- French Revolutionary Army
The French Revolutionary Army is the term used to refer to the military of
Franceduring the period between the fall of the " ancien regime" under Louis XVIin 1792and the formation of the First French Empireunder Napoleon Bonapartein 1804. These armies were characterised by their revolutionary fervour and their poor equipment. They performed with mixed results, from the early disastrous defeats to the amazing victories under Generals Moreau, Masséna and Bonaparte.
As the "ancien regime" gave way to a constitutional monarchy, and then to a republic, the entire structure of
Francewas transformed to fall into line with Revolutionary principles of " Liberty, Equality and ". The signing of the Declaration of Pillnitzbetween the Holy Roman EmperorLeopold II and King Frederick William II of Prussiaand the subsequent French declaration of war meant that from its formation, the Republic of France was at war, and it required a potent military force to ensure its survival. As a result, one of the first major elements of the French state to be restructured was the army.
Almost all of the "ancien regime" officer class had been drawn from the aristocracy, and most of these had either been imprisoned or killed during the
Reign of Terror, or had fled the country to join the "émigré" army of Louis Joseph, Prince of Condé. The small remaining cadre of officers were promoted swiftly; this meant that the majority of the Revolutionary officers were far younger than their Monarchist counterparts. Those high ranking aristocratic officers who remained, among them Marquis de la Fayette, Comte de Rochambeauand Comte Nicolas Luckner, were soon accused of having monarchist sympathies and either killed or forced into exile.
Revolutionary fervour, along with calls to save the new regime, resulted in a large influx of enthusiastic yet untrained and undisciplined volunteers (the first "sans-culottes", so called because they wore peasants trousers rather than the
knee-breechesused by the other armies of the time). The desperate situation meant that these men were quickly inducted into the army, where the ranks were seasoned by a number of veteran soldiers who had remained.
Officially, the Revolutionary Armies were operating along the guidelines set down in the "1791 Reglement", a set of regulations created during the years before the Revolution. The "1791 Reglement" laid down several complex tactical maneuvers, maneuvers which demanded well trained soldiers, officers and NCOs to perform correctly. The Revolutionary Army was lacking in all three of these areas, and as a result the early efforts to conform to the "1791 Reglement" were met with disaster. The untrained troops could not perform the complex maneuvers required, unit cohesion was lost and defeat was ensured.
Realizing that the army was not capable of conforming with the "1791 Reglement", commanders began experimenting with formations which required less training to perform. Many eminent French military thinkers had been clamoring for change decades before. In the period following the humiliating performance of the French Army during the
Seven Years' War, they began to experiment with new ideas. Guibert wrote his epic "Essai général de Tactique", Bourcet focused on staff procedures and mountain warfare, and Mesnil-Durand spent his time advocating "l'ordre profond", tactics of maneuvering and fighting in heavy columnar formations, placing emphasis on the shock of cold steel over firepower.
In the 1770s, some commanders, among them the brilliant duc de Broglie performed exercises testing these tactics. It was finally decided to launch a series of experiments to try out the new tactics, and comparing them to the standard Fredrickian linear formation known as " l'ordre mince" which was universally popular throughout Europe. De Broglie decided that "l'ordre profond" worked best when it was supported by artillery and large numbers of skirmishers. Despite these exercises, "l'ordre mince" had strong and powerful supporters in the Royal
Armée Française, and it was this formation which went into the "1791 Reglement" as the standard.
Trial by fire
The French struck first, with an invasion of the
Austrian Netherlandsproposed by foreign minister Charles François Dumouriez. This invasion soon turned into a debacle when it was found that the hastily-trained Revolutionary forces badly lacked military discipline: on one occasion, troops murdered their general to avoid a battle; on another, troops insisted on putting their commander's orders to a vote. The Revolutionary forces retreated from the Austrian Netherlands in disarray.
In August 1792, a large Austro-Prussian army commanded by the Duke of Brunswick crossed the frontier and began its march on Paris with the declared intention of restoring full power to Louis XVI. Several Revolutionary armies were easily defeated by the professional Austrian, Hessian, Brunswick and
Prussian troops. The immediate result of this was the storming of the Tuileries Palaceand the overthrow of the king. Successive Revolutionary forces failed to halt Brunswick's advance, and by mid September it appeared that Paris would fall to the monarchists. The Convention ordered the remaining armies to be combined under the command of Dumouriez and François Christophe Kellermann. At the Battle of Valmyon 20 September 1792, the Revolutionary forces defeated Brunswick's advance guard, causing the invading army to begin retreating to the border. Much of the credit to the victory must go to the French artillery, widely viewed as the best in Europe thanks to the technical improvements of Jean Baptiste Vaquette de Gribeauval.
The Battle of Valmy ensured that the Revolutionary armies were respected by their enemies, and for the next ten years they not only defended the fledgling
First French Republic, but under the command of Generals such as Moreau, Jourdan, Kléber, Desaix and Bonaparte expanded the borders of the French republic.
