Beginner’s Guide to Napoleonics

I ran across this excellent GENERAL ORGANIZATION OF ARMIES by Laurent Deneu. It seems like a good starting place when looking at Napoleonic army organizations. I’ve mirrored it below:

Joined: 24 Mar 2003
Posts: 17
Location: Airdrie, Scotland
Posted: Wed Jul 02, 2003 1:34 pm Post subject: Beginners guide
by Laurent Deneu
The essay which follows is intended primarily for those who like historical gaming with miniatures and most particularly for beginners. It does not pretend to be an exhaustive account of the details of the organization of the armies of the period. Here will be described only what it is indispensable to know in order to manoeuver our little pieces of lead on a felt field. Moreover, we restrict ourselves to generalities by describing what is common to all the nations involved, mentioning here and there that some variations may be encountered but leaving to essays more precisely aimed the job of illustrating national peculiarities. If I have undertaken this work it is because I would have been very appreciative if it had existed when I struggled to begin. It would have prevented me from stumbling, from the false steps and frustrations of not getting from those whom I harassed with confused questions nothing but incomplete and often annoyed responses. May this modest contribution contribute to the pleasure that anyone will find in sharing my hobby, so it will continue to exist and to develop.
The infantry has been and for a long time will remain the ruler of battles. Around it is articulated the army taken as a whole. By its strength is judged the military power of a nation. Only it can win battles and exploit the gains thus acquired, which can’t be done by the artillery or the cavalry, which are attached to the infantry to augment its efficiency.
I. Organization.
A. The battalion.
The basic tactical unit of the period is the battalion. It is normally commanded by a chef de battalion. It is made up of companies, varying in number and in composition according to country and type of infantry. Most often four to ten companies constituted a battalion. A company was composed of from fifty to two hundred men, according to the country. Thus it can be seen that a battalion could be from two hundred to two thousand men, according to the country and the period. These two ciphers represent extremes rarely met, and the most representative figure lies between five hundred and fifteen hundred men. Thus a battalion is made up of many companies, and among them were frequently found one or two companies of a different sort, called elite companies. The most common elite company is the company of grenadiers. They are foot soldiers of above average stature and combat experience. They support the rest of the battalion physically and, more important, morally. Their uniforms always have distinguishing differences. The other elite company which can also be found in the battalion is the light company. The name differs from country to country; one may cite without being exhaustive voltigeurs, tirailleurs, chasseurs, translated into the different languages. They were men chosen for their agility, specially trained in shooting, often with better weapons than the rest of the troop, fighting in a loose formation, that is, as sharpshooters. They too were always recognizable from certain parts of their uniform. The bulk of the battalion is made up of what are called central companies, formed of average men of no particular ability. This is the mass of conscripts trained, sometimes very summarily, to shoot in salvos and to fight with bayonets. They are called central companies because when the battalion is deployed in line, the grenadiers are on the right and the light company, if it exists, on the left. In most armies the elite companies were frequently taken from their battalions to regroup then in autonomous battalions, in a more or less provisional manner. The most typical example was the Austrian grenadiers, who, as far as I know, never fought together with their original units but always in made-up battalions with a practically unchanging organization.
B. The regiment.
The regiment is primarily an administrative entity which doesn’t have much significance on the battlefield. It is normally commanded by a colonel. It is made up of one or more battalions; in the field the number most frequently met with is five battalions per regiment, with one battalion at the home base. The latter, of smaller size, had to receive and train recruits for the fighting battalions. Frequently a regiment would have many of its battalions in theaters of operation scattered around the world.
C. The brigade.
This is the tactical unit which is immediately above the battalion on manoeuvers. It is normally commanded by a brigadier general. A brigade contains two or more battalions, with some brigades having had ten or twelve battalions. Most often the brigade unites many regiments, but as has been seen above that is not absolutely necessary.
D. The division.
The division is the tactical unit immediately above the brigade. It is normally commanded by a full general. A division is normally made up of at least two brigades which normally manoeuver together on the battlefield.
E. The army corps.
The army corps is a formation brought to its highest point in the French armies and adopted to a greater or lesser extent by the other belligerants. In its most perfected form it is made up of one or more infantry divisions, with cavalry and reserve artillery, not counting the supply train, ambulances, etc. It is really a small army which can wage a campaign by itself. In the period which concerns us an army corp is normally commanded by a full general or a marshal. It is proper in this discussion to remember that in the French army Marshal is not a rank but a title of honor, just like a first class soldier elsewhere.
