The life of one of the most notable of Napoleon’s marshals
There are few students of the Napoleonic epoch who require much introduction to the character of Marshal Ney. In an empire of many courageous men who would stand at the emperor’s side, Ney was one of the most charismatic and outstanding. Though he rose to the highest rank, he ever had the sensibilities of a cavalryman and with his raw courage, blunt manner, ruddy complexion and habit of exposing himself to the heart of the action he justifiably earned his sobriquet, ‘the Bravest of the Brave.’ As with most of the soldiers who were closest to Napoleon, Ney was present on many fields of conflict throughout the period of the Napoleonic Wars, but it is perhaps telling that for many it is the image of Ney standing in the snows of the disastrous retreat from Moscow, among the very last men of the rearguard fending off the harassing Cossacks, that resonates in the mind. Ney it was too who continually hurled himself among the futile waves of massed cavalry as they tried to sweep Wellington’s infantry of the ridge at Waterloo. And it was Ney, of course, perhaps finally a victim of his own reckless impulses, who faced the firing squad for his volte face and support for Napoleon during the fateful ‘Hundred Days.’ This biography by Atteridge is a well regarded classic and an essential addition to any library of the Napoleonic era.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
With most modern armies the tactical necessity of concealment has taken all the glitter and colour from the battlefield. Men march into the fight in dull khaki or bluish grey. But when the sun rose on 7 September, 1812, the French Army looked as if it was prepared, not for a murderous life and death struggle, but for a spectacular review. It was an army of many nations and there was a strange variety of brilliant uniforms. The sky was a cloudless blue, and the sun rose behind the Russian position and shone in the faces of the attack. “It is the sun of Austerlitz,” exclaimed Napoleon.<br>
There was a rolling of drums, and then the colonels read at the head of their regiments the emperor’s proclamation telling the men that the coming victory would give them possession of Moscow, abundant supplies, comfortable winter quarters, and the prospect of an early return to their homes, where each as long as he lived would be proud to say: “I was in that great battle before the walls of Moscow.” A signal gun fired from the captured redoubt was to have been the signal for the general advance, then the heights on the Russian left were to be stormed and their line rolled up by a succession of attacks towards the centre and right<br>
The signal was delayed Ney, ever eager for battle, had sent an officer to Napoleon asking for permission to attack the Russians in the woods in his front There was the same impatience everywhere. The men had been under arms for two hours, and the long wait was becoming a strain on their nerves. Suddenly from the left beyond the Kologha came the sound of heavy firing. Without waiting for orders Eugène was attacking Borodino. He drove the Russians out of the village, seized the bridge, and pushed on towards the main position about Gorki. While Eugène was still clearing Borodino, Ney had ordered his batteries to open, and sent swarms of skirmishers forward into the pines. On his right Davoût moved to the attack and Poniatowski’s Poles were tramping forward through the Utitza woods.<br>
The battle had become a frontal attack all along the line, a struggle to be decided by sheer fighting with but little manoeuvring. And for perhaps the first time in his life the emperor did little or nothing to control or direct the fight. More than one of those who were with him testifies that he was ill. He was almost a spectator of the conflict .He never rode forward from the Schwardino redoubt, and during most of the day he was nearly a mile from the firing line, and depended largely on the reports brought by staff officers for his knowledge of the progress of the battle.<br>
It raged from early morning till darkness set in, and Ney was hotly engaged throughout all the fifteen hours of hard fighting. First he drove in the advanced line of the Russians in the plain, and then, concentrating towards his right, co-operated with Davoût and Murat in the attack on Bagration’s corps holding the heights about the village of Semenovskoi, which was set on fire early on the morning and blazed like a furnace in the midst of the battle. The line of redoubts in front of the village was taken and retaken. It was not till noon that Ney was firmly established on the plateau. By that time the Russian left had been pushed back, and Kutusoff’s line of battle was a salient with the Great Redoubt for its apex.<br>
Round this the fight raged during the afternoon. Ney and the other generals sent more than one message to the emperor begging him to bring the Guard into action. But hour after hour he kept these fine regiments idle spectators of the distant battle, which their intervention would have at once decided. He hesitated to risk his last reserve. The most he would agree to was that some of the batteries of the Guard should be sent forward to the heights.<br>
Ney was beside Murat in front of the Great Redoubt when General Belliard, Murat’s chief of the staff, rejoined him, and told him that he had tried in vain to persuade Napoleon to send even a portion of the Guard into action. Belliard said he had found the emperor depressed, unlike himself, giving his orders in a languid hesitating way. Ney completely lost control of himself. “What is the emperor doing in the rear of the army?” he exclaimed “If he will not conduct the war himself, if he is no longer a general, if he wants to play the emperor everywhere, let him go back to the Tuileries, and leave us to command for him!” Murat was calmer and remarked that Napoleon was ill and they must do the best they could for him.<br>
Attack after attack of the infantry was hurled back from the Great Redoubt. Davoût had been unhorsed and stunned early in the day. Murat was commanding his infantry as well as the cavalry. The French line along the captured heights had to hold its own against repeated counter-attacks of the Russians. On the right Barclay had not lost a foot of ground. Ney was fighting in the centre, near the Great Redoubt, exposing himself freely in the thickest of the battle. But it was Murat’s cavalry that decided the struggle at this point, a mass of cuirassiers charging through the enemy and pouring victoriously into the open rear of the redoubt.<br>
The day was drawing to a close, but still the Russians held on obstinately to the ground between the villages of Gorki and Tzarevo. The batteries of the Guard came galloping up from Schwardino and opened fire. The battle became an artillery duel which died away as the sun went down. Some thought it would be renewed at daybreak, and the emperor congratulated himself that he had still the Imperial Guard intact But when the sun rose it was seen that the enemy had retreated during the hours of darkness.<br>