French Infantry Organisation

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Introduction

The first permanent infantry regiments of the French army were formed from the vieilles bandes (old bands) around 1569. The subdivision of some regiments into battalions first appeared in the period between 1610 and 1635. At the beginning of 1635, the French army already counted 22 permanent regiments. This number rapidly increased to 62 in 1672, 90 in 1683. At the end of the War of the Spanish Succession, France kept 120 regiments in active service. In 1740, the French army counted 122 regiments:

  • 99 French regiments (156 bns)
  • 1 Artillery regiment (5 bns)
  • 9 Swiss regiments (17 bns)
  • 1 Grison regiment (2 bns)
  • 5 German regiments (6 bns)
  • 5 Irish regiments (5 bns)
  • 1 Italian regiment (1 bn)
  • 1 Corsican regiment (1 bn)

Composition and Organisation of a Division

The division was a formation which existed only in time of war. This formation first appeared during the War of the Austrian Succession. However, even though it was mentioned in several notes of the état major and many regulations of the period, it was officially created only in 1778 by the new infantry regulation (Règlement provisoire sur le service de l’infanterie en campagne).

The division was placed under the command of a lieutenant-general seconded by several maréchaux de camp.

In campaign, the main body of the army consisted of infantry, cavalry and artillery regiments. This main body was destined to fight battles. Usually the cavalry of the right and left wing formed 2 distinct divisions while the infantry of the centre was formed in 4 divisions. Thus in 1760, the 4 infantry divisions were each formed of a quarter of the brigades of the first and second lines.

To this main body was completed by 4 small reserve corps: the vanguard, the rearguard, the reserve of the right wing and the reserve of the left wing. Very often, the reserve of both wings were themselves small army corps with infantry, cavalry and artillery. Depending on the events of a campaign, the reserve corps of each wing had a certain autonomy and could move away from the main body. These 2 corps were not necessarily of the same size.

The vanguard and rearguard kept constantly contact with the main body of the army. The vanguard had to reconnoitre the movements of the enemy, to impede its progression, and to harass and surprise the enemy until the arrival of the main body. The vanguard was essentially composed of light troops, hussars, dragoons, volunteers detached from the infantry regiments, and light artillery.

The rearguard, had obviously to protect the rear of the main body but it was above all the reserve corps of the army where elite infantry, dragoon and cavalry brigades were assembled together with the reserve artillery which was used only at the decisive moment. This corps was always at proximity of the the main body of the army.

Composition and Organisation of a Brigade

The brigade was a formation which existed only in time of war. French and foreign regiments consisted of 1, 2 and more rarely 3 or 4 battalions. This made for very small combat units. Therefore, 2 to 4 infantry regiments were grouped into a single brigade consisting of 5 or 6 battalions.

The brigade was placed under the command of the senior officer who ranked as brigadier or, when several brigadiers were present, by the most senior brigadier. The rank of brigadier was created in 1667 during the reign of Louis XIV. It was suppressed by the regulation of March 7 1788. The brigadier had no specific uniform and wore the uniform of his own regiment.

In contemporary relations, most of the time only the brigade was referred to. Since the brigade was designated by the name of its senior regiment, we often lose track of the position or progression of certain infantry regiments “lost” because they were incorporated within a brigade. Usually foreign regiments were grouped into distinct brigades (Swiss brigades, German brigades, etc.). Two senior regiments were not usually incorporated into the same brigade but would rather be associated to more recent regiments.

Composition and Organisation of a Regiment

Regiments were ranked according to their seniority. This was THE rule regulating precedence in the French army of this period. However, they were always designated by a name. In the case of the gentleman regiments, they were designated by the name of their owner, thus changing name when they changed owner. This practice could lead to some confusion. For gentleman regiments of the French infantry, the title of each article is based on the name of the owner in 1756. However, the names of the successive owners are listed within each articles.

French infantry comprised 11 regiments at 4 battalions, 52 at 2 battalions and 16 at 1 battalion. Therefore, certain regiments had four, three or only one grenadier companies.

Regimental Staff

The regimental staff comprised:

  • 1 colonel
  • 1 lieutenant-colonel
  • 1 major
  • 1 assistan1-major
  • 1 chaplain
  • 1 surgeon

The regulation of January 1st 1755 restored the privilege of the colonel and lieutenant-colonel to command the two senior companies, this permission had been abolished in February 1749.

