“Vive l’Empereur!” — 10 Essential Facts About Life in Napoleon’s Army

What was it like to be a ground-pounder in Boney's Grande Armée? The author of a new collection of Napoleonic soldiers' letters home has some insights. (Image source: Armchair General)

What was it like to be a ground-pounder in Napoleon’s Grande Armée? The author of a new collection of letters home from French soldiers offers some fascinating insights. (Image source: Armchair General)

“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?

French soldiers didn't fight for their country, they fought for Napoleon. (Image source: WikiCommons)

French soldiers didn’t fight for their country per se, they fought for Napoleon. (Image source: WikiCommons)

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.

Few French soldiers had uniforms as fancy as these -- most were holed, stained and threadbare after years of use. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Few French soldiers had uniforms as fancy as these. Most tunics were holed, stained and threadbare after years of use. (Image source: WikiCommons)

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.

Napoleon once remarked that an army marches on its stomach, yet decent rations were hard to come by for his soldiers. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Napoleon once remarked that an army marches on its stomach, yet decent rations were hard to come by for his soldiers. (Image source: WikiCommons)

“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.

Soldiers drinking and fraternizing in a café. (Image source: Tate.org.uk)

Soldiers drinking and fraternizing in a café. (Image source: Tate.org.uk)

“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)

French soldiers huddle in the deep freeze of the Russian winter, 1812. Barracks were notoriously overcrowded and miserable, but infinitely better than sleeping 'al fresco'. (Image source: WikiCommons)

French soldiers huddle in the deep freeze of the 1812 Russian winter. French army bivouacs were notoriously overcrowded and miserable… but infinitely better than sleeping ‘al fresco’. (Image source: WikiCommons)

“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.

French soldiers' left patchy recollections of the battles during the Napoleonic period. Most were too close to the action to provide any useful details about the 'big picture'. (Image source: WikiCommons)

French soldiers’ left sketchy account of the battles in which they fought. Most were too close to the action to provide any useful details about the ‘big picture’. (Image source: WikiCommons)

“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.

Francisco de Goya's depiction of French troops executing Spanish civilians. (Image source : WikiCommons)

Francisco de Goya’s “Third of May”: a depiction of French troops executing Spanish civilians. The evidence suggests that few of Napoleon’s soldiers would have been troubled by carrying out such atrocities. (Image source : WikiCommons)

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.

Just shoot me! Very often, an slow and agonizing death awaited battlefield casualties in the early 19th Century. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Just shoot me! Very often, a slow and agonizing death awaited battlefield casualties in the early 19th Century. (Image source: WikiCommons)

“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.

Norman Cross near near Peterborough, Cambridgeshire was the site of a sprawling camp for captured French soldiers. It was history's first POW camp. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Norman Cross, near Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, was the site of a sprawling camp for captured French soldiers. It was history’s first POW camp. (Image source: WikiCommons)

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.

11861You can find more amazing facts and hundreds of letters of French conscripts from 1799 to 1815 in my newly released book Fighting for Napoleon (Pen and Sword, 2015).

(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

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