Napoleonic Navy ‘Ashore’

Isar River, Freysing, Bavaria, April 1809

Capitaine de Vaisseau Pierre Baste was `supervising’ a recovery operation after the officers’ baggage of his command, sailors of the Battalion of the Danube and the 44e Bataillon de Flotille, had been dumped into the river. The train troops who had been carrying the baggage swore that the dumping and soaking of the baggage had been nothing but an accident. How much Baste believed that was still to be seen. He was standing tight-lipped on the river bank while details were fishing in the river for the baggage, bringing it up one piece at a time.

The officers and senior NCOs of the train were not as subdued as Baste. They were swearing and shouting for their men to get a move on and recover the baggage as soon as possible, for they had already been behind schedule and they knew that Baste had a reputation for blistering invective as well as being a disciplinarian and they did not want to experience his naval vocabulary, among other unpleasant things.

Some of the naval ratings had thought the incident hilarious but were quickly and efficiently silenced by their officers and NCOs, and now were quietly sitting back from the river eating their rations. Baste had stopped their officers from taking out their frustrations on the train troops, who were in enough trouble. Some of the naval officers were attempting to dry out their sodden clothing from the recovered baggage.

It took the sullen train troops over five hours to recover all of the lost baggage, and once again it was being loaded on the vehicles to continue their march to rendezvous with the Army of Germany. Baste mounted his horse, nodded to his senior maitre, and the two battalions fell in and began crossing the pontoon bridge on their way to the rumbling guns.

Napoleonic Navy ‘Ashore’

Whatever the French Navy did or failed to do on the high seas, elements of it served usefully with the French Army. In 1796 in Italy, Napoleon improvised gunboat flotillas on Lake Mantua and Lake Garda, using local boats armed with captured cannon and bedecked with showy flags. A young naval officer named Pierre Baste, who would later command the sailors of the Imperial Guard and die in action as a general at Brienne in 1814, helped to organize them. There was another squadron of gunboats operating along the west coast of Italy; Desaix mentioned meeting a Capitaine de Frigate La Sybille, 16 who commanded all three squadrons when he visited Napoleon in 1797. These small craft were always handy for scouting and shifting small bodies of troops. Thus, during the touch-and-go battle of Rivoli in January 1797 Murat used them to bring a demi-brigade across Lake Garda in time to help cut off the Austrians’ retreat. (Later Murat would jingle the odd-seeming title of Grand Admiral of France among his horseman’s honors, but at least he had this one small claim to it, which was more than many of its princely holders, before and after, could match.)

One battalion of navy artificers (soon designated the “Battalion of the Danube”) and the 44th Bataillon de Flottille followed the Grande Armee into Austria as part of the engineer parc. Baste, now a capitaine de vaisseau, commanded them both. The campaign started awkwardly with their train troops managing (by accident, let us trust) to drop the officers’ baggage wagons off the Freysing pontoon bridge for a five-hour soaking. Thereafter, and possibly therefore, things started clicking. The amount of work done by the two battalions is amazing. Each company of naval artificers had brought a tool wagon; each of the flottille sailors carried (or was supposed to carry) a tool, each squad in each company lugging a different type. They built bridges, boats, landing craft, 20 and a floating battery, and organized a water transport system on the Danube to speed up supply. Baste led them on small-scale reconnaissances and raids, one of which located and destroyed an Austrian fire boat. At the same time they blocked Austrian attempts to reconnoiter Napoleon’s activities, giving Napoleon complete control of the Danube in the Passau-Vienna area. During the night crossing before Wagram, they ferried the first French assault units across and helped to “throw” the pontoon bridges between Lobau Island and the north bank of the Danube, while their gunboats ran in to provide shortrange gunfire support and smother the remaining Austrian outposts along the north bank. They took one Austrian-held island by boarding it, just as if it had been an enemy warship. All that was done, and thoroughly, by men mostly new to combat. Yet, unfortunately, popular opinion somehow attributed it all to the sailors of the Guard, who arrived a couple of weeks after Wagram had been fought and won!

Another problem in 1809 could be handled in more routine navy fashion. Concerned over the threat of English light warships to the sea communications between Eugene in Italy and Marmont in Illyria, Napoleon dispatched two frigates and several corvettes and brigs to patrol the upper Adriatic in the Venice-Ancona-Ragusa area and a detachment of naval artillerymen to stiffen the defenses of Venice. He also continued the heartbreaking task of trying to develop a combat-worthy Italian Navy.

