For a history of the French army in the period 1792–1804 during the wars of the First and Second Coalitions see French Revolutionary Armies.
Napoleon distributing the Légion d'honneur
at the Boulogne camps, in August 1804
The Grande Armée was originally formed as L'Armée des côtes de l'Océan (Army of the Ocean Coasts) intended for the invasion of England, at the port of Boulogne in 1803. Following Napoleon's coronation as Emperor of the French in 1804, the Third Coalition was formed against him and La Grande Armée turned its sights eastwards in 1805. They left the Boulogne camps late in August and through a rapid march surrounded General Karl Mack's isolated Austrian army at the fortress of Ulm. The Ulm Campaign, as it came to be known, resulted in 60,000 Austrian captives at the cost of just 2,000 French soldiers. By November Vienna was taken. However, Austria refused to capitulate, maintaining an army in the field. In addition, their Russian allies had yet to commit to action. The war would continue for a while longer. Affairs were decisively settled on December 2, 1805, at the Battle of Austerlitz, where a numerically inferior Armée routed a combined Russo-Austrian army led by Czar Alexander I. The stunning victory led to the Treaty of Pressburg on December 26, 1805, with the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire coming the following year.
The alarming increase of French power in Central Europe disturbed Prussia, which had remained neutral in the conflicts of the previous year. After much diplomatic wrangling, Prussia secured promises of Russian military aid and the Fourth Coalition against France came into being in 1806. La Grande Armée advanced into Prussian territory with the famed bataillon-carré ("battalion square") system, whereby corps marched in close supporting distances and became vanguards, rearguards, or flank forces as the situation demanded, and severely defeated the Prussian armies at the Battle of Jena and the Battle of Auerstadt, both fought on October 14, 1806. After a legendary pursuit, the French captured about 140,000 Prussians and killed and wounded roughly 25,000. Davout's III Corps, the victors at Auerstadt, received the honours of first marching into Berlin. Once more, the French had defeated an enemy before allies could arrive, and once more, this did not bring peace.
Napoleon now turned his attentions to Poland, where the remaining Prussian armies were linking up with their Russian counterparts. A difficult winter campaign produced nothing but a stalemate, made worse by the Battle of Eylau on February 7–8, 1807, where Russian and French casualties soared for little gain. The campaign resumed in the Spring and this time Bennigsen's Russian army was soundly defeated at the Battle of Friedland on June 14, 1807. This victory produced the Treaty of Tilsit between France and Russia in July, leaving Napoleon with no enemies on the continent.
Portugal's refusal to comply with the Continental System led to a punitive French expedition in late 1807. This campaign formed the basis for the Peninsular War, which was to last six years and drain the First Empire of vital resources and manpower. The French attempted to occupy Spain in 1808, but a series of disasters prompted Napoleon to intervene personally later in the year. The 125,000-strong Grande Armée marched forward, capturing the fortress of Burgos, clearing the way to Madrid at the Battle of Somosierra, and forcing the Spanish armies to retreat. They then engaged Moore's British army, prompting the British to withdraw from the Iberian Peninsula after a heroic action at the Battle of Corunna on January 16, 1809. The campaign was successful, but it would still be some time before the French were able to occupy Southern Spain.
Meanwhile, a revived Austria was preparing to strike. The War Hawks at the court of Emperor Francis I convinced him to take full advantage of France's preoccupation with Spain. In April 1809, the Austrians opened the campaign without a formal declaration of war and caught the French by surprise. They were too slow to exploit their gains, however, and Napoleon's arrival from Paris finally stabilized the situation. The Austrians were defeated at the Battle of Eckmühl, fled over the Danube, and lost the fortress of Ratisbon. But they still remained a cohesive, fighting force, which meant further campaigning was required to settle the issue. The French captured Vienna and attempted to cross the Danube via Lobau island southeast of the Austrian capital, but they lost the subsequent Battle of Aspern-Essling, the first defeat for La Grande Armée. A second attempt to cross the river proved more successful in July and set the stage for the two-day Battle of Wagram, where the French emerged victorious, inflicting some 40,000 casualties on the Austrians, but themselves suffering 37,000. The defeat demoralized the Austrians so heavily that they agreed to an armistice shortly afterwards. This eventually led to the Peace of Schönbrunn in October 1809. La Grande Armée had brought the Fifth Coalition to an end and the Austrian Empire lost three million citizens as a result of the treaty's border changes.
