French Revolutionary Army

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French Revolutionary Army
Bataille Jemmapes.jpg
French troops at the Battle of Jemmapes (November 1792)
Country French Republic, and European émigré groups.
AllegianceFlag of France (1794-1815).svg  First French Republic
Motto(s)Honneur et Patrie
Colors Tricolour Cockade.svg
Engagements War of the First Coalition
War of the Second Coalition
Napoleon Bonaparte
Jean Victor Marie Moreau
André Masséna
Lazare Hoche
Jean-Baptiste Jourdan
Thomas-Alexandre Dumas

The French Revolutionary Army (French : Armée révolutionnaire française) was the French force that fought the French Revolutionary Wars from 1792 to 1802. These armies were characterised by their revolutionary fervour, their poor equipment and their great numbers. Although they experienced early disastrous defeats, the revolutionary armies successfully expelled foreign forces from French soil and then overran many neighboring countries, establishing client republics. Leading generals included Jourdan, Bonaparte, Masséna and Moreau.

French language Romance language

French is a Romance language of the Indo-European family. It descended from the Vulgar Latin of the Roman Empire, as did all Romance languages. French evolved from Gallo-Romance, the spoken Latin in Gaul, and more specifically in Northern Gaul. Its closest relatives are the other langues d'oïl—languages historically spoken in northern France and in southern Belgium, which French (Francien) has largely supplanted. French was also influenced by native Celtic languages of Northern Roman Gaul like Gallia Belgica and by the (Germanic) Frankish language of the post-Roman Frankish invaders. Today, owing to France's past overseas expansion, there are numerous French-based creole languages, most notably Haitian Creole. A French-speaking person or nation may be referred to as Francophone in both English and French.

French Revolutionary Wars series of conflicts fought between the French Republic and several European monarchies from 1792 to 1802

The French Revolutionary Wars were a series of sweeping military conflicts lasting from 1792 until 1802 and resulting from the French Revolution. They pitted France against Great Britain, Austria, Prussia, Russia and several other monarchies. They are divided in two periods: the War of the First Coalition (1792–97) and the War of the Second Coalition (1798–1802). Initially confined to Europe, the fighting gradually assumed a global dimension. After a decade of constant warfare and aggressive diplomacy, France had conquered a wide array of territories, from the Italian Peninsula and the Low Countries in Europe to the Louisiana Territory in North America. French success in these conflicts ensured the spread of revolutionary principles over much of Europe.

Jean-Baptiste Jourdan Marshal of France

Jean-Baptiste Jourdan, 1st Comte Jourdan, enlisted as a private in the French royal army and rose to command armies during the French Revolutionary Wars. Emperor Napoleon I of France named him a Marshal of France in 1804 and he also fought in the Napoleonic Wars. After 1815, he became reconciled to the Bourbon Restoration. He was one of the most successful commanders of the French Revolutionary Army.


As a general description of French military forces during this period, it should not be confused with the "revolutionary armies" (armées révolutionnaires) which were paramilitary forces set up during the Terror. [1]

Reign of Terror Period during the French Revolution

The Reign of Terror, or the Terror, refers to a period during the French Revolution after the First French Republic was established in which multiple massacres and public executions occurred in response to revolutionary fervor, anti-clerical sentiment, and frivolous accusations of treason by Maximilien Robespierre and his Committee of Public Safety.


French line grenadier during the Revolution Fusilier Revolution francaise.jpg
French line grenadier during the Revolution

As the ancien regime gave way to a constitutional monarchy, and then to a republic, 1789–92, the entire structure of France was transformed to fall into line with the Revolutionary principles of "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity". Reactionary Europe stood opposed, especially after the French king was executed. The signing of the Declaration of Pillnitz between Leopold II, Holy Roman Emperor and King Frederick William II of Prussia and the subsequent French declaration of war meant that from its formation, the Republic of France was at war, and it required a potent military force to ensure its survival. As a result, one of the first major elements of the French state to be restructured was the army.

<i>Liberté, égalité, fraternité</i> national motto of France and the Republic of Haiti

Liberté, égalité, fraternité, French for "liberty, equality, fraternity", is the national motto of France and the Republic of Haiti, and is an example of a tripartite motto. Although it finds its origins in the French Revolution, it was then only one motto among others and was not institutionalized until the Third Republic at the end of the 19th century. Debates concerning the compatibility and order of the three terms began at the same time as the Revolution. It is also the motto of the Grand Orient de France and the Grande Loge de France.

