Guibert: Father of Napoleon's Grande Armée

Guibert: Father of Napoleon's Grande Armée

by Jonathan Abel

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806156910
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 09/13/2016
Series: Campaigns and Commanders Series , #57
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 296
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Jonathan Abel earned his Ph.D. in History from the Military History Center at the University of North Texas, Denton. His research focuses on the French army in the Old Regime and the Napoleonic era. 

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Father of Napoleon's Grande Armée

By Jonathan Abel


Copyright © 2016 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5691-0



Guibert's career occurred near the end of a centuries-long period of debate and reform. As early as the medieval period, France began a lengthy shift from armored cavalry to missile infantry as its basic weapons system. This produced massive changes in military theory and practice, particularly as formations of missile infantry required a much more organized and standardized doctrine to operate.

By 1700 the transition was complete, as all French infantry were armed with muskets affixed with socket bayonets. The soldiers also were supported by artillery and cavalry, the latter's weaponry and organization much more standardized from past practice. These changes now allowed for the beginnings of institutional doctrine. A few theorists began to work on this, proposing to remove doctrine from the purview of individual officers and commanders and instead propagate a single system for the entire army.

The process of doctrinal development was greatly accelerated by the rise of Prussia. Frederick II's disciplined battalions proved indomitable during the War of Austrian Succession, 1740–48. While France and Prussia were allied in that conflict, many on the French side came away with a favorable view of their partners. Practitioners and theorists alike came to view Prussia, not France, as the leading military power after the war, touching off a wave of polemical debate and reform.

The rise of Prussia produced a two-fold response in France. Institutional doctrine developed at a much more rapid pace, with the first elements appearing by 1755 at the tactical level. This produced in turn an emphasis on rigid discipline and organization, much to the dismay of many within the Ministry of War. As a result, a doctrinal debate erupted, with various groups advocating their unique views and accusing the others of unpatriotic sentiments. More importantly, the rise of Prussia produced a new adversary for France. Confronting Prussia for the first time during the Seven Years War, France was humiliated. The combination of these two developments produced a time of great angst and reform in the French military, in which Guibert would be an active participant.

The origins of France's eighteenth-century army can be found in a long process touched off by the development of gunpowder weapons during the early fifteenth century. Beginning in the later phases of the Hundred Years War, 1337–1475, infantry gradually replaced shock cavalry, famously personified by the medieval knight. Affecting more than events on the battlefield, the development of firearms also considerably influenced both government and society. Taken together, this trend is known as the Military Revolution.

Relying on the system of vassal service, medieval armies required little organizational training. Knights trained extensively as warriors, but armies rarely, if ever, practiced tactics or operations. Battles largely consisted of individual combats fought with sword and spear, with knights confronted by their opposite numbers in the enemy army. Medieval soldiers provided most or all of their own equipment as a portion of the feudal obligations they owed their lord. This defrayed the cost of war from the state to the nobility, enabling relatively poor monarchs and lords to conduct campaigns that otherwise would have been cost prohibitive.

Missile weapons gradually brought an end to this system of warfare. As technology developed in the high medieval period, bows and crossbows followed by gunpowder weapons became relatively cheap compared to the armor systems of heavy cavalry. These weapons also required much less individual skill and training to use than the weapons system employed by medieval knights. Due to their ease of use, missile weapons could be wielded by peasants, a trend begun on a small scale by the English longbowmen of the Hundred Years War. As technology developed, firearms came to be the dominant missile weapon, particularly given the training required for use of the longbow. Many Europeans recognized the potential for a resulting power shift. This process originated in the mid-fifteenth century, particularly during the Hundred Years War and the subsequent French campaigns for hegemony on the Rhine. For the first time since the fall of Rome, large numbers of nonelites could be equipped and used in battle. According to John Lynn, this marked the transition from a medieval system to an "aggregate contract," whereby monarchs assembled quasi-feudal venal regiments or hired mercenaries to man their armies.

Arming commoners with firearms had a double effect on military establishments across Europe. In society it marked the beginning of a gradual change whereby commoners ultimately rejected feudal social and political systems. For militaries, the shift to firearm-wielding infantry necessitated the development of higher-order organization and tactics. Soldiers could no longer rely on personal martial prowess or superior equipment to best their foes. The extreme vulnerability of firearms-bearing soldiers to cavalry required large numbers of troops to work together in disciplined formations to remain safe and effective. This fact, along with the increasingly complex machinery used in firearms, required technical knowledge and training to operate under battle conditions as the period progressed. When combined, these factors necessitated an army composed of soldiers who could maneuver and fight as a unit rather than individuals. Consequently, early modern armies required organization to practice tactics.

