Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics

As Bodyguard

Formation & Reserve



Tool for Recruitment

Source of Cadres

Napoleon's Use of His Imperial Guard

By George Nafziger

Editor's Note: The following is taken from an unpublished doctorate dissertation.

In the introduction it was postulated that the Imperial Guard began like other guard formations and that it developed a third political role unlike the political role of other guard formations. Furthermore, it was postulated that, unlike the Praetorian Guard, which became an instrument of political repression and the engine of political change, Napoleon made a different political use of his guard. He used it not to oppress, but to woo elements of French society. It was also postulated that Napoleon's use of his Guard was not limited to these three uses, but that he used it as a instrument of French Imperial policy in several different ways.

I have shown, by a review and analysis of the various decrees relating to the organization of the Imperial Guard and its antecedent formations, that the Guard actually had six roles. Those roles were:

  1. A personal bodyguard
  2. A military formation and tactical reserve
  3. A method of building support with influential portions of French society for Napoleon's reign
  4. A tool of international politics
  5. A tool to minimize desertion and
  6. A source of trained cadres for the army.

The Imperial Guard as a Bodyguard

The FIRST role, the role of the traditional bodyguard was documented by both the formation of Napoleon's personal guard and the function of the various elements of the Imperial Guard as they existed prior to 1800.

The Gardes de la prevote de l'hotel, formed on 20 June 1789, and its various successor formations through the Gardes des Consuls, performed the duties of bodyguards for the members of the National Assembly and the various ruling bodies until Napoleon assumed the position of First Consul. Napoleon ordered the formation of his personal bodyguard, the Guides a cheval, on 11 Prairial An IV [30 May 1796], after nearly being captured by a force of raiding Austrian hussars while engaged in a dalliance with some Italian ladies in Valeggio. Once Napoleon became First Consul these the Gardes des Consuls and the Guides a cheval were merged into a single formation.

The Imperial Guard as a Combat Formation and Reserve

It was on 14 June 1800, at the battle of Marengo, that the Garde des Consuls transitioned to a battle formation, thereby stepping into the SECOND historical role of a guard formation. The Guard would fill this role through the 1812 campaign and, indeed, by 1814 had transitioned into the principal combat force of the Grande Armee. In order to meet the needs of a battlefield tactical reserve, in 1804 and 1806 Napoleon issued two decrees that directed major expansions of the Imperial Guard.

In order to be an effective battle formation, a few hundred men were not enough. To meet this new function, Napoleon began issuing a series of new arretes and decrees that would eventually raise the Imperial Guard to a force with an authorized strength of 112,482 officers and men.

The Decree of 10 Thermidor An XII [29 July 1804] directed a massive expansion of the guard and formed a general staff, the Regiment de grenadiers a pied, the Grenadier velites, the Regiment de chasseurs a pied, the Chasseur velites, a veteran company, the Marine Battalion, the Regiment de grenadiers a cheval, the Regiment de chasseurs a cheval, the Mamelukes, the Gendarmes d'elite, a force of light artillery and artisans, and a medical staff. By the end of 1804 the Guard had a authorized strength of 9,798 men. For the most part, the Guard was an elite formation. The forming decrees mandated that the bulk of its members be veterans of a specific number of campaigns and that they meet other requirements that ensured they were the best soldiers in the French army.

By the end of 1807 the Guard had added the Regiment de fusilier-grenadier, Regiment de fusilier-chasseurs, Grenadiers a cheval velites, Chasseurs a cheval velites, Regiment de dragons de l'empress de la garde, Dragoon velites, and Chevauleger-lancier polonaise de la garde. It had risen to a force of 15,361 officers and men. This growth would continue as Napoleon's campaigns and the battles called for a larger and larger Guard. As Napoleon prepared for the invasion of Russia he recognized the need for an even larger elite reserve and expanded the Guard to a total of 51,958 officers and men by the end of 1811. By 1812 it contained a general staff, various administrative support units, seventeen infantry regiments, seven cavalry units, four foot and four horse artillery companies, a pontooneer company, two train battalions, an engineering staff and a veteran company. The Imperial Guard formed the reserve for a force of over 640,000 soldiers that invaded Russia in 1812.

Between 1805 and 1812 parts of the guard were engaged in combat, but only when its role as a tactical reserve required it. It was present and served as a battlefield tactical reserve at the battles of Austerlitz, Jena, Eylau, Friedland, Aspern-Essling, Wagram, Smolensk, and Borodino. Only minor elements of it were engaged in other battles, notably the battle of Baylen in Spain, where the Guard Marines were captured. The use of the Guard clearly was that of a tactical reserve.

Influencing the Bourgeois, Imperial Family, and Army

However, during this period the Imperial Guard also found employment in the THIRD or political role, that of wooing and binding various elements of French society to Napoleon personally and thereby strengthening his grip on the French throne. The first instance occurred with the Arrete of 23 Brumaire An X [14 November 1801], established the staff of the Guard with four generals. The men selected to fill these positions would later become Marshals of France. This assignment of duties to these specific men indicates that Napoleon was seeking to bind the principal generals of the French army to himself personally. By assigning them to supervise his personal guard, he was demonstrating his trust in them as individuals and simultaneously he was elevating their status within the new French social structure. It was also the first instance where Napoleon used the Guard to build personal links between himself and a specific element of society.

