Story of Napoleon - H. F. B. Wheeler

"The Spark of Great Ambition"


"Soldiers! you are ill-fed and almost naked; the Government owes you much, but can do nothing for you. Your patience, your courage, do you honour, but bring you neither advantage nor glory. I am about to lead you into the most fertile plains of the world. Rich provinces, great cities will be in your power. There you will find honour, and fame, and wealth. Soldiers of the Army of Italy, will you be found wanting in courage?"

Thus Napoleon addressed the half-starved and dejected legions who had been struggling for two years on the Maritime Alps against the Austrians and Sardinians in an apparently impossible attempt to gain a footing in Northern Italy. The army was little more than a mob of malcontents, lacking even the common necessaries of life. Forty thousand outcasts, if you will, undisciplined, many of them without boots, more of them in tatters, all of them with scarcely a ray of hope; soldiers in name rather than in reality. Brave men and heroes there were, order and subordination there were not. To introduce cohesion and discipline into these unruly forces was the almost superhuman task Napoleon had undertaken.

He arrived at Nice, the headquarters of the Army of Italy, on the 26th March 1796; he began to investigate the conditions of his problem the same day, issuing the above General Orders twenty-four hours afterwards. His allies were the mountains which separated him from his enemies; the Mediterranean which faced him was the highroad of the English squadron. A concerted effort on the part of the land and the maritime forces would most assuredly catch him like a rat in a trap. Fortunately the Austrians and Sardinians were suspicious of each other, their dispositions were faulty and not always in concert, and their forces were scattered over a long line of territory, defending the passes across the mountains. The officers viewed the Directory's choice of a commander with suspicion. If Scherer, a veteran over seventy years of age, had not been able to lead them to victory, what could be expected of this fledgling? They reckoned without their host. Genius knows no age and takes no count of birthdays. Napoleon's amazing fertility of resource, his astounding energy and thorough grip of the situation, gradually overcame their opposition whether acknowledged or only felt. Massena, Augereau, Serurier, Cervoni, La Harpe, and Rampon, to mention some of the more important, joined loyal hands with Napoleon's own chosen men, Murat, Berthier, Duroc, Marmont, and the fear-nothing Junot. We shall find many of these names occurring again and again, as the story develops and the career of the Master General expands. Few, if any, individuals succeed unaided, least of all the soldier and the statesman. Napoleon early recognised that the so-called self-made man is very rarely entitled to the credit implied in the name. He fostered the ambitions of his colleagues, but saw to it that he was the chief gainer by them.

After having provided so far as was possible for the creature comforts of the troops and raised their drooping spirits by his enthusiasm and the promise of good things to come, the commander prepared to strike a quick and decisive blow at his enemies. The armies of the King of Sardinia and Piedmont and of the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire were not-united in one large body, but separated by more than thirty miles. The central idea of this arrangement was that in case of necessity each could fall back on the capital of the country they were defending, the Austrians on Milan and the Sardinians on Turin. The wiser way, as Viscount Wolseley points out, would have been to concentrate at a place commanding both cities, in the valley of the Eastern Bormida, for instance. Napoleon saw the folly of the plan, and determined to force his way between the two armies and fight them separately. "United," as he said, "the two forces would have been superior to the French army: separated, they were lost." Napoleon hurried troops along the rut-wrinkled road to Voltri, within easy march of Genoa, to give the impression that the latter place was about to be attacked. Meantime, however, he and the main body encamped at the foot of the mountains, above Savona. After strongly fortifying the pass of Montenotte, the Austrians occupying a ridge above the village of that name, he prepared to attack, and on the 12th April took the enemy completely by surprise. The onset was deadly, the result certain. Massena bore the brunt of the fight, the commander contenting himself with the highly important duty of preventing the enemy from reaching their Sardinian allies. The Imperialists were driven from the field with a loss of 700 dead and wounded. "My title of nobility," said Napoleon, "dates from the battle of Montenotte." Another Austrian defeat took place at Millesimo on the following day, and they were also ousted from the village of Dego, upon which they had fallen back, on the 14th.

