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 Post subject: Waterloo @ 200 - The Flight of the Eagle: Ney
Unread postPosted: 15 May 2015, 12:23 
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Waterloo @ 200
The Flight of the Eagle Pt 4: The Struggle of Marshal Ney


By Matthew Groves

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“After that wretched proclamation I wished only for death and many times I had the idea of blowing my brains out.”


Ney the Royalist

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Michel Ney was made marshal in 1804, he is perhaps the most famous of Napoleon’s marshals. His bravery was legendary and he was a significant figure in the French army, having nicknames such as ‘The Red Head’ and ‘The Bravest of the Brave’. On the battlefield there was no man better at leading troops into combat, his encouragement and leadership example often resulted in turning the tide of battle. One of his greatest achievements was when he led the rear-guard of the Grande Armee in Russia. Everyone believed he and the few hundred troops who remained by the end of the retreat had either perished or were surely prisoners, but he led them out of Russia and was said to be the last French soldier to leave Russian soil. His personal courage beyond doubt, his tactical skill was not as sharp as many of the other marshals.

Marshal Ney had been the man chosen by the other marshals in 1814 to persuade Napoleon into abdicating, after this he had served under the Bourbons and was highly praised by the new king, but Ney was subject to mockery and insult from the returning émigré aristocracy. He was furious, he said one day to a fellow member of the imperial nobility, the Comte de Lavalette, ‘It is well for you that you have kept away from the court. You have thus escaped having to put up with insult and injustice…Those people know nothing. They don’t understand what the name of Ney means. Shall I have to teach them?’ During the winter of 1814-15 he kept away from Paris living quietly with his wife and children. Ney heard the news of Napoleon’s return on the 7th March and went to the king, condemning Napoleon and promising to bring back the Emperor he had fought for in an iron cage, and then he set off to Besancon.

Ney arrived on 10th March to assume his role as second in command to the Duc de Berry, but this prince had not yet arrived, he had not even left Paris. Ney was further disappointed to discover that he had hardly any troops to command. General de Bourmont had been in charge of Besancon so far and this general had semt off all the garrison to the Comte d’Artois at Lyons except around five hundred depot troops, whose loyalty to the white cockade was in serious doubt. The officers informed Ney that if the men were kept in barracks nothing would happen, but if they were brought out and came in contact with the people they would likely cry ‘Vive l’Empereur!’

After Lyons fell, the Duc de Maille, the chief of the Comte d’Artois’ household, came riding into Besancon and informed Ney of what had happened, Ney was given no orders but De Maille suggested Ney should march to join the Comte d’Artois. Ney declined the advice and decided to collect all the troops in the eastern departments at Lons-le-Saulnier with the plan of acting against the flank of Napoleon’s advance or attacking his rear. At this point Ney still seemed to be the ardent supporter of the King, he declared ‘I shall settle accounts with Bonaparte, we are going to attack the wild beast.’ The next day (Saturday 11th March) Ney left Besancon and drove to Lons-le-Saulnier. Whilst changing horses at Poligny he talked with the royalist sub-prefect of the department, he repeated his promise that he would bring Napoleon back to Paris in an iron cage. ‘It would be better to bring him back dead in a tumbril,’ said the sub-prefect. ‘No, no.’ replied the Marshal, ‘you don’t know Paris. The Parisians must see him. It is a good thing that the man of the island of Elba has attempted this rash enterprise, for it will be the last act of his tragedy.’

Arrival at Lons-le-Saulnier

Ney arrived at Lons and set up his headquarters, there he met a businessman who had witnessed Napoleon’s entry into Lyons, he told the marshal that Napoleon was welcomed with cheers from the people and the garrison, that he had told his troops that they would go to Paris with their hands in the pockets. The businessman also showed Ney one of Napoleon’s proclamations to the army. That evening, the Marquis de Saurans and the prefect of the Jura arrived to find Ney sat by the inn fire reading Napoleon’s proclamation. It would appear reading this proclamation had a profound effect on Ney and from here on the marshal appears to be incredibly animated and stressed because of the situation he is in. He said to the two men who entered ‘That is how the King ought to write. That is how one should talk to soldiers. That is how to stir them.’ He paced up and down the room reading aloud parts of the proclamation, he then asked the Marquis for news of the Comte d’Artois before going into a rage about him, declaring he had blundered at Lyons. Then he burst out into an angry tirade about the policy of the Restoration, which mixed in with puerile complaints about his own personal grievances. He criticised the King for disbanding the Old Guard and throwing himself into the arms of the emigres. But Ney then assured the gentlemen that he was still intent on stopping Napoleon. He declared ‘That madman will never forgive me his abdication. He would be quite capable of cutting my head off. I can count on my men. The first soldier that moves to join him will have my sword through his body – up to the hilt.’

