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The following is chapter three of The Imperial Guard of Napoleon: From Marengo to Waterloo by J.T. Headley (1851) which deals with the service of the Garde Imperiale at Austerlitz and Jena.

The Service of the Imperial Guard at Austerlitz and Jena

Recommencement of the War--The Camp at Boulogne--The Old Guard at Austerlitz--Meeting of the Imperial Guards of the Czar and Napoleon--The Guard at Jena--The Velites--Young Desherbiers-- Habits of Napoleon in Campaign--His Body Guard--Presentation of the Eagle to a New Regiment.

Napoleon with the Imperial Guard at Jena in 1806 (by Horace Vernet)  Note the artist's attention to detail
 with him illustrating the cheek rest cut-out on the butt of the musket's stock.  Purchase this musket here.

After a few years of peace, England, by her perfidious violation of the treaty of Amiens, brought on a war between herself and France. Napoleon, no longer shackled by divided power was now free as Caesar. His vast and restless mind could sweep the horizon of his dominions, and find nothing to interfere with his great plans. Laying his hand on the mighty empire, just passed into his keeping, he wielded it with the ease he managed a single army.

With one of the best armies that ever stood on the soil of France, possessing, at the same time, all the advantage of a long rest and thorough discipline, and the experience of veterans, he resolved to punish England for her perfidy, and teach her that while she stirred up Europe to strife and bloodshed, she too might reap the curse of war, carried to her own soil.

But while collecting his vast Flotillas and training his soldiers at Boulogne, preparatory to the invasion of her territory, he was informed that a powerful coalition was forming against him on the Continent. Sweden, Russia, Austria, and England had entered into an alliance, and even Prussia was vacillating between making common cause with the allies and remaining neutral. Called at once from his designs of invading England, the Emperor turned his eye northward, and eastward, and southward, and lo, armies in each direction were marching against him. Four hundred thousand soldiers were making ready to strike France and her territories from four different points. He at once penetrated the designs of the allied soverigns, and with that marvellous power of combination, no other chieftain has ever possessed, he marked out the plan of the entire campaign at Boulogne, predicted the movements of the allied armies, the blunders they would commit, chose his own routes, and accomplished what he proposed. Never had captain, either in ancient or modern times conceived and executed plans on such a scale. "Never indeed had a more mighty mind, possessing greater freedom of will, commanded means more prodigious to operate on such an extent of country." From Calabria to the Gulf of Finland, he had the whole Continent to look after, for he was menaced on every side.

The allies prosecuted their plans leisurely, having little fear of an army encamped on the shores of the ocean. But there was a stir in that camp which portended evil somewhere.

No one knew Napoleon's plans. France even remained in ignorance of them. The army itself was ignorant of its destination, but in twenty days, to the astonishment and consternation of Europe, its terrible standards shook along the Mayn, the Neckar, and the Rhine, and the shout of "Vive l' Empereur," rolled over the plains of Germany. This army Napoleon called the "Grand Army," a name it ever after bore; and those who saw it sweeping on, column after column of infantry, miles of artillery, long files of cavalry, and last of all the Old Guard, with the Emperor in its midst, in all 186,000 men, re-echoed the appellation "The Grand Army."

The Old Guard had left Boulogne by post. Twenty thousand carriages, loaded down with the troops were whirled away towards Germany, whither the army marched with unparalleled speed.

On the 27th of August, most of this immense force lay at Boulogne; o the 25th and 26th of September it crossed the Rhine. On the 13th of October amid a storm of snow, napoleon harangued the weary troops of Marmont, that had just arrived, and explained to this his plans, and told them he had surrounded the enemy. On the 18th, Mack agreed to surrender Ulm with an army of 80,000 men to him as prisoners of war. By the 20th he could look back on his operations and behold an army of eighty thousand men destroyed, sixty thousand of whom had been taken prisoner with two hundred pieces of cannon, and eighty stands of colors. All this had been done in twenty days, with the loss of less than two thousand men.

On the 13th of November his banners waved over the walls of Vienna. Twelve days after he reconnoitred the field of Austerlitz, and selected it at once as a battle-field where he would overthrow the combined forces of Russia and Austria, led on by their respective soverigns. With 70,000 men he had resolved not to drive back the approaching army of 90,000, but to annihilate it. He refused to take position where he could most effectually check its advance, determined to win all or lose all. Matching his single intellect in the pride of true genius, against the two emperors with their superior army, he cajoled them into a battle when they should have declined it; in order to finish the war with a "clap of thunder."

