Austrian Artillery at Sadowa 1866


Austrian Troops


“The last stand.” Artillery units sacrifice themselves to cover the retreat of the Austrian army on July 3, 1866 at Königgätz/Sadowa, the battle that established Prussian/German hegemony in Central Europe.

The Austro-Hungarian artillery was a lot better there than the Prussian. Without the bravery of the Austrian artillery the battle would have ended as a bigger disaster than it already was. The Austrian guns were more efficient and shot “at the point”. Archduke Wilhelm as Inspector General of the Artillery did best work in the days before the battle. Most of the 700 guns were dug in and had pre-measured shooting-plans. The breechloading rifles were a cause for the high rate of dead and wounded but they were not the reason for losing the battle by the Austrians.

In contemporary military opinion, the Austrians were greatly superior in all arms to their adversary. Their rifle, though a muzzle-loader, was in every other respect superior to the Prussian needle-gun, and their M.L. rifled guns with shrapnel shell were considered more than sufficient to make good the slight advantage then conceded to the breech-loader. The cavalry was far better trained in individual and real horsemanship and manoeuvre, and was expected to sweep the field in the splendid cavalry terrain of Moravia. All three arms trained their men for seven years, and almost all officers and non-commissioned officers had considerable war experience. But the Prussians having studied their allies in the war of 1864 knew the weakness of the Austrian staff and the untrustworthiness of the contingents of some of the Austrian nationalities, and felt fairly confident that against equal numbers they could hold their own.

The Austrian Army was maintained by a conscription system which allowed the buying of substitutes. The Army as a whole was not as homogeneous as the Prussian, taking in units from across the empire and it was not as well organized, having no Divisional level of command. The peacetime organization consisted of seven Army Corps, each of 4 brigades, plus cavalry and artillery. For the Austro Prussian war this was expanded to 10 Corps, resulting in considerable disorganization.

Infantry were armed with a muzzle¬-loading rifle. This out ranged the Prussian needle gun but was much slower to load. Moreover, since a soldier was only allowed 20 practice rounds per year, the standard of accuracy was appalling.

Artillery was strong. All guns were rifled and had an effective range of about 2000 paces, again out ranging the Prussians.

The Austrian plan in 1866 was to use interior lines of communication to concentrate and destroy the Prussian forces piecemeal, in classic Napoleonic form. Benedek, the Austrian commander, decided to make his stand at Sadowa, approximately 10 miles west of the Elbe River, which constituted a major obstacle. The Elbe had one permanent bridge and one pontoon bridge, which was anchored on the fortress city of Koniggratz (from which the battle takes its name). This latter bridge could provide a withdrawal route for the Austrians should it be required. In order to hold this defensive position, Benedek deployed 215 000 infantry and 750 guns.

The Prussian 1st Army made contact with the Austrian position at 0400 hrs on 3 July. The commander of 1st Army had decided to commence his attack at 1000 hrs after his troops had been rested and fed. This was over-ruled by von Moltke. A delay in attacking and fixing the Austrians might allow them to slip away before 2nd Army could encircle them. Von Moltke instead ordered 1st Army to attack immediately. Unfortunately, von Moltke had no way of knowing that the Austrians had no intention of withdrawing; this unprepared attack would play right into their hands. The battle ebbed and flowed and degenerated into a confusing morass as commanders lost control of their troops. For a time, the Prussians thought that the battle was lost, but von Moltke was unshaken. By noon, 2nd Army threatened the Austrian right; the Austrians were forced to mount costly counterattacks against massed rifle fire in order to delay the Prussians long enough to enable a withdrawal across the River Elbe. Shortly after the battle, the Austrians conceded defeat and sued for peace. Von Moltke’s doctrine had been a success.

After the war, the Prussians went back to study their own effectiveness to see if there were any lessons to be learned. As a result, they moved their artillery from the rear of its columns to the front and deployed their cavalry well forward to conduct reconnaissance. Within four years, the Prussians would be at war again. This time, with the French.


Ernest Gideon, Freiherr von Laudon


Laudon in victory pose at the Battle of Kunersdorf, 1878 portrait. Baron Ernst Gideon von Laudon (German: Ernst Gideon Freiherr von Laudon (originally Laudohn or Loudon) (February 2, 1717 – July 14, 1790) was an Austrian generalisimo, one of the most successful opponents of the Prussian king Frederick the Great, allegedly lauded by Alexander Suvorov as his teacher.

Austrian Lieutenant-colonel (1756-57), Colonel (1757-58), Feldmarshall Lieutenant (1758-59), Feldzeugmeister (1759-78) born February 2, 1717, Tootzen, Livonia died July 14, 1790, Neutitschein, Moravia

Loudon was the son of Petrol Gerhard von Loudon, a lieutenant-colonel, retired from the Swedish service and of Sofia Eleonore von Bornemann. His family was of Scottish origin and had settled in Livonia before 1400.

In 1732, Loudon was sent into the Russian army as a cadet.

