Artillery of the Imperial Guard

The artillery of the Imperial Guard, which grew into the Grande Armée’s artillery reserve, had inconspicuous beginnings. It originated with the light artillery detachment of Napoleon’s Guides; part, if not all, came back from Egypt and was incorporated into the new Consular Guard before Marengo in June 1800, where a small company served (and lost heavily). By 1802 Songis was the commander of the Guard artillery, which was composed of two artillery companies and a train company.

In 1804, when the Consular Guard became the Imperial Guard, there were only two companies of horse artillery and two artillery train companies. Two years later, the horse artillery had grown into a regiment of six companies, accompanied by six companies of the train battalion. One of the artillery companies was Italian. They were the pick of the line, and were well trained and equipped. By 1808, Napoleon had ordered Colonel Drouot to organize a Guard foot artillery regiment. Three companies were first organized, and served excellently at Wagram. Additionally, three companies of “conscript artillery” were formed, later becoming Young Guard artillery. When the foot artillery regiment was formed, the Guard horse artillery regiment was reduced to two squadrons of two companies each.

After the war with Austria in 1809, Drouot finished organizing his regiment of foot artillery, giving it a band and sapeurs, and finally issuing it with bearskins in place of the shakos the men had previously worn. By 1813, the Guard had six companies of horse artillery, and six of foot artillery, both classed as Old Guard; one company of horse artillery; and fifteen companies of foot artillery classed as Young Guard. The artillery train had become a regiment of twelve companies, and there was a company of ouvriers and pontonniers, and a Young Guard artillery train regiment was formed as an adjunct for the Young Guard artillery companies.

When the Guard artillery was being overhauled and rebuilt after heavy losses in Russia, some of the troops were drawn into it from the excellent and well-trained Artillerie de la Marine, who also served as infantry, forming four large regiments assigned to Marmont’s VI Corps. They were issued dark blue overcoats like those of the Imperial Guard, and fought so stoutly at Lützen that the Allies thought them to be Guard infantry.

The Guard artillery served as the army artillery reserve from 1809 until the end of the Empire. As such, it formed the major part of Lauriston’s huge 102-gun battery at Wagram in 1809, suffering such heavy losses that it had to be reinforced with Guard infantrymen. Coignet stated that when the Guard infantry was asked for volunteers, everyone wanted to go. It participated in Drouot’s artillery attack at Lützen in 1813, as well as the decisive element at Hanau the same year. It also formed the artillery mass that blew out the Prussian center at Ligny in 1815, as it had the Allied center at Lützen, again paving the way for the decisive assault by the Guard infantry. The Guard artillery gave the Emperor a reserve of highly trained, well-equipped, and very motivated artillerymen who could perform any artillery mission assigned to them.

The Guard artillery held annual gunnery (shooting) contests at La Fère. Guns and equipment were always kept in the highest state of readiness, and even in the first battles of 1813, with many inexperienced gunners in the ranks, they fought excellently, generally outperforming their Allied opponents.

One interesting situation developed in the Guard artillery between the officers who had been “school trained” and long-service officers who had ended up in the artillery or had been promoted up through the ranks and had never been to a formal school. They were experienced officers, but they were now were being considered as “unqualified” because of a lack of schooling. They were long in experience, however, and the common-sense decision was finally rendered that they could keep their status and station.

One officer of the Guard artillery, Major Boulart, left an interesting memoir of his service in the Grande Armée. One story he related took place after the bloodbath at Essling in May 1809. He had been hotly engaged against the Austrian artillery, dueling outnumbered, and had suffered some loss. After the battle he met Napoleon, who stopped to question him about his unit’s performance, the losses he had suffered, and how he was going to replace what he had lost. He informed the Emperor precisely what shape his unit was in, and that he had one gun that needed a vent replaced and would have to go to the armory for repair. Napoleon, seemingly displeased, demanded to know why this problem had not been taken care of earlier, and, not waiting for Boulart to reply, told the unhappy officer that he would inspect him the next day and that he expected him to have all of his pieces in serviceable order and present for action.

Boulart went to his superior, told him of his apparently insurmountable problem, and was given permission to procure one of the captured Austrian pieces of the same caliber for the purposes of the inspection and to keep it until his original piece was returned, repaired, from the arsenal in Vienna. Boulart did so, and when Napoleon showed up the next day at the appointed time and place, he asked Boulart if he was prepared for inspection. Boulart told him he was, how he had brought his battery up to strength, and waited the Emperor’s pleasure. Napoleon smiled at him, told how pleased he was, and informed him that he did not need to be inspected. Undoubtedly, he wanted the good Major Boulart to have his full complement of artillery and found the correct way to motivate him, Napoleon’s personal inspections being somewhat dreaded in the Grande Armée.

Finally, two anecdotes from the ubiquitous Major Boulart, who was a witness to Senarmont’s chevauchée at Friedland in 1807 and was a well-trained and skilled officer who took great pride in his Guard artillerymen, are given below. Both of these incidents took place during the buildup for and invasion of Russia in 1812.

Major Jean François Boulart, a man who in odd moments likes to play the flute, has brought one of the Guard’s three artillery columns all the way from its depot at La Fère, outside Paris. In their tall, plaqueless bearskins and dark-blue, red-trimmed uniforms, he says, his gunners were “a magnificent object of general admiration. On 5 June the Emperor had come and reviewed my artillery. He wasn’t a man to make compliments, but he found it handsome. He had the goodness to spend a lot of time in my company.”

And:

For quite a while my gaze followed the three Guard batteries under a well-nourished fire and covered with a hail of roundshot whose falls one could only see by the dust they were raising. I thought they were lost, or at least half so. Happily, the Russians aimed badly, or too high.

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