France’s Revolutionary Ordre Profond Revisited

His ‘300 Spartans’ unfortunately ran away[1]

            General Dumouriez breathed in the fall air.  The cannonade had begun early that morning – November 6th, 1792 – and the deafening boom of the guns had continued for several hours but produced no results. The Austrians, lined on a hill at the end of the plain, sat content in their redoubts and trenches, undisturbed by the French artillery.[2]  Resolute, Dumouriez instructed his soldiers, waiting on the plains of Jemappes with their bayonets affixed, to begin the advance.[3] Dumouriez and the Duc of Chartres – later known as Louis-Philippe, King of France – arranged the centre of the army into columns and began slowly forward, maintaining a steady front.[4] Then the Austrians began to fire. Bullets pounded the columns of French soldiers, many of whom had never fought in battle before. Bodies crashed to the ground and the noise of the screams combined with the noise of the “incessant fire” from the Austrians.[5] The soldiers could not maintain their march forward. Due to their formation in column, the French troops were unable to effectively return fire.[6] Consequently, the columns collapsed, some soldiers retreating as fast as they could, others taking cover, and others still running towards the trenches in an effort to avoid the advancing Austrian cavalry.[7] “Cut to pieces” by fire and fearing Dumouriez to be dead – his horse having been shot beneath him – the French soldiers went into a state of blind panic.[8]

Yet all was not lost. Still alive, Dumouriez ordered an artillery barrage on the Austrian cavalry, sending them into retreat. He then positioned his veterans, bayonets affixed, behind the chaos where his columns once stood, ordering the veterans to kill any French soldier who retreated.[9] Suffering immense casualties in the advance, but faced with no other choice, the mass of soldiers pressed forward against the hill. Two hours later, the battle was won. Roughly 300 Austrians lay strewn across the battlefield. Almost 2000 French soldiers lay with them, dead or wounded.[10] The next day, Dumouriez – a hero of Valmy – allegedly had the bodies of several hundred French soldiers thrown into a pit, and reported to the Government in Paris that he had only lost a few hundred men during the victorious charge of his columns.[11] France celebrated its first major battle victory of the Revolutionary Wars.


The French Revolutionary Wars are much studied, yet the success of the Revolutionary armies often overshadows the brutal reality of the battlefield. Many have examined the inspiration of the Revolutionary troops on the battlefield, their commander, the army logistical organization, and the propaganda.[12] However, battlefield tactics have been given comparatively little attention. Why did Dumouriez and the Duc of Chartres deploy their soldiers in column at Jemappes? Why, when they knew they had an advantage in firepower and in artillery, and while they knew the Austrians had well entrenched artillery and a strong cavalry force, did they not deploy in line or square, formations which would take advantage of French firepower and/or better defend against cavalry?[13] Moreover, why, in later descriptions of the Battle of Jemappes, were orderly columns of soldiers celebrated instead of the French cavalry and artillery, which had actually held the day? For many scholars the deployment in column at Jemappes was only natural. According to this line of thought, the French Revolution marks the dawn of modern warfare – a resurrection of the inherently successful principles of western warfare.[14] Inspired by the armies of antiquity, Revolutionary tacticians supposedly redesigned the entire shape of the battlefield, allowing troops to deploy in more flexible and progressive formations. These changes, it has been claimed, were the direct result of the political shift of the French Revolution. For example, Hans Delbruck, in seminal study The Dawn of Modern Warfare, states that the Revolutionary military system was “based on new political ideas and conditions.” [15] John Lynn, a leading expert in the Early Modern French Army, provides a similar example, announcing that aspects of the “Western Way of War” appeared “after an absence that stretched back to ancient Rome.” [16] The Western Way of War he refers to is a concept promoted by Victor Davis Hanson, a scholar of Greek hoplite warfare,[17] who likewise notes that these new modern armies, “free of religious fanaticism and subject to civilian control,” were successful due to the “dominance of infantry,” a practice which Hanson suggests dates back to the Greeks, and “alone win[s] wars” decisively.[18] However, this argument leaves much to be desired.

