Paris after the turn of the 19th century was the unofficial capital of Europe. Under Napoleon I who had reached his military and political zenith, France was a global power. On a personal level, the self-proclaimed Emperor could not be happier: he had just divorced Josephine who could not deliver an heir to the throne, and married Marie-Louise of Austria, to gain royal legitimacy for his future dynasty. Napoleon had defeated Austria one year before and he felt entitled to take ownership of it. It turned out that he was conquered by the beauty and charm of the eighteen year-old Archduchess. He had fallen in love with Marie-Louise when he saw a painting of her, and proposed marriage before he had even met her. At age 41, the most powerful man on Earth learned how to dance in order to please his very young royal bride. And to impress her further, Napoleon had a daily inspection of his palace garrison and held lavish military parades for the people of Paris, who could view the most handsomely attired and best equipped army at that time in full display.
By this time Napoleon had been victorious on all the battlefields of Europe. He had just inflicted an unthinkable defeat on the British by capturing a Royal fleet in the harbor of Grand Port on Isle de France (Mauritius). That same year, his Grandee Armee advanced in Spain, conquered Seville, and was pushing the British forces out the Iberian Peninsula. To complete the chain of triumphs, Holland was absorbed into the French Empire. So far, his military affairs were in the best shape ever. For that reason, Napoleon allowed himself an unusually long vacation to indulge in all that imperial life could offer and that he felt fully deserved. One of his rewards was to enjoy displaying his mighty regiments by parading them in exemplary formations to the war beat of drums and brass bands.
The military pomp and circumstances were not directed only to entertain his adored Austrian wife and the enthusiastic civilians, but to create an irresistible allure that would draw young recruits to the army. His armed forces numbered almost 100 regiments, but with French legions spread all over Europe to occupy and maintain the freshly created Second Empire, Napoleon needed a few extra hundred thousand soldiers for another mammoth army to invade and conquer Russia. He was obsessed with annihilating the threat of the Russians, whom he called “half-civilized people,” and to have access to the immense natural resources of the vast and largely unexplored Slavic empire.
Napoleon staged one military parade after another, with elite regiments of hardened war veterans in R and R marching in perfect formations, displaying an unmistakable martial air of invincibility. All sported fiery eyes accustomed to seeing death so many times, haughty mustaches, long sideburns and supple bodies dressed in the beautiful white uniforms of Carabineers and blue and white outfits of Grenadiers. Their puffed up chests crossed by white sashes and studded with medals, holding high their muskets with bayonets affixed, propped against red fringed shoulder epaulets, they briskly marched to the rhythm of drums. Their tall, colorful hats with diagonal braided cords moved evenly in a straight line. It was not how many medals, but how many wounds a soldier had, that gained him the respect of comrades and superiors.
Squadrons with Napoleon’s Hussars, the elite of the mighty French cavalry followed, usually in black with tight red uniforms and boots high over the knees, with a short jacket heavily ornamented with braids of gold and silver with rows of shiny buttons, always slung over a shoulder to free the arm handling his curved saber. A tunic equally flashy with braids was part of the dashing uniform. A tall furry hat, always black, with a flat chain to hold it in place, a hilted curved saber and a carbine, plus a few pistols, were the trademark of the imposing Hussars riding their beautiful horses that were well trained to respond to any command. The Dragoons, with their yellow breast on otherwise black and white uniforms, followed, totally eclipsed by the Cuirassiers with shiny breastplates, beautiful iron and brass helmets with a visor and red with green plume. They were the knights of the battlefields, heavily equipped to crash through the most stubborn enemy resistance.
Of course, the highlight of any parade were the units from the Imperial Guard, especially the mounted Lancers in blue and white, a preferred uniform of Napoleon who often dressed as a colonel of the Guard. With the same rank, he also dressed in the white and green uniform of two hundred horse Chasseurs. One piece of his garment never changed, regardless of which uniform he put on: his black bicorn hat with his Legion of Honor Sash. It was that hat worn sideways that made him recognizable on the battlefields, so much so that an enemy general pointed out that seeing that hat had the same effect as seeing an additional 50,000 combat soldiers.
