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 Waterloo @ 200 - The Trial and Execution of Ney 
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 Post subject: Waterloo @ 200 - The Trial and Execution of Ney
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Waterloo @ 200
The Trial and Execution of Marshal Ney, The Bravest of the Brave

By Matthew Groves

“You can see very well that it is all settled in advance. I would rather not be defended at all than have my defence regulated by my accusers."

Ney’s Arrest and the forming of the Court Martial
Ney had planned to flee into exile, possibly to America which seemed popular for those on the run from the Bourbons. But through indecisiveness about leaving despite the help he had from Fouche, Ney was arrested and brought to Paris. That very day, 19th August, Charles de la Bédoyère, was shot by firing squad. He had been ready to leave the country for America with forged papers, suitably disguised. He felt the need, however, to say goodbye to his wife and little son. Probably the most wanted man in France, he was caught at home. The death sentence after court-martial was inevitable, and the king refused to commute it. Ney was kept in the Conciergerie prison in Paris.

Louis XVIII's government was in a very unpleasant position. Not only was the government faced with the ultra-royalists demanding a trial, it had to find a high-ranking officer willing to head Ney's court-martial in the seven-member Conseil de Guerre - and to face the wrath of his fellow officers for doing so. Marshal Jeannot de Moncey was the first choice, the Minister of War, Marshal Saint-Cyr, ordered him to head this ‘Council of War’ court martial but he refused, writing a letter to King Louis XVIII justifying his refusal:

“Sire, placed in the cruel dilemma of offending Your Majesty or of disobeying the dictate of my conscience, it becomes my duty to explain myself to Your Majesty. I enter not into the enquiry whether Marshal Ney is guilty or innocent…All sirem if those who direct Your Majesty’s councils thought only of your welfare, they would tell you that the scaffold has never made friends. Do they imagine that death is so terrible for those who have so often braved it? Is it the Allies who require that France should immolate her most illustrious citizens? But, sire, is there not a danger for your person and your dynasty in granting them this sacrifice?
The daggers that struck down Brune, Ramel, and so many others are glittering before my eyes. And am I by my presence to sanction an assassination? The throne of the Bourbons is endangered by its own allies and am I to go to sap its foundations? No, sire, and you yourelf will not disapprove of my resolve. Twenty-five years of my glorious services shall not be sullied in a single day. My hair grown grey under the helmet shall not become the mark of dishonour.
My life, my fortune, all that I possess or enjoy is at the service of my king and country; but my honour is exclusively my own, and no power on earth can wrest it from me. If my name is to be the only heritage left to my children, at least it shall not be tarnished.
Is it for me to pronounce upon the fate of Marshal Ney? But, Sir allow me to ask Your Majesty, where were his accusers while Ney was fighting on so many fields of battle? Did they follow him, did they accuse him during twenty years of toil and danger? If Russia and the Allies cannot pardon the conqueror of the Moskowa, can France forget the hero of the Beresina? At the crossing of the Beresina, Sire, in the midst of that awful catastrophe, it was Ney who saved the remnant of the army. I had in it relatives, friends, and finally soldiers who are the friends of the chiefs. And I am to send to death him to whom so many Frenchmen owe their lives, so many families their sons, their husbands, their relations. Excuse, Sire, the frankness of an old soldier, who always holding aloof from intrigues has known only his duty and his country. He believes that his voice, which spoke in disapproval of the wars of Spain and Russia may likewise speak the language of truth to the best of kings, to the father of his subjects. I do not disguise from myself that this might be a dangerous course with any other monarch. Nor do I fail to see that I may thus draw down upon myself the hatred of the courtiers, but if, as I go down to the tomb, I can say with one of your own illustrious ancestors, ‘All is lost but honour!’ I shall die content.”

