Napoleonic Wars: Marshal Michel Ney

Marshal Michel Ney. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Michel Ney - Early Life:

Born in Saarlouis, France on January 10, 1769, Michel Ney was the son of master barrel cooper Pierre Ney and his wife Margarethe. Due to Saarlouis' location in Lorraine, Ney was raised bilingual and was fluent in both French and German. Coming of age, he received his education at the Collège des Augustins and became a notary in his hometown. After a brief stint as an overseer of mines, he ended his career as a civil servant and enlisted in the Colonel-General Hussar Regiment in 1787. Proving himself a gifted soldier, Ney swiftly moved through the non-commissioned ranks.

Michel Ney - Wars of the French Revolution:

With the beginning of the French Revolution, Ney's regiment was assigned to the Army of the North. In September 1792, he was present at the French victory at Valmy and was commissioned as an officer the next month. The following year he served at the Battle of Neerwinden and was wounded at the siege of Mainz. Transferring to the Sambre-et-Meuse in June 1794, Ney's talents were quickly recognized and he continued to advance in rank, reaching général de brigade in August 1796. With this promotion came command of the French cavalry on the German front.

In April 1797, Ney led the cavalry at the Battle of Neuwied. Charging a body of Austrian lancers that were attempting to seize French artillery, Ney's men found themselves counterattacked by enemy cavalry. In the fighting that ensued, Ney was unhorsed and taken prisoner. He remained a prisoner of war for a month until being exchanged in May. Returning to active service, Ney participated in the capture of Mannheim later that year. Two years later he was promoted to géneral de division in March 1799.

Commanding the cavalry in Switzerland and along the Danube, Ney was wounded in the wrist and thigh at Winterthur. Recovering from his wounds, he joined General Jean Moreau's Army of the Rhine and took part in the victory at the Battle of Hohenlinden on December 3, 1800. In 1802, he was assigned to command French troops in Switzerland and oversaw French diplomacy in the region. On August 5 of that year, Ney returned to France to marry Aglaé Louise Auguié. The couple would be married for the remainder of Ney's life and would have four sons.

Michel Ney - Napoleonic Wars:

With the rise of Napoleon, Ney's career accelerated as he was appointed one of the first eighteen Marshals of the Empire on May 19, 1804. Assuming command of the VI Corps of the La Grand Armée the following year, Ney defeated the Austrians at the Battle of Elchingen that October. Pressing into the Tyrol, he captured Innsbruck a month later. During the 1806 campaign, Ney's VI Corps took part in the Battle of Jena on October 14, and then moved to occupy Erfurt and capture Magdeburg.

As winter set in, the fighting continued and Ney played a key role in rescuing the French army at the Battle of Eylau on February 8, 1807. Pressing on, Ney participated in the Battle of Güttstadt and commanded the right wing of the army during Napoleon's decisive triumph against the Russians at Friedland on June 14. For his exemplary service, Napoleon created him Duke of Elchingen on June 6, 1808. Shortly thereafter, Ney and his corps were dispatched to Spain. After two years on the Iberian Peninsula, he was ordered to aid in the invasion of Portugal.

After capturing Ciudad Rodrigo and Coa, he was defeated at the Battle of Buçaco. Working with Marshal André Masséna, Ney and the French flanked the British position and continued their advance until they were turned back at the Lines of Torres Vedras. Unable to penetrate the allied defenses, Masséna ordered a retreat. During the withdrawal, Ney was removed from command for insubordination. Returning to France, Ney was given command of the III Corps of the La Grand Armée for the 1812 invasion of Russia. In August of that year, he was wounded in the neck leading his men at the Battle of Smolensk.

As the French drove further into Russia, Ney commanded his men in the central section of the French lines at the Battle of Borodino on September 7, 1812. With the collapse of the invasion later that year, Ney was assigned to command the French rearguard as Napoleon retreated back to France. Cut off from the main body of the army, Ney's men were able to fight their way through and rejoin their comrades. For this action he was dubbed "the bravest of the brave" by Napoleon. After taking part in the Battle of Berezina, Ney helped hold the bridge at Kovno and reputedly was the last French soldier to leave Russian soil.

In reward for his service in Russia, he was given the title Prince of the Moskowa on March 25, 1813. As the War of the Sixth Coalition raged, Ney took part in the victories at Lützen and Bautzen. That fall he was present when French troops were defeated at the Battles of Dennewitz and Leipzig. With the French Empire collapsing, Ney aided in defending France through early 1814, but became the spokesman for the Marshal's revolt in April and encouraged Napoleon to abdicate. With the defeat of Napoleon and restoration of Louis XVIII, Ney was promoted and made a peer for his role in the revolt.

Michel Ney - The Hundred Days & Death:

Ney's loyalty to the new regime was quickly tested in 1815, with Napoleon's return to France from Elba. Swearing allegiance to the king, he began assembling forces to counter Napoleon and pledged to bring the former emperor back to Paris in an iron cage. Aware of Ney's plans, Napoleon sent him a letter encouraging him to rejoin his old commander. This Ney did on March 18, when he joined Napoleon at Auxerre

Three months later, Ney was made the commander of the left wing of the new Army of the North. In this role, he defeated the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Quatre Bras on June 16, 1815. Two days later, Ney played a key role at the Battle of Waterloo. His most famous order during the decisive battle was to send forward the French cavalry against the allied lines. Surging forward, they were unable to break the squares formed by the British infantry and were forced to retreat.

Following the defeat at Waterloo, Ney was hunted down arrested. Taken into custody on August 3, he was tried for treason that December by the Chamber of Peers. Found guilty, he was executed by firing squad near the Luxembourg Garden on December 7, 1815. During his execution, Ney refused to wear a blindfold and insisted upon giving the order to fire himself. His final words were reportedly:

"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!”

Selected Sources


mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "Napoleonic Wars: Marshal Michel Ney." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). Napoleonic Wars: Marshal Michel Ney. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "Napoleonic Wars: Marshal Michel Ney." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).