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The newly appointed 26-year-old commander in chief of the French Army of Italy arrived at his headquarters in Nice on March 27, 1796. Scar-lipped Jean Mathieu Philibert SŽrurier, adventurous Pierre Franois Charles Augereau, and calculating AndrŽ MassŽna were all smirking as they prepared to meet this political soldier who had gained his rank not by heroism in war, but by firing his cannons at the Parisian mob, thereby saving the Revolutionary government–and by marrying the discarded mistress of Paul Barras, an influential member of France's executive Directoire.
The youthful commander, who according to one contemporary looked more like a mathematician than a general, eagerly showed the portrait of his beautiful new wife, Josephine de Beauharnais, to the amused older soldiers. When he began to discuss the campaign to come, however, their impression of General Napoleon Bonaparte abruptly changed. Augereau confided to MassŽna that this 'little bastard of a General' frightened him. All three divisional generals were impressed by their commander's energy and commitment to their future success. 'He put on his General's hat,' recounted MassŽna, 'and seemed to have grown two feet. He questioned us on the position of our divisions, on the spirit and effective forces of each corps, prescribed the course we were to follow, announced that he would hold an inspection on the morrow and on the following day attack the enemy.'
The Army of Italy that Bonaparte inherited was a ragged, disgruntled lot of soldiers short of pay, rations and supplies. On his arrival at Nice, young Bonaparte faced a mutiny of the 209th Demibrigade, which refused to move forward, claiming it had no money or shoes. The commanding general grasped the situation immediately as he addressed his dispirited men: 'Soldiers! You are hungry and naked; the Government owes you much but can give you nothing. The patience and courage which you have displayed among these rocks are admirable, but they bring you no glory–not a glimmer falls upon you. I will lead you into the most fertile plains on Earth. Rich provinces, opulent towns, all shall be at your disposal; there you will find honor, glory, and riches. Soldiers of Italy! Will you be lacking in courage or endurance?' The troops were immediately won over by Bonaparte's oratory, but the problems ahead were still formidable. The 37,000-strong French Army of Italy faced a total of 52,000 Austrian and Piedmontese troops, although for the moment, those enemy forces were separated by mountains–and mutual distrust.
The divisional commanders who presented themselves to Bonaparte made a redoubtable trio. At 53, the tall and gloomy SŽrurier was the eldest, with 34 years in the old Royal Army. In sharp contrast to SŽrurier was the 38-year-old Augereau, whose humble origins in the gutters of Paris did not prevent him from becoming one of France's most accomplished swordsmen, as well as an able tactician and popular commander. MassŽna, who previously had served with Bonaparte at Toulon, was already famous as the victor of the Battle of Loano and would prove to be one of Bonaparte's most capable generals. In addition to those three, Napoleon had brought with him from Paris Louis-Alexandre Berthier, who would become perhaps the best chief of staff in military history; the flamboyant cavalry Colonel, Joachim Murat; the artillery expert August FrŽdŽric Louis Viesse Marmont; the impetuous Jean Andoche Junot; and the faithful Geroud Christophe Michel Duroc. Already serving in the Army of Italy were other senior officers of whom more would be heard in the future: Jean Lannes, Jean-Baptiste BŽssires, Louis Gabriel Suchet, BarthŽlemy-Catherine Joubert and Claude Victor-Perrin Victor.
Opposing those French 'Heroes in Rags' was the Austrian commander in chief, 72-year-old General Jean Pierre Beaulieu, with some 19,500 soldiers dispersed farther north at Alessandria. The other two armies immediately facing the French consisted of the 11,500 Austrians under General Eugen Graf von Argenteau in Acqui and along a line of outposts from Carcare to Genoa; and the 20,000 Piedmontese troops under General Michel Colli strung out along a line from Ceva to Cosseria, where they were strengthened by an Austrian detachment under the command of General Johann Provera. Combined, those forces would have been overwhelming. Eager to take advantage of their divided state, Bonaparte immediately began to assemble his army to seize the offensive.
The French commander's primary objective was to destroy General Colli and drive Piedmont out of the war. Careful study of the maps with Berthier indicated that the town of Carcare, the central position, was the vulnerable link joining the troops of Piedmont and those of Austria. By concentrating his forces at that point, Bonaparte could attain numerical superiority over each of his isolated adversaries. MassŽna and Augereau were ordered to move on to Carcare. To achieve a successful attack, SŽrurier would create a diversion around Ormea to occupy Colli's attention. At the same time, 6,800 men under Generals Franois Macquart and Pierre Dominique Garnier would demonstrate before Cuneo, while Brig. Gen. A.E.F. de La Harpe's division would move toward Sasello, linking up with French Brig. Gen. Jean Baptiste Cervoni, who would continue his activity in Voltri.
All of those operations were intended to go into effect on April 15, but on April 10, the Austrians struck first, attacking Cervoni's isolated brigade at Voltri. Ironically, Beaulieu's attack actually helped Bonaparte. By revealing his true position, the Austrian commander showed himself to be too distant to offer any aid to Colli or Argenteau.
Although he had been taken by surprise, Cervoni managed a masterful retreat before Beaulieu's vastly superior force, while French Colonel Antoine Guillaume Rampon held off attacks by Argenteau's troops. The Austrian offensive was soon curtailed.
Ignoring Beaulieu, Bonaparte moved immediately against Argenteau, hoping to secure an initial victory that would give the French the freedom to attack Colli's Piedmontese troops. On April 12, 9,000 Frenchmen charged Argenteau's 6,000 surprised Austrians at Montenotte. While the 7,000 French under General La Harpe began a frontal attack on the Austrian position, MassŽna, at the head of Brig. Gen. J.F.X. de Menard's brigade, attacked the Austrian right flank. Argenteau ordered a retreat, but it turned into a rout, leaving him with only 700 men when he arrived at Dego. The Battle of Montenotte, Bonaparte's first victory, was complete. Captured enemy muskets were distributed among the thousands of French soldiers under Augereau's command.
Learning of Argenteau's defeat at Montenotte and finding Voltri abandoned by Cervoni, Beaulieu renounced his initial objective. His new goal was to join his troops with the remainder of Argenteau's soldiers at Dego, as well as with Colli's Piedmontese. Bonaparte, meanwhile, correctly deduced from his maps that Beaulieu would not cross the mountains, nor would he be a factor in the next few hours. The young French leader could therefore concentrate on his main objective, Colli's Army of Piedmont.
Assembling 10,000 men–Augereau's entire division and a portion of MassŽna's–Bonaparte directed them toward Ceva via Millesimo and Montezemolo. With the addition of SŽrurier's troops, who were ordered to envelop Colli's right, the French would have 25,000 soldiers to combat Colli's 20,000. Meanwhile, Generals La Harpe and MassŽna, with the remainder of MassŽna's division, marched across the hills to Dego to prevent Argenteau and his regrouping Austrians from interfering with the main French thrust against the Piedmontese army. Colli, meanwhile, had moved on Millesimo.
On the morning of April 13, Augereau struck the left wing of the Piedmontese forces at Millesimo. All had been going favorably as the French advanced upon Ceva until Augereau came upon the ruins of Cosseria Castle, where a small garrison of 900 grenadiers under Austrian General Provera was defying French attempts to dislodge them. Although Augereau won the Battle of Millesimo, Provera's continued resistance was causing MassŽna to delay his attack, which Bonaparte had instructed could begin only after Cosseria had fallen. A valuable 24 hours were lost.
The next morning, April 14, the situation improved. At noon, MassŽna's troops attacked Dego. During the assault, Murat led two squadrons of dragoons on his first charge in a major battle. His wild dash was so effective that he was later mentioned with honor in the victor's dispatch to the Directoire. MassŽna took most of the 5,000 Austrians prisoner, along with 19 guns. News also arrived of the long overdue surrender of Cosseria Castle, and Colli, at last, could be attacked openly. Leaving MassŽna to occupy Dego, Bonaparte retraced his steps westward with La Harpe, hoping to meet SŽrurier's division near the town of Ceva.
