The quotation “God is always on the side of the heaviest battalion” has mainly been attributed to Napoleon (1769 – 1821). Another form of the same quotation you may recognize is “Providence is always on the side of the big battalions”. Nonetheless, this saying has been around long before the time of Napoleon.
One of the first references to this saying came from an anecdotal conversation between Henri de La Ferté-Senneterre (1599 – 1681) and Queen Anne of Austria (1601 – 1666). When the Queen said to Marshal de La Ferté-Senneterre that though the enemy may be more superior, “we have God and justice on our side”. “Don’t be too confident,” he replied. “J’ai toujours vu Dieu du coté des gros bataillons.” (I have always found God on the side of the heaviest battalions.)
Henri de La Tour d’Auvergne (1611 – 1675), the Viscount of Turenne, was also quoted saying this in a letter of Madame de Sévigné to her daughter dated December 22, 1673. She wrote, “La fortune est toujours, comme disait le pauvre M. de Turenne, pour les gros bataillons.” (Fortune is always, as poor Mr. de Turenne used to say, for the big battalions.)
This quotation is also attributed to Roger de Rabutin, Comte de Bussy (1618 – 1693). “As a rule, God is on the side of the big squadrons against the small ones,” he once remarked.
Voltaire has also used this quote in his letter to François-Louis Henri Leriche written on February 6, 1770. However, this was also found in his notebook, “Dieu n’est pas pour les gros bataillons, mais pour ceux qui tirent le mieux.” (God is on the side not of the big battalions, but of the best shots.)
In The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776), Edward Gibbon (1737 – 1794) provided a similar thought: “The winds and the waves are always on the side of the ablest navigators.”But still earlier than all the above references is the following old French epigram by an anonymous author, which also echoes the same sentiment:
J’ai toujours vu Dieu dans la guerre
Du côté des gros bataillons.
Proverbs expressing similar meaning include “Might makes right” and “The weakest go to the wall”. Interestingly, the saying may have come from an old French proverb that goes like this, “Fortune favors the strong.”
We may not exactly know how this saying came to be, but we can at least conclude that the French liked it.
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Grouvelle A. (1806). Lettres de Madame de Sevigne, a sa Fille et a ses Amis.
Keyes, R. (2006). The Quote Verifier: Who Said What, Where, and When.
Manser, M. H. (2007). The Facts on File Dictionary of Proverbs.
Speake, J. & Simpson, J. A. (2004). The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs.