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Did the revolutionary armies of 1792 and Napoleon's Grande Armée derive their strength from their technology?

Brennus 2.0
History & strategy
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Dince the end of the Seven Years' War (1763) until the end of the Seven Years' War (1763).to thethe outbreak of the Revolution, we are witnessing, particularly in France, an extraordinary bubbling of energy. dideas, favored by twenty-nine years of peace, if theexcept for theAmerican episode. At during this period known as "theof the Enlightenment, while military personnel reflect... on theart of warfare, mathematicians, astronomers, physicists......find out, invent and build new science.

The revolutionaries of 1789 were not long in coming.acThe aim is to capture this profusion of "skills" which includes a wide range of skills.countless inventors, thinkers and creators. These are put at the service ofa political power, looking foraméliorations ofa military tool that should make it possible toensure thethe foundation of the young Republic before thewhich stands theAll of Europe[1]. That "this"... call to scholars "is formalised at the first meeting.nion of the Committee of Public Salvation on April 9, 1793.

In fact, during the said meeting, a "Committee of Public Salvation" was created. commission of "chemists and mechanics"intended to seek and experience new means intended for the defence of the Nation: cis the first scientific and technical commissioncrux of the matter[2].

However, on closer examination, we can see that while the revolutionary phalanxes use the whole panoply of available military technology, imitated in this by the young Bonaparte, then by the Emperor, without hesitating to innovate, the wars of the Revolution and the Empire as a whole are not highly technological wars. From this observation, which remains to be demonstrated, a kind of paradox is born.

In fact, since the wars started by France in 1792, the classical methods of warfare advocated by Frederick II have gradually come to an end, i.e. : the maneuver of an inarticulate army, which seeks to wear out its opponent, moving slowly, on a single axis, unable toThe manoeuvre of an inarticulate army, which seeks to wear out its opponent, moving slowly, on a single axis, unable to embrace the whole theatre of operations and, consequently, unable to force its opponent to accept the battle, or to manoeuvre it.

On the contrary, at the end of the 18th century, a new art was gradually emerging in France, based on the search for destruction, which was encouraged by the development of intelligence, while the focus was on rapid force projection. However, the demonstration that follows shows that military technologies covering the years 1792-1815 are struggling to keep up with the evolution of the new principles of warfare. The pragmatism that prevailed at the time led the military leader to claim several civilian technologies that became, by necessity, dual-use, in order to respond in part to his military needs[3].

The technology of destruction

According to the Emperor, "The rifle is the best war machine that has ever been invented by men [4]", but what is the one in the hands of the French really worth?

It is to the Seven Years' War (1756-1763), which reveals the poor performance of French weapons, that we owe both studies and reforms concerning firearms in particular. Inspired by the Prussian long gun, the rifle model 1754 becomes, thanks to the action of Gribeauval [5], the model 1777, itself modified in year IX (1802-1803). It is thus with a weapon with old technology that revolutionary and imperial wars are fought. It is after all rather mediocre, hastily manufactured during the French Revolution. The loading is done by the mouth, the recoil is so powerful that it causes wounds to the face. The rifle is "personalized", according to the equipped body.

Thus, it is a very short carabiner for artillerymen, transformed into a rifled rifle for officers and non-commissioned officers, while it flared in the Mamelukes and does not include the bayonet. The use of the rifle is very technical: the regulation charge is carried out in twelve beats, but there is also the four-stroke charge and, finally, the charge at will, which is often the only one the soldier uses in battle, but which requires great skill. Firing is satisfactory up to 100m and good up to 200m.

Beyond that, to hit a man, one must aim above his head in a quantity difficult to appreciate, or use the thumb as a raising system, which removes all precision from the fire. However, the bullet remains effective up to 450 or 500 m, depending on the nature of the powder. One shoots about one bullet per minute, provided that the flint produces a spark, which is missed about once out of fifteen times in dry weather. The paper cartridge is very sensitive to humidity and causes many misses, especially in rainy weather. At the Battle of Katzbach (26 August 1813), for example, Macdonald's troops could only use their bayonets, short and not very resistant [6], against the repeated charges of Blücher's numerous Prussian cavalry [7].

One can thus easily conclude from the foregoing, that if the French infantry is gradually rising to the forefront of European infantry, it owes it to other factors, independent of technology, especially since in the camp opposite, the individual armament is more or less the same.

For their part, the British had nothing to envy the French. They have the Brown Bess, which dates back to 1722. Its reputation of being the best in the world, as claimed at the time, seems to have been usurped. Indeed, it does not include a sighting device, so it is much less accurate. Moreover, it is heavier than the French rifle. But, given its higher caliber: 19 mm against 17.5 mm for the French gun, it is more powerful, therefore more lethal. Similarly, its rate of fire is greater: it can be fired three to four times per minute. As for the Prussian rifle, model 1782, its particularity is to include a blade on the weapon which makes it possible to tear the cartridge more easily than with the teeth (French method in particular), which makes it possible to increase the speed of shooting.

But, apart from this artifice, it is not better than the other long guns in service.A new rifle system is well proposed to Napoleon by Jean-Samuel Pauly [8], a Swiss living in Paris, which then represents a real revolution : rear-loading, metal-base cartridge, twenty-two shots in two minutes, lighter, safer (less sensitive to humidity) etc.

