December morning in Paris, 1815, a quiet corner of the Jardin du Luxembourg, out of the view of the pissed-off mob that has heard about the verdict. Michel Ney, Marshal of France, duc d’Elchingen, prince de La Moskowa, Chevalier of the Order of St. Louis—a cooper’s son—declines the blindfold that is offered him. Four soldiers in plumed shakos train their muskets on him from a knee. Four more behind them do the same from a standing position. A commanding officer directs the proceedings from the squad’s right. More than a quarter century in the service of France and this is how it will end—by the hot lead of his own countrymen. Two years in military service under the Royalty, distinguishing himself and ascending the ranks at a rare speed throughout the Revolution, the Empire, the Restoration, and the Hundred Days. That damned Hundred Days. An outstanding commander—Napoleon called him the bravest of the brave—but in equal measure a clumsy politician, which will cost him. All that remains is for him to give his final order—his choice to do so. Voltaire, in reference to the British and their treatment of a certain admiral, wrote: “Pour encourager les autres.” The words apply again.
Ney’s III Corps fought the Russians in the position of rear guard so that the rest of Napoleon’s army might escape that subarctic shithole of the Tsars. November 18, 1812. A Russian soldier under a flag of truce delivers the message to Ney that he is now cut off. The French army has deserted him, he is told. Ney and his 6,000 men are surrounded by 80,000 Russians. There is no escape. That much is established, a fait accompli, although the Marshal’s counterpart on the Russian side admires him and insists he will be treated with the respect his bravery has earned. Ney arrests the messenger. With only six guns, he mounts a frontal assault on the Russians that nearly succeeds. The enemy is expecting nothing so inspired from this meager unit, but they manage to regroup and begin raking the French ranks without mercy. Every burst of Russian cannon wipes out soldiers by the file. Regiments vanish. Ney launches a second effort that proves to be just as spirited as the first, but it is met with unceasing canister shot. One of the Marshal’s aides-de-camp is captured. The Russian commander, General Miloradovich, expresses his admiration to the prisoner. “Bravo,” he says. “Bravo men of France! You have just attacked, with astonishing vigor, an entire corps with a handful of men.” The British attaché to the Russian army, General Sir Robert Wilson, records it as “a combat of giants.” Ney gives orders to fight until nightfall.
The Marshal succumbs to a flash of rage and doubt when he grasps the truth in what the Russians have said. He and his corps are being sacrificed. He calls Napoleon a bastard for abandoning them while making good his escape. “What will happen to us?” he says. “Everything is fucked!” But none of that lasts. To have any chance of escaping, the survivors must re-cross the Dnieper (the ancient Greeks called it the Borysthenes) that they crossed on a bridge into the ruined city of Smolensk yesterday. Many miles downstream now, on the river road, they are ignorant of the distance and what lay in between other than field and forest. No food, water, maps, or light at hand. “The presence of Marshal Ney was enough to reassure us,” an officer with the abandoned corps will later write. “The greater the danger, the stronger his determination, and once he made his decision he never doubted its successful outcome.” And at such a moment as this, “his face expressed neither indecision nor anxiety. All eyes were on him, but no one dared question him.”
Some 2,000 soldiers survive the day’s battle. An enemy Cossack is strutting around in Ney’s captured dress uniform somewhere in the Russian camp. With animals, supply wagons, and six limbered guns, the men of III Corps force a path through strange landscapes and thick timber, becoming more disoriented by the minute. Ney at length finds a ravine. He orders the snow cleared at the bottom and the ice broken. The direction of the water flow tells him the direction of the Dnieper.
They reach a village on the river’s bank, a village, at any rate, void of sustenance. Ney assumes Russian scouts are following and watching, and he orders a number of campfires to be lit and organizes outposts to bolster the deception. A peasant is co-opted to guide the main body of men to a place where the river ice is thickest. This brings them to another town, but, despite the intense cold, the ice here doesn’t look nearly sturdy enough. The Marshal decides to pass the night in this hamlet and make the crossing by the morning’s light. Military surgeons attend the injured and Ney catches some shuteye.
