Thursday, 4 April 2013

Sapeurs d'Infanterie

Part 1: Origins and Organisation

Despite being amongst the most iconic soldiers of the French Empires – the infantry sapeur - very little is actually known about them.

The term sapeur can be traced back in the French Army into the mid to late seventeenth century, where it referred to an engineer who dug trenches and built field fortifications. Indeed, the very word sapeur literally means a “man who digs trenches”. In the Napoleonic Army, infantry sapeurs should not be confused with the sapeurs of the Engineer Corps.

 Sapeurs have existed in the French army since the late 17th century. Originally they were the senior mess in a company whose duty it was to guard a camp at night. They were equipped with tools to carry out engineering works. But it is appropriate of establishing here a summary distinction between these soldiers equipped of an axe; indeed, the sappers of artillery or the genie must be considered like specialist soldiers who fortified buildings and created earthworks. Of these tools, the axe carried by the sapeurs is the sole remainder.

The Ancien Regime

At early as 1710 a general order for the army created six ‘soldier tool carriers’ per regiment of infantry and dragoons. During the Seven Years’ War in 1747 ten soldier-axe-bearers were nominated in each Grenadier Company in the Infantry and Dragoons (Royal Ordnance 19 January 1747). They were the senior Grenadiers in the company, having the rank of Corporal. They were appointed for the duration of a campaign, supervised by a full-time Sapeur-Sergent to build emplacements, defend buildings etc. They were to be dispensed with in times of peace. The traditional cockerel’s head form of the hilt of a sapeur sabre dates back to the early eighteenth century; the cock was meant to symbolise vigilance and watchfulness – part of the duties of the sapeur during that period were to act as camp guards and pickets. Under the Empire period the cock’s head was replaced by an eagle – the emblem of the Empire – but it also appears that the cockerel head was still in use. Under the Restoration the eagle head to the sabre was repressed.

The Ordnance of 19 April 1766 created two sapeurs  per company of Grenadier, but were only to be raised for the duration of a campaign, but the Ordnance of 25 April 1767 provided for the presence of ‘…two axe-bearing pioneers…’ in each infantry company 'in times of war.' It is said that these were to imitate similar troops in the Prussian Army of Frederick the Great. These axe-bearing infantrymen were equipped with axes, leather aprons, bearskin caps, saw-toothed swords and cross-belts decorated with a Tete de Meduse device. The uniform established with this order laid down the traditional dress of the sapeur for well over a century; the crossed-axe device and Tete de Meduse still being used by the Foreign Legion. 

Sapeurs were abolished in the army following the Ordnance of 19 January 1771 but re-appeared with the Ordnance of 1780 which stated each Grenadier company was to find two sapeurs 'in times of war' only.

In the old Royal Army, sapeurs were referred to as Soldier-Workmen or Soldier-Carpenters, who received higher pay due to the extra tasks they had to perform. However, under the Consulate and Empire, the term sapeur became to be used exclusively for these troops, who had adopted a new ceremonial role.

Garde Consulaire


 With the Revolution of 1789 the infantry sapeur was abolished, but they were re-established by Napoleon in the Consular Guard during 1800, subsequently the Imperial Guard, in imitation of those of the Royal Guard. However, it was only with the re-establishment of the sapeurs that beards were made mandatory; they had existed in Royalist Army and were becoming part of the sapeur ‘traditions’ by the time of the Revolution.
 An Order of the Day date 8 September 1800 stated that there were to be 16 sapeurs in the Grenadiers of the Consular Guard; subsequently 32 in 1802, under the command of a sapeur-caporal. From 1806 the sapeurs were to be commanded by a sapeur-sergent and a caporal who were part of the petit etat-major.

On 21 September 1800 the dress and equipment of the sapeurs in the Consular Guard were laid down. Each sapeur was to be issued with:
Bonnet à Poil of the first quality with cords and plume but no plate.
Waist belt with grenade plate in brass
Axe box (port-hache) with decorations
Sheepskin apron
Cockerel’s headed sabre
2 pistols with belt-hooks.

Two years late the Guard sapeurs were issued with new uniforms; they received a new pattern of waistcoat as well as overall trousers. Their waistcoats (working jackets?) and greatcoats received crossed-axe arm badges. The full dress uniform is listed as having a pair of gold crossed axe arm badges costing 12F a piece; the smaller devices for the turn-backs were 3.50F. The cut out arm badges for the greatcoat and second habit cost 6F. Sabres and pistols ‘for the sappers’ are listed as being in the Grenadier’s magazine as of 21 September 1803.

