The Seaman of the Guard

        The term “Seamen” has been used here as a more accurate translation than the frequent Anglicisation “Marines”; the Marins de la Garde were essentially naval personnel, French “marines” in the English sense being termed Infanterie de marins.

        On 17 September 1803 Napoleon decreed the formation of a battalion of Seamen within the Consular Guard, initially to man the boats which would transport the staff in the projected invasion of England; the battalion was organised as a naval unit, comprising 737 sailors in five “crews” of five squads each, under a naval captain (capitaine de vaisseau) and assisted by a commander (capitaine de frégate), with five trumpeters. Supplied by each Maritime Prefect, the personnel “selected for the honour of joining the entourage of the First Consul” were to be of robust health, five feet ten inches tall, and with a record of good conduct and loyalty. The seamen were ranked and paid like the cavalry of the Guard, their NCOs (who retained naval titles) equating with cavalry ranks; and the whole battalion was nicknamed “naval hussars” from their cavalry-style uniform, with officers “gilded like chalices”. They were instructed in armes drill; perfected their own “free, if rather unusual, gait”; and took their place in the Imperial Guard, originally under one Captain Daugier but later under Vice-Admiral Count Baste – a tough and surly commander, though of great distinction. The unit rarely served as a complete battalion, but often in small detachments: e.g. in 1811 two companies were serving as marines at Toulon, one at Brest, one at Antwerp and one at Cadiz; only two companies served in Russia in 1812, two in the 1813 campaign and one in 1814. (They should not be confused with the numbers of naval battalions used in land operations, basically as labourers.)

        Though armed as sailors at the outset, the Seamen were soon issued with infantry equipment to enable them to fulfill such a role in the campaigns of the Empire. In1804 the strength was increased to 818 men, with a trumpeter and drummer in each crew. In the Austerlitz campaign they forsook their new infantry role to man a small flotilla on the Danube, demonstrating the value of having trained sailors attached to the army. In December 1806 a detachment built a bridge of boats over the Vistula, while others operated a ferry service across the river. After Eylau a company was despatched to build a bridge at Marienwerder, for witch they captured 40 river-boats; and a midshipman and five Seamen were sent to Danzig upon an intelligence-gathering mission, the results of which caused the remainder of the corps to be called to join the army, to man eight ships on the Friche-Haff, the inland sea between Danzig and Königsberg.

        In the debacle of Baylen in Spain in July 1808, where Dupont´s 17,000 French troops surrendered to the Spanish, the Seamen fought as infantry, and though the whole battalion was virtually destroyed it upheld the finest traditions of the Guard; the survivors were consigned to Spanish prison hulks. On 27 March 1809 the Seamen of the Guard was reduced to a single “crew” of 148 men, with naval battalions filling their previous role; but these proved a pale imitation, as Napoleon wrote when re-mustering the old Seamen: “I would rather have 100 men like them than all your naval battalion.” The existing company rejoined the army immediately, Baste and his Seamen cruising around the island of Lobau in river craft armed with fieldpieces, while others aided the pontooneers in constructing a bridge of boats over the Danube. After organising a system of navigation and communication on the river the Seamen were recalled to France, their services resulting in a decree of 16 September 1810 which re-formed the battalion. It was to be eight companies strong, plus staff, giving a total of some 1,136 men including eight trumpeters – though the process of formation was slow, and by the beginning of 1812 even the sixth company had not yet been formed.

        In 1810 the Seamen returned to Spain; intended for use as engineers, they were regarded as too valuable to be committed to battle except in emergencies. Nevertheless, during Masséna´s retreat in early 1811 they were assigned, as an elite unit, to the rearguard! Their versatility was demonstrated further in the Russian campaign of 1812 when the two companies with six 12-pdr. Fieldpieces and two howitzers form the Moscow arsenal.

        Re-organised in 1813-14, the Seamen manned ferries and served as engineers and infantry in the Leipzig campaign; Baste, commanding an infantry brigade, was killed at Brienne on 29 January 1814. When disbanded on 30 June 1814 the Seamen of the Guard numbered 14 officers and 336 men. A subaltern (enseingne) and 21 marins followed Napoleon to Elba, and a unit of 94 men, later enlarged to 150, was re-established upon his return; they served with the engineers during the Waterloo campaign, and were disbanded on 15 August 1815.

        A final comment upon the Seamen of the Guard was provided by Napoleon himself: “What should we have done without them? … As sailors they have in no way deteriorated, and they have shown themselves the best of soldier. When occasion required they proved equally valuable, whether as sailors, soldiers, artillerymen or engineers; there was no duty they could not undertake.”