While the "Cannonade of Valmy" had saved the Republic from imminent destruction and caused its enemies to take pause, the guillotining of Louis XVI in January 1793 and the convention's proclamation that it would 'export the revolution' hardened the resolve of France's enemies to destroy the Republic and reinstate a monarchy.
In early 1793, the
First Coalitionwas formed, not only from Prussia and Austria, but also Sardinia, Naples, Spainand Great Britain. The Republic was under attack on several fronts, and in the fiercely Catholic region of La Vendéean armed revolt had broken out. The Revolutionary army was greatly overstretched, and it seemed that the fall of the republic was imminent.
In early 1793
Lazare Carnot, a prominent mathematician, physicist, and delegate to the Convention, was promoted to the Committee of Public Safety. Displaying an exceptional talent for organization and for enforcing discipline, Carnot set about rearranging the disheveled Revolutionary Armies. Realizing that no amount of reforming and discipline was going to offset the massive numerical superiority enjoyed by France's enemies, Carnot ordered each départementto provide a quota of new recruits, a number totaling around 300,000. By mid 1793, the Revolutionary Army had increased around 645,000 men.
"Levée en masse"
On 23 August 1793, at Carnot's insistence, the Convention issued the following proclamation ordering a "
levée en masse":"From this moment until such time as its enemies shall have been driven from the soil of the Republic all Frenchmen are in permanent requisition for the services of the armies. The young men shall fight; the married men shall forge arms and transport provisions; the women shall make tents and clothes and shall serve in the hospitals; the children shall turn linen into lint; the old men shall betake themselves to the public squares in order to arouse the courage of the warriors and preach hatred of kings and the unity of the Republic" [ Hazen, C.D. - "The French Revolution" Vol II, pp 666]
All unmarried able bodied men aged between 18 and 25 were to report immediately for military service. Those married, as well as the remaining men, women and children, were to focus their efforts on arming and supplying the army.
This increased the size of the Revolutionary Armies dramatically, providing the armies in the field with the manpower to hold off the enemy attacks. Carnot was hailed by the government as the "Organizer of Victory". By September 1794, the Revolutionary Army had 1,500,000 men under arms. Carnot's "levée en masse" had provided so much manpower that it was not necessary to repeat it again until 1797.
Seeing the failure of the "1791 Reglement", several early Revolutionary commanders followed de Broglie's example and experimented with the pre-Revolutionary ideas, gradually adapting them until they discovered a system that worked. The final standard used by the early Revolutionary armies consisted of the following.
Those troops with exceptional morale or skill became
skirmishers, and were deployed in a screen in front of the Army. Both mounted and on foot, the large swarm of skirmishers peppered the enemy formations with fire. Unable to retaliate on the scattered skirmishers, the morale and unit cohesion of the better trained and equipped émigré and monarchist armies was gradually worn down. The incessant harassing fire usually resulted in a section of the enemy line wavering, and then the 'regular' formations of the Revolutionary army would be sent into the attack. Their main fighting tactics were Guerrilla Warfare. They would hide from enemies and ambush.
The skirmish screen also provided protection for those troops with less skill and of more dubious quality. These troops, making up the 'regular' part of the army, were formed into
battalion columns. The battalion column required little training to perfect, and provided commanders with potent "battering ram" style formations with which to hit the enemy lines after the skirmishers had done their work.
Following the dissolution of the "ancien regime", the system of named regiments was abandoned. Instead, the new army was formed into a series of numbered "demi-brigades". Consisting of two or three
battalions, these formations were designated " demi-brigades" in an attempt to avoid the feudal connotations of the term "Regiment". In mid 1793, the Revolutionary army officially comprised 196 infantry "demi-brigades".
After the initial dismal performance of the "federe" volunteer battalions, Carnot ordered that each "demi-brigade" was to consist of one regular and two "federe" battalions. These new formations were proven successful at Valmy in September 1792. In 1794, the new "demi-brigade" was universally adopted.
The Revolutionary army had been formed from a hodgepodge of different units, and as such did not have a uniform appearance. Veterans in their white uniforms and tarleton helments from the "ancien regime" period served alongside national guardsmen in their blue jackets with white turnbacks piped red and "federes" dressed in civilian clothes with only the red phrygian cap and the tricolour
cockadeto identify them as soldiers. Poor supplies meant that uniforms which had worn out were replaced with civilian clothes, and so the Revolutionary army lacked any semblance of uniformity, with the exception of the tricolour cockade which was worn by all soldiers. As the war progressed, several "demi-brigades" were issued specific coloured uniform jackets, and the Revolutionary "Armée d'Orient" which arrived in Egyptin 1798 was uniformed in purple, pink, green, red, orange and blue jackets.
Along with the problem of uniforms, many men of the Revolutionary army lacked weapons and ammunition. Any weapons captured from the enemy were immediately absorbed into the ranks. After the
Battle of Montenottein 1796, 1,000 French soldiers who had been sent into battle unarmed were afterwards equipped with captured Austrian muskets. As a result, uniformity was also lacking in weapons.
