Training of conscripts during the Boulogne camp 1805

“Dear Father and Mother  I am writing these lines to find out how you are, hoping that like me you are well for the time being.

We have drill twice a day. I have arrived in Boulogne, and as for the victuals it’s very dear The English come and say hello every day, they’ve done for six of our men but they’ve lost two ships.”  

This letter, dated November 28th, 1805, from Private Joseph Goupil of the 46th Infantry Regiment to his parents, neatly sums up what everyday life was like for the men stationed in the coastal camps. From the summer of 1803 to 1805, the temporary camps were transformed into permanent military installations which acted as army training and instruction centres.

Three intakes of conscripts from Years IX, X and XI were trained there, representing 30,000 men a year, plus 60,000 in Year XII. The camps also gave men who had served longer an opportunity to improve their skills.

Not many soldiers have left a detailed account of the experience of their first months of army life. Although some memoirs talk of the induction period,  they pass quickly over the time spent in training.

When they do so, it is often to say that conditions seemed “a bit harsh” to begin with, “among old soldiers who stank”.   But the descriptions are often mixed with fond nostalgia, as with the story of Marbot and his moustache.  

Many recruits mention intensive training, but within a few weeks they had learnt the drills and how to handle a musket.  

The discovery of soldiering, and the instruction that came with it, was not always easy for conscripts, especially as their army life was often involuntary rather than chosen.

The training of recruits started the day after their arrival at the regiment, once they had been issued their kit.


Napoleon believed that simply bringing men together was not enough to “turn them into soldiers; only drill, instruction and skill truly do that.”  So conscripts joining a regiment did not become soldiers until they had been given strict instruction and rigorous training.

For the Emperor and his contemporaries, it took three months for an infantryman to become effective in battle,  and rather longer for a cavalryman: the minimum instruction time for them was four to five months.  

At Boulogne they had two years to perfect their skills. The formal framework for instruction during the Empire was established under the Consulate.

The overhaul of the existing system was based on the decree of 1 Vendémiaire Year XII (September 24th, 1803), which reorganised the regiments and the general framework of the army. It instituted the regimental depot as the headquarters of the regiment and the place where soldiers were trained, under the command of a major.  

Second-in-command of the regiment, this officer was responsible for keeping the depot in good military, administrative and financial order, and for training recruits. He appointed the instructing officer (a battalion or squadron commander or captain), who in turn commanded NCOs (sergeants and corporals) and private-instructors. Commanding officers were responsible for deciding soldiers’ timetables, which led to considerable differences between regiments.

Instructors had a whole set of official ordinances to help them organise their training of recruits. Inherited from the 18th century, these regulations were the last links in a long chain going back to the Enlightenment.  

They marked the triumph of the Prussian spirit in the French army: precise manoeuvres and automatic movements ensured that soldiers in battle would not have to think.

For many officers who had emerged during the Revolution or early Consulate, Boulogne was an opportunity to get to grips with the Rules and Regulations for the Field Exercise and Manoeuvres of the Infantry of August 1st, 1791, and to brush up their soldiering skills. From the Revolutionary Wars onward, the 1791 were subject to critical review and adapted to the realities of warfare.  

Much thought was given to their suitability during the Boulogne Camp, not least by General Meunier, who started to revise them. The resumption of hostilities put an end to these endeavours, however, and the 1791remained in effect throughout the Empire period.

At Boulogne, marshals’ instructions emphasized the importance of these manoeuvres and insisted on strict compliance with the rules and regulations.  The manuals for both infantry and cavalry approached their subject matter in the same way. Recruits were initially trained individually in the School of the Soldier.

For infantry, this meant marching drill, arms drill and basic movements. For cavalry, it covered seat on the horse, work on the longe, work mounted, singly and by squadron, and at the gallop. These drills were then performed in increasingly large groups. In the School of the Platoon, the same material was applied to basic groups while introducing formations and “manual exercises”, or musket drill.

The School of the Battalion or Squadron focused on formations and their manoeuvres. The final stage consisted of full regimental manoeuvres (in columns and lines, plus the transition to battle order), and brigade movements.

During initial instruction, new recruits were drilled three or four times a day. One reason was to fill their time in order to prevent morale-sapping boredom. In the absence of gymnastics, forced marches of 30 to 40 kilometres in full battle order were also designed to harden up recruits as quickly as possible and prepare them for the rigours and hardship of military life on campaign.

After a few days’ instruction, the most able or the quickest to grasp the drills were sorted from the rest.

The former became first-class recruits, the latter second class, or even third class for the least able. The first-class recruits would drill only once or twice a day, while those in the second and third class would continue to have three intensive sessions. To encourage third-class recruits to make progress, they were deprived of “the honour of doing service”. They were assigned to all the chores, “without the same preventing them from attending drill”, until they were sufficiently well-drilled to move up to second class.  

Instruction was based entirely on the endless and systematic repetition of simple movements that every soldier could learn. Combat in the 19th century was structured to the extreme: soldiers were merely a fragment of space, a piece in the line. They had to unlearn their individuality and their own movements in order to take their place in the column and rank.

That is why position was the first thing conscripts were taught. They learnt how to stand in rank without moving for 15 minutes, then how to march in step in order to perform basic manoeuvres.

In 1806 General Duhesme drew a number of conclusions about infantry rules and regulations from his experience at Boulogne. In particular, he criticised the over-mechanical approach of the Prussian school, adopted to excess in France.

“Recruits were tormented for six months”, he wrote, “their chests often damaged in order to teach them the first position, how to march in step and how to bear arms; every morning the poor devils were kept motionless or in awkward positions for two or three hours at a time, enough to put off even those keenest on the military life.”  

