The Ney Trilogy: After Waterloo
He had crossed Europe from Spain to Moscow but a cell in the Palace had become his domain. He used to give orders but now others decided his fate. The Emperor had fled and was on his way to exile ironically in the hands of his most implacable enemies - the English. So was Michel Ney to be the scapegoat?
There was no turning back the clock, no bringing back lost lives. How had it gone so wrong?
.......If he closed his eyes could he still see those vast columns of six hundred thousand soldiers who marched to the Niemen and crossed into Russia? From the villages, towns and cities of Europe, to them Moscow was a mysterious place they had never thought of let alone dreamed of marching to. They had good reason to think this war would soon be over for who would stop the greatest army that ever was? There were Marshals and Generals, Kings and Princes, veterans of many battles. There were endless lines of wagons filled with flour, rice, biscuits, dry vegetables and spirits. There were cannon in their hundreds enough surely to blast the enemy from the face of the earth. There were water wagons, caissons loaded with cartridges, musket balls and flints there were herds of goats and oxen ready for slaughter. There were crowds of camp followers-women, children even babies. It was a world on the move, the result of the will of one man - Napoleon Bonaparte.
Who could stop him on his way to conquer the world? Had anyone thought of the sandy roads, of the power of the sun, of disease and thirst, of the endless miles or the bitter winter to come?
The Emperor sat on horseback a telescope to his eye scanning the horizon for sign of the enemy. He had fought many years of war but the sight of this great army sparked the energy which had begun to fade from his life, a life troubled from within. Surely he was at the height of his glory? His power was unrivalled his empire without equal and a baby son slept safely in his crib. Napoleon could have been sharing the bed of his young Empress, growing fatter and older as he basked in his own glory, but instead he chose war.
He rode forward before the glittering crowd of Marshals and Generals, Ney amongst them, as they made their way towards the river on cantering horses. They could all see the man had changed. His gut bulged, his mind had become less flexible less tolerant, he was angry and arrogant, but still the battalions passed and roared:
“Long live the Emperor!” They would tell their children about this day.
A squadron of French hussars fanned out on the far side of the river where gray clouds had gathered. Napoleon spurred his horse down into the valley as the cheers went on and on. A bolt of lightning speared from the sky and thunder rolled across the land, a rabbit dashed from the grass. The Emperor's horse reared. He teetered on the brink then crashed to the ground battered and bruised. But alive. Someone warned that a Roman General would not have crossed into Russia that day.
Ney sat up on his bed and heard the chatter of guards outside his door. His body ached. He needed to move, to ride through a deep forest, to hunt to chase to feel the crisp morning air on his face. But it was not to be. What was he thinking?
Mixed order? Infantry. Two deep line, battalion columns on the flanks, maximise firepower. More cavalry in support, more room to manoeuvre. Take La Haye Sainte. The cavalry. They should have spiked the guns. Had to spike the guns. Who was to blame? Was it all doomed from the start?
Could he imagine that little man in front of him, the man who once terrorised Europe? The face was now pallid and swollen the hair thin and swept across the top of his balding head.
“The losses had to be borne.” Napoleon whispered as his stomach ached. “It was a torrent that rolled away, the worst side of a picture of war, an evil exchanged for good! To misery her share must be given, my treasures my benefits would have repaired the loss. One great victory would have made amends!”
But Ney remembered the evening of Borodino, the sight of the Russians falling back in chaos and the battlefield in the hands of the Army of Europe. A quarter of a million men, a thousand cannon, Napoleon must have known the slaughter that would be unleashed. There was a carpet of shattered bodies which spread as far as the eye could see more grotesque than any abattoir. Were they really abandoned to the wolves and was it true a man with his legs shot away, fed from the carcass of a dead horse and drank from a stream filled with rotting bodies? There were a million ghosts who might have filled the Emperor’s nightmares.
And when you asked for the Guard to seal the victory what was his answer?
“How can I risk my Guard so far from Paris?”
You smashed your sword and cursed him, but the rage subsided when he embraced you as a victor and called you “Prince of the Moscova”. He understood the way to your heart.
The sun was bright in the sky when the army first saw it gleam on the golden spires of Moscow’s churches.
“High time!” Said the Emperor as the weary soldiers acclaimed him forgetting those they had left behind. He had proven the doubters wrong. The pessimists, the sceptics, the cowards, the little boys who had laughed at him at school, the teacher who called him a wretch. One hundred thousand troops at the gates of Moscow. He was the greatest conqueror of all.
