Sunday, October 6, 2013

La Garde Impériale de l'Empereur Napoléon

Haut les têtes, la mitraille c'est pas de la merde!
For the inaugural "Immortals" post, I have selected one of my favorite organizations from military history: The Imperial Guard* of the Emperor Napoléon. The painting above is one of my favorites as well.

It depicts Colonel Louis Lepic, commander of the Grenadiers à Cheval (Horse Grenadiers) of the Guard at the battle of Preussisch-Eylau in 1807. In the moment captured by the brilliant painter Jean-Baptiste Édouard Detaille, the Grenadiers are under artillery fire and are (as you may well imagine) ducking their heads.

The good Colonel is shouting "Keep your heads up, that's grapeshot, not turds!" (I have seen multiple translations, the one I'm using is from a French website. I think they would know best!)

Grenadiers à Cheval were just one component of the Imperial Guard. The Guard consisted of infantry, cavalry and artillery units. They began as the Emperor's personal body guard and evolved over the years into a small army. They were Napoléon's ultimate reserve, to be thrown in, if necessary, to clinch a victory. They were not often committed to battle. Which gave rise to the nickname the rest of the French army bestowed upon them "Les Immortels". You guessed it, "The Immortals". (You see, there's a reason I picked them first!)

As they were seldom committed to battle, they had a good chance of "living forever", so to speak.

But these were not some precious bunch of coddled and pampered palace troops. Entry into the Guard was governed by some very strict rules. One of the most hallowed was that a soldier desiring entry into the Guard had to be a combat veteran. This was not a collection of rookies and perfumed boudoir commandos, no, these were (for the most part) hardened and proven veterans of the Emperor's campaigns.

Later in the Empire, in order to bolster the size of his Guard, the Emperor actually brought conscripts into the ranks of the Guard. These were intended to be the pick of the litter so to speak, the best of each year's incoming class of conscripts.

In the last years of the Empire, the Guard was composed of three administrative divisions, the Old, Middle and Young Guards, comprised of the most experienced veterans in the Old Guard, somewhat less experienced in the Middle and (of course) the new guys were in the Young Guard. Generally the units falling under those categories fought together in the field.

The Young Guard saw a lot of combat, as did the Guard's artillery and cavalry units. The more senior units were preserved as much as possible to act as the Emperor's ultimate reserve. There were many generals in Europe during those days who would literally shudder at seeing the massed ranks (with those tall bearskin caps) of the Imperial Guard infantry. Held in reserve. Waiting.

Grenadier à Pied of the Old Guard

The undress uniform of the Chasseurs à Cheval was the Emperor's preferred uniform while on campaign.


Garde Artillerie à Pied
(Foot Artillery)

Garde Artillerie à Cheval
(Horse Artillery)

The Guard served the Emperor well throughout his reign. A select group of them accompanied him into exile on the island of Elba after the first abdication. When Napoléon returned to France to reclaim his throne, veterans of the Guard flocked to rejoin. They marched with him to Waterloo.

At Waterloo, they marched into history and legend.

The Last Advance

As evening fell and the Prussians began to bear in on the French Army's right rear, the Emperor ordered the Guard to advance. Victory lay in the balance. It was time for the last throw of the dice.

As the Guard crested the slope on the Anglo-Allied side of the field, the Duke of Wellington himself gave the command, "Now Maitland, now's your time!"

The British Foot Guards rose seemingly out of the ground (where they were sheltering from the French artillery fire) right in front of the Imperial Guard. The Guard paused, then continued as volleys rang out from the serried red ranks to their front.

The Guard staggered and attempted to continue. But a quick thinking English officer ordered his regiment to pivot towards the Guard's flank. In the gathering gloom and smoke, they went unnoticed until their volleys began to rip into the Guard.

Men at the rear began to slip away, then a general movement to the rear commenced. This did not go unnoticed by the rest of the French Army. They were seeing something that had never before happened, the Imperial Guard was retreating!

"La Garde recule!"

"All is lost!" they cried. "Save yourselves! Run!!"

With that, the Emperor's army turned into a mob.

Units of the Guard fell back in relatively good order but could not stand. When told to lay down their arms and surrender, legend has it that one of their commanders, Cambronne, yelled out that "The Guard dies, but does not surrender!"

Another legend has it that General Cambronne simply yelled out, "Merde!" (Crap, politely put.) To this day the word merde in French is sometimes referred to as le mot de Cambronne, Cambronne's word.

Whatever the truth, the Imperial Guard, as an organization, did die at Waterloo. As did many of it's men. But they left a legacy of toughness and devotion to their commander which will never be surpassed.

The Day is Lost!

*Wikipedia has an excellent article on the Imperial Guard.


  1. That was good. I think I was lucky maybe. I had an arrangement with my father when I was young and living at home. He decided which battlefields we would go visit and I went along. Now if we had lived anywhere in Europe I'm sure I'd have been to every remaining battlefield reachable from Roman times to the present. At one time I owned 500 minieballs, a cannonball or two, dozens of arrowheads, belt buckles, horseshoes etc... I think they frown on that sort of thing nowadays.

    1. Walking the battlefields is an experience. While stationed in Europe we visited Waterloo (numerous times). I would've liked to get out East to visit Austerlitz but the time was never available (nor the money!)

      I was able to make it to both the Ardennes (numerous times) and to the Huertgen Forest. The latter looks very different on a bright summer's day as opposed to a cold wet day in November. My Great-Uncle spent a number of cold wet days in November in that vicinity in 1944. Didn't have fond memories of it!

  2. I assume you've been to Napoleon's Tomb at Les Invalides? I think I was about nine the first time I saw it and it made a VERY large impression on me.

    I've been to a lot of European battlefields as well. The Ol' Man made it a point to educate me in that manner, bless his heart.

    1. But of course!

      Somewhere I have a photo of me with the Emperor's sarcophagus in the background. If I ever find it, I'll post it.

      I was 38, it made a rather big impression on me. One thing that I also noted was some of the other famous guys entombed at Les Invalides. I'd always thought (for some reason) that it was just the Emperor.


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