Unfortunately, the innovation came at the end of 1812. Given the political, economic and military situation at the time, there was not enough time to test, trial, manufacture and replace existing models [9] The value of the "First European Infantry" was therefore based on factors other than the technology it used.

"« ... It is better to have no artillery than to have bad artillery, which compromises the lives of the men and the honour of the weapons [10] . " for the Emperor, but is the French cannon better than the others in Europe?

Unlike the individual gun, the armies of the Revolution and the Empire inherited excellent artillery designed under the Ancien Régime. It was shaped during the 18th century by two great artillerymen: Vallière [11] in the early years of the reign of Louis XV, and Gribeauval in the later years. Thanks to a number of innovations, the pitiful artillery during the Seven Years' War was able to play a decisive and brilliant role on the battlefields of the wars of the Revolution and the Empire. The latter first of all respond to a basic principle desired by Gribeauval: "it is necessary to vary the machines according to the nature of the services they must render".

Starting from this simple principle and from all logic, he "classifies" the equipment: those for the field, those for siege and those destined for the coast. Field guns are 4, 8 or 12 pounds. Howitzers are 6 inches in calibre. The siege guns, or seat guns, are 12, 16 and 24 pounds. Finally, 36-pounder guns made up the coastal artillery. Generally speaking, the length and weight of the pieces were reduced, for the same range and power, while gaining in mobility.

At the same time, many technical improvements increased the range and regularity of fire. The line of sight and the increase in score are adopted, which improves accuracy. Waterproof boxes were created for transporting ammunition, and "do-it-yourself" iron axles were created to allow the gun to be dragged by hand. Ammunition was made in the form of solid balls, fuse balls (hollow, filled with powder and fitted with a wick), white-hot (incendiary), and ramed (two balls linked together by a chain to dismast ships).

Finally, machine gun boxes were adopted. The latter made it possible to project a concentrate of various metal parts as soon as they came out of the tube. With a limited range (400 m), they proved to be particularly devastating when faced with a charge (infantry, cavalry). In addition to technical inventions, there is also work on the "standardisation of parts". Just before the Revolution, the rate of fire reached more than three shots per minute for small guns served by experienced gunners. The range is 600 m for the smallest calibres, higher for the others.

Up to 600 m, the shooting is excellent, satisfactory up to 1200 m, doubtful up to 1800 m. Beyond that it is a "chance" shot. Around 1810, at La Fère, the "canonobusier", by Colonel de Villantroys [12] is made, which, "at any volley" has a range of more than 4 km, a remarkable distance for the time.

This equipment was used for the defence of the coasts (Hyères roadstead). It is a "prodigious result" according to Napoleon, who recommends "large trials" to reach 3500 toises (about 7 km), but time is short and, in reality, the artillery evolves little. It is moreover about the only French innovation in terms of firearms. In this field, theoretical and experimental research remains dormant.

As for powders and their combustion, they were not studied during this period in France. Nevertheless, French artillery was soon reputed to be the first in Europe and demonstrated this in the wars of the Revolution and the Empire. However, if from that time on, brutal force was really put to the service of the offensive in battle, French artillery did not get its strength from its technology, as the equipment of the other European powers was as good as that of France. It is even a copy of Gribeauval's equipment, with the exception of Austria, where the 4 and 8 pieces are replaced by 3 and 6 guns.

At the very least, one can even consider that the British, who use the "shrapnel" [13], have a small technological advance. It is a shell, filled with balls, which is specially designed to be projected much further than the old machine-gun ammunition. It is designed to explode in the air, close to an enemy infantry formation. The British also made use of fuses that bore the name of their most ardent supporter, "Congreve" [14].

These last ones had some success, but they were not enough to be adopted by the French army, just like the "shrapnel" [15].In 1805, thanks to its victories over Austria, the French army made the harvest of 2000 cannons found in Vienna and the following year, in Prussia, the war seizures were even more important. Thus, we see the French artillery using... foreign guns! One cannot thus attribute to its technology, the strength of the French artillery [16].

The curiosity as regards technology also comes from the observation that, during this period, it is called upon old processes in use in theFrench army, which make their reappearance and which touch the "destruction", through the "large cavalry" and the light cavalry. "The cuirassiers were more useful than any other cavalry[17]" and "The service of correspondence, escort, that of skirmishers, will be made by the lancers[18]", according to Napoleon, or his art of "accommodating the remains".

The Emperor creates the shock cavalry. Just as at one point in the battle, he accumulates his cannon to form a formidable battery that concentrates his cannonballs and his machine-gun on the point of the line he has chosen, he wants to be able to dechain, brutally, live ammunition, steel cutting, hitting, pointing, intended to create a gap and an imbalance in the ranks of the opponent. According to him, only the "big cavalry" is capable of creating "the event" through the action of massive and brutal shock.

But it was already under the Consulate, in 1801, that the double breastplate, i.e. a breastplate and a "satchel" made of beaten iron, with thewhich had been in disuse in the French cavalry for nearly half a century, reappeared!

