Distiguished by his red hair, fiery temper and combat bravery, Ney was fellow Gascon Murat's only serious rival as the most dashing of Napoleon's marshals. He joined the royal French hussars in 1787, and was an NCO in Flanders during the opening actions against the First Coalition in 1792. Commissioned in October of that year, and transferred to the Rhine in 1794, he first came to wider notice at Altenkirchen in June 1796. He was promoted brigadier-general after the victory at Forcheim in August, and presaged future glories with an exemplary rearguard action at Amberg.
Briefly an Austrian prisoner of war in 1797, he began the war against the Second Coalition under Bernadotte on the Rhine, achieving divisional rank in March 1800. Transferred to the Swiss front under Masséna, he was seriously wounded at Frauenfeld in May, and returned to the Rhine on his recovery, fighting at Hohenlinden in December. Given peacetime commands in Switzerland, and with the invasion force for England, he was appointed marshal in May 1804.
Ney led the Grande Armée's VI Corps against the Third Coalition in 1805. After the débâcle of Albeck in October, which triggered a lifelong feud with Murat, he redeemed himself with a brilliant performance at Elchingen a few days later, but missed the triumph at Austerlitz after leading his corps into the Tyrol to block Archduke John's Austrian army. He played a full part in victory in the Autumn of 1806. Though rebuked for a premature attack at Jena, he led the siege of Magdeburg in its aftermath, and fought in all the major actions against the Russians in 1807, performing with great enterprise at Friedland in June.
Created Duke of Elchingen in June 1808, he joined the attempt conquest of Spain two months later, but suffered a temporary eclipse in the Peninsular theatre. Criticized by Napoleon for a leisurely performance at Tudela in November 1808, he took part in the failed pursuit of Moore's British force to Corunna in early 1809, and was Masséna's quarrelsome second in command at the Torres Vedras lines in autumn 1810. Dismissed from his post during the retreat from Portugal late that year, he saw no further action until 1812.
Ney's experience during the Russian campaign restored his reputation, but eroded many of the qualities that made him a brilliant battle-field commander. He fought at the first Battle of Krasnoe, was wounded at Smolensk, and was in the thick of the action at Borodino, but his corps's greatest contribution was made during the retreat from Moscow. Taking over rearguard duties after the Battles of Fiodoroivskoy in early November, it was cut off from the main army after the second Krasnoe battle, but Ney led a few survivors across the Dnieper at Gusinoe to rejoin Napoleon, earning the emperor's praise as "the bravest of the brave". He lived up to the name during the last weeks of the year, performing wonders in appalling conditions to protect a shrinking army's retreat across the Beresina. Reputedly the last imperial soldier to leave Russia, he was honoured as Prince of Moscowa in March 1813.
Like many French officers, Ney never fully recovered from the horrors of 1812. He played a prominent role in the 1813 campaign for Germany, but displayed signs of uncertainty at Bautzen in May, and blundered to defeat at Dennewitz in September. The defection of Baron Jomini deprived Ney of his principal strategic adviser from August, and exposed his own analytical limitations, but he retained Napoleon's trust and was given command of the Young Guard for the defence of France. Close by Napoleon's side throughout the campaign, he atoned for serious errors at Craonne with another vital rearguard success at Laon, but his morale had collapsed by late March. He led officers urging Napoleon to step down in early April, and headed the deputation sent to Paris with the offer of abdication, becoming royal cavalry C-in-C in its aftermath.
Ney announced his loyalty to the crown when Napoleon returned from Elba in spring 1815, and was sent to arrest him, but he and his troops defected amid emotional scenes at Auxerre on 14 March. His appointment to command the French left wing during the Hundred Days campaign was something of a disaster. He was outmanoeuvred and outwitted at Quatre Bras, his performance in operational control of the battlefield contributing to final defeat at Waterloo. Ney's subsequent fate was a matter of intense controversy throughout contemporary Europe.
Arrested for treason by the royal government on 3 August 1815, he could not be tried until sufficient senior officers had been found willing to judge one of the empire's most popular military figures. Eventually on trial from 4 to 6 December, he was shot next day.
Source: Dictionary of the Napoleonic Wars, ed. S. Pope, London: Collins, 1999