Marengo: 14 June 1800 Part I

Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David

Napoleon is presented the body of Desaix

Give me lucky generals.

NAPOLEON

During his voyage back to France on board Muiron, Bonaparte frequently referred to the importance of luck. No matter how strong his belief in determinism, ‘all great events hang by a hair and I believe in luck’. On the other hand, nothing should be neglected which could promote a man’s destiny. His main concern when he contemplated the situation in France was that he might be too late to take advantage of it, that ‘the fruit might be overripe’. He was going to need all the luck going. As things turned out, not only did he neglect nothing which might bolster his cause, but he had the devil’s own luck as well.

There was serious work to be done, for while Bonaparte had been in Egypt, the Directory, a government of lawyers, had fallen from favour, and every sort of intrigue was under way to bring about change. This was not to be wondered at for everything was going wrong. Bonaparte’s glorious conquests in Italy had been forfeited, the Treasury was empty, widespread disorder reflected widespread discontent. The armies, except for Masséna’s on the Frontiers of Switzerland and Brune’s in Flanders, had been defeated. The Allied campaign in the Netherlands may be summed up by saying simply that their armies had advanced in drenching rain from Den Helder to the line of the Zype Canal, where they stuck fast in the mud, while the Dutch people did not so much as lift a finger to support their supposed liberators. After much dithering and recrimination, the Allied armies withdrew and were evacuated. One more British expedition to the Netherlands had ended in failure. No wonder Macaulay condemned Pitt’s military administration as that of a mere driveller.

Despite their losses elsewhere, the French were still defying their enemies further south. The Austrians under Archduke Charles were poised to invade France by crossing the Rhine, while the hideous butcher, Suvorov, whose military doctrine was to go bull-headed at the enemy, and whom Byron called half demon and half dirt, was coming up from Italy towards Nice. Yet if either did invade, Masséna would be able to emerge from his Alpine bastion, pounce on their communications and sever them from their supply columns. There was a third threat to Masséna. Korsakov, reputed lover of Catherine the Great and a celebrated bon viveur, was commanding an Austro-Russian army at Zurich. But Masséna, undeterred by the prospect of a simultaneous attack from three sides, concentrated his force outside Zurich at the very time when the Allies did not concentrate against him. Archduke Charles took his army off towards the Netherlands; Suvorov had been slowed down by snow and harassed by French forces under Lecombe; and Korsakov had dangerously extended his position to the west of Zurich, prompting Masséna to attack him with his entire force, driving him out of Switzerland and capturing 8,000 men, guns, money and supplies. Suvorov then abandoned his offensive. Thus Masséna had plucked the flower, safety, from the nettle, danger. His cold, crafty, calculating waiting game, played with great patience and perseverance, harbouring the opportunity to pounce on vulnerability, had saved the Republic from invasion. By the time it was next threatened, Bonaparte would not only be once more in command of the army, he would be the political leader of France.

The process by which this came about was set in train by the Abbé Sieyès, one of the Government’s Directors. He hit upon the idea that he himself would be an excellent replacement for the Directory. But others would need to be similarly persuaded, among them that great survivor, Talleyrand, and the Chief of Police, Fouché. There would also have to be a soldier to wield the sword for Sieyès. At first Sieyès thought of Bernadotte, Minister of War, but he was too circumspect. Moreau might do, but he was too timid. It was, however, Moreau who made the crucial suggestion when he heard on 13 October 1799 that Bonaparte had landed at Fréjus. Bonaparte, Moreau told Sieyès, was the man to manage a coup d’état. And manage it he did.

There was a lot of preliminary manoeuvring to be done, and between 16 October and the end of that month, Josephine’s salon – Bonaparte had forgiven her dalliance with Lieutenant Hippolyte Charles and they were now on more comfortable terms – was crowded with politicians and soldiers, while her husband ruminated, gauged the temperature and formulated his plans. After deliberating for two weeks, he threw in his lot with Sieyès and Ducos, another Director, and assured himself that the support of those soldiers essential to him if it came to a fight would be forthcoming. The men who mattered – Berthier, Murat, Lannes, Marmont – had been with him in the Italian and Egyptian campaigns. All would later become Marshals of the Empire. Bonaparte also made sure of Sérurier and Moreau. He still had to get the Military Governor of Paris, Lefèbvre, on his side, but he was manipulable enough. Bluff and naïve, Lefèbvre fell for Josephine’s blandishments and Bonaparte’s smooth confidences. Bernadotte, on the other hand, continued to sit on the fence. The conspiracy would have to proceed without him. The first step was to get the soldiers into their proper positions. On 9 November Bonaparte’s supporters fastened their grip on the key places and deployed their troops in readiness. Marmont, one of Bonaparte’s oldest friends and, like him, an artilleryman, was fittingly enough in charge of the guns; Murat, one of history’s greatest cavalry leaders, was with his hussars and chasseurs at the Palais Bourbon; Lannes – who while in Egypt, not having seen his wife for more than a year, heard that she had given birth to a bouncing boy – was in command of the Tuileries; Macdonald was at Versailles; Sérurier at St-Cloud. By the end of that day all the Directors were rendered impotent and it only remained for Bonaparte to appear the following day and confront the Council of the Ancients and the Deputies at St-Cloud for the whole coup d’état to be complete.

Few things daunted Bonaparte, but one of them was a hostile mob, and this was precisely what he had to face in the Council Chamber at St-Cloud, outside Paris, on 10 November. When he addressed the Council of the Ancients, he struck quite the wrong chord, speaking to them not as the statesman they expected, but as soldier, bragging that the god of Victory and the god of Fortune marched with him. He was greeted with angry shouts. Worse was to come when he entered the Orangery to address the Five Hundred Deputies. At once he was accused of violating the law. Angry Deputies crowded round him, clawing and striking at him, shouting that he was a dictator and should be outlawed. Bonaparte was rescued by four stalwart soldiers and led outside. His brother Lucien, who was President of the Five Hundred, then made an attempt to restore order and sent an urgent note to Bonaparte telling him to act at once. After making an appeal to the soldiers – ‘I led you to victory, can I count on you?’ – powerfully reinforced by Lucien, who swore that he would run his own brother through should he jeopardize the freedom of Frenchmen, Bonaparte ordered General Leclerc, a comrade-in-arms at Toulon and husband of Bonaparte’s sister, Pauline, to clear the Orangery, together with Murat. Murat, who never stood on ceremony, acted with his characteristic blend of eloquent bravado and practical action, inviting his grenadiers to chuck the Deputies – ‘these blighters’ – out of the Orangery window. This action effectively put a stop to all opposition and early the following morning, 11 November 1799, still at the Orangery, the new Government formally took office.

There were to be three Consuls – Bonaparte, Ducos and Sieyès. They all swore their loyal service to the Republic. The principles of Liberty, Equality and the Representative System would be upheld. But none of this counted for much when about a month later Bonaparte became First Consul and virtual ruler of France. He was thirty years old. He moved to the Tuileries in February 1800, telling the ‘little Creole’, Josephine, to ‘sleep in the bed of your masters’. It would not be long, however, before he found himself at the head of the army, once more confronting the enemies of France. He would have preferred to concentrate on matters of peace, but neither Austria nor Great Britain was prepared to follow suit. That Bonaparte wished for peace was made clear by his declaration to the people on becoming First Consul that he knew they wanted peace and that the Government wanted it even more. He himself wanted to set about the gigantic task of overhauling completely the organization of France and the conduct of its affairs. He went so far as to send a message to King George III proposing a settlement and asking ‘why the two most enlightened nations of Europe should go on sacrificing their trade, their prosperity, and their domestic happiness to false ideas of grandeur?’ His own ideas of grandeur were to take huge strides in the coming years and he would create for himself a position and fame unparalleled in contemporary history. Yet it must be borne in mind that all the wars fought by him up to 1807, when he sent troops into Spain to conquer Portugal, were defensive wars against a series of coalitions, sponsored by England and joined by Russia, Austria and Prussia. And while waging these wars to preserve the integrity of France, Bonaparte was generally successful. It was only when the wars of aggression began that his game began to go wrong.

