This bearskin headdress belonged to a grenadier of Napoleon’s elite Imperial Guard, and was captured at the Battle of Waterloo. The Imperial Guard was the most feared fighting force in the French Army.

The fame of the Imperial Guard bearskin headdress was only equalled by its prestige. Grenadiers were originally specialized grenade-throwing assault troops. They gained a reputation for being fearsome, courageous soldiers. By the 18th century they were usually the elite of every European army. To make throwing grenades easier, the wide hats with broad brims worn by infantry during the late 17th century were discarded and replaced with caps. These were frequently trimmed with fur and in time evolved into the full bearskin headdress.

The concept of a bodyguard of elite warriors owing personal allegiance to their leader is ancient. When Napoleon became First Consul and virtual dictator of France in 1799 he created a new Garde des Consuls as his personal guard. Initially it was made up from a small number drawn from the cream of the Army. The Guard were first blooded at the Battle of Marengo in 1800 where they stood firm amid the wavering French lines and laid the foundations of their reputation for invincibility.

When Napoleon proclaimed himself emperor in 1804, these “invincibles” became La Garde Imperial. They evolved from a small regiment to a complete army of 100,000 men in 1814. Napoleon took great care of his Guard. They received better pay, rations, quarters, and equipment, and all guardsmen ranked one grade higher than all non-Imperial Guard soldiers.

The growth in size of the Guard resulted in the creation of three categories: the Old Guard was made up of veterans from the earliest campaigns; the Middle Guard was composed of veterans from the 1805 to 1809 campaigns; and the Young Guard consisted of the best of the annual intake of conscripts and volunteers.

The Guard, as Napoleon’s elite troops, were always kept in reserve to be committed at the decisive points of a battle under his personal direction. At Waterloo, as the last reserves of the French Army, the Young Guard was deployed to hold the right flank against the Prussians. The Middle Guard, supported by part of the Old Guard, mounted the final attack of the battle to break through the weakened British centre.

They almost succeeded but were held and then forced back in disarray by counter attacks by Dutch-Belgian and British troops. This in turn led to the disintegration of the exhausted French Army. This bearskin was probably taken from the body of one of the guardsmen killed during this final, desperate attack.

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This object is in the collection of National Army Museum