The Transformation of War Wrought by the Armies of the French Revolution and Napoleon

This is the text of a paper I wrote for my undergrad that I found yesterday while looking through the folders on my computer for something else and decided I would post here.   It is not the best writing I have ever done but I like and still agree with the conclusion I came to in it.

In the years before the French Revolution, warfare in Europe was moribund at best.   The wars of the period were dynastic wars fought to maintain the traditional balance of power and were generally limited in scale and scope.   The armies of this era were professional armies with an aristocratic officer class and private soldiers drawn from the lowest segments of society and subject to brutal discipline.   Desertion and looting were rife in the pre-revolutionary or old regime army’s, which partly explains the discipline, the other part of the discipline equation was the need for soldiers to execute their battlefield actions in concert to maximize the effect of their weapons. [1]  Lastly, pre-revolutionary eighteenth century warfare was characterized by small field armies, reliance on depots for supplies, mechanistic battlefield evolutions, and wars for limited gains.

After French defeats in the Seven Years War against the Prussians, the French army began to look inward to discover the cause of their defeat.   This led some officers, notably Jean-Baptiste de Gribeuval and Count Jacques de Guibert to propose reforms in the way the French army was organized, equipped, and the way it fought.   Some of these reforms such as the artillery reforms of Gribeuval were begun before the revolution.   Other reforms such as the tactical and organizational changes proposed by Guibert were not successfully introduced until after the French revolution.

The way wars were fought was overthrown by the French Revolution.   The wars of the First and second Coalition were not fought to maintain the balance of war, rather they were fought by the French to first defend their revolution and later to export it the revolutionary ideals to the other peoples of Europe.   This does not explain French success in the wars fought during the early years of the revolution.   The French success benefited from the far thinking reforms began by the aristocratic officers in the last years of the Ancién Regime, reforms that were only fully implemented after the revolution and were suited to the type of soldier in the new French army.

One of the major changes of the French revolutionary armies is their tactical style of fighting.   The French did not fully abandon the line as their tactical formation of choice but they did incorporate new formations into their assault doctrine that gave them greater flexibility on the battlefield.   The assault column is the formation most widely cited as being peculiar to the French armies early in the revolutionary period.   The column formation itself however is like many of the tactical developments of the revolution, a product of pre-war French military thinking.   The column-in-line formation was codified in French doctrine in 1791 but it had been theorized as early as 1772 by Count Jacques de Guibert of the French Royal Army.[2]

The French use of the column for assault was a revolutionary change in tactical battlefield maneuver.   Doctrine throughout Europe held that the line-of-battle was the only effective method of attacking because it maximized the fire of assaulting infantry.   The French initially experimented with column formation in 1792 but its initial use was a failure and it was not revived until 1794.[3]  However, once the French armies were trained and particularly after the creation of amalgamated demi-brigades under Carnot, the column of attack was used successfully throughout the revolutionary and Napoleonic era.   The column in the attack was almost a French signature during this era.   When the French attacked in column they were able to attack as they marched this meant that almost no pause was necessary to move from the march to the attack.   Attack in column allowed the attacking army to deploy faster than defenders could get into line-of-battle; it also allowed the attacker to maneuver rapidly both on the battlefield and around the flanks of an enemy army.

Attack in column was not the only tactical innovation of the French; initially the French also made greater use of skirmishers than did the other continental armies.   Skirmishers were individual soldiers who preceded the line-of-battle and engaged targets of opportunity in the enemy line in an effort to both cause casualties and spread confusion.   Skirmishers were used by the other armies of Europe but never in great numbers because of the makeup of the common soldiers and their propensity to desert.   Revolutionary soldiers by contrast were not as prone to desertion as the armies of the Ancién Regime had been.[4]

The idea of using a mass of skirmishers was first proposed by Lafayette based on his experiences of the effectiveness of them in the American Revolutionary War.   He did get a rifle company introduced into each battalion but because of the difficulty of producing the weapons, rifle armed skirmishers did not become widespread until around 1830.[5]  This did not stop the French from using masses of musket-armed skirmishers in front of their battle line and using them to harass their opponents prior to launching their main attack.

