French infantry uniforms 1813-15
Part 1 Great-coated infantry-
The so-called 1812 Bardin regulation uniform should really be referred to as the 1813 uniform as it did not, in fact, become general issue until 1813. All the main sources (e.g. Roussellot, Rigo, Bocquoy) agree on this point. The first campaign in which the French army wore the new uniform was in the German campaign of 1813.
Researching the French uniforms of this period is complicated. Although there are numerous pictures documenting the ‘look’ and cut of the new uniforms, many of these must be viewed with caution and cannot be taken as definite proof of the actual uniforms worn by the army. The Vernet plates are a good example as they are often taken as definitive examples of what the new uniforms looked like. These plates were commissioned by Napoleon to document the new uniforms but they were completed before the final pattern of the uniforms had actually been accepted. We know that there are certain uniform items shown in the plates that were, in fact, not adopted. Although the new regulations were intended to limit the flights of fancy of the regimental colonels, it is evident that these continued in a more limited form. The imperial livery for musicians is proof of this as there is ample evidence that the regulations were often ignored. There are multiple examples of regimental variations for musicians, ranging from blue versions of the intended uniform, to completely non-regulation habits identical to those worn by the rest of the regiment and decorated with token Imperial lace.
Rousselot concludes –
‘We may consider the enactments of the clothing regulation of 1812 as having been strictly adhered to in its entirety in the second half of 1813. Nevertheless, there must have been many modifications, and certain items not permitted by regulations remained in use until the end of the Empire.’
French Infantry 1813-15-
The typical picture of a French infantryman of this period on campaign shows him wearing his greatcoat, covered shako and long trousers over his gaiters. The greatcoat became regulation wear on the 25th April 1806. It was a popular item of clothing and it soon became the practice to wear it over the sleeved shirt or waistcoat while on campaign; the more ample cut of the coat lending itself to greater freedom of movement. The greatcoat was not worn simply to ward off the cold; in 1813 it was worn principally to keep the new habit-veste from getting soiled. The dress jacket (or the 1812 habit) would be rolled up and placed in the backpack or stored in a bag and tied to the top of it. Rousselot describes the regulation coat of 1812 as follows –
‘…of natural wool with round cuffs, collar and shoulder straps of the same colour; fastened on the chest by means of five rows (as it was double breasted) of cloth covered buttons, the hem of the coat reaching a point 32cms from the ground, divided at the back by a vent 20cms in length.
At the centre of the rear and along the seams, there were two long openings having a cloth covered button at each end; two flaps, stitched horizontally at the height of the upper vent buttons and furnished, one with a button and the other with a buttonhole, served to gather the waist together. On each side, in the front, was an angled buttonhole that could be used with the lower rear buttons to hold the coat back when necessary.’
The coat was frequently buttoned back when on the march to allow free movement, especially in warm weather. Rousselot points out that due to the shortages experienced in 1813, the coats were made of a variety of different materials and made shorter and single breasted. It is probably for this reason that it is difficult to determine what colour the greatcoat really was. Rousselot generally shows it in grey, Job in brown ochre, Bouquoy in a variety of colours ranging from brown to grey, and there are multiple illustrations of beige and off white coats from other artists. It is likely that, due to the shortages, the men in a battalion may have worn coats of different styles and colours at the same time.
The shoulder straps of the fusilier’s greatcoats are shown in a variety of styles. Generally the shoulder strap is sewn flush with the seam at the shoulder and buttoned at the neck end, however, some illustrations show the bastion ended straps which button at the shoulder seam. Irrespective of the cut of the coat, the shoulder straps, collar and cuffs were always in the same colour as the rest of the coat. The only exception to this was the flank companies. Grenadiers retained their red-fringed epaulettes so the shoulder strap was replaced with a red woollen cloth loop to retain the strap of the epaulette. The voltigeurs should not have retained their fringed epaulettes but the colonels generally ignored this regulation and provided them anyway – usually in green with yellow crests (although other colour variations are shown by various artists).