2. The different types of infantry.
There were two different types of infantry during the period, the line infantry and the light infantry. These two principal types were separated into categories of troops differentiated by their valor in combat. Starting with the first, these categories were the guard, the line, the reserve, the irregulars.
A. The line infantry.
These are the most numerous. A line battalion is made up of companies of infantrymen not having any particular training, but often elite companies. They are the main manoeuvering body of the army. They are normally used only in close order except for elite companies, which may sometimes operate separately. In particular, the light companies made be sent in advance of the battalion to harass the enemy with fire or for example, to occupy occupied areas, both tasks made easier for them because of their ability to manoeuver in loose order. An infantryman in a center company of a line battalion is called his country’s equivalent of rifleman, musketeer, line man, etc. The first elite company is made up almost invariably of grenadiers; the second, if there is one, of voltigeurs, legers, tirailleurs, etc.
B. The light infantry.
This is, theoretically, an elite troop of which the united battalions are able to perform the tasks which the light line companies accomplish. A battalion of light infantry is made up of a number of center companies which varies with different countries, sometimes together with one or two elite companies. The infantrymen of the center companies are named differently by different companies; one can cite chasseurs, tirailleurs, riflemen, etc. Many countries have though it good to add to their light infantry units one or two elite companies. The first is made up of carabiniers, which are the equivalent of grenadiers, and the second, if there is a second, of voltigeurs.
C. The guard.
In almost every army of the period a small portion of the infantry contained the best soldiers available and in principal was the ultimate reserve on the battlefield. The units thus constituted bore the title of “guard” and besides an immense prestige most often enjoyed advantages which were not insignificant. There were also light troops in the guard as well as normal ones.
D. The line
In fact this term designates two different things which are close enough in meaning to create confusion. One can define line as everything which is neither guard nor reserve nor irregular, that is to say, the bulk of the army. But one can also call line everything which is not light infantry. Thus there are line battalions as opposed to light battalions, but there are also light battalions of the line as opposed to light battalions of the guard. The main thing is to agree on the terms. However, that isn’t the only difficulty we shall meet in terminology.
E. The reserve.
This is made up of troops of the second order, old soldiers who have been recalled, draftees with little training, local militias, etc. Most often it is not utilized except for the defense of the national territory, but it has been used in campaigns on foreign soil. It is generally formed into battalions or regiments on the national model, but it very rarely has elite companies.It is called national guard, Landwehr, militia, etc.
F. The irregulars.
These are almost exclusively more or less organized bands acting on the spot to defend their native soil. Because they lack equipment, training, or, simply, even real motivation, they have practically no value opposed to regular troops. On the other hand, they readily attack convoys of food, of the wounded, small isolated detachments, etc. The most typical example is the Spanish guerilla, but other examples can be found.
3. The formations of battalions
A. Principle.
The weapons the infantrymen had in this period were still very primitive, and the firearms, essentially the musket, were completely lacking in precision. This explains why firing by the infantry had to be done in salvos to obtain sufficient efficiency. Thus, two hundred muskets firing at the same time could reasonably give rise to the hope that at a distance of sixty meters ten to twenty percent of the targets would be hit! It was this necessity of delivering an important volume of fire which led to the close order manoeuvers of the infantry. In addition, the compact mass of men which constituted the battalion gave to an offensive movement aiming at engaging body to body with the enemy an impact not obtainable with looser formations.
B. The line.
The most certain means of putting the adversary out of action being to eliminate him by firepower before coming into close contact with him, the formation which best permits arriving at this result is the one which permits the greatest number of muskets to fire at the same time, that is, the line. That is a formation which all countries have employed, where the companies of the battalion are arranged side by side in an uninterrupted line. The men are generally placed in three ranks, and the two front ranks can fire while the third is supposed to reload the weapons. It can be seen that with a battalion of six hundred men in this formation four hundred muskets can be discharged on a front of one hundred fifty meters– impressive! Another advantage of this formation is its lack of depth and thus its lesser vulnerability to penetrating fire, particularly from artillery. The major inconvenience of this formation is that it gives but little resistance to a charge, and it is more fragile against a charge made by a unit in the formation described below. It is essentially a formation for defending or attacking with firearms.
