As states became more organised, and the ability to maintain agricultural and increasingly industrial output with fewer and fewer people became easier, the size of armies gradually increased, and during the Napoleonic Wars some of the largest armies so far took to the field. They required direction and organisation, and increasingly that was beyond the abilities of any one man, even the charismatic Napoleon, so of necessity there grew a sophisticated staff function which was ultimately charged with making sure the Emperor’s wishes were carried out by the army. Several sets have already portrayed this element of Napoleon’s army, but they have concentrated on the more glamorous marshals. With this set from Zvezda it is the unnamed lower commanders and staff officers that are the focus; the men that actually made the army work from day to day.
The man at the top of the Grande Armée's administration was Louis Alexandre Berthier (1753-1815), Napoleon’s Chief of Staff. It was he that became expert at translating the emperor’s wishes into specific orders to be sent to the army, and he worked tirelessly to keep the military machine running smoothly. Although a marshal of France, he was no great leader of men, and would normally be found at some desk fulfilling his vital administrative function. This is how we find him in this set, sitting at a desk apparently handing out some order. He wears the normal marshal’s habit with appropriate decorations, and he also wears the aiguillette as was his right as Major-General of the Grande Armée. This is a terrific little piece, but it takes a little patience to put together, particularly the chair. The table has three legs, which was common practice for 18th century furniture given the uneven floors of the day, although for a table this size four would still have been normal.
Sharing our top row with Berthier is what Zvezda call his adjutant, which is the correct term but in English this is more usually referred to, somewhat ironically, as an aide-de-camp (ADC). An ADC was, and still is, a personal assistant for a high-ranking officer, and some marshals uniformed their ADCs in flamboyant style. Berthier was one such, and his ADCs wore a hussar uniform of white, black and scarlet, which has been correctly reproduced here, as has his mount. This man seems to be talking or shouting, but his horse is clearly moving at some speed, which looks a little incongruous.
There are no other named individuals in this set, so the second row contains examples of the two ranks of general officer - a mounted général de division and the lesser général de brigade. Both are appropriately dressed and again make nice figures, while the horse is entirely typical of the mount of senior officers.
Row three brings us a mounted ADC for the général de brigade and a dismounted ADC of the general staff. Zvezda have portrayed these figures together, with the paper being passed between them. However the horse is clearly at full gallop so such a manoeuvre is pretty hazardous and a standing horse would have been much better. However both figures and the horse are again correctly depicted.
The last row begins with a most unusual character. This is a staff officer apparently either mounting or dismounting, which is an exciting pose that naturally would have been particularly common as such men went about their duties. Anatomically this man has his head rather further round to the side than any human being can actually achieve, but much more obviously he is engaged in a delicate operation without paying any attention to the horse. To pause in this position risks the horse moving and causing serious injury, maybe even dragging the man as he struggles to free himself from the stirrup, and clearly neither this man nor any other is holding the animal. It looks like a disaster waiting to happen, and is an unlikely scenario for any kind of experienced horseman. Added to that is the fact that the horse is obviously extremely frisky, and indeed seems already to be moving and therefore at the very least is about to severely embarrass its rider. Since the said rider is engaged in putting away or retrieving some papers from his tunic, a comical and probably painful upset seems certain. A little common sense with regard to the handling of a horse would have made this great idea into a much more believable pose.
Next to the doomed staff officer is another holding some more papers, followed by a guard. This could easily have been a normal soldier from the Imperial Guard, but Zvezda have identified him as a carabineer of the Battalion of Neuchâtel. Neuchâtel was Swiss but had been under the tutelage of the King of Prussia until its annexation by France in 1806. At this point it was declared a principality and given to Berthier, who took the title of Prince of Neuchâtel. In May of the following year an imperial decree created an infantry battalion there, and Berthier saw to it that men from this battalion always stood guard at his headquarters. The battalion took the designations of light troops, so the elite troops were termed carabineers rather than grenadiers, but by whatever name it is one of these men that is represented here, which is quite correct. He wears a uniform that, apart from the colour, is much like the rest of the French Imperial Guard (to which they were attached), but sadly Zvezda have made a mistake in giving him a tall bearskin with a plume and cords. The bearskin was worn, although only in full dress, but never with the plume and cords shown here. Had he been given a shako then all these trimmings would have been appropriate, but as it is this figure is better utilised as a Frenchman rather than a Swiss. Again, nice idea Zvezda, but a little more homework is required.
The habitual Zvezda fine sculpting is much in evidence here, and all that lovely lace detail will make many a painter lick his lips and reach for his finest brushes. As you might suppose there is no flash, but apart from the Berthier piece the only assembly is separate packs for the guards, so unusually for Zvezda most of these figures are ready to go straight off the sprue.
Our only gripes about this set are the sloppy error with the guard’s headdress and the much too energetic horses. Standing quadrupeds are hard to mould, but doing them in two halves solves all the problems and has been done before, and we know that Zvezda of all people are up to that particular challenge. Two of the four horse poses here should have been virtually standing, and that they are not looks quite silly, but even with those reservations there is no denying that this is a very attractive set, and if you want all those marshals to have the necessary staff to see that their will is done then this set is most definitely for you.