Demi-soldes, the half-pay Napoleonic War veterans

“Well, my old friend, here you are on half-pay,” quips a well-armed rioter of the July 1830 Revolution to Charles X, depicted in monk’s garb and carrying meagre provisions. Source: gallica/bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France

“Well, my old friend, here you are on half-pay,” quips a well-armed rioter of the July 1830 Revolution to the Bourbon ex-king, Charles X, depicted in priest’s garb and carrying meagre provisions. Source: gallica/bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France

What happened to Napoleon’s officers after the Battle of Waterloo? As we saw in an earlier post, General Jean-Pierre Piat was put on inactive service during the Bourbon Restoration. He was far from being the only one. In 1815-16, some 20,000 officers who had served under Napoleon were removed from active service, given reduced salaries and placed under tight restrictions. This week, I take a closer look at the demi-soldes, France’s half-pay veterans of the Napoleonic Wars, including several who make an appearance in Napoleon in America.

Proscribed by the Bourbons

During the First Restoration (April 6, 1814 to March 20, 1815), most of the officers who had served under Napoleon were allowed to keep their positions. The constitutional Charter of 1814 guaranteed to all active and retired officers and soldiers the preservation of their ranks, honours and pensions. After Napoleon escaped from Elba and reached Paris without the army firing a shot against him, the Bourbons became less forgiving. Many royalists believed Napoleon’s return to power was the result of a military conspiracy. Soon after the start of the Second Restoration (July 8, 1815), the government took measures to deal with officers considered loyal to Napoleon.

On July 24, 1815, King Louis XVIII issued the following ordinance:

Article I. The generals and officers who betrayed the king before the 23rd of March [the date Louis XVIII – then in refuge at Lille – laid off the French army en masse], or who attacked France and the government with force and arms, and those who by violence gained possession of power, shall be arrested and brought before competent courts-martial, in their respective divisions; namely: Ney, Labedoyere, the two brothers Lallemand [Charles and Henri], Drouet d’Erlon, Lefebvre-Desnouettes, Ameilh, Brayer, Gilly, Mouton-Duvernet, Grouchy, Clausel, Laborde, Debelle, Bertrand, Drouot, Cambronne, Lavalette, Rovigo.

Article 2 named a further 38 officers – including Pierre-François Réal – who were given three days to leave Paris and

retire into the interior of France, to the places which our minister of general police shall indicate to them, where they shall remain under his superinspection, until the chambers decided as to which of them ought either to depart the kingdom, or be delivered up to prosecutions before the tribunals. Those who shall not repair to the spot assigned to them by our minister of general police shall be immediately arrested. (1)

For a summary of the fate of the individuals proscribed by this ordinance, see the Arc de Triomphe website.

The Bourbons canceled promotions and decorations bestowed during the Hundred Days, dramatically reduced the size of the army, and replaced imperial officers with royalist favourites. A military commission was convened to examine the conduct of all officers who had served under Napoleon, classify them according to their political sentiment, and place them into one of 14 categories, which determined their fate and the amount (if any) of their pensions. There was no right of appeal. Between September 1815 and December 1816, approximately 20,000 Napoleonic officers were removed from active service. Only 5,000 were retained. (2)

Life as a demi-solde

Affected officers kept their rank, but their salary was typically half (or less) of what they had formerly earned, thus earning them the nickname of demi-solde (half-pay). No longer entitled to wear their uniforms, they were often found in a civilian redingote (long coat), hiding a threadbare uniform underneath, and sporting the ribbon of the Legion of Honour.

To prevent them from gathering together, the demi-soldes were required to return to the department in which they were born. They could not travel without permission from the local mayor. They could not own a gun without a special waiver. They could not marry without permission. During the early months of the Restoration, they were also forbidden to look for work, which further alienated them from the civilian population. They had to report to the local police every two weeks. The police opened their mail, and kept watch on their activities and visitors. Though men on inactive service could not enjoy the benefits of military life, they remained on call for return to active duty. This could come at short notice, or never.

 Men who had fought valiantly to defend their country were now reduced to a state of inactivity, left waiting for further orders, often without pay and condemned to near-indigence. It was an unenviable plight. (3)

A poem, La Demi-Solde, published in 1819 by an inactive captain, complains bitterly.

I am on half-pay? Get away from me;
Whoever is unhappy must be outside the law.
They no longer recognize the sons of Victory,
Except under the unworthy name of brigands of the Loire.
A friend, suspected of having greeted me,
Occupied a position? He is removed.
I live alone, retired? I conspire in the shadow.
I receive my friends? They increase their number.
And the police hasten to this gathering,
Which will put the whole department in insurgency.
They soon prepare the feast of the anniversary
Of the return of this king that we cherish as a father;
And they take very great care not to invite me,
To accuse me later of not helping with it.
To persecute us everything becomes legitimate;
We still exist, and that is our crime.
They no longer want an army, and especially of Frenchmen.
France is guarded by Switzerland at great expense. (4)

