Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics

Portrait of a Grenadier-à-Cheval of the Imperial Guard

By Paul Dawson

To the horse grenadier of the Old Guard belonged the exclusive privilege of that character and that steadiness that distinguished it among all the other riders of the army. He was of tall stature and wore, like a light hairstyle, the heavy bonnet of bearskin which, when he was on horse, seemed to add still more to his height making him even more imposing. The general expression of his figure was the coldness. When he was on foot, this man preserved his practice of gravity. There existed in his demeanour a kind of stiffness; he had in his behaviour (off duty) less affectation than the other soldiers of the Guard: he seemed to leave the matter of his personal dignity to the attention of those who gave praise. Seldom surprised on this point, always impassive, the passing of a smile; one could have believed that the pride of his quality was not foreign by this particular disposition, and that the horse grenadier affected this pretension to supremacy which he wanted to exhibit... but do not deceive oneself, this soldier was only the man of his regiment; all in his place were effected of a community of feelings and traditions: he had the honour to be a horse grenadier of the Guard, and that was all.[1]

By the Henschal Brothers
(Image Courtesy of Napoleon Online)

So wrote Emile Marco de Saint Hilaire in his popular history of the guard. The Grenadiers-à-Pied or Cheval, have traditionally seen to be tall, older men, often said to be in their 40's or early 50's. This supposed fact is based on the romanticised paintings of the Guard, such as Charlet, Vernet and others. A closer inspection of records of the men who made up the Grenadiers a Cheval, reveals, that this tradition of the Guard being older men, and tall men, is a gross over assumption. The data presented below is taken from the 'Registre Metricule' of the Grenadier-à-Cheval [2] .

Of the men who joined the Grenadier Cheval of the Consular Guard, 9% of these men were transferred from the Guides Of General Bonaparte, 4.5% coming from the former Guards of the Directory. Over 86% of the regiment at this period was formed from veterans taken from the line with an average length of service of 9years 1 month, as shown in Table 1 and 7. On average a Grenadier Cheval in the Consular Guard was aged 28years 1 month, the youngest Grenadier being aged 22, and the oldest was 47, a former member of the Directory and Royal Guards of the Anciene Regime. Of the corporals, they were on average 28years 3months old, the youngest being 25 years and the oldest 33years old.

The grenadiers had served between 2 years and 29 years before admission to the guard. Most authors have ascribed the bulk of the former Guides of General Bonaparte became the Chasseurs-à-Cheval of the Consular Guard. This again seems to be an over simplification as members of the Guides and the Directory Grenadiers-à-Cheval formed the Grenadiers of the Consular Guard, 20% of all entrants were from the Directory, and 13% from the Guides.  These men provided upon formation, the nucleus for the senior NCOs and junior officers of the regiment. 15% of the NCOs of the regiment were former Grenadiers of the Directory, 3% of the Officers coming from the Directory also. The Guides provided 2% of the Officers, 2% of the NCOs and 2% of the Troopers of the regiment. No former members of the Directory Guard served below the rank of Corporal.

The quartermasters, (Fourier) were younger than the corporals and grenadiers, being aged on average 27, from a tight demographic of 26 to 28 years old. The sergeants on average were aged 30 years 2 months, the youngest being 22 years, the oldest 47, see Table 7.

 Like the fouriers, the sergeant-majors were soldiers of ability, being aged between 23 and 31 years old,  on average being age 27, younger than the grenadiers, quartermasters and sergeants they commanded. The company officers of the regiment were aged between 23 and 39 years of age, the average being 28 years 2 months, marginally younger than grenadiers. The corporals had served on average 9 years before promotion into the Grenadiers and then promotion from grenadier  to corporal was on average three years service,  promotion to sergeant was two years from corporal; some grenadiers had been corporal for 6 months, others serving three years before promotion. Progression to sergeant-major appears to have been 12 months or less from sergeant. It must be stated, however, that not all sergeants became sergeant-major, only the most deserving and capable. Evidently these men were of capability and had the potential to be an officer. On average, from enlistment to being promoted sergeant-major could take up to 5 years, the shortest known period being a year. Progression from sergeant-major to junior officer could take a similar length of time, between one and five years, but two years on average. In addition, some sergeants were promoted directly to Lieutenant which varied from one years service as a sergeant, to fives years, on average the direct promotion being two years. Their length of service from joining the army to promotion as sergeant in the grenadiers being 11 to 15years, corporals 9-11years and sergeant-majors 9 to 11years.

