While in camp at Boulogne waiting for the right time to invade Britain, Napoleon Bonaparte's men of La Grande Armee spent their time training to maintain fitness and discipline.
In Marshal Michel Ney's VI Corps, based at Etaples, the men were able to do so outdoors in better weather but in the colder months another plan had to be devised.
Ney gave the orders for each regiment to erect two large buildings behind their huts so the troops could fence and dance, while a third gave the officers somewhere to study.But Ney was even more determined to have his men at battle readiness and he conducted embarkation drills into gun-sloops, which could carry five guns and a company of infantry each, and gun-barges that would transport horses, artillery and ammunition.
The marshal's drills initially involved divisional practice and then when they had got the embarkation right he moved on to the next division.
Once satisfied he ordered a full-scale exercise with all the troops from VI Corps.
The troops were kept in the dark about whether it was a real invasion or not and assembled in front of their boats awaiting the orders to embark.
A canon shot began proceedings and the staff officers dismounted and joined their troops. Drums rolled and the men's bayonets were sheathed.
A second shot was then fired signalling the officers to order the men on to the vessels.
At the third gun the men quickly made their way aboard.
It took only 10 and a half minutes to load Ney's 20,000 men! An astounding piece of military work.
A fourth shot told drummers to sound to arms for the shipboard troops.
In his terrific book following the history of Napoleon's 9th Light Infantry regiment called Incomparable, author Terry Crowdy details life in the camps and the reaction of the men to what they thought was the order to sail for their enemy's homeland.
"Believing this was the signal to raise anchor, thousands of voices spontaneously cried out 'Vive l"Empereur!' They were bitterly disappointed when told it was the order to disembark. Thirteen minutes later the grumbling soldiers were back on the beach formed in line."
NB: A review of Terry Crowdy's Incomparable: Napoleon's 9th Light Infantry Regiment is underway and is a wonderful history of the formation, taking it from the Revolutionary Wars through to the 100 Days' Campaign. I'm enjoying it so much I am reading the book slowly. - RM