It is not hard to imagine the suffering of conscripts that lies behind that observation. They had to repeat the drills over and over again in order to achieve the perfect movements or ideal positions prescribed in the manual. Jean-Baptiste Boisson, writing in 1809, recounts how “horrific training” began the day after his arrival at 

2nd Light Infantry Regiment. “The NCOs allowed us hardly any respite. We had to repeat the ‘Attention’ and ‘At ease’ positions a hundred times.” He goes on: “We had to learn the march step, two feet in length from one heel to the other, seventy-six paces per minute; that’s what the sergeant kept yelling at us. We were also initiated into the mysteries of the oblique step”.  

The instruction concerned not only positions but also movements, first singly, then in increasingly large groups. Soldiers had to move together precisely and quickly, and so had to relearn how to march the army way. “The men are told a thousand times to stretch the calf, to skim the ground with the foot. They have to learn the balancing step, which makes them clumsier than before.

A recruit who has often journeyed several hundred leagues to join his regiment may be supposed to have some idea of how to march.”  The principle was that as the infantry rarely became involved in bayonet fighting, the line had to hold. So everyone had to march together in order to create a mass effect that would sap the enemy’s morale and break them.  

These constant drills, not very different from dance steps, transformed the body, developing the musculature and giving soldiers an erect posture, unlike any other, that would remain with them for life.  But when evening came, as Jean-Baptiste Boisson admitted, “we were done in”.

The second stage of instruction was learning how to use the 1777-pattern musket. This involved bending the future combatant’s will to the weapon that would become his constant companion and the guarantor of his conduct on the battlefield.

The principal purpose of these drills was to automate movements. There was no time to think in the heat of battle: soldiers had to load and fire their weapons automatically.

The first drills – marching and mounting guard – were conducted with the weapon unloaded. It was heavy on the arms for young men unused to handling a musket nearly five-foot-long (over six with the bayonet) and weighing nearly ten pounds. Montesquiou-Fezensac, who joined the 59th Line Regiment in 1804, recounts that once he had settled into his barracks at the camp in Montreuil, he started to “learn the drill”, which he found “rather hard, the musket seeming heavy for lack of practice”.

 The barrack-room was where the recruits learnt how to take care of their weapon (along with much else, like ranks, and how to behave, and chores, and how to maintain their uniform). They had to learn how to assemble and disassemble it, and the name of each part. This drill, which had to be performed within a reasonable time, was of paramount importance for the soldier. He was responsible for his weapon, and especially for ensuring that it worked properly in all weathers.

Only when the soldier had mastered his musket, including during foot drills, did he learn how to shoot. Loading was performed on 12 commands and with 18 movements.

The solider had to be able to load as quickly as possible, and also be familiar with the faster reloading procedures used in battle. For the instructors, constant repetition of these movements was needed in order to perfectly assimilate them.

Napoleon, like many army instructors, insisted on the absolute need for soldiers to know how to shoot, even if not always in harmony with their comrades. Shooting drills were frequent in the coastal camps, both at targets and in more or less large-scale formation.  Although many conscripts were familiar with firearms, some confessed to being shaken, on their first drill, by the noise of so many detonations.  

A painful process

One might think, reading the authors of memoirs, that induction into the regiment was an educational experience, and that it made French soldiers superior to their opponents. However, the image conveyed by legend did not tell the whole story.

During those first few weeks in the regiment, everything combined to make the new recruits lose their bearings and their identity. In addition, the instructors responsible for knocking the conscripts into shape were often veterans with better martial than educational skills, and an already well-developed esprit de corps.

The following extract is taken from the book, “Waterloo, The French perspective”, by Andrew W. Field:

Corporal Canler was only seventeen years old when he fought at Waterloo, though he had volunteered for the army four years before. He was in the 28th de ligne, the second regiment in Bourgeois brigade. He also gives us an exciting account of the attack:

“Soon there was a terrible duet executed by these two batteries that were composed of nearly two hundred guns; the balls, bombs and shells, passed whistling over our heads. After a half hour wait, Marshal Ney gave the order to attack and to take by assault the English battery; three beats on the drum sufficed to get the corps ready to march; we were formed up in colonne-serrée par bataillon; I remembered that adjutant-major Hubant, charged with forming the divisions, an old soldier who had taken part in all the campaigns of the Empire, was preoccupied and very pale. Finally, the columns were formed. Général Drouet d’Erlon took position in the middle of his army corps, and with a strong and clear voice pronounced these few words: ‘Today it is necessary to vanquish or die!’

The cry of “Vive l’Empereur!” left all our mouths in reply to this short speech, and, with ‘forme au bras’ [ordered arms], to the sound of drums beating the charge, the columns moved off and directed themselves towards the English guns without firing a single musket shot.”

As they advanced the Grand Battery continued to fire over their heads at the few, obscure targets that were available. Although the columns were in dead ground to some of the allied guns for part of their advance, the amount and accuracy of the enemy’s fire inevitably increased as they slowly climbed the gradual slope, and casualties began to fall more frequently.

Lieutenant Martin :
“Death crept up on us from every side; entire ranks disappeared under the caseshot, but nothing was able to stop our march; it continued with the same order as before, with the same précision. The dead were immediately replaced by those who followed; the ranks, although becoming fewer, remained in good order.”

Despite the increasing casualties as more allied guns came into play, the French soldiers marched on.

The skills acquired after two years of drill truly came into their. The pace of instruction accelerated from 1806. By the end of the Empire, with the machinery of conscription running full tilt, recruits did not always have time to get properly acclimatized to the business of soldiering. Some were thrown into battle without uniform, hardly knowing how to manoeuvre or handle their musket. Nevertheless, the esprit de corps forged in the camp at Boulogne lasted throughout the Empire and beyond, deep into the 19th century, enshrined in memoirs which helped to create and perpetuate the imperial myth.

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