The Army
of the Second Empire

The Camp at Chalons
under the Second Empire

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around the Camp at Chalons



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The Chalons Camp under the Second Empire


Colonel (R.) Gérard Bieuville

The camp at Chalons was a city created each year between 1857 and 1870 in the summer months in a region that had until then been designated Champagne pouilleuse (barren, wretched part of the region Champagne); in winter it would go back to sleep. It was an ephemeral city, but one that bustled with activity, in which the military uniform was most visible even as civilians visited in droves, where celebration was present throughout and economic activity never absent. It reflected the image of Second Empire society, both frivolous and dynamic. The camp at Chalons participated in the "imperial fête" then disappeared in this form with the downfall of Napoleon III. All the same, its memory lives on even if the wood pavilions have disappeared, and some excellent photographs allow us to reconstitute the ambiance and to see it as it once appeared.

the origins of the camp at Chalons:
the determination of Napoleon III,
the choice of site,
the acquisition of the grounds

Several reasons contribute to the explanation of the creation of the camp at Chalons.

Drill camps are a French tradition (1). The camp at Boulogne where Napoleon assembled what would have been the Grand Army is without doubt the most famous. One less known in Compiegne was one of the most lasting: from 1666 to 1847 troupes were united here on sixteen different occasions, for a few days or several weeks.

The concern for propaganda was not absent. Remembrances of the glory of the First Empire had been all-determining in the ascent of Louis-Napoleon and in the re-establishment of an imperial regime. For the "nephew of the great Emperor" finally mounted on the throne it was essential to maintain this heritage. The assemblages at the Chalons camp, by their military vocation but also by the brilliant celebration that accompanied them, played an important role during the Second Empire.

But it would be imprecise and altogether unjust to say that the camp had as its only object imperial propaganda. Napoleon III was careful concerned about equipping France with an army on level with its former military glory and the role that he intended the restored Empire play on the international scene.

Additionally, the Crimean campaign while victorious revealed many imperfections notably in the organization and cooperation between the arms; and it was urgent that this be remedied. Finally, the range of modern arms, that were progressively taken up, required larger spaces.

Napoleon III wanted the camp at Chalons: without the imperial will, all-determining in this period of "authoritarian empire" who razed all obstacles and forced the opposition to yield, the camp would never have been realized so quickly (2). The earliest analyses were done in February 1856 and the first acquisitions of land in the same summer. The constitutive decree for the camp was signed at Saint-Cloud November 15, 1856. The inauguration took place August 30, 1857.

The Emperor followed each phase of the development and especially the choice of place. This would have to answer several concerns: a space large enough for mass drills, a terrain variable but not likely to precipitate major accidents, permeable earth not too fertile and so not too expensive, little or no residential development, near a railroad, and finally, strategically close to the eastern frontier, but not too far from Paris. (3) These considerations eliminated the candidature of Chalons-sur-Marne, that had for a long time desired a more substantial military presence in proximity to the town, to the great regret of the shopkeepers, hoteliers, and proprietors...

The zone eventually chosen was situated about fifteen kilometers north of Chalons-sur-Marne, between Suippes to the east and Reims northwest. It covered more than ten thousand hectares and its perimeter was more than forty kilometers. It was bordered by two rivers, the Suippe northeast and the Vesle southwest.

Napoleon III went himself to see the site in June 1857. The original limits were slightly modified for reasons of practicality, assuredly, but for political reasons as well. The communes that had voted for Louis-Napoleon would be favored over those that backed Cavaignac. This modification would be made to the great despair of the proprietors who at the announcement of a probable expropriation would have increased the price of their land.

