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. 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.
Part 1-1. This guy is one infantry foot soldier with the rank of private. His primary weapon is a long personal firearm that takes two hands to load, aim, and shoot. For this period of history, such a weapon is called a “musket” or a “fusil.” He often affixes a long, pointy stabbing knife called a “bayonet” to the business end of his musket.
Muskets of this era could shoot only three shots a minute. The maximum distance at which a musket could reliably be counted on to hit a target it was aimed at was fifty yards. Contrast this performance with modern machine guns and assault rifles which can shoot hundreds of bullets a minute and which can reliably hit targets they are aimed at out to three hundred yards. Plus, whenever a soldier fired a musket, the musket generated a huge, dense, billowing cloud of white gun smoke pouring out the end of the barrel. If thousands of Napoleonic Era soldiers are shooting their muskets all at once, the battlefield will soon be covered with enormous clouds of smoke which make it difficult to see for any distance. This is why soldiers of that time wore brightly colored fancy uniforms and marched into battle following huge, gorgeous flags, all while standing shoulder to shoulder with each other as if the battle was a big parade—they did these things to help identify who was on their side, who was on the enemy side, and where their buddies were and which way they were going! By contrast, modern military weapons use smokeless gunpowder that leaves the battlefield clearly in everyone’s view. The combination of smokeless gunpowder with guns that can spit hundreds of bullets a minute for hundreds of yards forces modern soldiers to wear dull-colored camouflage uniforms and to fight widely spread out from each other, hugging the dirt most of the time.
I need to digress now to establish the foundation upon which the rest of this presentation will be built. Kindly hang with it for another paragraph and we’ll resume with the pictures. As stated above, this soldier is an infantry soldier. Napoleonic Era armies had three fighting branches: infantry, cavalry, and artillery. As we have already established, infantry soldiers fought on foot with their hand-carried muskets. Cavalry was soldiers who fought on horseback using a variety of weapons to include swords, sabers, lances (long thrusting spears), single-hand pistols, and much-shortened down little muskets called “carbines.” A full-length infantry musket was too long and heavy to be effectively used while astride a horse. Artillery was big cannons and the teams (crews) of soldiers who manhandled around, loaded, aimed, and shot the cannons. Of the three fighting branches, infantry had medium killing power and medium speed and agility moving around on the battlefield. Cavalry had the least killing power and the greatest speed and agility. Artillery had the greatest killing power and the least speed and agility. It is the art of the general to employ his infantry, cavalry, and artillery in a synergistic way so as to maximize the capabilities of each and compensate for the limitations of each. We will talk more about cavalry and artillery later.
Part 1-2. In French Napoleonic practice, this row of soldiers constituted a unit called a “squad.” Sixteen infantry foot soldiers made an infantry squad. The French Napoleonic word for squad was “ordinaire.”
(You will notice that there are seventeen toy soldiers in this photo, so, this toy squad is overstrength by one toy soldier. Assume that one soldier was wounded, a newbie from the home training base was put in to replace him, but then the wounded soldier made an unexpectedly fast recovery and returned to the squad. This can be a case study of how the theoretical on-paper manning strengths of military units is subject to constant fluctuation in practice.)
A French Napoleonic squad was commanded by a corporal, who is represented in this photo by the toy soldier in the more dramatic pose at the near end of the row of soldiers.
Part 1-4. For now, ignore the small block of soldiers seen at the back edge of the tabletop. We’ll come back to them later.
Two sections of infantry standing abreast of each other made up the unit of soldiers seen in the foreground of this photo.
This is one place where French Napoleonic military nomenclature becomes especially confusing. In Napoleon’s day, this group of soldiers was called a “company” for administrative purposes when the soldiers were living in a barracks in peacetime. But this same group of soldiers was called a “peloton” for tactical purposes when it was marching to battle or in battle. This is a peloton of infantry. A peloton was commanded by a captain, assisted by a sergeant major.
