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"The elite of the regiment", is often a phrase used to describe the British Grenadier. Like their Light Infantry brothers,
the Grenadier represented a unique type of soldier in the ranks of the infantry.
Originally selected as specialized assault
troops for seiges, Grenadiers quickly gained the reputation of being courageous, fearsome soldiers. By the opening of the
18th century, they were usually the elite of any army in Europe. These men where the elite of the regiment. The Grenadiers
original role on the battlefield was not only unique but held a distinguished place for them in the army structure. As this
role evolved into the late 18th century, the Grenadiers came increasingly to resemble their brothers in the Light Infantry,
making the Grenadier less a grenade-throwing and seige specialist. He was more often called on to perform special tactical
functions on the battlefield.
The original role of a Grenadier was
as assault trooper. He was primarily a soldier who could be counted on to throw grenades and storm breaches in the seiges
that marked every campaign in the daysn between Turenne and Marlborough. The earliest references to these grenade-throwing
soldiers are from Austria and Spain. Even the word grenade has a Spanish origin in the word Granado which simply means pomegranate
in a description of the general size of early grenades. As well, references appear in England during the English Civil War.
However, the great King Louis XIV, of France finalized the concept of the Grenadier as an official type of soldier and company
throughout his army reforms late in the 17th century. According to Rene Chartrand, Lt. Col. Martinet (from where we get the
term martinet) introduced the idea of having men detailed to throw grenades in the Regiment du Roi in 1667. By 1670, 29 of
Louis's regiments had Grenadier companies. Shortly after France's lead almost all of Europe went Grenadier crazy. By 1677
the British army had them. The 1st foot guards had a company and there was even a mounted Grenadier company in the army.
In it's purest form the grenade as a
weapon was a grapefruit or "pomegranate" sized cast iron ball filled with powder explosive and metal stones as shrapnel. A
time fuse was attached and as the grenade was thrown into the close packed ranks of the enemy or a breach, the explosion could
do significant damage. As one can see this was a truly specialized role that no doubt required specific skill and training
There is much speculation regarding the
inefficiency of the grenade as a weapon. A common belief is that the reason for the weapon's eventual fall from favour was
its tendency to explode before being thrown. However, very little contemporary evidence exists to support this. In the 1727
"Grenadier exercise" it is loosely explained : "When the Granadiers stand in a body with men of the Battalion they must
then perform the same motions that they do because they do not then meddle with their Granades". A more plausible explanation
for the grenade's fall is due to an overall increase of firepower in the 18th century army. In fact as late as 1779 in Roger
Stevenson's partisan military manual "Military Instructions for Officers Detached in the Field" he reccomends grenades for
both the defence and assault of fortified posts.
The 17th century Grenadier was a true
grenade throwing type of soldier. The Grenadiers early rise in popularity was no doubt due to the usefulness of this weapon
given the common specifics and frequent occurence of seiges in the late 17th century. Louis XIV, the famous "Sun King," was
a man that was used to getting his way. He was a man who not only loved war but also had a taste for sieges. This was the
great age of the Vauban fortress, which amounted to a fair number of mathematical siege works. Siege works required specialty
trained assault troops, a role the Grenadiers fit perfectly. Considering the rapid rise in the Grenadiers popularity throughout
the late 17th century it would be safe to suppose their usefulness was beyond mere fad, especially given the particularly
structured nature of war in this period. Therefore the idea that Grenadiers were causing too much friendly fire is a more
a myth than truth.
Indeed the decline of grenade usage into
the 18th century can be attributed to the overall improved effectiveness of massive infantry line tactics and firelock technology.
So why did Grenadier as a troop type continue when the grenade became obsolete? As the age of reason dawned the need for grenade
throwers disappeared but the need for assault troops did not. The Grenadier naturally evolved into this role and kept the
elite prestige that they had garnered throughout their early life. The fair number of siege assault actions in the 17th century
no doubt quickly added to the Grenadiers' fearsome reputation and prestige. As they were also specially selected and trained
the attention also created a spirit of esprit de corps among them. Indeed throughout time the Grenadiers had special privileges
such as guarding the Colonel or the King himself.
