The shared tragic destiny of Michel Ney and Charles de la Bédoyère

Two sacrificial heroes of conflict

‘Though freedom’s blood thy plain bedew …


It soars and mingles in the air,

With that of lost La Bédoyère,

With that of him whose honoured grave

Contains ‘the Bravest of the Brave’. 1.

Thus wrote Byron, not long after Waterloo… already Marshal Ney was identified, even for English ears, by his nickname, while Charles de la Bédoyère’s trial and execution set the scene for the ‘White Terror’ – the French royalist reaction to the Hundred Days. Colonel Labédoyère presented his regiment to Napoleon as he came up from Elba and occupied Grenoble.

Ney, specially commissioned by the King to confront and arrest the Usurper, in fact – under pressure from Napoleon’s increasing ‘pull’ as he made for Paris – joined the Emperor with his troops. For these acts of treason, both officers were executed after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo.

In this article I will try to establish that the primary loyalty of both men was to France – the France of the Revolution. A collateral descendant of Labédoyère, I am not a historian, and I have relied heavily on Kurtz’s ‘Trial of Marshal Ney’ and Mazel’s, ‘Un héros des Vingt-Jours: le Général de La Bédoyère’ (see Sources). Although they entered Paris together alongside Napoleon, as Louis XVIII fled, the two men had little in common… they were to share a destiny.

Michel Ney well deserved the nickname ‘Bravest of the Brave’ – he had five horses shot from under him at Waterloo. Born in 1769, a man of the people, he had risen to be a first class commander, trusted by his men (who called him ‘redhead’) and his superiors. He seems to have been a man of great personal goodness and humility. At Corunna he sent a wounded British officer back home to visit his aged mother, thus earning from Wellington the following accolade: ‘How greatly Marshal Ney’s nobility of conduct is appreciated in this country’ (Kurtz, pp. 59/60).

Just before his execution he refused the ministrations of a priest, until one of his guards suggested prayer to be – in his experience – vital in facing death, and Ney made his confession (Kurtz, p.310). He was excellent in a subordinate role, but unable to make policy decisions. Who should he support in a rapid succession of governments? During the Revolution Ney made the right choices, emerging a supporter of the rising star from Corsica. In Paris in 1814, he had dithered between either staying till the bitter end (First Abdication), or welcoming the authority of the Bourbons. Too easily did he accept the assurances of Louis XVIII that the king would maintain the benefits of the Revolution and become a symbol of peace and unity for France.

Charles de la Bédoyère was a 29-year old nobleman at Waterloo as the Emperor’s A.D.C., who in 1806 had responded to Napoleon’s call to the aristocracy to join his conquering army, which would bring the benefits of the Revolution to the rest of Europe and cement it in France. Quite fearless in battle (he and another officer had scaled the walls of Ratisbon ahead of the army!), he served under Lannes in Spain and in the invasion of Russia, and received rapid promotion to colonelcy. 1813 saw his marriage to Georgine de Chastellux, of an ultra-royalist family.

While an indecisive Ney finally abandoned Napoleon to serve under the king, La Bédoyère remained loyal, after his abdication, to the ex-Emperor, and resigned the army. But, uncertain of his future he finally accepted another regiment through the influence of his in-laws.

When, in March 1815, Napoleon set foot in France from Elba, he was enthusiastically welcomed by the French people, who had felt deceived by the restoration of the monarchy. Louis XVIII was a sensible and prudent man, sincere in his acceptance of many of the changes brought about by the Revolution. But the country was being run by ultra-royalists, who wanted to turn the clock back, rather than reconcile the two Frances. When Colonel de la Bédoyère presented his regiment (7th of the Line) to Napoleon before Grenoble, he was part of a surge of support increasing by the day! The die was cast.

Michel Ney, on the other hand, soldier of the king, thought that his loyalty was watertight. But, was it? On hearing of Napoleon’s landing, he said:

“If he (Bonaparte) had not known that there was discontent in France he would never have dared to set foot on French soil”.