The most exquisite unit of the parade was of the Lancers of the Guard, all 140 of them Polish light cavalry, dressed in white pants and red long coats, and wearing a distinctive red tall square hat with black visor and gold ornaments. Named “my bravest cavalry” by the Emperor, this rather small fighting unit was never defeated in any cavalry confrontation, and over the years, the faithful Poles proved to be the most devoted guardsmen of Napoleon. The motto of the Imperial Guard was “The Guard dies but never surrenders.”
All uniforms had many buttons of silver or gold color, lined up in a V on the chest tunic, glittering in parallel on jackets and coats, making a striking impression of tidiness while giving the body a soldierly look. Usually two big sharpened-edge buttons adorned the cuff of each sleeve, regardless of the type of uniform. The sleeve buttons were Napoleon’s way of preventing his uniformed men from wiping their noses with the sleeve, a common habit of the time. On the parade ground, the cuff buttons balanced the uniform, adding to its military style.
The regimental standards were richly braided, while the number of the unit was written in gold in the middle of a braided laurel. These banners were tied to a pole that had the Eagle, the Empire’s symbol, on top of it. A handsome and athletic officer, highly decorated, was the Eagle bearer, flanked by two NCO’s, all three veterans of at least four major battles. The flag was always placed in the second company of the first battalion of each regiment. Equally praised were the battle honor red, white and blue banners framed by Napoleon’s initials, French eagles and other symbols, with the names of victorious battles won by that particular unit written in gold in the center. Needless to say, the three men guarding the tricolor flag had the most beautifully tailored uniforms, each carrying only a saber and two pistols.
Each regiment had its own brass band, officially with eight members, but the commanders employed even more than twenty, mainly because the stronger and more complex was sound, the more energetically the troops responded. On the parade grounds, the more musicians marching in the band, the more it was applauded by the pleased spectators. The band played patriotic songs extremely in fashion, military marches that imposed respect, and popular tunes to which everyone sang along. The band was present on each battlefield, leading the way toward the enemy, and then playing in the rear of the regiment, to maintain morale and intimidate the enemy.
What was so special about Napoleon’s troops was that the majority of his soldiers were literate and officers, unless promoted on the battlefield, and were classically educated and well trained to instruct their men. Judging by appearance, they were all properly equipped, well paid, and well groomed. Their faces were carefully shaved; their hair was cut short, and they looked clean with immaculate white shirts and spotless colorful uniforms. Most importantly, they were freshly bathed and lacking any badly smelling odors, unlike the soldiers in any other army in the world, who were typically dirty, smelly, and with no clothing suitable for winter weather.
For sure, that was not the case in Napoleon’s army, where soldiers were treated with great respect by their superiors. Corporal punishment was not inflicted upon French enlisted men, who were genuinely proud to obey orders. Rewards were always presented for good soldiership, especially for the troops stationed in Paris, where veterans were treated like heroes by the civilians.
As always in history, the presence of a large military implied the presence of prostitutes. Napoleon lost his virginity at age 18 to a prostitute, so he understood the need for femmes publiques (public women). However he was very aware of how venereal diseases could incapacitate combatants, as his army in Egypt had experienced an epidemic of these debilitating infections. Unwilling to repeat this episode, he legalized prostitution and the soldiers could visit 180 government-approved maisons de tolerance (ill-reputed houses), all of which were equipped with proper hygienic facilities. There, ladies of the night would be subjected to medical inspections twice a week, and police kept a file on each official prostitute. A substantial revenue for the city treasury was obtained from the business taxes of these establishments.
Napoleon insisted on cleanliness, and his fastidious extended to all those around him and to the city of Paris itself. He was addicted to hot baths which he took at least once a day. Indeed, when he came to power in France he put a stop to perfumed and powdered elaborate wings that covered ulcerous scalps swarming with lice and other infestations. Nobility did not wash their bodies and seldom sponged their hands and face with water. Perfumes were used to cover their bad smell. Poodles were held on the lap by ladies to draw lice and flees away from their masters’ dirty bodies. In time, the habit of having one’s hands hugging a fur ball evolved into the holding of a fashionable fur muff to keep the hands warm. In the countryside, villagers used ashes mixed with animal fat to wash, and during warm seasons they bathed in nearby rivers and lakes. The lack of corporal hygiene, as well as doctors and midwives not washing their hands, spread deadly diseases and increased infant mortality. Periodic mass epidemics due to the lack of soap reduced the population of the Empire.