Distributed in their proper places throughout the peloton, you can identify by their dramatic poses the one captain, one sergeant major, two lieutenants, four sergeants, and ten corporals needed to keep the peloton in order and properly oriented on the battlefield relative to adjacent friendly units and to the enemy. The captain is the figure waving his sword at the front far end of the block of soldiers. The two lieutenants are both centered behind their respective two sections. The sergeant major and the sergeants are distributed across the full width of the rear of the peloton. Of the ten corporals, six are at the outer ends of their respective six squads. Additionally, two corporals are at the inner ends of the two squads in the front row and two corporals are at the inner ends of the two squads in the back row.
During the years 1805-1807, a French Napoleonic peloton at full strength had 114 soldiers. And, ignoring the separate little group in back for now, 114 toy soldiers is what you see in tabletop peloton in this photo.
For the period 1805-1807, nine pelotons of 114 soldiers each made one Napoleonic French Army “battalion.” So, a Napoleonic battalion at full strength was a marching rectangular block of 1,026 soldiers (plus the battalion commander and his entourage; see picture 10). In 1808, Napoleon reorganized his infantry battalions into six pelotons with 140 soldiers in each peloton. A French Napoleonic battalion was commanded by a lieutenant colonel. Note: For the American Civil War, substitute the word “regiment” for “battalion.”
Now I need to talk about problems of scale that will impact on this presentation from this point forward. I lack the number of toy soldiers and I lack the tabletop space that would be required to continue showing every peloton in a ratio of one toy soldier for every real soldier. This is where the small group of soldiers at the back edge of the tabletop which we have been ignoring until now comes in. For the rest of Part One and all of Part Two, the group of twenty-four toy soldiers in two rows you see at the back of the photo will have to represent the 114 real soldiers in three rows who comprised a real peloton. At the beginning of Part Three, I will introduce still another scale of toy soldiers to real soldiers.
Part 1-5. This is a walking rectangular block of soldiers in a “line” formation. A line formation has more soldiers abreast than it has soldiers deep. A group of soldiers who are standing shoulder-to-shoulder next to each other and one deep is called a “rank.” A group of soldiers who are standing one behind the other and one abreast is called a “file.” This line formation has sixteen soldiers abreast and two soldiers deep. So, this line formation has sixteen files and two ranks.
Part 1-6. This is a walking rectangular block of soldiers in a “column” formation. A column formation has more soldiers deep than it has soldiers abreast. This column formation has eight soldiers deep and four soldiers abreast. So, this column formation has eight ranks and four files.
Column formations are most useful for moving large groups of soldiers from point “a” to point “b” quickly and efficiently. Line formations are most useful for confronting the enemy face to face at close range and blasting away at him with all soldiers shooting in controlled unison. The soldiers in the third rank of a line formation lean to one side to shoot between their buddies in the second rank. The soldiers in the first rank go to one knee to shoot while the second and third ranks shoot over their heads.
Part 1-7. These soldiers are “fusiliers.” They are named for the “fusil,” more commonly called a “musket,” they carry as their primary weapon. Of the nine pelotons in a battalion, seven pelotons are fusiliers. Fusiliers are basic, ordinary, humdrum infantry.
The fusiliers in this photo are in two poses. The shorter figures are carrying their muskets at “left shoulder arms.” The taller figures are carrying their muskets at “left shoulder support arms.”
Part 1-8. These soldiers are “grenadiers.” Of the nine pelotons in a battalion, one peloton is grenadiers. Grenadiers are hand-picked for being big, tall, muscular, and mean-spirited. They are tough dudes. They are one of the two elite pelotons in a battalion.
In the early 1700s, grenadiers specialized in throwing hand grenades, hence their name. However, the hand grenades of that time were so crude they were more dangerous to the soldiers throwing them than they were dangerous to the enemy soldiers who were the intended target. By Napoleon’s day, hand grenades had fallen out of use, but, grenadier troops retained their traditional name.
Part 1-9. These soldiers are “voltigeurs,” which is the French word for “outfielders.” Of the nine pelotons in a battalion, one peloton is voltigeurs. Voltigeurs are hand-picked for being quick and agile. More importantly, they are hand-picked for being highly intelligent, highly quick-witted, highly self-motivated, highly committed to the cause, and, above all, trustworthy to move and shoot on their own as individuals without supervision.