The Grenadiers also developed special
uniforms, equipment and requirements as they evolved. In the early days, carrying around of bag of heavy cast iron grenades,
as well as your regular armament must have been fairly tough. This is why initially only the largest of men were chosen for
the job. One had to be strong to throw the grenade.
At first the Grenadier's of Louis's army
were uniformed in the regular standard infantry uniform. They were issued the newer flintlock fuzils rather than matchlock
muskets and also issued swords. In fact the reason later military muskets for infantry were fixed with slings is because the
original Grenadier fuzils were the first to be fixed with slings so they could throw their grenades. By 1676 we see special
fur lined tuque like hats being worn, obviously a practical change as the wide brimmed hat must have gotten in the way of
slinging muskets and throwing grenades. These hats were also an early version of the cloth mitre and eventually the tall bearskin
hat. It is interesting to note that the first bear skin Grenadier hats appear in France during the 1740's and if you follow
styles, those nations who were Protestant, such as Hanover, and Britain wore the mitre while Catholic countries such as Austria
and France wore bearskins.
The early Grenadier also originally carried
a long curved sword. This sword continued to be an emblem of Grenadier companies even when regular infantry companies dropped
swords as a part of their equipment during the mid to late 18th century. Indeed the French Grenadiers of the 1690's carried
both sword and an axe no doubt for the utility of hacking down fortified defenses during assault. The first British Grenadiers
were not issued swords but instead had axes. Eventually the axe was phased out and they adopted heavy swords such as basket
hilted cavalry swords.
It became clear very quickly that when
you stick all your strongest, largest guys together in one gang you have a pretty intimidating group. The psychological effectiveness
of this was not lost on army commanders and is possibly the single reason why the Grenadier, as a troop type survived for
so long. Early on, Grenadiers were encouraged to promote a fierce countenance by wearing thick moustaches to give a more barbaric
look. This practice continued for Grenadiers in France, Austria and German states well into the 18th century but appears to
have died out for Britain in the early 18th century when regulations for clean- faces appear. The first description of a British
Grenadier in John Evelyn's diary of June 1678 makes this point when he describes them as a "….new sort of soldiers
with a pouch full of hand grenades. They wore furred caps with coped crowns like Janizaries, which gave them a fierce expression".
The term "Janizarie" is in reference to the elite Turkish soldiers who were at the time feared around the world. Making a
reference to them only shows how the theme of the Grenadier as being a superior, fearsome soldier was established very early
on. Frederick William I of Prussia actually had specially picked "Giant Grenadiers". In forming his Grenadiers he would actually
purchase tall guys from all over Europe, and People like the Czar sent him 7foot tall men as gifts. They were called the "lange
kerls" (long locks, or more colloquially, the "long fellows" were built into an actual Grenadier regiment of 3 battalions.)
Even though Fredrick William was fond of his Giant Grenadiers they did not like him at all and he had ramrods shot at him
on a couple of occasions. When Frederick II (the great) succeeded, he found that those three battalions cost as much as 9
regular battalions. (Needless to say, Fred reduced them to one battalion, and raised new regiments.)
Grenadiers continued in popularity during
the continental wars of the middle 18th century. As mentioned before there were even whole single regiments and battalions
created solely out of Grenadiers. The Grenadiers de France, (active in the 7-year's war) were formed from the Grenadier companies
of several regiments that were reduced at the end of the war of the Austrian succession. This formation was eventually disbanded
after the 7 years war ended.
Frederick the Great created "standing
Grenadier battalions" from the Grenadier companies of his garrison regiments. Unlike the other Grenadier Battalions that only
came together for a campaign, they stayed together all the time. The Austrians did something similar after the 7 years war
by permanently embodying their Grenadier battalions and even giving them colours. The curious thing is that men still came
from their respective regiments, and still wore their regimental uniform. So, while they were a permanent battalion they always
wore different uniforms.
At length it is clear the Grenadiers role during the 17th and
18th century was essential at first as assault troops and eventually as simple all-purpose elite troops. Through the role,
size and special uniform of the troops the word 'Grenadier' came to be associated with fearless, strong and dependable soldiers.
But the winds of war were changing and so were the roles of the Grenadier. By the end of the American Revolution the
British Grenadiers began to fall in with the Light Bobs to perform specific skirmishing tactical duties in action.4
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