Saturday, January 2, 2016

Arcola 1796

War of the First Coalition

 15-17 November 1796

French under Napoleon Bonaparte, approx. 14,000 rising to 19,000, 19 guns

Austrians under Baron Joszef Alvintzy, approx. 22,000, 48 guns

Weather: Cold, gloomy, damp. It had been raining and hailing for the previous days. Soggy ground.
Location: 45° 21’ 26” N, 11° 16’ 40” E   about 19 miles (30 km) southeast of Verona, northern Italy

First Light:  06:45   Sunrise: 07:17   Sunset: 16:46  End of Twilight: 17:18
Moon Phase:   Full  Moonrise: 17:34
(calculated for the location and date from U.S. Naval Observatory)

Bonaparte at the Pont-d'Arcole
by Antoine-Jean Gros
A crock of bull.
Arcola is a curious battle. It has been used as an example of Napoleon's early military genius, held up as the epitome of his much-studied First Italian Campaign. Many contemporary propaganda works were painted showing Bonaparte seizing the Tricolor to heroically lead the charge across the wooden bridge over the Alpone River into the heavily defended Italian town. Arcola was a watchword in his political momentum to seize ultimate power. He was the man of the hour, with clear eye and selfless courage, just what the flailing young Republic needed. And there is even a bridge over the Seine in Paris also called Pont d'Arcole in commemoration of that glorious triumph of French Republican virtue over Ancien Régime villainy. (Curiously, this latter bridge was itself the scene, ironically, of another battle fought against the restored Ancien Régime during the Revolution of 1830) So Arcola is important in the origin myth of the French Republic. It is also an important symbol for Napoleoniacs.

     Unfortunately for truth in history, it was a complete fiasco. Tactically, Bonaparte actually lost the battle. But he ultimately won the war, and won his way to dictatorship. Naturally, once he was on his way up, he completely rewrote the narrative of Arcola to turn it into a glorious victory, thanks, naturally, to his personal bravery and brilliant strategic insight. And his political allies at the time were more than ready to use it to their own ends.

     So this article will be from another point of view, a more obscure one. And is my wont, a more iconoclastic one.

  • Arcola vs Arcole. A note on matter of the spelling. While consistency isn't one of my many virtues, I have already received complaints from some purists that the correct spelling of the town and battle is Arcole not Arcola. While that is certainly the Italian name of the town, and while the French call it "Arcole" (and "Verona" "Verone," I might point out), David Chandler and nearly all English-speaking historians have traditionally spelled it "Arcola." Since we English-speakers also call it "Rome" vs "Roma," and "Germany" vs"Deutschland" and "Myanmar" "Burma," and even the very country in which this battle took place "Italy" vs "Italia," and since we (like all cultures) like to mangle the place names of other people's countries, I've decided to settle with the majority of anglophone historians and spell it "Arcola." Just so you know I'm doing it as a considered, editorial decision and not out of ignorance. So there.

     Before we get to the mayhem, I should explain the situation prior to the battle. It's a little complicated but, in order to appreciate what each side was trying to do, it's important. I'll try to make it as quick and simple as possible.This situation map should clear everything up.

     Okay, is that clear?
     Maybe just a little more elaboration, then.

The Situation

    When NapoleonI mean Bonaparte, since he wasn't called by his dynastic first name yettook command of the Army of Italy at the beginning of 1796, Revolutionary France was on its heels. It was losing the war on all fronts: Germany, Holland, and Italy. But after the twenty-six-year-old tyro slapped his veteran commanders and raggedy troops into line, and he began to give them a series of lightning fast victories, things started to change. By the fall of that year he had knocked out a combatant power, the Duchy of Piedmont, and all but driven the Austrians out of Northern Italy. By late summer, two Austrian rescue armies had been driven successively into the fortress city of Mantua and all Bonaparte had to do was take that city and he'd have handed the new French Republic its first strategic victory, the conquest of Italy...or northern Italy anyway.

     In fact, he was the only general giving the Directory any victories at all. And the Revolutionary politicians in Paris were a little ambivalent. On the one hand they were delighted that they were winning somewhere at least, and delighted with all the loot Bonaparte was sending back from Italy. But they were also a little worried that they were riding on the back of a tiger. The first and last thing revolutionary regimes want is a successful military commander. He could (and, in fact, did) turn out to be another Oliver Cromwell or Julius Caesar. The Army of Italy was rather proud of itself and confident in the judgement of its new, young commander. However, that army was, after over a year of hard fighting and marching, wearing pretty thin. By the beginning of November it was down to about 41,000 men, of which an estimated 14,000 (according to David Chandler) were in the hospital. And the strategic situation had compelled Bonaparte to break up the rest into small detachments to cover Mantua and all the possible avenues of attack from Austria. So the young commander-in-chief was getting worried.

    In spite of Bonaparte's strident pleas, desperately needed reinforcements were not coming from France. All that came from Paris were orders for more and more looted art treasures and taxes on the increasingly infuriated Italians, who, while originally happy to be liberated from Austrian oppression, were now even more unhappy with French oppression. Taxation under the Hapsburg's had been relatively light compared to the French, and at least the Austrians hadn't been packing up Italian artworks and treasure and shipping them back to Vienna. The French Directory's hated commmissars, les représentants en mission, tasked with looting Italy in the wake of French victories, had made the French actively loathed. Much of Bonaparte's army, in fact, had been dissipated in putting down local resistance and protecting the hated tax collectors. So his available force was even thinner than the raw numbers on paper would suggest.

    Now it was about to get worse. Intelligence had alerted Bonaparte to the advent of yet a third rescue mission by the Austrians. With the unhelpful French armies in Germany in retreat, the Austrians were freed to dispatch new forces to the south to relieve their army bottled up inside Mantua and finally destroy the French in Italy. The new expedition was being led by Freheirr Feldzuegmeister (I do love Austrian ranks) Joszef Alvintzy who had split his command into two wings, one of some 18,400 under Feldmarschall-Leutnant Paul von Davidovich to come down from the Tyrol via the Adige valley, and 28,700 under his own direct command to advance from the northeast (see strategic map above.)
Joszef Alvintzy
I'm sure he was more affable in person.

The Austrian Plan
    The Austrian plan was to make a wide pincer movement. Descending into Italy from the northeast, Alvintzy's larger force was to crash across the Po plain, seize Vicenza, then Verona, and then head down to Mantua to relieve the 24,000 bottled up there. From the Tyrol, Davidovitch would pinch from the other direction, pushing down the Adige valleyf rom Bolzano through the Dolomite Mountains, distracting Bonaparte from that direction, and threatening his base at Verona from the back door. Alvintzy reasoned that Bonaparte, from his central but scattered position, could not simultaneously watch both doors and keep the 24,000 Austrians bottled up in Mantua at the same time. 

    Of course, mediocre military planners seem to love elaborate pincer movements--the double envelopment maneuver. They are so grand in the planning and in the imagination, as armies appear just in the nick of time from two different directions, throwing the enemy into despair. It all looks easy leaning over a map and moving little game pieces. It is always so much more problematic on the actual ground.

