Marshal Michel Ney, duc d'Elchingen, prince de la Moscowa (1769-1815)

Early Career
War of the Third Coalition (1805)
War of the Fourth Coalition (1806-1807)
Spain
Russian Campaign of 1812
Germany 1813
France 1814
The Hundred Days 1815

Marshal Michel Ney, duc d'Elchingen, prince de la Moscowa (1769-1815) was famous as the bravest of Napoleon's marshals, and was a master of the rearguard action. He was said to have been the last French soldier to leave Russia in 1812, and was a high quality corps commander, if not quite so able when given an independent command.

Ney was known as 'le Rougeaud' because of his red hair, or as 'the bravest of the brave'. He was an ardent republican, but became a dedicated follower of Napoleon, eventually paying for his loyalty to the Emperor with his life.

Early Career

Ney was born in Saarlouis, the son of Pierre Ney, a cooper and blacksmith. He enlisted in the 5th Hussars in February 1787 and was commissioned as an officer in 1792. He quickly earned a reputation for courage, and was promoted to General of Brigade in August 1976 and General of Division in March 1799.

Portrait of Marshal Michel Ney (1769-1815)
Portrait of
Marshal Michel Ney
(1769-1815)

During the early stages of his career he served under Kléber (in Germany in 1796), Jourdan (in Germany in 1796), Hoche (on the Rhine in 1797), Massena (in Switzerland in 1799) and Moreau (fighting at Hohenlinden). Much of his early career was with the Army of the Rhine, and he didn't enter Napoleon's direct service until comparatively late.

In 1792 he served as an aide-de-camp to General Lamarche with the Army of the North. He was promoted to lieutenant on 5 November 1792 and fought at the battle of Neerwinden (18 March 1793). In April 1794 he was promoted to captain.

During this period he also served on General Custine's staff in the Army of the Rhine, where he formed a friendship with Gouvion St. Cyr.

In 1794 Ney was transferred to Kléber's force in the Austrian Netherlands, where he was promoted to adjutant général chef d'escadrons.

In the aftermath of the French victory at Fleurus (26 June 1794), the Austrians slowly retreated from the Austrian Netherlands and by the end of August they were holding a line on the Meuse. They were then forced back to the Roer. General Jourdan, the overall French commander, decided to push the Austrians back from the Roer to the Rhine before attacking the remaining isolated Austrian garrisons. He attacked all along the line of the Roer (2 October 1794). Kleber was placed on the French left, but he ran into fierce resistance. Eventually some of the men from Ney's and Bernadotte's divisions swam across the river near Aldenhoven and helped force the Austrians to retreat to the Rhine.

Later in 1794 he took part in the sieges of Maastricht (19 September-4 November 1794) and of Mainz (14 December 1794-29 October 1795), suffering a wound at the second siege.

1796

In 1976 the French launched two invasions of Germany. The first came in the spring of 1796. General Jourdan was to cross the Rhine around Dusseldorf. When the Austrians moved to intercept him a second army under Moreau would cross the Rhine further south and advance towards the Danube. Ney was part of Kléber's part of Jourdan's army, which crossed the Rhine on 30 May. The Austrians were forced back to Altenkirchen, but decided to hold a line that was far too long. During the first battle of Altenkirchen (4 June 1796) Ney was given command of a force of light troops and sent to turn the Austrian left. The French attack was a total success and the Austrians were forced to retreat to the Lahn.

War of the First Coalition - Rhine Front 1796
War of the First Coalition
Rhine Front 1796

Just as the French had hoped, the Archduke Charles moved north to face Jourdan, allowing Moreau across the Rhine. However Jourdan's force was then defeated by the Austrians at Wetzlar (15-16 June 1796) and forced back across the Rhine. During that battle Soult was nearly cut off by the Austrians, and was saved when Ney led a squadron of hussars through the advancing Austrians to warn him of the general retreat.

In July 1796 the French launched a two-pronged invasion of Germany, with Jourdan operating in the north and Moreau in the south. Ney was part of the northern force, which crossed the Rhine in early July and followed the Austrians as they retreated up the Main and the Rednitz. Early in the invasion the Austrians decided to abandon their positions on the River Lahn. Part of this force, under General Kray, ended up camped at Nieder-Mörlen. Ney, who was leading the advance guard of General Collaud's column, discovered this camp and decided to attack it. He sent the 20th legere to capture some hills near the village, but before he could carry out the main attack his orders were countermanded by General Kléber, the overall French commander on the left. A new defensive position was set up under the command of General Collaud, and was held against repeated Austrian attacks (combat of Ober-Mörlen, 9 July 1796). On the following day Ney led Collaud's division in an attack on the Austrian lines at the battle of Friedberg (10 July 1796), but didn't make any progress. The Austrians were forced to retreat by French successes elsewhere along their line. Ney and General Klein were then sent to demand the surrender of Wurzburg, and the city surrendered immediately. This allowed the French to cross to the south bank of the Main.

The Austrian commander in Germany, Archduke Charles, decided to pull back towards the Danube, unite his forces, and hit whichever of the two French forces was most vulnerable. In mid August he decided to move north to attack Jourdan, but at the same time General Wartensleben, the Austrian commander in the north, was forced to retreat after suffering defeat at Forchheim (7 August 1796). Ney commanded the advance guard of the central French column during this battle, and soon became involved in a fight with stronger Austrian forces. He was sent reinforcements, and was able to hold his position until the battle was won elsewhere.

Ney was promoted to general of brigade after his performance at Forchheim.

The Archduke decided to unite his forces at Amberg. This meant that Wartensleben had to retreat up the Pegnitz valley, with the French in pursuit. On 17 August Ney, who commanded the French advance guard, attacked the Austrian rear guard (combat of Neukirchen). Ney was outnumbered, and he was soon threatened with defeat. Jourdan sent two divisions to rescue him, and the day ended as a French victory. The Austrians continued to retreat, ending up across the River Naab. Over the next few days the Archduke took up a position from where he could threaten the French line of retreat. Jourdan realised that he was in trouble, and began to retreat from the Naab. Wartensleben followed, and attacked the French at Amberg (24 August 1796). The French fought off the Austrian attack, then continued with their retreat. This time Ney commanded the rear guard, fighting off several attacks but losing two battalions from the 23rd demi-brigade.

The French retreated back to Schweinfurt, from where they could easily have moved west to join up with the forces besieging Mainz. Instead Jourdan decided to try and defeat the Archduke in battle, and he advanced south towards Würzburg. Unknown to him, the Archduke was already there, and so when the French attacked on 3 September they were outnumbered. Ney was posted on the extreme left flank of the French army, and was soon in danger of being outflanked. Jourdan sent reinforcements to the left, but they were unable to restore the situation, and the French were forced to retreat. The French lost 6,000 men in the battle, but were able to escape back to the Lahn.

1797

His career was briefly interrupted in 1797. Ney commanded an advance guard in General Hoche's Army of the Sambre-and-Meuse. Hoche decided to launch a two-pronged offensive, but first he needed to clear away the Austrian fortifications around the bridgehead at Neuwied. At the same time the Austrians decided to concentrate against Hoche's other bridgehead, and withdrew some of their forces from the Neuwied fortifications.   Hoche was able to push the Austrians out of their defensive positions, but they were able to form a new position at Dierforf. Ney was first to arrive, but his force of cavalry and light artillery was unable to defeat the Austrians. Eventually Grenier's infantry and D'Hautpout's heavy cavalry arrived, and the Austrians were forced to retreat again.