The Emperor ordered the total establishment of fourteen regiments of cuirassiers. In order to complete his mobile mass of destruction, he added two regiments of carabinieri, which were also equipped with cuirasses. This cavalry, known as the reserve cavalry, decided the fate of the battles. Thus, at Austerlitz (2 December 1805), the cavalry reserve broke up and dislocated that of the Prince of Liechtenstein, by three successive charges (cuirassiers and carabinieri) that routed part of the enemy's right wing. At Jena (14 October 1806), the French infantry won the victory.

But thanks to the reserve cavalry, the Prussians were unable to rally. Demoralized, they were driven in on all sides and pursued with the sword in their loins; the defeat turned into a rout.

In the coalised troops, be they Russian (Cossacks), Prussian, Austrian, Hungarian (uhlans), the spear is widespread. It is not the case of France, where it is not any more in use since the beginning of the XVIIth century [19], before reappearing, in an anecdotal way, at the end of the XVIIIth century!

It remained absent from the imperial armies, moreover, for quite a long time, until 1807. At this date, the regiment of lancers of the Legion of the Vistula is equipped with it. It was at the Battle of Wagram (July 6, 1809) that, seeing that the Polish horsemen of the Guard seized the spears of Schwartzenberg's uhlans[20] to turn them against their owners, the Emperor decided to equip the Grande Armée with lancers.

After having equipped with this weapon the Polish horsewomen, those of the duchy of Berg and the gendarmerie of Spain, it is only in 1811 that several regiments of lancers are created (nine), including at the end of the Empire (1814), four regiments of scouts also equipped with the lance. Employed within the heavy cavalry divisions, the lancers regiments carry out reconnaissance and screen missions that their comrades of "heavy cavalry" can not fulfill.

The lance is a difficult technology to use. Certainly, it can deliver a fatal blow, by its length, facing the rider armed only with a saber. But, if the latter is not hit on the first blow, he then has an advantage, because the spear is a weapon difficult to handle at close quarters. It remains particularly deadly against infantrymen, especially "in square", especially if humidity prevents shooting, which is quite common. At the Battle of the Katzbach (26 August 1813), the 6th Lancer Regiment was covered in glory by its furious assaults on the rain-soaked and consequently silent squares. Circumstances thus conditioned the effectiveness of this weapon.One cannot thus attribute to the only technology, which appears here outdated, the value of a part of the French light cavalry and thethe whole of the "large cavalry", whose effectiveness of use proves to be much higher than that of the other European cavalry [21].

Technology at the service of Intelligence

"«... Knowledge of the enemy's movements is one of the great elements of perfect success [22]", wrote Napoleon.

Less decisive, but complementary to Napoleon's "shock", since it helps to determine the location of the battle, Intelligence is a vital necessity for any military leader. The "sight" "allows to discover the enemy, to evaluate his forces and to conduct the battle, once it is engaged. In general, it promotes "understanding" and greatly enhances "command performance". Thus, the man of war seeks to develop the possibilities of "his sight" and to supplement them with means of communication.

"Notice how many arms will be saved... when we know more about the mechanics of fire," says Carnot, referring to the advantages of aerostation.

Ten years after the discovery of the Montgolfier brothers [23](1783) and its immediate improvement by Charles [24], the Committee of Public Salvation orders, to at the instigation of Guyton-Morveau[25], supported among others by Carnot[26], to study the means of adapting aerostation to the service of armies. This is the first mandate given to the scientific sphere. A commission gathering some of the main representatives of French science is appointed, for this purpose, in September 1793 (Berthollet [27], Fourcroy [28], Monge [29], Chaptal [30] etc.). One sees with a very good eye this machine whose applications are numerous: observation of the battlefield, assistance to artillerymen, transport of guns...

After a short period of research and experimentation, a company of aeronauts was created (April 2, 1794), under the command of the physicist Coutelle [31]. In the same year, a balloon was flown to Charleroi, then to Fleurus (26 June 1794). "It remains nine hours in observation and seems to have had an influence on the success of the day; less by the effectiveness of the information transmitted to the genchief general Jourdan, than by the confidence that this machine inspires in the French army of Sambre and Meuse and by the impression it produces on the Austrians [32]".

The Austrians tried to shoot it down without success. The ball then found its way to the attacking headquarters in Mainz (29 October 1795). It dominates the citadel by 300 m and thus discovers the enemy's dispositions, its reserves, its masked batteries, its points of resistance. In this war that is not about movement, the balloon proves its worth. In 1796, a second company was set up. In the autumn of the same year, Bonaparte, who was laying siege to the citadel of Mantua, himself asked the Directoire to send a company of balloonists to blockade the city. In 1798, on the hypothesis of a "descent into England", a project of "a crew of 200 men, by a new air ship" was envisaged. The idea did not see the light of day.

On the other hand, Bonaparte, who was embarking for Egypt, took with him a company of balloonists (Captain Lhomond [33]). But the opening of the campaign was disappointing for the balloonists: the heavy inflating equipment was lost, the ship carrying it having failed in front of Alexandria upon arrival in Egypt. Military aerostation has its detractors, whose champion is named Hoche [34], who calls it "useless". Others, like Jordan,[35] find it "not necessary for the army".