C. The column.
This formation consists of placing the unit in many files. There are three main types of columns on the battlefield. The column for marching is the one which permits the fastest movement to reach the place of combat. It is formed of half-companies, one marching behind the other. It is not at all suitable for combat. The column of companies is a column where all the companies are deployed and placed one behind the other. That is the battle formation adopted by many companies, which subordinates fire power to the momentum which it can give to the impact of a great number of ranks of infantry advancing on the double. A frequent variant of this column is the column of divisions. I open a parenthesis here to raise another of the terminological ambiguities which make comprehending the military art of the period difficult. The word division, which had been seen to designate a union of many brigades, has another meaning, the union of two companies in the same battalion. Thus the column of divisions is a column where the companies are ranked by twos. That is a formation which offers the advantage of permitting engaging in hand to hand combat on a wider front while still having the momentum due to the presence of many following ranks. Thanks to its more extended front it also permits delivering significant firepower. That is the best attack formation, adopted by many countries.
D. The square
The infantry is vulnerable to cavalry attacks, the danger from which comes elsewhere than on the front,which has great fire power. Thus a battalion attacked on its flank or from behind by any cavalry charge is practically lost. To counter this threat a specific formation was developed, the square. That is a formation where the companies or divisions place themselves at right angles to each other, facing the exterior of the closed geometric figure thus obtained. The first ranks of soldiers kneel and hold their bayonets at an angle, and the other ranks can fire while at the same time completing the hedgehog with their own bayonets. Practically all the countries involved in the period adopted this formation, but the training and discipline necessary for the rapid conversion into a square often limited the usage to elite troops and troops of the line. Some countries developed a simpler but also less effective way, the filled square. That is a column which when threatened by cavalry has the men on the flanks and rear pivot toward the exterior, offering thus a certain amount of resistance to the attack, even less than with what is called the cross square. It is clear that forming into a square does not permit rapid movement of the unit because whatever the direction envisaged at least one side of the square has its back turned toward it. Frequently many divisions form into one great square, and the great square is a virtual fortress.
E. The sharpshooters.
The term sharpshooter is used here as a generic term to designate the loose formations which certain specialized troops may adopt in certain circumstances. In reality practically all infantry troops would be capable of manoeuvering in loose order but with more or less efficiency according to the amount of their training in this particular sport. It consists in advancing toward the enemy while offering the smallest possible target to their defensive fire. This is done by abandoning serried ranks, dispersing, frequently changing position, etc. It is clear that agility, initiative, and individual autonomy should be elevated to obtain good results in this area. That is why all the troops specialized in this sort of combat have the status of elite troops. On the contrary, troops which have not been specially trained in the method sometimes obtain disastrous results and succeed only exceptionally. The advantage of fighting as sharpshooters is that the formation is not very vulnerable to enemy fire. Its major inconvenience is its complete inability support units in close order and its great vulnerability opposed by enemy cavalry. The formation’s essential use is to harass with gunfire enemy units. It is also used in crossing broken ground which makes advancing in close order hazardous.
The cavalry is the noble branch of service. It enjoys an enormous prestige and the brilliant actions which illuminate its history in the course of the Napoleonic wars have become legend. The period saw the roles of the cavalry diversify and become specialized. It was no longer confined only to the tasks of scouting, reconnaissance, pursuit, but it became in addition a redoubtable weapon in combat. Its techniques became refined in a spectacular way in comparison to preceding centuries and its stricter organization made it the almost indispensable complement of the infantry.
1. The organization.
A. The squadron.
It is attached to an infantry battalion and is thus a basic tactical unit. It is generally made up of two companies, each of them formed of two platoons. In different countries and periods it has had from eighty to two hundred men, the average being about one hundred twenty. It is commanded by a squadron chief (commander).
B. The regiment.
The cavalry regiment was made up of from two to ten squadrons in different countries and periods. It was commanded by a colonel.
C. The brigade.
The cavalry brigade is made up of four or more regiments, generally all of the same type. The larger the regiments, the fewer are contained in the brigade. A cavalry brigade is commanded by a brigadier general.