After suffering defeat at Neuwied (18 April 1797) the Austrians under General Werneck retreated south to the River Lahn, then moved along the river to Aschaffenbourg. After his rearguard was overwhelmed Werneck turned back and took up a position on the heights of Gruningen (affair of Gruningen, 21 April 1797). A mixed force of cavalry, light artillery and skirmishers under Ney were the first French troops to arrive. The artillery then got ahead of the skirmishers and was captured. This infuriated Ney, who led one of his cavalry squadrons in an attempt to recapture the guns. His horse was shot under him, and Ney was captured. On the day after the battle news arrived of the Preliminary Peace of Leoben, and the fighting on the Rhine front came to an end. Ney was exchanged on 27 May 1797, after one month in captivity.

In 1798 he was given command of a cavalry unit in the Army of England.

1799

In May 1799 Ney was moved to the light cavalry of the Army of the Danube and Switzerland under Massena. Massena's invasion of the Tyrol had been repulsed in March, and he was now being attacked by two Austrian armies. On 27 May 1799 the Archduke Charles defeated the French at Winterthur, forcing them to retreat to Zurich. Ney was wounded in the battle and had to leave the army to recover, thus missing the First battle of Zurich (4-6 June 1799).

Later in the year Ney was moved to the Army of the Lower Rhine and took part in the fighting around Mannheim. In late August a French force under Baraguey d'Hilliers advanced from Mannheim to try and draw Austrian troops away from Switzerland. He succeeded in this, but was then forced back towards Mannheim by the Archduke Charles. Ney was sent to reinforce him, but their combined force was defeated at Neckerau (18 September 1799). Mannheim then fell to the Austrians.

The Austrians were then forced to move troops back to Switzerland, allowing the French to go back onto the offensive. Ney defeated the local Austrian commander, General Schwarzenberg, at Bensheim in October, and Mannheim was retaken. 

1800

In 1800 he served under General Moreau, and fought at the battle of Hohenlinden (3 December 1800), the decisive battle of the War of the Second Coalition. Ney commanded the French advance guard during this campaign. He clashed with the Austrians around Ampfing on 1 December, and was able to hold on for six hours despite being outnumbered. During the main battle his division served on the left flank, as part of Grenier's corps. He resisted the Austrian attack during the first phase of the battle, and then advanced along the main road during the French counterattack that won the battle, capturing 1,000 prisoners and 10 guns at the start of his advance.

Although Napoleon's victory at Marengo is more famous, it was Hohenlinden that forced the Austrians to make peace.

Into Napoleon's Service

Ney entered Napoleon's circle in 1801, after impressing Josephine at the Tuileries. Napoleon was normally wary of employing men who had served under his rival Moreau, but in this case he overlooked that earlier connection and soon came to appreciate Ney's value. In May 1802 Ney married Aglaé Auguié, reported after she was chosen for him by Josephine.

In 1802 Ney was given command of the French garrison of Switzerland, and also acted as Napoleon's ambassador in the country. In 1803 he was recalled to France and given command of the camps of Compiègne and Motreuil, where the Army of England was being trained ready for possible invasion of England.

In 1804 he was amongst the first group of Napoleonic Marshals. On 2 February 1805 he was made a member of the Legion of Honour. He was also given command of VI Corps in the newly formed Grande Armée, and he led this corps until removed from command by Massena in 1811.

War of the Third Coalition (1805)

The War of the Third Coalition began with one of Napoleon's most famous victories, the capitulation of Ulm. At the start of the war the Austrians, under General Mack, advanced west along the Danube into Bavaria, ending up at Ulm. The French crossed the Rhine, and shielded by their cavalry, reached the Danube well to the east of Mack's position, thus cutting the direct road back to Austria.

Ney commanded VI Corps during this campaign, at the start of a long period of association with that unit. One of his staff officers in 1804-6 was General Jomini, one of the most famous military theorists of his time. In 1806 Ney promoted Jomini to the post of first aide-de-camp, but he then lost him to the Grande Armée.

At this point Napoleon made a mistake that could have undone all of his good work. The logical thing for the Austrians to have done was to cross to the south bank of the Danube and try and fight their way east, covering Vienna and allowing them to link up with the Austrian army in the Tyrol. In order to counter this he moved most of his army to the south bank of the Danube, leaving Ney isolated on the north bank. Ney, Murat and Lannes were then to advance west towards Ulm to close the trap. Early in this advance Ney defeated an Austrian force at Gunzburg (9 October 1805), capturing a bridge over the Danube

Napoleon had rather overestimated Mack. The Austrian commander decided that the French wouldn't risk attacking his army from the east, and were instead attempting to escape back to France by moving west along the south bank of the Danube. Mack prepared to attack the retreating French if the chance occurred, but kept most of his troops on the north bank of the Danube.

As the French moved west Murat became convinced that he needed more troops. He had been given authority over Ney for the final stage of the encirclement, and ordered him to move his entire corps to the south bank. Ney protested, and as a result was allowed to leave one division on the north bank.

As a result Dupont's division from Ney's corps was left on the north bank, giving the Austrians a real chance to escape from the trap. The Austrians did make an attempt to move east, and on 11 October Mack sent 25,000 men east. Dupont managed to hold his position all day (battle of Albeck, 11 October 1805), and then retreated intact. At this point Mack had opened his escape route, but he lost his nerve and ordered his troops to retreat to UIm.

This incident caused an open argument between Murat and Ney, with each trying to blame the other for the near disaster. Napoleon was eventually forced to intervene, and supported Ney, whose insistence on leaving one division on the north bank had prevented the collapse of the entire plan.

Napoleon still hadn't realised what the Austrians were doing. On 12 October he ordered a general advance west, with six corps moving along the south bank of the Danube towards an expected battle on the River Iller. On 13 October the Austrians made their move, but it was on the north bank. Mack sent two columns east. The left hand column moved towards Dupont's new position, while the right hand column reached Elchingen, seven miles east of Ulm, and prepared to destroy the bridge over the Danube. Napoleon finally realised what was going on, and he ordered Ney and Murat to cross to the north bank to complete the trap.

Ney's corps clashed with 15,000 Austrians under Feldmarschalleutnant Graf von Riesch at Elchingen (14 October 1805). The Austrians were split by the river, with most of their troops in the town on the north bank and a bridgehead on the south. The bridge was only partially demolished, in order to give them a line of retreat. Ney's leading troops attacked the Austrians on the south bank at around 8.20am, but this attack was repulsed. He then outflanked the first Austrian line, forcing them to retreat. The Austrians weren't cleared off the south bank until around 10am. They then decided to try and lure small parts of the French force across the damaged bridge so they could defeat them in detail. Some early Austrian successes infuriated Ney, who took personal command of the efforts to repair the bridge, and then was one of the first men to cross to the north bank. His men captured two Austrian infantry regiments and forced the rest of the column to retreat back towards Ulm.

Ney's men then continued north to Albeck, where they saved Dupont from defeat. This second Austrian column retreated north, and escaped from the trap at Ulm, although it was forced to surrender a month later at Heidenheim.

Ney's victory at Elchingen ended any realistic chance that the Austrians might escape from Ulm. A few days later his men pushed the Austrians off the Michelberg (16 October 1805), a hill north of Ulm. After this setback Mack agreed to surrender on 25 October unless a relief army arrived, but he didn't wait that long, and surrendered on 20 October.

When Napoleon created the Imperial Peerage in 1808 Ney took the title of duc d'Elchingen.

Ney didn't take part in the Austerlitz campaign. His corps was posted to Carinthia to guard against any interference from the southern Austrian armies. During this period he captured Innsbruck, taking it from forces under the Archduke John in November 1805.

War of the Fourth Coalition (1806-1807)

Jena

At the start of the War of the Fourth Coalition the Prussians invaded Saxony. Napoleon's troops were still in the positions they had held at the end of the War of the Third Coalition, and so he was able to respond quickly. He concentrated his troops at Bamberg and then advanced north across the Landgrafenberg. His army was split into three columns, with Ney's VI corps following Soult's VI corps in the right hand columns. This formation was adopted because there were three passes across the Landgrafenberg, but the Prussians weren't strong enough to block them all. If they did block one, then the other two columns would be able to come to the aid of the first. In the end the Prussians didn't block any of the passes, and the French crossed the hills safely.