[1] Paddy Griffith, regarding Dumouriez’s failed attempt to model his campaign in Valmy after the battle between the Spartans and Persians at Thermopylae. Paddy Griffith, The Art of War of Revolutionary France, 1789-1802 (London: Greenhill Books, 1998), 203.
[2] “Battle of Jemappes: Fought on the 6th of November, 1792, between the Austrian and French Armies,” in Essays on the Theory and Practice of the Art of War: Including the Duties of Officers on Actual Service, and the Principles of Modern Tactics, Chiefly Translated from the best French and German Writers, vol. 2, ed. “The Military Mentor,” (London: Richard Philips, 1809): 77.
[3] Dumouriez, quoted in “Battle of Jemappes,” 78.
[4] John A. Lynn, “The Battle of Jemappes,” in Historical Dictionary of the French Revolution, 1789-1799, ed. Samuel F. Scott and Barry Rothhaus (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1985), 77-78.
[5] “Battle of Jemappes,” 78.
[6] David G Chandler, Dictionary of the Napoleonic Wars (London: Arms and Armour Press, 1979), 214.
[7] Ibidem; M.A. Theirs, The History of the French Revolution, vol. 2., trans. Frederick Shoberl (Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1844), 8.
[8] “Battle of Jemappes,” 79.
[9] Ibidem; Thiers, 9.
[10] Chandler, 214.
[11] Ibid., 81; Thiers, 9.
[12] The reader should be aware that because the terms Revolutionary (in reference to the Revolutionary Wars or Revolutionary Period in France) and revolutionary (signifying ground-breaking or innovative) must necessarily be used frequently throughout this paper, the former will always be capitalized (Revolutionary) while the latter will remain in lower case (revolutionary) in order to avoid confusion.
[13] Thiers, 8.
[14] Hans Delbruck, The Dawn of Modern Warfare, trans. Walter J Renfroe Jr. (London: University of Nebraska Press, 1985),  395; John A. Lynn,  Battle: A History of Combat and Culture from Ancient Greece to Modern America (Cambridge, MA: Westview Press, 2003), 184; Victor Davis Hanson,  The Wars of the Ancient Greeks: and their invention of Western Military Culture,  ed. John Keegan (London: Cassell, 1999), 20, 24.
[15] Delbruck, 395.
[16] John A. Lynn, Battle: A History of Combat and Culture from Ancient Greece to Modern America (Cambridge, MA: Westview Press, 2003), 184.
[17] Warfare based on the hoplite warrior, the heavily-armed foot soldier of classical Greek armies, and the phalanx, the column-style unit containing these soldiers.
[18] Hanson, The Wars of the Ancient Greeks, 24.

What are we talking about?

Recently, scholars James Arnold, Ken Alder, and Paddy Griffith have led the way in revaluating the differences between battlefield tactics and realities of Revolutionary and Napoleonic warfare.[1] With a wide range of primary sources and Enlightenment literature, this task initially seems a simple one. Indeed, numerous theses and descriptions were produced by tacticians and military leaders throughout the late eighteenth century which provide detailed and organized tactical plans of how the French armies should operate. Yet, the realities of battlefield tactics were often starkly different from the academic discussions and intentions of commanders.[2] This aspect of Revolutionary warfare has been largely neglected in academic discourse. Most scholars recognize that the French Revolutionary armies were disorganized, unpredictable, and often extremely lucky. However, many claim that the theoretical system on which they were based made the armies inherently successful. Accordingly, many suppose, Napoleon built on this success. However, as Arnold, Alder, and Griffith have made clear, our current view of Revolutionary battlefield tactics needs significant restructuring.

