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!

The Man of the Era: Napoleon

Welcome to the Napoleonic Era (AKA the era named after the guy who was defeated in the end). Seriously, why don’t we call it the Wellington’s Era or the Nelsonian Era? Now, before you throw me out of the history club, let me say: I do understand. Napoleon was the political and military genius of the age and there is certainly something to be said for an individual with the amount of influence and power that he had.

So who was Napoleon? Depends who you asked – in 1805 an Englishman would’ve said he was the devil, an Austrian might have to think about it (trying to remember if the latest treaty with France was still in place or broken) and a Frenchman would have said he was the all-knowing, all-good emperor. Oh, dear! Where’s the truth?

Since we’ll be talking about Napoleon’s era for the next few weeks, we should probably know a little about the man himself. So here’s the condensed biography and my thoughts. (For the sake of time and space I’m not going to get too in-depth today, we’ll discuss some of the treaties, military campaigns, and terms in the next couple of weeks. Leave a question in the comments, and I’ll answer any quick inquiries immediately 🙂 )

The Early Years

Napoleon Bonaparte was born on August 15, 1769, on the Mediterranean island of Corsica. Trained for the military, and vowing to support the Revolutionary French regime, he drove the British navy out of Toulon with well-placed artillery, and defended the French ruling “Directory” (yes, that’s what they called the chosen leaders) from a mob, prompting the grateful government placed him in command of the Army of Italy.

Portrait of young Napoleon (Public Domain)

Portrait of young Napoleon (Public Domain)

He left Paris after his marriage to Josephine de Beauharnais on March 9, 1796. Their marriage was plagued with rumors of infidelity and was not especially happy.

Napoleon made inspiring speeches, roused the spirits of his troops and led them into Italy. The Italian Campaigns during the War of the First Coalition (1792-1797) were filled with small, ego-boosting victories which made Napoleon a hero to the French people. During the War of the Second Coalition (1798-1802), Napoleon fought the Egyptian and Syrian Campaigns in a vain effort to reach the British colony of India by land. Yes, seriously, he thought he was going to march across Asia and over the Himalayas – somebody needed to buy him a topography map!

Self-Crowned Emperor

Well, after the desert sands and several defeats, Napoleon abandoned his army and rushed back to Paris in time to drive the weak Directory out, defeat invading enemy armies, and establish himself as “First Consul.”

During the next few years, he made government reforms, consolidated power for himself, and oversaw the organization of laws known as “Code Napoleon.” Napoleon was “elected” Emperor of the French and crowned in December 1804. By-the-way, Napoleon actually took the crown from the pope’s hands and crowned himself, to show that he gave allegiance to no one, except…himself.

Other European nations weren’t excited about the new emperor and years of war followed. Napoleon, with his Grande Armee, employed his classic “art of war,” which including preventing the enemy armies from uniting, moving swiftly and striking hard, keeping the enemy guessing, using unusual maneuvers, creating a myth about his leadership to feed his ego and inspire his troops, and keeping his victories in news headlines. The Battle of Austerlitz in 1805 was Napoleon’s finest military victory.

Napoleon at Austerlitz (Public Domain)

Napoleon at Austerlitz (Public Domain)

In 1806 he established the Continental System in an effort fight Britain through economic warfare; this system caused much trouble in the French empire. Newly conquered territories were transformed into “republics” within the French Empire and were ruled by Napoleon’s siblings, allowing Napoleon to control almost all of Continental Europe by 1807.

Napoleon, obsessed with the idea of founding a French dynasty, divorced his Empress Josephine, and on April 10, 1810, married Marie Louise of Austria. Eleven months later, a son and the hopeful heir to the throne was born.

Beginning of the End

Trouble loomed on the horizon. In 1809 Napoloen suffered his first major military defeat at the Battle of Aspern-Essling. Although the emperor did not fight directly in it, the Spanish Peninsular War was significant because it drained the empire of troops, money, and supplies.

In 1812 Napoleon invaded Russia, angry at that nation for breaking an economic treaty. He reached a deserted Moscow after several terrible battles. Unable to make peace with the czar, Napoleon began a horrible winter retreat which destroyed his Grande Armee.

Back in Paris after leaving his army in Russian snows, Napoleon found himself facing the Sixth Coalition (AKA – “European nations against Napoleon.”) He was steadily defeated and driven out of his conquered territories. The emperor defended Paris in the brilliant Six Days Campaign before he was forced to abdicate in the spring of 1814. He was sent into exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba.

Waterloo & The End of Napoleon

Napoleon Returns from Elba (Public Domain)

Napoleon Returns from Elba (Public Domain)

One year later, in 1815, Napoleon made a lightning return from Elba to the delight of the French people, who raised new armies. Napoleon was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815. He escaped from France, where the people were ready to kill him, and surrendered to the British. The European rulers sent Napoleon to the Island of St. Helena in the middle of the Atlantic. Napoleon died there on May 5, 1821, and was buried on the island; his body was exhumed and reburied in Paris in 1840.

My Thoughts on Napoleon (The Short Version)

Napoleon conquered Europe to satisfy his power lust. However, he was a brilliant military leader when his pride did not inhibit his planning. He gave France some stability after the revolution, and his code of laws is still in use today.

Napoleon ruled one of the largest empires up to that time, but he was never content. There was always something else he wanted. His lack of faith and strong morals contributed to his selfishness, pride, and ultimate demise.

Religion, except perhaps the one where he could rule supreme, had no place in his life. Sadly, Napoleon is an example of man who lived for human praise and self-glory. I’m reminded of a Bible verse when I study Napoleon’s life: For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? (Matthew 16:26)

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Do you agree that Napoleon’s pride and lack of moral foundation contributed to his downfall or do you think there are other forces (conspiracy, stronger enemy armies, etc.) are to blame? Share your thoughts in a comment.

All week on Gazette665 Facebook, we’ll have updates and posts on the good, the bad, (and even the ugly) of Napoleon. Want to write the emperor’s thoughts as captions for paintings? Come join the chatter on Facebook!