French Imperial Eagle

The French Imperial Eagle (Aigle de drapeau, lit. "flag eagle") refers to the figure of an eagle on a staff carried into battle as a standard by the Grande Armée of Napoleon during the Napoleonic Wars.

An eagle of the Imperial Guard on display at Le Louvre des Antiquaires in Paris

Although they were presented with regimental colours, Napoleon's regiments tended to carry at their head the Imperial Eagle.


On 5 December 1804, three days after his coronation, Napoleon distributed aigles based on the eagle standards of the Roman legions. The standards represented the regiments raised by the various departments of France, and were intended to institute feelings of pride and loyalty among the troops who would be the backbone of Napoleon's new Imperial regime. Napoleon gave an emotional speech in which he insisted that troops should defend the standards with their lives. This event was depicted in The Distribution of the Eagle Standards, an 1810 painting by Jacques-Louis David.[1]

The original design was sculpted by Antoine-Denis Chaudet and then copies were cast in the workshop of Pierre-Philippe Thomire, with the first eagles presented on 5 December 1804.[2] It was a bronze sculpture of an eagle on a plinth, with one claw resting on "Jupiter's spindle".[2] weighing 1.85 kg (4 lb), mounted on top of the blue regimental flagpole. They were made from six separately cast pieces designed along Roman lines and, when assembled, measured 310 mm (12 in) in height and 255 mm (10 in) in width.[2] On the base would be the regiment's number or, in the case of the Imperial Guard, Garde Impériale. The eagle bore the same significance to French Imperial regiments as the colours did to British regiments - to lose the eagle would bring shame to the regiment, who had pledged to defend it to the death. Upon Napoleon's fall, the restored monarchy of King Louis XVIII ordered all eagles to be destroyed; only a very small number were preserved. When the former emperor returned to power in 1815 (known as the Hundred Days), he immediately had more eagles produced, although the quality did not match the originals. The workmanship was of a lesser quality and the main distinguishing changes had the new models with closed beaks and they were set in a more crouched posture.[3]

Captured eaglesEdit

Capture of a French regiment's eagle by the cavalry of the Russian guard, by Bogdan Willewalde (1884)

The first capture of an eagle was most likely during the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805 when the Russian cavalry of the guard under Grand Duke Konstantin overran the French 4th Régiment d'Infanterie de Ligne, taking their flag. Although Napoleon won the battle, the Russians were able to retreat in good order and the eagle was not recovered, much to the emperor's regret.[4]

In 1807, at Heilsberg, the 55th Régiment d'Infanterie de Ligne [fr] was overthrown by Prussian cavalry and Russian infantry. An eagle was lost and several officers, including a colonel, were killed. The eagle was captured by NCO Anton Antonov of the Pernov Musketeers. Prussian historians dispute this, claiming that the Prittwitz Hussars captured the eagle.[5]

In 1807, near Eylau, the 18th Régiment d'Infanterie de Ligne [fr] lost its flag and eagle to the Russian St. Petersburg Dragoons [ru].[6] In 1812 at Krasnoi, the 18th Régiment d'Infanterie de Ligne again lost its eagle and was "virtually destroyed" by the Russian Life Guard Uhlans [ru].[7]

In 1808, at the Battle of Bailén, the French corps led by General Dupont surrendered after being defeated by a Spanish army led by generals Castaños and Reding; this was the first surrender of an Imperial field army. As part of the capitulation terms, the French gave up their flags and banners, including three eagles. These eagles were kept in the Cathedral of Seville until they were recovered by the French in 1810 and sent back to Paris.[8]

The first French eagle to be captured by the British was taken by the 87th Regiment of Foot at the Battle of Barrosa on 5 March 1811. At Barrosa, Ensign Edward Keogh and Sergeant Patrick Masterson captured the French Imperial Eagle of the 8th Régiment d'Infanterie de Ligne [fr]. Keogh only managed to get a hand on the shaft when he was shot, bayoneted and killed. Masterson took over and, after killing several men, wrenched the Eagle from the dying hands of its bearer, Lieutenant Gazan.[9]

The eagle was taken back to the United Kingdom and put on display in the Royal Hospital Chelsea. It was around 10 inches tall, set on a plinth marked with the numeral 8. It was made of silver, but gilded, which led many to think it was solid gold. In fact, the only golden part of the eagle was a laurel wreath which hung around its neck. This wreath was an honour conferred upon the 8th Regiment by Napoleon himself, and was not common to all eagles at the time. The gold leaves were presented to a number of regiments that were present at the Battle of Austerlitz by the city of Paris. The eagle's right claw was raised. Beneath it should have been a thunderbolt but, on the 87th's trophy, it was missing. It is believed to have been dislodged during its capture.[10]

Several years later, the eagle was stolen from the Royal Hospital. It was broken from its staff and smuggled away to an unknown fate. Many rumours abounded, the strongest being that it had been repatriated by a Frenchman. More likely it was melted down and sold. The original staff is still held in the Royal Irish Fusiliers Museum, located in the Sovereign's House on The Mall in Armagh, Northern Ireland.[11]

Two eagles from the Hundred Days on display at the Musée de l'Armée

The British took two eagles at the Battle of Salamanca in July 1812. Ensign John Pratt of the Light Company of the 30th Regiment of Foot (later 1st Battalion, East Lancashire Regiment) captured the eagle of the 22nd Régiment d'Infanterie de Ligne [fr] (displayed today in the Lancashire Infantry Museum at Fulwood Barracks in Preston, Lancashire),[12] while Lieutenant William Pearce of the 2nd Battalion of the 44th Regiment of Foot took the eagle of the 62nd Régiment d'Infanterie de Ligne [fr][13] (displayed today in the Chelmsford Museum in Essex).[14]

