Story of Modern France - Helene Guerber

End of the Italian War

After the victory of Lodi, Bonaparte soon drove the Austrian army out of Milan, which he entered in triumph. Austria then sent army after army against him, each larger than his own, but he attacked them unexpectedly and defeated them all, in three great battles. The last of these in 1796 was at Arcole, where seeing his men hesitate to cross a bridge,—swept like that at Lodi by the enemy's cannon,—Bonaparte quickly seized one of the red, white, and blue Republican flags, and, dashing ahead, led them on to victory.

[Illustration] from The Story of Modern France by Helene Guerber


These repeated triumphs were meantime filling the hearts of the French people with pride and joy, and those of the enemy with rage and fear. Many hesitated to measure their strength against so able a foe, among others the Duke of Parma, the Duke of Modena, and the Pope, all three of whom compromised and made treaties with France. As one city after another opened its gates to Bonaparte, the Austrians were forced to retreat in dismay, leaving him free to besiege Mantua, their greatest stronghold in Italy. Meanwhile the two northern armies, under Jourdan and Moreau, were working hard, too. Moreau swept on victorious, until not very far from Vienna; but the other general, less fortunate, met defeat and was driven back, while Bonaparte was not yet ready to advance beyond Italy. Moreau, therefore, left alone to cope with the enemy in his own land, beat a masterly retreat without losing a cannon or a man. The Austrians, encouraged by these northern triumphs, and further aided by sundry rebellions in Italian cities, now sent greater forces against Bonaparte, who seemed, at last, to be caught fast in their toils. When he therefore ordered a retreat, his men obeyed in sullen silence, but when the soldiers perceived that this move was a mere feint which would enable them to win another triumph, they fought with such ardor that they won a brilliant victory at Rivoli, early in 1797. About one month later, Mantua—in which one of the Austrian armies had taken refuge—was forced to surrender, and the French army then pushed on into Austria, until halted by offers of peace.

[Illustration] from The Story of Modern France by Helene Guerber


After long negotiations, the famous treaty of Campo Formio was agreed upon; by this, France was to have Belgium, with the Rhine as northern frontier, and to remain in possession of Savoy, Nice, and some other conquests; northern Italy was to form the Cisalpine Republic, the Pope losing some of his territory; and Venice,—including Dalmatia, Istria, and much of northeastern Italy,—after nearly fourteen centuries of independence, was to belong to Austria. Once, in the course of these discussions, when the Austrian plenipotentiary (a man armed with full powers) refused to grant certain conditions, Bonaparte in a rage suddenly dashed a precious vase to pieces on the floor, crying, "I will break your monarchy as I have broken this!" This savage threat had the desired effect, as did also the haughty boast, "The Republic is like the sun; only the blind fail to recognize it!" when objection was made to acknowledging the change of government in France.

The peace secured by Bonaparte, so gratifying in many respects, was a great disappointment to General Hoche (Osh), who, having finished the long war in the vendee, had hastened on to join the northern armies. He won several battles, and was about to capture an Austrian army when the peace was made. But, although Hoche promised to be a worthy rival of Bonaparte, his career was cut short by an early death.

Meantime, Bonaparte had all along been carrying out the program he had made in the beginning, plundering ruthlessly everywhere. Not only did he obtain millions enough, as booty and tribute, to supply all the needs of his army and to send money to the government at home, but he wrung from each city its choicest art treasures, which were immediately forwarded to France. In this way the Louvre owned at one time nearly all the great masterpieces of Europe, most of which, however, France was obliged to restore to their owners a few years later, as we shall see.

Bonaparte, who had left Paris poor, lived now in Italy like a prince, his wife and family having joined him to enjoy his triumphs and to share in his good fortune. But nevertheless, he was closely watching matters in Paris and elsewhere, for he had now fully made up his mind to become master, and, as he expressed it, was "only waiting until the pear was ripe." He knew "the pear" was beginning to ripen, because the Directory was having the utmost difficulty to hold its own.

The people were so discontented with this government that in 1797 they elected many Royalist members of the Councils; but soon after, by a coup d'etat,—a sudden seizure of power, or forcible change in government,—three of the Directors deposed the other two, and excluded the Royalist members from the Councils. The feeling of unrest spread beyond the French frontiers. Switzerland, adopting French Republican ideas, and being aided by French troops, overthrew its old government and replaced it with a new one, taking the name of Helvetian Republic. Before long, six such little republics were established in Europe, for, besides the Batavian, Helvetian, and Cisalpine republics already mentioned, the French helped in the formation of the Ligurian Republic in Genoa, the Roman in Rome, and the Parthenopean in Naples—by stirring up trouble in these places by underhand means, and then interfering openly under pretext of quelling disturbances and restoring order!

Just as 1797 was drawing to a close, Bonaparte returned to Paris to receive the plaudits of a grateful people when he publicly deposited the treaty of Campo Formio on the altar of his country. Talleyrand who was to be first his friend and later his foe embraced him publicly on that occasion, hailing him as "the man of the centuries," while Bonaparte, not to be outdone in fine-sounding phrases, spoke of France as "the Great Nation."

The name of the street where Bonaparte lived was changed in his honor to Victory Street, and he was cheered whenever he appeared in the theater; but, for all that, he fully realized that his fame would soon die out unless he did something to keep himself before the eyes and mind of the public. Seeing that the time was not yet ripe to change the government to his advantage, and that the invasion of England, which the Directory proposed, was not feasible,—owing principally to the fact that there were not enough French ships to transport the required armed forces across the Channel,—Bonaparte suggested attacking England in her colonies, saying that by depriving her of her Indian Empire, she would be robbed of her chief source of wealth, and hence of "sinews" for her wars.