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The Man and the MythNapoleon and JoesphinePolitics in Napoleon's TimesNapoleon at War

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Weapons and Units of the Grand Armée

The Imperial Guard

The Imperial Guard was a small, elite army, directly under Napoleon’s control. Like the corps, it had infantry, cavalry and artillery. It was comprised of the best veteran soldiers from every theater of war – Egyptian Mamluks, Italians, Poles, Germans, Swiss, and others, as well as French.

They were the most feared men in Napoleon’s army. Much more than personal bodyguards, they were Napoleon's weapon of last resort, and were rarely committed in battle. British artist Benjamin Haydon recalled his impression after seeing them at Fontainebleau in 1814:

Imperial Guardsman

"They had the look of thoroughbred, veteran, disciplined banditti. Depravity, recklessness, and bloodthirstiness were burned into their faces… Black mustachios, giant bearskins, and a ferocious expression were their characteristics."

The most honored among them were the Old Guard, veterans of regiments formed between 1800 and 1806; next was the Middle Guard, formed between 1806 and 1809; and finally the Young Guard. The Imperial Guard grew from 8,000 in 1805 to 80,000 in 1812. Over 60,000 marched into Russia; few returned.

At Waterloo, Napoleon committed most of the Guards — twenty-three infantry battalions, 18,000 men strong. When he committed his seemingly unbeatable Old Guard battalions and they were forced to retreat, he had lost the battle. Cries of "Vive L’Empereur" changed to "Sauve qui peut!" – every man for himself – as Napoleon’s army panicked and fled.

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