To return to the 44th Bataillon de Flottille, its luck ran out. Massena took it and the 43d Bataillon to Spain in 1810 and left the 44th to guard his overcrowded hospital when he moved to envelop Wellington’s ridgeline position at Bussaco. Trant’s Portuguese militia and irregulars swooped down, ammunition ran out, and there was nothing to do but surrender. Despite Marbot’s accusations, Trant seems to have restrained his amateurs’ baser impulses, but if few French throats were cut, many French pockets undoubtedly were. The 43d Bataillon did well at all sorts of odd jobs, including infantry combat.

In February 1811 the navy found itself suddenly short of sailors. An “extraordinary” levy took four hundred from Corsica and two hundred from the Ionian Islands. The admiral commanding at Toulon was permitted to select two hundred apprehended refractaires who had been born near the sea.

The shortage may very well have been due to the increasing diversion of navy personnel to the land armies. One battalion of naval artificers, named Bataillon Espagne, also went to Spain in 1810, serving there until early 1813. Two battalions, Danube and the 1st Bataillon de I’Escaut (Scheldt), were assigned to the Grande Armee’s engineer part in 1812. They totaled close to 1,800 men, supposedly the pick of their service. Some of them were with Eble at the Beresina bridges; those that got out of Russia ended with the beleaguered garrison of Danzig, where they doubtless manned Rapp’s improvised squadron of gunboats.

Meanwhile Baste with the 4th and 17th equipages de flottille had been laboring on the Grande Armee’s line of communications, moving supplies along streams, canals, rivers, and the sheltered waters of the Baltic coast. A few of those sailors also were at the Beresina.

Eighteen-thirteen was a year of Navy woe and lamentation. To build his new army, Napoleon ruthlessly converted sailors into soldiers. Before Russia, the naval artificers had totaled some seven thousand officers and men; approximately five thousand remained. One thousand of their biggest and best were plucked for replacements for the sapeur and pontonnier battalions. Espagne was recalled for service in Germany; it ended at Torgau with another battalion, apparently the 2d Escaut. Serving equally as infantry or gunners as the situation might require, they proved the most reliable element of the garrison of that disease-ravaged fortress. Napoleon hoped to get another battalion of them for the Grande Armee, but Decres reported only some three thousand ouvriers left. None had more than two years of service, and most were weakly apprentices.

The artillerie de la marine went the same hard road. With the exception of a battalion sent to Portugal with Junot, it had seen little combat service since 1801-02 and had some eight thousand well-trained men averaging twenty-three years of age. Napoleon transferred them to the army and reformed them-with some conscript padding-into four infantry regiments (often called “naval infantry”), the number of battalions in each regiment being doubled. The necessary officers were provided by promotions within the regiments, recent St. Cyr graduates, and Velites out of the Imperial Guard. Five hundred of the best (probably the oldest) gun captains were left with the navy, their regiments carrying them on special rosters as on detached service. Once formed, those regiments were milked for cadres for eight companies of foot artillery and four hundred more men for the artillery of the Guard. The army issued them overcoats and three pairs of good shoes; the overcoats happened to be blue, like those of the Old Guard.

Most of this naval infantry was assigned Marmont’s VI Corps. He found them splendid material, though their senior officers-elderly, sedentary “homesteaders” with “bourgeois” interests that did not include being shot at-rather frightened him. Once shaken down under competent army generals of brigade, however, the naval gunners made excellent infantrymen. Their steadiness under heavy fire at Lutzen, plus those blue overcoats, fooled the Allies into thinking they were part of the Guard. They served capably through the campaigns of 1813 and 1814 despite heavy losses at Lutzen and Leipzig. In 1814 the Bourbons gave them back to the navy as a three-regiment Corps Royal des Canonniers de la Marine.

During 1813 and 1814 the navy as a whole had been further screened for able-bodied men, to be used as filler replacements for the infantry, artillery, and engineers or as poorly recorded independent units. There is bare mention of a 1st Bataillon de Marins (Battalion of Sailors), mostly men from the ports of the Somme River, which broke up a Russian rear guard in a night bayonet attack at Etoges in 1814.

The Bourbons had little time for the navy during their 1814-15 period of confusion before the Hundred Days. On his return, Napoleon formed most of the available navy personnel into regiments for the defense of the naval bases so that army units in garrison there could be withdrawn for duty with the armies in the field. Fourteen had formed or were forming by the day of his second abdication; at least some of them had army-style elite companies. Two battalions of the artillerie de la marine were summoned to Paris, and one was sent to Lyon, to assist in emplacing fortress artillery; the speed and skill of their work were judged remarkable. Other battalions served efficiently with punitive columns in Vendee.

The 14th Regiment de Marins, stationed on the Ile d`Aix near Rochefort, were the last French troops to cheer their Emperor before he trustingly asked asylum from the British government. By odd chance, in his threadbare cadet boyhood he had been thought good material for a naval officer and had taken some time deciding to be an artilleryman on land rather than a cannoneer afloat.