Marshal Bon-Adrien Jeannot de Moncey

It was a moving and honest letter that did Ney great honour, but for his blunt and noble refusal the old soldier Moncey was expelled from the Chamber of Peers, stripped of his Marshalate until 1816 and the indignant Louis XVIII ordered that he spend three months imprisonment in a fortress.

In the end, Marshal Jourdan, Ney’s old comrade of the Rhine, was named President of the court martial on 30th August. The other members were Marshals Massena, Augereau, and Mortier and Generals Vilatte, Claparede, and Gazan. Massena had tried to avoid the trial by urging that as he had had a quarrel with Ney in Portugal in 1811 he could not be relied on as an impartial judge. His objection was overruled, his colleagues unanimously testifying that his high character made it impossible to suppose that he would be influenced against Ney by any personal grievance in the past.

The Council of War

On 9th November the trial held its first sitting in the great hall of the Palais de Justice, Ney was not present and the sitting consisted mostly of document reading. Ney’s defence at that time was that this ‘Council of War’ did not have the authority or legality to put him to trial, he would demand a trial in front of the Chamber of Peers because he believed he had many enemies in the high ranks of the French army.

When the court martial met again this time Ney was present, there was a large military presence because of rumours of an attempt to rescue him but in the end there was no disturbance. After the marshals and generals took their places Ney entered, escorted by a squad of gendarmes. The guard presented arms as he passed. He was dressed in a general’s uniform and wore the Grand Cordon of the Legion of Honour. It was remarked that he looked calm and impassive as he saluted the court and seated himself in the arm-chair that had been placed in front of the long table at which his judges sat. After Jourdan went through the formalities of asking Ney his name and other details, Ney took a piece of paper from one of his lawyers and read in a loud clear voice a protest against the competence of the court. He said he had no desire to show any disrespect to the marshals and generals of France, but he must refuse to be interrogated by a court martial or by any tribunal except that which the law gave the right to judge him.

The lawyers argued the point and at four o’clock the members of the court retired to consider their decision. Shortly after five they came back and the President announced that by five votes against two they had judged that they had no jurisdiction. The judges were clearly just as apprehensive about passing judgment on Ney as Marshal Moncey had been, they were more than happy to avoid the whole affair and defer the marshal's case to the Chamber of Peers
The Marshal’s friends rejoiced, but his enemies at court were furious. Ney had bought time as it would take weeks for another body to be formed to court martial him. When he returned to his cell in the Conciergerie he asked permission to have visitors and he was seen by his wife and their four children, his sister-in-law, his Aide-de-Camp Colonel Heymes and his notary M. Batardy.

Chamber of Peers
But the ultra-royalists did not mean to lose their prey. On Saturday 11th November the Duke of Richelieu, President of the Council and Minister of Foreign Affairs, rose in the Chamber if Peers to move a resolution for the trial of Marshal Ney by that assembly. During the Empire Richelieu had been in the service of Russia and was known to be a valued friend of the Tsar. This gave a new force to his words when he told the Peers that it was not only in the name of the King and in the name of France but in the name of Europe that the ministry conjured and required them to pass judgement on Marshal Ney.

Ney’s wife meanwhile was desperately appealing to Allied generals to intervene to save her husband, reminding them of Article 12 in the Convention of Paris. But her appeals fell on deaf ears, Sir Charles Stewart, the British Ambassador said that His Royal Highness the Prince Regent could not intervene in a matter of internal French policy. A biographer of Ney, A. H. Atteridge, criticised this statement by saying “- in which by the way His Royal Highness’s Government had been interfering most effectually on a score of occasions.” Wellington answered that he could not see that the Convention applied to Ney’s case and must regretfully decline to take any action.

Meanwhile the legal proceedings were in progress. The Chamber had resolved that during the trial; Ney should be confined in an improvised prison in the palace of the Luxembourg, where it held its sittings, so as to minimize the chance of rescue by avoiding having to escort the prisoner backwards and forwards from the Conciergerie. There were constant rumours of plots of old soldiers to deliver the Marshal and precautions of all kinds were multiplied for his safe keeping. On 20th November all preliminaries had been completed and on the 21st the trial finally began.

