In the French ranks

Im­pe­rial sol­diers had evolved sig­nif­i­cantly since the Napoleonic era

History of War - - CONTENTS -

Im­pe­rial sol­diers had changed sig­nif­i­cantly since the days of the first French Em­pire

The na­ture of war changed over the course of the 19th cen­tury, and the men and tac­tics that had served Napoleon I well dur­ing his cam­paigns could not suc­ceed on the new bat­tle­fields.

CHASSEURS À CHEVAL EVEN ON A MOD­ERNISING BAT­TLE­FIELD, THE CAVALRYMAN STILL HAD HIS PLACE

Heavy cav­alry may have had their day by the time of the Se­cond French Em­pire, but light units, in­clud­ing chasseurs, hus­sards and chasseurs d’afrique would re­main rel­e­vant for decades to come.

The heavy cuirassier reg­i­ments of the French army en­joyed a last hur­rah in the Franco-prus­sian War (although ‘en­joyed’ may be the wrong term, as they suf­fered heavy losses against Prus­sian in­fantry and ar­tillery), while light cav­alry per­formed valu­able ser­vice as scout­ing and har­ry­ing units.

LINE INFANTRYMAN THE HEART OF THE FRENCH ARMY RE­MAINED A MAN HAP­PIER TO AT­TACK THAN DE­FEND, BUT THE CHANG­ING FACE OF WAR HAD FORCED ADAP­TA­TIONS

The reg­u­lar French infantryman of 1870 was markedly dif­fer­ent from his pre­de­ces­sor dur­ing the Napoleonic era. The kepi had be­come the stan­dard head­gear, and the smooth­bore mus­ket had given way first to the Minié muz­zle-load­ing ri­fle and later to the breech-load­ing Chas­se­pot. This weapon, su­pe­rior to the Dreyse nee­dle gun, gave the French line a sig­nif­i­cant ad­van­tage over their Prus­sian coun­ter­parts dur­ing the Franco-prus­sian War of 1870–71 (although it was nowhere near enough to turn the tide of the war).

Prior to adopt­ing the Chas­se­pot, French troops still revered the bay­o­net, favour­ing a high-speed rush upon an en­emy po­si­tion. Napoleon III had also in­tro­duced a two-deep for­ma­tion, as op­posed to the old sys­tem of three ranks, hav­ing wit­nessed how mod­ern ri­fle bul­lets could pen­e­trate mul­ti­ple ranks of men. The cult of the bay­o­net had not died even by the end of the Se­cond French Em­pire – the el­e­gantly curved Chas­se­pot bay­o­net was used with the new ri­fle, but the days of bay­o­net charges be­ing ef­fec­tive on the bat­tle­field were draw­ing to a close.

ZOUAVE DE­SPITE THEIR EX­OTIC AP­PEAR­ANCE, THESE VER­SA­TILE IN­FANTRY­MEN WERE AMONG THE BEST UNITS IN THE FRENCH ARMY

With their baggy pan­taloons and fezzes, zouaves were among the most dis­tinc­tive troops of the Se­cond French Em­pire and were orig­i­nally re­cruited from North African tribes, in­clud­ing Ber­bers.

Em­ployed as both light and line in­fantry, they were typ­i­cally armed with reg­u­lar ri­fles. They made such an im­pres­sion upon for­eign ob­servers that zouave units started to ap­pear in other na­tions’ armies, in­clud­ing both Union and Con­fed­er­ate armies of the Amer­i­can Civil War.

ARTILLERYMAN FRENCH GUNS RE­MAINED A TER­ROR OF THE BAT­TLE­FIELD DUR­ING THE SE­COND FRENCH EM­PIRE

Ar­tillery re­mained a strength of the French army, car­ry­ing on the tra­di­tion of the Napoleonic era. The first army to em­ploy ri­fled ar­tillery, French can­nons played a de­ci­sive role in the vic­tory at Solferino in 1859, out­per­form­ing the smooth­bore Aus­trian guns with rel­a­tive ease.

Ini­tially, smooth­bore guns were con­verted us­ing a method known as ‘la hitte’. This made the guns un­suit­able for use with canis­ter shot, but greater range and ac­cu­racy more than made up for this short­com­ing.

“THEY MADE SUCH AN IM­PRES­SION UPON FOR­EIGN OB­SERVERS THAT ZOUAVE UNITS STARTED TO AP­PEAR IN OTHER NA­TIONS’ ARMIES”

LEFT: Heavy cuirassiers at­tack bay­o­net-armed in­fantry near Mars-latour in 1870 dur­ing the Franco-prus­sian WarFAR LEFT: A French pat­tern 1866 Chas­se­pot bay­o­net

A chas­seur d’afrique pic­tured in 1855 dur­ing the Crimean War

Zouaves wore dis­tinc­tive cloth­ing, such as baggy pan­taloons, and left a pow­er­ful im­pres­sion on armies of the era ABOVE: Bri­tish pho­tog­ra­pher Roger Fen­ton pic­tured wear­ing a zouave uni­form dur­ing the Crimean WarIN­SET, BELOW: French ar­tillery takes on a Prus­sian cav­alry charge dur­ing the Franco-prus­sian War IN­SET, BOT­TOM: French ar­tillery was fear­some, but these can­nons were cap­tured by the Prus­sians at Sedan

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