What gave French Revolutionary Army so much edge ?

Apr 2014
Istanbul Turkey
Between 1793-1802 and after that during Napoleonic era French Army basically defeated all of its adversaries in field most of the time. Especially after Battle of Valmy to capture of Austrian Netherlands and Holland to all campaigns in Northern Italy , Austria , Central Italy , Spanish Pyrennes etc. What gave that advantage that they usually defeated Austrians , Prussians , British and Spanish then later Russian (during Second Coalition then after) armies combined ? Remember French Rebublican Armt was before AND during Napoleons rise. So is it Lazerne Carnot's mass mobilisation (done first time as far as I know in Europe) that created a huge manpower reserve , was it better artillery and more advaned artillery tactics ? Was it better generals ?
Feb 2016
Atlantic Ocean
Napoleon really. the rest of the army did quite poor in the rhine compared to his army is Italy
Apr 2014
Istanbul Turkey
They did quite well after battle of Valmy invading Netherlands and advancing all the way to Rhine. Back then Napoleon was just an lowly artilley lieutenant climbed ranks fastly due to lack lack of officers to brigadier in 1793. He was not an army or even a divisional commander.
May 2018
Lack of élan and motivation? Here's an interesting excerpt written by Maximilien Foy, a French military officer who fought mainly in the Peninsular War, about the subject:

To withstand the sons of France our enemies required to be actuated by similar passions. We had to do with German armies, cold, disinterested in the quarrel, commanded by sexagenarian generals. We soon knew as well as the Prussians and the Austrians all that is to be learned, and they were completely ignorant of what is only to be divined. It was sufficient for the acquittal of their conscience that the wings were turned or merely passed; their battalions drawn up so laboriously in right lines, immediately took to their heels. Some threw away their muskets, that they might run the faster; others, having no objection to visit the good country of France, preferred being made prisoners to running the risk of being killed.

Our foot-soldiers of five feet high brought in the giants of Germany and Croatia by hundreds. Our horse chasseurs made themselves masters of the cannon, and the ill-appointed equipages. The fugitives owed their safety to the firmness of their cavalry, which was then superior to ours ; sometimes to the disposition of the reserves; more frequently to the coolness of our pursuit — a necessary consequence of the unconnected nature of our attacks.

[...] while the Austrian and Prussian troops, fighting in their own country under the eyes of their sovereign, never ventured but on insignificant attacks or feeble defences, fifteen thousand German mercenaries, recruited without selection, and serving without affection, but who were punctually paid, clothed with a species of luxury, well fed, and still better provided with liquor, showed themselves rivals for glory with the English who paid them. So powerful is the influence of good treatment and vigorous organization!


Ad Honorem
Oct 2010
The French revolutionary armies introduced some changes to warfare, mass conscription, supply by foraging, mass skirmishing, attacking in mass columns, changing the dynamic and style of warfare.

Superior Numbers. The Levee en Masse put many more men in the field than were opposed to them. And while the Revolutionary army suffered from desertion and men leaving the ranks, they still generally at an advantage in numbers, which gave them greater staying power. The Revolutionary regime was pretty ruthless in exacting money/supplies from occupied areas even those that were "allies" (and Napoleon would continue this), at teh time there was not much choice, the French army had almost all it's officers leave, most of military infrastructure was gone, and now it had raised this mass army with no idea of how to support it, "War must pay for War", supply and moneyt had to be obtained in the field.

They mainly defeated the Austrians. The Coalitions were hardly strong and united . The Spanish army was in terrible state and hardly contributed much, the British very small army, the Prussian just left after pretty much a demonstration rather than a campaign. The Russians flip flopped about and really sent a very small force, It was basically the French versus the Austrians for the main part and the French were putting 3 times as many men in the field.

French revolutionary armies were generally successful and Napoleon was hardly the major factor. He did not face or defeat the main Armies in this early period. Both wars would have been won without him. It;'s not like the Army of Italy was short of other commanders that could have done well if given a chance, he did well others may not done as well, but the Austrians basically lost everywhere against whatever French leadership,

French Armies came to rely more on foraging for supply which was previously most a fairly rigid depot system (Ancient Regime armies had a ferociously brutal discipline system and their methods of recruitment were bribery, kidnapping, trickery, lies and Drink., so their armies had to supervised, and the formal camps and depot system of campaign was not so much to save the civilian population as to prevent men from have the chance to desert which was a large problem)

French Armies with less drill could not hope to fight a war of maneuver or perform the drilled line maneuvers, but they did unleash a lot of men as skirmishers creating a cloud of shooters fighting irregularly, disrupting and pinning down the enemy (again the Ancient regime armies didn't trust or encourage their men to fight independently for reasons given before, while skirmisher light infantry existed they were in small numbers in specialist units where it quickly became part of the French way of fighting for all units) so attacking in dense columns (as the French couldn't do subtle maneuvers, but often had numbers)

Leadership played a role, but there was a fundamental shift of mindset, the Ancient Regime tended to be very conservative, armies were a expensive, recruitment hard, they was a real play it safe, war by maneuver, a more restricted way of war. The New French leadership were often men on the make, French command was high risk/high gain , hesitating, going backward, defeat could quickly end badly for commanders, it lead to the risk of risk takers (often with personal enrichment in mind) men on the make, men with little to lose against in general an entrenched aristocracy which really on the hole performed quite badly as military leadership. Most of the armies this immediate period was one which has seen the decline of the quality Military , leadership

The French were short of artillery and cavalry in these initial years. it takes much longer to train a cavalry trooper than a foot solider , and longer still for artillery. The French actually had the best guns due to reforms before the revolution. There actually had been a lot leading intellectually militarily thinking in France before the revolution (eg the division system ) just those running the army where not that interested, the revolution shook things up and teh French army was being reconstituted anew an change was as easy as relearning.

By 1800 the French had been fighting for 8 years. War has a tendency (but not always see the Austrians they improved but little ) to wards meritorious effects on armies to some degrees, what worked was kept, the better/more ambitious Generals rose. The British, Russian and Prussians armies would improve vastly as the wars went on.

The French did became well disciplined (battle wise) and drilled, and field very large numbers of cavalry and Artillery under Napoleon.
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paranoid marvin

Ad Honorem
Aug 2015
Some good points already raised. I would also say that they may have been underestimated, and by the time it was realised that they were actually quite competent it was too late. Then Napoleon came along.