SEAMEN OF THE GUARD.
Among the crack corps of the old Imperial Guard, Mr. Henri Ducor says, in his so interesting and vibrant work*, one noticed the troop, fewest of all and most simply dressed: blue trousers, a dolman of the same color with aurora braiding; a shako without chin straps and surmounted with a red plume, copper contra-epaulettes shaped like scales, a broad and slightly curved saber was about all the equipment of this special corps. It was made up of men who were, for the majority, neither small, nor large in size, some of them were even a little thick skinned, almost all were had been darkened by tanning, the male figure, the loose arms, the free, easy, but also a little strange march. They were thus not cavalry, they were not infantrymen either; these soldiers neither had the custom of so serious an air, nor so reflective. They were the seamen of the Guard!
"Created at the time when, at its camp at Boulogne, Napoleon threatened to pour into England, still adds Mr. Henri Ducor, the seamen of the Guard were to serve on the sea near the person of the Emperor, to operate the ship which would carry him across the English Channel, and to form, for the landing under the command of a rear-admiral, crews of this flotilla of choice which the staff of Napoleon would assemble."
*Adventures of A Seaman of the Guard, Prisoner of War on Spanish prison barge at the Island of Cabrera and in Russia.
(Officer and soldier of the Seamen, parade dress.)
It is that, in spite of the so disproportionate struggle (in comparison with the numerical force), sustained by the French Navy between 1789 until 1805, fewer illustrious reflections on the French Navy come to mind, which according to his merit, was appreciated by the Emperor.
It was in 1803, as we said previously, that the execution of the gigantic project began which Napoleon had conceived to invade England using a flotilla which, gathered in Boulogne, was to throw onto the coasts of Great Britain a formidable army and battle hardened by fourteen years of conflicts and triumphs against united Europe! The Emperor, better than anybody, knew the powerful morale of what is called l’esprit de corps; he wanted that the Imperial Guard, which was not yet composed of approximately ten thousand men of all arms, took an active share with this expedition while embarking on the flotilla. Undoubtedly he had as a thought to lead the officers of our Navy by way of example, by proving that the Army did not have the only privilege of defending his person and the country; he thus gave, in September 1803, the order to create five crews of seamen, which he entrusted to the command to the Captain Daugier. This body initially took the title of Sailors of the Consular Guard, then that of Seamen of the Imperial Guard.
These five crews were formed at Courbevoie; and, progressively with their formation, they were directed onto Boulogne and Havre to arm the boats of the flotilla on which the Imperial Guard was to embark.
The army was able to appreciate the dash and the zeal, which the seamen of the Guard brought to their difficult and perilous services. The cannoneers of the Guard took part in bringing broadsides on line; supported several hard fought actions, and never one of these boats fell into the hands from the English; all competed with courage and skill, in their operations, with the other boats of the flotilla.
In 1805, a new coalition being formed against France, and the Imperial Guard having left Boulogne to go to Germany, a detachment of one hundred fifty sailors, under the command of the Commander Roquebert, followed the Guard and took part in the campaign of Austerlitz. The others remained in Boulogne; but the following year (1806), the whole of the corps took part in the campaign of Prussia.
The seamen of the Guard were thus present on the days of Austerlitz and Jena; they participated in the siege of Danzig, the taking of Straland, etc. The crews were used fractionally, which made Marshal Lefebvre say: “That the seamen multiplied, since they’re found everywhere.” Then, by seeing some of them, though wounded already, throwing themselves, head lowered, into a melee and fight until they fell, he still says of this in a little course (Teutonic) language, but always energetic and understood so well by the soldier: "I (ché) believe that these brave seamen are hard to kill (làme chefillée dans le fentre)."
In 1807, after the campaign of Poland, the seamen of the Guard returned to the capital, where they took part in the brilliant reception which was held for the Imperial Guard by the municipal body of the town of Paris, which wanted, as we noted in a preceding chapter, to celebrate its triumphs!...