On the exposed French right flank, however, MassŽna's jubilant troops had left their positions to forage for food and plunder. In the early hours of April 15, the disorganized French army was surprised by five Austrian battalions under General Philipp Vukassovi«c, who had received orders erroneously commanding his appearance at Dego on the 15th instead of on the 14th.
The Austrian attack was catastrophic for the French. According to Lieutenant Phillippe-Paul SŽgur (who would later be Bonaparte's aide-de-camp), MassŽna himself narrowly escaped in his nightshirt from the bed of his paramour, Silvia Cepolini. MassŽna's men were routed and all their guns lost.
Once again, Bonaparte canceled his assault on Ceva. Urging on the reserve force and La Harpe's 8,000 cursing troops, he advanced to recapture Dego. During that attempt, his chief of battalion, Jean Lannes, fought with such reckless bravery that Bonaparte instantly promoted him to the rank of colonel. At a cost of another 1,000 French casualties, Dego again was secured.
Meanwhile, on the left flank, SŽrurier and Augereau succeeded in driving Colli back from Montezemolo to Ceva. From the heights of Montezemolo, the enthusiastic Bonaparte encouraged his men by remarking, 'Hannibal crossed the Alps; we have turned them!'
On April 16, Augereau made a premature assault on Colli's army at Ceva and was repulsed with heavy losses. Leaving La Harpe's men to garrison Dego, Bonaparte sent SŽrurier and MassŽna to join Augereau's attack. Colli, wisely noting the threat to his flanks, retreated to Mondovi. Bonaparte consolidated his forces to the left and opened a new line of communications along the Tanaro Valley to Ormea. Realizing that Bonaparte had cut him off from his Austrian allies, Colli strengthened his position at Mondovi by destroying the bridges and erecting stone fieldworks.
On April 21, SŽrurier's infantry charged Colli's position from the left, MassŽna moved up in front, and Augereau led the flank attack. During one skirmish, the most experienced French cavalry officer, General Henri C.M. Stengel, was mortally wounded. Murat, now leading the cavalry, threw back the Piedmontese and pursued them onto the plain.
The French victory at Mondovi was the turning point of a campaign that had begun just 10 days earlier. On April 23, as the French forces were advancing on Turin, King Victor Amadeus II asked for peace terms. On April 28, the Armistice of Cherasco ceded control of Piedmont to the French.
By brilliantly concentrating his forces at critical places and times, Bonaparte had driven one of his Austrian opponents into Lombardy, while forcing Piedmont to sue for peace. Through his cunning economy of force, tight security and the direction of every movement by galloping from column to column, the French commander had gloriously fulfilled the promises he had made to his men on March 27.
The French army then paused to reorganize. During that delay, Beaulieu evacuated Alessandria and crossed the Po River at Valenza. Bonaparte, having reinforced his army to 36,000 men by acquiring the troops of Generals Macquart and Garnier, also opened a new line of communications with French forces on the Col di Tende.
Bonaparte now faced a difficult problem: He had to cross the Po without a bridging train while facing Beaulieu's army. The French general-in-chief decided to cross at Piacenza, 50 miles from Valenza. MassŽna and SŽrurier would mount a diversionary operation at Valenza while a special Corps d'Elite of select grenadiers, commanded by General Claude d'Allemagne, rushed to Piacenza and established a bridgehead there.
On May 7, Colonel Lannes led d'Allemagne's advance guard of four battalions over to the north bank of the Po. Beaulieu received news of the crossing, however, and hastily dispatched Generals Antal von Lipthay and Philipp Vukassovi«c to counter the French. On the morning of May 8, d'Allemagne clashed with Lipthay.
During the following night, Beaulieu's converging columns came into violent conflict with French troops at Codogno, during which General La Harpe was killed by shots fired by his own men. Berthier, the chief of staff, took over command of the French, and Beaulieu ordered a full retreat over the Adda River at Lodi.