The next instance where the guard was used by Napoleon to woo various influential elements of society to his person occurred with the issuance of the Arrete 21 January 1804, which raised two corps of velites. The key to the reason the velites were raised is found in the stipend that was demanded of the parents of the velites. Aside from the size requirements, which simply implied that the velites would be bigger and stronger than the average Frenchman, by requiring that the parents provide financial support of their sons in the service, Napoleon began a process of binding himself to the politically influential and financially important middle class of France. No peasants would become velites, only the sons of families of substance. Napoleon honored those young men and their families by making them guardsmen instead of allowing them to simply disappear within the ranks of the regular army as they were conscripted. The families also recognized that their sons would not be in the front lines of battle, but that they would be held back from battle, finding their lives hazarded only when the battle was at a critical stage. They would not be just simple cannon fodder.

As a result of withholding their sons from the front lines and by honoring them as being part of his personal bodyguard Napoleon assured himself of the support of the middle class. And if not the support, surely he minimized their antagonism towards him and his wars of conquest.

Napoleon would use this process of requiring a stipend from his guardsmen again on 24 March 1809, when he formed the Velites of Turin and the Velites of Florence. These two units were raised in what is now part of modern Italy, but in 1809 they were part of metropolitan France. A stipend was required that assured the velites were of the middle class. The same process was repeated as with the French velites, however, Napoleon also had family and political goals in the formation of these two units. They were both raised in provinces that were nominally ruled by members of his family. No guard formations were raised in any of the territories ruled by other members of the Imperial family. The formation of two Imperial Guard battalions in provinces ruled by his sisters Pauline and Elisa were particular marks of favor and fraternal love. Caroline, Queen of Naples would not receive such a mark of favor and her treachery with the defection of Naples to the allies in 1814 justified that. Joseph, formerly King of Naples and later King of Spain received no such favor. Neither Jerome, King of Westphalia, or Louis, King of Holland raised guard formations for Napoleon. These three brothers frequently embarrassed their brother, indeed, Louis was in so little favor that he was stripped of his kingdom and sent to Cleves-Berg, demoted from king to grand duke. It was only after Louis was dethroned that the Dutch guardsmen were incorporated into the Imperial Guard. Jerome was in so little favor that when Westphalia fell to the invading Allied armies in 1813, the Westphalian Guard Hussars were incorporated into the regular French army as just another hussar regiment.

The formation of the Regiment des gardes nationales de la garde by the Decrees of 9 December 1809, and Decree of 1 January 1810, appears to have been similar in nature. In this instance, however, it was the common people and the French public in general to whom Napoleon was appealing.

Influencing International Politics

A FOURTH role of the Imperial Guard arose with the issuance of the Decree of 6 April 1807, which founded the Chevauleger-lancier polonaise de la garde. Instead of merely binding various social elements of French society to him, Napoleon now sought to build ties with nations by honoring them with positions in his guard. The Grand Duchy of Warsaw, the rump Polish state, was critical to Napoleon's foreign policy as it formed the eastern buffer between his empire and the Russian Empire. It was critical to Napoleon that it be closely tied his empire since it would not only absorb the first blows of the Russian army, but that it would also provide a tremendous army of loyal Poles to fight alongside the French. The army of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw in 1812 consisted of eighteen infantry regiments and sixteen cavalry regiments. Even though the Polish state was overrun in 1813 its soldiers continued to fight for the French Empire. To reinforce this loyalty Napoleon attempted to re-establish his ties to the Polish people by the formation in October 1813 of a Polish Guard Grenadier Battalion. Chronologically the Polish Guard Grenadier Battalion is the third instance of membership in the Imperial Guard being used for international political reasons.

The second instance of using membership in the Imperial Guard for international political reasons occurred with the issuance of the Decree of 9 July 1810, which incorporated Holland into metropolitan France. On 13 September 1810, Napoleon began the process of incorporating the Royal Dutch into the French Imperial Guard. Though the Dutch Grenadiers would slip from the position of the second to the third guard grenadier regiment and they never attained the status of "Old Guard" they did occupy a position of prestige and status within the French army. The 2e Chevauleger-lanciers de la garde (hollandaise), however, did rise from the status of Middle Guard in 1811 to the having its first five squadrons designated as Old Guard in 1813. The promotion to the status of Old Guard put the Dutch lancers on the pinnacle of the pecking order of the French army. How much more prestige could a unit be granted?