In the midst of that terrible battle while Soult was ascending the heights of Pratzen, pressing full on the enemy's centre, Lannes thundering on the left with artillery and cavalry, Oudinot on the right re-earning his marshal's staff, Suchet forcing the reluctant enemy before him, a conflict took place in the presence of Napoleon and the allied soverigns which gave a finishing blow to the battle. The Grand Duke Constantine seeing that it was going against him, tool the whole Russian Imperial Guard and leading them in one dark mass down the heights, moved midway into the low grounds to charge the advancing French. Vandame broughtforward his division to meet the shock. While he was thus engaged with this immense and picked body of soldiers, the Grand Duke put himself at the head of two thousand heavy armed cuirassiers of the guards, and burst in resistless strength on the flank of Vandame's division. The French column was rent asunder before it, and three battalions trampled under foot. Napoleon who was advancing to reinforce Soult with the infantry of his guard saw, fro a height this overthrow, and exclaimed to Rapp who was by his side, "they are in disorder yonder, that me be set to rights." The latter putting himself at the head of the Mamelukes and chasseurs of the Guard, cried out, "soldiers' you see what has happened below there, they are sabreing our comrades; let us fly to their rescue." Four pieces of horse artillery set off on a gallop in advance. The next moment those fiery horsemen were sweeping with headlong speed upon the Imperial Cavalry. A discharge of grape-shot swept through them thinning them sadly, but not for a moment arresting the charge. The shock was irresistible. Horse and horseman rolled together on the plain. The white heron plumes of the Mamelukes and the shakos of the chasseurs swept like a vision through the overthrown ranks and they were still pressing on even beyond the wreck of their own battalions which had just failed, when the fresh horse guard of Alexander fell upon them. With their horses blown from the severe conflict they had been enduring, this new attack proved too much for them. The brave Morland, Colonel of the Chassuers, was killed on the spot, and the two corps forced back. Napoleon who had watched with the deepest anxiety this terrific meeting of the Imperial Guards, no sooner saw the check of Rapp and the overwhelming force bearing down upon him from the re-formed cuirassiers, than he ordered Bessieres with the horse grenadiers, to charge. Not a moment was to be lost, the bugles rang forth the charge, and like a single man that living mass of disciplined valor went pouring forward to the strife. The steady gallop of their heavy horses shook the plain, and so accurate and regular was their swift movement, that they appeared like a dark and ponderous wave rolling onward. But the crest it bore was composed of glittering steel. Right gallantly was that tremendous onset received, and those vast bodies of cavalry the elite of both armies became mixed in a hand to hand fight. The firing of the infantry ceased, for the shot told on friend and foe alike. The soldiers rested on their arms and gazed with astonishment on that rearing, plunging mass from which was heard naught but fierce shouts and ringing steel as blade crossed blade in the fierce collision. The emperors of Russia and Germany on one height and Napoleon on another, watched with indescribable anxiety this strange encounter between the flower of their troops. At length the Imperial Guard of the enemy gave way. The bugles of the Old Guard then rang cheerily out, and Vandame charging anew, infantry and cavalry were driven in disorder almost to the walls of Austerlitz. Their artillery and standards fell into the hands of the victors. Napoleon's joy was extreme on beholding this triumph of his Guard over that of the Russian emperor.

The two soverigns had tried their last and heaviest blow, and had failed, and the battle though unended, was already won. Napoleon had not merely defeated, he had routed and nearly annihilated the combined armies, and the two emperors were fugitives on the field. This wonderful mind had thus in a few months ended the war. Never did his genius shine out in greater brilliancy. "The secrecy and rapidity of the march of so vast a body of troops across France; the semicircular process by which they interposed between Mack and the hereditary states and compelled the surrender of that unhappy chief with half his army; the precision with which nearly two hundred thousand men converging from the shores of the channel, the coasts of Brest, the marshes of Holland, and the banks of the Elbe were made to arrive each at the hour appointed around the ramparts of Ulm, the swift advance on Vienna; the subsequent fan-like dispersion of the army to overawe the hereditary states their sudden concentration for the decisive fight at Austerlitz; the skill displayed in that contest itself and the admirable account to which he turned the fatal cross march of the allied soverigns, are so many proofs of military ability never exceeded even in the annals of his previous triumphs."

