(March - April, 1796)


Beginning of the Italian Campaign

Victory at Montenotte and Mondovi


Before entering into the Italian Campaign of 1796, we would like to introduce a witness of substance in the person of Henri Beyle, better known as Stendhal (1783-1842). Stendhal described himself as an ultra-Jacobin, i.e. he had political ideas very close to those of the Communist Party today. We mention this for the benefit of those with the temerity to suggest that Napoleon had more support from the middle class than from the people.


Stendhal, an intellectual of the extreme left, said in 1840 "the only man whom I have admired all my life is Napoleon," and began his work The Life of Napoleon with the words : "I experience a kind of religious feeling writing the first sentence of the history of Napoleon. He is in fact the greatest man ever to appear in this world..." About the campaign of 1796 he wrote: “It would take too long a time to follow General Bonaparte to the battlefields of Montenotte, Arcole and Rivoli. These immortal victories must be related with details that impress their supernatural character upon the reader. These victories of the young Republic over an ancient despotism ushered in a great, beautiful era for Europe. In one year, with a small, poorly equipped army, Bonaparte scattered and destroyed the seemingly endless flow of armies that the House of Austria sent to Italy, and brought peace to the continent. No general of olden or modern times won so many great battles in such a short time, with such feeble means and over such powerful enemies. In one year, this 26-year-old surpassed Alexander, Caesar, Hannibal, and Frederick the Great. And as if to console humanity for his successes in war, combined the laurels of Mars with the olive-branch of civilization. Lombardy had been debased by centuries of despotism. General Bonaparte brought this most beautiful part of the Roman Empire back to life, and seemed in an instant also to have restored its antique virtue. At every opportunity, he shows himself to be the warm, sincere friend of peace."


March 11, 1796

Accompanied by his aides-de-camp Andoche Junot and Louis Bonaparte, his seventeen-year-old brother, Napoleon left Paris for Nice, where the headquarters of the French army in Italy were situated. Every day he wrote letters to Joséphine that attested to the tenderness and passion of his love.


March 25, 1796

He arrived in Antibes, and after spending a few hours with his mother Letizia who, at forty-six years of age, had retained all the dazzling beauty of her youth, he received a visit from Louis Alexandre Berthier (1753-1815). This General was to serve Napoleon as a chief of staff of exceptional quality until 1814.


March 27, 1796

Napoleon arrived in Nice at the headquarters of the army of Italy, where he was awaited by four senior major generals, all much older than he. Charles Augereau (1757-1816), Amédée Laharpe (1754-1796), André Masséna (1758-1817) and Jean Sérurier (1742-1819) eyed with contempt the little upstart who had been imposed on them as their leader; they neither greeted him nor removed their grand plumed hats. Then Napoleon, his small, simple hat that was to become legendary under his arm, went up to each one in turn and riveted him with his gaze. This time, they introduced themselves, baring their heads, and when the young man put on his hat again not a single one dared imitate him. "His look froze my blood," Augereau said, and Masséna added, "In three minutes, he seemed to grow two feet." They were stupefied by the precise, probing questions posed by this little "joke" of a general - on the positions of their divisions, their manpower, the state of their armaments and materiel, and the morale of their troops. And when they heard: "Tomorrow I shall begin the inspection of all the units and in four days we march on the enemy," they were so dumbfounded that their only thought was to rush back to their divisions to give the preparatory orders for the inspection.


To the famished soldiers in rags he then pronounced the words that have since become immortal: "You are naked, you are under-fed, the government owes you much, yet can give you nothing. Your patience in supporting deprivation, your bravery in facing every danger make you the pride of France. You have neither shoes, clothes, nor bread, and our storehouses are empty: enemies who boast that they will crush our young Republic abound on every side. I will lead you to the most fertile plains in the world and there you will find honour, glory and riches."


April 2, 1797

The epic commences. Napoleon marched on Italy by way of the La Corniche pass. With 45,000 poorly equipped men, he confronted the 45,000 Austrians of General Beaulieu and 30,000 Piedmontese of General Colli who, for their part, were readying themselves for battle with the support of the guns of the English navy for a major offensive on the coast of Provence. The French infantry was outnumbered two to one, the artillery could muster only 40 cannons versus the enemy’s 200, and the cavalry was non-existent.


April 10, 1796

Since his arrival in Nice, Napoleon had been active every single moment. Not only had he obtained and delivered supplies, reinforced his marching divisions by taking troops away from the coast, and occupied favourable positions, but he had also sent out hundreds of agents charged with obtaining information on the positions, movements and intentions of the enemy forces. To mislead Beaulieu, he had requested right-of-passage for his troops in Genoa, knowing that the oligarchs of the "Superb" would not fail to warn the Austrian General at once. He had no intention of going to Genoa; but on the contrary, to travel towards Turin and Milan. Beaulieu fell into the trap. Exclaiming, "It will be a pleasure to give an elementary lesson in military tactics to this giovinazzo di Bonaparte (this brat of a Bonaparte)," he spread out his troops to allow them to cut up the French column, which they expected to move along the coast toward Genoa.


Napoleon, while moving quickly northward, was able to tackle successive enemy forces each time numerically smaller than his own. This was the very basis of Napoleonic tactics "You must be stronger at the exact, decisive point where the battle is fought."


April 12, 1796: Victory at Montenotte

In Montenotte, Napoleon’s united forces crushed the 10,000-man-strong force of Austrian General Argenteau. On the very evening of the victory, he ordered the Augereau and Sérurier divisions (a total of 22,000 men) to Turin, to attack the Piedmontese army of General Colli. Massena, with the Laharpe and Meynier divisions (a total of 18,000 men) held in reserve in readiness for a renewed attack by the Austrians.


