French Light Infantry

France: The Avant-Guard Army

These were the words on the lips of Napoleon as he lay dying one stormy night in May 1821 while in exile on the island of St Helena. At the time it seemed to his compatriots that everything was lost. Drained and exhausted, France had been forced back to her borders as they had been at the end of the XVIII century. In the streets, crowds of cripples wandered in rags that had once been shining uniforms while the carriages of the hated Bourbons clattered along quiet boulevards. There was no one to avenge this national humiliation: the bones of the grenadiers of the Revolution and Empire lay from Moscow to Spain and from Cairo to Waterloo. A peasant watching aristocrats just returned from Coblenz, a worker from the Paris suburbs dreaming of the Convent Decrees, an army officer, retired without pension, growing vegetables in his back garden, a student with a volume of Fournier in the pocket of a washed out frock coat – these were the people, exhausted by a quarter of a century of bloody effort, who tried to understand the delirious words uttered on that deathbed.

Just 25 years later France was at the leading edge of progress. At its head the new army marched, the tri-color flags of the Revolution and Empire, decorated with golden bees, flapped over the lines of bayonets. Neither the Bourbons nor the Orleanids existed any more, and nor did their eternal enemy across the Channel, as centuries of conflict between Britain and France was now at an end. Britain dominated the seas and World trade while France dominated the sphere of social ideas. Now they had a common enemy. The British lion tormented the northern bear while the golden bees stung its shaggy hide like the bullets of the Minnie.

With the will of the people and the bayonets of the soldiers Louis-Napoleon, formerly a modest artillery officer, ascended the throne of that great country. A nephew and strong admirer of the glorious deeds of his famous uncle, he and his government actively cultivated the legend of Napoleon I and this found a ready audience in all layers of society (except the small groups of radical republicans and legitimists). As we are primarily interested in the military side of society, we will focus our attention there.

In our article “Ivan-the-Soldier and Tommy Atkins” we compared the appearance, both external and internal, of the Russian and British soldiers. The Frenchman was deliberately omitted has he was quite unique in many ways. In contrast to the conservatism of the islanders or the stagnation of the Russians, who had changed their uniforms little since the first quarter of the XIX century, the generals of the Second Empire were attempting to keep up-to-date while still retaining the Gallic spirit by keeping uniforms elegant and bright. From 1845 the frock coat was replaced by the tunic or half-tunic, wide trousers were tucked into gaiters which were shorter than before to avoid inhibiting movement. The enormous shakos (during the conquest of Algiers the Arabs sarcastically called them buckets) were replaced with much lower and lighter ones, and from 1852 the famous red kepi was introduced into the field uniform, a distinctive French item that was to see service for the next 60 years. The differences between parade and field uniforms were nowhere more clear than in the French army, and the brightest and boldest of the parade uniforms were to be found in the Guard. This consisted of a modified version of the frock coat of the first empire, so dear to the emperor’s heart, and we will discuss this further in a future article as we will be producing a set of foot guards of the Crimean period – “Guard Grenadiers and Voltigeurs”

We must mention here the appearance of new arms of service in the French army and their particular uniforms. Under the vigilant and tireless supervision of the Holy Alliance, France had had no possibility of waging war in Europe for many years (apart from the Spanish campaign to suppress revolution beyond the Pyrenees, and that was at the direct instruction of the Alliance). As a result she focused her ambitions beyond the oceans. Algiers, Annam, Mexico, Dagomey, Senegal – in places such as these the French soldier marched deep into the interiors with a cheerful song on his lips. The new arms of service were created for these struggles against ‘wild’ natives and for the garrisons that were left.

Firstly we must make mention of the zouaves, who gained such wide popularity with their eastern-style baggy uniform and their famous mettle, such that during the American Civil War many units were created in imitation of them, with similar uniforms and names. The equally famous Foreign Legion was also created during this period. A Belgian seaman with stab-marks on his face, an Irish rebel who had somehow avoided the hangman in his native land, a Pole frozen in Siberia, an Italian carbonary – idealists, fugitives, romantics and thieves – all found refuge in the ranks of the Legion. Once they entered the barrack doors slammed behind them, concealing them from the curiosity of the police. Starting with nothing and serving under fictitious names in the most dangerous locations, they were ideal disposable material. Their commanders cared little for them, and their fate was of scant concern to anyone – in death a legionary was honoured with a farewell salute and a grave marker with the standard epitaph “Died for France”. A distinguishing feature of the legionary was the scarf – firstly blue but later pink – and also the large bandolier worn on the front of the belt which caused them to be nicknamed “leather bellies”.