    There are two main problems with the pincer strategy: unless each jaw of the pliers has overwhelming force against the target in the center, it puts the "pinched" enemy in the advantageous position of defeating each of the enveloping armies in detail. The other problem, even bigger during an age when the only communication was by courier on a foamy horse, was that the two wings can't coordinate their maneuvers in a timely manner. The enemy in the centera position Bonaparte enjoyedhad far less distance to communicate to all of his parts and move them to the most threatened fronts. The envelopers meanwhile had to go clear around the circumference of the enemy's position (and in this case, through the snowy mountain passes) just to talk to each other.This strategic central position was the one thing that Bonaparte was already a master of. And he was about to take the Austrians to school. 

    So on 2 November Bonaparte sent his two most trusted generals, Augereau and Massena, to meet and slow the advance of Alvintzy's 28,700 marching from the east. They managed to do this for awhile with only 11,000 men between them. And for a couple of days on 5 and 6 November, they succeeded in holding up the Austrians' crossing of the Brenta River at Bassano and Fontaniva. These battles were quite bloody for both sides. The Austrians, who were supposed to be mostly raw, surly conscripts from Poland, gave a much better account of themselves than the French expected. Outnumbered as they were, the French had to fall back, losing about 3,500 men to the Austrians' own 2,823 casualties.

    Both Augereau and Massena withdrew, first to Vicenza, and, when it was apparent that that city was not a good defensive position, to Verona. Alvintzy continued to advance (see map above), establishing Vicenza as his supply depot and moving further southwestward to cross the Alpone River at Villa Nova and then, inexorably, toward Verona. At the village of Caldiero, about eight miles east of Verona, Bonaparte came out with Augereau's and Massena's divisions again to stop Alvintzy.  But after spending most of the day of the 12th in a blinding rain and hail storm, during which their muskets wouldn't fire, the French fell back again, having lost another 1,800 men to the Austrians' lesser 1,300.

This is not looking good.

    Bonaparte was in a pretty pickle now. This third Austrian juggernaut apparently couldn't be stopped. His earlier confidence that Alvintzy's Polish draftees would be easily dealt with was dissolving. Draftees and Polish they may have been, but they were showing considerable grit against the veterans of the Army of Italy. Depressed, Bonaparte seriously considered abandoning northeast Italy altogether and falling back on Milan, raising the siege of Mantua. After having fought for the better part of the year against one Austrian army after another, it was beginning to look like there was never to be an end to it. Even if they defeated this newest army, the Austrians, freed up by their victories in Germany, would probably just send yet another, and another. Meanwhile, the French government was not sending any reinforcements or supplies, expecting their troops to keep living off the increasingly depleted Italians. It was not looking good.

    And things happening behind Bonaparte's back, to the northwest, weren't helping. Vauban, with his 10,500 men, was supposed to stop Davidovitch from coming down the Adige Valley and taking Verona from the northwest. But Davidovitch turned out to have far more men (18,400) than Bonaparte estimated and was constantly pushing and outflanking Vauban, forcing the French back and back until they were digging in at Rivoli, just 19 miles (30 km) from Verona. While Augereau and Massena were having no luck on the eastern front holding back Alvintzy, Bonaparte had had to gallop personally north on the 7 November to have a "come-to-Jesus" meeting with Vauban. He also had some harsh and vulgar words with Vauban's infantry for having retreated in the face of the contemptible Austrians. A couple of days earlier he had called for Joubert, guarding the southern crossing of the Adige at Legnago, to bring most of his division of 6,000 up to support Vauban. His orders to the latter were simple and clear: Don't let Davidivitch any closer to Verona. That being said, he unhelpfully stripped Vauban of some troops and took them with him back to Verona. One can only imagine the conversation in Vauban's headquarters as the young Bonaparte galloped off.

    Fortunately for the French, Davidovitch wasn't exactly on a blitzkrieg. Having pushed Vauban south to Rivoli, he decided to rest his men up around Trento for a few days and await word from his co-pincer, Alvintzy. This gave Bonaparte the respite and chance he needed.

Bonaparte pulls a fast one

    By the 14th, Alvintzy had pushed his army practically to the gates of Verona. Having driven this far in two weeks and winning two battles to boot, he had much to pat himself on the back for. Taking the opportunity to rest his troops and wait for some of his slower units (Mittrowsky's column) and his siege train to come up, he planned to assault the city sometime late on the 15th.

    But Bonaparte wasn't going to sit around and wait for that. His situation was desperate, and so was his plan, so typical of him. His life story showed him at his best when all other lights go out. The way he saw it, Alvintzy had left himself open to a strategic trap. He had stretched his line of communication so thin that it was vulnerable, specifically at the single bridge over the Alpone River at Villa Nova on the Verona-Vicenza highway. Bonaparte thought he could, in one night, march his army down the south side of the Adige River, cross it where the Alpone joined it, and quickly march up and seize the bridge at Villa Nova, completely cutting off Alvintzy and force him either to surrender or fight a battle at a disadvantage. He would later name this strategy his famous maneuvre sur les derrièresthough he was certainly not the first nor the last to attempt this kind of end run in warfare.

   On the 14th Bonaparte had sent his chief engineer, Andreossy, with some grenadiers and pontoon equipment down the Adige to Ronco, near where the Alpone flowed into it, with orders to throw a bridge over the larger river.Though why at Ronco and not Albaredo , on the other side of where the Alpone flows into the Adige, is puzzling (see map below); even as his troops crossed the Adige, they would still have to cross another river, the Alpone, to get to their target. But we'll see.

    That night Bonaparte crept out of Verona through the south gate with Massena's and Auereau's divisions. He had been reinforced as well with a brigade under Guieu, purloined from Vauban's command, and about a thousand cavalry he had earlier ordered up from the force covering Mantua. He left General Macquard inside Verona with 2,500 to make as much noise as possible so that Avintzy would think the place was fully manned. Meanwhile, quiet as mice, Bonaparte and his 14,000 tip-toed down the right bank of the river under cover of darkness to arrive at the bridgehead at Ronco early in the morning enough to get a few winks of sleep. They must have all been too excited to sleep. This was just the kind of maneuver Bonaparte's men loved him for; pulling fast ones on the enemy was their specialty.

    At dawn on the 15th, Augereau's men clomped across Andreossy's pontoon bridge at Ronco and started hurrying northeastward along the dyke to the bridge over the Alpone at Arcola (see map below) Massena's division crossed next and began to march along the other dyke to the west, making their way up toward Belfiore di Porcile to secure that avenue into Alvintzy's flank and protect Augereau's operation from a counter attack from the west.

