Chapter 10


(February-April 1797)


Total Victory Over Austria


The signing of the preliminaries at Leoben.

Murat and Bonaparte are seen on the left

with the Archduke Karl on the far right


The day after his victory over General Provera at Mantua, Napoleon was confined to his bed for almost two weeks, sick and exhausted. He was practically given up for dead, and the Army was in despair. On January 30, however, he regained all his strength and energy.


He knew that Archduke Karl, the conqueror of the Armies of the Rhine and Sambre-et-Meuse, had just received the order to crush his little Army of Italy and to re-establish Austria’s position as the dominant power on the European continent. He also understood the urgency of getting the Roman Curia to end its manoeuvres to stir up a popular uprising against the French.


On February 1, 1797, he marched with the Victor division on Rome. On the 4th, he repulsed the Papal Army and entered Faenza. On the 9th, he was in Ancone, where he liberated all the prisoners as proof of his desire for peace. He asked them to pass on this message: "I have nothing against the Pope, nor the Church, only against Cardinal Busca and a handful of sycophants who sold out to the Austrians." The Pope Pie VI instantly dispatched Cardinal Mattei, and the peace of Tolentino was signed on February 19. It included a clause to help the hundreds of French priests who had emigrated to the Papal states. Since they were in the street, Napoleon saw that they were cared for, lodged and fed in the Italian monasteries. These unhappy priests wept with emotion and gratitude and thanked this general with a pure, sensitive, generous heart.


Napoleon was now able to confront Archduke Karl, who was already on the Piave, from whence he threatened Bassano, Vicence and Padua.  In his own words: "Prince Karl had two armies, one in the Tyrol and the other behind the Piave. ….  I dispatched Joubert to the Tyrol with three divisions forming a total of fifteen thousand men and I kept in reserve four divisions, totalling thirty-five thousand men, to march on Tagliamento. An eighth division guarded our rear in the direction of Venice.


I put a proclamation in the order of the day: The capture of Mantua comes at the end of a campaign that entitles you to the eternal gratitude of your country. You were victorious in fourteen battles in a row and seventy separate engagements; you have taken over one hundred thousand prisoners, taken five hundred campaign cannons from the enemy, two thousand large calibre guns and four bridge equipments. The Lombard and Transpadane Republics owe their freedom to you … the Kings of Sardinia, Naples, the Pope, and the Duke of Parma have broken away from the coalition of our enemies and have sought our friendship. Of the many enemies who formed a coalition to stifle our Republic at its birth, only the Emperor of Austria remains against us; this Prince is in the pay of the merchants of London; his only desire, his only policy, is that of the treacherous Britons who, impervious to the evils of war, smile with satisfaction on the misfortunes of the continent.


The Directory has tried everything to bring peace to Europe; its voice was not heard in Vienna; there is thus no other hope for peace than to go off and seek it the heart of the Hereditary States of the House of Austria. Its inhabitants are groaning under the blind, arbitrary rule of a government corrupted by English gold. You will respect their religion and their customs; you will protect their property, you will bring them freedom."


Since Napoleon dictated to Las Cases on St. Helena the details of the operations that led to the Austrian surrender, we are able to give you a summary of this reminiscence. "The Army began its movement on March 10. Masséna left Bassano for the Piave and the Tagliamento in the mountains, thus outflanking the Army of Prince Karl, who had dispatched a division to counter this manoeuvre. Masséna beat off this defence, and went in hot pursuit of the Austrians, taking many prisoners, including General Lusignan, who had insulted the French invalids in the hospitals in Brescia during the brief successes of Wurmser. On March 12, I was at Congliano and had thus outflanked the Austrian divisions that were defending the lower Piave. We crossed the river with water up to our shoulders. A brave drummer in danger of drowning was saved by a vivandière, who was an excellent swimmer. I rewarded her by hanging my own golden chain around her neck.


March 16, 1797

The battle of Tagliamento – Prince Karl had chosen the plains of Tagliamento as his battlefield, as he believed they would prove advantageous to his cavalry. On the 16th, at nine in the morning, our two armies faced each other across the river, our forces more or less equal. The cannon fire began on both shores. Seeing that the enemy was solidly installed and able to inflict heavy losses on us, I resorted to a stratagem. I withdrew slightly and pretended to be setting up camp. The Prince believed that our Army, which had marched all night, needed a rest, and since he dared not venture to our side of the river, he also moved back to his own camp.