After crossing the hills Napoleon discovered that the Prussians were actually some way to his west. He turned his army through ninety degrees, turning the central column into his right wing, the left column into the left wing and Ney and Soult into a rearguard to watch for any Prussian interference from the east. When the Prussians realised what the French were doing they decided to try and retreat north from Weimar to Auerstädt, while the flank guard remained at Jena. During the 13th Napoleon's advancing columns found large parts of the Prussian army, and he became convinced that the main body was near Jena. Soult and Ney were ordered to bring their corps to join Lannes, Bernadotte to move that way if he heard heavy fighting.

On 14 October the French fought and won the twin battles of Jena and Auerstadt. Ney fought at Jena, where Napoleon with most of his army defeated the smaller of the two Prussian forces. Meanwhile Davout's corps defeated the main Prussian army at Auerstadt.

                                                                                                                        Ney arrived after the battle was already well underway. He left his infantry to make its own way to the battlefield and rode ahead with his cavalry. He was then ordered to take up a position to the right of Lannes, but when he reached the battlefield he found that Soult was already in place on the right, and so instead led the 3,000 infantry and cavalry  he had with him to Lannes' left. He arrived just as the Prussians were preparing for a major attack, but Ney moved first. He captured the village of Vierzehnheiligen, and briefly disrupted the Prussian line, but then ran out of steam and had to form square as the attacking Prussians swept past him towards the gap he had left in the French line. Napoleon ordered Lannes and Augereau to close the gap and rescue Ney. Lannes was repulsed, but Augereau did manage to make contract with Ney and extract him from his isolated position. The Prussians were now in a strong position, but they decided to pause and wait for reinforcements. This allowed Napoleon to regain the initiative. Ney's first infantry division had now arrived, and it helped cut off a Prussian force on the Weimar road. The rest of his corps arrived soon after noon, along with Soult's corps and Murat's cavalry. Napoleon was able to launch a major offensive. This started with two flank attacks. Once they were underway Lannes and Ney were to attack in the centre and open a gap for Murat. This attack eventually broke the Prussian lines, and they were forced to retreat.

In the aftermath of these twin victories Ney took part in the rapid pursuit that stopped the Prussians from regrouping. He nearly caught the main Prussian army near Magdeburg, but was unable to prevent part of that force from retreating towards Stettin.

Ney was given command of the siege of Magdeburg (23 October-11 November 1806). He had his own VI Corps and two regiments of dragoons to face 25,000 men under General Franz Kasimir von Kleist, and was outnumbered at the start of the siege. Kleist launched a sortie on 4 November but his attack was repulsed. On the following day Ney asked for permission to begin a bombardment, but before it could start the defenders surrendered. By that point the main surviving Prussian armies had surrendered at Prenzlau and Lübeck, and the fall of Magdeburg ended the fighting in Prussia.

The Eylau Campaign

Although the Prussian army had been eliminated, the French still had to deal with the Russians. They first ran into Russian troops on 27 November, when some of Murat's men found Cossacks west of Warsaw. The Russian commander, General Bennigsen, quickly realised that he had advanced too far, and on 1 December he began a general retreat from the Vistula. Ney advanced to Thorn, where he soon came under attack when Benningsen decided that he had now retreated too far. Ney successfully defended Thorn, while a Russian attempt to hold the line of the River Bug also failed. The Russians retreated to the River Ukra. Ney was ordered to advance from Thorn to Gollub as part of a plan to force a way across the Ukra. The Russians were soon forced to abandon this position and began a retreat towards Ostrolenka. Napoleon continued to push after the Russians, and on 26 December ended up fighting parallel battles at Pultusk and Golymin. Ney missed both battles as he was posted to the north-east watching the remaining Prussian forces. 

After the battles of Pultusk and Golymin, Napoleon decided to go into winter quarters. Most of his men were quartered in the area to the north and north-east of Warsaw, but the line ran up to the Baltic, with Bernadotte on the coast and Ney next in line.

Both had orders to remain in their winter quarters, but Ney chose to send a force out towards Konigsberg. This move coincided with a renewed Russian offensive, aimed at defeating Bernadotte's corps. Napoleon blamed Ney's probes for provoking this attack, but the two were unconnected. Ney's advanced troops did detect the Russian move, when the advancing Russians ran into Ney's cavalry at Schippenbeil on the River Alle. Ney withdrew south-west to Neidenburg, and at the same time sent a warning to Bernadotte. This allowed Bernadotte to prepare for the attack, and he defeated the Russians at Mohrungen (25 January 1807), before retreating in order to avoid being caught by larger Russian forces.

For a few days Bennigsen believed he had achieved his objective, but on 1 February he captured a copy of Napoleon's orders for a counterattack, and realised that he was in serious danger. Napoleon ordered Davout, Soult, Augereau and Murat to move north and trap the Russians, who were dangerously exposed. Bennigsen ordered an immediate retreat, and by 3 February he had reached Jonkowo.

The battle of Jonkowo began when Ney and Augereau ran into Barclay de Tolly and the Russian rearguard on the road from Allenstein to Jonkowo. Napoleon decided to attack despite only have parts of Ney's corps, Soult's corp, the Guard and Murat's Reserve Cavalry to hand. The key to the battle was a flanking move by Soult, but the snowy weather slowed him down, and the Russians were able to escape without suffering serious losses. 

As the Russians retreated from Jonkowo, the French pursued. Ney was posted on the left wing of the French army, and ended up moving further away in order to deal with a small Prussian column under General Lestocq. A clash on 6 February convinced Napoleon that the Russians were planning to make a stand at Landsberg, and Ney was ordered to move towards that location in order to take part in an expected battle on 7 February. When the French reached Landsberg, all they found was the Russian rearguard. The main army had already moved off to Eylau, where the final battle of the winter campaign would be fought.

At the start of the battle of Eylau (8 February 1807), Ney was still marching towards the battlefield, having failed to block Lestocq's route. He only received his orders to move to Eylau early on 8 February, but his orders were to attack the Russian right and hopefully complete a double envelopment of their army. The battle didn't go at all as Napoleon had planned. On several occasions he was close to disaster, and had to take dramatic action to save his position (including Murat's great cavalry charge, one of the most successful of the Napoleonic era). By evening the French were under pressure all along their line, but at around 7pm Ney finally arrived and attacked the Russian right. Over the next three hours the Russian right was forced back and their attacks in the centre and left were repulsed. The fighting died away by about 10pm. The battle ended as a costly draw, but Napoleon was aware that he had suffered an embarrassing setback, his first significant failure in a major battle. Ney's comment on the battle was 'What a massacre! And without result'.

The Friedland Campaign

In the aftermath of the battle of Eylau both sides went into winter quarters. Ney was placed on the right of the French line, around Güttstadt on the River Alle. The line then ran roughly north-west towards Danzig. Napoleon had believed that the Russians might attack while Danzig held out, but once the fall of the city became inevitable he decided that the danger had passed, and prepared for his own offensive. This meant that he was caught by surprise when on 5 June General Bennigsen launched an attack on Ney's isolated corps.

The Russians were let down by an over elaborate plan, which involved six columns aiming at different points on the Alle and Passarge. Ney conducted a skilful fighting retreat, and was soon out of the trap. By 7 June it was clear that the offensive had failed, and Bennigsen ordered his men to retreat.