Voltigeurs can march and fight in neat rectangular blocks of ranks and files the same as fusiliers and grenadiers if they are ordered to do so. But their best use resides in entrusting them to move and shoot freely as individuals and as small, loose, buddy groups hovering around the main bulk of the battalion. They are free to hide behind trees, rocks, fences, farmer’s field stone border walls, whatever, while the rest of the battalion has to stand up straight in neat blocks of ranks and files. This highly fluid and self-directed mode of fighting of the voltigeurs is called “skirmishing.” In modern warfare, all infantrymen are essentially voltigeurs. Along with the grenadiers, the voltigeurs are one of the two elite pelotons in the battalion.
The British called their version of voltigeurs “light infantry.” The Germans and Russians called their version “jaegers.” The French and British were way, way, ahead of all the other European countries in the development and employment of voltigeurs/light infantry. The Americans were the best of all in the voltigeur/light infantry/jaeger style of fighting.
Part 1-10. Here is the brain and soul of the battalion. The commander of the battalion, who is a lieutenant colonel, is proudly astride his horse. Behind him is the huge and beautifully made battalion flag. Marching to either side of the flag is the honor guard whose duty is to defend the flag to the death if need be.
The flag is made huge and colorful so all the soldiers can see it above the billowing and blinding clouds of gun smoke that cover the battlefield. All soldiers in the battalion are trained to orient themselves on the flag whether they are marching in line formation or column formation. That flag is the spiritual foundation of the battalion. For a battalion to lose its flag to capture by the enemy is a catastrophic disgrace. To seize possession of an enemy flag in battle is the highest form of glory. Dear Reader, can you spot the error in how the French flag appears in this toy version?
The battalion flag is properly called the “battalion colors” and the soldiers who attend upon it are the “color guard.”
The level of military organization which is above battalion is “regiment.” A regiment is composed of several battalions. In a French Napoleonic regiment comprised of several battalions, only the 1st Battalion had full-sized colors. The subsequent numbered battalions had smaller battalion pennants. The 1st Battalion colors constituted the regimental colors.
Following the flag come the drummers. The duty of the drummers is to keep all the soldiers marching in a uniform step in order to maintain the critical coherence of the moving blocks of ranks and files. For centuries, the universal rule has been, “When you hear the heavy beat of the drum, your left foot hits the ground.” “Your left, your right, your left, your right, your left, right, left, your LEFT, your LEFT, your LEFT!” call the sergeants.
Part 1-11. French women served actively in Napoleon’s army. No they were not prostitutes. They were a vital component of the logistical organization that enabled the army to function. Their proper official title was “vivandière” but this title was partially supplanted by “cantinière” after the cantinas these women often operated for the benefit of the soldiers. They were allocated at four per infantry battalion. Their job was to operate traveling sundries shops out of the horse drawn wagons they drove, or, from the backs of the various beasts of burden they owned. They sold basic personal need items to the soldiers of their battalions at fair prices.
Their signature piece of equipment was the small keg of alcoholic liquid refreshment they wore slung over their shoulder plus a pair of small pewter or tin cups for dispensing same. Their duty in the full roar of battle was to walk up and down behind the soldiers in the firing line, dispensing liquid courage on request. It was common for them to say, “Don’t worry about it now, pay me tomorrow,” knowing full well that many of their customers would not be alive to settle their debt. An important role of cantinières during battle was to offer pats on the back and warm words of encouragement to the brave and to screech obscene abuse at cowards. They were first responder medics to the wounded. Their frequent deeds of battlefield heroism rightfully became legendary. They were killed and wounded in battle in fair proportion to the men. They were usually married to a soldier of the battalion. If their husband was killed in battle, they typically remarried in twenty-four to forty-eight hours.
As was typical, the two cantinières pictured here are wearing jackets with which the main color of the jacket and the color of the trim are the reverse of the jacket colors of the male soldiers of their battalion. That is to say, the male soldiers wear blue jackets with red trim, so, the cantinières are wearing red jackets with blue trim. The same rule often applied to the male musicians of the battalion.
I unapologetically love women who are brave enough and tough enough to be good soldiers. Plus, I think the feminized military uniforms of the cantinières were awesomely sharp looking. In modern times, the style of uniform worn by female cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point which is officially called “full dress gray [jacket] over white skirt” is a beautiful match for the typical Napoleonic cantinière uniform. So, without apology, I have given names to my two toy cantinières. Without apology, I introduce to you Dominique and Désirée.