Two hours later, when everything was quiet in both camps, I suddenly relaunched the attack. Our troops led by Duphot, Murat, Serrurier, Guieu and Bernadotte, crossed the river and in one magnificent charge overwhelmed the Austrians, who ran for their weapons. The Prince never succeeded in regrouping his units and after several desperate infantry and cavalry charges, he had to accept defeat and beat a retreat, abandoning cannons and prisoners."


Yves Amiot describes the battle and its aftermath in a less laconic manner than Napoleon: "Suddenly, at his signal, the French troops snatched up their weapons and flung themselves into the river, which they crossed in an instant, wading waist-high through the water. Astride his horse, Bernadotte unsheathed his sabre and cried "Soldiers of Sambre-et-Meuse, the Army of Italy salutes you!” Not another word was needed for his men to surge forward. The Austrian line was smashed by their irresistible charge. In vain, Archduke Karl ordered a cavalry charge, which was defeated in its turn by the squadrons of Murat. The Austrian commander then gave the order to retreat. It was in his interest to do so quickly, since to his right, the extraordinary Masséna division was advancing at full speed on the tireless legs of the soldiers, cutting a swath through the snow. In order to prevent him from occupying the Tarves pass, Karl sent the Bayarlich division. But it was already too late; Massena had just occupied that famous hill, the gateway to Austria. In the snow, over impossible roads, above the icy clouds, his troops had cut off Bayarlich’s division. Before Napoleon arrived and hounded them as far as Tagliamento, the Archduke made a supreme effort to retake the hill. A terrible battle ensued at an altitude of fifteen hundred meters. They were fighting above the clouds, writes Thiers, in the midst of snow and on plains of ice. Entire lines of cavalry were toppled and broken on that terrible battlefield – Vigo-Roussillon, who found himself with the famous 32nd, described the fighting: "The enemy infantry was attacked from every side. Finally we carried out a general charge and broke through … The Austrian losses were enormous. … We followed the remnants of the enemy army across the bitter mountains of Carinthia. We occupied Villach and arrived at Klagenfurt."

Caught between Masséna and Napoleon, the Bayarlich division surrendered. Then Joubert arrived, after winning epic battles in the Tyrol. Ever victorious, he had shown great qualities as a leader on the field of battle. While sustaining only minimal losses to his own men, he had captured over ten thousand prisoners from among the elite of the Austrian Army. On April 1, after an eighteen-day campaign, the crest of the Alps had been crossed and the road to Vienna was open. Once more, Napoleon had accomplished an amazing tour de force. He had led the French army in winter onto the highest peaks of the Alps, in locations and seasons where no battle had been fought in living memory, and once more, he had been victorious against the best general that Austria could send against him. This war in the clouds was to have enormous repercussions for the whole of Europe. Henceforth, nothing would be impossible for Bonaparte; nothing could now stand in his way.


The March on Vienna - After the occupation of Klagenfurt, the capital of Carinthia, Napoleon delivered the following proclamation to the population: "The French army has not come to your country to conquer it or to make any changes to your religion, your morals or your customs. It is the friend of all nations." The inhabitants showed themselves to be very well disposed towards the French, and hurried to provide them with everything they needed. The demoralized Austrian Army was no longer able to resist. Prince Karl was again beaten at Neumarkt, at Hundsmarck, and driven back beyond Simmering.


Disorder and terror reigned in Vienna. The Imperial family had left the capital and Mary Louise, aged five, certainly had no idea that she was one day to become the beloved wife of Napoleon, the Empress of the French, and a mother of the king of Rome. Napoleon, in an attempt to make peace, wrote to Archduke Karl: “.. Have we not killed enough people and inflicted untold evil on humanity? Must we continue to cut each other’s throats for the sole advantage of England? As for myself, General in Chief, if the opening I have just offered can save the life of one single man, I will esteem myself prouder of the civic crown I will have then deserved, than of the melancholy glory that accompanies military successes."


April 18, 1797

Austria was only too happy to accept Napoleon's generous proposal, and sent its plenipotentiaries right away. The preliminary peace treaty between France and Austria was signed at Loeben on April 18. Napoleon dictated severe conditions, which were accepted with very little resistance. We shall return to these in the following chapter.


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