Napoléon’s beloved Marshal Michel Ney went down swinging a broken sword for France—only to face a firing squad of his countrymen.
Napoléon Bonaparte called him “a lion” and amid an army of heroes singled him out as “the bravest of the brave.” One of his fellow French marshals perhaps said it best: “We are soldiers, but Ney is a knight.” Marshal Michel Ney exemplified all these characteristics, and so it was in 1815 he abandoned titles, lands and family to fight once more at the side of Napoléon in defense of France in the final campaign of the Napoleonic wars.
Ney joined the French army as a 19-year-old private. He displayed such daring and skill during the wars of the French Revolution that he rose meteorically in rank, becoming a general at age 27 and a marshal of France at 35. Tall, muscular and possessed of great courage, Ney always gravitated to the hottest part of the battlefield, often fighting more like a captain than a marshal. “He had only to give an order for you to feel brave,” an aide recalled. “Ney’s genius only awakened in the face of the enemy and at the great voice of the guns. Even under grapeshot his laughter and pleasantries seemed to defy the death all around him.” The troops idolized Ney and nicknamed him le Rougeaud (“the Ruddy”), because his complexion turned deep red in the heat of battle.
Ney became one of Napoléon’s best marshals, and he played a critical role in nearly all of the emperor’s greatest victories. Yet it was in defeat Ney achieved immortality, during his command of the rear guard during the agonizing French retreat from Moscow in 1812. Napoléon relied heavily on Ney during the final campaigns of the Napoleonic wars, but when Paris fell in April 1814, Ney joined the other marshals in forcing Napoléon to abdicate and accept exile in order to secure peace.
But it was a peace that would not last.
With Napoléon gone calm returned to France, and with it the deposed Bourbon dynasty. King Louis XVIII sought to win Ney’s support by retaining him as a marshal of France and recognizing his imperial titles of prince and duke. Yet while Ney retained his noble status, he was the son of a cooper, and his wife, Aglaè, a former washerwoman. The haughty émigré aristocrats scarcely concealed their contempt for Ney, and the women at court routinely insulted his wife. The Bourbons also mistreated Ney’s beloved army, purging the veteran officer corps and placing aristocratic fops in senior command positions. They discharged enlisted men on half-pay, outlawed their medals and cancelled the stipends they were due from those decorations. Still more galling to Ney was how the Bourbons cavorted with the enemies of France whose bayonets had placed the dynasty back on the throne over the corpses of his soldiers. Ney began to doubt his decision to force Napoléon’s abdication, and he was not alone, as discontent grew rapidly throughout France. Then on March 1, 1815, came the electrifying news that Napoléon had escaped from exile and landed in France to reclaim the throne.
Napoléon’s return shocked all of Europe, while the people and army of France began to rally to the emperor’s standard in large numbers. As Napoléon marched toward Paris, entire regiments defected en masse to his cause, and his “invasion” took on the air of a triumphal procession. In desperation Louis XVIII ordered Ney to gather troops and intercept Napoléon before he reached the capital. Ney feared the emperor’s return would provoke civil war and declared he would bring Napoléon back to Paris “in an iron cage” if necessary.
Yet within days of this bombastic statement Ney’s doubts returned. He detested the aristocrats and remarked, “By comparison with [Napoléon] these Bourbons are pygmies! No wonder I nearly died for him so many times in battle.” He knew that to support Napoléon would mean risking all he had, but it was the emperor who had given him the titles and lands, and the bonds of loyalty forged in the flames of battle were strong. As Ney’s force drew close to Napoléon’s, he received a message from the emperor, urging Ney to join him once more. Napoléon declared, “I shall receive you as I did after the Battle of the Moskowa.” The reference was to an action during the 1812 Battle of Borodino, in which Ney had led the great attacks that captured the Russian defensive works and for which Napoléon awarded Ney the title Prince de la Moskowa. For the teetering marshal the remark was a tipping point.
The following morning Ney addressed his command: “Officers, sub-officers and soldiers, the cause of the Bourbons is lost forever! The legitimate dynasty that the French nation has adopted is about to remount the throne. It is the Emperor Napoléon, our sovereign, who alone has the right to rule over our beautiful country!” The troops exploded with excitement, crying out “Vive l’Empereur!” as they tore from their uniforms the white cockades symbolizing loyalty to the Bourbons and hurled them into the dust. Ney raised his sword and shouted, “Soldiers! I have often led you to victory. Now I lead you to join that immortal phalanx with which Emperor Napoléon approaches Paris!” Chaos ensued as the soldiers broke ranks and surged towards Ney, rending the air with shouts of joy. Ney embraced them, laughing, crying and joining in the wild jubilation.
