TYPES OF THE VARIOUS CORPS OF THE GUARD.
When Napoleon reviewed the Imperial Guard, in the court of theTuileries, either on its return from a glorious campaign, or as it had to leave France to teach a new lesson to its enemies, it was always an imposing spectacle of military ceremony, which usually was witnessed by an immense crowd also having come to contemplate the man who seemed to have made a compact with victory. While seeing these soldiers defile with severe and splendid uniforms, whose diversity presented a splendid tableau, it would have been difficult not to forget that, with few exceptions, all these brave men belonged to the great French family. Even the foreigners (they were small in number), adopted by France and which had deserved to fight under its flags, had been to some extent identified with their new fatherland. The nuances of physiognomy and character, disappeared into this fraternal sameness from discipline and devotion to their superior; but each regiment of the Guard, examined separately, so to speak had the originality of its particular type. To the eyes of the keen observer, a soldier associated with this crack corps carried his title on his face; there was in the whole of his person something special and distinctive which announced, better than his uniform, the corps of the Guard to which he belonged.
How do you explain this diversity of the specific types of each regiment in particular? How do men speaking the same language, subjected to the same regime and always joined together, how, do we say, from soldiers who had the same political religion, were therefore separated by dissidences and contrasts? In a word, why didn’t the foot grenadier appear any more than the brother of the horse grenadier? Why, between the elite gendarme and the dragoon, especially if, dispensing for one moment the uniform, and both adorned in the dress of the middle-class, can we recognize this opposition so definitely pronounced, that it made it possible to assign to each one the corps of the Guard to which he belonged? In fact however the choice of the chiefs had determined this aspect of character of the soldier; however the large majors did not recruit their regiment of subjects such that they could offer this condition of physical conformity. Besides, it would have been too difficult a task, and the first admission requirement in the Old Guard was a certificate of bravery and irreproachable control all at the same time. Napoleon would not have liked that the regiments of his Old Guard were formed as Frederick the Great had composed his famous regiment of grenadiers, where the worst soldier could be admitted, provided that he was six feet tall.
On the other hand isn’t it necessary to consider the possibility that it was chance that produced this very exceptional singularity, which marked the Imperial Guard? We do not believe it: chance does not produce such results; but rather it is necessary it to suppose that, if soldiers could be gathered in the same corps by a certain conformity of tastes, the instinct of a natural predilection, and also by meeting the special qualities required, the influence of the military association could find its part in this general assimilation of men composing the same regiment, and to supplant on average the oppositions and the differences, which could exist between them.
Whatever might be the cause of the air of family, which characterized the soldiers of each corps of the Guard, it is enough to establish it, to note it as an extraordinary fact, which no one could deny. We call on some with memories from the generation that admired the Imperial Guard in the days of its splendor: their testimony will completely confirm what we were if generally able to judge with our eyes.
But this particular type of each regiment of the Guard exists again; it survived this elite of the grand army, and it is hardly as if it were diminished by misfortune and old age. Time seems to have respected this monument of a heroic age. Visit the Home of the Invalids, scan the ranks of the old soldiers who populate this place of retirement reserved for the martyrs of the battles: among them you will easily recognize the former soldier of the Guard in the midst of the others; you will not need to question him, to listen to the account of his campaigns (moreover his modesty would not permit it); you will name, by seeing him, the foot chasseur or horse grenadier; you will say, by considering this head which still seems to be held erect under the bearskin, this figure imprinted with severity and energy, his broad and white brows under which always shines an eye full of fire, you will say: “Here is a former soldier of the Imperial Guard.”
Now we revert to the time of the empire, and try to outline the distinctive features of these aspects whose originality arises so completely in the midst of this grand military tableau.
First, who is this soldier who crosses the garden of Tuileries? His tricorn hat, his nankin breeches, his white cotton stockings, his shoes decorated with silver buckles, all announces that he is in the walking out dress of summer (petite tenue d’été), and that he left his barracks to enjoy a moment of freedom under the terms of a permit which he will not misuse. His uniform is that of the Old Guard. This soldier is of a prescribed height, i.e. he is 5 feet 5 or 6 inches; he has the high face, the square shoulders, the developed chest; his tanned skin, his slightly hollow cheeks, his aquiline nose, give to the whole of his figure an air of gravity which impresses on first sight. He walks with ease; but he preserves, even while walking, something which points out the practice of the regular step; all, in his pace, indicates the feeling of a superiority acquired on battlefields; this bearing, this assurance, are without pride, without affection. This man remembers only that in his position as foot grenadier of the Old Guard, he belongs to a corps of whom those who constitute it have no rivals. Today what has become of them? By far one discovers them on the soil of France, and if he is in a village, he is the inhabitant, who has the most exemplary conduct and the most enlightened reason. The old men, the women and the children greet him with respect; the girls revere him with a smile, which seems to cause on behalf of the old soldier a paternal caress. All admire and envy him!... It is that this man saw the Emperor, and that Napoleon spoke to him. Also they like to listen to him as an oracle; and, when by chance a traveler comes pass, each one speaks to him about l’ancien who honors the village; because he saw the country, him! He has known it all: not a river, which he did not cross, from the Tiber to the Nile, Tage to Boristhène. He made his triumphal entry into all the capitals of Europe; he knows the road of Vienna like that of Berlin; and, if need be, he would still teach them to one and all who like to follow them. But for thirty years Europe has been at rest, and since no one fights any more, the old one works, one even says that he prospers there. His residence is the cleanest and most comfortable, his field is cultivated best; he learns how to read with his children, and in the tender submission that those carry for the authority of their father; there is something of military subordination.