In 1734, during the War of the Polish Succession, Loudon took part to the siege of Danzig by Field Marshal Münnich.

In 1735, Loudon accompanied the Russian corps who marched to the Rhine.

In 1738 and 1739, Loudon participated to the war against Turkey.

In 1741, dissatisfied with his prospects in the Russian army, Loudon resigned from the Russian service and sought military employment elsewhere. He applied first to Frederick II of Prussia who declined his services. Finally, thanks to his relations with Lieutenant-colonel Franz von Trenck, Loudon was enlisted in the Austrian army as captain in the famous Trenck’s Pandour Corps.

In 1744, Loudon fought with Trenck’s unit in Alsace where he was wounded and taken prisoner. He was shortly released by the advance of the main Austrian army.

In 1745, Loudon saw active service, once more under Trenck, in the Silesian Mountains. During this campaign, he greatly distinguished himself as a leader of light troops. On September 30, Loudon was present at the battle of Soor. Later, he had a conflict with Trenck, left his unit and went to Vienna.

In 1746, Loudon was appointed captain in the Karlstädter Infantry Regiment, a unit of Grenzers (frontier light troops). He spent the next 10 years with this unit in the Carlstadt district. At Bunich, where he was stationed, he built a church and planted an oak forest now called by his name.

In 1753, Loudon was promoted lieutenant-colonel. With his Grenzers unit, he served under Browne.

Before the beginning of the campaign of 1757, Loudon was promoted colonel. In August, he repeatedly distinguished himself while conducting guerrilla operations against the Prussian army during its retreat from Bohemia.

In 1758, Loudon became a knight of the newly founded Order of Maria Theresa. During the Prussian invasion of Moravia, he got his first opportunity to act as commander of an Austrian corps. On June 30, by his action at Dormstadtl where he destroyed a Prussian supply convoy of 4,000 wagons, he forced Frederick II to abandon the siege of Olmütz and to retire into Bohemia. Three days later, Loudon was rewarded with the grade of Feldmarshall Lieutenant (roughly equivalent to lieutenant-general). After the battle of Hochkirch where he showed himself an active and daring commander, Loudon was created a Freiherr (baron) in the Austrian nobility by Maria Theresa and in the peerage of the Holy Roman Empire by her husband the Emperor Francis. Furthermore, Maria Theresa gave him the Grand Cross of her order and an estate near Kuttenberg in Bohemia.

In 1759, Loudon was placed in command of the Austrian contingent sent to join the Russians on the Oder. He advanced into Neumark and made his junction with the Russian army of Saltykov. On August 12, they both won the battle of Kunersdorf but failed to pursue the Prussians. After this victory, Loudon was promoted Feldzeugmeister (general of infantry) and made commander-in-chief in Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia.

At the battle of Landeshut on June 23 1760, Loudon destroyed an entire Prussian corps led by Fouqué. He also stormed the important fortress of Glatz (present-day Kłodzko). On August 15, he sustained a reverse at Frederick’s hands in the battle of Liegnitz, which action led to bitter controversy with Daun and Lacy, the commanders of the main army, who, Loudon claimed, had left his corps unsupported.

In 1761, Loudon operated in Silesia in conjunction with a Russian corps. All attempts against Frederick’s entrenched camp of Bunzelwitz failed. However, on the night of September 30 to October 1, he succeeded in the storming of Schweidnitz. His tireless activity continued to the end of the war, in conspicuous contrast with the temporizing strategy of Daun and Lacy. The last three years of the war are marked by an ever increasing friction between Daun and Loudon.

After the peace, when Daun became the virtual commander-in-chief of the army, Loudon fell into the background. Offers were made, by Frederick II amongst others, to induce Loudon to transfer his services elsewhere. Loudon did not entertain these proposals. When Lacy succeeded Daun as president of the council of war, Loudon was made inspector-general of infantry. Dissensions, however, continued between Loudon and Lacy, and on the accession of Joseph II, who was intimate with Lacy, Loudon retired to his estate near Kuttenberg.

In 1769, under the influence of Maria Theresa and Kaunitz, Loudon was appointed commander-in-chief in Bohemia and Moravia. He assumed this function for three years.

In 1776, Maria Theresa repurchased his estate near Kuttenberg on generous terms. Loudon then settled at Hadersdorf near Vienna.

On February 27 1778, Loudon was finally appointed Feldmarshall. At the outbreak of the War of the Bavarian Succession, Emperor Joseph and Lacy reconciled to Loudon. Lacy and Loudon then commanded the two armies in the field. However, the performance of Loudon during this war did not stand to his reputation. For two years after this Loudon lived quietly at Hadersdorf.

In 1779, other Austrian generals having suffered important reverses against the Turks, Loudon was called for the last time into the field. Though old and broken in health, he was commander-in-chief in fact as well as in name and won a last brilliant success by capturing Belgrade in three weeks (October 8).

