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The Old Guard on Campaign

`Victory is a trollop we've taken more than once' - A favorite saying among Guardsmen

At the very top of the military food chain under Napoleon was the indomitable Imperial Guard, the best seasoned and most highly decorated veterans in the entire French army...the creme de la creme. They were the most fearsome and dedicated warriors of their day. From the plains of Spain to the snows of Russia, they followed closely behind the legendary black bicorn hat with the tricolor cockade trusting absolutely in the genius of the man who wore it. They were his `Children', he was their `Tondu'. They would fight and die for nobody but him.

Except for the wonderful receptions they were sometimes fortunate enough to either host or stand guard over, picking away joyfully at the leftovers, the Guard didn't ask for fancy meals and rarely got them.  They didn't ask for the soft beds of the effete Bourbons, and rarely got them.  All they asked for was to be able to follow behind the Emperor, guarding him with their very lives day and night.  And if there was a bullet out there somewhere with his name on it, it was one of them who would take it in his place and gladly so. 

They grumbled amongst themselves in both good times and in bad, complaining as soldiers often do about the little things…no wine, no ladies, too much wine, too many ladies, the soup's too hot, the soup's too cold, that sort of thing.  But there was something else they all didn't appreciate, like being left to stand at attention in a big fight like they had to at Jena 'while the Line licks the Prussians!'.  But when the booming voice of their imperial benefactor rang out in anger, saying 'You should fight in forty pitched battles before daring to give me advice!', they were quickly put back in their place, remembering that this was the same man who had done so much for them at that same Line's expense. 

After many years in the service to the cause earning the right of privileged membership in the Guard, and it certainly did have its perks, they still hungered for the sting of battle and the proud French soldier's neverending search for honor and glory.  If they complained bitterly because of empty stomachs, they tempered their bad mood by remembering that he too was suffering right along with them.  Nobody in the world understood the hearts of French soldiers and spoke their warrior dialect like Napoleon the Great.

The experience and leadership potential of the Non-Commissioned Officers of the Guard was so invaluable to the Grand Army that they would as army policy be reassigned as Officers back to the Line regiments from which they themselves had come, evolving themselves into ultimate role models for the unsteady young conscripts who would have to be taught well to embrace the Guard's cherished concepts of cran (courage) and elan (spirit), that which so fittingly testified to everything they stood for.  There was no time for baby-sitting with these grizzled Amazons, you either packed the gear to be among the Emperor's Own or you didn't.

It didn't take long for Napoleon to turn these hearty 'Brigands of the Loire' into new age Berserkers, for they would do almost anything to be worthy of praise from their 'Petit Caporal'.  If the Emperor spoke to them outside his tent about 'nasty weather', they'd coyly respond 'better than none at all, Sir', and would remember the moment until the day they died, telling all who would listen how he had once 'sought my advice' on the eve of a great battle. It would be that evening's discussion throughout their ranks over games of cards, wine, lit pipes and tall tales.

One way to get a good handle on Napoleon's wonderful relationship with his veterans is to consider conversations between him and his roughnecks during the exile on Elba. First there is this playful exchange: 

`Yes, my Emperor, but it would be better if...'  Napoleon cut the man off. `If what?  Is not the meat good? And the vegetables, are they tough?' The grenadier replied, `On the contrary, the meat and  vegetables are excellent, but one thing is wanting which it is not in your power to give.' Napoleon replied, `What's that?  Speak, let us see!' Said the grenadier, `Water from the Seine to boil them in.'  Napoleon grinned, exclaiming as he walked away, `Bah! One can eat a partridge very well without an orange. You are too much of a gourmet.'

A nice plate showing Napoleon sharing a light-hearted moment during a battle with his Old Guard

On another occasion as Napoleon was walking one fine Elban evening, as he was accustomed to backwards and forwards through the long avenues of sycamores that bordered the grounds of his palace near the sea, he suddenly came upon an old grenadier sitting at the foot of a tree looking very melancholy.

`What are you doing here alone?  What are you  thinking about?'  The soldier sprang to his feet with the military salute, and seeing a smile on the Emperor's face replied frankly, `I was thinking, my Emperor, of my country, and I said to myself, this is the close of the harvest time there.' `From what country are you?' The man replied, `From Antram, four little leagues from Rennes, in Brittany.'

Said Napoleon to the old soldier, `Brittany is a very good country, a country of brave men, but a villainous heaven as it always rains there while here the climate is sweet, the days are superb and the sky resplendent. The isle of Elba is a much better place to live in than Brittany.'

The soldier said, `My Emperor, I am too honest to deceive you, but saving your majesty, I love the rain which falls at Antram better than the beautiful days of Elba, it is my idea and I may say it without offending your majesty.' Said Napoleon, `But why don't you amuse yourself like your comrades?  You have leisure, the wine is good, and you have the theatre to divert you; go to the theatre.'

The soldier replied, `That's true, my Emperor, but the pieces at the theatre do not equal those punchinellos of the boulevards of the Temple, now that's something amusing.' Finally, Napoleon said, `Ah, well, have patience.  Perhaps some day you will see again the boulevards of the Temple, and its punchinellos.'

Napoleon renewed his conversation later that evening, marvelling at the simplicity and frankness of the old grenadier. The story soon got wind, and `I love better the punchinellos' was soon heard everywhere. It had struck a responsive chord in the heart of each soldier and it was soon apparent how universal the grenadier's sentiment had become, for it gave them all a way of expressing their feelings without offending the Emperor who was himself suffering from the exile.

