Imperial Guard (Napoleon I)
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- This article discusses the group of soldiers who acted as Napoleon Bonaparte's personal guard. For other uses of the term, see Imperial Guard (disambiguation)
The Imperial Guard (French: Garde Impériale) was originally a small group of elite soldiers of the French Army under the direct command of Napoleon I, but grew considerably over time. It acted as his bodyguard and tactical reserve, and he was careful of its use in battle. The Guard was divided into the staff, infantry, cavalry, and artillery regiments, as well as battalions of sappers and marines. Another division existed in distinguishing the experienced veterans from less experienced members of the Guard the group's division into the Old Guard, Middle Guard and Young Guard.
The Guard had its origin in the Consular Guard (Garde des consuls), created November 28, 1799 by the union of the Guard of the Directory (Garde du Directoire exécutif) and the Grenadiers of the Legislature (Grenadiers près de la Représentation nationale). These formations had for principal purpose the security of the executive and legislative branches of the French Republic and gathered a small number of soldiers, about a thousand. One may question their utility, as they did not oppose Napoleon's 18 Brumaire coup of 1799. The Consular Guard changed its name to the Imperial Guard on May 18, 1804. Its headquarters were located at the Pentemont Abbey in Paris.
Napoleon took great care of his Guard, particularly the Old Guard. The Grenadiers of Old Guard were known to complain in the presence of the Emperor, giving them the nickname Les Grognards, the Grumblers. The Guard received better pay, rations, quarters, and equipment, and all guardsmen ranked one grade higher than all non-Imperial Guard soldiers. Other French soldiers even referred to Napoleon's Imperial Guard as "the Immortals."
The Guard played a major part in the climax of the Battle of Waterloo. It was thrown into the battle at the last minute to salvage a victory for Napoleon. Completely out-numbered, it faced terrible fire from the British lines, and began to retreat. For the first (and only) time in its history the Guard retreated without orders. At the sight of this, Napoleon's army lost all hope of victory. The Middle Guard broke completely but the Old Guard (and some of the Young Guard) battalions held their formation and secured the retreat of the remainder of the French Army before being almost annihilated by British and Prussian artillery fire and cavalry charges.
The quote "La Garde meurt mais ne se rend pas!" (The Guard dies but does not surrender!) is generally attributed to General Pierre Cambronne. It has been suggested that this was in fact said by another general of the Guard, Claude-Etienne Michel, during their last stand at the Battle of Waterloo. Some would claim that the quote was 'invented' by a French newspaper editor.
The Guard was composed of three echelons. The Old Guard comprised some of the finest soldiers in Europe, who had served Napoleon since his earliest campaigns. The Middle Guard was composed of his veterans from the 1805 to 1809 campaigns. The Young Guard consisted of the best of the annual intake of conscripts and volunteers, and was never considered to be of quite the same caliber of the senior Guards, although its units were still superior to the normal line regiments.
In 1804 the Guard numbered eight thousand men. By the time of Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812, it had swelled to just under 100,000 men. The Guard had its own artillery, infantry and cavalry components just like a normal Army corps.
|Year||Number of soldiers|
|1813||92,472 (mostly young guards)|
General Staff of the Imperial Guard
Created soon after the creation of the Guard itself, the General Staff by 1806 included the four Colonel-Generals of the four divisions of the Guard, all Marshals of France in field rank. It also included an Inspector of Reviews, a Commissioner of War, 24 aide-de-camps, and other specialist officers, NCOs, and privates.
The Old Guard regiments served in the 3rd Division of the Old Guard, while the rest of the foot regiments of the Guard served in the 1st and 2nd Divisions.
1st Foot Grenadiers Regiment
Created from the Grenadiers of the Consular Guard (Gardes des Consuls), the Foot Grenadiers (1er Regiment de Grenadiers-à-Pied de la Garde Impériale) were one of the oldest and most venerated of regiments in the French Army; classed as the Old Guard.
2nd Foot Grenadiers Regiment
Created from the Grenadiers of the Consular Guard along with the 1st regiment, the 2e Regiment de Grenadiers-à-Pied de la Garde Impériale was one of the oldest and most venerated of regiments in the French Army; classed as the Old Guard.