In 1808, the five crews, always under the command of the Captain Daugier, left for Spain and assisted on May 2, in Madrid, with this bloody revolt of the population which, very completely, rose against the French army corps which occupied this metropolis of Spain. The insurrectionists moved on the hospital of the city with an aim of massacring all the patients, and they had already broken the its doors, when two officers of the seamen of the Guard, MM. Grivel and Gérodias, lieutenants, that their service had called to the spot, repulsed these fanatics helped by those patients who had enough strength to use themselves the weapons that had drawn, in haste, from the stores of the establishment; proving that, on campaign, it is good that the soldiers, even while entering to the hospital, never are entirely disarmed.
After many affairs no less glorious, the seamen of the Guard belonged to the army corps of General Dupont, at Baylen, where they were subjected to great losses. Before going to General Castagnos, the heads of the seamen proposed to General Dupont to make a new attempt on the enemy army: it was to take the head of a column, and to open a passage through the Spanish lines. General Dupont answered to the delegation that: “the seamen of the Guard had already done enough; that he appreciated their patriotism and their courage, but that he did not want any more sacrifices to be inflicted on them, because having required passage of the Spanish General, in whom he had proposed to evacuate Andalusia and to withdraw on Madrid, this condition had been accepted by Castagnos as the bases for the truce.”
The seamen of the Guard were thus included in this deplorable capitulation, which was not long in being outrageously violated. Initially they were thrown on Spanish prison ships, and then sent to the island of Cabréra, where so many heroic soldiers, which the fate of battles had saved, found death in the midst of the deprivations and tortures of all kinds.
However some of these brave men managed to escape with the boats, which brought to Palma (Mayorque Island) food for the prisoners. They stole off with this boat, and joined the army in Catalonia. Whereas the officers and the few of seamen who remained on the Balearic Islands were led to Mahon and from there to England, where they were piled into English prison ships.
However, some seamen of the Guard remained on board of the prison ships at Cadiz. One day Captain Grivel stole off with the mulet (a small Portuguese boat) which had brought the food on board prison ship the Castille, passed with this frail boat the Spanish flotilla and the English naval army, and arrive, as by a miracle, in Sainte-Marie, opposite Cadiz. It was some time after this escape, carried out with as much audacity as good luck, that, due to a sudden strong gale of a more violent kind, the prison ships Castille and Argonaute cut their cables and came, adrift, to the coast occupied by the French Army, in spite of the violence of the cannonade of the enemy boats. In this perilous circumstance, the devotion which Captain Grivel showed towards his unhappy companions in captivity was fully praiseworthy; also, on this occasion, Marshal Victor published from his Headquarters at Chiclana, June 1, 1810, an order of the day in which he paid bright homage to the intrepidity of Captain Grivel, at the same time as he quoted the name of those of the seamen of the Guard and other soldiers who had shared his dangers. *
*They were MM. Lecomte, naval officer; Laporte, chief petty officer; Vellon, petty officer; Manzand, Gravillon, Guèrin, Pibaille, Cocheteux and Rabigot, sailors; Lavenue and Boquigny, petty officers; Régio, Bandoin, Valiant, Frelet, Gestin, Martin (this last had been killed), Pillier, Fouchar, Gail, Copin, Bardaraque, Dessaye and Danigo, sailors; Lapoirte, chief petty officer; Jausseaume and Sarrasin, leading seamen; Hurré, Marre, Passelet and Cové; sailors; the latter had been particularly distinguished, and all were part of the corps of seamen of the Imperial Guard.
MM. Clouet, battalion head; Bompart and Merlis, captains of the engineers; Vernon, captain of the sappers; Arancourt and Gregoire, sergeants; Tonas and Ponce, corporals; Bombard and Clément, master artisans; Muliez, Bourry, Audaire, Laullure, Allios, Amériot, Vaudin, Dumas and Nattin, sappers; all belonging to the Imperial Corps of the Engineers.
MM. Flormer and Marco, adjutant-captains of artillery; Forget, acting in the role of aide-de-camp of the commanding general of the artillery.
MM. Kiffer, captain, Noël, first lieutenant; Flechet, sergeant major; Deguilhelm and Fatio, sergeants; Girardin, corporal; all artillerists.
MM. Didler, Jacquemin, Market, Mattar, Gabriel, Nusbaaum, Lantarolo, Krebes and Schemith, pontooners.