The problem of expropriations was treated with the greatest care. The law of May, 3 1841 was scrupulously respected. A special bureau, the "bureau of the camp at Chalons" was installed at the prefecture. All of the cases were followed by Mr. de Cerval, verifier of domains, in close liaison with the engineers. The offers made by the state were quite generous. In spite of these precautions, the disputes were fairly numerous. "I hoped that this operation could be effected with amiable cessions of property" wrote the head of engineering to the Minister of War on February 15, 1858, "but this way of proceeding hardly jives with the slow and mistrustful character of the farmers of this region." (4) Prices went from 100 francs per hectare for 5th rate (5ème classe) land to 500 francs per hectare for 1st rate (1ère classe) land. The notarized acts establishing the origins of the property showed a great diversity among the owners: farmers, shepherds, of course, but also innkeepers, tailors, saltpeters, cartrights, wool-combers, messengers... The expropriated land parcels on the whole were small in size and the indemnities paid out were not very high.(5)

Once the site was chosen and the land become state property, the installation of the camp, itself, had to be effect. This was a considerable job given that 25, 000 men were expected.

Setting up camp, water problems, the railroad

Three officers played an essential role in the realization of the imperial project. Colonel Castelnau, aide-de-camp of Minister of War Marshall Vaillant, was charged with choosing the exact placement of the camp and to create a plan for any future installations. Captains Weynand (6) and Robaud were on site to follow the project's day-to-day execution. They were able to set up a camp in barely one year, using their close ties to the minister and direct communication with the sovereign entourage.(7) It would be capable of hosting by summer 1857 more than 22,000 men and about 6,000 horses.

Setting up the essentials in less than a year was no easy task. The heavy correspondence of Weynand and Robaud insisting that the regiments send reinforcement-workers demonstrates the difficulty of their. In certain cases they had to take recourse in makeshift solutions: a provisional infirmary was set up in the village of Mourmelon-le-Grand. Military manpower did not always suffice, so they called on civilian workers. (8)

The first installations were fairly basic. Officers, non-commissioned officers, and soldiers all lived in tents. (9) The latter were either what were called "ordinary"tents with sloping roofs, or conical-shaped tents. The troops slept on straw. The officers were entitled to furniture. A businessman from Chalons, Sire Barbier son, rushed to be of service by offering to rent for 25 francs, a bed, mattress, pillow, bolster, blanket, two sets of sheets, four towels, a night table, chair, washbasin and pitcher, chamber pot, a glass, candleholder.... and even a chest of drawers if they were willing to pay 30 francs for the length of camp. (10)

The troops kitchens were installed in wooden buildings with brick chimneys cast-iron stove and cooking pots. The mess hall for officers was particularly well set up. Dining room, office, kitchen and cooks' lodgings. The living areas were more basic, decorated simply with barrels that two proprietors had offered to install in exchange for the right to collect manureafter each camp, vital in this region of infertile soil.

All of the buildings and the annexes, indispensable to keeping and training an army were thought of: gunpowder magazines constructed in brick and covered in canvas, fod storage protected by a zinc roof, grain storage surrounded by ditches to reduce humidity...

Cavalry horses were picketed. Eight hundred officers' horses, in turn, enjoyed an asphalt-covered wooden hangar with racks and troughs.

The visits of Napoleon III and his determination to receive French and foreign dignitaries was another problem. It was resolved by the construction of the general imperial quarter. Five chalets in wood were erected. The central pavilion, "painted on the outside in imitation of blue and white striped twill" was put in the service of the Emperor and his guests. The offices, stables, a location for the telegraph and another for the printing press, would complete the section. These were the object of very careful attention on the parts of Weynand and Robaud, in permanent liaison with Colonel Count Lepic, commander of the general imperial quarter.

The water problem had been a difficult one to resolve, and Napoleon III himself addressed it. For the horses, water taken from the stream Cheneu sufficed: the drinking troughs were simply fashioned with carefully caulked pine timber. But they had to answer the needs of 20,000 men as well. After a few unsuccessful tries, they realized that they could find a layer of water of a depth of 10 to 25 meters and that they need only dig wells. They used a manual drill or "cast-iron ram, a drop hammer, with sharp teeth" (11) that broke up and separated the soapstone. The wells were then equipped with a pump, at one well per battalion.

