The Im­pe­rial Guard

Fa­mous for its late at­tempt to sal­vage vic­tory at the Bat­tle of Water­loo, was the Old Guard such a cru­cial el­e­ment of Napoleon’s army?


Fa­mous for its late at­tempt to sal­vage vic­tory at Water­loo, the Old Guard had a for­mi­da­ble rep­u­ta­tion

On the morn­ing of 18 June 1815, Napoleon re­alised that Welling­ton was hold­ing his ground and was ready to give bat­tle. De­lighted to be given the op­por­tu­nity to strike a fa­tal blow, the French em­peror said to Gen­eral Foy, “I will launch my cavalry and will send my Old Guard for­ward.”

As al­ways when po­si­tion­ing his forces, Napoleon or­dered the Im­pe­rial Guard to re­main in re­serve. Be­fore 4pm, Mar­shal Ney, who had been tasked with the cap­ture of La Haye Sainte, mis­took move­ments in Bri­tish po­si­tions for the be­gin­ning of a re­treat. Ea­ger to ex­ploit the sit­u­a­tion, he or­dered a cavalry charge to break Welling­ton’s cen­tre. De­spite its orders to stay put, the light cavalry of the Old Guard fol­lowed the charge.

Cap­tain de Brach, a lancer of the Guard, later ex­plained this con­tro­ver­sial move: “Four horse reg­i­ments of the Guard, a di­vi­sion un­der Ney’s orders, did not split for the whole day and stayed close to the Niv­elles road. They did not move un­til the as­sault… Four reg­i­ments were po­si­tioned on a sin­gle line, near the main road, the lancers on the right, and to their left the chas­seurs, the dra­goons and the grenadiers… The brigade of dra­goons and grenadiers, wait­ing for an or­der, sud­denly be­lieved that they had been or­dered to charge; we fol­lowed!” At 5pm, Napoleon sent the heavy cavalry of the Guard and squadrons led by Le­feb­vre­desnou­ettes to sup­port the ef­fort. The French cavalry at­tack crashed on Bri­tish in­fantry squares, caus­ing lit­tle dam­age to them.

By 6pm, Napoleon had good rea­son to be wor­ried. The French had been fight­ing the Bat­tle of Water­loo for more than six hours against the armies of Welling­ton. Bülow’s IV Corps had ar­rived at 4.30pm near Plan­cenoit, not far from the rear of the French po­si­tions. The Duh­esme Di­vi­sion of the Young Guard (3,000 men) had been dis­patched to face the Prus­sians.

As Colonel Pon­té­coulant ex­plained, the strug­gle was doomed from the be­gin­ning. The Young Guard was com­posed of “fresh soldiers who were sup­posed to swell the ranks of the Im­pe­rial Guard but had noth­ing in com­mon with it, ex­cept for the name, and had neither its courage or devo­tion.” When the Young Guard was driven out of Plan­cenoit, Napoleon or­dered the de­ploy­ment of the 2nd Bat­tal­ion of the 2nd Grenadiers and the 1st Bat­tal­ion of the 2nd Chas­seurs of the Old Guard. Gen­eral Pelet and 1,110 French soldiers were or­dered by the em­peror to ad­vance with lev­elled bay­o­nets.

The Prus­sians, used to see­ing the Im­pe­rial Guard in­volved in mass as­saults, pan­icked and aban­doned the vil­lage.

Von Bülow, de­ter­mined to re­cap­ture the vil­lage, sent the di­vi­sions of Hiller, Rys­sel and Tip­pel­skirch – a to­tal of 27 bat­tal­ions sup­ported by ar­tillery fire. The two Old Guard bat­tal­ions, as well as 2,000 soldiers of the Young Guard, re­sisted un­til night­fall. At 9pm, the church and the ceme­tery were fi­nally cap­tured by the Prus­sian army. Gen­eral Pelet and a hand­ful of soldiers of the Old Guard man­aged to with­draw, be­fore join­ing other re­treat­ing soldiers.