It is not to be supposed that in this great battle the action of the Imperial Guard was confined to a cavalry charge. Napoleon found himself so inferior in numerical force, that he did not husband the Guard, as he afterwards did in Russia. He divided it up among different corps of the army, where they furnished an example during all that bloody day to the other troops, which made them irresistible. Pressing side by side with those bear-skip caps, they knew no repulse. In the previous battles the Guard had taken little part, and murmured grievously at their idleness, but at Austerlitz they were led into the thickest of the fight. Soult had under him ten battalions of the Guard. Oudinot and Davoust had ten battalions of the Grenadiers, and wild work did they make under those chieftains, with the stubborn ranks of the enemy. Their artillery was served throughout the battle, with terrible rapidity and precision. Forty guns were at the disposal of the Guard, and wherever immediate help was wanted, thither they were hurried, sending desolation through the hostile ranks.

At the commencement of the battle, Napoleon retained near him only the Cavalry of the Guard, the mounted Chasseurs, the Grenadiers and Mamelukes. These were for a reserve, and were massed together, ranged in two lines, and by squadrons, and under the command of Bessieres and Rapp. Its light artillery, however, did fearful execution. It was every where belching forth fire. It was one of its batteries that played upon the frozen lake over which a column was endeavoring to pass, and breaking the ice with its shot, sank two thousand in the water. It deployed with such rapidity, that is movements appeared more like cavalry in motion, than artillery, and the soldiers jokingly called it "Hussars on wheels."


These overwhelming victories made the allies desirous of peace, which was soon after ratified at Presbourg. But in the final settlement of the vexed questions of territory, Prussia felt herself so aggrieved and humbled, that she rashly flew into arms before the French army had all left Germany. An immense force was assembled, and she, single-handed, resolved to overthrow the Conqueror of Europe, and that too with the army of the latter not yet beyond the Rhine. Napoleon beheld with sorrow this new war thrown upon his hands just as he had finished an arduous campaign and completed a peace, and was at first depressed. He saw only new dangers arise, as old ones were removed. But in the excitement of preparation these gloomy thoughts disappeared, and he rapidly made ready to meet the evils that threatened him. The Old Guard was immediately ordered to return. Transported in carriages, of which there were relays the whole route, they moved with the speed of Cavalry, and in a few days were again beyond the Rhine. A hundred and eighty thousand Germans composed the army of Prussia. Napoleon had a larger force under him, to say nothing of the vast makeweight of his genius against the imbecility of his adversary.

The battle of Jena, fought on the same day as that of Auerstadt, under Davoust, finished the Prussian king. At Jena, Napoleon had before him a force inferior to his own, although he supposed the whole Prussian army was on the heights of Landgrafenberg. Up the steep ascent that led to this plateau, already occupied by the enemy, he resolved to head his army. At first the corps of Lannes and the Old Guard climbed through the ravines to the top. The Guard, four thousand strong, were then ordered to encamp in a square, and in the centre Napoleon pitched his tent. A pile of stones to this day marks the spot where he bivouacked, and the people of the vicinity have changed the name of the height into Napoleons berg. It was found such a heavy task to drag the artillery up the precipitous sides of the mountain, that search was made for an easier ascent. A ravine was discovered, but on examination it proved too narrow to admit the carriages. A detachment of engineers was immediately sent to cut away the rick, while to cheer on the men, wearied with their day's march, Napoleon himself held a torch for them to work by. Late at night he ascended the heights and passed into the squares of the Old Guard, to snatch a few hours repose. But as he approached their dark and motionless ranks around which only a few fires were kindled, he cast his eyes over the plateau and saw the fires of the enemy covering its entire extent and farther away to the right with the old castle of Echartsberg above them, those of the Duke of Brunswick.

In the morning before daylight, he was up and the soldiers stood to arms. It was cold and chilly and a fog enveloped the heights. Escorted by torches which shed a lurid light on his staff and on the ranks, he went along their front haranguing the soldiers, bidding them receive the Prussian cavalry with firmness, and promising a glorious victory. The shout "forward" which followed, was borne to the enemy's camp.

The Old Guard, as usual, was ordered up to close the battle. As it advanced the whole line threw itself impetuously forward, and the field became covered with fugitives. Out of the 70,000 who had entered the battle, "not a corps remained entire."