In March 1790, Loudon received supreme command over the Observation army on the Prussian border. On July 14, he died at Neu-Titschein, his Moravian headquarters, while still on duty.

Austrian Army Spanish War of Succession





The Habsburg Empire dominated Germanic central Europe at the start of the eighteenth century, dwarfing its rivals in size, population, and military might. Prussia numbered only 1.6 million persons and Bavaria 2.0 million; the Habsburg lands held 11.0 million. In the first decades of the century, Habsburg armies under the skilful command of Prince Eugene of Savoy had fought well in the War of the Spanish Succession, and the peace treaties of 1714 gave the Habsburgs the Austrian Netherlands (Belgium) and Lombardy. Wars with the Ottoman Empire at the end of the seventeenth century had acquired the Kingdom of Hungary, including vast territories in Eastern Europe. Thus, in 1714 Vienna controlled lands from Brussels in the west to Milan in the south, Belgrade in the east, and Prague in the north—plus the crown of the Holy Roman Empire. This gave the Habsburg emperor Charles VI, who reigned from 1711 to 1740, daunting political problems. The heterogeneous, polyglot realm was united only by the person of the Habsburg monarch.

The forces maintained by the Austrian Habsburgs often operated in an Imperial Army, but on an organizational level it’s better to describe the Austrian Habsburg element separately. One can say that the Austrian army was founded when after the thirty years war the emperor decided to hang on to 24,500 men even though he was at peace. This new ‘standing’ army then first came into action in the war between Sweden and Poland (1655-1660). In 1663 and 1664 it fought the Turks, and after that it took part in the ‘Guerre de Hollande’ to 1679. Together with the Poles it then got the great victory over the Turks at the siege of Vienna in 1683. The subsequent campaign against the Turks led to conquest of Hungary by which Austria became a great power. The fact that the simultaneous campaign in the west ended less well was deplorable but not as significant as the annexation of Hungary. The support for the Austrian Army

The emperor could not follow the French example in reorganising his army. Unlike the French the emperor was not able to levy taxes at will, and he was therefore highly dependent on the Stände to grant him taxes. The recent success against the Turks had been gained by the support of allies like Bavaria and Prussia, the financial support of some Stände that were afraid of the Turks, and even the financial support of rich feudal lords that commanded in the emperor’s armies. The shortages had been paid by loans and subsidies (a. o. from the church). Apart from this the Habsburg state was not a model of efficient governance. The apparatus of Hofkammer, Hofkriegsrat, Stände and even local authorities each having their say about the army did not function smoothly at all, and led to a significant loss in the already small means that were allotted to the army. Prinz Eugen would personally oversee the reform of the army’s administration during the Spanish Succession War.

The Habsburg army would thus enter the war while at a serious disadvantage in matters like provisions, equipment and above all numbers. As regards innovation it was probably not more or less modern than other armies. In command however it probably ranks first. It had the incomparable Prinz Eugen, but also men like Starhemberg and Daun, and these again had an emperor and soldiers that trusted their judgement.

The transformation and rapid growth of the Austrian monarchy’s capacity for war as judged from its army transport services in the period between the mid-1750s and 1780 was certainly impressive when compared to the situation during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-13). Then, the Habsburg Empire’s supply system had a well-deserved reputation as `probably the worst in western Europe’.2 During the Austro-Ottoman conflict of 1714-18, Eugene of Savoy, despite his brilliance on the battlefield, struggled largely unsuccessfully against the weight of custom and long-established practice to introduce an element of cohesion and rationality into the Austrian military system. In spite of his thirty-three-year term as president of the Hofkriegsrat (Aulic War Council) between 1703 and his death in 1736, the general left a chequered legacy characterised overall by institutional stagnation or even regression, and it is generally agreed that he was a much better fighter than he was an administrator. Real progress was made only after 1749, as part of broader centralising reforms.

Eugene of Savoy, Belgrade’s temporary liberator in 1717, also acquired legendary and later mythical status in traditional European historiography. Yet if the personal qualities of an exceptional commander were on occasions crucial to success in individual campaigns and battles, more important than these exceptional individuals – who were not reproducible and unlikely to emerge more than once a century – was the strength of the underlying military systems. After Eugene’s brilliant successes against the Ottomans in back-to-back campaigns, one defensive (at Petrovaradin in 1716) and the other offensive (against Belgrade in 1717), his successors’ failure twenty years later in the anti-Ottoman wars of 1737-9 to match his record can be attributed only in part to poor leadership. The problems besetting the early-eighteenth-century Austrian army were above all organisational, linked to the inadequacy of their military planning process and the ad hoc and unreliable systems for delivery of basic supplies to the army. The failures in Austria’s military systems were cruelly exposed in the first and second Silesian wars of 1740-2 and 1744-5 respectively, which revealed unresolved problems arising from the related issues of institutional fragmentation, poor communications, and a lack of centralised planning. These resulted in serious military inefficiencies that undermined battlefield performance.

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.


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.

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.


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.