A truly dramatic moment in history occurred on April 20, 1814, as Napoleon
Bonaparte, Emperor of France and would-be ruler of Europe said goodbye
to the Old Guard after his failed invasion of Russia and defeat by the
By that time, Napoleon had ruled France and surrounding countries for
Originally an officer in the French Army, he had risen to become Emperor
amid the political chaos following the French Revolution in which the old
ruling order of French kings and nobility had been destroyed.
Napoleon built a 500,000 strong Grand Army which used modern tactics
and improvisation in battle to sweep across Europe and acquire an Empire
But in 1812, the seemingly invincible Napoleon made the fateful decision
to invade Russia. He advanced deep into that vast country, eventually reaching
Moscow in September. He found Moscow had been burned by the Russians and
could not support the hungry French Army over the long winter. Thus Napoleon
was forced to begin a long retreat, and saw his army decimated to a mere
20,000 men by the severe Russian winter and chaos in the ranks.
Britain, Austria, and Prussia then formed an alliance with Russia against
Napoleon. Although Napoleon rebuilt his armies and won several minor victories over the
Allies, he was soundly defeated in a three-day battle at Leipzig. On March
30, 1814, Paris was captured by the Allies. Napoleon then lost the support
of most of his generals and was forced to abdicate on April 6, 1814.
In the courtyard at Fontainebleau, Napoleon then bid farewell to the remaining
faithful officers of the Old Guard...
Soldiers of my Old Guard: I bid you farewell. For twenty years I
have constantly accompanied you on the road to honor and glory. In these
latter times, as in the days of our prosperity, you have invariably been
models of courage and fidelity. With men such as you our cause could not
be lost; but the war would have been interminable; it would have been civil
war, and that would have entailed deeper misfortunes on France.
I have sacrificed all of my interests to those of the country.
I go, but you, my friends, will continue to serve France. Her happiness
was my only thought. It will still be the object of my wishes. Do not regret
my fate; if I have consented to survive, it is to serve your glory. I intend
to write the history of the great achievements we have performed together.
Adieu, my friends. Would I could press you all to my heart.
Napoleon Bonaparte - April 20, 1814
Post-note: Following this, Napoleon was sent into exile on the little island of
Elba off the coast of Italy. But ten months later, in March of 1815, he
escaped back into France. Accompanied by a thousand men from his Old Guard
he marched toward Paris and gathered an army of supporters along the way.
Once again, Napoleon assumed the position of Emperor, but it lasted
only a 100 days until the battle of Waterloo, June 18, 1815, where he was
finally defeated by the combined English and Prussian armies.
A month later he was sent into exile on the island of St. Helena off
the coast of Africa. On May 5, 1821, the former vain-glorious Emperor died
alone on the tiny island abandoned by everyone. In 1840 his body was taken
back to France and buried in Paris.
The History Place - Great Speeches Collection
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