French Revolutionary Infantry

By Tim Candlish – When the War of the First Coalition broke out in April 1792, Austrian and Prussian commanders assumed it would be like earlier 18th-century wars. They anticipated battles involving slow-moving blocs of highly drilled professionals discharging massed close-range volleys. Given the state of the French Army, moreover, they anticipated easy triumphs.

The regular army had largely held together, but most of its noble-born officers had fled, and the new and swelling volunteer formations were neither properly equipped or trained.

To men like Charles William Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick-Wollenbuttel, commander of the combined Austrian and Prussian armies, Revolutionary France must have seemed like easy prey. In the ‘cabinet wars’ he had spent his adult-life fighting, the usual strategy was for armies to manoeuvre cautiously around each other, hoping to win by seizing the stronger ground or cutting the enemy’s supply-line, rather than risking destruction in head-on battle.

This time, though, with the French armies in disarray, Brunswick could afford to be aggressive. And until the Battle of Valmy, on 20 September 1792, his strategy seemed to be working.

French Revolutionary InfantryThe French counter-offensive

Then everything changed. When the French went on the offensive after Valmy, they did so with gusto and a new way of fighting. Instead of advancing as one united army, they moved in multiple columns, taking full advantage of their swelling numbers. They also deployed a different kind of army, made up primarily of new volunteers and conscripts, designed to move quickly and fight in broken terrain, where their lack of traditional military skills was less of a disadvantage.

These light forces harassed Coalition armies by going where they were least wanted: looming on the flanks, menacing the supply-lines, and threatening to overwhelm their opponents with a fast-moving, fluid mass of independent-minded and highly motivated revolutionary soldiers.

Bewildered, Coalition generals were forced to split their armies in order to fend off their enemies, leaving them divided and vulnerable when the main French field army launched its attack. This strategy of offensive on a broad front served the French well, contributing to victories such as Jemappes on 6 November 1792, Hondschoote on 8 September 1793, and many more.

The legeres

Revolutionary and Napoleonic WarsWhile French victories in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars were due to a variety of factors, the adoption of ‘light warfare’ was crucial. Light troops helped to bring victory on the battlefield by skirmishing, and off the battlefield by performing reconnaissance and helping to forage (since French Revolutionary and Napoleonic armies typically ‘lived off the land’).

They also had a strategic role, with whole demi-brigades of legeres, as the French called light troops, employed to harass and divide enemy armies. This was a revolutionary change, but one based on developments going back decades – and echoing methods going back millennia.

It is a cliche that armies prepare for the last war, and the Coalition armies certainly did so. The deep-rooted conservatism of ancien regime Europe precluded any sort of radical change. Not so Revolutionary France: the fall of the monarchy, the creation of a new bourgeois republic, and the explosion of mass activity and popular enthusiasm engendered by the revolution transformed the military situation.

French Revolutionary Army

Psiloi and peltasts

Light warfare, of one sort or another, is as old as warfare itself. Units of light troops in loose formation have fought for millennia alongside more heavily armed and tightly ordered soldiers, the ‘lights’ and the ‘heavies’ each performing tasks for which the other was not well-suited, yet giving one another essential mutual support.

Ancient Greek warfare was traditionally focused on the hoplite phalanx, consisting of armoured spearmen in tight formation, with light infantry and cavalry operating in the skirmishing and detached roles.

Few in number, not particularly well trained, and looked down on by the hoplites, who were their social superiors, skirmishers had little to contribute in a set-piece battle. Their battle would consist of hurling rocks or javelins, or shooting arrows, from the relative safety of close proximity to their own phalanxes, and pursuing enemy hoplites if they broke and ran.

It was in the detached role that the psiloi or ‘naked’ found their niche, forming a screen around the main army and operating to seek out the enemy or to find and gather supplies. The former role was particularly important, for their task was not simply to locate the enemy army, but to prevent their enemy counterparts from doing likewise.

Ancient Greek warfare usually resulted in strategic deadlock, with armies engaging only when they saw clear advantage and retreating behind city walls when they did not; full-scale pitched battle between opposing hoplite phalanxes was rare.

