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The Battle of Marengo, 1800. (The 11W Military History Series)

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JKH1232's picture
February 28, 2016 at 11:01am

I apologize for not posting this on Monday, as I said I would try to do in last week’s post.  Unfortunately, life got in the way, as it often does.  So, now, this week, we finally start coming to the end of the Revolutionary Wars- the Battles of Marengo, Hohenliden, the Treaty of Luneville, the League of Armed Neutrality and the Battle of Copehnagen, and finally the Peace of Amiens.  After that, of course, we still have a long way to go…

But, first, before we get to the end of the wars, we have to discuss, effectively, the end of the French Revolution.

The Coup of 18 Brumaire

The Directory, which had replaced the Committee for Public Safety and Robespierre, was not a government of ideals, but a government of self-interest.  In theory, it was a republic with a bicameral legislature and an executive committee of five men, with one director leaving every five years and 1/3 of the seats in both houses up for election every year.  In practice, however, the Directory ruled as a junta.  They were not afraid of using military force to interfere with, and overturn, elections, and used their positions as much for their own enrichment as anything else.

The Directory left the economy in poor shape, with paper fiat currency forcing the hoarding of hard money, and religious strife keeping rebellions and disorder in the countryside on a low boil in the best of times.  For years, the countryside was often beset with bandits, making travel and trade dangerous, and impeding the delivery of food from the countryside into the cities.  All in all, it was a rough time internally for France.

However, the Directory still held on to power largely by their ability to raise military power and win wars.  The Directory had finished the War of the First Coalition, and kept strong armies in peacetime to protect those gains.  However, 1799 had seen several reverses- the destruction of the French squadron at Aboukir and the loss of the French Egyptian Expedition, the Austro-Russian march across southern Germany and Northern Italy that destroyed French allies and brought armies to the border of France, and a British invasion of the Netherlands. 

These failures led to fear in France that the Directors were no longer up to the task.  In June of 1799, the legislators of France moved to replace a previously elected director with a Jacobin.  Following this move, Abbe Sieyes and Paul Barras, the strongest members of the directory, got the legislature to demand the resignation of their two remaining opponents in the Directory, and their replacement with men of their choosing.  This shuffling led to fears that the Jacobins would eventually lead a popular revolt to overthrow the directory.

It was into this tumult that Napoleon arrived in October, 1799.  Both sides courted his support, since he had enormous popular appeal and the support of the army.  Sieyes, in particular, courted his support for an anti-Jacobin coup that would make Sieyes, effectively, dictator of France.  Napoleon agreed to join Sieyes’ efforts, but had other plans for how it would turn out.  Over the course of October, troops and commanders loyal to Napoleon were deployed around Paris, under the guise of forming a new army for combat the next year.   

On November 9th, three of the five Directors, including Sieyes, resigned suddenly. This made it impossible for the Directory to conduct business.  At the same time, troops loyal to Napoleon gathered up the legislature and, under the guise of protecting them against a Jacobin rising, hustled them out of Paris.  Then, the troops made their move.  They arrested the other two Directors on the 8th, and, when the legislators refused to disperse, attacked them and broke up the government.  Sieyes and Napoleon declared the government over and done with, and established a convention to draw up a new constitution that would make Sieyes effectively dictator.

At least, that was Sieyes’ plan.  Napoleon did not go along with it so easily.  Instead, he proposed his own constitution.  This constitution would have a three man council of Consuls, with one Consul, the First, having most of the power in the executive.  It also created a very weak tricameral legislature.  The legislature had one house that wrote legislation, one house that debated that legislation, and then a third that voted on it with no discussion.  The members of each house was chosen by the Conservative Senate from lists proposed by voters.  The members of the Senate were, of course, chosen by the Consuls.   The Constitution basically allowed the Consuls to choose the legislature, and the decisions of the Consuls were largely determined by the First Consul.

 There were two people who were in position to assume the First Consul position- Napoleon and Sieyes.  Only one of them had an army.

The Italian Campaign of 1800.