The heroic de­fence of Plan­cenoit gave Napoleon enough time to carry on the fight against the armies of Welling­ton. At around 7.30pm he launched in­fantry units of the Im­pe­rial Guard against Welling­ton’s cen­tre. The Dur­ing Bat­tal­ion was left near the Cail­lou farm to pro­tect the French head­quar­ters, while the 1st Grenadiers was po­si­tioned not far from the Mai­son du Roi farm as a last re­serve. While ad­vanc­ing, Napoleon or­dered an­other three bat­tal­ions of the 1st and 2nd Chas­seurs and a bat­tal­ion of the 2nd Grenadiers to re­main in re­serve. There­fore, no bat­tal­ion of the Old Guard par­tic­i­pated in the fa­mous as­sault.

It seems that six bat­tal­ions of the Mid­dle Guard (about 3,000 men), sup­ported by two bat­ter­ies of Im­pe­rial Guard horse ar­tillery, went for­ward while play­ing the Marche des bon­nets à poils (the march of the bearskin hats). The Guards’ ad­vance threat­ened the al­lied cen­tre but was ul­ti­mately stopped. In­deed, the French, out­num­bered and ex­posed to deadly fire, fal­tered and broke. For the first time, the elite of Napoleon’s army had failed to turn the tide. Panic spread, and soon French soldiers screamed “La garde recule” (the Guard re­treats).

Dur­ing the fol­low­ing de­ba­cle, bat­tal­ions of the Old Guard were able to with­draw in good or­der be­fore form­ing a square to fight the ul­ti­mate com­bats of the day. Af­ter 15 years of dis­tin­guished ex­is­tence, this group of elite soldiers had ceased to ex­ist.

Cre­ation and or­gan­i­sa­tion

Af­ter or­ches­trat­ing a coup in Novem­ber 1799 (coup of 18 Bru­maire) and be­com­ing first con­sul of France, Napoleon Bon­a­parte wanted a for­ma­tion for his own pro­tec­tion. The for­mer Guard of the Direc­tory (garde du di­rec­toire) be­came the core of the new Con­sular Guard (garde des con­suls).

The grenadiers of the Guards of the Direc­tory had just played an im­por­tant part in the coup of 18 Bru­maire, hav­ing res­cued Napoleon when he was be­ing phys­i­cally threat­ened by the Coun­cil of Five Hun­dred. At the be­gin­ning of 1800, the Con­sular Guard was made of two bat­tal­ions of foot grenadiers, a com­pany of light in­fantry, two squadrons of horse grenadiers, a com­pany of chas­seurs (light cavalry reg­i­ment) and a de­tach­ment of ar­tillery – 2,089 men in to­tal. Joachim Mu­rat, Napoleon’s brother-in-law, be­came the first com­man­der of the Guard (21 Oc­to­ber 1799 to 16 April 1800) be­fore be­ing suc­ceeded by his friend Jean Lannes.

The unit re­ceived its bap­tism by fire at the Bat­tle of Marengo (14 June 1800) against Aus­tria. The of­fi­cial French ac­count of the bat­tle por­trayed the Guard as a key unit: “They were po­si­tioned in the mid­dle of the bat­tle­field, a rock in this gi­gan­tic field. No­body was able to hurt them, cavalry, in­fantry, ar­tillery, ev­ery­body was tak­ing shots at this bat­tal­ion, in vain.” The Aus­tri­ans, how­ever, of­fered a rather dif­fer­ent pic­ture of the Guard’s ac­tions at Marengo:

“The Guard was bro­ken, routed. Its soldiers were al­most all killed or taken and its can­nons were cap­tured.” The Aus­trian ac­count was ex­ag­ger­ated, but the Con­sular Guard did lose 50 per cent of its men on the bat­tle­field, while the Horse Guard, com­posed of 245 grenadiers and 185 chas­seurs, lost 30 per cent of its soldiers. Three men of the Guard were no­ticed for their brav­ery: Leroy, Lanceleur and Milet. Each had cap­tured a flag and a hand­ful of en­emy soldiers.