Indeed, this means of exploration remains more surprising and more ingenious than fruitful, because it is difficult to apply. The oscillations of the nacelle and the fight against the winds are obstacles at all times. It takes no less than fifty hours to inflate the globe! It is worth remembering that at the Mainz headquarters, and on three occasions, the winds blew the aerostat to the ground, breaking the gondola... that more than 50 men are needed to secure this enormous machine.... As for the means of repair, they must be numerous, diverse and monopolize a large number of men of the art... An order of the Directory of 1799 suppresses the companies.

The Emperor did not see any extraordinary interest in using this machine with reduced mobility, incompatible with the rhythm he gave to his operations. But a last project was submitted to him in 1808, by Lhomond, who had become battalion commander, who proposed "a (new) descent into England by means of 100 hot-air balloons 100 m in diameter, whose nacelle could hold 1000 men". Napoleon, far from rejecting the project, had it examined by Monge [36]. 36] The scientist nipped the unrealistic idea in the bud and notified that the proposal did not deserve "a grand experiment". Abroad, the Montgolfier brothers' invention also aroused interest. In 1812, the Russians seem for a moment to resort to the use of military aerostats.

Indeed, we read under the pen of Philippe de Ségur [37]: 37] "not far from Moscow and by order of Alexander (the tsar), one made direct by a German artificer the construction of a monstrous balloon; the first destination of this aerostat had been to glide over the French army, to choose its leader there and to crush it by a rain of iron and fire. Several attempts were made and failed... ».

In 1814, finally, Carnot [38], stuck in the city of Antwerp, used a balloon to observe the enemy troops. In short, the aerostation, whose implementation was heavy and complex, counted little, at that time, in Intelligence."«... Above all, order to mark the nature of the various paths well, in order to distinguish those which are practicable, or impassable for the artillery... as far as possible, one will count the heights of the hills and mountains, so that one can easily judge the dominant points [39]", ordered the Emperor in the realization of the maps.

It is to Louvois [40] that we owe, in 1688, the creation of the War Depot, in charge of collecting and preserving militarily useful documents (maps, geographical memories, correspondence of generals...). Thanks to the work of geographic engineers, considered to be experts in scientific topography, a whole "strategic data bank" was thus created.

But it is to Napoleon that we owe the original idea of anchoring a topographical office to the army. It can never be said enough, Napoleon had a taste for the exact sciences and as such he loved geography. But, more than with his predecessors, for him, geographical and topographical analysis were unavoidable decision-making factors. In 1805, he wrote to Prince Eugène [41]: "...visit the strongholds and all the famous positions by fighting. It is likely that before you are thirty years old you will make war, and it is a great asset that knowledge of the territory [42]".

It was in Italy (1796) that Bonaparte complained about the flagrant lack of maps of the peninsula. His obsession to "see" led him to take action. As a geographer-draftsman officer, he attached "citizen Bacler d'Albe [43]" to the general staff. This was the beginning of a long collaboration between the two men that enabled the Emperor to carefully study the terrain trodden by the French legions and allowed the great captain to build his manoeuvre. In order to achieve this, the sovereign of the French relies on all the information at his disposal.

He takes into account the physical data of the theatre of operations (relief, dry or wet cuts, wooded or open areas), political data (borders) and economic data, particularly local resources (towns, villages and villages). It is from this wealth of information that it defines an idea of manoeuvre from which the main provisions of its initial plan are derived. In 1805, for example, having an outlet line on the Rhine, his intention was to reach the Danube valley and then head for Vienna.

His plan led him, in addition to the maps at his disposal, to launch preventive reconnaissance towards these areas. Similarly, in 1811, his correspondence revealed a desire to collect as much data of all kinds on Russia as possible. Bacler d'Albe had been at the head of the newly created topographical office since 1804. Since 1804, Bacler d'Alba has been the head of the newly created topographical office, and he has been working in the Emperor's House.

Two geographers were assigned to him. Their mission was to prepare the maps that the sovereign of the French would use, and to bring the latest information on friendly and enemy units. Bacler d'Albe, who was indispensable to Napoleon, can be considered to have played the role of strategic planner. At the same time, Berthier's general staff[44] also had a War Depot cell. The director himself commanded it and a few geographers accompanied him. They carried out topographical surveys and precise reconnaissance.

The preparation of maps was accompanied by memoirs on possible obstacles and on the local resources of the area in question.However, the technical limits of topographical representation and the absence of detailed documents, in particular the practicability of the routes, systematically led the Emperor to observe the terrain, from his person, and as close as possible to the battlefield. Moreover, the number of "cartographic supports" was very limited due to the limited number of personnel dedicated to their preparation. Needs far exceed the resource. "It takes a month to get an answer to a dispatch from Savona, and, in the meantime, everything can change[45]," Bonaparte complained in 1796.

The system of communication by aerial telegraph was proposed by Claude Chappe[46], in 1793 to a Convention enthusiastic about this invention, which responded to both the military and political needs of the Revolution.

As early as August 1793, the Public Salvation Committee decided to create the first two lines: ParisLille and ParisLandau, to meet a specific need to communicate with the armies at the borders. The following year, a first line was put into service. It is, in fact, only a system of semaphores. Mechanisms consisting of three articulated wooden arms mounted at the top of a mast are installed from place to place on high points. In each station, a "stationary" with a long view, observes what the neighbouring stations are doing and makes his own telegraph take an identical configuration.