Bonaparte’s overtures to George III met with a dusty answer. George instructed his Foreign Secretary, Grenville, to write to Talleyrand and reject any idea of negotiating with the First Consul. This rejection could have been couched in firm, diplomatic and inoffensive language, but Grenville chose to employ irrational and tactless pomposity, demanding restoration of the Bourbons and a return to pre-revolutionary frontiers. It was, of course, Pitt who was the arbiter of this dismissal of Bonaparte’s peace offer, and when challenged in the House of Commons as to the purpose of continuing the war, against which there was now high feeling in the country, he justified his policy on the grounds of security. He went so far as to speak of the danger which threatened the world as being the greatest that had ever done so, one that had been resisted by the nations of Europe, and with notable success by England. Jacobinism, which had previously been embodied in the persons of Robespierre and Barras, the Terror and the Directory, had not gone away. It had now ‘been centred and condensed into one man, who was reared and nursed in its bosom, whose celebrity was gained under its auspices, who was at once child and champion of all its atrocities and horrors’. There was no security for England in making peace with Bonaparte. The prosecution of war, on the other hand, would attain security. Yet for the time being, as far as making war on land was concerned, it would have to be left to the Austrians. The irony of it all was that this brought about another triumphant victory for Bonaparte, and in spite of Nelson’s destruction of the Danish fleet at Copenhagen and the recapture of Egypt by Abercromby, England did make peace with France. But by then Pitt had ceased to be Prime Minister and Addington was in his place. How did Bonaparte set about beating the Austrians?

During the early months of 1800 the First Consul was obliged to interrupt his formidable task of organizing France’s finances, judicial system, Civil Code, religion, educational structure, its roads, ports, canals and countrywide administration, in order to raise another army to beat off enemies which were gathering again to overthrow the Revolution once and for all. France was being threatened on two fronts – from the Rhine and from Italy. Bonaparte positioned his Army of the Reserve at Dijon from where he could reinforce either front. It was to Italy that he marched for, whilst the Army of the Rhine succeeded in checking the Austrians at Biberach, south of Ulm, the position in Italy was potentially much more dangerous. It all depended on that old fox Masséna, who was defending Genoa, hemmed in by the Austrian army on land and by the British navy at sea. Masséna defied all the odds – starvation, disease, a mutinous army, a rebellious population – hanging on at all costs, for the Austrians dared not advance beyond Genoa leaving French forces, albeit weak, astride their communications. Towards the end of May 1800, Masséna heard at last that the First Consul had crossed the Great St Bernard Pass with the Reserve Army (not as depicted in David’s famous painting mounted on a full-blooded grey charger, but on a mule well behind the main body), and was in Lombardy at Marengo, positioned between Vienna and the Austrian army under Melas. Masséna could now march out of Genoa with his bedraggled remains of an army and leave the rest of the business to Bonaparte.

Somewhat later in his career, Napoleon – we may refer to him thus now, as after the peace of Amiens in 1802 he was confirmed for life as First Consul and would from then on be known as Napoleon – made his plea: ‘Give me lucky generals.’ At Marengo in June 1800, making the mistakes he did, he needed plenty of luck himself – and got it! Having dispersed his forces too widely, astonishing in a general who knew all too well that concentration was a cardinal principle of war, never to be breached, and failing to give the Austrian commander credit for being able to mount a concentrated attack on him, Napoleon was dismayed to find his divisions being pushed back and his entire position in danger of disintegrating. There was but one measure that could save the day – a counter-attack. It was then that three of his subordinate commanders came to the rescue. First, Napoleon sent a desperate plea to Desaix, who with his infantry division of some 5,000 men had earlier been sent off south to cut the road to Genoa: ‘For God’s sake come back.’ At about five o’clock Desaix returned and, according to Correlli Barnett, more or less took charge of the situation, commenting to Napoleon that although one encounter seemed to have gone wrong, there was still time to win the battle. Meanwhile, Marmont, who was in charge of the guns, and who had been fighting all day, supplemented his five pieces of artillery with five from the reserve and eight from Desaix, making up a battery of eighteen guns. Thus Marmont was able to deliver an effective bombardment against the advancing Austrians, enabling Desaix to go forward. On the flank with 400 cavalrymen was young General Kellermann, and their charge just as the Austrians were trying to recover from the combined shocks of Marmont’s discharge of cannister and Desaix’s assault completed a perfectly combined action of horse, foot and guns, which transformed the fortunes of a battle the Austrians thought they had won.

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Marengo: 14 June 1800 Part II

Situation at the beginning of the French counter-attack

‘The French counter-attack,’ wrote A. G. Macdonnell, ‘was, by chance, one of the most perfectly timed tactical operations by combined infantry, artillery and cavalry in the whole history of warfare.’ First came Marmont’s bombardment with his eighteen guns which lasted for some twenty minutes. Then Desaix went forward with his infantry – he was killed by a bullet in the head while leading his men in the attack – and Marmont, having limbered up four of his guns, was there in support. It was another instance of close cooperation between arms, for in an effort to counter the counter-attack, a battalion of Austrian grenadiers was pressing forward against Desaix’s men, and seeing them but fifty yards ahead, Marmont unlimbered his four pieces and let the advancing closely ranked Austrian grenadiers have four rounds of cannister from each gun fired at point-blank range. To cap it all, just as the Austrians were reeling from this fresh blow and Desaix’s infantrymen were surging forward, young Kellermann came charging in from the flank with his heavy cavalrymen. The enemy broke and fled. ‘A minute earlier,’ said Macdonnell, ‘or three minutes later, and the thing could not have succeeded, but the timing was perfect, and North Italy was recovered in that moment for the French Republic.’

Napoleon’s own part in the battle had been positively undistinguished, yet the victory confirmed his position as First Consul and enabled him to make peace. When Berthier consoled an Austrian officer after the battle, however, by pointing out that his army had been defeated by the greatest general in the world, the reply was that it had been Masséna’s iron hand that had won the battle of Marengo by resisting siege in Genoa. To which might be added – Genoa certainly and chance!

But what if Desaix had not come back? Correlli Barnett is quite clear about it: ‘If Desaix had not returned in time, the resulting defeat would have put an end to his [Napoleon’s] career.’ Evangeline Bruce is equally definite: ‘Bonaparte had gambled his future and almost lost it; had Desaix not arrived in time his career would have ended then.’ Very well, let us hypothesize that chance does not favour him after all, the Austrians win at Marengo, Bonaparte is dismissed from his position as First Consul; what might have happened then? We might consider first what would not have happened, for whatever else might be said about Napoleon, it cannot be denied that he was totally unique. He was a comet shooting through his own generation and many others to come, a man whose imagination, ambition, capacity and sheer magnitude made him stand up peerless among his contemporaries. He was a modern Caesar and bestrode this narrow world like a Colossus. His capacity for work was prodigious. And it was after Marengo that the business of putting France in order really began. It may be doubted whether anyone else would have embarked on quite so radical and comprehensive a programme as he did, but Napoleon held two winning aces. First, he was immensely popular; indeed, the royalist Mathieu Molé observed that with the exception of America’s first President, George Washington, no chief magistrate of a republic had ever been so universally popular. The second ace was power. When Napoleon and Sieyès had discussed what form the Republic’s executive should take, it was Napoleon who got his way. There were to be three Consuls, but only the First Consul would make decisions. Napoleon was therefore able to set about the complete reorganization of France’s internal affairs. Most of his measures were instituted in the two years 1800–1802, the so-called ‘ardent years of the Consulate’. It was then, wrote Evangeline Bruce, that ‘he laid the foundations of all the administrative and fiscal achievements that were to be his real monuments, created the tightly centralized administration that survives in France, much modified, to this day, restructured the judicial and public educational systems, and created the Bank of France’.

His greatest, most enduring achievement was the Civil Code, more renowned as the Code Napoléon. This was essentially a matter of the law. Following the Revolution in 1789 there had been so many decrees, regional codes and rulings by autonomous courts that, as Napoleon himself put it in writing to Talleyrand, France was ‘a nation with three hundred books of laws, yet without laws’. Now the whole matter of law and justice was to be put in order. The Code Napoléon was founded on a number of principles: all were to be equal before the law; there would be an end to feudal rights and duties; property would be inviolable; marriage would be a civil act, not a religious one; there would be freedom of conscience and freedom in choice of work. Without Napoleon, we may take it that all this would not have been done, nor would the Concordat, the pact between Napoleon and the Pope recognizing Roman Catholicism as the official religion of most French people, have been brought about. And then Napoleon was utterly dedicated to work. During the early months and years after becoming First Consul, he would work for sixteen, even eighteen, hours a day, seven days a week. Apart from the time he spent in the Council Chamber at the Tuileries where he presided over the Council of State, much of his day was passed in his study, dictating to his secretary. There, as Vincent Cronin put it:

Napoleon answered letters, issued orders, made minutes on Ministers’ reports, checked budgets, instructed ambassadors, raised troops, moved armies and carried out the thousand and one other duties which fell to the head of government, always totally immersed in the task in front of him, always completing it before going on to the next.

It was this ability to concentrate which was the key to his powerful intellect. At a time when in his own words la carrière ouverte aux talents was there for the taking, Napoleon showed the world how his own quite exceptional talents opened up for him a career of dazzling distinction.

