Chapter 7

(May - September 1796)

Face to face with Marshal Wurmster

Victory at Lonato, Castiglione and Bassano


Battle of Lonato


N. B. In order, to follow Napoleon's movements, we suggest you consult a good map of Northern Italy. 


 May 16, 1796

Napoleon decided to stay in Milan for eight days, in order to rest and reequip his army before marching again against Beaulieu, who had set up a line of defense behind the Mincio. This tributary of the Pô issues from Lake Garda at Peschiera and runs north-south up to the fortress at Mantua, which it protects with its arms.


 May 24, 1796

Uprising at Pavia. For eighty-year-old Pope Pius VI, the French Revolution was above all directed against the Catholic Church. It was thus with considerable anxiety that he witnessed the Army of the Revolution occupying Piedmont and Lombardy. He did not know that Napoleon firmly intended to respect religion nor, more importantly, that he was strong enough to oppose the Directorate, who were seeking to overthrow the Papacy. Encouraged by his entourage, Pius VI made a desperate gamble and ordered the priests of Lombardy to rouse the population against the French. On May 23 and 24, 10,000 peasants led by their priests surrounded Pavia and captured the small French garrison there. The insurgents rang the alarm bell in every church, calling on the people to revolt. Napoleon instantly understood the gravity of the situation and descended on Pavia with the brigade of Colonel Lannes. He took the city by storm, re-established order, and reiterated his desire to respect and defend the Catholic religion. He also had those responsible shot, including the French captain who had surrendered without a fight.


Let us hear Stendhal once more: "To have shown mercy in Pavia would have been a crime against the entire army. There would have been a massacre. It was a duty of which it seems cruel even to speak. A top general was obliged to shoot three men to save the lives of four; what is more, he had to shoot four enemies to save the life of one of his soldiers."


 May 27, 1796

Two days after pacifying Pavia, Napoleon was already 120 kilometers away, in Brescia, where he was preparing to attack the line of defense of Beaulieu. This line extended all along the Mincio, from Peschiera on the south shore of Lake Garda, to Mantua, 30 kilometers further south. Determined once more to mislead his adversary about his true intentions, Napoleon directed his advance guard toward Salo and the western shore of Lake Garda, making the population believe that he would go around the lake to redescend on Beaulieu’s rear. The Austrian general, who had 40,000 men under his command, 12,000 of whom made up the garrison of the fortress of Mantua, hastened to bring up the larger part of his forces to the north of his positions in order to counter any eventuality. He emptied his center, and it was at that very place that Napoleon attempted the crossing of the Mincio.


 May 30, 1796

Beaulieu chased from Italy. During the night of May 29 to 30, Napoleon sent his divisions against the village of Borghetto, found a bridge that the Austrians had not had time to destroy and crossed the river without the loss of a single man. Beaulieu confronted him, but his troops were rapidly overrun by the vigour and impetuosity of Augereau and Masséna. This time Beaulieu was utterly defeated; he fled to Austria, abandoning 5,000 prisoners, his cannons and all his stores.


The only remaining Austrians in Italy were holed up in the fortress of Mantua under the surveillance of the Sérurier division.


June 3, 1796

Napoleon's entry into Verona: the city was a stronghold of the "Serenissimo" Republic of Venice, which had been under Austrian domination.


Stendhal: "The young general who was practically unknown only two months earlier had become a hero of France and the eyes of the whole of Europe were upon him.


June 7 to 30, 1796

Accord with Pope Pius VI. Napoleon knew that mighty Austria would not accept defeat and abandon its garrison in Mantua. It would certainly send another army to Italy, but not right away; it would need a few weeks more to form and mobilize an army.


Napoleon used the time to make peace with the Pope. Following the uprising in Pavia, the Directorate reissued its order to destroy the Papacy. Napoleon, who was respectful of religion, all religions, had not the slightest intention of carrying out the order, which he considered infamous and monstrous. However, he knew that in order to obtain the support of the Catholic population, it was essential to reach a peace settlement with the Pope. He also knew that, given the attitude of the priesthood toward revolutionary France, he would only obtain agreements by the use of actual force.


After putting Masséna in charge of guarding the north, he headed south with two divisions. His intention was to occupy a few towns belonging to the Papacy in order to secure a treaty. On June 20, he entered Bologna, where he was greeted by a Cardinal and the Spanish Ambassador to Rome, whom the Pope had designated to bargain on his behalf. An armistice was rapidly concluded in just enough time to allow Murat and his cavalry to push as far as Livorno and seize a large quantity of English merchandise.


July 13, 1796

Josephine. On his return to Milan, Napoleon was overjoyed to find the woman that he loved so passionately. He experienced four beautiful, intoxicating days filled with love.  Four days only, since duty called him to Adigio.


July 15, 1796

Napoleon vs Marshal Wurmster.

At the end of June, Austria, determined to reassert its domination over Italy, decided to replace General Beaulieu with Marshal Wurmster, a veritable national monument with the reputation of winning great victories in the toughest conditions.