Declaration of Pillnitz political event

The Declaration of Pilnite, more commonly referred to as the Declaration of Pillnitz, was a statement issued on 27 August 1791 at Pillnitz Castle near Dresden (Saxony) by Frederick William II of Prussia and the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II who was Marie Antoinette's brother. It declared the joint support of the Holy Roman Empire and of Prussia for King Louis XVI of France against the French Revolution.

Leopold II, Holy Roman Emperor Austrian king

Leopold II was Holy Roman Emperor, King of Hungary, and Bohemia from 1790 to 1792, and Archduke of Austria and Grand Duke of Tuscany from 1765 to 1790. He was the earliest opponent of capital punishment in modern history. He was a son of Emperor Francis I and his wife, Empress Maria Theresa, and the brother of Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, Maria Carolina of Austria and Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor. Leopold was a moderate proponent of enlightened absolutism. He granted the Academy of Georgofili his protection. Despite his brief reign, he is highly regarded. The historian Paul W. Schroeder called him "one of the most shrewd and sensible monarchs ever to wear a crown".

Almost all of the ancien regime officer class had been drawn from the aristocracy. During the period preceding the final overthrow of the Monarchy, large numbers of officers left their regiments and emigrated. Between 15 September and 1 December 1791 alone, 2,160 officers of the royal army fled France [2] eventually to join the émigré army of Louis Joseph, Prince of Condé. Of those who stayed, many were either imprisoned or killed during the Reign of Terror. The few remaining officers from the old guard were promoted swiftly; this meant that the majority of the Revolutionary officers were far younger than their Monarchist counterparts. The high-ranking aristocratic officers who remained, among them Marquis de la Fayette, Comte de Rochambeau and Comte Nicolas Luckner, were soon accused of having monarchist sympathies and either executed or forced into exile.

An émigré is a person who has emigrated, often with a connotation of political or social self-exile. The word is the past participle of the French émigrer, "to emigrate".

Louis Joseph, Prince of Condé French noble

Louis Joseph de Bourbon was Prince of Condé from 1740 to his death. A member of the House of Bourbon, he held the prestigious rank of Prince du Sang.

Nicolas Luckner Marshal of France

Nicolas, Count Luckner was a German officer in French service who rose to become a Marshal of France.

Revolutionary fervour, along with calls to save the new regime, resulted in a large influx of enthusiastic, yet untrained and undisciplined, volunteers. These were the first sans-culottes , so called because they wore peasants' trousers rather than the knee-breeches used by the other armies of the time. France's desperate military situation meant that these men were quickly inducted into the army. One reason for the success of the French Revolutionary Army is the "amalgamation" (amalgame) strategy organized by military strategist Lazare Carnot, later Napoleon's Minister of War. He assigned, to the same regiment (but in different battalions), both young volunteers enthusiastic at the thought of dying for liberty and old veterans from the former royal army. [3] [4]

<i>Sans-culottes</i> radical left-wing partisans of the lower classes during French Revolution

The sans-culottes were the common people of the lower classes in late 18th century France, a great many of whom became radical and militant partisans of the French Revolution in response to their poor quality of life under the Ancien Régime. The word sans-culotte, which is opposed to that of the aristocrat, came in vogue in 1792, during the demonstration of 20 June 1792. The name sans-culottes refers to their clothing, and through that to their lower-class status: culottes were the fashionable silk knee-breeches of the 18th-century nobility and bourgeoisie, and the working class sans-culottes wore pantaloons, or trousers, instead. The sans-culottes, most of them urban labourers, served as the driving popular force behind the revolution. They were judged by the other revolutionaries as "radicals" because they advocated a direct democracy, that is to say, without intermediaries such as members of parliament. Though ill-clad people and ill-equipped, with little or no support from the upper class, they made up the bulk of the Revolutionary army during the early years of the French Revolutionary Wars.

Lazare Carnot French political, engineering and mathematical figure

Lazare Nicolas Marguerite, Count Carnot was a French mathematician, physicist and politician. He was known as the Organizer of Victory in the French Revolutionary Wars and Napoleonic Wars.

Napoleon 19th century French military leader and politician

Napoleon Bonaparte was a French statesman and military leader of Italian descent who rose to prominence during the French Revolution and led several successful campaigns during the French Revolutionary Wars. He was Emperor of the French as Napoleon I from 1804 until 1814 and again briefly in 1815 during the Hundred Days. Napoleon dominated European and global affairs for more than a decade while leading France against a series of coalitions in the Napoleonic Wars. He won most of these wars and the vast majority of his battles, building a large empire that ruled over much of continental Europe before its final collapse in 1815. He is considered one of the greatest commanders in history, and his wars and campaigns are studied at military schools worldwide. Napoleon's political and cultural legacy has endured as one of the most celebrated and controversial leaders in human history.