Of the men who enlisted in the Grenadiers in the period 1799-1803, 4.5% were transferred to the Empress Dragoons in 1806, 3% to the Chasseurs-à-Cheval of the Guard, 1% to the Polish Lancers of the Guard and 15% were sent to the Line as officers, just under 7% being returned to the Line as unfit for service in the Guard.

Of the men sent to the Empress Dragoons, all were promoted as sergeants. Those men sent to the Chasseurs-à-Cheval were sergeant-majors or sergeants, who were promoted as junior officers upon entry into the Chasseurs. The same is also observable of the men posted to the Polish Lancers. The interplay between the different mounted regiments of the Guard has not been commented upon to any great extent. The Grenadiers provided a cadre of men to the Dragoons and Lancers upon formation and it seems also to the Chasseurs-à-Cheval when they were expanded from a single company to regiment level under the Consulate.

The majority of the men who left the Grenadiers for the Line served on average three years before being sent to the Line as privates. Of those who remained in the Grenadiers, just over half would retire through wounds or ill health, and a quarter would be killed or die of wounds in hospital. In general, most Grenadiers remained with the regiment for 7 years before being killed, promoted out of the Regiment (to the Line or Guard) or retiring. Some served for a year or less before being posted to a new regiment or remained with the regiment till 1815. Of the men who joined the regiment from 1813 over 75% of the NCOs and troopers would continue their service in the 1st Regiment of Grenadiers-à-Cheval of the new Royal Guard. In addition, just under half of the officers also remained with the regiment.[3] Thus, there was a considerable overlap in the personnel of the Imperial and Royal Guard. Many former guardsmen were the model of moderation and good conduct and remained in the service to obtain a pension, and showing little signs of deep seated loyalty to Napoleon, but perhaps more loyalty to their career and income[4].

Looking at the composition of the regiment for the period 1810-1812, we again see that the average age of a grenadier was 28,  but they would have looked older, the long queue, greyed with flour and fat prematurely ageing their appearance (see Tables 4 and 5). On average they had served 9 years 6months before joining the guard, and were experienced veterans, some had as  little as 4 years experience in the line before being admitted to the Guard, whilst others had spent 17 years in the Line.

Of these men, about 50% had been transferred to the guard with 9 to 4 years service, the remainder with 12 to17 years service. These men remained with the regiment for on average 5 years before being promoted to the line were an average age of 31. This however masked a range of age and experience within the company and the regiment we presume as a whole. The data shows two peaks, one for the age range 20-24, representing the Velites, and one from 32-40 representing the veterans transferred from the line. This profile also appears in the period 1799-1803 when their were no Velites, so evidently younger men (i.e. under 28) appear to have always been present in the Grenadiers from its earliest days. The data in Table 4 clearly shows the bulk of the regiment in its early period (1799-1803), the majority of the men were aged between 22 and 29, with a few older men aged 32-27, representing the members of the Directory Guard and Veterans from the Line. By 1810-1812 the demographic of the regiment had changed. The entrants to the Guard tended to be older than 1799-1803, primarily due to the fact that the veterans of 1810-1812 were of the similar class in terms of age to those of 1799-1803, but had served longer in the line prior to admission. In general terms the veterans of 1810-1812 were veterans of the Revolutionary and Consular campaigns.

When one compares the ages of the Grenadier-à-Cheval  to the Grenadier-à-Pied in the same period we see that the bulk of the Grenadier-à-Pied were aged 26 to 29, the Grenadier-à-Cheval  a much wider based from 24 to 29 (see table 8).

Of the Velites who entered between July 1810 and August 1811, most (75% on average)had been transferred to the line within a year’s service, those that remained were passed to the Old Guard, the bulk of these having on average 4 years service as a Velite, representing those in the 1st Company aged 20-24. Some troopers remained in the regiment from 1803 to 1814 with no advancement, but these seem to be an exception to the rule.

Of the Velites in 5e Squadron in January 1810, the average age was 21, being aged from 18 to 25. Some had served for less than two months whilst others had been with the Velites for four years. These young men were also generally shorter than allowed, the heights ranging from 1.60m to 1.86m, the average being 1.72, 67% of the Velites being below this height. Evidently the condition of entry beyond being able to pay the 300 francs annual fee do not seem to have been strictly adhered to. Napoleon wrote to Bessieres in April 1810:

I wish to increase the dragoons, chasseurs and Grenadiers-à-Cheval of my guard in Spain, by taking from my Velites men who had not campaigned much and who need to do so in order to gain experience. I will replace the Velites through the conscription route, without which my old soldiers would be more difficult for me to replace.