First sittings at the Chamber of Peers

The Luxembourg Palace where the Chamber of Peers met and Ney’s trial was held.

When the places had been provided for the Peers, the lawyers and officials, and the witnesses, there was little room left in the great hall of Luxembourg for the public. It was noted that those who crowded the narrow tribunes of the spectators were largely foreign visitors to Paris. Metternich was there, and the Prince Royal of Wurttemberg and several British and Russian officers in uniform.

The President of the Chamber, Chancellor Dambray, opened with a brief address in which he called on the Peers to dismiss all prejudice from their minds and give the prisoner the ‘most ample attitude for his defence’. Ney entered escorted by four gendarmes, he wore the undress uniform of a general with the Legion d’Honneur and the Cross of St. Louis on his breast. He was calm and self-possessed and saluted the court before taking his seat near his counsel.

An officer of the court read the long ‘act of accusation’ drawn up by the prosecution. The language was bitterly hostile to the accused. The prosecution sought to show that Ney had from the first intended a treacherous defection; that he had declared for Napoleon at a time when his troops were still willing to follow him against the ‘usurper’; and that his treason had been a chief cause of the collapse of the Royalist resistance to Napoleon, and thus led to the disastrous events that followed. Desertion to the enemy, levying of war against the sovereign, and promotion of armed strife between citizens of France were the crimes against Marshal Ney, and attention was called to the clauses of the penal code that punished the crimes with death.

Asked by the President if he had any defence, Ney rose and read from a paper protesting against various details of the procedure of the court. Then came a prolonged argument on these points between the Procureur Bellart and Ney’s lawyers Dupin and Berryer. This went on until the court adjourned. At the second sitting on the 23rd, the defence, besides arguing several legal points, pleaded for a further adjournment of several days on the ground that the accused had not been fully informed of the nature of the indictment, and must have time to obtain evidence to refute certain matters alleged against him. Ney was especially anxious to show that he had not contemplated defection up to the night of 13th March. Finally, the court agreed to give the prisoner until 4th December further to prepare his case, he was returned to the Conciergerie.

General Bourmont speaks as a witness
On 4th December Ney returned before the Peers at the Luxembourg. Before replying to the questions of the President, Ney declared that he reserved the right of hiss defenders to plead the protection of Article 12 of the Paris Convention of 3rd July and its virtual confirmation in the Treaty of Paris of 20th November.
In relation to his parting interview with the King, Ney tried at first to show that he had not used the unfortunate phrase about bringing Napoleon back in an iron cage, but on being pressed on the point he practically admitted it. Throughout he insisted that up to the morning of 14th March he had loyally done his best for the royal cause, and only abandoned it at the last moment when further efforts were impossible. Then the hearing of the witnesses begn. The testimony as to his conduct up to the 14th March was on the whole very favourable to him. The dramatic moment of the witness testimonies arrived when General de Bourmont was called to give his evidence.

General de Bourmont

De Bourmont and General Lecourbe had been Ney’s lieutenants during the crisis at Lons-le-Saulnier where Ney read Napoleon’s proclamation to the troops. Lecourbe had died a few weeks before the trial from a long illness. De Bourmont therefore had no reason to fear that he would be confronted with his colleague when he appeared to testify to the treason of Ney, despite De Bourmont’s own record of frequent changes of sides.

In his testimony De Bourmont told the court that in the early morning of 14th March, Ney showed Napoleon’s proclamation to himself and Lecourbe, telling them that further opposition was useless, that the cause of the King was lost and there was nothing left for them but to declare for Napoleon and lead the troops to join him. De Bourmont then said that he and Lecourbe had persistently opposed the proposal.