They also organized their army into divisions that could maneuver independently.   A division was composed of infantry, cavalry, and artillery and numbered between 10,000 and 16,000 men.   The division was big enough that it could fight on its own until the other divisions of the army joined up.  

The royal army had pioneered new methods of cannon manufacture and mounting that were also only implemented after the revolution.   The French advances in artillery were the result of the work of Jean-Baptiste de Gribeuval, who implemented radical changes in the way French cannon were manufactured as well as mounted to their carriages in the years prior to the revolution.[6]  These changes made cannon both lighter and more mobile.   For the first time it was possible for cannon to be maneuvered effectively on the battlefield.

The capabilities of the new cannon were not fully exploited until the revolutionary era.   This was simply because the French aside from their assistance to the English colonists in the American Revolution did not fight in any major wars between the Seven Years War with Prussia and the War of the First Coalition.   The current trend in historical thought that the military reforms of the Revolution had their genesis in the pre-revolutionary French Royal Army is almost certainly correct.[7]  Addington specifically attributes these reforms to the Ancién Regime and Parker, Brodie, and Blanning expand on it too.   This theory does not take away from the accomplishments of the French armies of 1792-1794.   The armies of the early revolution were hurried creations that did not have the benefit of the training, drill, or the leavening of veterans that would happen under Carnot starting in 1794.   Given the rawness of the early levies, it is astonishing that the revolution was not crushed by the First Coalition.

The French revolutionary armies were the beneficiaries of the reformist thought and activities of the later years of the Ancién Regime.   In addition, the citizen armies of France were uniquely suited to exploiting the type of mobile warfare advocated by the reformists.   It was the élan and motivation of the citizen armies that allowed the French to adopt some of the novel reforms proposed during the Ancién Regime.   The widespread use of skirmishers in particular, was only possible because the French did not have to worry as much about their soldiers deserting without close supervision.

It is also important to remember that the French army did not disintegrate after the revolution, many royalist officers left the army, but some also stayed and these officers, combined with the vast majority of common soldiers that also remained provided critical continuity with the old Royal Army.[8]  However, the French Navy by contrast, did suffer greatly from the loss of experienced royalist officers who left the service.   It has been pointed out that revolutionary zeal in the navy was not enough to replace the experience lost after the revolution in the navy.[9]  It took more than desire to be a good seaman, especially in the Age of Sail.   The British demonstrated this repeatedly as they regularly trounced French and Spanish fleets whenever they engaged them during the revolutionary period.

Current historical thought holds that the French Revolutionary army was the beneficiary of the reform that started in the French Royal Army after their defeat in the Seven Years War.   This is arguably the correct interpretation.   It is also just as correct to point out that it was the only the greater cohesion, morale, motivation, and devotion of the revolutionary soldiers that made implementation of these reforms a realistic possibility.   In short, it was the fusion of the zeal of revolutionary soldiers and the forward thinking of pre-war theorists that made the French Revolutionary Army such a successful military instrument.

[1] Parker, Geoffrey, ed. The Cambridge History of Warfare: Cambridge University Press, 2005. p. 180

[2] Ibid. p. 194

[3] Preston, Richard A.; Roland, Alex; Wise, Sydney F. Men in Arms: A History of Warfare and Its Interrelationships with Western Society. 5th Edition. Mason, OH: Thomson-Wadsworth Publishing, 2005. p.161

[4] Blanning, T.C.W. The French Revolutionary Wars: 1787-1802. New york: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. p. 87

[5] Brodie, Bernard; Brodie, Fawn. From Crossbow to H-Bomb: The Evolution of the Tactics and Weapons of Warfare. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1973. pp. 105-106

[6] Ibid. p. 17

[7] Addington, Larry H. The Patterns of War since the Eighteenth Century. 2nd.   Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1994. pp. 19-22.  

[8] Parker. pp. 195-196

[9] Ibid. p. 210

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