Napoleon Bonaparte of France is regarded by military historians to be one of the greatest generals of all time, if not the greatest. Napoleon’s military career of being shot at and leading his soldiers in shooting back lasted from 1793 to 1815. During that time, he led the French Army to dozens of great victories over numerous different foes all over Europe, from Madrid, Spain, to Moscow, Russia. He was also victorious in battles he fought in Egypt. The most basic rudiments of the style of war Napoleon fought were practiced by European and American armies from about 1700 to the end of the American Civil War in 1865. Because Napoleon was the absolutely dominant military figure during this era, it is a casual and quick shorthand practice of military historians to label the rudiments of organized military fighting techniques from 1700 to 1865 as “Napoleonic.”
This presentation uses many photos of my favorite toy soldiers to illustrate the most basic fundamentals of Napoleon’s style of fighting. Each photo is accompanied by an explanatory caption. You can simply click on each photo to enlarge it. It’s time to fix bayonets and attack this topic!
NOTE TO READERS: The purpose of this presentation is to explicate the most basic rudiments of the tactics employed by Napoleon’s armies at battalion level. I ask my readers who are already well versed in military affairs to kindly be patient with how utterly rudimentary the first few introductory captions of this presentation are. It is my pedagogical style to assume nothing about what my readers already know. The test of success I give myself is to make sure my mother could grasp whatever field of knowledge I’m trying to explain. So, yes, this presentation will begin at the level of naming the different sized units of soldiers. Kindly bear with it for a few captions and the sophistication level will climb. There is a Part Two and Part Three to this presentation, a Part Two and Part Three which aspire to attain graduate level. Part Two employs a tabletop full of toy soldiers to play out a generic sample Napoleonic battle to illustrate the key concepts underlying how Napoleon fought and won his battles. Part Three employs a tabletop full of toy soldiers to explain phase by phase the brilliant actual historical tactical maneuvers of General Morand’s Division of Napoleon’s Grande Armée at the Battle of Auerstädt on 14 October 1806.
If the simple-mindedness of Part One tried your patience, relief has arrived. Part Two is here and with it a higher level of mental stimulation.
Part Two employs a tabletop full of toy soldiers to play out a generic sample Napoleonic battle at battalion level to illustrate the key concepts underlying how Napoleon fought and won his battles.
In Part Three, we will minutely examine, with many photos of hundreds of toy soldiers and accompanying captions, the brilliant performance of General Morand’s Division of Napoleon’s French Grande Armée at the Battle of Auerstädt.
The twin battles fought simultaneously a few miles apart near the villages of Jena and Auerstädt respectively in south-central Germany on 14 October 1806 saw the end of one era and the beginning of another in military history. On one side was Napoleon of France. On the other was the German Kingdom of Prussia. The consensus of all the world that mattered was that the German Prussian Army, the child of military genius Frederick the Great in the middle of the previous century, was unassailably the best on earth. Decades before, Frederick had used his lethal instrument to inflict a devastating and humiliating defeat on France. No one except the French expected the result to be any different on 14 July 1806. But in a matter of a few hours on that day, the French comprehensively dismembered the Prussian Army and turned each of its parts into bloodied and panicked mobs fleeing into the night.
At Jena, Napoleon himself was in command. He had almost all of his Grande Armée directly under his view: I, IV, V, VI, and VII Corps, plus the Reserve Cavalry Corps and his own Imperial Guard. But the III Corps was relatively isolated on an independent mission a few miles away in the vicinity of Auerstädt.
The III Corps was commanded by Marshal Louis Nicolas Davout, arguably the best of Napoleon’s twenty-six Marshals. The III Corps was subdivided into three divisions: the 1st commanded by General Charles Antoine Morand, the 2nd commanded by General Louis Friant, and the 3rd commanded by General Etienne Gudin. It is Morand’s 1st Division that we will consider in depth here. At Auerstädt, Morand and his not quite ten-thousand soldiers put on a tour de force of battlefield choreography that remains dazzling to the militarily astute to this day. They smashed opposing forces approximately twice the size of their own.
Morand’s Division was subdivided into three brigades: a Vanguard Brigade commanded by General D’Honniers and two standard brigades commanded by Generals Debilly and Brouard respectively. Debilly’s Brigade contained the 51st and 61st Infantry Regiments of the Line while Brouard’s Brigade had the 17th and 30th of the Line. The 51st Regiment had three battalions, the 61st likewise had three battalions, and the 17th and 30th had two battalions each. So, Morand had ten standard infantry (called “line”) battalions in his division.
