phrases, sayings, proverbs and idioms at
Home button Home | Search the website Search | Phrase Dictionary | Old soldiers never die

The meaning and origin of the expression: Old soldiers never die

Old soldiers never die

What's the meaning of the phrase 'Old soldiers never die'?

The proverb 'Old soldiers never die, they simply fade away' is a rather melancholic notion that, long after they have outlived the wars they fought, old soldiers are forgotten and their passing ignored.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Old soldiers never die'?

Old soldiers never dieThe proverbial phrase 'old soldiers never die, they simply fade away' is widely creditted to J. Foley who is said to have copyrighted a song with that title in 1920. The lyrics of the first verse of the song are:

Old soldiers never die,
Never die, never die,
Old soldiers never die,
They simply fade away.

There are at least two problems with the notion that Foley originated to phrase:

- Foley was born in 1906 and would have been only 14 when the song was copyrighted.

- The expression was mentioned in Siegfried Sassoon's Counter-attack and Other Poems, which was published in 1918:

‘Old soldiers never die; they simply fide a-why!’ That's what they used to sing.

The 'that's what they used to sing' text indicates that the expression was in use by soldiers in the trenches before either Sassoon or Foley put it into print.

It may have drifted into obscurity but was given a new lease of life when the US general Douglas MacArthur used a variant of it in his farewell address to Congress in 1951:

Old soldiers never die - Young ones wish they would.

The British soldier Frank Richards published his mémoire of the Great War, called Old Soldiers Never Die, in 1933. He included this:

We generally wound up our evenings with the old song, set to the tune of a well-known hymn.

It is generally accepted that the hymn Richards was referring to was  'Kind Thoughts Can Never Die'.

There are numerous jokey variants of the expression - for example:

Old pilots never die, they just go to a higher plane.

Old deans never die, they just lose their faculties.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

Browse phrases beginning with:
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T UV W XYZ Full List