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.
“AT FIRST RESERVED FOR THE BEST OF THE BEST, IT BECAME CLOSER TO A NORMAL ARMY CORPS AND SWELLED TO ABOUT 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
“THEY PASSED US AS THUNDER AND CHARGED THE ENEMY. FOR FIFTEEN MINUTES, IT WAS AN UNBELIEVABLE CHAOS AND IT FELT LIKE A CENTURY”
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.
“MISSING CRUCIAL COMMANDERS, THE ELITE FORMATION WAS A SHADOW OF ITS FORMER SELF”
The authors would like to thank Arnaud Springuel and Waterloo Immersion (www. waterlooimmersion.be) 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