“What was it really like to fight for Napoleon? How does the reality compare to the legend?”
By Dr. Bernard Wilkin
THE GRANDE ARMÉE is surrounded by enduring myths. Beautifully-dressed guardsmen are often seen among reenactors or on the silver screen. Screaming “merde!” before the final volley at the end of the Battle of Waterloo, French soldiers are the tragic figures of an odyssey going from Madrid to Moscow. But what was it really like to fight for Napoleon? How does the reality compare to the legend?
For the Emperor (Not France)
Most men felt strongly connected to their region, such as Normandy or Provence, but not to France as a country. When describing for what reasons they fought, soldiers almost always mentioned the Emperor as the main cause. His presence on the battlefield or a chance encounter was always an electrifying moment for the rank and file.
Gambling Your Fate
Conscription was introduced during the French Republic, but was perfected under Napoleon. Chance decided who went to serve in the army. At least once a year, all men aged 20 to 25 would gather to draw a number. Those dealt the lowest digits would automatically go while the others were placed in the reserve.
“This is a Rag”
Once in the army, most conscripts were eager to receive their first uniform. Far from the beautiful illustrations seen in historical books and magazines, the gear that was issued was usually dirty and filled with holes.
“Is that edible?”
Forget gourmet French cuisine – the food was usually pretty bad in Bonaparte’s army. The bread was dry while the meat was often rotten and infested with worms. French soldiers often had to forage or pay out-of-pocket to supplement their meagre diets.
“Je t’aime, mon amour”
Love stories and sexual encounters were frequent among soldiers the French army. Young infantrymen, many of whom were far from their Catholic households for the first time, frequently found girlfriends in the occupied countries. Others paid prostitutes for sex. Many recorded the sordid details in their personal correspondence. ß no harm in indirectly plugging the book. ;o)
“Hey, There’s a Smelly Hussar in My Bed”
French soldiers didn’t sleep on the floor but in beds provided by the army. Unfortunately, the French military forced men to share them. Unpleasant at first, the bedfellow practice often triggered strong friendships in the long-term. Unfortunately, living in such close quarters also helped vermin like Typhus carrying lice to spread disease. One such epidemic decimated the Grande Armée as it marched into Russia in 1812.
“Is it Grouchy?”
Surviving first-hand accounts of battles of the Napoleonic era are frequently inaccurate. Despite fighting on the front lines in some of history’s most famous clashes, most French soldiers had no clue of what was happening on the battlefield. The situation was too messy for them and they had a difficult time narrating these events to their families.
No Hang Ups About Killing
French soldiers didn’t have 21st Century morale compasses. According to their own accounts, it wasn’t ethically difficult for them to kill enemy soldiers and civilians. Many even bragged about executing women and children.
“It’s Just a Scratch”
French military hospitals were dreadful places. Despite the contributions to battlefield medicine made by French army surgeons like Baron Dominique Jean Larrey, Napoleon himself cared little about his army’s medical corps and looked upon it as a dispensable service. Soldiers often described battlefield hospitals as little more than places to die, and not without reason. The odds of surviving a close brush with 19th Century army sawbones were long indeed.
The English Aren’t That Bad
French soldiers captured and shipped to England as prisoners of war complained about the food and the weather, but many recalled the British as compassionate people.
(This article was originally published on MilitaryHistoryNow.com on Nov. 11, 2015)
Dr. Bernard Wilkin is a military historian working as Lecturer in the History Department at the University of Exeter. He is the author of the book Fighting for Napoleon (Pen and Sword) and several academic articles on military history from 1799 to 1945. He can be contacted on twitter: @bernardwilkin