War of the Second Coalition
14 June 1800
French Army of the Reserve under Napoleon Bonaparte, 28,554 men with 31 guns
Austrians under Michael von Melas, 29,672 men with 126 guns
Location: Spinetta-Marengo, Italy, 44° 53' 42" N, 8° 40' 0" E
Weather: Hot and humid. Intermittent downpours the day before but mostly clear on the 14th. Cool wind from the west.
Sunrise: 04:38 Sunset: 20:12
From NOAA's calculator
Since I've already just done Hohenlinden, the battle that really ended the War of the Second Coalition in this fateful year (1800, not 2020--that's another fateful year), I thought it only right that I render a study of its bookend battle, Marengo, the putative victory that cemented Napoleon's hold on power. This battle has a special place in my heart. Some years ago, my new bride and I made a side trip at the end of our Italian honeymoon to visit and walk the battlefield (to her boundless patience, pretending to be fascinated). And it's a battle I have gamed many times, on both board and sand table. So it's important, not just to Napoleonophiles, but to me personally.
And, to flick away the knee-jerk remarks about it not being an "obscure" battle, get over it. It's my take on it that will be obscure, not the relative fame of the event itself. My blog, my rules.
Situation about 08:00. The French, not anticipating an attack, were spread out in their bivouacs, making breakfast and shaving. O'Reilly completes his crossing and, led by Frimont's avant garde, begins to drive in the French pickets in front of Pietrabona. The rest of the Austrian army follow, squeezing across the two bridges and through the single exit from the bridgehead in a traffic jam that would take at least three hours. As with all of my maps, the symbols are to scale with the actual footprint of the battalions and squadrons.
What must it be like to fight a no-win war for eight years?
Toward the end of 1799 Bonaparte had hijacked a coup to overthrow the incompetent and corrupt Directory government of the French Republic, installing himself as its First Consul, a romantic title invoking the ancient Roman Republic. Though his new government included an executive branch of three consuls, the other two, Sieyès and Ducos, had quickly become mere administrators (though it had been Sieyès original plan to rule by himself), with all executive power in the hands of Bonaparte--since he was the one with the military behind him.
Revolutionary France was in the eighth year of an exhausting war with a wide coalition of the other monarchist powers (interrupted for only seven months by the Treaty of Campo-Formio after Bonaparte's Italian victories in 1796-7). All sides were economically, materially, and emotionally drained by the near constant fighting. So by the end of 1799, there was widespread popular support in France for a strongman to take charge and end the war, once and for all. Though I'm not going to go into the details of all of the politics of this period, it does remind me of a period in my own life when Richard Nixon rode on a wave of popular support with his promise to end the seemingly endless war in Vietnam in his campaign for president in 1968. A promise he, like Bonaparte, immediately broke by escalating the war further. But that's for another blog.
Though France itself was not in immediate danger, its oligarchic Directory had completely botched up the strategic and logistical management of the war such that most of the fruits of the victories of 96-97--especially in Italy--had been squandered. The Austrians were on the move and feeling aggressive. They outnumbered the French in Italy by over three-to-one and had taken back most of the territory and cities that Bonaparte had won two years before. Bonaparte realized that if he were to retain his dictatorial powers in the face of the fickle mob of red caps in Paris, he had to deliver victory and a satisfactory end to the war. Otherwise, he too, would be vulnerable to the next coup. And there was no shortage of popular generals to replace him (Jean Moreau being one of them--see my previous article on Hohenlinden).
The First Consul's plan was to go back to Italy and repeat the dazzling victories he had won three years before. But he didn't want it to be throwing good money after bad this time. As the head of government now, he felt he finally had the power to coordinate a total campaign stretching from the Rhine to Italy, something he lacked in the previous campaigns. He could command the armies and war resources directly, without committees and, to him, useless legislatures.
He was a dictator. I know, he would say that's such an ugly word.
The Strategic Situation
At the beginning of the year, the French had an army of 280,000 men, at least on paper. But from desertion, illness, non-battle deaths, garrison duty, and just optimistic arithmetic, it was probably down to 150,000 available for operations. Organized in three main army groups under Augereau in Holland, Moreau along the Rhine frontier and Switzerland, and Massena in Italy and southeastern France, the French confronted forces at least three times their strength among the allies of the Second Coalition. They had suffered several defeats during the mismanaged 1799 campaigns in Italy and Switzerland, not to mention in Bonspartes abortive adventure in Egypt. In addition, many troops were siphoned off to put down rebellions in Brittany and elsewhere internally; the Revolution was still far from over. The Coaltion--by which we're mostly talking about Austria on land and Britain at sea--had as many as 388,000, also spread out from the Rhine to northern Italy, and many locked up garrisoning fortresses. In Italy, the Habsburgs and their Italian allies had around 108,000 troops, supported at sea by the Royal Navy, facing Massena's 36,000. Fortunately for the French, the Russians, who had been part of the Second Coalition,. pulled out after a tiff Czar Paul had with the British over their high-handedness in the occupation of Malta (which he saw as his, for reasons too crazy-pants to talk about here) and from his fan-boy worship of Bonaparte. But the politics are really complicated and dealt with in far greater and better-written detail on some of the sources in References below. Let me just leave it at that.
One of the first things the First Consul did after taking political power (besides dissolving the Directory and installing himself as dictator) was secretly organize a centralized fourth army group consisting of about 60,000 men. These were to assemble around Dijon, strategically positioned just west of the Swiss border to be able to either strike northwest to reinforce Moreau along the Rhine, or southwest across the Alps to relieve Massena in Italy. The centrally positioned assembly point was designed to keep the Allies guessing.
This secret fourth army certainly wasn't that secret for long. He named it "Army of the Reserve" ostensibly to fool the enemy into thinking it was merely a non-threatening "home guard" on French soil. But that fooled precisely--wait, let me go to my calculator here--nobody. As the Army of the Reserve gradually came into being from January to April, cobbled together from cadres of crack units reassigned from the other three army groups, Bonaparte envisioned using it to make a surprise strike across the Alps into Piedmont and Lombardy and reenact his brilliant campaign of 1797. He knew northern Italy like the back of his hand and felt most at home there.
|Jacques-Louis David's prop depiction |
of Bonaparte crossing the Alps.
In the meantime, Massena, cut off in Genoa, was as yet unaware that Bonaparte had reached Milan with a fresh army. FML Ott, tasked with taking Genoa, was ordered by Melas to call off the siege and march for Alessandria to face this new threat. But sensing that the fall of the city was just hours away, Ott protested and Melas gave him two more days to negotiate its surrender. Massena finally agreed to very favorable terms on 4 June. In fact, he told Ott that if the words "surrender" or "capitulation" were used in the document, the deal was off. It was one of the most successful defenses of a city in the 18th century, lasting over two months. Moreover, Massena managed to negotiate for his 10,000 defenders to march out with all of their arms and equipment. Ott and Melas, panicking at Bonaparte suddenly between them and Vienna, said fine...just go.
|Paul Delaroche's more realistic |
painting of the same crossing,
Bonaparte did manage to work what was left of his army around to the east of Melas's strategic base at Alessandria, positioning himself between the Austrian army and Austria. Alessandria sat at the entrance to two passes south over the Apennines to Genoa, where the British Fleet and resupply were. So its position was of vital strategic importance to controlling Piedmont and Lombardy. The First Consul's trusted subordinate, Lannes, probing westward toward Alessandria, ran into a much larger force under FML Ott (18,000 to Lannes's 8,000) at Montebello, about 27 miles (43 km) northwest of that city on 9 June and precipitately (against Bonaparte's orders) forced a battle in which both sides lost considerably. Lannes, land shark that he was, was not known to ever be constrained when he smelled blood. Ott retreated back to the safety of Alessandria. And Bonaparte moved what remained of his core army across the Scrivia River to Torre di Garofoli, about 10 miles (16 km) due east of Alessandria.
|FML Michael von Melas|
Based on this spurious intelligence from Toli, Bonaparte concluded that Melas was about to bolt from Alessandria to either Turin, in the west, or Genoa to the south. The First Consul therefore spread his army wide to act as tripwires for either of these moves. He sent Desaix's corps (composed only of Boudet's division at this time) to the south toward Genoa, and Lapoype's division to the north, to watch the Po crossings in case Melas decided to escape that way. Based on his self-assured clairvoyance of Toli's false reports, Bonaparte never suspected that Melas had any intention of attacking the Army of the Reserve directly from Alessandria.
For his part, Melas more accurately listened to Toli's reports of Bonaparte's intentions and to his own superior cavalry's reconnaissance of the dispersal of the French forces. He sent the double-agent back to Bonaparte to reassure him that he had no intention of attacking him. And history's greatest military genius fell for it.