On March 18, 1815, Ney met with Napoléon for the first time since the abdication. The marshal attempted to explain his previous actions, but the emperor interrupted, saying there was no need. Napoléon later recalled, “I threw my arms round his neck, calling him the bravest of the brave, and from that moment all was as it used to be.” Ney’s declaration for Napoléon unleashed a tidal wave of support for the returned emperor, and just two days later Napoléon entered Paris without firing a shot.
The United Kingdom, Prussia, Austria and Russia were aghast at Napoléon’s return and mobilized their armies for an invasion of France. As Napoléon worked feverishly to prepare for war, he kept Ney, whose talents lay on the battlefield, in the background. Outnumbered and facing invasion from multiple directions, Napoléon decided to seize the initiative and hit the Allies first by striking into Belgium (then part of the Netherlands) against the Anglo-allied army led by Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, and the Prussian Army of the Lower Rhine under Field Marshal Gebhard von Blücher. Napoléon concentrated his main army on the Belgian frontier and then, with the winds of war blowing strong and the eagles on the march, summoned Ney to battle.
The charismatic marshal was ecstatic to finally receive his orders and rushed to join the emperor. He made his way to Napoléon’s headquarters along roads filled with immense columns of French troops. The soldiers recognized him and broke out in raucous cheers as he passed. One veteran pointed out Ney to his comrades and shouted, “There is le Rougeaud—things will pick up now!”
At 5 p.m. on June 15 Napoléon assigned Ney to command the left wing of the army, which comprised General Honoré Reille’s II Corps, General Jean-Baptiste Drouet, compte d’Erlon’s I Corps and General François Étienne de Kellermann’s III Cavalry Corps, which was scheduled to arrive the following day. The emperor placed Marshal Emmanuel de Grouchy in command of the right wing, while Napoléon retained overall command and handled the reserve. Ney’s orders were to “push the enemy” up the main Brussels road and take the village of Quatre Bras, whose road junction connected the Anglo-allied and Prussian armies. It was vital Napoléon keep those armies separated, as combined they would overwhelm him. Ney at last had his command, but his aide-de-camp dourly noted, “There is nothing worse for a general than to take command of an army on the eve of a battle.”
On arrival at his new headquarters Ney found that Reille’s II Corps had just captured the village of Gosselies from a Prussian rear guard. Ney sent one of Reille’s divisions in pursuit of the Prussians and then resumed the advance north, only to run into a Dutch detachment from Wellington’s Anglo-allied army. The Dutch withdrew after a sharp skirmish, but with only a few hours of daylight remaining, Ney hesitated to continue the advance. He did not have his full command available for action, and the units on hand had been marching and skirmishing since 2 o’clock that morning. He therefore ordered a halt for the night.
The next morning, June 16, Ney was slow to advance. French scouts reported Wellington had only 10 battalions in front of him, but Ney remained cautious. He had faced the “Iron Duke” during the 1807–14 Peninsular War in Spain and Portugal and knew Wellington’s tactic of concentrating his main force out of view. Ney therefore preferred to delay his advance until he had his whole command with him. In fact, Wellington had only a small contingent of troops at Quatre Bras that morning, putting up a bold front while awaiting the arrival of his own forces. Meanwhile, 4 miles to the east of Ney’s position Napoléon and Grouchy, with the bulk of the French army, found Blücher’s Prussians deployed near the village of Ligny. Napoléon informed Ney he was going to attack Blücher that afternoon and directed Ney to immediately take Quatre Bras in order to isolate the Prussians from Wellington.
Although he only had 18,000 of his 48,000 infantrymen on hand, Ney believed he could wait no longer and at 2 in the afternoon attacked with two divisions of Reille’s II Corps. The French skirmishers easily pushed back the forward elements of Wellington’s army and steadily advanced on Quatre Bras. However, Ney allowed the attack to develop slowly, wary of Wellington’s strength and still hoping for more of his own forces to arrive before making a full-scale assault. By 3 p.m. the Anglo-allied forces had suffered heavy casualties and lost ground, but at this critical moment Wellington received reinforcements, and the battle intensified dramatically. At that point Ney abandoned his cautious approach. He formed the infantry battalions of Reille’s divisions into attack columns and then drew his sword and galloped along their front shouting, “The Emperor rewards those who advance!” The French soldiers roared back “Vive l’Empereur!” and surged forward.