Some sources show Grenadiers and voltigeurs with collar patches in red or yellow according to the company distinction.
The waistcoat, often visible under the open greatcoat, had sleeves. It was straight-edged in front, slightly shorter than the lapels of the tunic under which it was normally worn. It was made of white cloth, with imperial blue collar, cuffs and shoulder straps. The flank company’s waistcoats had shoulder straps in red or yellow (voltigeurs also had yellow collars). It had two pocket flaps sewn on the front, only the right one opened.
Loose overall trousers were generally worn on campaign. Each man was issued with two pairs of white overalls, one in linen and one in wool. Experienced soldiers supplied themselves with non-regulation spare trousers as these items tended to wear out quickly on the march. There are reliable illustrations of men wearing white, grey, blue, brown or off-white trousers. These were often tied at the ankle or rolled up to prevent them from getting covered in mud. Experienced campaigners often patched their trousers in the areas prone to most wear before they left on campaign. Marco Severino, a professor of history at Milan University, told me of an eyewitness account he had read of the Italian troops marching off to the campaign in Germany in 1813 with patches already sewn onto their overalls. The fashion for distinctive, non-regulation overalls was particularly marked in the flank companies. They emphasised their elite status by furnishing themselves with trousers (often in blue) with stripes down the sides in company colours (red for the grenadiers and yellow for the voltigeurs). The voltigeurs emulated the light cavalry and favoured baggier versions of the overalls. Since uniform supplies were erratic in 1813, it is not unusual to see men wearing the white uniform breeches tucked into their gaiters.
The shako is not clearly defined in the existing documents detailing the uniform changes. We can only conclude that the dimensions of the 1810 shako were retained. Rousselot describes this as – ‘slightly taller and more conical than its predecessor.’ He also mentions that it had no side chevrons and was more robust. The 1812 shako did differ from the 1810 shako in that it had no leather neck-guard. All cords, cockade straps and plumes were abolished. The grenadier’s bearskin was suppressed and replaced with a shako that was 15mm taller than that of the fusiliers and voltigeurs. It was also ornamented with red braid, 40mm along the top and 20mm along the bottom and forming a double chevron on each side. The voltigeur shako should have been of the same pattern as that worn by the fusiliers. This regulation was widely disregarded and colonels supplied their voltigeurs with shakos decorated in a variety of patterns. There are illustrations of voltigeurs wearing shakos ranging from the undecorated versions worn by the fusiliers to ones with the top and bottom braid and the side chevrons (all in yellow) as displayed by grenadiers. Many regiments opted for versions in between these, with braid only on the top or along the top and bottom but without the chevrons.
A note needs to be made here concerning the NCO’s shakos. Prior to the introduction of the gold lace on the officers’ shakos, it was the NCO’s who wore gold lace on their shakos. After 1807, when the shako with its decorative lace was introduced for the officers, the use of lace on the NCO’s shakos seems to have been discouraged. Some regiments, however, held on to this tradition. Illustrations of NCO’s with gold lace rank markings on their shakos persist to the end of The First Empire.
The most common type of plate seen in illustrations of this period is the eagle plate with the regimental number punched out in its centre. The fusiliers retained the company coloured discs (first co. - green, second co. - light blue, third co. – aurore, fourth co. – violet) while the grenadiers and voltigeurs were supposed to wear plumes. The fusilier companies of other battalions within the same regiment were differentiated by means of a lozenge of a particular colour – frequently white and sometimes with the number of the battalion embossed in the centre - placed in the centre of the woollen disc. The spherical pompon also continued in use for fusilier companies but it seems to have been used when supplies of the flat discs were not available.
Rousselot’s comment on the 1812 plume for the flank companies is worth quoting –
‘Was this decoration in the shape of an inverted pear and so inelegant really brought into service, and if so, was it this shape?’
He goes on to emphasise that documents point to the tufted pompon as having been more commonly used by the flank companies. Some illustrations show them wearing the tufted pompons but with the plume stored in a weatherproof cover tied to the sabre scabbard.