The power to comfort, the power to destroy. The light of flickering candles wriggled in Ney’s cell. Could he imagine their spreading flames reaching out until he felt their searing heat? From somewhere came the sound of desperate shouts then shots and the roar of a firestorm tearing a city apart. The door burst open, light streamed in with the sound of soldiers racing through the streets, with the screams of the homeless the drunk and the insane who aimlessly wandered or fed the fire until bullets or bayonets cut them down. Ney’s heart pounded, he gasped for breath from the smoky air and at the top of Ivan's Tower he gripped the battlements as embers raced like shooting stars and buildings crashed into piles of charred timber and iron. Moscow consumed by fire, the toil of centuries destroyed in minutes. Whose work was this insanity?
“The fine weather tricked me!” So the Emperor said. “If I had set out from Moscow two weeks earlier my army would have been saved! All our disasters all our losses hinged on that two weeks in Moscow everything in the world depended on that!” If it were true would that have eased the pain?
“I should have been able to make peace in Moscow.” He said. “I thought they wanted it! I was deceived! I deceived myself! I waged war on the Tsar without animosity!” Six hundred thousand armed men without animosity? Had Ney said he would shed every drop of blood for this man who cared so little for the blood of others?
“Death is nothing!” The Emperor proclaimed. “But to live defeated and without glory is to die each day!” Ney understood those words as he paced his cell and wondered when the guards would come. Yet somewhere in the midst of the Atlantic the fallen Emperor was planning his resurrection as a legend though with words not guns.
“Before I discovered my destiny”, he wrote, “I was often alone in the depths of despair. My thoughts dwelled on death. I could see no place for myself in this world. It was only after battle that I realised I was a superior being and I conceived the ambition of great things, things which once had filled my thoughts only as a fantastic dream!”
Perhaps in his dreams a hand reached up to the balding head and searched for the golden laurels which once had rested there.
“Heaven gave this crown to me!” He had warned. “Death to him who touches it!” But there was no one left who feared him.
Ney felt a gentle touch on his cheek and it told a tale of what was to come: A snow flake lingered then melted away as he rode the streets of Moscow. While he slept did he feel the biting cold again as a blanket of snow fell across his body growing thicker as it rained from above?.....He lifted his arms and the icy crust dropped away as he stood. His legs were buried to the knees in a drift that wanted to drag him down forever. On a bare patch of earth the charred remains of a campfire were a black smear on the white landscape and mounds of frozen flesh sat huddled around it slowly disappearing beneath the snow, their muskets stacked nearby. The bitter cold was an enemy they could not fight so what use were all life’s lessons they had learned?
Ney looked over his shoulder. Through a forest of snow draped birches he could see the Cossacks coming. He felt the musket at his shoulder heard the click of the flintlock as he pulled it back with his blue fingertips. A loud crack and a flash erupted from the muzzle with a cloud of smoke. A Russian fell his shattered face buried quickly in the snow. Ney reached for another cartridge, bit off the end with his crusty lips and emptied it into his musket looking left and right again and again as he ran. There was a tingling in his spine the thrill, the terror of the chase. All around him fur clad Cossacks were closing in the tips of their spears already coated with blood. He took aim again, a musket ball whistled over his head, he grumbled through the phlegm which had found a home in his lungs. Then a huddled group of soldiers were at his side their faces draped with icy whiskers, their eyes darting between the shadows that moved all around them. Back to back, shoulder-to-shoulder they went. If they fell behind it was death on the spears of the Cossacks or by the torture of the peasants.
Ney puffed out another cloud of mist into the brittle air and as it cleared the forest sloped down to a dark and icy river. Grey figures staggered towards it, barely alive, limping, mindlessly, mechanically, past the butchered carcasses of horses and men. Ahead was the Berezina and its bridges. Near its banks campfires burned and huddled thousands watched the fire’s glow as if the sound of war was a world away. They had ceased to care for anything but warmth and the flesh which bobbed in bubbling cauldrons so they stared through Ney as if he wasn’t there. From the far side of the river came the crackle of musketry, the roar of cannon. Beyond, a thousand kilometres away was Paris. Were the Russians closing the trap? On the bridge the timbers groaned and drooped as Ney struggled into the throng of miserable humanity who crossed slowly step by painful step. Some stumbled on frost bitten toes falling into the icy water and thrashing before the shock of cold erased their will to live.
Somewhere beyond the banks of the Berezina, on another snow covered bridge a nightmare away, Ney staggered to a halt. The gunfire grew stronger, the air filled with smoke again. Beside him a ragged group of soldiers stood in a wavering line their voices shouting with fear and anger. They struggled to reload, their hands shook their fingers near to snapping refused to bend. Somewhere ahead was the enemy who would slaughter them all. Ney raised his sword as the Russians marched towards them.
“Prepare to fire!” He shouted. A young officer looked at him for a moment with questioning eyes then drew his pistol and searched for a target. From a distant hill came a puff of smoke. They glimpsed something black in the air growing larger and larger. Ney knew what it meant but he couldn’t flinch because he was the bravest of the brave. As he stared into the candle’s flame, could he still see that instant when the young man became a cripple when his leg spun away absurdly and the stump gushed blood onto the snow? The man pushed his pistol into his mouth and pulled the trigger.
