French Imperial Eagle

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A late 19th century reproduction of the Eagle of the 1st squadron of the Horse Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard on display at the Louvre des Antiquaires in Paris.
French regimental flag with its Eagle.

French Imperial Eagle (Aigle de drapeau, lit. "flag eagle") refers to the figure of an eagle on a staff carried into battle as a standard by the Grande Armée of Napoleon I during the Napoleonic Wars.

Although they were presented with Regimental Colours, the regiments of Napoleon I tended to carry at their head the Imperial Eagle.

Details[edit]

The eagle was chosen as the symbol of the French Army by the Emperor Napoleon in 1804. The original design was sculpted by Antoine-Denis Chaudet and then copies were cast in the workshop of Pierre-Philippe Thomire, with the first eagles presented on the 5 December 1804.[1] It was the bronze sculpture of an eagle on a plinth, with one claw resting on "Jupiter's spindle".[1] weighing 1.85 kg (4 lb), mounted on top of the blue regimental flagpole. They were made from six separately cast pieces designed along Roman lines and, when assembled, measured 310 mm (12 in) in height and 255 mm (10 in) in width.[1] On the base would be the regiment's number or, in the case of the Guard, Garde Impériale. The Eagle bore the same significance to French Imperial regiments as the colours did to British regiments - to lose the Eagle would bring shame to the regiment, who had pledged to defend it to the death. Upon Napoleon's fall, the restored monarchy of Louis XVIII of France ordered all eagles to be destroyed and only a very small number escaped. When the former emperor returned to power in 1815 (known as the Hundred Days) he immediately had more eagles produced, although the quality did not match the originals. The workmanship was of a lesser quality and the main distinguishing changes had the new models with closed beaks and they were set in a more crouched posture.

Design inspiration[edit]

Roman Imperial Eagle inspired Napoleon's French Imperial Eagle.

The French Imperial Eagle design draws obvious inspiration from the Roman Imperial Eagle known as Aquila (lit. "eagle") and used as symbol of the Roman Legion.

Captured eagles[edit]

Original eagle as symbol of the Grande Armée.
The current royal house of Sweden retains an imperial eagle on its Coat-of-Arms, as his founder, Jean Bernadotte, was Marshal of France.

The first capture of an Eagle was most likely during the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805[citation needed] when the Russian Cavalry of the Guard under the Grand Duke Constantin overran the French 4th Line Infantry Regiment, taking their flag. Although Napoleon won the battle, the Russians were able to retreat in good order and the Eagle was not recovered, much to the Emperor's regret.

In 1807 at Heilsberg the 55th Line was overthrown by Prussian cavalry and Russian infantry. An eagle was lost and several officers including a colonel were killed. The eagle was captured by NCO Anton Antonov of Pernov Musketeers. Prussian historians dispute this, claiming that the Prittwitz Hussars captured the Eagle. The names of Prussian soldiers who captured the Eagle are unknown and little evidence to back up this claim. German artist Knotel painted a picture showing this moment.

In 1807, near Eylau, the 18th Line lost its flag and Eagle to the Russian St. Petersburg Dragoons. In 1812 at Krasne, the 18th Line (The Brave) again lost its eagle and was “virtually destroyed” by the Russian Lifeguard Uhlans.

In 1808, at the Battle of Bailén, the French corps led by General Dupont surrendered after being defeated by a Spanish army led by Generals Castaños and Reding; this was the first surrender of an Imperial field army. As part of the capitulation terms, the French gave up their flags and banners, including three Eagles. These Eagles were kept in the Cathedral of Seville until they were recovered by the French in 1810 and sent back to Paris.[2]

The first French Eagle to be captured by the British was taken by the 87th (Royal Irish Fusiliers) Regiment of Foot from the French 8th Ligne at the Battle of Barrosa on 5 March 1811. The first British soldier to touch the battle standard was a young officer, Ensign Edward Keogh, although as his hand grasped it, he was immediately shot through the heart and killed. He was followed by Sergeant Patrick Masterson, who grabbed the eagle from the French ensign who carried it, reputedly with the cry "By Jaysus, boys, I have the Cuckoo!".