The yellow metal chin-scales, attached to the shako by matching metal bosses, are often shown tied up over the shako visor or looped over the pompon. While this may have been the case off the battlefield, it is difficult to believe that any self-respecting soldier would have gone into battle without securing his shako to his head by tying the chin-scales under his chin. Both the shako and the chin-scales served a purpose in protecting the infantryman from sword cuts to the head. Furthermore, an unsecured shako was easily lost at a time when replacement equipment was hard to come by.
On campaign, regiments often made use of shako covers manufactured from waxed or oiled cloth. Apparently there are few surviving examples of the shako cover for the 1812 regulations (recently Stephen Maughan has assured me that there are several examples in private collections). I can only deduce what it looked like by studying contemporary illustrations and drawings. It seems to have been manufactured in a variety of colours – black, brown ochre or linen coloured, but black is the colour most frequently observed. Like the greatcoat, this may have depended on what cloth was available. It had a side curtain that could be lowered in inclement weather to provide protection to the sides of the face and back of the head. This flap fastened under the chin. When not in use, the flap was tied up over the body of the shako giving the distinctive inverted V shape to the front of the cover. This shako cover fastened at the sides of the shako by means of cloth ties, not at the rear.
The newly introduced ‘pokalem’ forage cap was made up of a round top, a headband with flaps and an escutcheon, all in imperial blue with the edges and seams ornamented in scarlet piping. Some sources show an extra line of piping around the edge of the round top. The flaps could be pulled down and buttoned under the chin for extra protection in inclement weather. This cap was not the most attractive headgear but it was comfortable and warm to wear so it was popular with the men. The pokalems for the flank companies often show the company distinctions with red grenades on the escutcheon for the grenadiers or yellow hunting horns for the voltigeurs. The voltigeur pokalems are often shown with all piping in yellow.
Habit vest –
The habit-vest was made of Imperial Blue cloth. It had a scarlet collar piped in blue, white lapels piped in scarlet, and scarlet cuffs piped in white with blue cuff flaps piped in red. The turn-backs were made of white serge and were ornamented with a crowned N cut from blue cloth. The rear of the coat had two long pockets simulated by red piping and decorated with three buttons along its length. The blue shoulder straps came to a point at the shoulder and also buttoned at the shoulder seam, not at the collar; they were piped in red. The coat had eight large buttons; six on the rear pockets and two at the rear of the coat at waist height. There were 22 small buttons; seven on each lapel, three on each cuff flap and one on each of the epaulettes.
The grenadiers’ habits were similar but had red cloth grenades on the turn-backs instead of the crowned N. They also had scarlet fringed epaulettes, kept in place with scarlet loops sewn onto the jacket.
The voltigeurs’ jacket had chamois coloured collar and shoulder straps. As has already been mentioned, their shoulder straps should have been like the fusiliers’ but in chamois edged in blue. The regimental colonels ensured that chamois or green fringed epaulettes (or combinations of these colours) were provided for them and these became practically universal in the voltigeur companies despite the regulations. The voltigeurs had chamois coloured cloth horns on their turn-backs.
The gaiters came up to just below the knee and were black or dark grey after they had been worn for a while. The fusiliers seem to have had brass buttons to fasten the gaiters while light infantry regiments seem to have had black buttons.
Fusiliers were issued with a single shoulder belt to support the cartridge box. The bayonet scabbard fitted into a white leather frog attached to the front of this belt. The bayonet scabbard was of red leather. All cartridge boxes were in black leather, the flap ornamented with the brass crowned N for fusiliers, the grenade for the grenadiers and the hunting horn for the voltigeurs. NCO’s had plain flaps with no ornamentation. Under the body of the cartridge box there were two white leather straps for securing the forage cap. It also had a strap sewn to the rear that was used to secure the cartridge box to one of the buttons on the left rear pocket of the habit-veste, or to one of the rear buttons on the greatcoat. A cover could be attached to the outside of the cartridge box to protect it. This was either plain linen or ornamented with devices painted in black; grenade, horn, crowned N or company and regiment number.
