The Army of
the Second Empire

The Camp at Chalons
under the Second Empire

The Civilian Environment
around the Camp at Chalons



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The army of the Second Empire


Colonel (H.) Henry Dutailly

The army of the Second Empire!

For many it is a series of images of Epinal, the brilliant uniforms of the Imperial Guard, Mac-Mahon at Malakoff, the zouaves and the Legion at Magenta, the military reviews of the camp at Chalons, the charge of Reichshoffen and the final rounds of ammunition fired at Bazeilles.

These brilliant episodes mask a number of weaknesses. The mediocrity of the high command was revealed with Sebastopol; the deficiencies in organization were demonstrated disastrously in 1870 and the paucity of research and reflection can be read in the military journals.

organization of the army

From 1851 to 1870, the army functioned by the structures created for the most part under the Restoration and July monarchy.

The territory was separated into military divisions. The commanding generals had authority over the troops stationed in their division, but they had no means to maneuver or do drills. In 1859, Napoleon III's creation of army corps did not change this situation : the French army was a conglomerate of regiments. Offsetting this weakness would have required acting in three directions: the superior officers, army administration, and training the large units. Nothing was done to ameliorate the first of these. The General Staff was recruited among the elite of the military schools; these officers received a well-rounded education which allowed them to write brilliant texts, but they did not learn the work of a modern superior officer; and since the generals were no more knowledgeable than they, the training of the large units left something to be desired.

With regard to command, the supply corp held on to an independence that it had inherited from the Old Regime and could not be sufficently coordinated with the preparation of mostly-improvised campaigns. This explains the difficulties faced in Crimea, the slowness of operations in Italy, and the unarguable shambles of the 1870 mobilization.

Training of large units required maneuvering camps that could host more than ten thousand men. That did not exist in 1851. The Emperor decided in 1856 to create a camp at Chalons, the area of which reached about 10,000 hectares. Here, the infantry could advance with the cavalry and the artillery's fire power. Unfortunately, the maneuvers were reduced to no more than mechanistic exercises that taught nothing to the generals, colonels, nor the staff.

The Imperial Guard, created in 1854, was an army corps composed of two infantry divisions and one cavalry division formed after the Crimean War. These generals, too, would be caught in the whirl of the imperial fête and neglect preparations for operations at their level.

The Gouvion-St. Cyr law of 1818 instituted the seven-year service, a random draw, and the option of finding a replacement. To make this system more acceptable, a law in 1855 limited this replacement to close members of the family and created exemptions. This system, managed on a national level, should have encouraged enlistment and re-enlistment by granting bonuses.

After Sadowa, France suddenly discovered that it did make use of reserves. The Niel law of February 4, 1868 institutionalized service in the reserves for universally. For those who drew a "bad number" this meant that four years would follow the five years of active duty. For the others, they took up duties in the national guard that were not too restrictive. By this device, military service became personal and universal.

the men

From soldier to marshal of France, the men who composed the army were professionals. This assertion is based on the length of time men served. It should be nuanced nevertheless by stating that experience does not necessarily lead to competence. Whether he was called up, enlisted, or a replacement, the soldiers were united by a very strong esprit de corps. They were solidly backed and guided by subaltern officers who knew the regulations practically by heart; they could carry out brilliant offensive, and especially defensive, action in combat. All of the regiments, then, were capable of legendary performance(which they performed when the occasion demanded it).

Apart from artillery, engineering, supply, and the General Staff, more than two out of three of the officers came up from the ranks. But whatever the origins of their recruitment, money was an important criterion for selection. A secondary education and board at St. Cyr or at Polytechnique was expensive. Equipping an officer in the infantry corresponded to four months pay of a sub-lieutenant. The latter who in the best circumstances was paid less than a laborer in Paris, was able to hold to his rank only barely. If married, his salary did not permit him to live without outside support.

These material difficulties should not overshadow the fact that the army constituted a means of social advancement for soldiers who served outside of France. The most remarkable example is General Collineau, son of an artisan too poor to pay for a replacement when his son drew a bad number.

Up to the rank of commander, the annual general inspection judged the officers' aptitude to administer and maneuver a unit of their rank. In times of peace, the general inspectors asked only that the lieutenant-colonels and colonels present a well-maintained corps, maintain discipline, and administer it correctly; no structure allowed for measuring their capacity to command in combat. During wartime, brigadier and division commanders required presence of mind, good judgment, and decisiveness. It was as though tactical experience of a battalion chief or squadron chief sufficed to carry a regiment to the line of fire.

At this level, and all the more so on a superior level, the officers can be considered, in most cases, as amateur tacticians, even if they are very "military." Marshal de Castellane is the most accomplished example of the generals who are more interested in the application of regulations than in studying tactics.

After Austria in 1866, certain personalities such as Generals Ducrot and Trochu came to the fore to suggest reforms. Their voices were too isolated to change an entire army.

study and material

This atmosphere engendered a paradoxical situation. In appearance the army was interested in studies of the tactical and technical problems that concerned it. Two journals, the Journal des Sciences militaires (Journal of Military Sciences) and the Spectateur militaire (The Military Spectator) were published. The libraries for the regiments were supplied with new books and the officers had a working library that was not limited to regulations.

In fact, research and reflections on combat and arms had lost their innovation. From 1855 to 1877, the journals published a large number of foreign articles. Personal libraries were often divided between campaign memoirs, studies on Algeria, and books by foreign authors such as Dufour and Jomini.

The wake-up came in 1866. Garrison conferences were reactivated, at least in Paris. Tactics was illustrated by three authors. General Trochu published his work anonymously, L'armée française en 1867 (The French Army in 1867). Colonel Lewel began writing his first studies; they revealed a well-developed sense of analysis and an extreme concern for the concrete. Colonel Ardant du Picq published on his own the first part of a study on combat and took up an investigation on future combat that would not be published until after his death at Metz in 1870.

This intellectual lethargy is, without doubt, responsible for the slowness with which the use of arms was modernized. Certainly, the infantry was equipped with a breech-loading gun, the chassepot, that gave them firing superiority over the Prussian army. But artillery remained faithful to the bronze, muzzle-loading canon. Perhaps for budgetary reasons they could not afford to modernize the arms of both infantry and artillery at the same time!

This question is brought forth by the acceleration of technology. It raises three others that will conclude this introduction to the army of the Second Empire:

  • Did the quasi-permanent foreign interventions (Algeria, Rome and Italy, Crimea, Syria, Italy, China and Cochin China, Mexico) leave room for preparation against the primary threat on the Rhine?

  • Did the amateurism of command and the independence of the supply corps vis-à-vis the command express a political determination to control the army ?

  • Was the incompetence of 1870, then, the indirect consequence of the coups d'état of the Bonapartes ?
[A Visit to the Chalons camp under the Second Empire]

[The Imperial Quarter] [The Zouaves] [Billeting] [Maneuvers] [Mass] [Sculpture at the Chalons Camp] [Nighttime Scenes]