April 13, 1796

Victory at Millesimo

Augereau obliterated an Austro-Piedmontese brigade before the eyes of Napoleon.


April 14, 1796

Victory at Dego

Having learned that a force of 5000 Austrians was protecting the village of Dego, Massena decided to attack it with the Meynier division. The bayonet charge, to the sound of the Revolutionary Chant du départ, was irresistible, and the Austrian lines collapsed. 4,000 prisoners and 19 guns fell into French hands. The following day, reeling momentarily from a powerful series of Austrian counter-attacks, Massena was saved by the Laharpe division led by its commanding officer and by Napoleon himself, who had galloped back to participate in the action in person.


April 14, 1796

Victory at Cosseria

Augereau attacked the old citadel of Cosseria, where General-Marquis de Provera was pinned down with the army corps of the Austrian and Piedmontese alliance. Provera hoisted the white flag and surrendered, giving up 1500 prisoners. The following day, Augereau occupied the heights of Montezemolo from which point Napoleon was able to survey at his feet the rich plain of the Po valley. The separation of the Austrians from the Piedmontese was now complete.


April 17, 1796

Victory at Ceva

Under driving rain, Augereau and Sérurier took the fortified camp of Ceva by storm. General Colli withdrew the remainder of his troops to Mondovi.


21 avril 1796 

Victory at Mondovi

On April 20, Napoleon arrived at the small town of Mondovi that Colli had hastily fortified with the 15,000 men remaining to him. "Surrounded by two rising rivers," Napoleon later said, "the position of Mondovi was terrifying. The enemy had demolished all the bridges and installed strong batteries around the central fortification." The next morning, Sérurier led the attack with 18,000 men divided into three columns. There was fierce hand-to-hand fighting, but, as on the previous days, "the furia francese" overcame all resistance. At 6 p.m., the Piedmontese survivors fled for Turin. Then a strange event occurred. The Mondovians shouted, "Long live the Republic" and the inhabitants asked the French soldiers to help them to plant trees of freedom.


April 23, 1796

Napoleon received an offer of armistice from General Colli. He answered by laying down his conditions.


April 25, 1796

Napoleon sent Junot in Paris, to carry to the Directorate the 21 flags taken from the enemy. That evening, still under driving rain, he left for Cherasco, where he arrived late at night. This did not prevent him from addressing his troops, the very next morning, with the proclamation that remains famous to this day: "Soldiers, in fifteen days you have won six victories, seized twenty-one flags, fifty-six cannons, several fortified towns, and conquered the richest part of Piedmont. Stripped of everything, you accomplished everything. You won battles without guns, crossed rivers without bridges, accomplished forced marches without shoes, and often, bivouacked without bread. Only you, the Republican phalanges, the soldiers of liberty, were capable of enduring what you have endured. But, my soldiers, you have not done anything as there remains much to be done. I promise you we will conquer Turin and Milan, but only on condition that you swear to respect all those that you deliver. If you do not do this, you will not be the liberators of the people, you will be their plague. You are the honour of the French and the French people are the friends of all peoples.


People of Italy, the French Army has come to break your chains; approach us with confidence; your property, your religion, and your customs will be respected."


April 28, 1796

Armistice of Cherasco

The King of Piedmont-Sardinia withdrew from the first coalition (England and Austria remain). The fortified towns of Alexandria, Coni and Tortonne were delivered to the French. Provisions of food, clothing, weapons and ammunition were granted, as well as freedom of movement for troops throughout Piedmont.


In two weeks, Napoleon Bonaparte, by bringing Piedmont to its knees, had succeeded where his predecessors had failed in four years of efforts.  How can we explain it? First of all, let us look at an excerpt from a lecture given to students at Cambridge University by Marshal Sir Archibald Wavel:


"Learning  that Napoleon won the 1796 Italian campaign through manoeuvres behind enemy lines or other such considerations is of little value. But if we can discover how an unknown young man was able, in a few days, to transform an undisciplined army, starving and on the brink of mutiny, into an élite fighting force that went from one victory to the next, how he dominated and amazed generals far older and more experienced than he,  then, you will have learned something!"


To win the loyalty of his soldiers, the leader must prove his personal courage, his effectiveness under fire. That is to say, in the face of death, he must be able to lead them on to victory. In this way, little by little, he will create around himself a legend as a great warrior that will increase the value of his soldiers in combat tenfold. Moreover, if he knows how to talk to them, understand them, encourage them, love them, they will soon gladly follow him anywhere he chooses to lead... even to hell.


He will have to also require from each of them the behaviour of a knight, who conducts himself with pride and consideration, as opposed to the behaviour of the brutal soldier who only sows hatred wherever he passes.


Napoleon satisfied all of these criteria to the highest degree. His legend as a lord of the battlefield was born in Toulon and blossomed during the Italian campaign, the account of which we have just related. Closer to our time, successful Generals such as Patton, Mongomery, Rommel, and de Lattre, to a lesser degree, knew how to win the loyalty and admiration of their soldiers.


One final point. It is ridiculous to think that Napoleon was motivated by personal ambition. None of the historians who claim it, and there are many, know what it is like to be on a battlefield. Every veteran knows that in the face of death, one’s only ambition is to do one’s "job" as well as possible and, if necessary, to die with dignity.


Napoleon, even when he reached the highest summits of power, wealth and glory, never hesitated to risk his own life, that is to say, to sacrifice his most precious possession.


It was the spirit of Saint-Cyr, that motivated Napoleon, not ambition.





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