Observations about the Battlefield
Before we get to the violence, I wanted to take a moment to comment on the tactically relevant features of the battlefield.
Vineyards / Not Vineyards*
*This section has been revised from my original post.
The plain east of the River Bormida where the battle of the 14th would be fought was pretty flat. It has been described by a number of historians (Furse in particular) as "ideal cavalry country", devoid of woods, ditches, or other impediments to sweeping cavalry charges. However, Furse also mentioned that what vineyards there were had been destroyed the previous year by a skirmish on the same ground. A supposition I find doubtful. There were vineyards, of a type, that would have definitely rendered the whole plain not ideal cavalry country. As I'll explain:
I had based my original maps in this post from Gen. Sanson's maps of the battlefield done in 1805 for Marshal Berthier's official account of the battle for Emperor Napoleon. In my first research I had assumed that vineyards in 1800 in Northern Italy would have had the same character as modern vineyards, with the vines running along traces spaced a couple of meters apart, a method that would have definitely hindered cavalry. However, after close consultation with Alessandro Casoli, a scholar in Italy (and a reader of this blog), who has an extensive academic and practical background of the history of agriculture in Italy during the pre-modern era, I have had to revise my assumptions--and also my maps.
According to Dr. Casoli, grapes grown in the Po region up to the early 19th century followed a practice known as alberata e seminativo, in which stands of mulberry or fruit trees lined the fields and grape vines were allowed to grow wild up the trunks. In between these lines, the fields were simultaneously cultivated with corn, barley, wheat, and other crops. In this way, the same plot of land could be used for multiple produce, similar to the pre-Columbian milpa system in Mesoamerica. So though most of the arable land was divided into fields, each field itself was bordered by these vine-garlanded trees. At the end of each growing season, after the grapes had been harvested, the vines would be cut down and the trees pruned, the leaves used to feed livestock (lucky pigs!).
This method in Italy, though different from the more land-intensive modern viniculture, would have still proved to be a major hindrance to the movement of cavalry or artillery since each line of trees was also accompanied by a drainage ditch, which, for the French, became a series of defensible positions. This would explain why the memoirs and reports of the French commanders kept referring to les vignes Italiens as forcing the Austrians to channel their narrow columns down the roads, and of their own forces using these features in their fighting retreat.
As far as the dimensions of the alberta and the fields they bordered, I am also indebted to Dr. Casoli for sending me facismiles of contemporary land-use around Spinetta and Marengo (c. 1782-1814). These showed that the fields were corrugated into strips approximately 70 M wide and based on a road. Extrapolating, I have assumed that these "zoning" conventions applied across the whole battlefield. I have then used Sanson's orginal 1805 plot of the areas of les vignes Italiens and overlayed that alberata pattern that Casoli described.
I know, more information about land use and antique agriculture than you wanted to know.
When I visited the battlefield 190 years later, I could find neither vineyards nor alberate. What cultivated land I saw seemed to be confined to cereal crops. And the fields were far wider due to mechanized agriculture and monoculture.
Landscape looking east between Marengo and San Giuliano. No vineyards in evidence today. Nor any noticeable hills. When this shot was taken, an early morning in late October, after the harvest and after some days of rain, you could still see the haze from the humidity. Since the week prior to the battle it had also been pretty wet, it is likely that the evaporating haze would have cut down visibility then, as well. (photo © 1990, Jeffery P. Berry Trust)
Topography (Hills? What hills?)
Sanson's 1805 maps also show broad ridges running north and south. I have to say, from having driven all over this plain, I could sense no obvious ridge. The whole place seemed as flat as Kansas. I'm sure surveyors have recorded slight elevation differences, but these aren't reflected in today's satellite renderings on Google Maps (viewed in "Terrain" mode). At any rate, the gentle rise and fall of the ground is so gradual as to seem unnoticeable. That does not mean, however, that gentle rolling would not have concealed troop formations. You only needed a couple of meters vertical difference to completely hide a division. However, the pattern of alberata mentioned above would block vision far more than any slight rise or dip in ground.
The Fontanone Creek
At Marengo farm itself a narrow stream, called the Fontanone, runs almost due north. Just southwest of that farm, the creek jogs at right angles west toward the Bormida, and then, after a thousand yards or so, bends left and south again. The stream has also been described by various reporters and historians as an inconsequential obstacle. Furse says it was easily fordable, only four feet deep, basically a soggy ditch. But when I saw it, I was struck by how deep it was and how steep were the banks. It should be noted too that prior to the beautiful, sunny day of the 14th it had been raining pretty hard. So the stream might have been much deeper than the four feet Furse describes. The Bormida too would have also been swollen from all the recent rains. The fact was that this "inconsequential" obstacle of the Fontanone did hold up the Austrians for some hours in the morning. And five hundred of their engineers did heroic work throwing makeshift bridges over the creek under sniper fire, suffering high casualties, which they probably wouldn't have risked it if it was all that easily crossed.
The Fontanone stream looking north from Marengo farm. Though the modern, concrete structures probably weren't there at the time, you can see how steep and deep this channel was; nothing you could easily leap a horse over and certainly not fordable for guns. Engineers would have needed to throw bridges across it. Infantry, however, could have jumped down into the stream to wade across, albeit against intense musket fire and with the prospect being bayonetted while climbing up the opposite bank. (photo © 1990, Jeffery P. Berry Trust)
Marengo tower in 1990. (photo © 1990, Jeffery P. Berry Trust)
Gateway to Marengo farm cascina as it looked on my visit in 1990. (photo © 1990, Jeffery P. Berry Trust)
Furse and others claim that the plain was free of obstacles, another tactical feature of the battlefield was that nearly all of the roads and cultivated fields had drainage ditches along them, themselves overgrown with brush. These ready-made trenches and their cover were used by the French infantry from which to ambush the advancing Austrian columns, slowing their march and compelling them to redeploy.
A side road near Marengo. Notice the flanking ditches and foliage. These would have also lined all of the fields. Though this Google Street View was taken in December, during June the foliage would have provided ample cover for hiding guns and snipers.
Melas changes his mind? Or was it part of his plan all along?
Where was I?
Oh, yes. The late afternoon of 13 June Bonaparte, from his headquarters at Torre di Garofoli, sent forward Victor's corps to the western edge of the Bormida/Scrivia plain to probe for any Austrians there. These troops, led by Gardanne's division, ran into about 8,000 Austrians under a rearguard under the command of FML O'Reilly. These were in defensive positions around the fortified farm at Marengo, defending a bridge over the Fontanone. There was some fighting, but the Austrians soon retreated, leaving Marengo to Victor. Melas had intended that O'Reilly hold Marengo and the Fontanone line while the rest of the army filed over the Bormida bridge during the night and form up behind him. and made their way back over a bridgehead that had been thrown over the Boomida River. O'Reilly could have at least just fallen back to Pietrabona (another of those fortified cascinas) about a mile west of Marengo, but instead he led his whole corps back over the river to Alessandria.
Victor's 1st Division, under Gardanne, followed O'Reilly as close as they dared, until they were stopped by 14 guns mounted behind the fortifications defending the bridgehead and another 14 on high ground on the other bank of the Bormida, sighted straight down the road . In the rain and the failing light, the French voltigeurs picking their way forward could make out only one pontoon bridge across the river.
In his comprehensive history of the battle, Furse criticized Melas for
allowing O'Reilly to withdraw his troops from Marengo. In his own professional opinion (Furse had been a colonel of the Black Watch and the author of a number of military textbooks) if Melas were intending to attack the next morning, he thought it was foolish to give up
ground he'd have to pay dearly for again in the morning. But evidently, O'Reilly had not himself been aware of Melas's intention. This is another one of those instances in the various accounts of this battle that differ with each other.
However, if Melas's intention were instead to deceive Bonaparte, it seemed to have worked. In spite of the pontoon bridge and the fortified bridgehead on the eastern side of the river, the First Consul, influenced by what psychologists would today call confirmation bias, saw the Austrian withdrawal back over the river on the 13th as proof that Melas was getting ready to evacuate Alessandria, either south toward Genoa (to reestablish contact with the British fleet) or west toward Turin, to threaten Bonaparte's own lines of communication over the Alpine passes. That evening, Anton Zach, Melas's chief of staff, sent Toli, the double agent, to Bonaparte to confirm that Melas was evacuating Alessandria. Consequently, the First Consul did not move to reinforce Victor. Instead he dispatched Desaix (his favorite general and best friend, newly arrived from his own escape from Egypt) with Boudet's division (5,000) to Serravale, twenty miles south, to block the road to Genoa. The day before he had sent Lapoype's division (2,600) twenty miles northeast to watch the Po crossing. The rest of the army--Lannes' corps, Monnier's division, and the Consular Guard--were held back on the plain between San Giuliano and Bonaparte's headquarters at Torre di Garofoli four to ten miles to the east. Many on Bonaparte's staff later wondered why he was dispersing his army on the eve of a battle like this; this just wasn't like him. But this may have been hindsight being 20/20.