Grenadiers and voltigeurs and NCOs were originally issued with two belts, one to support the cartridge box, the other to support the sabre and bayonet scabbards. The sabre scabbard was in black leather and the bayonet scabbard in red leather, as for the fusiliers.
The 1812 regulations made some minor adjustments to the infantryman’s equipment. The width of the cartridge box belt was reduced from 80mm to 70 mm while that of the sword belt was widened from 61mm to 70mm. The sabre was withdrawn from the voltigeurs who were now supposed to carry the same equipment as the fusiliers (a single belt for the cartridge box and bayonet). In practice, many colonels continued to supply their voltigeurs with sabres where available. It seems that the 1812 sabre belts no longer had a frog for the bayonet scabbard. Some illustrations (Rousselot included) show voltigeurs and even grenadiers wearing the same cartridge box belt as the fusiliers, with the bayonet scabbard attached to the front. The sabre belt now holds the sabre only.
An overall picture emerges of grenadiers (possibly) getting preferential issues of the old style sabre belts when they could be acquired. The new sabre belts (without the bayonet scabbard) being issued to voltigeurs. If the only sabre belts available were of the new style, grenadiers would have been issued with these out of necessity.
The backpack was almost identical to the one first introduced in 1801. It was made of hide cured with the animal’s hair still attached. This gave the pack greater protection against the elements. The colour of the pack depended on the hide used but was usually brown - often with patches of lighter coloration interspersed. Three straps with brass buckles secured the flap. It had two further straps at the top to secure the greatcoat or the bagged habit. A longer strap in the centre went right round the pack but this could be removed if not in use. The pack was usually edged along the seams in white tape. All straps were made of white leather.
The standard infantry musket was the ‘Charleville;’ taking its name from one of the chief factories of its production. It was a model introduced in 1777. It underwent several slight modifications (principally in 1800-01, An IX model) but remained essentially the same musket. It continued in service until 1830. The barrel was 113.7 cm long. It weighed 4.43Kg and had a more slender stock than the British musket. The bayonet was 406 mm long and had a locking ring to prevent it from being wrenched off the musket by an adversary. It was probably as accurate as the Brown Bess but the course French powder led to quick fouling of the barrel. This required the washing of the barrel after about fifty shots. In prolonged actions men were compelled to urinate down the barrel to clear the fouling. A short version of the Charleville often termed the ‘Dragoon musket’ was supposed to have been issued to the Voltigeurs. In practice shortages of these muskets meant that voltiguers were usually issued with the standard musket. Musket slings were made of white leather.
Unorthodox equipment modifications -
Rousselot explains –
‘Regiments had to meet the cost of their own equipment and it is probable that, in accordance with the state of finances and suggestions from soldiers and NCOs, several changes and improvements were made to the regulation items.’
Such an improvement seems to be a button on the sabre belt (used by grenadiers and voltigeurs) at a spot just above the sword hilt or above the bayonet scabbard - various sources show it in different places. The purpose of this button was to attach the cartridge box to the sabre belt to restrain the movement of the equipment when on the march. This has been the subject of some speculation as Rousselot and Charmy both show this but most illustrations of the sabre belt do not. I have asked fellow researchers for their opinions (Stephen Maughan, Paul Meganck) and they agree that these buttons were indeed used. The most probable explanation is that this was one of the improvements to regulation items carried out either at regimental level or by the individual soldier. A late addition to this research came up when I looked into ‘Guard’ uniforms recently. One of the Rousselot plates onthis subject clearly shows this elusive button on the sabre belts as used by Guard units.
Another such alteration is the chest strap on the backpacks. Again, it is Rousselot who points out and discusses this ‘improvement.’ It seems that the more experienced French campaigners, having seen Russian and Prussian backpacks with their chest straps, realised that they could improve the comfort of their own packs by adding such a strap. This strap helped to distribute the weight of the pack from the shoulders to the chest. Most men improvised by simply tying a rope or cloth across their chest from one shoulder strap to the other. However, Rousselot both mentions and illustrates packs altered permanently with the addition of a leather chest strap.
