Established in 1801 by Napoleon I to be his elite military police force, the Gendarmes d’elite were charged with the protection of important political figures, the guarding of official residences, the capture of draft dodgers, the defence of Napoleon’s baggage train, the protection of state money and critical letters during transport, the quelling of riots (e.g. Dos de Mayo Uprising), along with the escort and, if so ordered, the execution of significant prisoners.
Prospective candidates for the force not only had to be taller than average, had to possess excellent self-discipline, had to be a veteran of at least four campaigns, but he also had to be literate and, if necessary, multilingual.
The Gendarmes d’elite were given bearskins, were armed with straight sabres, were mounted on big black horses—privileges once exclusive to the most senior and elite of Napoleon’s cavalry regiments, the Horse Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard.
Until the later years of the Napoleonic Wars, the Gendarmes d’elite saw no combat engagements. The Gendarmes’ lack of battlefield experience had earned them the undesirable sobriquet of “The Immortals,” for having never lost a man, from the rank-and-file who generally despised and feared them. However, when committed into the fray, the Gendarmes, unlike the elite and similarly resplendent but apparently incompetent Carabiniers-a-Cheval, would earned for themselves much distinction. At Aspern-Essling, the Gendarmes famously guarded bridges over Danube River and denied passage to all but the wounded. At Berezina, the Gendarmes d’elite helped to cover the general retreat of French forces. The Gendarmes d’elite loyally served Napoleon during the desperate Six Days’ Campaign and then flocked to his banner during the Waterloo Campaign. And yet, despite it all, the cause was in vain and the Second Bourbon Restoration disbanded this once feared and elite force, like all so many reminders of Bonaparte and the Empire.
- Medina de Rioseco (1808)
- Aspern-Essling (1809)
- Siege of Astorga (1810)
- Siege of Ciudad Rodrigo (1810)
- Borodino (1812)
- Berezina (1812)
- Leipzig (1813)
- Montmirail (1814)
- Vauchamps (1814)
- Ligny (1815)
- Waterloo (1815)