Although the fall of Milan was certain, Bonaparte pushed his men onward toward Lodi, hoping to finish off Beaulieu's force. The French arrived on May 10, hoping to finish off Beaulieu's force, to find the whole Austrian army safely across the Adda, leaving 10,000 men and a dozen cannons at the bridge as a covering force. A determined Bonaparte personally led the charge of grenadiers. The first charge failed, but a second effort was successful. 'It was only on the evening of Lodi,' Bonaparte recorded later, 'that I believed myself a superior man, and that the ambition came to me of executing the great things which so far had been occupying my thoughts only as a fantastic dream.' A few days later, in Milan, the French commander confided to Marmont, 'They [the Directoire] have seen nothing yet….In our days, no one has conceived anything great; it is for me to set the example.'
The Directoire, however, was already jealous of the young general's success. In a dispatch received the night of May 10, Bonaparte learned that they had decided to split command of the Army of Italy between himself and General Franois ƒtienne Christophe Kellerman. Bonaparte refused, explaining in a letter that one bad commander was better than two good ones. Accompanying his letter was another large convoy of plunder for the Directoire, which helped persuade them to back down. Kellerman graciously sent 10,000 reinforcements, together with his own son to serve on Bonaparte's staff.
One month and two days after opening the campaign, Bonaparte entered Milan to a hero's welcome. This popular acclaim did not last long, however, as hard cash, supplies and art treasures were plundered by the army and the French government. On May 22, Bonaparte left Milan, again in pursuit of Beaulieu, but returned to Milan and Pavia two days later to put down local revolts. That accomplished, the French stormed the town of Borghetto on May 30, scattering Beaulieu's forces. On June 1, Austrian scouts surprised him and his staff in the village of Valeggio, and he only escaped capture by vaulting over several garden walls, with one boot missing.
Exploiting the success at Borghetto, Augereau advanced on Peschiera, SŽrurier moved on Castel Nuova and then Mantua, and MassŽna seized Verona. Beaulieu retreated up the shores of Lake Garda to Trent, but 4,500 of his men were cut off and driven into Mantua. Mantua was an imposing fortress that was equipped with 316 guns and a garrison of 12,000 men. A French attempt to storm the city on May 31 was unsuccessful. By June 3, Mantua was fully invested by SŽrurier, Augereau, d'Allemagne, Lannes and General Charles Edouard Saul Jennings de Kilmaine's cavalry. During the next few weeks, Bonaparte collected art treasures from the Papal States and Tuscany. More important, he gathered large cannons from Fort Urban and other cities of Tuscany for the Mantua siege.
On June 29, Josephine joined her husband in Milan. On that same day, however, the first Austrian push to relieve Mantua began with Field Marshal Dagobert Sigismond Graf von WŸrmser taking command of Beaulieu's army and a force of 50,000 soldiers. WŸrmser's army advanced in three separate corps–one driving down the west shore of Lake Garda, another pressing down the east shore, and the third pushing through the Brenta Valley. On July 29, the central column pushed MassŽna out of Verona. Moving on the west shore of Lake Garda, Austrian General Peter Quasdanovitch was checked by Augereau at Brescia on August 1. The situation became so grave that Bonaparte ordered every available man to reinforce his northern front. The siege of Mantua had to be abandoned and the guns captured from Tuscany were spiked, buried and even left to the Mantua garrison, which was now free to operate and attack the French rear. A despondent Bonaparte now envisioned defeat.
As WŸrmser and Quasdanovitch advanced, however, they again offered the young French general an opportunity. If time would allow, he would attack each wing of the Austrian army before it could unite. While WŸrmser delayed at Valeggio for three days, Bonaparte planned his attack. On August 3, Augereau battled WŸrmser's advance guard near Castiglione delle Stiviere. For preventing both Lipthay and WŸrsmer from aiding Quasdanovitch, Augereau would later be titled the Duke of Castiglione.
On the same day, at Lonato, MassŽna was hotly engaged with Quasdanovitch, who lost one division. Bonaparte now threw all his troops upon WŸrmser. MassŽna's victorious soldiers were brought up on Augereau's left and SŽrurier's troops were to fall on WŸrmser's flank. On August 5, the three French divisions, totaling 30,000 men, attacked WŸrmser's 24,000 unsuspecting Austrians at Castiglione. The Austrians lost 20 cannons, 120 caissons, 1,000 prisoners and 2,000 killed and wounded. The survivors escaped only because the French were completely exhausted after three days of continuous fighting.