D. The division.
A cavalry division is almost always made up of two brigades, sometimes of different types. It is commanded by a full general.
E. The cavalry corps.
Two or more cavalry divisions are sometimes made into a corps. Most often these corps are reserve shock troops and contain a very high proportion of heavy cavalry and cavalry of the line. Cavalry corps are normally commanded by a division general or a marshal.
2. Different types of cavalry.
A. Light cavalry.
As its name indicates, it is made up of lightly armed troops mounted on horses which ideally are agile and tough. During a campaign the many missions of the light cavalry impose on the horseman and even more on his mount an exhausting regimen. These missions are to discover the enemy, to reconnoiter, to mask friendly movements, to fight, to pursue the defeated enemy, cover its army’s retreat, etc. During a campaign the effectives of the light cavalry decline more rapidly than those of the other arms, essentially because of exhausted horses. More is always asked of this arm, which enjoys the greatest prestige, even among the other cavalry. The principal types of light cavalry are mounted chasseurs, hussars, light horse, dragoons, lancers, and of course the cossacks, whom everyone considers to be the best light cavalry in the world. In principal the light cavalry are trained to manoeuver as well in close order as spread out. In most cases they are armed with a sabre and pistols, often with a cavalry musket, and sometimes with a lance.
B. Cavalry of the line.
The idea of cavalry of the line is hazy and often not realized in the period that concerns us. The idea is that it comes between the heavy cavalry and the light, and even in some cases to fill when necessary the role of infantrymen, an unconventional situation usually expressed by this or that country using its cavalry of the line sometimes as heavy cavalry, sometimes as light cavalry. The principal type of cavalry of the line is the dragoon. He is generally armed like the light cavalry.
C. Heavy cavalry.
The heavy cavalry are the epitome of shock troops. They are use almost exclusively for man to man combat, as well against the enemy cavalry as against infantry. The heavy horseman, armed with a heavy sabre and pistols, sometimes a small musket, often helmeted, his torso similarly protected by a cuirass is mounted on a large and powerful horse. He manoeuvers almost always en masse, in devastating charges, although he is, none the less, capable of certain tasks proper to the light cavalry, at the same time it would be a shame to exhaust his potential before the battle. The different types of heavy cavalry are cuirassiers, carabiniers, bodyguards, grenadiers. Often dragoons and heavy dragoons are considered to be part of the great cavalry.
D. The guard.
As with the infantry, many countries have created an elite corps from the cream of their cavalry. Whether an object of prestige or an elite arm, a praetorian guard or an ultimate reserve, the cavalries of guards have played a more or less important role in some countries. Even more than their fellows in the infantry the cavalry of the guard have benefitted from considerably greater advantages than their colleagues of the line. Some countries were content with their horse guard consisting of one or more regiments of heavy or light cavalry, others kept to the idea that all the types of cavalry in the line should be represented in the guard, still others adopted an intermediate position where only certain types had their counterpart in the garde.
3. The formations of the cavalry.
A. Principles
From what precedes it can be understood that the formation of the cavalry had to be very different according to the mission it had to perform. It is understood that close order in combat optimist the effect of the charge, while a more or less loose formation was adopted for the missions normally reserved to the light cavalry.
B. The column.
This formation was used mainly for approaching a position to be occupied and was rarely employed in combat. It does not offer the same advantage of impact as with infantry and was not utilized to make contact with the enemy except when there wasn’t enough room for the unit to deploy. As in the infantry, there were different types of columns: the column by fours (ranks of four horsemen), column by squadrons (a half company per rank), column by division (two squadrons per rank, another language problem, because here division means half company). In each case the horsemen are placed in two ranks, which means that for a squadron of one hundred men, for example, the column by squadrons has about a dozen men per rank.
C. The line.
This is the best combat formation, in which the squadron in two ranks presents the broadest front. A regiment can combine its different squadrons-in-line into a great uninterrupted line, place them one behind the other in a sort of column by squadrons, or place them diagonally in a column which is broken in respect to the direction of movement.
D. Loose order.
This order, called according to circumstances foraging or shooting, is the order adopted for reconnaissance and other missions but also sometimes in combat to harass the enemy units, usually by firing. The results of that action are negligible in terms of losses, but the annoyance it provokes in the enemy may have valuable consequences.
