Napoleonic War: The Generals (French)

Michel Ney: Duke of Elchingen- Prince of the Moskva (1769-1815)

If not the best of Napoleon’s marshals, he is the most readily remembered. Napoleon christened him ‘the bravest of the brave’, and there has been no one to question the justice of this title. He was born in Saarlouis, then French, and when later he was tried for treason he scorned to plead that he was not a Frenchman. He came of a long line of soldiers who, lacking the noble blood, carried the pike or musket rather than the sword. His father intended him for the law, a profession offering him a chance to rise in the world. But when he saw the garrison riding by, and heard some of his father’s tales, the musky atmosphere of books did not appeal. In 1788 he enlisted in the Duke of Chartres’s Regiment of Hussars.

He was strong, active, a first class shot and rider, something of a swordsman, and a pleasant, good natured man. He was always being criticized for being lax in his discipline, but was nevertheless almost certainly the greatest leader of men serving under Napoleon. From his red hair he received the soubriquet le rougeaud. His legendary courage (it was a sentence of death for a horse to carry him in battle) has tended to obscure his other great qualities, and to create the impression of a great-hearted man without must intellect. But he was no fool and could be a sound administrator. If not a great disciplinarian, he never experienced any difficulty in having his wishes carried out.

He served initially in the north with the Army of the Sambre and Meuse, receiving rapid promotion. He did not meet Napoleon until 1800. He was then appointed to command VI Corps, and his courage and solicitude for his men quickly made him their idol. His finest moment, and also the beginning of his disillusionment with his master came to him in Russia in 1812. At Borodino, Napoleon, sitting on his charger a mile behind the battle line, refused to send in the Old Guard to clinch the success. Ney saw his herculean exertions about to be wasted, and burst out, ‘ if he is no longer a general, let him go back to France and leave us to do the commanding for him’. Nevertheless, during the fearful retreat from Moscow Ney commanded the rear guard with a courage and determination that has become immortal. Napoleon drew strength from his fiery spirit and thereafter never let him stray far from his side.

Carl Johan Bernadotte: Crown Prince of Sweden (1763-1844)

He was numbered among Napoleon’s enemies in 1813, but it had not always been so. He was born in Béarn, the son of a French notary with a liking for soldiering. He enlisted in 1780 and by a careful application of his duties achieved the rank of Sergeant-Major in the Régiment Royale Marine.

He was deferential towards those likely to help him and treacherous toward those who stood in his way. He was considerate to his men and made a particular point of looking after his wounded and prisoners. Of his ability as a soldier there can be no question. He served initially with the Army of Italy in 1780, and there encountered Napoleon, who from the beginning appears to have disliked and mistrusted him.

He married Desirée-Clary, the sister-in-law of Napoleon’s brother Joseph. His first great opportunity occurred when Napoleon was in Egypt and the Abbé Sieyés approached him to lead the coup d’état against the Directory, but men of his ability were rare and Napoleon promoted him among the first flight of his Marshal’; in 1806 he made him Prince of Ponte Corvo.

Bernadotte commanded I Corps in the Grande Armée at Austerlitz (1805) and in the campaign of 1806. On the day of Jena and Auerstädt (1806) he remained between the two battlefields without intervening in either. This remarkable lack of initiative, whatever his motive, infuriated the Emperor, who came near to ordering a court-martial. Perhaps it was for the sake of Desirée, whom he himself loved, that Napoleon forbore. He was to regret his leniency. In the pursuit that followed, Bernadotte displayed considerable energy, and it was he who compelled Blücher to surrender at Schwartau. A curious episode followed. A Swedish contingent under Count Moerner had landed at Lübeck with the objective of support in the Prüssians. Bernadotte went out of his way to be pleasant to them, and permitted the grateful Swedes to depart.

During the campaign of 1807 he was wounded on two occasions and compelled to give up the command of his Corps. In 1809 he was in command of IX (Saxon) Corps which was routed at Wagram. Napoleon relieved him of his command on the spot. But if he was in disgrace with the Emperor, the Swedes still thought kindly of him, and seeking to reconquer Finland, were not unmindful of his skill on the battlefield. On 21 August 1810 their States-General elected him Crown Prince. Napoleon, albeit reluctantly, consented to his accepting. Bernadotte now became more Swedish than the Swede’s. He adjured Catholicism, and was adopted by King Charles XIII.

When in March 1812 Napoleon seized Swedish Pomerania, the Crown Prince allied himself witht eh Tsar and the following year brought Sweden in to the Sixth Coalition. His new Allies were to lean heavily on him as a strategist, although he was display no great zeal in attacking his old master. In 1814 he intrigued for the crown of French, but too many opposed him. In Sweden, however, he was more successful, and there founded a new dynasty.