The triumph of Revolutionary armies after 1792 has also overshadowed the reality of the tactical changes over the later eighteenth century, with many scholars tending to suppose that “revolutionary France chose to defend itself by creating whole new armies.” [3] Many works claim that Revolutionary tacticians were able to capitalise on ideas which the ancien régime had resisted for ideological reasons. These ideas, John Lynn claims, “provided a template for reality” for Revolutionary armies, and consequently transformed warfare, ushering in the modern era of warfare.[4] However, though Lynn’s argument is a tempting one, it ignores the considerable changes made during the mid- to late-eighteenth century. In the end, French tactical systems not only shared little in common with Revolutionary rhetoric, they were not intrinsically successful either. Thus, Revolutionary battle tactics should not be seen as the harbinger of success, but rather as one factor in the complex and fluctuating military system which had been building for decades. Specifically, this paper will examine the ordre profond, the column formation which Dumouriez selected for his advance at Jemappes. A deep order tactical formation inspired by the classical phalanx, the ordre profond has often been celebrated as the French armies’ key to success. I aim to demonstrate that this system was neither revolutionary in purpose nor in practice. Therefore, the ordre profond, or column, should not be seen as inherently successful, but as an overrated tactical system, exaggerated both by contemporaries and by modern scholars. In its second and third chapters, this study will examine the birth of the ordre profond in order to highlight its proposed uses and supposed outcomes. Additionally, chapter IV will examine the tactical debates of the later eighteenth century in order to exhibit the continuities between ancien régime and Revolutionary tactics, demonstrating that the ordre profond did not appear suddenly after 1789. In chapter V, this study will also examine the shortcomings of the column on the Revolutionary battlefields to reveal that, despite its celebrated position in military history, the ordre profond was in no way an inherently successful system, and contributed very little to the achievements of Revolutionary Armies.

            Having established that the ordre profond was neither revolutionary nor successful, this study will then turn to examine the persistence of the ordre throughout the nineteenth century. Arguing that the ordre should have been abandoned during the Napoleonic Wars, chapter VI will examine the reasons why the ordre was – though in decline throughout the Napoleonic Wars – not abandoned. Chapter VII will then investigate the work of Antoine-Henri Jomini, the leading military thinker of the early nineteenth century, in order to determine the exact reputation which the ordre received. It will highlight Jomini’s approach to and understanding of warfare in an attempt to understand his celebration of the ordre profond.  Afterwards, it will examine conditions within the French military between 1815 and 1869 in order to suggest that it was for social and political reasons, as well as because of the nature of military history itself, that the ordre profond existed at least until the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-71.

In a concluding section, this study will briefly examine modern military historiography in order to ascertain whether or not the same political and social factors still affect the historiography of the ordre profond.

[1] James Arnold’s paper “A Reappraisal of the Column Versus the Line in the Peninsular War,” Ken Alder’s book Engineering the Revolution, and Paddy Griffith’s book The Art of War of Revolutionary France have all been particularly helpful in providing context for this study.
[2] Paddy Griffith, French Napoleonic Infantry Tactics 1792-1815 (New York: Osprey Publishing, 2007), 3.
[3] John A. Lynn, The Bayonets of the Republic: Motivation and Tactics in the Army of Revolutionary France, 1791-94 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1984), 49.
[4] Lynn, Battle: A History of Combat and Culture, 185.

The Problems Tacticians Faced

Losses throughout the eighteenth century prompted serious reconsideration in all aspects of the French military. As opposed to the British, content in their Marlbourghian tactics, and the Prussians, successful using Frederick the Great’s directives, the French were without a successful or reliable tactical system.[1] Losses in Louis XIV’s wars, the War of Austrian Succession, and the Seven Years’ War prompted tacticians to search for a new method of battlefield operations. France’s strong and dynamic intellectual community provided an infrastructure for these losses and military dilemmas to be deconstructed, extrapolated, discussed, and revised.[2] In 1703, Marquis de Vauban, Marshal of France, published his Traité de l'attaque des places, in which he attempted to standardise French siege methods according to scientific and systematic procedures. Though his methods were not always successful, his approach provided a template for future tacticians.[3] Following his example, and approaching warfare by using a similar method, tacticians outlined three major problems in the French army. While other problems certainly existed, the prominence of the discussion of these three problems in the century’s major tactical works indicates that they would be paramount to the new shape of battlefield systems:  