A messenger rousts him at midnight with news that the Russians have figured it out. They’re closing in. The crossing will have to be made now. The most severely injured, some three hundred of them, stay behind with the cannon and ammunition wagons, although not by choice. Men slide down the steep bank as gently as possible, distrustful of the ice—as well they should be. Leaders step out over the river and advance with caution, sounding the ice with their musket butts. Loud cracks answer every step. On the opposite side, twelve vertical feet of mud awaits, a pathway to the top that will grow slicker with each attempt to scale it. A few of the lighter carts get across and are pulled up the bank with much effort, but they weaken the ice en route. A wagonload of the injured is too heavy and all aboard perish. Horses and soldiers begin breaching all round; men cry out for help. Help is not possible, and the river takes its toll in lives. The fear of Russian retribution compels men unable to walk to drag themselves across on their knees. At this moment, back in Smolensk, the Russians are incinerating the hospitals and the people inside. Anyone left behind, particularly those of low rank, can expect the same. The remaining cavalry is forced to search for a stronger crossing. Hours tick away, but the cavalry at length shows up. All who’ve survived to see the opposite bank begin the 45-mile march to the city of Orsha, a depot Napoleon organized months ago. He and the rest of the army will be waiting there, the rear guard assumes.
The sun rises and the living skeleton of III Corps passes through a village. Here they surprise several sleeping Cossacks, who become their prisoners. Come noon, another berg. The denizens here have fled this time to leave behind a bounty of food and drink. The revelry is cut short, however, when the call to arms is sent up—a response to Cossack squadrons on the approach. The troops form a column and resume the march, exchanging fire with the Cossack cavalry, who now bring up guns on sledges. The French survive reasonably well keeping to the thick vegetation along the Dnieper’s bank and putting together a makeshift fortress that no Cossacks dare breach. As has become the custom, the fight goes on until nightfall. Ney declares that anybody who gets through this will prove “they have their balls hung by steel wire.”
By now the Cossacks have infiltrated the woods flanking the river. Ney orders the remnants of two line regiments under General Henin to remove them. This they do, but the forest is dense enough to scatter the column in the darkness. Enemy fire comes from several directions, and, as must be, the wounded are left to their fates. A sergeant passes his pack to a comrade who, unlike himself, will be able to use it. A wave of fear sweeps over the lost unit. Edge becomes panic. Fellow soldiers call out for help after taking shrapnel, but surely they understand there will be none. Each man imagines he will be next, or he strives for mental diversion to sustain him until the danger has passed. A few stalwarts put their wit and courage on display for the benefit of all. An officer, no less, laments aloud over what he sees as an imminent surrender; another scolds and berates him, tells him to shut his fucking mouth. Vive l’Empereur!
Ragged, depleted soldiers with boots full of swamp-water stumble into deep ravines from which a doomed few are unable to extricate themselves. Enemy cannon-trajectories follow the march, follow it across encrusted streams and stifling scrub, over knee-deep dirty-white plains and slippery berms. The night fills with bloody spray, with ghosts. Artillery splits trees…and severs limbs. These warriors, terrified as they may be, break ranks only for eternal sleep. The officers by and large have done their duty.
Relief—of the mental variety if nothing else. The long lost Dnieper comes into view. This is the path to Orsha, to Napoleon. General Henin keeps the march as close as possible to the river so the Cossacks can’t outflank. He says nothing when a Russian shell sends a casing fragment into his gut; continues, instead, to command with a full throat. Whose campfires are those in the distance, he wonders. Ney. The corps is reunited but Ney has been breaking camp. The lost regiment is not allowed to rest–not an option if they wish to live. The main body, too, has had its own troubles. A Russian officer of considerable rank rode into earshot earlier and demanded a surrender, only to hear from a French general that Frenchmen don’t know that word. And the night is a long one. The march continues with a merciless exchange of fire, men dropping along the way. The following afternoon finds the dwindling corps bankrupt of ammunition. Few muskets are left as it is, and anyway it’s so miserably cold that no one can hold a firearm in his hands. Still, Ney forms his armed men into two ranks and angles for the greatest effect by placing the unarmed men behind them. Cossacks charge, screaming “Hurrah! (meaning death),” only to reverse their impetus, as is their wont, when the French weapons are pointed in their direction, unloaded as they may be. Cossacks stick out their tongues before turning around, though, a gesture equivalent to the French middle finger or bras d’honneur if perhaps a grade less sophisticated. The march resumes while the Cossacks stay to the front at a useless distance. Marshal Ney asks another officer his thoughts. What can be said other than to point out the obvious, that their position is not brilliant and more cartridges are needed? “True, but it’s here we must know how to sell ourselves dearly,” Ney says.