Napoleon now went onto the offensive, aiming at stopping the Russians from reaching Konigsberg. Ney, Soult and Lannes were ordered to advance along the left bank of the Alle, forming the right wing of the French army. Ney was towards the back of the column, and wasn't involved in the fighting at Heilsberg (10 June 1807), where the Russians fought off a series of uncoordinated French attacks.

In the aftermath of the battle of Heilsberg the Russians resumed their retreat. Napoleon misjudged the direction of their retreat and assumed that they would head for Konigsberg. He split his army, and sent Murat and Soult to attack Konigsberg. Most of the army moved towards Domnau, while Lannes was sent towards Freidland to capture the river bridges. This meant that his corps soon found itself facing the entire Russian army under General Bennigsen, which was also heading for Friedland.

This gave both sides the chance for a victory. The Russians had a brief chance to defeat an isolated French corps before reinforcements could arrive, but in order to do that they needed to cross to the west bank of the Alle River and fight with the river to their backs and their army divided by a sizable stream. On the French side the plan was for Lannes to hold the Russians in place until reinforcements could arrive. Some of these reinforcements would pin down the Russians north of the stream, while Ney attacked to the south. If he could capture the bridge at Friedland then the Russians would be trapped.

The battle almost went according to plan. Ney's attack began at around 5.30pm, and he had soon reached the narrow gap between the Alle and the Mill Stream. At this point his advance was slowed down by Russian artillery from the far side of the river, and an attack by Bagration's reserve cavalry. Ney's men began to retreat and the Russians even captured the Eagle of the 69th. Ney was saved by the arrival of Victor's corps, which restored the situation. General Senarmont, Victor's chief of artillery, then formed two batteries of 30 guns and advanced them right into the battle, eventually firing on the Russian infantry from only 60 paces. Each gun fired around 100 rounds and the Russians were forced to retreat.

The battle ended as a major French victory, but not quite as major as Napoleon had hoped. Ney and Victor had indeed captured the river bridge, but the Russians then found a ford across the Alle and were able to escape from the trap. They still lost around 20,000 men, and more significantly Tsar Alexander lost the will to fight on. Napoleon and the Tsar famously met on a raft in the Neimen at Tilset, and agreed the Peace of Tilset, which for a period appeared to have given Napoleon dominance over Europe.

Spain

Napoleon's Spanish Campaign

Like so many of Napoleons' marshals, Ney didn't enhance his reputation in Spain. The early French successes in Spain had been overturned in the spring and early summer of 1808, and the French had been forced to retreat back to the Ebro. While the Spanish commanders argued about what to do next, Napoleon decided to intervene in person. He decided to lead his main army into Spain and attack the gap between the northern and southern groups of Spanish armies. Once through the Spanish line, the French would split up, and swing north and south to destroy the Spanish armies.

In the period before start of Napoleon's great offensive Ney was posted on the French right, facing General Blake's Army of the Left. In October Blake advanced towards Bilbao, but he was forced to retreat by Ney. Ney only left 3,000 men in Bilbao, and this encouraged Blake to attack once again. General Merlin, commander of the garrison in Bilbao, was forced to retreat to the nearby villages of Zornoza and Durango, where he received reinforcements sent by Ney. After a delay of two weeks Blake began a fresh offensive on 24 October, by which time Merlin had been replaced by Marshal Lefebvre. King Joseph wanted to take advantage of Blake's advance, but a combination of Bessieres, Victor and Ney vetoed this idea, in the knowledge that Napoleon was already on the way. Lefebvre was less reluctant to upset the Emperor, and decided to launch his own attack on Blake. The resulting battle of Zornoza (31 October 1808) was indeed a French victory, but Blake managed to escape with most of his army.

Ney's task in the grand plan was to take part in the destruction of General Castanos's Army of the Centre, which was based between the Ebro and Tudela. Lannes was to attack around Calahorra, while Ney was to advance through the gap in the line and then swing south to trap the Spanish against the Ebro. Castanos managed to avoid this trap by retreating to Tudela, but he was then defeated by Lannes (battle of Tudela, 23 November 1808). A large part of the Spanish army escaped, and Napoleon chose to blame Ney for this. Ney was fifty miles from the battle on 23 November, but he had been given an impossible task - to march 121 miles across mountain roads in four days, and had managed 80 miles in three days.

After Tudela, Ney and Moncey were ordered to besiege Saragossa (20 December 1808-20 February 1809). The city had withstood a French siege in the summer of 1808, but if two strong French corps had arrived in the immediate aftermath of the battle then the city might well have fallen quickly. Instead the French gave the defenders a month to prepare, while Ney was called away to move into New Castile and watch General Castanos, who was moving toward Madrid with the survivors from Tudela. As a result the siege lasted for two months, and only ended after street fighting.

Galicia and Talavera

In 1809 Ney commanded the French army in Galicia, replacing Marshal Soult, who had pursued the British to Corunna (Some of Ney's men had also taken part in this campaign, and Ney's corps had followed behind Soult's during the pursuit). Soult was ordered to invade Portugal from the north, while Ney maintained French authority in Galicia. By the spring Ney's troops were pinned down in a few garrisons, and he was largely cut off from Soult in Portugal and the rest of the French armies in Spain.

In May the French garrison at Santiago de Compostela was threatened by a larger Spanish force, built around a core of regular troops supported by a large group of Partisans. The French commander at Santiago chose to come out of the town and engage the Spanish in a set piece battle, but he had misjudged the situation, and the French were defeated by a Spanish counterattack (battle of Santiago, 23 May 1809). Ney responded by cooperating with Soult, who had just been expelled from Portugal by Wellesley, and then leading most of his corps south from Corunna towards Santiago. The Spanish abandoned Santiago, but then defeated Ney's cavalry at Sampaio on the Oitaben River (7-8 June 1809). This helped convince Soult that the campaign in Galician was unwinnable, and he withdrew into Leon. This forced Ney to retreat, and by 3 July the last of his troops had left Galicia.

Ney's corps wasn't involved in the first part of the Talavera campaign, but by 6 August he had joined with Soult, under whose command he had been placed by Napoleon, and his corps took part in the second part of the campaign, helping to force Wellesley to retreat back into Portugal. After it became clear that the French couldn't catch Wellesley, Ney was ordered to move to Salamanca.

Massena's Invasion of Portugal, 1810-11

In 1810 Ney's VI Corps was placed under Massena's command for the invasion of Portugal that was foiled by the Lines of Torres Vedras.

During the period directly before the start of the invasion Ney's corps was faced by Craufurd's Light Division along the Agueda River. Craufurd had the best of this encounter, gathering a detailed order of battle for the French that only missed out one battalion. Ney also had to take part in the siege of Cuidad Rodrigo, which fell to the French in 10 July after a siege of just under a month. Wellington was nearby with much  of his army, but had already decided to fall back to his defences at Torres Vedras, so chose not to intervene, greatly angering the Spanish defenders of the fortress.

The invasion began with the fall of Cuidad Rodrigo to the French, which forced Craufurd's Light Division to retreat from the Portuguese frontier back to Almeida. On 21 July Massena ordered Ney to probe the British position and see if they were planning to defend the fortress of Fort Concepcion. Craufurd retreated back to Almeida, following Wellington's orders, but he then decided to make a stand at Almeida instead of immediately retreating further west to cross the River Coa. He was expecting the first French attack to be on a fairly small scale, but instead Ney decided to use his entire 24,000 strong corps. Craufurd didn’t realise he was so badly outnumbered, and decided to stand his ground. When Craufurd did realise what was going on he was forced to make a stand on the east bank of the river to give time for his artillery to cross over. During this part of the battle the British lost around 300 casualties, and Ney had won a minor victory. However he wasn’t satisfied with that, and made three unsuccessful attempts to cross the river. As a result the French ended up losing more men than the British, including 230 of his elite marksmen.