3rd Foot Grenadiers Regiment
This regiment was created as the Royal Guard in Holland, when Louis Napoleon, brother to Napoleon, was made King of Holland. After Holland became part of France, it became in 1810 the 3e Regiment de Grenadiers-à-Pied de la Garde Impériale.
4th Foot Grenadiers Regiment
A fourth grenadier regiment, the 4e Regiment de Grenadiers-à-Pied de la Garde Impériale, was raised in 1815.
1st Foot Chasseur Regiment
Created at the same time as the Grenadiers of the Consular Guard, 1er Regiment de Chasseurs-à-Pied de la Garde Impériale was one of the oldest and most venerated of regiments in the French Army; classed as the Old Guard.
2nd Foot Chasseur Regiment
Created at the same time as the 1st Chasseur Regiment of the Consular Guard, the 2e Regiment de Chasseurs-à-Pied de la Garde Impériale was the oldest and most venerated of regiments in the French Army; classed as the Old Guard.
3rd Foot Chasseur Regiment
The 3e Regiment de Chasseurs-à-Pied de la Garde Impériale briefly existed during the 100 days campaign after Napoleon's escape from Elba.
4th Foot Chasseur Regiment
The 4e Regiment de Chasseurs-à-Pied de la Garde Impériale was also raised during the 100 days campaign after Napoleon's escape from Elba.
Created as Fusiliers de la Garde in 1806, it became the Regiment de Fusilier-Grenadiers de la Garde Impériale in 1807. A second regiment that was raised became the 2nd Fusiliers Grenadiers. Two regiments of Fusilier Grenadiers were raised in 1806, but disbanded in 1814 and not re-established for the 100 Days campaign.
The 1st Fusiliers Chasseurs Regiment (Regiment de Fusilier-Chasseurs de la Garde Impériale) was created in 1807 as part of reorganization of the Fusiliers de la Garde from the first battalions of the Grenadiers and Chasseurs of Velites of the Guard.
The first regiment to become known as the Young Guard, Tirailleurs Grenadiers (1er Regiment de Tirailleurs de la Garde Impériale) were raised in 1809 from conscripts, but they had to be able to read and write. A second regiment was formed later in the same year. In 1810 both were renamed 1e & 2e Regiments de Tirailleurs de la Garde Impériale.
Two regiments of Tirailleurs Chasseurs were formed at the same time as the Tirailleurs Grenadiers, and were also included in the Young Guard. For the 1812 Campaign in Russia these were expanded to six regiments. Both became 5e & 6e Regiments de Tirailleurs de la Garde Impériale in 1811.
During the 1813-14 campaigns the number of Regiments de Tirailleurs de la Garde Impériale was increased to sixteen although they rarely equaled the regiments of the Young Guard of 1811. The 7th, 8th and 9th were recruited from the 'Pupilles de la Garde', childsoldiers who were to become Napoleon's son's guard and who stayed in France during the Napoleon's invasion of Russia.
Voltigeurs of the Guard
Created from the Tirailleurs Chasseurs in 1810, the Regiments de Voltigeurs de la Garde Impériale became one of the largest corps in the Guard, eventually absorbing the Regiments de Conscrits-Chasseurs to number sixteen regiments by 1814. The 14e Regiment de Voltigeurs de la Garde Impériale was created from the Spanish volunteers that retreated with the French Army, and the Regiment de Voltigeurs de la Garde Royale Espagnol.
Created in 1809, the two Conscripts Grenadiers Regiments (Regiment de Conscrit-Grenadiers), though intended to provide a reserve for the Young Guard, was not included in the guard, receiving line infantry pay. The regiments became 3e & 4e Regiment de Tirailleurs de la Garde Impériale in 1810.
Created in 1809, the Conscripts Chasseurs Regiment though intended to provide a reserve for the Young Guard, was not included in the guard, receiving Line Infantry pay. After 1811, the Conscrits-Chasseurs formed the 3rd and 4th regiments of the Voltigeurs of the Guard.
National Guard Regiment of the Guard
This regiment was created from the National Guard companies of the Northern Departments of France. The regiment was organized according to the line infantry tables, and in 1813 was renamed the 7th Regiment of Voltigeurs.