Once again, Mantua was besieged by 10,000 Frenchmen, while 3,000 men under General Kilmaine guarded Verona. The main French army of 33,000 men, led by Augereau, MassŽna and Charles Henri comte de Belgrande Vaubois, pursued WŸrmser.
WŸrmser gathered his 20,000 troops from Trieste and combined them with 25,000 men under General Paul von Davidovitch to defend Trent and the Tyrol. As the Army of Italy advanced up the Adige River, Vaubois and MassŽna forced back 14,000 of Davidovitch's troops at Rovereto on September 4. Bonaparte then learned that WŸrmser was on his way to relieve Mantua. On September 6, the advance into the Tyrol was canceled and the pursuit of WŸrmser resumed.
The Battle of Bassano on September 8 saw Colonel Lannes' troops burst through the Austrian lines, then storm into town. Murat's cavalry pursued the fleeing enemy and took 4,000 prisoners, 35 guns, five colors and two pontoon trains. Remnants of WŸrmser's beaten battalions fled toward Frious. Others, including WŸrmser himself, fought their way into Mantua on September 12. Those reinforcements raised the city garrison to 23,000 men but proved to be a mixed blessing because now there were more mouths to feed from rapidly dwindling food supplies.
Nevertheless, the French Army of Italy's situation remained difficult. Reinforcements were slow to arrive, and by October the French numbered 41,000 men. Of those, 9,000 under Kilmaine surrounded Mantua and 14,000 troops–including General SŽrurier–were sick. Bonaparte stationed Vaubois' 10,000 men at Lavis to block the Lake Garda approaches. MassŽna occupied Bassano and was in contact with Vaubois through the Brenta Valley. Bonaparte was with Augereau in reserve at Verona.
During that period of military inactivity, the French commander turned his attention to administrative matters and began the unification of Italy by establishing three new republics: the Cisalpine, centered on Milan; the Cispadene, combining Modena and Reggio; and the Transpadene, joining Bologna and Ferrara. Bonaparte eventually planned to unite those three states into a single North Italian Republic, but he faced hostility from various vested interests: the church, the nobility and the well-connected.
Those political problems were soon overshadowed when a new Austrian army of 46,000 men under Feldzeugmeister (General of Infantry) Joszef Alvintzy, Freiherr de Berberek, moved against the French. In November, 28,000 troops led by Alvintzy marched toward Bassano, and 18,000 under Davidovitch attacked Trent.
Vaubois was ordered to attack Trent, but he informed his commander that Davidovitch's forces were far stronger than anticipated. Bonaparte ordered Vaubois to hold his ground while he drove Alvintzy out of the Brenta Valley, after which he would fall upon Davidovitch's rear. Vaubois was routed by Davidovitch on November 4, however, and Trent and Rovereto also fell to the Austrians. Vaubois rallied his fleeing men at Rivoli.
Meanwhile, MassŽna gave ground to the advancing Alvintzy, who captured Bassano, Fontanove and Vicenza. MassŽna was ordered to fall back to the central position of Verona with Augereau. Joubert was ordered to reinforce Vaubois' shaken troops at Rivoli, who now numbered 13,000. Bonaparte personally visited Vaubois and issued the following rebuke: 'Soldiers! I am not satisfied with you; you have shown neither discipline, nor constancy, nor bravery; in no position could you be rallied; you abandoned yourselves to a panicky terror; you have allowed yourselves to be driven from positions where a handful of brave men should stop an army. Soldiers of the 39th and of the 85th, you are not French soldiers; General, Chief of Staff, cause to be written on the flags–'They are no longer of the Army of Italy!" The criticism hit home and Vaubois' chastened soldiers vowed to conquer or die.