That evening somebody mentioned to somebody's cousin's friend's brother's aunt that
they saw another pontoon bridge farther north over the Bormida,
opposite the town of Castel Ceriolo (see maps). But in the gathering
dark, this couldn't be confirmed. Napoleon years later said, in his
frequently revised memoirs, that he had seen this northern bridge with
his own eyes when he climbed the Marengo tower on the 13th, but as I
said, this was probably a revisionist claim. And if he did see such a bridge, he inexplicably did nothing
about it that evening. In fact, there isn't much evidence that he had
personally ridden over to Marengo from Torre di Garofoli to see anything for himself. But claim of having seen the bridge
does conform to his extensive rewriting of the course of this battle in
service of his own reputation as a military genius.
there had been a northern pontoon bridge, it would have greatly
facilitated the rapid redeployment of Ott's corps the following morning, But it was ordered (by somebody) unmoored during the night and floated back upstream where it was
re-anchored parallel to the single bridge at the fortified bridgehead,
just outside Alessandria's Tortona Gate. While this may have increased
the flow of troops over the river the next morning, it was logistically foolish because now the whole Austrian army had to pack through the
choke point created by the bridgehead breastworks. No one had thought to create
another exit from those fortifications, so the army was going to be
jammed into about 20 acres (8 hectares)...or about the area of
Fantasyland in Disneyland (my own family's standard for imagining area). And the only exit from this staging area was one, narrow gate.
Did anybody think about this? Or suggest maybe cutting another exit through the breastworks?
Melas's new orders were for his army to be ready to march back over the river at midnight. But in this morning rush hour, it took so long for the thirty-thousand troops, encumbered by over a hundred guns, to get across the two bridges and then through that single gate onto the road to Marengo, that it wasn't until 09:00 that O'Reilly's advanced guard (under Frimont) ran into Gardanne's division defending the walled farm of Pietrabona, a thousand yards short of the Marengo bridge.
Ott's left hand column, the one tasked with taking Castel Ceriolo and outflanking the French, hadn't even started to cross the river yet. Moreover, after Melas heard another rumor that Suchet and Massena's Army of Italy had been spotted down south at Acqui, about 28 miles (45 km) away, his chief of staff, Zach, weakened his force further by dispatching a cavalry brigade (Nimptsch's) in that direction to check it out. If the rumor had been true (it wasn't), the distance to Acqui was still two days' march away; not exactly an urgent threat. To make matters worse. Nimptsch's 2,300 cavalry had already crossed over to the east side of the Bormida and had to cross back, against the flow of traffic, further delaying Ott's crossing. Wouldn't it have been more efficient to ask one of the rearmost cavalry regiments back in Alessandria to go instead? It was not a good beginning.
Bormida River looking north from the modern bridge to Marengo from Alessandria, Sandbars are visible in this photo, indicating that the river was not that deep, in spite of the rain the previous day, both at the time this picture was taken and on the morning of the battle. (photo © 1990, Jeffery P. Berry Trust)
09:00 The French are surprised.
Nevertheless, in spite of their repeated snafus, luck was with the Habsburgs so far. Lulled into thinking that Melas was in the process of evacuating Alessandria toward either Genoa or Turin, the French were caught completely by surprise when, mid-morning, Austrians started coming at them in force, extruding out of that single nozzle in the bridgehead.
Victor had been posted on the 13th by Bonaparte to have his corps watch the bridgehead and fortify Marengo (but, curiously, not the town of Castel Ceriolo just to the north). Victor's men, about 10,000, made camp around Marengo and Spinetta to the southeast, sheltering that night from the thunderstorms. Gardanne's small division, about 3,000, composed of six battalions of the 44th and 101st Demi-brigades, was sent over the Fontanone to Cascina Pietrabona, about a thousand yards in front of the Marengo bridge and a mile this side of the Austrian bridgehead, ostensibly to act as advance guard in case the Austrian's decided to cross back and try to retake Marengo. What is a little unbelievable about all the contradictory reports and narratives the various participants made after the battle is that Gardanne's pickets apparently didn't notice all the activity up at the bridgehead and were surprised when all those thousands of Austrians started coming right at them, driving them back through the vineyards. It wasn't until they heard gunfire--first musketry and then cannon--that Gardanne and then Victor looked up and noticed they were under attack.
Victor's other regiments were enjoying breakfast on the east side of the Fontanone around Marengo when they also suddenly started hearing gunfire from the direction of the Bormida. At first, under the previous belief that Melas was actually evacuating Alessandria on the west, many officers assumed this was a diversionary, rear guard attack, meant to keep the French from following. But as the roar of the cannonade grew, and more and more Austrian troops started deploying in front of Pietrabona, it became apparent that this preconception was 180° wrong. Gardanne's men held them off as long as possible, but they were soon outnumbered and had no artillery to answer the dozens of guns the Austrians were pounding them with. After about an hour of this firefight, the pressure became untenable and the 44th and 101st began a fighting retreat in alternate platoons back over the Marengo bridge, fanning out left and right along the Fonatnone. About three hundred of the 3rd Battalion of the 44th under the immediate command of Victor's adjutant, Col. Achille Dampierre, who was sent up to see for himself, found themselves cut off and were forced by O'Reilly's cavalry and Grenzers to scramble south through a cornfield toward the Sortigliona cascina. They dragged with them a single, captured, Austrian three-pounder gun, but as it was without ammunition, one wonders why.
O'Reilly followed these three hundred with his the bulk of his column, 2,188 infantry, 642 cavalry, and six guns, setting up a siege around them as they hunkered in the Cascina Sortiglione. From here on, O'Reilly effectively took his entire right column out of the battle.
Nearby, two squadrons of the French 11th Hussars under Chef d'escadron Ismert took it upon themselves to mount up and cross a small ford over the Fontanone to the southwest of Marengo to the help of Dampierre's retreating infantry and defend the army's left, temporarily checking the onslaught of the Austrian hussars.
In fact, every battalion and squadron immediately around Marengo knew what they had to do. They grabbed their muskets and kit, or jumped into their saddles, and fell in, waiting to be directed.
|Myrbach's late 19th century sketch of Gardanne's infantry|
firing on Austrians from the treeline along the Fontanone.
Beginning about 09:00, Hadik, who led the center column behind O'Reilly, brought up all the guns and howtizers at his disposal to bombard the Marengo position. After about an hour, when Melas had taken precious time to deploy in parade-ground formations all of his center column, he bade Hadik lead his first direct assault with four of the Hungarian battalions of the IR#52 Jellacic and IR#53 Erzherzog Anton. These got to the steep bank of the stream, but many were cut down by the French hiding in the brush on the opposite bank. A few of Hadik's men jumped down into the water to wade across, but few made it to the other bank, and were promptly captured or bayoneted. They would have had to take off their ammunition pouches and held these and their muskets clumsily above their heads as they waded across and negotiated the slippery far bank. The majority fell back. Hadik personally reformed them for another try. This was repeated again and again, until Hadik, seeing his Hungarians had played out, told them they had done enough. At which point a musket ball knocked him off his horse. It was a fatal wound. He wouldn't die for ten days, but it effectively took him out of the battle. His senior brigade commander, Bellegarde, took command of the division.
View from the French side of the Fontanone toward Pietrabona. Hadik's and then Kaim's infantry and dozens of batteries would have been deployed out there. The corn in this photo is about six feet, which Furse reports was its height at the time of the battle. This crop would have initially concealed skirmishers, but would have soon been flattened by trampling from thousands of men and horses.. (photo © 1990, Jeffery P. Berry Trust)
10:00-11:00 The Austrian attack becomes overwhelming.
After Hadik's self-sacrifice in softening up of the French, it was Kaim's turn to put his division in. With this new influx of men (5,000) and even more guns, he launched assault after assault on the bridge and the Fontanone. But these, deployed in line rather than formed up in attack columns to rush the bridge, met the same fate as Hadik's division. They pulled back to regroup as well, and the newly added artillery, recommenced bombarding the French on the other side of the stream. As we'll see, it was this overwhelming artillery that really made the French position unbearable.
About 800 yards north of Margengo, opposite another walled farm called La Barbotta, where the banks of the stream were swampy and presumably not crossable, heroic Austrian engineers frantically started building a makeshift bridges over the mushy ground and the stream for cavalry and artillery to cross and outflank the defenders at the Marengo position. While they worked, they suffered considerable casualties from pesky French snipers on the far bank. The shirtless, soaking engineers were protected by men of the Bussy Jagers zu Pferd (mounted chasseurs), who were mostly French ex-patriot royalists, many of them veterans of the American Revolution with their unconventional "Indian" style of combat. These men also seethed with hatred of their regicidal compatriots and they took down quite a few of the French snipers.