When asked why he had gone with Ney to the parade, he replied that he had done so only to watch what would happened. He then added a statement which, if true, would have told heavily against Ney’s whole line of defence. “Marshal Ney”, said De Bourmont, “was so thoroughly resolved beforehand to take the side of Bonaparte, that half an hour after reading the proclamation he was wearing the Grand Eagle of the Legion of Honour with the effigy of the usurper.” This was completely false, as was proved at the next sitting of the court, when Marshal Ney’s jeweller produced his books and swore that it was not until 25th March at Paris that he handed him his decorations bearing the insignia of the Empire.

Ney had been one the point of interrupting De Bourmont before he told the story of the decoration but when he did the Marshal lost patience and sprang to his feet. “Monsieur de Bourmont,” he exclaimed, “accuses me to clear his own conduct. It seems he prepared his denunciation of 11 months ago at Lille. He flattered himself perhaps that we would never meet again face to face. He thought I would have short shrift like Labedoyere. I have no oratorical talent but I come direct to the fact. It is unfortunate for me that General Lecourbe I no longer living,”

Ney was not interrupted as he gave his own account of the debate at Lons-le-Saulnier. There I was with my face bent over the fatal proclamation while they stood opposite me. I called on General Bourmont as a man of honour to tell me what he thought. Bourmont, without any preliminary remark, took the proclamation, read it, said he quite agreed with it, and passed it to Lecourbe. Lecourbe read it and handed it back to him without a word. Lecourbe did not protest, Bourmont thought we might read the proclamation to the troops. Neither said to me: - Where are you going? You are going to risk your honour and you reputation for a fatal cause.” Then turning to De Bourmont: “I had no need, Monsieur de Bourmont of your opinion as to the responsibility with which I alone was charged. But I was asking for light, for advice, fro men who I believed had enough of old affection, enough of energy, to say to me ‘You are wrong’. Instead of this you drew me on and flung me over the precipice!” Turning again to the court Ney said “It was Bourmont who assembled the troops to hear the proclamation. He had two hours for reflection. If he considered my conduct criminal, why did he not arrest me? I had not one man with me, and not even a saddle horse to escape with.”

Listening to Ney’s argument, the President asked De Bourmont who gave the order for the troops to parade. The witness confessed that he had on the verbal order of the marshal. Ney interrupted again saying Bourmont assembled them after he had been shown the proclamation. The President then asked the witness why he had gone with Ney to the parade ground after knowing what he intended to do. De Bourmont replied that he wanted to see the aeffect produced by the proclamation. He then explained that he wanted to see if there were any signs of opposition to Ney among the troops. The President then asked if he had taken any steps to evoke such opposition. De Bourmont was now very uneasy, Ney’s counter-attack had almost changed his position from that of a witness to a defendant. De Bourmont said that he had no time and could do nothing unless he had killed the Marshal. Ney interrupted again in his deep sonorous voice ”You would have done me a great service, and perhaps it was your duty!”

De Bourmont had tried to show that the troops were still loyal until Ney addressed them. Now he went on to say that he feared arrest and that he was anxious to return to Paris. Ney struck again with a fresh protest against the story of the decoration. “Do you take me for a miserable wretch? You want to make out I brought it from Paris with the same purpose of betraying the King. I am angry at an intelligent man using such false and such base methods against me. He must be in a strange state of mind to testify to such theories as this.”

The Procureur, Bellart, asked the President to put to Ney the question whether there was not some personal cause or quarrel between him and the witness. Ney replied emphatically that there was none whatsoever. Bellart must have been anxious at the effect Ney’s words produced.

After this, one of Ney’s lawyers asked the witness whether it was out of mere curiosity that he went to the banquet on the evening of 14th March. The witness replied that he did so to prevent Ney suspecting him and to avoid possible arrest. Ney said “I arrested no one. I left every one free. Neither you nor anyone else objected. You held an important command. You could have had me arrested and you would have done well. The officers of rank came to dine with me. I was dull enough. Monsieur de Bourmont was there, and if he tells the truth he will tell you that the party was a gay one. That is the truth.”