Part 1-12. Now we can put it all together. This battalion is marching down the road in a single extremely long column. The battalion is marching to its next battle which may be hours, days, or weeks away, and who knows how many miles away. The battalion is one of dozens of battalions comprising the entire army, all of which are likewise marching to the next battle with whatever admixture of excitement and dread. The battalion is one chess piece of many the commanding general of the army is moving across the chessboard of war.
The commanding officer of the battalion, who has the rank of lieutenant colonel, is (magnificently, we may presume) astride his horse at the front. Behind him come the battalion colors and color guard followed by the drummers. Next come the seven pelotons of fusiliers. The grenadier peloton followed by voltigeur peloton followed by the cantinières bring up the rear.
Part 1-13. The battalion is getting close to the enemy. The battalion commander has elected to rearrange his battalion into a wider and shallower form of column, the better to quickly react to any sudden change in the situation.
I must now digress to explain that in the French Army of Napoleon’s day there were two completely different meanings of the word “division.” To make my point fully clear, I must explain to you that several battalions made a “regiment,” several regiments made a “brigade,” and several brigades made a “division” according to one definition of the word “division.” (To continue up the hierarchy, several divisions, according to this definition of “division,” made a “corps.” And several “corps” made up the whole army.) So, according to the definition of “division” we are using in this paragraph, a division was a huge force of several thousand soldiers in numerous battalions.
But to make things confusing, there was a completely different second meaning to the word “division” in Napoleon’s army. In this second definition of “division,” a division is two pelotons of infantry marching abreast of each other in line formations. This second definition of “division” is in force in this picture. Here we see a battalion formation that has the technical name of “column of battalion by divisions.” All nine pelotons of the battalion are in peloton line formations. The pelotons are arranged two abreast and four deep. Again, a pair of pelotons abreast of each other comprises a division in this sense of that word. So, the battalion is in a wide and shallow column with four paired-peloton divisions one behind the other. Hence “column of battalion by divisions.”
The grenadier peloton is the odd peloton out and brings up the rear.
Part 1-14. The battalion commander, color guard, and drummers are centered between the two leading pelotons which comprise the leading two-peloton division of the battalion column.
The battalion commander is of course free to position himself in or around the battalion in whatever location he judges best enables him to see and control what is going on. A tactical diagram in one of my books places him to the right of the second two-peloton division. The same diagram places the drummers centered behind the second two-peloton division. But this same diagram affirms that the colors are positioned in the center of the leading two-peloton division.
Part 1-16. Collision with the enemy is imminent! The battalion commander has again rearranged his troops in accordance with the changing situation.
The voltigeurs are now deployed in a loose, free-flowing swarm around the front of the battalion column. Their job is to “float like butterflies and sting like bees” as they first establish contact with the enemy and then harass, disorient, and demoralize the enemy by peppering him with musket fire from multiple directions from multiple places of hiding, where and when hiding is possible.
Meanwhile, the grenadiers remain at the rear of the battalion column, thereby forming the battalion reserve. As the elite reserve, they are ready to rapidly and violently intrude themselves into any crisis situation of danger or opportunity.
Part 1-17. The battalion is face to face with the enemy, who are in plain sight, approaching from the opposite side of the battlefield! The battalion commander has decided to deploy his battalion in an extremely wide and shallow line formation. This formation enables the battalion to have every single musket shooting at the enemy at the same instant.
Part 1-18. The battalion commander, color guard, and drummers center themselves between the two innermost fusilier pelotons of the total of nine pelotons that are now abreast of each other in the battalion line.
As before, the battalion commander is free to position himself wherever he judges he can best see and control what is going on. In the mayhem of a close-range battle, that optimal position will probably be a few yards behind the most heavily engaged sector of his wide battalion front. The many drill manuals of various nations of that time specified different default locations for the battalion commander.
