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Napoleon’s officers were drawn from the French working class

Posted in Historical articles, History, War on Friday, 31 May 2013

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This edited article about Napoleon Bonaparte originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 275 published on 22 April 1967.

Napoleon, picture, image, illustration

Napoleon Bonaparte reviewing his troops by Paul Rainer

Who said “Every French soldier carries the baton of a marshal of France in his knapsack”?

The answer is Napoleon Bonaparte.


When the French Revolution was at its height in 1793, France found herself faced on every side by enemies – England, Spain, Prussia, Austria and other nations, and Frenchmen who had fled to escape the guillotine. Her army was a mere rabble: most of the officers, who had been drawn from the nobility, had gone into exile.

But a saviour was at hand, the War Minister, Carnot, who inspired France to meet the threat of invasion. “Young men shall fight; married men shall forge weapons and transport supplies; women will make tents and serve in hospitals; children will make bandages; old men will have themselves carried into the public square to rouse the courage of the fighting men.” A nation was in arms.

There was only one place officers could be drawn from – the ranks. Carnot and his inexperienced army saved France. It was this army that Napoleon inherited, disciplined and turned into his Grand Army. The marshals who helped him conquer Europe were very different from their opponents. Marshal Ney, “Bravest of the Brave”, was the son of a barrel-cooper, Murat’s father was an inn-keeper, and most of the other marshals were of humble birth and would hardly have got beyond Sergeant in the old Royal army. The quotation was Napoleon’s way of saying that anyone could reach the top in his army if he was good enough.

In the British army, commissions could be obtained by anyone with money and influence: a talented man might wait years for promotion. Fortunately, a great reformer, Sir John Moore, improved the training of officers, and Wellington and the British soldier finally proved too much for the French. Yet at one time Napoleon had seemed invincible. If he had not antagonised the European peoples, who had originally welcomed him as a liberator, he could hardly have been defeated.

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