Almeida fell to the French after a short siege, ending when a French shell detonated the main magazine. The devastated fortress surrendered on 27 August. The main advance into Portugal finally got under way on 15 September. Massena's route brought him to the ridge of Bussaco, where on 27 September 1810 Wellington won one of his famous defensive victories, holding the top of the steep ridge against fierce French attacks. Massena's initial plan was for Reynier to capture the top of the ridge on the British right. Ney was wait until Reynier was on the ridge and then attack the British left, preventing Wellington from moving reinforcements along the line. Although Reynier was never able to establish a position on top of the ridge, some of his troops did reach the summit, triggering a two division attack by Ney's men. Loison's division ran into a trap and lost 1,250 of its 6,500 men. Marchand's division also suffered heavy losses, and retreated after losing 1,150 men.

On the following day the French found a way around the lines, and Wellington began his final retreat into the Lines of Torres Vedras. The French never risked a large scale attack on the Lines, and late on 14 November Massena's men began to retreat from their immediate area. A second period of stalemate followed around Santarem. The French lost thousands of men during the winter, and it was a much weaker army that moved away from Santarem in March 1811.

Ney commanded Massena's rearguard during his retreat from Portugal in 1811.

At first Massena had hoped to take up a new position in the Mondego valley, and remain in Portugal until reinforcements could arrive. In order to do this he needed to capture Coimbra, and his rearguard needed to delay Wellington. On 11 March the British advance guard caught up with Ney at Pombal. Ney had one battalion defending Pombal castle and another on the hills above the town. When the British attacked the battalion in the castle was nearly cut off. Ney responded by leading four battalions down from the hill into the town. The isolated force in the castle was rescued, while the British got tangled up in the town (combat of Pombal, 11 March 1811). 

On the following day Ney carried out another skilful rearguard action at Redinha. Twice he was outflanked and twice he timed his retreat just right and avoided capture while delaying Wellington for as long as possible (combat of Redinha, 12 March 1811).

Elsewhere the French were unable to get across the River Mondego, after failing to capture the bridge at Coimbra. High water levels stopped them using a nearby ford, and on 13 March Massena finally admitted defeat and began the retreat back to Spain.

The relationship between Ney and Massena broke down during the retreat. Ney was left at Condeixa, with orders to hold up the British for as long as possible. However this was a poor defensive position, and on 13 March the 3rd Division got around the French left. Ney was forced to escape east to Casal Novo. This left Massena dangerously exposed a few miles south of Condeixa, and he was nearly captured by a party of German hussars. Massena was convinced that Ney had deliberately left him exposed to capture, but he couldn't afford to replace him during the retreat.

On 14 March Ney performed better, defeating an ill judged British attack in the fog at Casal Novo, led by General Erskine, the temporary commander of the Light Division.

On the night of 14-15 March the French crossed to the north back of the Ceira River. Ney had orders to pull his entire force across the river and then destroy the bridge at Foz de Arouce. Instead he chose to leave three brigades on the south side of the river, giving Wellington a chance to attack an isolated part of the French army. The British pursuit was delayed by poor weather and fires, and so the attack didn't begin until dusk on 15 March (Combat of Foz de Arouce). Ney's men were caught by surprise, and the British almost captured the key bridge. Ney was able to restore the situation, leading one battalion of the 69th Ligne in a charge that pushed back the 95th Rifles. The French suffered significantly heavier casualties in this encounter than the British, but it also marked the end of the close pursuit of the French. Wellington allowed his men to rest for a day to allow supplies to catch up.

On 17 March Wellington found the French on the River Alva. This was a strong defensive position, but Wellington soon outflanked the French and by 20 March he was across the river. Ney was almost trapped between the two wings of the Allied army during this fighting (Passage of the Alva), but managed to escape with his usual skill.

Having reached a position within three days march of his bases on the Spanish border, Massena suddenly changed his plans and decided to move south-east across two mountain ranges and then mount a fresh invasion of Portugal along the Tagus. This was a terrible plan, and on 22 March Ney wrote three letters of complaint. In the final one he announced that he would not obey Massena's orders. Later on the same day he was removed from command of VI Corps, and on the following day General Loison replaced him.

Some in the army suggested that Ney should seize command of the army, but he refused to mutiny and returned to France. Massena's version of events arrived first, but Ney only suffered a very minor rebuke, and the incident had no impact on his military career.

Massena's plan failed very quickly. Over the next few days the French struggled up into the first mountain range, but by 27 March both Reynier and Junot informed Massena that they could go no further.

Russian Campaign of 1812

Into Russia

Ney was given command of III Corps for the invasion of Russia. This began the campaign with 39,000 men and was part of Napoleon's main army.

Russia 1812 - The Road to Moscow
Russia 1812
The Road to Moscow

Early in the campaign his corps was used to watch Barclay de Tolly's army, while Napoleon attempted to catch Bagration's army. When it became clear that Bagration had escaped, Napoleon turned his attention to Barclay de Tolly. Murat, Oudinot and Ney were nearest to Barclay de Tolly, and thus played a more significant part in the manoeuvre on Vitebsk. Napoleon's initial plan was for his main army to cross the Dvina somewhere to the east of Barclay de Tolly's camp at Drissa, and block the road to Moscow. Barclay de Tolly would either have to fight or retreat north towards St Petersburg. However it soon became clear that the Russians weren't going to stand at Drissa, and instead were heading east. At first Napoleon thought they were heading for Polotsk, but the Russians were actually heading for Vitebsk, where Barclay de Tolly hoped to join up with Bagration. This gave Napoleon a brief chance to catch the Russians. The main army fought its first major battle at Ostronovo on 25-26 July 1812, and by the end of the second day was in position to attack Vitebsk. Napoleon then wasted this chance by remaining static on 27 July to allow reinforcements to arrive, and when the French advanced on 28 July they discovered that the Russians had retreated. 

By August Napoleon's attempts to prevent Barclay de Tolly and Bagration joining up had failed, and the Russian army was now united at Smolensk, with most of their forces on the north bank of the Dnieper. Napoleon's army was also on the north bank, and he now decided to move to the south bank, advance east along the river, reach Smolensk while the Russians were still on the north bank, and cut the road to Moscow.

This manoeuvre of Smolensk began well. The river crossing was carried out on the night of 13-14 August and the French advanced east along the river on 14 August. They were held up by Neverovsky's division at Krasnyi on the afternoon of 14 August. The battle began with an attack on the Russian lines by Grouchy's cavalry. The light cavalry from Ney's corps arrived second, followed by his leading infantry. Ney's men captured Krasnyi itself, but the Russians just retreated a short distance east and formed a new defensive line. Murat insisted on attacking with cavalry, and carried out 30-40 failed attacks. Much to his frustration Ney was unable to get the infantry from his corps into the battle.

At the start of 15 August the city was still only lightly defended. Napoleon then wasted 15 August, and didn't move to attack until the following day. On 16 August his first troops reached Smolensk, and Ney took up a position to the west of the main part of the city, south of the river. The main battle of Smolensk didn't begin until 17 August, and largely involved a frontal assault on the city, with Ney's corps heavily involved. The Russians held out all day, and only retreated across the river on the night of 17-18 August. Ney's men were amongst the first into the abandoned city on 18 August, but once again Napoleon wasted a day. The Russians began to retreat east on 18 August, but the main French pursuit didn't begin until 19 August. Even then a chance for a major victory was missed when Junot refused to attack the retreating Russians even after he had been prodded into crossing to the north bank of the river. On the same day Ney and Murat attacked the Russian's rearguard at Valuntino (19 August 1812), but they were unable to make any progress, and the Russians escaped to the east.

