Some of the earliest photographs of veterans are a series of fifteen original sepia views of members of Napoleon’s army taken when these old soldiers were well into their 70’s and 80’s. It is not known how Mrs. Brown acquired them. They measure 12″ tall by 10″ wide and are mounted on stiff card. At some time in the 20th century, the name of each veteran and his regiment was inscribed in pencil on the verso of each. These remarkable photographs provide probably the only surviving images of veterans of the Grande Armée and the Guard actually wearing their original uniforms and insignia, although some of the uniforms have obviously been recut by tailors of the 1850’s. Each is a formal portrait of an individual gentleman photographed in a studio. Some of the men stand in front of a blank or paneled wall on a elaborately decorated carpet, while others are seated.
When and why these men werephotographed is a mystery but some clues are offered in Henri Bouchot’s book L’Epopée du Costume Militaire Franç ais published in Paris in 1898, and containing pictures by the famous French military illustrator, Job. There is a color plate with a transparent overlay bearing the titled ‘Les Vieux de la vieille, Le 5 Mai, 1855’. This depicts ten Napoleonic veterans in their full uniforms passing the column in the center of the Place Vendô me erected by Napoleon to commemorate the battle of Austerlitz. A Second Empire zouave of the current French army looks at the hunched and slow moving procession. Most significantly is the fact that two of the veterans are carrying wreaths. If one compares the individuals in the photographs, they match up very well with the figures crossing the square.
The date of the event – May 5, – provides the reason why these men were in Paris for that was the anniversary of the death of Napoleon and every year on that date veterans gathered in the capital, as the Times of London in May 1855 noted: ‘The base and railings of the column of the Place Vendô me appear this day decked out with the annual offerings to the memory of the man whose statue adorns the summit. The display of garlands of immortelles, and other tributes of the kind, is greater than usual…the old soldiers of the Empire performed their usual homage yesterday at the same place.’ On the same day, a funeral service was held in the chapel of the Invalides attended by Prince Jerome and other dignitaries. The entire personnel of the Invalides as well as soldiers of the First Empire were present.
A more likely date however, is May 5, 1858, because all the veterans are wearing the Saint Helene medal which had been issued on August 12, 1857 to all veterans of the wars of the Revolution and the Empire.