Painting of the crossing of the Adige by Bonaparte's army by Louis Bacler d'Albe, who has given the scene a rather pastoral, springlike look (undoubtedly more from Enlightenment aesthetic rather than documentary reasons). Though he was present during the battle, he painted this from memory and sketches a couple of years later. This view is from some imaginary elevated position on the Ronco (south) side of the Adige, looking northeast toward Arcola (smoke in the distance). He has shown the soggy ground on the other side accurately and the narrow, looping causeway to Arcola to which  Augereau's troops were confined . Bonaparte is shown on a prancing white horse (naturally) in the right foreground, though most eyewitness accounts put him up at the front with Augereau on the first day. In the left foreground can be seen a crowd of Grenzer POWs being generously cared for by their kind French captors.

Below, the same view today across the Adige from the crossing point at Ronco, taken about the same time of year (note the lack of foliage in the trees). Bacler d'Albe would have had to be much higher--perhaps  in one of Montgolfier's balloons--to get the view he painted above. (But there is no evidence that he had one.) My own hunch is that he was using artistic license. Back then there had been a long convention of painting battle scenes from an imagined elevated perspective, which, you have to admit, is more explanatory.

Meanwhile, back in the Austrian camp

    Between the 12th and this particular morning, Alvintzy had been dawdling. Enjoying his victory at Caldiero, he took his own sweet time in getting all of his divisions forward, waiting for Mittrowsky's column which was still some distance east of Villa Nova by the morning of the 15th. He was also waiting to hear from Davidovitch about his progress in pushing against Verona from the other direction. Alvintzy's plan was to start his attack on Verona sometime later that day.

    But then, as all the staff officers were enjoying their breakfast, some breathless messengers began to gallop in with stories to the effect that Bonaparte had somehow crossed the Adige behind them and was even now on his way to cut off their retreat. Alvintzy didn't believe it at first, thinking that this was a ruse Bonaparte was creating to get him to call off his proposed assault on Verona. But to play it safe he ordered Provera and his 3,700 to hustle southeast to the French bridgehead at Ronco to plug up the leak. He sent Mittrowsky orders to divert his march south toward Arcola to secure that crossing over the Alpone. And he sent Oberst Brigido and three battalions of Grenz down to Arcola to guard the bridge there, apparently the only bridge over the Alpone south of San Bonifacio (apparently, see note below about a second bridge, under "An Evaluation"). He kept his main striking force, that of Hohenzollern, in position outside of Verona, still ready to assault the city. He also expected to hear from Davidovitch any minute that he had started his own attack on Verona from the west. 

A note about the ground.

    Before we get to the fun, a few comments about the ground around Arcola. In the first place, it was, back then, a miserable swamp. Today it looks nice and cultivated and crisscrossed with dykes, keeping it relatively dry. But in 1796 it was soggy as hell. And the fact that it had been raining off and on for the previous several days would have made the modern term "wetlands" an understatement; it was a  boot-sucking quagmire. Movement overland in this corner of the two rivers was out of the question, not just for artillery and horse, but for infantry as well. Crossing this swamp there were really only two, narrow, elevated causeways, one heading northwest through the Bionde farm to Belfiore di Porcile and the other looping around east and north along the Alpone toward Arcola. The latter route was, for most of its length, completely exposed to Austrian fire from the Grenzers along the opposite bank.

    As I've already said, why on earth Bonaparte thought this was a good place to cross the Adige is a mystery. Having been all over this part of Italy for weeks, he knew the countryside well. In fact, during this very operation, he had part of his force (that under Guieu) cross downstream at Albaredo and head up the more dry east bank toward Arcola. Why he didn't throw his bridge over the river there in the first place and move his entire army up that way doesn't make sense to me. It was only a half-hour's march more. Maybe there was something that I'm missing in the narratives. As a consequence, crossing at Ronco, he bottled his force up on two narrow causeways, without the ability to maneuver across country or even use his superior numbers or his artillery, nullifying the advantage of his central position. Of course, I'm just an armchair general, and wasn't there. Also, I'm not a bridge engineer and there may have been something about the nature of the Adige opposite Albaredo that made it unsuitable to throw a pontoon bridge over.

    From the Austrian point of view, the position occupied by Brigido and his three Grenzer battalions at Arcola was an ideal defensive one. Not only were they able to take advantage of the natural fortifications of the dyke on the east side of the Alpone, but their six battalion guns were pre-sited to sweep the approach up the causeway on the opposite bank, the only way open to the French. With almost no tree cover coming up that way, Augereau's men were completely exposed and forced to march in column, effectively in enfilade. And the only way over the Alpone was across a  narrow, wooden bridge at Arcola, itself lethally covered by dug-in infantry and guns. (Though I wonder about this. See my remarks about the possible existence of another bridge lower down on the Alpone under "An Evaluation: There Was Another Bridge" below.)

    Meanwhile, on the western side of the swamp, Provera's division could  bottle up Massena's from trying to deploy as it filed out of the causeway to Belfiore. As on the eastern causeway, Massena's troops would have been sitting ducks (waddling ducks, I guess, is the more apt metaphor) as their bunched columns trudged up the exposed dyke. So the nature of Bonaparte's chosen battlefield, from the beginning, gave away his surprise and initial local superiority.

Positions around midday on the 15th. The yellowish area between the Adige and Alpone rivers was swamp and all but impassable at this time of year, particularly under all the rain that had been falling. Movement across this ground would have been only possible via the few, narrow and exposed causeways, restricting troops to column attacks not much more than a dozen or so men wide. 

A Frustrating First Day

    By mid-morning, the divisions of Massena and Augereau were tramping up their respective causeways toward their targets. As the elevated roads were only eleven yards across, marching on these dykes restricted the French to narrow, crowded columns. They were also almost completely exposed to the defending Austrians as there were very few trees to mask their approach, so they would have been in range of enfilading artillery fire when still five hundred yards from their targets, cannonballs bounding down the length of the packed columns and taking dozens of men with each shot.

    On the other front, covering the approaches to Belfiore di Porcile, Provera, with his three battalions of regular infantry (two of Jellacic IR #53 and one of Colloredo IR #57) and their attached guns set up a number of defensive positions (see map above), taking advantage of the constricted avenues of advance. Massena's infantry ran headlong into the first of these positions around the farm of Bionde and gradually pushed them back. By mid-afternoon his veterans, in spite of considerable casualties, managed to force Provera completely out of Belfiore, but went no further, hunkering down in the village to block a counter-attack. By late in the day, Alvintzy had sent Hohenzollern's 6,000 to reinforce Provera from Caldiero. So that Massena's attack had ground to a halt.
    Meanwhile, over at Arcola, as Augereau's troops marched up the west bank dyke in full view of the Croatian defenders, they found themselves suddenly taken under raking fire several hundred yards from the bridge. Brigido's three battalions of Grenzer (Szluiner #63 and Walachen #75) and their six three-pounder guns started a devastating flanking fire from the cover of the east bank dyke, only thirty yards away. The French were driven down into defilade behind the opposite dyke and had to creep in defilade along its low, muddy shoulder up to the bridgehead, poking their heads up to return fire the whole way. It was slow, wet going.

Below, looking north along the dyke road along the Alpone on which Augereau's columns were stacked. You can see in this photo how little cover there was on the crown of the dyke. Arcola is still about 1,400 yards away in this shot. Moving guns and cavalry up this road would have been unthinkable. The ground to the left, while currently cultivated by modern drainage, would have been far more swampy.

