The military service: detailed biographical information

Any French male ancestor born after 1778 has been registered for military service. Whether or not he actually became a conscript and joined combat operations, the French archives provide a wealth of information on his life – potentially linking him to major events of French History.

The military service in France

From September 1798, the newly established République voted a law (the “loi Jourdan-Delbrel”) to introduce conscription: all Frenchmen, aged between 20 and 25 years, were mobilized to protect France against a coalition of European powers.

From that time to 1997, the military service remained in France, almost without interruption. Conscripts took part in all wars, from the Napoleonic campaigns across Europe, colonial campaigns in Africa, Asia or North America until the wars with Germany in 1870 and the world wars.

The archives from the military service

Whether they were managing to escape conscription by buying an exemption (literally!), finding someone to replace them on being lucky at the draw, all young men were listed in their place of residence. These lists can still be found in the so called “Registres matricules”. They offer incredible details. Like shown below, size, color of the hairs, eyes, distinguishing traits, ability to read or write, etc.

Basic information from military records

If the individual actually joined the army, the registry provides also the details of the unit joined, military campaigns, distinctions, promotions, etc.

With Napoléon throughout from France to Spain and Russia

As an example, Jean-Baptiste Boucher was born on 14th July 1774 in Nauroy, in the north of France. Thanks to his military records, we can retrace his life until his death in action in Germany in 1813 as a Dragon in Napoleon’s Imperial Guard.

Jean-Baptiste joined the 6th Cavalry Regiment on November 21, 1793, probably voluntarily, as he was not yet 20 years old. Military records indicate, as a distinctive sign, in addition to a “big” nose, the scars of “small pox”. Within the 6th Cavalry Regiment, he took part in the campaigns of the French Republic against the First (1792 – 1797) and Second Coalitions (1798 – 1800) during which the newly formed French Republic fought against Eropean monarchies. Jean Baptiste is promoted Brigadier on April 23, 1800.

In 1799, Napoleon became Consul through a coup (the coup of Brumaire). He established the Consular Guard which included a cavalry regiment. Jean Baptiste joined this regiment on the 4th October 1801, in particular thanks to its size (1m80) which was a prerequisite for recruitment in this elite unit.
The Consular Guard is then replaced by the Imperial Guard in 1804 and Jean Baptiste Boucher joined the Grenadier Regiment on horseback of the Imperial Guard.

Information on campaigns, promotions and death in military records
“Grenadiers à cheval de la Garde”

The mounted Grenadiers formed the heavy cavalry of the Imperial Guard. Mounted on large black horses, they were nicknamed the “Big Brothers” or the “Big Heels”. Their armament included a saber with a battle guard and slightly curved blade, a pair of pistols, a rifle and a bayonet. Like the Cuirassiers, they had the heaviest horses.

Jean-Baptiste then joined the Regiment of Dragons, still within the Imperial Guard, shortly after its creation on 26 July 1806, retaining his rank of Brigadier. The clothing and armament of this corps are the same as those of the mounted grenadiers of the Imperial Guard, with the exception of the colour of the uniform – blue for the grenadiers and green for the dragons – and the helmet in place of the bear cap.

Records from
the Consular Guard

The Regiment’s historical records tell from the archives tell us the story of his campaigns:
“He made the end of the 1806 Campaign in Prussia, the 1807 Campaign in Poland, where he was at the Battle of Friedland. […] The whole Regiment, which also left for Spain in October 1808, attended the battles of Burgor and Sommo-Sierra, the capture of Madrid, and generally all the affairs in which the Guard took part. Until February 1809 the Corps returned to Austria. There it was at the battles of Osling and Wagram. […] Left in January and March 1812 for the Russian campaign, it was joined on August 10 at Witepr by the detachment which was in Spain; it was at the battle of Mojaisck and had the opportunity to be noticed several times in the retreat, mainly at Malajoroslawetz, where by a firm hold it prevented the enemy from entering the headquarters. After this painful campaign, the Regiment […] was reduced by half. The Regiment received a detachment sent from the depot, attended the battles of Lützen [2 May 1813], Bautzen [20-21 May 1813], Dresden and Leipsick. Arriving at the parade of Hanau, occupied by the Bavarian army, which they had been vainly trying to force for a few hours, a vigorous charge that he executed, together with other corps that had already been repulsed, facilitated the opening”.

Jean-Baptiste Boucher did not finish the Prussian campaign. He died there on June 28, 1813 after almost 20 years of almost uninterrupted service and while Napoleon was trying to negotiate peace.

On May 7, 1811, Jean-Baptiste Boucher had been made a “Légionnaire” and had taken the oath of fidelity to the Empire. This was the highest military distinction. It had been instituted by Napoleon.

Oath made by the “Légionnaires” to the Empire and its Emperor
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