This post concerns itself with one of Napoleon’s most famous Marshals. Michel Ney, Duke of Elchingen, Prince of the Moskova. There is a figure depicting Ney on the website, dressed as he would have been during the infamous Retreat from Russia in 1812. But this blog post concerns itself with the Marshals conduct during the campaign of Waterloo and particularly during the battle itself. Apologists for the French defeat on June 18th 1815 have long pointed their accusing fingers at Ney for the way in which he led the disastrous cavalry attacks which, instead of destroying Wellington’s infantry, ruined itself.
The only true way to assess Neys behaviour is to deal with it factually, free from bias for or against the Marshal or his Master, the Emperor Napoleon. As in all historical discussions, it is absolutely vital to avoid favoritism and that is what I intend to do here, thus leaving you, the reader to decide for yourself whether Ney was totally or partially to blame for the debacle that occurred on the fatal slopes just in front of the village of Waterloo.
To begin at the beginning is the best place to start, and so we must go to June 15th 1815 and learn that Napoleon, having divided his army of 120,000 into two wings and a centre, a classic tactic of his, orders Ney to march his left wing of the army north, towards Brussels, during which movement the Emperor expected his Marshal to find Wellington. Marshal Grouchy and the right wing, would move north eastwards and prevent the Dukes Prussian allies from forming a juncture with him. The whole French plan was to find and defeat Wellington, whilst Grouchy held off Blucher and his Prussians, allowing Napoleon and the centre to come to Ney’s assistance before then combining with the right wing to destroy Blucher.
And the plan worked wonderfully for the French. An enemy was found, and Napoleon did indeed combine his centre with a wing to attack the opposing force, but, crucially it was Grouchy who found the Prussians ranged for battle and not Ney who found their allies!
However, this was fine, or so it should have been, for the whole point of the two wings and central reserve was so that if an enemy other than the one envisaged, in this case Blucher and not Wellington was found, the plan switched from Ney being aggressive and Grouchy being the holding wing, to the other way around, whilst Napoleon rushed to join his right wing instead of his left. And thus it happened on the 16th of June as battle was given at Ligny in Belgium between Prussia and France.
But now comes the first ‘fog of war’, when something unexpected happens to throw a cog in the wheels. It was of great importance that Marshal Ney be informed that his is now the holding force, to strive at all costs to keep Wellington away from Blucher until the Prussians are beaten and the combined French army can attack the British and their allies. But the French staff work failed badly. Why is a question for another time, but Marshal Soult, Napoleon’s chief of the staff did not alert Marshal Ney to this change in plan, and thus he delayed his attack on the vital crossroads at Quatre Bras as he waited for his Emperor to come up and support him. Ney cannot be condemned for this, although his detractors often overlook this point.
Once the Prussians were defeated at Ligny after a fierce fight and had fled the field, Napoleon moved westwards to support Ney in what the Emperor assumed was his desperate struggle against Wellington. Indeed the Marshal had attacked the crossroads on the 16th as Ligny raged, but only slowly, probing forward, convinced due to the importance of Quatre Bras, that as in the Peninsular wars the Duke had hidden his troops behind ridges and woods and buildings and thus although his scouts told him they could only see less than ten thousand of the enemy, Ney was alert to yet more trickery. By the 17th Wellington and his allies had arrived in ever increasing numbers and Ney found it impossible to wrestle control of Quatre Bras from the enemy without the support he needed. Thus it was that when Napoleon appeared at the crossroads he was astonished to find most of the French soldiers preparing a meal. Flying into a temper the Emperor demanded to know why Ney was not attacking with all his might and had not already taken over the place? At the same time as Wellington learnt of Bluchers defeat and ordered a retreat towards Waterloo and his eternal place in history, Napoleon launched everything he had in an effort to prevent his adversary from escaping.
“Everything I’ve gained in this campaign you have lost”, complained the Emperor to a chastised Ney, who then, stung by the rebuke threw himself into the attack at the head of his soldiers.