Added to this, of course, was his supreme confidence. In establishing the Code Napoléon, he was sure that it would endure. He was right. It is still the law of France, with some amendments. To make the whole thing work, Napoleon established in each département a new type of official, the prefect, a system of administration still in being today. When we add to all this a new criminal code, a reformed educational system, the Legion of Honour and the building of roads, canals and ports, there seems to be no end to his achievements. Yet there is one more we must look at, without which all the rest might have gone for nothing – creating the Grande Armée: ‘It was to be a real, full-dress, organized, trained fighting machine,’ wrote Macdonnell. ‘Its training ground was to be the north-east coast of France, and its objective was England.’ This was the army which was to be Napoleon’s tool for dominating the affairs of Europe for the next decade, and against which only a small British army under Wellington was able to nibble away in a theatre of war which the by then French Emperor regarded as a side-show. Napoleon’s army was certainly on the grand scale. It was a highly efficient fighting force, as regards both numbers and quality. Organized into seven corps, positioned at Hanover, Utrecht, Flushing-Dunkirk, Boulogne, Montreuil and Brest, it consisted of some 200,000 men. The Corps Commanders, all of whom were destined to become Marshals of the Empire, represented about the most glittering array of military talent that could be gathered together.

They consisted of Bernadotte, who, despite his fence-sitting during the 1799 coup and his lack of regard for the First Consul, did at least promise cooperation; Marmont, Napoleon’s friend and artillery expert, who was very earnest, painstaking, concerned with his men’s well-being, and who loved building things; Davout, who was later said to be the only one of the Marshals who really understood what Napoleon’s theory and practice of war was all about; Soult, who was another great builder and an excellent trainer of young officers; Lannes, the courageous leader of so many attacks, who had been the First Consul’s envoy in Portugal to bully England’s oldest ally into neutrality; Ney, the fiery red-headed cavalryman, who worshipped war and battle for their own sake, who studied hard to master infantry tactics, and whose admirable concept of operations was ‘fast marching and straight shooting’; Augereau, swaggering, rough-mouthed and full of intrigue, but a bold man in a tight corner; and the cavalry under Napoleon’s brother-in-law, Murat (he had married Caroline Bonaparte), the most dashing of cavalry commanders, and whose subordinate generals, Lasalle, Colbert, Sainte-Croix and Montbrun, were all young, illustrious, good-looking and rash. Later, Bessières with the Imperial Guard was added to this star-studded community.

Would some Bonaparte substitute have created such a weapon of war? And who might that substitute have been? There was no lack of intrigue against the First Consul even in the early days, enough indeed to satisfy even those arch manipulators of power, Talleyrand and Fouché. Envy was a great breeder of intrigue, and there were plenty of Napoleon’s erstwhile comrades-in-arms who envied him. Some of this envy was cloaked under protestations that the principles of the Republic were not being consolidated. Such men as Sieyès, disgruntled by his own former disappointment, Moreau, Oudinot and St-Cyr, did not understand what it was that Napoleon was striving for: first, the organization of France so that order would replace disorder, proper administration take the place of corrupt practices, and a system of beneficial government would prevail subject to the will of one man; second, Napoleon’s ardent desire to heal old wounds, to bind together conflicting interests and loyalties, in short a programme of reconciliation and stabilization which would fuse the nation into one united France. It was all very well for Augereau and Lannes to make a fuss about the Concordat, and point to the countless number of lives which had been lost ‘to get rid of this nonsense’, but the fact was that the people as a whole enthusiastically welcomed the return of Catholicism after twelve years of State-enforced atheism. Among the ranks of other intriguers and malcontents were Jourdan, Brune, Macdonald and Masséna. Yet, as A. G. Macdonnell pointed out: ‘In all the intriguing against the Consulate it was the attitude of Bernadotte, as in 1799, that was the key to the situation.’ Bernadotte’s ambition was boundless – he did become after all King of Sweden later – but his intrigues with Moreau and Sièyes were not conducted with the discretion and secrecy which such dangerous goings-on demanded, and it was Davout, a devotee of Napoleon and at this time Commander of the Military Police, whose successful espionage uncovered the plot for a coup d’état against Napoleon. Had it come off, we may speculate that it would have been Bernadotte who headed the new Government.

No Emperor Napoleon, then, no plan to invade England, no Austerlitz, no crushing of Prussia at Jena or Russia at Friedland, no Treaty of Tilsit, or aggression in Spain, no Peninsular campaign by Sir John Moore or Wellesley . . . the catalogue stretches on. Instead we may imagine a consolidation of Republican measures, peace-making with England, Talleyrand as Foreign Minister, Fouché still Chief of Police, the other generals bought off with military commands or political posts, no Grande Armée for conquering Europe, but an Army of the Republic for defending France’s frontiers against the hostility of Austria and any allies she could muster. And if by chance it were not Bernadotte who was called upon to rule France, of one thing we may be sure. France would not have reinstated the Bourbons. It took another decade or so of Napoleonic sovereignty to bring about that ill-fated design ‘to call back yesterday, bid time return’.

As it was, however, Marengo had confirmed Bonaparte as First Consul. It would not be long – shortly after the Peace of Amiens was concluded in March 1802 – before Napoleon received an overwhelming vote of confidence from the French people, confirming him as Consul for life. From there it would be an easy leap to become Emperor of the French. As Emperor he was to command the Grande Armée in countless battles. In doing so he would often be mounted on a grey Arab stallion named Marengo. It may seem strange that Napoleon should have called the horse said to be his favourite charger after a battle in which his own part had been so undistinguished. Yet it was the result of the battle, rather than its conduct, which proved to be so significant. On 14 June 1815, when giving the army its Orders of the Day for the morrow, he charged his soldiers to recall the glorious anniversaries of Friedland and Marengo, both fought on that day. There is some controversy as to whether or not Napoleon rode Marengo at the battle of Waterloo. Marengo’s skeleton is on display at the National Army Museum, and the accompanying caption states that the Emperor did ride him. Other sources contend that Marengo was the horse on which Napoleon escaped from the battlefield. Some claim that it was a white mare called Desirée that carried him. Of course, Napoleon would have had more than one charger at hand. The outcome of the battle was certainly not what he desired. Indeed, whichever horse he rode, it availed him nothing at Waterloo.

Austria – The High Command

The Franco-Dutch War (1672–78), often called simply the Dutch War (French: Guerre de Hollande; Dutch: Hollandse Oorlog), was a war fought by France, Sweden, Münster, Cologne and England against the Dutch Republic, which was later joined by the Austrian Habsburg lands, Brandenburg-Prussia and Spain to form a Quadruple Alliance. The war ended with the Treaty of Nijmegen, by which Spain ceded the Franche-Comté and some cities in Flanders and Hainaut to France, while France returned some of its conquests (Maastricht and the Principality of Orange) to the Dutch.

The War of the Austrian Succession (German: Österreichischer Erbfolgekrieg, 1740–48) involved most of the powers of Europe over the question of Maria Theresa’s succession to the Habsburg Monarchy. The war included King George’s War in British America, the War of Jenkins’ Ear (which formally began on 23 October 1739), the First Carnatic War in India, the Jacobite rising of 1745 in Scotland, and the First and Second Silesian Wars.

Officially, it was of course the Emperor who acted as commander-in-chief of his armed forces. However, the Austrian Habsburgs – after Maximilian I – were considered to be a largely unmilitary dynasty better suited to religious and artistic pursuits. At the same time, the dangers of an all-powerful condottiere like Wallenstein – Generalissimus and Obrister Feldhauptmann between 1625–30 and 1631–34, vested with particularly extensive authority – had become fully apparent during the Thirty Years War. For the rest of that conflict, as a consequence of this ‘Wallenstein complex’, the supreme command was repeatedly exercised by members of the Habsburg family, men such as the later Emperor Ferdinand III (1608–1657), commander-in-chief 1634–37, and Archduke Leopold Wilhelm (1614–1662), second son to Emperor Ferdinand II, commander-in-chief 1639–43 and 1645–46.

During the second half of the seventeenth century, the highest level of command came to be that of Generalleutnant who was the acting commander-in-chief. After the Thirty Years War this position was held successively by Ottavio Piccolomini (1648–56), Raimondo Montecuccoli (1664–80), Charles V Duke of Lorraine (1680–90), Ludwig Wilhelm von Baden-Baden (1691–1707) and Eugene of Savoy (from 1708 until his death in 1736).

In 1737, Franz Stephan of Lorraine, later Emperor Francis I, husband to Emperor Charles VF s daughter Maria Theresia, was appointed Generalleutnant. This pointed to the re-militarization of the dynasty under Maria Theresia and Joseph II; admittedly, though, the fortune of war did not really smile upon them: witness Franz Stephan himself, who cut a poor figure during the Turkish War of 1737–39 and the War of the Austrian Succession, his brother Charles of Lorraine (1712–1780) – who led the Austrian army into several crushing defeats – or Franz Stephan’s son Emperor Joseph II. It was not until the revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars that Archduke Karl (1771–1847), Generalissimus and minister of war, saved the dynasty’s military reputation by defeating Napoleon I at Aspern in 1809.