Besides the regular "demi-brigades",
light infantry"demi-brigades" also existed. These formations were formed from soldiers who had shown skill in marksmanship, and were used for skirmishing in front of the main force. As with the line "demi-brigades", the light "demi-brigades" lacked uniformity in either weapons or equipment.
Supporting the skirmishers was the French
Artillery. The artillery had suffered least from the exodus of aristocratic officers during the early days of the Revolution, as it was commanded mostly by men drawn from the middle-class. The various technical improvements of Général Jean Baptiste Vaquette de Gribeauvalin the years preceding the Revolution, and the subsequent efforts of Baron du Teil and his brother Chevalier Jean du Teilmeant that the French artillery was the finest in Europe. The Revolutionary artillery was responsible for several of the Republic's early victories; for example at Valmy, on 13 Vendémiaire, and at Lodi. The Revolutionary cannon played a vital role in their success. The cannon continued to have a dominating role on the battlefield throughout the Napoleonic Wars.
The Cavalry was the most seriously affected by the Revolution. The majority of officers and men had been aristocratic and had fled France to avoid the terror. Many French Cavalry soldiers joined the émigré army of the Prince du Conde. Two entire regiments, the "Hussards du Saxe" and the "15éme Cavalerie (Royal Allemande)" defected to the Austrians.
Lacking not only trained officers and men, but also mounts and equipment, the Revolutionary cavalry had to be formed from nothing, and continued to be the worst equipped arm of the Revolutionary Army. By Mid 1793, the paper organisation of the Revolutionary Army included twenty six heavy cavalry regiments, two regiments of carabiniers, twenty dragoon regiments, eighteen regiments of chasseurs à cheval and ten hussar regiments. In reality, it was seldom that any of these regiments reached even half strength.
Notable generals and commanders
Notable battles and campaigns
Active Armies - 1792-1804
;Armies of 1792
Armée du Nord
Armée du Rhin
Armée des Alpes
Armée des Pyrénées
Armée des côtes
Armée du Centre
Armée de réserve
Armée du Var
;Armies after restructure of 1793
Armée du Nord
Armée des Ardennes
Armée de Moselle
Armée du Rhin
Armée des Alpes
Armée des côtes de Brest
Armée des côtes de Cherbourg
Armée des côtes de La Rochelle
Armée des Pyrénées occidentales
armée des Pyrénées orientalesOn 1st October, the "Armée de la Rochelle" was redesignated as the armée de l'Ouest.
;Armies Formed for Specific Tasks
Army of Sambre-et-Meuse
Armée de Rhin-et-Moselle
Armée de RomeFormed from the Army d'Italie for the occupation of Rome.
Armée d'AngleterreOriginally formed to fight the British in 1797, it was redesignated Armée d'Orient and divided into
Armée de Syrie
Armée du Danube
Armée de Hollande
Armée des Grisons
Armée des côtes de l'OcéanThis army was formed for the invasion of England, and in 1803 it became La Grande Armée.
* Lynn, J.A. - "The Bayonets of the Republic: Motivation and Tactics in the Army of Revolutionary France, 1791-94 ", 356 pages, ISBN 0-8133-2945-0
* Hazen, Charles Downer - "The French Revolution", Vols I-II, 948 pages. ASIN: B00085AF0W
*"Campaigns of Napoleon",
David G. Chandler. 1216 pages. 1973. ISBN 0-02-523660-1
*"Swords Around a Throne: Napoleon's Grande Armee", John Robert Elting. 784 pages. 1997. ISBN 0-306-80757-2
*"Royal, Republican, Imperial, a History of the French Army from 1792-1815: Vol 1 - Infantry - History of Line Infantry (1792-1815), Internal & Tactical Organization; Revolutionary National Guard, Volunteers Federes, & Compagnies Franches; and 1805 National Guard.",
Nafziger, George. 98 pages. (http://home.fuse.net/nafziger/NAFNAP.HTM)
*"Royal, Republican, Imperial, a History of the French Army from 1792-1815: Vol 2 - Infantry - National Guard after 1809; Garde de Paris, Gendarmerie, Police, & Colonial Regiments; Departmental Reserve Companies; and Infantry Uniforms.", Nafziger, George. 104 pages. (http://home.fuse.net/nafziger/NAFNAP.HTM)
*"Royal, Republican, Imperial, a History of the French Army from 1792-1815: Vol 3 - Cavalry - Line, National Guard, Irregular, & Coastal Artillery, Artillery & Supply Train, and Balloon Companies.", Nafziger, George. 127 pages.
*"Royal, Republican, Imperial, a History of the French Army from 1792-1815: Vol 4 - Imperial Guard", Nafziger, George. 141 pages. (http://home.fuse.net/nafziger/NAFNAP.HTM)
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