During this harrowing hour, Victor had summoned Chambarlhac's division of the 24th Legere, the 96th, and the 43rd (6,500 men) to come up and support Gardanne's men. But as Chambarlhac led his columns up the road from Spinetta, a howitzer shell landed right in the middle of the lead column and blew apart seven men, including his own aide-de-camp riding beside him. Probably in shock from the blast, and witnessing this grisly sight, Chambarlhac, who had survived many lethal combats himself over the preceding years, including one that very week at Montebello, suddenly lost his nerve. I guess PTSD finally kicked in. Without telling anyone where he was going, he calmly turned his horse around and rode back down the road, as if he'd suddenly remembered he'd left the stove on in the kitchen. I don't know if he ran into Bonaparte coming up that road in the opposite direction, but if he did, he had some 'splainin' to do. The next day, when he showed up to his command again, somebody in the ranks actually shot at him. Fortunately for him and his career, he was unhurt, and he went on to assume a number of cushy jobs under the Empire (and even the Bourbon Restoration) and was even awarded some medals and titles. But he never saw combat again. Maybe Napoleon recognized in him someone who had given so much until he just snapped.The Emperor could be petty. And sometimes vindictive. But he was also occasionally known to be surprisingly sympathetic and forgiving. He even eventually allowed Duvignau (see above) to come back into a minor command under Kellerman in 1811. And we know how he welcomed marshals like Ney and Soult back into his arms after they had betrayed him in 1814.
Victor himself didn't seem to give a thought to Chambarlhac leaving and took direct control of his battalions himself. As Gardanne's troops started to run low on ammunition, Victor fed in the 96th, the 43rd, and the 28th Légère to shore up the line. The 28th fanned out to the left, flanking La Sortigilona to counter O'Reilly's attacks on Dampierre dug in there. The 96th mingled with the 101st, facing north to continue enfilading the waves of attacks from Kaim against the bridge. And the two remaining battalions of the 43rd pitched in to the defense of Marengo farm with the depleted 44th and their sister 43rd/3 battalion.
For about an hour the firefight was pretty even across the Fontanone; the French not giving an inch and the Austrians falling back to reform and attack again. Between each retreat massed Austrian artillery renewed its barrage. This caused far more damage that the musketry. The French undoubtedly hit the dirt when the enemy infantry fell back, knowing the artillery were going to unleash on them again.
Lannes's corps, some 7,000 men in twelve battalions with eight guns, had finally started showing up around 11:00 to support Victor's defensive line, which was beginning to show signs of weakening. Lannes first deployed his battalions in a double line behind the right of Victor's position to cover the previously undefended swampy portion of the Fontanone south of the La Barbotta cascina, where the Austrian engineers were completing their makeshift bridges.
By 12:00 the Austrian left wing led by Ott had finally crossed the Bormida and was closing in on the town of Castel Ceriolo to the north. Only one French battalion, the 3rd of the 6th Légère, had been sent by Lannes to defend the two bridges into that town across the Cavo, but the pressure from Gottesheim's advance guard and Ott's 8,000 behind those started to tell. The 6th were seoon driven back from the two bridges into Ceriolo and then northeast out of town toward Salé.
It was also by this time that the Austrians' overwhelming superiority in artillery began to forecast the inevitable. At this stage of the battle the French had, at most, just sixteen guns at the front, spread out between Castel Ceriolo and Marengo. Weeks earlier, when Bonaparte slipped his army past the blocking fort at Bard in the St. Bernard Pass, he had been forced to leave his ordnance behind. Since breaking out into Piedmont, he had mostly acquired what guns he now had from captured Austrian depots. On their part at Marengo, the Austrians had brought up seven cavalry batteries (four six-pounders and two howitzers each), plus every infantry battalion had on average two of its own three-pounder guns, totaling over a hundred-and-twenty tubes. Infantry strength on each side at this point was about even, but more and more Austrian battalions were marching over the Bormida, adding to the pressure. And the superiority of Austrian cavalry, while irrelevant on the opposite side of the steep-sided Fontanone, became a tactical factor once Ott had taken Castel Ceriolo and they were able to fan out across the eastern side. But in the end, it was the overwhelming storm of artillery that made the real difference in the center.
By 14:00 Victor's men, running out of ammunition and having been under relentless bombardment and repeated attacks for five hours, finally began to give way. Moreover, their muskets were almost all fouled and overheated from rapid firing. In his memoirs Grenadier Coignet of the 96th describes desperate men pissing down
their musket barrels to clear and cool them, an expedience that was apparently common in all intense firefights back in the age of black powder warfare. One by one, companies would fall back, not running, but giving way slowly, reforming at each rally point. But there were a lot of casualties, perhaps a third, and another third were making their way back toward San Giuliano "helping" their wounded comrades.
Melas rallied Hadik's (now Bellegarde's) division and shifted it and Kaim's division slightly north to storm over the completed causeway opposite the La Barbotta farm. He also brought up Lattermans's 2,201 grenadiers and St. Julien's reserve regiment, IR#11 Wallis (2,260) to storm the Marengo bridge again. The grenadiers didn't bother to stop, deploy, and fire, but ran down the road in column, using bayonets to force their way over and into the Marengo cascina and minimizing their casualties from the enfilade fire from the flanking Fontanone. This charge proved to be finally successful, driving Victor's men back. But the latter rallied again and countercharged with bayonet (the Frenchmen's favorite weapon anyway; who needs ammunition?), retaking the cascina and the bridge, one, two, three times. Then the Austrian grenadiers came back in a final rush and finally threw the French out for good.
|Another Myrbach sketch of French artillery|
defending the retreat along the road to
By this time, though, Lannes's men were also running low on ammunition on the right, and Kaim's and Bellegarde's battalions were finally getting over the Fontantone, and this time firmly establishing themselves on the French side.
Victor's division eventually gave up Marengo and began to fall back in a stubborn retreat. They first rallied in the alberata-lined fields to the east where they turned to fire their last rounds, then reformed their lines. They could no longer shoot, but they could hold off any direct attacks. Row by row they ducked back through the rhythmic lines of trees, reforming at each ditch, warding off the oncoming Austrians. The vines provided some protection from the Austrian As I described above, the nature of the alberata-lined fields prevented the Austrian cavalry from charging. And the greatly superior Austrian artillery was forced to confine itself to the roads threw them. Many French also took cover in the ditches lining the Alessandria-Tortona road to hold up the pursuit, unlimbering the few guns they still had and firing down the road, forcing the pursuing Austrians to dive off the roads into cover. Then the French would fall back again and repeat, slowing the enemy's surge. At no time did the retreat turn into a rout. Though exhausted and out of ammunition, the French refused to break, though they were down to one third of their original strength. They closed ranks with bristling bayonets, like ancient Greek hoplites, falling back by platoons to each succeeding ditch. And when the French fell back to the next positions, the Austrian infantry would clamber out of the roadside ditches and form up in columns again to continue the pursuit.
Lannes starts to falter too.
Though there was not yet a rout, things were also starting to
unravel on Lannes's position on the Marengo-Castel-Ceriolo line on Victor's right. The Austrian cavalry under Ellsnitz, (nearly 2,000) finally over the Fontanone
at Castel Ceriolo , was able to exercise its numerical superiority and
threaten Lannes's battalions behind La Barbotta. Moreover, Ott's approximately 7,000 infantry, 740 cavalry, and 34 more guns were starting to march through that place and deploy on the plain below it, threatening Lannes's flank. These were held somewhat held in check by the few French cavalry under Champeaux,
but the latter were hoplessly outnumbered and soon had to fall back themselves, wheeling around to charge periodically in a yo-yo fashion while they protected the flanks of the infantry. Most of the Austrian guns were now over the Fontanone and pounding Lannes in a crossfire from the west and north. As Victor's men
fell back on his left, Lannes had his own division refuse its flank and start a slow retreat back toward San Giuliano. Austrians were swarming
around him like angry ants...well...ants in tight, linear formations. Ants with artillery.
