Friday, October 28, 2022

We March!

The French garrison of Preveza marches towards Nicopolis,
before the battle in 23rd October 1798.

Felician Myrbach
Sergent Alexandre Bataille hesitated outside the hut that he had called home for nearly two  years. He no longer lived there as he had been promoted just a week ago.  The hut now "belonged" to Caporal Gautier Poulin who had been promoted the same day. Now the hut, and it's eleven occupants, belonged to Poulin, who stepped into the sunlight before Bataille could tap on the door.

"Alexandre! What brings you to our little home? Miss the old times?" Poulin was grinning as he said this.

"Ah Gautier, I long for a return to the simpler times, when all I had to do was keep you in line. But I'm here on serious business. The Emperor wants us in the east, to fight the white mice² and their Muscovite allies once again."

"When do we march?"

"Tomorrow, before the sun is up if I know Maréchal Davoust.³"

"Full packs, everything in order, iron rations and all, I trust?"

"Not only that, we'll be drawing a full issue of ammunition. The Emperor intends to march hard and march fast, I'm sure. Heaven help the man who doesn't have what he's issued and only what he's issued!⁴"

"What is that place Caporal?" Soldat Louis Meyer was the curious type. A big farm boy from some place that Poulin had never heard of.

"Why Meyer, why must you know the name of every stinking village and town we pass through? All I know is that they speak French funnier than you do." Poulin answered.

"I like to learn Caporal, is there anything wrong with that?"

Before Poulin could answer he was shooing the men off of the road as yet another battery of guns needed to pass them on its way up to the head of the column. One of the men had been complaining about having to make a path for the cannon, the supply wagons, the occasional messenger and every now and then some glittering troop of cavalry. Poulin had pointed out that they would be glad of those guns when the enemy came into view.

When they were back on the road Poulin began to tell Meyer that he had no idea what the name of the place was, but Lieutenant Lemoine answered for him.

"The place is called Mons, it was owned by the Austrians, then by us, then by the Austrians, now we own it again. This area has changed hands many times."

Lieutenant Jacques Lemoine was a good fellow, he had been an enlisted man in Egypt, won promotion to Sergeant in Italy, and had been appointed to the Emperor's Consular Guard after Marengo. With the coming of the Empire, and the expansion of the Army, officers were needed and Napoléon took them from the Guard. So now Lemoine was a lieutenant in a line regiment.

He commanded the first section of the second company of the 1st Battalion of the 33rd Regiment of the Line. The newer recruits were terrified of him as he was older and could be as grim a man as most of them had ever seen.

The 33rd was having a problem with deserters, a problem Lemoine thought could be best solved by shooting one or two to encourage the others to behave. He had mentioned that the day before when they had paused to bivouac briefly before hitting the road once more.

"Most of these babes grew up after the Revolution and the hard times that followed." he had said to Poulin, "shooting a couple might teach the rest to shut up and march!"

Marching day after day, with only brief stops during the day and less than six hours of sleep a night, the regiment was now passing through the rolling forested hills of Luxembourg. The men had been cautioned to stay close to their comrades at all times as the locals had been treated rather harshly when the area had been annexed to France.

"They don't speak French here boys, and they have no love for our revolution. I think they still long for their Austrian overlords. They've been known to go after lone soldiers if you give them half a chance. If you wish to live to see the Rhine, you'll stick close to the bivouac at night."

Sergent Bataille knew that one or two of the new lads might try to slip away in the night. He hoped to keep them with the colors, but he knew that for some, any risk was worth taking to get away from the army.

He didn't really understand these new conscripts. Most of the regiment had been in the camp of Boulogne for two long years. drilling, drilling, followed by more drilling. He was glad to be done with that. He had to admit, the training had toughened them all up, there were few stragglers on the march. But the influx of new conscripts in the month before they had set out to the east was hurting the reputation of the regiment. The Maréchal had let it be known that stern measures would be taken unless the regiment could take care of its own problems.

Which is why the battalion commander had detailed Poulin's squad to march at the rear of the column, guarding the seven men who had been caught deserting. They were in chains, marching with their tunics reversed to indicate their status.

Nine had been captured, only seven remained.

The Iron Marshal had had two of the men shot, neither had been a new recruit, one had been in the camp of Boulogne for over a year. Bataille suspected that the older man had decided living in camp was one thing, going out to fight quite another. His companion had been in the camp for perhaps six months. Neither man would be missed. At least not in the 1st Battalion.

Though the bulk of the infantry were still on the march, the cavalry was already across the Rhine near Mannheim. The troops were a bit nervous about not encountering any enemy patrols.

Young Maréchal des Logis⁵ Louis Alain Gaudry sat his horse and scanned the clearing to his front. He had six other men with him, all that the 6ème Régiment de Dragons could spare for this particular area. It was thought that any threat would be from the south, from the Austrians.

Many of the small German duchies and bishoprics wanted to remain neutral in the fight between France and Austria. But the Duchy of Baden, which is where they were, had a number of people who were anti-Austrian in the extreme. An alliance with the revolutionaries from France was preferable to being dominated from Vienna.

Or worse, Berlin.

"Etienne, look there, across the meadow, what do you see?" Gaudry was sure that he saw a small party of mounted men, which could spell trouble.

Cavalier⁶ Etienne Mora leaned forward in his saddle, the man was noted for his keen eyesight.

"A party on horseback, three men and a woman ..."

"A woman?" Gaudry exclaimed.

"Yes Maréchal, a woman. They are civilians, at least they are wearing civilian clothes."