View northwest from Augereau's approach, closer to the town. Arcola church's distinctive campanile can be seen about 500 yards away in the fog (though this one, as far as I can find on the Internet, was reconstructed in 1957; not sure what it looked like before. Would appreciate any new information on this from my readers.). The contested bridge (also in its modern form) is to the left. The Grenzer sharpshooters lined the dyke on the opposite bank of the Alpone, point blank musket range from the exposed flank of the French on the road. The weather when this Google shot was taken (Dec 2011) would have been similarly gloomy on the three days of the battle.

     About midday, Augereau's leading demi-brigade (the 4th, under future Marshal Jean Lannes, recovering from wounds he had received at Bassano just seven days before) had crawled under the lee of the dyke to within about 200 yards of the bridgehead. It was now time to launch a desperate dash down the rest of the road and across the open bridge into the town opposite. Augereau himself seized the lead battalion's flag and began to run the remaining distance ahead of his wildly yelling grenadiers. But so many of his assault column were cut down by the devastating fire from the opposite bank that nobody reached the western head of the bridge itself before the attack faltered and the survivors dove for cover again. Augereau himself, miraculously, was unscathed in the attempt.

     Bonaparte came up to see what was holding things up. He also personally seized a flag (not the famous tricolor of the many propaganda paintings but probably the 4th's regimental flag) and repeated Augereau's brave but foolhardy attempt to personally lead the men across the bridge. Like Augereau, he never made it closer than 50 yards to the bridgehead itself. Men were falling all around him and it was only by the heroic sacrifice of some of his staff officers (including Lannes, who himself was wounded again...this thing's never going to heal!) that Bonaparte was dragged out of harm's way and fell waist-deep into the muck of the swamp behind the dyke. He had already earned the affection of his troops, and even though they admired demonstrations of personal bravery by him, they were alarmed that they might lose the only hope they had of winning this war. The young commander-in-chief was severely scolded by his grognards for attempting such a foolish thing.

Another fanciful depiction of Bonaparte charging across the bridge at Arcola by Horace Vernet (1825). Brave as he was, neither Bonaparte nor anybody else actually managed to set foot on the planks of the bridge that first day (or the next, for that matter). Also Vernet was evidently confused about the nature of the flag used, which was not this later 1804 model as he's painted here..

So which flag did Bonaparte grab at Arcola if he didn't carry the Tricolor or the 1804 flag above? Below are all of the flags of the demi-brigades at Arcola. Since it was Lannes' brigade that led the first assault on the bridge on the 15th, in all likelihood it was one of the battalion flags of either the 4th or 51st. What I could not find was any reference of what flags the legere demi-brigades carried in 1796. The earliest models I could find were designs that were not issued to them until 1802.


     A few more rushes were attempted with the same bloody result, until nobody would move from behind the dykes. Bonaparte realized he was not going to take Arcola this way. It was not to be another Lodi. So he galloped back to Ronco and found General Guieu having just arrived from Vauban's command with his 12th Provisional Demi-brigade. He ordered Guieu to go down to cross the Adige downstream at Albaredo, finding what boats he could to manage a crossing, and head up the east bank of the Alpone to take Arcola in the rear.  It probably took Guieu's men only about half-an-hour to get down to the crossing point opposite Albaredo (see map), but considerably more time to collect what boats they could and organize a crossing for the 2,000 men. They probably set up a rope-ferry. The opposite bank itself was only defended by a hundred or so Austrian uhlans (Mezzaro's) who were not so much in a position to contest the crossing as to observe it and report back to headquarters. It was not until the evening (military twilight ended at 17:18) that Guieu's men were all across and started to pick their way in the dark up the left bank of the Alpone to Arcola. At about 19:00 they found themselves on the outskirts of the village and heard no further firing. Guieu had already decided, unsupported as he was and unaware of what was happening on the far side, to retrace his steps and recross the Adige. On his way back he received orders from Bonaparte to do just that anyway. Good thing for his career.
     By the end of a frustrating day, Bonaparte, realizing none of his objectives were going to happen that evening, ordered everybody back across the Adige to Ronco for the night. He left one of Massena's demi-brigades (the 18th Legere) on the north side of the bridgehead to defend the crossing. Why he didn't leave Guieu in possession of Albaredo and that crossing is another mystery. But that night everybody but the lone picket unit on the north side of the Adige were building campfires around Ronco, resting up for the next day.

     Meanwhile, Alvintzy was fully awakened to the danger of his position and began a general evacuation of the lines in front of Verona, ordering his trains back to Vicenza. Mittrowsky had, by this time, finally showed up with his 9,000 and marched down to Arcola to shore up the defenses along the Alpone. Provera retook the ground lost on the 15th and moved his troops back to their original defensive positions in depth behind Bionde. Hohenzollern formally packed up and moved out of his camp in front of Verona and back toward Caldiero.  And the supply trains were well on their way back to Vicenza. 

     At this stage, Bonaparte's coup--his famous maneuvre sur les derrieres--had completely failed. The enemy knew what he was up to and was escaping.

Second Verse, Same as the First

      Some military historians have criticized Bonaparte for simply trying the same tactic on the second day, like he'd run out of ideas. Others (like David Chandler and John Elting) have contended that he was brilliantly wearing down Alvintzy in a battle of attrition, forcing the Austrian decisively away from any hope of relieving Mantua. I have to admit, I'm with the former camp. My hunch is that Bonaparte, having realized he'd made a huge mistake on the 15th, did like a lot of executives do (I've worked for people like this), doubled down the next day. It's called "reinforcing failure" in management jargon.

     So, reinforcing the failure of the first day, on the morning of the second day Bonaparte ordered Augereau and Massena to the same objectives, Arcola and Belfiore. However, on their way back up their respective causeways, they each ran headlong into Austrian attacks coming down the other way, with the object of destroying the bridgehead at Ronco. Both French wings managed to push these attacks back (Provera back through Belfiore and Mittrowsky back across the bridge at Arcola). But, as on the previous day, neither Massena nor Augereau got any further and the day was spent making costly and futile attempts to rush that exasperating bridge over the Alpone. The rest of the afternoon wore on with each side taking occasional pot shots at each other from behind their dykes. The French suffered horrendous casualties again, more than the Austrians.

     After two days of fighting, Alvintzy still had had no word from Davidovitch and was beginning to think he should pull back and regroup. Hohenzollern was already moving past Caldiero and beginning to recross the Alpone at Villa Nova. Provera, in front of Belfiore, was now acting as a rearguard for the army. 

     So the second day of the battle was pretty non-eventful. More men died, of course. But that didn't concern Bonaparte, whose entire subsequent career illustrated his callous attitude toward human suffering; soldiers were merely capital one spends to reap political returns. Okay, so that may be a little harsh and cynical on my part. But it's my blog.

