They were the most celebrated and most feared military unit of their day, with distinctive bearskin hats, they were elite and easily recognizable: Napoleon’s vaunted Old Guard. Napoleon called them “The Immortals of France,” and they kind of were. It wasn’t just about age, it was about experience. France was pretty much at war between 1792 and 1815. If you could survive that long in the French Army, chances are you were pretty good at your job.
The first time Napoleon faced exile, he bid adieu to the Old Guard, who had been the foundation of the French Army for 15 years, and some were serving well before he became emperor. It was part of the greater Imperial Guard, which had swelled in numbers from 10,000 men to 100,000 men during his 1814 invasion of Russia.
France’s Imperial guard had everything it needed to function as an army all on its own, including staff, infantry, cavalry, artillery, and even marines. Unlike most Armed Forces, which would merely promote the aged men to higher ranks, Napoleon separated the army into three distinct sections, the Young Guard, Middle Guard, and the Old Guard.
Age, experience, and survival alone weren’t enough to get a soldier into the Old Guard. They had to be volunteers and they had to be above-average height, at least 5’8. When the average Frenchman was just 5’3”. With their tall hats, they made for a unique sight on the battlefield, one that was enough to make any enemy force question if it really wanted to do battle with Napoleon.
They were also expected to lay down their lives for the Emperor, whenever he needed them to, but he was famously hesitant to do so. He didn’t commit them to one of his most famous victories, Borodino, worried that he would have nothing left to fight with if he gambled and lost. He did use them to turn the tide at the critical battles of Ulm, Austerlitz, Dresden and others.
In return for their gallantry, they got the best of everything. They wore the best uniforms, new and distinct. They ate better than the rest of the army, given the choicest rations available. The Old Guard also lived in relative luxury for an Army on the march. Despite its perks, the Old Guard was taken to complaining. Unlike other troops in the French Army, they were allowed to complain, even to Napoleon himself.
Napoleon was actually familiar with the thousands of men in the Old Guard, knew many of them by their first names, and remembered their individual acts of heroism on the battlefield. He often sat and camped with the Old Guard, sharing stories and meals. The Old Guard troops who would complain to Napoleon were (lovingly) referred to by the Emperor as Les Grognards – the Grumblers.
While the entire Imperial Guard were the elite of Napoleon’s troops, younger soldiers would be relegated to the Young Guard or the Middle Guard. The average age of a soldier in the Old Guard was 35, at a time when Frenchmen were lucky to live past 30 and the average life expectancy was 55. An officer would be expected to reach a colonel’s rank by the age of 36. So there’s a reason regular army troops made way for the Old Guard and played a special drum and fife salute as they marched by. Most interesting was the French Army rank system with the Old Guard. A guardsman was given the next highest rank in a regular unit, so a private in the Old Guard would be a corporal anywhere else.
In the end, the Old Guard broke and retreated only once, and it was catastrophic for France and for Napoleon personally. They were defeated at Waterloo, and the sight of their retreat caused panic among the French Army. Napoleon was defeated for good, and exiled to the island of St. Helena, where he spent the rest of his life. When his remains were returned to Paris, surviving members of the Old Guard adorned the streets, dressed in their old uniforms to welcome their emperor home.