      1. Desertion: Early Modern armies were often devastated by desertion, and the consistently plummeting numbers caused great expense and limited the effectiveness of French armies. As early as 1644, Cardinal Jules Mazarin wrote to the Vicomte du Turenne, then Marshal of France, looking for recruits and claiming that as much as two-thirds of the army had deserted.[4] This percentage had not dropped any by the eighteenth century. Military philosophes[5] concluded that ancien régime armies were susceptible to desertion because mercenaries, who were often less willing to die for France than a Frenchmen, made up so large a percentage of the army.[6] Instead they proposed that the French soldier should be like Polybius’ Roman soldiers – citizens willing and able to “stand their ground and die for their country.” [7]

      2. Lack of Decisiveness: Early Modern battles were bloody, prolonged, and indecisive affairs. Instead of decisive field battles, commanders were often forced to fight sieges that might last hours, days, or weeks, and regularly resulted in either pyrrhic victories or costly stalemates.[8] Consequently, going to war was often unproductive and ruinously costly, which was particularly worrisome for the increasingly bankrupt French monarchy.[9]

      3. The lack of a systematic approach: Despite the work of Vauban at the turn of the century, battles did not produce predictable results; risks, chances, and errors had not been reduced. Warfare, Marshal-General Maurice de Saxe complained, was without “principles and rules,” and needed to be revaluated in order to produce reliable outcomes, just as any other science might.[10] Likewise, the Marquis de Puysegur complained there was “no school where one can instruct oneself in the military art, no teacher who can teach fundamental rules . . . as if all the arts did not have certain rules and a theory founded on solid principles.” [11]

[1] Madeleine Dobie, “The Enlightenment at War,” Publications of the Modern Language Association 124, no.5 (Oct. 2009): 1851.
[2] Indeed, the military trends of the time were very much incorporated into the intellectual currents of the Enlightenment, and the intellectual infrastructure (salons, book-trading circles, and intellectual journals) were put to good use by military writers. Sandra L. Powers, “Studying the Art of War: Military Books known to American Officers and Their French Counterparts during the Second Half of the Eighteenth Century,” The Journal of Military History 70, no. 3 (July 2006). In fact, Deborah Avant suggests, the themes of the Enlightenment provided the intellectual grounding for the entire approach to new tactics.  Deborah Avant, “From Mercenary to Citizen Armies: Explaining Change in the Practice of War,” International Organization 54, no.1 (Winter 2000): 43.
[3] Jamel Ostwald, Vauban under Siege: Engineering Efficiency and the Martial Vigor in the War of the Spanish Succession (Boston: Brill, 2007). Puysegur in his “Art of War” frequently notes the influence which Vauban had on siege warfare and the changes in the tactical system which resulted from Vauban’s work. Jacques fr. Chastenet de Puyseger, Art. de la guerre par principes et par règles, vol. 1 (Paris: Charles-Antoine Jombert, 1749), 2. 513.
[4] Delbruck, 229.
[5] Starkey, in his “War in the Age of Enlightenment,” uses the term “military philosophes” to encompass the tacticians, thinkers, and philosophers who applied themselves to tactical issues. While many, like Saxe and Folard, had served in the military, other contributors to the discussion, like Rousseau, participated from a civilian standpoint. Consequently, this term will be used in this paper as well, as it seems to best reflect the overlap and connection between this military debate and the contemporaneous currents of the Enlightenment. Armstrong Starkey, War in the Age of Enlightenment, 1700-1789, ed. Jeremy Black (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003).
[6] Maurice de Saxe, “My Reveries upon the Art of War,” in Roots of Strategy: A Collection of Military Classics, ed. Major Thomas R Phillips (London: John Lane the Bodley Head, 1943), 114.
[7] Polybius, Histories, trans. Mortimer Chambers (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1966), 235.
[8] It is telling that at the turn of the century the Duke of Marlborough, renowned for his decisiveness, fought 30 long and arduous sieges, but only four major battles. Jamel Ostwald, “The ‘Decisive’ Battle of Ramillies, 1706: Prerequisites for Decisiveness in Early Modern Warfare,” The Journal of Military History 64, no. 3 (June 2000): 653.
[9] John Landers, “The Destructiveness of Pre-Industrial Warfare: Political and Technological Determinants,” Journal of Peace Research 48, no.4 (Jul. 2005): 456.
[10] Maurice de Saxe, Memoires sur L’Art de la Guerre (Paris : George Conrad Walther, 1757), 1; Saxe, “My Reveries,” 100; Irenee Amelot de Lacroix, Rules and regulations for the field exercise and manoeuvres of the French infantry issued August 1, 1791 (Boston: T.B. Watt and Co, 1810), 1.
[11] Puysegur, vol. 1, i.

