Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Tenue des Sapeurs

Dress of Imperial Guard Sapeurs, 1813-1815

For his famous series of plates of the French Army of the Napoleonic period, Martinet of Paris produced many of prints based on sketches taken from life. However, many commentators have often, and eroneously, assumed his print of "Sapeur de la Garde" or "Sapeur ex-Garde" was perhaps not in fact Imperial Guard at all, or perhaps Young Guard.  In fact, as analysis of the regimental archives of the Grenadiers and Chasseurs a Pied of the Imperial Guard show, Martinet's plate was probably drawn from life and confirms iconographically the data drawn from the regimental archives.

Upon the dissolution of the Grenadiers a Pied de la Garde in July 1814 the following articles relating to the Sapeurs were issued:

1e Regiment.
Tabliers = 22
Gants a Crispins = 22 pairs (2 pairs need mending)
Porte-hache avec etui du Hache = 22
Ceinturons = 22

2e Regiment
No Sapeur equipment listed

Regiment des Grenadiers-Fusiliers

Bonnets d'Ourson = 5 (2 needed mending)
Porte-Hache = 5
Tabliers = 5
Gants a Cripsin = 5
Ceinturons = 4

In the magazine:
 25 Haches des Sapeur
25 Ceinturons
6 prs of "Haches brodee en Or" (axes embroidered in gold)

The Chasseurs a Pied de la Garde, at the same date possessed:

1e Chasseurs a Pied
Tabliers = 9
Porte Hache avec etui = 9
Gants a Crispin (pairs) = 9
Ceinturons = 9

2e Chasseurs a Pied
Tabliers = 6
Porte-Haches = 6
Gants a Crispin = 6
Ceinturons = 6


Bonnets d'Oursin = 2
Tabliers = 2
Porte-hache = 2
Ceinturon = 2

In the magazine
24 Haches de sapeur

17 pairs tetes de meduse

No special bearskins (other than for the Fusiliers), epaulettes or uniform coats for the sapeurs are listed either on issue or in the magazine suggesting that they did not exist. Furthermore, upon the final winding-up of the Imperial Guard in 1818 - when the accounts were finally settled! - whilst habits for musicians as well as stocks of Imperial Blue and Crimson cloth for the musicians were in stores, along with tassells for boots, cocked hats and various widths of gold lace for musicians, there were no special  dress habits for the sapeurs. Nor was there any special lace  listed.

The stores and magazines of the Chasseurs a Pied  on 1 December 1818 included:

Tetes de Meduse = 15
Plaques Jaune a l'Aigle pour Sapeurs = 60
Ceinturons de Sapeurs en bouffle = 54
Bretelles de Carabines des Sapeurs = 36
Gants a Crispins = 40 pairs 

Porte-Haches avec leurs Banderoles, garni de leurs petit gibernes a escusson a aigle = 12
Haches de Sapeur en Fer = 6

Magazine returns from 1814, 1815 and 1818 make it clear that the Banderole porte-hache  was decorated with a simple tete de meduse: no other devices are listed in the stores or magazines. The banderole decorated with multiple brass devices is not supported from primary archival evidence: either from stores/issue returns or from magazine returns. Furthermore, stores returns indicate that the banderole porte-hache with its tete de meduse remained in the magazines on campaign, along with the tablier, ceinturon and gants a crispin. In other words, the distinctive elements of a sapeurs' dress were parade items only. It is also clear that the port-hache had on the giberne flap a small brass eagle. The "plaques Jaune a l'Aigle" for the sapeurs is listed separately to the petit giberne on the porte-hache whicih raises the interesting possibility that sapeurs had plates on their bearskins. Again, no special lace, epaulettes or habits are listed for sapeurs.

Embroidery listed for the sapeurs included "haches brodee en jaune" (ie axes embroidered in yellow wool); "haches decoupe simple" (cut out cloth axes) and "garnitures pour sapeurs brodee en or" (devices for sapeurs embroidered in gold). We know that the Corps Royal des Grenadiers/Chasseurs de France had white, latterly silver, embroidered arm badges and that the re-established Imperial Guard of 1815 initially had yellow badges utntil ones in gold could be produced. Therefore, the "aches brodee en jaune" listed in 1818 may relate to 1815.  The only epaulettes for NCOs listed are two pairs for the Adjutant Sous-Officer who also had red and gold bearskin chords. No distinctive epaulettes,  or bearskin chords for Sergeants and Sergeant-Majors are listed suggesting that that they were not made and not issued. None remained in the magazines. Listed in the magazines are gold embroidered grenades and cors de chasse on white cloth for NCO  - and presumably also sapeur turn back ornaments. It is also worth nothing, no special epaulettes,  bearskin chords or uniforms with lace for the drummres (Tambours) is listed either!

Also  listed was an oil-cloth "etui" for the axe-head (to stop it rusting) as well as an "etui" for the porte-hache.

Initial anylsis of regimental paperwork for the period 1811-1814 suggests that no new equipment or uniform items for the sapeurs was purchased after 1811, suggesting those items in listed in returns 1814-1818 were probably made and issued before 1811.

From this data we can tentatively reconstruct the appearance of a sapeur in Grande Tenue 1813-1815

Bearskin (bonnet a poil), with white chords, plume and potentially a plate.
A simple  habit with red epaulettes and gold-embroidered axes on the sleeves; gold embroidered grenades/grenades and cors de chasse on the turnbacks.
Banderole porte-hache decorated with a large brass buckle and a single tete de meduse; the petit giberne decorated with a brass eagle.
Porte-sabre, potentially decorated with a tete de meduse in brass, carrying a tete de coq sabre.
White buff leather "gants a crispins"
White buff leather apron fastening with a brass plate. 