In practice, two or three dispatches can be transmitted each day. Throughout the Empire, the Chappe system underwent many improvements. A little later, Bonaparte, in his turn, immediately grasped the interest of such technology to ensure rapid communications within an empire whose borders were constantly being pushed back. From 18 brumaire (November 9, 1799), the construction of telegraph lines accelerated. The network was built in a star shape around Paris. Around 1800, Chappe changed the number of "primitive" signals from 10 to 88. The planned invasion of England is the opportunity to continue the line from Lille to Boulognesur-Mer. The feasibility of a giant telegraph capable of transmitting signals over the Channel by day and by night was studied! The project was abandoned due to the abandonment of the "descent into England".

But the Northern Line was gradually extended to Brussels and then to Antwerp in 1809. In 1804, the construction of a Paris-Lyon-Milan line is ordered, which reaches Turin in 1805 and Milan in 1809. In 1810, the Antwerp line was extended to Vlissingen and Amsterdam. Napoleon used the aerial telegraph as a means of government and had the lines built according to military and political developments. Thus, in 1809, he used the Paris-Strasbourg line to correspond with Marshal Berthier and prepare the campaign against the Austrians. Later, he used the Milan line to support his son-in-law Prince Eugène (Viceroy of Italy).

In 1813, in order to prepare for the German campaign, the Paris-Strasbourg line was extended to Mainz in two months. In theory, it takes about a minute to transmit a message from one station to the next. Theoretically, it takes about one minute to transmit a message from one station to the next, so for the Paris-Strasbourg line (43 stations), forty-three minutes are enough, plus about thirty minutes of encoding and decoding. In all, it takes a little over an hour. But the telegraph will show its limits.

Not only is it dependent on time (fog, bad weather), but it proves to be inefficient as the coalitions advance in the departments of the "new France", then within the sanctuary in 1814. Moreover, it was not as fast as the imperial estafette which travelled the post routes of the Empire. In fact, an "extraordinary" courier travelled the 420 leagues that separated Paris from Strasbourg in 26 hours (18 km/h) day and night, including relay time [47]... In the field of Intelligence, technological innovation for military use was in its infancy. Heavy and borrowed, it only appears complementary to processes already in use for several centuries. It contrasts strangely with the rhythm given to manoeuvres, which relegates it to a secondary level.The technology linked to the projection of forcesFor the Emperor, it is a question of arriving quickly, where it is not expected, and of gathering a maximum of forces in order to overwhelm a disoriented opponent.

Indeed, for military, economic and political reasons, Napoleon's goal was to end the war as quickly as possible. In his search for the decisive battle, he gave a frantic pace to military operations. The evolution of the French army corps that evolved with the Emperor during the French campaign of 1814 gives an insight into the Blitzkrieg advocated by Napoleon.

Leaving Troyes on 6 February, the army flies due north on Vauchamps. It covers more than 100 km, crosses two cuts, and fights five battles, all victorious in eight days. It then returned to forced march on the Seine, made more than 130 km to Montereau, crossed two rivers, and won a victory in three days. From Troyes, she sets off again towards the North, covers more than 150 km, crosses the Marne, after having created a bridge crew from scratch, covers another 50 km, crosses the Vesle and the Aisne, to be in front of Craonne, forty-eight hours later, where she fights.

Ten days later, after winning another battle (Reims) and resting for three days, she fought at ArcissurAube: she covered 150 km and passed through two more cuts. Finally, from VitryleFrançois, the army returns to Fontainebleau, in four days after having covered more than 270 km [48].

Now, in this area, no military technology supports the flow rockers" Do we have a deck crew? I don't see the state of affairs; it would be absurd that General Songis[49] would have left such a large army without the means to cross a river,[50]" the Emperor wondered.In a European theatre of operations reputed to include a cut of 5 m every 5 km, 10 m every 10 km and 100 m every 100 km, the problem of "crossing" is crucial. The aim is to move a set of forces from one side of a river to the other while avoiding slowing down the pace of the manoeuvre.

As early as 1794, the personnel in charge of establishing the means of crossing rivers was organised militarily. Companies of bridge builders were formed, which resulted from the amalgamation of the Rhine (created in 1792) and Po river boatmen with companies of artillery workers. During the wars of the Revolution, these companies were busy on the Rhine preparing the passage of the army of Sambre and Meuse, and then that of the army of the Rhine. With the over-zealous offensive war developed by Napoleon, the activity of the bridge builders did not weaken.

According to the "aide-mémoire à l'usage des officiers d'artillerie de France [51]" of 1801, it is hammered: "it is necessary to build bridges after the armies, so that they are never stopped in their march". The three main ones are: flying bridges, pontoon bridges and boat bridges. Each type corresponds to a particular job. Flying bridges are ferries, placed across a river and manoeuvred by a cable connecting the two banks. Pontoon bridges are intended to be built on rivers without fast and wide currents (160 m).

The use is borrowed from the Dutch by Louis XIV. They are rectangular boats, placed at a distance from each other and forming as many floating piers, on which the deck of the bridge rests. These are transported by means of hooks. Boat bridges are made up of boats gathered on a river, thanks to the substance of the country. In 1796, during the Italian Campaign, the French army had no bridge crew built on the Adige River and a raft structure of about 120 m long was built from scratch.