Back in Paris, Napoleon, re­al­is­ing that giv­ing the lead­er­ship of the Guard to an­other man was a threat to his au­thor­ity, seized its com­mand. Jean Lannes was dis­pleased by this de­ci­sion, but was dis­missed and dis­patched to Por­tu­gal to act as am­bas­sador. In Au­gust 1802 Napoleon changed the con­sti­tu­tion to make the con­sulate per­ma­nent. Es­sen­tially, he had be­come a king with­out a crown.

New units were in­cor­po­rated into the Con­sular Guard. The in­fantry was re­in­forced by a reg­i­ment of foot grenadiers and a reg­i­ment of foot chas­seurs (all vet­er­ans). The cavalry saw the ar­rival of a reg­i­ment of horse grenadiers, a reg­i­ment of horse chas­seurs – in­clud­ing the fa­mous Mamelukes – a squadron of horse ar­tillery, the Le­gion of Elite Gen­darmerie, a bat­tal­ion of Sailors of the Guard and four com­pa­nies of train d’ar­tillerie. There was also a guard hos­pi­tal. In to­tal, the Con­sular Guard was made up of 9,798 men.

On 10 May 1804 a procla­ma­tion trans­formed the Con­sular Guard into the Im­pe­rial Guard: “The guard has been no­ti­fied that the Sen­ate pro­claimed to­day Napoleon Bon­a­parte em­peror of the French and made his power hered­i­tary. Vive l’em­pereur! Un­lim­ited devo­tion and fi­delity to Napoleon, first em­peror of the French. To­day, the guard takes the ti­tle of Im­pe­rial Guard…”

The em­peror was de­ter­mined to wel­come only the best men in this for­ma­tion. On 8 March 1801, a de­cree stated that “Soldiers of all branches can join the Con­sular Guard. The ad­mis­sion is a re­ward for your brav­ery and con­duct.” To be ad­mit­ted, soldiers had a num­ber of re­quire­ments.

Ad­mis­sion to the Guard was usu­ally pre­ceded by a rec­om­men­da­tion from the colonel of the reg­i­ment to which the can­di­date be­longed.

In 1806 the above-men­tioned reg­i­ments be­came the Old Guard. Its soldiers were not nec­es­sar­ily aged, but the em­peror had de­cided to form new reg­i­ments with less strict re­quire­ments. A few soldiers of the formed Con­sular Guard had plenty of ex­pe­ri­ence.

The first man listed in the reg­i­ment’s reg­is­ter was born in 1751 and served un­til 1 Jan­uary 1814. The old­est was born in 1738 but was awarded a pen­sion the same year the Guard was formed.

The com­po­si­tion of the Guard changed con­stantly. New units were cre­ated: the Em­press’ Dra­goons, the Pol­ish Lancers, etc. Pro­gres­sively, the Mid­dle Guard merged with the Old Guard. Five bat­tal­ions of vélites were also built around young vol­un­teers, all from wealthy fam­i­lies, wish­ing to be­come of­fi­cers. Salary and equip­ment were paid for by the fam­ily. In 1806, Napoleon also cre­ated a new corps of cavalry soldiers re­cruited from among noble fam­i­lies. The pay­ment of 1,900 francs and a pen­sion were the only con­di­tions to join. The army, re­act­ing strongly against this rem­i­nis­cence of the Bour­bon army, forced Napoleon to dis­miss this unit.

Soldiers of the Old Guard were bet­ter treated than line in­fantry reg­i­ments. Their salary was much higher: a grenadier earned 1.17 francs per day, while a reg­u­lar soldier re­ceived 0.30. A cor­po­ral was paid 1.67 francs in the Old Guard, and 0.45 francs in the line. The of­fi­cers were also much bet­ter treated.

More­over, the Old Guard oc­ca­sion­ally re­ceived bonuses and re­wards. Guard bar­racks were far more com­fort­able and the Im­pe­rial Guard was al­ways first to choose where to stay when at war. The hos­pi­tal of the Guard was par­tic­u­larly good, and was man­aged by the best doc­tors, and like­wise uni­forms were tai­lored by the most tal­ented men. Line in­fantry soldiers were sup­posed to keep their uni­forms for two years, no mat­ter what, while guards­men had new clothes as soon as signs of wear were de­tected.