... in other words, the uniform exactly as depicted by Pierre Martinet.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Cavalry on Campaigin

If the life of a Cavalry Trooper in barracks was "Terrible hard", then life on campaign was all that - and more. Not only were the usual duties of tending and feeding the horses strictly adhered to, but pickets and videttes had to be provided, cook houses built, latrines dug and tents looked after.

The 1831 Cavalry Regulations and the Standing Orders of the Scots Greys state that on campaign pickets (in-lying and out-lying) were to be posted one hour before daybreak. An outlying picket, or vidette, consisted of half-a-dozen mounted troopers under the command of an NCO to observe the movement of the enemy and also mask their own unit. The in-lying picket was larger, commanded by an officer, and as the name suggests, placed closer to the camp. Captain William Douglas (10th Hussars) wrote that ‘An Outlying Picket ought to be concealed entirely from observation, either by natural or artificial obstacles.’ Whilst an Inlying Picket ought to be within sight of the camp.

Rudyard Kippling famously quipped " A Soldier's life is terrible hard" - especially so for a Cavalry Trooper. Not only had to look after himself and his own equipment, but his horse and horse tack were his number one priority: only after his loyal mount had been fed, watered and cared for could he attend to his own feeding and watering. Presented here is the daily routine for the Royal North British Dragoons, c.1830 (which probably changed very little from the Napoleonic Wars.


"At a quarter to five or six o'clock in the morning, according to season of the year, the Warning Trumpet sounds. All soldiers must get out of bed then... They must dress, roll their bedding on their iron bedstead, fold the blanket, the two sheets, and the rug, so as the colours of the rug shall appear throughout the sheets and blankets like marble. They  must take the point of a knife, and lay the edges of the folds straight until they look artistical to the eye. This must be finished by the time the "Warning" is over, which is an qurater of an hour.

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Sapeurs de la Garde

The uniform worn by the Sapeurs of the Grenadiers a Pied is supposedly well known, but from primary archival sources the uniform may not be what we expect to see...


The well-known heavily lace Habit de Grande Tenue is depicted only twice in contemporary iconography, in both instances associated with the Coronation of Napoleon I. The print-maker Hoffmann shows a Sapeur wearing the familiar habit with lavish gold lace to the collar; lapels and button holes; cuffs and cuff flaps and their button holes; turn backs and presumably the turnbacks, long pockets and their button holes.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Drums and Fifes at Waterloo

Perhaps one of the enduring myths - and certainly images - of the Napoleonic army is the 'brave little drummer boy', perhaps best summed up in the somewhat saccharine painting by Lady Butler 'Steady the drums and fifes' depicting golden-haired innocent youths caught up in the hell of war. The historical reality, however, is that drummers were most definately not boys: they were grown men.
 No. 3040 Henry Wattel. Born in Lille 10 November 1794 (aged  21 at Waterloo) was 1m 70 tall and volunteered into the 3e Regiment des Grenadiers 1 May 1815. He served as Tambour (Drummer) in 2e Co., 1e Battn., 3e Regiment at Waterloo where he was taken prisoner.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Whitening leather - Napoleonic style

From the Manuel Complete de Sous-Officier

"It is boiled in water, so as to make it white after having finely seived it, it dilutes the ground up pipeclay .
You do not make this mixture too thick or clear top, it extends on the cold leather equipment
that is bleached white. If the leather equipment is new, he must scrape the sides that do not require whitening, and there is a solution of white pipe clay of spain, you put on as many layers that are required for them to be fully white."
Manuel des Gardes Nationale 1830
"The same can dissolve one ounce of white lead, two ounces of hide glue with one ounce of white soap flakes in two litres of water and boil the mixture, taking care to stir, to avoid
the lightest parts floating to the top, which would prevent the mixture blending, then there mingl a slight amount of powder blue."
"The following method also with advantage: it is to boil a pinch of starch, after, having diluted in a quantity of water is sufficient to whiten a leather equipment, add six times as much powdered pipeclay, and Stir this mixture on the fire until perfectly boiling,[then] we add a few drops of azure blue to the whitening... Care must be taken when you want to bleach the leather, soak it in clear water to remove all remaining white and loose under the new layers, and
damage to their effect. When the leather equipment is stitched, we mark the line with a pencil."
A British recipe, c.1820
Take 6 pounds of the finest pipe-clay, pound it very small, put it in a tub, and put to it about 5
gallons of cold water. Let it remain for two or three days, stirring it now and then. Then take 6
ounces of gum dragon, and put it into 4 quarts of boiling water, and cover it up close for two or
three days. When the gum is well dissolved, take a fine hair sieve, and strain it into the pipe-clay, and keep stirring the pipe-clay well all the time you are doing this. Then take half an ounce of stone blue, and dissolve it well amongst your colouring (this gives a clear gloss to the belts). Let it allremain one day longer, and it will be fit for use, putting it on lightly and evenly with a sponge."

Thursday, 18 April 2013

French Infantry in 1815

The French Army probably did not look as we expect it to - films such as "Waterloo", reenactments and monumental paintings show the Infantry in particular wearing Imperial uniforms conforming to the 1812 reglement. But, the army during the "Hundred Days" was not the army of Napoleon, but the army of Louis.