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The Napoleon Series > Biographies > Biographies

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Michel Ney, Duc d'Elchingen, Prince de Moskowa, Marshal (1804)

(Born Sarrelouis (Lorraine), - Died 1769 Paris, 1815)


The only marshal executed in 1815 by Louis XVIII. At Waterloo, he ferociously charged the Allies after promising Louis XVIII to bring back Napoleon "in an iron cage." Napoleon would say: "Ney is the bravest of men, and therein lies the limit of his faculties."

Ney came from a humble background his father was a barrel cooper. He left a comfortable office position and enlisted in a hussar regiment in 1787. Under the Revolution, he fought at the frontiers where he was noticed by Kléber in 1794. His men had already nicknamed him "the Indefatigable". The hussar corps that he commanded in 1797 contributed to the victories at Neuwied and Dierdoff.

When war resumed in 1798, Ney became famous after using trickery to take Manheim with only 150 men; he was then promoted to major general. After a series of exploits in the Army of the Danube, he was given temporary command of the Army of the Rhine. He was serving under Lecourbe when he learned of the coup d'état of 18-Brumaire. Ney, an out-and-out Republican, was not delighted with the news but nonetheless lent his support to the Consulate.

In 1800, under Moreau's command, he again made a name for himself at the battle of Hohenlinden, on December 3. His lightning attack took 10,000 prisoners. The First Consul then took a close interest in this general. He gave him in marriage to a friend of Hortense de Beauharnais and named him ambassador to Switzerland. In 1803, he was given command of the 6th Army Corps at the Boulogne camp. The following year, Napoleon made him marshal.

Nobody could equal Ney in leading attacks. He was, however, a poor strategist, and the Emperor always had to direct him closely. In 1805, he launched into the campaign at the head of the 6th Army Corps. At Elchingen (October 14, 1805), he pushed the Austrians back towards Ulm; this victory earned him a duc's title in 1808. He then marched into Tyrol, driving out Archduke Charles. In 1806, he fought in the Prussian campaign. Present at Jena, on October 14, he led his divisions to attack the Prussian lines, but carried away in the heat of the battle, found himself surrounded. Lannes got him out of this tight spot. The next day, Ney took Erfurt and several days later began the siege of Magdeburg, which would last less than 24 hours.

Marshal Ney was everywhere: at Eylau (February 8, 1807), where he arrived late on the battlefield, but forced the Russians to retreat; at Guttstadt, where he and his 14,000 men fought 70,000 enemy soldiers; and at Friedland, where he attacked the enemy's left flank and drove it into the Alle River. He was extremely popular and his soldiers adored him.

From 1808 to 1811, Ney served in Spain and Portugal. After several victories, he began the siege of Villa Franca. When Masséna's army started to retreat, with Wellington in hot pursuit, he led the rear guard with the 6,000 remaining men in his corps. He found it difficult to be subordinate to Masséna or to receive instructions from anyone other than the Emperor. There were frequent quarrels. Ney balked so often that Napoleon finally discharged him in March 1811. Sent back to France, he was asked to prepare an army corps for the invasion of Russia.

This would be the marshal's most glorious campaign. He fought in the storming of Smolensk, where he received a bullet in the neck. During the battle of Borodino (September 7, 1812), his redoubt attack was decisive. Napoleon made him prince of Moskowa and called him "the bravest of the brave." During the retreat, he worked wonders. In command of the rear guard, harried by the enemy, he miraculously managed to join Napoleon before crossing the Berezina. He made countless efforts and sacrifices to save 3,000 men from the disaster. He was one of the last Frenchmen to leave Russian soil.

The next two years, Ney was given key posts, present at Lützen (May 2, 1813); at Bautzen (May 20-21, 1813); at Dennewitz (September 6, 1813), where he was defeated by Bernadotte; and finally at Leipzig (October 16-19, 1813). After the defeat, he decided that Napoleon's ambition was the main cause for the catastrophe. In April 1814, he was one of those who asked the Emperor to abdicate and among those who brought the first abdication to the Tsar.

On the King's return, Ney gave the sovereign his allegiance. Louis XVIII welcomed the marshal and named him commander of the Royal Guard and Peer of France. He joined the court but was hurt by cool reactions to his common origins. He finally retired to his estate. When the news of Napoleon's return reached Paris, he offered the King to bring back the Emperor "in an iron cage." While in route, he discovered that the majority of the French people were pro-Bonaparte. When he met Napoleon, he once again rallied to his cause. He fought at the battle of Waterloo in June 1815, at the side of his former master.

At Quatre Bras (June 16, 1815), his attacks lacked force. At Mont-Saint-Jean (Waterloo - June 18), the battle charges were poorly organized and directed at the wrong places. It seemed as if Ney wanted to die. After the defeat, he presented himself before the Chamber of Peers in an attempt to justify himself. Fouché gave him a passport but he refused to flee the country.

Hiding in a village, Ney left in plain sight the Turkish sword the Emperor had given him for his wedding. He was recognized and arrested on August 3, 1815. The jury charged to try him was composed of marshals, most of whom had acted as he had; they voted that it had no jurisdiction. The Chamber of Peers tried him and sentenced him to death (Chateaubriand was one of the voters).

When Ney was awakened in his cell to listen to his sentence, he interrupted the long enumeration of his titles. "Enough! Just say Michel Ney, soon a handful of dust." On December 7, instead of executing him on the Grenelle Plain, as was the custom, he was taken to the avenue de l'Observatoire, to avoid the crowds. Ney, refusing to be blindfolded, called out "Soldiers, straight to the heart!" and fell under the firing squad. The monarchy had made an example. Four years later, the other marshals would be exonerated.

by Alexandra Dalbin


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