The peasant calls this old soldier Mr. grenadier. However his hair is bleached, he is infirmed; but although already very bent as he is; he does not enter into the neighbor without being obliged to bend down. He is still, in the proclamation of the gossips, the most handsome man of the countryside. He is on the whole a superb ruin; he is a relic of the Empire, for him this eagle which formerly decorated the plate of his grenadier bonnet, and which he raised as an alter over the head of his bed, between a place of honor and coarse illumination of a portrait of Napoleon. Here from now on is the worship of this man; here is his god and his gods until death, of which he never was afraid, comes to seek him. And when it arrives, he greets it, calm and resigned as all those who were part of this prestigious and splendid Imperial Guard.
Far from Tuileries, on the external boulevard, comes a man, small in size and slightly squat; his very short neck is almost lost in his shoulders. His legs are singularly arched, his head is large, his tone copper; an enormous moustache decks his upper lip; in his ears broad silver rings are hanging; his nose is almost crushed though his nostrils are open as those of the horse which neighs. It is this soldier who is one of the best riders of the Guard, he is the horseman, he is one of these guides of Italy and Egypt, one of these intrepid or rather, to use the vulgarly devoted expression, one of these tough guys (durs à cuire) which formed the core of the regiment of the horse chasseurs of the Old Guard. He helped, with his comrades of Arcole, Aboukir and Marengo, to create this regiment; he was the true model chasseur, and all the soldiers who belong to this corps reproduce, with some exceptions, these characteristic signs which belong to him and distinguish him in a very particular way.
The foot chasseur was close to the horse chasseur a little. He was the same size as him, but he was more loose, lighter in his ease; one guessed, by seeing him, that he was to fight on foot, because his thin legs seemed made for a race; but in his situation the absence of plumpness was a proof of his strength; his features did not have the gravity, which distinguished those of the grenadier his brother in arms; they even announced a kind of gaiety. The foot chasseur had abrupt movements, prompt gesture; he spoke with promptness, and during the discussion, he warmed up easily. He went quickly, without there being anything pressing him; it was if he believed he were on campaign.
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 demeanor a kind of stiffness; he had in his behavior (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 honor to be a horse grenadier of the Guard, and that was all.
Less stiff in his turn, the dragoon was more slender in his physical form. He was studied to reconcile the severity of behavior with elegance in manners. He knew that, in one day of pleasant gallantry, Napoleon had placed the dragoons of his Guard under the patronage of Josephine, and that consequently they were the Dragoons of the Empress, as well as what people always liked to call them. Moreover in this capacity, they had an obligation to fulfill, to justify their title, that which recalled homage of old knighthood. The Dragoon of the Empress was thus subjected to this influence, which lent to him a very particular distinction without weakening his military qualities; also, he could put forward the advantages of his elegant uniform!
The elite gendarme, considered separately, and subtracted from his position in the Guard, could be confused with the horse grenadiers; he was except in little ways close to the same character, same gravity; however under this patent leather visor which dropped from his bearskin over his eyebrows, one saw shining his penetrating looks of the soldier invested with a mission of confidence; there was something of the inquisition and of suspicion in this incessant and disquieting look. He seemed to always observe, and his vigilance was seldom at fault. It is that he was especially charged with protecting the safety of the person of the Emperor; he was the soldier obligated to the imperial residences; it was he who ensured respect towards and carried out the ordinances of the sovereign and who apprehended within the corps, whatever was their rank or their position in the army, those delinquents who incurred the severity or the disgrace of the Master. Though the elite gendarme was a little man of police at the general headquarters, on the battle field, he did not fight any less in the ranks of the Old Guard.
Just the name of Polish lancer awakes the ideas of bravery and of military fidelity!... There was in the person and the manners of the Polish lancer a kind of strangeness difficult to analyze. His tallness, his fair moustache, his small eyes, his impressed nose, his close cropped hair, all made him at first taken for German; but with the quickness of his movements, with his instinctive exuberance, one recognized that which one so precisely called the French of North. Though the Polish lancer easily adopted the language and the practices of his new fatherland, he could not however completely forget he was the son of heroic Poland. Concurrently with him his brother in arms shone, his follower, the French lancer, this famous red lancer whose bright uniform was the terror of the enemy. He was so identified with his model, that one needed a certain penetration to discover the nuances which existed between the regiment of the Polish lancers and that of the French lancers, more often known under the title of light horsemen (chevau-légers). The latter had for the majority the fair hair and moustache when they were not russet, and on the face some features which point out the man of north. This similarity was much less astonishing, than for the French lancers, or better saying the light horsemen, who generally originated in Alsace, Lorraine and the French provinces which touched upon Germany, and where the inhabitant of the countryside were born to some extent riding.
