The cavalry of Napoleon's Grande Armée

The cavalry of Napoleon's Grande Armée


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From the charge of the Chasseurs at Austerlitz to that of the Polish Light Horses at Somosierra, from the plume of Murat charging with eighty squadrons at Eylau to the tragic heroism of Marshal Ney seeking death by charging the English squares at Waterloo, the First Empire cavalry wrote its history in gold letters on the banners of its regiments, modest recognition for the thousands of cavaliers who ended their careers in mass graves on the borders of Europe… Grenadiers and Dragons, Cuirassiers and Hunters, Hussars and Lancers and the Guards of Honor ... A look back at these men whose horse hooves smashed the cobblestones of the largest capitals in Europe.

A legacy of the Ancien Régime

The cavalry, while prestigious, represents only a small portion of the army. It was less affected than the infantry by the massive recruitments during the revolutionary period and it would seem that it consequently preserved a good core of non-commissioned officers (but also of officers, for those who had not chosen the exile) experienced from the royal army. The higher pay than in the infantry was perhaps also a factor of loyalty ... Finally, the cavalry kept a certain esprit de corps or sectarianism which made it look down on other weapons such as infantry that they only considered. like rock pushers. However, the animosity was mutual.

Regardless, the Republican Cavalry, with a few uniforms aside, strongly resembled the Royal Cavalry in both the type of units and the tactics employed. The First Empire meanwhile, if it did not radically change the tactics, increased the number of troops and incorporated new units linked to Napoleon's campaigns (Mamelukes…) or to allied nations (Dutch and Polish Lancers…). In terms of numbers, while the Republican cavalry represented only 1 / 10th of the army of Italy and 1 / 12th of the army of Germany, it will reach 1 / 5th of the imperial army! Or up to 100,000 riders.

In 1800 Napoleon had decreed that each cavalry regiment would consist of 5 squadrons each made up of two companies of 80 men, including an elite company in charge of trust missions. The number of men per company theoretically varies according to the types of cavalry and varies in practice according to losses and the ability to recruit men and horses. In 1806 a heavy cavalry regiment was supposed to number 820 cavalry.

Recruitment and back up

The recruitment of men is done as for the infantry: by conscription and drawing lots, but also by drawing directly from the departmental reserve companies. The cavalry, on the other hand, require larger sizes for the conscripts they recruit. We could of course prefer men who already knew how to ride a horse, or who already had some acquaintance with this animal that they were going to have to take care of during their service. But in general, all this was learned after joining the cavalry regiment. The conscript was then taught the basics of horsemanship, what to lead a charge, little more. In fact, we weren't looking to train experienced riders, epic virtuosos, cavalry techniques favoring the mass effect and not individual demonstrations as we will see below. In fact, the young conscript began his training with the school of the rider on foot where he learned the basics of the handling of the weapons which any infantryman must know.

It was only after that he had to familiarize himself with the horse, riding it without a saddle, jumping on it without stirrups… The merry-go-round was done by rope, trot or walk, under the watch of an instructor. The neophyte rider was then entitled to the saddle and stirrups and learned to use his weapons on horseback, alone then in small groups. Subsequently the rider had to be trained in show jumping, always individually and in groups. Of course, this is all very theoretical, only times of peace and rest allowed the riders to be instructed so well. In times of war, it was quite different and the conscripts were trained as best they could. In 1806, Napoleon ordered: “ As there are 10 horses equipped and armed - at their depot - 10 conscripts will leave to join their regiment. They will educate themselves in the rear seats ". No wonder the next year he complained, " Our cavalry is not educated enough; she doesn't know how to ride a horse enough »…

The back-up was organized on the basis of the back-up masses created under the Consulate and that were to allow horses to be supplied by direct purchases or through markets. As for men, horses are subject to a minimum size which varies according to the type of cavalry for which they are intended: 1.56 to 1.59m at the withers for Cuirassiers and Carabiniers, 1.53 to 1.57m for Dragon horses, and just above 1.49m for light cavalry (sizes to be compared to the average height of men at the beginning of the 19th century, lower than the current average). As the men and the horses received training in combat, they had to learn to walk, to trot, to charge in groups, but also and above all not to be afraid of the detonations of guns. They were used to do this by firing a few rounds each time when the horses were fed in the stables. Little by little they thus assimilated the noise of the detonations to something positive. Gradually we fired closer and closer to the stables. Finally, mock cavalry charges were organized where the horses and their riders were thrown against other riders on foot playing the role of enemy infantry and firing blank at their assailants. However, as with men, the lack of time during wars meant that horses could not always be trained as well. For, during the first charge, the enemy did not fire blank. The lack of training of men and / or horses was sometimes the cause of real stampede.

