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.
Part 2-1. Here is the “big picture” at last! All three fighting branches we learned about in Part One are acting in choreographed concert to confront and destroy the enemy! On the right side of the photo are the French. They are advancing aggressively to the attack. A battalion of infantry, a company of artillery, and four companies of cavalry are abreast of each other across the full width of the battlefield as they advance to the attack. On the left side of the photo, the enemy forces are in a defensive position to engage in what will be the bloody test of skill, will, and fate. In this notional example battle, we’ll call the enemy the Russians. The Russian infantry was famous for its dark green uniforms such as you see on the left side of the photo. (Actually, I have only a few toy soldiers representing Russians of this era. Almost all British troops wore red uniforms at this time. The toy soldiers you see actually belong to the tiny minority of British infantry who wore green. The enemy flag you see is, however, accurately and absolutely Russian in its colors and patterns.)
NOTE: In this discussion we will refer to “companies” of Russian infantry which are exactly equivalent to the French pelotons we discussed in Part One.
Here is the list of French units from nearest to farthest up the right side of the photo: a company of chasseurs on horseback light skirmisher cavalry in column formation; a company of dragoon heavy cavalry in column formation; a company of artillery moving forward while limbered; the infantry battalion in column of battalion by divisions with the voltigeur light infantry peloton deployed out front in loose skirmish order and the grenadier peloton centered in the rear as reserve; a company of lancer medium cavalry in column formation; and a company of hussar light skirmisher cavalry in column formation. (As we discussed in Part One, chasseurs on horseback are to be distinguished from chasseurs on foot.)
You will notice that the French infantry battalion has six pelotons of basic humdrum fusilier infantry, not the officially called for seven. The cruel effects of attrition from combat losses in previous battles and losses from disease in camp have forced the battalion commander to disband one of his seven fusilier pelotons and distribute the survivors through the remaining six fusilier pelotons in order to keep his pelotons at something like full strength. The elite grenadier and voltigeur pelotons are in good shape at full strength.
Here is the list of Russian units from nearest to farthest up the left side of the photo: a company of hussar light skirmisher cavalry in line formation; a company of fusilier infantry in line formation; a two-cannon half-company (properly called a “section”) of artillery; two companies of fusilier infantry in line formation; the Russian commander and color guard followed immediately by a grenadier company in line formation in reserve; two companies of fusilier infantry in line formation; another section of artillery; a company of fusilier infantry in line formation; and a company of hussar light cavalry in line formation. Notice that on the extreme left edge of the tabletop are the leading ranks of two large forces of Russian heavy cavalry, most of which are invisible off the edge of the tabletop. The Russians have deployed their light jaeger infantry in loose, open skirmish order across the front of their fusiliers.
As per the universal standard operating procedure of that time, the light skirmisher cavalry is deployed on the extreme outer flanks of both armies.
The salient and overriding factor in the battle about to start is that Napoleon’s Grande Armée of the years 1805-1807 was the best trained, best drilled, most highly motivated, most technically proficient army in the entire world. The Russian soldiers were without peer in bravery and sheer toughness but their junior and mid-level officers were badly lacking in technical proficiency. The movements of Russian Army units on the battlefield were invariably slow, ponderous, clumsy, and ill-suited to reacting quickly to changing situations. The French are going to win this battle simply because they will be quicker off the snap than the Russians at every key moment to come. The French employed swarms of highly intelligent and highly proactive staff and liaison officers galloping their horses back and forth across the battlefield for the purpose of facilitating swift coordination of movement between adjacent French units. (These staff and liaison officers are not depicted in the photos.) The Russians suffered from having a dearth of such officers. The Russians were simply incapable of quickly putting together coordinated moves between any combination of their units. French Napoleonic Era leaders of the most junior rank could see what had to done and do it without having to be told. Such junior-level initiative was too frequently beyond the capabilities of the Russians. Disinterested outside observers of the Russian Army in Napoleon’s day characterized Russian officers as being, quote, “stupid,” using just that word, and the worst in Europe. The proclivity of Russian officers toward drunkenness and using savagely brutal physical punishments to enforce discipline on their stoic but dull peasant and serf soldiers aggravated the ills of the Russian Army of that day.