The Battle of Sphakteria

Because of this, the Peloponnesian War of 431-404 BC took on a repetitive pattern, with Spartan armies ravaging the land around Athens in futile attempts to provoke a battle, while the Athenian navy raided as it pleased but without having the capacity to win a decisive victory against a land-based opponent. Both sides sought a new approach, one that would gain strategic advantage without the risks inherent in a traditional hoplite clash.

Both turned to their light troops, recruiting more and more of them from among the lower classes. They also hired mercenaries from peoples traditionally skilled in this form of warfare, both to fight their battles and to train their recruits. Cretan archers were popular, as were slingers from the Balearic Islands. The most distinctive were the Thracian peltasts, so-called for the crescent-moon shields they carried in addition to their javelins.

Light troops finally proved what they could do with sufficient numbers and expertise on the island of Sphakteria in 425 BC. Athenian archers and peltasts managed to wear down a force of Spartan hoplites and force them to surrender.

Thucydides describes the Athenians launching hit-and-run attacks, moving close enough to fire arrows and throw javelins, then running away as the Spartans charged. Lightly armoured, the Athenians were able to move over the rocky terrain easily, outpacing the heavily armoured Spartans, who were thereby ground down in a dav-long battle of attrition and exhaustion in which they were never able to get to grips with their enemies.

The Seven Years War

Seven Years WarSkirmishing in support of the main army and detached operations like that at Sphakteria turn up again and again throughout history. Such tactics were well-known to 18th-century French military thinkers, who called it petit guerre. Eighteenth-century warfare had fallen into much the same rut as ancient Greek hoplite battle, with slow-moving armies and few opportunities for decisive victory. Various efforts had been made to break the deadlock.

In the Seven Years War of 1756-1763, Frederick the Great of Prussia pioneered several innovations designed to make his armies more versatile and effective, and to secure the elusive victories that his desperate situation made so necessary.

His single biggest problem was the need to transport supplies from depots in the rear to his armies, creating an umbilical cord that had to be protected at any cost. Rather than risk their expensive and hard-to-replace professional soldiers in set-piece battle, 18th-century commanders generally preferred to manoeuvre around an enemy army, threatening its supply-lines and forcing it to withdraw. But because armies could move only as quickly as their supply wagons, it was exceptionally difficult to force an unwilling enemy to stand and fight.

Frederick the Great’s reforms

Nonetheless, despite his vivid military imagination and dynamic intellect, Frederick was suspicious of light troops, believing that training soldiers to fight in loose formation and operate away from the main army was inviting them to desert. He may have been right: the brutalized peasant-conscripts of the Prussian Army in the 1760s were a far cry from the citizen-soldiers of Revolutionary France in the 1790s.

An important innovation, however – one pushed by Frederick’s helpful younger brother Prince Henry-was to organize the troops into freestanding ‘divisions’, each equipped and organized so as to be able to operate independently, not unlike a Roman legion. The idea was that each division would move by itself, covering ground more quickly, while being close enough together to achieve rapid concentration when ordered.

This innovation – the independent division – laid the foundations for the third form of light warfare: as well as skirmishing and detached ‘special ops’, there would soon be strategic envelopment and harassment.

‘Barbarian’ auxiliaries

18th-century EuropeansFrederick’s reservations about light infantry did not prevent him, along with other European leaders, from making use of them if he could find them. Like the ancient Greeks, 18th-century Europeans regarded light warfare as the preserve of the barbarian ‘other’, of peoples who lived outside the mainstream of society.

Peoples like Native American tribesmen or Croatian grenzers were regarded as dangerous barbarians. But at the same time they were seen as ‘natural’ fighters, especially in light or ‘irregular’ warfare. Also like the ancient Greeks, the European armies simply did not know how to teach the skills of light warfare to their own troops. It was during the Seven Years War, however, that such skills and ideas began to spread among regular officers and military thinkers.

Major Robert Rogers is a prime example of this, creating a hand-picked force of light infantry to fight the French and their native allies on their own ground and with their own tricks during British operations in North America. His unit is known to history as ‘Rogers’ Rangers’.