Ney’s attack made excellent progress at first, but the British doggedly held their ground. The fighting was vicious and at close quarters. By sheer force of will the French managed to dent Wellington’s line, but failed to break it. Ney still remained confident of success, for he expected the imminent arrival of d’Erlon’s I Corps, and he would use it to deliver the coup de grâce to Wellington.
Then a messenger arrived informing the marshal that Napoléon had ordered d’Erlon’s I Corps to reinforce him at Ligny instead of Ney at Quatre Bras. Almost simultaneously another messenger arrived with an order from Napoléon telling Ney to wrap up things at Quatre Bras and also assist at Ligny. In a rage Ney sent a messenger to d’Erlon, ordering him to immediately turn back toward Quatre Bras. Unfortunately, the contradictory orders soon had d’Erlon marching in circles between his two commanders without assisting either one. Increasingly desperate to break the impasse at Quatre Bras, Ney ordered Kellermann, who had arrived with a brigade of mounted cuirassiers, to charge and break through the British center. Kellermann protested, reminding Ney he had only a single brigade and not his whole corps. “The fate of France is in your hands!” Ney replied in a broken voice. “Crush them. Ride over their bodies.” Kellermann launched a desperate charge with his cuirassiers and, amazingly, tore through the mass of British and Dutch troops in front of them, wreaking havoc on the ill-formed infantry and penetrating all the way to Quatre Bras—before close-range artillery and musket fire drove them back with heavy losses.
British reinforcements continued to arrive at Quatre Bras, and by early evening the numerical balance had turned irrevocably against Ney. Wellington went over to the attack, but Ney rose to the occasion, riding into the hottest sectors of the fight to rally his battalions and lead a stubborn defense that bled the British for every step they advanced. As darkness fell over the battlefield, the lines stood essentially where they had when the fight began. The Anglo-allied army had lost some 4,800 men, and Ney 4,100. Though the French marshal had not captured Quatre Bras, he had accomplished his mission of preventing Wellington from joining up with Blücher. Napoléon was thus able to use his main army to fight the Prussians in isolation and win the Battle of Ligny.
Early on June 17 Napoléon dispatched Grouchy with 33,000 men to pursue the beaten Prussians while he moved his remaining 40,000 men toward Quatre Bras to link up with Ney and strike the Anglo-allied army a decisive blow. Ney remained outnumbered in front of Quatre Bras and decided to stay on the defensive until Napoléon arrived. Wellington saw the blow coming, however, and deftly broke contact with Ney, retreating north toward Brussels. Ney and Napoléon joined forces and pursued but were slowed by torrential rains and did not catch up with Wellington until he had once more reformed his army for battle near a small town in what was then the Kingdom of the Netherlands—Waterloo.
On the morning of June 18 Napoléon awoke to find Wellington deployed on a low ridge and willing to give battle. The emperor ordered an immediate assault, and Ney enthusiastically approved. Napoléon’s chief of artillery suggested the attack be delayed so the ground could dry, however, allowing his guns to be moved and sited more effectively. Napoléon reluctantly agreed and delayed the opening of the battle until 11:30 a.m.
The assault began with a diversionary attack against the British right. Then at 1 p.m. the French artillery opened a thunderous bombardment against Wellington’s center in preparation for a powerful attack by the whole of d’Erlon’s I Corps. But just before the attack began Napoléon received information that Prussian troops, who had apparently eluded Grouchy’s pursuit, were closing on the French right flank. The emperor believed he still had time to defeat the British before the Prussians arrived and deployed reserves to meet the new threat while also ordering his “lion” to launch the main assault.
Ney was eager to attack and swung d’Erlon’s corps like a sledgehammer against the British center, anchored on the ridge and the fortified farmhouse of La Haye Sainte in front of it. The assault made solid gains and appeared to be breaking through the outer crust of Wellington’s defenses, though the farmhouse remained in British hands. Then Wellington halted the French advance with a ferocious counterattack and followed up with a cavalry charge. The British horsemen wreaked havoc for a time, but they overextended themselves and fell victim to a counter-charge by French cavalry. Nevertheless, they had stopped the main French thrust, allowing more time for the Prussians to arrive and tip the balance.
