Chapter 9


(January-February 1797)




View of the Adige and of the village of Rivoli, from the Austrian fort


Stendhal, in his life of Napoleon, remarked of this era: "I am aware that this book too often contains descriptions of battles; but how can this be avoided since this is where our hero began? It was through commanding his soldiers that he forged his character. During a battle, the commander in chief had to know how to concentrate without being distracted by the perils to which he was constantly exposed. He needed absolute attention to devise great manoeuvres while foreseeing those apparently insignificant inconveniences that could bring everything to a halt. He also had to make an impression on people’s minds, not only through his fearlessness, but also through his appearance: in the midst of his generals in their plumed helmets and heavily tasselled uniforms, Napoleon always stood out in his simple grey frock coat and small hat. The Army of Italy adored everything about their commander in chief, including his sickly pallor."


Napoleon would have preferred Austria to sue for peace, but he knew that this would only come about if Vienna were directly threatened by French troops. He therefore sent letters to the Directory to request a resumption of the movements of the northern army or to send him substantial reinforcements that would allow him to lead the Army of Italy through the Alpine passes.


In Napoleon’s own words:


The state of Italy: Venice was carrying out intensive recruitment and training numerous battalions. The negotiations with Rome were stalled because the Curia knew that Austria was preparing a new, large-scale offensive.


The state of the Austrian army: Alvinzi was regrouping in the region of Trento. Every day he received substantial reinforcements from the bank of the Rhine, where the French armies were totally inactive. The humiliations suffered in Italy had stirred public opinion and the large cities were contributing battalions of volunteers. Vienna provided four, which formed a regiment upon whom the Empress bestowed a flag that she had embroidered with her own hands. At the beginning of January 1797, Alvinzi had eight infantry and two cavalry divisions available to him, that is 80,000 men in addition to Wurmser’s 20,000 men in Mantua.


State of the French army: Since Arcole, we have received reinforcements of two infantry regiments and one cavalry regiment for a total of 6000 men.

Joubert, whom I had placed at the head of a strong division of 12,000 men after dismissing Vaubois for incompetence, occupied Monte Baldo and Rivoli.

Rey, with 5000 men, was in reserve at Desenzano. Massena occupied Verona and Augereau Legnano; Serrurier was blockading Mantua. The Army of Italy had a total of no more than 50,000 men, and once more we were going to have to fight one against two.


January 7, 1797

The Austrians attacked on two fronts, on the Monte Baldo and on the Adige through the plains of Padua. Napoleon was in Bologna where he had gone with 3000 French soldiers and 4000 Italians of the Lombard militia in an attempt to sign a formal treaty with Rome.


January 12, 1797

Joubert easily countered a weak attack by one division, whereas Augereau and Massena had to confront more determined, concentrated attacks. Massena pushed his adversary back to Caldiero and hounded him past the Alpone. Returning from Bologna at great haste, Napoleon arrived in Verona in the evening and went with Massena inside the city walls. He did not yet know which was the principal Austrian front.


January 13, 1797

On January 12, Alvinzi had attempted to fool Napoleon. He had ordered Provera, with his 25,000 men, to create a noisy diversion on the lower Adige while he, with 55,000 men, led skirmishes against Joubert on the Monte Baldo. If Napoleon had committed the greater part of his forces against Provera, Alvinzi, at four against one, would have had little difficulty getting rid of Joubert and joining up with Wurmser in Mantua. But Napoleon did not fall into the trap. He had waited all day long on January 13 for the situation to clarify; he merely ordered his troops to be ready to make a night March after 10 p.m. It was raining in torrents.


The reports arrived in the evening. The division that Massena had thrashed the day before was still attempting to regroup on the Alpone and posed no danger. Augereau said he would be able to contain the forces on the lower Adige in the region of Legnano. The pressure on Joubert, however, had become intense. He reported three divisions on Monte Baldo, a fourth on the shore of Lake Garda and a fifth on the left bank of the Adige. To avoid being surrounded, he pulled back all his men to the Rivoli Plateau, where he thought he could hold out until 9 a.m. on the morning of the 14th.


Napoleon now knew where the principal attack would take place. He ordered Massena to march on Rivoli with his division and to cover the 25-kilometer distance in one night; he ordered Rey to move against Peschiera, and Bordolino to confront the Lusignan division, which was progressing along the eastern shore of the lake. On his black horse, he galloped with Berthier and a few others toward Joubert, whom he met at 2 a.m. on the 14th. Now,there was not a cloud in the sky and it was a clear moonlit night.


January 14, 1797

The news of their commander in chief’s arrival spread through the ranks like wildfire and sparked a great burst of enthusiasm. Joubert had already earned a reputation as a fighting general, and his men were proud to belong to his division, but they had spent the entire day of the 13th assessing the crushing numerical superiority of the enemy. The arrival of their "little corporal" on the battlefield erased all their doubts. "The general is here with us; we're going to win."


