As with so much of what represented Napoleonic France, the Imperial Guard could trace its existence and spirit back to the Roman Empire of old. Where the Grand Army could look back to affiliate itself with the Legions, the Imperial Guard was nothing less than the Emperor's Praetorians-the elite-the best of the best. Its men coveted their position to the degree that they would often refuse promotion if it meant a transfer to a line regiment. Never squandered, when the Guard advanced it meant the battle was near to its end and victory once more a step away. Their steady presence would put courage into dispirited allied troops and shred the last vestige of morale from an enemy. They represented every branch of the Army and where their magnificent uniforms appeared under their tricolours and eagles, all knew there would also be the Emperor himself. This the story of Napoleon's Imperial Guard from the bearskin caps of the grenadiers to the flamboyance of their mounted chasseurs, their principal characters and the men who commanded them. From Marengo to Waterloo the Imperial Guard created a legend that is unparalleled in modern military history.
At the close of the year 1813, Napoleon presented a sad yet sublime spectacle. His first words on entering the senate, after his return from the disasters of Leipsic, were, "A year ago all Europe marched with us--to-day all Europe marches against us." From the vast height of power to which he had reached, he had descended step by step, battling bravely as he went. Deserted by his allies, betrayed by the men he had covered with honor, his dominions wrested one by one from his grasp, his brothers dethroned, and his own brother-in-law openly proclaiming his treason, some of the heaviest blows he received coming from the hands of those whose fortunes he had made, his army in fragments, his treasury exhausted, while the bayonets of nearly a million of men were pointing towards Paris, he yet showed no discouragement, uttered no complaints, but calm and resolute stood and surveyed the vast and dismaying prospect as he was wont to do a doubtful battle-field. He was grander in his great misfortunes than when with Europe pressing after his standard, he two years before crossed the Niemen in all the pomp and pride of a conqueror.
To replenish the treasury, to create an army, to awe the turbulent, and then stand up single-handed against Europe in arms--these were the tasks before him. He set the first example of self-sacrifice, by giving into the public treasury six millions of dollars taken from his private vaults in the Tuileries.
A decree ordering a levy of 300,000 soldiers was made, and another augmenting the Guard to 112,500 men. During January of this year he issued no less than five decrees concerning his Guard. He seemed to be more solicitous about it than ever before. In the disasters of the last two years he had felt its value more than in the full tide of victory. He had fallen back on it again and again in the hour of utmost peril, and always found it a ''column of granite." Though its charge on the enemy's centre at Leipsic was not successful as at Wagram and other fields of its fame, yet it never made a nobler charge or showed more dauntless bravery. Treason and overwhelming numbers wrested the victory from its eagles.
The levy, however, was not successful. France was exhausted not only of her men, but even of her youth, and boys were now in his greatest need to form his battalions. To add to his trouble, as fortune always seems to delight in pushing down a falling favorite, the Typhus fever broke out among his troops along the Rhine. They had caught it in the plains of Germany, and these veterans who had fallen back from the different fortresses and cities which they held were swept off by thousands.
Thus he was deprived of a large number of the few experienced soldiers the disasters of the last year had left him. Notwithstanding all this and the appalling aspect of a million of men rising up and swearing to complete his overthrow--seven hundred thousand of them sweeping steadily down upon the soil of France, their bayonets pointing towards his capital—he stood nobly at bay. Having entrusted his wife and son to the National Guard in a speech full of feeling, he bade them adieu, little dreaming it was to be a final one, and set out for head-quarters at Chalons.
It was in the latter part of January that he reached the shattered and discouraged army, falling back on every side before the enemy. Rallying it by his presence, he immediately took the offensive and surprised Blucher with thirty thousand men near Brienne. The latter, however, made a stubborn resistance, and the advance guard of the French was forced to retire, when eight thousand of the Old Guard arrived and cleared the field. Blucher, however, rallied his troops behind his formidable artillery, and prepared to give battle on the following morning. Mortier who had made this bold irruption, fell back to wait the arrival of the main body, toiling up through mud and snow which the artillery sank at every step, made but slow progress. A Captain Hauillet, with a single company of the foot chasseurs of the Old Guard, was appointed to cover this retrograde movement. But soon after he had taken his position, an overwhelming force of Austrians suddenly came upon him. There seemed no escape to this devoted little band--but they were a part of the Old Guard, and if they fell, it would be like the Spartan band in Thermopylæ. Their heroic officer immediately concentrated his few soldiers and calling together the drummers he ordered the chasseurs not to fire, but to advance with the bayonet. The charge was then beaten and at the head of only a hundred and fifty men, he flung himself with such desperate energy on the five thousand Austrians advancing against him, that he broke their ranks in pieces, and put them to flight.
The battle of Brienne followed, and although the columns of the Old and Young Guard pressed forward amid the driving snow against the batteries, and stood firm under repeated charges of cavalry and infantry, yet they could not wring victory from the enemy. The constantly increasing forces of the allies rendered their numerical superiority so great that Napoleon at night ordered a retreat. He fell back to Troyes, and three days after to Nogent.