By Order of the Commander-in-Chief: the Origin of the Guides-à-cheval
By Roberto A. Scattolin, Italy
At the battle of Borghetto (30 May), during the war of the First Coalition (first Italian campaign of 1796), the French army was pursuing the fleeing enemy infantry.
In that critical juncture, in that phenomenological complexity of strategic fluctuations, General Bonaparte had crossed the Mincio River; after having given orders to his staff commanders, the Republican generalissimo stopped in a decaying farm-house located on the left bank.
Napoleon, feeling unwell, put his feet in warm water.
The Uncertainty of Warfare
A moment later a strong detachment of Austrian cavalry, led astray and going upstream, reached the villa where he was lodged. The sentry guarding the main door – more probably a piquet de garde – promptly reacted to the threat; with brave determination closed it and gave the alarm. In that difficult emergency, without further protection and taken by surprise, Napoleon was faced with the most imminent danger of being captured by a dashing patrol of Austrian uhlans (the unexpected intervention and open hostilities of the Imperial light cavalry proved quintessential as a source of unchecked confusion to the French).
To his great embarrassment, Bonaparte realized that the stand would have been inadvisable; therefore, he conformed to his ideas to the principle of saving his life at the last moment and to the motto “sauve qui peut”. In the mist of confusion, there was a general stampede; the French Republican leader literally took flight through the back part of the villa, running with all his strenght to the garden. In the process, he rapidly escaped with distressing thoughts. It was almost by chance that he mounted his horse without boots or stockings, within a hair’s breadth of being sabred.
The Coefficients of Danger
This unexpected accident caused great apprehension to Napoleon; the fortuitous flight made him wisely feel the need to create a bodyguard charged with his safety, and especially trusted with protection and security measures in case of enemy attacks. These same men were also to guarantee the safety of the headquarters during active field operations and in the course of military campaigns.
The unit had a special status, and the nominal strength originally reached fifty horsemen.
Captain Bessières of the 22nd Chasseurs organized its ranks; the light cavalrymen, structured on a company level, became the Guides-à-cheval du Général en Chef de l’ armée d’ Italie. The formation of the Guides, as a permanent armed escort, was thereafter closely associated with the personal safety of General Bonaparte; regarding any performed duty, Bessières’ seasoned veterans were always responsible for guarding him in bivouac, at headquarters, on the march and in battle.
In a dispatch dated 13 Prairial, An IV (1 June 1796, 09:00 p.m.), Napoleon from his headquarters at Peschiera so wrote to Captain Jean-Baptiste Bessières recently appointed chef d’ escadron in the corps of the Guides:
Howard, John Eldred. Letters and Documents of Napoleon. London: Cresset Press, 1961; Vol. I, no. 145, p. 129.
Las Cases, Emanuel-Auguste-Dieudonné. Il Memoriale di Sant’ Elena, Gherardo Casini Editore; 1962.
Fallou, L. La Garde Imperiale. Paris; 1901.
Glover, Michael. The Napoleonic Wars: An illustrated history 1792-1815, New York: Hippocrene Books; 1979.
Lachoque, Henri. The Anatomy of Glory, London: Arms and Armour Press; 1978
Lachoque, Henri. La Garde Imperiale. Limoges: Charles-Lavauzelle; 1982
Young, Peter. Chasseurs of the Guard. London: Osprey; 1976.
 The Memoriale di Sant’ Elena provides a brief narrative of this striking episode. So far, the souvenir connected with the honourable conduct of General Bonaparte placed it in a most praiseworthy milieu: a castle on the left bank of the Mincio river. The word “castle” is subsequently alternated with a not better specified villa with a garden adjoining it. This manifest incongruity has a hidden meaning; on speculative grounds, the word castello derives from the Latin etymology castellum, castrum, that is to say a suitable position well fitted for a state of defence. In this context, the structure mentioned by Bonaparte was a wall-enclosed farm-house stony-built. The architectural building was a mansion; it retained the specification of palazzo. This particular location can still be seen in the village of Valeggio sul Mincio (County of Verona, nearly 20 km S.O.).
 The memorial, in this case, is accurate; Napoleon was said to have had a headache.
 On 11 Prairial, An IV (30 May 1796), from his headquarters at Valeggio, Bonaparte issued orders to Chef-de-brigade Jean Lannes (born at Lectoure on 10 April 1769) to organize a cavalry company composed of fifty Guides-à-cheval.
 The Guides of Bonaparte earned a glorious reputation at the battle of Arcole-Veronese where, on 17 November 1796, black Lieutenant Domingo, nicknamed “Hercules”, charged with twenty-five troopers the Austrian infantry. This daring strategic application and the maneuver largely contributed to victory; rewards to the bold riders were beneficial: each Guide received a special bonus of seventy-two francs. Joseph Domingue (born in Cuba 19 May 1761; died in Paris, 19 April 1820) had been appointed sous-lieutenant des Guides on 26 October 1796; for his brilliant action at Arcole, he set a standard of duty on the field of battle. The prestige of the Guides was remarkable; Corporal Pailhes, one of the saviours of General Bonaparte (the first day of battle, 15 November 1796, had been brusquely unsaddled and fell in the marshy ground along the embankment leading to the village of Arcole) was admitted in this unit for his intrepid and resolute behaviour. Pailhes had enlisted in the ranks of the 4e Demi-Brigade D’ Infanterie De Bataille commanded by General Jean-Antoine Verdier.
 Howard, John Eldred. Letters and Documents of Napoleon. London: Cresset Press, 1961; Vol. I, no. 145, p. 129.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: March 2006
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