Chapter 17




Bonaparte rallies his troops before the arrival of Desaix


When Napoleon Bonaparte was placed at the head of France, the country, as we have already seen, was in a state of near collapse. He began by dealing with the most urgent matters, namely, restoring the confidence of the people, relaunching the economy, re-establishing public safety and peace and initiating a program of vast reforms in all essential areas. To accomplish this, he chose, or had others choose, men of proven worth at every level of society, from his immediate entourage to the very heart of the countryside, and through his example and his powerfully charismatic personality, he breathed into them the desire to concentrate all their energies toward the renewal of the country. In other words, his behaviour was the opposite of that of a dictator who decides everything by himself: he appealed to the spirit of initiative and civic pride of every French citizen. For his own part, he worked twenty hours a day and would very often summon ministers or councillors at two in the morning. As he loved to say, "neither red bonnets (the Jacobins) nor red heels (the royalists) but all the French." In five months, from December 1799 to May 1800, he transformed a ruined country into a hive of activity in which 30 million citizens set enthusiastically to work.


But he also knew that the powerful Austrian army, with the support of English gold, was preparing to invade the country and overthrow the republic. He would confront this challenge too.


At the beginning of 1800, France had three armies. 20,000 men were stationed in Belgium under Augereau, to counter a possible English invasion. On the Rhine, 100,000 men under the command of Moreau confronted the major Austrian forces, under the command of Marshall Kray. The problem was that Moreau did not enjoy Napoleon’s confidence. Indecisive by nature, pushed by his wife and his mother-in-law, he was jealous of Napoleon and showed himself to be susceptible to the siren call of the Bourbons. In Italy, Massena, with 40,000 men, was endeavouring to contain the attacks of Marshal Mélas, whose forces outnumbered his own three to one.


In December 1799, foreseeing a grave danger of invasion on French territory, Napoleon ordered the formation of a reserve army that would be assembled in the Dijon region, and would be able, if circumstances warranted, to move towards the Rhine or Italy.


On March 8, 1800, he drafted a proclamation that was posted and read by town criers and rural policemen in every community in France:


“Men and women of France:

You wish for peace. Your government wishes it even more ardently. Its first concern and its constant efforts have always been for peace. The English Minister has made known the basis of his vile policy: to tear France apart, to destroy its navy and its ports; to wipe it off the map of Europe and to reduce it to the level of a second-rate power. It wants to keep all the nations of the Continent divided in order to wield control over the trade of every nation and to enrich itself on their remains; it is to attain these objectives that England is giving away gold, all the while multiplying its promises and its intrigues.


To confront it, we need money, iron and soldiers. Let everyone hurry to pay the tribute they owe to the common defence. Let French youth rise up. We’re no longer fighting for factions, we’re no longer fighting to please the whims of tyrants; that is not why we must take up arms. It is to safeguard everything that is dearest to us; it is for the honour of France; it is for the sacred cause of humanity."


This proclamation produced a remarkable reaction throughout the country. Everyone ran to pay their taxes; those who could, paid extra. Young men jostled each other excitedly in the recruiting offices and came out disappointed when the quotas did not allow them to enlist in the army. The department of Vosges won the Prize of Excellence, and as a reward had a square in Paris dedicated to it. Place de Vosges, situated close to the Bastille, with its galleries and public gardens, is still one of the most beautiful squares in Paris. Victor Hugo once had his residence there.