Ney, true to form, galloped about the battlefield, rallying his infantry and regrouping them for a fresh attack. The new assault hit the same area as the first, and some of Wellington’s allied troops broke under the impact of the French onslaught, while his British regiments took a heavy pounding. Under heavy pressure Wellington decided to execute a tactical withdrawal to preserve his troops from the devastating French artillery fire. At the forward edge of the battle Ney saw British troops falling back, some apparently in disarray. He knew his two attacks had done considerable damage to the enemy and believed that what he was seeing indicated a general retreat, or at the very least a sign the British were on the verge of breaking. Ney returned to the main French position and swiftly organized a powerful cavalry charge to break through the weakened British forces.
Ney took position at the head of more than 9,000 cavalrymen and led them in a thunderous charge against Wellington’s battered center. The French horsemen swept up and over the ridge, overrunning several British artillery batteries. But as they galloped onto the reverse slope they encountered not a broken army but British infantry battalions in square formation, prepared to repel their attack. The French cavalry surged against these sturdy blocks of men but could not break them. Ney himself fought with saber against the outstretched bayonets, slashing and taking down several of the enemy. The French cavalry fell back, but Ney regrouped them at the foot of the ridge and again led them forward.
Napoléon, engrossed in meeting the oncoming Prussian threat, learned of Ney’s charge and shook his head, saying it was an hour too soon for such a move. Yet seeing through his telescope that Ney’s attack had pierced the British gun line, the emperor ordered more cavalry poured into the fight to support him. Ney led these reinforcements forward as well, but the British would not break. During the fight the marshal’s horse was shot from beneath him—one of five mounts that died beneath him this day—and when Ney regained his feet amid the British guns, he swore profusely as he watched his cavalry once more falling back. Ney leapt atop a rider-less horse and led the remnants of the French cavalry back to their original position. There Napoléon informed him the Prussians had arrived in force and had engaged the French reserves. The emperor told Ney to take La Haye Sainte “at all costs” so the French formations could turn their full strength against the onrushing Prussians.
Ney immediately launched a well-coordinated attack against the weakened British lines and captured the farmhouse. At that point the British truly began to waver, and Ney felt he had them. He sent his aide-de-camp to ask Napoléon to commit the Imperial Guard, the last remaining reserves, to finish off Wellington. Napoléon initially refused, not wanting to risk the last of his fresh troops, but as the Prussians steadily pushed in his flank and threatened to get behind him, he realized his only hope was to finish off the British so his army could focus on Blücher. More than an hour had passed since Ney’s request, however, and Napoléon’s hesitation had allowed Wellington to once more close up his lines and restore order.
Even at this late hour Napoléon committed just four battalions of Imperial Guard grenadiers, rather than the entire reserve. Ney led them forward as the spearhead of some 15,000 attacking troops, but it was a futile gesture. They were met by more than 20,000 British infantrymen concealed in the wheat fields; on command these men rose and unleashed disciplined close-range volleys of musketry into the French. The vaunted Imperial Guard faltered and then fell back in disorder. By that time Blücher’s Prussians had turned Napoléon’s right flank and fallen on the rear of the French army, which began to rapidly fall apart. Napoléon fled the battlefield in his carriage, but Ney remained in the fight, his face blackened by powder smoke, his sword broken and an epaulet from his bullet-riddled uniform hanging loose from an enemy saber stroke. He rallied individual battalions and small groups of men, calling out to them, “Come and see how a marshal of France dies!” as he led them into hopeless attacks. He sought death but could not find it even as men fell all around him. As night fell, he abandoned his suicidal ambition, and an Imperial Guard battalion escorted him to safety. It was to be his final campaign.
After the debacle at Waterloo, Napoléon abdicated yet again and went into exile. Ney remained in France, but Louis XVIII charged him with treason. The accusation infuriated Ney, who believed everything he had done in his life had been for France. Refusing to flee, he instead stood trial. A military tribunal found him innocent, but the Bourbons retried him, declared him guilty and sentenced him to death. When the day for his execution arrived, Ney told the firing squad, “I have fought a hundred battles for France and not one against her,” and then gave them the command to fire.
Robert B. Bruce is a former professor of military history at the U.S. Marine Corps Command and Staff College. A noted authority on the French army, he is a fellow of the International Napoleonic Society. His numerous books include A Fraternity of Arms: America & France in the Great War (2003) and Pétain: Verdun to Vichy (2008). For further reading Bruce recommends Raymond Horricks’ Marshal Ney: The Romance and the Real, A.H. Atteridge’s Marshal Ney: The Bravest of the Brave and Andrew W. Field’s Prelude to Waterloo: Quatre Bras, the French Perspective.
Originally published in the May 2015 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.