After this pitiful scene, Ney had tired himself out with his own wild talk and bid his guests goodnight, leaving them confused and anxious. The next morning he was himself again, and during the Sunday and Monday he was hurrying up troops, collecting ammunitions and gathering information. On the Monday evening an officer was arrested after shouting ‘Vive l’Empereur!’ News had arrived that Napoleon now had 14000 men behind him, Ney only had 6000 men and most were of questionable loyalty, but Ney seemed undisturbed. ‘We shall be short of numbers but we shall give him a good dressing down. I shall take a musket and fire the first shot myself and then everyone will march as he is told.’

Visitors in the Night

By that evening more alarming news was brought to Ney’s attention. Regimental officers came to him and told him stories off growing excitement among their men as they heard of Napoleon’s success. The prefect of Bourg informed him that the 76th Infantry which had been ordered to march to join Ney’s forces had displayed the old colours and marched off to join Napoleon. Later that night, two civilians sent the marshal a message that they had information for him and would like to convey it in private, he therefore received them in his room. There the civilians revealed themselves to be old comrades from the Imperial Guard – sent from Lyons to convey to Ney a letter from Bertrand and a brief note from the Emperor himself.

Bertrand’s letter told him that Napoleon’s enterprise was a carefully organized movement and that everywhere the people and the troops were declaring aginst the Bourbons. So far not a drop of blood had been shed, and if Ney attempted a resistance it would be doomed to fail and he would be responsible for a hopeless civil war and useless bloodshed. Bertrand urged Ney to re-join Napoleon and act on the enclosed order to march with his troops to co-operate with the Emperor. Napoleon’s note rea thus: ‘Mon cousin, - My major general sends you your marching orders, I have no doubt that on receiving the news of my arrival at Lyons, you have already made your troops resume the tricolour flag. Execute Bertrand’s orders, and come and rejoin me at Chalons. I shall receive you as I did on the morrow of the battle of the Moskowa.’

Ney questioned the officers who told him of the Emperor’s triumphal progress through France, they added statements which were not true but were based on rumours at the time, for example they claimed the Austrians had allowed Napoleon to return and were on his side. They then handed Ney a proposed proclamation to his troops drawn up for him by Napoleon and with the marshal’s title already affixed at the end of it as a signature.

Ney allowed the officers safety in his headquarters and passed a sleepless night, thinking about his desperate decision. Ney clearly did not know what to do and was fighting a battle within his mind. His duty as a soldier was to obey the orders he had received at Paris. But how could he follow those orders when his men would surely refuse and join Napoleon? If Ney resisted Napoleon he would surely start a brief and hopeless civil war. Unlike other marshals who decided to resign their commands and watch the course of events as an onlooker, Ney did not seem to consider this option. He saw no other course open to him but a march against Napoleon, or a march against the Government. At his trial after the Hundred Days Ney said ‘I was in the midst of the storm and I lost my head.’

Next morning Ney sent for his two subordinates, General Lecourbe and General de Bourmont and discussed with them the situation, in short he told them that Napoleon’s return was an international conspiracy and that he now intended to defect to Napoleon. Both these generals were highly against this course of action, Lecourbe had been a staunch revolutionary but when Napoleon became First Consul he had Lecourbe exiled because of his friendship with General Moreau, Lecourbe hated Napoleon. General de Bourmont meanwhile was a staunch royalist. Ney then tried to justify his action by complaining of personal grievances, he said ‘I do not mean to be further humiliated. I do not mean ever again to see my wife coming home to me with tears in her eyes at the humiliation to which she has been subjected. The King does not want us – that’s plain enough. It is only with a soldier like Bonaparte that the army can ever be properly respected. Look at this – this is what I shall read to the troops.’ So saying he showed them both a copy he’d written himself of the proclamation dictated by Napoleon.

Ney Reads the Proclamation to his Troops

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The two generals protested but finally took the course of being tacit witnesses of Ney’s action and even to give it the sanction of their presence. Bourmont issued orders for a parade of the troops on the Place d’Armes in the outskirts of the town, then he, Lecourbe and Ney headed there themselves. The 60th and 70th infantry regiments, both two battalions strong, were formed up on the parade ground along with the six squadrons of dragoons and chasseurs-a-cheval. They numbered around 3000 men and were formed in a hollow square that faced inwards. Ney, Bourmont and Lecourbe arrived with the staffs, dismounted and went to the middle of the square.

Ney drew his sword and in a loud clear voice he began to read the proclamation:

‘Officers, non-commissioned officers, and soldiers, the cause of the Bourbons is lost forever!’

For some moments he could read no more as a thundering shout of ‘Vive l’Empereur!’ burst from the soldiers and was echoed by the crowd of civilians who had gathered outside the square. Muskets, swords, caps, were waved in the air, then Ney’s voice rang out again and silence was maintained while he read on:
‘The lawful dynasty adopted by the French nation is again to be seated on the throne. It is to the Emperor Napoleon that it belongs to rule over our beautiful country. Soldiers, I have often led you to victory. Now I am about to lead you to the immortal phalanx which the Emperor is leading to Paris.’

