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Literature / Imperial Guard

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For every hero commemorated, a thousand martyrs die unmourned and unremembered.
Imperial Guard Proverb

The Imperial Guard is the collective military of normal humans and the military backbone of the Imperium in Warhammer 40,000. It has been said that if the Space Marines are the tip of the Imperium's spear, the Guard are the rest of the spearhead, the shaft and the man holding it. While often the designated victim in works featuring other forces, the Guard appears to have considerable success in the 41st millennium, as well as having a considerable favor with the fans.


Besides the popular Gaunt's Ghosts, Ciaphas Cainnote , and The Last Chancers series, they feature in Fifteen Hours, Death World and Rebel Winter (collected in the Imperial Guard omnibus), Steven Lyon's Ice Guard, Aaron Dembski-Bowden's Cadian Blood, Steve Parker's Gunheads, Desert Raiders, and Henry Zhou's Flesh and Iron, just to name a few. They also commonly appear in other 40K works, such as Henry Zhou's The Emperor's Mercy, and Graham McNeill's Storm of Iron. The Guard also got their own game in the 40K roleplaying series, Only War.

Not to be confused with Praetorian Guard,note  which is the trope of imperial/elite guards as a whole.


The novels about the Imperial Guard provide examples of the following:

  • The Bait: In Baneblade, the taskforce led by Mars Triumphant is this, distracting Ork forces from one side while other Imperial forces attack elsewhere.
  • Bug War: Typically Guard vs Tyranids. "Desert Raiders" is a Bug War with a twist.
  • Elites Are More Glamorous: The Cadians in general and the Kasrkin, oh boy the Kasrkin.
    • The Kasrkin had a standout moment in the second Eisenhorn book. Totally dedicated badasses. The squad escorting Eisenhorn are surprised by a daemonhost, and the ones that die don't go down like Red Shirts.
    • In-universe, elite units like Storm Troopers or Kasrkin are often derided as "Glory Boys" and "Toy Soldiers" by the regular soldiery. The Kasrkin actually prove to be an exception, at least to the run-of-the-mill Cadian guardsmen serving with them, who recognize their superior abilities and look up to them. Not to mention that one of the reasons for Kasrkin's respect was their selection from rank and file in contrast to Stormtrooper's training.
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    • Death Korps Grenadiers as well, more so than other Veterans, as they usually match the Kasrkins stated above (and are still viewed as cannon fodder, being the first ones charging the enemy).
  • Empathic Weapon: In Gunheads, Wulfe is disgruntled with his new tank, Last Rites II, because it was not its predecessor. When it breaks down near the end, he grumbles that she could not have picked a worse time, and the rest of the crew point out that she could have easily have picked a far worse time — she had carried them farther than any of the other tanks and broken down near safety. Wulfe realizes that he owes her more respect and when his commander makes the same comment he had, Wulfe repeats his men's objections.
  • Evil Is Deathly Cold: In Ice Guard by Steve Lyons, the planet Cressida is plunged into an ice age-like state by the Chaos powers that are taking it over.
  • For Want of a Nail: The only reason the main character's unit gets sent to Broucheroc in Fifteen Hours is because a data entry clerk accidentally transposed two digits on one line while writing out a long series of deployment orders and couldn't be bothered to double-check his work.
  • Glory Hound:
    • In Mitchel Scanlon's novel Fifteen Hours, it's what kills the protagonist: he is part of a recon team on the field of the day's battle, led by an officer looking for an easy medal. Things go horribly wrong, most of the team being killed by scavenging Orks.
    • In Steve Parker's Gunheads, General deViers starts out as a competent and respected commanding officer but after his previous campaign turns from a major victory into a massive disaster, he becomes obsessed with preserving his legacy. He sends his Army Group to attack an Ork world in the hopes of retrieving a legendary battle tank. If he can accomplish his goal he will be proclaimed a hero of the Empire and will earn a spot in the history books. The fact that his entire Army Group is getting destroyed in the campaign does not seem to matter to him at all.
  • Greater Need Than Mine: In Fifteen Hours, the protagonist is raised on a story of his great-grandfather, who was half-crippled in service to the Guard, but was saved by the Emperor's Grace when, upon his regiment holding a lottery for a limited number of early discharge papers, one of the winners (whose name is not mentioned) gave up his place so that the half-crippled veteran could retire in peace. When he tells the story to his new squadmates, they think it's a nice tale, but probably bullshit: if it had been true, his family lore would never have forgotten the name of the man who gave up his place in favor of his great-grandfather. What was more likely was that his great-grandfather murdered the man and stole the discharge papers because it was his only chance to get out of the Guard alive, and made up the story to justify the crime to himself.