Some regiments had the prévôté privilege which entitled them to administer their own military justice. Such regiments counted additional members in their regimental staff:

  • 1 prévôt (provost-marshal)
  • 1 auditor
  • 1 registrar
  • 1 justice executioner
  • 1 or 2 archers (provost)

Organisation of a Battalion

In 1718, the battalion consisted of 8 fusilier companies and 1 grenadier company.

In 1734, each regular infantry battalion consisted of 16 fusilier companies and 1 grenadier company. However, the composition of the Gardes Françaises, Gardes Suisses and foreign regiments was different.

After the War of the Austrian Succession, a regulation dated February 10 1749 reduced each battalion to 13 companies. However, this regulation did not standardise the number of battalions per regiment. Therefore, regiments consisted of 4, 2 or 1 battalion.

On the eve of the Seven Years' War, a regulation dated August 1 1755 increased each battalion to a wartime strength of 16 fusilier companies, 1 grenadier company and a regimental staff. A new regulation of August 17 1757 brought each battalion to 17 fusilier companies and 1 grenadier company.

The full strength of a battalion comprised 685 soldiers and 35 officers, but companies were never at full strength because of insufficient recruitment, wounded, sick, deserters or prisoners. In May 1757, a report by M. de Cornillon, major-general of infantry, indicated an average strength of 550 men per battalion in campaign. In order to compensate for this weakness, a regulation dated May 1 1757 allowed to enroll up to 5 foreigners in a French infantry company.

N.B.: the organisation of battalions sent to North America slightly differs. For more information on the organisation of these battalions, see our article French Infantry Organisation North America.

Fusiliers Companies

A fusilier company consisted of:

  • 1 captain
  • 1 lieutenant
  • 2 sergeants
  • 3 corporals
  • 3 lance corporals (ansepessades')
  • 31 fusiliers
  • 1 drummer.

Piquet Companies

Properly speaking, the “piquet” was not a temporary unit since the “Piquet Company” existed on a permanent basis in time of peace as well as in time of war. However, its composition was temporary since its soldiers were replaced on a daily basis. Thus a soldier or an officer was temporarily attached to the “Piquet Company”.

For the daily service of guards, sentries and patrols, 48 fusiliers and 1 drummer were detached from the 16 fusilier companies of a battalion to form the “Piquet Company” or more simply the “Piquet”. This company was under the command of a captain, a lieutenant and a second-lieutenant and was renewed daily (in exceptional circumstances, fusiliers could be detached up to 48 hours to this company). After the reform of 1762, the “Piquet Company” disappeared from the organisation of the French infantry.

This company was charged to guard the camp of the regiment, to guard the colours, to build the trestle and the branch shelter to protect the muskets. On the other hand, this company was exempted from presenting arms or beating the drums when a senior officer, or a prince visited the camp.

Soldiers attached to this company camped to the left of the battalion. Those who had finished their service may go to their tent but they had to be dressed at all time and to carry their sword in order to be ready at the first alert.

The piquet companies of each battalion and squadron composed the piquet of the army, assuring guard duties and protecting the army in camp or on the march.

Grenadiers Companies

As early as the XIVth, XVth and XVIth centuries, in the era of the formation of the first units of the permanent French army, while organising companies and legions of troops to fight in line, the necessity of disposing of specialised corps for hazardous enterprises was already felt.

Thus, in this period, some elite soldiers were designated as enfants perdus (lost children). They were usually placed in advanced posts and among the most disciplined bands. Sometimes, detachments of these soldiers were formed to march at the head of the attack columns. They also served as scouts for marching armies and convoys. They also had the privilege to lead the assaults on places.

When the grenade was invented, these troops were armed with these new weapons to hurl them at the enemies during siege. These troops were then called grenadiers, a name that they kept since that time, even after they ceased to use this weapon. In 1667, Louis XIV introduced four grenadiers in each company of French infantry regiments. This number was soon increased to six grenadiers per company. In 1670, grenadiers were assembled in a separate company in each battalion. Thus a regiment could have from one to four companies of grenadiers depending on its number of battalions. A characteristic of the companies of grenadiers was that they be at full strength at all time.

