Story of Modern France - Helene Guerber

Bonaparte in Italy

When Bonaparte reached the army, early in 1796, he found he was none too welcome to the officers, all of whom were older, had served longer, and therefore thought themselves better fitted for the post of command. Besides, the new general was then thin and sallow, and owing to his small stature looked far more like a boy than a great man. At the first council, however, where he boldly differed in opinion from all the rest, he made his authority so well felt that one of his subordinates exclaimed, after he left them, "Gentlemen, we have found our master!"

The task which Bonaparte was thus undertaking was not easy, for his forces were only about half as large as those he was called to combat; there was no money for campaign expenses, and the soldiers, hungry, ragged, and badly shod, were half disposed to rebel, as they had not received any pay for a long time. Still, in his very first speech, Bonaparte changed their sullen apathy into wild enthusiasm, for, knowing "that imagination governs minds," he spoke as follows: "Soldiers, you are poorly fed and almost naked. The government owes you much, but can do nothing. I am about to lead you into the most fertile country in the world. There, great cities and prosperous provinces await you. There, you will find honor, glory, and riches. Soldiers of the army of Italy, will you lack courage for the enterprise?"

This recognition of their grievances, and strong appeal to all their passions—to the highest as well as to the lowest—so fired the soldiers that they set out full of courage and ambition, along the old Roman shore road, and soon crossed the Alps by a low pass insufficiently guarded by the enemy. In Italy they had to meet both the Sardinian and the Austrian forces, which Bonaparte was thus able to fight singly. He skillfully separated them by winning several small battles. Then, having advanced within a few miles of Turin, the capital of the kingdom of Sardinia, he received the messengers who came to bargain for peace, with the haughty retort: "Terms? It is I who name the terms. Accept them at once, or Turin will be in my hands to-morrow!"

The terrified Sardinians promptly made a treaty (Cherasco) and withdrew from the war, thus leaving Bonaparte free to accomplish the second and more difficult part of his task. Once more the soldiers were spurred on by one of his "volcanic" speeches, in which he began by artfully praising them for what they had done, saying: "Soldiers, you have won in a fortnight six victories, taken twenty-one flags, fifty-five cannon, several fortresses, and conquered the richest part of Piedmont! You have taken fifteen thousand prisoners, killed or wounded more than ten thousand men! You have won battles without cannon, crossed rivers without bridges, made forced marches without shoes, camped without rum and often without bread. The Republican phalanxes, the soldiers of Liberty, were alone capable of undergoing what you have undergone! Thanks be to you for it. But, soldiers, you have done nothing yet, since there still remains work for you to do."

Thus stimulated, and full of the generous enthusiasm which soldiers always feel for a general who enables them to triumph, even by dint of extra efforts, the French bravely met the Austrians at Lodi, where general and men, swept on by the same brave impulse, forced their way over a bridge to reach the foe beyond. It was here that Bonaparte earned his proudest title, "the Little Corporal," his men declaring he had marched side by side with them, just as if he had been nothing more than a petty officer. One who witnessed this thrilling charge wrote in regard to it: "It was strange to see him, on that bridge of Lodi, mixed up with his tall grenadiers. He looked a mere boy!" Those tall grenadiers, by the way, were Bonaparte's special pets, and whenever he was particularly pleased with one of them, he was wont to show his satisfaction by reaching up the full length of his arm, and playfully tweaking the giant's ear! These men called him "Gray-coat" (la Redingote Grise), because he often wore a long gray overcoat.

The soldiers devotion was due largely to Bonaparte's care for their comfort and to the sympathetic view he took of some of their shortcomings. We are informed, for instance, that once during this Italian campaign a sentinel, who had fallen asleep on duty, suddenly woke up to see his general, musket in hand, mounting guard in his stead. But all Bonaparte said to the delinquent on this occasion was: "My friend, here is your musket. You have fought hard and marched long, so your slumber is excusable. But the army might be lost by a moment's inattention. I happened to be awake and have held your post for you. You will be more careful hereafter, I know."