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France: Regimental flags under the First Empire

Last modified: 2008-09-13 by ivan sache
Keywords: first empire (france) | eagle | aigle | thunderbolt (yellow) | bee | irish legion | legion irlandaise | harp | imperial guard | garde imperiale |
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The Imperial eagles (aigles)

On 18 May 1804, Premier Consul Napoléon Bonaparte was proclaimed Emperor of the French (Empereur des Français). This ended the political regime known as the Consulate (Consulat), which had started with the coup against the Directoire led by the very same Napoléon Bonaparte on 18-19 Brumaire of the Year VIII (9-10 November 1799).
Emperor Napoléon was crowned on 2 December 1804 in cathedral Notre-Dame in Paris by Pope Pius VII. The crowning ceremony took place nearly seven months after the proclamation of the Empire because the new Emperor had to reorganize the institutions, establish an Imperial family and court, and, last but not least, convince the Pope to crown a former revolutionary.

On 5 December, Napoleon presided a ceremony on the Champ-de-Mars, in Paris, during which new colours were allocated to the regiments. The choice of the place for the ceremony was not coincidental at all. The Champ-de-Mars was a parade ground, named after the Roman god of war. The Fête de la Fédération was celebrated othe Champ-de-Mars on 14 July 1790. Next year, the red flag was hoisted on the Champ-de-Mars on 17 July and the first martyres of the Revolution were killed. Therefore, the new Emperor claimed to be the successor of the Roman emperors without abandoning his own revolutionary past.
The Champ-de-Mars ceremony is shown on a painting by Louis David (1748-1825, often considered as the inventor of the optical proportions of the French flag at sea), now exhibited in the Palace of Versailles. The Emperor is shown wearing a purple coat decorated with golden bees, holding in his left hand a scepter topped by an eagle, and crowned with laurels. He points his right arm to a group of soldiers who dip their regimental flags. The space between the Emperor and the soldiers is filled up with a group of marshals raising their batons. The scenography was directly inspired by the ceremony of oath taking by the Roman legions.
The flags shown by David are different from the Imperial Guard standard shown below. The flags are made of a white diamond reaching the borders of the flag, charged with the golden writing:


The triangle corners of the flags are blue-red-red-blue with the number of the regiment in gold inside a golden crown.

The reverse of the flags is identical to the obverse, but with a different writing:


The finial of the regimental flag is the same as on the Imperial scepter, representing an eagle with the wings half-spread. The eagle was symbolically so important that the flags themselves were called aigles (eagles). In most cases, the flag remained with the official documents and funds of the regiment, and only the eagle was carried on the battle field.

The organization of the eagle guard on the battle field reflects the holy character of the eagles. An Imperial Decree of 18 February 1808 appointed eagle-bearers. In each regiment, the eagle-bearer should have served at least 10 years and have fought in Ulm (1805), Austerlitz (1805), Iena (1806) and Friedland (1807). This first eagle-bearer should be assisted by two war veterans, called the second and the third eagle bearers. The eagle-bearers could be appointed only by the Emperor.
The second and third eagle-bearers were expected to save the emblem in all situations. Therefore, they were armed with a small peak called esponton, which had a red (second eagle-bearer) or white (third eagle-bearer) ribbon, and two pistols kept in a holster on the eagle-bearer's chest.
The guard of the eagle was made of fusiliers rather than grenadiers and light infantrymen, who could be called on fight far from the regiment and the eagle. The Emperor further prescribed that the flags should be kept in the most crowdy battalions, that is in companies of fusiliers.

When Napoleon attempted to reestablish his empire (the Cent-Jours, March-June 1815), a similar ceremony of eagle distribution was organized. The ceremony took place once again on the Champ-de-Mars, which was renamed Champ-de-Mai, to recall the May (or liberty) trees planted during the Revolution. The ceremony was, however, postponed to 1 June.


  • B. Melchior-Bonnet. Napoléon consul et empereur, 1799-1815. Histoire de France illustrée, Larousse (1988)
  • F. & L. Funcken. L'uniforme et les armes des soldats du Premier Empire (Tome 1, p. 86)

Ivan Sache, 21 September 2003

Sources I have say that the flags were carried, and a good number of them captured during the Napoleonic Wars, and that in the later days of the Empire, the Eagles were stored to prevent their capture.

Greg Biggs, 23 September 2003

Some information on the preservation of these eagles can be gleaned from Wise & Rosignoli [wis78a]:
- page 5, on the first and second issues: "Most of these eagles were destroyed by order of the Royal Government on the restoration of the monarchy in 1814, and few survived this destruction."
- page 6, on the third issue: "In September 1815 ninety-three eagles were delivered to the Arsenal of Bourges and destroyed, together with their flags. In France there remain today fifty-nine of the 1804 eagles, three of 1811, and twelve of the 1815 model. Some sixty eagles have survived in other countries, though few of these were taken in battle: for example, only three were lost in the Russian campaign of 1812, two or possibly three at Leipzig, and two at Waterloo."

Jan Mertens, 23 September 2003

Only one eagle was taken in battle during the Peninsular campaign - by the 87th Regiment of Foot - at the Battle of Barossa on March 5th 1811.

Christopher Southworth, 23 September 2003

Imperial Guard (Garde Impériale)

[Imperial Guard, reverse][Imperial Guard, obverse]

Flag of the Imperial Guard, reverse and obverse - Images by Tom Gregg, 4 March 2000

The 2nd Foot Grenadiers were raised in 1811, the regiment's cadre coming from the 1st Foot Grenadiers. Thus it was considered part of the Old Guard and bore on its color the same battle honors as the 1st Foot Grenadiers.
I have illustrated the 1812 pattern color, which was basically the same for the whole French Army: a square fringed silk Tricolor, 28 inches square, with the inscriptions enclosed by a frame of Imperial and regimental devices.
The color of the 1st Foot Grenadiers was identical except for the regimental number, and those of the 1st and 2nd Foot Chasseurs (also part of the Old Guard) were similar except for hunting horns in place of bursting grenades.
The drawings are based on an illustration in Liliane & Fred Funcken's book on uniforms of the Napoleonic Wars.

Tom Gregg, 4 March 2000

In Military Flags of the World 1618 - 1900 [wis77], these flags showed the accents on the E capital letters.

Stephan Hurford, 5 March 2000

The illustration I used for reference showed no accents except for "RÉGIMENT" and on "À Pied". No doubt there were numerous variations from whatever standard may have been laid down for inscriptions.

Tom Gregg, 6 March 2000

Irish Legion (Légion Irlandaise), 1803-1815

The Regiment received its own flag and an eagle. The flag bore on one side a large gold harp, with the motto: "L'INDEPENDANCE D'IRLANDE". On the other side was the inscription: "NAPOLEON EMPEREUR DES FRANÇAIS A LA LEGION IRLANDAISE".

The Irish Regiment did not participate in the Waterloo campaign. Upon the return of Louis XVIII, the Regiment once again swore allegiance to the Bourbons. The royalists returned to Paris in a vengeful mood, however, and the Regiment was officially disbanded on 28 September 1815 at Montreuil-sur-mer. The Officers were discharged, although most desperately wished to remain on active duty. The non-commissioned officers and soldiers of the Irish Regiment, who did not request a discharge, were sent to Toulon where a Royal Foreign Regiment was being formed.
Finally, all regimental property containing imperial markings were ordered destroyed. As a result, the flags of the 2nd and 3rd Battalions were burned, and the Regimental Eagle destroyed.

Source: The Napoleonic Historical Society website, quoted by Phil Nelson, 25 July 1999