Tag Archives: Marshal Ney

Corsica The Man

Napoleon Bonaparte, A True Corsican?

Above the entrance to the Bonaparte house in Ajaccio, Corsica

A belated happy birthday to Napoleon Bonaparte who was born 246 years ago, on August 15, 1769, in this house on the island of Corsica.

 

corsica_mapThat lightly-populated island’s strategic position in the Mediterranean led to its repeated conquest and colonization, starting with the Phoenicians in 565 BCE. Over the next two millennia, Romans, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Saracens, Barbary pirates, Greeks, and various Italians followed.

In a fascinating coincidence of history, one year before Napoleon’s birth, the Treaty of Versailles ended four hundred years of Genoese rule and transferred the island to France. The Corsicans, who had waged rebellion against Genoa for decades, rose up against the invading French. Napoleon’s father, Carlo Buonaparte, numbered among the rebels. On May 8, 1769, just two months before the future French emperor was born, the Corsicans surrendered. Still, his parents named their second son Napoleon after an uncle who had died in the last major battle for Corsican independence.

Thus, with the thinnest of margins, Napoleon Bonaparte was born a French citizen. Nine years later, due to the support of Corsica’s French military governor the Comte de Marbeuf, young Napoleon entered French military school in Brienne, France. In 1785, sixteen-year-old Napoleon Bonaparte became a commissioned officer in the French Army he was later to lead into both glory and defeat.

Angry drummers during parade in Ajaccio on August 18,  2011. To celebrate the Virgin Mary, patron saint of CorsicaBut how much of his Corsican roots did Napoleon retain? The proud, rebellious Corsicans have long held a reputation for ruthless violence in the name of honor. The concept of “vendetta”—in strict definition, an honor feud between two families in which the slaying of a member of one family results in the murder of a member of the murderer’s family which in its own turn is revenged and so and on and on—comes from Corsican practices that continued into the twentieth century. Where Frenchmen might challenge you to a duel, a Corsican was more likely to slit your throat—or your brother’s—while you slept. At least that was the Corsican reputation.

As it turns out, it still is. A recent Atlantic magazine featured an article about French license plates, all of which bear a symbol indicating a region of France. Originally, the symbol on the plate was the area where the vehicle’s owner resided. In recent years, an owner has been able to choose any region they would like to display. Now there’s a huge demand for plates with the Corsican Moor’s Head, apparently because it tells other drivers that this is a vehicle owned by a tough guy, “not to be honked at, cut off, or otherwise crossed.”

By Jerry "Woody" from Edmonton, Canada [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Yet, for all Emperor Napoleon’s overvaulting ambition, for all General Napoleon’s cold-hearted ability to send troops into bloody battle, he was surprisingly forgiving on a personal level. When his wife Josephine was unfaithful, when his brothers turned on him, when his generals, friends and subordinates betrayed him, he forgave them, often multiple times for repeated offenses.

Sometimes he was being expedient to his own needs, as when he accepted Marshal Ney back to his side in 1815. On the other hand, when after his first abdication his second wife Marie Louise deserted him for another man, he refused to even acknowledge that her perfidy had happened. He could express his anger when Tsar Alexander broke a treaty or when the malicious Talleyrand maneuvered in Europe’s courts against him, but when those he held dear betrayed him, he forgave or turned his head so as not to see. How very un-Corsican.

 

Miscellany The Man

200th Anniversary of Napoleon Bonaparte’s Loss at Waterloo

 

Battle of Waterloo 1815, William Sadler II, Pyms Gallery, London

On June 18, 2015, people around the world who either admire or despise Napoleon Bonaparte will pause to remember his greatest loss, the Battle of Waterloo.

Two hundred years later, endless arguments continue. Did the French Marshal Ney betray Napoleon? Or was it Napoleon’s reluctance to send Ney reinforcements that caused the loss? Why didn’t the French general Grouchy, when he heard the distant sounds of battle, rush his troops back to the site of the fighting? Why did Napoleon attack so late in the day? Was the Emperor sick or at forty-six years old already past his prime? And which general was responsible for Napoleon’s defeat, the British general Wellington or the Prussian general von Blücher? I’ve seen people get red in the face over these and a hundred other details about the battle.