Campaign equipment –
Rousselot regrets the lack of detailed information regarding the type of items carried by the men on campaign.
‘The majority of contemporary literature and plates show the foot soldiers in full dress. It would have been preferable to have seen them in campaign dress, with the various articles that they carried with them on the march attached to their haver-sacks…’
He picks out the ‘Marmite’ as a particular example, pointing out that this large, kidney-shaped, metal canteen remained in use in the French army until after the First World War. The Marmite was not a personal item; it was issued to a section of men and was used for carrying and cooking their food. The men would probably have taken turns to carry it. There are many contemporary illustrations of these on the back of packs or being used on campfires.
We do know that the men carried a variety of other items strapped to their packs – cooking pots, plates, cups and items of food such as the bread rations. Possibly the most important item of personal kit was the water bottle. These were not issued; they were privately acquired and took multiple forms - hollowed out gourds, metal or wooden canteens and glass bottles covered in wicker for protection. Contemporary pictures seem to indicate a fashion for coloured cords to suspend these, possibly in company colours as grenadiers are often seen with red cords.
Tete de Colone –
Information concerning these troops is hard to come by. The best source is Rigo (Le Plumet plates). He neatly plugs the holes left in Rousselot’s research, although his artwork is not of the same standard. The February 1808 regulations stipulated that only one Eagle standard was to be carried by each regiment. The first battalion of the regiment generally carried this; the other battalions were supposed to carry fanions of very simple design in plain colours. Rigo explains that, according to regulations, the second section of the second company of the battalion should carry the Eagle or fanion. In this way the flag would be displayed in the centre of the battalion when it deployed into line. An experienced officer carried the Eagle. Two NCOs carrying halberds also guarded it. These NCOs were selected from the most senior NCOs of the regiment and were men noted for their bravery. The names of all three individuals in the colour party were forwarded by the regiment to Napoleon for his consideration and were formally appointed by the Emperor himself. As a result of the selection procedure, the eagle guards were often NCOs from different companies. This is a point worth mentioning as it means that their company distinctions could be different, with the result that one NCO could have a grenadier tufted pom-pon while the other sported a fusilier company pom-pon. Indeed, this is the way Rigo shows them in his plate.
The Eagle guard’s uniform distinctions were mixed red and gold epaulettes, mixed red and gold sword knots and four gold chevrons on the upper right sleeve. These four chevrons were in gold lace and were not long service chevrons. When I researched this particular feature I found several illustrations of eagle guards wearing these. Some were displayed on the right sleeve; some on the left and many had only three chevrons. When I asked research colleagues for advice on the subject the usual answer was that this was an example of the Regimental Colonels up to their usual tricks again, toying with regulations and their men’s uniforms.
The eagle guards carried halberds. Napoleon demanded that these should be proper weapons not ornamental toys. They were adorned with a pennant, white for the first guard and red for the second. They were also armed with a brace of pistols carried ‘in the oriental style,’ with both pistols contained in the same ‘bucket’ holster. They were also armed with the standard infantry sword as carried by the grenadiers. The double pistol holder and the sword were carried on a one-piece bandolier and waist belt affair usually in black leather. The waist belt had a belt buckle plate with an ‘N’ stamped on it. The bucket pistol holster was also made of black leather but with yellow metal reinforcement decorations along the top and bottom rims.
According to the 1812 regulations the guards were supposed to wear metal helmets of a very particular style. Rigo explains that, due to the disruption caused by the Russian campaign, only 30 or so of these items were ever manufactured and very few were actually issued to the regiments. It is highly doubtful that any of these were ever worn in combat, as the few regiments that did receive them would have prized them as parade items.