Access to the camp was facilitated by rebuilding old routes and constructing new ones. But this was not deemed sufficient and they decided to build a connecting railway to service the camp. (12) This decision answered several concerns. First, Napoleon III's determination to use technical innovations and whose reign was indeed marked by the rapid development of the railway in France. Secondly, there were the needs of the camp and notably the necessity of transporting equipment and provisions under excellent conditions, which was indispensable when thousands of men and horses were assembled for several weeks every year. Finally, there was the hope that the camp would be accessible to civilians who were anticipated in great numbers. The camp at Chalons would progressively become a "showcase" for the imperial regime and everything would be done so that people could visit it easily.

The Compagnie des Chemins de Fer de l'Est (The Railroad Company of the East) was charged with creating a line connecting the Paris-Strasbourg line to the camp at Chalons. The concession decreed to them was signed July 3, 1857. They used nearly 2,500 workers: "the track layers", wrote one witness "followed right behind the roadworkers". On September 10, 1857, the 25-kilometer long junction was accomplished. Even if certain artworks were provisional, the accomplishment remains a remarkable one and is a testament to the dynamism of the Second Empire. Napoleon III officially inaugurated it on September 15, 1857 and was offered the "imperial train" by the Company which would conduct him personally on his visits. The five cars sumptuously furnished and decorated in the style of the epoch were a magnificent gift. The cross of the Legion of Honor would recompense the principle artisans of this success.

Not long afterward, significantly more modest cars would be made available to the public who would come in droves to visit the camp by the Company.

Military life, civilian visitors, a few somber aspects

Daily life at the Chalons camp had two faces: one military; the other civilian. The camp's purpose was above all military and Napoleon III would underline this in his ordre du jour dated September 2, 1857: "This camp will not be a spectacle put on to satisfy public curiosity, but a serious school that will be as valuable as the work undertaken there, and will prove its value if ever the country has need of it"".

The troops were "regulated by the ordinance of May 3, 1832 on "active service" and the "general order" fixed "daily service" (13). A canon shot was the wake-up call at 4:30 in the morning. Immediately after, the troops had coffee and then began cleaning duties. From 5:30 to 8 o'clock, the soldiers who were not designated as workers did "exercises" (14). Morning rations were distributed at 10 o'clock, followed by roll call at 11:30. The afternoon, from 2 to 4 o'clock was dedicated to either "exercises" or "theory" depending on the orders of the division generals. The workday ended at 4:30 and evening rations were distributed at 5 o'clock. A parade took place at 5:30. At 8 o'clock another canon fired to signal "withdrawal" followed by tatoo at 8:30. Lights out was fixed at 10 o'clock, the curfew for non-commissioned officers returning to camp. This schedule was modified on the days of big parades or maneuvers: at these times the troops assembled on the "front de bandière," or color-line of the camp. (15)

Eleven maneuvers were organized during the Imperial Guard's stay at the Chalons camp in 1857. They were placed under the "immediate command" of the Emperor, General Regnaud de Saint Jean d'Angély was commander-in-chief of the Imperial Guard and major-general of the camp.

These maneuvers, it should be said, were conventional. Everything was pre-arranged especially the movements of the "enemy". Their descriptions recall battles of the First Empire rather than military operations that reflect the evolution weaponry, and the use of railroad and telegraph. The schedule for September 7, 1857 (16): six batteries of artillery on horseback galloped on the right establishing themselves 400 meters in front of the heads of the cavalry line, equidistant to the front of the regiment, and open fired. As soon as the canon fired in the enemy lines, the brigade of lancers and dragoons charged in line..." Certain drills even explicitly reproduced the great battles of the First Empire. The order given on September 6, 1860 indicates this clearly (17):

"Tomorrow, 7th of the month, we recommence maneuver no. 7 representing the battle of Auerstadt."(18)

Additionally, these exercises repeated time and again in the same places eventually lost a large part of their allure. The well-known anecdote of the sub-officers of a cavalry regiment, bored with charging in the direction of the same tree, cut it down one night... the general, who repeated his habitual order mechanically without confirming that his favorite tree was still there, was furious.