The President asked the witness what force Napoleon had at lyons on the eve of Ney’s defection. 5000 men was the reply from De Bourmont. Ney replied “Why deceive us as to the number? Everyone knows that he was at the head of 14,000 men, without counting the soldiers who were coming in from all sides and a crowd of half-pay officers. Then, I saw already that civil war was inevitable. One would have had to march over 60,000 French corpses.”

De Bourmont was further asked and quizzed over whether he believed Ney could have put up any resistance against Napoleon’s troops, he was then questioned over the effect Ney reading the proclamation had over the men. In the end, the witness was allowed to retire.

Lecourbe’s statement and other witnesses
An officer read the statement of Lecourbe taken by a magistrate shortly before his death. It was on the whole favourable to Ney, it supported Ney’s version of events and agreed that there was nothing Ney could have done to oppose Napoleon due to the excitement of the men. Lecourbe, when asked the question of who was opposed to Ney, had answered that there was no opposition.

Other witnesses that were called included civilian officials and Royalist officers who had met Ney during the march to Lons-le-Saulnier, or had witnessed the scene on the parade ground. The result of their testimony was to show that before the 14th he had been zealous for the King and that on that day there had been no opposition to the declaration for Napoleon. At the close of the sitting Ney was conducted back to the improvised prison in an upper story of the Luxembourg.

The court met again the next morning on the 5th December. After going through witnesses who provided testimonies that made note of Ney’s zeal for the King before the 14th March, the three witnesses were called on whose evidence the defence mainly relied. These were Marshal Davout, and two of the envoys who, acting under Davout’s instructions, had signed the Convention of Paris on 3rd July. Davout was questioned first, the defence put him several questions before the all-important one. One of the defence lawyers said “I ask the Prince of Eckmuhl to state what was the sense that he and the Provisional Government attached to Article 12?” Bellart, seeing that if Davout was allowed to explain he would give evidence of the utmost value for the defence, strongly protested against the question. When the defence tried to press the point, the President, who at the opening sitting of the court had declared that ‘the utmost latitude’ must be given to the defence, now weakly yielded to the prosecution. After Predident Dambray’s ruling Davout withdrew and the two other witnesses gave very brief evidence.

The evidence closed, Bellart then made his speech for the prosecution, a fierce protest against any mercy being shown to Ney. When called on to reply the defence asked to be allowed further time to consider and the court adjourned.

The Final Session
On 6th December the court assembled for the last session. Evidently the main argument of the defence would be that Ney’s case was covered by the Capitulation or Convention of Paris. The prosecution had taken measures to prevent this point being raised. Before th public session of the court was opened Dambray read a notice of motion that had been handed to him by one of the ultra-Royalist Peers, the Comte de Tascher. It ran thus:

The Comte de Tasscher has to honour to ask M. le President to be pleased to obtain from the Chmber authority to forbid the defenders of Marshal Ney to speak of the Convention of Paris in their pleadings, seeing that this Convention in no way concerns the Chamber of peers and lies beyond their attributions. The Chamber is charged by the King to judge the Marshal on the indictment which has been laid against him by His Majesty’s Ministers. The question whether the Treaty of 3rd July applies to the Marshal, and whether or not he is included under Article 12, concerns only the Government, and it is to the Minister of Foreign Affairs that the accused as and is bound to address himself. I demand that the trial shall proceed without obkections being admitted.”

President Dambray declared that he agreed with De Tascher. There was a brief debate and a vote was taken and the Chamber decided that the Convention must not be pleaded, as bar to its Jurisdiction.

