Chapter 6


(May 1796)


Facing General Beaulieu - Victory at Lodi


Triumphant entry into Milan


April 29, 1796

After obtaining the surrender of Piedmont on April 28 at Cherasco, Napoleon immediately marched against the Austrians. As a result of the losses that he had suffered, General Beaulieu had no more than 40,000 men at his disposal, that is to say, more or less the same number as the French, who had received reinforcements of cavalry.


Beaulieu endeavoured to mass his forces on the left bank of Pô, in the vicinity of Valence, where he destroyed the bridges. Napoleon had led the Piedmontese plenipotentiaries to believe that he would cross the river at this point, because once more, it was the best way to ensure that Beaulieu would fall into his trap. In fact, “the young upstart” had decided to cross the Pô 80 kilometres downstream at Plaisance. First, however, in order to put him off the scent, he directed his army, with Laharpe at its head, in the direction of Valence.


May 6, 1796

After occupying Alexandria and capturing a considerable amount of Austrian provisions there, Napoleon moved down to Plaisance, following the right bank of the wide river. He rode at the head of his army with General Claude Dallemagne (1754-1813), a veteran of the American War of Independence, who, on October 9, 1779, had distinguished himself at the siege of Savannah, Georgia. In this campaign, he commanded the 32nd half-brigade, which he led, at drumbeat, forcing it to cover 64 kilometres in 36 hours.


This deserves a moment of attention. Even though poorly equipped and ill-shod in the first weeks of Italian campaign, each soldier nonetheless had to bear a heavy load of weapons, ammunition, food and blankets. I invite anyone reading this today to attempt a 64-kilometre march in 36 hours, even with nothing on your back. If you succeed in pulling off that feat, you will notice that when you arrive, you will be looking forward to a rest. These soldiers had not the slightest rest; they instantly found themselves engaged for hours, even days at a time, in mortal combat.


A second remark, still valuable today. For soldiers to be able to give the best of themselves, enthusiastically, to the very limit of their capabilities and beyond, they need to have leaders of the very highest calibre. This is true not only at the level of the army but also of every subordinate unit: the group, the section, the company, the battalion, the regiment, the brigade and the division. An officer who seems totally competent in peacetime may turn out to be mediocre, even cowardly in battle, and one should never hesitate to discard him and replace him with someone better.


May 7, 1796

Crossing the Pô. There was no bridge at Plaisance, and the crossing was carried out on a multitude of makeshift ferries, boats, and rafts. The Austrians tried to put up a fight with only two squadrons but were quickly overwhelmed. Napoleon then marched on Lodi, located thirty kilometres North-West of Plaisance, in order to prevent the Austrians from retreating by way of the Alpine passes.


May 8, 1796

Death of General Laharpe. Beaulieu finally realized that the “young upstart” was far stronger than he in every respect, and this time attempted to effect a lightning retreat in an attempt to save what remained of his army. To cover himself, he launched the élite division of General Liptay against the French vanguard led by Generals Laharpe, Dallemagne and future marshal Jean Lannes (1769-1809). Violent fighting ensued over the next twenty-four hours, ten kilometres north of Plaisance. The Austrians were repulsed and retreated, giving up more than two thousand prisoners. General Amédée Laharpe was one of the French killed. It should be remembered that the Generals and every other officer in the army of Italy took part in the fighting in the front ranks with their soldiers. “The Republic,” Napoleon was to write, “lost a man who was very dear to it, the army one of its best generals, and every soldier a fearless comrade.”


The battle at Lodi


May 10, 1796

Victory at Lodi. Since May 8, Beaulieu’s army, which had been retreating towards the Austrian Alps, crossed the Adda, a tributary of the Pô, by the Lodi bridge.


