperor managed to raise new armies, but strategically he was in a virtually hopeless position. Allied armies were invading from the Pyrenees, across the plains of Northern Italy, and via France's eastern borders as well. The campaign began ominously when Napoleon suffered a defeat at the Battle of La Rothière, but he quickly regained his former spirit. In the Six Days' campaign of February 1814, the 30,000-man Grande Armée inflicted 20,000 casualties on Field Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher's scattered corps at a cost of just 2,000 for themselves. They then headed south and defeated Field Marshal Karl von Schwarzenberg's corps at the Battle of Montereau. These victories, however, could not remedy such a bad situation, and French defeats at the Battle of Laon and the Battle of Arcis-sur-Aube dampened moods. At the end of March, Paris fell to the Allies. Napoleon wanted to keep fighting, but his marshals refused, forcing him to abdicate on April 6, 1814.
After returning from exile on Elba in February 1815, Napoleon busied himself in making a renewed push to secure his empire. For the first time since 1812, the Army of the North he would be commanding for the upcoming campaign was professional and competent. Napoleon hoped to catch and defeat the Allied armies under the Duke of Wellington and Blücher in Belgium before the Russians and Austrians could arrive. The campaign, beginning on June 15, 1815, was initially successful, leading to victory over the Prussians at the Battle of Ligny on June 16; however, poor staff work, and bad commanders led to many problems for the Grande Armée throughout the entire campaign. Marshal Emmanuel de Grouchy's delayed advance against the Prussians allowed Blücher to rally his men after Ligny and march on to Wellington's aid at the Battle of Waterloo, which resulted in the final, decisive defeat for Napoleon.
Prior to the late 18th century, there was generally no organisational support for staff functions such as military intelligence, logistics, planning or personnel. Unit commanders handled such functions for their units, with informal help from subordinates who were usually not trained for or assigned to a specific task.
The first modern use of a General Staff was in the French Revolutionary Wars, when General Louis-Alexandre Berthier (later Marshal) was assigned as Chief of Staff to the Army of Italy in 1795. Berthier was able to establish a well-organised staff support team. Napoleon took over the army the following year and quickly came to appreciate Berthier's system, adopting it for his own headquarters, although Napoleon's usage was limited to his own command group.
The Staff of the Grande Armée was known as the Imperial Headquarters and was divided into two major sections: Napoleon's Military Household and the Army General Headquarters. A third department dependent on the Imperial Headquarters was the office of the Intendant Général (Quartermaster General), providing the administrative staff of the army.
Napoleon's Military Household
The Maison Militaire de l'Empereur (Military Household of the Emperor) was Napoleon's personal military staff and included the department of aides-de-camp (ADCs), orderly officers (until 1809), the Emperor's Cabinet with the Secretariat, a department that collected intelligence about the enemy using spies and the topographical department. Attached was also the Emperor's Civil Cabinet that included the office of the Grand Marshal of the Palace and the Grand Écuyer.
The ADCs to the emperor were mainly loyal, experienced generals or, at times, other senior officers whom he knew from his Italian or Egyptian campaigns. All were famous for their bravery and were experts in their own branches of service. Working directly under the supervision of the emperor, these officers were sometimes assigned to temporary command of units or formations or entrusted with diplomatic missions. Most of the time, however, their tasks consisted of making detailed inspection tours and long-distance reconnaissances. When they had to carry orders from the emperor to an army commander, these would be verbal rather than written. The appointment of ADC to the emperor was so influential that they were considered to be "Napoleon's eyes and ears" and even marshals were wise to follow their advice and render them the respect due to their function.
On 29 April 1809, a decree organised their service. Every morning at 0700, the duty ADC and his staff were relieved and the new ADC for the next 24 hours had to present the emperor with a list of names of the staff under his command. This would consist of two supplementary daytime general ADCs and one night ADC, one equerry and (through a rotation system) half the number of orderly officers, half the number of the petits aides de camp (two or three personal ADCs to the general ADCs, who might also be commanded directly by the emperor) and half the number of pages. Their number differed from time to time, but only 37 officers were ever commissioned ADC to the emperor and at normal times their number was restricted to 12. Each of these officers wore the normal general's uniform of his rank, but with gold aiguilettes as the symbol of his function. The appointment of ADC to the emperor did not always last as long as the emperor's reign; an ADC might be given another position such as a field command, a governorship, etc. and would be removed from his ADC status until recalled to that post.
