“Á l’eau c’est l’heure!” – The Sailors of the Imperial Guard

The Marins de la Garde Impériale were originally created by Napoleon in 1803 as part of the Consular Guard.  The Marins (i.e. ‘Sailors’ or ‘Seamen’, often mis-translated in English as ‘Marines’, which they were not) were raised from naval personnel and were organised into a battalion of five ‘crews’ (companies), each of around 145 men.  They were tasked with supervising the boats that were to carry the men of the Grande Armée during the invasion of Britain.  In 1804 the Consular Guard became the Imperial Guard and the battalion was increased to six crews/companies, for a total of 818 men. 

In 1805 the invasion of Britain was cancelled and the Marins were re-trained as infantry.  However, they soon found themselves back on the water; building bridges and manning boats on various rivers and lagoons during the campaigns against the Austrians, Prussians and Russians during the period 1805 to 1807.

In 1808 the battalion was sent to Spain and at the battle of Baylen fought hard as infantry, suffering heavy losses against the Spanish, before the survivors passed into captivity along with the rest of Dupont’s unfortunate army.

In 1809 the Marins were reformed as a single company/crew and accompanied the Emperor on his Danube campaign against the Austrians, were they once again took to the water, manning boats and assisting the engineers in building bridges.

In 1810 they were once again restored to a full battalion, with a theoretical strength of 1,136 men, organised into eight companies.  However, it seems that this was never attained.  They soon found themselves in Spain once again and in 1811 were fighting as infantry in the rearguard of Marshal Massena’s army as it retreated from the Lines of Torres Vedras.  Thankfully they this time managed to avoid being wiped out and in 1812 were marching with the Emperor to Moscow, where they for a time proved their versatility by operating as artillerymen.

Reconstituted once again following heavy losses in Russia, they operated again as boatmen during the 1813 Campaign in Germany and fought hard as infantry alongside their comrades of the Young Guard at Leipzig.  They fought on as infantry throughout the defence of France in 1814 and when Napoleon capitulated they still had 350 men under the Eagle.  94 Marins accompanied Napoleon into exile on Elba and returned to France with him in 1815.  The Marins were expanded to 150 men during the 100 Days Campaign of 1815, where they served as part of the Engineers.  Nevertheless, at Waterloo, they formed part of the last rearguard covering the retreat from the battlefield, making their stand alongside the 1st Grenadiers of the Guard.

As Napoleon said, “What would we have done without them? …They were good sailors, then they were the best soldiers. And they did everything – they were soldiers, gunners, sappers, everything!”

When I saw these figures appear in a ‘coming soon’ article from AB Figures last year, I just couldn’t wait to get my hands on them and spent the next six months checking the Fighting 15s website on a daily basis to see if they’d arrived!  At long last, they finally arrived and I was absolutely not disappointed – these are exquisite figures and quite definitely among Tony Barton’s finest work.

Most AB figures Napoleonics are depicted in ‘field dress’: I.e. not full dress and not full-on campaign rags, but ‘somewhere in the middle’.  However, an exception is made for the Imperial Guard infantry, which are all depicted in full dress splendour (and quite right too!).  These Matelots are depicted in their full dress dolman jacket, which had red pointed cuffs, blue collar and brass contre-epaulettes (shoulder-scales) on a red cloth backing, all heavily festooned in aurore (a pinkish yellow-orange) lace.  The trousers were dark blue, with aurore-laced side-seams and Hungarian knots.

The Marins also had a field uniform consisting of a plain dark blue, double-breasted jacket, with collar and pointed cuffs in the same colour, piped aurore.  The brass contre-epaulettes were worn with this uniform.

The shakos were initially quite plain, with detachable peaks and aurore lace on the upper and lower bands, aurore cords, a carrot-shaped aurore pompom and the national cockade on the upper-front edge.  This changed at some point (probably with the reformation of the unit in 1809) to the one shown on these models, with a brass Young Guard eagle-plate on the front, brass edging to the (fixed) peak, a tall red plume and the national cockade moved to the left side.

Drummers and trumpeters wore a sky-blue version of the uniform, with mixed red/yellow lace.  Their shakos had gold lace and cords.

Officers had a dark-blue uniform cut in the style of the Guard Chasseurs, with dark blue facings heavily laced in gold (these officers were described as ‘gilded’), a gold aiguilette on the right shoulder and epaulette on the left shoulder.  The cutaway coat revealed a red waistcoat with gold ‘hussar’ braid.  Breeches were dark blue with gold side-seams and rank shown in the light cavalry style, by gold lace ‘spearpoints’ on the thigh.  Boots were of light cavalry style with gold tassels.  Headgear was an unlaced cocked hat with gold ‘pulls’ and red plume.

In game terms, these are actually fairly redundant for me, as I play Napoleon’s Battles 4th Edition, which is a ‘grand-tactical’ game, with units representing brigades rather than battalions.  If I were to reflect actual strength, the unit would be no more than eight figures strong at full strength!

However, these figures are just too good not to have on the table…  I do need a lot of Young Guard for the 1813 Campaign and my unit of Marins will therefore replace one of the five Voltigeur brigades of the Young Guard.  They’ll help break up the monotony of painting all those Young Guardsmen!

[Edited to add that Fighting 15s are no longer the UK agent for AB Figures.  They are now available from Eureka UK]

This entry was posted in 15mm Figures, Napoleon's Battles (Rules), Napoleonic French Army, Napoleonic Wars, Painted Units and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to “Á l’eau c’est l’heure!” – The Sailors of the Imperial Guard

  1. Pingback: French Napoleonic Reinforcements | Jemima Fawr's Miniature Wargames Blog

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