 Third Day: Finally, Some Results

     The evening of the 16th, Bonaparte again had everybody tramp back over to the right bank of the Adige to camp out around Ronco. As on the previous evening, the Austrians again followed them to harass the duty demi-brigade guarding the bridgehead. Bonaparte realized he had to try something different the next day.For the past two days he had bottled himself up in the swamps on the wrong side of the Alpone, and it was looking hopeless that he'd ever get up to Villa Nova that way. 

     The day before, Bonaparte's chief engineer, Andreossy, had reconnoitered the ground on the northern banks of the confluence of the Adige and Alpone and started his men preparing a passage across the swamp and a bridge across the mouth of the smaller river. The night of the 16/17 the French engineers banged together a wooden trestle bridge over the Alpone while Guieu's men sneaked back across the Adidge to Albaredo to keep them from being harassed from the eastern bank. Remarkably, Mittrowsky hadn't thought to occupy Albaredo in force or watch this lower part of the Alpone. All of his 11,000 men were up north, concentrated around Arcola. It proved to be a gross oversight. 

     That night, too, Bonaparte received some welcome reinforcements in the form of two demi-brigades from Kilmaine, having the left the siege lines around Mantua, 24 miles away. He also sent General Vial down to Legnago (10 miles) to bring up the single battalion guarding the bridge over the Adige there. By morning his strength would be up to almost 20,000, giving him rough parity with Alvintizy overall and superiority against the 11,000 that Mittrowsky had defending Arcola.

     The same morning, however, a minor snafu occurred. One of the boats that was holding up the pontoon bridge at Ronco broke loose and the bridge became unusable for several hours while it was repaired. In the meantime, both Mittrowsky and Provera had moved down again to attack the bridgehead and the lone demi-brigade isolated on the north side spent a couple of anxious hours holding them off. Fortunately the narrow causeways proved just as inconvenient for the Austrians to use as assault corridors as they had for the French, so they could not overwhelm the outnumbered 18th Legere's chasseurs. For the first time in the battle, too, Bonaparte's artillery had something useful to do as they supported the 18th, and bombarded Mittrowsky's and Provera's attacking columns from the south bank.

     By 9:00 the Adige bridge had been repaired and Massena again started his troops across. One demi-brigade, the 18th Ligne (not the heroic 18th Legere mentioned did get confusing. See Orders of Battle below.), moved left and pushed Provera back again toward Bionde and Belfiore. The newly arrived 75th Demi-brigade under General Robert pushed Mittrowsky's Grenzers back up to the bridge at Arcola. And a third, the 32nd,  hid in ambush amid a stand of willows flanking the Ronco-Arcola causeway (see map above). After these movements, Augereau moved his own reinforced division over the Adige and down the north bank to the newly built bridge at the mouth of the Alpone. While Andreossy's pioneers had built makeshift plank paths across the swamp, it was slow going for Augereau's 12,000 infantry. Bonaparte had also sent, besides Guieu, some of Augereau's troops down to the ferry at Albaredo to cross there. As mentioned above, there were no Austrians here or at the new bridge over the Alpone to defend the passage.

     As Massena's lead demi-brigade neared the bridge at Arcola, Mittrowsky impetuously left his impregnible defenses on the opposite bank and launched a counter-attack over the bridge and down the causeway. The French turned and ranthat is, until they passed the ambush point where Massena's other demi-brigade, the 32nd, lay in wait (see map above).  Here Mittrowsky's Grenzers found themselves assailed on three sides. They fell back, sustaining many casualties. Massena followed quickly on their heels, not letting them rally. This time, as the French pursuing troops reached the previously impassable Arcola bridge, they swarmed over it for the first time in the battle, and captured the town.

     About this time, too, Augereau had got about half of his men over his own new bridge, but he found himself facing a strong line of four Austrian battalions and their guns just to the north of that crossing. He was having trouble getting his own attack columns formed in the marshy ground. Bonaparte, his brilliance under pressure having returned, had an idea. He sent his personal bodyguard of about two-dozen chasseurs (the Guides, who would eventually become the Chasseurs de la Garde) down to cross the Adige at the Albaredo ferry and circle around behind the Austrian line. There they were to make a racket, blowing several bugles as if they were an entire cavalry division descending on the rear of the enemy. It was psychological warfare, or PsyOps in modern jargon. The trick worked beautifully and the Austrian line, thinking they were surrounded, bolted.

     Alvinitzy's men rallied on a makeshift new line of battle stretching southwest from Arcola. But by 15:00 Augereau was moving in force up the eastern bank of the Alpone, joined by the garrison troops from Legnano. And Massena's division was now swarming through the town from the west, across the now undefended bridge. Alvintzy called a general retreat and fell back to a line between San Bonifacio and San Stefano, about two-and-a-half miles northwest. The French formed up themselves in a parallel line of battle north of Arcola. But the sun was setting and both sides were exhausted, so both sides sat down and started cooking dinner. 

     The three day battle was finally over.

To Lie Like a Bulletin

     Neither side had accomplished their objectives in this three day battle. Alvintzy was prevented from taking Verona, linking up with Davidovitch, and relieving the siege of Mantua. But Bonaparte, who had envisioned trapping Alvintzy between Verona and the Alpone, cutting him off from his base and forcing a surrender, failed in his object too. Alvintzy managed to escape with all of his train and the bulk of his army. Bonaparte, however, in his dispatches to the Directory (and as was reported even in the London Times) described the battle as a great victory, beginning a tradition of mendacity that sparked the later cynical phrase under the Empire, "To lie like a bulletin."  
      The cost of Arcola was steep for both sides. While the Austrians lost some 2,200  in casualties and approximately 4,000 captured, as well as a dozen guns, the French, for their "victory" paid with 3,500 killed and wounded and about 1,300 captured. They lost no guns because, frankly, they hadn't been able to get any over the river and through the swamp.
     Alvintzy's was by no means a spent force. In fact, within a month, rallying at Vicenza and with more reinforcements coming from Germany, he was able to build his army back up to some 43,000. Within a few weeks he launched a second assault, this time through the northern Dolomite approaches, culminating in the Battle of Rivoli, which did prove to be the decisive victory that had eluded Bonaparte for the entire Italian campaign.

An Evaluation: The Obscure Part of This Post

     Arcola has been held up by military historians for two centuries as both the quintessence and embryo of Napoleon's military genius and system.  It is supposed to be an object lesson in his maneuvre sur les derrières, or rear attack method, which somehow we are supposed to believe he invented. Well, this is where the "obscure" part of this post comes in, because, for me, Arcola merely represents an example of military blundering. I know, I'm going against conventional wisdom on this, but those of you who have read my blog should not be surprised. That's who I am, an iconoclast.
     Though Arcola was declared a major victory by Bonaparte and the French Directory for political purposes, it was hardly that. From the Austrian point of view it might even have been considered a draw; indeed, the Hapsburg troops gave quite a good account of themselves over the course of this campaign, including this very battle, inflicting as many as 12,700 casualties on the smaller French army within two weeks (including the battles at Caldiero and Bassano and in actions in the upper Adige Valley). These were casualties Bonaparte could scarce afford. It is true that Arcola helped Bonaparte dodge a fatal bullet in that it prevented Alvintzy from capturing Verona, linking up with Davidovitch, and proceeding down to Mantua to relieve the 23,000 Austrian troops bottled up there. But it only gave the young French general a respite. As mentioned above, within a month, Alvintzy's army was back up to 43,000, refitted and ready to make another attempt. If it hadn't been for the French victory at Rivoli two months later, Bonaparte would not have been able to secure his conquests in Italy or move north to invade the Tyrol, forcing the Austrians to sue for peace. So, in that sense, Arcola could be considered a stepping stone to victory, but hardly a victory in itself.

