The major armies of the era each had formidable mounted forces, and during the French Revolutionary Wars (1792-1802) there was a rough parity between the horsemen of the Great Powers. Yet, when Napoleon (1769-1821) launched his Grande Armee on its campaigns of conquest in 1805, the cavalry of France emerged as the best in the world. The main reasons for this dominance were the superior organization of the French cavalry arm and the excellence of the officers who led it at every level of command.
The French Army of the ancien regime had been dominated by the aristocracy, and in no branch of service was this more visible than the cavalry. Here the ancient tradition of mounted knights was continued through the service of the sons of the finest families in France. When the revolution erupted – and especially after the ascent of the Jacobins to power in 1793 – the aristocratic officer corps was purged, and the army was deprived of much of its senior leadership. Significantly, though, even the radicals recognized the impracticality of removing all nobles from service with the cavalry, since there was a severe shortage of properly trained horsemen to take their places, at least initially. Nevertheless, the officer corps of the French cavalry from 1792 to 1799 was a distinctly mixed bag of generally mediocre talent.
Napoleon’s ascent to power, which began with the formation of the Consulate in 1799, marked a major change in many areas, including a complete reorganization and overhaul of the French cavalry. Napoleon was determined to make his cavalry a superior force to its opponents, and dedicated time, effort and money to re-equipping and reoutfitting the horse troops. In addition to promoting the best soldiers through the ranks according to his policy of ‘a career open to all talents without distinction of birth’, he also welcomed back emigre aristocrat officers and placed them in prominent positions of command within the cavalry. The result was that the French cavalry benefited tremendously in that it retained the very best aristocratic officers, who had to hold their rank based on ability rather than birth, while simultaneously taking advantage of the levelling of society, which enabled low-born troopers of extraordinary abilities to rise through the ranks. In fact, a number of ordinary troopers attained senior officer rank, with some, such as Joachim Murat (1767-1815) and Michel Ney (1769-1815), even becoming marshals of France. These men served beside scions of the ancient French nobility such as Etienne de Nansouty (1768-1815) and Emmanuel Grouchy (1766-1847), finding common cause in Napoleon and his empire, which embraced them all.
As part of Napoleon’s general army reforms, which were finalized in the training camps at Boulogne, the French cavalry emerged in 1805 as a force to be reckoned with. Within the next two years it would forcefully demonstrate that it was the finest cavalry in Europe, and would play an integral part in nearly every major victory of Napoleon throughout the Napoleonic Wars of 1805-15. French cavalry, and especially French heavy cavalry, was the dominant force on the battlefields of the Napoleonic Wars. Though there were certain elite Allied regiments who would prove to be of the same calibre, such as the Scots Greys and the Russian Guard Cavalry, taken as a whole the French heavy horse were without peer from 1800 to 1812.
The Russian campaign changed that dynamic considerably, however. One of Napoleon’s greatest losses in the cataclysm of that horrific episode was the destruction of the French cavalry. In the 1813 and 1814 campaigns that followed, the French cavalry was simply unable to dominate its opponents as it had in previous years. In the opening battles of the 1813 campaign in particular, Napoleon’s lack of numbers and the mediocre quality of the cavalry severely limited his operations, and prevented him from turning his victories at Lützen and later at Bautzen into the decisive triumphs that in previous campaigns they most assuredly would have been. In his report on the battle of Lützen, for example, Marshal Ney praised the spirit and courage of his young horsemen but lamented that the attacks by the raw recruits were poorly coordinated and that they had the disturbing habit of falling off their horses during a charge.
The generally poor quality of his cavalry, and the inexperience of the raw recruits pressed into service to replace his lost veterans, had a dire effect on Napoleon’s campaign. Indeed, when Napoleon decided to seek an armistice in the summer of 1813, a move generally regarded as a major mistake, he stated that while he knew the risks, he needed time to train and equip his cavalry properly since there was no point in fighting battles until it could be suitably readied for action.
In addition to finding good recruits, acquiring proper horses for the cavalry was also a problem that concerned the armies of all countries. The armies of the Napoleonic era preferred cavalry horses that were around 15 hands (1.5m/5ft) high at the shoulder, though light cavalry were mounted on smaller animals. Horses were usually mature enough for duty once they reached five years of age and could then be relied upon for a good 10-15 years of service. Almost all cavalry horses were mares or geldings, since stallions were virtually uncontrollable around mares in season. Despite their size, horses are more fragile than humans, and have to be treated with great care. During the march into Russia in the summer of 1812, General Nansouty remarked: ‘Our horses have no patriotism. The men will fight without bread, but the horses won’t fight without oats.’ Thus it was as important for a cavalryman to know how far he could ride his horse, and how much water and food to give it, as it was for him to know how to fight on its back. Indeed, one of the great problems with raw cavalry recruits, such as those Napoleon was forced to employ after his Russian campaign had destroyed his cavalry, was the high attrition rate of their mounts.
France alone could not provide enough horses for the needs of the largest army in European history, and thus imperial lands in Germany and Italy were relied upon to provide enough mounts for the cavalry, as well as horses for the artillery and supply services. A severe shortage of horses occurred after the disastrous Russian campaign of 1812. In addition to the loss of so many horses during the campaign, the German lands relied upon for remounts became battlegrounds and eventually fell into the hands of the Allies. As a consequence the French cavalry was a notably diminished force in size and quality during the 1813 and 1814 campaigns. The restored Bourbon regime imported large numbers of horses from other parts of Europe during Napoleon’s brief first exile, and upon his return to power in 1815 the emperor took full advantage of this to rebuild his cavalry arm. Consequently during the Hundred Days the French cavalry was better mounted than it had been at any time since Russia, and as a result played a critical role in all of the major battles of the campaign.