But such developments rarely occurred immediately or even concurrently. The period between the adoption of gunpowder weapons and the appearance of infantry tactics and organization began in the late medieval period but took up to three centuries to take hold throughout most of Europe. Various states adopted intermediate steps between medieval and early modern tactics, most notably Spain. In the fifteenth and early sixteenth century, the Spanish mixed pikemen and gunmen in a dense, rectangular formation known as a tercio. Although these combined-arms formations enabled the Spanish to conquer much of their empire during this period, the tercio proved tactically inflexible. For protection from cavalry, the pikemen needed to remain near the gunmen, thus preventing rapid maneuver.

As a result of this evolutionary process, France produced an army based on infantry armed with gunpowder weapons and pikes by 1700. Other branches included mounted infantry (dragoons), shock cavalry (cuirassiers), and artillery. Cannon had developed alongside infantry firearms, particularly in the great age of sieges that occurred roughly between 1500 and 1740. Louis de Bourbon, prince de Condé, used artillery in battle as early as 1643, but the type of mobile guns that dominated the battlefields of the nineteenth century had yet to be developed. As a result, artillery remained largely stationary on the battlefield, grouped into batteries of various sizes and used largely for suppressive and counterbattery fire.

Fighting in this transitional system required both discipline and careful organization, particularly as fire weapons increased in power, range, and accuracy. French generals of the period arranged their armies by infantry regiment and cavalry squadron. The regiment remained the highest permanent organizational body within the army from the development of firearms until the mid-eighteenth century. Infantry was organized into companies, which in turn were formed into battalions within the regiment. Ad-hoc formations like platoons and "divisions" proliferated as regimental commanders sought to better organize their men, but none persisted in the French army's official regulations.

Likewise, battles retained a ritualistic aspect in large part because of the lack of unit organization above the regimental level. To both provide order and to pay homage to the noble tradition still in place, French armies deployed not according to battlefield conditions, but rather by precedence. The commander who led the most prestigious unit always deployed on the right of the formation, with other units following to his left according to declining order of merit. To maintain this precedent, battle order had to be drawn up before the fighting commenced, meaning that often orders were drafted before the battlefield was chosen. French units marched in battle order, requiring an arcane system of maneuvers and evolutions to move across country and into action.

As a result of this method of warfare, or perhaps driving it, noble tradition remained the most important aspect of the army before 1700. Wealthy nobles purchased regiments for their sons, fulfilling the ancient obligation of military service to the crown. General officers also paid for their commissions. This mirrored the increasing purchase of both noble patents and state offices within French culture at large.

Due to the feudal nature of the army, the development of systematic doctrine proved nearly impossible. Although the crown periodically issued réglements, or regulations, they remained largely general instructions rather than the specific and detailed manuals that provide the basis of modern tactics. Regardless, the nobility jealously guarded its prerogatives within the army, particularly the right to command units as individual nobles saw fit. Virtues inherent in the medieval service like chivalry, personal valor, and martial prowess formed the "national character" in their minds and would remain sufficient to lead France to victory over its enemies, as they had for centuries. In addition, nobles were the best-educated subjects of the crown during the period, supplementing the argument of innate virtue with education, particularly the mathematical and physical skills needed to lead and maneuver military forces.

Thus at the end of the seventeenth century, the French army remained a pastiche of medieval tradition and early modern organization and tactics. The latter developed often in spite of commanders and the government, relying instead on individuals to formulate their own doctrines and tactics. Therefore, the army relied on the personal ideas of commanders rather than the institutional doctrine of the state. By 1701 the French generally fought in formations of four ranks, which was often reduced to three in action. Battle order consisted of battalions formed by regiment into two lines, a forward line and a reserve line. This also dictated march order, with two columns corresponding to the two battle lines marching abreast onto the field, wheeling right through a complex series of evolutions, and marching into place, wheeling left, and preparing to fight.

This system greatly hampered organized combat. While colonels were liable for training their men in basic march and weapon use, they often abrogated the responsibility. Soldiers frequently appeared for the campaign with little to no training and had to be instructed on the march. Early modern armies also lacked the basic organization required to execute all but the most basic maneuvers and evolutions. The French army had no cadenced step, resulting in regiments and even battalions marching at a rate dictated by individual officers rather than regulated doctrine.

The lack of a cadenced step serves as a microcosm of the absence of institutional doctrine, which in turn severely limited French forces, particularly in battle. Unwieldy block formations and lack of training necessitated simplistic maneuvers in action, conducted at the processional speed and deployment of the parade ground. As noted, units deployed by precedence according to a prearranged plan rather than to the circumstances of terrain or the battlefield.