The lives of a few soldiers are of no consequence

     One aspect in which I do think this battle is the epitome of the Napoleonic style is in his callous disregard of human life. This is in glaring evidence on the second day when, after having fruitlessly attempted to break out of his bogged down position on the first day, he ordered more of the same, without any new ideas. This is the same stubborn and unimaginative Napoleon we would later see at Eylau, Aspern-Essling, Wagram,  Borodino, and Waterloo, when he kept ordering one frontal attack after another, just like the equally witless and callous generals on the Western Front during WWI. His original idea for Arcola might have been a flanking move, and a brilliant victory. That Arcola cost him 20% of his own men (vs 10% of his opponent's) is not exactly the mark of a decisive victory. Bonaparte showed an indifference to sacrificing the lives of his soldiers, even when his original idea for the battle, his maneuvre sur les derrières, stopped being that and just became a stubborn series of frontal attacks up narrow defiles across impossible ground. 

      Both David Chandler's and John Elting's explanations for this bloody and relentless fiasco was that Bonaparte, sensing the indecision of his opponent, brilliantly pressed a battle of attrition to get Alvintzy to withdraw. You could see this as analogous to Robert E. Lee's equally relentless, bloody attacks on George McClellan during the Seven Days Battles in 1862, in which Lee lost battle after battle and 20,000 men, but got the timorous McClellan to evacuate the Peninsula, thus securing a strategic victory (temporarily) for the Confederacy. To me, Bonaparte was just out of ideas when his initial plan failed. And when Alvintzy withdrew, he did so in good order, his army largely intact, and ready to take up the offensive again in two months. 

Why did Bonaparte cross the Adige at Ronco?

     Researching this battle, this of decision of Bonaparte's really bothered me. The northern bank of the river here was an impassable swamp for miles, made even worse by the miserable weather they had been experiencing that November. With only two narrow and exposed causeways across, there were no opportunities for maneuver. Neither cavalry nor artillery could be moved there in support (both arms pretty much sat out the battle in Ronco). If Bonaparte's idea was to sweep around and cut off Alvintzy at Villa Nova, why did he try to do it here? There was another, more logical place to float a pontoon bridge at Albaredo, just a mile-and-a-half downstream. And the ground on the opposite bank there was dry and offered a direct shot up to Villa Nova. Even today there is no bridge at Ronco while there is one at Albaredo, over the very stream bed that Guieu set up his rope ferry. So modern engineers have seen this as a better crossing point.

     Surely an experienced engineer like Andreossy would have recognized this in 1796. And Bonaparte must have been over all of the ground in the weeks before the battle. But for three days, he just kept throwing his men over into the swamp and telling them to try harder. It reminds me of somebody trying to push the wrong way on one of those revolving doors.

     Chandler theorizes that Bonaparte chose to cross over into the swamp because the impassable ground gave him an advantage against the numerically superior Austrians. I fail to see how this would have worked to the French tactical advantage since they themselves were constricted in their attacks up the causeways, were enfiladed by guns and musketry from the opposite bank of the Alpone, and had only a narrow front through which to try to force their way on either end (at Belfiore and the Arcola bridge).  It would seem that Bonaparte's numerical disadvantage (slight as it was) was actually made worse by the ground he chose to fight on.

     Since I first posted this article in 2016, Dr. Martin Boycott-Brown, author of The Road to Rivoli, who was kind enough to send me an email to illuminate this decision, pointed out that Bonaparte had earlier crossed the Adige at this very spot (on the 9th, going in the opposite direction) and had ordered the pontoon bridge taken up behind him and stowed in Ronco should he need it again. So, a week later, it would have made sense to just pull the boats and planks out and throw them across at the same point. Dr. Brown also pointed out that Napoleon had been an avid reader of the Campaigns de Maillebois (published in 1775) who in particular recommended Ronco as an ideal location to cross the Adige. However, I still have to wonder if, by Ronco, Maillebois (writing a half-century earlier about his exploits in his youth) might have meant the environs of Ronco, which would have included the bend in the river opposite Albaredo, a little over a mile downstream from Ronco.

     All that being taken into account, had I been Bonaparte's intelligence officer, I would have been professionally bound to point out that the crossing at Albaredo would have put him on firmer ground to deploy and utilize his artillery and cavalry. And it would have put him behind Alvintzy's flank and on the east side of the Alpone, where he needed to be to get up to Villa Nova in time to block the Austrian retreat.  He did send troops down to Albaredo during the course of the battle to cross via boat. So even he saw it was feasible. 

     I think, once Bonaparte became fixed on forcing the Austrians via the swamps, though, he felt he was committed. Perhaps his earlier victory over the bridge at Lodi taught him the wrong lesson. Bridges were to prove to be a tragic theme in Bonaparte's military career.

     But, as Dr. Brown has admonished me, Bonaparte probably had his good reasons for the Ronco crossing. And it is not for us, two centuries on, to question them.

Bonaparte's maxims nullified by their author

     Napoleon later expounded on his maxims of warfare (codified by his protégé, Antoine Jomini) and included in them the principles of the central position, concentration of force on an enemy's weak point, and maneuver against the enemy's rear. Looking at the map, these three principles were obviously on his mind at Arcola. However, even though he enjoyed the central position, giving him theoretically interior lines of communication, the terrible ground and exposed causeways he chose to fight on nullified this advantage. Alvintzy, even operating on exterior lines, was able to quickly plug the two exits from the swamp. 

     Bonaparte's attempt at concentrating against an enemy's weakest point was also nullified here. Because of the nature of the attacks up the causeways, he could not bring his temporarily superior force to bear. At Arcola bridge, the Croatian Grenz found themselves in a similar position to the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, mauling each attempt at a French rush on the narrow bridge with superior musketry and artillery. In fact, weakening his concentration even further, Bonaparte was not able to bring up his own artillery or cavalry over the exposed causeways, which went against another of his maxims; use of combined arms. From the French point of view, Arcola was entirely an infantry fight.

     Finally, while he was able to steal a march on Alvintzy the night of 14/15, Bonaparte threw away this surprise in not being able to reach Villa Nova (the key to the Austrian rear position) for the entire three days. This gave Alvintzy plenty of time to get all of his trains and troops back over the bridge and out of harm's way. Bonaparte tip-toed around to Alvintzy's back door but then spent so much time loudly jiggling with the lock that he blew the whole thing. In fact, Bonaparte never did achieve Villa Nova, at least before the entire Austrian army had escaped intact. 

