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During the French Revolution, all of the French orders of chivalry were abolished, and replaced with Weapons of Honour. It was the wish of Napoleon Bonaparte, the First Consul, to create a reward to commend civilians and soldiers. From this wish was instituted a Légion d'honneur, a body of men that was not an order of chivalry, for Napoleon believed that France wanted a recognition of merit rather than a new system of nobility. However, the Légion d'honneur did use the organization of the old French orders of chivalry, for example the Ordre de Saint-Louis. The insignia of the Légion d'honneur bear a resemblance to those of the Ordre de Saint-Louis, which also used a red ribbon.
Napoleon originally created this award to ensure political loyalty. The organization would be used as a façade to give political favours, gifts, and concessions. The Légion d'honneur was loosely patterned after a Roman legion, with legionaries, officers, commanders, regional "cohorts" and a grand council. The highest rank was not a Grand Cross but a Grand aigle (Grand Eagle), a rank that wore the insignia common to a Grand Cross. The members were paid, the highest of them extremely generously:
- 5,000 francs to a grand officier,
- 2,000 francs to a commandeur,
- 1,000 francs to an officier,
- 250 francs to a légionnaire.
Napoleon famously declared, "You call these baubles, well, it is with baubles that men are led... Do you think that you would be able to make men fight by reasoning? Never. That is good only for the scholar in his study. The soldier needs glory, distinctions, rewards." This has been often quoted as "It is with such baubles that men are led."
The order was the first modern order of merit. Under the monarchy, such orders were often limited to Roman Catholics, and all knights had to be noblemen. The military decorations were the perks of the officers. The Légion d'honneur, however, was open to men of all ranks and professions—only merit or bravery counted. The new legionnaire had to be sworn into the Légion d'honneur.
It is noteworthy that all previous orders were crosses or shared a clear Christian background, whereas the Légion d'honneur is a secular institution. The badge of the Légion d'honneur has five arms.
In a decree issued on the 10 Pluviôse XIII (30 January 1805), a grand decoration was instituted. This decoration, a cross on a large sash and a silver star with an eagle, symbol of the Napoleonic Empire, became known as the Grand aigle (Grand Eagle), and later in 1814 as the Grand cordon (big sash, literally "big ribbon"). After Napoleon crowned himself Emperor of the French in 1804 and established the Napoleonic nobility in 1808, award of the Légion d'honneur gave right to the title of "Knight of the Empire" (Chevalier de l'Empire). The title was made hereditary after three generations of grantees.
Napoleon had dispensed 15 golden collars of the Légion d'honneur among his family and his senior ministers. This collar was abolished in 1815.
Although research is made difficult by the loss of the archives, it is known that three women who fought with the army were decorated with the order: Virginie Ghesquière, Marie-Jeanne Schelling and a nun, Sister Anne Biget.
The Légion d'honneur was prominent and visible in the French Empire. The Emperor always wore it and the fashion of the time allowed for decorations to be worn most of the time. The king of Sweden therefore declined the order; it was too common in his eyes. Napoleon's own decorations were captured by the Prussians and were displayed in the Zeughaus (armoury) in Berlin until 1945. Today, they are in Moscow.
The Legion of Honour under the Empire
A depiction of Napoleon making some of the first awards of the Legion of Honour, at a camp near Boulogne on 16 August 1804.
Embroided insignia of the Legion of Honour, detail of Napoleon's uniform of colonel of the Chasseurs à cheval of the Imperial Guard.
Restoration of the Bourbon King of France in 1814
Louis XVIII changed the appearance of the order, but it was not abolished. To have done so would have angered the 35,000 to 38,000 members. The images of Napoleon and his eagle were removed and replaced by the image of King Henry IV, the popular first king of the Bourbon line. Three Bourbon fleurs-de-lys replaced the eagle on the reverse of the order. A king's crown replaced the imperial crown. In 1816, the grand cordons were renamed grand crosses and the legionnaires became knights. The king decreed that the commandants were now commanders. The Légion d'honneur became the second-ranking order of knighthood of the French monarchy, after the Order of the Holy Spirit.
Following the overthrow of the Bourbons in favour of King Louis Philippe I of the House of Orléans, the Bourbon monarchy's orders were once again abolished and the Légion d'honneur was restored in 1830 as the paramount decoration of the French nation. The insignia were drastically altered; the cross now displayed tricolour flags. In 1847, there were 47,000 members.
Yet another revolution in Paris (in 1848) brought a new republic (the second) and a new design to the Légion d'honneur. A nephew of the founder, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, was elected president and he restored the image of his uncle on the crosses of the order. In 1852, the first recorded woman, Angélique Duchemin, an old revolutionary of the 1789 uprising against the absolute monarchy, was admitted into the order. On 2 December 1851, President Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte staged a coup d'état with the help of the armed forces. He made himself Emperor of the French exactly one year later on 2 December 1852, after a successful plebiscite.
An Imperial crown was added. During Napoleon III's reign, the first American was admitted: Dr. Thomas Wiltberger Evans, dentist of Napoleon III.
In 1870, the defeat of the French Imperial Army in the Franco-Prussian War brought the end of the Empire and the creation of the Third Republic (1871–1940). As France changed, the Légion d'honneur changed as well. The crown was replaced by a laurel and oak wreath. In 1871, during the Paris Commune uprising, the Hôtel de Salm, headquarters of the Légion d'honneur, was burned to the ground in fierce street combats; the archives of the order were lost.
In the second term of President Jules Grévy which started in 1885, newspaper journalists brought to light the trafficking of Grévy's son-in-law, Daniel Wilson, in the awarding of decorations of the Légion d'honneur. Grévy was not accused of personal participation in this scandal, but he was slow to accept his indirect political responsibility, which caused his eventual resignation on 2 December 1887.
During World War I, some 55,000 decorations were conferred, 20,000 of which went to foreigners. The large number of decorations resulted from the new posthumous awards authorised in 1918. Traditionally, membership in the Légion d'honneur could not be awarded posthumously.
The establishment of the Fourth Republic in 1946 brought about the latest change in the design of the Legion of Honour. The date "1870" on the obverse was replaced by a single star.