Soldiers of the Old Guard had even more priv­i­leges: an 1805 de­cree gave grenadiers and non-com­mis­sioned of­fi­cers a rank­ing ad­van­tage. A grenadier or a chas­seur of the Old Guard was sup­posed to be the equal of a sergeant in other units. Of­fi­cers of the Old Guard also had sim­i­lar ad­van­tages. An Im­pe­rial de­cree of 13 July 1804 stated, “Ev­ery­where where the troops of the Im­pe­rial Guard serve with the line, they are awarded po­si­tions of honour. When to­gether, of­fi­cers and non-com­mis­sioned of­fi­cers of the Im­pe­rial Guard of sim­i­lar ranks are au­to­mat­i­cally made com­man­ders. When a de­tach­ment of the Guard meets a Corps or a de­tach­ment of the line, they must be saluted… un­til they are gone.”

As can be ex­pected, these ad­van­tages were not to ev­ery­body’s taste. An of­fi­cer serving for Mar­shal Ney wrote in his mem­oirs, “The Im­pe­rial Guard has it good. It was un­pleas­ant to be around its soldiers. Ev­ery­thing was done for them. Ev­ery­where, they were given dou­ble por­tions.” Jeal­ousy can be found in al­most all line in­fantry soldiers’ let­ters and mem­oirs. This feel­ing is un­der­stand­able, es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing that the Im­pe­rial Guard lost some of its qual­i­ties over time. At first re­served for the best of the best, it be­came closer to a nor­mal army corps and swelled to 100,000 men af­ter the Rus­sian de­ba­cle of 1812.


On the bat­tle­field

Napoleon was un­will­ing to use the Old Guard on the bat­tle­field and kept it in re­serve to strike at the de­ci­sive mo­ment. De­spite its rep­u­ta­tion, the Old Guard did not see much ac­tion, how­ever, dur­ing the 1805 cam­paign against Aus­tria, the Sailors of the Guard saved a di­vi­sion of in­fantry at Krems. In the same cam­paign, the Guard’s cavalry fought with dis­tinc­tion at the Bat­tle of Auster­litz (2 De­cem­ber 1805). Grenadier Jean­roch Coignet saw the ac­tion: “The em­peror

sent us for­ward to press the move­ment. We were there, 25,000 bearskin hats. The Guard and the grenadiers of Oudinot… We were walk­ing calmly with the drums and the mu­sic. Napoleon wanted to honour the em­per­ors com­mand­ing en­emy armies by let­ting mu­si­cians walk with us at the cen­tre of each bat­tal­ion. Ar­riv­ing at the top of the hill, we were sur­rounded by rem­nants of Corps who had been fight­ing since the morn­ing. “The Rus­sian im­pe­rial guard was in front of us. The em­peror made us stop and sent the Mamelukes and the Horse Chas­seurs. These Mamelukes were for­mi­da­ble horsemen with their curved sabres. They could cut a head off with a sin­gle blow, or tear the back of a soldier with their sharp stir­rups. One of them came back three times to give en­emy flags to the em­peror.

“The third time, the em­peror wanted him to stay but he left


again and did not come back. He stayed on the bat­tle­field. The chas­seurs were not less wor­thy than the Mamelukes but they were out­num­bered. The Rus­sian im­pe­rial guard was made of gi­gan­tic and de­ter­mined men. Our cavalry had to be brought back. The em­peror sent the black horses, the horse grenadiers…

“They passed us as thun­der and charged the en­emy. For fif­teen min­utes, it was an un­be­liev­able chaos and it felt like a cen­tury. We could not see any­thing in the smoke and the dust. We feared to see our com­rades killed. The Old Guard and the grenadiers were there to give the last blow. But smoke and dust soon dis­ap­peared. The Rus­sian im­pe­rial guard was nowhere to be seen. Our horsemen came back tri­umphantly and placed them­selves be­hind the em­peror.”