In continental Europe, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria made extensive use of her grenzers -as the light infantry from the Croatian and Transylvanian military frontier were known – against Frederick the Great. At the Battle of Hochkirch on 14 October 1758, the grenzers proved themselves superior to Frederick’s ‘Free Battalions’.

The French tradition

Prussia enjoyed success in the Seven Years War, but for France the war was a humiliating defeat. French society debated loudly with itself how things could have gone so badly wrong. One result was an explosion of new ideas among military thinkers like Pierre de Bourcet and Jacques Guibert, with more and more attention being given to light troops. By the time the Bastille fell, the French regular army included 12 battalions of light infantry, whose skills would soon prove invaluable.

Light troops were fully accepted in European armies by this time, but debates nevertheless raged as to how many were needed and what they should be allowed to do. The usual approach in ancien regime armies was for each battalion of line infantry to maintain a light company, while light cavalry were heavily influenced by the Hungarian hussars, especially their distinctive uniforms. In sharp contrast, Revolutionary France would raise light troops by the battalion and even the demi-brigade.

Destruction complete

Croatian grenzersFrance adopted a new approach because a revolutionary society is wide open to innovation, because it was fielding mass armies of semi-trained volunteers and conscripts, and because the beleaguered First Republic was in desperate need of victories. Under attack from all sides, Revolutionary France did not have the time or resources to engage in the traditional wars of manoeuvre. France’s enemies had to be crushed quickly, as Lazare Carnot was forever reminding the generals, calling for their complete destruction.

Mass volunteering and organized conscription meant that France had plenty of manpower, but neither the time nor the experienced officers needed to turn recruits into traditional line units, a process that could take years. Light troops needed nothing like as much training, as they did not use the same rigid formations and complex manoeuvres as line troops. Training new recruits as light infantry meant that they could be put to use relatively quickly.

Effective skirmishing was useful on the battlefield itself, but light troops were also needed to operate on detachment. French armies were able to move more quickly in part because they were spread out in divisions, but also because they lived off the land wherever possible, making all the more work for light infantry and cavalry.

But it was the third form of light warfare – using light troops in a strategic role – which brought it all together. Once on campaign, light divisions could harass enemy armies and box them in, preventing them from escaping or outmaneuvering the line divisions as they moved in for the kill. These methods brought France victory after victory all across Europe, forcing France’s enemies to adapt the new way of war for their own use. By Tim Candlish


Jemappes was the first decisive victory of the new French Revolutionary armies against their European enemies. It illustrates at least three of the distinctive characteristics of the new way of war forged in the years 1789-1794: mobility, mass, and morale.

THE BATTLE OF JEMAPPESGeneral Dumouriez’s Armee du Nord, around 90,000 strong, marched north to drive the Austrians out of northern France. As he did so, he sent detached columns direct to the frontier to distract the Austrians and threaten their communications. Field-Marshal Sachsen-Teschen, with only 50,000 men, was thrown onto the defensive. The two main field-armies clashed at Jemappes, where Sachsen-Teschen had taken up a strong position on a ridge protected by a village, a stream, and entrenchments.

Dumouriez divided his 38,000 men into three divisions, one to assault the village on the Austrian right, one to attempt an outflanking move against the Austrian left, and the largest to mount the main attack in the centre. Sachsen-Teschen’s 13,000 men fought a tough defensive battle and threw back several French assaults. But, heavily outnumbered and lacking the fluidity and flexibility of their opponents, they remained anchored in their original positions and were unable to exploit any momentary successes.

The French, by contrast, reformed and renewed the assault after each reverse. They eventually broke into the village on the Austrian right and thereby imperilled Sachsen-Teschen’s entire position. The Austrians broke off the engagement in the early afternoon and retreated northwards. The revolutionaries swarmed into Belgium and captured Brussels.

Steeled by victory, the Revolution made a radical turn. The National Convention declared its determination ‘to give fraternal support to all people who wish to regain their liberty’. Leading revolutionaries like Danton proclaimed the intention to revolutionize Europe with a policy of ‘war on the chateaux and peace to the cottages’. The execution of King Louis XVI on 21 January 1793 sounded the death-knell of ancient regime Europe and the inauguration of a new age of republicanism, nationalism, and citizenship. A revolution in war had secured the triumph of a revolution in politics.

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