Joachim Murat: King of Naples (1767-1815)

He was big, handsome Gascon who early linked his career with that of Napoleon. His horseman brought up the guns to the Tuileries for the famous ‘whiff of grapeshot’ of 1795, and in the following year he accompanied Napoleon when the latter went to command the Army of Italy. He was a vain man, a peacock who loved bright colors and astonishing uniforms, and on one occasion Napoleon compared him to the circus rider Signor Franconi. But Murat was a magnificent rider and a daring horseman who set a pattern for the French cavalryman. When young, he was a gay and attractive rogue ready for any challenge. He was quick-tempered and fast-moving, particularly where there was a chance of loot. As a cavalryman he tended to be in the lead during any advance, stripping places bare before the slower moving infantry could arrive.

He had a wonderful eye for the country and a genius for leading large scale cavalry charges. It was typical of his ostentatious, extrovert nature that he liked to a lead charge merely flourishing a whip over his head. At Jena (1806) he led the final, decisive charges in that fashion. Then in the pursuit after the battle the disputatious side of his nature came to the fore. He quarreled with Ney, claiming to have captured fortresses taken by that Marshal. He entered into a dispute with Bernadotte and complained bitterly about the conduct of Marshal Lannes. Such outbursts were typical of the man and recurred with some frequency. During the advance on Moscow in the summer of 1812 he reached such a pitch of exasperation with Marshal Davout that he had to be restrained from going after him with a sabre. Nevertheless Murat’s achievements as a commander were considerable. In 1806, after Jena, it was he who pursued the Prüssians to Prentzau and there compelled 10,000 to surrender. On the following day at Stettin, his subordinate, General Lasalle, with 5,000 horsemen, wheeled up an empty ammunition wagon opposite the town, as though it were a breaching battery, and bluffed the garrison into surrender.

Murat was the ideal beau sabreur of the cavalry, dashing, courageous, quarrelsome, hard-riding. General Savary summed him up with these words: ‘It would have been better if he had been endowed with rather less courage and rather more common sense’. When the French held Moscow, for example, Murat had his troops deployed on the Motsha River some 50 miles to the south. He established very friendly relations with the Cossacks- and was not the first to find this an unwise move. They suddenly turned on him near Vinkovo, and he had to cut his way out to rejoin the main body, about to begin the long and disastrous trek back to the Vistula and beyond.

In Russian Murat’s faith in Napoleon seems to have been shaken. In 1813 he deserted the Grande Armée for Naples, departing without permission and giving command of the army to Prince Eugène. IN 1814, under the impression that he was serving his own best interests, he deserted his old master and joined his enemies on the assurance that he could keep his kingdom. His treachery must have weighted on him. In 1815 he suddenly threw in his lot with Napoleon. To the Emperor his act in joining the Allies had been unpardonable. He contemptuously refused to give Murat a command. The wretched Murat went his own way, was defeated by the Austrians at Tolentino, and in due course was sized and executed for treason by the Allies. It was a sad end to glittering career.

Jacques Macdonald : Duke of Taranto (1765-1840)

He was the son of a Scots Joacobite exile and the only one of Napoleon’s marshals to be promoted on the battlefield itself- after Wagram (1809) Entrusted with a separate command, he was defeaded on the Katzbatch in 1813 but served with the distinction in France the following year.

Louis Nicolas Davout: Duke of Auerstädt and Prince of Eckmühl. (1770-1823)

In 1813 he retook and successfully defended Hamburg, but was unable to link with the Grande Armée, as Napoleon had hoped. During the Hundred Days he served as Minister of War.

Nicolas Charles Oudinot: Duke of Reggio (1767-1847)

He Commanded a corps in 1813 and 14. As an independent commander he was defeaded by Bernadotte’s Amry of the North at Grossbeeren. Musch scarred by combat, he sustained over 20 wounds during his erve, and retired rather than fight again in the Hundred Days.

Auguste de Marmont: Duke of Ragusa (1774-1852)

He was an artillerist, like Napoleon. He commanded a corps 1813, and in 1814 was posted with Marshal Mortier to guard the approaches to Paris. Unable to prevent the fall of the city, he was later vilified for negotiating independently with Schwarzenberg.

Nicholas Jean de Dieu Soult: Duke of Dalmatia (1769-1851)

He achieved his greatest success at Austerlitz (1805). Napoleon called him ‘le premier manoeurier d’Europe’ but in Spain he was defeated several times by the British. In 1813 he fought at Lützen and Bautzen, and in 1815 Napoleon appointed him Chief-of-Staff.


SOURCE: Napoleon: The Last Campaign 1813-15
BY: James Lawford
CONTRIBUTOR: Martin F. Elkins


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