Knowing that Massena and Rey would be there by early morning and paying no attention to the movements of Lusignan on the road bordering the lake and of Vukassovitch on the left bank of the Adige, Napoleon sent Joubert back into the attack against two infantry divisions that descended from Monte Baldo on a myriad of goat tracks.


At 8 o'clock, Joubert recaptured the San Marco Chapel, but his left flank soon gave way under the sheer weight of numbers. Napoleon rode to meet Massena, who had just arrived, and together at the head of the division, to the sound of the Chant de départ, they charged, sabres drawn and bayonets fixed.


Stendhal: "Napoleon was in constant danger of being struck by a bullet and for a long time was exposed to musket fire. The situation in the centre was stabilized but things were going very badly elsewhere. The Quasdanovitch division, arriving from the bottom of the Adige Valley with infantry, cavalry and twelve cannons, was mounting the steep slope towards the Rivoli Plateau. On the other side, could be seen Lusignan, who was making for the army’s rear by way of Affi, intending to surround it.


In the words of Amiot: "It was a crucial, almost desperate moment… the time had come to seize the initiative and break the meeting point between the Austrian infantry and the column mounting the Adige. The French horse artillery arrived at the gallop, unhitched the horses and fired almost in the same movement. The hussars of Colonel Leclerc, with squadron chief Lassalle at their head, flung themselves into a furious charge. To the cheers of the entire army, the cavalry broke through the Hungarian grenadiers. Joubert in turn threw himself into the attack. The charge was irresistible and the enemy’s front was broken. The Austrian cavalry and artillery were hurled pell-mell back down the slope of the Adige, tumbling over each other to the frightful whinnying of the horses. The cannons fell into the river below. Cavalrymen, carters, artillerymen and grenadiers, fleeing before the hussars’ sabres, found themselves in panic and disarray at the foot of the slope, from whence they retreated towards Trento.”


The Austrian infantry, demoralized and hounded by the combined Joubert and Massena divisions, retreated and fled in a gigantic stampede, abandoning thousands of prisoners and dozens of flags including the one embroidered by the Empress. Lusignan, caught between the victorious army and the Rey division, surrendered after only token resistance.


Napoleon, although nearly dead with fatigue, and holding onto his saddle only by a miracle while the flags captured from the enemy were religiously laid before him, said to Lassalle in a hoarse whisper: “Sleep on them, you've earned it. But only for a quarter of an hour, because we're leaving for Mantua."


The victory at Rivoli was total and dazzling, but what was about to happen defied understanding. In fact, Provera had succeeded in passing through the net that Augereau had stretched all along the Lower Adige and was on the point of joining up with Wurmser in Mantua. If the two Austrian armies combined, everything would be jeopardized.


Let us hear Napoleon again, "I arrived in Mantua on the morning of the 16th, with four regiments, while Provera’s advance guard was already attacking Saint George, defended by the demi-brigade of brave General Miollis. On the 17th at daybreak, Wurmser left the garrison and positioned his forces atop La Favorite, intending to stretch out his hand to Provera. Serrurier drove him back into the fortress and I attacked Provera. The 57th reached the Austrian line, bayonets at the ready, and repelled everything that attempted to resist it. At 2 o’clock in the afternoon, Provera surrendered and left us with a large quantity of flags, baggage and pontoon equipment. We had 6000 prisoners and several generals under our power.”


After fighting an arduous battle, every soldier naturally hopes for a long rest. The human organism demands that we sleep. Well! On the nights of the 13th and the 14th, the same soldiers who on the 12th had fought east of Verona and driven the Austrians back to the Alpone, threw themselves on Rivoli, where they fought a long, hard-won epic battle. Then, in the next breath, so to speak, they set off and in 26 hours consumed the 65 kilometres that separated them from Mantua. There, in an irresistible onslaught, they were victorious at La Favorite. In other words, the soldiers, taking into account the movements involved during battle, had travelled over 150 kilometers in five days and fought three victorious battles.



Hats off to the soldiers and to the general!


February 2, 1797

Wurmser, his supplies exhausted and having given up all hope of rescue, surrendered to Serrurier with the entire garrison of the Fortress of Mantua. Napoleon was already on his way to Rome.


Since the beginning of April 1796, that is, in ten months, the army of Italy with a force never greater than 50,000 men, had cut to shreds five armies totaling over 300,000 men. Napoleon had soundly beaten four army commanders, Generals Colli and Beaulieu and the famous marshals Wurmser and Alvinzi. It was not over. Austria would soon send him a more worthy adversary in the person of Archduke Karl, the Brother of Emperor Franz II, his future father-in-law.



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