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The Man and the MythNapoleon and JoesphinePolitics in Napoleon's TimesNapoleon at War

Campaings and Battles
Napoleon's Tactics
The Soldier's Life
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The Soldier's Life

Most of the men in Napoleon’s 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.

Supplies were usually scarce, since Napoleon’s 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 army’s supply system. Often hungry and eager to fight for the glory of France and their emperor, Napoleon’s soldiers were the most feared force in Europe.

ELTING: Imagine yourself carrying between 40 and 60 pounds of rations and musket and cartridges… Most of 'em were farmers' boys, grown up used to misery and walking and working from day to night… He's got a bunch of the toughest, hammered down, ironed—out 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. They’d march for four hours, and stop and then march another three or four hours and then stop again.

Napoleon 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.

Before 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.

Napoleon praises soldier

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 soldier’s uniform. Can you imagine how that would spread in the army?

But 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.

By 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 day.

Retreating 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.

"What 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 unmoved."

Many of his soldiers would recall Napoleon’s 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:

"Soldiers, 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!"

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