When eventually Ott extricated his left-hand column from the bridgehead he moved fast and effectively. He crossed the Fontanove without opposition and reached Castel Ceriolo, brushing away a few light infantry from Wattrin’s division which Lannes had succeeded in throwing into the village. Seeing that there was no French force coming from Sale, he decided to ignore his orders and swing to his right in support of the deadlocked centre column. By this time Wattrin’s main body was approaching and managed to reach Castel Ceriolo but Ott counterattacked them with such violence that they reeled back and Bonaparte was forced to send the infantry of the Consular Guard to support them.
The Guard, 1,000 strong, came up on Wattrin’s right in close columns at deploying distance covered, at sixty paces, by a screen of skirmishers. Ott sent the Lobkowitz dragoons against them but the Guard unlimbered four light guns, opened with grape and forced the cavalry to turn, whereupon two hussar regiments charged and broke them only to be repulsed in their turn by two battalions of the Spleny regiment. Supported by a battalion of Fröhlich’s regiment, the Spleny continued their advance until they came close to the Guard when an evenly balanced exchange of fire took place at close range with neither side gaining any advantage. The situation was resolved when four squadrons from the centre column charged on to the Guard from the rear, taking their guns and forcing them back. With Monnier’s division still not effectively in action, the French right was now in a desperate state and, almost simultaneously, Marengo fell.
The village was in the charge of Rivaud, one of Chambarlhac’s brigadiers, who had two battalions (1/ and 2/43me) in the houses and two more in support:
At 1 o’clock I went to the help of the village with the 3rd battalions of both the 43me and the 96me and pushed my left forward against the enemy. I was immediately charged by 3,000 grenadiers. We halted their attack with well sustained platoon fire so that they retreated. Fresh troops came at us again but we stopped this attack also and tried to advance but we were halted after ten paces by a deep ditch [Fontanove] and there followed an exchange of volleys, lasting a long quarter of an hour, at point blank range. Men fell like hail on both sides. Half my line were down and every mounted man in the brigade was killed or wounded. I received a grapeshot in the thigh.
This gallant defence could not last. Some men of the Archduke Joseph’s regiment managed to secure a foothold on the east bank of the Fontanove and, supported by a shower of grape, the pioneers managed to put footbridges across. Five grenadier battalions poured across and struck at the remnants of Victor’s men. With Ott pressing in from the north and O’Reilly squeezing men past Stortigliano, the French must either retreat or be surrounded. The infantry of the centre and left gave way in some disorder, shielded by Kellermann’s cavalry. They were halted 7 kilometres in the rear, in front of San Giuliano and formed astride the road with Kellermann’s dragoons on their left and Champeaux’s hussars on their right linking them, tenuously, with Lannes and the remains of Wattrin’s division, who, facing almost due south, tried in their turn to keep in touch with the Consular Guard and Monnier’s belated division which was striving to hold its ground near Castel Ceriolo.
THE TURN OF THE FRENCH
In the respite given by this Austrian pause, the French had their first piece of good luck since the battle began. At mid-afternoon Desaix, who had ridden ahead of his troops, arrived at Bonaparte’s command post. Although his orders had told him to march to Serraville, 30 kilometres by road from San Guiliano, his move had been obstructed by the high level of the river Scrivia and at 9 am on 14 June they had only reached Rivalta where they heard the opening Austrian cannonade. Although Desaix did not, as is sometimes related, march to the sound of the guns, he halted his column and waited for further orders. These arrived before noon and he had only a 13 kilometre march to the battlefield.
Bonaparte, smiling, greeted him with, ‘Well, General, here’s a fine muddle’, to which he replied, ‘Ah, well, I have got here. My troops are fresh and, if necessary, we’ll go and get ourselves killed.’ Then, almost without reference to the First Consul, he set about making arrangements for the arrival of Boudet’s division. He turned to Marmont and asked for artillery support. ‘Before we make an attack we must have a brisk bombardment. We shall fail without it. That, General, is how battles are lost.’
Marmont replied that there were five guns still capable of firing with the troops at San Giuliano and that with five more which were just being brought up from the rear and the eight guns arriving with Boudet he would have eighteen in all. These he proposed to establish as a battery with the left-hand gun on the right of the San Giuliano road. Desaix replied ‘That’s the way, mon cher Marmont. Let us have guns and more guns and let us ensure that we make the best use of them.’
As his troops came up Boudet deployed them astride the road. To the south were the three battalions of 9me Légère with two battalions in line and the third in column on the open flank. The remainder of the division, Guénard’s brigade consisting of the 30me and 59me Ligne (each of three battalions), went to the north of the road also formed in line with a column on its outer flank. In fact, before Guénard’s brigade had finished forming, Desaix, who was much worried by the unsteadiness among Victor’s men, sent the 9me Légère forward hoping both to protect and put new heart into the men who had fought throughout the morning. In this he was successful and several of Victor’s battalions reformed but the Austrian case-shot tore great gaps in the ranks of the light infantry and Desaix ordered them back to the general line. Hardly had he done so when Bonaparte ordered the whole line forward and Desaix put himself at the head of 9me and led them against two battalions of Hungarian grenadiers.