The transformation of the Army was most apparent in the officer corps. Before the revolution, 90% of the officers had been aristocrats, compared to only 3% in 1794. Revolutionary fervor was high, and was closely monitored by the Committee of Public Safety, which assigned Representatives on Mission to keep watch on the army generals. Indeed, during the war, some generals deserted, and others were removed or executed. The government demanded that soldiers be loyal to the government in Paris, not to their generals. [5]

1791 Reglement

Officially, the Revolutionary Armies were operating along the guidelines set down in the 1791 Reglement, a set of regulations created during the years before the Revolution. The 1791 Reglement laid down several complex tactical maneuvers, maneuvers which demanded well trained soldiers, officers and NCOs to perform correctly. The Revolutionary Army was lacking in all three of these areas, and as a result the early efforts to conform to the 1791 Reglement were met with disaster. The untrained troops could not perform the complex maneuvers required, unit cohesion was lost and defeat was ensured.

Realizing that the army was not capable of conforming with the 1791 Reglement, commanders began experimenting with formations which required less training to perform. Many eminent French military thinkers had been clamoring for change decades before. In the period following the humiliating performance of the French Army during the Seven Years' War, they began to experiment with new ideas. Guibert wrote his epic Essai général de Tactique, Bourcet focused on staff procedures and mountain warfare, and Mesnil-Durand spent his time advocating l'ordre profond , tactics of maneuvering and fighting in heavy columnar formations, placing emphasis on the shock of cold steel over firepower.

In the 1770s, some commanders, among them the brilliant duc de Broglie performed exercises testing these tactics. It was finally decided to launch a series of experiments to try out the new tactics, and comparing them to the standard Fredrickian linear formation known as l'ordre mince which was universally popular throughout Europe. De Broglie decided that l'ordre profond worked best when it was supported by artillery and large numbers of skirmishers. Despite these exercises, l'ordre mince had strong and powerful supporters in the Royal Armée Française, and it was this formation which went into the 1791 Reglement as the standard.

Trial by fire

The battle of Valmy (1792). Valmy Battle painting.jpg
The battle of Valmy (1792).

The French struck first, with an invasion of the Austrian Netherlands proposed by foreign minister Charles François Dumouriez. This invasion soon turned into a debacle when it was found that the hastily trained Revolutionary forces badly lacked obedience: on one occasion, troops murdered their general to avoid a battle; on another, troops insisted on putting their commander's orders to a vote. The Revolutionary forces retreated from the Austrian Netherlands in disarray.

In August 1792, a large Austro-Prussian army commanded by the Duke of Brunswick crossed the frontier and began its march on Paris with the declared intention of restoring full power to Louis XVI. Several Revolutionary armies were easily defeated by the professional Austrian, Hessian, Brunswick and Prussian troops. The immediate result of this was the storming of the Tuileries Palace and the overthrow of the king. Successive Revolutionary forces failed to halt Brunswick's advance, and by mid-September it appeared that Paris would fall to the monarchists. The Convention ordered the remaining armies to be combined under the command of Dumouriez and François Christophe Kellermann. At the Battle of Valmy on 20 September 1792, the Revolutionary forces defeated Brunswick's advance guard, causing the invading army to begin retreating to the border. Much of the credit to the victory must go to the French artillery, widely viewed as the best in Europe thanks to the technical improvements of Jean Baptiste Vaquette de Gribeauval.

The Battle of Valmy ensured that the Revolutionary armies were respected by their enemies, and for the next ten years they not only defended the fledgling First French Republic, but under the command of Generals such as Moreau, Jourdan, Kléber, Desaix and Bonaparte expanded the borders of the French republic.

Lazare Carnot

While the Cannonade of Valmy had saved the Republic from imminent destruction and caused its enemies to take pause, the guillotining of Louis XVI in January 1793 and the convention's proclamation that it would 'export the revolution' hardened the resolve of France's enemies to destroy the Republic and reinstate a monarchy.

