La Grande Armée (in English, the Big or Grand Army) is the French military term for the main force in a military campaign. In practice, however, the phrase is inextricably linked with the multi-national armies gathered by Napoleon I in his campaigns of the early nineteenth century (see Napoleonic Wars).
Napoleon first attached the name to the army numbering some 200,000 men slated for the invasion of Britain during the period from 1803 to August 1805. The army was assembling at Boulogne on the French coast of the English Channel to this end but was hurriedly ordered across the Rhine into southern Germany by Napoleon upon his discovery the Prussian and Austrian armies were preparing to invade France.
La Grande Armée originally consisted of six corps under the command of Napoleon's marshals. As Napoleon's might spread across Europe, the army grew in size. It reached its maximum size of 600,000 men in 1812 at the start of the invasion of Russia against the Sixth Coalition. At that the army consisted of
- Around 300,000 Frenchmen, Belgians and Dutchmen.
- 95,000 Poles
- 25,000 Italians
- 24,000 Bavarians
- 20,000 Saxons
- 17,000 Westphalians
- 20,000 Prussians
- 35,000 Austrians
- 15,000 Swiss
- 3,500 Croatians
With the exception of the Polish and Austrian corps, each contingent was commanded by French generals.
Forces of La Grande Armée
In Napoleon's army, there were four separate types of cavalry:
- Cuirassiers: These were the heavy cavalry, equipped almost like knights with a heavy cuirass (breastplate) and a brass and iron helmet. Because of the weight, both the trooper and horse had to be big and strong, and could consequently put a lot of force behind the charge.
- Dragoons: The Dragoons were the mainstay of the French cavalry, and were used for both battle and scouting. Because of their versitility, they were armed not only with traditional sabres, but also pistols and carbines, enabling them to fight as infantry.
- Hussars: Hussars were both the eyes and egos of the Napoleonic armies. Tactically, they were used as scouts and a screen for the army to keep their commanders informed of enemy moves while denying the same information to the foe.
- Lancers: Some of the most feared cavalry in Bonaparte's armies were the Polish lancers. Lancers were excellent against infantry in square - where their lances could outreach the infantry bayonets - and also in hunting down a routed enemy.
- Line Infantry: The bulk of the army was made of standard line infantry. Infantry regiments were known as demi-brigades and were made of three or four battalions.
- Light Infantry: The voltigeur companies began to be added to French line regiments in 1801. The voltigeurs were usually nimble fighters whose job it was to advance in front of the attack and try to disrupt enemy formations or artillery crews. Later, separate light infantry regiments were formed.
- Imperial Guard: France's Imperial Guard was the elite military force of its time and grew out of the Garde des Consuls and Garde Consulaire. Napoleon Bonaparte wanted it as the example for the army to follow and also as a force that had fought with him over several campaigns and was utterly loyal to him. Usually kept in reserve, the Guard was often thrown in to a battle as the killing blow. Of course, the morale of line troops soared when the Grumblers moved forward into the fray.
As one would expect with the Emperor being a former artillery officer, France's cannon made up the backbone of the ground forces. The French guns were generally used in massed batteries to soften up enemy formations before being subjected to the closer attention of the infantry or cavalry. Superb gun-crew training allowed Bonaparte to move the weapons at great speed to either bolster a weakening defensive position, or else hammer a potential break in enemy lines. In general, French guns were 4-pounders, 8-pounders or 12-pounders, with the lighter calibres being phased out and replaced by 6-pounders later in the wars. French cannons had brass barrels and their carriages, wheels and limbers were painted olive-green.
While the glory of battle went to the cavalry and infantry, the bridge builders of Napoleon Bonaparte's army - the pontonniers - were an indispensable part of the military machine. Their main contribution was helping the emperor to get his forces across water obstacles by erecting pontoon bridges. The skills of his pontonniers allowed Bonaparte to outflank enemy positions by crossing rivers where the enemy least expected and, in the case of the great retreat from Moscow, saved the army from complete annihilation at the Beresina. They may not have had the glory, but Bonaparte clearly valued his pontonniers and had 14 companies commissioned into his armies.