From now on, in this life of Napoleon, we shall often quote two eyewitnesses:


Jean Roch Coignet, one of the most famous members of Napoleon's Old Guard, a soldier in the Grande Armée and the first man ever to be decorated with the Légion d’Honneur. Enlisted in 1800, at age 23, in the 96th demi-brigade of infantry, he could neither read nor write (like 80 percent of French people before the Consulate) but he learned enough, as he relates, between Friedland and Wagram, to allow him to end his career as a Captain in the Imperial Guard and to bequeath to us his passionate memoirs… that he began to write when he was 72 years old. "I have remembered what the Emperor told us many times, that any man can accomplish whatever he wishes. I have worked with confidence and I deliver to my compatriots, to my friends, to my surviving comrades in arms, the history of an old soldier told in his own words. It will recall an age which now seems miraculous.*


Colonel Marcellin Marbot. The son of a general and a member of the small provincial nobility, Marbot was born on August 18, 1782 at the Château Larivière, in the confines of Limousin and du Quercy, today the Department of Corrèze. In 1800, he was not yet 18 years old, but as a hussar of Bercheny he had already demonstrated a bravery that never wavered throughout his long career. Marbot was the heroic embodiment of the citizen and the soldier who loved France passionately.


On April 5, 1800, Mélas went onto the offensive in Italy. He confided to General Ott the mission of annihilating the small army of Méssena and committed the larger part of its forces towards the Var, with the intention of invading France by way of the Riviera, with the support of the cannons of the English fleet.


On April 24, 1800, First Consul Bonaparte issued to General Moreau the order, almost the ultimatum, to cross the Rhine and attack the Austrians. Moreau grudgingly obeyed. On May 3, General Lecourbe was victorious at Stobach, and Gouvion Saint-Cyr at Engen. Then followed the victories of Moeskirsh and Biberach. By May 9, Marshall Kray was in retreat along the entire front.


Bonaparte left Paris on May 6. He conceived the audacious plan of crossing the St. Bernard Pass with the reserve army so as to surprise the Austrians on their rear. In May, this pass made famous by its huge dogs that go to the rescue of climbers with a barrel of brandy attached to their collars, is covered with snow and ice. It is, in fact, not unusual (at an altitude of 2,472 meters) for it to be swept by snowstorms in mid-July. Also, one may well ask why Napoleon, as Head of State, felt the need to be personally present in this adventure. It was quite simply because he was convinced that without him, the operation was doomed to failure, and the republic would be lost.


He arrived in Geneva on May 9, and after inspecting the troops, on whom he heaped encouragement by announcing that this was an impossible task for anyone but  them, he threw Lannes and his division into the assault on the pass.


It took the army from May 14 to 23 to complete this exploit. Marching alongside his soldiers, sharing their effort and their suffering, the First Consul, on the edge of exhaustion after five months of work without rest and often without sleep, with little more than the skin on his bones, sustained his energies and found his strength in joking pleasantly with the rank and file. Every veteran understands the devotion that such a leader can inspire. The famous painting by David, representing him crossing the St. Bernard Pass on a spirited stallion contributed absolutely nothing to the glory of this campaign; only an imbecile – the word is not too strong -- could claim that a picture was the source of the veneration that this man inspired.


On May 26, Napoleon assembled all his men together at Ivrée. On June 2, he entered Milan in jubilation, acclaimed by the people with even more fervour and enthusiasm than in 1796. On June 3, he re-established the Cisalpine Republic. On June 5, he addressed a proclamation to the people: "For the second time, the French people have broken your chains. Go, take up arms; form a National Guard and shield your towns from incursions by the enemy’s light troops." On June 7, he learned that Masséna, under siege in Genoa for several weeks, had reached an agreement with the Austrians to abandon the place to them in exchange for safe conduct, which would have allowed him to bring back the survivors of the army to France.


Bonaparte now knew that he had Mélas’ entire army in front of him, and that he was going to have to wage a decisive battle. He committed himself towards the south, sending scouts far and wide to detect enemy troop movements and avoid all surprises. On June 9, Lannes overcame an Austrian brigade at Montebello.


It was on June 14 1800, that the battle of Marengo took place, in the vicinity of Alexandria. At seven in the morning, Mélas seized the initiative and attacked. He had 40,000 men and over 100 cannons under his command, compared with Bonaparte’s 20,000 men and 14 cannons.


