In the French ranks
Imperial soldiers had evolved significantly since the Napoleonic era
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