When the public sitting opened the defence counsel opened with one of the lawyers reminding the court that Ney had been foremost in securing the abdication of Napoleon at Fontainebleau in 1814. He appealed to the evidence of the witnesses to show that he had been horrified at the news of his return from Elba, that day after day he had manifested the utmost repugnance for Bonaparte’s enterprise and a loyal zeal for the King’s service, The lawyer went on to explain and justify Ney’s actions during Napoleon’s advance on Paris. He explained that Ney was a simple soldier and no politician, he had seen many changes of Government and in each change he had recognised only the will of the people. Behind each government he saw the fatherland, and gave it his allegiance. He insisted that throughout his brilliant career Ney had thought only of the interests of the country. “This was the constant object with him of a religious devotion. This incontestable truth, which was demonstrated by so many splendid exploits ought to sweep away all ideas of criminal conduct on the part of the Marshal. Once more we must attribute the act with which the Marshal is charged entirely to his ardent desire to avoid the shedding of French blood by the hands of Frenchmen.” The defence went on to argue that when the allied powers engaged themselves to depose Napoleon by force of arms, the Vienna pact of 25th March, made them Allies of the King of France. They defeated the ‘usurper’ at Waterloo and their armies arrived before Paris, but their acts were all part of the common accord to which the King was a party.

Bellart saw what was coming and protested against any argument being based on the Convention of Paris, and read a formal demand from the Ministry insisting that the Court should confine itself to the indictment. Ney then rose and read from a note written by one of his lawyers except the last to sentences. “So far my defence has seemed to be free. I now perceive that it is to be fettered. I thank my generous defenders for what they have done, and for what they are still prepared to do. But I beg them to desist altogether from defending me rather than defend me imperfectly. I would rather not be defended at all, than have a sham defence. I am accused in defiance of the faith of treaties and I am to be forbidden to appeal to them! I do like Moreau. I appeal from you to Europe and to posterity.”

A Peer said that it was a lawyer’s trick. One of Ney’s lawyers sprang up to speak, but Ney stopped him by saying: “You can see very well that it is all settled in advance. I would rather not be defended at all than have my defence regulated by my accusers.” Bellart intervened and asked the court to decide according to the demand of the ministers. The President called on the defence to continue, confining themselves to the facts of the case. But Ney said told his lawyers he forbade them to speak unless they were allowed to speak freely.

Then Bellart told the court that since Ney insisted on closing the discussion the prosecution would say no more. He simply asked the court to apply to the case of the accused the provisions of the Penal Code against treason and attacks on the safety of the state. President Dambray asked the accused if he had anything to say against the application of the penalty. Ney replied “Nothing whatever, Monseigneur.” Then came the formal order of the President for the accused, witnesses and the public to leave the court, it was 5pm and the long process of taking the votes of the Peers began.

Votes are counted
Victor de Broglie was the only Peer to vote in the defence of Ney, in the 1830s he would serve very short terms as Prime Minister of France

The most important question of the vote was whether Marshal Ney had been guilty of an attempt against the safety of the State. On this question 157 voted ‘Yes’. Four dissented in various ways. The Duke Victor de Broglie alone voted ‘No’ and explained his vote by adding, “There is no crime unless there is a criminal intention, no treason without premeditation. One does not commit treason on a first impulse. I do not see in the facts justly alleged against Marshal Ney either premeditation or a design to betray.”

Marshal Ney was thus declared guilty by majority of the Peers. Then came the question of the sentence. On the first vote 13 Peers voted for deportation beyond the frontiers, 142 for death by military execution. Then came the second vote. 137 Peers persisted in decreeing the death of Marshal Ney, 17 voted for deportation, 5 abstained from voting and proposed an appeal of clemency of the King. Victor de Broglie was among those who voted for the merciful sentence of deportation. Quite shockingly, amongst those who twice voted for his death were a crowd of distinguished soldiers who had once been comrades of the ‘bravest of the brave’. Five marshals were among them, Kellerman (the old Duke of Valmy), Marmont, Serurier, Perignon, and Victor, and fourteen generals, among them Dupont, Maison, Lauriston, and La Tour-Maubourg.