The trestle decks are made of light portable elements, depending on the materials found on site. These kinds of bridges are built over shallow rivers with a solid and even bottom. They are also used for the passage of small rivers that are not fordable. The famous passage of the Berezina river by the French army in 1812, is carried out on two trestle bridges, established about 200 m apart. Everything is improvised. The wood for the trestles comes from the demolition of the houses.

The one intended for the cavalry and infantry is covered with old planks and tree bark. For the second one, intended for the artillery, wooden logs are used as planks. Another technique consists of making suspension rope bridges. The latter was used by the Swiss in the 16th century. Abandoned, it was revived in 1792. They are bridges of uncertain solidity, embarrassing to transport and long to build. They are used on torrents, or narrow ravines with steep edges.

If all cases of a cut are considered by bridge builders, proof of the importance attributed to the crossing, the technologies used date back to the previous century, or even further."The loss of time is irreparable in war; the reasons alleged are always bad, because operations are only lacking in delays," Napoleon maintains.Napoleon was much criticized for neglecting inventions in the field of military equipment. But one forgets, first of all, that Bonaparte was elected a member of the Institute in the class of "physical sciences and mathematics" on December 25, 1797 [53]. As such, he was perfectly aware of the inventions of the time. Thus, the following year, he personally witnessed the demonstration of the steam-driven fardier presented by Cugnot, which moved only very slowly.

In his "History of the Consulate and the Empire," Thiers[54] claims that Fulton[55] proposed "steam navigation" to Napoleon and that the latter refused it. In Abel Gance's "Austerlitz", the English inventor is staged presenting his steamboat and submarine. The French Emperor is then shown dismissing the project out of hand! In reality, Fulton did propose a submarine project to France, but under the Directoire, intended to break the English continental blockade. In a letter he wrote to the directors, the inventor speaks, quoting Bonaparte, of a "technical man" and furthermore of a "good engineer".

The Examination Committee issued a very favorable report on Fulton's plans. Unfortunately, the tests carried out in July 1800 in Rouen, in the Seine, and then in 1801 off Camaret, not far from Brest, did not prove conclusive [56]. As for the first steamboats, they were in fact transformed sailing ships.

Here again, their efficiency was so low and the quantities of coal needed to make a long voyage so great that the engine was used only at very short intervals, especially as a supplement to reach the destination in the event of headwinds. Experimentation with "paddle-wheel propulsion" does not give more satisfaction. Their performance was poor and their noise was a prime target for gunners on warships.In reality, it was too early, by at least half a century, for the use of steam and Napoleon's refusal to embark on these new paths was due to the state of technology and metallurgy of the time.

The knowledge acquired does not really allow the new techniques presented by the inventors to be put into practice. Thus, under the Revolution, the Consulate and the First Empire, the only energies used in transport remained irremediably animal traction, wind power and human energy. In the absence of military technology that would enable him to gain speed, the Great Captain made the best use of the civilian "vectors" at his disposal, whose development he sought to develop.

"«... The Emperor has found a new method of waging war, he uses only our legs and not our bayonets," Napoleon himself says, quoting his soldiers.

Under the Revolution, as under the Empire, marching was the principal means of locomotion. With the exception of mounted troops, it gave rhythm to the soldier's daily life. Napoleon's army was an army of marchers. The French soldier could travel about forty kilometres a day, whereas the Prussians, for example, did not travel more than twenty-five kilometres. The infantryman uses a wicked one-legged shoe, which is not made to measure and comes in three sizes (one large, one medium, one small). It is calculated that after 700 to 1000 km the shoe is unusable.

When entering the countryside, the Emperor therefore provided each man in the ranks with three pairs of shoes, complete with spare soles and nails for repairs. In order to relieve the infantrymen, civilian technology is sometimes called to the rescue. Captain Jean-Roch Coignet recorded in his recollections [58], when in 1809 he was in charge of the Spanish theatre on the Austrian front: "we were ordered to return to France at forced march and the Emperor .

made us prepare a little surprise for us when we arrived in the great city of Limoges (April 3), he wanted to keep our legs and shoes . ». The junior officer explains that, having arrived outside the city, he and his comrades of the Guard embarked in carts filled with straw bales.

Thus, 100 km per day are travelled to Versailles. There, the men disembarked and made the rest of the journey on foot to the Tuileries, where they were reviewed by the Emperor. At the end, the Guards set off again in hired carriages to La FertésousJouarre, before climbing, in groups of 12, in large carts to La FertésousJouarre.In Lorraine, where these were replaced by light carriages driven by two horses, which brought the average distance up to 30 leagues per day (120 km).

La Garde was thus "motorized" as far as the outskirts of the city of Augsburg. It covered 1100 km in twenty-one days, an average of more than 50 km per day. But this technology is only used in exceptional cases. Indeed, there is a lack of public transport in France. In fact, it was the private transport company Breidt which, as early as 1805, painfully supplied 700 caissons to the Grande Armée, instead of the 3,000 it had been using.The company was committed to providing, which we owe to an exasperated Napoleon, to militarize this key sector of logistics by creating the train of military crews.Napoleon attached great importance to communication routes and more particularly to roads.