In the course of the Thirty Years War, a stable hierarchy of command came into being, comprising the following general officers (in decreasing order of rank): 1. the Feldmarschall, 2. the General der Kavallerie and his counterpart for the infantry and the artillery, the General-Fe Idzeugmeis ter (literally ‘master of the ordnance’, a title still reminiscent of the artillery-based function after which this rank was named), 3. the Feldmarschall-Leutnant and 4. the Generalfeldwachtmeister (from the mid-eighteenth century commonly known as Generalmajor). In 1705 there were 22 Feldmarschälle, 11 Generäle der Kavallerie, 11 Feldzeugmeister, 36 Feldmarschall-Leutnants and 60 Generalfeldwachtmeister, altogether 140 generals.

Between 1648 and 1705, 67 field marshals were appointed, 12 of whom were of Italian origin, with 31 coming from the Reich (including 22 members of ruling families). Only 12 hailed from the Austro-Bohemian lands and three from Hungary. Of the 15 commanders-in-chief (Generalleutnants) appointed between 1600 and 1737, not a single one came from the Hereditary Lands. Similarly, of the eight Presidents of the Aulic War Council in office between 1632 and 1736, only three were members of Austro-Bohemian families. Clearly, generals in the Imperial army were rather cosmopolitan – as, incidentally, was the officer corps as a whole. Especially in the seventeenth century, the Viennese court held Italians in high esteem not only as political advisers, confessors or artists during the Age of the Baroque, but also as military leaders in the army – much to the chagrin of many a ‘German’ officer. Field marshal Raimondo Montecuccoli, an Italian nobleman from Modena, to name only the most distinguished example, held several top positions in the Imperial army for many years. A skilled administrator and theorist of war, he was most influential in seventeenth-century warfare and military thought. Names like those of field marshals Antonio Caraffa (1646–1693), Enea Silvio Caprara (1631–1701) and Federico Ambrosio Veterani (1630–1695) graced the Imperial army during the Turkish wars. Even during the eighteenth century, the percentage of Italians in the officer corps and among the generals was still considerable, albeit declining if compared to the earlier seventeenth century (15–25 per cent around 1630, 8 per cent around 1700). The Welsch element was further reinforced by prominent military leaders from francophone countries such as Prince Eugene of Savoy-Carignan (1663–1736) who, scorned by Louis XIV, entered the Emperor’s service in 1683 or Charles V (1643–1690), Duke of Lorraine and brother-in-law to Emperor Leopold I.

The Scottish and even more so the Irish element, who from the Thirty Years War onwards transfused new blood into the middle and senior officer echelons, achieved prominent positions also in the Habsburg army. This was particularly so after the ‘Glorious Revolution’ and the Battle of the Boyne, when thousands of Stuart loyalists – the celebrated ‘Wild Geese’ – fled to the Catholic courts of Europe. To mention only two field marshals: Walter Leslie (1606–1667) – together with other Irish-Scottish officers responsible for Wallenstein’s assassination in 1634 and later vice-president of the Aulic War Council – and Francis Viscount Taaffe, Earl of Carlingford (1639–1704); one of Taaffe’s descendants was even to become Austrian prime minister in the later nineteenth century. In the eighteenth century descendants of ‘Wild Geese’ such as Maximilian Ulysses Browne (1705–1757), the latter’s kinsman Franz Moritz Lacy (1725–1801) and Michael Johann Wallis (1732–1798) all became field marshals, Lacy and Wallis even presidents of the Aulic War Council.

Officers from the Reich also featured prominently among the Emperor’s generals. Serving the Emperor still held considerable attraction for the German nobilities. Of the 157 Austrian field marshals appointed in the course of the eighteenth century, by far the majority (49 per cent) came from the Holy Roman Empire, more than half of them being members of its high nobility. Approaching one quarter (22.9 per cent) still hailed from Welsch countries, while 8.9 per cent were of Hungarian origin.

According to Jean Bérenger, the clear preference for foreigners in top military positions resulted from a deliberate policy which sought to ensure that the standing army remained a completely loyal instrument in the hands of the dynasty. In contrast to leading aristocrats, with their provincial landed base and clientele network, foreigners appeared less prone to divided loyalties and to the competing claims of the Emperor and the Estates. Very quickly, however, these condottieri also merged into the native nobility, acquiring titles and landed property. In fact, foreign mercenaries were among the leading beneficiaries from the redistribution of land during the 1620s which followed the defeat of the Bohemian rebellion.

During the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, a general staff in the modern sense of the word had not yet come into existence, the term Generalstab largely referring to the army headquarters as such. The so-called great Generalstab consisted of all generals serving with the field army, while the small Generalstab comprised the auxiliary services: one or more adjutants general, the quartermaster general (then comparatively low in the hierarchy and responsible for quartering and reconnaissance work), the Generalwagenmeister (in charge of the baggage train), a Generalfeldkriegsauditor or Generalauditorleutnant (for legal matters and court proceedings outside regimental jurisdiction), engineers, the field secretariat (Feldkriegskanzlei), army doctors and so forth.

The council of war (Kriegsrat) was an advisory body on which leading generals offered advice to the commander-in-chief, particularly on the eve of battles. This not only corresponded to the Habsburg-Austrian tradition of decision-making by committees, but also testified to the important role of foreign auxiliary troops under independent command, which normally imposed a kind of coalition warfare involving extensive consultation. Quarrels or other personal differences could quickly lead to disastrous consequences. Allied rulers who supplied auxiliary troops had to be entrusted with supreme or separate command, at times to the detriment of military success, such as in the Hungarian theatre of war during the 1680s and 1690s.

Marengo, 14 June 1800 Part I

Napoleon and the Consular Guard at Marengo, 14 June 1800, by Alphonse Lalauze.

Napoleon Conferring with Desaix in Marengo, 14 June 1800 by Keith Rocco.

On the afternoon of 13 June 1800 the French advance guard, Gardanne’s augmented division (5,300 infantry, 685 cavalry, and 2 guns) drove the Austrian covering force, 4,000 strong, back towards Alessandria. By 6 pm the Austrians were back to the village of Marengo, only 4 kilometres from the place where the Bormida river protects the eastern approach to Alessandria. Gardanne decided to attack the village in strength and his opponent General O’Reilly, one of the many officers of Irish descent in the Hapsburg service, decided not to stand against him as he had in his rear the Fontanove stream, a drainage ditch with steep banks and a marshy bottom. The French therefore followed their opponents until they came under fire from the fourteen guns which Melas had established in a tête de pont on the east bank of the Bormida.

Gardanne, a mediocre general, then considered his work done and settled down with his outposts between the river, on the left, and the Alessandria–Marengo road on his right. He reported, falsely, that he had driven O’Reilly across the Bormida. He also gave Bonaparte to understand that he had destroyed the bridge across that river. Marmont, now a general, realized that both bridge and tête-de-pont were still intact and brought forward eight guns in an attempt to overcome the fire of the Austrian battery. He was unsuccessful and went back to Gardanne, whom he found sitting in a ditch, to propose that the infantry should storm the fortification. When Gardanne refused, Marmont started to ride back 11 kilometres to Bonaparte’s headquarters. Being overtaken by a heavy storm and the road being abominable, he decided to spend the night in a wayside farmhouse and was not able to report to the First Consul until the morning.

Bonaparte was still convinced that Melas would either make for Genoa or try to break north, crossing the Po at Valenza. To guard against the first move he had, at noon, ordered Desaix with Boudet’s division (5,316 men) to march south-west through Rivalta so as to cut the Alessandria–Genoa road at Serravilla. During the evening a story from an Austrian deserter was brought in to the effect that Melas had made a detachment to Acqui, 32 kilometres to his right rear. This story was true and reinforced Bonaparte’s conviction that Melas was intending to move to a flank. In fact the Austrian detachment consisted of only a single squadron of dragoons, 115 men, but Bonaparte ordered Lapoype to take his division (3,462 strong) towards Valenza. Further confirmation of Bonaparte’s delusion came with Gardanne’s report that O’Reilly was on the west bank of the Bormida behind a broken bridge. The destruction of the bridge was also, according to Bonaparte, reported by his ADC, Lauriston, though that officer always denied that he made such a report.