In early 1793, the First Coalition was formed, not only from Prussia and Austria, but also Sardinia, Naples, the Dutch United Provinces, Spain and Great Britain. The Republic was under attack on several fronts, and in the fiercely Catholic region of La Vendée an armed revolt had broken out. The Revolutionary army was greatly overstretched, and it seemed that the fall of the republic was imminent.

In early 1793 Lazare Carnot, a prominent mathematician, physicist, and delegate to the Convention, was promoted to the Committee of Public Safety. Displaying an exceptional talent for organization and for enforcing discipline, Carnot set about rearranging the disheveled Revolutionary Armies. Realizing that no amount of reforming and discipline was going to offset the massive numerical superiority enjoyed by France's enemies, Carnot ordered (24 February 1793 decree of the national Convention) each département to provide a quota of new recruits, a number totaling around 300,000. By mid-1793, the Revolutionary Army had increased around 645,000 men.

Levée en masse

On 23 August 1793, at Carnot's insistence, the Convention issued the following proclamation ordering a levée en masse

"From this moment until such time as its enemies shall have been driven from the soil of the Republic all Frenchmen are in permanent requisition for the services of the armies. The young men shall fight; the married men shall forge arms and transport provisions; the women shall make tents and clothes and shall serve in the hospitals; the children shall turn linen into lint; the old men shall betake themselves to the public squares in order to arouse the courage of the warriors and preach hatred of kings and the unity of the Republic" [6]

All unmarried able bodied men aged between 18 and 25 were to report immediately for military service. Those married, as well as the remaining men, women and children, were to focus their efforts on arming and supplying the army.

This increased the size of the Revolutionary Armies dramatically, providing the armies in the field with the manpower to hold off the enemy attacks. Carnot was hailed by the government as the Organizer of Victory. By September 1794, the Revolutionary Army had 1,500,000 men under arms. Carnot's levée en masse had provided so much manpower that it was not necessary to repeat it again until 1797.


French Revolutionary general, officer d'infanterie legere and soldier of a demi-brigade de ligne. General, Officer d'Legere, Soldat d'Ligne.jpg
French Revolutionary général, officer d'infanterie legere and soldier of a demi-brigade de ligne.

Seeing the failure of the 1791 Reglement, several early revolutionary commanders followed de Broglie's example and experimented with the pre-revolutionary ideas, gradually adapting them until they discovered a system that worked. The final standard used by the early Revolutionary Armies consisted of the following:


French Republican soldiers Soldats Revolution francaise.jpg
French Republican soldiers

Following the dissolution of the ancien regime, the system of named regiments was abandoned. Instead, the new army was formed into a series of numbered demi-brigades. Consisting of two or three battalions, these formations were designated demi-brigades in an attempt to avoid the feudal connotations of the term Regiment. In mid-1793, the Revolutionary Army officially comprised 196 infantry demi-brigades.

After the initial dismal performance of the Fédéré volunteer battalions, Carnot ordered that each demi-brigade was to consist of one regular (ex-Royal Army) and two fédéré battalions. These new formations, intended to combine the discipline and training of the old army with the enthusiasm of the new volunteers, [7] were proven successful at Valmy in September 1792. In 1794, the new demi-brigade was universally adopted.

French soldiers from the 1798-1801 Egyptian campaign (left to right, clockwise): line infantry officer, line infantryman, line drummer, light infantryman. EgyptFrInf2Lg.jpg
French soldiers from the 1798–1801 Egyptian campaign (left to right, clockwise): line infantry officer, line infantryman, line drummer, light infantryman.

The Revolutionary Army had been formed from a hodgepodge of different units, and as such did not have a uniform appearance. Veterans in their white uniforms and tarleton helmets from the ancien regime period served alongside national guardsmen in their blue jackets with white turnbacks piped red and fédérés dressed in civilian clothes with only the red phrygian cap and the tricolour cockade to identify them as soldiers. Poor supplies meant that uniforms which had worn out were replaced with civilian clothes, and so the Revolutionary Army lacked any semblance of uniformity, with the exception of the tricolour cockade which was worn by all soldiers. As the war progressed, several demi-brigades were issued specific coloured uniform jackets, and the Revolutionary Armée d'Orient which arrived in Egypt in 1798 was uniformed in purple, pink, green, red, orange and blue jackets.

Along with the problem of uniforms, many men of the Revolutionary Army lacked weapons and ammunition. Any weapons captured from the enemy were immediately absorbed into the ranks. After the Battle of Montenotte in 1796, 1,000 French soldiers who had been sent into battle unarmed were afterwards equipped with captured Austrian muskets. As a result, uniformity was also lacking in weapons.