At the battle of Borodino Ney's III Corps was posted on the centre left of the French line, with Davout's I Corps to his right and the Kalatsha River to his left. Prince Eugune's IV Corps was on the opposite bank of the river. In Napoleon's initial plan he was given the task of attacking the gap between the Fleches and the Great Redoubt, after Davout's I Corps cleared out the Fleches. This plan soon fell apart. Davout's first attack on the Fleches failed, and part of Ney's corps was committed to the second attack on the Fleches. Ney was wounded during the heavy fighting in the Fleches, but they did eventually fall to the French, probably at about 10am. The Russians formed a new line just a little to the east, along the Semenovka Brook. Ney's corps took part in the French attack on this line, which came close to success. This led to one of the most controversial moments in the battle. Most of Napoleon's subordinates urged him to commit the Imperial Guard at this point, but Napoleon refused. The chance for a breakthrough passed, and the battle ended as a costly but inconclusive French victory.

Retreat from Moscow

At the start of the retreat from Moscow on 19 October Davout's corps formed the rearguard of the French army. At first the army moved south-west in attempt to avoid the road it has used on the way to Moscow, but after the battle of Maloyaroslavets (24 October 1812), Napoleon decided to return to the earlier route.

The first serious Russian attack on the retreating French column came at Fiedovoisky or Viazma (3 November 1812). By this time the French were dangerously stretched out, with Napoleon and the leading troops at Slavkovo, Ney at Viazma (with orders to take over the rearguard after the rest of the army had passed), Prince Eugune's IV Corps next in line and Davout's I Corps at Fiedovoisky, five miles to the east of Ney. The Russians attacked the rear and middle of the French line. Ney was attacked by part of the main force, which he fought off with some ease. In contrast Davout was hit by 30,000 men and had to be rescued, first by Prince Eugune, and then by Ney, who sent Razout's division back to open a gap in the Russian trap.

This battle almost eliminated Davout's corps as a fighting force. He lost 5,000 of his 20,000 men, and most of his baggage, and the previously high discipline of his corps collapsed. Ney took over the rearguard duties, which he performed for the next two weeks.

His corps formed the rearguard during the second battle of Krasnyi (15-18 November 1812), a series of Russian attacks on the retreating French column. Ney was engaged by the Russians east of Smolensk on 13 November, and ended up fighting in that area for four days.

By the end of the battle contact had been lost with Ney's corps, and Napoleon and most of the army believed that it had been destroyed. This was almost true. Ney began the battle with 6,000 men, but four days of rearguard action and a dangerous crossing of the frozen Dnieper meant that when Ney finally caught up with the main army at Orsha he only had 800 men left. After his appearance Napoleon reportedly said 'I would rather have given everything than lose you', and this was where he earned his nickname as the 'bravest of the brave'.

At the battle of the Berezina (21-29 November 1812), Ney's remaining troops were to cross the river second, after Oudinot, and then turn south to block any Russian troops advancing from that direction. His troops began to cross the bridges at 10pm on 26 November, and they took up a position to the left of Oudinot. On 27 November he formed part of the second line, behind Oudinot, but early in the Russian attack Oudinot was wounded and Ney was given command of II Corps, V Corps and the Vistula Legion. The French army was so shrunken that by now II Corps only contained 4,000 men and the Vistula Legion no more than 3,000. Ney was able to hold off the Russians for the entire day, allowing the French to keep the bridge open and then to escape west.

On 5 December Ney was amongst the select group at the meeting where Napoleon announced that he was planning to leave the army and return to Paris.

On 9 December Ney's rearguard clashed with the leading Russian troops outside Vilna, where the French were hoping to rest and recover. This attack unnerved Murat, who had been given command of the army, and he ordered the retreat to continue. On the following day Ney clashed with Cossacks west of Vilna, and was forced to withdraw. The city fell later on the same day (battle of Vilna, 9-10 Decemebr 1812).

Ney remained with the rear guard to the very end of the campaign. On 14 December he crossed the bridge of the Neimen, and he was said to have been the last Frenchman to leave Russia and the last to have fired a shot back across the Niemen.

Ney was rewarded for his efforts in Russia with the rather hollow title Prince of the Moscowa.

Germany 1813

Spring Campaign

The destruction of the Grand Armée in Russia meant that the war shifted into Germany in 1813. In March Prussia declared war of France, and the French under Prince Eugene were pushed back to the Elbe. Austria remained neutral during the spring campaign, as did Saxony, so the French position was not yet hopeless.

War of Liberation 1813 - Spring Campaign
War of Liberation 1813 -
Spring Campaign

Napoleon returned to German in late April, with the new army that he had managed to create in France. His plan was to advance east from Saxony towards the Oder, disrupting Prussian plans and moving the war further away from France.

Ney commanded a reformed III Corps during the campaign of 1813. His corps took part in the advance east, and achieved a minor success at Weissenfels on 29 April.

On 1 May 1813 his corps was attacked by the Russians at it was crossing the River Rippach (action of Poserna). The French were able to cross the river, but Marshal Bessières, commander of the Imperial Guard, was killed during the fighting.

On 2 May the Allies attempted to trap Ney's isolated corps at Lützen, on the road to Leipzig. If the Allied army had been handled well, then they could have a won a major victory, defeating each of Napoloen's corps in turn as they arrived on the battlefield. Poor staff work meant that they missed their chance. Although Ney's troops were surprised in their camp, his determined defence gave Napoleon time to bring up reinforcements and win the battle. The French lost around 22,000 men, the Allies 20,000, but the battle was a clear French victory. A lack of cavalry meant that the French were unable to take full advantage of their victory. Ney himself was wounded in the left leg during the battle, was was able to remain with the army.

In the aftermath of the battle of Lützen, the Allies retreated east, with Napoleon following. The Allies decided to make a stand at Bautzen, on the River Spree, to stop Napoleon advancing on Warsaw or Berlin.

The battle of Bautzen (20-21 May 1813) was perhaps Napoleon's best chance of winning a decisive victory during the campaign in Germany. He had 115,000 men under his direct command and another 84,000 under Ney near enough to take part in the second day of the battle. His plan was to pin the smaller Prussian-Russian army (around 96,000 men) in place on 20 May and then hit them in the flank on 21 May and destroy their army. The Prussians and Russians hoped to use their strong defensive position to defeat Napoleon's attack and then force him towards the Bohemian border, where he would either have to violate Austrian neutrality or surrender.

The first part of the battle went well for the French. They were able to cross the river Spree and then repel heavy Allied counterattacks, so that at the end of the day everything was ready for the decisive blow. Unfortunately the second day of the battle demonstrated both the flaws in Napoleon's command system and the limits of Ney's abilities. Napoleon had failed to fully explain his plan to Ney, typical of the way in which he tried to keep all significant decisions in his own hands. As a result his Marshals were often unwilling to act on their own initiative if the master was nearby. Ney was at his best when implementing a clear plan, but less able when given a semi-independent command. On the morning of 21 May he heard the sound of fighting, but instead of beginning an immediate march towards the battlefield he sent messengers to clarify his orders and only then began to march. He didn't enter the battle until mid-afternoon, and then paused to wait for reinforcements. As a result the Allies were able to escape from the trap, having suffered lower casualties than the French (11,000 for the Allies, around 25,000 for the French).

Bautzen convinced both sides that they needed a pause. On 4 June the Armistice of Pleischwitz was agreed, leading to a seven week truce. This allowed all sides to gather their strength, while diplomatically Napoleon's rejection of relatively generous peace terms meant that the Austrians joined the alliance against him. On 12 August the Austrians declared war on France, marking the start of the autumn campaign.

Autumn Campaign

For the autumn campaign the Allies adopted the Trachenberg Plan, in which they avoided battle with Napoleon and instead concentrated on defeating his subordinates.

War of Liberation 1813 - Autumn Campaign
War of Liberation 1813 - Autumn Campaign

This proved to be a very effective plan. Napoleon's victories were undone by the failures of his subordinates, amongst them Ney.

