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The Napoleon Series > Biographies > Biographies

The Lack of Opposition to the Execution of Marshal Ney

By Bruno Nackaerts

One of the most popular of Napoleon's marshals is undoubtedly Michel Ney, affectionately known to his troops as "le Rougeaud" ("ginger") for the color of his hair. So how could this man, later known as the "the Bravest of the Brave" be executed in a Paris public park?

After Napoleon's first abdication, the new monarchy (Louis XVI) decided on a policy of national reconciliation. Most of the high level personnel of Napoleon's regime, such as the prefects and the military commanders, were kept in place. And so Ney kept his marshal's baton. But the army had to be reduced to peace level and more than 11,000 officers were sent home on half-pay. A great many of these were men who had come up through the ranks, had earned every promotion on the battlefield, and knew of no other profession than the army. At the same time the Court decided to reinstall some of the key institutions of the Ancien Regime. Thus a number of foreign (Swiss) regiments were recruited, and the Maison Militaire, a collection of honor-guard units formed by the nobility, was introduced again. Additionally, all the military from the Ancien Regime who had emigrated were re-integrated into the army, with the rank they would have held, had they remained in the French army.

The first abdication was not the result of a military defeat but was brought on by a flanking movement of the Allies resulting in the taking of Paris. That Paris had not been defended was the result of treason, by the likes of Talleyrand and Pasquier [1] (then civil prefect of Paris) and the defection of a number of marshals such as Marmont. When Napoleon returned from Elba, and unit after unit deserted the Royal cause, this was in fact a military coup by the lower echelons of the military establishment, against not only the new rulers, but also against the betrayers of 1814. The appointment of Ney to command a wing of the Armée du Nord in the Waterloo campaign was not only a military decision, but also a political signal by Napoleon to forgive and forget in order to regain the support of the middle classes. But the rank and file of the army saw it differently, and after General Bourmont defected to the Allies, there was serious talk of shooting a few generals. Treason and fear of treason by their own high command was very much on everyone's mind and is an important factor in understanding of what was wrong with the French during the Belgium campaign.

To the average Bonapartist the Waterloo campaign was lost through defection and treason of the same military establishment that did the foul deed in 1814, of which Ney was symbolic of. Thus they hated him as least as much as any monarchist, and shooting Ney was therefore perfectly safe. Putting Marshal Davout on trial however, would been an invitation to civil war.

The case of Ney is a perfect example of how myths are created and how those can be turned inside out through time. In the Memorial de St. Helene, Las Casas made it very clear that Napoleon never forgave Ney and blamed him for his actions at Quatre Bras and Waterloo. Las Casas wrote the Memorial in Brussels, where he was surrounded by the whole clan of Napoleon outcasts who had never forgiven the 1814 betrayers and hated Ney. On the other hand there is Ségur, [2] who voted for the first abdication but rejoined Napoleon during the 100 days, lost all his perks as a result of it, but was made a Peer of France in 1819 and who through his books rehabilitated Ney as the hero of the Russia retreat. The Duchess of Angoûlème, known as "Madame Rancune" for her hatred of Napoleon, supposedly cried after reading Ségur's book, "he deserted our cause, but he should have lived for the honor and the glory of France". Then there is Thiers [3] who took up the public demand for a posthumous retrial and owes part of his political popularity to it. He had to drop the idea when Pasquier threatened to hand in his resignation and bring down the government. A retrial for Ney would have meant a public rehabilitation of the whole "the guard does not surrender" clan. Ironically the same group that would have spat on Ney's grave.

The British too wanted to see some executions. According to the myth a British officer rode over Ney's corpse. Yet they are the same ones who created the gallant foe imagery of Ney in their Waterloo mythology, elevating him to the "super marshal" group to which he did not really belong. This is where the escape to America story comes in, where Wellington, filled with remorse organizes a mock execution and arranges an escape to the Carolinas. There Ney supposedly became a schoolmaster (Peter Stuart Ney). The same goes for the Masonic lodge escape plot where the execution squad fires blanks, Ney is issued with stage blood and is then rescued by members of the "Ancienne Fraternité" lodge. But Masons as an anti-clerical liberal underground is post-1815. Both stories might do well as Hollywood happy endings, but can be qualified as examples of a typical denial syndrome.


  1. Etienne-Denis PASQUIER (21/04/1767-5/07/1862): Prefect of the Paris Police from 1810 to 1814. Cabinet minister of different governments in the post-Napoleonic period. The man who always was on the winning side, whether Napoleon, the Bourbon Monarchy, Louis-Philippe or Napoleon III.
  2. Philippe-Paul, comte de Ségur, (Paris, 4/11/1780-Paris 25/02/1873), son of Louis-Philippe de Ségur, who was himself an important senior officer in Napoleon's household, Philippe began his military career in the hussars in 1800. Was a member of the staff of the Grande Armée until 1805 when he was transferred to the Army of Naples where he became chef d'escadron in 1806. Captured by the Russians in 1807, he was released at the peace of Tilsitt. Wounded twice at the battle of Somosierra he was made Count of the Empire on 31/12/1809 and general de brigade in February 1812. He participated in the Russian campaign and his Histoire de Napoleon et de la Grande Armée en 1812" first published 1824, is considered a classic and was a very popular book at the time. Ségur was Governor of the Pages in 1813 and in that capacity fought at Leipzig and Hanau and in the 1814 Campaign where he was wounded (Rheims, 13/03/1814). During the Hundred days he was in charge of the defense of the Left bank of Paris. Promoted to Marechal de Camps under Louis XVIII he became lieutenant general and Peer of France in 1831.
  3. Adolphe THIERS: Journalist, historian and politician. Thiers was one of the journalists who provoked the revolution of 1830 and became cabinet minister. As Prime minister in 1840 he almost started a war against Britain. Thiers used the memory of Napoleon as a political weapon and is considered the Godfather of Bonapartism. He was instrumental in the return of the Ashes, lobbied for a retrial of Ney and as the author of the Histoire du Consulat et de l'Empire" (20 volumes) undoubtedly the most important and influential Napoleonic historian of 19th Century France.


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Fierro, A., Palluel-Guillard A., & J.Tulard. Histoire et dictionnaire du Consulat et de l'Empire Paris: Laffont, 1995.

Houssaye H. 1815, La Seconde Abdication-La Terreur Blanche Paris : Perrin et Cƒ, 1905.

Kurtz H. The Trial Of Marshall Ney London: Hamish Hamilton Ltd.

Lucas-Dubreton J. Le Maréchal Ney, 1769-1815 Paris: Arthème Fayard, 1941.