The Carabiniers-a-Cheval or Horse Carabiniers in the French Army were first formed by King Louis XIV as an elite force of carbine-armed cavalry. From a high of thirty squadrons during the Ancien Regime, the force had dwindled to just four squadrons by 1803. Though Napoleon did double the number of Horse Carabiniers, and he reaffirmed their place as the elite heavy cavalry of the regular French Army, the establishment of the Imperial Guard not only made the Horse Carabiniers redundant, but also diluted the quality of their ranks as the best, brightest, and strongest of the Empire were recruited by the Guard.
Furthermore, the increasing use of massed-cavalry charges, for all intents and purposes, eliminated the Horse Carabiniers’ niche and made them doubly redundant.
Under Napoleon, the Horse Carabiniers were equipped just like the Horse Grenadiers of the Guard, with tall black horses, long straight sabres, and bearskins, albeit bearskins slightly shorter than those of the Horse Grenadiers.
By 1809, after several routs at the hands of the Russians and Cossacks (at Friedland) and the Austrians (at Wagram), Napoleon’s dissatisfaction with his Horse Carabiniers led him to radically change their kit. Gone were the bearskins and in came a striking brass dragoon helmet with a red crest, as opposed to the typical cuirasser’s black. Gone were the blue jackets and in came white coats. The new white uniform would led to a friendly fire incident at Borodino, as French cuirassers charged what they thought were Saxon cavalry in their traditional white jackets. And most significantly, Horse Carabiniers were ordered to wear cuirasses to their dismay.
While the pre-Russian campaign Horse Carabiniers did lend themselves to some excellent performances in battle, as at Alteglofsheim, they were gutted in Russia and the malingering sentiment of being second-best to the Imperial Guard, not to mention a tinge of cowardice and disloyalty to Napoleon—as the Horse Carabiniers were never as fervently pro-Bonapartist as the Guard, festered in their barracks. At Leipzig, both reformed Horse Carabinier regiments infamously abandoned their general and fled the field of battle upon a charge of Hungarian hussars. During the Sixth Coalition’s invasion of France, the Horse Carabiniers were again crushed by the Russians and the Cossacks. And during Napoleon’s Hundred Days, many Horse Carabiniers defected to the Seventh Coalition, though the remainder fought bravely and fought well.
- Wertingen (1805)
- Elchingen (1805)
- Austerlitz (1805)
- Friedland (1807)
- Alteglofsheim (1809)
- Eckmuhl (1809)
- Wagram (1809)
- Borodino (1812)
- Leipzig (1813)
- Claye (1814)
- Villeparisis (1814)
- Waterloo (1815)
- Napoleon: His Army and Enemies, “Horse Carabiniers [Carabiniers-à-Cheval]“
- Wikipedia (French), “Carabiniers à cheval“