The 87th was highly honoured for their success, being granted the honour of carrying the eagle as a motif on their Regimental Colours and through being granted the royal title 87th (Prince of Wales' Own) Irish Regiment.

The eagle was taken back to England and put on display in the Royal Hospital, Chelsea. It was around 10 inches tall, set on a plinth marked with the numeral 8. It was made of silver, but gilded, which led many to think it was solid gold. In fact, the only golden part of the eagle was a laurel wreath which hung around its neck. This wreath was an honour conferred upon the 8th Regiment by Napoleon himself, and was not common to all eagles at the time. The gold leaves were presented to a number of Regts that were present at the battle of Austerlitz by the city of Paris. The eagle's right claw was raised. Beneath it should have been a thunderbolt but, on the 87th's trophy, it was missing. It is believed to have been dislodged during its capture.

Several years later, the eagle was stolen from the Royal Hospital. It was broken from its staff and smuggled away to an unknown fate. Many rumours abounded, the strongest being that it had been repatriated by a Frenchman. More likely is that it was melted down and sold. The original staff is still held in the Royal Irish Fusiliers museum in Armagh, Northern Ireland.

Two Eagles from the Hundred Days on display at the Musée de l'Armée.

The British took two Eagles at the Battle of Salamanca in 1812. Ensign John Pratt of the Light Company of the 30th Foot (later 1st Battalion, East Lancashire Regiment) captured the Eagle of 22nd Regiment de Ligne (displayed today in the Museum of The Queen's Lancashire Regiment in Preston, Lancashire), while the 2nd Battalion of the 44th Foot took the Eagle of the French 62e Ligne.

Two of the newer French regimental eagles were captured during the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. French I Corps under the command of Comte d'Erlon was charged by the British heavy cavalry, command by Earl of Uxbridge; the Royal Dragoons captured the Eagle of the 105e Ligne (now held at the National Army Museum, Chelsea) and the Scots Greys captured the Eagle of the 45th Ligne.

Before the Duke of Wellington died in 1852, he had asked that all his battle trophies be carried at his funeral. As the eagle of the 8th was not available, it was decided to make a replica. The mould was made by Garrard's and was designed from a sketch of the original drawn by an officer of the 87th at the time of Barrosa. All contemporary eagles of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, Royal Irish Rangers and Royal Irish Regiment originate from this mould.

Eagles as accoutrements[edit]

The capture of an Eagle was celebrated through the addition of the eagle as a symbol or accoutrement to a regiment's colour or uniform. The Blues and Royals (Royal Horse Guards and 1st Dragoons) (descended from the 1st Royal Dragoons) and the Royal Anglian Regiment (descended from the 44th Foot) both wear the eagle as an arm badge,[3][4] while the cap badge of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards (Carabiniers and Greys) (descended from the Royal Scots Greys) is an eagle.[5] The Royal Irish Regiment wear the eagle of the 8th on the back pouch of the officers' black cross belt.[6]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c Wise, Terence (2012). Flags of the Napoleonic Wars (1): Colours, Standards and Guidons of France and her Allies. Osprey Publishing. pp. 4–6. ISBN 9781780966243. 
  2. ^ http://www.napoleon-series.org/military/battles/Bailen/c_bailentrophies1.html (in Spanish)
  3. ^ "Orders of Dress for Officers of the Armoured Regiment". Household Cavalry Museum. Retrieved 21 October 2013. 
  4. ^ "Symbols and Badges". Royal Anglian Regiment Museum. Royal Anglian Regiment. Retrieved 21 October 2013. 
  5. ^ "Royal Scots Dragoon Guards: Regimental History and Traditions". Ministry of Defence. Retrieved 21 October 2013. 
  6. ^ "Royal Irish Regiment: History of the Regiment". British Army Website. Retrieved 21 October 2013. 

External links[edit]

See also[edit]