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Warfare in the Age of Napoleon:
La Grande Armée
Although gunpowder had already been used for a long time, it was only at the beginning of the 19th century that armies finally totally integrated it into their tactics on the battlefield. This was supported by better organization, which began with the War Minister Carnot during the Revolution and came to fruition under Napoleon. The proper use of organization and tactics allowed fresh troops to become efficient soldiers in a short period of time. This played a pivotal role in the Napoleonic Wars, for armies often had to be quickly replaced after defeats. Every able-bodied man of age in France was expected to defend the republic or lose their citizenship. This meant that his famous Grande Armée largely consisted conscripts drawn from the lower classes. Most of these troops received little to no training other than what they learned while engaged in combat. This also included officers, but anyone could rise in rank on the basis of merit, not class position as in other armies. This not only created a better led army but one that was also very loyal to the republic. While Napoleon only began using the term Grande Armée to refer to the force assembled to invade England in 1805, it soon became to be used to describe all men fighting under him.
Not all members of the Grande Armée were without military training. After the French Revolution the national institutes of public works was established for the benefit of the new republic but there was a lack of candidates qualified in mathematics, physics, and chemistry to fulfill its mission. This inspired Gaspard Monge to found the École Centrale des Travaux Publics in 1794, which was renamed École Polytechnique in 1795. A number of its graduates accompanied Napoleon on his Egyptian campaign. Impressed by their work he turned the school into a military academy in 1804. A number of commemorative postcards were published to mark the anniversary of this event. Cadets from the school aided the defense of Paris in 1814.
Over the years many images of Napoleon with his Grande Armŕe became iconic. Their ability to be easily recognized and their meaning understood made them a prime target for satire in later years. During the First World War a number of French cartoonists mocked the Kaiser and his army by comparing their shortcomings to the true Greatness of Napoleon through the use of specific historic images.
The renown of the Grand Armée led not only to its aggrandizement but that of the individual French soldier as well. He was often singled out for special treatment on postcards that either honored or degraded him depending on how the country of origin viewed Napoleon. As a whole he appears on cards not just as a soldier but a citizen of France upholding its revolutionary ideals. This was not just all propaganda for most French soldiers felt they were not just fighting for their homeland but for an important cause. This often gave them an edge on the battlefield when extra effort was needed to win the day, and greatly helped recruitment efforts.
The Grande Armée’s reputation as loyal efficient warriors became part of the Napoleonic myth and was carried forward with him. This can be seen in The Dream, created in 1888 by the noted painter of Napoleonic subjects, Edouard Detaille. While the painting specifically references the Franco-Prussian War, the French soldiers in it dream of the exploits of the Grande Armée. Such idealizations would continue and be updated through World War One, and this painting in particular became a very popular subject for postcards.
At the beginning of the 20th century there seems to have been a penchant for associating children with warfare in a positive light. This habit seems very foreign to us today as we try to shield children from violence. While there are a number of postcards depicting Napoleons children, they are never put into military context on historical based works, only on modern pieces especially if a photograph. There are quite a number of French real photo cards depicting children dressed as Napoleon and his soldiers. While these are playful images created more for amusement than propaganda, some compositions are presented in the context of a violent battle
Karl Leopold Hollitzer was an illustrator and singer that performed at the Cabaret Fledermaus in Vienna. While he is best known for his caricatures, the Austrian publisher Bruder Kohn place a number of his Napoleonic paintings onto postcards. His passion for military history resulted in one of the biggest collections of weapons and uniforms in all of Europe.
The Continental Blockade 1806-1814
In May 1806, Great Britain issued Orders in Council that placed a blockade on the coast of France. Having been unable to invade England, Napoleon retaliated in the only way he could with a blockade of his own. It started with the Berlin Decree in November 1906 that prohibited all vessels departing from Britain from landing at a French controlled port. This was followed by the Milan Decree in March 1807, which authorized the seizure of any ship departing from Britain. Collectively this economic blockade came to be known as the Continental System. Military victories on the ground allowed Napoleon to force this system on other kingdoms, but the loss of trade caused dissension and sometimes outright refusal to comply. Napoleon’s obsession with maintaining this rickety blockade not only hurt the French economy, it led to his costliest mistakes. The Peninsular War and the Invasion of Russia in 1812 were both a result of this policy. The British blockade of Continental ports increasingly antagonized Anglo-American relations that eventually led the United States to declare war on Britain in June 1812. While the blockades played a vital role in the events of this period, the unglamorous subject was rarely covered by postcards.