Napoleon sent aides to call up Desaix’s division – Desaix had arrived from Egypt the night before and Napoleon had given him command of a division - as well as the brigade of cavalry under the command of Kellerman, the son of the victor of Valmy, who were just 10 miles apart. The battle raged all morning, and the Austrians had somewhat the better of it. Bonaparte, at the centre of the action, galloped up and down the ranks, raising spirits and organizing a retreat without panic. At five in the evening, the French line had withdrawn some six kilometres and Mélas thought victory was his. Exhausted, he took himself off to Alexandria where he dispatched messengers to announce his stunning victory.

It was then that Desaix and Kellerman arrived. Napoleon instantly relaunched the attack. By 8 p.m., the Austrians were in full retreat. The French had reconquered all the ground they had lost. At 10 p.m., the remnants of the Austrian army crossed the Bormida.

The next morning, June 15, Mélas signed the Alexandria agreement, which ceded all of Italy as far as Mincio, to France. The Republic was saved and Bonaparte returned to Paris on July 2, 1800.


Colonel Marbot and Jean Roch Coignet were present at Marengo.


Marbot : “While Bonaparte and Mélas were preparing for the battle that was to decide the fate of Italy and France, the garrison of Genoa was at its last gasp. Typhus was taking a frightful toll (it killed General Marbot, the father of Marcelin); the hospitals had become horrifying charnel houses; the suffering was extreme; the last of the horses had been eaten. There was absolutely nothing left when, on June 4, General Masséna resolved to evacuate the place, as he could not endure hearing the word surrender pronounced.


Our General-in-Chief, in his desire to warn the First Consul of his decision, designated Commandant Graziani to carry the message and asked me to accompany him. We left Genoa on June 5, and on the evening of the 6th, we met up with general Bonaparte in Milan. He spoke to me with real concern about the loss I had just suffered in the person of my father and promised me he would take his place. He kept his word. We followed the first Consul to Montebello and then to Marengo, where he used us to carry his orders.”


Coignet : “To scale that mountain, we put three pieces of cannon in hollow trees in the form of trough. In front, a cable was attached, and to the cable, wooden cross-pieces. Each artillery piece had to be pulled by twenty grenadiers. The first Consul oversaw everything. We left at first light. I was one of those who dragged the cannons and found myself the first in the team, at the first crosspiece on the right side. Our journey could not have been more painful. We constantly had to climb terrible slopes and very narrow paths. When we got to the ice it was worse still…


But an even more serious battle had broken out in the vicinity of Montebello. At noon, an aide-de-camp of General Lannes arrived at full gallop with orders for us to advance as quickly as possible, as the general was being pressed from every side. So I threw myself into the fray: I overtook my captain, and I ran up to the Austrian cannon. I arrived as the artillery men were finishing loading to fire on us a second time. I struck them with my bayonet and they all fell to the ground. It took just a moment. I gained control of the cannon and jumped on it. General Berthier passed by and asked me what I was doing there. I explained, and he told me to ask my captain to present me that evening to the First Consul.


General Bonaparte took me by the ear. I thought he was going to tell me off. Not at all. It was all in friendship. He told Berthier to grant me a rifle of honour distinction. At Marengo we had already lost a lot of ground. Bonaparte was quick to appear. His presence was a guarantee of safety, a reason for confidence, an unparalleled opportunity for enthusiasm. He set the Consular Guard in a line and they immediately stopped the enemy. Kellerman charged three times at the head of his dragoons. He led them and he led them again, and all that cavalry passed over as me I lay half-conscious in a ditch. (Coignet had been struck by a sabre on the back of the neck). When I regained consciousness, I rejoined my company by holding onto the tail of a dragoon’s horse. I saw the Consul sitting on the edge of the ditch on the main road to Alexandria. He was alone, with his horse’s reins in his hands, and was flicking small stones with his riding crop. He didn't seem to see the cannonballs rolling along the road. That's how he was. He never spared a thought for his own life."



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