Organizing A Modern Army

Organization. Does that word delight or terrify you? Right now, it inspires both feelings in me – I love it when things are organized, but I’m not looking forward to cleaning up my stacks of books and piles of paper scattered all over the house. Whether you love or hate (or just can’t decide) about Napoleon, you’ll be forced to admit that he was an organizer. His revolutionary structuring of his armies and headquarters staff have influenced the modern military and even corporate office organization.

This week, we’re discussing the troops and organization of Napoleon’s Grande Armee (that’s French for “Great Army.”)

French Imperial Guards, Napoleonic Era

The Beginnings

Napoleon’s Grande Armee was the most organized fighting force in Europe up to its era.  It battled the armies of the Austrians, Prussians, British, Russians, and Spanish during the Empire years (1803ish to 1814).

The French Grande Armee started as Napoleon’s army for the invasion of England, but when that conquest was canceled (the floating barges just ain’t gonna work – take note, General Burnside) the force just moved east and started fighting the Austrians and Prussians. Although many of the original troops were replaced with new conscripts as the years dragged on, the name Grande Armee is generally used when referring to Napoleonic French armies.

The Organization

The Grande Armee was remarkable because its organization allowed flexibility in campaigning. It was divided into 5-7 corps, each with an average size of 20,000-30,000 men. Each corps, commanded by a marshal or a major general, was self-sufficient, although they usually worked together in campaigns.

Napoleon allowed his corps commanders a lot of freedom, but if they did not comply with his orders or do as he wanted, he would severely scold them and occasionally remove them from command.  The idea of dividing an army into “independent” corps was revolutionary and Napoleon’s system of army organization was eventually adopted by many nations during the nineteenth century.

Within the Corps were divisions of infantry (foot soldiers), cavalry (horsemen), and artillery (loud cannons.) Each divisions had permanent administrative departments and operational units and were commanded by division generals.

The divisions were further divided by into units with specific military tasks. For example, an infantry regiment would have companies of basic “boring” infantry, grenadiers (known for their fierce fighting tactics), and light infantry trained for marksmanship.

Cavalry units formed about 1/5 to 1/6 of the Grande Armee’s forces, but Artillery was Emperor Napoleon’s favorite. He established the practicality of Horse Artillery, which was known for moving swiftly across and around battlefields, repositioning and keeping the enemy guessing.

Painting of French Cavalry in 1807 (Public Domain)

Painting of French Cavalry in 1807 (Public Domain)

French military regiments were given flags and Imperial Eagles. The Eagles were based off the ancient Roman standards and regiments vowed to defend them to the death. (No, they weren’t real birds; they were made of gold.)

“Napoleon’s Spoiled Children”

The Imperial Guard, practically its own corps, was the Grande Armee’s elite fighting force, Napoleon’s personal guard, and his especial delight.  All troops within the guard were hand-picked and had to have fought in at least 1, but preferably 3-5 campaigns, be completely loyal to Napoleon, and cited for gallant action. These unit were known for “staying in reserve” and could get away with bending military rules, leading to awe, envy, and ridicule from the rest of the army.

Military Staff

Gone were the days of staff officers in the position because of their nobility. (Sure, Napoleon appointed friends and family members all over his empire, but they had to get the job done, or they were done.) Napoleon created a military staff system which was revolutionary for all its functions; it was invented, organized and commanded by his commander, Marshal Berthier.  The system of staff organization has been copied by numerous organizations and its basic form is still used today in modern militaries, police and fire departments, and businesses.

The Staff of the Grande Armee, also called the Imperial Headquarters, was divided into three main sections: 1) Napoleon’s Military Household, which included Napoleon’s personal messengers, spies, and advisors, 2) the Army General Headquarters, which was under the chief of staff and handled all reports, orders, and information without Napoleon’s intervention, and 3) the Intendant General’s Department, which was controlled by the quartermaster and managed all the administrative and logistical problems for the army.


Engineers handled the clearing of roads, making of bridges, and kept the Grande Army moving in hostile territory. Supply trains followed the army carrying 8 days of rations, but the troops were encouraged to live off the land.

The French experimented with fast moving ambulance corps to quickly transport their wounded. They also tried pigeons, hot air balloons, and a visible telegraph system to improve the more traditional means of communication – couriers on horseback, drums, bugles, and flags.


The tactics employed by the Grande Armee were “flexible”, meaning they could be used by different units or combined to creating a new strategy. The French often attacked in columns, which laid a disastrous foundation for later wars with more advanced weaponry (Crimean War & American Civil War). Yes, I could write a couple of blog posts on Napoleonic Era tactics, but I’m trying not to get too carried away tonight.


Promotion in the French army was by merit alone, in theory at least.  The saying “There’s a marshal’s baton in every soldier’s knapsack” gave the idea that a common soldier could be promoted to the highest rank in the army if he did his duty and served with extreme bravery.

French Soldier Napoleonic Era


In the organization and structure of the Grand Armee, we find the basis for modern armies. The management systems introduced have also influenced many of the “command chains” in corporate offices and public safety organizations.

The Grande Armee introduced a change in military organization, tactics, or leadership during the Napoleonic Wars. The French army enjoyed years of success against their enemies; however, when its opponents had completed their reforms (many of them copied from Napoleon’s force) they proved to be difficult opponents for the Grande Armee.

Though Napoleon and his Grand Armee were eventually defeated, their legacy has continued in the organization of modern armies.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. To organize or not? That’s a question. What do you think of Napoleon’s revolutionary idea of breaking large military units into smaller, more manageable, more “flexible” units?

Ready to read about some of the great battle of the era? Come back next Friday. (And for those of you not so excited about military – I promise something about an author of the era whose initials are JA…guess if you like.)

OH, this coming week is GREEN on Gazette665 as we take a jaunt to Ireland and back in honor of St. Patrick’s Day!

5 thoughts on “Organizing A Modern Army

  1. Organization alone does not ensure success, but disorganization alone can prevent success. You’re right that Napoleon had a gift in this area. I’d give an honorable mention to his able Chief of Staff, Berthier. His absence 200 years ago made a difference in Belgium.

  2. Pingback: Five Napoleonic Era Battles & What To Know About Them | Gazette665

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