Flanquer Grenadiers and Chasseurs
In preparation for the invasion of Russia, Napoleon ordered a further creation of units for the Guard that included Regiment de Flanqueurs-Grenadiers de la Garde Impériale and Flanquer Chasseurs Regiment (Regiment de Flanqueurs-Chasseurs de la Garde Impériale).
The Imperial Guard cavalry constituted a corps in itself and had its own commander, with seasoned cavalrymen like Marshal Jean-Baptiste Bessières, Frédéric Henri Walther, Étienne Marie Antoine Champion de Nansouty successively at its helm. Augustin Daniel Belliard was also interim commander for a few days in 1814, before giving command to Horace François Bastien Sébastiani de La Porta, who held it for a short while, until Napoleon's abdication in April 1814. During the Hundred Days, there was no overall commander of the Guard cavalry, with command divided between Charles, comte Lefebvre-Desnouettes (light cavalry division) and Claude-Étienne Guyot (heavy cavalry division).
The Horse Grenadiers was the senior cavalry regiment of the Guard, and originated from the Consular Guard. Classed as heavy cavalry, the regiment did not wear a cuirass, but was known for its distinctive bearskin head-dress and black horses. It was known by the nickname of "the Gods"; also as "the Big Heels".
Chasseurs à Cheval
The Regiment of Chasseurs a Cheval (1er Regiment de Chasseurs-a-Cheval de la Garde Impériale) was also created from the Consular Guard, and ranked second in seniority, although it was a light cavalry regiment. It was the Chasseurs that usually provided personal escort to Napoleon, and he often wore the uniform of the regiment in recognition of this service. The regiment was not only known for its lavish uniform, but its combat history, as well. A second regiment (2e Regiment de Chasseurs-a-Cheval de la Garde Impériale) was created briefly from Regiment d'Eclaireurs Lanciers in 1815.
The dragoon regiments of the line distinguished themselves in the German Campaign of 1805, and so Napoleon decided (in a decree of April 15, 1806) to reorganize the cavalry of the Guard and create within it a regiment of dragoons (Regiment de Dragons de la Garde Impériale), made up of three squadrons, headed by 60 officers personally selected by Napoleon. The first squadron was to have 296 men, and be made up of "vélites", whilst the other two were regular squadrons of 476 horsemen. To complete this new unit, each of the 30 dragoon regiments of the line provided 12 men, each of whom had done 10 years of service, and the brigadier, chasseur, and dragoon line regiments provided the sous-officiers. This regiment quickly became known as the Régiment de dragons de l'Impératrice (the Empress' Dragoons) in tribute to their patroness, Joséphine de Beauharnais, and up until its last member died, the Regiment marked the anniversary of her death.
The unit's numbers rose to 1269 in 1807 with the addition of two new squadrons, and on December 9, 1813 it was attached to the Guard's 3rd regiment of éclaireurs. The dragoons' uniform and weaponry was the same as those of the Guard's mounted grenadiers, only in green rather than blue, and (in place of the bonnet à poil) a copper helmet with a hanging mane in the Neo-Greek Minerve style, and a red plume.
In the Russian campaign of 1812, the French Army had suffered badly from attacks by the Russian Cossack cavalry. About to fight on French soil for the first time since the French Revolutionary Wars, Napoleon decided to reorganize the Imperial Guard. In Article 1 of a decree of December 4, 1813, he created three regiments of Éclaireurs à Cheval de la Garde Impériale (mounted scouts of the Guard) as counterparts to the Cossacks. They were also known as Hussards Éclaireurs within the Guard.
They joined the army on January 1, 1814, just in time to participate in the Six Days Campaign, and were disbanded after Napoleon's first abdication.
The 1er Regiment d'Éclaireurs à Cheval was attached to the Grenadiers à Cheval, and was thus named the regiment of Éclaireurs-grenadiers.
The 2e Regiment d'Eclaireurs à Cheval was attached to the Dragons de L'Imperatrice (Empress's Dragoons).
The 3e Regiment d'Eclaireurs à Cheval was attached to the 1er Regiment de Chevau-Legers-Lanciers.
1st (Polish) Regiment of Lancers
The regiment called the Regiment de Chevau-Legers Polonaise de la Garde was created in 1807 after the 1806 defeat of the Allies, and the French occupation of Poland. In 1811, with the raising of the Dutch Lancers of the Guard, the regiment was renamed 1er Regiment de Chevau-Legers-Lanciers de la Garde Impériale.
