Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Napoleon's Old Guard Grenadiers

There are few units in military history that are as esteemed as Napoleon’s Imperial Guard Grenadiers. They were his bodyguard and fierce reserve held back and committed only when things on the battlefield seemed their darkest. Recruited from the largest and most imposing soldiers they literally towered above their foes. Their Bear fur covers added even more to their fantastic image. Not only physically imposing however, they were each veterans of Napoleon’s finest campaigns. Original requirements were NCOs and privates of the Line with ten years’ service and good conduct records. They were required to be proficient in reading and writing, a rule that was seldom broken. A line soldier could also join the guard if he had proven himself with bravery and recommendation from his commander.

The unit was established in November 1799 as the Consular Guard and took the name Imperial Guard on May 18, 1804. They became Napoleon’s cherished sons. They were often held in reserve as a powerful propaganda tool and therefore missed out on some of Napoleon’s greater victories. This inactivity produced in them the nickname of Les Grognards, or the Grumblers, because they were the only men known to complain in the presence of the Emperor himself. Despite this, they received better pay, rations and equipment then regular soldiers. Their ranks were also graded one slot higher than all non Imperial Guard soldiers.

The Old Guard was decimated in the Russian campaign often fighting in retreat near the Emperor himself. When Napoleon was exiled it was the Guard that he addressed. He is to have exclaimed “I cannot embrace you all, but I shall embrace your general.” And after Gen. Petit, he kissed the Eagle of the 1st Grenadiers a Pied before biding farewell.

When Napoleon returned, the ranks of the Imperial Guard swelled. But due to losses in previous campaigns the requirements for joining were slackened. At Waterloo the Old Guard played the role that they had for years previous. The actual final attack by the French launched at around 7:30 p.m. was by Napoleon’s Middle Guard, a unit that comprised of veterans not quite the age and experience of the Old Guard. The 1st and 2nd Battalions of Grenadiers formed a reserve line and when the Middle Guard broke upon the British line, they eventually fell back. They formed a fighting withdraw that was to gain them everlasting fame. When a group of Grenadiers was called upon to surrender, the resounding retort was “La Garde meurt, elle ne se rend pas.” Or “The Guard dies, but does not surrender.”  The units that formed the rearguard were decimated by allied artillery and cavalry but played a pivotal role in the retreat. When Napoleon was exiled for the second time, the Guard was considered a hotbed of Imperialists and was promptly disbanded by the new government.

These Old Guard Grenadiers are produced by Victrix Figures and are assembled pretty much as is. It is a fantastic set that offers a variety of poses though I have mainly chosen those in marching order. The only downside is that they are all in greatcoats but this does build for a coherent unit. 

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