Sappers generally formed part of the ‘Tete de Colone.’ Illustrations of these individuals in the1812 uniform are rare and my conclusions concerning them are speculative at present. I have had to build up a picture of them from scraps of information in Rousselot and Rigo. The latter researcher has many illustrations of the pre-Bardin uniforms and the main conclusion seems to be that the only major change to their uniform in1812 was the new jacket itself. All other distinctions and equipment remained the same. As had been the case prior to 1812, the regimental colonels had a hand in the uniforms of these men with the result that there was no such thing as a regulation uniform for pioneers. The common factors were the axe and the apron. Napoleon once again stepped in when the axes became ornamental rather than functional. He ordered that the sappers should carry axes like those used by the carpenters, with a blade on one side and a hammerhead on the other. Not all colonels complied! The cartridge box/axe cover combination is seen on many illustrations but was by no means standard. Many regiments preferred their sappers to wear their cartridge boxes on a waist belt at the front (belly box) with a simpler axe cover holster at the back. Most sappers were issued with carbines and heavily ornamented swords particular to each regiment. The grenadier bearskin cap remained a distinction of these men to the end of the Empire but some regiments did not use them. There are reliable illustrations of Sappers wearing grenadier shakos. On campaign or on the march a bicorn hat was worn and the bearskin cap was put in a cloth bag and strapped to the knapsack.
Fanions and their guards –
‘Fanion’ is the French word for flag but in this case we are using it to refer to the less important battalion flags used instead of the Eagle (Eagles were only carried by the first battalion). As I have already mentioned, each Regiment was allocated a single Eagle as from 1808. Napoleon reiterated this order in 1811 as many regiments had refused to hand back their extra Eagles and several had been lost in the Austrian campaign. His 1811 order runs as follows (rough translation)–
‘Only the 1st Battalion will keep it’s eagle. The rest will carry a simple flag: white in colour for the 2nd battalion, red for the 3rd, blue for the 4th, green for the 5th and yellow for the 6th.’
The regimental colonels were urged to keep these flags plain to make them of no value to the enemy should they be captured. Most regiments seem to have either disregarded these orders or paid ‘lip-service’ to them in that we have proof of examples of much more elaborate fanions in battalion use. Rigo gives two examples. In one case - the battalion flag of the 4th battalion of the 100th line regiment – the flag was extremely elaborate and probably painted in the studios responsible for the Austrian army’s flags, as this French battalion had been stationed in Vienna after the 1809 campaign. The important thing is that the battalion disregarded the directives of both Napoleon and the regiment and continued to carry the flag until it was lost in late 1813, captured by the British at Vittoria. Rigo’s other example is of the well-known battalion flags of the 2nd Line Regiment, captured by the Russians in an abandoned wagon during the retreat from Moscow. These are the red and blue affairs often reproduced by miniature flag makers. These flags were particular to this regiment and it is debateable how acceptable it would be to use the design for the fanions of other regiments. It is true to say that after Napoleon’s 1811 rant, new battalion flags were simpler. Both of the above examples pre-date the 1811 directive. Post 1811 the battalion flags were both carried by NCOs and stored in the quarters of the NCO responsible for carrying the colour. Prior to this they had been the responsibility of the Chef De Battalion. Even this small shift in responsibility is a clever move by Napoleon to make these flags less important.
I have not been able to dig up any evidence of Line Battalion fanions post 1811, but knowing the French army of this period as I now do, I can’t believe that the battalions did not personalise these flags in some way. I’m sure that at least the regiment and battalion numbers would have been painted onto the plain background. There is some evidence of this from surviving battalion fanions of the young guard. Here, not only have the above details been added to the flag; there is often extra decoration such as bugle horns or the crowned N.
The best indication of the fact that the French were not quite so blasé about these battalion flags is that Napoleon still placed a guard on them. His regulations stipulated that the Fourier NCOs from the 2nd and 3rd companies of the battalion should guard the flag.