On 29 August the sapeurs were to be issued with carbines with bayonets and a cartridge box à la corse’ (ie one worn on a waist belt). The inspection of 21 September 1804 notes that there were three type of axe devices in use for the uniforms of the sapeurs and that their overall trousers had yellow lace. Gauntlet gloves are also listed.

Infantry of the Line


 The Regulation of 4 Brimaire AnX described the headdress and equipment for infantry sapeurs, including the porte-hache, apron and special pattern sabre. On 11 and 12 Fructidor AnXII line sapeurs were to be issued with carbines and cartridge boxe 'a la corses'; the latter were abolished by Imperial Decree 31 July 1813.

The Journal Militaire for 1804 notes that the company sapeurs were to be drawn from the senior mess of the grenadier companies in the infantry and dragoons and that they were to be given instruction in the use of engineering tools and issued with axes, aprons and ordered to grow beards:

when the troops are on campaign, 8 grenadiers (sic) chosen on a rotating basis will be given axes and aprons and will perform the duties of a sapper.

A Decree of 1 November 1805 stated that for the War Battalions (as opposed to the Depot Battalion) there were to be 2 sapeurs per company, ranking as corporals.  This number was reduced to four per battalion during the following year. The Journal Militaire of 25 February 1806 - reiterating an Order of the Day dated 12 July 1805 - regulated the dress and equipment of the infantry sapeurs; they were to wear sheepskin aprons and have axes that were functional ‘good axes of a carpenter’ as opposed to some of the almost absurdly stylised and impractical designs used by some regiments for parade. The Otto Manuscript of 1806/7 shows that even after this decree some units still had sapeurs wielding some highly impractical weapons!

According to the Manuel d’Infanterie (1813) sapeurs in the line were only officially recognised from 7 April 1806 and from 18 February 1808 the numbers of sapeurs was to be reduced to four per battalion, chosen from amongst the men of the Grenadier or Carabinier company – a regulation which stayed in force until 28 November 1825. From then on, the sapeurs became part of the Petit Etat Major and their number was set at four per battalion, making twelve for a 3-battalion regiment under the command of a Caporal who was also part of the Petit Etat Major. The Manuel d’Infanterie also reminded its readers that that the Circular of 1808 was still in effect  - obviously some battalions had exceeded their regulation number of sapeurs.

Sapeurs, by regulation, were to have a beard, but until January 1827 they had their pay docked to pay for being shaved once per week by the battalion barber (known as the sou de barbe). Thereafter they did not have to pay this indemnity!


  1. Hej!
    I am currently working on a paper of the french sapeurs, and I can't seem to find any literature that deals with the sapeurs appereance as detailed as your text. How did you get hold of all those source-texts? Is there a book that quotes them, or are you planning to write one? :D
    All the best,

  2. HI Andreas. thanks for your comment. This research is all from primary manuscript sources and from official publications, such as the Journal Militiare Officiel. The source texts are in the French army archives at Chateau Vincennes, near Paris.

    I hope to be able to write a book, so this material will be cited :)

    1. Thanks! Looks like its a trip to Paris for me then :D
      Did you by any chance encounter official documents that reveal a reason why beards were mandatory? I've now found quite a wide range of suggestions, everything between "their life-expectancy was so low, they were allowed beards" to "they had to have beards, because they had to leave camp as an advance party early in the morning, so there was no light to shave".

    2. It's because the beared imparted a "primitive and warlike quality" The French adopted Sapeurs after the Prussians - they were emulating what Frederick the Great was doing. They were allowed to grow a beard because it was more "warlike" (remember in France a moustache (and facial hair in general) was allowed for the Elite troops. If a Moustache made a Grenadier fierce and proud and beard was that times ten). And yes it was because they probably did not have time to shave originally. By the 1e Empire, however, they were becoming increasingly ceremonial in role. In the Imperial Guard the cross belts with the fancy decorations in brass were not worn on campaign; the apron was not worn on campaign either. Nor were the gauntlets. They were just nornal Grenadiers in the field. Yes they had axes and bill hookls with them but all the aprons, gauntlets special sabre (in the Imperial Guard only: the line didn't have it) were left in stores. Having worn an apron it gets it n the way; its white and a pain to keep clean. By the 1820s that the Sapeurs were ceremonial is confirmed by their new appointment.

      In 1806 they were chosen from the Grenadier company, on a rotation basis: so you were appointed Sapeur for a campaign. After the campaign in theory you gave up the role. In the Imperial Guard, it was differant. Sapeurs appear to have been appointed to the largely Ceremonial Tete de Colonne (they messed with the band and the Petit Etat Major) because they were courageous, long serviing soldiers who probably would never be promoted above Corporal and being admitted to the Tete de Colonne was a way of rewarding them.