The cavalry of the Guard was again no­ticed at the Bat­tle of Ey­lau on 7 Fe­bru­ary 1807. At the same bat­tle, the in­fantry of the Old Guard fought valiantly right un­der the nose of the em­peror.

The first reg­i­ment of the grenadiers pushed back a Rus­sian as­sault that was threat­en­ing the gen­eral head­quar­ters and Napoleon him­self. Gen­eral Dors­enne, see­ing one of his of­fi­cers or­der­ing a vol­ley, screamed, “Raise your weapon! The Old Guard only uses bay­o­nets.”

This counter-as­sault was so suc­cess­ful that it nearly de­stroyed the Rus­sian col­umn.

In 1808, el­e­ments of the Guard fought against the Madrid re­volt. Most of the Im­pe­rial Guard fol­lowed the next year when Napoleon led an ex­pe­di­tion in the Ibe­rian Penin­sula. There, the Guard ex­pe­ri­enced its first de­feat, when three squadrons of horse chas­seurs and Mamelukes were am­bushed by the Bri­tish. Gen­eral Le­feb­vre-desnou­ettes, who led the chas­seurs, was cap­tured by the en­emy. Napoleon was soon forced to aban­don Spain to fight Aus­tria. Dur­ing the cam­paign of 1809, the Old Guard lost sev­eral men while pro­tect­ing the French army af­ter the Bat­tle of Essling. A month later, the horse chas­seurs and the Pol­ish chevau-légers won new lau­rels against the Aus­tri­ans. At the bat­tle of Wa­gram, the Pol­ish grabbed en­emy uh­lans’ lances to at­tack fur­ther. Fol­low­ing this leg­endary ac­tion, they were trans­formed into light-horse lancers.

On 24 June 1812 the French army in­vaded Rus­sia. The Old Guard fol­lowed the em­peror but was not com­mit­ted un­til the Bat­tle of Borodino (7 Septem­ber 1812). The bat­tle be­gan at 6am and lasted the whole day. The Young Guard was sent at 3pm when vic­tory was still in the bal­ance. Sev­eral of­fi­cers asked Napoleon to send the Old Guard: “Sir, you need to in­volve the Guard!” screamed Gen­eral Rapp while he was be­ing taken out to be treated by a doc­tor. “I will most def­i­nitely not. I do not want to have it blown up. I am sure to win the bat­tle with­out in­volv­ing

it,” an­swered Napoleon. By the end of the day, Napoleon had won a tac­ti­cal vic­tory but had failed to de­stroy the Rus­sian army.

His re­fusal to com­mit the Old Guard saved the Rus­sians from an­ni­hi­la­tion. A few days later, the Grande Ar­mée took Moscow, but the de­struc­tion of the city proved dis­as­trous for the French. For the first time in its his­tory, the Old Guard pil­laged sur­viv­ing build­ings with other reg­i­ments. A 29 Septem­ber 1812 com­mu­niqué sum­marised the shame brought on the elite for­ma­tion: “Acts of dis­or­der and loot­ing were com­mit­ted yes­ter­day and to­day by the Old Guard. The em­peror is sad­dened to see that elite soldiers charged with his safety, who should be­have at their best in all cir­cum­stances, com­mit such ac­tions.

“Some broke the doors of the de­pots where flour was kept for the army. Oth­ers will­ingly dis­obeyed and mis­treated guards and their com­man­ders…” Soldiers of the Guard not only stole food but also a large amount of booty. Their lack of dis­ci­pline was no­ticed by the rest of the army and trig­gered wide­spread hos­til­ity. Af­ter the Rus­sian cam­paign, an of­fi­cer wrote to the war min­is­ter, “The Guard has lost its rep­u­ta­tion and is unan­i­mously hated.” The re­treat fol­low­ing the de­struc­tion of Moscow was dis­as­trous for the French army, but the Im­pe­rial Guard was the only branch to keep some co­he­sion. How­ever, var­i­ous com­bats saw the death of sev­eral men.