Voltigeur Cornets –
There are surprisingly few illustrations of voltigeur cornets. The probable reason for this is that each voltigeur company was only allowed two of them. The colonels objected to the loss of their drums, insisting that the rather weedy tones of the horns were not sufficient to cut through the noise of battle. They asked for the return of their drums and eventually a compromise was reached whereby the voltigeur companies could have both a cornet and a drummer at the discretion of the colonel.
We know that, according to the 1812 regulations, all musicians should have worn the imperial livery in green but several reliable illustrations show cornets in blue uniforms of various designs. Most have some form of imperial lace on the uniform but with the jacket cut like the habit. The lace is clearly visible on the sleeves and the lapels. There is a good illustration in one of the Bucquoy cards. This particular individual even has a red coloured shako with the usual voltigeur edging in yellow. Trousers are often seen in blue – a foible of the flank companies, as I have already mentioned.
The cornets were equipped like the rest of the men in the company. They are usually shown with crossed straps across their chest indicating a cartridge box and sabre-briquet. They are also shown with a carbine slung on the shoulder or the shortened version of the musket known as the ‘dragoon musket’ that had originally been intended for use by all voltigeurs.
Rousellot describes the cornet itself as follows –
‘The cornet of the voltigeur companies was a small horn of which the tube, 2.21m long, ended in a bell shape. The part opposite the bell took a copper mouthpiece 9 cms. long. It was carried slung over the shoulder by means of a woollen cord, 2 meters long, ending in two large tassels. In addition, a small cord end with two small tassels secured the mouthpiece to the body to avoid loss.’
Officer’s uniforms –
All the sources that I have consulted agree that the preferred uniform of the French officer on campaign remained the surtout and hat till the end of the Empire. There are a few general points worth noting about officer’s uniforms before I continue. The first is that, unlike the men, officers were given a uniform allowance and then had to provide their own uniforms. There were recognised tailors who knew the regulations and could provide uniforms to the right specifications but this was complicated by the 1812 uniform regulations as the details for the officers uniforms were not as well specified and were issued to the tailors much later (and incompletely) than the details for the men’s uniforms were sent to the relevant manufacturers. The result of this was confusion when officers went to their tailor to order the new uniforms. A clear indication of this is the piping on the turn-backs on the officer’s coats. We know that the regulations stipulated no piping on these but the evidence from surviving coats is that the majority of officers did have turn-back piping.
When we see pictures of the French of this period on the march, a striking feature is that while the men are wearing their greatcoats, the officers are generally in their surtouts (or habits), not in their greatcoats. It seems that the officers preferred to have their uniforms seen. Perhaps the explanation for this lies in the fact that the surtout served the same function for the officers as the greatcoat did for the men, in that it protected their good uniform from getting soiled.
The officer’s 1812 pattern habits followed the same pattern as those of the men but with longer tails and rear pockets. They were made from better materials than the men’s coats. Officers had company distinctions on their turn-backs like their men’s but in gold.
The surtout was a more personal item of clothing. It was supposed to be a plain, single-breasted blue coat with long tails but otherwise unadorned in any way. Most officers had a coloured collar – red for fusiliers and grenadiers and chamois for the voltigeur companies. However, since the surtouts were tailored to meet the officers’ personal tastes, many embellished them with piping on the cuffs, turn-backs, chest or even added pockets or coloured cuffs. Most officers kept their surtouts quite plain though, for cost reasons.
The 1812 regulations gave officers a shako with gilt-metal fittings and a lace edging along the top that varied with rank. These were 30mm for subalterns, 35mm for senior officers and battalion commanders. Colonels and majors had a second 15mm band under the top band; this second band was gold for the colonel and silver for the major. Most officers had the same cloth discs on their shakos as the men to denote their company. Grenadier and voltigeur officers did have plumes but replaced them with tufted pom-pons in the field. Staff officers had white discs or pom-pons. Colonels had a tall white plume, majors had a red over white plume and Chefs de battalion had an all red plume. These tall plumes were removed on campaign and stored. What remained on the shako was the ‘tulip’ gilt metal plume holder. This has led to some confusion as it looks like a tufted pom-pon but is not!