Part 1-21. The battalion commander has modified the deployment of his battalion to make the best use of the specialized capabilities of his different types of troops. He has released his voltigeurs to freely swarm across the full breadth of the battalion front. He has placed his grenadiers behind the line in reserve, keeping them fresh and unscathed as they await their moment to be called forward and strike at the decisive moment at the decisive place with all their explosive violent power. Dominique and Désirée have positioned themselves where they can best perform their duties during the impending mass musket shootout.
Part 1-24. Here is a close-up of the grenadier peloton in its customary reserve position, centered behind the line of seven fusilier pelotons.
It was a common practice to detach the grenadier peloton from several battalions and to group the several grenadier pelotons into an ad hoc all-grenadier battalion.
Part 1-25. Here is a “company” of horse cavalry. I am using twenty-four toy horsemen in this photo to represent the slightly less than 120 real-life horsemen who comprised a company (the exact number of horsemen varied slightly according to what type of horse cavalry company it was). In the French horse cavalry of Napoleon’s day, a company of cavalry was equivalent to a peloton of infantry. Two companies of cavalry made a “squadron” of cavalry. A squadron of cavalry was equivalent to a battalion of infantry. A squadron of cavalry was considered to be the battlefield chess piece equivalent of a battalion of infantry notwithstanding the fact that a squadron of cavalry had far fewer soldiers than a battalion of infantry. In modern U.S. Army practice, a squadron of motorized vehicle cavalry is equivalent to an infantry battalion while a “troop” of motorized vehicle cavalry is equivalent to an infantry company.
There were many styles of cavalry in Napoleon’s day. This style of cavalrymen is called “lancers” given that their primary weapon is a lance. A lance is a long spear intended for thrusting, not throwing, and with an ornamental little pennant fluttering behind the point.
Part 1-26. This style of cavalry is called “dragoons.” Their primary weapon was a particularly long, heavy, and straight-bladed saber. All armies had dragoons but Napoleon’s French dragoons were distinctive for wearing ancient Greco-Roman style steel helmets with long, ornamental horsehair crests. Dragoons were classified as “heavy” cavalry because they were composed of big powerful men on big powerful horses.
Dragoons had the specialized additional ability to dismount from their horses and fight on foot as infantry, shooting their carbines. Generations before Napoleon’s era, the carbines used by dragoons were called “dragons” because they had ornamental dragon heads at the muzzle (front barrel opening) end; hence the name “dragoons” for the soldiers who were so armed.
The heaviest types of French cavalry were the cuirassiers and, after 1810, the carabiniers also. In addition to Greco-Roman style helmets, these troops wore steel armor chest and back plates. This last fact leads some authors to describe dragoons as medium cavalry rather than heavy. I lack paper soldier cuirassiers and carabiniers. To visualize cuirassiers, look at my paper dragoons, change their green coats to blue, and imagine them with shiny steel chest and back plates.
Part 1-27. This style of cavalry is called “chasseurs on horseback” where “chasseur” is the French word for “hunter.” They are called “chasseurs on horseback” to distinguish them from “chasseurs on foot” which is a style of infantry more or less the same as voltigeurs. Chasseurs on horseback were classified as “light” cavalry because they were composed of small, quick, agile men on small, quick, agile horses.
Part 1-29. And this style of cavalry is called “hussars.” Their primary weapon was a curved saber which somewhat resembled Middle Eastern scimitars. They were light cavalry in precisely the same mode as chasseurs on horseback and performed precisely the same role. French Napoleonic military nomenclature was needlessly complex, having several different named styles of troops who performed identical or virtually identical roles. Americans in their Civil War just had “infantry” and “cavalry” with no attempt at further refinement of either.
Part 1-32. And here is how cannons were transported over any distance greater than a few yards. The cannon is hitched to a horse-drawn towing conveyance called a “limber.” An essential part of the limber is the big wooden chest in which is stored the ammunition for the cannon to shoot.
“Caissons” were specially designed horse-drawn wagons holding additional chests of cannon ammunition. I lack caissons among my toy soldiers of this scale.
Shown here is “foot artillery” in which the crewmen walk beside their cannons and limbers. In “horse artillery,” every soldier is mounted on his own horse if he is not riding on a horse-drawn vehicle of some kind in order to maximize speed and mobility in moving the big guns around on the battlefield. Cannons in the horse artillery were necessarily smaller and lighter than in the foot artillery. Horse artillery units were usually attached in support of horse cavalry units.