Around 1678, the grenadiers abandoned their primary function as grenade throwers, receiving a musket. Grenadiers then became synonym with elite infantryman. If they were originally chosen for their bravery and boldness, they were soon chosen for their handsomeness and their height. From their role during sieges, they retained the privilege to be the first to assault enemy trenches.

From 1692, the use of grenadiers spread to all French infantry regiments.

In 1715, the grenadiers ceased to be equipped with hand grenades.

A company of grenadiers consisted of:

  • 1 captain
  • 1 lieutenant
  • 1 sub-lieutenant
  • 2 sergeants
  • 3 corporals
  • 3 lance corporals (ansepessades)
  • 36 grenadiers
  • 1 drummer.

According to the regulation the captain of grenadiers didn't exceed 45 years old, similarly the lieutenant, sub-lieutenant and sergeants were not older than 40.

N.B.: the grenadiers postiches were fusiliers temporarily incorporated into grenadier companies to bring it to full strength. Usually, new grenadiers were recruited from these grenadiers postiches. The regulation of April 8 1718 required that the captain of the grenadier company who took off a man from a fusilier company would pay 25 livres to the captain of this fusilier company to allow him to recruit another man.

During the Seven Years' War, grenadier companies were often detached from their parent unit to assist light troops in guerilla war. From 1760, grenadier companies were often paired with the newly created chasseur companies.

In 1776, French infantry regiments were all standardized at 2 battalions with a single grenadier company for the entire regiment (to the exception of Du Roi Infanterie).

Besides the grenadiers of the line infantry regiments, the French army also fielded grenadiers in other units. For instance, since 1744, the grenadiers of the Milices provinciales were detached from their parent unit and, in 1745, grouped in regiments of Grenadiers Royaux. In 1762, these grenadier companies rejoined their parent militia unit.

Furthermore, at the end of the War of the Austrian Succession, many infantry regiments had been disbanded to the exception of their grenadier companies who, in 1749, were grouped in a single regiment: the Grenadiers de France. This regiment would be disbanded in 1771.

Finally, grenadier formations could also be found in certain light troops units such as the Légion Royale.

Chasseurs Companies

Before the Seven Years' War, chasseurs belonged to units of light troops like the Chasseurs de Sabatier, the Chasseurs de Fischer… Furthermore, military training for the infantry already included a firing procedure designated as feu de tirailleur or feu de chasseur which consisted in shooting at isolated targets. However, this exercise was rarely practised contrarily to the equivalent exercise in the cavalry. D'Espagnac. Author of the Essai sur la science de la guerre published in 1751, mentions that there were a few rifled carbines in the infantry reserved for the most senior and experienced soldiers.

The Seven Years War was a war of movement with frequent skirmishes and several avant-garde combats. Therefore, the number of light troops rapidly increased and fusiliers taken from the regular line infantry regiments were grouped into ad hoc units known as Volontaires de l'armée. The same reasons led to the creation of companies of chasseurs within line infantry regiments.

As soon as 1757, small units of chasseurs were formed with the best sharpshooters. They were charged to scout out the march of their respective corps, to search through woods and to skirmish. Not all infantry brigades adhered to this practice. The organisation of these small units of chasseurs was not official and they were short-lived.

In 1760, in his Instruction pour l'infanterie, the Maréchal de Broglie fixed the organisation of the Chasseurs companies. This organisation lasted till the end of the war.

“It will be formed for each brigade a battalion of grenadiers and chasseurs who will be more or less strong in proportion with the number of battalions composing the brigade. The company of grenadiers and the troops of chasseurs of each battalion will be coupled together and will form a platoon, and they will be line up as the battalions from which they are taken are in the brigade, and the chasseurs will be lined up in the troop of chasseurs in the same order as the companies are in the battalions, those of each company forming their file. There will be a lieutenant-colonel, or battalion commander named to command during the entire campaign each battalion of grenadiers and chasseurs, and an officer designated to assume the functions of major. A regimental cannon will always march with the grenadiers and chasseurs which will be alternatively supplied by all the battalions of the brigade.
Furthermore, there will be a division of artillery named avant-garde column, of six pieces of 12, and six pieces of 8, with the necessary ammunition necessary for these pieces as well as for all regimental pieces, and ammunition wagons in proportion with musket cartridges, who will be destined to march with the avant-garde; this column will park in front of the centre of the first line of infantry, and each time that the grenadiers and chasseurs will assemble, it will go to the rear of the column to march after them.
From the first day of the campaign the chasseurs of the 2 companies forming a platoon will be barracked together, and a tent and a cooking-pot will be supplied for each group of 2 companies, they will camp separately at the rear of the battalions and will take the place of the piquet on all occasion when we will form in order of battle.
It will be attached to the troop of chasseurs, alternatively or permanently as arranged by the colonels, one of the 8 platoon horses to carry their tents; and those of the platoon who will have supplied the horse, will be spread out among the 7 other platoon horses of the battalion.”