At daybreak on May 10, the day after signing an armistice with the duke of Parma, Napoleon joined Masséna at the doors of the city. The greater part of the enemy army had managed to escape by a hair, and Beaulieu, to stop the pursuit, gave twelve thousand men with fifty cannons the mission of preventing anyone passing over the two-hundred-meter-long, twelve-meter-wide bridge. The obstacle seemed insuperable, as the guns were arrayed in a line at the approach to the bridge. Napoleon decided to cross it nevertheless. Remembering that not so long before he was an artillery lieutenant, he set up his own thirty guns and personally supervised the aiming and firing of the cannons in a duel that, in one hour, destroyed over half of the Austrian guns. Then he went among the ranks of the grenadiers of the 32nd regiment, whom he had massed at the mouth of the bridge, sheltered by a wall, and explained to them: “I will direct one last round of cannon fire at them. That will be the signal for the start of the action. You know that it takes at least one minute to reload a gun; we will attack at full speed and reach their artillerymen before they can fire a second salvo at us.”


But let us leave the description to Stendhal: “The head of the column, oblivious to the grapeshot, crossed the bridge in a few tenths of a second and seized the enemy guns at once. Then with fixed bayonets, they flung themselves howling upon the infantry, breaking through their ranks and forcing them to retreat in disarray with the loss of their artillery, several flags and three thousand prisoners. This audacious act, carried out under deadly fire, yet commanded with all the requisite prudence, has been considered one of the most brilliant wartime exploits of all time. The French lost no more than two hundred men, while the enemy was crushed."


The affectionate title of “the little corporal,” which was to remain Napoleon’s nickname among his soldiers even when he was Emperor, dates back to the incident of the bridge at Lodi. They had so much admiration for this man, the commander-in-chief of their army, who had directed the cannons as if he were a simple artillery corporal.


May 15, 1796

Entry into Milan. It was again Stendhal who wrote: “The Austrians had evacuated Milan. Napoleon entered under a triumphal arch, in the midst of an immense, jubilant crowd that could not conceal its joy at greeting the French liberators.


Beginning in Montenotte, the Lombard people demonstrated their enthusiastic support for the French victories; it was the beginning of a love affair that was to last to this day. The sound of cheering filled the air, the prettiest women came to the windows; on the evening of that beautiful day, the French Army and the people of Milan were friends.”


Napoleon wrote to his soldiers: “Men, you bore down like a torrent from the heights of the Apennines. You overwhelmed and cast aside everything that stood in your way. Piedmont and Lombardy, delivered from the Austrian tyranny, have given themselves up to their natural feelings of peace and friendship toward France. We still have forced marches to make and enemies to overcome... But the people of Italy need not fear: we will restore their honour as the ancient Roman people, numbed by several centuries of slavery. The French people, free and respected the world over, will bring a glorious peace to Europe that will repay it for the sacrifices of every kind it has had to make for the past ten years. When you return to your homes, your fellow-citizens will point you out and say respectfully: “He was in the Army of Italy.”


TROM XUA SNOC: Just as he was preparing to depart from Lodi, Napoleon received a supremely stupid order from the Directory. The Army of Italy was to be placed under the command of Kellermann and would continue the war against Austria, whereas he, Bonaparte, with twenty-five thousand men, would form an army of the South that would march on Rome and the Kingdom of Naples.


Napoleon answered in a long letter of which the following is a summary: “Beaulieu still has a very large army and his Emperor has sent him huge reinforcements that are already on the move. It is extremely dangerous for the future of the Republic to divide the army of Italy. Kellerman might conceivably wage war better than I, but one thing is certain: the two of us together would do it extremely badly. Under such conditions, I would be unable to continue the services that I am endeavouring to provide to the fatherland.”


The Directorate, fearing an uprising by the army, even the whole French people, rescinded its order. Napoleon, who had already experienced the mediocrity of military leaders in Sardinia and in Toulon, now discovered that civilian leaders could also attain heights of stupidity capable of bringing misfortune to the whole of France. As a result of this experience, and still inspired by the spirit of Saint-Cyr, he made a vow henceforth to impose, in every crucial situation, his own sound judgment over the hazy, dangerous opinions of those occupying high government positions. On Saint Helena, where he had all the time in the world to give literary form to his memories and hunt for metaphors, he said,  “It was after Lodi that I felt the ground slipping from under me.” However, it is a safe bet that when he received that note from the Directorate, some apt phrase came to his mind not unlike the famous Vietnamese formula “trom xua snoc.”1


1.  (Not actually Vietnamese, but French. Spelled backwards, it reads: mort aux cons, literally; “death to idiots.”)


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