Wurmster arrived in Trento on July 15 at the head of an army of 70,000 men carefully selected from among elite troops serving on the Rhine. This was made possible due to the incomprehensible passivity of the 200,000 men of the French armies of the North, who, according to the initial plans, were supposed to march on Vienna while Napoleon created a diversion in Italy. The Directorate’s lack of firmness on this occasion jeopardized not only the fate of the army of Italy but also that of the Republic, which certainly did not aggrandize it in Napoleon’s eyes.


The French assured wide coverage of Mantua:

General Sauret with 4,000 men in Salo, to the west of Lake Garda

Masséna with 8,000 men east of Lake Garda

Augereau with 18,000 men in the Pescheria region

Kilmain with 3,000 men in Valegio

Serurier, with 10,000 men, laid siege to Mantua.  This made a total of 43,000 French versus over 80,000 Austrians if one counts the garrison at Mantua.


Wurmster was so certain of his superiority that he had only one concern, which was to prevent his adversary any possibility of flight. Consequently, he launched a detachment of 25,000 men under Quasdanovich on the west of the Lake against Salo and Brescia with the mission of cutting off the possibility of retreat towards Milan while he, at the head of a force of 45,000, bore down on Mantua, intending to sweep everything before him and to bring supplies to the Austrian garrison, which by now was eating its last horses.


July 29 to August 3, 1796

Victory at Lonato

On July 29, things were going very badly for the French. Sauret could not stand his ground at Salo, and Quasdanovich had occupied Brescia. Masséna was first pushed back as far as Rivoli, and then Castelnuovo, with Wurmster hot on his heels. Wurmster also occupied Verona before attacking Mantua, which he entered in triumph on Aug. 2. There, the Austrian commander observed with satisfaction the hurried departure of Serurier and his siege division; he found the big cannons spiked, with a large quantity of abandoned ammunition. He took just long enough to provision the garrison before setting off, in full force, to complete the annihilation of the French army, which he believed to be terrified and in disarray and already three-quarters destroyed by Quasdanovitch.


Faced with the gravity of the situation, Napoleon had decided to regroup all his forces and therefore gave the order to lift the siege of Mantua. Serurier’s departure was thus not a retreat. In the campaign against Quasdanovitch, Napoleon wore out five horses. He was everywhere: he participated in every charge with his generals, his colonels, and his captains. By August 3, the remnants of the Austrian army were fleeing towards the North. What was in reality a series of more than 20 battles has remained known until this day by the name of the battle of Lonato.


Aug. 5, 1796

Victory at Castaglione.

Now he had to confront Wurmster, who was arriving from Mantua. The clash between the two armies occurred south of Castiglioni, between Medole and Solferino. Masséna and Augereau attacked the front and Kilmaine the northern flank. The battle was violent and indecisive until the Serurier division, arriving from the rear, sewed panic in the Austrian ranks. Wurmster retreated to Trento to join the remainder of Quasdanovich’s force. Between July 29 and August 6, the Austrians lost over 30,000 men.


Stendhal was to write: "This campaign was of a sublime beauty. On July 29, no other general in the Republic had the courage needed to persevere. And this was not the desperate act of a limited mind, but the resolution of a genius, whom the threat of extreme imminent danger does not prevent seeing clearly and precisely what can still be attempted. The world has never seen a greater man."


September 8, 1796

Victory at Bassano

By August 12, the French army had retaken all the positions that it occupied before Wurmster’s attack. At Trento, the Austrian marshal was preparing his revenge; he had received reinforcements of 20,000 men from Austria, which brought his army up to 60,000 men, that is, almost double Napoleon's.


But the Army of Italy was by now an élite fighting force. Four Austrian batallions could not to stand up to one French batallion. This was due quite simply to the fact that Napoleon had done some "housecleaning" of mediocre officers at every level, from general to sergeant, relieving them of their commands and replacing them with superior wartime officers. Masséna, Augereau, Serurier, Dallemagne, Killmaine, and Sauret had proven their worth and young men were promoted with names like Bessières, Lannes, Lassalle, Marmont, Murat, and Victor that would soon be celebrated throughout Europe. The valour of the brigades rivalled that of the 32nd ("I had no fears, the 32nd was there"), the "Terrible" 57th, and the 18th ("Brave 18th, I know you").


On September 1, when Wurmster left Trento towards Bassano through the Brenta Valley with the intention of attacking by way of Vincenze on the French army’s flank, Napoleon progressed rapidly along Lake Garda to first of all, occupy the Austrian base of departure and cut off all possibility of retreat, and second, pursue Wurmster and beat him in an attack from the rear.


The plan succeeded perfectly. On September 4, on the banks of the Trento, Napoleon crushed the 20,000-man force of general Davidovich and instantly set off in pursuit of Wurmster, whom he caught up with on Sept. 8 at Bassano. The old marshal attempted to stand his ground but was overwhelmed, managing to save only 15,000 men with whom he took refuge in Mantua on September 15. His 6,000 cavalry horses were used to feed his troops until February 2, the date on which the stronghold surrendered.


In less than six months, with an army of 40,000 men Napoleon had cut to shreds and annihilated the Piedmontese army and two powerful Austrian armies commanded by the famous leaders, General Beaulieu and Marshal Wurmster, a total enemy force of over 200,000 men.



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