This chasseurs company consisted of:

  • 1 captain
  • 1 lieutenant
  • 2 sergeants
  • 4 corporals
  • 50 soldiers

This mixed formation of grenadiers and chasseurs accompanied by artillery was very active and several accounts can be found in contemporary relations as in this letter, dated October 1760, where Prince Xavier of Saxony wrote to the Maréchal de Broglie:

“I shall march tomorrow 3,600 infantrymen composed of three battalions of grenadiers and chasseurs from the three French brigades and from the reserve of my Saxon grenadiers, with a division of artillery.”

The battalions of grenadiers and chasseurs received varied missions and were often used as avant-garde. The chasseurs companies were also used alone independently from the grenadiers companies to support light troops and hussars. However, these companies were not permanently detached from their parent regiment. In fact, when circumstances allowed for it, they camped with their own regiment and remained with it. Broglie specifies:

“concerning the grenadiers and chasseurs of our regiments, I have particular reasons to desire that do not camp separately from their corps. This question has been already much debated and the court itself has seemed to wish that it would be so. I exempt however extraordinary cases where the grenadiers from an avant garde and sleep outside.”

The creation of the chasseurs companies in 1760 brought an important change in the organisation of a battalion, this chasseurs company took the status of second elite company after the grenadiers, it then occupied the leftmost position in the battalion in camp as well as on the battlefield, or the rearmost position in marches in place of the usual piquet.

Nevertheless, these chasseurs companies were short-lived and disappeared at the end of the war. They would be officially established only by the regulation of March 25 1776 who also reduced the number of grenadiers companies to only one per regiment.

Siege Formations

There were 2 formations specific to sieges. Contrarily to the War of the Austrian Succession, which was one of the last great war of sieges, the Seven Years' War included few sieges. It was the beginning of the era of wars of movements where a commander tried to bring the enemy to combat in a position favourable to his own army.

Trench Company

Contrarily to previous conflicts, such as the War of the Polish Succession (1733-38) or the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48), the Seven Years' War was not a war of sieges any more but rather a war of movements and battles, even though there have been some attacks or defences of places. A great part of the manpower mobilised for the colossal work during sieges was supplied by soldiers from the fusilier companies of the line infantry regiments. For this particular serve, temporary units called “piquet de tranchée” and trench companies, were formed. The “piquet de tranchée” was a particulat piquet responsible to insure the security of the trench during a siege while the trench companies formed the manpower for siege works. Before going to the trench, the regiment was deployed in order of battle at the head of the camp, the grenadiers on the right, followed by the piquet company. Then by the rest of the battalion deployed by trench companies: the soldiers of each company being redistributed into temporary companies , each consisting of 48 men. These trench companies would then, in turn, work to the digging of trenches, and to the installation of gabions, battery platforms for the artillery… Thus, when it was time to relieve the trench company at work, detachments were already formed and no time was lost to pick them among the various companies. Furthermore, with such an organisation, when the enemy made sorties or fired on the soldiers working at the trenches, losses did not not affect a particular company but were rather divided up among the entire battalion. For this exposed work, soldiers received a bonus on top of their small pay.

Advance to the Trench

Sieges and attacks launched from the trenches were very different situation from an open battle. Once several breaches made in the defences and fortifications of a besieged place, it was time to launch the attack: the advance to the trench, often on several fronts to mask the main attack and to divide the defenders. This action required the creation of a temporary and specific formation. This attack was placed under a lieutenant-general and a maréchal de camp commanding the grenadier companies of the infantry regiments, often supported by companies of dismounted dragoons and always supported by the fire of the artillery pieces planted in redoubts as close as possible to the fortification.