The disastrous Russian campaign in 1812 was truly the tomb of the imperial cavalry. Of the 80,000 saddle horses and 50,000 draft horses, only 3,000 survived the countryside. Napoleon could never really find the experienced men and especially the horses to have a sufficient force of cavalry during the campaigns of 1813 and 1814 in Saxony then in France. Without cavalry he was no longer able to pursue the enemy to complete his victories and no doubt that the lack of horses played a significant role in his defeat of 1814. When the defeat of 1815 at Waterloo many will also see the fact. insufficient imperial cavalry, but in his command this time. Indeed Ney replaced Murat at the head of the cavalry ... But if the latter was a poor strategist, if he had betrayed, he nevertheless remained a good tactician and a formidable leader of men, a virtuoso of the cavalry who might have changed the course of history by breaking Wellington's squares.

Austerlitz, by Keith Rocco. "/>

The different types of cavalry

We will not enter in this short summary article in a detailed description of each type of unit which was in service under the First Empire, nor will we make a uniformological description, specificities of the Imperial Guard, or a chronicle. of feats of arms. The aim is above all to briefly present the three main types of cavalry: light cavalry, line cavalry and heavy cavalry.

The light cavalry is made up of Hunters and Hussars, it is a very versatile weapon, Lassalle did not hesitate to say that a Hussar must be good at everything. In 1804 there were no less than 24 regiments of Chasseurs, made up of "native" French and "new French" such as the Piedmontese Hussars, the former Belgian light horses or the former Tuscan Dragons. The Hussars are the most popular soldiers in the Empire, with their colorful uniform, their bravado spirit, they are preceded by a reputation for daredevils, petticoats, duelists ... As an outlet for their uncertain future. Lassalle himself had declared that any Hussar who was not dead at 30 was nothing but jerk. There were under the Empire as many as 14 regiments of these saber dragons. The light cavalry is mainly used for reconnaissance missions, each army corps having cavalrymen tasked with opening the way so as not to unknowingly fall on enemy forces. Light cavalry roam the terrain, spot them, locate the enemy, estimate their strength, and report back. But the light cavalry is not only an observation force, it attacks the enemy, it harasses him, charging isolated groups, convoys ... The light cavalry is equipped with a curved saber, allowing to mow everything. which passes within range.

The line cavalry is made up of Dragons and Light Horse Lancers. Dragons are versatile units with the great peculiarity of having to know how to fight both on horseback and on foot. He could therefore be used as simple horsemen (with a straight saber, called a latte), or use their horses to deploy quickly as an infantryman in a given point of the battlefield: precursors of the mechanized infantry in short. For this reason the Dragons had, for their service on foot, a bayonet which they could use at the end of their rifles. Of course, they were also trained in infantry maneuvering. Moreover at certain times (1805 - 1806) certain regiments of Dragons no longer have horses ...

At most, the Empire will have 30 dragon regiments, some of which were later transformed into light horse regiments. The Light Horses (who carry the curved saber of the light cavalry) did not enter the Grande Armée until 1807, when Napoleon brought a regiment of Polish Light Horses into his guard. They were the ones who stood out by opening the Somosierra pass, armed with sabers and not spears as we see in some performances. The lance was only used later, it allowed playing on equal terms with the Cossacks of the Russian army and above all it had a very strong psychological impact on the enemy infantry. It had to be that to justify equipping the riders with such a bulky weapon.

In Napoleon's mind, these Lancers were to, in addition to liaising between armies and providing escort missions, accompany heavy cavalry charges and serve as Flankers: " When the cuirassiers charge columns of infantry, the Light Horses should be placed in the rear or on the flanks to pass through the intervals of the regiments and fall on the infantry, when routed; or, if we are dealing with the cavalry, on the cavalry and pursue them with the sword in the back ". Line cavalry is ultimately used both for reconnaissance missions, such as light cavalry, but also for line combat. Moreover, the Dragons are sometimes part of the Cavalry Reserve with the heavy cavalry.