The Polish lancer, as well as the French lancer distinguished himself by his elegant appearance; but the looks of this last were softer and the colors of his origin moderated, in respect to the military roughness of the first figure. As brave as the Polish lancer, the French lancer had a lively mood; he was more sober especially in his way of living, while the intemperance of Polish had become proverbial in the army.
The foot artillerist was a large and lanky fellow; he had the slightly arched back found in all men who devote themselves to operations of force. His character was as severe as his uniform; he spoke little, and his meditative air, although he was only private, made one soon guess that he belonged to an erudite arm, to a corps special to Napoleon, more or less justified in his preferences, placed before all the others, without exception even those of his engineers. On seeing the artillerist of the Old Guard, one would have said that the smoke of the cannon had blackened his hair and his face. His step was a little heavy, and on this standpoint he was far from resembling his brother in arms, the horse artillerist. This one, under more than one report, was joined together with the types of the horse chasseurs of whom he wore the uniform, except in color. He was alert in his movements, and seemed to be able to hold in place. Off duty he was not the same man anymore; as soon as he saw neither his horse, nor his pieces anymore, he seemed sad; he could not enjoy the leisure of the garrison; he needed labors and the noise of the camp life. He had this in common with the foot artillerist.
In the sapper of engineers, all was methodical and regular. He was in that sort a man totally apart. He had a gravity that never contradicted itself. His phlegmatic character reflected the occupations of his trade and the kind of courage, which it required. The whole of his person, his behavior, his language, announced what he was. Placed apart from the great military movements, this situation undoubtedly contributed to giving him this seal of calm and impassability, which primarily characterized him. The sapper of the engineers was the philosopher of the Imperial Guard.
As for the soldier of the train, he was not an artillery carter; he had deserved his new qualification and conquered his place among the soldiers of the Old Guard, while ensuring to ennoble, on the battlefield, his negligible condition and the simplicity of his uniform. He was a man admittedly with a vulgar figure, the flattened nose, the strong breadth and the raucous body. Accustomed to mixing his voice with the crashes of artillery, with the rustle of the caissons, to excite his horses, he had a continual hoarseness, which twenty years of peace had not cured. One still finds some of these old soldiers of the train, harness-makers or sergeant blacksmiths (maréchaux-ferrants), in the Chapelle-Saint-Denis or Vaugirard; but under the leather apron he is always recognizable: this man preserved his hoarseness, his common forms and his a little brutal language.
Among these iron men and elite soldiers one group distinguished itself as a special corps, which was constantly fewer than all; we want to speak about the sailors, i.e. seamen of the Guard.
Rolling constantly in his mouth an enormous wad of chewing tobacco, the sailor was as short in his language as in his manners, and lived alone. Communications familiar to soldiers of the other corps, was not for him, as if he had fears of not being understood by them. Accustomed with life of aboard, he seemed to regret the limits of his vessel and the torments of the Ocean; but on the days of battle, he did not fight any less on the firm ground with the coolness and the bravery, which characterized our old grenadiers so eminently.
Today the seamen of the Guard, becoming invalid, did not give up the work of his old trade: he is still found employed in navigation in the mists from Hâvre to Paris; one of them * even employed his leisure to publish memories intended to show just where the intrepidity, the audacity and the constancy of the soldiers of our old army went.
*Mr. Henir Ducor, about which we spoke previously in our special chapter entitled: Seamen of the Guard.
Such were the principal types of the various corps of the Old Imperial Guard. If in this simple tableau we omitted to outline the other corps which also made up part of the Guard, such as the tirailleurs, the voltigeurs, the flanqueurs, the pupils, the guards of honor, the scouts, etc., etc., it is that these nomenclature of regiments, indicated under the qualification of the Young Guard, would take too long to enumerate here. The Old Imperial Guard which, in its origin, arose only with nine thousand men, staff, administration, infantry, cavalry, artillery included, was successively carried to a hundred thousand men; in 1814, it had even reached the enormous manpower figure of a hundred and twelve thousand five hundred men, using these regiments of young Guard about which we spoke a few moments ago; but this Young Guard lasted only for a short time and was never placed, compared to the Old, except into secondary positions. At all events, those who belonged to this one will go away like the others, and soon this type of an extraordinary generation will have disappeared completely, by letting only one remember confusedly in the memory the generations to come!
COMPOSITION AND NUMERICAL OF THE GUARD IN 1809.
*Previously listed by St. Hilaire as 78, which added to other figures correctly totals 31,203 (gmg).
Placed on the Napoleon Series: January 2006
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