The Effacement of La Grande Armée
Good Reads - History of the French In India

The Departmental Legions - Les Légions départementales


Restoration Infantry Uniforms

Carrying on from the last post, we tell here of a brief moment in French military history which may be of help to the genealogist. It came during the Restoration, when a soldier's legion could have indicated his department of origin. 

The regiments of Napoleon's Imperial infantry were disbanded and reorganized, in 1815, into departmental legions, les légions départementales. Each of these new legions was required to recruit soldiers from the department for which it was named. At that time there were eighty-six departments, each of which was to have three battalions -- two of infantry of the line and one of light infantry -- making for a total of 258 battalions. It was not an easy task. Soldiers of the old regiments were largely loyal to Napoleon and many deserted rather than serve the royalty which perhaps seemed to them like an ever-returning, most unwelcome cockroach that can survive every attempt to exterminate it, even beheading.

There were imbalances and inequalities between the departmental legions since, of course, not all departments were equal. There were obvious inequalities in size, wealth, population and the numbers of those willing to volunteer. Yet there were many men required: a total of 1,687 soldiers and 103 officers for each legion. 

Some would say it was impossible to enlist enough men because the Corsican had wiped out a generation of soldiers with his incessant wars and pursuit of personal glory. Others would say the reason was as given above, that soldiers and the people were loyal to him and refused to serve in the army of the reinstated king. Whatever the cause, the departmental legions had difficulty finding men. (One never managed to have more than 400.) Many began to recruit from their neighbouring departments, defeating the intention of the legions being composed solely of men from the departments of their name. Even with such neighbourly contributions, the legions could not be filled. Conscription was reinstated. 

By 1819, the failure was recognized: it was impossible to have legions composed strictly and solely of men from a specific department. The law was changed in February of that year, allowing alterations to certain legions.  It was not enough. The following year the whole scheme of departmental legions was abandoned and the French Army returned to having numbered regiments.

You could be lucky and find that, between 1815 and 1820, your ancestor served in one of the departmental legions. If you did not know his place of origin at all before, you could make the reasonable -- but not at all certain -- guess that he was from the department of that legion, and thus narrow your area of research.


©2012 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy