The Face of Western Battle | Part 2

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  1. Flight of Imperial Eagles   

Colors and standards served practical, as well as thumotic uses. In pitched battles – from ancient times to the Napoleonic era – dust, smoke, and the chaos of combat obscured friend from foe, or even friend from friend. In some cases, confusion caused panics and disastrous routs that better visual aids could have prevented. For the Greeks, it was the shield-wall bearing images of tridents or Gorgons that kept the line physically and psychologically together.

It took another Western society (heavily influenced by the Greeks) to implement the widespread use of actual battle-standards. According to Livy’s Early History of Rome, the last, despicable Tarquin king met the Roman republic’s forces outside the Eternal City in a bid to reclaim his throne. The mounted Roman aristocrats at first attacked rival antagonists in single-fight, but were shot at by archers and run through by spears and javelins for their trouble. The “Dictator” leading the Republic’s army forestalled any more suicidal charges. Instead, he ordered these officers to fight on foot with the rest of the Roman infantry, “who were worn out with the struggle.” They obeyed, “leaped from their horses, and . . . fought in front of the standards.” When the line-soldiers watched “the flower of the nobility fighting on equal terms and sharing the same dangers with themselves,” they “recovered their courage at once.1” As in the Iliad, we see the transformation of individual warriors into members of a national army. The aristocrats both “lowered” themselves and raised up the rank and file by fighting among the common infantrymen. Livy chose the phrase, “fought in front of the standards” for a purpose. Once the rich and powerful men decided to become virtuous citizen-soldiers dedicated to a cause greater than achievement of personal acclaim, Livy associated them with Roman national colors. Indeed, they fought with such a collective will, that they outpaced even the front-line standard-bearers, in turn rallying the “worn-out” ranks to surge forward with them.  

It was not until the second century BC that the Marian Reforms introduced the aquila, or eagle standard, to the Roman army – a brilliant decision with intense psychological consequences. Each legion formed a collective, quasi-religious identity around their particular golden eagle; for the legionary, losing it to an enemy was worse than dying a thousand gruesome deaths. Look no further for proof that standards were national “faces,” for their capture inflicted severe “loss of face” that reached the highest of socio-religious pitches. Romans carried out entire military operations just to recover them. In the years following the debacle of Teutoburg Forest (9 AD) and the annihilation of the Varian legions, Romans scoured the still-dangerous massacre sites in search of the lost eagles. When successful soldiers presented General Germanicus with these rescued icons, the scene and the mission took on a sacred quality. The honor of Rome and her brave fallen were redeemed. The eagles over which so many men spilled their blood had been ransomed and re-sanctified. 

A Roman legionary emerges from the darkness and mass grave of Teutoburg Forest into fresh air, a broad clearing, and clear skies; the recovered eagle-standard again sees the light of day. Germanicus’ cloak billows out dramatically in the breeze, while the legionary spreads his arms wide in an equally theatrical pose. All of it symbolizes an opening, or unshrouding, as if the eagle’s redemption has lifted the mourning veil from the face of Rome, finally allowing her legionaries to bury the dead and hold their heads up once more.  

Indeed, when fortunes in battle became desperate, all Romans needed to do was invoke the standard. Julius Caesar’s troops first invaded ancient Britain in 54 BC, and storming the beachhead proved no easy task. While making their landing some yards from the Kentish coast, Caesar’s men hesitated, “chiefly on account of the depth of the sea.” At this do or die moment, “he who carried the eagle of the tenth legion, after supplicating the gods . . . exclaimed, ‘Leap, [comrades], unless you wish to betray your eagle to the enemy . . . for my part, [I] will perform my duty to the [republic].’” The brave soldier launched himself over the side of his ship “and proceeded to bear the eagle toward the enemy.” The rest exhorted one another that “so great a disgrace” as letting a little cold water (or a lot, in this instance) deter them “should not be countenanced.” Raising a shout, “every man faced the weapons of the enemy . . . with” a jubilation that matched their “threatening banners.”2  

Ever since, Western militaries have adopted versions of the eagle aquila in a desire to recapture the “face” of Roman élan and thus make themselves over in the image of our Classical ancestors. One of the most spectacular examples was the eagle cult of Napoleon’s Grande Armée. If anything, the Napoleonic eagles inspired yet greater dramatic tales of battlefield daring. As one admiring Britisher put it, “the deeds of chivalrous valour and stern fortitude done for the honour of Napoleon’s Eagles by the gallant soldiers who faced [Wellington’s army] . . . proved indeed foemen worthy of their steel” – sentiments that neatly echoed the Iliad hymns written twenty-five centuries earlier3. Because he considered himself the “Caesar of Paris,” Napoleon dictated that his Frenchmen would also carry standards crowned with golden eagles. 

Writing to his chief of staff, Marshal Louis-Alexandre Berthier, the Emperor explained that “the eagle with wings outspread, as on the Imperial Seal, will be at the head of the standard-staves, as was the practice in the Roman army. The flag will be attached at the same distance beneath the eagle, as was the labarum.” When he presented these new icons to his army, Napoleon called upon all to take the oath of devotion: “Soldiers! Behold your standards! These Eagles to you shall ever be your rallying-point.” He added distinctive slogans to accompany regimental colors, like: to the 9th, “The Incomparable”; to the 18th, “Brave 18th, I Know You, No Enemy Can Resist You”; “I Am Confident, the 32d Is There”; and “The Terrible 75th Which Nothing Can Stop.” Indeed, Napoleon continued, “wherever your Emperor shall deem it needful for the defense of his throne and his people, there [your Eagles] shall be seen!” Yes, seen – that is the key. Abandonment or loss of an eagle-standard – even by accident – was tantamount to turning one’s face from the enemy and quitting the field. The Napoleonic regiment’s flag was its visible honor and also “the national emblem of France.4

Jacques-Louis David, The Army Takes the Oath to the Eagles, 1804 (1810); the return of the Imperial Eagle and Roman salute.

At the Battle of Austerlitz (1805), Russian cuirassiers killed the eagle-bearer of the First Battalion of the 4th Regiment of the Line. None of the French survivors had seen him collapse during the enemy charge. But in the meantime, the battalion had captured two Austrian standards, which they proceeded to offer Napoleon, asking for a new eagle in exchange. Instead, the general replied coldly: “These two foreign flags do not return me my Eagle!” An awful silence later, “he launched into words of the severest censure and rebuke . . . He poured bitter scorn on their conduct, ‘in phrases stinging, burning, corrosive, which those present remembered long afterwards – to the end of their lives.’” The distraught colonel again pleaded for his battalion, that the general “wipe out the slur on their good name” and to grant them a new Eagle. Napoleon was still for a moment, then abruptly asked them all: 

Officers, sub-officers, and soldiers, swear to me here that not one of you saw your Eagle fall. Assure me that if you had done so you would have flung yourselves into the midst of the enemy to recover it, or have died in the attempt. The soldier who loses his Eagle on the field of battle loses his honour and his all. 

At once came the answer, “We swear it!” A softer mood seemed to settle upon Napoleon. “I will grant that you have not been cowards, but you have been imprudent.” Looking straight into their eyes, he decided at last, “Well, I will restore you yet another Eagle.5” He turned his mount and rode on down the line. Napoleon explicitly rejected the “foreign” Austrian colors as mere “shreds and patches” worth nothing next to his French Eagles. The shaken soldiers of the 4th were surely left convinced that facing the enemy was preferable to facing the disappointment of their high commander, or bleakly facing life at all without their Eagle standard.  

The wintry Battle of Eylau (1809) prompted many more instances of high emotion and reckless courage on behalf of the French Eagles. According to the Emperor, “The Eagle of the 9th Light Infantry was taken by the enemy.” But upon realizing the deep “disgrace with which their brave regiment would be covered forever, and . . . which neither victory nor the glory acquired in a hundred combats could have removed,” the soldiers rallied with “an inconceivable ardour.” They plunged back into the melée, routed the “foemen,” and recovered their Eagle. During that same battle, the decimated 9th Light Infantry’s Eagle was saved only by the devotion of its quartermaster-sergeant. As he collapsed in a faint from blood loss, the mortally wounded man buried it beneath the snow. His French comrades found him the next morning, outstretched over his regiment’s most precious possession. He made trembling signs to indicate that it lay hidden under the snow, then died. Other troops sacrificed even more for the defense of their Eagles. One regiment in Russia, cut off from the main force, “refused to turn its back to the enemy and stood its ground to face its fate.” All of them were slaughtered as Colonel Sémelé and his hardy band of soldiers “fought round the Eagle to the last, and [one by one] fell dead beside it.6” A Cossack picked the blood-spattered prize up from the mud and rode off with it. Perhaps there was such a thing as a noble Eagle-theft, for this loss left no blemish on any of its martyrs.

In an episode that conjured the ghosts of Plataea, the elite Consular Guard at Marengo, “veterans proved in a hundred battles,” came up “in the same state they [had] always been beheld on the parade.” “Faces like masks of . . . bronze,” they formed in squares, “motionless.” Their opponents beat them at first with “volleys of cannonballs, canister and shells; [the Guard] did not move. Austrian Fieldmarshal Peter Ott threw his cavalry against [them], [they] did not move . . .” When the order “En Avant!” finally arrived, these 500 men moved forward without the aid of artillery or cavalry. The “lofty eagle hovered everywhere around them . . . [while] they forced everything to give way in their passage7.”

Even in defeat, the standard was paramount. During the Emperor’s last inspection of his Guard, Napoleon appeared on the stairway that led down into the courtyard of Le Cheval Blanc. 1,500 Old Guard troopers stood at attention and in the best parade dress they could muster for the solemn occasion. Drummers beat the Aux Champs, and trumpets sounded: “To the Emperor.” When Napoleon reached the center of the court, he said his goodbyes: “Soldiers of my Old Guard . . . for twenty years I have been pleased with you . . . the Allied Powers have armed all Europe against me . . . you and the brave men who have remained loyal . . . be loyal to the new ruler whom France has chosen. Never abandon this dear country that has suffered so long.” The cry of “Vive l’Empereur!” interrupted him, perhaps in a show of defiance that only deep love can inspire. The Great Man’s composure began to crack. “I cannot embrace you all, but I shall embrace your” colors. To General Petit he said, “Let the Eagle be brought.” The Emperor then kissed it three times, saying: “Dear Eagle, let my embrace echo in the hearts of these brave men! Farewell, my children 8. . .” There was a final ovation as he walked through the threshold. But when he had gone from the place and into his carriage, not one of the Guard was able to make a sound for some time. In this iconic farewell, Napoleon kissed the standard as if it were the physical embodiment of all 1,500 men present – because it was. He kissed the face of the Eagle, whose form represented all the faces of his men. Was the tingling on their cheeks from this spirit’s embrace, or the falling of their own silent tears? None could tell.

When the Bourbon dynasty retook power in 1814, and again in 1815, royalists subjected the French army to a purge of their Napoleonic Eagles, and melted most of them down. But more than a few were saved by former Napoleonic officers, who hid them at great risk. As for the Guard, they solemnly lowered the Imperial Standard after their master left them for the last time. There in the courtyard that had hosted their triumphant parades, the Guardsmen burnt it, gathered the ashes, then mixed them into wine. Raising their glasses, they all drank deeply from the bittersweet dregs of honor salvaged in the midst of downfall. The French colors that had flown beneath the Eagles, the standard that commanded all of their souls, had now literally become part of their marrow. Generals Thomas-Alexandre Dumas and Charles Eugène d’Audenarde were present at the Guard’s official disbanding on November 25. Using words imbued with Homeric pathos, they described the scene that passed before them as if they “presided at the death of the gods.9” The last standard-bearer advanced to the Inspector and presented him with the colors. Ten officers who had never failed to “give the face” in battle, were now unable to look. Yet, like the 4th of the Line at Austerlitz that lost its Eagle and thus suffered through Napoleon’s ringing rebuke, the scene would haunt all those who attended, whether they could bring themselves to watch or not, to the end of their days.

Horace Vernet, Napoleon Bids Farewell to His Guards at Fontainebleau, 1814 (1824); a reversal of the previous image, with the eagle-standard still at the center. An overcome standard-bearer covers his face as an officer rushes forward to embrace the emperor and kiss his cheek. 

On a lighter note, I conclude the high-flying imperial eagles with a curious phenomenon at the 1812 Battle of Borodino. As one of Napoleon’s former enemies turned allies during the Russian invasion, the Westphalian VIII Corps marched with the Grande Armée beneath two standards: the traditional double-headed Austrian eagle, and a new one that bore images of the Napoleonic eagle. Unlike the Spartans at Plataea, the Westphalian troops were young and inexperienced. But as they stood for over an hour, inactive under intense artillery bombardment like no other that had crashed to earth before it, they channeled the discipline of seasoned Lacedaemonians. “Already we had suffered casualties,” one officer remembered, “when my senior-sergeant, who had seen much action” in his past service, marched past the eagle colors to address him. He “suggested that I order the three flankers next to me to stick out their tongues.” Raising a skeptical brow, the officer did so. To his surprise, all of their tongues “were as white as their uniforms!” He told others to do the same, and “theirs, too, were white.” The sergeant assured him that this was the case with all soldiers going into battle for the first time. Delighted, the officer demanded of this veteran that he show his own tongue – sure enough, “it was lobster-red!” “And yours, captain?” the cheeky sergeant asked. “We’ll just let that remain my secret,” he replied. The “tongue test” spread quickly to all the neighboring companies and “caused considerable hilarity10.” The young Westphalian captain could only imagine what the Russians – blazing away at them from their entrenchments – must have thought upon seeing the unique way that scores of their adversaries were giving them the face. Like the shield devices of old, of gorgons with monstrous tongues hanging out in a terrifying taunt, the infantrymen broke the tension by redirecting their own fear into imagery that galvanized themselves and unsettled their opponents.        

  1.  Livy (Titus Livius), Early History of Rome, Rev. Canon Roberts, trans. (Moscow, Id.: Roman Roads Media, 2015), 2.20.  ↩︎
  2. Julius Caesar, The Gallic Wars, W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn, trans., ch. 22-26.
  3. Edward Fraser, The War Drama of the Eagles (London: John Murray Printers, 1912), ↩︎
  4. Ibid, 10, 46. ↩︎
  5. Ibid, 117-118. ↩︎
  6. Ibid, 270 ↩︎
  7. See Gren. Joseph Petit, Maringo, ou Campagne d’Italie, par l’armée de réserve, écrite par Joseph Petit (Paris: Favre, 1800). ↩︎
  8. Comm. Henry Lachouque, Napoléon et la Garde Impériale (Paris: M. M. Bloud & Gay, 1961), 420-21.  ↩︎
  9. Ibid, 421 ↩︎
  10. Memoirs of Oberst Franz Morgenstern, Kriegserinnerungen aus Westfälischer Zeit, (Wolfenbuttel, 1912) and reprinted in Digby Smith’s Borodino (Gloucestershire, UK: Windrush Press, 1998), 63-64.  ↩︎

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