Part 1-33. Here is an artillery “company” comprised of four cannons, four limbers, and all the soldiers and horses needed to make it all work. A company in the artillery was the equivalent of a peloton in the infantry and a company in the cavalry.
Note: What Napoleon’s French called a “company” of artillery is called, in modern U.S. practice, a “battery” of artillery.
Depending on the type of cannon, the national identity of the army, and the historical period in question, a company can consist of four to twelve cannons. So, here is a rare case where my display of toys has a correct one-for-one correspondence with the real world.
It was a nuance of French Napoleonic field artillery companies that they could comprise a mix of long guns and howitzers.
What I am calling a “long gun” here is a cannon of the most common dimensions and proportions as seen in my toys in these photos. A “howitzer” has a noticeably shorter and fatter barrel and shoots its projectiles in a higher, more lobbing arc than the relatively flat shooting long gun. A “mortar” has a still shorter, still fatter barrel and shoots in a still higher arcing trajectory.
Part 1-34. The optimal technique for musket-period infantry to defend itself from, and defeat, oncoming thundering masses of enemy horse cavalry is to form the famous “hollow square” formation. On each face of the square, the outer ranks fix bayonets to their muskets, go to one knee, jamb the butt end of their muskets into the dirt, and hold their muskets up and out at a forty-five-degree angle. They thus form a hedge of bayonet points which threatens to impale any horse which comes too close. At the same time, the inner ranks on each face of the square level their muskets and shoot over the heads of the outer ranks. Swift galloping cavalry love to circle around infantry in order to come on infantry from behind and from the sides (from “rear” and “flanks”) to saber down and trample down the infantry. But the square formation allows the cavalry no rear or flanks to approach. The French were notable for sometimes placing their cannons at the corners of their squares.
Note: My paper soldiers are printed in color on one side only. Hence the bizarre effect you see in my photos of the square formation.
Part 1-35. Horses object to being ridden forward onto a hedge of bayonet points while being shot at from a yard away at the same time. As long as the infantrymen forming the square keep their nerve and do not allow themselves to be intimidated, as long as they are skillful in judging the right moment to let off a volley of musket fire, they are largely safe from attacking cavalry. The recurring theme throughout the Napoleonic Wars was that charging masses of cavalry who encountered well-formed and disciplined squares would be reduced to swirling around the squares in a photogenic but ineffectual fashion.
Part 1-36. Here’s how to annihilate a square. While squares are proof against cavalry, they are grimly vulnerable to infantry and artillery. A battalion in square can only fire one fourth of its muskets against a like-sized enemy battalion of infantry which is in line formation. Therefore, an infantry battalion in square will quickly lose a volley shootout with an enemy battalion in line. Also, because squares are particularly dense formations, they are particularly vulnerable to being blown to hamburger by cannons.
The astute attacker will break enemy squares by subjecting the enemy soldiers to a fatal dilemma. The astute attacker will employ his cavalry, infantry, and artillery in close concert, keeping them operating jointly within the space of a few football fields. First, the attacker will send his skirmisher jaeger “light” infantry to peck at and harass the enemy infantry. Then, the skillful attacker will send a large mass of his cavalry toward the enemy infantry, but not to charge all the way in. Instead, the cavalry is to hover menacingly just out of musket range of the enemy infantry. By their mere presence, the cavalry will induce the enemy infantry to form square to forestall being cut up and trampled down by the cavalry. In the next instant, the attacker brings his infantry and artillery forward into effective shooting range of the square and opens fire. The enemy soldiers in the square are now in the dilemma just mentioned. If they remain in square to protect themselves from the cavalry, they leave themselves vulnerable to being gradually but surely blown away by the infantry and artillery. If they leave square formation and go into line formation to maximize their capability for volley fire against the infantry and artillery, they leave themselves vulnerable to being instantly set upon and cut to shreds by the cavalry. All elements of this square-busting drill are seen in this photo.
Part 1-37. In 1808, Napoleon reduced the number of pelotons in his infantry battalions from nine to six while simultaneously increasing the number of soldiers per peloton from 114 to 140. This new organization was in force until Napoleon’s fall in 1815. In the six peloton per battalion system, four pelotons were fusiliers, one was grenadiers, and one was voltigeurs.
