(October – December 1796)
Face to face with Marshal Alvinzi
Monument commemorating the Battle of Arcoles
Since the beginning of the Italian campaign, young General Napoleon Bonaparte and his army had achieved many extraordinary exploits, but these were nothing compared to what was to come. In Chapters 8 and 9, we shall witness feats that will seem impossible, unbelievable or even supernatural.
At the beginning of July 1796, the valiant armies of Sambre-et-Meuse, 80,000 men under Jourdan, and of Rhin-et-Moselle, 80,000 men under Moreau, had finally crossed the Rhine with the mission of converging on Vienna. These two armies, after some initial success, were successively beaten by the Austrians of Archduke Charles, the brother of Emperor Franz and pushed back to their point of departure on the west bank of the river. Jourdan was defeated at Wursbourg on September 3, and Moreau at Emmendingen. This serves to dramatize the high quality of the Austrian troops, adding more lustre to Napoleon’s subsequent victories.
But let us hear Napoleon’s own account of this period following his victory over Wurmser: "This success on the Rhine consoled the court at Vienna over its losses in Italy. The Austrians gave orders to assemble an army of 60,000 men, relieve Mantua, liberate Wurmser and redress the insults it had suffered. Supreme command was given to Marshall Alvinzi, and he entrusted the select Tyrolean corps with over 18,000 men to General Davidovich. The Venetian Senate secretly backed the Austrians. The court of Rome did not comply with any of the conditions of the armistice. It was jubilant when it learned of the success of the Austrians in Germany and of the small number of our forces weakened by so many sick and wounded. It instructed the priests to encourage the people to revolt and tried to persuade them of the weakness of the French and the irresistible power of the Austrians."
In spite of the enormous problems that he had to resolve every day seeing to the needs of his troops and maintaining control over the population, Napoleon also had to fight to clean up his army’s supply corps. "I am surrounded by thieves here; I have already had three commissars, two administrators and a number of officers court-martialled."
Stendhal recounts: “Napoleon, with his passionate love of France, was deeply wounded to see that it could supply him with such men, thieves and cowards in the face of danger. At the time of the retreat prior to Castiglione, one of these men deserted and covered 50 leagues (200 kilometres), only to die of fatigue when he arrived at Genoa"
On All Saints’ Day, when the cemeteries of Italy were covered in flowers, Marshal Alvinzi launched his attack, which he was convinced would allow him to annihilate this pitiful, exhausted, sick French army in just a few days. Had he not just, with Archduke Charles, crushed the five times larger force of Jourdan and Moreau? It is true that French were not at their best. The hospitals were overflowing with sick and wounded and the meager reinforcements received from Vendée were not as good as the old ones. Napoleon himself was on the brink of exhaustion as he had been working 20 hours a day for weeks on end. When not galloping on his jet-black thoroughbred Corbeau, he was meeting with Italian notables, his generals, his captains, his soldiers; he visited and comforted the wounded and the sick; he dictated directives and orders; he wrote to the Directory every day, often several times a day, to report on the developing situation, his future projections, of the threat posed by the new Austrian armies, to ask for reinforcements indispensable to the survival of the army of Italy, and thus to the survival of the Republic. He dispensed with meals in less than a quarter of an hour. He had little more on his bones than sallow, papery skin. Yet his blue eyes, sunk deep into their sockets, still shone keenly with the light of his determination and energy.
|November 1, 1796||
At Trento, Davidovich with 25,000 men, attacked the 12,000 soldiers of Vaubois, a general newly arrived from Vendée, to whom Napoleon had entrusted the defence of the eastern bank of Lake Garda. Alvinzi, who had retained command of 50,000 men, attacked further east, through the valley of La Brenta. Napoleon had less than 18,000 men to confront him. We should recall that the 7000 men of the Serurier division were maintaining the blockade of Mantua, where Wurmser was still holed up with 23,000 men.
|November 6, 1796||
Everything was going very badly for the French. Vaubois broke down under Davidovich’s pressure. His brigades retreated in disarray towards the south, giving up 70 kilometres in four days with the loss of 4000 men. They were now in the region of Rivoli, where the Adige is less than six kilometers from Lake Garda. On the other side, Massena, faced with the overwhelming numerical superiority of Alvinzi, was only able to carry out rear-guard actions and was thrown back from Bassano. Napoleon led the Augereau and Massena divisions in a ferocious counter-attack to recapture the village. He knew that he must deal Alvinzi a decisive blow to gain time and restore order to Vaubois. If he abandoned Rivoli, the way would be open for Davidovich to join up with Wurmser in Mantua. With fewer than 20,000 men, Napoleon was to find himself caught between two armies of 50,000. It seemed as though Italy was about to be lost and its army annihilated.