In May 1810 those who had served for 4 years were ordered to be transferred to the Old Guard squadrons, the ranks in the Velites being taken from the best conscripts. It is unknown if the stipend was paid by these conscripts. The Velites and the Young Guard have often been criticised for  lowering the standards of the Guard, but the Velites at least were essential in bringing new blood into the senior guard regiments. Rather than taking the best men from the line, the Velites it appears were the primary source of recruits to fill gaps rather than the Line.

The demographics of the NCOs is also highly informative. The corporals had served for on average 13 years, being on average 29 years old. Of 48 corporals in the regiment in 1810, only three had served for less than 15 years, these three men serving for 8 or 9 years. The longest serving had been with the army for 21 years. The youngest corporal was 24, the oldest was 37.  From a sample of 24 sergeants in the regiment in 1810, only one had served for less than 15 years, and the longest serving some 24 years before being promoted. The average length of service was 17 years, far more than the service of the sergeants in the period 1799-1803. Upon transfer to the Guard, the oldest sergeant was 40 and the youngest 25, the average age being 33, 3 years older than 1799-1803 period. It seems from this demographic, that the sergeants, a number of whom had served before the Revolution, had been promoted as far as their skills would allow them, being old soldiers of perhaps average ability.

Twelve of the company sergeant-majors actually tended be younger than the NCOs and grenadiers they commanded. The longest serving had served for 16 years, but had an average length of service of 9 years. The oldest man was 33, and the youngest 24, the average age being 27, two years less than the Grenadiers they commanded; Etienne Maximillian Deliens, for example, was 28 years old at the time of his promotion in 1806.

Clearly the sergeant majors all had pretty much the same length of service as each other, and had been quickly promoted to their rank due to the potential to become officers, whereas the sergeants and corporals were mainly men who had earned their admission to the Guard through length of service and acts of bravery. By 1810-1812, the rate of promotion within the regiment had slowed down, the corporals and sergeants having more years service than before; corporals on average 3 years more experience in 1810 than 1799-1803. Similarly, sergeants  had 5 years service, but  the sergeant-majors had the same number of years service in both periods (1799-1803 and 1810-1812).

In addition in the early period of the regiment (1799-1803), 75% of the NCOs were promoted from within the regiment, but this had swung to the opposite by the later period (1810-1812). Primarily, as the Grenadiers were a scratch formation in 1799, and existing men were promoted within the regiment as senior NCOs were promoted out of the regiment either to the Line, or primarily to the Empress Dragoons in 1806. These NCOs were replaced with internal promotion, with new transfers to the regiment entering as Grenadiers. However by 1808 promotion within the regiment had slowed down as men from the Line were posted to the Guard as NCOs, filling the vacancies from outside the regiment. As well as this, senior NCOs became officers through promotion out of the regiment rather through internal promotion, which occurred more frequently prior to 1806.

In the period 1799-1803 and 1810-1812, the height of the grenadiers ranged from 1.60 meters to 1.86 meters, the average height being 1.75 meters, so despite the height requirements the Grenadiers-à-Cheval (1.76m in 1804) were not composed of especially tall men, with the official requirements being wavered more than one would suppose to allow deserving soldiers to join the guard. It can be calculated that  half of the regiment did not meet the minimum height requirement.

To conclude, the Grenadiers-à-Cheval do not seem to have been especially tall, nor as old as would suppose; Far from being big men on big horses, the Grenadiers were men of average height on average size horses but perhaps with above average service and bravery.





[1] Saint Hilaire, Emile Marco de. History of the Imperial Guard. Translated by Greg Gorsuch.

[2] Demographic details taken from SHAT Xab 35 YC6

[3] Macdonald (1892) Souviniers du marechal Macdonal duc de Tarrent, Paris p411-412 see also Titeux  E (1890) Histoire de la Masion militaire du Roi de 1814 a 1830. Paris Volume 2 p126

[4] Macdonald(1892) Souviniers du marechal Macdonal duc de Tarrent, Paris p411-412


Placed on the Napoleon Series: September 2006


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