That evening, whilst the Peers were voting in the great hall, Ney had returned to his room where four sentries were posted, one in each corner. His lawyers joined him there swiftly. His dinner had been brought in and while talking to them he ate heartily. He said “I am sure that Monsieur Bellart will not dine with as good an appetite.” Ney seemed much more cheerful than his lawyers. Ney knew what was coming, he asked his lawyers to arrange for him to see his wife and children, his sister-in-law and his notary. When they left him he said it might be the final parting, it was he who had to console them, he embraced the oldest among them, Berryer and said to him “Adieu, my dear defender, we shall see each other again above.”

That night the iron-nerved marshal showed no sign of weakness, just before midnight he rose and went to bed and fell asleep. In the middle of the night he was visited by men informing him of the sentence and the preparations for his execution on the morrow, he was completely calm throughout. Ney was informed that he was authorized to see his wife and children, his notary and his confessor. Ney replied “I shall first see the notary, he is probably in the palace. Then I shall see my wife and children. As for the confessor, don’t trouble me about him.” At this point one of the guards on duty in the room, an old soldier, approached, saluted him respectfully, and said “You are wrong, I am not as brave as you, but I am as old in the service. Well, I have never gone under fire so boldly as when I had first of all recommended my soul to God.”

Ney seemed impressed and said that perhaps he was right, he arranged to see a confessor after seeing his wife. It was 4am, and so Ney slept for another 2 hours. At 6am Ney’s notary arrived, it was aa brief interview as Ney had written all his instructions that evening. At half past six Ney’s wife and her sister were escorted in once the four sentries were ordered to leave the room. Ney’s poor wife, Aglae, was exhausted with the weary waiting and the terrible mental strain. As she saw he husband she cried in agonised grief and fainted. She soon revived. In voices broken with fits of weeping the two women talked for a while with Marshal Ney who was calm throughout and did his best to console them. Then Ney’s four sons were brought in. Ney kissed them and told them always to love their mother, and turning to his wife said that perhaps after all he was leaving them an honoured name, and she would teach them to do further honour to it. Afterward the sad farewells were spoken and Madame Ney left the room supported with her sister, the boys follower with the heads bowed. Afterward Ney saw the confessor and spoke for more than an hour with him.

Meanwhile the arrangements had been completed. The firing squad would be commanded by General de Rochechouart. The firing part paraded, twelve veterans of the corps of old non-commissioned officers who formed the guard of the Luxembourg. At 8.30am a closed carriage was called. The priest came to Ney’s cell to tell him it was time, but before he could say a word Ney said with a smile “Ah, Monsieur le Cure, I understand. I am ready.” Ney was completely calm as he walked through the palace to the courtyard, as he stepped out he remarked on the dismal weather. The carriage was waiting between two rows of soldiers with fixed bayonets. The priest stood aside for the Marshal to enter it first, but Ney, smiling again, politely offered for the priest to enter the carriage first.

Ney and most of the people in Paris had expected the execution to take place the some place and La Bedoyere’s, at the Plaine de Grenelle. Crowds had gathered on the plain that morning, among them half-pay officers and veterans of the ranks of the Grande Armee, some of them with arms concealed under their overcoats, in the wild hope of taking part in a rescue. But the government was anxious to risk nothing, hence the place of execution had been selected in a corner of the Luxembourg gardens, the Ney’s surprise.

Ney got out of the carriage, followed by the priest to whom Ney spoke to for a minute and received the last absolution. He then handed him a gold snuff-box telling him to give it to Madame Ney, followed by a purse with a few gold louis in it for the poor of St. Sulpice. The priest embraced him before Ney took his place in front of the wall. Three lines of troops formed the sides of a square with the wall for the fourth. The firing squad was ordered to load. When offered the blindfold Ney refused, saying. “Don’t you know, Sir, that a soldier does not fear death.” Finally, Ney insisted on giving the firing squad the order to fire himself. Reportedly his last words were:

"Soldiers, when I give the command to fire, fire straight at my heart. Wait for the order. It will be my last to you. I protest against my condemnation. I have fought a hundred battles for France, and not one against her... Soldiers! Fire!”

