Historians have compared the trial of Marshal Ney in 1815 to the trial of Captain Alfred Dreyfus in 1894. The author of this account of the Ney Case claims that there were:
“in French history, three State Trials that shook the country to its foundations: the trial of St. Joan of Arc in 1431, that of Marshal Ney in 1815, and the Dreyfus Affair…” (p. 13)
But other than their notoriety and military context, these cases have little in common. Dreyfus was intentionally framed for a crime someone else committed. Joan was a genuine revolutionary. Ney, on the other hand, was a victim of the complexity of French history during one of its most turbulent periods. He picked the wrong side in an internecine struggle and he paid for it with his life.
The crux of his case revolved around a decision he had to make when Napoleon’s army seemed to be defeating the forces of Louis XVIII, for whom Ney was fighting:
“He had had to choose among three courses of action: to offer battle to Napoleon with inferior force, in hostile territory; to leave for Paris in the company of those who wished to join him; or to go over to Napoleon…” (p. 128)
His decision to defect and join forces with Napoleon fit, of course, the classic definition of treason against the king and the country, despite his motives, which may have been noble or at least understandable in light of the direction in which the battle seemed to be going.
But battles often have different outcomes than wars, and we all know what happened soon thereafter at Waterloo. What many do not know is that Marshal Ney may have been responsible, at least in part, for Napoleon’s reversal of fortune at Waterloo. Ney had been placed in command of an important unit of Napoleon’s army. As the author put it:
“Historians and commentators of the battle of Waterloo may be divided into two groups, those who describe how Wellington won it and those who explain why Napoleon lost it. Here it is not proposed to follow either of these diverging courses, but only briefly to describe the part played in it by Marshal Ney…Napoleon delegated much of the tactical direction to Ney, although himself exercising ultimate control. An essential factor, therefore, on the French side was the manner and degree of co-operation between Ney and Napoleon.” (p. 173)
It was these factors that played an important role in Ney’s arrest and eventual trial.
He was initially charged before a court martial, comprised of fellow officers. The first issue that had to be resolved by the court martial was whether Ney, who was a peer of the realm could be tried by mere soldiers, who were not peers. Surprisingly, the court martial ruled itself “incompetent” to try a peer.
This ruling caused an international furor and became an issue in the peace negotiations among the European nations. A demand was made for the “sacrifice of Ney.” A trial was thus convened in the Chamber of Peers…