of the men in Napoleons Grand Armée
were conscripts drawn from the poorer classes. Every
able-bodied man of age in France was expected to willingly
join the ranks to defend the Republic or risk
losing citizenship. In theory soldiers were eligible
for discharge after five years, but after 1804, most
discharges were only for medical reasons. Most new soldiers
received little training, and had to learn their trade
on the battlefield.
were usually scarce, since Napoleons armies traveled
with small logistical trains to improve mobility. Uniforms
were often ill-fitting and uncomfortable. Boots rarely
lasted more than a few weeks. Soldiers learned by experience
that marauding was often a more reliable source of food,
horses and other provisions than the armys supply
system. Often hungry and eager to fight for the glory
of France and their emperor, Napoleons soldiers
were the most feared force in Europe.
Imagine yourself carrying between 40 and 60 pounds
of rations and musket and cartridges
'em were farmers' boys, grown up used to misery and
walking and working from day to night
a bunch of the toughest, hammered down, ironedout
roughnecks you ever saw, from generals down to buck
privates. And he just said, "Sic 'em, boys."
HORWARD: And these men would
march something like 30 miles in a day. Theyd
march for four hours, and stop and then march another
three or four hours and then stop again.
understood the hardships his soldiers faced. But he
often forbade looting, and did not hesitate to order
summary executions for disobeying his orders. But, for
the most part, discipline was loose. Unlike most of
his enemies armies, corporal punishment had been
abandoned after the Revolution. The Republican ethos
of liberty, equality and brotherhood was deeply rooted
in the ranks.
the Revolution, over ninety percent of the officers
in the French army were aristocrats or nobility. By
the time Napoleon came into command, only three percent
remained. Men rose through ranks to fill the vacancies,
as Napoleon did, on the basis of merit. Napoleon also
promoted soldiers for bravery in combat, which spurred
morale and invited a cult-like following by his men.
HORWARD: Once, [Napoleon]
said "who is the bravest man in this unit?"
The officer said, "this man." He took the
Legion of Honor off his own coat and stuck it on the
soldiers uniform. Can you imagine how that would
spread in the army?
the ceaseless bloodshed eroded manpower and morale.
Medical services remained inadequate. Four men died
of sickness for every soldier who was killed in battle.
Desertion and draft-dodging became rampant. Napoleon
began to rely more heavily on troops drawn from conquered
or allied states to provide units for his army.
the Spring of 1812, Napoleon had assembled an army of
600,000 men from every corner of his empire including
Italy, Poland, Germany and France. Ignoring advice from
his advisors, he invaded Russia and drove his army deep
into enemy territory. More than five thousand soldiers
fell out from exhaustion, sickness, and desertion each
back to France that winter, Napoleon watched the largest
army ever before seen disappear in the snow before his
eyes. Hacked down by murderous Cossacks, or frozen or
starved to death, the Grand Armée had
ceased to exist. Jakob Walter, a German conscript, caught
a glimpse of Napoleon as he watched the long retreat.
he may have felt in his heart is impossible to surmise.
His outward appearance seemed indifferent and unconcerned
over the wretchedness of his soldiers; only ambition
and lost honor may have made themselves felt in his
heart. And, although the French and Allies shouted
into his ears many oaths and curses about his own
guilty person, he was still able to listen to them
of his soldiers would recall Napoleons former
glory upon his return from exile in 1815 and join him
again on the battlefield at Waterloo. Four days before
the fateful battle, he spoke to them in a voice that
made all of Europe tremble:
we have forced marches to make, battles to fight,
dangers to encounter, but with constancy the victory
will be ours; the rights, the honor, of our country
will be reconquered. For every Frenchmen who has courage
the moment has come to conquer or die!"