Gaudry thought for a moment, then whistled to get his men's attention. With a gesture, he motioned the men forward. Two of the troopers hung back a ways, preparing their muskets in case they were needed.

As they rode into the open, the party across the way did so as well. Gaudry could see that they were indeed dressed in civilian clothing. The woman that Mora had spotted was very striking. Gaudry thought she was in her mid to late twenties, hair as black as the night sky. Her eyes surveyed the French troopers as if daring them to insult her honor.

One of the men spoke, in very good French, "Welcome to Baden, mes amis. I am Carl Nostitz, a citizen of this place. We want no trouble, in fact, my master has sent a number of us out to help guide you on the surest paths through the Duchy. We also have intelligence on your Austrian enemies."

"How do you know that the Austrians are our enemies?" Gaudry asked.

"How can they not be, Monsieur?" Nostitz said with a wry grin.

"Where are the closest enemy troops?" Gaudry asked, giving the man a hard stare.

"That I personally do not know, however, my master does and is no doubt relaying that information to your Emperor even as we speak. Would you care to follow us into Mannheim? Most of your army is encamped around the city."

Gaudry thought for a moment, then relaxed to an extent. None of their patrols had come across any threat. Even those damned Prussians were being quiet. Probably waiting to see how things went. Why commit when you can let the Russians and Austrians do your dirty work?

"Very well, Herr Nostitz, lead the way. But I assure you, any funny business and you will all most assuredly die." Gaudry pointed in the direction of Mannheim.

He knew that they would be in this area long enough to let more of the infantry close up. He had heard that Davoust's corps was marching hard to gain the city. His troops set a pace worthy of the cavalry.

But where were the damned white mice?

¹ Though this painting is from an earlier part of the period, the uniforms worn by the French infantry in the painting are representative of those worn in 1805.
² The "white mice" was a derogatory term the French had for the Austrian army. The Austrian Army wore white uniforms, "mice" may have been an opinion of their fighting abilities. 
³ Marshal Louis-Nicholas Davout (born d'Avout) commander of the Grande Armée's III Corps. Of which the 33ème Régiment d'lnfanterie de Ligne was a part. "Davoust" was how the name was spelled in the Marshal's lifetime and is the name inscribed on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
⁴ Davout was a stern disciplinarian. His men were expected to carry exactly what the tables of organization and equipment said they should be carrying, other generals and marshals weren't as exacting as he was.
⁵ French cavalry rank, equivalent to an infantry Sergent.
⁶ French cavalry rank, equivalent to an infantry Soldat.


  1. Ahhh! Grognards ! Yeees! The title of today's post might be a contender for your book title, but it doesn't really say......Napoleon.

    1. Perhaps "The Eagles March," but that might confuse people in Philly.


  2. I think one thing most modern people do not appreciate is that all of this warfare - especially pre-Industrial revolution - was all done on and by foot (boats the other option, I suppose). One would simply become toughened up by the amount of marching one had to do.

    I like the characters Sarge; good start!

    1. In the Navy, your hammock and food went with you, and they couldn't march you. However, it had other drawbacks...Good beginning Sarge - time to get out the maps!

  3. Good job, Sarge! I wasn't particularly thrilled about the change in era but your characterizations have drawn me in once more. You have an ability to make these tales "personal"; I have known (or been) many of these men at one point or another in my life; the inquisitive Private? Check.
    So, On We March!
    Boat Guy

    1. I think I needed the change more than anything, this era is one I have wanted to write about for some time. Hopefully I can do it justice.

  4. My feet are beginning to hurt! A pair of nice warm socks, anyone? Anyone?
    Fun times courtesy of the old af Sarge. Thanks.

  5. Crusty Old TV Tech here. Excellent, I only know of this era from dim memories of world history in Jr High. That, and having been sent by Mother AFCC on TDY to Florennes, Hahn, Ramstein, etc. etc. So, which Boulogne, the "-sur Mer" variety, or the Billancourt variety? I suspect Boulogne-Billancourt near Paris, since the march you outline goes through Mons in Wallonia. The other one is on the coast and not a likely candidate as an Army fort for Infantry training (as in Ft Polk). And their greeting in Mannheim is a very interesting tidbit of European history, very nice.

    1. That would be Boulogne-sur-Mer as the bulk of the French Army was encamped in a series of encampments near that town on the English Channel. Napoléon's intent was to invade England, provided he could keep the Royal Navy busy elsewhere and if weather in the Channel permitted a crossing. The army was there for most of two years. Only when the Russians and Austrians started making noise in the east did the Emperor turn them in that direction. Their movement was swift and terrifying ...

      But we'll get to that.

      (If you ask Google Maps for walking directions from Ambleuse, where our characters started, to Mannheim, you'll pass just south of Mons.)

  6. Crusty Old TV Tech again. Ah yes, the putative English invasion, forgot about that. Good reason for an Army camp on the coast. And the path you outline takes them very near Florennes, kind of neat to think where I was, Napoleon's army marched nearby.

    1. There are many places in western Europe that saw the passage of the Emperor and his army. The area I lived in during my time in Germany grew sugar beets. Lots and lots of sugar beets. Why? Back in the day, when were I lived was part of the Kingdom of Westphalia (under one of Napoléon's brothers - Jerome Bonaparte), the Emperor wanted them to grow sugar beets, to make sugar as the French couldn't get cane sugar from the Caribbean due to the British blockade. And two hundred years later, they're still growing them!

      Elements of the French Armée du Nord were encamped near Florennes at Philippeville in June of 1815, just before the beginning of the Waterloo campaign. They would advance to take Charleroi.

    2. You know how it is, the first Emperor says grow beets & then forgot to tell them to stop... :-)


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