On the evening of November 6, parts of Alvinzi’s forces had been pushed back beyond the Brenta, but the village of Bassano had not surrendered, and thousands of white uniforms were beginning to surround the French left flank.
Let us hear Napoleon once more: “I was forced to turn back to Verona, where I barely had time to gallop on to Rivoli to help out Vaubois.” Napoleon knew that tearful, imploring language can sway recruits, but it doesn't suit soldiers, that is, men who must never avert their eyes in the face of death. He reviewed his troops on the plain of Rivoli, while the threatening enemy was already on Monte Baldo, ten kilometres to the north, and castigated them for their weakness and appealing to their sense of duty and honour, "Soldiers of the 85th and the 39th, I am not happy with you. You succumbed at the first clash. In the next few hours you will have an opportunity to show the worth of the children of the Republic and to regain all my esteem. But if you act in such a fearful, timid and cowardly fashion once more, I will inscribe on your flags that they do not belong to the army of Italy."
In the following days, 85th and the 39th divisions, which Napoleon had personally placed in advantageous defensive positions with good artillery cover, inscribed their names in the annals of glory. It was their commander in chief who had restored their nerves of steel. After delivering his harangue, he had spent several hours in the field, sharing their soup and chatting familiarly among them. Napoleon sincerely loved his soldiers, and they worshipped him.
At Vaubois, he had said: “This is not Vendée. We are not running after peasants armed with pitchforks. We have to fight one against four against one of the best armies in the world. I order you to rely more on Joubert and follow his instructions.”
|November 12, 1796||
Defeat at Caldiero
On November 10, Alvinzi arrived in sight of Verona and set up a solid position on the Heights of Caldiero, 10 kilometres east of the city. After restoring order in the Vaubois division, Napoleon launched an offensive against him: "Alvinzi was master of Tyrol and of the entire country between Brenta and Adigo. I knew that Vaubois could only hold for a few days against Davidovich, and it was vital to beat Alvinzi quickly. On the 11th, I broke through from Verona, and on the 12th, Messena seized the Heights of Caldiero, but could not hold them. The brave General Launay was taken prisoner with the greater part of his batallions. It rained in torrents and the road soon became impossible for our artillery while we were being pounded by the enemy’s own guns. I had to withdraw to Verona. Our situation had become critical."
When he spoke of a critical situation, Napoleon was employing a euphemism. In fact, the situation was desperate. He had been beaten, and he only had 13,000 discouraged men left, pinned down in Verona. The only way to save the remnants of his army was to flee as quickly as possible toward Milan and the Alps. After all it was the Directory, with their criminal disregard for his urgent requests for reinforcements, who were responsible for the disaster.
On November 14, at nightfall, the people of Verona watched the French depart for Milano and prepared to greet the Austrians.
|Nov. 15 to 17, 1796||
Victory at Arcole
Napoleon was not fleeing. He had decided to fight in the marshes of Arcole.
Stendhal: "However, instead of following the road from Peschiera to Milano, the army turned left, toward the east, following the right bank of the Adige. They arrived in Ronco before daylight. The officers and soldiers, who had traversed this terrain in the days when they had pursued Wurmser, began to guess the general's intentions. They saw that since he could not take Caldiero, he bypassed it, that with 13,000 men against 40,000 on the plain, they could do nothing. He would entice them onto the narrow roads built on dikes that ran through the vast marshland. Here, their numbers mattered less than the courage of the column leaders. Then the hope of victory stirred once more in their hearts, and each one vowed to surpass himself in carrying out such a bold and beautiful plan.
The battle was to last three days. Three days of fabulous, fantastic, epic combat. Ten times, twenty times, a hundred times, Alvinzi threw his Austrian, Croatian and Hungarian battalions against the dikes that converged on the Ronco from Caldiero and Villanova, today San Bonifacio.
Alvinzi thought that the sheer force of numbers would soon begin to tell, but he did not realize that, one-on-one, the French, their valour magnified tenfold by the pride of being soldiers of Bonaparte, were infinitely superior to his own. In battle, the victor always sustains far fewer losses than the vanquished.
In two days, on the western dike, Massena inflicted enormous losses on the Austrians. He drew back, let them become deeply committed, and suddenly returned in a furious assault that nothing could resist. Panic and disarray seized their front lines; they jumped into the swamps, and waded through the mud only to join the long column of prisoners that marched pitifully toward Milan. Massena successively threw the 18th and 32nd brigades, and then the 57th (“les Terribles”) into the fray. They all outdid themselves, so great was their desire to prove themselves the best.