Heavy cavalry is made up of Carabinieri and Cuirassiers, and is easily recognized by the breastplates worn by the cavalry (at least at the end of the Empire, before that the Carabinieri did not wear the breastplate). The Carabinieri were already an elite corps during the Revolution, respected for their efficiency. The Jacobins had not dared to reply when their cries of " Long live the Mountain! »The Carabinieri had replied« Fuck the Mountain! Long live the Plain for the cavalry! "... Nevertheless for this weapon which he used as much for the war as for the service of prestige Napoleon required good manners and politeness, for which one placed there preferably riders of good family. In 1804 Napoleon fitted them with the same rifle as the Dragons. The Cuirassiers are the quintessential heavy cavalry, they are particularly honored during the battles of Eylau and Friedland, but they are also found during the tragic charges at Waterloo. Their heavy equipment means that they are not especially made for reconnaissance missions like light cavalry, their utility is especially in line combat to overthrow enemy forces in their tracks. This cavalry specialized in charge is not equipped with a curved saber like the light cavalry, but with a straight saber, like the Dragons, but with a steel scabbard whereas the latter had a leather one.

The Imperial Guard offers an even more varied range of light, line or heavy troops with, in addition to bodies similar to those of the rest of the army (Empress's Dragons, Mounted Hunters of the Guard, Polish and Dutch Lancers ... ), special corps such as the Mamluks, the Grenadiers on horseback, the Guard of Honor, the Lithuanian Tartars, the Pathfinders… Whose prestige was great, but whose terms of use hardly differ from those explained for the rest of the cavalry.

Cavalry in combat

Cavalry tactics changed little under the Empire, it remained that of the Ancien Régime and in the continuity of the model inspired by King Frederick II of Prussia and King Gustav Adolph of Sweden. Their principles were to regard the cavalry above all as a moving mass. In other words, the important thing was not the weaponry, nor even the talent of slender blades, but the effect produced by a massive and well-coordinated charge in close ranks. The main order for the Imperial cavalry was therefore the battling squadron positioned in two tight ranks, knee to knee. A cavalry squadron thus formed a line about 40 m long and 6 m deep (about 2.5 m between the two ranks).

The whole squadron was lined with officers and NCOs, both platoons had brigadiers (equivalent to corporals in the infantry) on their flanks who checked the alignments. The major difference with infantry is that here you find officers in front of the front line, directly exposed to enemy fire, and who must lead the rest of the squadron by their example. The theoretical absence of infantry officers in front of their first line is not, however, to be attributed to a pseudo-lack of courage, simply unlike the cavalry, the infantrymen fire a salvo and it would not be not smart to find yourself between your first and the target ...

The formation changes, from column to row, are done as in the infantry: by platoons. There are a multitude of cavalry movements, but as always in fire the officers chose the simplest movements to avoid disharmony.

The cavalry charge is the decisive element, the impetuous shock that will pierce the enemy line or surprise it on its flanks or rear. The charge is getting ready, we check the straps of the horses and give the men a drink… They also say that it was sometimes good to expose the riders to enemy fire a little before making them charge, just to give them a reason of revenge ... Sad option. The charge can sometimes change the tide of a battle, as at Marengo or the Moskva River. However, the cavalry charge is not a frantic race at full gallop over long distances to force and speed through a row of poor infantrymen. This image is often conveyed by the cinema. In reality the loads are done at the trot and the acceleration is only done in the last few meters. So when the hour of charging came in complete silence, these orders were heard:

« Attention to charge! »

« Saber in hand! »

« At the trot… Walk! »

It was only when approaching the enemy that this order resounded, not repeated by all officers and NCOs:

« Galloping… Walk! »

And finally a hundred yards from the enemy:

« Charge! »

Sometimes we even do all of the load at the trot, which helps maintain alignment and mass effect, without losing power. Because for an infantryman it is as difficult to stop a horse trotting as it is at a gallop ... This remark is even more true when two squadrons of cavalry clash. General Jomini wrote: “ We must be careful not to believe that impetuosity is always decisive in a clash of cavalry against cavalry. When the enemy comes to you at a full trot, it does not seem prudent to run over him at a gallop, because you will arrive disunited against a compact and tight mass, which will cross your disjointed squadrons ... Lassalle, one of the most skillful of these generals , said one day, seeing the enemy cavalry galloping up: "Here are people lost!" »And these squadrons were indeed overthrown to little too much ". Once the charge had been made, the time had come for the withdrawal, which also had to be done in good order and swiftly so as not to get stuck in the midst of enemy infantry.