There was another bridge.

     Poring over all of the battle maps I used in researching this article, I noticed another bridge over the Alpone, the Ponte Zerpone, located about halfway up to Arcola. I wonder why no one tried to cross here. The historical maps don't show any Austrians defending this bridge (until the third day). I'm assuming that, had there indeed been a bridge there, it may have been burned or dismantled. However, if this were the case, you have to wonder why, when Bonaparte finally ordered a second bridge over the Alpone be built down at the mouth of it on the night of the 16/17, he didn't simply repair the bridge at Zerpone? 

     It also made me wonder if, when describing the building of the bridge near the "mouth" of the Alpone, what was really meant was rebuilding this ruined bridge about a mile north. The approaches and abutments would have already been in place. And there would have been no need for Augereau's men to slog across wet ground. Nineteenth century maps (e.g. the one below, created in 1848 and one by Rousseau in 1853) show both bridges. So could the battle reports, as vague as they were, have confused later map makers? Bonaparte himself, in his own dispatches, merely mentions having "bridges thrown over the canals and marshes," on the night of the 16/17, which indicates that more than one were constructed.

     Of course, I wasn't there. There may have been some other reason why the Zerpone bridge was not used or repaired and a whole new one built over the Alpone lower down. Possibly it was not there in 1796.

Detail from an antique map of the battle by A.K. Johnson published in 1848 in the British Government Archives.. Note the intact bridge over the Alpone at Ponte Zerpone. This detail is also on contemporary French maps as well, and on every one I was able to find. When you read the narrative of the battle, you have to wonder why it was not a factor.

The Real Heroes of Arcola

     Regardless of the leadership performance of Bonaparte, I have to acknowledge that the true heroes of this battle had to have been the engineers and foot soldiers of the Army of Italy. Considering the herculean work of the engineers, even given that French military engineering was regarded as the best in Europe at the time, the feats they performed were remarkable, and under such awful conditions. First throwing a pontoon bridge over the swollen Adige (even in a dumb spot, which I'm going to blame Bonaparte for picking) in a single, cold, and rainy night, was something few other armies could have done. Then, collecting boats for a ferry, and building a second bridge from scratch (assuming they weren't just repairing the one at Zerpone--see above), across swollen rivers, over flooded ground, and in the rain, was a gigantic achievement and stands out as the truly distinct feature of Arcola.

     Add to this the ferocious and dauntless performance of the French infantry. For three days, with neither cavalry nor artillery support, and with wet muskets, they slogged though mud, making one hopeless and suicidal charge after another, only to give each day's gains up in the night to start over again in the morning. These people were monsters of tenacity.

     Granted, Bonaparte himself proved to be an inspiring leader, and did not hang back from leading his men from the front. And, as Chandler has pointed out, he knew his men well enough that the only way to keep them going was to keep them on the attack. He sensed that if he had given up and pulled back to Verona, the morale of his army might have collapsed. So probably one reason he kept banging their heads against a hopeless object for three days was, ironically, to keep their spirits up.

A Note About the Maps

     In creating the maps for this post I used a combination of Google Earth satellite imagey and two historical maps from the mid-nineteenth century (Johnson's 1848 and Rousseau's 1853). I also used Esposito's maps from his West Point atlas of the Napoleonic Wars, and Chandler's from his Campaigns of Napoleon. The result is a synthesis of all of these sources. When there was a conflict, I usually defaulted to the satellite imagery as a template; you can't argue with Mother Nature. Fortunately the flow of the Adige or the Alpone does not seem to have changed in two hundred years. And towns are exactly where they were.What has been interpolated is the extent of the swamp, which has been managed in the intervening centuries, and the extent of woods, which are no longer where the nineteenth century maps put them.

     Positions of troops on the maps are also a synthesis of several sources, which, unfortunately, don't agree. Like my analysis of the orders of battle, I applied the most logical locations or took the average of graphic opinion. As I am doing this for my own amusement and not for a doctoral thesis, I beg military scholars' forgiveness for my assumptions.

Wargame Considerations

     Arcola makes an absorbing subject for a wargame, both strategically and tactically. So many things were in the balance for both sides. My comments here will be not so much on game mechanics (players may pick their own game systems they're most comfortable with) as on the stakes to test and the factors to take into account. 

     I have run a wargame of Arcola myself using my own computer algorithms (not for sale, he said selfishly) and know that it is winnable by either side, with opportunities for many what-if variants. But my own gaming of the battle as managed by Bonaparte has also confirmed my theory that it was not winnable for the French going up the causeways on the west side of the Alpone. As in the actual battle, my French forces were severely savaged on those dykes, and couldn't get closer than 100 yards to the bridgehead itself. I tried even moving up French artillery in support, but all of the guns were picked off by the Austrians' before they could unlimber (this using actual weapons effects data for Austrian 3-pounders and assuming that the Austrian gunners had pre-sited their targets). No amount of luck or agressiveness by the French seems to have mattered, at least in the laboratory of a game.

Strategic Game

     The object of any strategic game should be the relief of the siege of Mantua. This was the key to the whole operation in northeast Italy in 1796. The Austrian player, pushing aside the French player's pieces and releasing the 23,000 troops corked up in this city, can win the game. 

     For the French player in a strategic game, keeping the three Austrian armies (Alvintzy, Davidovitch and Wurmser in Mantua) from uniting should be the key criterion in victory. He or she, playing from the central position, should have the advantage in doing this. 

     Logistics were a decisive factor. Control of bases (Verona for the French, Vicenza and Trento for the Austrians) and unrestricted access to those bases were vital for warfare of this period. Alvintzy's vulnerable LOC (lines of communication to you non-military gamers) was the whole purpose of Bonaparte's attack at Arcola. A strategic game that doesn't account for the dull reality of logistics is not a strategic game or a useful learning exercise. Just my opinion, of course. 

Tactical Game: Relative Combat Efficiency

     The Battle of Arcola, as well as all of the battles up to Rivoli, demonstrated that the Austrian troops could fight every bit as tenaciously as the French. In fact, measured just by casualties inflicted, the Austrians gave as good as they got throughout this war. Though Bonaparte regarded the drafted recruits of the Austrian line regiments as inferior, they fought well. Bonaparte described them as being "routed" on every day of the Arcola battle, and yet, every day, these same, supposedly-routed regiments came back to fight and even take that fight to the enemy.

     Even more effective at fighting than the line troops were Alvintzy's Croats. These were true light infantry, probably the most experienced at that kind of fighting in all European armies. Growing up in the mountains of the Balkans, they were crack shots, expert at concealment, and tenacious in defense; in short, tough bastards. These troops were, in fact, responsible for holding the crossing at Arcola for three days. It was only when Mittrowsky rashly decided to lead a counter-attack out of their defensive positions that he exposed the town to Massena. In fact, after Napoleon came to power and had defeated Austria enough times, he still enlisted thousands of these Croatian veterans into his own Grande Armée, recognizing their military value.
     In a tactical game of Arcola, I believe the troops of both sides should be rated equally in terms of combat efficiency. The French were very good; veteran level. But the Austrians were also good at their jobs, even the non-Croatian line regiments. And the Austrian artillery was quite professional.