It should be noted all the same that the drills taken up later (19) reveal some new concerns: emphasis was put upon the use of modern arms by the infantry and with it a new concern for safety, on determining the best way to exploit the cavalry, and the use of new technology such as the telegraph... This effort, undoubtedly pushed forward by the events of 1866, was unfortunately much too late.

Still less well-known, and at least as interesting, were the military experiments conducted at the Chalons camp. They occurred in all areas.

Bullets were recovered in butts and their deformation systematically studied. Later the celebrated firearm Chassepot was tried out at the camp: the dimensions of the camp allowed them to measure the effects of long-range firing. Several models of tents were tried out in order to identify the advantages and inconveniences of each and to choose the best form and fabric.

They experimented with preserved potatoes developed by Chalet. A note from July 26, 1857 indicated how they should be cooked... and offers a few recipes. (20)

They studied the effect of train transport on horses systematically. A report on July 17, 1857 (21) emphasizes that the horses upon quitting the train car demonstrated "movements of extreme gaiety" which was evidence of their good health after the trip... The same report will already suggest fixing the number to eight by car.

And finally, the field telegraph, utilized for the first time, accelerated the transmission of orders.

But this research, carried out systematically, could hardly keep the attention of civilian visitors. It was the excitement of military ceremonies, the presence of the Emperor and the Imperial dignitaries, and the picturesque quality of an immense assemblage of troops, that attracted them. Their coming gave the camp its civilian face.

The camp at Chalons exercised an extraordinary attraction on the civilian world during the Second Empire. It should be said that everything was done to assure that this would be the case. The newspapers gave an account of every one of the Emperor's visits, his actions, his gestures, the arrival of the Empress (22) and the Prince Imperial, when high foreign dignitaries (23) came through, as well as indications dignitaries of the imperial regime. The ceremonies, parades, receptions, and etcetera were announced and always given commentary. Finally, the prestige of the uniform, the reputation of the troops at the end of a campaign, curiosity about a sumptuous corps like the Cent-Gardes or an unusual one like the zouaves, contributed in keeping visitors coming in large numbers. Visitors came from all over the region and there are plenty of anecdotes about the dumbfounded country folk of Champagne arriving in their carts stunned at the vision of a military camp with several thousand men and horses. But visitors to the camp arrived from much farther and most particularly from Paris. (25)

Certain days, such as those of the high mass, the trains could not hold everyone who wanted to come, and those who did not get on the first shuttle despaired of arriving before the troops dispersed. The variety of "distractions" offered by the camp to visitors, besides the purely military events, explains this enthusiasm. The regiments rivaled one another in the decoration of their color lines with monuments sculpted in soapstone: unfortunately because of their fragility almost none of these "works of art" exist outside of photographs.

If the parade of arms, given new life by the flamboyant uniforms of the Second Empire, was public preference, there were still other events for visitors to see. Concerts and plays were regularly presented by the soldiers, who were amateur artists.

The most celebrated theater in 1857 was the "Prince Imperial". Put up in the center of the camp by the 1st regiment of grenadiers, it contained 2000 seats, reserved for the camp military by a precise ranking. The Emperor, accompanied by the Duke de Cambridge, honored the theater with his presence during the performance on September 17, 1857. The camp visitors would not miss the chance to visit the theater and Illustration placed a drawing of it in one of its issues.

Nothing was lacking in terms of distractions for soldiers and visitors... and the Sire Godard, "aeronaut", made a proposal to the Emperor to organize "[...] climbs with or without trapeze, descents with or without a parachute" (26) !