About 14:00 (though different reports vary on the time), while Victor was trying to manage an orderly retreat, a brigade of 1,400 Austrian dragoons under Pilati had found that same small ford over the Fontanone to the south that Ismert's 11th Hussars had earlier. Pilati's object was to outflank Victor, creating a double envelopment with Ott to the north. In single file Pilati's troopers began to make their way to the eastern bank of the stream and form up. But before they could, Kellerman, with his small heavy cavalry brigade (572 troopers) and the 8th Dragoons (443), galloped up seemingly out of nowhere and fell on them, cutting the unformed Austrian chevaulegers to pieces, and driving the remainder back over the stream. Kellerman described the carnage of horses and men falling over each other into the steep-banked stream, with many drowning. or suffocating under their weight. This initiative on Kellerman's part saved the French left and held off a catastrophic defeat for Bonaparte. Kellerman dutifully kept watch on this ford for over an hour, until he heard the sound of battle drift away behind his right to the east, finally wheeling back and galloping his squadrons toward San Giuliano. Pilati didn't try that again. He moved his brigade back north to the Austrian left to join Elsnitz, who by this time had moved his cavalry to the east bank of the Fontanone beyond Castel Ceriolo.
Back at about 11:00 Bonaparte had ordered Monnier's division (19th Legere, 70th and 72nd--4,093 men) to march west from Torre di Garofoli to shore up Lannes's right flank at Castel Ceriolo. As Monnier arrived in the vicinity of la Buzana farm
around 13:30, he dispatched two
of his demibrigades (70th and 19th Légère) up in the direction of that town under
the command of his his brigadiers, Carra St. Cyr and Jean Shilt. But he himself stayed back by
la Buzana with the 72nd and the four guns of the divisional artillery in reserve. This reminds me of George Pickett staying behind during the charge of his division at Gettysburg. Or of Stonewall Jackson at Cedar Mountain. Some could argue that it was a prudent commander who kept himself out of the fighting so he could more cooly manage the division. But in the culture of the Revolutionary French Army, this wasn't appreciated; the job of the leader was to lead, not to watch from the rear through heavy lenses.
The First Consul finally drops by.
Speaking of leading from the rear: By 11:00 Bonaparte himself hadn't moved from his headquarters back at Torre di Garofoli, over eight miles away. The cannonade wafting from the east had been growing for three hours. He had been receiving more and more urgent messages from Lannes and Victor and had finally reached the conclusion that this was serious. Melas wasn't retreating to Genoa, or wherever. He may be evacuating Alessandria, but he was doing so coming right at the Army of the Reserve. At noon Bonaparte moved his staff forward to San Guiliano, running into more and more retreating and wounded soldiers; no whole formations yet but hundreds of isolated men and small clumps. He dispatched couriers south to find Desaix and pleaded with him to come back quick. And to Lapoype over twenty miles north at Pontecurone with the same sharp order. As I mentioned, it was then he had ordered Monnier's division ( officially under Desaix's command but which had remained at headquarters with the First Consul) to march with haste toward Castel Ceriolo. And, sometime later, around 13:00, according to the witness, Petit, the First Consul himself mounted his horse and led his Guard west, reaching the collapsing front between 13:30 and 14:00. Hollins, in his narrative, doesn't have Bonaparte leaving his San Giuliano until 14:00, arriving at the front sometime around 15:00. But this is just one of dozens of time and place discrepancies in the various accounts. Let's just say, without our synchonized watches, it was sometime in the middle of the afternoon, after the main retreat had begun.
On his way there Bonaparte rode against a tide of wounded men in wagons and limping up the road, and even more unwounded men "helping" them to the rear. On meeting up with Lannes and Victor near the la Buzana farm house, he quickly realized how desperate the situation had become. The army hadn't collapsed yet, but it was definitely on the verge. It is a testament to the discipline, grit, and patriotism of these Revolutionary soldiers that, in spite of their exhaustion and horrific casualties, they kept their formations, and back-stepped with their bayonets toward the enemy. They formed squares when threatened by cavalry. The few cavalry squadrons of Champeaux's brigade would wheel back and start to charge, chasing off the Austrian horse and allowing the infantry to file back into columns and continue the retreat in order. At this point the French had only five guns left, but these were used to fire down the roads at the Austrian columns, forcing them to halt and duck for cover. The pursuing Austrians did not press their attack too closely, preferring the overwhelming artillery of their cavalry batteries to do their work for them.
The First Consul also encountered Monnier to
the right of the Alessandria-Tortona highway near the Cascina Buzana, and asked about his mission to secure Castel Ceriolo and Lannes's right flank. Monnier explained that he had sent two-thirds of his troops up that way but thought it more prudent to hold his guns and the 72nd with himself in
reserve. Disgusted, Bonaparte rode past Monnier and called on the 72nd
to get up and follow him to counter-attack the oncoming Austrians. They
declined, thank you. It was claimed in some memoirs (including Napoleon's) that the men protested that they could not bear to see him risk
his brave and priceless life in leading them in a suicide charge. Reasonable enough. However, at that time,
they still declined to go up themselves, with or without his brave leadership. Unlike Bonaparte's gentle
forgiveness of Chambarlhac, Monnier never enjoyed the First Consul's sympathy; he was given inconsequential commands in Italy after the armistice and eventually cashiered by Napoleon. And neither he nor the men of his division received any mention in the official reports of the battle, though, as we'll see, they did perform valuable service as a rear guard during the retreat phase.
| Bonaparte imploring the 72nd to follow him in counter-attacking the Austrians. |
Felician Myrbach's print (1896)
As Lannes's corps retreated past Monnier's position at la Buzana, the 72nd, reluctant to charge, did fall in and deploy, holding back the oncoming Austrian grenadiers and cavalry with controlled volleys and the division's four guns. By the time Lannes's men were far enough to their rear, the 72nd slowly gave ground, turning to fire another volley periodically if the Austrians got too close. So though they wouldn't commit to a banzai charge, the 72nd did perform a valuable and, as it turned out, prudent service to preserve what was left of the Army of the Reserve.
While Lannes's and Victor's troops managed to pull back, somebody forgot to tell the 3rd battalion of 43rd, who were still defending the Marengo cascina. These men, who had been fighting with Gardanne's division (though they themselves were part of Chambarlhac's) since the beginning, had lost almost half their original strength and had run out of ammunition. Their commander, looking around from the top of the tower saw that they were completely surrounded by the enemy and in the distance he could see the rest of the army retreating eastward. So, to save the lives of his men, he prudently decided to surrender. Bonaparte, when he found out later, was furious, especially learning how Dampiere, with his mere 300 had managed to hold off O'Reilly the rest of the day holed up in Cascina Bianca (he also surrendered about 19:00) for which he was awarded a medal. The First Consul, though, had the hapless commander of the 3/43rd court martialed for cowardice, claiming that "Five hundred men commanded by a brave man can cut their way out from anywhere." Yeah? Well...
Meanwhile, without their division commander, Monnier, but under the capable direction of St. Cyr and Schilt, the 70th and 19th Légère did make it up to Castel Ceriolo, probably sometime after 14:00 and ejected Gottesheim's advanced guard of Ott's corps. They managed to hold on to to the town for an hour or so when Ott's infantry attacked the village from the west and south, driving back the outnumbered French. About 15:00 St. Cyr and Schilt withdrew their men eastward, down the road toward San Giuliano Novo, rallying among some vineyards.. They had succeeded in holding up Ott's flank attack on Lannes long enough so that the French had time to withdraw to San Giuliano and regroup. So it was a useful service, even though Bonaparte didn't acknowledge it (so disgusted he was with Monnier's perceived dereliction).
As Bonaparte arrived on the scene near la Buzana in time to witness the retreat of Lannes's and Victor's commands, he realized he had to do something to stave off a rout. He sent his two battalions of his Consular Guard northwest in the wake of St. Cyr to shore up his right flank, covering the withdrawal of Lannes. These 800 elites with their three light guns made it up to an open field about 700 yards southeast of Castel Ceriolo when they were confronted by Schellenburg's division (4,788 infantry and 19 guns), who deployed and began firing on them. The Guard lined up behind an east-west ditch formed by a bend in the little Cavo stream and returned fire. Schellenburg's infantry (IR #51 Splenyi and IR #28 Frolich) did not waver but returned volley for volley against the Guard over the ditch. And the Austrians' overwhelming artillery blew massive holes in the their lines. This hopeless, rearguard defense went on for about half-an-hour.
Eventually Schellenburg's infantry were reinforced by cavalry of the #10 Lobkowitz Chevaulegers coming down from Castel Ceriolo, who swept around the Guard's eastern flank, forcing them to form square. Shortly after this, still more Austrian cavalry (#1 Kaiser Chevaulegers and the Bussy mounted jagers) piled on to attack them from the south. Champeaux's remaining dragoons (Champaeux himself had been mortally wounded at the beginning of the battle), though exhausted, tried to help the Guards and, now personally commanded now by Murat, counter-charged. But these too were soon overwhelmed and driven back to retreat with the rest of Lannes's men.