He saw this as a major strategic issue. Not only did it allow rapid troop movements, but the Emperor considered above all that it was a factor in unifying the Empire. In 1811 he pointed out: "the Amsterdam to Antwerp roadway will bring this first city closer to Paris by twenty-four hours, and the roadway from Hamburg to Wesel will bring Hamburg closer to Paris by four days. This ensures and consolidates the reunion of these countries to the Empire and is therefore an object of prime interest".

A decree of December 16, 1811, proceeds to the classification of the ways. Fourteen routes became "first class"; giving a star-shaped network, they lead from Paris to the borders. The most important are route no. 2, from Paris to Amsterdam, via Brussels and Antwerp; route no. 3, from Paris to Hamburg, via Liège, Wesel, Munster and Bremen; route no. 4, to Mainz and Prussia ; Route No. 6 connects Paris to Rome via the Simplon, Milan and Florence; Route No. 7 connects Milan via the Montcenis and Turin; Route No. 11 connects Paris, Bayonne and Spain. The Simplon road was inaugurated in 1805 and completed in 1809. The Montcenis pass is opened between 1803 and 1806. These achievements are expensive. According to a "État de la situation de l'Empire" dated 25 February 1813, Montalivet, the Minister of the Interior, estimates the sums allocated to roads and bridges at 304 million francs.

As far as internal roads were concerned, and with the exception of the Vendée (pacification of the country), they were sacrificed to the strategic routes radiating from Paris to the whole of Europe. Moreover, the car travelled poorly and little on the "secondary" network. To be convinced of this, one only has to consult Jean Robiquet's report[59] on the installation of Prefect Beugnot, taking possession of his department, the Seine-Inférieure[60], to appreciate the quality of the French road network."I would like... that you give me a detailed memorandum on the use that can be made of rivers in general, for the movement of troops, military transport and the passage of conscripts [61] . ", advocated the Emperor. The Emperor exerted the same acuity on the navigation routes. At the fall of the monarchy, France has about a thousand kilometers of canals, most of which (about 700 km) were built during the seventeenth century.

During the Revolution, construction and maintenance work on the waterways was virtually halted. Bonaparte took a keen interest in the construction of new waterways. He was aware of the economic, but also strategic interest of the canals. It is above all Brittany that attracts his attention.

There were many reasons for this: the need to pacify the countries of the West, the security of the coasts for the navy, and finally the implementation of the continental blockade, two years after the proclamation of the Empire. The passage between the English Channel and the Atlantic Ocean via the Rance, Ille et Vilaine rivers was undertaken, as was the junction between Nantes and Brest. Indeed, an important problem had to be solved: in times of war, the naval woods had to be transported to the ports of Lorient and Brest.

In 1809, the construction of the Napoleon Canal between the Doubs and the Rhine was envisaged, in order to allow the junction between the Rhone and the Rhine, the installation ofa great line of navigation between the Rhine and the Scheldt, the completion of the Burgundy canal, initiated in 1775, to establish the link between Paris and the Mediterranean... In reality, the work accomplished was very meagre: a little over 200 km of canals were open to traffic from 1800 to 1814.


It has been demonstrated that not only were the French armies of the Revolution and the First Empire low-tech, but that they came up against European armies whose technology was no less strong, or even slightly superior. However, French armies dominated Europe for nearly a quarter of a century, so they owe their superiority to other factors (non-technological innovations, moral strength, endurance, charisma of the leader).

The second remark is the gap between the invention and its application, which can be very considerable over time (observation balloon, breech loading, rocket, submarine, steam vehicle...)....), whereas an old and abandoned technology may reappear and, depending on a certain context, be effective (armour, lance), which proves that a military technology is never completely obsolete.

The third observation relates to the parallel that can be drawn between the evolution of the art of warfare and the evolution of technology. The two are linked, but who influences whom?

In the study that has just been conducted, technological development is struggling to keep up with a revolution in the art of warfare. Yet the French, who are at the origin of this new art, are victorious. In other words, with little technology, but a developed sense of the art of war, one can win the war. On the other hand, the two world wars will show that in the face of the development of new technologies, the lack of evolution in the conduct of war can lead to disaster.


1] At the beginning of 1793, the coalition had eleven armies (375,000 men), those of the Republic were eight (190000 men).

2] This mutual stimulation between science and war is not new; it can be observed throughout history. It is the needs of war that promote the development of science by providing concrete problems to be solved. This relationship, which is becoming increasingly close with time, reached its apogee during the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century. From then on, the alliance between science and technology was sealed.

3] See the excellent works of Stéphane Béraud: "la révolution militaire napoléonienne", two volumes, Paris, Giovanangeli, 2007 and 2013, by Jacques Garnier: "l'art militaire de Napoléon", Paris, Perrin, 2015 (chapter III) and by Jean Morvan: "le soldat impérial (18001814), volume 1, Paris, PlonNourrit, 1904.

4] Napoleon to Bertrand, excerpt from "Notes sur l'art de la guerre", in Sainte-Hélène.

5] Jean-Baptiste Vaquette de Gribeauval (1711-1789).