Convinced that he had nothing to fear from a frontal attack, Bonaparte went to bed 10 kilometres behind Marengo with his army widely dispersed. Gardanne’s 5,900 men were at and in front of Marengo with Chambarlhac’s division (3,400) in close support. These two divisions with two cavalry regiments and 6 or 8 guns were supervised by General Victor and there was no reinforcement nearer than General Lannes with Wattrin’s division (5,000) and 12 guns (5 of them Austrian pieces captured at Montebello), bivouacked 7 kilometres behind Marengo near San Giuliano Vecchio. In succession behind them were the main body of the cavalry (2,500), Monnier’s division (3,600 with 2 guns) and, close to headquarters, the Consular Guard (1,000 infantry, 250 cavalry, and 8 guns).

Meanwhile Melas in Alessandria had allowed himself to be haunted by the fear that he would be crushed between the Armée d’Italie and the Armée de Réserve. He believed that the former force had pushed 12,000 men forward towards Savona and Voltri and that it would soon be reinforced by Massena with the former garrison of Genoa so as to make the total corps in his rear, according to his calculations, 22,000. In fact there were scarcely 11,000 men in all facing him on the west and the garrison of Genoa was in no state to undertake any exertions. Believing however that he was threatened by 22,000 men to the west and 35,000 to the east, Melas decided that:

So situated and with the destiny of Italy at stake, our only course was to attack the enemy with the aim of cutting our way through to the Hereditary Lands [Milan and Mantua] on the south bank of the Po, thus bringing help to the threatened fortresses of Mantua, Legnano and Verona while covering the west Tyrol [Trentino].

He gave orders to launch an attack to the east at dawn on 14 June. He divided his field force, 23,000 infantry, 7,600 cavalry and 100 guns, into three unequal columns.

The main column of 20,238 men, including 37 squadrons of cavalry, was to attack straight down the road through Marengo and San Giuliano making for Tortona and Piacenza. Its right would be covered by O’Reilly with only 3,000 men. On the left Lieutenant-General Ott with 7,500 men, including only 4 squadrons, was to move on Sale but Melas anticipated that it would find the French holding Castel Ceriola. If Ott could not force his way through at this point he was to fall back towards the Bormida, drawing the French after him. He would then detach some of the powerful cavalry force from the centre column to the left and cut the French off.

To make the debouchment from the fortress as quick as possible, the Austrian engineers had put up a pontoon bridge within the tête de pont but, although there were now two bridges across the Bormida, there was only one gate to that earthwork and none of the columns could emerge until O’Reilly, whose detachment had spent the night on the east bank, had driven in Gardanne’s outposts. This done, the leading division of the centre column, 6 battalions and 9 squadrons under Lieutenant-General Haddick, marched out and, covered by the fire of 16 guns, formed three-deep line with each flank resting on the Bormida.

This covering bombardment was clearly heard at French headquarters at Toro de Garofoli, 12½ kilometres to the east, where Bonaparte had just confirmed the order for Lapoype’s division to march on Valenza. Even when, at about 9.30 am, a message from Victor told him that the enemy were massing for a major attack he refused to believe it, asserting that it could only be a diversion to conceal the flank march that he expected. It took Marmont’s report to convince him of the truth:

The First Consul, astonished by the news, said that an Austrian attack seemed impossible and added ‘General Gardanne told me that he had reached the river and destroyed the bridge’. I replied, ‘General Gardanne made a false report. Last night I was closer to the tête de pont than he ever went. It is neither taken nor blockaded by our posts and the enemy has been able to debouch from it in his own time.’

Realizing the danger at last, orders were sent for all the available troops – the divisions of Wattrin and Monnier, the cavalry, and the Consular Guard – to march westward while ADC’s were sent to recall Desaix and Lapoype. Until they arrived there would be only 22,000 French against 31,000 Austrians.

THE AUSTRIANS ATTACK

Fortunately for the French the enemy were making slow progress. Melas’ detailed orders called for extreme deliberation. He had ordered the centre column to form in four lines, the first consisting of Haddick’s division and the second of Kaim’s (7 battalions) also in line. Behind them would come the 1,800 horsemen of Elsnitz’ cavalry division and in rear, marching in column, Morzin’s 11 battalions of grenadiers. With only one narrow gateway from which they could emerge, the deployment of this column was certain to be slow and it was made much slower when, at 9 am a message arrived from the squadron of dragoons detached to Acqui reporting that they were being attacked by ‘a heavy column of cavalry followed by infantry’. Since there were no substantial French forces near Acqui on that morning, it can only be supposed that the squadron leader had met a patrol probing forward from the Armée d’Italie and had magnified it in his imagination into a force of all arms.

False though this information was, it confirmed Melas’ worst fears of being crushed between two French armies and he reacted by ordering Nimptsch’s cavalry brigade, half his cavalry division, to march immediately on Acqui. The confusion caused by turning six strong squadrons in the confined space inside the tête de pont, already packed with infantry and guns waiting to get forward, greatly delayed the deployment while Ott’s left-hand column had to wait on the west bank of the Bormida until the cavalry had filed back across the bridges.

Impatient of the delay, Haddick sent his division against Marengo without waiting for the whole column to be formed. His six battalions made a brave show in their white coats, advancing in line with their bands playing and their colours flying. They were halted at the Fontanove ditch, deep, marshy, and edged with a dense thicket while Gardanne’s division on the other side poured volleys into the Austrians as they struggled to cross. A few men gained the far side only to be shot down and Haddick, recognizing that his task was impossible, ordered a retreat. Hardly had he done so than he was mortally wounded before he could consult Kaim who, as soon as Haddick’s men had passed through his own division, threw his own seven battalions at the obstacle only to be repulsed in the same way. It was now recognized that the Fontanove could not be crossed without footbridges and the only pioneers available were with the grenadier division in the rear.

While the bridges were being brought forward, Melas ordered some cavalry to search for a crossing place on the right and to charge in on the flank of the defenders. Three squadrons of the Emperor’s Dragoons did succeed in getting across at a point where the horses could pass in single file but, while they were still forming to charge, they were charged in their turn by French cavalry and driven over the steep banks into the stream, an experience few of them survived.

On the right O’Reilly’s men were held up by the farmhouse of Stortigliano, in the narrow gap between the Bormida and the Fontanove. Held by 400 men of the 44me and 101re demi-brigades the garrison was weakened when the hundred men of the 101re decided that their proper place was with their own unit. The remainder, although they were surrounded and suffered 194 casualties, held out until evening, although they could not entirely block the Austrian advance against the French left.

Marengo, 14 June 1800 Part II

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.

Karansebes, 20 September 1788 – Myth?

The Story Goes…

Another loud crack followed the crashing and screaming nearby. Caught in that brief instant between sleep and consciousness, the soldier’s mind struggled to filter through the confusion. It was all noise, darkness and shock. And that strange metallic smell of blood. There were no stars to give him light. He hugged the wet ground, his fingers scraped the earth. Where are my boots? Why is everybody shooting? He could hear the sound of battle clearly. The noise and the dying. ‘Not me, oh God, not me …’ His mouth opened in a silent scream. Paralysed by fear, he couldn’t move. He said his prayer over and over again. ‘Not me …’ Cold sweat ran down his face, his chest heaved, he gulped for air. Panic held him in its iron grip. That ugly tangled knot banging on his brain, ‘Now I’m going to die’. There was no hope for dawn, it would be lonely to be dead … Was it all a bad dream? No, this was no dream, the flashes lighting up the night, the roll of cannon’s thunder, the screams of the wounded and the moans of the dying: ‘Save yourselves. Turci! Turci! All is lost, the Turk is upon us.’

Joseph II, by the grace of God Emperor of Austria, had a weakness, and not a small one. He wished to be remembered through history as a military genius, as big as, if not bigger than his shining model, the great Frederick of Prussia. The main problem with the benign Austrian Emperor was that he simply didn’t have what it took. Neither with his diplomatic skill nor with a marshal’s baton. At an already advanced age he suddenly decided to deliver the Balkans from the Turks. The King of Prussia, Frederick Wilhelm, offered his gracious office to help settle the dispute between the Sublime Porte and the House of Hapsburg in a diplomatic manner. Instead of accepting the gracious offer, Emperor Joseph managed to insult the Prussian king by writing him a note: ‘The House of Hohenzollern came to power by the same fickle means as the evil Turk.’ This affront was enough to make the King of Prussia sign a military treaty with the King of Sweden. Together they marched against the only ally the Austrians had, the Empress Catherine of Russia. In the meantime, Joseph had begun to knock on the gates of the Balkans. But he’d forgotten to inform the Turkish envoy that Austria was actually at war, and had been for the six months since his army had entered Turkish territory. To correct this oversight, he sent a brief note to his State Chancellor, the Fürst of Kaunitz: ‘I am sad to say that the Sublime Porte has entered into a war with my ally, the Czarina. According to the treaties between Russia and us I am obliged to go to the help of the Empress. I order you to instruct the Sublime Porte that a state of war exists between Austria and Turkey.’