Napoleon was the first authority to legally decree production of the famous Marseille soap, officially regulating its chemical composition. He ordered a special soap for the army and a perfumed one for Empress Josephine as well. Since his campaign in Egypt, Napoleon had provided his troops with a generous quantity of soap that prevented a high mortality rate among the wounded. Convinced that washing with soap reduced infections and disease contamination, he later allocated to each French soldier a half-ounce of soap a day to wash his body and his clothes. The barracks were provided with common water closets (bathrooms) and hot shower heads that were manually pumped. Snap inspections of the soldiers’ feet, ears, nails, and so on, enforced the cleaning. Laundry facilities were provided with hired civilians to do the washing, drying and ironing. All those hygienic measures were strictly reinforced, because Napoleon believed that a clean army was a healthy and a stronger army.
The Emperor’s long hot baths, which he typically took in the morning before his breakfast, were not only because he was a clean freak, but for a curative reason: to alleviate the pain of hemorrhoids. He had suffered from this uncomfortable illness since he was young and had constant constipation, aggravated by riding his horse for long hours in numerous campaigns. The hemorrhoid problem was so advanced that he avoided sitting at his desk, preferring to stand to do his paperwork. Five years later he would lose the battle at Waterloo because a hemorrhoid crisis kept him in bed. A long hot bath delayed his attack by a few hours, during which the Prussians arrived in full force and won the battle for the allies. Because of that prolonged hot bath, Napoleon lost his throne and his Empire!
Despite his own use of a splash of eau de Cologne after each bath or shave (he shaved himself with a long razor), Napoleon was against his men using strong perfumes. He believed it incited unnecessary pleasantries, effeminate actions and outright unmilitary habits. So, the parading troops smelled clean—but not perfumed. However, the officers introduced new perfume fervencies in their spare time away from military duties, most likely when they were invited to dance ballrooms or made private visits to expensive mansions. Napoleon’s austere opinion about perfumed men became a national trend, and a long era began in which perfume was not in demand for men and not even for most women.
The ever inventive and visionary Napoleon went beyond cleaning his troops; his sanitary ideas extended also to the civilian population, desperately in need of a healthier life. He began with his personal palaces, as in Versailles, where there was only one “stool-closet” for Marie-Antoinette. The rest of the royal residents relieved themselves in poop-chairs, which were emptied out the window into the lavish gardens with their maize, used by servants to go to the bathroom. As a note of similar importance, in Great Britain’s Buckingham Palace there was not a single bathroom in 1837 when Queen Victoria took residence. Versailles shared the same situation, even though some plumbing had been done to bring in potable water. It was Napoleon who got rid of the old septic system that made the air unbearable. He installed water closets with proper sewer drainage away from the manicured grounds of the palace.
At the same time he began in 1805 to build the modern vaulted underground sewer system in Paris. Before that, the city’s residents simply threw chamber pots out the windows and into the streets. Piles of human and animal waste spread an abominable smell and made walking a dirty venture. It forced the ladies to use high heels and men to build boardwalks. Each day hundreds of tons of excrement were shoveled into wagons and dumped into the Seine which became a slow moving cesspool. Paris was a sanitation nightmare that generated deadly diseases like typhoid fever, as the capital was floating in filth and pollution. By building 30 kilometers of spacious sewer tunnels, Napoleon alleviated that germ infested life and deadly problems. Above the sewer tunnels, the streets were washed and shampooed daily, a civic habit lasting to today, now dealing with the defecation of the millions of dogs beloved by Parisians.
