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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > Memoirs

Reviews: Uniform Plates & Studies

Napoleon's Elite Cavalry: Cavalry of the Imperial Guard, 1805-1815

By Edward Ryan. Illustrations by Lucien Rousselot.

Ryan, Edward. Napoleon's Elite Cavalry: Cavalry of the Imperial Guard, 1805-1815. Illustrations by Lucien Rousselot. London: Greenhill, 1999. 208 pages. Dimensions (in inches): 0.95 x 14.17 x 10.19. ISBN# 1853673714. $85.00.

Napoleon's Elite Cavalry cover

The Imperial Guard of Napoleon is one of the greatest military organizations in history. Proud, well trained, impressively uniformed and deadly; its units were the final argument of the Emperor and his terrible Grande Armée that marched, fought and conquered the length and breadth of Europe.

Edward Ryans new book, Napoleon's Elite Cavalry is another volume dedicated to the Guard, and covers four of its cavalry regiments: The Grenadiers a Cheval, Chasseurs a Cheval, Dragoons, and the 1st Polish Light Horse Lancers. To illustrate these magnificent regiments, he has assembled 91 color plates by Maitre Lucien Rousselot, Painter to the French Army, which Rousselot prepared for Anne Brown in the 1950s. Until now, most have never been seen outside of the Brown collection.

The author and Rousselot were friends, so Ryan is qualified to write both on Rousselot and his art. The author comments on each plate, and in the introduction he gives a thorough review of the organization of each of the regiments, as well as an overview of the Imperial Guard as a whole. There is also a very useful glossary included.

Each regiment is covered in dramatic style by Rousselot's paintings. We see them in full dress, campaign dress, walking out dress, ball dress, in redingote, stable dress, and, the Polish officers at least, in Gala Full Dress. Officers, timbaliers, trumpeters, troopers, porte etenards, all populate this volume in combat, on campaign, picket duty, in bivouac, walking in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, flirting with pretty Parisiennes, buying trinkets at an outdoor vendor's stand, freezing on picket duty and accompanying their Emperor for his personal protection.

Notable among the paintings is the charge of the 3d Squadron of the Polish Light Horse at Somosierra, Spain in 1808. Here 150 officers and troopers charged in a column of fours and overran four batteries of Spanish artillery in succession, gaining the summit of the pass with all the officers and half the troopers down. Also notable are paintings of the Young Guard squadrons of the Chasseurs è Cheval in mounted skirmish lines in 1813-1814; the Grenadiers è Cheval in their modified uniform, but still with the famous bearskins, in 1815; and, General d'Ornano with the reformed and reuniformed Dragoons at the Tuileries in 1813 awaiting review by the Emperor.

One aspect of Rousselot's work that is very noticeable is his love of horses. The magnificence of the Guards' mounts is evident in his work, both as history and as a tribute to the animals' stalwart, loyal service.

Additionally, a good portion of the paintings depicts trumpeters of the various regiments in their full dress magnificence, as well as their stable and off duty uniforms. There are no uniforms, of any army, that were as colorful as the trumpeters of the Imperial Guard. From the Polish crimson of the lancers to the sky blue of the other three regiments, mounted on their whites and greys, the Guard trumpeters cut a dashing and colorful figure, sure to catch anyone's attention, which was the purpose in the first place.

There are three appendices in the book. They cover information of senior officers of the Guard cavalry, the other cavalry regiments of the Guard which werent covered in this volume (personally, I would have liked to see the Gendarmerie d'Elite included) and a short summary on the Legion of Honor.

An added treat throughout the volume is the inclusion of nine of Rousselot's little sketches of French horsemen of the period. Fittingly, the Frontispiece of the volume is a painting of the Emperor at a review at the Carousel, at the entrance to the Tuileries, accompanied by his retinue. The attitude portrayed by the Great Man in the painting seems to give his satisfaction and approval to the publication of this latest volume honoring his 'men of bronze.' In the background, the regiment being reviewed is the incomparable Grenadiers è Cheval, who were the last rear guard at Waterloo, and who left the field in perfect order, a tribute to their honor and discipline.

While this volume can certainly stand on its own, and Edward Ryan has done all of us a great service by its publication, it is an excellent companion piece to The Anatomy of Glory, recently republished by Lionel Leventhal and Greenhill Books, who also put out this magnificent volume.

In summary, this book is a valuable addition to our knowledge of the Grande Armée in general, and the cavalry of the Imperial Guard in particular. It is the greatest collection of Rousselot paintings in print today, and Edward Ryan's clear and concise text is a great addition to our knowledge of the Imperial Guard in general and its cavalry in particular. This volume belongs on every enthusiast's bookshelf and is valuable as a reference work, painting guide, and general history.

Reviewed by Kevin Kiley


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