Advancing rapidly, the Grand Army entered Berlin on the 28th. For the first time, Napoleon made a triumphal entry into a conquered capital. Surrounded by the Old Guard dressed in rich uniform, he passed through the city. The dismounted chasseurs and grenadiers were in front, the horse grenadiers and chasseurs in the rear--in the middle rode Berthier, Duroc, Davoust, and Augereau, while in the centre of the last group in an open space by himself, rode Napoleon. He, and that Old Guard enfolding him in triumph as it had done in danger, were the centre of all eyes.

In a month he had overturned the Prussian monarchy and destroyed its boasted armies--the soldiers of the great Frederic. The overthrow of an empire was no longer the work of years, Napoleon dispatched it in a few weeks.

Several changes had passed over the Old Guard during the last two years. Augmented as it had been, the expense of keeping it up was found to be too great. Neither would the mode of recruiting it by drawing the best troops from the line answer in a long and destructive was. It took away too many good soldiers and tended to demoralize the army. There had been previously created a corps of velites, a sort of enlisted volunteers to remedy the last evil by drawing from them instead of the army. But this also was too expensive, and Napoleon therefore formed a new regiment called the "fusilliers of the Guard," the soldiers of which should be selected from the annual contingent, the officers alone to be taken from the Guard.

The velites were required to be young men of family. This was to obtain a certain amount of education and character, with which is usually joined a sense of honor, so important in a corps. Allured by the splendid renown of this new conqueror, dazzled by his amazing victories, young aspirants for fame flocked to his standard. Among them were many very young men. One of these, an only son of one of the most opulent families of the province in which he lived, enlisted at the age of eighteen. Very fair and delicate, he appeared much younger, yet he cheerfully endured the fatigues of the march, and stood firm under the fire of the enemy. After the fall of Berlin, this young velite marched with the army into Varsovie and nobly endured the hardships of the dreadful winter campaign that followed.

It was Napoleon's custom in campaign to halt in the open country to take his meals. On these occasions he always had a dozen or so velites or chasseurs in a circle close around his person, to prevent any one from approaching. One day during a halt, as his faithful Mameluke, Roustan, was preparing his coffee, he say a boyish velite posted opposite him. Struck by his beauty and aristocratic air, he called him and abruptly asked, "Who put you in my Guard?"

"Your majesty," replied the young Desherbiers.

"I do not understand you," said Napoleon, "explain yourself."

"Sire, after the decree of your majesty which permitted young men of family to serve in your Guard, I fulfilled the required conditions, and am at my post."

"Thou are a little fellow," said the Emperor, chuckling him under the chin.

"Sire, I perform my duties the same as the largest in the regiment."

"Have you ever been under fire?"

"Yes, Sire, at the passage of Berg."

"That was warm work. Were you not a little afraid. Ah, ah, you blush, I have hit the truth."

"Yes, Sire, I own it, but it lasted only a moment."

"Never mind, many others like thee have been afraid and it lasted a much longer time. After a short silence, he resumed, "thou are a good young man and like the rest of us, thou hast paid the tribute. Thou shalt dine with me, will that please thee?"

"Certainly, Sire!" cried the young velite, while his eyes sparkled with joy at the honor shown him, and placing his carbine near him he sat down opposite the emperor. Roustan waited on him with all the deference he would have shown to a general officer. Desherbiers took the slice of bacon which was handed him on a silver plate and began to eat with the voracious appetite his short allowance and hard duties had given him. As the Mameluke turned the wine into a silver goblet, Napoleon said smiling, "Ah, ah, garcon, thou likest well to be served in a goblet, so that one cannot see how much thou drinkest. I wager that thou hast it refilled."

"Even to the brim, Sire, the better to drink to the health of your Majesty."

Napoleon joked him incessantly during the repast, but the young velite's replies were full of spirit and point. After it was over, he asked him his name, "Guiyot Desherbiers, Sire," he replied. Repeating the name over after him, he asked him if he was relative to a counsellor by that name in Paris, not long since dead. Being answered in the negative, he added, "very well, conduct yourself properly and I will see to your advancement when the proper time shall come."

The young velite made his military salute, took his carbine and was again at his post.

I have related this anecdote to show on what terms Napoleon was with his guard, and also the means he took to bind the brave to him. In the spirit and nonchalance of this young velite, his military ambition and education, he saw at a glance a future officer--one of those granite pillars like Lannes, Ney, Massena, Davoust, and others who were carrying his victorious eagles over Europe.