It was typical of all the armies which fought against Napoleon that the rank a man held was tied absolutely to the social class he was born into. Men born to the nobility were going to be officers no matter how stupid, lethargic, incompetent, or generally unqualified they were. Men born to the peasantry, no matter how intelligent and competent, could never advance beyond being common soldiers whom their officers treated like dirt. This situation was most starkly true in the Russian Army of that day. In stunning contrast, promotions in Napoleon’s army were based on merit and merit alone. Men who were born to the lowest social classes and who joined Napoleon’s army at the bottom-most rank could expect to climb in rank as far and as fast as their brains and guts could take them. Many of Napoleon’s top tier generals were born to the peasantry and joined the army at the bottom-most rank. The highest rank in Napoleon’s army, below only Napoleon himself, was “marshal.” As an emblem of rank, each of Napoleon’s marshals carried a baton that was encrusted with jewels and precious metals. Napoleon liked to boast that in his army, every low-ranking soldier had a marshal’s baton concealed in his backpack. It would be superfluous to point out that the French merit-based promotion system, combined with Napoleon’s personal charisma, meant that French soldiers possessed high morale and fighting spirit that opposing armies simply could not even begin to emulate, save only the British.
The best years of Napoleon’s army were 1805-1807, in which it repeatedly crushed the military powers of Austria, Russia, and German Prussia. France was at peace during the years 1803-1804. And Napoleon used those years to maximum effect to train, train, and train some more his soldiers and his units until they could perform the most sophisticated maneuvers with perfect precision at high speed.
Let’s watch and analyze how the French brought all their advantages of skill and spirit to bear in the following hypothetical sample tabletop toy soldier battle.
Part 2-2. The first thing the French commander wants to accomplish is to seize possession of the open acreage between the armies. To do this, he must either kill off the Russian jaeger skirmishers, or drive them back behind the lines of their own fusiliers in fear, or a combination of the two. To that end, he orders something unorthodox. His light cavalry horse chasseurs and hussars are on his extreme outer flanks as per standard operating procedure. His heavyweight dragoons and medium-weight lancers are the next units inside from his flanks. He first orders his dragoons and lancers to move diagonally forward and outward to his extreme flanks where they will directly confront the Russian lightweight hussars. While lightweight hussars excel in skirmishing, they are badly outclassed in head-on confrontations with heavier dragoons and lancers. Next, the French commander orders his horse chasseurs and hussars to assume open skirmish order mode and then charge onto the middle of the field. There, they work in close concert with the voltigeurs to either kill or put to flight the Russian jaegers. French horsemen galloping in open skirmish order are ideal for running down and killing the foot-mobile Russian jaegers. As seen in the photo, it takes only a brief time for the French voltigeurs and light cavalry to seize control of the ground between the armies.
Part 2-3. Several important things are happening simultaneously in this photo. The French horse chasseurs and hussars, having dealt with the Russian jaegers, reassemble themselves behind their own dragoons and lancers. The French voltigeurs now have undisputed control of the middle ground. They next commence doing what they do best, which is to harass and demoralize the enemy main line of forces with aggressive sharpshooting. Voltigeurs alone can never force a solid enemy infantry line to retreat, but they can definitely help to set the enemy up for eventual defeat. The voltigeurs are deploying themselves to pay particular attention to sniping away at the Russian cannon crewmen. The voltigeurs take care to keep themselves dispersed so as to deny the Russian cannoneers a worthwhile shot. Cannons are worthless as sniping weapons against individuals.
At the same time, the French fusiliers have come out of column of battalion by divisions and into line formation with the grenadier peloton in its customary location centered in the rear in reserve.
Perhaps most significantly, the French cannons have been unlimbered, been lined up wheel-hub to wheel-hub in a single mass, and have commenced firing. As was typical of Napoleon’s enemies, the Russians have evenly dispersed their cannons in small groups all across their front. By great contrast, the French are employing their cannons concentrated in a single mass at a single point, precisely as Napoleon’s genius has trained them to do. Napoleon began his military career as a young officer of artillery. He understood that the lethality of expensive, special-capability weapons such as cannons increases exponentially as the number of cannons gathered at one place increases. The technical sophistication of the cannons of European armies was essentially equal at this time. But the French cannon crewmen of Napoleon were exquisitely well-trained and skillful, far superior to their rivals in opposing armies. They could simply shoot faster and more accurately than other nations’ cannon crewmen by a noticeable margin. Russian cannon fire in this battle will be more diffuse, slower, and less accurate.