During the next few days, Davidovitch did not move, but Alvintzy moved quickly on to Verona. Soon, 8,000 Austrians occupied Caldiero and Colognola. Bonaparte ordered Augereau to attack the right and MassŽna the left on November 12. After a bitter fight, they carried Caldiero and Colognola, but Alvintzy soon arrived with his main force and recaptured both villages. The Austrians took two cannons and 750 prisoners, and the French lost a total of 2,000 men. Bonaparte retired to Verona, having tasted his first defeat in the Italian campaign.
Faced with 50,000 men in his front and 23,000 men still at his rear in Mantua, a despairing Bonaparte wrote to the Directoire: 'Perhaps the hour of the brave Augereau, of the intrepid MassŽna, of my own death is at hand. We are abandoned in the depths of Italy.' Despite his own distress at the defeat, however, Bonaparte encouraged his troops by proclaiming: 'We have but one more effort to make and Italy is our own. The enemy is, no doubt, more numerous than we are, but half his troops are recruits; if we beat him, Mantua must fall, and we shall remain masters of everything.'
Once again, Bonaparte intended to attempt an attack on the enemy's rear like those he had successfully conducted against Beaulieu at Lodi and WŸrmser at Bassano. All available troops were rushed from Verona to seize Villanuova and with it Alvintzy's field park and lines of communication.
Leaving General Macquart with Vaubois' 3,000 men to defend Verona, Bonaparte set off on the night of November 14 to Ronco with 18,000 men. The morning of November 15 found a pontoon bridge built over the Adige River by French Chief Engineer Antoine-Franois comte AndrŽossey. Augereau was first to cross on his way to Arcola, while MassŽna followed and moved left to successfully take Porcile against Provera's Austrian advance guard. The great difficulty of the day arose when Augereau was faced at the Arcola bridge by two battalions of Croatian infantry, who had several guns well-situated to sweep the roadway. That check was destroying Bonaparte's timetable, and he was fast losing the element of surprise. Desperate, the commander in chief seized the colors and with banner flying led Augereau's men forward. In the fire and confusion, the young general fell into a canal, and only the devotion of his aides-de-camp saved him from the bayonets of an Austrian counterattack. French General Jean Joseph Guieu's troops finally captured Arcola at 7 p.m.–six hours too late. Alvintzy retreated from Verona to Villanuova. The opportunity to capture him had passed. The distressing news that Vaubois had been driven back to Bussolengo compelled Bonaparte to give up Arcola.
The next morning, lacking any news of Davidovitch's further movement, Bonaparte renewed the attack on Arcola. The Austrians had reoccupied Porcile and Arcola, but soon the French recaptured Porcile. On November 17, the French unleashed all their fury against Alvintzy's army, which was in two unconnected parts. MassŽna took Ronco, then lured the Austrian garrison out of Arcola and fell on it in an ambush, inflicting heavy casualties. Augereau pushed aside the other Austrian wing and joined MassŽna's victorious division. With his rear positions threatened, and having suffered 7,000 casualties in three days, Alvintzy retired to Vincenza. Bonaparte now turned his army toward Davidovitch. Seeing his peril, Davidovitch just escaped Augereau at Dolce on November 21, leaving behind 1,500 prisoners, nine cannons, two bridging trains and his baggage. So ended the third Austrian counteroffensive. Again, Bonaparte had masterfully used the strength of interior lines to engage in a vigorous offensive against divided exterior operating forces.
The French Directoire began negotiations with the Austrian emperor, but once the issue of sending provisions to Mantua was mentioned, those talks went no further. Meanwhile, the Army of Italy received more reinforcements and could put 34,500 men into the field in addition to the 10,000 men besieging of Mantua. Communication between the various detachments was improved by use of courier posts and cannon shots. The disposition of the French units had Joubert between La Corona and Rivoli on the east side of Lake Garda, MassŽna at Verona, Augereau south of Ronco on the lower end of the Adige River and General Louis Emmanuel Rey on the eastern shore of Lake Garda. SŽrurier returned to relieve the ailing Kilmaine at Mantua. Vaubois was relegated to the minor command of Leghorn.
