Napoleon’s Elite Badasses —- The Grenadier Sapeurs of the Imperial Guard,
Created in 1810 by French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, the Grenadier Sapeurs of the Imperial Guard were an elite unit of engineers and perhaps the toughest soldiers of the Grande Armee, and perhaps the toughest soldiers in all the world at that time. As sappers, an old term for combat engineers, it would have been their duty to clear roads, build fortifications, construct bridges, and other tasks that require either the building or destruction of military structures. However, while they were engineers, Napoleon formed the unit for another purpose entirely.
As Elite Sapeurs of the Imperial Guard, they were chosen to be the best and toughest combat soldiers in the army. They were chosen from the Old Guard, an elite group of soldiers who served with Napoleon since the beginning of his command, thus they were hardened veterans who had participated in countless battles. They were also required to meet larger than normal minimum height and weight requirements, thus the men of the Sapeur de la Garde were very large and burly men. Other than their size their most noticeable feature was their unique uniform, equipment, and weapons. While wearing a huge bearskin hat the Sapeurs also grew large beards, giving them an image of rough, rugged brutes. This was intentional, a type of Napoleonic psychological warfare created to scare the crap out of the enemy. I mean, would you want to mess with this guy! (pictured above) Standard armaments usually included a musketoon, blunderbuss, or carbine, pistols for officers and NCO’s, and swords. However the Sapeur’s most handy weapon was his large axe, used for chopping down trees, obstacles, fortifications, and men.
Napoleon had a specific purpose for the men of the Grenadier Sapeurs. Numbering around 400 soldiers they never served in one single unit but instead served in platoons attached to other Imperial Guard units (the Imperial Guard were Napoleons elite units). Officially their main task was to guard the Imperial Eagle standards of the Imperial Guard, the capture of which would bring incredible shame and embarrassment for the unit and empire. However, they were also used as Napoleonic Era tanks. When besieging a fortress the Grenadiers Sapeurs were often called to the front. Using their trusty axes they would smash down a door, gate, or any other obstacle, then smash down any defenders found waiting on the other side. Imagine being a defender, on the other side of a large wooden gate, hearing and seeing the Sapeurs slowing bashing down the door in front of you. Then when the gate is broken, twenty huge monstrous badasses emerge from the breech, bashing in skulls and loping off limps with large axes. Often undisciplined soldiers turned and ran rather than face the wrath of the Sapeurs.
After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815 the Grenadier Sapeurs continued to live on. When Napoleon’s nephew, Louis Bonaparte (Napoleon III), became Emperor of France in 1852 he revived the traditions of the Imperial Guard and with it the Sapeurs. (The photo above is a Sapeur from the Crimean War, 1853-56) While the use of Sapeurs died out and was replaced with modern sappers and combat engineers, the traditions of the Sapeurs continues. Today combat engineers of the Foreign Legion often wear beards and carry axes during parades and ceremonial events.