Story of Napoleon - H. F. B. Wheeler

The Passage of the Alps


It must be conceded that Napoleon signalised this phase of his career by measures which promised exceedingly well for the future. He showed the velvet glove, but it was obvious that he, and he alone, was the controlling power in France. The Republic was in chaotic disorder; his first task was to unravel the tangled skein. Under the careful nursing of Gaudin, subsequently Duke of Gaeta, aided by the energy of Napoleon, some kind of business stability was ensured. The claims of religion were recognised and re-established; the horrible law of hostages, which visited the presumed sins of the fathers upon the heads of their children, and made the latter responsible for the actions of the former, was revoked; such eminent exiles as Lafayette and Latour-Maubourg were allowed to return. Civil war was almost, if not entirely, stamped out by the introduction of strong measures, and several of the more untractable leaders were shot.

Under Berthier, who became Minister of War, the army was speedily rejuvenated. Sieyes produced a new constitution, a not too practicable one be it said. It was obviously designed to limit the power of Napoleon as much as possible, the actual reins of government being in the hands of his two colleagues. Sieyes reckoned without his host, who was not prepared to play second fiddle to anyone, and Napoleon soon had everything in his grip. Eventually the Government, according to the Constitution of the year VIII. of the Republican Calendar, was established as follows: After the Consuls and Ministers came the Council of State, consisting of not more than forty Members, all of whom were appointed by the First Consul. They were divided into five sections—Legislation, the Interior, War, Marine and Colonies, Finance. The Consuls or their seven Ministers of State placed all proposed Bills before the section to which they belonged, who reported upon them to the Council as a whole. If they were deemed worthy they were passed on to the Tribunat, who debated on them, and the Corps Legislatif, who adopted or rejected them, the Council carrying out those which were accepted. Then there was the Conservative Senate, the members of which held office for life. They discussed and decided whether acts or laws submitted to them by the Government or the Tribunat were constitutional or otherwise. A list of National Notability was to be formed from which the Conservative Senate was to select the Consuls, members of the Tribunat and Corps Legislatif, and various other officials.

The Sovereignty of the People was doomed; their power was strictly limited. As to Napoleon's own aim at the time perhaps Sir Walter Scott is not far wrong when he suggests that "his motives were a mixture of patriotism and the desire of self-advancement."

Before long Sieyes and Ducos resigned. Their places were filled by Cambaceres, a lawyer who had been a member of the Convention, and Lebrun, who had royalist sympathies—men eminently fitted for the positions of Second and Third Consuls respectively. Neither was too clever nor too dull to exercise the strictly limited power they enjoyed, both were moderate in their views, and possessed a fair stock of common sense. Of other persons whom Napoleon attached to himself and his now rapidly-increasing prospects we need only mention Talleyrand, who combined the wisdom of the serpent with its cunning, and who was reinstated Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Fouche, of even more easy conscience, who became Minister of Police, a department with which he likewise had made acquaintance previously.

Napoleon, now officially styled First Consul and having a salary of half a million francs a year, speedily removed to the magnificent palace of the Tuileries, where he had a Court worthy of a reigning monarch. The levelling process of the Revolution gave place to the observance of formal rules and the stateliest ceremonies. Napoleon was monarch in all but name, which was to come.

So much for home affairs; the outlook abroad was not so bright. A second coalition had been formed by Russia Austria, England, Turkey, Naples, and Portugal against France during Napoleon's absence in Egypt, and the Republic was still at war with Great Britain and Austria. In order to make it appear that he was sincere in his expressions of a desire for peace, Napoleon wrote personal letters to the heads of the belligerent States. It is extremely unlikely that he meant what he said. Neither the means by which he had obtained power nor his previous career were calculated to give confidence in his sincerity. Nothing practical came of the overtures. Austria and Russia had defeated such tried generals as Scherer, Moreau, Macdonald, and Joubert, and as "nothing succeeds like success," the Emperor Francis was unusually optimistic. In Northern Italy, Genoa alone remained to the French, and although the Republicans had gained splendid victories in Holland and Switzerland, Austria was determined to bring the war to the very doors of the French. In order to make the succeeding operations clear the movements of the various armies will be detailed separately.

The French army of Italy, on the Riviera and at Genoa, which was in a most distressing condition, was under Massena, their opponents being commanded by Melas, whose actual fighting strength was more than double that of the Republicans. The Imperialists succeeded in dividing the French army, whereby Suchet was cut off from the main force, but he defended himself with conspicuous energy. Massena retreated to Genoa, the British under Lord Keith preventing exit and ingress at sea, the Austrians besieging the city. The French general held out until the 4th June, when he was allowed to evacuate the place by the Allies.