Battles proved elusive during the period from 1600 to 1700, generally occurring when both parties sought combat, which proved a rare occurrence. For example, Henri de la Tour d'Auvergne, vicomte de Turenne, commanding French forces in the early years of the Dutch War of 1672–78, only fought two major battles during that conflict. Combat, particularly during the wars of Louis XIV, often involved sieges rather than pitched battles. Even in engagements, infantry attacks rarely took place. Often, the decisive blow was delivered by shock cavalry, always the preferred arm of a noble class that highly prized martial honor.

As a result of this evolution, the French army possessed limited organization, tactics, and doctrine on the eve of the War of Spanish Succession, 1701–13. With the transition to gunpowder weapons largely completed by 1700, military authorities sought a more sophisticated doctrine. Lynn argues that this represented a shift from the aggregate contract army to a "state commission" system, whereby monarchs relied on the growing state bureaucracy to recruit armies from within their kingdoms, largely eschewing foreign mercenaries. But significant challenges remained in the creation of an institutional army. Organization and discipline lagged behind technical developments, particularly given the decentralized nature of the military. Reformers labored over the next several decades to reform the system and lay the foundation for the development of the truly regular army required by the state commission system.

The first step in this process was the appearance of the fusil in the seventeenth century, which made significant improvements on the design of the musket by rendering it more stable and effective. The adoption of Vauban's socket bayonet in 1698 transformed the basic infantry shoulder arm into a system capable of delivering both shock and fire. As a result, pikes all but disappeared from the French army over the next two decades. This greatly simplified tactics and theory, as neither would have to account for foot units of different type. Instead, infantry would be standardized, capable of utilizing both fire and shock as well as a variety of formations, depending on circumstance. Consequently, the socket bayonet laid the foundation for the development of modern doctrine by simplifying the variables of infantry warfare to a single type of soldier.

France participated in four major wars between 1701 and 1755, winning or drawing all of them. Due to this success, doctrinal development and reform proceeded slowly. Yet a movement toward reform represented a nascent call not only for regeneration of the military but also of the state and the society it reflected. The implications of these changes reached into the latter two areas, sowing the seeds of wrenching debate within the army. The first author in this field was Jean-Charles, Chevalier Folard. Folard's various works, most notably his Traité de Polybe, reached only a small audience before 1740, largely because most within the French military establishment remained suspicious of theory. Yet his writings inaugurated an important school in the great debates that would follow. Folard argued for a primitive system of dense columns mixing shot and pike. Although these resembled the fabled Spanish tercio in form, Folard's columns were to be fast moving and of sufficient strength to break the opponent's lines. He intermixed cavalry and infantry, ideally forming a combined-arms unit that could resist enemy action.

Folard's treatise established the ordre profond school of thought, which would prove vital in the reform debates of the century. Like many of his contemporaries, he hearkened to Greece and Rome for support, which explains in part the almost complete absence of artillery from his calculations. Folard's system was visibly deficient even to its supporters and later proponents. Without cadenced step and regular battle drill, soldiers formed in column were largely incapable of advancing under fire. "The advocates of the ordre profond," Robert Quimby concludes, argued "that tactics [were] primarily a matter of geometry and should be governed by it rather than by the properties of the weapons employed."

Yet Folard's genius and lasting legacy were to capture the kultur-geist of the nobility and transfer it to a tactical system. His l'ordre profond was an explicitly French system, drawing on élan and the initiative of the individual soldier to press forward in column. More so than any technical consideration, this aspect vaulted Folard's system to the apex of the French military mind for the remainder of the century. It also ignited a polemical debate that would dominate military theory between shock, embodied by l'ordre profond, and fire, or l'ordre mince.

At the same time, however, a new military power rose outside of France, marking a development that would have significant consequences for doctrine and practice throughout Europe. Organization and discipline developed significantly in the eighteenth century as a direct result of the influence of the Kingdom of Prussia and its army on military thought. Beginning with the elevation of the elector of Brandenburg to king in Prussia in 1701, the Hohenzollern rulers constructed an army that could contend with the larger Continental powers. As Prussia lacked the manpower of its larger neighbors, its monarchs emphasized military quality over quantity. This produced a small but highly skilled army, disciplined through many hours of training and drill. Unlike the French tradition, with its decentralized organization, the Prussian system emphasized discipline and provided an organizational structure from the crown down to the lowest organizational levels.


Excerpted from Guibert by Jonathan Abel. Copyright © 2016 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
1. The Evolving French Army,
2. Guibert's Early Life in the Twilight of the Old Regime,
3. The Essai général de tactique,
4. La Gloire par tous les chemins,
5. The Council of War under Saint-Germain,
6. War, Home, and Abroad,
7. Commencement d'une vie nouvelle,
8. Guibert's Revolution,
9. The Father of the Grande Armée,
10. Legacy,

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