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.

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