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Farewell to the Old Guard Speech | Study Guide

Napoleon Bonaparte

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Farewell to the Old Guard Speech | Summary & Analysis



Napoleon's 1814 Farewell

On April 20, 1814, Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821), also called Napoleon I of France, spoke to the members of an elite military squadron known as the Old Guard. The speech was brief but significant. It was a sign Napoleon had finally accepted defeat. Napoleon had begun his career as a soldier and worked his way up through the ranks of the French military to become the emperor of France. His reign was characterized by continual warfare with the rest of Europe.

In 1812 Napoleon met defeat in a campaign against Russia in which hundreds of thousands of troops died. After another crushing defeat at the Battle of Leipzig in 1813, Napoleon was disgraced and out of favor with the French people. He abdicated the throne in April 1814. Facing exile, Napoleon attempted suicide. After recovering, he stood before his most loyal soldiers and bid them and France an emotional farewell.

In fact, Napoleon would not be out of power for long. He returned to power in March 1815 but was exiled again after France's defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in June of that year.

Napoleon's Rise to Power

Napoleon is considered one of the most influential figures in the 19th century. He transformed the European continent geographically, culturally, and politically through warfare and empire building. Born in 1769 on the French-owned island of Corsica, Napoleon was sent to France as a boy to attend school. Canny and ambitious, he was promoted through the ranks of the military during the years of the French Revolution and its aftermath (1789–99), gaining increasing power and influence.

Napoleon first achieved national fame as commander of a military unit that saved the French republic in 1795 by putting down a royalist uprising. In 1796 he took command of a section of the army (the French Army of Italy) during a campaign in northern Italy. He eventually transformed a demoralized, underfunded, and starving military into one of the largest and most effective armies in the world.

France had remained unstable after its revolution. In 1795 the country was governed by a committee known as the Directory. France was at war with European neighbors and in economic crisis. In 1799 Napoleon led a coup against the faltering republic and set up a new form of government for the country, a consulate. Technically, there were three consuls, or leaders. Napoleon became the First Consul of France, or its most important leader. As France's new ruler, he set about reestablishing the rule of law. Although a new constitution was put in place, Napoleon essentially functioned as a dictator.

While Napoleon was hailed as a hero for saving the French republic, he was not a revolutionary, a populist, or a democrat. His aim was not to give the power to the people. He wanted to restore order from above to a nation crippled by a dozen years of revolution and counterrevolution. His desire for order is reflected in the Napoleonic Code, an encyclopedic set of civil laws he enacted in 1804.

Napoleon I, Emperor of France

In 1804 Napoleon became Napoleon I, emperor of France. He was declared emperor through a new constitution, backed by his allies. However, this transition represented a consolidation of Napoleon's personal power. At the ceremony in which he was crowned emperor, he famously took the crown and placed it on his own head, rather than allowing Pope Pius VII (1742–1823) to do so.

For the next 10 years, he strived to transform France from a country torn apart by revolution into an empire. As commander of France's Grand Army he invaded neighboring countries, in a succession of brutal but mostly successful wars. His goals were to acquire territory and establish French military dominance in Europe. By 1810 Napoleon had forged an empire that included parts of what are now Germany, Poland, Italy, Spain, and the Netherlands. He achieved an uneasy peace by placing members of his family on thrones around the continent and forming treaties with Prussia, Austria, and Russia. However, Napoleon had further ambitions concerning Russia and became determined to seize control of Czar Alexander I's (1777–1825) Russian empire.

Napoleon's Downfall

In 1812 Napoleon launched a campaign against Russia that would lead to his political downfall. Napoleon marched the Grand Army, with more than half a million French and Prussian soldiers, toward Moscow. The campaign was a disaster. The Russian army's strategy was to retreat, often without engagement, in order to draw the French further east. As the Russians withdrew, they destroyed crops and buildings. As a result Napoleon's massive army became stranded far from home without supplies or shelter as a brutal Russian winter set in. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers died of starvation and exposure during the Grand Army's retreat in October 1812. By the time Napoleon reached the French capital of Paris, his army had been reduced to a fraction of its original size.

As a weakened Napoleon led his army home, France's enemies began to rally. At the same time the French people became increasingly disenchanted with their ruler. Napoleon persevered on the battlefield, but in 1813 the Grand Army took devastating losses at the Battle of Leipzig and never regained its strength. By 1814 Russia, Prussia, Great Britain, and Austria had formed a powerful military alliance under the Treaty of Chaumont. Their goal was to stop Napoleon for good. When the allied forces entered Paris on March 30, 1814, the French offered little resistance. Instead they formed a new provisional government in anticipation of Napoleon's overthrow.

