Reason Three: Avoiding Firearms

Third, the ordre profond was also preferable in that it avoided the need for any excessive use of firearms. Muskets, as mentioned, were slow to reload, cumbersome, and inaccurate. Furthermore, the thick white smoke clouds from the gunpowder blurred troops’ vision, and it was often necessary to either fire blindly or to wait for the smoke to clear.[1] Many went so far as to blame the French losses in the Seven Years’ War entirely on firearms.[2] Tacticians argued that the French character – specifically the Frenchman’s passion for and skill on the offensive – would more than make up for a loss of firepower.[3] Consequently, what the column lost in firepower it made up for with cold steel, or arme blanche. Even Voltaire suggested that “the fire of the French is . . . usually inferior to that of other nations;” yet “the French nation attacks with the greatest impetuosity . . . it is very difficult to resist its shock.” [4] Lazare Carnot, a Revolutionary-era Minister of War, argued that arme blanche “has always been more brilliant, more efficacious, and more protracted than the defence with firearms.” [5] The fast pace attack which the ordre profond allowed would reduce the amount of time troops spent under enemy fire, and thereby reduce the need to fire back. Armed with bayonets or pikes, soldiers would pierce enemy ranks quickly and efficiently. Thus, the ordre profond worked on a strategic level while at the same time better fit with the spirit and √©lan of the independent, creative, and courageous French character.[6] Not only would the soldier be in a better position tactically, but he would be more inspired, more motivated, and more comfortable with the work of his own steel.

[1] Saxe, “My Reveries,” 110.
[2] Ken Alder, Engineering the Revolution: Arms and Enlightenment in France, 1763-1815 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 35.
[3] Saxe, “My Reveries,” 145.
[4] Voltaire, quoted in Lynn, Bayonets of the Republic, 187.
[5] It is important to note here that Frederick the Great did not agree with this. Despite initial writings agreeing with limiting the role of firearms in battle, Frederick later concluded that ‘to attack the enemy without procuring oneself the advantage of superior, or at least equal fire, is to wish to fight against an armed troop with clubs, and this is impossible.’ Frederick, quoted in Phillips, 165; Lazare Carnot,  A Treatise on the Defence of Fortified Places, written under the direction and published by the Command of Buonaparte for the Instruction and Guidance of the Officers of the French Army, trans. Lt.-Col. Baron de Montalembert (London: Whitehall Military Library, 1814), 93.
[6] This idea continued just as strongly into the Revolutionary wars (Marshal MacDonald claiming quite blatantly that “the French character lends itself better to attack than defense. Jacques MacDonald, Recollections of Marshal Macdonald, Duke of Tarentum, ed. Camille Rousset, trans. Stephen Louis Simeon (London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1893), 103); It is not surprising then, that by the Revolutionary Period, the bayonet was so celebrated that, Lynn suggests, it was a “revolutionary symbol to rival the red liberty cap and the tricolor cockade” which “evoked images of citizen-soldiers braving death at close quarters to defend the Patrie. Like a Crusader’s cross,” Lynn notes, “it seemed to insure victory by its very presence.” Lynn, Bayonets of the Republic, 188-189.

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