If this study ranked courage in battle rather than military influence, French marshal Michel Ney would top the list. Declared by Napoleon Ias “the bravest of the brave,” Ney remains the best known and best loved of the Napoleonic War leaders. Ney’s personal valor and his ability to inspire the same from his subordinates mark him as a soldier’s solder. His personal courage influenced the behavior and performance of future French cavalrymen and all military leaders who understood the importance of valor in commanders.
Born in Saarlouis, Alsace, on January 10, 1769, Ney ran away from home at age eighteen to join the French cavalry rather than follow in the footsteps of his barrel making father. Ney’s horsemanship and fighting ability soon led to an officer’s commission and rapid advancement in rank in the revolutionary army. In 1796 he became general of brigade; in 1800, general of division. Ney, who preferred to remain a frontline commander, accepted these promotions with reluctance.
Known to his admiring soldiers as “la rougeaud” (the redhead) not only for the color of his hair but also for the ferocity of his temper. Ney joined seventeen other generals promoted in 1804 by Napoleon to the rank of marshal of the empire. Although Ney and Napoleon had yet to conduct a campaign together, the emperor and his wife, Josephine, greatly admired Ney and even arranged his marriage to a member of their court.
In 1805, Ney, now in command of a corps, personally led a charge across a bridge at Elchingen that enabled the French to surround Ulm and force the surrender of thirty-two thousand Austrians. Ney and his corps next saw action at Jena and contributed to the victories at Eylan and Friedland. During this time, Antoine Henri Jomini joined Ney’s staff and played an important role in encouraging the marshal to command as well as lead. Jomini also provided a calming effort to keep Ney’s temper in check and to assist in his getting along with fellow marshals. Ney rewarded Jomini by lending him money to publish some of his earliest writing on war, which would have a long-lasting influence on the world’s military leaders. From 1810 to 1811, Ney fought in Portugal and Spain. While he continued to exhibit personal valor, Ney, despite the efforts of Jomini, also expressed opinions that were considered by his superiors so insubordinate that they relieved him of command in 1811.
Upon his return to France, Ney joined Napoleon in the pending invasion of Russia. The leadership of the emperor was exactly what Ney needed to develop from a brave, good officer to a valiant, excellent commander. Napoleon demanded that Ney cooperate with his fellow marshals and limit his impetuous actions in battle.
Although wounded during the advance on Moscow, Ney took charge of the rear guard when the Russians and the weather forced Napoleon to retreat. Starting with nearly ten thousand men, Ney fought delaying action after delaying action as he covered the withdrawal of Napoleon’s main force. By the time Ney reached the Kovono Bridge crossing out of Russia, his force had dwindled to a few hundred. In the final battle at the bridge, Ney himself took up a musket and joined the front line to repulse the advancing Russians. When everyone had safely crossed the bridge, Ney followed as the last French soldier on Russian soil. Napoleon honored Ney with a princehood and the title le brave des brave (the bravest of the brave).
Ney continued to serve Napoleon during the offensive of 1813 at Weissenfels, Lutzen, and Leipzig, where he once against suffered wounds. When Napoleon’s enemies began to force him back into France in 1814, Ney remained with the emperor. Shortly after the fall of Paris, on March 31, Ney, as the spokesman for his fellow marshals, approached Napoleon and recommended that he abdicate fro the good of France and the survival of the remaining army.
As a reward for assisting in Napoleon’s departure, the Bourbon monarchy that resumed control of France allowed Ney to retain his rank and position. Ney had served King Louis SVIII as the commander of the VI Military District and governor of Besancon for less than a year when Napoleon escaped his Elba Island exile and landed again in France at Golfe-Juan on March 1, 1815.
When ordered by the king to stop Napoleon, Ney promised to bring the former emperor back to Paris “in an iron cage.” This promise was apparently sincere, but by the time Ney reached napoleon, his old loyalties took precedence, and instead of capturing the returning emperor, Ney offered his sword and his service to his former commander.
Ney’s final battle would again be at the side of Napoleon. In command of the west wing, Ney supported Napoleon’s advance into Belgium, where neither would do well in their last fight. At Quatre Bras, on June 15, 1815, Ney failed to prevent a consolidation of Wellington’s force. Three days later, he lost most of his cavalry in repeated charges against English infantry squares, contributing to Napoleon’s loss at the Battle of Waterloo.
During the fight, Ney, at the front of his men as usual, had five horses shot from beneath him. With his uniform in rags and his face blackened by powder from the battle, Ney attempted to rally one last charge, shouting, “Come and see how a marshal of France can die!”
Despite his gallant words, Ney survived. After Napoleon’s exile to St. Helena, Ney, forty-six faced trial by his fellow marshals in Paris for returning to the emperor’s side. Found guilty, he was executed by firing squad in the Luxembourg Gardens on December 7, 1815, which produced storied of varying veracity. According to what seems the most accurate account, Ney gave the command for his own execution. In a more far-fetched story, the entire execution was faked, and Ney escaped to the United States, where he spent his final years peacefully as a farmer or schoolteacher.
Ney performed at his best when Napoleon was present to command and to ensure his cooperation with his fellow marshals. His boldness led at times to mistakes on the battlefield, but he usually achieved victory because of his personal leadership and bravery. Similar to George Patton in World War II, Ney was no strategic genius; rather, he was a leader who knew no fear and could motivate his men to perform great deeds. Ney’s lasting influence is as an example of a leader who paid little attention to his personal safety while willingly sacrificing everything for his commander and country.