The visitors to the camp, whose number were even increasing, were fascinated by the majestic, high mass on Sundays. Napoleon III had hopes of reviving Catholic opinion. From the time of his proclamation of January 14, 1852, recalling the work of his uncle, he would invoke the Concordat and emphasize his felicitous influence on the good relations between Church and State. He would have the Constitution seat cardinals as de facto members of the Senate. The camp at Chalons was an new and vivid opportunity to manifest this hoped for alliance between Catholic Church and Imperial regime.

The altar installed in 1857 had been ordered in Paris. "Its dimensions" noted one observer, "are sufficient and its ornament sober and almost severe put it in harmony with the general appearance of the camp" (27) They had rented an altar for the length of camp until Captain Weynand decided a year later to have another altar made to the specification of the crown's Grand Chaplain. The ceremony itself was grandiose. The troops were amassed around the altar, the infantry occupied one side, the cavalry attended services horseback on another side, the artillery with its accouterments took up a third side of the square. (28) Flags and standards, music, sappers, were present at varying distances from the altar. (29) At the moment of the elevation of the host, the army executed a "kneel-down" movement!, foot soldiers presented arms, cavalrymen performed a sword-salute and then 20,000 men intoned the Domine Salvum. The spectacle was extraordinary and to the end of the Empire the mass of the camp at Chalons attracted crowds of people.

Next to this grandeur, other religions seemed modest. It took three years for the Protestant Consistory of Sedan to open a church on the camp. (30)

These grounds at Chalons, which had been considered to be among the disinherited of the earth, were dotted with little gardens carefully tended by the regiments and trees planted at the request of the Emperor; but these were not the only green spaces visible for civilian admiration.

In his concern for economic development and passion for agronomy, Napoleon III attached the greatest importance to the installation and development of "imperial farms." This was sometimes to the displeasure of certain colonels who saw their soldiers working at rustic pursuits to the detriment of their training.

The farms had been installed on the periphery of the camp so as to avoid disturbing the progress of the troops. The earliest phase of development had been entrusted once more to Captain Weynand who was aided by Captain Roubaud. Weynand had several audiences with the Emperor, who followed the execution of the work personally. Engineering participated and the units present at camp took up an important part in its production. The "imperial farms," intimately linked to military camp of Napoleon III's desires, would disappear with the Empire.

This description would be incomplete if certain somber aspects were not mentioned.

The accounts of civilian visitors were on the whole excellent, but they did not always correspond with that of the local population. The latter reproached the military for pillaging and even theft. One farmer's experience was to have a country policeman write him up for taking a few branches of birch from a private garden that he wanted to fashion into a broom. It is true that certain evenings the village policemen were given a rough time.

The local merchants complained of the severity of military administration. The supplies unit surveyed the quality of meats delivered to the corps and hunted down the suppliers of mediocre wine and spirits. This sometimes resulted in interminable disputes.

The village of Mourmelon-le-Grand was deeply changed by the arrival of the camp. This small-time village had almost become a large town. But the establishments that were attracted by the presence of a large clientele were not always on the same level. Next to the local offshoot of a respectable vendor (31), one would find less recommendable places. Here, brawls and altercations would break out, despite the vigilance of the gendarmes and the presence of patrols.

Officers were known to hunt without authorization. The mayors protested and the proprietors complained. It was necessary to resolve these differences while respecting all at the same time the prestige of the uniform, the inviolability of property and administrative rules.

In a different vein, precedence disputes cropped up occasionally between the authorities. A prefect's vehicle was prohibited entry at a at the entrance of a weighing station; access to this privileged ring of the racetrack was reserved for the Emperor. The prefect protested strongly. The incident nearly took on very serious proportions.

The camp at Chalons was around during the Empire's most glorious hours. It was also present at its downfall.

The 2nd corps of the French army left from the camp in 1870 on the orders of General Frossard. The 6th corps under the orders of Marshall Canrobert was concentrated at the camp. The first units of the National Guard were assembled at the camp; they displayed a deplorable lack of practice and discipline.

At the camp it was decided after the first reversals to concentrate a part of the army. At the camp Napoleon III arrived aged and ill. Finally it was from the camp that the Army of Chalons left for what would be the disaster at Sedan.