2nd (Franco-Dutch) Regiment of Lancers
Raised in 1810 from former Dutch Army cavalry units as the 2e régiment de chevau-légers lanciers de la Garde Impériale, the regiment became known as the Red Lancers from their uniform.
3rd (Lithuanian) Regiment of Lancers
The regiment of Lithuanian Lancers was raised as the 3e Regiment de Chevau-Legers-Lanciers de la Garde Impériale in Lithuania during the invasion of Russia in 1812, largely from the Lithuanian population in Poland, but was virtually destroyed in the retreat of the same year, and the survivors incorporated into 3e Regiment de Eclaireurs. Incorporated into the regiment was a squadron of Lithuanian Tatars as the Escadron de Lithuanian Tartares.
A squadron of Mamelukes (Escadron de Mamalukes) returned with Napoleon from the Egyptian Campaign in 1799. They were inducted into the Guard, and usually attached to the Chasseurs à Cheval. The squadron was never increased to a regiment in strength. Over the years their casualties were replaced from French cavalry regiments, or from any vaguely Middle Eastern related nationalities.
Although technically classed as cavalry of the Guard, Legion de Gendarmerie d'Elite troops invariably served in detachments with the General Staff of the Guard, Napoleon's personal headquarters, and the Guard field camps. The Legion included mounted and dismounted troops, the mounted component being two squadrons.
Guards of Honour
The Guards of Honour (Regiment de Garde d'Honneur) were four regiments of light cavalry which Napoleon created in 1813 for his campaigns in Germany to reinforce his Guard cavalry decimated in Russia. The regiments were dressed in the fashion of the hussars. They served alongside the other Guard cavalry, but were not technically part of the Old, Middle or Young Guard.
Artillery of the Guard
Artillery of the Guard included the Foot Artillery Regiment (Régiment d'Artillerie à Pied de la Garde Impériale) batteries, Horse Artillery Regiment (Regiment d'Artillerie à Cheval de la Garde Impériale) batteries, the Artillery Train of the Guard (Train d'Artillerie de la Garde Consulaire) and the Artillery Park of the Guard (Parc d'Artillerie de la Garde Impériale), the latter two created in 1807. Despite shortages in artillery ordnance, in 1813 Napoleon created the Régiment d'Artillerie à Pied de la Garde Impériale of the Young Guard (Jeune Garde). The Parc du materiel de la Garde Impériale was created in 1813 to supplement the meager resources of the Bataillon du Train des équipages militaires after the losses of the 1812 campaign.
Engineers of the Guard
Although not deployed in combat as a unit, the Engineers (Genie de la Garde Impériale) created in 1804 as the engineers of the Consular Guard, participated in combat more so than the combat units of the Guard which were usually held in reserve. By 1810 the Chief Engineer officer of the Guard had a company of Sapeurs de la Garde (140 sappers), all members of the Old Guard. In 1813 this was increased to two companies, and later one battalion of four companies totaling 400 sappers. The 1st and 2nd companies were classed as Old Guard, while the 3rd and 4th companies as the Young Guard.
Sailors of the Guard
Raised from sailors of the French navy who had distinguished themselves, the battalion of Marins wore a distinctive, elaborate uniform resembling that of the hussars. Their officers bore titles of rank derived from their seagoing compatriots, and the overall commander of the marines bore the rank of Capitaine de Vaisseau. Their duties including manning boats and other watercaft used by the Emperor.
- Georges Blond, La Grande Armée, trans. Marshall May (New York: Arms and Armor, 1997), 48, 103, 470
- The retort to a request to surrender may have been "La Garde meurt, elle ne se rend pas!" ("The Guard dies, it does not surrender!"). Letters published in The Times in June 1932 record that they may have been said by General Michel. The Guard dies, it does not surrender. Cambronne surrenders, he does not die
- D.H. Parry (c. 1900) Battle of the nineteenth century, Vol 1 Cassell and Company: London. Waterloo
- Elting, J.R. Swords Around a Throne: Napoleon's Grande Armée. (Da Capo Press, press ed. 1997. pg.657)
- two regiments in 1813
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- Voltigeurs, skirmishers members of the Imperial Guard (at times, the Guard had 12 regiments of Voltigeurs)