After his return from his campaign, Napoleon went one day to see the velite, who, having been separated from the chasseurs, were stationed at Versailles. As he approached the squadron, he requested the commander to order young Desherbiers from the ranks. The officer replied that he had been passed into a regiment of hussars, and was not in Spain.

"Why was he put there, he was but in infant?"

"On account of his gallant conduct at Friedland. He slew to Russian grenadiers with his own hand in sight of the whole squadron."

"That makes a difference," said Napoleon, "it is all well."

The young velite, however, never returned, he was taken by guerrillas, who put him to death with the most cruel tortures. He bore all with heroic courage, and with his last breath pronounced the names of Napoleon and a fair cousin in Paris.

This incident illustrates forcibly the remarkable memory of Napoleon. The terrible scenes through which he had passed, the world of care that lay on his shoulders-- plunged as he was into the very vortex of European politics and engaged with designs vast as a hemisphere--did not make him forget the young velite who had dined with him in Poland. This memory of the commonest soldier if he had shown any remarkable traits, or performed any deeds of valor had a wonderful effect on the troops. Each one felt that he was directly under the eyes of his sovereign and commander. He saw and remembered all that was done, and skill and daring would not go unrewarded. Slight as it may seem, next to the veneration his genius and deeds inspired, this was the grant secret of the strange power he had over his troops.

The chasseurs always surrounded Napoleon's person during a campaign. It was necessary they should be ready at a moment's warning, for the movements of this ubiquitous being were sudden as lightning. When starting for the army he generally departed from St. Cloud, in the middle of the night or at one or two o'clock in the morning, and sometimes made two hundred and fifty miles in twenty-four hours. Often he would stop for several hours, to dictate despatches, but at the words "allots, the carriage, to horse, gentlemen," there was "mounting in hot haste," and away they dashed, in a headlong gallop. An aid-de-camp was always stationed on horseback at the left side of the door of the carriage and an ecuyer at the right--the officers of ordinance, pages, piqueurs holding the horses by the head. Roustan, the Mameluke, and the domestics followed close after the carriage. Twenty-four mounted chasseurs of the Guard completed the cortege, which swept like a tempest along the road. In this manner he would go twenty, thirty, and sometimes nearly forty miles without halting. When he stopped all flung themselves from their horses at once, except the chasseurs, who remained in the saddle. But if he left the carriage, half of them immediately dismounted, and fixing their bayonets to their carbines presented arms, and stood facing outward, around him. But none of the officers left their places unless he permitted it. When he wished to observe the enemy through his glass, the number of the Guard was doubled and formed in a square about him. This square adapted itself to his movements, enlarging or contracting itself, but never coming nearer than twenty-five or thirty steps to his person.

When he distributed favors to his Guard, such as grades, titles, or decorations, unless it was immediately after a victory, every one knew that some serious affair was at hand. The review of the regiments of the Guard recently arrived, or harangues to his troops, was a certain prelude to an approaching battle. These harangues always produced a magical effect; but nothing perhaps excited so wild enthusiasm as the presentation of the eagle to a new regiment of the Guard. On the day of the ceremony, the regiment with its arms and uniforms in perfect order, marched to the place appointed and formed into three close columns, the three fronts turning towards the centre--the space for the fourth being reserved for the superior officers and the suite of the emperor. As soon as the latter appeared, the officers put themselves in advance in a single rank, so that he approached alone. By the simplicity of his dress he became more conspicuous, and presented a striking contract to the brilliant uniforms of his officers, which were sprinkled over with decorations and embroidered with silver and gold. After receiving the orders of the emperor, the prince of Wagram, in his office of major-general, dismounted, and caused the colors to be taken from their case and unfolded before the troops. The drums then beat the march, and Berthier advancing, took the eagle from the hands of the officer and approached several steps toward Napoleon. The latter uncovering himself saluted the banner; and removing the glove from his right hand, lifted it towards the eagle and in a solemn and distinct voice said, "Soldiers, I confide to you the French eagle; I commit it to your valor and patriotism. It will be your guide and rallying pivot. You swear never to abandon it. You swear to prefer death to the dishonor of seeing it torn from your hands. You swear it?" The last words were pronounced with sudden energy, and in a moment the swords of the officers shook in the air, and "Yes, yes we swear it," rolled in one prolonged shout along the lines. The bands of music then struck in and "Vive l' Empereur," was repeated in frenzied accents over the field.

In 1806, the Guard was composed of 15,656 men.

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