Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Warfare During the Time of Napoléon

Battles of Jena and Auerstädt 14 Oct 1806
(Painting by 
Édouard Detaille)
Warfare in all its forms is nasty and terrifying. There is no glory on the battlefield, there is only suffering, agony and death. But it is something which fascinates many of us and I am no exception.

I have studied the Wars of Napoléon since I was a small boy. One of the first books I can remember reading (outside of my school work) was an illustrated book on the Waterloo campaign.

It was the colorful uniforms which first caught my eye. Uniforms back then were designed to boost the morale of the common soldier. Towering bearskins made a man look taller, woolen epaulets and crossed white belts also made a man look broader and more imposing from a distance.

French Infantry Uniforms

It was only later that I learned that those fancy uniforms were generally intended for the parade ground only. Most of the time the fancy caps were covered in an oilskin cloth to keep the damp out. Colorful plumes were stowed and that pretty uniform was covered by an ankle length greatcoat in such drab colors as grey and brown.

Still and all, the colors and the intricate formations were all very thrilling to a young lad. Imagine my delight when I discovered that not only were there books on the wars of the Emperor, but figures of those soldiers which could be purchased and painted. I could bring the pageantry of the battlefield into my very own room.

On the bookshelves would be the grognards* of the First French Empire, slogging to another battlefield bellowing "Vive l'Empereur" as Le Tondu** trotted by on his gray mare, accompanied by the glittering personages of the Imperial Household.

Some extremely fine Historex figures depicting the Emperor and his staff
on the eve of the Battle of Essling in 1809. (Source)

As I grew older, I learned that these battles were horrid affairs. Powder smoke cloaked the field, cutting visibility to as little as ten yards. Men were expected to march towards the enemy, in formation, the rear ranks filling the gaps as men were cut down by enemy cannon fire and musketry. Though this film clip is from an earlier time period (mid-1700's) not much would change between then and Napoléon's time some sixty years later. (Also note that this scene is rather "clean" compared to a real battlefield. All that's missing are the screams, the sulfurous smell of burnt black powder and the smell of other things, too nasty to mention here.)

I have experienced the visibility (or lack of) on a black powder battlefield, both as a reenactor and as a spectator. I had the opportunity to witness a reenactment of the Battle of Waterloo back in 1995. 150,000 spectators and in excess of 10,000 participants. Although the discharges of cannon and musket were less than one would have seen in a real battle, it was sufficient to cut visibility drastically after about 30 minutes.

While warfare does have its own dread beauty (which Patton often alluded to) it is still a terrible thing. As General Robert E. Lee is alleged to have said, "It is well that war is so terrible – otherwise we should grow too fond of it."

Amen, Sir. Amen.

Battle of Preussisch-Eylau, 07 and 08 February 1807
(Antoine-Jean Gros)
Austrian Infantry Prepare to Engage

Gordons and Greys to the Front!
(Stanley Berkeley)

His Commander is Dying
(Alexander Averyanov)

Battle of Hanau, 30 -31 October 1813
(Horace Vernet)

The Gate of Hougoumont, Battle of Waterloo, 18 June 1815
(Keith Rocco)

Пехота будет продвигать!
(The infantry will advance! Russia, 1812)

The Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo, 18 June 1815

British Life Guards Counter-charge French Cuirassiers
Waterloo, 1815
(Karl Kopinski)

Haut les têtes, la mitraille c'est pas de la merde!
(Heads up, those are bullets, not turds!)
Louis Lepic and the 
Grenadiers à Cheval at Preussisch-Eylau, 1807

Gneisenau directs the Prussian retreat
Battle of Ligny, 16 June 1815

Le Maréchal Ney et les Grenadiers à Cheval
Battle of Waterloo, 18 June 1815

(Karl Kopinski)

Sic transit gloria mundi
After the battle, only the dead remain
The Night After Waterloo
Only the dead have seen the end of war. (Attributed to Plato)
The Day After Waterloo, 19 June 1815

While war does indeed serve a purpose, while war is sometimes necessary, war is never something to look forward to, nor is it a place to find glory.

War is cruelty and you cannot refine it. - William Tecumseh Sherman

On these fields in 1815, over 47,000 men were killed and wounded.
The Battlefield of Waterloo today.

*grognard - literally grumbler, what the Emperor called his Imperial Guard
**Le Tondu - literally, The Shorn One. The Guard's nickname for the Emperor. (Who kept his hair short, the Guard's was required to be kept long and tied back in a queue.)


  1. Good post. I had all that growing up with actual lead soldiers, carefully hand painted in the uniforms of the Napoleonic period. My father's college roommate opened and ran a model soldier company for many decades in his spare time. It is almost unimaginable now to think, with all the hullabaloo about lead, that little boys played with lead soldiers for many generations. OTOH, maybe that explains some things after all..... :)

    1. Lead poisoning? Hhmm, that might explain a lot of things.


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