The hat after 1812 was a simple affair without any decoration other than the national cockade and gold cockade loop. It was usually worn fore and aft.
Leg wear on campaign was usually long overall trousers worn over the boots. These were usually blue but not uncommonly in grey or white. They were often reinforced with leather. Breeches were also worn tucked into ‘roll-over’ boots. The breeches were usually white or blue but could also be grey. Mounted officers could wear riding overalls (generally in blue) but are usually shown wearing breeches tucked into long dragoon boots.
Officer’s greatcoats were blue and came in a variety of styles. The usual coat was double-breasted with two rows of uniform buttons. It was fitted with epaulette loops so that the rank epaulettes could be attached to the coat. There was also a heavier version of this coat, the ‘capote-manteau.’ This was more ample than the greatcoat and could be fitted with a cape. One last coat-type item used by officers was the ‘pelegrin’ cape. This was a plain blue cape with a blue collar closed only at the neck with a chain. On campaign, officers were allowed to wear coats like their men’s in grey, brown or beige. Whether this was for re-supply reasons or to make them less conspicuous, is not made clear.
When on duty, officers were supposed to wear their service gorget round their neck and their swords in an over-the-shoulder baldrick. In practice, experienced officers largely disregarded these regulations in the field. The gorget, an expensive item, was usually removed and stored with the officer’s belongings. Officers also supplied themselves with a thin waist belt, often in coloured leather, to carry their swords. Sword sheaths were usually black with gilt fittings. Mounted officers were given a broad white leather waist belt to carry their swords. It had a gilt belt plate with a crowned ‘N.’ Again, many mounted officers preferred the thin waist belt or even carried their swords in the cavalry style on sword slings dangling from a waist belt. Sword knots were gold coloured.
A new introduction for officers in the 1812 regulations was the campaign pack in natural leather. This pack proved to be very popular as it allowed the officers carry some of their kit with them on the march. It was one of the few Napoleonic reforms to survive the second restoration of the monarchy due to its popularity. It was carried on a leather strap, bandolier fashion, over the shoulder.
Voltigeur officers were now required to carry a rifled carbine – the ‘Carbine de Versailles.’ In addition they were required to carry a small ammunition pouch on a white leather cross belt. There is no question that these items were manufactured and probably bought by the officers. Whether they actually wore them as required in the field, or just stored them, is open to question. Certainly, having a rifled carbine to hand during skirmishing would have been advantageous for a voltigeur officer.
Rank insignia were as follows –
Colonel: two full gold epaulettes with heavy gold bullion fringes.
Major: as above but with the strap of the epaulette in silver.
Chef De Battalion: An epaulette as for the colonel on the left shoulder and a counter epaulette (no fringes) on the right.
Captain: as for the Chef but with finer gold fringe on the left shoulder.
Lieutenant: as for the captain but with a line of red silk running down the body of the strap.
The harness of mounted officers was black leather. The saddlecloth and holster caps were made of blue cloth and had a 50 mm gold lace stripe round the edge. Colonels and majors had an additional 15mm stripe inside this. This second stripe was gold for the colonel and silver for the Major. The Major’s silver stripe is not well documented and is often shown in gold. It has required extensive research to confirm that this stripe was indeed in silver.
A little known fact is that officers had a set of ‘field’ saddle furniture. This was identical to the ‘dress’ version but with the edging in blue goat’s hair matching the colour of the saddlecloth. There are many illustrations of artillery officers using these campaign saddlecloths but very few of mounted infantry officers.
Towards the end of the empire it became more common for officers to wear shakos (usually covered) and habits in the field. The shako certainly provided more protection from a sword cut than the hat but the increased use of the habit can only be put down to fashion, and individuals wanting to be seen in the new uniform. Many experienced officers probably never bothered to buy the new uniform and went on campaign in 1813 in the surtout!
Other campaign additions to the uniform were - water bottles and rolled up greatcoats as protection against bayonet thrusts or sword cuts.