With the exception of Spain, a three-year lull ensued. Diplomatic tensions with Russia, however, became so acute that they eventually led to war in 1812. Napoleon assembled the largest field army he had ever commanded to deal with this menace. On 25 June 1812, before the Invasion of Russia, the assembled troops with a total strength of 685,000 men were made up of:
• 550,000 Frenchmen
• 95,000 Poles
• 35,000 Austrians
• 30,000 Italians
• 24,000 Bavarians
• 20,000 Saxons
• 20,000 Prussians
• 17,000 Westphalians
• 15,000 Swiss
• 10,000 Danes and Norwegians
• 4,000 Portuguese
• 3,500 Croats
• 2,000 Irish
The new Grande Armée was somewhat different from before; over half of its ranks were now filled by non-French conscripts coming from satellite states or countries allied to France. The behemoth force crossed the Niemen on June 23, 1812, and Napoleon hoped that quick marching could place his men between the two main Russian armies, commanded by Barclay de Tolly and Bagration. However, the campaign was characterized by many frustrations, as the Russians succeeded no less than three times in evading Napoleon's pincers. A final stand for the defence of Moscow led to the massive Battle of Borodino on September 7, 1812. There the Armée won a bloody but indecisive and arguably Pyrrhic victory. Seven days after Borodino, La Grande Armée entered Moscow only to find the city largely empty and ablaze. Its soldiers were now forced to deal with the fires while hunting down the arsonists and guarding Moscow's historic districts. Napoleon and his army spent over a month in Moscow, vainly hoping that the Czar would respond to the French peace feelers. After these efforts failed, the French set out on October 19, now only a shadow of their former selves. The epic retreat over the famous Russian Winter dominates popular conceptions of the war, even though over half of the French army had been lost during the Summer. The French were harassed repeatedly by the converging Russian armies, Ney even conducting a famous rearguard separation between his troops and the Russians, and by the time the Berezina was reached Napoleon only had about 49,000 troops and 40,000 stragglers of little military value. The resulting Battle of Berezina and the monumental work of Eblé's engineers saved the remnants of the Armée. Napoleon left his men in order to reach Paris and address new military and political matters. Of the 690,000 men that comprised the initial invasion force, only 93,000 survived.
The catastrophe in Russia now emboldened anti-French sentiments throughout Germany and Austria. The Sixth Coalition was formed and Germany became the centrepiece of the upcoming campaign. With customary genius, Napoleon raised new armies and opened up the campaign with a series of victories at the Battle of Lützen and the Battle of Bautzen. But due to the poor quality of French cavalry following the Russian campaign, along with miscalculations by certain subordinate Marshals, these triumphs were not decisive enough to permanently conclude the war, and only secured an armistice. Napoleon hoped to use this break to increase the quantity and improve the quality of his Armée, but when Austria joined the Allies, his strategic situation grew bleak. The campaign reopened in August with a significant French victory at the two-day Battle of Dresden. However, the adoption of the Trachenberg Plan by the Allies, which called for avoiding direct conflict with Napoleon and focusing on his subordinates, paid dividends as the French suffered defeats at Katzbach, Kulm, Großbeeren, and Dennewitz. Growing Allied numbers eventually hemmed the French in at Leipzig, where the famous three-day Battle of the Nations witnessed a heavy loss for Napoleon when a bridge was prematurely destroyed, abandoning 30,000 French soldiers on the other side of the Elster River. The campaign, however, did end on a victorious note when the French destroyed an isolated Bavarian army which was trying to block their retreat at Hanau.
"The Grand Empire is no more. It is France herself we must now defend" were Napoleon's words to the Senate at the end of 1813. The Emperor managed to raise new armies, but strategically he was in a virtually hopeless position. Allied armies were invading from the Pyrenees, across the plains of Northern Italy, and via France's eastern borders as well. The campaign began ominously when Napoleon suffered defeat at the Battle of La Rothière, but he quickly regained his former spirit. In the Six Days' Campaign of February 1814, the 30,000-man French army inflicted 20,000 casualties on Blücher's scattered corps at a cost of just 2,000 for themselves. They then headed south and defeated Schwarzenberg at the Battle of Montereau. These victories, however, could not cure such a bad situation, and French defeats at the Battle of Laon and the Battle of Arcis-sur-Aube dampened moods. At the end of March, Paris fell to the Allies. Napoleon wanted to keep fighting, but his marshals refused, forcing the Emperor of the French to abdicate on April 6, 1814.
After returning from Elba in February 1815, Napoleon busied himself in making a renewed push to secure his Empire. For the first time since 1812, the Army of the North he would be commanding for the upcoming campaign was professional and competent. Napoleon hoped to catch and defeat the Allied armies under Wellington and Blücher in Belgium before the Russians and Austrians could arrive. The campaign, beginning on June 15, 1815, was initially successful, leading to victory over the Prussians at the Battle of Ligny on June 16; however, poor staff work, and bad commanders led to many problems for the French army throughout the entire campaign. Grouchy's delayed advance against the Prussians allowed Blücher to rally his men after Ligny and march on to Wellington's aid at the Battle of Waterloo, which resulted in the final, decisive defeat for Napoleon and his beloved army.