The Republican army of the Rhine, commanded by Moreau, was distributed between Strassburg and Constance, and was also in smaller numerical strength than the Austrian forces under Dray, whose total forces reached 150,000, or some 40,000 more than the French. The Imperialists had also the additional advantage of occupying a magnificent strategic position at Donaueschingen. Moreau crossed the Rhine, fought several victorious battles, and prevented the enemy from keeping in touch with Melas. Napoleon had wished him to strike a decisive blow at Donaueschingen, but the more cautious Moreau, lacking the military genius of the First Consul, regarded so drastic an operation as extremely hazardous and exposing his force to annihilation. He was successful, however, in enticing the Austrian general from his commanding position, and Kray's subsequent movements were so disastrous that he was forced to take shelter in Ulm, a town so strongly fortified as to be almost impregnable.

There was much hard fighting before the city capitulated. Subsequently Munich was entered, and it seemed as though nothing could stop Moreau's progress save only his want of faith in himself, for even a brave soldier does not always realise his own strength. The Armistice of Parsdorf, signed on the 15th July 1800, suspended hostilities in Germany for a short period.

[Illustration] from Story of Napoleon by H. F. B. Wheeler


Meantime Napoleon, with a reserve army numbering from 40,000 to 50,000 troops, decided to cross the Alps and so manoeuvre that the "white coats" would be placed between Massena's forces and his own. In addition he was determined that Austria should surrender what he doubtless considered her ill-gotten gains, namely those parts of Italy which the French had lost. It was a bold plan, for the ranges were in very truth "mountains of difficult." The greatest secrecy was observed, a corps being assembled at Dijon to deceive the enemy, the troops intended for the expedition being quietly concentrated at Geneva and Lausanne. It was a deep-laid plot and worked wonderfully well. While Austria was poking fun in caricature and print at the nondescript troops which were to be seen lounging about or parading in the streets of the old 'capital of Burgundy, Napoleon and Berthier, the latter of whom had been appointed Commander-in-Chief, were working all day and oftentimes far into the night perfecting arrangements for the great surprise. The means of transport for the heavy artillery alone presented considerable difficulty, and this was but one of many difficulties unknown in previous campaigns. It was finally decided that the cannon should be placed in hollowed-out tree-trunks sawn in half after the manner of primitive boats. When on the march these were to be hauled by gangs of peasants or soldiers, for it was soon found that sufficient mules were not procurable.

In May 1800, Napoleon was at Geneva. After consultations with the engineers it was determined that the main army should cross into Lombardy by the Great St Bernard, smaller divisions travelling by the St Gothard, Mount Cenis, and Little St Bernard routes, the better to mislead the enemy. A start was made on the 15th. Column after column began the weary tramp along the desolate, snow-covered tracks, feeling their way across narrow ledges over precipices, cheered again and again by a sight of the First Consul as, wrapped in a grey overcoat and seated on a mule led by a guide, he traversed the rugged route of the Great St Bernard. The twenty miles of soldiers crossed in less than a week, and considering the treacherous nature of the march, or rather scramble, very few lost their lives.

The post of Bard, on the banks of the Aosta in the valley of that name, garrisoned by the Austrians, had been attacked by the advance guard under Lannes without success. It was the most serious opposition they had yet encountered, and it was necessary to pass almost under the shadow of the guns. Marmont conceived a happy device which proved entirely successful. At night the streets through the village were liberally strewn with straw and other stubble by the French soldiers. The wheels of the gun-carriages were then carefully covered to avoid rattling, and the passage was successfully achieved, although the alarm was sounded and there was some desultory firing.

On the 2nd June Napoleon, marching with the utmost rapidity, entered Milan. A week later, and almost at the same time as the First Consul was withdrawing his troops from the old city for further offensive operations, Lannes with the advance guard won the important victory of Montebello. The nature of the battle was such that the French general said he could hear the bones crash in his division like hail falling on a skylight. Cremona, Piacenza, and other places fell, but on the 14th, at a specially inopportune time, because Napoleon had thought it necessary to divide his forces owing to his uncertainty as to the precise whereabouts of the enemy, 11Zelas and 31,000 Austrians appeared in the plain of the Bormida. The skill of Lannes and Victor proved of no avail; the reinforcements which the First Consul brought up could not shake the determination of the Imperialists. The wounded Austrian commander, foreseeing no further engagement and complimenting himself on his success, left the field. In this he committed an irretrievable blunder. Desaix, but recently returned from Egypt, was in command of 6000 men some miles away, and having heard the dull roar of cannon, was hurrying to Napoleon's assistance. He arrived late in the afternoon, and is said to have assured the First Consul that "the battle is lost, but there is time to gain another."

