Foot Grenadiers in the Imperial Guard
By J.F. Lozier
During the course of the eighteenth century, France's royal armies had been composed of professional soldiers. The advent of the French Revolution changed this and created a new breed of fighter. Even though they were conscripts, they were motivated by ideals of liberty. This new soldier, son of the Revolution, was ready to die for his country and for his Emperor. With his gold earring and his fierce mustache, the foot grenadiers of the Imperial Guard came to embody the Empire. Always ready to face danger, smiling at enemy fire, they were the tool of Napoleon's conquest.
Created in 1801, the Consular Guard had as its goal to protect the government. In 1804 after his crowning, Napoleon transformed the Consular Guard into the Imperial Guard. This new unit was not only his personal bodyguard but also an army corps. Constituted of 9.775 soldiers at first, two thirds being veterans, the imperial guard was theoretically supposed to number a total of 126.850 infantrymen, cavalrymen, and gunners in 1815. As a matter of fact, it actually only had 17.498 in January of 1814, due to the losses of the Spanish and Russian campaigns.
These fearsome legionnaires were the shock troops of Napoleon's army. His tactics were based on the extreme mobility of his troops. By imposing long marches on his soldiers, he was able to achieve an effect of surprise on an unsuspecting enemy. "It is not with our arms, but with our legs that the Emperor beats the Austrians," remarked a soldier. To survive these extended marches, his soldiers had to be the best of the best, and they were.
To be admitted as a foot grenadier in the Imperial Guard a soldier had to have a height of at least 5 foot 5 inches, five years of service, have been distinguished on the moral as well as on the military point of view, and to have participated in at least two campaigns. When a new recruit joined a Grenadier regiment, his fellow soldiers immediately challenged him to a duel. These mock-duels were the occasion for a new recruit to prove his valour, and for his companions to toast him.
At the dawn of the French Empire, infantrymen still adorned uniforms from the revolutionary wars. The grenadier wore the indigo-blue uniform with crimson facings, the white vest, breeches, and gaiters. Being considered a different entity, the Imperial Guard kept its traditional uniform after the line infantry's conversion to the "habit-vest" in 1812. The foot grenadiers of the Imperial Guard wore the traditional bearskin cap which could be adorned with various plumes and ribbons for parades and special occasions. As undress cap, the grenadier had kept the revolutionary cocked hat until the battle of Lobau. Having to change hats in a hurry while crossing the Danube they threw them away. After that day, the fur cap remained the official battle and road headdress. During the period of the consular guard, grenadiers had worn their hair according to strict rules. It had to be kept long and tied in a 15 cm long queue with a black woolen ribbon having 5 cm free ends. Furthermore, they wore powdered "ailes de pigeon" which were cared for in the morning by a barber. After the creation of the Imperial Guard, these rules were abolished. Free to keep their hair the way they wanted, soldiers grew sideburns and kept the queue. This was not only for appearance, but could act as protection against sabre cuts.
The main weapon of the French infantryman was a musket, the "fusil d'infanterie modèle 1777", weighing 4,65 kg and measuring 1,53 metres. It could fire a 17,5 mm calibre lead ball with precision up to a hundred metres and became incredibly imprecise after two hundred metres. Even though it helped win many battles, this weapon which had only been lightly modified since the beginning of the Revolution, remained inferior to the major part of the enemy's muskets up to the point where French soldiers would swap their own muskets for better ones on the battlefield. Firearms of this era were incredibly slow to reload. A soldier wanting to load his weapon had to tear the paper cartridge with his teeth, pour a small quantity of black powder in the pan, pack the powder and the ball in the barrel using his ramrod. This operation took approximately one minute, and even then, the musket might misfire. These inconveniences and the fierce character of the French soldier often brought him to use his bayonet. This triangular sectioned blade, transformed the long-range musket into a close-quarter pike. The other melee weapon, the "sabre-briquet, modele an XI", was short sabre worn only by officers and elite troops, and was rarely used in the actual battle. Nevertheless, it found its uses during foraging and duels, which were frequent under the Empire. Fully armed, the grenadier carried a total weight of 65 pounds, he had to carry everything in his knapsack up to his ball outfit for victories.
The Imperial Guard had always been favoured by the Emperor. He became very attached to these troops, and they were attached to him. Many old soldiers, who had been brought up in the country, had never learned to read and write. Since soldiers could not get promoted because of this lack of educations, younger recruits had to teach them. Napoleon had an eye for the smallest detail, chatting with the humblest soldier during reviews, pinching ears in a friendly manner, all of this contributed to his popularity.
At the battle of Waterloo, the square of the Imperial Guard was the last to fall, repelling cavalry charge after charge. After Napoleon's defeat and the return of the Bourbon, theses privileged regiments were disbanded. A large majority of its soldiers returned home, some soldiers stayed in the Royal armies, but others, still loyal to Napoleon emigrated to the United-States, Greece, and Turkey.