At the start of the campaign the French held a defensive position in Saxony, facing three Allied armies. To the north was the Army of the North, under Marshal Bernadotte. In the east was the Prussian Army of Silesia, under Blücher. To the south was the Austrian Army of Bohemia, commanded by Schwarzenberg.

At the start of the campaign an impatient Tsar Alexander decided to override the plan, and ordered an offensive. The Army of Bohemia began a move towards Leipzig, but was then ordered to move to Dresden instead. The army arrived south of Dresden on 25 August, after a tiring march. On that day the French forces at Dresden were commanded by Marshal St. Cyr, although Napoleon was on his way. The Allies missed a chance to attack on 25 August, and waited until the following day, by which time the Emperor had arrived. The Allied attack on 26 August ended in failure, and by the following day French reinforcements had arrived. Ney's corps took up a position on the French centre-left, south-east of Dresden, with Mortier to his left and St. Cyr to his right. On this flank the French inflicted a heavy defeat on the Russian corps of General Wittgenstein. The Allies also suffered a defeat on their left, and decided to withdraw.

Although the Allies had suffered a defeat at Dresden after disobeying their own plan, elsewhere Napoleon suffered serious setbacks, Marshal MacDonald was defeated by Blücher on the Katzbach (25 August), while Vandamme was defeated at Kulm (30 August), losing 20,000 of his 30,000 men. As a result all of the benefits of the victory at Dresden were lost.

In September Ney was given command of the Army of Berlin and ordered to make a second attempt to capture Berlin (the first attempt, under Oudinot, had been defeated at Grossbeeren).

Ney had around 58,000 men. His direct opponent was his former colleague Marshal Bernadotte, now crown prince of Sweden, who had around 120,000 men in total, although only 43,000 Prussians would actually fight in the decisive battle.

Ney's route took him to Dennewitz on the Ahe. Early on 6 September Bertrand's corps pushed aside a militia force at Dennewitz and captured a crossing over the Ahe. The militia managed to hold on long enough for the first Prussian reinforcements to arrive, but Bertrand was able to deploy across the river. He was supported by Reynier, who took up a position on the south bank. Bülow attacked the French position. Some very hard fighting followed, but in mid-afternoon Oudinot's corps entered the battle on the French left and began to push back the Allies. Ney then intervened, and ordered Oudinot to move to his right flank. This meant that the French missed a chance of victory and allowed the Allies to launch a counterattack. The allies had more troops nearby, and the battle was decided by the arrival of fresh Russian artillery. The battle of Dennewitz ended as a severe French defeat, and Ney lost 22,000 men, 53 guns and 4 standards, removing any chance that the French could retake Berlin.

The campaign approached its climax around Leipzig. Both sides concentrated their main armies around the city, triggering the massive 'Battle of the Nations'. The first preliminary was the battle of Lieberwolkwitz of 14 October, a cavalry battle south of the city.

The main battle of Leipzig began on 16 October, when Napoleon held off the slightly larger army of Schwarzenberg. Ney's corps was posted north of the city, away from the main fighting, which was further south.  He was thus unable to take part in the battle. On the same day Marmont was defeated by Blücher at Möckern, north of Leipzig, allowing the Prussians to move to Leipzig.

On 17 October the Army of Poland joined the Allies, but bad weather meant that there was no fighting. Ney was given command of the French 'left', which included the Saxons, Durutte's division, Marmont and Souham. His force was deployed around Paunsdorf, east of the city, and stretched out around the northern side of the city.

On 18 October Napoleon's Saxon and Württemberg troops changed sides. The Allies attacked in six columns. Ney's wing was attacked by Bennigsen's column from the east, Bernadotte's column from the north-east and Blücher's column from the north. Ney's line came under heavy pressure on all three fronts, and Blücher reached the suburbs of the city before the Young Guard restored the situation. Paunsdorf remained in French hands, despite being the scene of the Saxon change of side.

On 19 October the Allies finally stormed Leipzig. Napoleon was forced to retreat west, having lost 70,000 men. The Allies suffered 54,000 casualties themselves, but they could afford their losses. Ney himself had to return home to recover from wounds suffered during the battle.  

France 1814

During the Allied invasion of France in 1814 Ney commanded the 1st Division of Voltigeurs of the Young Guard. However the disaster in Russia had begun to erode his enthusiasm for war, and during 1814 he began to lose his belief in Napoleon's leadership.

Battles of the French Campaign of 1814
Battles of the
French Campaign
of 1814

At the start of 1814 it looked as if the French would quickly be overrun. Marshal Blücher with the Army of Silesia was advanced on Paris from the east, with Marshal Schwazenberg's Army of Bohemia a little further south and Bernadotte advancing more slowly into Belgium.

Napoleon scattered many of his troops along the French border, but kept command of around 40,000 men close to Paris. During the campaign his opponents often assumed that the French actually had more men available to them.

Napoleon decided to deal with Blücher first, as his army was closest to Paris, and most spread out. His first attempt to catch part of Blücher's army, at St. Dizier on 27 January, was a failure, and the Prussians moved south-west toward Brienne. Ney took part in this, and most other battles of the 1814 campaign.

At Brienne (29 January) Napoleon attempted an outflanking attack, but his troops weren't up to it. The result was a confused battle in which both Napoleon and Blücher narrowly escaped capture, and the battle ended with the Prussians retreating south towards Trannes and reinforcements.

Blücher decided to attack north from Trannes towards Brienne, attacking a line of four villages, from Dienville in the west to La Giberie in the east. Ney was posted on the French right-rear, behind La Rothière. The resulting battle of La Rothière (1 February 1814) saw the French hold on all day, before the arrival of Allied reinforcements forced Napoleon to retreat in order to avoid a significant defeat on the following day.

The Allied plans were disrupted by Napoleon, who briefly rediscovered his best form for the Six Days campaign. This started with victory at Champaubert (10 February 1814). Napoleon discovered that Blücher's army was spread out. On the morning of 10 February the French cavalry found an isolated Russian division under General Olsufiev at Champaubert. The Russians decided to stand and fight, in the hope that Blücher would send reinforcements. Instead Ney and Marmont arrived, and by the end of the day they had inflicted 4,000 casualties on the Russian force of 5,000. The victory also meant that Napoleon had broken into the Prussian line, and was now in a central position.

On the next day Napoleon turned west and inflicted a second defeat on Blücher at Montmirail. Ney's troops took part in this battle.

He then turned north to try and catch Wartenburg and Dmitry Osten-Sacken at Château-Thierry on the Marne. Earlier Marshal Macdonald had sent to capture the town, but he failed, allowing the Allies retreating from Montmirail to cross the river and prepare a defensive position at Château-Thierry. During the pursuit Ney's corps inflicted a defeat on the Prussian rear guard, capturing nine guns and some hills overlooking the Marne. The Prussians defended the town on the south bank to cover the retreat of the rest of the army before continuing their retreat. By the end of the day the Allies had lost 3,000 men, the French only 600.

The battle of Château-Thierry (12 February 1814) was thus a French victory, but Macdonald's inability to block the Allied escape route limited its impact. Napoleon had hoped to destroy the Allied force, but instead he had to sent part of his army under Mortier to pursue Yorck and Osten-Sacken, while he turned back to deal with Blücher.

The six day's campaign ended with another French victory at Vauchamps, with the Prussians losing 20,000 men and the French only 600.

Napoleon then turned south to try and catch Schwarzenberg, but he was only able to hit his rear guard at Montereau (18 January). Even so this series of victories convinced the Allied military leaders to pull back, with the Prussians moving back to the Marne and the other armies to the Aube.