There must be no retreat on the part of the French. This was the decision arrived at after a short council of war. New dispositions were made; Desaix was to stop the Austrian columns, the main forces were to fall upon the enemy's flank. Thiers tells us what happened during the second battle of Marengo.

"General Marmont suddenly unmasked a battery of twelve pieces of cannon; a thick shower of grape-shot fell upon the head of the surprised Austrian column, not expecting any fresh resistance, for they fully believed the French were decidedly retreating. It had scarcely recovered from this sudden shock, when Desaix drove down the Ninth Light Infantry. 'Go tell the First Consul,' said he to his aide-de-camp Savary, 'that I am charging, and want some cavalry to support me.' Desaix, on horseback, led this half-brigade. At its head he ascended the gentle elevation which concealed him from the Austrians, and abruptly disclosed himself to them by a volley of musketry from his leading column, at point blank distance. The Austrians replied to this, and Desaix fell, struck by a bullet in the chest. 'Conceal my death,' said he to General Boudet, who was his chief of division; 'it may dispirit the troops.'

[Illustration] from Story of Napoleon by H. F. B. Wheeler


"Useless precaution of this hero! They saw him fall, and his soldiers, like those of Turenne, with a terrific shout, insisted on avenging their leader. The Ninth Light Infantry—which on that day earned the title of 'Incomparable,' a name which it bore to the termination of our war—having poured forth their fire, formed in column, and fell upon the dense mass of the Austrians. At the sight of it, these two first regiments which headed the line of march, taken by surprise, fell back in disorder upon the second line, and disappeared in its ranks. The column of grenadiers of Latterman then found itself alone at the head, and stood this charge like troops inured to fight. It stood firm. The conflict extended on both sides of the road; the Ninth was supported on the right by Victor's rallied troops, on the left by the Thirtieth and Fifty-ninth half-brigades of the division of Boudet, which had followed the movement. The grenadiers of Latterman were with difficulty defending themselves, when suddenly an unlooked-for storm now burst upon them. General Kellerman, who, on the application of Desaix, had received the order to charge, galloped forward, and passing Lannes and Desaix, posted part of his squadrons, to make head against the Austrian cavalry which he saw before him, then with the remainder charged the flank of the column of grenadiers, already attacked in front by the infantry of Boudet. This charge, executed in brilliant style, divided the column in two. The dragoons of Kellerman sabred the Austrians right and left, until, pressed on all sides, the unfortunate grenadiers laid down their arms. Two thousand surrendered prisoners of war. At their head, General Zach himself was obliged to surrender."

The fight continued, Kellerman charged again and again, while Lannes and Saint Cyr showed that they had lost none of their prowess. The Austrian cavalry was driven back by Bessieres and Eugene Beauharnais. "The confusion at the bridges of the Bormida," adds Thiers, "became every moment still more irremediable. Infantry, cavalry, and artillery crowded together in disorder, the bridges could not afford a passage for the entire army, then en masse; multitudes threw themselves into the Bormida for the purpose of fording it. An artilleryman attempted to cross it with his gun, and succeeded. The entire artillery then followed his example, but without success, as several of the carriages stuck fast in the bed of the river. The French, now hotly pursuing, took men, horses, guns, and baggage. The unfortunate Baron Melas, who, but two hours before, had left his army in possession of victory, galloped up on report of this disaster, and could scarcely credit what he saw; he gave himself up to despair."

"Tell the First Consul," gasped the dying Desaix, "that my only regret in dying is to have perished before having done enough to live in the recollection of posterity." His fame, however, will always be recorded in connection with the battle of Marengo. "A glorious day's work," said Napoleon. "If only I could have embraced Desaix upon the battlefield! I should have made him Minister of War, and a prince, too, had it been in my power." During his weary exile Napoleon also spoke lovingly of the fallen general, as he did of Kleber, who perished on the same day in Egypt, the victim of an assassin's dagger.

"Of all the generals I ever had under my command," said the fallen Emperor, "Desaix and Kleber possessed the greatest talent—Desaix pre-eminently, as Kleber loved glory only as the means of acquiring wealth and pleasure. Desaix loved glory for itself, and despised every other consideration. To him riches and pleasure were of no value, nor did he ever give them a moment's thought. He was a little, black-looking man, about an inch shorter than myself, always badly dressed, sometimes even ragged, and despising alike comfort and convenience. Enveloped in a cloak, Desaix would throw himself under a gun and sleep as contentedly as if reposing in a palace. Luxury had for him no charms. Frank and honest in all his proceedings, he was called by the Arabs, 'Sultan the Just.' Nature intended him to figure as a consummate general. Kleber and Desaix were irreparable losses to France."