But even the weather turned towards the allied cause as the heavens opened and rain poured down as the French were in the very act of gaining the victory. Roads and fields turned into quagmires, cannons and wagons could only move at a snail’s pace and the allies disappeared into the enveloping darkness of night, and safety.
So we come to the great battle of Waterloo on Sunday 18th June, 1815. Napoleon, convinced that the Prussians are no longer a threat to him, delayed the start of the conflict until eleven thirty-five in the morning, so, it is said, to allow the ground to dry in order that his cannons might move easier over the fields, plus many French regiments had not arrived at Waterloo until late in the morning and therefore were not in their allotted places. But whatever the reason, the delay was to have a huge impact as the day unfolded.
The battle began with an assault on Hougoumont Chateau on the extreme French left defended by the Coldstream Guards and their German allies. As this fight continued, Napoleon attacked the allied centre left with General d’Erlon’s corps in three massive columns. Counter attacked by the Union Brigade, including the famous Scots Greys, this move failed, although the fate of the British Heavy Cavalry was sealed when, losing control of their troopers, their commanders could only watch as the magnificent horsemen were dashed to pieces before Napoleon’s massed artillery batteries and then smashed by his own cavalry.
It was just after this that Ney’s reputation was forever besmirched by his own handling of the French cavalry attacks on Wellington’s unbroken infantry.
Simply put, the Marshal charged at least five, perhaps as many as eight, times with growing desperation, uphill, with unsupported squadrons of mounted soldiers against a stationary and resolute foe until, blown and ruined as a fighting force, the flower of French cavalry had been lost.
But, as always, there is more to this momentous event than this simple tale. Several questions about the assaults remain unanswered even to this day, while others, although fact, can perhaps be given a form of explanation that, whilst not altogether excusing Ney’s seemingly erratic behaviour, might at least temper opinions of it.
It will be remembered that the Emperor had reprimanded Ney for his lack of zeal at Quatre Bras and this rebuke was to be the first of a number of things which stung him into action as the massed cavalry attacks began.
Marshal Ney was the French field commander at Waterloo, with seniority over all other battlefield Generals present. Some time after 3.30pm he saw the allied infantry upon the ridge before him disappear. Literally, he could see them no more. Aides and others reported that Wellington’s troops were retreating. One of the reasons they may have thought this is because hundreds of wounded men were being ‘helped’ from the scene of the fighting by comrades, eager to gain a little respite from the constant French artillery bombardments and many wagons were moving to the rear. Whatever the case, Ney believed he was witnessing a general retreat by the enemy and as expected, elected to pursue it off the field, thus hopefully changing a retreat into a rout. Such a tactic was a standard procedure.
Ney rode to General Milhaud and ordered him to prepare to send his Cuirassiers forward. Now comes the first ‘clog’ in the plan. Seeing this movement, General Delort, on his own authority, ordered his division of Cuirassiers to join in. This doubled the size of the attack initially planned.
Then came ‘clog in the works’ number two. There is is a fact that is overlooked by many historians and authors but one which would have had a massive effect on Ney as he began to lead his formations forward. Sitting slightly behind and to the left of where the Cuirassier squadrons stood, were the cavalry of the Imperial Guard. Famous all across Europe for their battle honours, these were the finest horse troops Napoleon commanded. Solid ranks of mounted Grenadiers, Chasseurs, Empress Dragoons, plus Polish and Dutch Lancers that were under the command of the Emperor himself. No one could order these formations to move, let alone attack, except Napoleon. They were, like their foot guard counterparts, the ultimate Imperial forces and the Emperor protected them as his last reserve or best counter attack. But, as Marshal Ney looked left and right at his Cuirassiers, he saw to his delight that the Guard cavalry formations were moving to support him. There can be absolutely no doubt that Ney could only have understood this to mean that the Emperor, high up on the French side of the battlefield, had seen his, Ney’s, planned attack, and agreed with it. So, this man named ‘The Bravest of the Brave’ after his Russian Retreat heroics, would have believed that his decision to pursue a retreating Wellington was in accord with, and agreed by, his Emperor. How proud must he have been as he led these glorious soldiers forward!
