La Grande Armée was Napoleon's great fighting machine of over half a million men. French, Belgian, Polish, Austrian, they were brought together for an assault on Britain that never happened. Instead, they marched, oh so slowly, on Moscow, took it, could not keep it, and marched back, dying by the tens of thousands. As many as 400,000 died on that campaign.
In 1815, the First Empire came to an end. There followed a string of different types of government. The one that concerns us here is the Second Empire of Napoleon III. It was he who, in 1857, thought it would be nice to give a medal to the survivors of La Grande Armée, who would have been between sixty and ninety years of age by then. The Medal of Saint Helena (being named for the isle of exile where Napoléon died) was created specifically for them. Anyone who could prove that he served in the army in any capacity received the medal in a case, along with a certificate.
For French genealogy, the multilingual website dedicated to listing all of the recipients is a treat. It has almost 200,000 names of medal recipients and a simple search facility for surnames. This is a collaborative site, with interested folks sending in more information. We like the photographs that people have sent in of ancestors proudly wearing their medals.
If you have a male French ancestor who was alive in 1857, it is worth checking this website for him. Even if he is not there, the site is a fun read.
You can see a very good image of the medal here.
©2010 Anne Morddel