Generally speaking, France was in rather dire strategic shape in 1800.  Even though the Russians had withdrawn from the Coalition after the 2nd Battle of Zurich, and the French had chased the British out of the Netherlands, the situation was still fairly rough for the French.  The British still held an expeditionary force off the coast of the Netherlands, and another off the south of France, and blockaded French ports.  The Austrians had mobilized two large armies, one in southern Germany, the other in northern Italy.  The French had an army on the Rhine, opposite the Austrian one, but the situation in Italy was more concerning.

Massena had been forced to abandon Switzerland as the Austrians marched into the western half of the Po River Valley.  He retreated south, towards Genoa, but was outnumbered by the Austrian army, under Melas.  He had about 35,000 men against the Austrian 100,000.  Massena’s army deployed to cover the passes into France and hold onto Genoa.  Melas, as the spring came, prepared to move into the Alps, cross them, and invade southern France once Genoa fell. 

Given the dire situation in Northern Italy, and his familiarity with the area, Napoleon, once he had settled the Constitution of France, took the army around Paris that he’d used in the coup and marched for Italy.  Given how far west Melas had gone, Napoleon had an opportunity.  He could cross the Alpine passes in the North, march quickly behind Melas, and threaten him from the rear.  This would force Melas to concentrate his forces and move east, relieving Genoa.  In fact, if Napoleon moved fast enough, he might be able to destroy the larger Austrian forces piecemeal, rather than in a major battle.  Napoleon crossed the Alps as soon as the passes were even remotely clear, and turned on Milan, a major hub for Austrian supplies.  On June 2nd he had marched into Milan, and turned towards the Po River, taking a position at Stradella.  He hoped that, by sitting astride the Austrian supply lines, Melas would have to attack him to keep the siege of Genoa open.

To oppose Napoleon’s arrival, Melas began concentrating his army at Alendressa.  His supply situation was far from critical at the moment, so he could keep his army in a strong position for the moment, rather than attacking Napoleon’s strong position at Stradella.  Melas’ position improved greatly on June 5th, however, when Genoa fell.  He could recall the besieging army to Alendressa, for one.  For another, it gave him options in his next move.  He could head east, to link up with the Austrian forces around Venice that had retreated in the face of Napoleon’s attack by trying to out maneuver Napoleon.  He could outright attack Napoleon’s army.  Or, he could head southwest towards Genoa, and use the port and the Royal Navy for supply.  This array of options forced Napoleon to abandon his strong position at Stradella, and move towards Alendressa.

Melas decided to move back east to rejoin with his troops in Venice, and rely on the British to keep Genoa open until he returned with more men.  He moved out of Alendressa as Napoleon began moving towards him  On June 9th, the advanced guards of the armies met at the Battle of Montebello. The French came away victorious in that fight, and Melas retreated back towards Alendressa, and Napoleon took up positions on the banks of the Bormida River opposite Alendressa, with the Po to his north.  Melas remained in Alendressa for a couple of days, planning his next move.

Melas originally planned to move to the north.  He would leave Alendressa, cross to the north bank of the Po, then maneuver to Napoleon’s north flank, cross the Po again, and attack Napoleon from the rear.  However, his scouts reported that Napoleon had already garrisoned the crossing points he wanted to use, so he came up with a different plan.  He would give his old plan to an agent, Francois Toli, who would deliver it to Napoleon.  When Napoleon moved to the north to counter it, Melas would cross the Bormida at Marengo, while his advance guard under Ott would cross the river against Napoleon’s center.  Mela’s main army would then turn north, and fall on Napoleon’s flank.

The ruse did not quite go as planned.  Napoleon had Toli’s report, but he also had a report of an Austrian force to the south.  So, he dispatched a column under Desaix to investigate the report of Austrians to the south, while settling his main army right in Marengo, in the path of Melas’ attack.  However, rather than call off the attack, Melas decided to go through with it.  However, his main body would serve as the pinning force, and Ott’s column would have to turn the flank.

The Battle of Marengo

When the Austrians made their move to cross the Bormida, Melas commanded 31,000 men, 23,000 infantry and 8,000 cavalry.  Before dispatching Desaix’s 6,000 men, Napoleon had roughly the same amount, but that column would leave him shorthanded around Marengo when the attack came.

