Quality of the troops Napoleon led at Waterloo

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The French army, recruited on the basis of compulsory military service, presented a different aspect. Even though entering the draft lottery was theoretically required of all male citizens, multifarious exemptions, favors, and bribes—together with every man’s perfectly legal right to buy a replacement if he could afford one—guaranteed that the burden of conscription fell principally upon the rural working class. Nevertheless, the army considered itself, and wished to be considered, as representative of the entire society, in a way that would have been inconceivable to the English. Wellington himself remarked on this significant difference between the composition of a French army and that of a British one: “The conscription calls out a share of every class—no matter whether your son or my son—all must march.”

In 1815 the army’s command structure was composed of officers in the regiments the Bourbon monarchy had maintained on active duty (though with reduced personnel) during the brief period of the First Restoration; these were joined by a certain number of officers, noncommissioned officers, and ordinary soldiers who had been discharged in 1814 but responded to Napoleon’s appeal by returning to arms under his banners. The egalitarian ideas of the French Revolution had remained alive in the army; perfectly compatible with the cult of the emperor, they were particularly reflected in the officers, most of whom were former enlisted men or noncommissioned officers who had been promoted on merit: some three-quarters of the officers who served under Napoleon had come up through the ranks. In comparison, the equivalent percentage in the British army fluctuated between 5 and 10 percent.

At the highest levels, Napoleon’s army also included a large number of career officers, who had served under the ancien regime and whose families belonged to the old aristocracy. But the emperor made no distinctions between them and those of equal military rank who had started at the bottom and who, in former times, would probably have been the lackeys or attendants of the wellborn officers. Count d’Erlon, the commander of the I Corps, had been an ordinary soldier under the monarchy; at the outbreak of the revolution, he was promoted to the rank of corporal. Among his four division commanders, Marcognet, the son of a true count, came from the rural nobility of the Vendee and was already an officer when the revolution began, and Durutte, likewise an officer before the revolution, had even been condemned to death as a monarchist during the Reign of Terror. But the third commander, Donzelot, had begun his career as an ordinary soldier of the king and received a promotion to officer during Robespierre’s time, and the fourth, Quiot, had enlisted as a sixteen-year-old volunteer in 1791, at the height of the revolution.

Napoleon’s officer corps at Waterloo encompassed all social classes and was formed in great part by men of humble origin, but it was no longer as young as it used to be. Especially in the highest ranks, the average age was little different from that in much more conservative armies, among them the British. The twenty-six corps and division commanders who fought at Waterloo had an average age of forty-four and a half, exactly the same as their British counterparts, and as in the Anglo-Allied army, the youngest French commander was a prince of the blood, Jerome Bonaparte, the emperor’s brother, who had been given command of a division even though he was only thirty-one years old. Considered this way, the imperial army seems to bear more of a resemblance to the armies of the old monarchies than to the revolutionary army that engendered it. One veteran, Captain Blaze, addressed this subject: “After every battle, a swarm of officers sent from Paris descended on our regiments to secure the best vacant posts for themselves. The new nobility was just as greedy as the old; all nobilities are the same. Had the Empire lasted ten more years, the fact that a plebeian had reached the rank of colonel would have been cited as something remarkable.”

Students of the battle have advanced contradictory opinions concerning the overall quality of the troops Napoleon led at Waterloo. According to some, this army, all of whose soldiers were French, was the best outfit the emperor had commanded in many years. Moreover, since the conscripts of 1815 had not been able to join their units in time, every one of Napoleon’s men must have been a veteran of at least one campaign; yet several eyewitnesses stated that many regiments included a high percentage of young soldiers who had never been under fire. In what is probably the most convincing judgment in this matter, the nineteenth-century French historian Henry Houssaye, after analyzing an enormous mass of documents and eyewitness accounts, drew the following conclusion: “Volatile, always ready to argue, undisciplined, suspicious of its leaders, undermined by the fear of betrayal and therefore perhaps susceptible to panic, but also battle-tested, war-loving, thirsty for revenge, capable of heroic efforts and furious elan, and more spirited, more passionate, more fanatical than any other French army, whether Republican or Imperial: such was the army of 1815. Napoleon had never held in his hand an instrument of war so fearful, nor one so fragile.”

Contemporary opinions are mostly negative, but the fact that they were written under the shock of the catastrophe undermines their accuracy. One commentator, Captain Duthilt, observed that too many regiments had been formed by throwing together men who had fought many battles, but on different fronts, so that they didn’t know one another and couldn’t have complete faith in their officers. Furthermore, he thought, the soldiers who had suffered the defeats of the emperor’s recent years and then served under the Bourbon monarchy—and to a greater extent the returned prisoners of war from England or Russia—had lost a great deal of their enthusiasm. Desales, the I Corps artillery commander, wrote of his men: “I had a rather considerable force; with the exception of the officers, none was very educated or very combat-hardened. There was a prodigious gap between them and our old soldiers from the Camp de Boulogne.” But all these writers found that French soldiers were more than sufficiently combat-hardened when they engaged the enemy. As an English officer replied when asked whether he had faced the Old Guard at Waterloo, “We regret, exceedingly, that we are not informed as to the name or quality of our opponents. They might have been the Old Guard—Young Guard—or no Guard at all; but certain it is, that there they were, looking fierce enough, and ugly enough to be anything.”

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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