But there was something special about the Vanguard Brigade. This brigade had only one regiment but it was a new and revolutionary sort of regiment which embodied the spirit of the new French way of war: The 13th Light Infantry Regiment. In Part One of this presentation, we discussed the elite voltigeur skirmisher peloton that was intrinsic (“organic” in military terms) to every French standard “line” infantry battalion. All ten of Morand’s standard line infantry battalions had their own organic voltigeur peloton. What made the 13th Light Infantry Regiment special was that it was composed of two entire battalions of skirmisher “light” infantry of the voltigeur mode and nothing but skirmisher light infantry. French Napoleonic military nomenclature will now become dauntingly complex. In the 13th Light Infantry Regiment, there were three classifications of skirmisher light infantry: “chasseurs on foot,” “carabiniers,” and voltigeurs whom we have already met. (These light infantry carabiniers are not to be confused with the heavy cavalry carabiniers mentioned in Part One.) In each of the 13th Light’s two battalions, there were seven pelotons of chasseurs on foot, one peloton of carabiniers, and one peloton of voltigeurs. The peloton of carabiniers in a light infantry battalion was equivalent to the peloton of grenadiers in a line infantry battalion. The pelotons of chasseurs on foot in a light infantry battalion were equivalent to the pelotons of fusiliers in a line infantry battalion. And the peloton of voltigeurs in a light infantry battalion was, obviously, equivalent to the peloton of voltigeurs in a line infantry battalion. So, in effect, the carabiniers were heavy lightweights, the chasseurs on foot were medium lightweights, and the voltigeurs were light lightweights. But the defining aggressive spirit and signature skirmishing skills of all troops in the 13th Light were the same regardless of whether they called themselves chasseurs on foot, carabiniers, or voltigeurs. In the battle of Auerstädt, the voltigeur pelotons in each of Morand’s ten standard line infantry battalions and the two specialty battalions of the 13th Light Infantry Regiment would achieve things out of proportion to their numbers.
In the mid-18th Century, Frederick the Great’s genius built German Prussia’s army up into the dreaded and invincible military wonder of the age. But with Frederick long dead in 1806, genius had been replaced by pedantry and slavish adherence to methodologies which had once been cutting edge but were now ossified. At both Jena and Auerstädt, the sheer freshness and vigor of French methods—particularly the combination of massed artillery and the free-spirited, self-directed boldness of French light infantry troops—were new factors with which the dully robotic German Prussian infantry simply could not cope. The German Prussian troops at Jena and Auerstädt were essentially lobotomized walking muskets as Frederick had demanded a generation before. At both battles, they fired off one rigidly controlled massed musket volley after another after another all through the day. Decades before, such volleys had shattered the ranks of Frederick’s many enemies. But at Jena and Auerstädt, much of each Prussian volley hit air. The French skirmisher light infantry—and the ordinary French troops as well—were a new kind of soldier with brains who disdained standing still to be shot at. From the first shot at both Jena and Auerstädt, the French were simply quicker off the snap at every key moment of both battles.
Auerstädt was a classic “meeting engagement.” Which is to say, it was a battle in which two armies that just happen to be marching toward each other on the same road, each only vaguely aware of where the other is, bump into each other nose to nose, more or less by accident. The battle turns into a race as the opposing armies rush their trailing elements forward, up the route on which they were marching, toward the point of collision. The winner will be whoever recovers from his surprise first and most effectively. Gudin’s Division, which was Davout’s lead division on that day, shared bloody noses with the leading Prussian element. Friant’s Division was the next in the order of march and Davout fed him into the fight to the right of Gudin. Morand was last and Davout sent him in on Gudin’s left. The timeliness of Morand’s arrival was something out of a cheap Hollywood western or action-adventure flick. Large and powerful Prussian forces that had just come onto the battlefield were at the very instant of turning the corner on the left extremity of Gudin’s line. They were at the very instant of crushing Gudin’s left extremity and rolling up Gudin’s and then Friant’s line from left to right with catastrophic results for the French. Gudin’s extreme left flank regiment, the 12th Infantry Regiment of the Line, was minutes away from annihilation when Morand’s leading elements appeared just to the left of the 12th, thereby stalling the Prussian flanking move. It was a “nick of time” occurrence of such extremity that the more intelligent and sensitive of Hollywood execs would never try to sell a movie about it.
Now, let’s get to the pictures and captions. But before we get to rescuing the 12th of the Line, I need to show you some pictures that will establish how I will employ my toy soldiers to represent various things.
NOTE: Unlike Part Two, I will not employ cotton simulated gun smoke in the photos here in Part Three because I do not want to obscure the movements and formations of the units of troops.