This massive study traces the history of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard, a force then began life as a small bodyguard for the leaders of the French Republic, evolved into the Consular Guard and then the Imperial Guard, before expanding into a sizable army within a army, the elite and the reserve of Napoleon’s Grand Army.
The tone of the work is conversational and lively, taking us into the daily life of the Guard - their equipment, splendid uniforms, accommodation, music, food and daily life - as well as covering their combat record. At first this wasn’t terribly impressive, as Napoleon was generally unwilling to risk using his last reserve unless he absolutely had to, but as the Guard expanded and the war began to turn against the French this changed. At Borodino Napoleon refused to commit the Guard, but he was forced to rely on them during the retreat from Moscow.
Despite their superior discipline, even the Guard suffered during the retreat - the Old Guard was 6,000 strong at Borodino, but only 159 officers and 1,312 men survived to reach Konigsberg at the end of 1812. As a result the Guard that fought in Germany in 1813, France in 1814 and at Waterloo in 1815 was largely a new unit, formed from the best of the regular army.
This does bring up one topic that the author chose to skip over - the potential for the Guard to have a negative impact on the quality of the rest of the army. The Guard received better pay, better uniforms and better equipment than the regular army, and whenever it expanded or had to be rebuilt swallowed up many of the most experienced men from the regular army. The author attempts to portray the Guard as the shining example that the rest of the army followed, but by 1814 one gets the impression that it was the only truly reliable part of the French army,
The author very much follows the pro-Napoleon view of history, painting him as a great European unifier, spreading liberty and justice across the continent. The army of 1812 is thus described as the ‘European Army’, which might have been an accurate reflection of its multi-national composition, but also gives a rather false view of the enthusiasm of many of its members. This approach works well here, as we are seeing events from the Guard’s point of view.
This is a splendid, atmospheric and involving study of the Imperial Guard, and really takes us into the heart of the elite of Napoleon’s army.
1 - The Guard is Born
2 - The Guard Keeps Watch
3 - The Guard Suffers
4 - The Guard in Splendour
5 - The Guard in Action
6 - The Guard Takes Charge
7 - The Guard at Bay
8 - The Guard Staggers
9 - The Guard Falls
10 - The Guard Dies
Author: Henry Lachouque & Anne S. K. Brown
Year: 2017 English edition of 1961 French original