By 1810, bathrooms with Turkish squat toilets with water kept in a bucket to wash it after use were popular. They were installed in Paris hotels, institutions, schools and expensive houses, all hooked to the new sewer system that branched under each single important street. For the first time, people could take a shower with warm water poured in a tank above the bathtub, and enjoy the ultimate treat of drinking clean water from a faucet that came out the wall into a sink. Such luxuries had not been experienced in Europe since the golden years of the Roman Empire. Napoleon had successfully solved the drinking water problem for the entire population, which previously—including children—drank beer instead of water, resulting in mass alcoholism. The sanitation models were adopted by other cities and even in the countryside. Thus, France became the forerunner in Europe, and even the world, regarding personal hygiene and health facilities.
Napoleon also improved the infrastructure of his Empire, with some 50,000 kilometers of roads and thousands of kilometers of canals that were built during his reign. He saved the Louvre from its structural problems, extended the building and enriched its collection with suitable war plunder, mainly 20,000 art objects. It was renamed Musee Napoleon. The art lover Napoleon kept building a new Paris with modern houses, imposing institutions, streets, bridges, monuments and numerous schools and universities. His constructive initiatives can be found at every level of life throughout his Empire, and endured the passage of time.
By 1810, Napoleon’s Empire was at its height, with its borders at their largest, secured by his Grande Armee. But that was only one reason why the French loved their Corsican born Emperor who did so many good deeds for them. Like them, he had a humble origin; a self-made man, he gave hope to all the rest. And he made sure thousands of commoners would become barons in his Empire or would rapidly advance through the ranks to become superior officers. He founded the Legion of Honor, which became the ultimate reward for bravery and exceptional accomplishments, and remains so today.
If the former King Louis the XIV believed that he personified the French state, now 30 million French people identified with Napoleon, for he gave them a new Constitution and a new Civil Code with a new tax system, brilliantly put together in a few weeks. It guaranteed their freedom, equal rights, liberty of speech and press, as well as employment opportunities and the universal right to vote. He made the Jews free citizens of the French Empire, and they gratefully showered him with presents and favors.
Yet, freedom did not mean chaos, as bandits and vigilantism would not be allowed to take place in France. Napoleon enforced his laws to the point of being called a dictator, but the population was safe because he conceived a police force that was unique for that time. The Police Nationale had a few distinctive branches, each charged with a specific task. The Gendarmerie was basically a military police, while the regular police was in uniforms and in charge of civilian crimes, public disturbances, theft, prostitution, and the like. A political police was involved in anti-terrorist activities, arresting spies and plotters, while a detective department in plain clothes would look for fugitives, infiltrators, assassins and enemies of the state. Paris and other big cities were protected by Prefecture of Police, specialized in keeping order in large crowded locales. The head of Police was Eugene Francoise Vidocq, a former criminal with incredible photographic memory and spying talents. He diligently kept files on each criminal or suspect, thus becoming the father of modern criminology.
Under Napoleon, France used the metric system, based on the Roman division of 10, applied to the scale of kilogram and kilometer. It was one more way for the Emperor to defy the English influence in Europe. As a most obvious sign of the same defiance, his armies marched on the right side of the road, unlike the British who marched and drove on the left side. For the first time, watches were attached to the wrist, since Napoleon practically invented the wrist watch, being tired of looking for his watch in his pockets and then having to pull it out by a chain—he had not time for that.
All in all, life under the Bourbons meant stagnant feudalism, while Napoleon represented a modern era. He was the emperor of peasants, laborers, city people, and most of all, of the soldiers of France, and all cheered “Vive L’empereur!” He gave them a Second Empire which was respected and envied by all other nations. He electrified the youth of France, and young men competed to enroll in his army, where, unlike the British and Russian armies, flogging and other brutalities were used to discipline soldiers.
Men wanted to serve their idolized emperor for many good reasons: Napoleon won one war after another, occupying one country after another, and brought rich plunder to France. He regained dignity for France, and made the French proud to be the number one nation in the world. Most of all, the French people trusted Napoleon, who was their Emperor. He never betrayed that trust and loved them to the last breath of his life, even when he was exiled in the middle of Atlantic Ocean on Saint Helena Island.
Florida – December 2013
© Ion Grumeza 2013