Part 2-4. Two critical things are happening in this photo simultaneously.
First, the French dragoons and horse chasseurs in the foreground, and the French lancers and hussars in the far background, have combined to launch overwhelming attacks against the Russian hussars facing them.
Second, the French are demonstrating why their cannon crews are the best in the world. They are executing that famous signature French Napoleonic move, the “artillery charge.” Having determined that the ground is flat, hard, and dry (not muddy!) the French cannoneers are putting their shoulders to the big wheels of their big guns and pushing them forward abreast of each other. Their goal is to bring their cannons mass-murderously close to the dense ranks of Russian infantry before they resume firing. Of course, the French cannoneers dared not attempt this brilliant stunt alone. See how the voltigeurs have brought themselves together closer than normal to form a denser protective screen of sharpshooting at the Russians. This voltigeur deployment is the fluid shield the French cannoneers need to enable their artillery charge.
Part 2-8. The French cannons, now at impossible-to-miss short range, resume fire with devastating and hideous effect on the Russian infantry facing them.
On both extreme outer flanks of the battlefield, the combined units of French cavalry have killed or maimed large numbers of opposing Russian cavalry, and have set the survivors to flight, with acceptable losses to themselves.
The Russian artillery is finally starting to inflict noticeable numbers of casualties on the long ranks of French fusiliers.
Part 2-12. The French commander judges the moment is right to order a general advance across the entire front and he does so. The long ranks of French fusiliers march forward to within musket range of the Russian fusiliers and open fire in mass volleys, volleys which the Russian fusiliers return. The gun smoke from hundreds of muskets chokes the air.
The voltigeurs have withdrawn behind their line of fusiliers for the duration of the mass volley shootout.
On both flanks, the surviving Russian hussars have fled the field in a rout. The outermost companies of Russian fusiliers are forced to form little squares in an attempt to protect themselves from the rapidly encroaching French cavalry who have turned their horses inward against them.
Part 2-18. In desperation, the Russians launch the great mass of their reserve force of heavy cavalry straight at the ranks of French infantry. The superbly drilled French infantry and cannon crews have the time they need to form a big hollow square in response. Notice how, on the two faces of the square directly threatened by the Russians, one half of each face shoots while the other half reloads. Two squads of voltigeurs have taken shelter inside the square.
Out of frame to the right are the limbers for the French cannons. The French did not have time to bring the limbers—with their big ammunition chests—inside the square before the Russians arrived. The limbers are now being guarded by a hastily improvised force of voltigeurs, horse chasseurs, and hussars. At the corners of the square, the French cannoneers can only draw on the small chests of ammunition that ride on the frame of each cannon.
As usual for the Napoleonic Wars, cavalry which is attacking a well-formed and disciplined infantry square achieves nothing beyond significantly lengthening their own casualty list. The Russian heavy cavalry recoils in defeat.
Part 2-19. The final act is here. The French come out of square, back into line, and keep pushing forward, the voltigeurs once more out front in aggressive skirmish order. With the conspicuous defeat of their heavy cavalry reserve and the renewed French assault, the Russian infantry and artillery go into final disintegration.
Because of the heavy casualties sustained by their cannon crewmen, the Russians are only able to evacuate two of their four cannons from the lost field. They are forced to abandon their other two cannons in place.
The Russian commander calls forward from reserve his elite grenadier company in a despairing effort to form a rearguard to shield the retreat of what is left of his force.
At the same time, the French cavalry closes in from both flanks for the final kill.
Part 2-20. The last musket volleys erupt, the last clouds of musket gun smoke rise into the sky, as the Russian grenadiers make their self-sacrificing last stand. The French commander is pleased that it will not be necessary to commit his elite reserve grenadiers to the fight after all. This sort of preservation of French grenadier reserve forces happened frequently during the Napoleonic Wars, specifically with regard to Napoleon’s own personal super-elite Old Guard of the Imperial Guard.
The two right-most French cannons continue firing at the Russian rearguard with their usual brutal effectiveness. The two left-most French cannons must cease firing as their own infantry passes forward through them.
Part 2-21. The French dragoons swarm around an abandoned Russian cannon to hack up and trample down the fleeing broken mobs of Russian infantry. The ultimate purpose of heavy cavalry in the last moments of any battle is to convert a mere victory into a massacre. This the French dragoons are doing with expert gusto.
The soldiers of Napoleon are victorious—again.