On the Austrian side, Alvintzy had been reinforced in Bassano and now had 45,000 men. He launched diversionary attacks on Augereau on January 8, 1797, pushing him back on Legnano and clashing with MassŽna at Verona. Still, the Lake Garda sector remained suspiciously quiet. Bonaparte waited for news until Joubert reported that Alvintzy was advancing with 28,000 men to crush him in the Adige Valley. Leaving 3,000 men to garrison Verona, Bonaparte and the entire French army hurried north to Rivoli. As in the beginning of the campaign, the Italian terrain provided several good roads for the French to travel north, but the Austrians traveling south found only two roads on which to move troops and artillery, making maneuvering very difficult.
The Battle of Rivoli began at daylight on January 14 when Joubert advanced northward, only to be checked by the Austrians, who then began to outflank his left. Quasdanovitch was also threatening to seize the important Osteria Gorge, while General Franois-Joseph, Marquis de Lusignan's column closed in on Bonaparte's rear from the south.
Joubert, however, managed to drive the Austrians from the Rivoli heights, and Bonaparte's troops also secured the southern sector. Bonaparte then directed Joubert's realigned brigades to clear Quasdanovitch's troops from the Osteria Gorge. As the Austrians reeled back, the entire French army turned north, splitting the Austrian force in two. Reinforcements arrived under General Rey, and those soldiers, together with MassŽna's reserve brigade, captured 3,000 of Lusignan's Austrians in the south.
The battle was almost won when Bonaparte turned it over to Joubert in the evening as he and MassŽna hurried farther south to prevent Austrian General Provera's 9,000 men from breaking through to Mantua. SŽrurier's troops blocked Provera, and although WŸrmser attempted to break out on January 16, Provera found himself with Bonaparte and MassŽna in his rear, and was forced to capitulate. The fall of Mantua was complete on February 2, 1797, when the 30,000-man garrison–of which only 16,000 troops were able to march out–surrendered.
In five day's fighting, January 14Ð19, Bonaparte had reduced Alvintzy's and Provera's forces from 48,000 fighting men to 13,000 fugitives. The young French general had achieved his great objective, but now the Austrian Archduke Charles began assembling 50,000 troops in the Frioul and the Tyrol. Without waiting for reinforcements, Bonaparte planned a two-prong pre-emptive advance on Vienna. On March 1, Generals SŽrurier and Jean-Baptiste Jules Bernadotte forced the capitulation of Primolano. The town of Sacile on the Tagliamento River was taken on March 16 after Guieu, who replaced Augereau, and Bernadotte surprised the Austrians. MassŽna smashed Archduke Charles' army at Tarvis on March 22, and then Trieste, with its great arsenal, fell to the rapidly advancing French army. On April 18, the Preliminaries of Leoben were opened, and by October 17, 1797, the final Peace of Campo Formio was signed by Austria and France. Among the many concessions in the treaty, Austria agreed to recognize Bonaparte's creation of the new Cisalpine Republic, formed by uniting Milan, Bologna and Modena.
Bonaparte's mastery of the tactical offensive, his brilliant use of the central position, and his concentration of all forces at the right place and time thwarted four Austrian attempts to rescue Mantua. That concentration was achieved by the mobility of the French soldiers and the determination and fighting abilities of Bonaparte's lieutenants–MassŽna, Augereau, SŽrurier and Joubert, and the rising stars Murat, BŽssires and Lannes.
In his report to the Directoire from Milan on December 7, 1796, General Henri Jacques Guillaume Clarke, then chief of the Topographical Bureau in the Ministry of War, wrote of Napoleon Bonaparte: 'The General-In-Chief has rendered the most important services….The fate of Italy has several times depended on his learned combinations. There is nobody here who does not look upon him as a man of genius, and he is effectively that. He is feared, loved, and respected in Italy….A healthy judgment, enlightened ideas, put him abreast of distinguishing the true from the false….His manner of execution is learned and well calculated. Bonaparte can bear himself with success in more than one career. His superior talents and his knowledge give him the means….Do not think, Citizen Directors, that I am speaking of him from enthusiasm. It is with calm that I write, and no interest guides me except that of making you know the truth. Bonaparte will be put by posterity in the rank of the greatest men.'
This article was written by Jeremy Green and originally appeared in the April 1997 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!
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