The Objects

18th Jun 1815

Source: gallica.bnf.fr, with permission of the Bibliothèque nationale de France

Le mot de Cambronne

Contributed by: Alan Forrest

The Hundred Days ended with Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. His army was routed and dispersed in panic as he himself rushed to Paris to save his throne. It was a military disaster that left France once again at the mercy of the Allies. Yet the battle lived on in French national memory as a moment of ‘glorious defeat’, encapsulated in the last stand of the Imperial Guard and by the apocryphal words attributed to General Cambronne: ‘The Guard dies but does not surrender’.

This 'mot de Cambronne' became famous throughout nineteenth-century France, an image that would be reproduced many times and would inspire new generations through the textbooks of the Third Republic. But 1815 was not a moment for praising Napoleon, with the Bourbons returning to their throne and France craving peace. Political opinion turned violently against him, and journalists, artists and cartoonists, who had been among the first victims of Napoleonic censorship, piled obloquy upon him. The dethroned Emperor cut a sorry figure as he threw himself on the mercy of his most bitter enemy, England, as this anonymous French caricature (The Guard dies but does not surrender, but Bonaparte surrenders and does not die) pithily makes clear.

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