In this photo and the eleven following photos, I show three battalions abreast of each other in the formation called “mixed order.” I would prefer to explain to you how the mixed order formation worked using the nine peloton per battalion organization of 1805-1807. The problem is I lack both the number of toy soldiers and the tabletop space to show you three battalions with nine pelotons per battalion as would be the case with the organization of 1805-1807. The constraints on how many toy soldiers I have and how much tabletop space I have compel me to show you the mixed order formation using the six peloton per battalion organization of 1808-1815.
What makes mixed order formation “mixed” is the fact that some of the units within the formation are in line formation while others are in column formation. To be more precise, a French Napoleonic mixed order formation for the period 1805-1815 is comprised of three battalions moving and fighting abreast of each other—of which—the battalion in the center is in line formation and the two battalions on the outer left and right ends (properly left and right “flanks”) are in column of battalion by divisions. Please go back to photo and caption #13 if you need to refresh your memory on what constitutes “column of battalion by divisions.”
In this photo, three French battalions have gone into mixed order formation in order to fight the green-uniformed enemy force which is advancing from left to right across the photo. You will see three French battalion commanding officers astride their horses and three sets of battalion colors (flags) with their attendant color guards. Each battalion commander with color guard marks the approximate center of their respective battalions.
Find the French battalion commander with flag in the middle of the French formation. His battalion is in line formation. He has two of his fusilier pelotons in line formation to his left and his other two fusilier pelotons in line formation to his right. He has his voltigeur peloton scattered out before him doing their skirmisher mission. He has his grenadier peloton in ranks behind him where it waits in reserve.
Now look at the two outer battalions on the ends (properly called “flanks”) of the mixed order formation. They are both in column of battalion by divisions. The four fusilier pelotons are arrayed in two divisions, each “division” comprised of two pelotons in line formation abreast of each other. One two-peloton-abreast division is behind the other, thus forming a shallow column. As usual, the voltigeur peloton is dispersed out front for skirmishing while the grenadier peloton brings up the rear in reserve. See photo and caption #16 for how this column of battalion by divisions would look under the nine peloton per battalion organization of 1805-1807.
The Napoleonic French embraced the mixed order formation because of the advantages it conferred. It was an ideal compromise between a pure line formation and a pure column formation. It put plenty of muskets abreast of each other to shoot all at once like a line formation. Yet, its columnar character made it easier than a pure line formation to maneuver across a battlefield littered with mounds of dead and wounded, wrecked cannons, burning buildings, natural obstacles such as streams, ponds, and thickets, and so forth.
Perhaps most important was the security the mixed order formation provided against an enemy attack by cavalry or a mixed force of cavalry and infantry. A column of battalion by divisions formation could move into a cavalry-proof square formation much more quickly and easily than a line formation. If the enemy attacked with cavalry and infantry combined against a group of three French battalions that were in mixed order formation, the French battalions at each flank could go into square to ward off the enemy cavalry, thereby enabling the center battalion to remain in line formation in order to maximize its musket fire against the enemy infantry.
Side Note #1: If the three French battalions in the photo were the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Battalions of the same single parent regiment, only the 1st Battalion would have a full size French tricolor national flag. The 2nd and 3rd Battalions would have smaller but still conspicuous pennants. Since we see three full sized French flags in the photo, we can deduce that we are looking at the 1st Battalions from three different parent regiments.
Side Note #2: You will notice that one of the fusilier pelotons at the far end of my tabletop has red uniforms instead of the standard French blue uniforms for infantry. British infantry soldiers are, of course, iconic the world over as “The Redcoats.” But red-coated infantry in French service can only be Swiss mercenaries. Like the British, Swiss troops traditionally wore red uniforms. A few regiments of Swiss troops fought for Napoleon.
Part 1-39. Here’s a closeup of the center battalion of the three-battalion mixed order formation. This battalion is in line formation. All four fusilier pelotons are in line formation abreast of each other. Two fusilier pelotons are to the left of the horse-mounted battalion commanding officer and two are to his right. The voltigeur peloton is spread out, doing its skirmishing mission, in front of the fusilier pelotons. The grenadier peloton is in ranks, waiting in reserve, behind the fusilier pelotons. The marching band is there to get everybody pumped up for the trial of strength and courage which is about to come.