Ney was dispatched to Lyons, to prevent Napoleon’s further progress. With support for the king collapsing all round, the uselessness of resisting became more and more apparent to Ney, but he could have fallen back on Paris. The arrival of a draft proclamation from Bonaparte for Ney’s troops and a personal note for him from the Emperor decided this indecisive man to make for Auxerre with them … there he was to embrace the Emperor. The die was once more cast!

Three months later, Napoleon, Ney and La B­édoyère were leaving the rain-drenched field of Waterloo amid streams of fleeing soldiers. For Napoleon a second abdication … hopefully in favour of his infant son … but that was no to be! As the restored Bourbon government consolidated itself and issued the Ordonnance of 24th July, proscribing those guilty of facilitating Napoleon’s return – headed by Ney and La Bédoyère – the two were on the run! Fouché, minister of police, with the connivance of Prime-Minister Talleyrand, was arranging escape routes from France for both. This optimistic plan was to be scuppered by human nature, alas.

No one in Paris – apart from Prussian soldiers – wanted a vindictive punishment for Ney. Wellington – a key-player at this time – believed that reconciliation was essential to quench the smouldering civil war. At the same time La Bédoyère had the protection of Talleyrand through his friendship with the great man’s son, Charles de Flahaut, as well as being ‘out of sight’ with the rest of Napoleon’s army in the Loire Valley.

Ney refused the escape route, holding up in the Massif Central. He was eventually arrested, and brought back to Paris to stand trial. That very day, 19th August, Charles de la Bédoyère, was shot by firing squad. He had been ready to leave the country for America with forged papers, suitably disguised. He felt the need, however, to say goodbye to his wife and little son. Probably the most wanted man in France, he was caught – at home! The death sentence after court-martial was inevitable, and the king refused to commute it.

Few doubt that the popular Ney, had he been court-martialled, would have been spared the death sentence. Just when he could have let things run, Michel Ney insisted that he be must be tried by the House of Peers (of which he was one). Packed with ultra-royalists plus offended and jealous senior officers … the sentence was death: he was shot in the Luxembourg Gardens on 7th December 1815.

Dazzled by the glory of the legend of L’Empereur they may have been, but Ney and La Bédoyère had soon made clear to Napoleon that France (and they themselves) wanted peace and liberty (Kurtz, p.121). Bonaparte was willing to give a liberal constitution, he told Ney (Kurtz, p.133). We may condemn both for treason against the legitimate government, but we cannot condemn them for treason against France and her complex destiny. Rather their courage, united to the ideals they shared with most of the French people, contributed to that destiny over the centuries that have followed.

Although they personally shared a tragic destiny, Michel Ney and Charles de la Bédoyère were probably not even acquaintances till the Hundred Days brought them together around Napoleon. Under the third Napoleon, descendants of the two were to be united in marriage: in 1869 Napoleon Edgar Ney, the Marshal’s fourth son, married Clotilde de La Rochelambert, widow of Georges de La Bédoyère, Charles’s son. (Bédoyére, Appendice)

Wellington has been criticised for failing to save Ney from the death sentence, on the supposition (certainly possible) that his influence could have swayed the French government. It is assumed that animosity towards the Marshal persuaded him to do nothing. In a long letter written in 1849, Wellington reflected on King Louis’s personal desire as a Christian (to pardon) and his duty to ensure that treason would not be repeated:

“I might, or I might not have had great influence on the King! I did not interfere in any way! I did not consider it my duty to interfere! … I recollect to have heard of (I am not certain that I did not see) a letter from Lord Holland on the subject of the execution of Ney! In which he accused me of having permitted that he should be executed because I had not been able to get the better of him in the field in some affair in Portugal.

“There was no foundation for the supposition that such a motive could exist! There was no such affair”

(Kurtz, pp314/5)

We may, however, let Louis XVIII have the last words. To Charles’ wife, begging mercy for her husband, he said:

“Madame, never has a refusal cost me so much.” (Kurtz, p.226)

Of Ney, he said:

“Events were stronger than his soul.” (Kurtz, p.233)

Stephen de la Bédoyère, August, 2011