In April 1814 Napoleon Bonaparte abdicated as emperor of France. (He first abdicated to his son on April 6, then abdicated unconditionally on April 11.) The Treaty of Fontainebleau allowed him to retain his title, a generous yearly stipend, and an army of 400 guards. However, he was to be exiled to Elba, a small island off the coast of Italy. Despairing, Napoleon took poison but soon recovered. On April 20, surrounded by the members of Old Guard, an elite battalion of soldiers, Napoleon delivered his farewell speech.

An Emotional Farewell

Napoleon's Farewell to the Old Guard speech was not written out ahead of time. There exist several versions of the speech, written down by audience members or reconstructed from listeners' memories of what they heard. The different versions generally convey mostly the same themes and the sense of a passionate address to a loyal audience.

Napoleon begins his speech by addressing the crowd, the soldiers of his Old Guard. The Old Guard was an elite group. They were handpicked by Napoleon, who sought out the tallest, most intimidating, and most experienced veterans in the ranks of the regular army. Dressed in fine uniforms and carrying lethal weapons, these men had a well-earned reputation as ferocious fighters. They were revered by their fellow soldiers and by Napoleon himself. The Old Guard was Napoleon's secret weapon in battle. He often waited until the crucial moments of a conflict before deploying the unit. If the Old Guard could not turn the tide of a losing battle, then no one could. The purpose of Napoleon's speech is to take leave of his most devoted comrades, following his abdication as emperor.

The Old Guard: Loyal to the End

As Napoleon notes in his farewell speech, the bond between the Old Guard and their leader was long-established. They had been fighting together for nearly 20 years. In his speech Napoleon acknowledges times have changed. After a decade of expanding France's political boundaries and influence through military might, his fortunes have changed for the worse. By the summer of 1814, his reputation as a military leader had been deeply tarnished. The loss of life resulting from his disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812 was staggering. Despite rallying, the French army was overwhelmed by an alliance of its European enemies in 1813 at the Battle of Leipzig. At home the French people had grown weary of their emperor. Napoleon, now ousted, faces exile, and his special forces are to be disbanded.

Napoleon honors his soldiers for their many past victories. He considers them exemplars of bravery and loyalty. That loyalty would soon be tested. As part of the Treaty of Fontainebleau, Napoleon was allowed to take 400 members of the Old Guard with him into exile on the island of Elba. As it turned out, his time there would last less than a year. In early 1815 Napoleon, with the help of a small detachment of Old Guard soldiers, escaped from Elba. He returned to France to stop the restoration of the Bourbons—the French royal family—and retake power.

Napoleon's Cause

In his farewell speech, Napoleon refers to "our cause." He likely uses the phrase to rally his defeated troops, but Napoleon was not a fighter of causes. Biographers Paul Johnson and Frank McLynn suggest Napoleon's only cause was himself. He lived to fight wars and acquire power. They argue it was ambition and ego that drove Napoleon to wage war across an entire continent, not any cause or love of country.

Napoleon tells his men their cause would not have been lost had the Old Guard been able to keep fighting. During the Battle of Leipzig, the Grand Army had been overwhelmed by the alliance of Prussian, Austrian, Russian, and Swedish fighters. They were forced to retreat. Nearly 40,000 French were killed and wounded in the fight.

Napoleon then suggests the war against France's European enemies, had it continued, would have been never-ending and resulted in a civil conflict in France. This is probably an unrealistic reading of the situation. By 1814 Napoleon had lost the support of the majority of the French people. France was surrounded by an alliance of enemy armies, and the French had grown weary of Napoleon's wars. An interim government was formed in Paris. It capitulated to European invaders allied against France, whose sole aim was to push Napoleon out. While Napoleon always had some fervent defenders, by this point in time he likely had neither enough supporters nor enough influence to inspire a civil war.

Napoleon's Future in Exile

Napoleon then reflects on his own life. He declares he has sacrificed all his interests on behalf of his country. He claims the happiness of France has been his only concern and will remain so, even as he goes into exile. Many historians and biographers contest this idea. In their view Napoleon did not sacrifice much and gained quite a lot as ruler of France. As a savvy young man, he carefully navigated the political landscape of postrevolutionary France. He took advantage of the opportunities available to an ambitious outsider. Having risen through the ranks of the military, he then staged a coup when the republic faltered. As First Consul, Napoleon wielded his power through institutions and then expanded it by becoming emperor in 1804.

In his speech Napoleon claims France's "happiness" will continue to be his primary concern. It is true Napoleon kept a close eye on French affairs while in exile on Elba, an island off the coast of Italy. The restoration of the royal Bourbon family to the French throne would so enrage him that he returned and forcibly reclaimed his emperorship.