Volontaires de l'armée

As mentioned before the Volontaires de l'armée came, for the most part, from the line infantry regiments.

Drill

(see also French Line Infantry Tactic)

Around 1744, the maréchal de Saxe introduced cadenced pace for the line infantry.

From 1750, various attempts were made to introduce Prussian drill.

During the Seven Years War an important tactical change was introduced in the French infantry. Infantry battalion should deploy in 4 ranks as per the regulation of May 14 1754. However, since 1755 French infantry battalions were trained to manoeuver in 3 and 6 ranks. It seems that from 1756 to April 1759, they adopted a deployment in 3 ranks called ordre mince (thin order). Then from April 1759, French infantry battalions were instructed to use a formation in 6 ranks called ordre profond (deep order).

Here is the translation of an extract of a letter sent from Versailles by the maréchal de Belle-Isle to the duc d' Harcourt on June 20 1759, attesting this change.

I have the honour to send you, Sir, a copy of the letter that I have written by the King's order to the maréchal de Contades, on April 9, to let him know that the intention of His Majesty was that all the infantry of the army under his command would from now on form only on six ranks. According to this decision to which His Majesty wants all his infantry regiments to comply, He has ordered that from now on they will camp by platoon as explained in the attached paper. You would certainly give your orders accordingly to those who are under your command and see to their execution.
Copy of the letter written by the maréchal de Belle-Isle to the maréchal de Contades.
At Versailles, April 9 1759.
It has, Sir, come back to the King that in the last two campaigns his troops have never presented themselves in front of the enemy but in three ranks. You know that when His Majesty has ordered in 1754 to reduce the four ranks in which the infantry previously formed, He had in mind only to facilitate its fire and that He had then ordered that it would double its file to be in six ranks when it would train to manœuver. Even though the regulation of May 6 1755 stated that it shall also manœuver in three ranks and in six, His Majesty's intent has not been that his regiments would be formed in six ranks when they were within combat range, and as He is informed that the desire to impress enemy fire by keeping troops in three ranks when there were no obstacle separating them, can only slow the ardor of the French soldier and make us lose the advantage that we have always got out of briskness in the charge, which must be as impetuous as the troop has more depth. His Majesty has ordered me to have the honour to signify you that his intention is that, to get troops more used to this formation, they would always march and deploy in six ranks, whatever the case, to the exception of dedoubling them when the case happens that they must be employed to fire on an enemy that they cannot charge. You would certainly give your orders accordingly to the colonels of the regiments of the army under your command, and see regularly that they abide by them.
Order into which the King want that battalions camp in the future, according to His Majesty's decision forcing them to always form in six ranks,
The front of each battalion will occupy 40 toises (77 meters).
more precisely:
2 toises (3.9 meters) for the place of the tents of the grenadier company
4 toises (7.8 meters) for a great street
2 toises (3.9 meters) for the place of the tents of the two companies of the 1st platoon who will camp on the same alignment in the depth of the camp, as well as thos of the other plattons
2 toises (3.9 meters) for the place of the tents of the 3rd platoon whose tents will be leaning against those of the 1st platoon
4 toises (7.8 meters) for a great street
4 toises (7.8 meters) for the place of the 5th and 7th platoons leaning against each other
4 toises (7.8 meters) for a great street
4 toises (7.8 meters) for the place of the 8th and 6th platoons leaning against each other
4 toises (7.8 meters) for a great street
4 toises (7.8 meters) for the place of the 4th and 2nd platoons leaning against each other
6 toises (11.7 meters) for the interval betwen a battalion and the next one
Total 40 toises.
N.B.: The first companies of each platoon will be camped the closest to the front of the camp and then the second on the same line. Great streets have been increased by 1 toise for the platoons to form in 6 ranks without embarrassment.

However, despite these instructions, it seems that the ordre profond was rarely used in the field in other occasions than attacks on strong infantry positions such as redoubt, positions inside villages, etc.; most commanders still giving preference to the ordre mince.

References

Pajol, Charles P. V., Les Guerres sous Louis XV, vol. VII, Paris, 1891, pp. 34-74, 149

Acknowledgements

Jean-Louis Vial of Nec Pluribus Impar for most of the content of this article