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Farewell to the Old Guard Speech | Study Guide

Napoleon Bonaparte

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Farewell to the Old Guard Speech | Quotes


Soldiers of my Old Guard: I bid you farewell.

Napoleon begins his speech by addressing his audience, the soldiers of the Old Guard. The Old Guard was a group of soldiers specially selected by Napoleon for their height, bearing, and experience in battle. The Old Guard was made up of veterans with a reputation for ferocity on the battlefield. By April 1814 Napoleon had abdicated the throne and was facing exile. The purpose of this speech is to bid farewell to his most loyal soldiers.


For twenty years I have constantly accompanied you on the road to honor and glory.

Napoleon led the French army as a general, as First Consul, and then as emperor. As a military leader, Napoleon was hands-on. He accompanied his troops in many campaigns and battles.


In these latter times, as in the days of our prosperity.

By "latter times" Napoleon is referring to the changes in his fortune. Born on the island Corsica, Napoleon arrived in France as a young man. He then rose through the ranks of the military to positions of increasing power and influence. In 1804 he became emperor and set about conquering other European nations to acquire territory and spread French influence. In 1812 he led his army in a disastrous war against Russia in which hundreds of thousands of soldiers perished. In 1814 the French suffered another crushing defeat at the Battle of Leipzig. Afterward Napoleon abdicated and was sentenced to exile.


You have invariably been models of courage and fidelity.

Napoleon builds up the reputation of the Old Guard. Known for their skill and ferocity on the battlefield, the members of the Old Guard were Napoleon's secret weapon. He often held the Old Guard back until a critical moment in battle, when they would pour onto the field in an attempt to secure victory. Loyal to the end, the Old Guard would persist even after being disbanded. Some followed him back to France from exile to support his reclamation of power. In 1840 some members of the Old Guard accompanied his remains from the island of St. Helena to Paris for ceremonial reburial.


With men such as you our cause could not be lost; but the war would have been interminable.

Napoleon claims the Old Guard would have secured victory in his current campaign against his European enemies. He implies he ended the war on purpose because it would have continued indefinitely, likely resulting in huge losses of life. This interpretation of events favors Napoleon. In fact Napoleon had already faced several crushing defeats and caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of soldiers.


It would have been civil war, and that would have entailed deeper misfortunes on France.

Napoleon's suggestion that the continuation of war against France's enemies would have resulted in civil war is disputed by historians. Napoleon had fallen too far from favor among the French people. Even before his abdication, an interim government had been formed and sought peace with France's allied enemies. While Napoleon had always had fervent supporters, France had been depleted by constant warfare. So had the support of the French people. Few would have taken up arms to defend him. As a result, Napoleon abdicated.


I have sacrificed all of my interests to those of the country.

Napoleon states he has sacrificed everything in the name of France, but historians and biographers disagree. They argue Napoleon made few sacrifices as he claimed power and tried to assert French dominion over Europe. In fact he took advantage of the opportunities open to a young, ambitious outsider during the years of the French Revolution. He used them to reach the heights of power and influence he desired.


I go, but you, my friends, will continue to serve France.

Napoleon seems to offer comfort to his comrades by suggesting that while he must go into exile, the Old Guard will continue to serve France. In reality, though, the Old Guard was to be officially disbanded in 1814. Members of the Old Guard did accompany Napoleon into exile and supported him when he roared back to power in 1815. In their later years some of the Old Guard would escort Napoleon's body back to France for a ceremonial burial in Paris.


Her happiness was my only thought.

Napoleon speaks here of France's happiness. Effective leaders often identify the nation as their reason for being. Biographers and historians suggest that France, Napoleon's adopted country, was not a source of inspiration for him. Instead it was a vehicle for his endless ambition and desire for power and domination. They note France was hardly better off economically and politically after his reign than when he took power.


It will still be the object of my wishes.

Napoleon claims France's well-being will continue to be his concern even while he is in exile. It is true Napoleon paid close attention to French affairs while in exile on Elba. The restoration of the royal family to the French throne roused Napoleon, spurring his return to France to reclaim power and renew his efforts to dominate Europe.


Do not regret my fate.

Napoleon enjoins his loyal soldiers not to feel sorry for him. Admittedly he has faced defeat on the battlefield, abdicated the throne, and failed in his attempt at suicide. Yet, he shows his troops he is strong and has plans for the future.


If I have consented to survive, it is to serve your glory.

Napoleon hints the reputation of the Old Guard gives him a reason to live. Despite a failed suicide attempt by poison, he declares he will live on to serve their glory. In the next sentence he hints he will do this by writing a history of their military successes.


I intend to write the history of the great achievements we have performed together.

Napoleon states that he will occupy himself while in exile by writing a history of his military exploits with the Old Guard. However, Napoleon spent less than a year in exile before charging back to France to reclaim the throne from the restored royal family. Not until his final six-year exile on the remote island of St. Helena, under heavy British guard, would Napoleon begin writing memoirs.


Adieu, my friends.

Napoleon offers his soldiers a heartfelt farewell. In French, adieu conveys the sense of a final goodbye, as opposed to au revoir, which means "until we meet again."


Would I could press you all to my heart.

Napoleon concludes his speech by expressing a wish to hug his comrades. According to a contemporary account and artwork based on it, Napoleon did embrace one of his generals. Then he kissed the French standard, or ceremonial flag, before leaving the scene abruptly. According to the witness, the room was silent except for the sound of tough old soldiers weeping.

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