Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics

The GQG [Headquarters] of Napoleon I: Part II

By Lieutenant Colonel René Tournès

Translation and Comments by John Hussey

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the Revue de Paris, 1 May 1921, pages 134-158. Notes by Colonel Tournès are identified numerically; those of John Hussey are in red. Additional comments in square brackets are by John Hussey


While the personnel of the cabinet were few, the aides-de-camp and ordonnance officers attached to the Emperor’s Maison were numerous by comparison.  The aides comprised eleven officers, all of senior rank, seven being generals of division: Le Marois, Lebrun, Mouton, Drouot, Durosnel, Dejean, Hogendorp; three generals of brigade, Guehéneuc, Corbineau, Flahaut; and one colonel, Bernard. The twelve ordonnance officers were all of captain’s rank, except their chief, Gourgaud who was a colonel with the title of first officer of ordonnance.  The difference in rank between the two groups indicates their different functions on mission.

In 1813 the Emperor gave his aides-de-camp important commands, functions or missions; around him they formed an elite of officers, each of whom he knew perfectly and whom he could employ using their individual qualities without hesitation and at need.  Before operations began he sent Le Marois as governor of Wesel, that key place from which moved all the troops and material destined for those corps which under Davout were to march on the lower Elbe.  In mid-May Durosnel would be named governor of the stronghold of Dresden, that filled at this time on the Elbe the role that Mainz had filled on the Rhine at the start of the campaign.  Hogendorp would be sent as second to Davout in the defence of Hamburg.  Other aides-de-camp were sent on missions that did not mean command: Flahaut left Mainz on 20 April to find the Saxon king whom Napoleon judged as needing more energetic support than the French minister Serra offered.  Bernard was sent to reconnoitre the great route from Frankfort to Erfurt, that most of the troops and all the convoys of the Army of the Main must follow.  Others, in the very course of an action, are given commands of such importance as to show clearly the confidence placed in them.  On 2 May at Lützen, at the moment when Napoleon decides to make the decisive effort, he charges his aide-de-camp Drouot to take command of all the artillery of the Garde, and that of 3e Corps and part of that of the 6e.

The Emperor’s esteem for them, a deserved reputation for integrity, a perfect knowledge of the army, leads two of them, Drouot and Mouton to be picked for those ever-delicate tasks when personnel are in question. It is to them that Napoleon speaks[1]  when he is puzzled as to which officers are fit to command brigades or divisions.They are the ones who during the campaign examine the proposals from the corps commanders for recompense of all sorts.  Unfortunately the two aides usually have no time to carry out the work needed on these requests.  The Emperor demands an immediate answer to the most difficult questions, like that posed to Lobau [Mouton] on 10 April, in these brief terms: “Who are the six best general of brigades fit to command an infantry division and whom one can make generals of division? Who are the twelve best colonels or adjutants-commandants suited to be good generals of brigade, one and all being in the prime of life, and available”.[2]  Drouot and Lobau are even more at a disadvantage when it comes to judge the claims of candidates for promotion or decorations put forward by army corps commanders.  These being proposed at the initiative of the army corps commanders, those of these general officers, Marmont, Ney, who demand the most obtain the most as well.  Some of them send in lists without the indispensable details.  Drouot and Lobau are sometimes forced to accept the applications en bloc, or to eliminate names at hazard.  Lobau writes to the Emperor in submitting a “list of promotions and recompense” sent in by Marmont, “I have marked with a big cross . . . the individuals whose request one can reject and I avow that I have marked them at hazard, this list having no service record or the least information on the claims of the individuals listed.  The promotion sought will be awarded at hazard for the same reason.  It should be indispensable that when such submissions are sent that they are backed by information on the different individuals”.

The missions given to the ordonnance officers were far less delicate than those of the aides-de-camp.  They required neither a decision to take nor a command to exercise.  Often it was no more than to report to the Emperor the precise indications on clearly defined points.  Thus in February Captain Atthalin is sent to Wesel, then to Hamburg, Hanover, Brunswick and Magdeburg to procure for Napoleon information on the effectives of those French corps operating in that region.  Lamezan leaves on 9 April for Belgium and Holland to examine the state of the strongholds, the garrisons, public feeling, and in general “everything that can interest the Emperor”.  Before the campaign opens Laplace is ordered to examine the roads that lead from Würzberg and Frankfort as far as the Saale and also the “positions” that the region traversed may offer.  Lauriston, charged with letters for the Grand Duke of Würzberg and the King of Saxony, must use his journey to send back precise information on the corps now being constituted along his route.


With the exception of this personnel of the Maison who took orders directly from the Emperor, all the remainder of l’Etat-Major de l’Empereur was placed under the orders of Marshal Berthier, the chief of staff.

