Michel Ney was born on January 10, 1769 in Saarlouis, Saarland, Germany. The son of a master cooper who had high ambitions for his son, Ney finished college and further education without distinction and eventually joined a regiment of hussars garrisoned in Metz (East of France) in 1787.
A non-commissioned officer at the dawn of the Revolution, he was made Lieutenant of the Rhine Army in 1792, Captain two years later and Brigadier General in August 1796 after the fall of Forscheim. Victory at Mannheim made him a général de division (Major General) in March 1799.
He became provisional Commander of the Army of the Rhine and managed to prevent the forces of Archduke Charles of Austria from crossing that river. Without these reinforcements, the troupes commanded by the Russian Souvorov were handily defeated at Zurich by André Masséna in September 1799.
The welcome he received from the First Consul, Napoleon Bonaparte, at their first meeting upon his return to Paris dispelled Ney's apprehensions about a coup d'état. He further strengthened his ties to the Bonapartes by marrying a childhood friend of Hortense de Beauharnais, Aglaé Auguié.
His career continued with an important diplomatic and military mission to Switzerland. He was charged with implementing the Act of Mediation of 1803 to avoid a civil war in the country.
After publicly endorsing the Empire in March 1804, he was selected as one of the original Marshals of France by Napoleon I on May 19 of that year.
The campaign of 1805 brought considerable success both to the Empire and to Ney: the Battle of Elchingen (October 14, 1805) led to the Austrian surrender at Ulm and played a pivotal role in subsequent successes that culminated in victory at Austerlitz on December 2.
Michel Ney was rewarded for these feats on June 8, 1808 with the title Duc d'Elchingen (Duke of Elchingen).
Two months later he left for the Iberian Peninsula. While there, he displayed a much less praiseworthy side of his personality. His irritable and jealous temperament led him to rebuke not only his commander, General Antoine de Jomini, but also his peers, Bon-Adrien Jannot de Moncey and Jean-de-Dieu Soult, and his immediate superior in the Portuguese Army, André Masséna, whose authority he accepted with difficulty. Some poorly executed, early successes gave way to much more serious failures until the Duke of Rivoli was forced to relieve Ney of his command.
His talents were once again put to good use during the invasion of Russia. Without him, victory at the Battle of Borodino would have been impossible. But it was during the retreat that he showed the full measure of his talents. In command of the rearguard, Ney courageously and doggedly withstood the Russian attacks displaying the qualities of a hero. It was largely thanks to Ney, and the several thousand men at his disposal, that the remnants of the Grande Armée escaped complete annihilation.
Napoleon I rewarded his valour by elevating him to Prince of the Moskova on March 25, 1813.
At the conclusion of hostilities in 1814, he swiftly defected and became one of the first and most determined advocates of abdication.
Genuinely supportive of King Louis XVIII, Ney was snubbed by the court, so he departed for his estates. He only returned to the King when the Emperor landed in France, at which time he promised to "bring back the usurper in an iron cage".
However, the tactics he chose to complete his mission were ill-advised at best. On the advice of General Louis de Bourmont, the future traitor of Waterloo, a disenfranchised Michel Ney eventually embraced the Emperor's cause. A face-to-face meeting sealed their reconciliation, at least publicly: some witnesses recalled the harsh tone of the interview between the two men.
In any case, Napoleon I belatedly called upon Ney's support on June 11, 1815. The Marshal displayed little inspiration and accumulated mistake after mistake before and during the Battle of Waterloo. Once defeat became inevitable, he ostentatiously sought a soldier's death without success. In the ensuing panic, he was unable to find the Emperor. Returning to Paris, he resolved to leave the country for his own safety.
Joseph Fouché provided him with a passport and the War Minister, Louis-Nicolas Davout, signed his official leave. Nonetheless, he remained in the capital, despite knowing full well the fate that awaited him under the Restoration. Perhaps he believed himself to be protected by an article of the Convention signed by the belligerents stipulating that: "All individuals in the capital will be allowed to continue to benefit from their rights and liberties and will be protected from investigation and prosecution relating to the duties they discharged currently or previously, their conduct or their political views."
A royal decree dated July 24 established a list of traitors. Marshal Ney's name was at the top.
Arrested and brought to Paris (he arrived the day of La Bédoyère's execution), he was tried before a war tribunal. The original President, Bon-Adrien Jannot de Moncey, refused to prosecute him and was replaced by Jean-Baptiste Jourdan. The other members counted among them four Marshals - André Masséna, Adolphe Edouard Mortier and Charles Augereau - and three Generals: Maison, Claparède and Vilatte.
Since Michel Ney had been named a French Peer by Louis XVIII in 1814, he demanded, according to his right, to be judged by the Chamber of Peers after the war tribunal declared itself unable to pass judgement. The Marshal, who with his lawyers and friends feared reprisals for old grudges, celebrated when his request was granted.
The trial took place between November 21 and December 6 in five sessions. Despite the convention signed by Marshal Davout with the Allies on July 3 specifying that officers and soldiers could not be prosecuted for their conduct during the Hundred Days, Marshal Ney was condemned to death "according to military regulations" by a vote of 139 to 22. Marshals Kellermann, Marmont, Pérignon, Sérurier and Victor voted in favour of execution.
The sentence was passed at midnight without the accused. Ney was awoken at three o'clock in the morning and informed of his punishment. After his wife's visit, the Marshal made a final attempt to obtain clemency from Louis XVIII and Wellington, as the Duchess d'Angoulême had done, but this failed. His execution was to take place at nine o'clock in the morning at the Carrefour de l'Observatoire in Paris, near the Luxembourg Garden.