At the Bat­tle of Kras­noi (15-18 Novem­ber 1812), the 3rd Grenadiers be­gan the day with 305 soldiers and of­fi­cers but ended with 36 sur­vivors. At the be­gin­ning of the cam­paign, 180 of­fi­cers and 6,235 soldiers of the Im­pe­rial Guard had crossed the Niemen River. Months later, 177 of­fi­cers and 1,312 soldiers were still alive. All cavalry units had been wiped out.

The Im­pe­rial Guard was re­built from scratch, but find­ing men was not an easy task. The let­ter of a soldier serving in a line in­fantry reg­i­ment shows that the best soldiers were in­vited to ap­ply for the Im­pe­rial Guard. How­ever, most hes­i­tated as it was ru­moured that the guards­men were headed for Spain. Dur­ing the cam­paign of 1813, the Old Guard was only used dur­ing the Bat­tle of Hanau (30 Oc­to­ber 1813). Af­ter the Bat­tle of Leipzig, the French had re­treated to­wards France when they were stopped by the Bavar­ian army, led by Mar­shal von Wrede. The Bavar­ian gen­eral wanted to block Napoleon’s line of re­treat. This time, Napoleon did not hes­i­tate to com­mit his best men. He sent the Im­pe­rial Guard, both Young and Old Guards, to clear the en­emy. The fol­low­ing vic­tory was im­por­tant for Napoleon, as it al­lowed the French to re­treat and op­pose the in­va­sion of France.

Pressed by the al­lies, Napoleon did not have time to bring the Old Guard back to its for­mer glory. Nonethe­less, French guards­men dis­tin­guished them­selves dur­ing the cam­paign of 1814. The French em­peror wrote on the evening of the Bat­tle of Mont­mi­rail that “my old foot guard and horse guard worked mir­a­cles. What they achieved can only be com­pared to what is found in chival­ric tales.” The same day, he wrote to his brother: “All of this was achieved by send­ing half of my Old Guard, who did more than what can be ex­pected of men. My foot guard, dra­goons, horse grenadiers, worked mir­a­cles.” De­spite in­flict­ing sev­eral de­feats, Napoleon was un­able to stop the en­emy coali­tion from ad­vanc­ing on Paris. On 4 April 1814 he ab­di­cated in favour of his son, be­fore be­ing forced to sign the Treaty of Fontainebleau on 13 April. He was sent to the is­land of Elba with 724 soldiers of the Old Guard.

The re­main­ing reg­i­ments were re­named.

The Foot Grenadiers be­came the French Grenadiers, the Horse Grenadiers the Corps of Royal French Cuirassiers, the Chas­seurs à Che­val the Corps of Royal Chas­seurs, the Dra­goons the Corps of Royal Dra­goons of France, the 2nd Chevau-légers the Corps of Royal Chevau-légers Lancers of France.

On 1 March 1815 Napoleon landed on the French main­land. On 20 March, he ar­rived in Paris and im­me­di­ately signed an im­pe­rial de­cree to re-es­tab­lish the Im­pe­rial Guard. Miss­ing cru­cial com­man­ders, the elite for­ma­tion was a shadow of its for­mer self. Soon, many of its mem­bers would lose their lives in a field in Bra­bant.


The au­thors would like to thank Ar­naud Springuel and Water­loo Im­mer­sion (www. wa­ter­looim­mer­ for the help re­ceived.

The Prus­sian at­tack on Plan­cenoit, by Lud­wig El­sholtz. Bod­ies of guards­men can be seen in the fore­ground

Il­lus­tra­tion of a man of the Old Guard based on pri­mary sources and uni­forms kept at the Musée de l’ar­mée at the In­valides. The bearskin cap, the blue uni­form, the white vest and the breeches, as well as the mous­tache, formed a recog­nis­able en­sem­ble on the bat­tle­field

Napoleon re­view­ing the Old Guard at the Bat­tle of Jena on 14 Oc­to­ber 1806, by Ho­race Ver­net

Napoleon’s farewell to the Old Guard, by An­toine Mont­fort

Napoleon in the uni­form of a colonel of the Chas­seurs à Che­val of the Old Guard

The last grenadier of Water­loo, by Ho­race Ver­net

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