1800—A momentous conflict between the French and Austrians
The French victory at the Battle of Marengo decisively terminated Bonaparte's Italian campaign. This early battle of the Napoleonic Wars was the culmination of a campaign which demonstrated the First Consul's genius for warfare and—combined with his Hannibal-like exploit of crossing the snow closed high passes of the Alps to engage the enemy—contributed one more fabulous accolade which was to make the legend that was Napoleon. Yet it was so nearly a disaster for the French as the Austrian General von Melas began the action with a master stroke which could have spelt disaster for many generals—other than the future Emperor of the First Empire. It was only won at the cost of one of France’s most talented and valued generals—Desaix. The American historian and author of this examination of Marengo— Herbert H. Sargent—explains the strategy of this famous battle succinctly and then follows the facts with clear and expert military analysis to assist the student of military history, strategy and tactics.
In the fertile valley of the Po, the Austrian army, commanded by Melas, found supplies in abundance for both men and animals. The equipment, discipline, and morale of the Austrians were good. The successes of the preceding year had encouraged them. They had that confidence in their commander so necessary to secure success. Filled with the enthusiasm of victory and looking hopefully forward to new triumphs, they were ready and anxious to be led against the French.<br>
On the other hand, the Army of Italy, extending along the Apennines and Maritime Alps, found difficulty in obtaining supplies. Cut off from the productive basin of the Po by the Austrians on the north, and from the commerce of the sea by the British fleet on the south, this army had to depend almost entirely upon such supplies as could be sent from France over the Nice-Genoa road. The French soldiers were in a deplorable condition. Neglected by the French government, they were ragged, half-starved, discouraged. They had been defeated again and again. They lacked the discipline and morale so essential to success. A few soldiers had already deserted; many were so emaciated that they could hardly bear arms, and a number were sick with fever.<br>
On assuming command of the Army of Italy, Massena took steps to improve the condition of his men. With money furnished by Bonaparte he supplied his troops with wheat, and by his energetic measures soon brought about better discipline. In Bonaparte’s name, he published a spirited proclamation, which did much to renew the courage of his soldiers and to inspire in them the hope of victory.<br>
Notwithstanding the efforts of Massena, his soldiers were in a destitute condition. Only the bare necessaries of life were furnished them. Ammunition alone was sent them in abundance. Though the Army of Italy numbered but forty thousand men and was opposed to one hundred and twenty thousand Austrians, Bonaparte would not reinforce it by a single soldier. In fact, all the men and materiel collected in France were used to strengthen Moreau’s army and the Army of Reserve. The Army of Italy was left to fight, as best it could, a force overwhelmingly superior in numbers, materiel, and equipment.<br>
At the opening of the campaign, the condition of the Army of Italy was such that but thirty-six thousand men were fit for active service. Of this force, four thousand under Thurreau were in the Mont Cenis Pass, so that there remained but thirty-two thousand with which to hold the Apennines and Maritime Alps from Genoa to the Col di Tenda. Massena’s right wing, numbering eight thousand under Miollis, held the fortified city of Genoa, which, owing to the outlying works and natural obstacles surrounding it, was an exceedingly strong place; his centre, twelve thousand strong, commanded by Soult, defended the Bochetta Pass, which opens upon Genoa, and the Cadibona Pass, which opens upon Savona; his left, consisting of twelve thousand under Suchet, occupied the Col di Tenda, Nice, and the line of the Var.<br>
Inasmuch as the active French army directly in front of Melas numbered only thirty-two thousand soldiers, and was spread out from Genoa to Nice, he calculated that by directing twenty-five thousand men upon Genoa and a column of forty thousand upon the centre of the French line, he could hold in check the French right, while he broke through their centre and cut the Army of Italy in two. This feat accomplished, he expected that his left wing of twenty-five thousand, with the aid of the British fleet, would be able to enclose, blockade, and capture Genoa, while his right wing of forty thousand was forcing the remainder of the Army of Italy across the Var.<br>
On the French side, the plan of campaign that offered the best results was one that Bonaparte himself had originated. He ordered Massena to leave only small detachments at the passes of Tenda, Ormea, and Cadibona, and to concentrate twenty-five or thirty thousand men at Genoa.