MM. Prévieux, sergeant major of the 8th company of the artillery workmen; Herben, sergeant; Tugon and Dechambres, corporals; Brisset and Rouet, bombardiers; Clémont, gunner; all six from the 6th foot artillery regiment.
MM. Jaubert, staff officer; Royer, sergeant; Paumaret, Fillioux, Belmond, Small, Andrivan, Bourgoin, Crussi, Michaux, Lonchaux and Chapon, chasseurs; Vatremez, trumpeter; Bouillot, Rassinot and Faucou, voltigeurs; all from the 16th regiment of light infantry.
MM. Raymond, Rousette and Angelis, sergeants; Robert, corporal; Heinter, Caveaux, Fleming, Dessclair, VAdet and Jorise, fusiliers, all belonging to the 45th line regiment.
By Imperial decree dated from the Palace of Saint-Cloud, September 16, 1810, the corps of Seamen of the Guard was changed to one thousand one hundred thirty-six men, including the staff, which was made up in the following way, namely:
Composition of the Companies.
*Table as it appears in St. Hilaire, 6 leading seamen for eight companies equals 48 vice 46, making the total actually 1,120. With 8 staff this does not however equal the decreed number 1,130. (gmg)
January 27, 1811, a new organization of the seamen took place, into six companies, to which two other companies were later added, so that the staff was thus composed, ie:
The same year, Admiral Gantheaume was named Colonel of the corps of the Seamen of the Guard, having Captain Mottard as second in command. Some companies remained in Spain, others were sent to the ports of Brest, Toulon and Antwerp, to form the core of new companies intended for embarkation on admirals’ vessels.
The 1st and the 5th company were in Toulon under the commands of the Lieutenants Thanaron and Le Roy. They were distributed in four companies, on the vessels le Majestueux, l’Austerlitz, le Wagram and le Commerce de Paris.
In 1812, there was, besides these two companies, a detachment of Semen of the Guard, which left to take part in the Russian campaign, under the command of the adjutant-major lieutenant Gérodias.
The 2nd and 4th companies, commanded by the lieutenants Bouvier-Destouches and Boniface *, later were also sent in Russia, where they fell to the hands of the enemy.*
*The lieutenants of these companies were MM. Olivier, Préaux, Pondelone and Gallois, all four lieutenants; Allègre and Perrot, ensigns. The lieutenants Gérondias and Margueritte joined the corps at the battle of Moscow. These two last died in the retreat from Russia. The lieutenants Gerdy, Gallois and Préaux remained prisoners.
In 1813, the remains of the companies, which had been in Moscow, joined with a detachment returned from Spain, took part in the Saxony campaign; and, the following year (1814), all that could be gathered of the corps of the Seamen of the Guard participated in the campaign for France. Marshal Macdonald, Generals Sébastiani, Excelmans, Compans, and all the General Officers of the Guard, enjoyed themselves in praising the services rendered by the seamen in this campaign. It is due to their devotion to duty at Arcis-sur-Aube, March 20, that the cavalry of the Guard could carry out its retirement in front of enemy forces more than ten times its size, which charged it while bringing them back. The Polish General Krazinski proclaimed highly, in this case, “it was due to the excellent composure of the seamen that his Polish lancers had not to be cut up.”
In April 1814, the Seamen of the Guard were discharged in the court at Fontainebleau. All had asked for the favor of following the Emperor into his exile to Elba; but Napoleon was allowed to bring with him only one detachment of thirty-two men belonging to this corps; other seamen were then to join these, and dedicated themselves to the particular service of the Emperor. They cooperated strongly on his return to France, and accompanied him through Cannes to Paris in March 1815. Those who had been discharged previously at Fontainebleau recalled themselves, without it being necessary to call upon their patriotism.
An Imperial decree, dated from the Elysée Palace on May 19, 1815, created only one crew of the Seamen of the Guard, and assimilated it in totality, with the foot artillery of the Old Guard. Here is the text of this decree:
The higher command of this reconstituted troop was entrusted to Mr. Taillade who, as we will say later, had returned from the Island of Elba with the Emperor; this officer was raised to the rank of commander. Mr. Préaux, battalion head, commanded a company having under his orders MM. Guettarde, Bougeuil and Bruix in the capacity of lieutenants.