In 1813 Berthier was 59 years old and had been fairly seriously ill at the beginning of the year, due to the fatigues of the retreat from Russia; but from March he had resumed his duties and during the spring campaign he showed his customary activity by working unceasingly day and night at Napoleon’s side.  But as major-général he merely executes whatever orders his chief gives him, he is never in the role of counsellor, never on his own takes the least decision about operations.  He described his functions with perfect accuracy when he summarised them thus to the Emperor: “to issue Your Majesty’s orders, to give those of movement[3] and administration, to keep situation reports, of organisation and personnel, and finally to serve actively in war beside Your Majesty”.[4]

One finds in the allocation of duties under Berthier the same segregation as in the Grand Quartier général imperial itself, the same division into two groups of very different sizes, and with the numerically smaller group performing the more important functions.  They are l’état-major particulier du major-général, and secondly, l’état-major général. As in the Emperor’s cabinet, the small group forming l’état-major particulier are men long trained in their task and the major général knows that he can work in complete calm; entry to Berthier’s cabinet is forbidden to all members of staff, to aides-de-camp and to ordonnance officers.  To ensure the despatch of the Emperor’s orders, the preparation of the many reports, the maintenance of situation reports, the movement of all corps and detachments en route to join the army, and dozens of matters of administration and accounting, Berthier relies upon three or four civilians in his cabinet particulier, Dufresne, Denicé, Leduc, Salomon.

L’état-major général, the second group under Berthier, is under a general of division, Monthyon, a remarkably intelligent officer, clear thinking in his work, and precise; he was fit to hold in this staff organisation a position far superior than the one he actually held.  He is not a locum tenens for Berthier or his deputy; he takes no part in the preparation or despatch of operational orders.  He is commandant of the quartier général and responsible for movements and supplies; vis-à-vis the Imperial Garde he functions as a chief of staff and sees to all rear services of this force, and he orders the movements of all units with the army that are not attached to a formation, army corps or cavalry corps.[5]

Under Monthyon are a certain number of adjutants-commandants, the real general staff officers of that epoch, doing the office work that is not performed by l’état-major particulier du major-général.  Some are at the head of special services: Michal deals with movement of troops not forming part of a major formation, Creutzer with those of the general staff, Fernig deals with general staff personnel matters, Puton “roads and bridges”, while from 1805 onwards Dentzel handles the guarding and evacuation of prisoners of war.  Other adjutants-commandants are employed on important outward missions, though they are not employed as simple bearers of orders, for that duty falls to the commandants and especially the captains and lieutenants adjoints of the general staff.

Just like the Emperor Berthier has his own bureau topographique under the orders of Colonel Bonne, furnishing maps required by the chief of staff and the general staff and all subordinate staffs.  In this bureau is a portable printing press and a copper-engraving press, that can be transported by three horses.  Thus printing many copies of orders of the day or similar documents can be handled in a few hours, and of sketches made before or on the morning of a battle.


The experience of 1812 had shown that the Grand Quartier général was ponderous, cumbersome, difficult to move and lodge, and so the Emperor felt he had to simplify it as much as possible for the campaign of 1813.  Long before this opening he wrote: “I intend to take an entirely different approach to my equipages from the previous campaign. I want many fewer people, as much as an example as for reducing confusion”.  In March he ordered that the previous 72 vehicles should be reduced to ten, with only 110 horses or mules instead of 500.   By the opening of the campaign it had made a remarkable reduction to the Grand Quartier général, and although there remained a considerable number of saddle- and bat- horses, there were only 57 vehicles of which 42 were for the train carrying food.

In consequence movement became easier, assisted by a separation of the two fractions on the march and in camp, the very small portion following the Emperor everywhere, while the large one moved separately.  Even so the smaller group was further reduced when Duroc and Kirgener were killed at Napoleon’s side [at Markersdorf, 22 May 1813], proving the danger of a large staff on visible points drawing the attention of the enemy’s artillery.  Henceforth the Emperor would go forward on exposed reconnaissances followed only by Berthier and Caulaincourt.  Light camping equipment of five tents went with the Emperor on campaign: one tent served him for the working cabinet, one a sleeping tent, a third was for Berthier, the other two sheltered other officers.  These could be put up in the open field, but in the spring campaign Napoleon used them only twice.  Because his personal entourage travelling with him was so small it made lodging much easier; a hamlet sufficed, or even a farm, as long as there were two buildings, one with two rooms for the Emperor, the other nearby for Berthier (who occasionally had to make do with a single room); any who could not find a shelter had to bivouac; on the march or stationary, the escorts from the Garde or the gendarmerie protected the GQG.  On reaching Germany Berthier warned Bessières that this protection was more than ever necessary “due to the bad spirit among many university students”.

The fraction of the Quartier général that did not accompany the Emperor moved in a single formation, every vehicle was numbered and each in place; ever employee and every officer irrespective of rank and even the generals had to cover each stage with the column; none was permitted to avoid this.  Cantonments were prepared in advance but the domestics, animals and vehicles were left to find places outside the cantonment’s locality.