Before dawn, Austrian engineers and scouts took up positions along the bridges at Marengo, and, at 8 AM, the Austrians marched across.  Melas’ advanced guard quickly swept away the forward positions of the French army, forcing a general retreat from the banks of the Bormida to a smaller river, the Fontanone, where more troops had established positions on defensible terrain around the villages and farms there.  At about 9:30, the first division across the river made an attack against the new French position, but it was repulsed by heavy fire and a swift counterattack.  At 10:30, the next division coming on line attacked further to the south of the earlier attack, but it met a similar fate. 

Before these attacks, neither Melas nor Napoleon had expected a major fight around Marengo.  Napoleon believed that the attack was a diversion for Melas’ main movement, while Melas did not expect as many troops in Marengo as he had found.  Once both commanders realized that the real fight was along the Fontanone by Marengo, they changed their plans quickly.  Napoleon recalled Desaix, and Melas put the spurs to Ott, urging a quick attack to turn the flanks.  Napoleon also ordered more troops, under Lannes, to reinforce Victor, who was bearing the brunt of the earlier attacks.

The main Austrian attack developed at noon.  The flank attack, under Ott, brushed aside the French picket force, and began turning against the northern flank of the French.  Lannes, the commander on that side, had to reshuffle his forces, and a gap in the French line developed between Lannes and Victor.  At 1300, Austrian engineers built a bridge across the Fontanone right in that gap, and a force broke into it, while the Austrian center mounted a sharp, and general attack. A sharp, back and forth, close range firefight and game of charge and counter charge developed along the Fontanone for the next hour, but pressure from Ott’s flanking attack forced Lannes and  Victor to retreat off the Fontanone after 1400. 

At 1500, in an effort to stave off defeat and secure a retreat for his army, Napoleon committed his guards against Ott’s forces, only to have them steamrolled.  The French center was forced to retreat again.  At this point, Melas believed victory was at hand- and, it was, more or less.  Since he had been wounded earlier in the fighting, Melas retired for the day, and ordered Kaim, who commanded the main force in the center, to form up and pursue the French.  The change in command, Kaim’s inexperience, and the disorder and exhaustion of the Austrian forces after eight hours of hard fighting and marching, meant that the reorganization into a pursuit column would take a long time.  That gave Napoleon a chance to reform his army on a hill, rally his men, and establish another line of defense.

One thing that made this possible was word from Desaix.  At 1600, Napoleon received word that the 6,000 men under Desaix would arrive in about an hour, and at 1700, before the Austrian pursuit arrived, Desaix’s men had shaken out into position astride the road the Austrian army was marching down, with more men to the north to ward of Ott’s men.  Napoleon concentrated his artillery at the point of expected attack.

The Austrian advanced guard contacted the fresh French troops, and began to shake out into an attack.  However, it did so under heavy cannonade.  In the disorder, Desaix made his attack.  The troops to the north, with no Ott in sight, fell on the flank of the long Austrian road column.  As Desaix’s attack developed on the Austrian advance guard, a force of heavy cavalry attacked the flank of the Austrian force, breaking the advance guard.  The headlong retreat of these troops ran down the Austrian column, spreading panic.  This panic was compounded by a further attack by Lannes from the north.  The direct rear of the Austrian column formed a rearguard to cover the retreat.  Ott’s forces also stayed in good order.  This allowed the remainder of the Austrian force to recover at the fortress at Alendressa, but the Austrians were soundly beaten.  6,000 or so Austrians lay dead, 8,000 were captured, against a French loss of only about 1,100.

At Marengo, a bit of luck helped Napoleon snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.  Had Desaix, who died leading the final attack, arrived just a little bit later, we might have a very different history.  However, that wasn’t the story Napoleon told.  Instead, he told a rather fabricated version of events, where his genius and audacity- and personal leadership in crisis- had won a great victory.   That story helped strengthen his hand against Sieyes back in France, and would eventually force Sieyes out of the consulship, to be replaced by someone more pliable.

The battle also drastically altered Austrian forces in Italy.  The day after the battle, Melas and Napoleon signed the Convention of Alessandra, which required Melas to retreat back to the east, and surrender most of northern Italy to the French.  However, the war would continue- the decisive action would come to the north.

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