This crew soon increased and carried a hundred and fifty men, under the immediate orders of the Lieutenant General Haxo, commanding the troops of the engineers.
June 15, 1815, the seamen marched at the head of the Guard, when they started from Beaumont. They were encircled; but at ten o'clock in the morning, they arrived to raise the position at Charleroi, and took part in the battles of Fleurus, Ligny and Waterloo, where they experienced great losses. However they did not diminish their operations by any less because of it during their retirement on Paris with the Guard. The crew being reformed at the École Militaire, it accepted the order to defend and hold as long as possible the village of Aubervilliers (or the Vertus), apart from the advanced works, which covered Paris on this side. This defense was obstinate: it remained engraved in the memory of the inhabitants of the capital. The village of Aubervilliers was evacuated only after the abdication of the Emperor, and it was with sorrow that the seamen gave up the quarter, deciding that they would barricade themselves in the church of the village as in a dungeon and to bury themselves there under its debris. But General Meunier gave the order to Commander Préaux to withdraw himself into the lines of defense; and, it should be said, the peaceful mission of this General Officer was badly received. The crew was then directed beyond the Loire, on Chateauroux, with the remainder of the army; there, it was disbanded. Each one was resigned to his new fortune; but the memory of the beautiful actions of this special corps, its bonds of affection with all arms, the orders-of-the-day addressed to the Imperial Guard, among others the Bulletin of the Army of June 16, 1815, which mentions the entry of the Seamen of the Guard in Charleroi, speaks in praise of this bold act.
After the dismissal of the Seamen of the Guard, subordination did not cease its rule in this corps, which, in all times and in all places, had not ceased setting the example of courage, discipline and unselfish patriotism.
In summary, during the wars of the Empire, the Seamen of the Guard shared in the work, the glory and the dangers of the Imperial Old Guard.
“In the words of Napoleon, says again Mr. Henri Ducor, according to the need, these amphibious soldiers was could be used everywhere: in turn, sailors, pontooners, artillerists, infantrymen, there was no employment in which one found them to operate in an average way, no metamorphosis to which they did not lend themselves successfully.”
Indeed, from the Austerlitz campaign (1805) until that of Saxony (1813), they helped to build almost all the bridges for the crossing of the rivers and the streams, either advancing, or in retirement.
In Prussia, their audacity accelerated the taking of Danzig and Königsberg; and, in Swedish Pomerania, the capture of the Island of Rughen was due only to their brilliant behavior.
At Baylen, in Spain, their battalion fought on line with intrepidity without equal until the moment when, as we mentioned above, the capitulation was signed which turned them over to the hands of the enemy.
In Russia, from the Niemen to Moscow and from Moscow to Beresina, their activity and their courage were untiring.
At Leipzig, they valor defended the bridge which blew up too early; and, when in consequence of our reverses, the theatre of the hostilities had been carried to France, to Brienne, to Saint-Dizier, everywhere they were devoted to push back the last affront from abroad; but the campaign for France completely destroyed them, and these brave men who, after the taking of Paris, cried with rage and broke the stocks of their muskets, assisted, with their faces hidden in their hands, in the painful good-byes of Fontainebleau.
The plains of Waterloo carried them to still fight with their glorious remnants; and, in front of the assaulted walls of Paris, they would have known death or gone up with the Imperial Arms in an immortal blaze from where treason had reduced it... but were entreated to disperse; they succumbed to the voice of the country, and with sorrowful soul they separated and resigned.
Finally the victory of the people, in 1830, made shine during the day of the apotheosis of the great man; the statue of dead Napoleon, revealed on its base trophies, and there, in the midst of an immense crowd which pressed themselves to this solemnity, one finds old grenadiers and ancient seamen of the Guard cry with joy, and to say to one another: “Now, brothers, we can die, because we seen our Emperor gain in the triumphal place that his glory and our work had assigned to him!”
Placed on the Napoleon Series: November 2005
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