Now, isolated, surrounded, and in a dense square to fend off all the cavalry, the Guard were even more vulnerable to Austrian gunfire. Decimated in this hopeless stand, they finally started inching back eastward in the wake of Lannes's retreat, taking more casualties all the way but never breaking. Petit reports that the Bussy Legion (the royalist expats mentioned above) had hoisted the bearskins of the fallen on their sabres to taunt the retreating Grenadiers, adding insult to injury. Popular historiography has the Guard being heroically wiped out, but in the end they lost "only" a third of their strength (258) and were never broken. They also carried their wounded with them. So they weren't annihilated and retained their honor. Marengo was this legendary command's debut in a fifteen year career of heroism. And they ended this first battle in the same way they had their last, at Waterloo, by forming square, slowly giving ground, and suffering horrific casualties while they defended the retreat of the rest of the army.
Seeing the sacrifice of his Foot Guard, and with the fighting retreat of Lannes's corps sweeping by him, Bonaparte decided to restrain Bessieres's urge to throw in the three squadrons of the Guard Cavalry. He had not heard from Desaix or Lapoype as to whether they had received his urgent messages to return, nor where they were. As far as he could judge, he had lost this battle and wasn't about to sacrifice the small reserve he had left, and his personal bodyguard at that. Lannes himself had called on Bessieres, commander of the mounted Guard, to charge the swarming Austrian cavalry in order protect his retreating corps, but Bessieres said he was under the First Consuls orders not to. Evidently, Lannes took this as a personal betrayal and for the next nine years the two commanders maintained a running feud which Napoleon made no effort to cool. Evidently, Bonaparte was amused by it or thought it was useful to have his subordinates fighting among each other.
An Austrian Victory
By 15:00 everyone on the French side was heading back for San Giuliano. Melas, reasonably judging he had won the battle (and bruised his arm himself when one of the two horses shot under him fell on it) turned command of his victorious army over to his Chief of Staff, Anton von Zach, and rode back to Alessandria to write his victory dispatch to Vienna. At 71, he had performed like an old soldier in the battle so far, personally leading some charges, and capably feeding in reinforcements where needed. It had been a masterly won victory. But he had been in the saddle since midnight and was, understandably, in need of a nap. It seemed to him that Zach was more than capable of mopping up the retreating French. A reasonable assumption.
At any rate, Zach did not take charge of the whole army, as he should have, but instead galloped forward to lead the advanced guard, headed by IR# 11 Wallis, a relatively fresh regiment. This regiment already had a brigade commander in St. Julien, but Zach, evidently, wanted the personal credit for leading the chase. The Wallis regiment was backed up on the road by Latterman's 2,200 grenadiers, which had driven the French out of Marengo. These weren't fresh, but they were feeling victorious.
This van was supported several hundred yards to the left rear by Ellsnitz and Pilati (the latter had sheepishly come back from their aborted attempt to cross the Fontanone earlier), around 2,500 cavalry, but separated from the center by all those vineyards. Backing the van, about a mile to the rear were Bellegarde and Kaim, from 8,000 - 9,400 infantry (depending on previous casualties), and almost three miles back, Weidenfeld's grenadiers (2,917). O'Reilly's column, which had gone on a wild goose chase south to capture Dampierre's three hundred that morning, finally managed to force this handful to surrender about 19:00 that evening, and so were not available to support the main drive. Ott's column of around 7,000 were covering the center's advance far to the left, pushing back St. Cyr from Castelo Ceriolo toward Salé and so drifting farther and farther north. The artillery reserve were following Zach up the Alessandria-Tortona road. So Zach and his 4,500 infantry were leading with their chin, blythely strung out on the highway.
At this point in the battle, it seems very analogous to what would happen at Hohenlinden five months later. In that later battle (if you haven't yet read my article) the Austrians would also assume they had decisively beaten the French. As at Marengo they would surprise Moreau's Army of the Rhine by crossing a river (the Inn) and defeating it at Ampfing (or so they thought), and felt all that was needed was to pursue the fleeing mob and wipe out what was left in piecemeal. And, as at that later battle, the Austrians at Marengo would also run into a nasty surprise as they were strung out marching in column through a defile. Here in Italy, while the plain over which Melas's victors marched was more or less flat (as described in my notes on the topography of the battlefield above) the pursuing battalions had to condense into columns of march to move through a defile formed by a north-south swath of alberate-vineyards. While these weren't the woods of Hohenlinden, marching across the rows (essentially across the grain) would have taken forever and disrupted the formations. So the Austrian infantry confined themselves to the road.
The Austrians at this stage were no longer in any combat formations, but were hiking up the highway in more or less column of route. They were exhausted (themselves having been up for fifteen hours and fighting for seven), and the last they had seen of the French, they were all fleeing in panic. Or enough of them to give that impression. So, like Erzherzog Johann's army at Hohenlinden, they had no reason to expect any more resistance. Their cohesion got a little...oh what's the word?...lax.
But in this exuberant mood and loose order, imagine the nasty surprise of suddenly coming up on a deployed line of thousands of fresh French troops and a strong battery of cannon blocking their way.
Note on the following map: This map and the positions of the troops are based on Arnold's amd Furse's narratives, as well as the official Sanson maps produced in 1805 and the Elting/Esposito West Point Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars. In Hollins's highly detailed 2000 Osprey book on the battle, he has the Austrian's running into the French ambush some two miles (about 3 km) farther west, before the defile between the vineyards, just before the V in the road. His analysis may be right. But I chose to use that of those other authors and sources. Call me impulsive.
"This battle is lost, but..."
Desaix finally rode up from Rivalta to meet the First Consul at San Giuliano about 17:00. Napoleon could have kissed him. When Desaix looked at the state of the Army of the Reserve, rallying around the cascina, he reportedly told Bonaparte, "This battle is lost, but there's time to win another one." As the columns of Boudet's division followed him across the fields from the southeast, Desaix supervised their deployment across the Tortona-Alessandria highway, throwing forward the 9th Legere in ordre-mixte (center battalion in line, flanked by the other two battalions in column), covering the defile coming out of the vineyards to the west. The Austrian pursuing column had not yet emerged from the exit of that defile by 17:00. Marmont, Bonaparte's chief of artillery, collected all the guns left of the army, about 18, and lined them up in a massed battery in front of the 59th and 30th demibrigades of Boudet's division. These were supported by Murat amassing what cavalry was left, and on their right rear by what was left of Kellerman's heavy cavalry brigade, who had made their way back from covering Victor's retreat, skirting the south of the Austrian main column.
The whole force would have been concealed by a slight, barely noticeable ridge between San Giuliano and the defile exit to the west. The ridge is not even noticeable as a feature when you drive east along the Via Piacenza today, but if it were only 2-3 meters difference, it would have hidden men and guns to anyone marching up that road from the west. As I also pointed out before, the successive trees lining all the fields would have obstructed sight even more.
Assuming command from Melas about 15:00, Zach termporarily broke off engagement and let Victor and Lannes continue their retreat back toward Tortona. Because of all of the obstructed terrain (the alberate), the cavalry were not in an ideal position to use their overwhelming force to harass the retreating French. So Zach took about an hour to reform the army into columns of route before he set off to chase the enemuy. He had brought forward his reserve, led by St. Julien's brigade (IR #11 Wallis), followed by the five grenadier battalions under Latterman, and took personal charge of the advance. Instead of coordinating the rest of the army's movements, he left Kaim, Ott and O'Reilly (who had long gone south) to figure it out for themselves, and decided to personally lead the pursuit himself. The cavalry, under Elsnitz and Pilati, were left to follow, also in column. Normally, the purpose of the light cavalry (which is all that existed in Melas's army then) would have been to screen the advance and harass the retreating enemy. Not in this case. They were left to try to keep up, finding their own way through the maze of tree-lined fields.
St. Julien, leading the march, was prudent enough to send out skirmishers to screen the advance of his column. And these were the first to discover the ambush when they ran into the 9th Légère, "lurking" behind the slight dip in the ground. The #11 Wallis, emerging from the defile created by the alberate on either side of the road, fanned out right and left into line, and was immediately hit by a a volley from the 1,833 men of the 9th Légère. The #11 consolidated their line smartly, returned fire, then started marching forward, bayonets lowered to push back the 9th. The latter fell back slowly, in alternate platoons, firing as they went. Boudet meant for them to rejoin his main line about 300 yards back. Zach, perceiving only another French retreat, sent back to Latterman to support him with his grenadiers, who deployed themselves right and left as they cleared the defile.
