Synopsis of \'1809: A CONSCRIPT\'S STORY\' by Terry Crowdy
In The Campaigns of Napoleon, Dr David Chandler described 1809 as the French Emperor\'s \'last success.\' The point is fairly made. While there may have been occasional victories after 1809, true, long-lasting success remained elusive. There are many possible reasons for this decline and many believe his divorce of Empress Josephine and subsequent marriage to an Austrian princess was a key factor. There is however a more pragmatic reason for this decline.
When Napoleon faced Austria in 1805 his Grande Armée was a perfect mix of experienced, battle-hardened veterans and young levies properly trained in the Camp of Boulogne. In 1808, after successive campaigns against Austria, Prussia and Russia, more training camps were established around Berlin for bringing the replacements up to scratch.
In 1809, with the bulk of his veterans sent to Spain, Napoleon had a raise a new army to meet Austria in the field.
Serving in the French 9th Light Infantry [dubbed \'Incomparable' by Napoleon after its service at Marengo in 1800], Nicholas Page was one of 500 young men conscripted and sent to the depot on 2 March 1809. After a march of 190km to the depot, Page described how he was immediately assigned to a squad, had the penal code read to him and then received rudimentary drill without weapons. Three days later, half the contingent was uniformed and sent on campaign and told they would be trained en route.
Page remained in the depot until early May when a convoy of wounded returned to the depot. Page was shocked to recognise some of his companions among this number. Page was sent out as a replacement and eventually arrived in Vienna in time for the Battle of Wagram on 5/6 July.
In the short time from conscription to the end of his first campaign Page had went through a steep learning curve. Within six months he marched somewhere between 2,500-3000 km, had fought in one of the greatest battles of the era. For his he had been given six or seven weeks training at best.
He was one of the lucky ones. For those sent from the depot after 3 days the level of training must have been rudimentary at best; and herein lies a root cause behind Napoleon\'s decline
While infantrymen can learn to load and fire a musket in an afternoon, the complex evolutions of line and column, the confidence to execute brigade and divisional level manoeuvres and the delicate functions of advanced-guard work or skirmishing all require patient training. Where in the haste of the 1809 did the conscripts have a chance to learn these things? Without proper training and with less experienced leadership, infantry becomes a blunt instrument, quickly baffled by anything beyond direct frontal attacks. Battles of maneouver become battles of attrition and losses mount accordingly. As casualties rise, the demand for conscripts increases and the quality suffers.
As the quality of the troops declines, the commanders have to take more risks and be conspicious in their leadership: this results in a greater number of officer casualties and a subsequent deterioration in leadership. Between the battles of Aspern and Wagram the 9th suffered 5 officers killed and 24 wounded, including a battalion commander. Such loses put increasing strains on the survivors. In short, a vicious circle is created within which there are fewer and fewer veterans to train and lead increasing numbers of younger conscripts.
In 1809 the history books tell us Napoleon and his army commanders managed these problems sufficiently well. In 1809 France still had enough in reserve to weather this crisis and come through it largely intact. Still fighting a war on two fronts, when Napoleon attempted the same experiment after losing his army in Russia in 1812 it asked too much from a nation exposed to two and a half decades of upheaval and war. That, in my opinion is what ensured 1809 would be Napoleon\'s last success.