If Napoleon called out the officer of a Guard regiment, as he did many times, to identify the man in their ranks who was `the most brave', taking off his own Legion of Honor medal and pinning it onto the man's chest (as he did for the badly wounded Niegolewski at Somosierra), these fortunate few would remember the moment `til the day they died.  And if he tugged at their ears in the midst of a good mood, often painfully as he was known to do, they would shed tears sure enough, but only because it was he who had touched them. Pain, after all, was nothing to a Guardsman.

The most formidable fighting machine Europe had seen since Rome's mighty Legions, the Guard was literally an army within an army, growing to more than 50,000 strong for the Russian campaign of 1812.  Like most French army corps of the time, they had their own Transport, Supply, Artillery, Cavalry and Medical units. 

The Imperial Guard functioned officially as Napoleon's personal bodyguard and ultimate tactical Reserve, the Emperor's final court of last resort on battlefields all over Europe.  Their Regiments drove home the final stake through the heart of the Austro-Russian Alliance at Austerlitz.  Their Horse Grenadiers sent the Prussian Landwehr reeling at Jena.  Their Horse Artillery blasted away Emperor Francis' best at Wagram and Alexander's best at Friedland.  They rode out the awful Spanish 'Ulcer', and then force-marched seventeen hundred and fifty miles in less than two months to reach Austria in time to stand guard over their Emperor during the 1809 war in Austria.

They were the Grand Army's stalwart rearguard during the Retreat from Russia, fighting like lions under Marshal Ney to hold off Platov's pesky Cossacks at the Berezina.  They held the line during the hopeless melee at Leipzig and wondered adoringly at the Tondu's timely return to brilliant form in the Battle of France that followed. They raged bitterly, scrambling over one another to get their names included on the list of those to serve in the Elba Battalion that followed the great Eagle into exile rather than kiss some pampered Bourbon king's fat ass.  And when the Emperor made his dash from Elba aboard L'Inconstant, landing at the Golf of Juan, they served as the rallying point for the eager young Line conscripts who joyously flocked to the Emperor's eagles all along the way back to the gates of Paris. 

On their last day under the Emperor's standards at Waterloo, all the world it seemed held its breath along with Wellington as Napoleon himself advanced his last nine Guard battalions in a desperate effort to breach the Allied center, the battered remnants of the army picking themselves up to rally one last time behind that indomitable phalanx of bearskin bonnets as it marched in perfect discipline down from the slopes of La Belle Alliance.  And when the moment of truth was at hand amid the growing carnage of that fateful day, their ear-splitting cries of `Vive L'Empereur!' ripped across a warm summer evening's sky one last time as they marched into the pages of history.

The fall of the Guard at Waterloo

To be one of the Emperor's Own, to be one of his prized Amazons, was to be a somebody even if you were a complete nobody. The Guardsmen were looked upon with reverance by both friend and foe alike.  They were idolized and emulated by their Line brothers, even though they were a pampered Legion, where 'even the mules rated as horses'.  The men of the Guard were looked upon with respect and fear by even the most obstinate of their enemies.

When Marshal Blucher caught sight of their towering bearskins at Dresden in 1813 as the Grand Army fought North, South, East and West like demons to recover the situation after the Russian campaign, he pulled his wary Prussians back and waited for reinforcements.  For he and his men well knew what it meant to face 'Die Alte Kaisergarde!' commanded by Napoleon himself.

The Allies were courageous enough taking on one of the Emperor's often unreliable and hapless Marshals now and then…they had learned the lessons of fighting the Grand Army well.  But they very much minded having to square off with Napoleon's 'Invincibles'.  Some things mere soldiers of the time could easily do without.  Risking getting their heads handed to them locking horns with the Imperial Guard was one such thing.

With the fall of the Empire, life for many Guardsmen no longer seemed to matter very much. They dueled with the Royalists during the 'White Terror'.  They dodged that traitorous Police Minister Fouche's guttersnipes who watched them day and night, and they became wanderers all over the World.  In a still young America, at Camp D'Asyle and Aigleville in Texas, they embraced honorable exile in a strange new land rather than live in a homeland that no longer had room for them.

They headed back to Germany where the frauleins were always friendly, or back to Italy where a brash young General Bonaparte first led them down the path of glory twenty years before. They stopped off in Poland, the homeland of Poniatowski's nobles who had fought so hard to free their people from the Tsar's iron grip, risking everything to follow the Emperor's eagles hoping someday he'd remember and keep his promise of Polish liberation.

There was Sergeant Taria of the Grenadiers, who hauled out the dusty old Regimentals he once wore at the fabulous Reviews for the photographer during the Second Empire, the one created by their master's nephew.  There was Dreux, of the Light-Horse Lancers, who did the same.. and Mameluke Ducel too.  And there is Coignet, the literary Grenadier with the heart of a Grizzly who picked up an imprudent Russian Grenadier's challenge between the lines at Eylau and ran him through with his bayonet in single combat before his cheering comrades. The same Coignet who had once lost his all bearskin bonnet's bright red plumage to the 'Little One'...the King of Rome...who Napoleon and his loving Guardsmen all had once hoped would one day rule France as Napoleon II.

They dedicated their lives and everything they accomplished and believed in to him.  Their scars, and they were many, were war maps on a road to glory he helped them carve throughout Europe.  The 20 franc napoleons he gave them as one of his rewards for their courage would rarely be spent, many would have rather starved than give up such treasures for a mere bottle of wine or a piece of bread.  Food they could find for themselves, but any form of praise from the Emperor was a joy that had to be saved away for the days of growing old, retelling war stories.  That is, if they should be so lucky to see such days. 

There was nothing that Napoleon could ask of these hard-boiled heroes that they were not willing to lay down their lives to give him.  Theirs is the story of perfect discipline, dedication and determination.  A story of ultimate courage and everlasting glory.  La Garde Imperiale, they live forever in the imagination of all good soldiers. Honor their memory.

Vive L'Empereur!