But, Napoleon had not ordered the Guard to leave their positions and had not seen an allied retreat, indeed from Ronsomme, where his HQ was situated, the Emperor could clearly see no such allied movement. Why the Guard supported Ney has never been properly explained to this day. The most obvious solution to the puzzle seems to be that their own commanders, seeing what Ney saw, an abandoned allied ridge, also believed that Wellington was attempting to flee and decided, without Imperial orders, to partake of the glory. Whatever the cause of their decision, to Ney it could only have meant one thing, he was doing what Napoleon wanted him to do.
So up they pounded, moving closer together so as to avoid the fire from Hougoumont and La Haie St farm and crossed the crest of the ridge to find………. a chequer board of allied infantry squares standing solidly against their charge. Providing no horse artillery and infantry support of his own, Ney could only ride as furiously around the squares as his troopers were forced to and then go back down the slope again. During this and the other attacks all the officers and troopers in the cavalry appeared to be overcome by a collective ‘madness’. Every time they rode towards the enemy artillery, the British gunners rushed back to the safety of the squares, leaving their pieces undefended. Each and every French cavalryman carried with him several small nails, or spikes, with which he could, by pulling up, simply place over the fring hole of the cannon and using his sword hilt, ram the pin down and thus ‘spike’ the gun, rendering it useless for the remainder of the battle. But each time the gunners ran back to their artillery as the French went back down the slope, they found that, in the words of Captain Mercer, whose Royal Horse Artillery battery was engaged all day, “That not one of our little girls had been molested in any way whatsoever, and opened fire once more.” Inexplicable behaviour by every French cavalryman!
It is at this point that two extremely strange things occurred. First, Napoleon, watching his cavalry charging from his position at Ronsomme, exclaimed angrily, “This is a premature movement which may well lead to fatal results” At the same time the Emperor was becoming anxious about Prussian movements on his right flank and French troops had begun to go into action against the first enemy formations in that direction.
Stopping Ney was surely the right thing to do at this time. An ADC on a good horse would have reached the Marshal within twenty to thirty minutes and the attacks could have been halted. But this was not what happened, for Napoleon, for reasons best known to himself, decided to order forward General’s Flahout’s and Kellerman’s cavalry. Kellerman asked for confirmation of this order, but before Napoleon could confirm his intentions Kellerman’s divisional Generals had already begun to advance. Next, as if to confirm the chaos of the moment, General Guyot also led the remainder of the Imperial Guard troops forward. And so it was that by five o’clock Napoleon had no reserve cavalry left as between nine and ten thousand horsemen were once more thundering, with only one battery of artillery and no infantry support, towards the unbroken allied squares. As if to demonstrate the error of not taking sufficient artillery with him, Ney saw this one horse battery create havoc within those allied formations that it could fire upon, but it was not enough, and after as many as eight charges up and down the slopes of the battlefield, the cavalry came no more. Both armies were now almost out of horse soldiers, for Uxbridge had been forced to use his light cavalry reserves to counter the French as best they could. Why Ney did not use General Reilles six thousand infantry, who were unengaged and well placed to support the charges is a mystery, but by the time he remembered them and led them forward, losing his fourth horse in the process, it was too late and the soldiers, encountering a withering fire from British infantry recoiled having lost fifteen hundred men in under ten minutes!
The rest as they say is history. Ney finally put together a combined arms assault, this time gaining the farm of La Haie at six o’clock. Seeing the true lack of troops Wellington could bring to bear against a final attack, the Marshal asked Napoleon for infantry to win the day. The Emperor, by now fully engaged with the Prussians, famously replied, “Infantry, where does he expect me to get them from, does he expect me to make them?”, and denied his subordinate’s appeals.
It was an unfortunate decision, for fate had offered one of her favourite sons a last opportunity to gain the victory, but it him passed by. One hour later, with his right flank stabilized and Wellington still at risk, Napoleon ordered his last reserves, the Grenadiers and Chasseurs of the Guard to advance against the Dukes centre.
