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Napoleon called Marshal Ney “the bravest of the brave”

Posted in Bravery, Famous battles, Heroes and Heroines, Historical articles, History, War on Friday, 27 September 2013

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This edited article about France originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 413 published on 13 December 1969.

Marshal Ney, picture, image, illustration

At the bridge at Kovno Marshal Ney fired the last shot and became the last Frenchman to march out of Russia on the great retreat, by Graham Coton

He came to the Prussian doctor’s house wearing a torn brown coat. He had long hair, an untidy beard. His face was black, looking as though it had been burned. His eyes were red and glistening.

This fearsome, wild-looking figure stood for a moment, surprised that no one in the room recognised him.

No wonder, for this tattered fugitive was no one’s idea of a Marshal of France, a man whose personal valour had once earned him the title “Bravest of the Brave.”

“Who are you?” asked Count Dumas, Intendant-General of the French Army, who had sought rest and refuge in the house.

“I am the rearguard of the Grand Army, Marshal Ney.”

Michel Ney is one of the great heroes of France. His start in life was humble. He was a barrel-maker’s son. He had little schooling and when 19 years old he joined the Hussars as an ordinary trooper. This was before the French Revolution, but three years later, after the great upheaval that swept away the aristocracy and many of the officers of the army, young Michel Ney was elected by his comrades to lead them as a lieutenant.

Promotion for Ney was speedy. He was a good soldier, popular with his men, and courageous in the face of the enemy. Time and time again he was the man who led the first charge, struck the first blow with his gleaming sabre. With every battle in which he took part came honour and glory. Hardly a year passed without him earning higher promotion, until at the early age of 30 he was a general in charge of a brigade.

With Napoleon’s rise to power, Michel Ney was one of the first to become wholly dedicated to the cause of this outstanding empire-builder. It was he who begged Napoleon to declare himself Emperor of the French, and as a reward for his valiant services was himself created a Marshal of France.

He won a great victory at Elchingen, which practically caused the complete surrender of the Austrians, and for this he was made Duke of Elchingen. At the bloody, hard-fought battle of Friedland against the Russians, it was this dashing commander’s repeated cavalry charges, himself always at the head of his crowded squadrons, always with his sabre rising and falling in the thickest of the fight, that earned him his emperor’s acclaim as “The Bravest of the Brave!”

He followed Napoleon in the disastrous Peninsular war, fighting the British in Spain and Portugal.

Then he was recalled to the Grand Army in its advance into Russia in the year 1812. Success followed success, and the triumphant French swept across the Russian plains to the very gates of Moscow. Here the massed Russian armies stood ready to join battle, with the domes of Moscow shimmering in the distance behind them. The French call this fight the Battle of Moskawa, the Russians name it the Battle of Borodino.

Ney was in command of the centre of the French Army.

The battle consisted of one frontal attack after the other with the French moving forward in waves up the low hills towards the Russians and their cannons. At last a golden line of Ney’s cuirassers swept on to the crest, followed by a thundering tide of cavalry. The battle was won, and Ney was awarded the title Prince of the Moskawa.

Unfortunately for the French, the cellars and store houses of Moscow were empty. There was no food to sustain them through the harsh Russian winter. They were forced to leave the city and make their way back towards Poland and Prussia, cold, hungry, weak and wounded, harassed every bitter mile by ruthless cossacks.

In command of the rearguard to protect the main force of the army from these relentless attacks was Marshal Ney. It was he who kept his dying band of men from despair. He fought alongside them, on foot and with musket and bayonet. Then, when the last handful of his brave fellows had straggled across the bridge at Kovno into Prussia, it was he who fired the last shot and became the last Frenchman to march out of Russia on the great retreat.

Moscow was the beginning of the end for Napoleon. France was ruined by the disastrous war, thousands of able-bodied men had perished in the Russian snows. The Napoleonic Empire was at an end and the emperor went to live in exile on the island of Elba.

Ney, for his part, swore loyalty to King Louis XVIII when he was restored to the French throne, and when his loyalty was put to the test by Napoleon suddenly leaving Elba, he set out with his troops to bring Napoleon back to Paris “in an iron cage.”

As the world knows, Ney never made good this threat. Instead he marched alongside his old master, and fought with splendid courage on his behalf at the Battle of Waterloo.

Even though he had fought bravely for France all his life, had risked death countless times in her name, on account of deserting the king he was tried for treason and suffered death before a firing squad in Paris on the morning of 7th December, 1815, 154 years ago this week.

The French could have won the Battle of Waterloo if they could have broken the centre of the British line.

For a long time, Napoleon’s terrible twelve-pounders had been hammering shells and case shot at the red squares of British infantry. The French infantry advanced and were repulsed. The cannons resumed their pounding.

Marshal Ney, in charge of the finest cavalry in Europe saw the British line move back. He took it as a sign of retreat. In fact the Allied infantry had been pulled back a few yards behind a ridge to give them some shelter from the savage artillery bombardment.

A soldier of spirit, Ney realised that the best time to attack is when the enemy is demoralised and showing signs of retreat.

He gave the command for 5,000 horsemen to advance across the smoke-shrouded cornfields of Waterloo. They came, a splendid, glittering host not in a wild carefree gallop like the English fox-hunting cavalry, but at a steady disciplined trot, a close-packed, shimmering array with 20,000 hooves making the ground tremble.

They swept around the British squares like a swirling colourful sea. Some charged the walls of bayonets, but the squares held firm. As the horsemen surged forwards, the steady line of infantry held their muskets in the aim, and patiently awaited the order to fire.

When the order came, men and horses were cut down like corn before a scythe.

Three great cavalry attacks were made, splendid, courageous, heroic affairs, but each one doomed to break on the British bayonets.

The battle was being lost, for unless the French broke the English very swiftly, the advancing Prussians would arrive and Napoleon’s brave army would be overwhelmed by sheer force of numbers.

At five o’clock in the afternoon, Ney brought up two divisions of cavalry reserves. In that tremendous charge more than 9,000 horsemen took part. This massive onslaught was repelled with great slaughter by the English artillery batteries.

By now Wellington’s British forces were being reinforced by the Prussians. In a final, desperate attempt to save the day, Napoleon sent forward his loyal, battle-trusted veterans, The Old Guard. He marched with them part of the way, then waved them on, with Marshal Ney, the Bravest of the Brave, riding proudly at their head.

Now alas, heroism was not enough. The entire French cavalry had been destroyed in hopeless mass attacks. The whole French army was being rapidly surrounded. The Old Guard, marching in two columns was suddenly outflanked and cut down in a withering cross-fire from crack British regiments.

Marshal Ney, Prince of the Moskawa, hero of France, had led men into battle for the last time.

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