On the central dike however, Augereau did not manage to cross the Arcole bridge, which would have allowed the French onto to the left bank of the Alpone to threaten Villanova. Napoleon seized a flag and rode ahead of the grenadiers and their officers but, once more, the column was broken by Austrian grapeshot. General Robert and Captain Muiron, the general’s chief aide-de-camp, were killed. General Lannes, who had not yet recovered from his earlier wound, was wounded once again; he had escaped from the hospital in Verona to rejoin the endangered army. The fighting was fiercest in the middle of the bridge, and in the tumult, Napoleon was flung into the river. Then the cry went up "the General!" The soldiers saw him, returned furiously to the attack and beat back the Austrians, just in time to stretch out their arms to help him onto the bridge and take him back into the lines. Soaked to the skin by the icy waters of the Alpone, yet remarkably imperturbable for a man who had just been staring death in the face, he gave his orders: "Guieu, take your brigade and the pontoniers and cross downstream. Then come back up the left bank and liberate that damned bridge!" The plan worked.
This is how Yves Amiot describes the scene in La Fureur de vaincre (Flammarion):
"The bleak dawn of November 16 rose over a desolate landscape, of water, mud, and reeds, and soon the battle on the two dikes resumed. It was to last all day; the French columns advanced, withdrew, then attacked once more; the artillery, used to excellent advantage, thundered constantly. Always at the gallop, Bonaparte and his horse were everywhere. He was almost overcome with fatigue, but his actions and words were always imperious. By evening, the Austrian losses were considerable; they had lost soldiers, flags, and cannons; they had lost all their vitality and their confidence in victory. These French fought like demons; nothing could break their resolve, no one would ever manage to do so."
On November 17, calculating that the Austrians had lost 20 to 25,000 men in two days, Napoleon decided to leave the marshes and attack them on the plain, one against two.
Massena, his hat on the point of his sword, led his division in a mad, glorious charge. In an instant, the 32nd, the elite of the elite, swept aside 3000 Croats who had dared to imagine they could resist it. Everywhere the Austrians were overcome by this howling whirlwind of bearded, leering phantoms, often with only one eye and one arm. For the love of their General, hundreds of wounded left the hospital to participate in the battle, following the example of Lannes. All honour to them.
"Then suddenly," Thiers reported, “the Austrian regiments broke up, scattered and fled. After 72 hours of hellish fighting, discouraged and crushed by fatigue, they ceded victory to the heroism of a few thousand men and the genius of their great commander."
Napoleon sent Kilmaine’s cavalry in pursuit of the fleeing Austrians, who abandoned several thousand more prisoners and lost a large part of their artillery and their stores. Alvinzi retreated towards the Tyrol, where it would take him several weeks to begin to recover from the appalling defeat he had suffered.
On November 18, the army returned to Verona through the Gate of Venice. The astonished inhabitants, who were expecting to see the Austrians, witnessed the awesome spectacle of the victorious French soldiers, exhausted from three days of fighting, their uniforms in ribbons, passing through the city like a whirlwind, in perfect order and in double time, and out through the Gate of Milan, this time to come to the assistance of their comrades in the Vaubois division and to settle the score with Davidovich. The Austrian general put up very little resistance. He barely had time to make the acquaintance of the 32nd before being driven back, the French in hot pursuit, all the way to Rovereto and Trento, where he joined up with his superior officer Alvinzi to take stock of their common misfortune.
Napoleon set up his units in more less the same positions they had occupied prior to Alvinzi's attack and decreed a well-earned rest for everyone under his command.
Conclusions on Arcole:
Historians who claim that Bonaparte was devoured by limitless personal ambition and that even in Italy in 1796, his actions were already motivated by his desire to one day direct the affairs of France and Europe, are stupid and ridiculous. If they had ever stared death in the face on the battlefield, they would know that every soldier, whether he be the leader of an army or a simple grenadier, knows perfectly well that the sun may come up the next day for others, but not for him. His sole motivation was to do the best job he could, every day.
Those historians who claim that Napoleon's principal talent was the art of propaganda and that his legend was based on little more than this, are odious, stupid and ridiculous. His legend was not constructed of official army reports or of paintings showing him, flag in hand, on the Arcole bridge. It was the fact that his soldiers actually saw him with the flag in his hand, it is the fact that his soldiers saw him in the icy water at Alpone, it is the fact they were there to snatch him from the jaws of death, it is the fact that he led them to victory even when the chances appeared to be nil that made him a legendary hero. Soldiers are not easy to fool, and they know perfectly well how to recount what they've experienced. Their testimony spread like wildfire throughout France, throughout Europe, and throughout the world.