The advance went badly. On the left, Desaix was shot through the heart and fell from his horse uttering none of the last words which history has attributed to him. Simultaneously, the 9me Légère was attacked in flank by Austrian cavalry. Guénard’s brigade came up against the three battalions of the Regiment of Wallis who proved formidable opponents. As Boudet reported:
The enemy’s resistance was terrible. It was useless to try to drive them back with musketry. Only charges with the bayonet could move them.
Marmont recalled how:
when they passed my battery I gave the order to limber up and follow them but, despite my orders, the gunners went on firing through the gaps between the battalions and I could only get them advancing one gun at a time from the right. When I reached the left of the line I found three pieces, two 8-pounders and a howitzer, served by men of the Consular Guard. I got them to move only with threats and, hardly were the horses hooked in when I saw to the half left the 30me demi-brigade flying in disorder. I ordered the three pieces back into action and had them loaded with grape but waited before firing. Fifty paces beyond the 36me there appeared through the smoke a column which I took to be French but soon realised to be Austrian. We had time to get four rounds of grape off at them from each of our three guns when Kellermann with 400 horse, the remains of his brigade, charged across my guns and into the left flank of the enemy.
François Etienne Kellermann, son of the victor of Valmy, had under command the 2me and 20me Cavalerie, some of 6me Dragons and a few rallied horsemen from other units. His orders were to support Desaix but the charge was entirely his own conception, as was his move round the rear of Boudet’s division so as to fall on the inner flank of the Austrians. Wallis’ regiment was already fighting a bitter battle against six battalions of Guénard’s brigade when a flood of heavy French cavalry plunged down on their left. A large body of Austrian cavalry on that side made no move to help them and Kellermann’s charge broke their spirit. The whole column, three battalions of Wallis’ and two of grenadiers, the remains of 3,000 men, laid down their arms and surrendered.
Melas had already left his army. He had been slightly wounded and two horses had been shot under him. It was too much for his seventy-one years. As soon as he had seen the French flying in confusion from Marengo he had handed command of the pursuit over to Kaim and retired to Alessandria. When Kellermann’s charge broke the main column of attack, the Austrian morale gave way. Kaim tried to improvise a rearguard to cover the retreat but it melted away and the Austrian cavalry proved a broken reed. The cavalry of the Consular Guard pursued and Eugène de Beauharnais, then a captain in the Chasseurs à cheval, described the last act of the battle:
Although the ground was not in our favour as we had to cross two deep ditches, we charged a column of cavalry, which far outnumbered us, while they were deploying. We drove them down to the bridge over the Bormida, using our sabres all the way. The mêlée lasted for ten minutes and I was lucky to suffer nothing worse than two sabre cuts on my shabraque.
Ott’s undefeated column from the left had to make a halt before crossing back into Alessandria while panic-stricken fugitives from the centre column fought with each other to get into the gateway of the tête de pont. They were in no danger. The French were too exhausted to do more than reoccupy their line of that morning.
Next morning Melas, totally dispirited, signed a convention agreeing to evacuate the whole of western Italy and to withdraw his army behind the Mincio. An armistice to last until peace was concluded between France and Austria was also agreed. The Austrians had lost 9,402 men (including 2,921 prisoners), a third of the men actually engaged (excluding Nimptsch’s brigade of cavalry), together with 12 guns and a howitzer.
The French losses are much harder to assess. In his first report, Berthier, still technically commanding the Armée de Réserve, reported 600 dead, 1,500 wounded, and 900 prisoners, a total of 3,000 which he later increased to 3,900. This is a gross underestimate. The reported losses of Wattrin (2,100), Monnier (800), and the cavalry (800) alone amount to more than Berthier’s first total and it is known that 121 fell in the infantry of the Guard and 645 in four out of the six battalions of Rivaud’s brigade. To these must be added the casualties in the rest of Chambarlhac’s division and in the whole of the divisions of Gardanne and Boudet, both of which suffered heavily. The whole of the French loss can therefore scarcely be less than 7,000 and was probably more.
Nevertheless, Bonaparte had got the victory he needed. He had restored French supremacy in Italy and brought peace in sight. His own share in the victory is more dubious. As happened so often, his strategy was brilliant but his tactics mediocre. The crossing of the Alps, thus placing himself astride Melas’ communications, was superb. But once the great stroke had been made, he began to fumble. He deluded himself that Melas would do anything but what he actually did, thus depriving himself of the help of Lapoype’s division and he would have lost Desaix also had the water in the Scrivia river been normal. On the day of the battle he refused to believe that he was seriously threatened and did not set out for the scene of the fighting until it had been in progress for two hours. His handling of the battle was, in fact, little better than that of Melas, and the victory was contrived by Desaix and Kellermann. The former, having died, received a modest share of praise, the latter scarcely any. The First Consul’s dissatisfaction with his own performance is best demonstrated by the two revised versions of the history of the battle which he caused to be compiled by the Dépot de la Guerre in 1803 and 1805. Even these did not sufficiently demonstrate his skill and he was still trying to produce an acceptable version at St Helena.