Napoleon's Marshals: A Rogue's Gallery

NewModelSoldier

Ad Honorem
Oct 2009
5,021
Vancouver
So I thought as I trudge through my big project for the Peninsular War, I might introduce some of my favourite figures throughout history: Napoleon and his Marshals. The position of Marshal of France was an ancient one, awarded to military personnel of noted achievement and given a Marshal's Baton as a symbol of their office.

During the First French Empire of Napoleon I, there were 26 Marshals of the Empire. I think reviewing the myriad of fascinating personas who bore the title of Marshal would be quite interesting, where they began, and how they fared during the Bourbon Restoration.

Michel Ney



I thought I might start off with one of the more well known and well respected Marshals of Napoleon (and personally one of my favourites).

Born the son of a cooper, in 1769 on the 10th of January in the town of Saarlouis (now in Germany), Michel Ney seemed destined to a quiet life, becoming a notary after attending university.

However, the man who would be referred to by Napoleon himself as "the bravest of the brave" was bored easily with the life of bureaucracy, and in 1787 joined the Colonel-General Hussar Regiment. With his innate bravery and skill quickly appreciated, Ney rose up the non-commissioned ranks quite quickly, and was commissioned in 1792. Transferring from the Army of the North to the Sambre-et-Meuse in 1794, and was promoted to general de brigade in 1796.

The next year, Ney fought in the Battle of Neuwied, where he displayed his soldier's skill and was able to turn the Austrians from the field with a well-timed flank, however he was captured after being unhorsed. A month later he was exchanged for an Austrian general and resumed his climb up the ranks.

Serving the Empire

From 1797 till 1804, Ney saw much action and received several wounds for his courageous and daring attacks on the enemy. His talent was recognized by Napoleon who drew up a list of eighteen Marshals of the Empire, with Michel Ney delighted his name was included.



With the War of the Third Coalition beginning in 1805, Ney assumed command of the VI Corps, performing admirably at the Battle of Elchingen and late in the year capturing the city of Innsbruck from the Austrian commander, Archduke John. Due to his exemplary record in Napoleon's service, he was created the Duke of Elchingen in1808.

Ordered to Spain in 1809, he continued his streak of victories, routing the English under Sir Robert Wilson and taking part in the Invasion of Portugal the following year, where he captured the city in roughly three months due to the tough Spanish defenders of the city. After his success he then besieged the town of Almeida, where a lucky cannon shot managed to ignite the ammunition magazine, causing an enormous explosion that garnered 900 casualties, 600 of whom died outright.

Beating the British at Coa, he then tasted defeat at the Battle of Bussaco. When Marshal Massena was unable to take the highly defensible Lines of Torres Vedras (massive earthworks designed by Wellington to block Massena's advancement into Portugal), Massena was forced to retreat, with Ney commanding the Rear Guard.

During the Retreat from the Lines of Torres Vedras, Ney was able to deceive Wellington by making it seem that Ney was actually advancing on the lines, giving Massena a great advantage in time and distance. He then managed to inflict calculated defeats to the British at Pombal, Redinha, Casal Novo and Foz d'Aronce as the army retreated.
 

NewModelSoldier

Ad Honorem
Oct 2009
5,021
Vancouver
Russia

Napoleon drew up his plans to invade Russia in 1812, Ney receiving the III Corps to command. Marching across the Dnieper River, the Grande Armée engaged the Russians at Smolensk where he was wounded in the neck, put of commission until the Battle of Borodino.



During the butchery of Borodino, Ney led a charge to retake valuable positions, combining later with Marshal Davout to position his artillery that caught the Russians under General Barclay in a blistering crossfire that the Russian General described as a "walk into Hell".

Despite the best efforts of Ney, Davout and other commanders, Borodino was at best a Pyrrhic victory for Napoleon, having lost up to 35,000 men from an Army he desperately needed to keep together. With the "victory" Moscow was open to Napoleon, but due to the Russian's unorthodox abandonment of the city, the taking of Moscow was a hollow achievement. Napoleon had to leave Russia.

As the French Army retreated, Marshal Ney displayed great personal bravery and skill, rallying the tired, mutinous ragged veterans of the Armee again and again to face off the Russians.



Ney seen in front, was cut off from the main army at one point, him and his men fighting bravely through the deadly cold to rejoin Napoleon, who dubbed him there as "the bravest of the brave". Defending at Beresina, he fought valiantly until the rest of the army crossed the bridge out of the Russian Empire, finally crossing himself to become the last man to leave Russia in the French Army.

 
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NewModelSoldier

Ad Honorem
Oct 2009
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Vancouver
The Hundred Days

Having served after Russia in many battles, including Liepzig, Ney was covered by 1814 in numerous scars across his body, marks of his courage and martial skill. However by this point, many had grown tired and disillusioned with the endless fighting and Marshal Ney become the spokesperson for the mutinous Marshals, refusing to march on Paris and demanding abdication of the French Emperor.

With Napoleon sent to Elba and the old Bourons restored to the throne of France, Ney was showered with accolades but never recieved the trust of the monarchy, unsurprisingly.

Hearing of Napoleon's escape, Ney swore to the King, Louis XVIII that he would defend the realm against Napoleon, but upon receiving a warm letter from his old commander, Ney rejoined Napoleon at Auxerre.



During the Hundred Days, Ney attacked uncharacteristically cautiously, drawing criticism for his performance (in fact, his whole behaviour during the Hundred Days has been analyzed by some as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder).

At the Battle of Waterloo, Michel Ney displayed yet again ferocious courage, having five horses shot under him during the battle, leading a mass cavalry attack on the Anglo-Dutch line, taking the cannons but unable to break the infantry who now formed into square (very effective against cavalry). For some reason, Ney did not order the enemy cannons to be spiked (driving a spike into the firing hole making it essentially useless), which was a common military practise as the enemy gunners usually hide in the squares and retook the guns later. This the English gunners did precisely, Ney battering one cannon in fury before retreating.



After the battle, he was captured, arrested and sentenced to death by firing squad. He scorned the blindfold and was able to actually command the firing squad to fire on his orders.

"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!"


A man of persistent dogged bravery, suffering innumerable wounds in the service of Napoleon, enduring the horror of the retreat from Moscow and the incessant attacks by Cossacks, forced to sleep in the corpses of his horses for warmth, Michel Ney died in one last act of bravery, a ferocious fighter for the French Empire.

I plan next to focus on Davout, however, considering the vast number of Marshals under Napoleon, I think it would be good if other members who felt like adding profiles on the Marshals, PM and we can figure out who is covering who. Sounds good?
 

Belisarius

Forum Staff
Jun 2006
10,359
U.K.
Good post, but can you please try not to use giant pictures? Makes the text difficult to read.
 

NewModelSoldier

Ad Honorem
Oct 2009
5,021
Vancouver
I tried to rescale but it was reverting so I used some smaller versions of the pics...although the Borodino one is still the same, is that any better or does it still make it hard to read the post? Thank you for your kind words all
 

NewModelSoldier

Ad Honorem
Oct 2009
5,021
Vancouver
I just read on wikipedia that Rene Auberjonois is a descendant of one of Napoleonic Marshals, Joachim Murat.



Some random trivia for you there!