French Infantry Organisation

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Hierarchical Path: War of the Spanish Succession (Main Page) >> Armies >> French Army >> French Infantry Organisation

Introduction

The first permanent infantry regiments of the French army were formed from the vieilles bandes (old bands) around 1569. The subdivision of some regiments into battalions first appeared in the period between 1610 and 1635. At the beginning of 1635, the French army already counted 22 permanent regiments. This number rapidly increased to 62 in 1672, 90 in 1683. At the end of the War of the Spanish Succession, France kept 120 regiments in active service.

Composition and Organisation of a Brigade

The brigade was a formation which existed only in time of war. French and foreign regiments consisted of 1, 2 and more rarely 3 or 4 battalions. This made for very small combat units. Therefore, 2 to 4 infantry regiments were grouped into a single brigade consisting of 5 or 6 battalions.

The brigade was placed under the command of the senior officer who ranked as brigadier or, when several brigadiers were present, by the most senior brigadier. The rank of brigadier was created in 1667 during the reign of Louis XIV. It would be suppressed by the regulation of March 7 1788.

In contemporary relations, most of the time only the brigade was referred to. Since the brigade was designated by the name of its senior regiment, we often lose track of the position or progression of certain infantry regiments “lost” because they were incorporated within a brigade. Usually foreign regiments were grouped into distinct brigades (Swiss brigades, German brigades, etc.). Two senior regiments were not usually incorporated into the same brigade but would rather be associated to more junior regiments.

Composition and Organisation of a Regiment

Regiments were ranked according to their seniority. This was THE rule regulating precedence in the French army of this period. However, they were always designated by a name. In the case of the gentleman regiments, they were designated by the name of their owner, thus changing name when they changed owner. This practice could lead to some confusion. For gentleman regiments of the French infantry, the title of each article is based on the name of the owner in 1701 or at its creation if raised after 1701. However, the names of the successive owners are listed within each articles.

French infantry comprised regiments with three, two or only one battalions. Therefore, certain regiments had three, three or only one grenadier companies.

Organisation of a French infantry regiment, using Normandie Infanterie, a regiment of three battalions, as an example - Copyright Michele Savasta Fiore

Regimental Staff

The regimental staff included:

  • 1 colonel
  • 1 lieutenant-colonel
  • 1 major

The colonel and lieutenant-colonel had the privilege to command the two senior companies, this permission would be abolished in February 1749.

Organisation of a Battalion

The battalion usually consisted of 12 fusilier companies and 1 grenadier company. Every company had around 50 men in total, while the staff of the battalion numbered some 30 men, including 3 standard bearers and 12 guards of the colours.

When deployed, the colours were located in front of each battalion. Originally, every company carried a colour but with time the number was reduced due to the fact that companies in campaign were often put together in order to compensate for losses.

Hence, around 1706, there were three colours per battalion. The senior battalion of the regiment carried one colonel colour and two ordonnance colours, while the other battalions carried three ordonnance colours. Each colour was guarded by four sergeants who would deploy at the centre of the battalion, four paces ahead of the first rank.

The full strength of a battalion comprised 611 soldiers, 30 NCOs, 13 drummers and 39 officers, but companies were never at full strength because of insufficient recruitment, wounded, sick, deserters or prisoners.

When deploying in order of battle, companies were deployed four ranks deep.

Fusiliers Companies

Organisation of a French infantry company, using Normandie Infanterie as an example - Copyright Michele Savasta Fiore

A fusilier company consisted of:

  • 1 captain
  • 1 lieutenant
  • 1 sous-lieutenant
  • 2 sergeants
  • 42 fusiliers
  • 1 drummer

Grenadier Companies

As early as the XIVth, XVth and XVIth centuries, in the era of the formation of the first units of the permanent French army, while organising companies and legions of troops to fight in line, the necessity of disposing of specialised corps for hazardous enterprises was already felt.

Thus, in this period, some elite soldiers were designated as enfants perdus (lost children). They were usually placed in advanced posts and among the most disciplined bands. Sometimes, detachments of these soldiers were formed to march at the head of the attack columns. They also served as scouts for marching armies and convoys. They also had the privilege to lead the assaults on places.

When the grenade was invented, these troops were armed with these new weapons to hurl them at the enemies during siege. These troops were then called grenadiers, a name that they kept since that time, even after they ceased to use this weapon. In 1667, Louis XIV introduced four grenadiers in each company of French infantry regiments. This number was soon increased to six grenadiers per company. In 1670, grenadiers were assembled in a separate company in each battalion. Thus a regiment could have from one to four companies of grenadiers depending on its number of battalions. A characteristic of the companies of grenadiers was that they be at full strength at all time.

Around 1678, the grenadiers abandoned their primary function as grenade throwers, receiving a musket. Grenadiers then became synonym with elite infantryman. If they were originally chosen for their bravery and boldness, they were soon chosen for their handsomeness and their height. From their role during sieges, they retained the privilege to be the first to assault enemy trenches.

From 1692, the use of grenadiers spread to all French infantry regiments.

A grenadier company consisted of:

  • 1 captain
  • 1 lieutenant
  • 1 sous-lieutenant
  • 2 sergeants
  • 47 grenadiers
  • 1 drummer

References

Colin, Commandant d’artillerie: L’infanterie française au XVIIIe siècle – La Tactique, Paris: Berger-Levrault, 1907, p. 73

Pajol, Charles P. V., Les Guerres sous Louis XV, vol. VII, Paris, 1891, pp. 34-74, 149

Acknowledgements

Michele Savasta Fiore and Jean-Louis Vial of Nec Pluribus Impar and for most of the content of this article