“Despite their final defeat at Waterloo, the Old Guard would go down as one of the most famous fighting units in history.”
ON THE EVENING of April 11, 1814, Napoleon Bonaparte’s 20-year career as a conqueror was seemingly at an end.
On the eve of his departure, a shattered Napoleon marched into the courtyard of his palace at Fontenbleu to deliver a heartfelt farewell to a very special group of soldiers – the Old Guard.
“For 20 years, I have accompanied you on the road to honor and glory,” he cried. “I go, but…. I intend to write the history of the great achievements we have performed together. Adieu, my friends. If I could, I would press you all to my heart.”
The Old Guard was made up of Napoleon’s finest veterans. They were the most seasoned soldiers of the French army and the best of his elite Imperial Guard. All were hand-picked volunteers of above-average height, each one hardened by years of campaigning.
The emperor housed his fiercely loyal Old Guard in the finest quarters, dressed them in the sharpest uniforms and lavished them with the best rations. In return, he expected them to fight ferociously when called upon. And fight they did, with unflagging bravery in all of Napoleon’s most famous battles.
Disbanded in 1814, elements of the Old Guard would reform the following year as Bonaparte escaped from exile. Yet despite their final defeat at Waterloo 100 days later, the Old Guard would go down as one of the most famous fighting units in history. Here are 10 essential facts about this storied unit.
The best of the best
Napoleon had been in power for less than six weeks in December of 1799 when he ordered the creation of his own personal protection force known as Le Garde des Consuls. Comprised of elite veterans recruited from the regular army, Bonaparte envisioned the new regiment as being more than just a ceremonial palace watch – it would also fight on the front lines. The Consular Guard marched into battle for the first time on June 14, 1800 at the Battle of Marengo. Eyewitnesses described how the unit advanced against the Austrians with parade-square precision and held off counterattacks “like a redoubt made of granite.” When Napoleon crowned himself emperor in 1804, the guard achieved its imperial designation. Napoleon later established guard cavalry units, engineers, gendarmes, light infantry or chasseurs a pied and line infantry, as well as his famous grenadiers.
Experience (and hight) required
By 1812, soldiers wishing to join the vaunted Old Guard had to have at least 10 years of service. They were also required to be a minimum six-feet-tall and in top physical shape. Typically in their 30s and 40s, soldiers in the Old Guard were seasoned veterans of as many as 20 campaigns and had fought for Bonaparte since his earliest battles. By 1815, the average age of a soldier in the 1er Grenadiers and 1er Chasseurs was 35. Promising recruits without years of service were sent to Bonaparte’s elite but junior Middle or Young guard.
Dressed to kill
The men of the Old Guard cut impressive figures on the battlefield. Their long-tailed jackets and waistcoats set them apart from the shabbier rank-and-file soldiers, as did their regulation powdered white ponytail queues and gold ear rings. Distinctive black bear skin hats made the already tall Old Guards even more menacing to friend and foe alike. Contemporary observers also noted that guardsmen’s solid muscular legs, honed by a lifetime of marching, were set off by their fitted breeches and gaiters, which looked much sharper than the ordinary trousers worn by Napoleon’s ordinary troops.
Better pay, instant promotion
Guard regiments drew bigger salaries than other units in the Grande Armée. A typical non-commissioned officer in the Old Guard earned more than two francs a day, which was roughly the same as a regular army lieutenant’s pay. Additionally, a soldier’s rank in the Old Guard was automatically equal to the next higher rating in any other regiment. For example, an Old Guard private enjoyed corporal status elsewhere. Guardsmen officers were also more likely to have been promoted up from the ranks of the enlisted for heroism.
The perks didn’t end with money and promotions. All other units in Napoleon’s army were required to show their deference to the Old Guard. Regular regiments were obliged to clear the road, dip their colours a sound a salute on fife and drum as the elite soldiers approached. However Guard formations were obliged to render honours to no one, save for the emperor himself. Even lowly privates were addressed by the honourific monsieur by NCOs and officers.
