Among the oldest photographs of veterans in the world is a set of fifteen sepia portraits of former soldiers from Napoleon’s army. The photos were taken when the subjects were in their seventies and eighties. The pictures are currently in the Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection at Brown University. It is unknown how Brown acquired the photos. Each is 12”x10” and mounted on stiff card; the name of each veteran and his regiment is written on the back of each in pencil.
They are likely the only remaining images of the veterans of the Grande Armée and the Guard in their original uniforms and insignia, although some of the uniforms appear to have been tailored in the 1850s. Each photo has been taken in a studio. Some of the subjects are standing while some are seated. Several images are blurry – an indication of the difficulty the elderly subjects had in standing still for the time it would have taken to expose a film plate.
It is not clear when and why the men were photographed. L’Epopée du Costume Militaire Français by Henri Bouchot gives some clue. In the book, there is a color plate showing ten Napoleonic veterans in full uniform passing the column which sits at the center of the Place Vendô. Two of the men bear wreaths. The photo is titled, “Le Vieux de la Vieille, Le 5 Mai, 1855”. A comparison shows that the ten veterans look very much like the veterans in Mrs. Brown’s collection.
May 5th is significant because that is the day when veterans would gather in Paris to commemorate the death of Napoleon. The London Times described the 1855 procession: “The base and railings of the column of the Place Vendôme appear this day decked out with the annual offerings to the memory of the man whose statue adorns the summit. The display of garlands of immortelles and other tributes of the kind is greater than usual … the old soldiers of the Empire performed their usual homage yesterday at the same place.”
On that occasion, there was a funeral in the chapel of the Invalides. It was attended by Prince Jerome and other dignitaries. The entire personnel of the Invalides was present along with soldiers of the First Empire.
The more likely date for these photographs, though, is 1858. All the photographed veterans are wearing Saint Helene medals. All those who fought in the wars of the Revolution and the Empire received these medals in August of 1857.
“If you want a thing done well, do it yourself.”
Credit for all quotes: Napoleon Bonaparte.
Credit for all images of Napoleon’s Veterans: Brown University Library
“Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever.”
“Nothing is more difficult, and therefore more precious than to be able to decide.”
“Let France have good mothers, and she will have good sons.”
“A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.”
“The human race is governed by its imagination.”
“He who fears being conquered is sure of defeat.”
“When soldiers have been baptized in the fire of a battle-field, they have all one rank in my eyes.”Mor
“Impossible is a word only to be found in the dictionary of fools.”
“There are only two forces in the world, the sword and the spirit. In the long run the sword will always be conquered by the spirit.”
“Great ambition is the passion of a great character. Those endowed with it may perform very good or very bad acts. All depends on the principals which direct them.”
“The most dangerous moment comes with victory.”
“Power is my mistress. I have worked too hard at her conquest to allow anyone to take her away from me.”
“The future destiny of the child is always the work of the mother.”
“Death is nothing; but to live defeated and inglorious is to die daily.”