- This article discusses the soldiers who guarded Napoleon. 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, and battalions of sappers and marines. Another division existed in distinguishing the experiences of the veterans from less experienced members of the Guard by 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 can question their utility, given their non-opposition to Napoleon's 18 Brumaire coup of 1799. The Consular Guard changed its name to the Imperial Guard on May 18 1804.
Napoleon took great care of his Guard, particularly the Old Guard, and the Old Guard Grenadiers 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. It was the first time the Guard retreated without being ordered to do so. At the sight of this, Napoleon's army lost all hope of victory.
"La Garde meurt mais ne se rend pas!" "The Guard dies, but it does not surrender!" is attributed to General Pierre Cambronne. It has been suggested that this was in fact said by another General of the Imperial Guard, Claude-Etienne Michel, during their last stand at the Battle of Waterloo, — it has also been suggested that the quote was ‘invented’ by a French newspaper editor — but whatever the truth it makes a suitable epitaph.
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 was never considered to be of quite the same calibre of the senior Guards, although its units were still superior to the normal line regiments.
the Guard numbered eight thousand men. By the time of Napoleon's invasion of Russia
, 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.
Size of the Guard over time
|| Number of soldiers |
|| 3,000 |
|| 9,798 |
|| 12,187 |
|| 32,150 |
|| 48,500 |
|| 92,472 (mostly young guards) |
|| 112,482 |
|| 25,870 |
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 aid-de-camps, and other specialist officers and their 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), Foot Grenadiers (1er Regiment de Grenadiers-à-Pied de la Garde Imperiale) was 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 Imperiale was the oldest and most venerated of regiments in the French Army, classed as the Old Guard.
3rd Foot Grenadiers Regiment
The regiment was created from a disbanded Dutch Army in 1810 as the 3e Regiment de Grenadiers-à-Pied de la Garde Imperiale.
4th Foot Grenadiers Regiment
A fourth regiment 4e Regiment de Grenadiers-à-Pied de la Garde Imperiale 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 Imperiale was 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 Imperiale 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 Imperiale 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 Imperiale 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 Imperiale in 1807. A second regiment was raised that became the 2nd Fusiliers Grenadiers. Two regiments of Fusilier Grenadiers were raised in 1806, but disbanded in 1814 and not recreated for the 100 days Campaign.
The 1st Fusiliers Chasseurs Regiment (Regiment de Fusilier-Chasseurs de la Garde Imperiale) was created in 1807 as part of reorganisation 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 Imperiale) were raised in 1809 from conscripts, but with the requirement 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 Imperiale.
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 Imperiale in 1811.
During the 1813-14 campaigns the number of Regiments de Tirailleurs de la Garde Imperiale was increased to sixteen although they rarely equalled the regiments of the Young Guard of 1811.
Voltigeurs of the Guard
Created from the Tirailleurs Chasseurs in 1810, the Regiments de Voltigeurs de la Garde Imperiale became one of the largest Corps in the Guard, eventually absorbing the Regiments de Concrits-Chasseurs to number sixteen by 1814. The 14e Regiment de Voltigeurs de la Garde Imperiale 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 Imperiale 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.
National Guard Regiment of the Guard
This regiment was created from the National Guard companies of the Northern Departments of France, however the regiment was organised on 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 Imperiale and Flanquer Chasseurs Regiment (Regiment de Flanqueurs-Chasseurs de la Garde Imperiale).
The Horse Grenadiers (Regiment de Grenadiers-a-Cheval de la Garde Imperiale) was the senior cavalry regiment of the Guard, and originate from the Consular Guard. Although classed as cavalry, the regiment did not wear a cuirass, but was known for its distinctive bearskin head-dress and black horses.
Chasseurs a Cheval
The Regiment of Chasseurs a Cheval (1er Regiment de Chasseurs-a-Cheval de la Garde Imperiale) was also created from the Consular Guard, and ranked second in seniority althoughit was a light cavalry regiment. It was the regiment that most often provided personal escort to Napoleon, and he often wore the uniform of the regiment in recognition of this service. The regimen is also known for its lavish uniform and combat history. A second regiment (2e Regiment de Chasseurs-a-Cheval de la Garde Imperiale) 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 15 April 1806) to reorganise the cavalry of the Guard and create within it a regiment of dragoons (Regiment de Dragons de la Garde Imperiale), made up of 3 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 who had done 10 years' 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's Dragoons) in tribute to their patroness, Joséphine de Beauharnais
, and 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 2 new squadrons, and on 9 December 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 Russian Army's cossacks. About to fight on French soil for the first time since the French Revolutionary Wars, Napoleon decided to reorganise the Imperial Guard. In article 1 of a decree of 4 December 1813 he created three regiments of "1er Regiment d’Éclaireurs a Cheval de la Garde Imperiale" (scouts), also known as Hussards Éclaireurs within the Guard, the 1st Regiment of which was attached to the Horse Grenadiers, and was thus named the regiment of Éclaireurs-grenadiers, as counterparts to the cossacks. They arrived in the theatre of operations late in the Napoleonic Wars, joining the army on 1 January 1814 just in time to participate in the Six Days Campaign then to be dissolved on the Bourbon Restoration. The 2e Regiment d’Eclaireurs a Cheval de la Garde Imperiale was attached to the Dragons de la Garde Imperiale. The 3e Regiment d’Eclaireurs de la Garde Imperiale was attached to the 1er Regiment de Chevau-Legers-Lanciers.
1st (Polish) Regiment of Lancers
The regiment was created Regiment de Chevau-Legers Polonaise de la Garde in 1807 after the 1806 defeat of the Allies and a 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 Imperiale.
2nd (Dutch) Regiment of Lancers
Raised in 1810 from former Dutch Army cavalry units as the 2e Regiment de Chevau-Legers-Lanciers de la Garde Imperiale, 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 Imperiale in Lithuania during the Invasion of Russian in 1812, largely from the Lithuanian Polish population, but was virtually destroyed in the retreat of the same year and 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 the Mamelukes (Escadron de Mamalukes) that returned with Napoleon from the Egyptian Campaign in 1799 and was inducted into the Guard, usually attached to the Chasseurs a Cheval, but over the years their casualties were replaced from French cavalry regiments, or from any vaguely Middle Eastern related nationalities, although the squadron was never increased to a regiment in strength.
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 re-enforce his Guard cavalry decimated in Russia. The regiments belonged to the Young Guard, and were dressed in the fashion of the hussars.
Artillery of the Guard
Artillery of the Guard included the Foot Artillery Regiment (Regiment d’Artillerie a Pied de la Garde Imperiale) batteries, Horse Artillery Regiment (Regiment d’Artillerie a Cheval de la Garde Imperiale) 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 Imperiale), the later two created in 1807. Despite shortages in artillery ordnance
, in 1813 Napoleon created the Regiment d’Artillerie a Pied de la Garde Imperiale of the Young Guard (Jeune Garde). The Parc du materiale de la Garde Imperiale was created in 1813 to supplement the meager resources of the Bataillon du Train des equipage militaire 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 Imperiale) 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 totalling 400 sappers. The 1st and 2nd companies were classed as Old Guard, while the 3rd and 4th companies as the Young Guard.
Marines of the Guard
Raised from seamen of the French navy who had distinguished themselves, the battalion of Marines (Bataillon de Marins) were a distinctive and elaborate uniform resembling that of the hussars.
- Voltigeurs, skirmishers members of the Imperial Guard (at times, the Guard had 12 regiments of Voltigeurs)