Besides the regular demi-brigades, light infantry demi-brigades also existed. These formations were formed from soldiers who had shown skill in marksmanship, and were used for skirmishing in front of the main force. As with the line demi-brigades, the light demi-brigades lacked uniformity in either weapons or equipment.


Supporting the skirmishers was the French artillery. The artillery had suffered least from the exodus of aristocratic officers during the early days of the Revolution, as it was commanded mostly by men drawn from the middle class. The man who would shape the era, Napoleon Bonaparte, himself was an artilleryman. The various technical improvements of Général Jean Baptiste Vaquette de Gribeauval in the years preceding the Revolution, and the subsequent efforts of Baron du Teil and his brother Chevalier Jean du Teil meant that the French artillery was the finest in Europe. The Revolutionary Artillery was responsible for several of the Republic's early victories; for example at Valmy, on 13 Vendémiaire, and at Lodi. The revolutionary cannon played a vital role in their success. The cannon continued to have a dominating role on the battlefield throughout the Napoleonic Wars.


Hussar, line cavalryman and line infantryman, 1795-96. Frrepublicancav.jpg
Hussar, line cavalryman and line infantryman, 1795–96.

The cavalry was seriously affected by the Revolution. The majority of officers had been of aristocratic birth and had fled France during the final stages of the monarchy or to avoid the subsequent Terror. Many French cavalrymen joined the émigré army of the Prince du Conde. Two entire regiments, the Hussards du Saxe and the 15éme Cavalerie (Royal Allemande) defected to the Austrians.

Lacking not only trained officers, but also mounts and equipment, the Revolutionary Cavalry became the worst equipped arm of the Revolutionary Army. By Mid 1793, the paper organisation of the Revolutionary Army included twenty six heavy cavalry regiments, two regiments of carabiniers, twenty dragoon regiments, eighteen regiments of chasseurs à cheval and ten hussar regiments. In reality, it was seldom that any of these regiments reached even half strength. However, unlike the infantry, where all battalions of the old Royal Army were merged with freshly raised volunteers to form new demi-brigades, the cavalry retained their regimental identities throughout the revolutionary and Napoleonic periods. As one example, the Regiment de Chasseurs d'Alsace (raised in 1651) was renamed the 1er Regiment de Chasseurs in 1791 but otherwise remained unchanged until it was finally disbanded after Waterloo. [8]

Aerostatic corps

The French Aerostatic Corps (compagnie d'aérostiers) was the first French air force, [9] founded in 1794 to use balloons, primarily for reconnaissance. The first military use of the balloon occurred on 2 June 1794, when it was used for reconnaissance during an enemy bombardment. [10] On 22 June, the corps received orders to move the balloon to the plain of Fleurus, in front of the Austrian troops at Charleroi. [11]

Notable generals and commanders

Notable battles and campaigns

Active Armies 1792–1804

Armies of 1792
Armies after restructure of 1793

On 1 October, the Armée de la Rochelle was redesignated as the armée de l'Ouest.

Armies Formed for Specific Tasks

See also

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François Roguet became a French division commander in the Imperial Guard during the Napoleonic Wars. He enlisted in the French Royal Army in 1789. His regiment was assigned to the Army of Italy in 1792 and fought in the Italian campaigns of the French Revolutionary Wars. He commanded a battalion at the Battle of Rivoli in 1797. He was badly wounded at the Battle of Verona in 1799. For suppressing partisans he was promoted to command an infantry regiment.


  1. Cobb, Richard (1987). The People's Armies. New Haven: Yale UP. ISBN   0300040423.
  2. Munro Price, "The Fall of the French Monarchy", ISBN   0-330-48827-9
  5. Robert Doughty and Ira Gruber, ed. Warfare in the Western World: volume 1: Military operations from 1600 to 1871 (1996) p 187
  6. Hazen, C.D. - The French Revolution Vol II, pp 666
  7. Terry Crowdy, pages 18-19, "French Revolutionary Infantry 1789–1802", ISBN   1-84176-660-7
  8. Emir Bukhari, page 15 "Napoleon's Line Chasseurs", ISBN   0-85045-269-4
  9. Jeremy Beadle and Ian Harrison, First, Lasts & Onlys: Military, p. 42
  10. F. Stansbury Haydon, Military Ballooning During the Early Civil War, pp.5-15
  11. Charles Coulston Gillispie, Science and Polity in France: The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Years, pp. 372-373

Further reading

Primary sources