Following the surrender of the French at the capture of Madrid on 14 August 1812, two eagles were found belonging to the 13th Régiment de Dragons and the 51st Régiment d'Infanterie de Ligne [fr].[15]

Imperial Eagle of the 45th Régiment d'Infanterie de Ligne displayed in the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards Museum

Two of the newer French regimental eagles were captured during the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. The French I Corps under the command of the Comte d'Erlon was charged by the British heavy cavalry, commanded by the Earl of Uxbridge; the 1st The Royal Dragoons captured the eagle of the 105th Régiment d'Infanterie de Ligne [fr] (now held at the National Army Museum, Chelsea)[16] and the Royal Scots Greys captured the eagle of the 45th Régiment d'Infanterie de Ligne [fr] (now held at the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards Museum in Edinburgh Castle).[17]

Before the Duke of Wellington died in 1852, he had asked that all his battle trophies be carried at his funeral. As the eagle captured by the 87th Regiment of Foot was not available, it was decided to make a replica. The mould was made by Garrard's and was designed from a sketch of the original drawn by an officer of the 87th at the time of Barrosa.[18]

The capture of an eagle was celebrated through the addition of the eagle as a symbol or accoutrement to a regiment's colour or uniform. The Blues and Royals (Royal Horse Guards and 1st Dragoons) (descended from the 1st Royal Dragoons) and the Royal Anglian Regiment (descended from the 44th Foot) both wear the eagle as an arm badge,[19][20] while the cap badge of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards (Carabiniers and Greys) (descended from the Royal Scots Greys) is an eagle.[21] The Royal Irish Regiment wear the eagle of the 8th on the back pouch of the officers' black cross belt.[22]

A French Imperial Eagle, which had belonged to the 1st Régiment de Grenadiers à pied de la Garde Impériale [fr], was among the items stolen in 1990 from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts.[23] The 1st Régiment de Grenadiers had formed two squares at the Battle of Waterloo, one of which was formed around Napoleon himself.[24] In May 2015, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum offered a reward of $100,000 for the safe return of the Eagle which remains missing.[25]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Johnson, Dorothy (2006). Jacques-Louis David: New Perspectives. University of Delaware Press. ISBN 978-1611492835.
  2. ^ a b c Wise, Terence (2012). Flags of the Napoleonic Wars (1): Colours, Standards and Guidons of France and her Allies. Osprey Publishing. pp. 4–6. ISBN 9781780966243.
  3. ^ "Eagles". Napoleon Guide. Retrieved 23 June 2018.
  4. ^ "The Napoleonic Eagle". Rear view mirror. Retrieved 22 June 2018.
  5. ^ "Hell's Battlefield: Heilsberg". Napoleon, His Army and Enemies. Retrieved 22 June 2018.
  6. ^ "Rearguard Action Near Eylau: 7 February 1807". Napoleon Series. Retrieved 23 June 2018.
  7. ^ "Krasnoe". Word Press. Retrieved 22 June 2018.
  8. ^ "Trofeos de la Batalla de Bailen (Jaén), (19 Julio 1808) (in Spanish)". Napoleon Series. Retrieved 25 December 2016.
  9. ^ Fraser, p. 137, 138
  10. ^ Fraser, Edward (2015). The War Drama of the Eagles: Napoleon's Standard-Bearers on the Battlefield in Victory and Defeat from Austerlitz to Waterloo, a Record of Hard Fighting, Heroism and Adventure. Palala Press. ISBN 978-1341053429.
  11. ^ "Royal Irish Fusiliers Museum". What’s on in Northern Ireland. Retrieved 13 June 2018.
  12. ^ "The Salamanca Eagle". Lancashire Infantry Museum. Retrieved 22 June 2018.
  13. ^ Carter, p. 77
  14. ^ "Military exhibition". Chelmsford Council. Retrieved 23 June 2018.
  15. ^ Porter, Maj Gen Whitworth (1889). History of the Corps of Royal Engineers Vol I. Chatham: The Institution of Royal Engineers.
  16. ^ "The eagle standard of the French 105th Regiment, captured at Waterloo, 1815". National Army Museum. Retrieved 22 June 2018.
  17. ^ "Treasurers of the Museum". Royal Scots Dragoon Guards Museum. Retrieved 22 June 2018.
  18. ^ Fraser, Edward (2015). The War Drama of the Eagles: Napoleon's Standard-Bearers on the Battlefield in Victory and Defeat from Austerlitz to Waterloo, a Record of Hard Fighting, Heroism and Adventure. Palala Press. ISBN 978-1341053429.
  19. ^ "Orders of Dress for Officers of the Armoured Regiment". Household Cavalry Museum. Retrieved 21 October 2013.
  20. ^ "Symbols and Badges". Royal Anglian Regiment Museum. Royal Anglian Regiment. Retrieved 21 October 2013.
  21. ^ "Royal Scots Dragoon Guards: Regimental History and Traditions". Ministry of Defence. Retrieved 21 October 2013.
  22. ^ "Royal Irish Regiment: History of the Regiment" (PDF). British Army Website. Retrieved 21 October 2013.
  23. ^ "Eagle Finial: Insignia of the First Regiment of Grenadiers of Foot of Napoleon's Imperial Guard, 1813-1814". Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Retrieved 12 April 2021.
  24. ^ "The Last Squares of the Old Guard". Napoleon, His Army and Enemies. Retrieved 13 April 2021.
  25. ^ "Gardner Museum announces reward for single item stolen in heist". Boston Globe. 12 May 2015. Retrieved 22 June 2018.


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