Book Review:
Napoleon's Regiments


By Digby Smith

Napoleon's Regiments follows on from the immense amount of research that Digby Smith performed and collated for The Greenhill Napoleonic Wars Data Book. These two books are the result of 30 years of collecting data from many sources on the period 1792-1815.

Napoleon's Regiments is based on this broad research but concentrates on the French Army during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. The book examines the regiments and corps that did the actual fighting and excludes other minor or obscure units, mainly for reasons of space.

The author explains in the introduction how the reader may use the book to trace the ancestry of the regiments and track a unit throughout the period and after (to 1854).

The data has been compiled from not only French sources but also British, German and Austrian material, with an explanation of the material used and its reliability.

There are sections describing the organisational developments in the French Army during the period, such as the effect the Revolution had upon the infantry by the brigading of one Regular Battalion with two Volunteer Battalions.

Diagrams illustrate units of infantry and cavalry in line of battle, showing the position of officers and others within the formation.

The bulk of the text covers the infantry, cavalry and artillery of the Imperial Guard and the Line, and such is the comprehensive nature of this work that all regiments are included in some detail. This detail also notes when each unit was raised and when disbanded, which is useful especially for the units of the Guard.

Have you ever wondered who The Little Dutchmen were? This was the nickname given to the Régiment des Pupilles of the Imperial Guard, and where known, the nickname(s) for each regiment listed is/are given, which is an interesting aside from the main text.

Each entry includes short accounts of any officer of the unit who was prominently involved in a particular action; plus details of actions in which the unit was involved, plus losses.

Much of this information is abbreviated, presumably for reasons of space, and there is an explanation of the abbreviations at the start of the book. The one criticism I have of the book is that the abbreviations used do become confusing without constantly referring back to the list. The text is a continuous narrative and I feel that it would be clearer and easier to use if it were tabulated. I still use the book by Emir Bukhari (Almark Publishing 1973) entitled French Napoleonic Line Infantry, in which the regiments are described in the form of brief lists, making this an easy-to-use reference source.

Napoleon's Regiments is an excellent concept and will be a useful reference tool, but it could have been presented in a more user-friendlier manner.

While the Imperial Guard was formed during the Napoleonic period, many of the Line Infantry regiments had an ancestry going back much further, and this information is included.

There are also interesting section on Troops not of the Line, such as the Battalion de Tirailleurs du Po and the Compagnie des Miqueletes; and Colonial Troops such as the Lègion de Sainte-Domingue and the Chasseurs de la Réunion.

Many of these units had brief lives and saw little action of note. Auxiliary Troops looks at such units as the Infanterie Suisse and the Foreign Infantry Regiments, and following this, the Line Cavalry is divided into sections on the Cuirassiers, Dragoons and so on.

Some of the Appendices are tabulated making for ease of reference, which is the style I would have preferred to see in the rest of the book. This section looks at regimental establishments; the growth and reduction of the infantry 1792-96; the re-organisation of the infantry after the Royal Decree of 12 May 1814; actions and ship losses of the Equipages de la Flotte (Naval Crews) 1793-1815. This latter listing is very detailed but not easy to sift through.

The extensive Bibliography details the sources used. Napoleon's Regiments represents a comprehensive study of the units that made up the Emperor's armies, from the well known to the relatively obscure.

The concept is a good one, and it will certainly complement the author's other monumental work The Greenhill Napoleonic Wars Data Book. If you have need of detailed information on the French regiments then this work will be of immense value to you, but be prepared to go to some effort to sift out the information you require.

- Paul Chamberlain


(This review first appeared in First Empire magazine)





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