At nightfall, he has campfires lit at a distance from the Russians, but orders all units to be ready to move at nine o’clock. In the meantime, another Russian flag of truce appears. The Russian general is demanding Ney’s surrender. Surprise. 100,000 troops have him circled. It’s all up with III Corps. Ney sends the messenger back with the news that a Marshal of France never surrenders. The next Russian spokesmen to show up with the same demand is arrested. Ney insists he see for himself how the French surrender. Predictably, a third messenger comes to retrieve his comrade. He too is treated to a stay in the Gallic camp. But while the Marshal is telling him so, the Russian is casting glances in all directions. Ney is plenty annoyed and has him blindfolded; makes him knock it off. The man whines and Ney orders everyone to fall in quietly, to march in close formation without speaking. They pass through the Russian camp, and the Russians fail to even notice them until it’s too late to make Ney regret his arrogance. Instead, they’re left to content themselves with the capture and slow murder of a few straggling injured.
Until daybreak. The Cossacks ride across an open field with sledge-mounted guns. Ney draws his men into square formation and pushes on under fire. A trifling number of French sharpshooters with cartridges torment the enemy as they can, but the incoming artillery is intense and the French are several times on the verge of breaking ranks and surrendering. By virtue of Ney’s unruffled presence is the square maintained until they gain high ground in front of a village. Here the Marshal harangues about dying for France before he positions his two divisions to make a stand. Again and again the Russians attack, but the French repulse them each time. Things come to a point where the Russian commander tires of this determination
that continues to embarrass him and his forces. During the resulting lull, exhausted French soldiers take refuge in the village’s houses. Ney has no choice but to set fire to the town in order to force his men to fall in and pick up the march. And once again, during the night, the Marshal leads them through Russian lines unmolested—all four or five hundred of them.
Napoleon has been awaiting any word of his missing Marshal for days. He orders various scouts on missions to find out what they can. The Emperor would relinquish all 300 million francs in the Tuilleries’ treasury to get Ney back, he declares. But the main Russian forces are closing in. At midnight tonight, he has decided, he will accept the fate of his friend and move on. He’s unaware Ney has sent an officer ahead to get word to him of the rear guard’s escape. That word flashes via couriers through the remnants of the Grande Armee until it reaches l’Empereur. Ney is so revered in this military that a sense of rapture rolls through the ranks and sets off a night of rejoicing among men who will never see home again. High-ranking officers burst into tears at the news. Corks are popped, backs are slapped.
But reality is waiting with teeth bared come morning. Marshal Ney reorganizes and commands the rear guard the rest of the murderous way through Lithuania, holding off the enemy under conditions a preponderance of us could not endure even with an escort and an order of safe passage. The soldiers and civilians who ultimately survive Napoleon’s empire-ending misadventure likely owe their lives to Marshal Ney.
The duchesse d’Angeloume, daughter of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, has been the driving force behind Ney’s execution. Both her parents were beheaded, her brother left to his death in prison, by the revolutionaries some two decades ago. To her, Napoleon represents those regicides. Not that he had a thing to do with any of it, but he was the ultimate product of the Revolution and the chief impediment to the restoration of Bourbon rule. Her family is restored to the French crown in the form of her uncle, Louis XVIII, when Napoleon abdicates. Ney finds favor with this new monarch, and is given a military unit to command. But in March of 1815, the restive Napoleon returns from exile in Elba, full-on ready to make things happen one more time. Ney, calling Napoleon a “wild dog” among a number of other choice epithets, insisting he’ll bring Bonaparte back in an iron cage, is sent to arrest him. But that’s not exactly how it unfolds.
Napoleon Bonaparte’s charisma and sense of self-worth are so off-the-charts overpowering that with a glance and a few words he can cast his spell on a man like Marshal Ney. This is incredible. Ney hated the man’s guts. (The video linked above is probably a reasonable representation of one of history’s true turning points, where testosterone, dripping from the atmosphere like syrup from a burlap bag, decides the course of the future.) Instead of arresting the little usurper, maybe getting in some payback for that abandonment-in-Russia thing, the Marshal ceremoniously relinquishes his sword to his superior and joins him in yet another overthrow of the Bourbon monarchy. A hundred days later, though…Waterloo. Ney’s as much as Bonaparte’s. The Bourbon king returns to the throne of France, whereupon his niece and her Royalist allies press him to punish Ney most capitally. True, Ney committed a treasonous act against the crown, but no one believes it was premeditated. He was simply incapable of resisting Napoleon’s magic—he and tens of thousands of others. Louis is in the unenviable position of having to bring a favorite of the French people—a near-mythological figure—to trial. Ney is given a passport to leave the country, but his effort to take advantage of the opportunity is feeble and unavailing. The Marshal, then, is arrested. After the King experiences a bit of trouble collecting a willing jury, a tendentious pool of arbiters is assembled and they condemn Ney to death. Effective immediately.
The Duchess later in life reads the story above, or a similar version of it, rather, and expresses her regret. Had she known, she admits, she never would’ve handled things so.