Did the camp at Chalons at least fulfill its mission? Did it attempt to give France the army that it needed? Assuredly not. It allowed, certainly, for some useful experiments. And each year, the Emperor personally met an important number of officers, during the military parades, the giving of decorations, receptions... But the sovereign did not fill his role as commander-in-chief. The drills, very conventional and practiced in the same places (32), were more parade than true combat training. They often took on the appearance of perfectly regulated performances.

Finally, the camp at Chalons was more an episodic assemblage of troops than a coherent and methodical organization of large units put together in times of peace in preparation for war.

Napoleon III's initial goals were certainly different. But over time, the theatrical aspect seemed to take over.

The camp at Chalons participated for more than ten years in the "imperial fete". It was an important element of propaganda in favor of the dynasty. At the same time, unfortunately, Prussia quietly forged an army that was created to combat rather than be seen.

The camp survived the fall of the Empire, but in another form.

Combat training won out over parades and the fetes have disappeared. What remains today to witness the military past of this site are a few vestiges of imperial constructions... and some albums of precious photographs.

1. This originality is highlighted in W. Rüstow, Guerre des Frontières du Rhin (1870-1871), Paris, 1873, p.259.

2. Certain of those responsible expressed worry before the emperor about the delays they were suffering and especially the administrative languor, Napoleon III they say replied simply "Have you taken note of this Mr. Prefect?" The imperial question would have sufficed to dissolve the difficulties...

3. We remark nevertheless the rude climate: cold winters (-21deg.C in December 1859), hot summers and storm rains... that often interrupted the drills.

4. S.H.A.T., XE 299.

5. The number of expropriated proprietors were more than a thousand.

6. Captain Weynand, the most often cited, received orders to return to Paris "to confer about the establishment of a camp in the plains of Champagne" in a note dated August 26, 1856 (S.H.A.T., XJ 23).

7. The personal correspondence of Captain Roubaud is particularly revealing in this regard (private archives).

8. Report dated April 30, 1858 signed "Weynand, captain Chief of Engineering" (S.H.A.T., XJ 25).

9. Even the marshalls of France were originally installed beneath tents, although with special furnishings and in proximity to the imperial pavilion.

10. Note dated August 2, 1857, S.H.A.T., XJ 23.

11. S.H.A.T., XJ 23.

12. The Minister of Public Works, Eugène Rouher would take this up at the start of the year 1857. (S.H.A.T., XJ 24).

13. S.H.A.T., XJ 23.

14. The needs of the camp, maintenance work, services... required a lot of men and certain drill sergeants complained vividly about it.

15. The line indicated by emblem or piled arms and marking the front of each corps.

16. S.H.A.T., XJ 23.

17. S.H.A.T., XJ 28.

18. It was actually a simple imitation and not really an application of the "historical method" in honor of the Ecole supérieure de guerre in the 1900's decade (Colonel Delmas, Bulletin de l'Association des Amis de l'Ecole supérieure de guerre, 1973).

19. Notably in 1867 and in 1868.

20. S.H.A.T., XJ 23.

21. S.H.A.T., XJ 25.

22. Very pious, the Empress granted stained glass windows and the route of the cross to several local churches.

23. The Duke de Cambridge, the ambassadors from the king of Siam, the king of Sweden...

24. Ministers, marshalls of France... but also prelates come to celebrate the solemn mass.

25. In 1862, round trip Paris/Mourmelon cost only 10 francs in 2nd class.

26. Letter dated September 6, 1857, S.H.A.T., XJ 23.

27. S.H.A.T., XJ 23.

28. J. Berland, La Messe au camp de Châlons sous l'Empire, Reims, 1928.

29. This layout was the most solemn. It was only put into practice in the presence of the Emperor and when visitors of the highest status came.

30. S.H.A.T., XJ 24.

31. Such as the branch of Dreher from Vienna.

32. Each grove was numbered.

[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]