In early March Napoleon faced Blücher's Army of Silesia on the Marne. The Prussians wanted to trap Napoleon against the river, but failed to guard some key bridges, allowing the French to occupy Craonne. Blücher posted his Russian infantry on a plateau west of Craonne, with Prussian troops in support. The battle of Craonne (7 March 1814) began when Ney launched a sizable attack on the Russian position. This first attack was pushed back, but Napoleon then committed the Guard Cavalry, and the Russians were forced to retreat. This should have exposed them to Blücher's planned flank attack, but his subordinates let him down and moved too slowly. Blücher abandoned the attack and withdrew to Laon, where he concentrated his forces and prepared for a defensive battle.

Napoleon assumed that Blücher was in full retreat, and decided to pursue. Both men misjudged the situation at Laon. Blücher assumed that Napoleon had a much larger army than he really did, while Napoleon assumed that he would only be facing a rearguard. The resulting battle of Laon (8-10 March 1814) began early on 8 March when Ney's vanguard pushed aside the first Cossack patrols.  The French then used a road along a ravine to get around a strong Allied position, and on the morning of 9 March Ney ordered a full scale attack towards Laon. As the weather improved, Blücher came to realise that he actually outnumbered the French, and he launched a counterattack that stopped the French advance, and split the French line. A flank attack by Marmont was defeated. On the following morning Ney was ordered to attack Clacy to support another attack, but news then arrived of Marmont's failure, and the attack was cancelled. Ney was ordered to hold his position to give the rest of the army time to retreat.

In the aftermath of this victory the Allies lost momentum. Blücher was taken seriously ill. Freidrich, Graf Kleist resigned in the belief that Blücher's death was being concealed, and Langeron refused to take command. As a result Napoleon was given time to recover from the defeat.

On 13 March Napoleon recaptured Rheims. Once again Ney was involving in the battle. He then turned on Schwarzenberg's Austrian Army, which was retreated towards Troyes. Napoleon hoped to inflict a quick defeat on the Austrians and force them to continue their retreat, leaving him free to turn on the Prussians. He sent most of his troops towards Arcis-sur-Aube, where he expected to find an Austrian rearguard. On 20 March the French crossed to the south bank of the Aube and captured Arcis. Ney was then sent east to form the left wing of the French army. The plan unravelled when Schwarzenberg didn't react as Napoleon had expected. Instead of retreating, he interpreted Napoleon's move as an attacok on his HQ on Troyes, and he moved his entire army towards Arcis. Ney found himself under attack by Wrede's Bavarians, former allies of the French, while in the centre the Austrians nearly captured the bridge at Arcis. If they had succeeded in this, Ney would have been cut off, but at a key moment part of the Old Guard arrived at the bridge and the situation was restored. Schwarzenberg then reverted to form and paused until the afternoon of 21 March. By the time he renewed his attack, most of the French army had escaped, although Napoleon lost 3,000 of the 23,000 men engaged at Arcis-sur-Aube (20-21 March 1814).

In the aftermath of this setback Napoleon made a fatal misjudgement. He decided to abandon the direct defense of Paris and attempted to advance into the Allied rear areas in the belief that this would force them to turn back and secure their lines of communication. The often timid Allied performance earlier in the campaign encouraged this view, but on this occasion they took a bolder course. Schwarzenberg decided to march on Paris and ignored Napoleon. He defeated Mortier and Marmont at La-Fère-Champenoise, and then joined up with Blücher on 28 March.

The combined allied army marched on Paris, which was only lightly defended. Mortier and Marmont were defeated at La-Fère-Champenoise (25 March), and the Allies attacked Paris on 30 March (battle of Montmartre). They were unable to take the city on the 30th, but the outnumbered French garrison withdrew on the 31st.

In the aftermath of the fall of Paris Napoleon wanted to fight on, but his Marshals made it clear that it was time for him to go. Ney played a key part in this movement. Ney and Macdonald met with Napoleon at Fontainebleau, and convinced him to abdicate. During this debate Napoleon claimed that the Army would follow him, and Ney replied that the 'men would follow their generals', a key argument in the debate.

After the Bourbon restoration Ney entered the service of Louis XVIII and was soon held in high regard at court. Only one month after Napoleon's first abdication Ney was given a place on the Council of War and was appointed commander-in-chief of the cavalry and commander of the 6th Military District at Bessançon. He was also made a chevalier of the Order of St. Louis on 1 June and a Peer of France on 4 June.

The Hundred Days 1815

When Napoleon returned from exile in 1815 Ney was sent to arrest him. He promised to return the former Emperor in an iron cage, but instead sided with Napoleon at Auxerre on 18 March.

Ney was initially appointed as inspector of the northern frontiers around Lille and Landau, but just before the start of the Waterloo campaign he was recalled to the main army, and given command of the left wing of the Army of the North.

On 16 June Napoleon split his army. He took the main part of the army to Ligny, where he won his last victory, defeating Blücher at Ligny. Ney was given command of the left, with the task of seizing the crossroads at Quatre Bras. At the start of the day the crossroads were only lightly defended, but Ney moved too slowly, and thus allowed the Duke of Wellington to rush reinforcements to the battlefield.

One of the main controversies of the day involved Jean Baptiste Drouet comte d'Erlon's I Corps, which spent the entire day marching between the two battlefields, and didn’t fight on either. Ney received part of the blame for this, after issuing some of the orders that saw d'Erlon spend the day marching, but Napoleon was also responsible for the problem.

Napoleon was far from his best at Waterloo, and for much of the battle Ney was in effective command of the French army. His performance at Waterloo was controversial, in particular his decision to waste the impressive French cavalry in a series of attacks on Wellington's infantry on Mont St. Jean. Up to 10,000 cavalry were involved in around a dozen attacks over the course of two and a half hours, but they failed to break a single square and only served to use up the French cavalry. Towards the end of the battle Ney was given command of the Imperial Guard when it was finally committed to the fight, but this final attack failed and the Guard retreated. The sight of the famed Imperial Guard in retreat helped to break the morale of Napoleon's army.

The battle demonstrated Ney's strengths and weaknesses - his personal bravery was never in doubt, he had four horses shot under him and made a valiant attempt to rally the defeated army, but his skills as an independent commander were less impressive.

After Waterloo Ney considered fleeing into exile, but decided to stay in France. The ultra Royalists who gained power in the aftermath of Napoleon's second abdication insisted that he be put on trial.

Ney was arrested on 3 August. The ultra Royalists wanted him to be tried by his fellow Marshals, but they refused, and so he was tried and condemned by the Upper Chamber of the House of Peers on 4-6 December. On 7 December he was shot in the Luxembourg Gardens, a move that was seen as a stain on the Bourbon record.

Ney was put on trial in front of a Council of War headed by Marshal Jourdan. He was condemned to death and shot in the Luxembourg Gardens on 7 December 1815.

He did have some supporters in the trial, including General Chasseloup-Laubat, who voted against his condemnation and Marshal Davout, who was placed into internal exile at Louviers as a result. Marshal Moncey refused to preside over the trial and was imprisoned for three months as a result. Even the King was said to have been opposed to the idea, but it was forced on him by the more extreme Royalists.

Some of his former colleagues also voted against him, including Admiral Ganteaume, Marshal Victor and Marshal Perignon.

Ney was finally exonerated in 1851, by which time Napoleon's nephew Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte was President of the Second Republic, and on the verge of the coup that saw him take the throne as Napoleon III.

Napoleonic Home Page | Books on the Napoleonic Wars | Subject Index: Napoleonic Wars

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (23 March 2016), Marshal Michel Ney, duc d'Elchingen, prince de la Moscowa (1769-1815) , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_ney.html

Delicious Save this on Delicious

Help - F.A.Q. - Contact Us - Search - Recent - About Us -  Subscribe in a reader - Join our Google Group - Cookies