In the 1790s, the French army pioneered the use of the division, a self-contained unit of several regiments combining infantry, cavalry, and artillery. As part of his new military tactics, Napoleon developed this concept further, establishing a system of army corps, each made up of several divisions. The corps system meant that parts of the French army, which “lived off the land” instead of relying on fixed supplies, could take separate routes to their objective, reducing the risk of exhausting the ability of the areas they marched through to support them. This flexibility and the speed of the French armies left Napoleon’s enemies often seeming sluggish.
Napoleon also expanded the French artillery, and by 1805 the army had 4,500 heavy guns and 7,300 medium and light. A string of victories, most notably Marengo (1800) and Austerlitz (1805), left the successive coalitions formed against him reeling. Napoleon also realized the destruction of the enemy’s field armies should be his main objective, rather than allowing himself to be delayed by protracted sieges. Yet the strain on France’s resources began to show. An estimated 20 percent of Frenchmen born between 1790 and 1795 died in the wars. Increasingly, Napoleon’s soldiers were foreign, less well-trained and less motivated than the French. After 1808, divisions were standardized to two brigades, and the numbers of companies per battalion reduced to make command easier. The result was a less flexible force, and Napoleon’s later battles tended to be elephantine affairs, with large masses of men hurled headlong against the enemy, and far fewer flashes of sheer brilliance. At Borodino, in the Russian campaign of 1812, some 250,000 men fought on a narrow front just 5 miles (8 km) wide, leading to heavy losses on both sides.