Napoleon addresses guard at WaterlooA few things are clear. The Allied victory was, as Wellington himself said, “a near-run thing.” The count of dead and wounded for that one battle amounted to an astonishing 47,000 men, about 55% of them on the French side. And in the end, when a valiant charge of Napoleon’s revered Imperial Guard failed, the French army fled in disorder, as word spread that “La Garde recule! Sauve qui peut!” (The Guard is retreating! Every man for himself!)

Certainly, the Battle of Waterloo destroyed any prospect of Napoleon Bonaparte’s remaining ruler of France. While his enemies, if defeated, could have gone on to fight more battles, Napoleon’s position was so precarious and France so weak that one great loss was enough to bring him down for good. Thus, the name Waterloo became synonymous with resounding defeat.

A few months ago, I was amused to hear the battle mentioned at (of all places) the Kennedy Center during a revival of Lerner & Loewe’s musical, Gigi. In the play, a young Gigi sings Say a Prayer for Me as she prepares to go out on her first assignation with the man she loves. Here’s a charming rendition by Julie Andrews who was originally going to sing the song in My Fair Lady.



In case, you missed them, the lyrics are:

On to your Waterloo, whispers my heart

Pray I’ll be Wellington, not Bonaparte

 

 

Miscellany Paris The Man

Poem about Napoleon’s general, Marshal Michel Ney

Michel Ney, Marshal of the French Empire, by François GérardNapoleon’s general, and later Marshal of the Empire, Michel Ney was born the son of a cooper (a wooden-barrel maker). Originally a non-commissioned officer, Ney rose through the ranks due to his courageous leadership in battle. Tradition holds that he was the last Frenchman to leave Russian soil during the disastrous retreat from Moscow in 1812. For that, Napoleon nicknamed him “the bravest of the brave.” 

His performance in subsequent years is more ambiguous. In 1814, he helped force Napoleon’s first abdication, telling the Emperor that the Army wanted peace and would obey its chiefs rather than the Emperor himself. Napoleon then accepted exile on Elba, and the Bourbon dynasty was restored to power. The new king, Louis XVIII, rewarded Ney with honors.

Ten months later, Napoleon escaped his exile and started his 500-mile march to Paris, gathering soldiers along the way. Ney bragged to Louis XVIII that he would bring “Napoleon to Paris in a iron cage.” However, when Ney encountered Napoleon, Ney’s soldiers deserted him to join the Emperor’s forces. Napoleon, in his typical fashion, forgave Ney and reinstated him as a Marshal of his army.

The Battle of Waterloo took place three months later. Ney is often blamed for Napoleon’s defeat on that day. It’s true that Ney and his forces were not where Napoleon had designated they should be and that Ney diverted other French troops away from the main fighting. That might have been enough to tip the balance against the French in a battle even Wellington called a “near-run thing.”

If Ney contributed to Napoleon’s loss at Waterloo, he ended up paying the ultimate price, as you shall see at the conclusion of this poem:

            To a Young Girl in Washington Square Park*

                        A poem by George Green

 

            Lolling beneath the Garibaldi statue,

            you look like some pre-Raphaelite Cordelia,

            except you’re tarted up for rock and roll.

            Your beauty is the barrel you’ll go over

 

           Lord Byron's Foot by George Green the falls in, and you’re copping now, I see—

            I hope it’s only pot. Oh I would row

            you back to Astolat, and swiftly too,

            but that’s just not my job. You’re on your own,

 

            And while you gambol off to get your buzz,

            the statue tries to pull its damaged sword,

            snapped off by hooligans eons ago.

            That sword reminds me now of Marshal Ney,

 

            who charged at Waterloo with half a saber

            brandished above his powder-blackened head.

            Five horses fell from under him, before,

            unscathed, he made it out, at last, on foot,

 

            only to find disaster on the roads,

            and gallantry in short supply; though he

            would tramp along, apparently unshaken,

            to Paris and a Bourbon firing squad.

  

*Copyright 2012 by George Green. Reproduced with permission, from Mr Green’s poetry volume, Lord Byron’s Foot, published by St Augustine Press: www.staugustine.net. I highly recommend the book.

Copyright © 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 Margaret Rodenberg