A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Napoleon's Town Guards

Holiday period, another quiet day. This morning I was browsing Alfons Canovas’ blog, and was very taken by his feature on the part of the Charmy Splendeur series which relates to the units of Gardes d’Honneur of various towns and cities in Napoleonic France – very pretty indeed – hmmm.

It reminded me that there are vast areas of Napoleon’s second line and regional forces which I have never really understood. I’m looking at some splendid chaps in Alfons’ blog – the Gardes d’Honneur of Lyon, Metz, Nantes, Marseilles, Bordeaux, Bayonne etc – if ever you needed a questionable case for some spectacular painted units for your collection, you need look no further. I shall have a look through the appropriate volumes of Elting and so on, but I was just wondering (idly), at what strength did these units exist? I note that they had both foot and mounted companies, did they have any duties beyond making the town look good on ceremonial occasions? did they do actual police or garrison work? did any of them ever serve in the field? what relationship (if any) did they have to the Garde Nationale, or the regulars? who designed the uniforms? – the mayor? To whom did they belong – the town or the army?

I read somewhere, as an example, that the Nantes unit comprised 120 foot, 80-odd horse, 20 officers and a 26-piece band, which sounds a bit ceremonial, maybe, but I would guess that the full answers to these queries might well be the content of a PhD course somewhere, and I wondered if anyone could point me to some useful general reading. I only half-seriously thought about painting some of these fellows, but the Lyon unit is particularly splendid – white uniforms with pink facings, musicians in red. Mouth-watering. I’d have them like a shot if it made any sense. To put this into context, last night I’d half-convinced myself that one of the spare French units in the lead mountain might usefully become a battalion of the Legion Hanovrienne – mainly because my growing interest in French sieges in Spain reminded me that this unit was in (I think) Loison’s Division of VI Corps until Sept 1811, and they look interesting, in red-with-blue-facings. I have not rejected this idea yet.

I already have a bigger paint queue than I can comfortably live with, by the way…

I’d like to do some gentle reading on the various types of second line soldiers. I realise that definitions sometimes became blurred as necessity dictated. My French field army for Spain 1811-13 (in The Cupboard) already contains a battalion each of the Chasseurs des Montagnes and the Garde de Paris, because I know that is historically correct, but they are also there (obviously) because they enrich the toy army a bit with some colour and variety (and, often, with unpredictable behaviour on the battlefield).


  1. Since my myserious alter ego Armand quoted some of this post on TMP, the TMP member Musketier (from Belgium) was kind enough to provide the following information:


    The name "Gardes d'honneur" is a giveaway of their ceremonial role. When acting as hosts to the Sovereign or foreign dignitaries, major cities would send out a mounted honour guard to escort them into their walls, and post ceremonial sentries on foot along their route to the town hall, or wherever. The leading burghers, or their sons, would vie for membership in these outfits: Those were definitely not combat units – although Napoleon would build on the concept when creating the Gardes d'honneur attached to the Imperial Guard in 1813.

  2. ...as man power shortages grew I can't imagine Bonaparte would have left these units alone, but I also suspect that the men would just have been conscripted into regular units.... having said that though, this is your army, add them if you like them - one can always come up with a plausible reason for their presence even if it isn't actually a real one!

  3. You have got to love those bicornes!

  4. I know lots of people have a problem with my iconoclasm and general Leftiness, but they sound like the standard (and necessary?) pro-establishment lackeys of a military state! Think Northern Yeomanry riding-down the peasantry while keeping all the nicest woods to themselves!

    Is it too early in the New Year for cynicism?


  5. They look like what Americans in the Civil War era referred to as "bandbox soldiers". Did you find anything on them in Elting?

    1. I think the bandbox term is correct - these units were formed whenever Napoleon visited a major town or city - the towns tried to outdo each other and the sons of the wealthy and influential were much in evidence. Presumably they had already purchased substitutes for the real army?