E. Irregular order.
It is improper to speak of a formation in irregular order because it is only troops incapable of adopting any formation whatsoever who fight thus. The aspect it offers is of a cloud of horsemen in disorder. It must be said that such a cavalry is never used in battle against formed units, but that its role, besides in reconnaissance, where it generally excels, is limited to harassment, to fighting against enemy sharpshooters, and to pursuing and slaying units which has lost any cohesion.
III. The artillery.
The artillery of the Napoleonic period was the smart arm. As primitive as may seem today the materials of that arm and the way they were used, none the less it required highly qualified personnel, and the theory which was lacking had to be replaced by long experience in the field. One could not become a good artilleryman just by studying books; it was required in addition to have manoeuvered, aimed, and fired many and many times to even partially master the relative inefficiency of the materiel.
1. The organization.
A. The regimental artillery.
At the period in which we are interested regimental artillery was on its way out. Only a few countries still used it at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and nobody after the fall of the eagle. It consisted in giving infantry regiments one or two small caliber cannon to give them more fire power. The problems of harmonizing manoeuvers between two quite different arms and particularly the realization that massed artillery was much more profitable led to abandoning it.
B. The battery.
That is the basic unit for manoeuvering. It is often called an artillery company and otherwise corresponds administratively to it infantry equivalent. In various countries and at various times it consisted of from four to twelve pieces, often including one or two mortars. Batteries were generally attached to formations at least as high as brigades; a division often had a reserve battery, usually of a larger caliber, and in theory an army corp always had its reserve park. Frequently on the battlefield many batteries are united to form a great battery, it being hoped that the result of its fire power will be decisive at the critical moment.
C. The artillery battalion.
This is only an administrative unit which has no application in the field. It may consist of two or more companies.
D. The artillery regiment.
This is also an administrative unit of several battalions.
2. Different types of artillery.
A. The artillery on foot.
This name comes from the fact that its artillerymen travel on foot, the cannon being drawn by draft horses, oxen, or other animals. It included all the calibers of the time, and there were foot batteries of three, four, six, eight, nine, and twelve pounds in different countries and times, the last being the heavy or fixed artillery, the others the light. Heavier calibers were no longer used in campaigns but were used either in fortresses or as siege artillery.
B. The horse artillery.
Called also the flying artillery, they were moved on horseback or sometimes mounted directly on undercarriages or caissons. They were of the lightest caliber, from three to six pounds. Their great advantage was their mobility, and that could be moved rapidly to where they were required. Batteries of horse artillery were generally attached either to cavalry divisions or to divisional reserves and infantry corps.
C. Artillery of the guard.
Some countries augmented their guard by adding artillery batteries, either foot or horse or both, formed front the elite of that elite arm. Generally they benefitted from materiel of superior quality.
3. The formations.
A. In battery.
Evidently the artillery had only a single combat formation, in battery, that is to say, cannon deployed in a line facing the targets.
B. Movements.
To move artillery it could be coupled, that is to say, drawn normally by beasts of burden, the undercarriages having been put in place. Rapid positional changes could also be effectuated by extension, that is by beasts of burden, but without the complete coupling. Finally, for small changes of direction or position they could be dragged by straps, that is, the personnel could drag their piece by bands or ropes.
C. Service of the pieces.
One cannot talk of using artillery without talking about providing ammunition. In reality the pieces travelled with little or no ammunition, and during a battle a regular fleet of suppliers was needed. For obvious reasons of convenience the caissons could not be far from the pieces, and the caissons have to be considered along with the cannon when one speaks of an artillery battery on the battlefield. Each piece is supplied by one caisson at a time. When it is empty it returns to the rear to the artillery park, from which a second relieves it. This continues until the end of the battle– or of the ammunition, which was reached many times.
These are the facts that may be deemed necessary and sufficient to know about the general organization of Napoleonic era armies, at least for being able to start to take part in miniature battles. The rest is nothing more than a question of understanding tactics and having experience in order to best utilize all these data to carry out those brilliant battles which have no other victims than a few drops of sweat and perhaps an injured self-pride. That is all the pain I hope for you.
Ok Guys I hope this may be a START in your journey of discovery I found this article useful as a begining it is long but worth a read.


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