At some point during the 9th's controlled retreat they unmasked Marmont's massed battery of 18 guns, who let rip on the Austrians at an oblique angle. Big holes appeared in the Austrian lines and the advance hesitated as the men closed ranks. The 9th linked up with the 30th and 50th Demibrigades and Desaix sent back for Bonaparte's permission to counter-charge. While he was waiting for it, he noticed the Austrian line stop to reform. He also saw the Austrian batteries unlimbering to apply their irresistible force again. Sensing it was now or never, he decided to act on his own and ordered Boudet's entire line to charge forward. He also sent another message to Bonaparte requesting immediate cavalry support.
Kellerman, with at most 150 men left in his brigade from his long day of fighting, with perhaps another 250 troopers from the 8th Dragoons, again took the initiative and wheeled left in a column of troops to take the oncoming grenadiers in flank. The #11 Wallis, meanwhile, noticing that the French infantry in front of them were now charging forward, became shaken. With another salvo from Marmont's guns, they broke and fled. As they did, they managed to let off one more volley. A bullet hit Desaix in the heart. Apparently, in all the smoke and excitement, no one noticed him fall and his body was only discovered later amid all the other casualties.
Meanwhile, Latterman's Austrian grenadiers were still deploying from column of route behind the retreating Wallis regiment when, from over one of those slight elevations to their left, came a thundering herd of screaming French cavalry, swords held high, smashing into bearskins' vulnerable left flank. Not having time to form square or even close up their ranks, the grenadiers suffered these hundreds of horsemen to ride among them, slashing right and left. Dramatically, too, at just this moment, a lucky (or unlucky) shell struck one of the nearby Austrian caissons and blew it up. Spectacularly. The blast was the last straw to the Austrian morale. Three of the leftmost grenadier battalions came apart in seconds and either surrendered or throw away their muskets and started running like hell for the rear.
Louis François Lejeune's famous painting of the climax of the battle, (painted in 1802)
when Desaix was killed (middle backround) and with Bonaparte in the
foreground, ironically looking away at the tragic moment of his friend's
death. Lejuene was acually an eyewitness at the battle, being a junior officer on Berthier's staff, so we might even consider this work of art a primary source document. There is so much interesting, anecdotal detail in his painting,
like the tragic scene of the Austrian officer killing himself in the
lower left while a French officer turns away in horror, handing him
another pistol (why? in case the first shot misses?); or the African
artillery driver in the middle foreground (what's his story?); or the
howling dog bereaving over his master's naked, dead body (this made me feel so sorry for that poor dog).
But there are some details too that both reinforce and diverge from the narrative: Like the 9th Légère firing at the column of Austrian grenadiers. And they are supported by the 30th demibrigade (look at the flag and compare it to the 30th's in the chart below). In the middle distance is the capture of Zach by some French dragoons. But Lejeune has also depicted the charge of Kellerman's heavy cavalry as coming in on the right flank of the Austrian column (background) instead of the left. There is also an exploding caisson, but it is behind the French lines and not the Austrian. These descrepancies from the accepted narrative may have been done for illustrative or esthetic purposes, or they may be more instances of the true facts of the chaotic battle being muddled in all the memoirs and Napoleonic revisionist propaganda. It is conceivable that Lejeune, who was actually there and whose memory was just as valid as anyone's, got it right.
Everything ends as it began.
As his command fell apart around him, Zach himself was captured by Kellerman's troopers, one grabbing him by the throat until he threw his sword down. St. Julien was also captured by some French dragoons but was later rescued by a corporal from one of Pilati's cavalry regiments.
Ellsnitz, whose cavalry brigade was coming up behind the Austrian avant garde, noticed the tide of fugitives fleeing in the opposite direction and ordered the #9 Liechtenstein Chevaulegers to deploy into line and countercharge the French. But by this time, Kellerman's cavalry, intoxicated with victory, and joined by Murat's squadrons and the mounted Consular Guard, were coming on like a swarm of locusts. The Liechntensteinians (Liechtensteiners? Liechtensteinistas? Leichtensteinites?) took one look and said, no thank you. They pulled their horses' heads around and joined the flood of terror-stricken infantry. These, in turn, ran into Elsnitz's second regiment, the #3 Erzherzog Johann Chevauglegers, and took them with them; who, in their turn crashed into Pilati's cavalry; who then fled into Kaim's infantry behind them. Dominos all the way back.
Within minutes the panic had infected the entire Austrian center column, who were all stampeding for the Bormida bridgehead. Kaim was able to rally some battalions for a time, but these were soon swept up in the general stampede. Weidenfeld's reserve brigade of grenadiers, at the rear of the column, at least did not lose their heads and formed squares in front of the bridge at Marengo to cover the retreat of the rest of the army. But the rout was otherwise so complete and the panic such that the single gate into the bridgehead and the two ridges over the Bormida were packed with the crush of humanity, many being pushed into the river. Austrian artillery, seeing their way blocked, attempted to ford the river when they saw men wading across. But, as at Friedland six years later during that cross-river rout, most of the guns just got stuck in the muddy river bottom. To put it in current American slang, it was a total sh*t show.
|Louis Desaix in Egypt|
by Andrea Apiani, 1800
When Bonaparte heard of Desaix's death he was very distraught. The two had become close friends during the Egyptian adventure and Napoleon had come to rely on the young general as his alter-ego; they seemed to be able to read each other's mind. Though it was Desaix who had saved Bonaparte's bacon by turning a defeat into a victory, and though it was fortunate for the First Consul's political reputation that he didn't have to share the victory, he was broken-hearted nonetheless. He was also able to rewrite the story of the battle to make it seem like it unfolded as he intended all along; Desaix's just-in-time arrival was all according to plan.
As the sun went down, the French occupied the same positions they had at the beginning of the day, their forward posts around Pietrabona, the main line at Marengo along the Fontanone, their northern flank occupying Castel Ceriolo. And the Austrians occupied their original positions on the west bank of the Bormida, defending their tiny bridgehead on the east. So everybody was exactly back where they started.
Each side, though, had sacrificed thousands of troops, almost a third of those engaged. The French, though the official bulletin only admitted 700-800 killed, 2,000 wounded, and 1,100 captured, probably lost closer to 10,000 altogether. The Austrians lost somewhat comparable, though, again these were supressed in the official reports from Melas and exaggerated in the French bulletins. It was not, at least in terms of ground captured and relative carnage, a decisive battle.
Melas, however, was greatly demoralized. He had retired in the middle of the afternoon thinking he had won a major victory and ended the war. And now, three hours later, with more and more of his broken troops staggering back into Alessandria, the inconcievable seemed to have happened. Though after a couple of days his army had rallied in Alessandria and he still outnumbered the French in Italy (especially given their own horrific losses and their still inferiority in artillery), he decided he'd had enough. He sent over to Bonaparte a request for an armistice. Bonaparte, greatly heartened by what he convinced himself was a strategic victory, was in no mood to be conciliatory but demanded that Melas abandon Alessandria and Genoa and quit northwestern Italy entirely. Though Melas soon received reinforcements and built his army up to what it had been before the battle, he had lost all heart and agreed to the terms, moving his sixty-thousand men and 300 guns east of the Mincio River. The terms of the armistice also forbade all operations by both sides on all fronts, including Germany, until December. So though Marengo did not end the war, it did buy both sides time to reground and rearm. The Habsburg's sole ally of significance, the British, were not pleased with the terms and kept pressuring the Austrians to break them, which they didn't.
Bonaparte, though, was able to use this ambiguous, near-run victory to raise huge political capital back home. In one battle he had been able to claim that he had reversed all the losses in Italy over the past two years and saved it for France. Though the war wasn't over, the confidence of the fickle populace in Paris was raised and there was hope that it would take just one more push to ultimate victory. Which would, indeed come true in five months. And Napoleon leveraged the legend of Marengo for all it was worth.
Had Desaix not shown up in the nick of time. Had Bonaparte lost the battle as it looked like he had at the end of the day, he probably wouldn't have survived politically. And world history would be radically different. Or not.
A Huge Caveat
While researching, writing, revising, and designing the maps in this article, it occured to me that possibly none of it was true. There were so many conflicting accounts, both from primary and secondary sources, that I nearly gave up trying to winnow out what was true and what mere propaganda. Napoleon himself had the narrative of this battle rewritten at least three times, each time giving himself more credit. Even the almost-contemporary battle maps (Sanson's, from the official War Ministry) seemed to vary with the various reports from the participants, and from the secondary histories I used. But they were commissioned to conform to the new account of the battle under the Empire's propaganda.
I have run into this conundrum in previous articles (The Granicus and Stamford Bridge being two recent examples). And in all the years I have made history my dilettante's obsession, I have come to the conclusion that all history is probably bull. Or at least open to different interpretation. As I write this, for instance, on the eve of Thanksgiving 2020, there is a current revisionist debate going on in the press about what actually happened at the first American Thanksgiving.