Another burst of cheering broke out. The ranks broke as officers and men threw themselves into each other’s arms, Ney went through the ranks embracing officers, soldiers, sergeants, drummers, revelling in the cheers that greeted him. Here and there the few royalist officers looked on in silent indignation. Eventually the ranks reformed, the men returned to barracks and exchanged the white cockade for the tricolour, then they were free for the day and until late in the evening all the cafes and wine shops were crowded with men drinking success to the Emperor. Ney gave dinner to the generals and colonels and the staff at his headquarters but he seemed tired and anxious. During the evening he received a dispatch from Bertrand which changed his orders and told him to march his column to Dijon.

March to Dijon and Auxerre

The next morning (Wednesday 15th March) he left with his troops en route for Dijon by way of Dole. Several officers of rank refused to go farther with him, and Bourmont slipped away during the march. When Ney reached Dijon on the 17th he was informed that the Emperor had just occupied Auxerre, and wished to see him. Leaving his troops at Dijon he hurried to Auxerre, where he arrived on the evening of the same day.

Ney told Bertrand that he did not wish to go to the Emperor until the next day, as he wanted to write a justification of his conduct during the night. On hearing of this Napoleon said ‘What do I want with his justifications? Tell him I shall embrace him tomorrow morning.’ On the 18th Ney saw Napoleon for the first time since the forced abdication, he had worked for several hours during the night drawing up a strange document which he handed to Napoleon. It began with the words ‘If you continue to govern tyrannically I shall be your prisoner rather than your partisan.’ And after several longwinded paragraphs the document ended by warning the Emperor that he must now study the welfare of the French people and endeavour to repair the evils his ambition had brought upon them. Napoleon glanced through the document, then turning aside tore it up and said in a low voice to those nearest him, ‘This fine fellow Ney is going mad’.

Without any further mention to the essay on statesmanship he turned again to Ney and began questioning him about his troops, the state of feeling among the people in the south-eastern departments, and the experiences of his march to Dijon. Ney, embarrassed, gave brief replies. Napoleon finally gave Ney the order to return to his troops he had left at Dijon and march them to Paris, where the Emperor promised him he would be at the Tuileries when he arrived. Ney re-joined his column on the 19th and the march to Paris began.

Conclusions
At his trial, Ney spoke the words ‘After that wretched proclamation I wished only for death, and many times I had the idea of blowing my brains out.’ He may have been somewhat exaggerating but what is clear is that after the scene at Lons-le-Saulnier he was no longer the same man. Ney clearly felt that no one trusted him, not even by Napoleon who had been informed of Ney’s language towards him earlier in March and Ney was convinced Napoleon still held a grudge over the abdication the year before. From his defection right until the end of the Waterloo campaign Marshal Ney was not the same man as he was before Napoleon’s return, when he was given command in the Waterloo campaign he regularly lost his temper and made some terrible mistakes.

Taking his actions into account, Ney was clearly suffering from the stress of the position he was in, having broken his oath to the King who had given him honours and prestige, Ney had dishonoured himself as a soldier. Furthermore he would be constantly concerned about the fragility of his life, if the Allies succeeded he would surely be executed by the Bourbons. He was further depressed by the clear lack of trust Napoleon had in him. The Emperor only summoned Ney to take part in the campaign a couple of days before the army crossed into Belgium, Ney was then given command of half of the army without having a staff and having no attachment to the men under his command.

Marshal Ney may still have been the Bravest of the Brave in 1815, but the Restoration and Napoleon’s return from exile had seriously wounded him mentally, the stress was too much for a simple man whose only life was the army. If Ney were to have had some peace of mind then perhaps he would have performed much better in the Waterloo campaign.

Bibliography:

A.H Atteridge, Marshal Ney the Bravest of the Brave


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 Post subject: Re: Waterloo @ 200 - The Flight of the Eagle: Ney
Unread postPosted: 05 Jul 2015, 22:15 
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It's pretty interesting, the ins and outs of the Marshals during the Royalist period. I wonder how many just 'went with it', and how many covertly tried to facilitate an imperialist return.



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 Post subject: Re: Waterloo @ 200 - The Flight of the Eagle: Ney
Unread postPosted: 06 Aug 2015, 18:52 
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Yeah it is interesting, many of the Marshals did just go with it, Davout was the one Marshal who absoloutley refused to serve the Bourbons. Most Marshals during the Hundred Days either stayed out of it by retiring or a few went into exile with the King. Marshal Oudinot was one of those who stayed out of it all despite his old friend Davout urging him to fight for Napoleon, Oudinot's refusal broke his and Davout's friendship. Only a few stayed to go with the flow under Napoleon, Marshal Mortier was supposed to lead the Imperial Guard during the Waterloo campaign but he got sciatica and was unable to. Personally I have a theory Napoleon was planning to give Mortier command of his left wing during the campaign, but then Mortier fell ill so he had to summon Ney to command the left. It would explain why Ney was thrust into his command so late, he arrived at the army while it was marching through Charleroi.
It would have been interesting if Napoleon had had some more of his marshals with him during the campaign. If Davout hadn't been Minister of War in Paris and instead held a command in the army, the campaign could of been very different.


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