In March 1788, Joseph set forth on his long and tiresome journey from Vienna to Walachia, the disputed border of confrontation between Islam and Christianity. He undertook it to obtain fame and enter history. He did indeed enter history, but not in the way he intended.

The initial objective of the Austrians was to liberate the Save, a strategic waterway, by subduing the Turkish strongholds of Schabaz, Belgrade and Vidin. And finally, following the conquest of the key fortress of Nis, to incorporate all of Serbia into the Austrian Empire. In order to achieve this the Emperor had gathered the military might necessary for the task. Six army corps, totalling 245,062 men with 36,725 horses. Under his direct command stood a main force of 125,000 soldiers and 22,000 horses. His artillery boasted 898 field guns with 176,700 cannon balls and 1,000 tons of black powder. To feed this army on the march took a daily ration of 800 tons of flour and 200 beef cattle.

This force was led by men remarkable in the annals of Austrian military history for their stupidity and incompetence. Coburg, Fabius, Wartersleben, Mitrovsky, Devins. The only competent leader, the ageing Marshal Laudon, who served so well his Empress Maria Theresia, was left behind. The Emperor had considered him too old for such an exhaustive exercise. It seems, the only talent the Austrian Emperor possessed was to pick always the wrong man for the job. This time he picked venerable Marshal Lacy, old and worn out.

‘The Austrians beheld with great apprehension the presence of their Emperor in a military campaign. He was well known for his humanitarian views, and nobody could see what his presence would add to win the war. But, because of his attraction towards the glory which comes with victory, Joseph could not be otherwise convinced. Therefore, many predicted already at the beginning of the campaign a bad ending, and future events were to prove them right.’

Joseph’s original plan of campaign, if ever he had one, was to employ his overwhelming forces not, as may be expected, in a major aggressive action, but to settle for a kind of defensive impasse. Thus, the Emperor of all Austrians began his campaign with a whimper, not with a bang.

The attack on the Turkish fort of Belgrade was scheduled for 16 May. The guns were in place, the infantry stood ready. On the evening of the 15th, the Emperor suddenly changed his mind, and, rather than attack the weakly defended garrison, he ordered a retreat. He based his decision on the fact that the Russians had not come to his support. Joseph’s courage was certainly nothing like that of the model he so desperately tried to imitate, Frederick the Great, a leader of men whose grasp of war and harsh decisions he never understood. To make matters worse, the Emperor’s health deteriorated, and with it his indecision mounted. His hesitation sacrificed a sizeable portion of his army to epidemic swamp fever when he ordered his generals to pitch camp in the mosquito infested bogs along the Danube. Soon the situation in the Austrian camp became desperate. Yet the Emperor refused to break camp. The deadly disease decimated the regiments, and the common graves began to overflow. In no time at all, 172,000 soldiers were afflicted by bouts of malaria and dysentery, and 33,000 of his best troops died. Joseph could have taken Belgrade or defeated a great army of Turks alone with the number of troops he had so carelessly sacrificed to the lethal fever. Those who weren’t affected by the fever suffered from military inactivity. While the poisonous climate continued to take its toll of their comrades, the men sat around and played cards. Fights broke out among this patchwork of ethnic auxiliaries: the Hungarians fought with the Croatians, the Lombardians hated the Slovenes, and none of them liked their Austrian officers. Still the Emperor held back, awaiting the arrival of the promised Russian reinforcements, which never materialised. Soon the camp ran out of bread: its flour rations had been used up and new supplies had to be shipped down the Danube from distant Austria. When these arrived they were found to be crawling with maggots. To add to this problem the war chest for the soldiers’ salary was empty.

In the meantime, the Turks had managed to reinforce the fortress of Belgrade with 9,000 fresh troops, and the Turkish governor of the city offered a bounty of 10 gold ducats for every Austrian’s head cut off and presented. This became known to the Austrian troops; whenever a soldier disappeared (probably drowned in the river or simply wandered off to go back to his family), rumours of Turkish atrocities spread throughout the camp. Troops lost faith in their officers and officers grumbled about their Emperor. Finally, Joseph was forced to beg the old Laudon to take over as head of the forces. ‘I do not order you, my dear Field Marshal Laudon, to take command of my troop, but I ask you humbly to do it for the best of state and the love for your Emperor.’

Laudon accepted, not for love of his Emperor but to save his beloved Austrian army. On 18 July he reached Imperial headquarters and on the 19th he conquered the fortress of Dubicza. At last, the army was on the move. Unfortunately, his generals were not as efficient as ‘der Alte’, and suffered a number of setbacks. There were a few notable feats of heroism. In the castle of Rama, the young Lieutenant Lopreski and 23 men held out against 4,000 Turks, until, true to the legend of Leonidas and his forty Spartans, all were dead. On the Boza Pass, a division of 4,000 Austrians bloodied the noses of 10,000 Turks. But such exploits were the exception and made no real difference to the overall conduct of the war.

As the Emperor had no better idea, he issued a plea to the church to offer prayers throughout the monarchy: ‘Oh Lord, the Almighty, you who smites the enemies of your Goodness, grant us your mighty protection. Spare your fighters from the dangers brought upon them by the Infidels.’

It seems that the prayers by the Infidels had more impact: ‘Allah, You who holds the sun, the stars and the whole universe in Your hand, You who has sent us Your Prophet to teach Your children the true faith, why do You let it happen that the enemy destroys our land? Rise, Almighty, and give Your people the power to proclaim Your Gloria in the temple of Mecca.’

Laudon worked miracles and conquered a number of minor places, but his arm wasn’t long enough. A division under General Papilla faced up to 13,000 Turks and was decimated, and on 18 August, Major von Stein had to relinquish the strategic position at Dubowa. After his withdrawal, the Austrians had to give up the Danube Valley all the way to Belgrade. Next came the message that a Turkish force of 70,000 under the Grand Vizier Jussuf Pasha marched on Vidin, while another army of 30,000 led by the Seraskier of Rumelia, was on its way to Nis. For the Austrians it became high time to deliver battle. Which meant that their main force of some 100,000 had to take up a position along the River Timisul around a small town by the name of Karansebes.

‘Here we have to win,’ the Emperor joyfully exclaimed; ‘history has planned it this way. It was here that Prince Eugene achieved a brilliant victory over the Turks, and this is the best place to beat them again.’

Yes, there would be a Second Battle of Karansebes. But what was to take place there is probably unique in the history of warfare. An incident which, more than anything else, demonstrates the moral decline from which the Austrian army suffered, ‘whose worst portion was made up of people from barbaric tribes, and whose better part mistrusted their leaders’.

It was a moonless night, this 19 September 1788, when a vanguard of Imperial Hussars crossed the Timis Bridge at Karansebes. Having reached the opposite shore of the river, they did not find hostile Turks. Instead, they discovered a wagon camp of wandering Walachians who joyfully welcomed the riders and offered them schnapps and girls. After a brief bargaining session, a price was agreed upon and the hussars swung off their horses to indulge in a bout of revelry. Some hours passed when the first companies of foot soldiers crossed the same bridge, their throats equally dry. However, by now the hussars had bought up all the schnapps. To defend against these undesirable newcomers, the hussars quickly established a fortified position around their barrel of schnapps and chased away the foot soldiery. That greatly upset the thirsty men.

A shot rang out, followed by a scream, and a body tumbled forward. The hussars pulled out their sabres and attacked the infantry, driving the soldiers back. It was the noise of the shot that had frightened the men on foot, but once they had recovered from their initial shock, they too began to shoot. Soon a regular little battle was going on. More shots were fired and people began to die. Next, the soldiers tried for a frontal rout but the hussars wouldn’t yield. To chase the riders from their fortified position, the foot soldiers attempted a ruse. They yelled, ‘Turci! Turci!’ The mere idea of facing a Turkish host so frightened the inebriated hussars that they galloped in flight across the bridge. But the foot soldiers also drifted back, frightened by their own shouting. Their colonel tried to stop the rush by barring their way: ‘Halt Stehen bleiben! Halt!’ It was of no use, these men were Hungarians, Lombardians or Slovaks with hardly a word of German between them. There was no such order in their limited vocabulary. They had been taught the word ‘Vorwärts!’ but never ‘Halt!’ Perhaps they simply misunderstood, perhaps they just wanted to move to the rear instead of going into battle.

‘Halt! Halt!’ the Austrian officer kept yelling. Some young soldiers mistook this command for: ‘Allah! Allah!’ and now the shooting began in earnest.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the river the whole of the Austrian army had gone to sleep only to be suddenly awakened by firing on the distant shore. The vanguard had encountered the Turks! They couldn’t imagine what else could have started the shooting and screaming, since everything took place in total, frightening darkness. The noise of battle, the moans of the wounded and the death cries helped to intensify their terror. What they heard but couldn’t see confirmed a feeling deep inside them – the big fear of dying.