Why not copy the Prussians?

Under Frederick the Great, the Prussians, who suffered the same three major issues as the French, reformed and restructured their army with considerable success. Yet, despite the Prussians’ rigid and reliable system which had bested the French on several occasions, French thinkers were adamantly opposed to the adoption of Prussian-style tactics. This was the case for a number of reasons. First, philosophes were hesitant to adopt a system which did not allow for individual agency and élan. Led by Saxe, whose Reveries sur l’art de guerre stressed the importance of individuality and morale, military philosophes abhorred the rigid discipline and robotic nature of the Prussian system.[1] Second, French thinkers concluded that the French character was fundamentally different than that of the Germans in that the French were better suited to attack than defence.[2] It was almost unanimously agreed that whatever battlefield system was adopted, it should cater to this uniquely French élan. “True valour,” Folard proclaimed, “consists not in combats which are made at a distance; but in shock and sudden attacks. That is the only road which brings us to victory.” [3] Better the troops advance with only their steel, it was agreed, than attempt to maintain a defensive line. It was generally agreed that the Prussians had perfected their own system anyway, meaning that even if the French did invest time, labour, and money to imitate it, they could at best be comparable to, never better than, the Prussians.[4] Moreover, musket-fire proved to be horribly inaccurate and largely unproductive at the best of times, even under the Prussian and British armies.[5] It seemed futile, therefore, to invest in so inefficient a system. Saxe even predicted that muskets would soon be obsolete: “If the previous war had lasted a little longer, indubitably everyone would have fought hand to hand. This was because the abuse of firing began to be appreciated; it causes more noise than harms, and those who depend on it are always beaten.” [6]   French thinkers thus began to look for and design a different system; a system which they felt would out-fight the British and Prussian armies time and time again.

[1] Saxe’s Reveries were published posthumously in 1757. Azar Gat, The Origins of Military Thought from the Enlightenment to Clausewitz (Toronto: Clarendon Press, 1989), 38. This feeling permeates French military during the eighteenth century, and appears even as late as the Napoleonic wars in an account from Jean Barrès: “I observe and understand that these troops are drilled in the Prussian manner, but I will soon put a stop to that.” Jean-Baptiste Barrès, Memoirs of a Napoleonic Officer, ed. Maurice Barrès, trans. Bernard Miall (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1925), 52.
[2] Saxe, “My Reveries,” 100; Gat, Origins, 38.
[3] Folard, quoted in Robert Sherman Quimby, The Background of Napoleonic Warfare: The Theory of Military Tactics in Eighteenth-century France (New York: AMS Press, 1968), 33.
[4] In general, both the British and Prussians relied on line tactics, which emphasized firepower and uniformity. This often involved lines of soldiers two or three deep, firing in unison on command. Gat, Origins, 38; Major Thomas R Phillips, Roots of Strategy: A Collection of Military Classics (London: John Lane the Bodley Head, 1943), 166.
[5] In fact, as few as 0.1-.05 percent of shots actually hit their intended targets, justifying the French move away from muskets. Baron Lejeune even went so far as to state that the arrows of the Niemen people “would pierce an apple at a distance of a hundred yards more often than our pistol shots could hit a button at twenty-five.” Louis-François Lejeune, Memoirs of Baron Lejeune, Aide-de-camp to Marshals Berthier, Davout, and Oudinot, ed. and trans. Mrs Arthur Bell (New York: Logmans, Green, and Co., 1897), 71.  
[6] Saxe, “My Reveries,” 110.

