New York’s Fire Department can trace their Bravest
nickname back to French military commander Michel Ney, the ‘bravest of the brave’
New York City’s smoke-eaters have earned their nickname a thousand times over since it was first applied to them in the late 1800s — but its origins may have more to do with the military than firefighting.
According to historians, the “bravest of the brave” was a Frenchman named Michel Ney, a fearsome and formidable foe on the battlefield who waged war alongside Napoleon from 1803 to 1815, during the Napoleonic Wars.
Ney was known to his troops as “Le Rougeaud,” or the red-faced one. But after one particularly daunting stretch of warfare, the Emperor dubbed him “le brave des braves.”
It might never have been attached to the FDNY if it weren’t for their brothers in blue, the NYPD.
As early as 1874, the city’s police force was being referred to as the “Finest,” according to historian and author Barry Popik.
The nickname is most commonly traced to Police Chief George Matsell, who once declared that he would make “the finest police force in the world.”
By the early 1880s, a play about cops titled “One of the Finest” cemented the name, Popik said. Not to be outdone, firefighters soon began referring to some of their most heralded members as the “Bravest.”
In 1862 a newspaper article saluted Capt. John Downey as “the bravest of the brave.”
In 1886, a play appeared about city firemen called “One of the Bravest” — which pretty much sealed it in the eyes of the public and among the rank-and-file.
Before long, city dwellers were lining up to buy tickets to what became annual baseball games between the “Finest” and the “Bravest,” Popik said.