The officiers d'ordonnance (orderly officers) may be considered as junior ADCs, with the rank of chef d'escadron, captain or lieutenant. They, too, were used for special missions such as reconnaissance and inspections, but also to carry written orders. In 1806, when these posts were created, they were members of the Imperial Guard; in 1809, while retaining their military status, they were taken under control of the Grand Écuyer in the Emperor's Civil Household. The decrees regulating their service were signed on 15, 19 and 24 September 1806 and finally on 19 September 1809.
Army General Headquarters
Alongside the Emperor's Military Household but functioning as a totally independent organisation was the Grand État-Major Général (Army General Headquarters). Since the earliest collaboration of Napoleon and Berthier, its organisation was more or less fixed and it would see only slight changes during the later campaigns of the empire. The Army General Headquarters included the office of the Major-Général's (Chief of Staff's) Cabinet with their four departments: Movements, Secretariat, Accounting and Intelligence (orders of battle). The Major-Général also had his own private Military Staff which included duty Generals and Staff aides-de-camp. Finally there was the Army General Staff with the offices of the three Assistant Major-Generals to the Major-Général.
The role of Chief of Staff in the Grande Armée became almost synonymous with Berthier, who occupied this position in almost all the major campaigns of Napoleon. The General Headquarters was Berthier's unique domain and the emperor respected this demarcation. Its personnel received orders only from Berthier and even Napoleon did not interfere in its immense tasks; he would never walk in on Berthier's private staff while they were writing and copying the orders that he had just given. Since the emperor was his own "operations officer", it can be said that Berthier's job consisted of absorbing Napoleon's strategic intentions, translating them into written orders and transmitting them with the utmost speed and clarity. He also received in the emperor's name the reports of the marshals and commanding generals and when necessary signed them on Napoleon's behalf. Detailed reports on everything that occurred for good or ill were to be sent to Berthier, who would in turn select the most important ones and transmit them to the emperor; nothing was to be concealed from Napoleon.
Lest one think this was a safe job of the modern staff officers, a contemporary subordinate staff officer, Brossier, reports that at the Battle of Marengo:
"The General-in-Chief Berthier gave his orders with the precision of a consummate warrior, and at Marengo maintained the reputation that he so rightly acquired in Italy and in Egypt under the orders of Bonaparte. He himself was hit by a bullet in the arm. Two of his aides-de-camp, Dutaillis and La Borde, had their horses killed."
One of the most important factors in the Grande Armée's success was its superior and highly flexible organisation. It was subdivided into several corps (usually from five to seven), each numbering anywhere between 10,000 and 50,000, with the average size being around 20,000 to 30,000 troops. These Corps d'Armée were self-contained, smaller armies of combined arms, consisting of elements from all the forces and support services discussed below. While capable of fully independent operations and of defending themselves until reinforced, the corps usually worked in close concert together and kept within a day's marching distance of one another. The corps would often follow separate routes on a wide front and were small enough to live by foraging, allowing fewer supplies to be carried. Through dispersion and the use of forced marches the Grande Armée was often able to surprise opposing armies by its speed of manoeuver. A Corps, depending on its size and the importance of its mission, was commanded by a marshal or Général de Division (major general).
Napoleon placed great trust in his corps commanders and usually allowed them a wide freedom of action, provided they acted within the outlines of his strategic objectives and worked together to accomplish them. When they failed to do this to his satisfaction, however, he would not hesitate to reprimand or relieve them and in many cases took personal command of their corps himself. Corps were first formed in 1800, when General Jean Moreau divided the Army of the Rhine into four corps. These were only temporary groupings, however, and it was not until 1804 that Napoleon made them permanent units. He would sometimes form the cavalry into separate corps, so they would be able to move and mass more quickly without being slowed by the infantry or foot artillery.
The main tactical units of the corps were the divisions, usually consisting of 4,000 to 10,000 infantry or 2,000 to 4,000 cavalrymen. These in turn were made up of two or three brigades of two regiments apiece and supported by an artillery brigade of three or four batteries, each with six field cannons and two howitzers, making 24 to 32 guns in all. The divisions were also permanent administrative and operational units, commanded by a Général de Division and likewise capable of independent actions.
- Spanish Army (Peninsular War)
- British Army during the Napoleonic Wars
- French Imperial Eagle
- Grande Armée slang
- Legion of Honour
- List of French general officers (Peninsular War)
- Types of military forces in the Napoleonic Wars
- Uniforms of La Grande Armée
- Weapons of Honour
- Social background of officers and other ranks in the French Army, 1750–1815
- It was inscribed on the regimental flags issued in 1804
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