Historiography of the Trial of Ney
The trial and execution of Ney have been viewed as great injustices by historians ever since. Most agree that the trial was a farce, merely meant for show and the executions are seen as little more than Bourbon vengeance for the humiliation of the Hundred Days. Nineteenth century historian Joel Headley, who wrote a biography of Napoleon’s marshals, analysed: “Ney and La Bedoyere were the only victims offered up to appease an unjust hatred. Besides, Ney's person was sacred under a solemn treaty that Wellington had himself made. One of the articles of that treaty expressly declared that "no person should be molested for his political conduct or opinions during the hundred days." On such conditions was Paris surrendered, and there never was a more flagrant violation of national honour than the trial of Ney. The whole affair, from beginning to end, was a deliberate murder, committed from feelings of revenge alone.”

Fyffe explains: “No crime committed in the Reign of Terror attached a deeper popular opprobrium to its authors than the execution of Ney did to the Bourbon family. The victim, a brave but rough half-German soldier, rose in popular legend almost to the height of the Emperor himself. His heroism in the retreat from Moscow became, and with justice, a more glorious memory than Davout's victory at Auerstadt or Moreau's at Hohenlinden. Side by side with the thought that the Bourbons had been brought back by foreign arms, the remembrance sank deep into the heart of the French people that this family had put to death ‘the bravest of the brave.’ "

Historians are not the only figures who have criticised the trial of Ney. At the time the French public were appalled that Marshal Ney had been executed and his death would have also had an emotional impact on the soldiers of the army as well. Ney’s wife had beseeched the Duke of Wellington to intervene to save Marshal Ney’s life to no avail. Lord Byron, who would play a part in the Napoleonic legend of the nineteenth century, wrote in a little known poem called ‘Ode from the French’:

‘We do not curse thee, Waterloo!
Though Freedom's blood thy plain bedew;
There 'twas shed, but is not sunk—
Rising from each gory trunk,
Like the water-spout from ocean,
With a strong and growing motion—
It soars, and mingles in the air,
With that of lost La Bédoyère—
With that of him whose honoured grave
Contains the "bravest of the brave." ‘

Three factors placed Ney in front of the firing squad. The first factor was that, by the letter of the law, Ney was guilty - although it was more "surrender-to-circumstances" than a calculated, premeditated act of treason. Impulsive and hot-headed, Ney lacked the well-honed political and survival skills of Fouche or Talleyrand. Bad judgement it may have been, but it was just enough bad judgement to have him face a trial. The Conseil de Guerre's refusal to hold a military court-martial was the second factor. Had the Conseil handed down a verdict of "guilty with special circumstances" and imposed a non-capital sentence on Ney, the marshal might have avoided the death-penalty decision in civilian Chamber of Peers. The third factor was Louis XVIII's inability - both politically and personally - to grant Ney any form of clemency, due to pressure from the ultra-royalists and their supporters in the Chamber of Deputies. It is an indication of the reactionary atmosphere in late-1815 France. A soldier like Ney certainly did not deserve the death penalty for his betrayal against the Bourbons. His duty was to his country and he acted for what he thought was the best for France. Ney became something of a martyr when he was executed and is portrayed as the great tragic victim of the White Terror. There was no chance of him being spared his life before the Chamber of Peers, the ultra-royalists held too much influence and were determined to see Ney executed as their refusal to allow his defence to mention Article 12 shows. Despite all that had happened and the injustice of the trial, Marshal Ney was the bravest of the brave until the very end.


The Constitutional Monarchy in France, 1814-48 By Pamela M. Pilbeam
Ney and de la Bédoyère, two victims of the “white terror”, Stephen de la Bédoyère, August, 2011
Marshal Ney, the Bravest of the Brave by A. H. Atteridge 1912

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