In the speech Napoleon notes that even though he must leave France to go into exile, his friends in the Old Guard will continue to serve. This is not entirely true. In 1814 the Old Guard was formally disbanded. The only exception was the 400 members who were allowed to accompany Napoleon to Elba. The Old Guard would enjoy a brief resurgence in 1815 when Napoleon returned to France to seize power from the restored royals. The Old Guard marched under Napoleon's orders into the disastrous Battle of Waterloo, his final battle. Napoleon would abandon his army after that defeat, return to Paris, and abdicate a second and final time. After that, the Old Guard would be no more.

Projecting a Positive Image

Napoleon implores his audience of devoted soldiers not to feel sorry for him. While he has faced devastating defeats and a failed suicide attempt, he remains strong. He states his only reason for living now is to serve his comrades by reflecting on their shared glory on the battlefield. He hints his plan is to write a history of the Grand Army's many successes.

Napoleon's real purpose here may be to save face. Like many military leaders and politicians who are forced to step down in disgrace, Napoleon presents his departure in a positive light. He will retire to Elba and use his time in exile to reflect on a glorious military career with the Old Guard at his side. However, Napoleon did not do this. After less than a year on Elba, he headed back to France to reclaim power.

Napoleon Bids Adieu

Napoleon ends his speech with a fond farewell. He uses the word adieu, which means "farewell," instead of au revoir, which means "until we meet again." Literally adieu means "until God," conveying the sense of a final goodbye, at least on earth. Napoleon then concludes with a heartfelt wish to embrace his comrades. A contemporary account describes Napoleon descending the palace stairs and beckoning his soldiers around him. After Napoleon speaks, he is approached by one of his generals carrying the French standard. Napoleon hugs the soldier and kisses the ceremonial flag. According to the account, the room is silent except for the weeping of the heartbroken soldiers. Then Napoleon abruptly leaves them.

Napoleon's Return

Napoleon's first exile on Elba was fairly brief. He returned to France in March 1815. Restored to power Napoleon mustered forces against his European enemies—the British and the Prussians. The conflict quickly came to a head at the Battle of Waterloo, in Belgium, in June 1815. This was Napoleon's final battle. Despite the heroic efforts of the Old Guard, the French Army was soundly defeated. Faced with surrender, an Old Guard commander reputedly shouted, "The Old Guard dies. It does not surrender!"

Napoleon was forced to abdicate and go into exile a second time. This time he was dispatched to the remote island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic, where he would spend the last years of his life. His only company for the next six years would be island locals, his British captors, and a few loyal officers.

With Napoleon finally defeated, the Old Guard dispersed. In 1821 Napoleon died on St. Helena and was buried there. In 1840 members of the Old Guard would accompany Napoleon's remains back to France, where they were buried in the Hôtel des Invalides in Paris. Photographs taken around 1858 show surviving members of the Old Guard, now old men, posing proudly in their tattered and faded uniforms. Their pride reveals the depth of their feelings for their leader.

Multiple Versions of Farewell to the Old Guard

Napoleon did not write his speech down. The written texts that exist were created based on notes and memoirs of various members of the audience. A version of the speech was published in 1823 by Baron Fain (1778–1837), who had served as Napoleon's secretary. This was the version used by a commission charged with publishing Napoleon's correspondence during the Second Empire (1852–70), when Napoleon's nephew Napoleon III (1808–73) came to power.

Fain's version came to be considered the official or authoritative version. However, scholars note that this version leaves out three major ideas found in many other versions: Napoleon's reference to being betrayed by a part of the French army; a mention that Napoleon could have chosen to lead a civil war; and a recommendation given by Napoleon to his listeners to obey their new ruler, King Louis XVIII (1755–1824).

Fain's version of speech alludes to civil war, but conveys the idea that Napoleon chooses to abdicate because civil war would likely break out if he remained. This phrasing suggests that Napoleon had so much popular support that a part of the French people would rise up to fight for him—a scenario most historians consider unlikely. Other versions of the speech contain the suggestion that Napoleon considered trying to lead a civil war, but ultimately decided not to. Fain likely chose to omit allusions to opposition from the army and to the possibility of Napoleon actively leading a civil war in order to preserve and burnish Napoleon's reputation. Fain's text was published at a time when Bonapartistes, those still loyal to Napoleon even in the years after his exile and death, continued to oppose the restored monarchy. This probably contributed to Fain choosing to omit Napoleon's counsel that his followers should obey their new king.

Napoleon's Legacy

Napoleon's drive for power and territory led to 15 years of almost continual warfare between France and the rest of Europe. Despite his efforts, at the end of Napoleon's reign, France was no larger but was far less prosperous than when he rose to prominence in 1799. Although he had been hailed as a revolutionary hero, he was probably driven mostly by self-interest and a bottomless desire for power. Historians argue Napoleon's greatest impact on France was institutional—primarily through his reforms to the legal codes and the military. Napoleon also had a great political impact on the rest of Europe. Alliances that formed in response to his war campaigns continued to shape Europe over the 19th century.

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