But even as they moved forward, their solid ranks inspiring every soldier they marched past to join in behind them, masses of dark blue uniformed Prussians began to threaten them also. Reaching the top of the ridge unmolested save for allied cannon fire, the Guard, with Ney at their head, suddenly found themselves faced by fifteen hundred British Guards whom Wellington had concealed by having them lie down. Delivering volley after volley of musketry, and then being supported in the flanks by a quick movement of the 52nd Light infantry and allied artillery fire, the Guard at first halted and tried to reply, then withdrew down the slope. It is suggested that they ran, but this is unsupported by those who were there at the time. Certainly the French army collapsed as the cries of the Le Garde Recule!, rang out, but it was the three squares of Grenadiers and Chasseurs that Napoleon ordered to attempt to hold off the now furious allied advance, that enabled many of their countrymen to escape before the retreat turned into a hopeless rout!
For Ney, the fight was also over. Desperately trying to encourage as many soldiers as he could to reform and fight on, witnesses said afterwards that the Marshal seemed almost to be trying to find death in these final moments, but it was not to be, for fate had a far less dignified and tragic end awaiting arguably France’s greatest fighting warrior.
Returning to Paris, where he was arrested after the second abdication, he fell victim to the treachery of his enemies within the Marshalate and the vengeous of the returning Bourbons. He was tried for treason, found guilty and shot before a wall in the Luxembourg Gardens on December 5th, 1815. He was not allowed to wear his uniform!
Today his body lies in an impressive tomb in Pere le Chaise cemetery in Paris. lt was placed there, having been exhumed from the paupers unmarked grave he was at first laid in, by the Bourbon monarchy after the publication of the first account of the Retreat from Russia and the magnificent part played by Ney during that terrible time.
If you go to Paris you can discover the spot, now just outside the Luxembourg Gardens, where Marshal Ney was executed. It is easy to find, because standing where he breathed his last, is a truly astonishing, larger than life statue of France’s great hero, sword in hand in classic pose. And as if to confirm his courage, there are more than fifty battle and skirmish honours etched into three sides of the column.
Finally then, was Ney to blame for the loss of the French cavalry at Waterloo? Yes he should have used combined arms after his first attack proved that Wellington was not retreating, yes he was wrong to continue with what became a pointless series of assaults against an apparently unmovable enemy and yes he failed to keep control of the forces under his command as well as himself!. But given the chaos of a battlefield covered with musket and cannon smoke, which caused visibility to reduce to less than a few hundred yards at times and that he found himself at first leading formations of Guard cavalry he had not ordered to move, plus at no time were his actions stopped by the Emperor, he cannot, surely be accused of total responsibility for what took place during those fateful charges during the afternoon.
Those people who know me quite well will be aware of my admiration of the French Emperor, but l am educated enough to see his warts as well as his genius. As Commander in Chief it was Napoleon who placed the wrong men in the wrong jobs, who, having devised an astute plan of campaign, then allowed subordinate officers to interfere with and ultimately ruin it, when he should have been overlooking the thing. Certainly no Commander in Chief is expected to oversee every officer’s behaviour and conduct, but during the Waterloo campaign, one so vital to his cause, Napoleon was too lacklustre, to dismissive of his opponents and to complacent as to his own ability to face up against the man who in the Peninsular had beaten all his Marshals, the Duke of Wellington. The ultimate responsibility for the loss of the Campaign of Waterloo lies with the Emperor. Certainly he was not the Napoleon of Austerlitz, Jena, Friedland and France in the 1814 campaign, and we may well discuss this in another blog, but it is sufficient here perhaps to remember that when asked if it might not be prudent to recall Grouchy and his thirty thousand men when reports arrived early on the morning of June 18th that the Prussians were moving westwards, Napoleon retorted, “What’s the matter with you all? Is it Wellington, is it because he beat you in Spain? I tell you that Wellington is a bad General and the British are bad troops. We have ninety chances in our favour and not ten against us!”
Such thoughts and words would never have been spoken by the great commander of previous battles. But on June 18th 1815 that Napoleon was not present.