The turn to antiquity

     Opposed to their enemies’ tactical systems, yet frustrated by their own, many eighteenth-century French tacticians turned to the armies of antiquity for inspiration. This turn was in fact not unusual. Ultimately, tacticians turned to classical military models because the systems of antiquity could fix all the problems which philosophes had outlined with the ancien régime army. Greek and Roman warfare appeared successful, decisive, methodical, and, as an added bonus, dignified.[1] Furthermore, it relied on massed infantry offensives using deep formations – such as the Greek and Macedonian phalanxes — to charge and break the enemy lines. This was just the sort of approach which French soldiers were supposedly ideally suited for. Even better, the soldiers of the hoplite phalanx, inspired by their state, did not seem to desert their ranks.[2] Contemporary intellectual trends already strongly encouraged a turn towards antiquity. Steeped in classical literature, the philosophes of the Enlightenment have, perhaps rightly, been accused of knowing the history of Greece and Rome better than that of their own state.[3] Inevitably, ideas from the political and social branches of the Enlightenment filtered into military discussions. Calls for a more humane approach to warfare, new political systems which might include a citizen militia instead of a mercenary army, and new social discourse which might encourage more equal battlefield formations evoked regular comparisons to Rome, Sparta, and Athens.[4]  As J.E. Lendon suggests in “The Rhetoric of Combat,” the way the Greeks and Romans approached, understood, and therefore wrote about war placed particular emphasis on soldiers’ moods and morale. He demonstrates in particular how Caesar emphasized morale and spiritual condition as a deciding factor on the battlefield.[5] Entrenched in such texts, and having grown into the humanist tradition of the Renaissance and Early Modern periods, it is easy to understand how Enlightenment scholars, concerned with the humanity of individuals and the social contract, could easily and quickly identify with the classical approach to warfare.

Consequently, tacticians’ investigation of classical military texts, and in particular Folard’s Commentary on Polybius in which the ordre profond was first propagated, did not seem out of place. Indeed, Nathaniel Wolloch claims that the vocabulary used for understanding war was based on a classical understanding of warfare, and necessarily shaped how military philosophes understood and expressed warfare.[6] Moreover, military study of the classics was in no way unprecedented in the eighteenth century. Throughout the Renaissance, classical military treatises were the subject of much debate and comparison. Machiavelli begins his Art of War, for example, by suggesting that “if we consider the practice and institution observed by the old Romans (whose example I am always fond of recommending), we shall find many things worthy of imitation; these may be easily introduced into any other state.” [7]  This demonstrated to many tacticians that they were indeed on the right track.  Finally, it helped that classical tactical systems were both attainable and inexpensive. Technologies did not need to be invested in, mercenaries did not need to be hired, and little training was required. Instead, the French infantryman, armed with his own spirit and a pike, could decide the result of a war.

[1] Gat, Origins, 8; David Bell suggests that the birth and popularity of the novel was in part responsible for this trend by giving readers a new way to identify with the classics. David A. Bell, The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007), 202.
[2] Saxe, “My Reveries,” 145-147.
[3] Bell, 101.
[4] Rousseau is particularly known for this, though Montesquieu and others suggested it as well- consequently, the application of such citizen soldiers to the battlefield by Saxe cannot be seen as out of place or as revolutionary. Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Constitutional Project for Corsica.Kessinger Press, 5, 36, 1&ved=0CCoQ6wEwAA#v= onepage&q&f=false.
[5] J.E. Lendon, “The Rhetoric of Combat: Greek Military Theory and Roman Culture in Julius Caesar’s Battle Descriptions,” Classical Antiquity 18, no. 2 (October 1999): 281-282, 293.
[6] Nathaniel Wolloch, “Cato the Younger in the Enlightenment,” Modern Philology 106, no.1 (Aug. 2008): 6.
[7] Niccolo Machiavelli, The Art of War, trans. Ellis Farneworth (New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company Inc, 1965), 12.