The support of Holland was important to France for several reasons and by making Dutchmen members of his personal guard Napoleon sought to show the Dutch that they were highly regarded members of French society. The military contribution of Holland to the regular French army was very small and consisted of four infantry regiments and some artillery. Its membership in the Imperial Guard, a grenadier regiment and a cavalry regiment (some 2,568 men) was quite out of proportion to its approximately 15,000 man contribution to the regular army. The significance of Holland lay in its commercial and financial support of the Empire, not its military resources. By making such a major portion of its contribution to the Imperial Army part of the Imperial Guard Napoleon sought to demonstrate to the Dutch people the esteem in which he held them, and thereby, bind them to him and his empire.

Yet another instance of this can be found in the formation of the 3e Regiment de chevauleger-lanciers [Lithuanians] by the Decree of 5 July 1812. Here Napoleon was attempting to establish political support among the conquered western provinces of Russia. Such political support would minimize the threat to his lines of communication across this conquered territory as well as to encourage the recruitment of new troops for his cause.

The Guard as a Tool for Recruitment and Desertion Control

In 1813, however, the guard transitioned from the role of tactical reserve to a major battle formation. The use of the Guard as a battle formation might be viewed as the fifth role of the Guard, but it is not. However, the FIFTH and SIXTH roles are buried in this. In the invasion of Russia Napoleon's army was decimated and he had a desperate need for men. The French army filled its ranks with conscripts, but it had increasingly had difficulties with desertion and the quality of the conscripts. By creating large numbers of Young Guard formations and taking conscripts directly into them with minimal entry requirements, Napoleon sought to minimize his desertion problems. Within all military formations there is a varying degree of pride and sense of belonging. Napoleon recognized this and used it by putting the label of Guard on his new conscripts and using the popular perception of what Guardsman was and a how a Guardsman behaved to hold these potentially reluctant recruits in the ranks. He then sent them into the front lines to fight his battles. Indeed, on 22 January 1814 Napoleon proposed filling the Guard with "volunteers who WISH [underlined for emphasis, not in original] to enter into the Young Guard", which is an amazing turn of phrase. It indicates that Napoleon was willing to take just about anyone into the Guard. Clearly his desperation for troops had led him to the point of prostituting the prestige and elite status of the guard simply to draw anyone who could carry a musket into the army.

From 1813 through 1814 the Guard was heavily engaged at Lutzen, Bautzen, Leipzig, Brienne, La Rothiere, Champaubert, Montmireil, St. Thierry, Vauchamps, Montereau, Laon, Arcis-sur-Aube, Fere-Champenoise, Courtrai, Craonne, St. Dizier, and Paris. In 1814 the principal weight of the war passed from the regular army to the Imperial Guard. The regular army was no longer the principal combat arm of France. That role had passed to the Imperial Guard. In 1815 the Guard reverted to its traditional role of a reserve to be used at the critical point of the battle. It was fully committed, the cavalry engaging in many attacks and the Guard grenadiers and chasseurs being committed in a last desperate act to save the battle.

The Guard as a Source of Trained Cadres

The SIXTH role to which Napoleon put the Imperial Guard was using it as a source of trained cadres for his army. The seeds of this are found in numerous decrees issued throughout the history of the Imperial Guard. The sixth role of the Guard is found in the Decree of 20 September 1804, the Decree of 8 November 1806, the Decree of 16 January 1809, the Decree of 28 March 1811, and Napoleon's Order of 8 July 1813.

Each of these decrees and orders directed that the officers and men of the Imperial Guard were to stand one rank higher than an officer or soldier of an equal rank in the line. Aside from the fact that this increased the prestige of the Imperial Guard, it clearly indicates that these men were considered suitable for use as cadres in a time of need. There were also numerous examples of the Guard being used to provide cadres. An example can be found in the issuance of the Decree of 1 January 1809, which formed the Grenadiers-conscrits de la garde and the Chasseur-conscrits de la garde. As a result of the Decree of 16 January 1809, the cadre of the disbanded 2nd Grenadiers was used to form the Tirailleur-Grenadiers and that of the 2nd Chasseurs formed the Tirailleur-Chasseurs.

In April 1811 Napoleon recognized that he had a senior cadre locked up in the 1er Regiment de voltigeurs and the 1er Regiment de tirailleurs and that they might be more useful if they were used to form a second chasseur regiment. The Decree of 18 May 1811, ordered the raising of the 2e Regiment de chasseurs a pied de la garde, which was formed using the Old Guard cadres of the 1st Tirailleur and 1st Voltigeur Regiments. In April 1813, the Regiment de pupilles were stripped to provide cadres and troops for other units.

Napoleon personally estimated this organization could give him sufficient cadres serving in his Guard to organize an army of 100 battalions. He estimated that he could draw 3,000 sergeants from the fusiliers and tirailleurs, 6,000 corporals from the tirailleurs and the conscrits, 600 lieutenants from the Old Guard and 600 sous-lieutenants from the various schools. It was his intent to find the senior officers for this reorganization from the Old Guard and the line.

This review of the organization of the Guard has clearly demonstrated that Napoleon's Guard was a major instrument of Imperial policy and was used in several different ways to support Napoleon's tenure on the throne of France.


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