Fenced off in the midst of the camp was a herd of carthorses. These animals became so frightened by the increasing bedlam that they knocked down the fence and thundered off, making a sound like advancing cavalry. A corps commander misinterpreted it for an attack and ordered his cannons to open fire. The night was lit up by blue flashes and thunder claps, and more soldiers began to fall. A roar went up: ‘The Turk! The Turk! Save yourself! All is lost!’

Quickly the panic took hold of the entire army, and it became pointless to try telling that polyglot force what had happened at the other end of the bridge. The first regiment drifted to the rear, quickly followed by another and another. Soon a mass of soldiers fled back in a human tidal wave. Owing to their varied ethnic backgrounds, most regiments couldn’t converse with each other, which made them imagine that the shadows rushing at them were the enemy. Terrified by the thought that they were about to be overrun by scimitar-wielding hordes of Turks, they fired into their own decamping ranks.

The Emperor, still weak from his illness, had taken a nap in his carriage. Drugged by sleep and medicine, he stumbled from his coach staring at the bedlam. He could hear the cries of the frenzied mob coming towards him. An aide helped him onto his horse. No sooner up, he was swept aside by the fleeing mob. One of his aides stood firmly in front of him, striking out at the fear-crazed soldiers; he felled a few with his sabre before he was trampled to the ground and his breath crushed from his body. The Emperor was thrown from his horse, ending up in the river. Wet, and beset by the fear that he would soon fall into the hands of the Turks, he crawled into a house in Karansebes from where his personal guards finally delivered him. (An almost similar fate happened to his brother, the Archduke Franz, who was eventually rescued by a carré of his regiment.)

The drivers of the munitions wagons used their horses to make good their escape, swiftly followed by the gunners, who cut the harnesses between horse and cannon before they dashed bareback to the rear, abandoning their field pieces. This mad cavalcade hacked down anyone who dared to put himself into their path. Many officers were killed that way, and the panic took on incredible proportions. Everyone ran, cursed, prayed, fired or died. Houses were plundered, women raped, and villages went up in flames. The path of panic was strewn with discarded muskets, saddles, tents, dead horses, and all the jetsam of a defeated army. It was only much later that the generals managed to put a halt to the mad flight. The Austrian army was in shambles, the shock which followed the devastation was stunning.

Two days later, the Grand Vizier and his army finally showed up before Karansebes. They didn’t find an Austrian army. They did, however, find some 10,000 dead and wounded Austrians whose heads were speedily lopped off by the Turks.

Afterwards

Following the debacle at Karansebes, the Emperor sent a note to his brother: ‘I know not how to continue. I have lost my sleep and spend the night with dark thoughts.’

In a dispatch to his chancellor Kaunitz, the Emperor wrote: ‘This disaster which our army suffered due to the cowardice of some units is incalculable for the moment. The panic was everywhere, among the army, among the people of Karansebes, and all the way back to Temesvar, a good ten leagues from there. I cannot describe in words the terrible rape and killing that went on.’

Only the bravery of Count Kinsky and his cavalry regiment stopped the rider hordes of the Turkish Pasha from annihilating the Austrian army after Karansebes. Later that fall, the old Laudon re-established order in the army and led Austria to a series of victories. Then came winter. The Emperor was near death. This ended the campaign of 1788.

In the spring of 1789, the young Selim III ascended to the throne of the Sultanate and led his army into war. But this time the Turks bit into a stone in the person of Marshal Laudon, who made short shrift of their attempt and pushed them out of the Banat. The Danube became once again an Austrian river. While this combat was still raging, Emperor Joseph II died with these final words: ‘All I wish for is a durable peace over all of Europe.’

History: Joseph II and the Myth of Karansebes, 1788

Murat’s End

The Battle of Tolentino by Vincenzo Milizia. The Battle of Tolentino was fought from 2–3 May 1815 near Tolentino, Kingdom of Naples in what is now Marche, Italy: it was the decisive battle in the Neapolitan War, fought by the Napoleonic King of Naples Joachim Murat to keep the throne after the Congress of Vienna. The battle was similar to the Battle of Waterloo. Both occurred during the Hundred Days following Napoleon’s return from exile and resulted in a decisive victory for the Seventh Coalition, leading to the restoration of a Bourbon king.

News of Napoleon’s return had arrived at the Congress of Vienna on 7 March and initially the delegates treated it as a joke. But very soon it became clear that the joke was on them, and they agreed a joint statement proclaiming Napoleon an ‘Outlaw’ and declaring war on him personally. The entire continent was now committed to defeat and destroy Napoleon and his army once and for all. However, mobilising troops that had already marched home, and even disbanded in many cases, was not going to be an easy task. Even so, Spain, Austria, Russia, Prussia, Britain and a host of smaller countries signed the agreement to supply troops to this renewed pan-European effort to oust Napoleon.

The Ottoman troops returning to reclaim their hold on Serbia sparked a short but bloody revolt in April 1815, which led to negotiations and the establishment of an informal self-governance under the nominal control of the Sultan.

The war may have ended in April 1814, but Marshal Joachim Murat, as King of Naples, had felt so insecure on his throne, despite Austrian protestations of support, that he continued to build up his forces during the ensuing peace, whilst all other countries were actively dismantling their wartime establishments. Relations with Sicily remained frosty, with the flames of insurrection still persisting in the Calabrian mountains, reputedly fanned by recently disbanded Neapolitan troops, still retaining their arms, being transported from Sicily to the mainland by Ferdinand. Murat also continued to liaise with other factions throughout the peninsula that were seeking a united Italy, in the belief that Napoleon, unable to remain quietly on Elba for long, would seek to head a drive for Italian unification. Despite his recent treason, Murat remained hopeful that Napoleon would forgive him and utilise his forces to achieve their joint goal.

When news of Napoleon’s escape did arrive, Murat was quick to assure the British government that he still wanted peace, but when he learned that the Emperor was back in control in Paris, he immediately offered him his services. He dreamt of marching northwards with an army of 40,000 men, gathering support as he went, and driving the Austrians back over the Alps before establishing a unified ‘Kingdom of Italy’. Napoleon was initially hopeful of persuading the allies to allow him to reign peacefully in France, and the proposal from Murat could not have arrived at a more delicate moment. Even before Napoleon had a chance to reply, Murat, always impulsive, launched his attack, declaring war on Austria on 15 March. This unwelcome news shattered any hope Napoleon had of gaining a peaceful settlement, even if it had been a genuine desire on his part. It inevitably appeared to the allies that Murat was working in coordination with Napoleon, no matter how loud his protestations to the contrary.

Leaving Naples in the hands of his wife Caroline, with 10,000 troops to provide garrisons for his strongholds, Murat marched north with an army of 40,000 men and fifty-six guns. His inexperienced and poorly trained army left Naples on 17 March in two columns, one of which was to march into Tuscany via Rome, whilst the other advanced towards Bologna via Ancona. On the approach of Murat’s army, Pope Pius VII fled to safety in Genoa.

Murat’s troops met virtually no opposition to their advance and were warmly received by the populace, but worryingly, few actually sought to join his crusade. The small Austrian detachments retreated before the Neapolitans, and Murat was able to concentrate his whole force again at Bologna. The first part of his plan had now been achieved. At Bologna, however, Murat received disquieting news. General Macfarlane was reportedly preparing an Anglo-Sicilian force to land in Naples from Sicily, in his rear, and reports of the approach of two Austrian armies, one under General Neipperg with 16,000 troops and the other under General Bianchi with 30,000, caused him to hesitate.

An encounter with Bianchi’s force took place at Carpi, where the Neapolitan troops were forced out of the town, but then maintained a steady defence on the river line behind the town. Murat began to dream of victory, but the loss of the bridge at Occhobiello caused the complete collapse of his defences and a precipitate retreat followed, allowing the two Austrian armies to combine at Bologna.

Murat considered offering battle here but, receiving news that further Austrian reinforcements were at hand, and with the growing realisation that a popular rising in support of a unified Italy was not going to happen, he retreated into Naples. Fighting a string of rear-guard actions, some successful and others less so, the army retired to Tolentino, where battle was offered on 3 May and Murat’s army was completely destroyed. In the disorganised retreat that followed, many men deserted to return to their homes, and by the time Murat arrived at Capua he had barely 12,000 troops with him. Further news that the Anglo-Sicilian force was ready to cross the Straits confirmed that the situation was untenable and Murat handed command to General Carascosa and ordered his ministers to carry out negotiations.

