These remarkable photographs provide probably the only surviving images of veterans of the Grande Armée and the Guard actually wearing their original uniforms and insignia, although some of the uniforms have obviously been recut by tailors of the 1850’s. All the men — at this time in their 70s and 80s — are wearing the Saint Helena medals, issued in August 1857 to all veterans of the wars of the Revolution and the Empire.
The men were well into old age when the pictures were taken, and some were clearly struggling to stay still for the length of the camera’s exposure (hence the blurring on some of the pictures). But they all look impressive in their uniforms complete with epaulettes, medals, sashes and plumes.
The date of the event – May 5, 1858 – provides the reason why these men were in Paris for that was the anniversary of the death of Napoleon and every year on that date veterans gathered in the capital, as the Times of London in May 1855 noted: “The base and railings of the column of the Place Vendôme appear this day decked out with the annual offerings to the memory of the man whose statue adorns the summit. The display of garlands of immortelles, and other tributes of the kind, is greater than usual… the old soldiers of the Empire performed their usual homage yesterday at the same place”. On the same day, a funeral service was held in the chapel of the Invalides attended by Prince Jerome and other dignitaries. The entire personnel of the Invalides as well as soldiers of the First Empire were present.
Napoleon’s armies conquered much of Europe but French dominion collapsed rapidly after the disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812. The wars revolutionized European armies and played out on an unprecedented scale, mainly owing to the application of modern mass conscription. The Napoleonic wars resulted in the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire and sowed the seeds of nationalism that led to the consolidations of Germany and Italy later in the century. The global Spanish Empire began to unravel as French occupation of Spain weakened Spain’s hold over its colonies, providing an opening for nationalist revolutions in Spanish America. As a result of the Napoleonic wars and the losses of the other great powers, the British Empire became the foremost world power for the next century.
Historians have debated for centuries how Napoleon Bonaparte managed to turn the same men who once overthrew a king in the name of liberté, égalité and fraternité into a formidable fighting force devoted to an emperor. But that’s precisely what he did. As he swept through Italy, Spain and Egypt, his army grew rapidly and not just with French troops. Polish, German, Dutch and Italian soldiers took up arms under Napoleon’s banner. In 1805, in a French village facing the English Channel, Napoleon christened his massive multinational army the Grande Armée.
Originally, the diminutive despot from Corsica planned to use the force to invade Britain but that ultimately never happened. Instead, he directed his force to take out some of his continental rivals. The Grande Armée destroyed the Holy Roman Empire at Austerlitz. After it forced the Austrians into submission following the Battle of Wagram in 1809, the Grande Armée set out for Napoleon’s disastrous campaign in Russia. As it marched towards Moscow in 1812, its ranks swelled to over a half million troops. As it retreated, it was reduced to less than 120,000.
Napoleon and the Grande Armée were finally defeated in 1815 during the Battle of Waterloo. And though Napoleon was ignominiously exiled to Elba, he, and his army, continued to be revered by the French. On the anniversary of his death, May 5th, veterans of the Napoleonic wars would pay homage to the Emperor by marching in full uniform through Paris’ Place Vendôme.
In 1858, someone took portraits of the veterans using that newfangled technology called photography. The men were well into old age when the pictures were taken, and some were clearly struggling to stay still for the length of the camera’s exposure. But they all look impressive in their uniforms complete with epaulettes, medals, sashes and plumes. You can see some of the images below.
(Photo credit: Brown University Library).