Story of Napoleon - H. E. Marshall

Napoleon as Consul

When Napoleon arrived in France, the people greeted him more joyfully than ever. They were weary of the rule of the Directory, and longed for a change. Napoleon had never meant to be a soldier and conqueror only; he meant to be a ruler too. He soon saw his chance and took it.

He had been made commander of all the troops round Paris, and now one day he appeared at the head of his soldiers in the courtyard of the palace in which the French Assembly, or Parliament, sat. Amid a fearful noise of shouts, beating of drums, and tramp-of feet, the Assembly was turned out at the point of the bayonet That night Napoleon slept in the palace of the Luxembourg, with the title of Consul of France.

There were three other consuls. But the others were a mere pretence. Napoleon was the true ruler.

Napoleon returned from Egypt in October and by the middle of December he was Fast Consul. Then for the next few months he gave himself up to ruling. Under his firm hand France, which had been torn and tossed in wild unrest for eight years, now seemed to find a little calm.

But all around the borders of France there was war still. Austria and Britain were her chief enemies. With Britain, at this time, Napoleon would have been glad to make peace, could he have done so on his own terms. Austria he meant to crush, and to crush in such a way as would make Europe ring with the name of Bonaparte. He meant to do great deeds at which the world would stare and wonder. He meant to have peace too, but peace after victory.

The army of Italy was still, fighting under a brave general called Massena. But now he was shut up in Genoa; a British fleet bombarding him from the sea, and an Austrian army surrounding him on land. Food was growing scarce, and his men were but worn-out skeletons. The Austrians believed that they should very soon beat him, and then they would be able to march into France.

Napoleon now gathered an army, called the Reserve, with which, he gave out, he was going to march to the help of Massena. But the Austrians laughed at the Reserve army, for it was made up of ill-fed, half-clothed, raw recruits. Napoleon went to Dijon to review these new recruits. But he stayed there only two hours and was soon speeding on his way to Geneva.

For three months Napoleon had been silently and secretly gathering troops which by different ways had been sent towards Switzerland. There, too, engineers had been sent to examine the passes through the Alps. Now everything was ready, and the great commander also went speeding to the land of snow mountains.

When Napoleon arrived at Geneva he gathered his engineers around him and began to study the map of the Alps.

"Is it possible to pass?" he asked.

"It is barely possible," said an engineer.

"Very well," replied Napoleon; "let us be going."

Then Napoleon began one of his most famous Marches. He crossed the Alps, and, while the enemy awaited him in front, he appeared suddenly behind them.

The army was divided into four, each part going by a different way. The ways through the mountains are called passes. The passes which Napoleon now chose were the Great St. Bernard, the Little St. Bernard, the Mont Cenis, and the St. Gotthard.

Napoleon himself went by the Great St. Bernard.

It was a tremendous march, for in places there was not even a track, and the men had to stumble as best they could over rough, broken, stony ground. Up and tip they struggled, for a pass is only comparatively low; that is, low when compared with the huge mountains near. The Great St. Bernard pass is more than eight thousand feet above sea-level. It was hard enough for men laden with knapsack and gun to toil upwards, but to drag heavy cannon up was still harder. The path was so terrible that it was found to be quite impossible to bring them up on their carriages. No wheels could pass over the grounds so each cannon was taken front its carriage, and was put into the trunk of a tree, which had been hollowed out to fit it. A hundred men were then harnessed to each tree-trunk, and so the cannon were dragged over snow and ice, along narrow, giddy paths where only the chamois or the goat herd had left a track. The carriages were taken to pieces, the wheels were slung on poles and carried on men's shoulders.

Food for the army had to be carried too. This was laden on mules. They were surefooted, hardy beasts accustomed to the wild mountain-sides, and so could carry weight even over the rough path. But with the cavalry horses it was different. The men dismounted, and each man led his horse as best he could.

Thus for five days an endless stream of men and horses passed among the silent hills, churning the white snow into a brown morass, filling the still air with the hum of voices and the clank and gangle of steel, awaking the echoes with the sound of drum and trumpet. On and on went the men, slipping, sliding, panting, breathless, hardly daring to pause in places lest those behind should be thrown into confusion, stumbling knee-deep into snowdrifts, clambering round boulders, but always upward and upward. At last they reached the summit of the pass.

Here is the Hospice of St Bernard, founded by St. Bernard de Menthon nearly a thousand years ago. And here all the year round live the good monks of St. Bernard, ever ready to aid, travellers.

When the wearied soldiers reached the top of the pass the good monks gave them a meal of bread and wine and cheese, and then the long descent began. For the horses and mules this, was almost more difficult than the ascent. But sliding and stumbling they at last got over the worst of the road with no serious accident.

But a new difficulty now arose. Fort Bard had to be passed. This was only a little fort held by four hundred Austrians, but, perched upon a rock, it commanded the tiny town through which the road lay, and the whole pass, which here is not more than fifty yards wide.

For some time the French tried in vain to take the fort. Then at length they discovered a narrow goat-track leading round it, and out of gun-shot. By this, one by one, the infantry passed, but it was impossible to take the artillery that way. So in the dead of night the artillery men entered the village. They spread chaff and straw upon the street, and having muffled every belt or buckle that might clatter or jingle, they drew the cannon through the town, almost under the noses of the unsuspecting Austrians.

Then, the last difficulty being passed, the French poured like an avalanche down upon the plain of Italy.

The news of Napoleon's wonderful march soon reached the famished garrison of Genoa, and the thought that help was near renewed their sinking courage. But day after day passed, and no rescuing French army appeared before the walls. Still they hoped on, sick at heart and weary. But at length the last spark of hope died, and brave Massena gave in. They had absolutely nothing left to eat but knapsacks and shoes, grass and roots.

"No terms are too good for you," said Lord Keith, the British commander. So the French were allowed to march out with all the honours of war.

Meanwhile Napoleon was passing through Italy in a kind of triumph. It did not suit his plans to relieve Genoa, so he left the garrison to starve, while he prepared for a great battle in which all was to be won or lost.

And so at last French and Austrian met again upon the field of Marengo, a little village not far from the town of Alessandria.

At daybreak on the 14th of June the fight began. It was a fierce and terrible battle. The Austrians numbered nearly twice as many as the French. At one time the French fled from the field, crying, "All is lost." Again they rallied, but step by step they were driven backward, and at last fled once more. The, Austrian leader was an old man of over eighty. He was weary of long fighting, and about three o'clock in the afternoon, believing the victory won, he left the field.

But at this moment a French officer who had been at some distance rode up with fresh troops. "I fear it is a battle lost," he said to Napoleon.

"I think it is a battle won," replied he. And rallying his men, and ordering a sudden charge of cavalry, he turned defeat into victory. Soon it was the Austrians who were fleeing from the field in utter rout.

So completely crushed was the Austrian army that next day their leader sent a flag of truce to Napoleon, begging for peace. And by the treaty which followed all Northern Italy was given up almost as it had been at the treaty of Campo Formio. Thus at one blow was Italy reconquered.

Having thus startled the world, and covered his name with glory, Napoleon returned to Paris. He had been gone less than two months. All along the way people crowded to cheer him as he passed. In Paris the houses were lit up night after night in his honour. For hours together crowds would stand round his palace hoping to catch a glimpse of the conqueror of the Alps, of the victor of Marengo. Napoleon was delighted with all the fame he had won. "A few more events like this campaign, and I shall perhaps go down to posterity," he cried.