Arriving at Naples on 18 May, Murat learnt that Bianchi had refused to negotiate and was determined to oust him from his throne, whilst a British squadron lay in Naples Bay ready to disembark troops. Caroline had already been forced to surrender all the shipping in the bay, including two Neapolitan ships of the line, to HMS Tremendous when the British ship threatened to bombard the city. Beset from all sides, Murat fled the following night, with as much money and jewellery as he and his small entourage could carry, and successfully crossed to Ischia on a fishing vessel; from here he secretly secured his passage on the Santa Caterina to Cannes, arriving there on 25 May. He remained there, ignored by Napoleon but still hoping to be recalled to his side, reading about the Emperor’s exploits in Belgium. Murat’s presence during the Waterloo campaign may well have been decisive, but Napoleon did not trust him. Naples was quickly defeated, but the fortress of Gaeta held out and was formally besieged by Austrian forces, eventually capitulating on 8 August.

But then came the disaster of Waterloo and the fall of Paris, and the ‘White Terror’ spread across the country,in which royalists sought out prominent Bonapartists; the lucky ones were arrested, but many others were massacred by the mob. Worried for his own safety, Murat moved to Toulon. Here, he arranged a safe passage on a Swedish merchant vessel and had the majority of his goods and treasure loaded on board, but for some unexplained reason he then failed to catch the vessel himself before it sailed, leaving him bereft. He was now living in terror of being discovered and wandered aimlessly along the coast, sleeping under the stars and living off stolen fruit, until he happened upon a group of veterans and ex-naval men who sought to help him. On the night of 22 June they sailed in a small coaster they had hired, but a storm caused them to transfer to a packet ship bound for Bastia. On arrival, the group quickly raised suspicions and the ex-navy men were arrested; Murat fled and was secretly housed by a retired Corsican officer. When his presence was betrayed, ten gendarmes were despatched to arrest him, but the villagers sounded the tocsin and defended him en masse, causing the gendarmes to retire in haste.

Despite the rush to arms, the conference at Vienna had continued to sit until it finally disbanded on 9 June, just before the fighting actually began. Before it broke up it reached agreement on many issues, a number of which impinged on the situation in the Mediterranean. Austria regained the Illyrian provinces and Ragusa, as well as Lombardy and Venetia in northern Italy; the Grand Duchies of Tuscany and Modena were reinstated with Hapsburg princes at their head; the Papal States, minus Avignon, were restored to the Pope; Piedmont, Nice and Savoy were reinstated to the King of Sardinia, and the former Republic of Genoa was also added to his kingdom; the Duchy of Parma was given to Napoleon’s ex-wife Marie Louise; and Ferdinand was reinstated as King of Naples and Sicily, Murat having lost his crown by siding with Napoleon once again.

The Battle of Waterloo, of course, occurred on 18 June. Defeated, Napoleon abdicated again on the 24th and Paris surrendered on 8 July. Napoleon was exiled again, this time to St Helena, where he eventually died six years later, on 5 May 1821.

There was little further fighting in the Mediterranean, as the renewed war was mercifully short, but there are a few incidents worthy of note. On 30 April, for example, the 74-gun Rivoli, now a British ship, encountered off Ischia the French frigate Melpomenne, which had so recently failed to prevent Napoleon escaping from Elba. She was sailing to Naples, where she was due to collect Madame Mere, Napoleon’s mother, and transport her to France. The outcome was not in doubt and the frigate was forced to surrender having exchanged broadsides with her much more powerful adversary for a mere quarter of an hour.

On 17 June the Pilot (18 guns) encountered the Legere (22 guns) off Cape Corse. The French ship was beaten with the loss of twenty-two killed and seventy-nine wounded (nearly half the crew), but escaped when the Pilot lost steering and could not manoeuvre to force her opponent to strike her colours.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant Colonel Sir Hudson Lowe was despatched from Belgium in May 1815, having apparently fallen out of favour with Wellington, to command the British troops at Genoa, whilst General Macfarlane was in Sicily. Lowe received instructions on 29 May that he was to refuse to combine his operations with either the Austrians or the Sardinians in any proposed invasion of France over the Alps. He was instead to assist in the liberation of key strategic ports in the south of France in the name of the King of France. He was to cooperate fully with Admiral Lord Exmouth and the British navy in seaborne operations with this aim.

Exmouth possessed a huge cache of arms with which to supply royalist insurgents in the south of France, and the British remained ready to act if the mobs in Toulon or Marseilles declared for the king, but at no time must they leave Genoa so poorly defended that it might be in danger of being lost.

Lowe finally arrived at Genoa on 16 June to find that Macfarlane’s troops would not return for some weeks yet and that he had sent advice to Lowe to proceed with caution. Lord Bathurst had, however, written to Lowe from London to insist that he acted independently of Macfarlane and the Austrians, which he did.

Lord Exmouth arrived with his squadron off Genoa having received news that Marseilles had declared for the king and that the rest of the south of France, with the notable exception of Toulon, was strongly royalist. Therefore, Lowe embarked 3,000 troops4 on board Exmouth’s squadron and sailed for Marseilles on 4 July. The convoy arrived safely at Marseilles on 14 July, having observed on their passage the royal standard flying everywhere except Antibes and Toulon. Lowe quickly assessed the situation and sent off requests for reinforcements, mules, tents and siege artillery to be sent. This would allow him to besiege the city of Toulon, which was garrisoned by some 5,000 troops under Marshal Brune. Unfortunately, few additional troops or mules could be spared and there was no siege artillery available to send, but an Austrian army under General Nugent with some 6,000 men had recently arrived at Genoa and was about to be shipped to Savona; this force could be diverted to support Lowe’s operations.

When Marshal Brune was summoned to surrender, he acted erratically. Initially he asked to be allowed to surrender on similar terms to the recent convention at Paris, and then he appeared to be ready to surrender on 24 July (on condition that he would pledge allegiance to the king but would be allowed to continue to fly the tricolour!), but three days later a cannon shot just missed a British frigate and negotiations were suspended. Lowe moved troops onto the hills surrounding Toulon and into the outskirts of the city. Finally, an agreement was signed, under the terms of which the royalist and British troops would be allowed to take control of the city and its fortresses. It was agreed that Brune could leave and go wherever he wished within France, and that those French regiments particularly loyal to Napoleon could march out of the city. On 1 August Lord Exmouth sailed his ships into the harbour and the city was handed over, but Lowe did not stay to witness the event, for that very day he received notification of his new job as custodian of the ex-Emperor Napoleon, whose destination was yet to be decided, and he was to return to London as soon as possible.

News of an insurrection on Corsica, and the arrival there of Murat, led to a detachment of British troops being ordered to the island under General Montresor to aid the rebels in ousting the French, but they did not actually go there as events had moved on5 and most of the rest of the troops were then sent back to Sicily or Gibraltar.

Left in peace on Corsica, Murat convinced himself that if he landed in Calabria, the country would rise immediately in his support. In mid-September he marched to Ajaccio, gathering some 400 recruits on the way, and seized the shipping in the port in preparation for his landing in Calabria. Just as he completed his preparations, however, a Mr Macirone arrived from Paris, offering Murat safe passage and an offer from Metternich, the Austrian Foreign Minister, for a safe residence within Austria for him and his family; as a sign of good faith, Macirone had brought with him the valuables that had so mysteriously sailed on the Swedish ship without Murat.

Murat mistakenly thought that Caroline had abandoned him and this bitter belief, although completely wrong, seems to have set him on the road to final destruction. He refused Macirone’s offer and thought only of his daring enterprise. On the night of 28 September his little expedition sailed on six small vessels, but storms and desertions caused three of the ships to leave him, halving his little force. Finding that his men had lost heart, he talked of making his way to Trieste and accepting Metternich’s offer; he then sailed his ship alone to Pizzo, where the captain assured him he could exchange it for a larger vessel, to make his way to Trieste.

Arriving at Pizzo, Murat changed his mind yet again and landed in full uniform with twenty-six of his men. Marching into the market square, his escort proclaimed him king. After a few moments of incredulity, the crowd turned nasty and threatened the Corsicans with their knives; one Corsican was killed and most of the others wounded in the ensuing scuffles. A woman struck Murat full in the face, declaring ‘You talk of liberty and you had four of my sons shot!’ The Corsicans retreated to the harbour only to find that their vessel had already fled and they were all captured, Murat bleeding from a cut on his forehead.

A detachment of troops arrived, led by General Nunziante, and Murat was questioned. He denied attempting to start an insurrection and stated that he intended to travel to Trieste under the protection of the Emperor of Austria. He was tried by court-martial on 13 October, but refused to enter a plea or make any defence. He was found guilty by a unanimous verdict and sentenced to be shot within the hour. He wrote a last letter to his wife and children, before being marched into the courtyard of the castle. He refused a blindfold and ended with the words ‘Soldiers, do your duty. Fire at the heart, but spare the face.’ He fell dead, pierced by six balls, one of which struck his right cheek, and was buried in a common grave in the churchyard of Pizzo, perhaps the final casualty of the war.