But the glaring descrepancies I've encountered in my research on this particular battle have been the widest. Part of the reason may be that Marengo is such an UNobscure battle, so well documented that the untrustworthiness of eye-witness testimony is more glaring because there is so much of it. Part may be that it is too polluted by Napoleonic propaganda ("to lie like a bulletin") to take seriously. And part may be that I've only spent a couple of months on this and not years, as a proper historian would.
So, I guess what I am taking too long to get to is don't necessarily believe what I'm telling you. It's all bull.
I've wargamed this battle several times. It is interesting as a game because it was, as the narrative reveals, so close. And interesting because there were so many mistakes and what-ifs that could have resulted in a different outcome. Though I am sure that most of you who are avid gamers, particularly Napoleonic gamers, have already considered many of these various scenarios and what-ifs, I offer some here.
1. Melas leaves the second bridge where it is.
One action that, in retrospect, seems like a huge mistake was the decision by Melas to take down the second pontoon bridge downstream on the Bormida and move it upstream to the bridgehead. With two crossing points, Ott could have moved his column over to the east bank of the Bormida much earlier and seized Castel Ceriolo at the outset. This would have given Melas an overwhelming postion on the unprotected flank of the French at the outset as that village was only lightly occupied by Champeaux's small dragoon brigade. With two crossing points, the assembly of the Austrian army on the right bank would have been achieved hours earlier, and they would have been able to turn the French out of Marengo possibly by 09:00, as was Melas's original plan. Further, a hypothesis could be tested by the simple detail of having more than one gate exiting from the earthworks around the bridgehead.
2. Bonaparte concentrates his army forward on the 13th.
3. Melas keeps his forces concentrated for the main push.
All through this battle and the days prior, Melas had been frittering away his strength--particularily in cavalry--on wild goose chases. It would be interesting to experiment with an outcome in which O'Reilly is kept on a short leash and ordered to envelope Victor's flank from the south, rather than be allowed to run off with his 4,000 Grenzers and cavalry on a school field-trip.
And would retaining Nimptcsh's 2,400 cavalry, instead of turning them around and sending them on another useless recce mission southwest, have given the Austrians a critical edge in strength and time? Remember, one of the reasons it took so long for Melas to get his army over the river was he ordered Nimptisch, who had already crossed, to force the rest of the army to wait while they filed back over the bridge.
Finally, communication with Ott's column was apparently so lax that he made several false starts and seemed completely unaware of the disaster befalling the central column at the end of the day, though it was just two miles away. Keeping communication between the wings tighter in a game might have made all the difference to the Austrian player.
4. Melas retains his cavalry advantage
Instead of dissipating his overwhelming cavalry superiority at the begining of the battle, sending them all on collateral missions, Melas might have concentrated this arm and used it more agressively. Admittedly, it was hard to charge cavalry through the densely grown agriculture and ditch-lined alberate to the east, but early on, he could have certainly better used Pilati, Elznitz and the absent Nimptsch's brigades more decisively.
5. Desaix doesn't arrive in time.
Though it is probably a foregone conclusion, it might be interesting to play a game in which Bonaparte has to rally and set his trap in front of San Giuliano with the forces he has left, without Desaix. Or to make both Desaix's and even Lapoype's arrival on the table dependent on a die roll after 17:00. In fact, to play a game in which Desaix's arrival is on a schedule would go against the whole cliff-hanger nature of the battle.The French player would tend to just assume he's going to get reinforcements. And we know that Bonaparte had bitten his nails down to the nub.
Other wargame considerations
Though some of the histories (cited above) describe the battlefield as ideal cavalry country, the liberal texture of alberate (and their accompanying ditches) would have impeded movement, particularly of cavalry and artillery. Rules should probably treat east-west crossing these alberata-bordered fields the same as moving through woods, or across any obstacle.
To the French player, these same alberate and their overgrown ditches would have provided ideal defensive positions, particularly in the fighting retreat toward San Giuliano.
Though the plain between the Bormida and the Ticinio is relatively flat, there seems to be just enough folds to conceal troop formations until within a few hundred yards or so, at least east-west. The trees of the alberta, as I pointed out above, though, would far more greatly hinder sight that the barely noticeable ridge. Still, even a slight elevation of a dozen feet or so would be enough to conceal a body of troops, even mounted troops.
The maps in this blog reflect marshy ground based on Sanson's 1805 maps. This is not surprising as the Bormida and Tanaro Rivers were prone to flooding, so the floodplain would be considered a "wetland". These are particularly prominent on the western edge of the battlefield, west of the Fontanone. This ground should be treated as it would in other wargame rules for marshes. But generally, movement would be slowed and virtually impossible for artillery.
The heroic activity of the Austrian engineers in constructing crossings, both of the Bormida and the Fontanone, should be factored into a game. Rules for how many figures can build how long a bridge in how much time should be created and followed. In my own wargames, I have such rules and algorithms. In this battle in particular, they would be critical.
My sand table of Marengo (morning phase) a few years ago, using 1:300 scale models.
French Flags at Marengo: While the Austrian regiments all had generally the same flags (see OOB below), each French demibrigade had a variation of the tricolor, while the 2nd batallion (or center battalion) had the same standard for all demibrigades. Heavy cavalry regiments (except for one, there were no cuirassiers until 1804) had carried four different standards, color coded for 1-4 squadrons. Both dragoon and chasseurs a cheval regiments carried the swallow tail guidon in the lower right. I could not find evidence that any of the hussar regiments carried standards or guidons into the field.
Orders of Battle
The following are the orders of battle for troops actually engaged at Marengo. I have also included commands that had been detached (like Nimbtsch's or Lapoype's Division) but I've not included their numbers in the total. Those wanting to explore what-if scenarios in their games, might find these useful. There was some disagreement among my sources about exact numbers and commanders, but I have generally gone with those reported by Arnold (and repeated in the Wikipedia article on the battle), supplementing with those reported by Berthier & Hollins.
NB: A general caveat, as always, do not cite this source in any academic papers or books you are writing. It is for general interest and wargaming applications only. But if you are a professional historian, you already know that.
First Column Command is the name and number of the command or regiment, colored in the primary uniform coat color.
Second Column Facing is
the command level and type, using standard military symbology. This
column is also color-coded in the “facing” color of the regiment
(collars, cuffs, turnbacks usually). For Austrian grenadier battalions,
which were composed of detached companies from all regiments, this color
I've left black--i.e. they all didn't have black facings.
Third Column Flag is
a miniature of the regimental flags, if known. If unknown or the
regiment did not carry its flag on campaign, this cell is left blank.
For more detailed images of French demibrigade cavalry flags, see chart
below these OOBs.
Fourth Column Strength is that reported from Arnold. Where he does not list the the
specific strength of a command, I have entered an approximate number
(*) based on the average of the total strength reported for that
category .There were at least three wildly different order of battle sources for this article that I found,
Arnold, James R., Marengo & Hohenlinden: Napoleon's Rise to Power, Pen & Sword, 2005, ISBN 1 84415 279 0
Chandler, David, The Campaigns of Napoleon, 1966, Macmillan, (no ISBN as this was published just prior to that cataloging system)
Esposito, Vincent & Elting, John, A Military History and Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars, 1964, Greenhill Books, London, ISBN 1-85367-346-3
Furse, George Armand, 1800: Marengo and Hohenlinden, 1903, Naval & Military Press, ISBN, 1-845747-97-6
Hollins, David, Marengo 1800: Napoleon's Day of Fate, 2000, Osprey #70, ISBN 1 85532 965 4
another OOB source as well as Arnold, though he doesn't cite his source
Letrun, Ludovic, French Infantry Flags: from 1786 to the End of the First Empire, 2009, Histoire & Collections, ISBN 978 2 35250 112 1
I also want to especially thank Alessandro Casoli for his invaluable expertise in the area of historical agriculture. His generosity in helping me understand how the methods of farming in 18th century Italy affected the battlefield was most welcome.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marengo_order_of_battle (Arnold is the source of this)
Berthier, Alex, Relation de la Bataille of Marengo, 1805, de l'Impremerie Imperiale, Paris
Cugnac, Gaspar Campagne de l'Armée de Réserve en 1800,
1901, Librairie Militaire R. Chapelot et Ce, Paris. NB, the order of
battle in this report from French military archives varies considerably
in strength returns from Arnold. It does seem to be the source for Hollins, however, though the latter doesn't cite it. I presume this was an editorial decision from the publisher, Osprey, who don't tend to footnote sources.
Kiley, Kevin, La Garde a Feu: The Consular Guard at Marengo https://www.napoleon-series.org/military-info/battles/c_marengo1.html
Petit, Joseph, memoir of the Battle of Marengo by one of the Horse Grenadiers of the Guard, 1801
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