     The ground played the most important factor in this battle. Movement across that triangle of swamp between the lower Alpone and Adige rivers was simply terrible for infantry and impossible for artillery and cavalry. Across this area of a game map, only causeways can be used for movement. And because of the narrow width, stacking of units should be restricted, meaning you don't get an advantage for numbers while on a causeway. No outflanking maneuvers, sorry.


     Causeways did serve as ad hoc fortifications for troops of both sides. While they could not move across country over the swamp, troops could hunker down behind the berm of the dykes and use them as cover, as long as the dyke was perpendicular to the defensive fire. Dykes ran along both sides of the Alpone, so this cover should be available to both armies. And troops could slowly creep along the defilade banks, but more slowly than marching along the road itself. In a game I would halve the normal movement rate when creeping up the side of a dyke under cover. Artillery and cavalry, however, could not move this way but must stay on the top and in full view.

Causeways and Artillery Fire

     Moving along the tops of the dykes exposed the troops to fire.  In the approach to both Arcola and Belfiore, defending artillery could, in effect, apply enfilade fire down the length of the dykes. As they came up the causeways, the French troops were packed in long, deep columns, which meant that artillery rounds could plow into the length of them with terrible effect. This is undoubtedly what caused most of the horrendous casualties in the French army during the battle.

     Conversely, the French player may attempt to bring guns up the causeways to support the infantry, but they would be exposed as well to enfilade fire before they could unlimber. And they would be firing from no cover. If your game system is sophisticated enough, however, there could be some disadvantage to firing roundshot at a target on top of a dyke from the side, since there would be no ricochet effect; each round would have to be placed precisely on target (something not easy to do with the technology at the time). This siting problem, however, would not apply to any artillery firing down the length of the dyke or using canister rounds. Firing down the length of a causeway, whether your rounds are long or short, they will bound through the deep French columns lengthwise.

Weather Variant

     It had been raining (and even hailing) a lot during the two weeks prior to Arcola. The rivers were swollen and the marshland undoubtedly turned to shallow lakes. This wet weather had directly affected the French at Caldiero days before when many of the French could not get their flintlocks to work. I myself have visited this part of Italy during this time of year and the rain was relentless (it was nonetheless a romantic vacation; my honeymoon, in fact, and my bride was still enough in love with me to the point that she consented able to take a side trip to a Napoleonic battlefield; Marengo actually). So, without the romance, I can readily imagine how crummy the weather would have been at Arcola in November 1796.

     But what if it wasn't raining? Weather is weather, after all. In that case, a wargame could have a weather variant (a roll of dice) that could determine whether the marshland in question was passable or not, and how swollen the rivers were, and how fordable. Things might have been very different if the French had been able to maneuver more freely.

Orders of Battle

     Researching these orders of battle was vexing, to say the least. In all of my sources I could find no OOBs that even remotely agreed. As far as French units participating in the actual battle, I ended up settling on Geissman's list from his article in Napoleon magazine (see References below). Digby Smith's OOB in his otherwise comprehensive Napoleonic Wars Data Book, does not even come close to agreeing with Geissman or even Voykowitsch in his equally comprehensive Castiglione 1796 (from which I had hoped to at least extrapolate OOBs from the earlier part of the campaign).

     The French at this stage had not yet organized their army on the Corps standard we see during the Empire eight years later. Like other 18th century armies, their divisions and brigades seemed to have been ad hoc arrangements. During the Italian campaign, Bonaparte transferred units constantly, so that any demi-brigade might find itself attached to Massena, Joubert, Augereau,Vauban, or any general depending on the needs of the moment. Even during the three days of Arcola, Bonaparte reassigned units several times.

     If any of my loyal readers, however, have a more substantial source for the OOB for Arcola, I would be grateful. (Please don't reference published wargames, however, unless they are sourced from something other than Wikipedia. Too many online sites purporting to have definitive OOBs merely copy and paste the exact same one from Wikipedia, which does not list individual units, merely commanders.)

     The following lists, then, are derived from Geissman for the French forces and Digby Smith for the Austrian. I have also corroborated the French lists from Bonaparte's own dispatches. For strengths I assigned individual units a proportionate value such that the sum would equal each army's reported total (on which nearly all sources, at least, seem to agree). These were also given values according to organizations for each type given in the Osprey books. Finally, I have "flavored" each with a randomizing factor, varying between 90-110%, to give a little variety to wargamers. Do not use these as certified numbers; they are only approximations.
     With all of those qualifications, then, use these lists at your peril.


Asprey, Robert, "The Rise of Napoleon Bonaparte", Basic Books, 2000, ISBN 0-465-04879-X 

Chandler, David, "The Campaigns of Napoleon", MacMillan,  1966, ISBN 0025236601 

Chandler, David, "Dictionary of the Napoleonic Wars", MacMillan, 1979, ISBN 0-02-523670-9

Elting, John & Esposito, Vincent, "A Military History and Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars", Greenhill Books, 1999, ISBN 1-85367-346-3

Forty, Simon & Swift, Michael, "Historical Maps of the Napoleonic Wars", PRC, 2003, ISBN 1-85648-733-4  

Haythornthwaite, Philip, "Austrian Army of the Napoleonic Wars (1): Infantry", Osprey 176, 1986, ISBN 0-85045-689-4

Haythornthwaite, Philip, "Austrian Army of the Napoleonic Wars (2): Cavalry", Osprey 181, 1986, ISBN 0-85045-726-2 

Giessmann, John, "Instrument of Victory: General Bonaparte's Army of Italy in the 1796-97 Campaign" Napoleon Magazine #9, Sept 1997

Letrun, Ludovic, "French Infantry Flags: From 1786 to the End of the First Empire", Histoire & Collections, 2009, ISBN 978-2-35250-112-1

McLynn, Frank, "Napoleon: A Biography", Arcade, 1997, ISBN 1-55970-631-7

Nafziger, George, "Imperial Bayonets" , Greenhill Books, 1995, ISBN 1-85367-250-5

Smith, Digby, "Napoleonic Wars Data Book", Greenhill Books, 1998, ISBN 1-85367-276-9 

Thiers, Adolphe, "Thier's History of the French Revolution: The Campaign of Arcola", Rivington's, London, 1873 

Voykowitsch, Bernhard, "Castiglione 1796", Helmet, Feldzug #1, 1998, ISBN 3-901923-00-4
This source was useful in researching the state of both Austrian and French forces in the 1796 campaign.

Other reading:

Boycott-Brown, Martin, "The Road to Rivoli: Napoleon's First Campaign", 2001, Cassell, ISBN: 9780304362097

Online References:

For an interesting flavor of what Bonaparte was saying himself about this battle (as translated by the London Times at the time):

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