Part 1-40. You are looking at the near end of my tabletop. Here’s a closeup of the left flank battalion of the three-battalion mixed order formation. This battalion is in column of battalion by division formation. All four fusilier pelotons are in line formation. The four fusilier pelotons are arrayed in two divisions, each “division” comprised of two pelotons in line formation abreast of each other. One two-peloton-abreast division is behind the other, thus forming a shallow column. As is the case with the center battalion, the voltigeur peloton is spread out, doing its skirmishing mission, in front of the fusilier pelotons while the grenadier peloton is in ranks, waiting in reserve, behind the fusilier pelotons.
The right flank battalion of the three-battalion mixed order formation, located at the far end of my tabletop, is deployed exactly the same as the left flank battalion.
Part 1-41. The mixed order formation is proving its worth in this and the following seven photos. The three French battalions are under simultaneous attack from a mass of enemy infantry wearing green uniforms in the center and from two masses of enemy cavalry wearing red uniforms out on both flanks.
The center French battalion remains in line formation in order to keep as many muskets abreast as possible to shoot the maximum number of bullets possible at the enemy.
Notice that the voltigeurs of the center battalion—who were previously out in front of the French fusilier main line doing skirmisher duty—have now faded back through the fusilier main line to take up positions behind the fusilier main line. When the attacking mass of green-clad enemy infantry was still some distance away (see previous photos) the voltigeurs were earning their pay by sniping at and harassing the enemy infantry. But now that the enemy infantry is coming forward en masse to press a close attack, the voltigeurs have done the right thing by taking refuge behind the straight lines of their fellow soldier fusiliers.
The marching band has withdrawn off the edge of the table to the right. When all this is over, the musicians will serve as stretcher bearers for the wounded.
The three pelotons of elite grenadiers from the three battalions have been consolidated into one all-grenadier mini-battalion. The three consolidated grenadier pelotons continue to wait in reserve behind the horse-mounted commanding officer of the center battalion.
Meanwhile, the left flank and right flank French battalions have gone into square formation to make themselves best able to protect themselves from the onrushing masses of enemy cavalry and to then repel the enemy cavalry. See how the voltigeurs of the flank battalions have sought refuge inside their respective fusilier squares.
Part 1-43. Here’s a closeup of the center French battalion in line formation for a close-range shootout with the green-clad enemy infantry. You can see how the grenadier pelotons from the three battalions have been consolidated into a single mini-battalion placed in reserve behind the fusiliers of the center battalion. The just-now created all-grenadier mini-battalion is where the marching band used to be. The voltigeurs of the center battalion are catching a breather to either side of the grenadiers. No doubt a few of them are taking advantage of the situation to chat up Dominique and Désirée.
Part 1-44. Here’s a closeup of the left flank French battalion at the near end of my tabletop. They have put themselves in square formation to first resist and then repel the enemy cavalry charge. You will see how the voltigeurs of the left flank battalion have wisely taken refuge inside the square of their comrade fusiliers.
Part 1-47. Here’s a close-up of the near end of my tabletop at the very moment when the blue-clad French lancer cavalry launch their countercharge against the red-clad enemy cavalry. Whatever losses the French infantry in square formation have inflicted on the enemy cavalry charge will be doubled and redoubled by the perfectly timed French cavalry countercharge.
Part 1-48. At this moment, precisely the same game is playing out in the French cavalry countercharge at the far end of my tabletop. The French cavalry at the far end of my tabletop are green-clad dragoons.
Within the next few minutes of real time, the enemy cavalry forces on both flanks will be shattered and sent reeling back to their starting point. That will be the moment when the French left and right flank battalions will come out of square formation and go back into column of battalion by divisions as they were before. Meanwhile, the enemy infantry attack in the center has been successfully repulsed by the center French battalion with the help of the consolidated grenadier peloton mini-battalion. Now, finally, the French will advance to the attack along the entire front and drive the enemy from the battlefield to clinch the victory.