The War of the Fourth Coalition 1806-1807
When Napoleon dissolved the Holy Roman Empire and created the Confederation of the Rhine tensions flared up between France and Prussia. Napoleon saw Prussia as a threat to his new allied Confederation while Frederick-William III of Prussia was suddenly alarmed over France’s new found influence over these German States. Napoleon had positioned his army provocatively close to the Prussian border. As the war fraction headed by Queen Luise gained ascendancy in Prussia, they issued an ultimatum demanding that Napoleon withdraw his troops and that Prussia be allowed to form their own German League. Meanwhile a fourth coalition against Napoleon was being formed by Britain, Russia, and Sweden, but before these forces were united the French army in the Rhineland was already crossing the Prussian border and brushing aside defenses in its path.
Prussian Generals did not pay much attention to the innovative tactics that Napoleon had introduced to warfare, and they were unprepared to deal with them when they met in battle. In October Napoleon attacked the Prussians at Jena issuing a crushing defeat. He had thought he was facing the Prussian army but it turned out to be the Saxon rear guard under Hohenlohe as Frederick-William marched to Auerstadt. A French corps under Marshall Davout was also headed to Auerstadt, but despite being heavily outnumbered they also delivered a disastrous defeat on the Prussians. As the Prussian army disintegrated, Davout advanced and occupied Berlin.
Gerog Wolff was a print dealer in Jena. In 1906 he produced a set of cards reproducing old printed views of the Battle of Jena for its 100th anniversary. This is a typical example of how the exuberance of the golden age of postcards could suddenly inspire anyone with access to imagery to become a postcard publisher.
Antoine Charles Louis de Lasalle showed an early interest in military affairs, and joined an Alsacian regiment at the age of eleven. His noble birth entitled him to an officers rank but he had to give it up after the French Revolution. Lasalle however embraced these revolutionary ideals and he reenlisted in the French army as a private. He was quickly promoted and made his presence felt at the Battle of Rivoli where he came to attention of Napoleon. He continued to fight in Egypt and Spain, but it was in October 1806 that he became a national hero. Marching far ahead of the main army with his Brigade Infernale after the Battle of Auerstadt, he captured the fortress of Stettin solely by bluff. He continued to fight and be promoted until he commanded an entire cavalry division by 1809. He would die while making a charge at the Battle of Wagram. His heroics led him to be one of the few French officers portrayed on postcards who was not a Marshal.
After his victory at Jena-Auerstadt, Napoleon dispatched troops to follow the Prussians that were retreating into Pomerania. Though most of this Baltic region was easily occupied by the French, their pursuit was lackluster, which gave the Prussians time to rally at Kolberg and build up its defenses. With British and Swedish aid, this port city was ready by November 1806 to deny French demands that it surrender. Reinforced by Polish insurgents, the French then laid siege to the city. As more reinforcements poured in, the French began launching serious attacks against Kolberg in May 1807. The city was heavily damaged but they held out until the end of the war. The brave defense of Kolberg became legend and was often embellished on as years past. It would become a popular subject for German publishers.
Napoleon’s triumphal entry into Berlin in 1806 under the tune of the Marseillaise did not signify the end of Prussian resistance, let alone the end to the war, but it was a humiliating act. The taking of the Prussian capital symbolized the fall of their state. While the kingdom would remain on the map, it was France that would dictate its policies. By December Napoleon was in the position to force Prussia to halt its trade with England. Many postcards depict Napoleon riding through the streets of Berlin, many based of early representations of this event.
Once Berlin had fallen, Saxony abandoned the coalition and allied itself to France. The small force under Blucher was the last of Prussia’s army. He sought refuge in Lubeck hoping to make contact with the Swedish army but they were not to be found. The French overran the city the following day. Afterwards French armies marched into Russian Poland and occupied Warsaw to deter the Russians from reestablishing the Prussian State. The French would then move to capture Konigsberg, which was serving as the temporary Prussian capitol. By December Napoleon was in the position to force Prussia to halt its trade with England.
