Prior to the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars Italy consisted of a collection of small states over which the Bourbons of France and the Hapsburgs of Austria had fought for many years. The Austrians gained supremacy with the end of the Old Regime in France until the young Bonaparte and other French Generals drove the Austrians out during the Italian campaign of the late 1790’s. This culminated in the virtual end of Austrian influence in the area with their defeat during the 1805 campaign when they were forced to recognise Napoleon’s claim as King of the newly formed Kingdom of Italy. The Kingdom ultimately consisted of Lombardy, Venetia, Modena, the Papal States, Istria, Dalmatia, Piedmont, Savoy, Genoa, Parma and Tuscany. Napoleon appointed his adopted son Eugene to the position of Viceroy of Italy to rule in his place.
The Kingdom of Italy proved a fertile recruiting ground for Napoleon and his ongoing need for soldiers and it is in this capacity that Italy proved to be one of Napoleon’s greatest assets. The French "liberation" of Italy generated much support which was to last throughout the Napoleonic era. Early adherents flocked to the French armies in Italy, many coming together to form the light infantry style regiments of Tiralleurs du Po and the Corsican Tirailleurs. There was also the Italian regular army which consisted of both guard and line infantry, cavalry, artillery and support troops. These were all organised as the equivalent French units of the same type.
The battle history of the Kingdom of Italy speaks for itself. Contingents served against Austria in 1805 and 1809, Prussia in 1806 and 1807, in Spain from 1808 until 1812 and made a significant contribution to the failed Russian campaign of 1812 where they lost some 25,000 of the 27,000 men sent. Remaining loyal to Napoleon’s cause when many others deserted, they raised forces for the Napoleon’s reconstituted army serving in Saxony in 1813, and managed to hold off Austrian advances into Italy until Eugene’s forced abdication in April 1814.
It should be noted that in addition to these forces some 7 légère (light infantry), 23 line infantry, 6 dragoon, 1 hussar and 9 chasseur a cheval regiments of the French army had depots and recruiting posts in Italy. As well as this the old Polish Legions of the Cisalpine Republic were also transferred to French service ultimately becoming the famous Vistula Legion which provided Napoleon with troops of the highest calibre who operated in every major theatre of operations during the Napoleonic Wars. The Italians proved to be amongst Napoleon’s most reliable and useful allies and were easily the equal of the troops provided by most of the German States.
Italian Troops in Spain 1808–1812
The forces of Italy provided a considerable contribution to Napoleon’s operations in Spain with various contingents serving from 1808 until 1812 when they were withdrawn to participate in the Russian invasion. The Spanish campaign provides an excellent case study of Italian troops serving the French cause.
During this time the following units saw service, mostly in Catalonia and Valencia in major engagements and the endless guerilla warfare that came to characterise this theatre of operations:
- 2nd, 4th, 5th and 7th Line Infantry Regiments (2 battalions each)
- 1st and 2nd Light Infantry Regiments (3 battalions each)
- Guard Foot Chasseur Velites (1 battalion)
- 1st (Real Italiano) and 2nd (Principe Reale) Regiments of Chasseurs a Cheval
- 2nd (Dragoni Napoleone) Dragoons (4 squadrons)
- 2 foot batteries (6 lb. guns)
- 1 horse battery (4 lb. guns)
Organisation and Uniforms
1. – Infantry
1.1. Line Infantry
Modelled on the French organisation, each battalion consisted of 1 grenadier, 1 voltigeur and 4 fusilier companies. There is some doubt and often conflicting evidence regarding the uniforms and especially the facing colours worn. The old light green uniform had been replaced by a white French style with coloured facings in 1806 with French rank and company distinctions and the bicorn for a shako in 1808, although it is probable that some bicornes remained in service, as in the French army, for some time afterwards. The Fusiliers shako had a diamond plate with the iron crown of Lombardy over the regimental number and their coats had white shoulder straps. Grenadiers had red epaulettes, red shako cords and plume or a black bearskin with brass plate, white cross on a red rear patch for full dress, red sword knot and grenade badges on the uniform turnbacks and cartridge boxes. Voltigeurs had green carrot shaped pompoms and shako cords, green epaulettes, green sword knot with a white tassel and hunting horn badges on the cartridge box and turnbacks. Regimental distinctions were probably as follows:
- 2nd Regt white collar piped red, red lapels and cuff flaps piped white, white cuffs and turnbacks piped red;
- 4th Regt red collar piped white, white lapels, cuffs and turnbacks piped green and green cuff flaps piped white;
- 5th Regt red collar and cuff flaps piped white, green lapels and cuffs piped white and white turnbacks piped green;
- 7th Regt green collar piped white, white lapels and turnbacks piped green and red pointed cuffs piped white.