As for the tactics, the use of dispersed units mixed with dense shock columns would at first glance seem unchanged from the days of Austerlitz, but in fact they changed as a result of the colonial wars. The shock columns and undefeatable squares remained, but the main emphasis was now on the fire fight, no longer volleys but well-aimed and rapid individual fire. Every soldier was allowed to use some initiative, which at its best typifies the French character – lively and inclined to improvisation. This made the French rifleman, armed with his muzzle-loading rifle or later the long-range Chassepot, a most dangerous opponent. He could camouflage himself well in the field, crawl and move under the protection of the natural terrain like no other soldier in Europe. He did not yet entrench himself on the battlefield, but that was of little importance because of the poorly developed artillery of the day – during the Franco-Prussian war this practice would cost him dearly.

Historians still seem to have a low opinion of the French command during the Crimean war. The catastrophe of 1871 that befell both the country and the army appears to have coloured many views of them. Marshal Saint-Arnots became accustomed to being considered a provincial buffoon and an unlucky politician, while general Canrobert is portrayed as a bloodthirsty sadist, roasting whole tribes of Arabs on wet firewood, and minister of war Nivelle is seen as narrow-minded. Defeats are always blamed on someone, and in this case the scapegoat was more a herd of them. In future articles we will be able to express our opinion on this matter, but for now we will simply offer our humble opinion that no matter how bad the generals of Louis-Napoleon may have been, during the war of 1853-56 they performed satisfactorily and in comparison with their British counterparts they were brilliant. Both the individual French soldier and the army as a whole appeared more prepared for the battles and the siege. The generals themselves, unlike Victoria’s, were a good deal younger and less bound by tradition. We will discuss this further in our next article, “Vive la France!”, which will accompany our new set of zouaves – the article will be dedicated to the bloody storming of the Malakov Heights.

Now we must say a few words abut a vital aspect of any army – its spirit. In comparing the situations in the British and Russian armies we inevitably had to mention the systems of corporal punishment. To their credit the French army never resorted to the lash, even in the days of the fierce Louvois, Minister of War under Louis XIV and founder of the kingdom’s regular army. “What can you expect from a dishonoured man?” asked Napoleon, perplexing his British opponents who were not ashamed to use the lash. The French soldier certainly knew what discipline was, but when in 1785 the Minister of War Saint-Germaine tried to reform the Royal army long Prussian lines and introduce corporal punishment, the move received no support and was a failure. Haughty officers, aristocrats who probably despised the lower ranks, nevertheless loathed their role of supervising executions. In France military crimes were punishable by imprisonment, the galley, death by firing squad or hanging and dishonour, but never torture. A French soldier respected his officer, but did not shudder at his approach. So the war machine of the Second Empire did not suppress the personalities of its soldiers, for good or ill, and the resulting spirit cannot but delight.

All that remains is for us to briefly describe the set of French Light Infantry. It consists of four sprues; one of zouaves and three of chasseurs. The set is divided unequally into two parts. The larger part recreates a fire fight, and the chasseurs can be set out in three lines as shown in the last photograph of our master models. The front line fires whilst kneeling, the second are standing and firing while the third are reloading. We have also tried to represent some individual actions, such as the greybeard who is never without his cigar, a soldier pointing at the enemy in the distance, the man who has taken off his shako and others. There is an officer with a flag, another with raised sword apparently about to issue the order “Fire!” and another shooting, all of them should fit into the overall composition. Two groups of soldiers supplement the firefight. Two privates are bringing a box of ammunition up at the double, and three others are carrying a wounded comrade away from the battle on a stretcher. With the 34 chasseur figures the customer can line them up or disperse them as desired, but our glorious zouaves are made in very dynamic poses recreating the moment of the attack which would result in hand-to-hand fighting. Three of the zouaves are using the butts of their rifles, and two others are using the bayonet (the wedge type bayonet was introduced to the light troops earlier then to the line infantry). The remainder are charging at the enemy with a junior officer at their head armed with a revolver of the Le Foche model. We also added a figure of a soldier leaping over a beam (the approaches to the Malakhov Heights were hardly laid with roses, but with boulders, beams and corpses). In the heat of battle many lost their turbans (“sheshiys”), which by regulation were supposed to be wound round their red fez, while others used them to cover their face in the eastern manner.

“French light infantry” – 44 figures, 44 poses. Production run – 5000 boxes. Colour - Blue