In 1813 the GQG’s method of working left very little to be desired.   It was a tried and tested organisation with everyone familiar with his task, and there was calm; moving or arriving was orderly.  Eyewitnesses, even hostile ones such as the Saxon Major Odeleben, could not withhold praise.


At GQG long experience was just as apparent in the preparation and transmission of orders.  Although no written instruction codified the procedures required by the Emperor and by Berthier, the habits inculcated by twenty years of war had produced strict rules.  The first - it dominated GQG - was that it was the Commander-in-Chief himself who took all decisions, and that every piece of information that arrived was submitted to him.  The second, lesser no doubt, was that internal relations within the staff should be handled in writing, unless that should prove absolutely impossible.

Apart from diplomatic correspondence and those aspects for which Lelorgne d’Ideville was responsible, everything that came in was examined by Berthier.  He read the operational reports and then wrote at the top of the paper three or four lines summarising the information sent in or the request presented by the writer. Berthier’s analyses were remarkable, being both complete and concise, allowing the Emperor to see at a glance the importance of the document submitted to him.  However, for correspondence coming from detached bodies, such as in 1813 from Davout, and especially for matters touching organisation, promotion, troop movements in the rear zone, the chief of staff made out a short analysis but joined to it the original documents, leaving to the Emperor’s decision whether or not to examine the elements underlying Berthier’s appreciation.

It was mostly during the night that Napoleon worked.  After briefly dining at around 6 p.m. with Berthier, he then went to bed, waking at around 1 a.m. when the reports written by corps commanders at the end of the day were received.  Then began the intense work: the Emperor thought out and dictated his operational orders then returned to bed for an hour or two, very frequently he turned to new tasks until it was time to mount horse.

During the night the Emperor set out his orders in different forms each matching a well-defined case.  If it concerned the principal force held under his direct command, whether a single army or, as usually the case in 1813, two armies, he wrote a letter to Berthier setting out everything needed to set in motion the main formations (in 1918 terms ‘operational general order’).  Berthier’s task was then very simple, he had to select the information and instructions relative to the different corps commanders if it was a single army, or to commanders of subordinate armies, as the case might be.  These letters coming from the imperial cabinet are extremely concise usually merely stating only the routes to follow and the objective sought.

But for distant army corps, such as in 1813 the army of the Elbe under Prince Eugène before Lützen, or Ney’s army between Lützen and Bautzen, or Davout’s corps on the lower Elbe, it was the Emperor himself who gave them orders directly; Berthier was responsible merely for the order’s despatch.  It might happen that in some situations an army corps commander, even if acting directly under Napoleon, would not be sufficiently aware of what was needed if relying only on Berthier’s general instructions.  In that event the Emperor would send him a special letter that would expand on Berthier’s brief words, explain the intended manoeuvre and the reasons behind it, provide information about the enemy, and give precise instructions so as to elucidate the particular situation.  However, unlike the present practice, Napoleon never disclosed his overall plans in some single instruction to all his formations; it may be that he thought it would be too difficult to set out a general formula for the manoeuvre required for each of his formations.

For matters that were not directly operational, the Emperor gave his decisions in brief marginal notes on the reports.  He would write to Berthier if he needed further information or if he thought the matter before him needed a fuller reply than normal.  Despite the proximity of their offices, and as with orders, everything between Berthier and Napoleon was handled in writing.

With parallel working methods the task of the chief of staff was greatly simplified and required no initiative from him.  He had only to add some additions to the instructions emerging from the cabinet and ensure when sending on the orders that he retained the original terms used. This done, the orders were copied into the register in a summarised form; they would be enciphered if it was feared that the bearer might be captured; it would be stated how many copies were going by different routes, and the names of the officers or couriers bearing them.  None of this took long to do from the moment the orders came out of cabinet to the time they departed from headquarters.  Often they would be carried by the officers who had arrived the previous evening with the daily reports; failing them the adjoints of the staff would take them, travelling either by horse or carriage.  As the C-in-C’s orders went out in the morning this avoided the risks for staff officers of night travel across unfamiliar country furrowed by enemy patrols.   Moreover the army corps generally did not need to await the operational orders before marching, as they held enough earlier information concerning itineraries and objectives.  But this system was inconvenient in a crisis when a formation could meanwhile make a false movement.  With long distances between them, GQG’s morning orders to a corps might not arrive until noon or 1 p.m..  This could lead to late starts and to camping or bivouacking in the dark, difficulties in supply and a lack of rest and sleep.

For orders destined to rear services and units there was a courier service on the line of communications.  For communication from Paris there was the Chappe telegraph system that stretched as far as Strasbourg, and that in April was being extended to Mainz; the Emperor envisaged that from 13 May it could be continued to Magdeburg or Dresden, reaching there by 30 June.

