Elite guardsmen, 5th century BC – present day

From left to right:

Persian Immortal, 5th century BC

The Immortals were among the finest warriors in the Achaemenid (Persian) Empire during its invasions of Greece. This elite corps numbered around 10,000 men; if a soldier was put out of action, he would quickly be replaced to keep the number of men the same.

This guardsman wears scale iron armour consisting of small plates in overlapping rows. Multiple weapons were the norm for most Immortals, as indicated by this man’s spear, bow and arrow, and dagger. The tunic worn underneath is bright and diversely coloured, as typical of Persian infantry units at the time.

Qin guardsman, 3rd century BC

China’s warring armies had been perfecting the use of infantry, chariots and cavalry with various weapons, including crossbows. Ultimately it was the Qin people of north-western China who crushed their rivals, leaving Qin Shi Huangdi to become the unified nation’s first emperor.

The emperor’s massive tomb is famously guarded by the ‘Terracotta Army’, who provide an intriguing look into the arms and armour of the time, with each unit carrying different types of armour and weapons. This guardsman wears iron scale armour complete with a bronze sword and spear.

Praetorian guardsman, 1st century AD

The Praetorian Guard served as the personal protectors of the Roman emperor, but in many cases gained powers of their own. Despite crushing unrest and being the capital’s premier fighting force, the Guard became infamous for their forceful involvement in Roman political affairs, often deciding the fate of emperors in some cases.

As the empire’s most respected troops, their armour and equipment naturally reflected their status as palace guards; the iconic lorica segmentata cuirass, gladius sword and pilum javelin were standard for the Roman army; this guardsman, however, displays his elite status with a white hair crest on his bronze-trimmed helmet. His round shield is decorated with a unique blazon unlike the standard semi-cylindrical scutum shield used by the army.

Varangian guardsman, 10th/11th centuries

The Varangian Guard was formed after a group of Viking mercenaries arrived in 988 AD to serve as Byzantine emperor Basil II’s bodyguards, but eventually they came to serve his successors as well. Largely recruited from Rus (Viking settlers living in Ukraine) populations, their ranks soon became filled by mercenaries from as far as England.

The initial dress and equipment of the guards was largely the same as what other armies in Europe used; an iron conical helmet with nasal bar, a round shield and chainmail hauberk. The major distinctions for this guardsman are the Byzantine-style decorative bird on the shield. His battleaxe is the primary weapon, echoing the warrior spirit of the Vikings, while a sheathed sword is kept as a secondary option.

Ottoman Janissary, 16th century

At the peak of the Ottoman Empire’s power in the 16th century, the sultan adopted the latest in military technology to create a well-trained, well-disciplined force. The Janissary corps were the sultan’s elite troops, initially recruited from prisoners of war, but then replaced by Christian boys as part of an annual quota system. They would be converted to Islam, then given extensive weapons training. Being a Janissary allowed for greater social mobility and influence for Ottoman Christians, leading to many Muslim families bribing recruitment officers to place their sons in the corps.

The most distinguishable garbs of this corps was their tall white caps. Alongside a traditional sword and axe, this Janissary is equipped with a matchlock musket, complete with pouch and powder horn.

French grenadier, Imperial Guard, early 19th century

Emperor Napoleon I had his own elite force of guards, which grew over time to encompass its own artillery and cavalry. The Imperial Guard not only protected Napoleon and report directly to him, but they also acted as the monarch’s battlefield reserve, eventually being split into the Old Guard, Middle Guard and Young Guard, with the first being the most experienced.

Grenadiers were used in other European armies as the special forces of their day, distinguished by tall mitre caps; this grenadier guardsman wears a tall bearskin cap complete with decorative tassels, red plume, and bronze eagle symbol modelled on the ancient Roman standard. Despite having a bayonet attached to his musket, this grenadier still carries a sword to his left.

Swiss guardsman, 20th/21st centuries

Formed in 1506 from a detachment of Swiss mercenaries, the Swiss Guard remains one of the oldest military units in the world, serving as protectors of the Pope and the Vatican. Their most notable operation involved a last stand against troops of the Holy Roman Empire during the 1527 Sack of Rome, ensuring that Pope Clement VII could make his escape.

The modern Swiss Guard wear a variety of uniforms depending on their deployment, but their most recognisable is the red, yellow and blue ceremonial garb introduced in 1914 and modelled after Renaissance-era styles. This uniform is worn during formal events, but for sentry duty this guardsman wears it with a black beret and striped gaiters. The traditional halberd and sword is still used, but the Guard also come equipped with modern firearms.

Private, Coldstream Guards, Present day

The Coldstream Guards is one of five Foot Guards regiments, acting as the oldest active regiment in the British Army. Formed in 1650, it has seen service across the world; its members are professional infantrymen who also act as guards for the British royal residences, including Buckingham Palace.

Like many other royal guard units, Foot Guards perform a ceremonial duty; their bearskin caps, modelled after the French, are perhaps their most recognisable aspect. The red tunic not only recalls the days of brightly-coloured ‘redcoats’ on the battlefields of the 17th-19th centuries, but also features buttons that come in pairs (unique to the Coldstream Guards). Other unique features to this regiment include a Garter Star badge on the collar, rose on the shoulder straps, and red plume on the right side of the bearskin. The modern SA80 rifle is fitted with a bayonet.

By Ibrahim Zamir

Published by Ibrahim Zamir

Ibrahim Zamir - Junior Historian and Illustrator.

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