Melas, broken in spirit and wounded, requested an armistice. After considerable dallying on the part of the Court of Vienna and ruthless determination to have his own way on that of Napoleon, hostilities were resumed in November, 1800.

The First Consul had now returned to Paris, and the interest of the campaign centres around the armies led by Moreau and Brune, who had succeeded Massena. It will be remembered that the former had agreed to a truce in the previous July, and when the sword was again unsheathed owing to the causes briefly mentioned in the previous paragraph his opponent was no longer Kray, but the Archduke John, a brother of the Emperor. At first the Archduke enjoyed a temporary triumph, but Moreau wreaked a terrible vengeance at the battle of Hohenlinden, fought on the 2nd December. No fewer than 20,000 Austrians were captured or left dead or wounded on the snow-clad plain and in the undergrowth of the forest.

The poet Campbell has painted a vivid picture of the tragic scene:

On Linden, when the sun was low,

All bloodless lay th' untrodden snow;

And dark as winter was the flow

Of Iser, rolling rapidly.

But Linden saw another sight,

When the drum beat, at dead of night,

Commanding fires of death to light

The darkness of her scenery.

By torch and trumpet fast arrayed,

Each warrior drew his battle-blade,

And furious every charger neighed,

To join the dreadful revelry.

Then shook the hills with thunder riven;

Then rushed the steed to battle driven,

And louder than the bolts of Heaven,

Far flashed the red artillery.

But redder yet that light shall glow

On Linden's hills of stained snow;

And bloodier yet the torrent flow

Of Iser, rolling rapidly.

'Tis morn, but scarce yon level sun

Can pierce the war-clouds, rolling dun,

Where furious Frank, and fiery Hun,

Shout in their sulph'rous canopy.

The combat deepens. On, ye brave

Who rush to glory, or the gravo!

Wave, Munich! all thy banners wave!

And charge with all thy chivalry!

Few, few shall part, where many meet!

The snow shall be their winding-sheet,

And every turf beneath their feet

Shall be a soldier's sepulchre.

Moreau gave the enemy no time to recover from the disaster, and brought them to action again and again with the most favourable results. Indeed, he was within easy distance of Vienna itself when he agreed to sign an armistice at Steyer on Christmas Day 1800, the terms of which were particularly advantageous to his own country.

Macdonald hastened to the assistance of Brune. He crossed the Splugen from Switzerland to Italy in the face of colossal difficulties, difficulties far greater than those when Napoleon turned the Alps. The passage was made in winter, snow beating in the faces of the soldiers, some of whom were whirled to destruction by an avalanche. Eventually the junction was effected, Brune having bravely forced his way to Macdonald by overcoming the opposition of the Imperialists whenever he had an opportunity. Finding that he could make no progress, Bellegarde, the Austrian commander, proposed a truce, and the armistice of Treviso was signed on the 16th January 1801.

Peace, a "peace at any price" let it be said, was secured by the signature of the Treaty of Luneville on the 9th February 1801, by which France added considerably to her greatness and Napoleon to his fame, both in the Republic and abroad. Foreign admiration of the First Consul's genius, however, was not unmixed with disgust at the exacting nature of his demands. Belgium and the left bank of the Rhine again became French territory; the Batavian (Dutch), Helvetic (Swiss), Ligurian, and Cisalpine republics were recognised, and various changes effected in Tuscany and elsewhere. The River Adige became Austria's boundary in Italy, and she retained Venice.

Brief mention must be made of an alliance arranged by the Czar and the First Consul which almost certainly would have had far-reaching results but for the assassination of the former and the British naval victory off Copenhagen in which Nelson played so conspicuous a part. Alexander I., who succeeded his father, refused to play into the hands of Napoleon, and friendly relations between his Court and that of St James was definitely re-established by the Treaty of St Petersburg, the 17th June 1801. The Maritime Confederacy was dissolved, the Czar's example being followed by Sweden and Denmark.

The First Consul felt Paul's death very keenly, but more from a political than a friendly point of view. "In concert with the Czar," he told Bourrienne, "I was sure of striking a mortal blow at the English power in India. A palace revolution has overturned all my projects." One can imagine how the vexation caused by the complete abandonment of such a scheme was intensified by the knowledge that Great Britain continued to hold command of the sea.