What changes to the system occurred in battle?  We know that in battle the Emperor issued verbal orders directly to ordonnance officers or to the staff officers charged with their transmission; exceptionally, an order might be in writing, but then it was not registered.  Thus most of Napoleon’s instructions at Lützen and Bautzen have not survived.


Apart from these principal tasks there were at imperial headquarters two other large branches, artillery and engineering, plus personnel for minor duties.

The artillery, l’état-major-général de l’artillerie, had technical responsibilities, had to supply and replenish material and munitions to the fighting formations, and was also responsible for bridges.  Its head, General of Division Sorbier, had a staff of 13 officers commanding the artillery parc and the bridging equipment of the army.

General of Division Rogniat commanded the engineering service, assisted by 11 officers.  He was to supply every sort of engineering equipment from the army’s engineering parc; also the Emperor required from him many studies on work needed for the defence of strongholds on the lines of communication, such as Erfurt, Dresden, Torgau.

The gendarmerie at GQG numbered 22 officers and 167 men under the Grand Provost, General Radet. They were mainly detached rearward for the protection of stage-routes, or for the use of the intendant general Dumas.  A small detachment under Colonel Lasson, wagon master and inspector-general of the army’s wagonmasters, guarded the GQG lodgings.  Lastly, various officers including some generals (thirty-eight officers as at 1 May) were “held available awaiting posting on the registers of the general staff” and were lodged somewhere on the line of communications.  The Emperor chose them as and when necessary for command of, or as adjutants for, fortified places, for command of arms in the rear zone.


Certainly this imperial headquarters does not correspond with our conception of modern war; it did not provide Napoleon in any way with the varied and important services that a generalissimo requires of his staff today: its modest role is blotted out.  The Emperor could be satisfied by a headquarters of that sort; his exceptional personality allowed him to comprehend the overall picture and the detail, to see everything, to decide everything and never suffer an instant’s lapse or need of a council; the size of the forces in play still permitted him to fulfil the crushing task.  So it sufficed that he could be proffered only rudimentary assistance to help a little in his gigantic work, and be assisted by material factors ensuring the transmission of his orders.  This task the imperial headquarters performed to the satisfaction of its master: composed of men most of whom had long been at the head of their departments, this staff was experienced.  For its time it constituted an excellent tool of war.

The order, the method, the calm, joined with the dedication to work of our great general staffs in the late war, have struck all impartial witnesses, especially foreigners.  These qualities, fruit of the labour of forty-four years, are in stark contrast with the dangerous habits that were ours during the campaigns of the Second Empire and notably in 1870; they have seemed to many an innovation in our army, and that one should attribute the merit to the example that we were given by the general staff formed by Field-Marshal von Moltke.  The exaggeration is plain; without denying the influence German doctrines had upon us until 1914, it is simple justice to recognise that we did not always need to imitate the foreigner; in the matter of staff work we can very happily remind ourselves of certain traditions that had, previous to that, functioned in the GQG of Napoleon I.


[1] Although Tournès is definite on the point that such demands were addressed to aides-de-camp, I note that the new Corr Gén, Tome xiii, prints for the first time Napoleon’s demand to Berthier himself, dated Paris, 2 April 1813 that he should propose two generals of division for a new division in the Grande Armée, and for a general of brigade for a new brigade (No 33,568).  So while there were rules, there were exceptions also.

[2] Napoleon to Mouton, Comte Lobau, Saint-Cloud, 10 April 1813, Corr de Nap, vol 25, No 19,837 [now in Corr Gén, Tome xiii, No 33,787].

[3] By this expression [ceux du mouvement] Berthier means that he gives the orders to set in movement those corps or detachments that have not yet joined the army: note by R Tournès.

[4] Berthier’s letter to the Emperor, Mainz, 19 April 1813, Archives nationales, AF iv, 1659.

[5] Bailly de Monthyon was highly regarded by Berthier and served under Soult in the 1815 campaign as sub-chief of army staff.  However, Davout had a very poor opinion of him for that post, writing as War minister on 8 May 1815, “I regard this choice as very bad.  This general is mistrusted [méprisé] in the army; he is inept; his campaigns of 1812, 1813, 1814 have unfortunately shown the truth of this.  I consider him as unreliable [peu sûr]; that might be put down to imagination, but what cannot be imagination is his conduct in the armies.  Count Bertrand, please place these observations before His Majesty; I must add that if the choice of officers for the Staff has been made by General Monthyon it is desirable that you gather information before issuing letters of appointment’ (quoted in Couderc de St-Chamant, Napoléon, ses dernières armées, 1903, p.203).

The GQG [Headquarters] of Napoleon I: Part I

Placed on the Napoleon Series: May 2017


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