Napoleon’s Imperial Guard need no introduction from us, and had been modelled many times before the release of this set. The appearance and reputation of the Guard is well-known, but what is perhaps less well-known is the great speed with which the Guard could march. The Old Guard tended to be close to the emperor, so sometimes they needed to move quickly to keep up with him, particularly if he left for a campaign just before it was to start. Sometimes they might have carriages or wagons in which to travel, but often the ground had to be covered quickly by marching, and it was said there were none to match the Guard. In any event Napoleon’s Old Guard followed him across much of Europe, mostly on foot, so a set such as this is a natural addition to the range.
Every man here is in winter campaign uniform, as they all wear a greatcoat, double-breasted and about knee-length, with fringed epaulettes on the shoulders. However we were surprised to see four of the poses with the skirts buttoned back to reveal the knees, in a style familiar in later decades but not so for the Napoleonic period. We found very little evidence that this actually happened, although as usual that does not mean that it did not. We found no evidence for the buttons these flaps are using, but there are images of skirts held back like this, so perhaps this was done more often than we might think.
The defining element of the uniform of the Old Guard was the tall bearskin, which all the figures here are wearing. All have the front plate, which tells us that these are grenadiers (and not chasseurs), and they all also have the cords and plume which were often removed when on the march. Since the caps have no covers either, it implies these men are expecting action soon, when they would want to look their best. Also, prior to around 1809 these men would usually have worn their ordinary hat while on the march, and only don their bearskins when action was imminent. Where the legs are visible it is clear some wear gaiters while others have trousers, both of which are appropriate.
Each man has a knapsack on his back, most of which include the hat strapped to the back, which hides some detail. One man lacks this hat, however, and this reveals he is not using a Guard knapsack (which had three strap fastenings), but an ordinary Line one (which had two). At times, and particularly during 1815, some guardsmen were forced to improvise, so straying from regulations like this is believable. Otherwise the kit is the usual arrangement of belt over left shoulder carrying the cartridge pouch and another over the right carrying the paired sabre and bayonet. Like the rest of the French Army, the Guard had to provide their own water vessels, so it is disappointing that no one here has any such item.
The command figures in our bottom row are dressed and equipped in a similar fashion, since many of the differences of uniform are hidden under the greatcoat. The sapper has been given a plate on his bearskin, which is likely to be wrong as it is thought they did not wear this device. He also lacks the case in which his axe should go, which means he is having to carry his axe uncased and just resting on his shoulder, which is far from ideal. Instead of the axe case, he has a standard cartridge pouch and belt. Also, he carries the same long musket as the rest of the men, when in fact he would have had a musketoon or carbine, which was significantly shorter. The drummer has no firearm but just a sword, which is correct, but he too has a non-Guard knapsack, which is positioned in the normal place rather than lower to accommodate stowage of the drum, leaving him to have the drum banging on his knee even though he is clearly not beating it (and he has no sticks anyway!). The Porte-Aigle has the standard greatcoat too, and just a sword, so is correctly done, as is the officer.
The figures seem very slim, and to be pedantic for a moment they are a bit too short. The minimum height for entry into the Old Guard grenadiers was 1.78 metres, but these average 1.66 in height. In fact there were exceptions (famously Coignet for example), but on average they should be taller, although the thick bases help to disguise this when stood next to other sets. The proportions are not bad, but the arms are often poorly done. Many are simply much too short, barely reaching below the waist, and the position of the elbow, which should be roughly at the mid-point of the arm, varies enormously. The faces are nice, but other detail is not so good. So the plates on the bearskins have no detail, nor do the cartridge pouches have any sort of a badge (just a blob at best). The strap connecting the pouch with the sword belt is missing (as it is on most sets of these men), and there is no sign of the rolled forage cap under that pouch. The drummer’s head has particularly suffered and is an odd shape, and the muskets have little definition, though that is because they do not face the mould. However the drum is very nicely done despite being all one piece with the man, and the flag has no engraved design, happily.
The poses largely speak for themselves. These men are in a relaxed march rather than on parade, which is fine, as they are holding their musket in different ways. The uncased axe has already been mentioned, as has the drum hanging at the knee rather than being carried. Equally, the flag would normally be cased, again unless action was imminent, but the officer is walking along with sword sheathed and nothing in his hands, looking very relaxed.
The flag is about 15mm (108cm) square, which is between the sizes of the 1813 flag (80cm square) and the 1815 type (120cm square). The staff has the eagle of course, and at about 34mm (245 cm) is a good length and looks good, although it lacks the cravats found on the original.
Recent research carried out by Paul Dawson has shown that greatcoats were issued earlier than the date of 1804 often quoted, and it is now unclear as to when the coat was single or double-breasted. This new work also underlines that our knowledge of uniforms and equipment of the past, even just a couple of centuries ago, is far from complete, and we live dangerously when we assume an old description or painting shows us the typical clothing and kit of a soldier. Nevertheless if you are to recreate history's soldiers then you have to use the best information available, and just accept that sometimes new research will change our view of what is or is not accurate. Also we must never forget that soldiers have always been inclined to adapt and alter their issue clothing for various reasons, when they can get away with it, so even when something like the buttoned skirts is labelled as inaccurate, no one can prove it never happened.
There are a couple more crucial observations to make. First, all the men have their bayonet attached rather than sheathed, so again suggesting close to action rather than just on a march. Second, and especially disappointing, none of the men have a queue. This hairstyle, which persisted throughout the Napoleonic Wars, was a major symbol of the Old Guard and proudly worn, along with a moustache, sideburns and earrings. Its absence here is another quite serious mistake. So there are a number of issues with the accuracy of this set, and a question mark over the drawn-back skirts, which still seem low to us, and so would still restrict movement. There is very little flash to speak of, so these are reasonably well produced without being great, but the arms in particular look faintly absurd in some cases. This makes the set reasonable rather than anything more, but the basic theme should make it appealing to many looking to model Napoleon’s famous old grumblers.