6] It is the invention of the bayonet socket, by Vauban in 1687, which allows the shooting, bayonet at the barrel. The rifle thus becomes a versatile weapon that replaces both the musket and the spear. Henceforth, the "fusilier" replaces the "piquier" and the "musketeer".

7] Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher (1742-1819), Prussian marshal.

8] He is a gunsmith (17661824).

9] It is specified that the demonstrations made in the presence of General Duroc and several officers of the Guard, resulted, at that time, in many failures.

10] Napoleon to Clarke (Minister of War), August 1, 1809, at Schönbrunn.

11] Jean-Florent de Vallière (1667-1759).

12] PierreLaurent de Villantroys (1752-1819).

13] Henry Schrapnel (17611842). Under the Empire, this ammunition was used starting in 1808.

14] Sir William Congreve (1722-1828).

15] In 1811, a commission of experts charged with studying these two technological innovations conducted experiments that proved disappointing.

16] This summary study on armament also shows that the evolution of technology in this field is not linear. One can even consider, with the exception of a few examples, a virtual absence of global evolution since 1777, which removes from armament its character as a guarantee of victory.

17] Napoleon at Bessières, commanding the Imperial Guard in Spain, Bayonne, April 16, 1808.

18] Napoleon at Clarke, December 25, 1811.

19] The Marshal of Saxony creates in 1743 a corps of "Saxon volunteers", whose heterogeneous armament includes the spear. Similarly, at the end of the Ancien Régime, the lance was used in some regiments of chasseurs and hussars. This oddity is quickly abandoned.

20] CharlesPhilippe de Schwarzenberg (17711820), Austrian marshal.

21] It is also demonstrated that a technology is never completely obsolete.

22] Napoleon to King Joseph, February 7, 1814.

23] JosephMichel (17401810) and JacquesEtienne (17451799), industrialists and inventors.

24] Jacques Charles (17461823), physicist and chemist.

25] LouisBernard Guyton-Morveau (1737-1816), chemist.

26] LazareNicolas Carnot (17531823), mathematician and physicist.

27] Claude-Louis Berthollet (17481822), chemist.

28] AntoineFrançois Fourcroy (17551809), chemist.

29] Gaspard Monge (17461818), mathematician.

30] JeanAntoine Chaptal (17561832), chemist.

31] JeanMarie-Joseph Coutelle (17481835).

32] Garnier (Jacques), "L'art militaire de Napoléon", Paris, Perrin, 2015. This is notably the opinion of General Jourdan (17621833).

33] Amable-Nicolas Lhomond (17701854), mechanic.

34] Lazare Hoche (1768-1797), General.

35] Jean-Baptiste Jourdan (17621833), General.

36] It is also stated that in 1802, at a time of lull in relations between France and England, a French engineer, Albert Mathieu-Favier, suggested to Bonaparte the idea of digging a submarine tunnel, for commercial purposes, to join the two countries...

37] Ségur (Philippe, comte de), "La campagne de Russie", Paris, Tallandier, 2010 (first edition 1824).

38] LazareNicolas Carnot (17531823).

39] Napoleon at Berthier (Minister of War), October 24, 1803.

40] François-Michel Le Tellier de Louvois (16411691), Minister of Louis XIV.

41] EugèneRose de Beauharnais (17811824), stepson of Napoleon.

42] Napoleon to Prince Eugene, June 7, 1805.

43] Louis-AlbertGuislain Bacler d'Albe (17611824).

44] Louis-Alexandre Berthier (1753-1815), Marshal of France.

45] Note by Napoleon on the Italian army, Paris, 29 nivôse an IV19 January 1796.

46] Claude Chappe (17631805).

47] An ordinary mailman travels at the speed of 14 km/h.

48] LCL Housset, Les FSO sous les feux de notre histoire militaire -la campagne de France de 1814; l'absence de masse, CDEC/PEP, Lettre de la Prospective N°6, May 2018.

49] NicolasMarie, Count Songis des Courbons (17611810).

50] Napoleon at Berthier, September 20, 1806.

51] It was the artillery which, at that time, was in charge of building bridges. Indeed, it is in this weapon that the means of transport are the most numerous. However, the equipment used by the bridge builders was very bulky.

52] Napoleon to Prince Joseph, November 20, 1806.

53] As a young officer cadet, Bonaparte was tempted to join the "floating university" which sailed with La Pérouse (1785).

54] Adolphe Thiers (1797-1877). He is known to be unkind to Napoleon.

55] Robert Fulton (1765-1815).

56] It was not until the American Civil War (18611865) that the first operational military submarines appeared.

57] Bulletin de la Grande Armée, Elchingen, October 18, 1805.

58] Coignet (Jean-Roch, captain), "Cahiers du capitaine Coignet (17991815)", based on the original manuscript, Paris, Hachette, 1883.

59] Robiquet (Jean), "la vie quotidienne au temps de Napoléon", Hachette, 1942.

60] Today the Seine-Maritime.

61] Napoleon to Dejean (Minister-Director of War Administration), May 23, 18.

Title : Did the revolutionary armies of 1792 and Napoleon's Grande Armée derive their strength from their technology?
Author (s) : Lieutenant-colonel Georges Housset, du pôle études et prospective du CDEC