“Only one hundred thousand were truly French!” The Emperor said. “The others were Germans, Italians, Dutch, Poles, Spaniards”.... “ I would have sacrificed a million more if necessary!”
Did Michel Ney ever hear those words or was he in his grave as Napoleon told the story as he saw it? “Who gave you your titles, who gave you your rewards?” Bonaparte had spat out in a rage at Fontainebleau....... “When our enemies arrived in Paris when I swore to bury myself in the ruins of the city you betrayed me! What was my throne, a few sticks of wood and some green velvet?” Did those words ring in Ney’s ears or had he already come to understand this selfish man?
“Marshall Ney!” Ney’s eyes darted to the plump face of a man who peered through a pair of spectacles. “You are accused of the crime of treason in that you did lead an army of our King Louis 18th over to the side of the exile Napoleon Bonaparte. It is our contention that you not only went over to Napoleon but also did so in pursuance of a plan made while Bonaparte was still in exile!”
“That is a lie!” Ney roared. “I abandoned the King only after it was clear my troops would not fight against Napoleon!” The darkness around him became a wall of faces watching his every move. They whispered and their eyes drilled into his soul. He could have fled, but no, he was too proud for that. And now they were preparing to judge him to decide whether he would live or die. A voice echoed through the chamber.
“You promised the King you would bring Bonaparte back to Paris in an iron cage?”
Ney knew it was true. “And why then Marshal after you had made that commitment did you take the extraordinary step of declaring before your troops the rule of the King was over when a conflict with Bonaparte was imminent?” Ney slammed his fist down and stared defiantly.
Words did not have the sting of bullets or bayonets but to be called a traitor, was the most painful wound of all.
“That was my judgment - that the French people demanded the return of France to the rule of Bonaparte. It was not morally correct to oppose the desire of the French people with military force, that would have been tantamount to civil war! We would have had to march over sixty thousand French corpses!”
“How was it your original praiseworthy intentions changed so suddenly?”
Ney searched the faces of those who watched him. He searched for sign of support, for an ally but he was on his own.
“After a battle, people always ask a soldier, why did you not do this or that? They should have been in the soldier’s place. Then they would have known why he did what he did!”
“How melancholy is the sight of the ruins of a great man?” Echoed a voice tinged with contempt.
“Fallen from the height of glory by virtue of his own crimes!”
The ruins of a great man? Crimes? Had he ever gambled his life for his country? He would have run in terror from those battlefields where Michel Ney had risked everything but this was his field of battle his weapons were words.
“When we are faced with a case of this sort there is always something in us which fights against our conscience from the habit of respect! We wish to continue to honour him whose fame once burned so brightly while we wish to detest and despise him who has inflicted such dreadful catastrophes on our nation. Sixty thousand dead in the field of battle because of the failings of this man. Marshal Ney!” The murmur of the gallery rose to a roar.
“I have fought a hundred battles for France and not one against her.” Ney jabbed back. For a moment his words echoed through the chamber.
“He! Who should have been the first in line of defence of the throne against Bonaparte in one single day became treasonable to his King and country. He incited the army to pass to the ranks of Bonaparte whom he had promised to deliver to the King in an iron cage! Is it true” He roared. “that for the first time in his life Marshal Ney new fear?”
Had Ney wanted to kill him there and then? His own countrymen had abandoned him. Wasn't it he, Michel Ney, who saved the remnants of the army in Russia? How many of them had relatives, friends and comrades who owed their lives to him? The words must have tormented him and as the jury made their choice between his life or death, perhaps the hero of Russia was already as good as dead?
It is an eerie experience walking the paths of Pere la Chaise Cemetery when the sun has just risen above its walls and its faint warmth struggles through the Paris haze. In winter, bare trees hang over the paths and their fallen leaves carpet mossy tombs. There are statues of angels holding their hands in prayer, stone mothers cradling silent babies and urns holding shrivelled bundles of flowers. Gothic, full of heartbreak, it is a city of the dead, not for the common folk but for those who have made their mark on the world for better or worse. The sentence for Ney? Death by firing squad. What other end could there have been for a man who lived the life he did?
He farewelled his wife and children. Desperate, she sought an audience with the King to ask for mercy. But Ney understood there was no hope. So on the cold misty morning of December 7th 1815 they took him by carriage to a courtyard not far from the Luxembourg Palace and there a firing squad awaited him.
“Fire straight at my heart!” He said.
As I stood at the small alcove in Pere La Chaise and looked at the inscription: “Michel Ney 1769-1815”, I still wondered if I could ever understand him. But it was time to cheer up, this was Paris after all. It was time for a coffee and a walk in its wonderful streets.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: May 2005
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