Permission to complain
Guardsmen were not held to the same standard of discipline as their regular army counterparts. Ordinary rankers in the elite corps were permitted to openly fraternize with their officers; something unheard of in regular regiments. And while not on campaign, soldiers were permitted to assemble for morning roll call out of uniform and then return to their bunks to sleep late. More astonishingly, because of their special status, guardsmen could gripe freely about army life, even in front of officers. In fact, it’s this license that earned the men of the Old Guard their famous nickname: les Grognards or “the Grumblers.”
Living in luxury
Despite les Grognards’ complaining privileges, guardsmen likely had far fewer grievances than their ordinary compatriots. Their barracks were typically cleaner and more spacious than other soldiers’ cramped hovels. Napoleon himself ordered larger bunks for taller members of the corps when he noted his soldiers’ feet were hanging over the end of their beds. Bonaparte also assigned France’s preeminent army surgeon, Dominique Jean Larrey, to oversee their health. Better food and drink was also a perk of life in the Old Guard.
Guardsmen also had access to their emperor unlike other soldiers. On campaign, Bonaparte enjoyed chatting with his Grognards at every opportunity. He reportedly knew many by their first names, joked with them, shared their sorrows and listened as they brought their personal problems to his attention. In one story, a guardsman complained to the emperor that he’d not yet received a citation that was promised to him months earlier. Napoleon remembered the trooper’s name, and also recounted his heroism before pledging to have the man honoured. In another account, a guardsman by the name of Jean-Roch Coignet was entrusted with guarding emperor’s own infant son at the Château de Saint-Cloud near Paris. The soldier recalled in his memoirs how a nurse once asked him to hold the toddler, at which point the young prince tugged on the plume attached to his bearskin hat. Coignet considered it as one of the proudest moments of his life.
Fighting and dying
To be sure, the Old Guard enjoyed rights and privileges unheard in the wider army. But when Napoleon did order his beloved Grognards into battle, he expected them to lay down their lives without hesitation. Yet, instead of using his Old Guard as shock troops or mere cannon fodder, the emperor often only committed his famed immortals in the final minutes of the battle, usually to deliver the coup de grâce to a wavering enemy. In other instances, he called upon his elite corps to save the day when all hope seemed lost. In several engagements, Napoleon kept the Old Guard out of harm’s way altogether. During the epic slaughter of Borodino, Bonaparte bristled deploying them. “If there should be another battle tomorrow, where is my army?” he demanded. Still, the Old Guard managed to deliver victory to their emperor in a number of major battles including, Ulm, Austerlitz, Eylau, Wagram and Dresden.
The Old Guard remained by Napoleon’s side until the bitter end. Les Grognards flocked to the colours after Bonaparte’s escape from exile in 1815 and were with him for the Waterloo campaign. They helped win the emperor his last victory at Ligny on June 16 and fought again two days later at Waterloo. It would be their last battle. As the fighting raged, Bonaparte would throw his Old Guard into action in a desperate bid to end the engagement before Prussian reinforcements could deploy and tip the balance in the Duke of Wellington’s favour. Amazingly, Napoleon’s immortals were thrown back and, for the first time ever, fled the field. “The Guard is retreating,” ordinary French soldiers cried at the unbelievable spectacle. “Every man for himself!” Remnants of the guard attempted to rally, but were surrounded by British and allied troops. When offered a chance to lay down their arms, their commander, Pierre Cambronne, famously replied: “The Guard dies. It does not surrender.” Other accounts say he simply yelled “shit!”
The surviving Guard units were disbanded following Napoleon’s surrender; its members largely disappeared into obscurity. Yet a handful of aging Grognards donned their uniforms once last time in 1840 when the remains of Napoleon were carried back to France to be laid to rest at Hôtel des Invalides in Paris.