  • High Turnover Rate: Fifteen Hours is named after the average life expectancy of new Guardsmen in the book's war zone. The protagonist manages to beat the odds and survive longer, but only by a few minutes.
  • Hopeless War: Often occur in 40K, and in full force here.
    • In Fifteen Hours, the war on Broucheroc has been going on for years, with casualties so high that most people don't last half a local day (the titular fifteen hours). It's obvious to everyone that without something to change the paradigm the war is lost, but the Guard just keeps on sending more recruits into the meat grinder.
    • The war in Death World isn't just hopeless, it's also pointless. The planet the Guard and the Orks are fighting over is a Death World that adapts to threats that turn up in real time - the abilities and behavior of plants and animals, and sometimes even the environment can change in response to outside actions in a matter of days. Because of this, it's useless to the Imperium and nearly as useless to the Orks. But the Guard refuses to leave because there are Orks to fight and the Orks refuse to leave because there are humans to fight. The Catachan troopers who form the focus characters figure it will take a few years for high command to realize that fighting there is a complete waste of time and ship everyone to a more important war somewhere else.
  • Hope Spot: Desert Raiders has one after the regiment has managed to destroy the Tyranid swarm in a series of Heroic Sacrifices and Last Stands. There are only a few survivors and they are without supplies in the middle of the desert. Still they are hopeful that they can last till the fleet returns. Then they found out that the defeated swarm was just a scout force and the main swarm is arriving.
  • Last Stand:
    • In Cadian Blood, the Cadian forces are unimpressed by the Last Stand of some New Meat: they can tell by where the bodies fell. Later, Seth makes a more impressive Last Stand in the Battle in the Center of the Mind, and though the daemon kills him, he dies laughing and saying the look at the daemon's face made the fight worth it.
    • In Gunheads, the 98th is staging a Last Stand — the colonel refused to try to escape and went to hold up their regimental banner to encourage them — when the Gunheads arrive. (The colonel is perfectly willing to escape if the tanks can open up a corridor where his men can escape.)
    • In Henry Zhou's The Emperor's Mercy, Imperial Guardsmen are surrounded by Chaos forces and are fighting on, despite dying of hunger and disease. Roth tells Celemine that they had no choice but to stay with them. The commander hears and instantly wants to fight a last charge: they can get them to their ship and hold off the enemy — and that way, they can be remembered. (They are. In fact, their eighteen minutes defense of the ship is immortalized in a mural on Terra.)
  • The Medic: In Gunheads, Wulfe's Back Story includes an incident where a medic jumped to save him from a wound that would have killed him. A few days later, the medic was captured by Orks and tortured to death. Wulfe thinks that he's still trying to avenge him.
  • The Men First: In Gunheads, the colonel of the 98th refused to try to escape a Last Stand when the Gunheads arrive. He immediately asks if the tanks can open up a corridor where he and his men can escape.
  • Remember That You Trust Me: In Gunheads, Siegler blurts out that they know Wulfe was helped by a ghost (in the Back Story), and with that out, his squad tell him that they were hurt that he didn't tell them.
  • Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: In Fifteen Hours, the bulk of new recruits die within fifteen hours of reporting for duty on the front lines. Because of that, the front line units don't bother issuing more than the most basic kit to people who haven't been there for at least fifteen hours, as they're probably going to die very soon, and then they'll need to track down the body to recover and possibly repair the gear. Which means that during those fifteen hours, soldiers are much more poorly equipped than the veterans, which makes them more likely to be killed.
  • Superpowered Mooks: The Death Guard in Cadian Blood.
  • Tarot Motifs: In Cadian Blood, the regiment's sanctioned psyker, having read the cards, boldly asks to speak with the Space Marine librarian about "the Emperor's Tarot". This conversation leads to a general warning.
  • We ARE Struggling Together: The Tallarn regiment in Desert Raiders is composed of recruits from two different tribal groupings that hate each other. If the Tyranids hadn't shown up to kill them (forcing an Enemy Mine and in some cases Fire-Forged Friends), they likely would have killed each other over various old grievances and perceived affronts.


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