1.2. Light Infantry
The light infantry was organised in a similar fashion to the line with the fusilier companies called chasseurs, and the grenadiers called carabiniers as in the French légère units. The uniform consisted of a dark green French Legere style short jacket with waistcoat and breeches. The 1st Regiment probably had yelyellowlow facings and waistcoat and the 2nd Regiment had red facings and a green waistcoat. They wore a shako with white cords for chasseurs, green for voltigeurs and red for carabiniers who also wore a bearskin with no plate.
1.3. Guard Chasseur Velites (Cacciatori Veliti later Carabiniers)
Details of this units uniforms, like many others of the Italian army, are somewhat confusing. They wore a white uniform with light green facings, red cuffs and turnbacks, red fringed green epaulettes, red over green plume and red and green cords on a plateless bearskin. It is possible that a shako may have been worn by some on the march.
2. – Cavalry
2.1. Chasseurs a Cheval
The chasseurs or cacciatori a cavallo wore a green coat with white breast loops and collar piping, green waistcoat and breeches. The 1st (Real Italiano) had yellow turnbacks, collar and cuffs and the 2nd (Principe Reale) scarlet. The head dress was originally a black czapka (a left over from the days of the old Polish Cisalpine Legion) which was replaced in 1811 by the shako with a green plume and facing colour tip. Elites companies wore a black busby with red plume.
The 2nd (Dragoni Napoleone) Dragoons wore a French style dragoon uniform in dark green with crimson facings. However, shortages while on campaign in Spain forced many to utilise uniforms of local brown fabric with red facings. They wore brass dragoon style helmets with a black fur turban and black horsehair mane with a green plume tipped crimson. The elite company wore a black bearskin with red cords and plume.
3. – Artillery
The artillery consisted of 2 foot batteries, armed with 6 lb. guns and 1 horse battery armed with 4 lb. guns. Foot artillery wore a dark green infantry style jacket with yellow buttons and red epaulettes, black collar, cuffs, cuff flaps, lapels and turnbacks all piped red. They wore a black peakless shako with red cords and pompom. The horse artillery battery wore a uniform very similar to that of the chasseurs a cheval. They wore a black czapska with a black fur headband with a green over black pompom. They wore a green short tunic and breeches with black collar and cuffs, red epaulettes, piping, turnbacks and breast loops.
The foot artillery train wore an artillery uniform with green collar, lapels, turnbacks, shoulder straps and cuffs piped red with red cuff flaps. The train drivers wore a single breasted jacket, buff breeches and heavy cavalry boots. The horse artillery train wore the same uniform but with a shorter skirted tunic. All ordinance had grey woodwork and black carriage fittings.
Wargaming the Italians in Spain
The Italian contingent in Spain is ideally suited to the collector or wargamer as the force is not impossibly large and includes a good mix of troop types with an interesting variety of uniforms. The quality of the troops makes them a viable wargaming force compared to many other allied contingents in Spain who had high rates of desertion and poor battlefield performance. The line and light infantry can be fielded by painting any of the currently available French line infantry packs such as Airfix, Revel or ESCI, in the appropriate colours. The Guard Velites can be fielded using French Imperial Guard figures. The chasseurs and dragoons might be a bit more difficult, however I have found that the Airfix Cuirassiers can be painted to adequately represent dragoons. The chasseurs could be based on the ESCI guard lancers with minor conversion and appropriate colours. The foot artillery can be represented using French line artillery with the peak removed. The horse artillery are probably the most difficult, but a conversion should be possible perhaps again using the Guard Lancer figures available. Anyone want to have a go at this?
I can highly recommend that any wargamer with French forces field some Italian troops as they provide an interesting and useful addition to any army much as they did for Napoleon himself.
- Dempsey, Guy C., Napoleon’s Soldiers The Grande Armee of 1807 as depicted in the paintings of the Otto Manuscript, Arms and Armour Press, London, 1994. (This contains brilliant original source material in a large number of colour plates at an affordable price. Highly recommended for those interested in French uniforms)
- Funcken, Liliane and Fred, Arms and Uniforms The Napoleonic Wars Part 2, Ward Lock Ltd, London, 1973.
- Funcken, Liliane and Fred, Historische Uniformen, pp. 276 – 277 (Münch. 2000)
- Haythornthwaite, Philip, Uniforms of the Peninsular War 1808–1814, Blandford Colour Series, Blandford Press, Dorset, 1978. (Recently republished and highly recommended for anyone interested in the Peninsular campaign)
- Haythornthwaite, Philip, The Napoleonic Source Book, Arms and Armour Press, London, 1995.
- Oman, Charles, A History of the Peninsular War, Vol I 1807–1809 From the treaty of Fontainebleau to the battle of Corunna, Greenhill Books, London, 1995.
- Von Pivka, Otto, Napoleon’s Italian and Neapolitan Troops, Osprey Men at Arms Series, Osprey Publishing Ltd, London, 1979.