Although the demi-soldes gained a reputation as restless grumblers and conspiratorial Bonapartists, the majority of them did not fit this description. (5) Some were quite willing to serve in the royalist army, either out of conviction or financial necessity, and pushed to be reinstated. Most accepted that their military career was over. Giving up their right to half-pay, they turned to another career, in trade, industry, farming or a profession. Knowing, for the most part, how to read and write in a society where over half of the population was illiterate, many inactive officers became clerks, notaries, lawyers, teachers, or local administrators. Less educated men moved easily into the ranks of the gendarmes. Some demi-soldes emigrated to the United States and became involved in the Vine and Olive Colony and the Champ d’Asile. In 1817, the demi-soldes numbered 15,639. By 1823, there were only 5,404. (6)

Lady Morgan relates an encounter between an English officer and a man driving a team of horses through a French village. The “driver displayed a costume at once military and civil – his waggoner’s frock contrasting with a large cocked hat.” In a rather churlish conversation, the Englishman learned that the Frenchman had fought against him in the same engagement in Spain. When the Englishman inquired about the driver at the village inn, the innkeeper replied:

He is one of our disbanded officers; it is captain B-, a brave man! ‘tis a great pity! – but this is the way things are going in our poor France. (7)

Gathered round the table d’hôte

Some inactive officers, such as General Piat, were actively opposed to the crown. In Paris, the police maintained a close watch on places where disaffected veterans gathered to sing subversive songs and raise their glasses to Napoleon. The stories of the officers Piat conspires with in Napoleon in America came to me from the police record, as did the location of their meeting.

29 March 1823 – There is, in rue Notre-Dame-Des-Victoires, a table d’hôte where they receive only men known for their revolutionary principles, and in which the regulars are primarily officers on half-pay. This table d’hôte, where the price is fixed at 2 fr. 50 cent. per person, is owned by a decorated captain of the ex-Imperial Guard, who goes by the name of Saint-Victor. This officer himself has the worst disposition. …

8 May 1823 – On the second floor, the table d’hôte is usually comprised of 16, 18 or 20 guests of all sorts, officers, bank clerks, etc. …. Monsieur Saint-Victor is a member of the Legion of Honour and receives a pension of 1,600 francs a year as a captain on half-pay and an officer of the Legion. He has, in his neighbourhood, the reputation of not much liking the government, but of those frequenting his house, we have heard or seen nothing reprehensible. (8)

7 May 1822 – Monsieur Michel Vitez is around 34 years old. He says he is a former captain of the Polish Lancers, and a master of languages. They say that he left the hospital, and before entering he had students, to whom he gave lessons in town. Now he doesn’t have any. He appears very unhappy. He says he is requesting a pension from the French government…. They say he received from the Ministry of War, three or four months ago, 300 francs, which enabled him to dress himself and pay for part of his food. He is now reduced to begging, and goes, for this purpose, to very important people, principally M. Vibray, peer of France, M. Laborde…and others. He saw the Grand Chaplain, who promises to give him a place. He has a compatriot who is, he said, a cook for the king.

Vitez visits many soldiers, and frequently goes to the École Militaire; he is also often with a retired senior officer. They say that sometimes his head wanders and that the unfortunate position he is in puts him in this state. …

5 July 1822 – [Vitez] visits the homes of the Duke of Bassano, M. Laborde and M. Tarayre…to ask for help. When he makes these requests, he never fails to say that he is in extreme indigence thanks to the injustice of the ministry, which refuses him a military pension to which he claims he has acquired rights. …

We think…[Vitez] is not dangerous…that he couldn’t even serve as a tool of factions; but the confinement of this man would be a service rendered to public tranquillity. (9)

26 March 1826 – Monsieur Dubroc…captain of the ex-Imperial Guard…is a very rich man, with very bad thoughts, but is, even so, an officer of the Parisian National Guard. It is fair to say that, according to the report on his probity, his reputation is good. (10)

Antoine Dubroc had earlier been a demi-solde at Besançon.

Barthélemy Bacheville offers a particularly interesting example of a demi-solde, as described in this post.

As for the sad tale of Pierre Viriot, see this post.

You might also enjoy:

What happened to the Bonapartists in America? The story of Louis Lauret

What did Napoleon say about the Battle of Waterloo?

How did Napoleon escape from Elba?

  1. Christopher Kelly, History of the French Revolution and of the Wars Produced by that Memorable Event, Vol. II (London, 1820), p. 207.
  2. Jean Vidalenc, Les demi-solde: Étude d’une catégorie sociale (Paris, 1955), p. 24.
  3. Alan Forrest, The Legacy of the French Revolutionary Wars (Cambridge, 2009), p. 66.
  4. Le Chevalier L.-G.-D.-T. D.-T., La Demi-Solde (Paris, 1819), pp. 10-11.
  5. Les demi-solde: Étude d’une catégorie sociale, p. 58.
  6. Ibid., p. 36.
  7. Sydney Morgan, France (Philadelphia, 1817), pp. 10-11.
  8. Guy Delavau and M. Franchet, Le Livre Noir de Messieurs Delavau et Franchet, Vol. IV (Paris, 1829), pp. 210-211.
  9. Ibid., pp. 301-302.
  10. Ibid., Vol. III, p. 194.

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We still exist, and that is our crime.

La Demi-Solde