As 1807 began, the Russians launched an offensive against the French driving Ney’s army from Konigsburg. The Russians under Bennigsen continually threatened Napoleon’s line of communications with Berlin, and in turn Napoleon tried to cut them off from Russia but they always managed to pull back first. The two armies would finally collide by accident in February under harsh winter conditions at Eylau where a back and forth battle ensued. While both sides suffered very high casualties, the outcome of this unplanned battle was indecisive. It demonstrates how difficult it was becoming for a single commander to keep total control over large campaigns far from home.
The publisher M. Barré & J. Dayez of Paris was known for their hand colored continental sized artist drawn cards. These cards covered a variety of subjects including Napoleonic battles. While these cards seem to capture famous cavalry charges, other subjects might have also been covered. These cards were made sometime after 1925.
After the French took the port of Danzig in March, they launched a new offensive against the Russians in the spring. Bennigsen had been expecting this move and tried to outmaneuver Napoleon. The French were repulsed when they attacked the Russians who had dug in at Heilsberg, but at Friedland the Russian position was poor with their backs a river. When hard pressed, the Russian army collapsed resulting in a major French victory. While there were some rearguard actions, the remaining Russians managed to retreat back into Lithuania. Konigsburg fell to the French soon afterwards.
By June these events led the Czar to request an armistice. In the Peace of Tilsit that followed, the Prussians were forced to cede lands to the Confederation of the Rhine, and the territories previously taken by Prussia in the Partition of Poland were added to other lands captured from Austria and Russia to create the Duchy of Warsaw. The French army continued to occupy Prussia to make sure the enormous indemnity they required was paid. The Swedes would also be forced out of Pomerania, and the Russians reluctantly pledged to aid France in its conflict with Britain. Queen Luise attended the talks in hopes that her presence might help Prussia receive better terms, but she seemed to have little effect other than generating a number of paintings and illustrations that would later wind up on postcards. The conditions set on Prussia were particularly hash as they were meant to break it as a military power. This in turn would lead to great resentment against the French that not only fed into the Liberation Wars and German nationalism, but ingrained itself into German society.
Napoleon had hoped that the end of this war would bring true peace between France and Russia for he saw no natural conflicts between them. His arrival in Warsaw was only a strategic maneuver, not a political challenge but things soon got out of control. The Poles seeking to regain their former state perceived the French as liberators and began raising troops to fight alongside them. These events eventually led to the creation of the Duchy of Warsaw, which was only nominally independent from French control. While having a buffer state made military sense and an added ally was most welcome, this loss of territory from Russia permanently soured their relations. Czar Alexander was already resentful of Napoleon’s power; so while he bitterly agreed to French demands, the chance for lasting peace had vanished.
While the poles did not achieve true independence, they saw the formation of the Duchy of Warsaw as a major stepping stone towards forming a real Polish kingdom. Poles would fight alongside French armies for as long as they were fielded before disappearing back into Russia after Napoleon’s downfall. Once Poland regained true independence after World War One, its participation in the Napoleonic Wars was often referred to on postcards in order to honor its long struggle for independence and inspire new nationalist feelings. In doing so Poland became a major producer of Napoleonic postcards.
Afraid that the French might try to replace the fleet they lost at Trafalgar with that of Denmark, the British sent a combined army naval force to Zealand. When the Danes refused to negotiate away their navy, the Second Battle of Copenhagen started in September 1807. This time the city was bombarded and attacked forcing Danes surrendered their fleet. This aggression in turn caused Denmark to ally itself to France, and a guerrilla naval war broke out that would be waged against Britain for years to come.
Anglo-Russian War 1808-1810
Soured over the loss of Poland, Russia did as little as possible to honor its treaty obligations in aiding the French in its conflict with Britain. The French still managed to use this alliance to force Sweden to cut off British entry into the Baltic Sea. The overly optimistic Swedish King stalled for time so he could forge a new alliance with Britain. He wanted to launch a joint attack on France’s new ally Denmark in order to seize long coveted territory. Before the Swedes could launch an offensive they found that the Russians had reacted sooner than expected by invading their Finish territories in 1808. The Russians advance moved slowly and although the Swedes put up constant resistance the momentum could not be stopped. Within a year Russia had managed to take over all of Sweden east of the Gulf of Bothnia and created the Grand Duchy of Finland. As relations between Russia and France grew even more strained, Russia ended its forced belligerence toward Great Britain in 1810.