In the melee, the rider can free himself from too pressing enemies with his (or her) pistol (s). But for lack of being able to reload quickly most of the fight was done with a sword. Regarding saber combat, De Brack wrote “ Where should you wear it? At tie height, because it is in the nature of a horseman threatened to bow his head, and so you will hit him in the face; if your shot misses its mark, it hits the shoulder and forearm, knocking the man out. How should you deal the blow? First, by taking care to firmly squeeze the hilt of your saber, so that the blade does not turn in your hand, and so that it does not risk hitting the flat, instead of wearing the edge; then you slash by sawing so that the blow penetrates deeper. Any cutting edge is a more or less fine saw, which only produces its effect by walking horizontally over the object it attacks. To produce this effect the instant you strike, bring your hand back; this is the whole secret of the terrible saber-strikes of the Mamelukes ».

These cavalry charges were made in line, always in close ranks. We were wary of dispersed deployments, as foragers, for the reasons mentioned above: a squadron as a forager will always be at a disadvantage against a squadron in tight ranks. However, we made a few charges in dispersed order against particular objectives such as artillery batteries (it was better not to be squeezed in front when they fired ...), car convoys or enemy infantry deployed as skirmishers. We could also deploy part of a squadron as skirmishers: in this case the cavalrymen advanced dispersed, fired (with a snap hook, a pistol, etc.). The aim was above all to provoke the enemy.

It was by applying these fighting techniques that the cavalry of the Grande Armée overthrew Austrians, Prussians, Russians, Spaniards, English and many others throughout Europe. It is this cavalry which forced enemy lines during battles, which tracked down routed armies, which protected the army corps like bees around a hive, and which also sacrificed itself on multiple occasions to delay an enemy. pressing during retreats. Napoleon got into the habit of using his cavalry in very large masses which he assembled in reserve under the orders of competent leaders like Bessières or Murat, and which he could engage at the fateful moment as a wedge to break the opposing front.

From history to legend

The cavalry of the Grande Armée amazed his contemporaries, who had become a poet and political enemy of Napoleon III, Victor Hugo will remain his life amazed by the cavalry of Napoleon I, of these cavalrymen who accompanied his father like this " housard whom he loved most of all, for his great bravery and for his height "(" After the battle ", The legend of the centuries, 1850)…

In "My childhood" he still wrote:

« My envy admired, and the swift hussar,

Adorning her intrepid breast with sheaves of gold,

And the white plume of the agile lancers,

And the dragons, mingling on their gepid helmets

The stained hair of the black-haired tiger of the couriers. »

And even in "The Atonement" he gave a place of honor to the cavalry of the Imperial Guard charging at Waterloo in a tragic apotheosis:

« Let's go ! Give custody! He cried.

And, lancers, grenadiers with ticking gaiters,

Dragons whom Rome would have taken for legionaries,

Cuirassiers, gunners who dragged thunder,

Wearing the black colback or the polished helmet,

All, those of Friedland and those of Rivoli,

Realizing that they were going to die in this party,

Hailed their god, standing in the storm.

Their mouths, with a single cry, said: Long live the Emperor!

Then, with slow steps, music in mind, without fury,

Quiet, smiling at the English grape-shot,

The Imperial Guard entered the furnace.

Alas! Napoleon, on his leaning guard,

Looked, and, as soon as they had emerged

Under the dark cannons spitting out jets of sulfur,

Saw, one after another, in this horrible abyss,

Melt these regiments of granite and steel

Like a wax melts in the blast of a brazier. »

For centuries to come, he participated in this glory of the cavalry, made up of epic rides, tumbled enemies, sumptuous uniforms, well-stocked tavern tables and glittering sabers ... Forgetting the charges broken by the grape-shot, stopped by bayonets, men and horses disembowelled in the same mud and hardly better buried in simple pits ...

In the French army, the cavalry still prides itself on the victories of the Empire troops, even this period is credited with calling the Adjutants "My Lieutenant". It is said that it was during the Battle of Austerlitz that a platoon no longer commanded by an adjutant distinguished itself and this was pointed out by Napoleon. The latter, seeing this intrepid man would have asked: " But who is this valiant lieutenant? ", To which he was reportedly told that he was only a Warrant Officer. The Emperor would then have replied " From now on, we will call them lieutenant! "... However, no historical source seems to confirm the Napoleonic origin of this custom of modern cavalry.

For further

- PIGEARD Alain, “The Napoleonic cavalry”, Tradition Magazine HS n ° 21.

- PIGEARD Alain, Napoleon's army. Organization and daily life, Editions Tallandier, 2003.

- PIGEARD Alain, Dictionary of the Grande Armée, Editions Tallandier, 2002.

- SOKOLOV Oleg, The Army of Napoleon, Editions Commios, 2003.


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