Early on the morning of the 15th, an Austrian division, unaware of the disaster which had overtaken their comrades, seized Dego. Had not Napoleon acted with great promptitude, they might possibly have retrieved the defeat of the previous day. While Massena and La Harpe bravely disputed the ground, Napoleon brought up reinforcements with an energy which alone saved the occasion. Having shattered this army, the Commander-in-chief turned his attention to the Sardinians at Ceva, under Colli, and at first met with a rebuff. Hoping to catch Napoleon in a trap, the enemy's camp was hastily broken up and the army marched off to occupy what the General fondly imagined were stronger positions. Defeat awaited them, however, at the hands of Serurier and Dommartin, who came up with the Sardinians and forced them to fly towards Turin, their base of supplies. The town of Mondovi fell to the French, Marmont captured Cherasco. As a result of these operations, Savoy and Nice were ceded to France and the Austro-Sardinian alliance came to an abrupt end. The important fortresses of Coni, Tortona, and Alessandria were surrendered to the French and others were demolished. These strategic positions have been called "the keys of the Alps," and were necessary to the success of Napoleon's next operations. The Commissioners who represented Sardinia would not willingly grant demands which they held to be extortionate and which left but two fortified places worthy of consideration to the dismembered State. Napoleon told them that it was for him to make conditions. "Listen to the laws which I impose upon you in the name of the Government of my country," he added, "or to-morrow my batteries are erected, and Turin is in flames." Arguments which can be backed by deeds are unanswerable. Parma, also on the losing side, likewise sued for peace, the arrangement being that she should furnish specie and supplies for the French army. Napoleon during the course of his negotiations made use of a striking phrase which explains another of the secrets of his success. "It may happen to me to lose battles," he remarked, "but no one shall ever see me lose minutes either by over-confidence or by sloth."

Having concluded his diplomatic measures, the General was now ready to turn his attention to his remaining enemy. Before doing so he thought it well to make a further appeal to the patriotic instincts of his troops. Triumphant as never before, they were nevertheless beginning to weary of the ceaseless marching and fighting:

"Soldiers! you have gained in fifteen days six victories, taken twenty-one standards, fifty-five pieces of cannon, many strong places, and conquered the richest part of Piedmont. You have made fifteen thousand prisoners, and killed or wounded ten thousand men. Hitherto you have fought on barren rocks, illustrious, indeed, by your courage, but of no avail to your country. Now you rival by your services the Armies of Holland and of the Rhine. You were utterly destitute; you have supplied all your wants. You have gained battles without cannon; passed rivers without bridges; made forced marches without shoes; bivouacked without bread! The phalanxes of the Republic—the soldiers of liberty—were alone capable of such sacrifices. But, soldiers, you have accomplished nothing while anything remains to be done. Neither Turin nor Milan is in your hands; the ashes of the conqueror of Tarquin are still trampled on by the assassins of Basseville! I am told that there are some among you whose courage is failing, who would rather return to the summits of the Alps and the Appenines. No—I cannot believe it. The conquerors of Montenotte, of Millesimo, of Dego, of Mondovi burn to carry still further the glories of the French name! But, ere I lead you to conquest, there is one condition you must promise to fulfil; that is, to protect the people whom you liberate, and to repress all acts of lawless violence. Without this, you would not be the deliverers, but the scourge of nations. Invested with the national authority, strong in justice and law, I shall not hesitate to enforce the requisitions of humanity and of honour. I will not suffer robbers to sully your laurels. Pillagers shall be shot without mercy.

"People of Italy! the French army advances to break your chains. The French people are the friends of all nations. In them you may confide. Your property, your religion, your customs shall be respected. We will only make war as generous foes. Our sole quarrel is with the tyrants who enslave you!"

Without losing unnecessary time, Napoleon entered Piacenza, crossed the river Po on a hastily-constructed bridge of boats in face of a hostile force, and prepared to take the village of Fombio. Here some 5,000 Austrian infantry and cavalry were prepared to make a stand. The place literally bristled with artillery, even the churches were fortified; but the French routed the enemy, and the Imperialists were forced to retire.

Behind the swiftly-flowing Adda a strong rearguard was posted, and on the 10th May Napoleon appeared at Lodi, on the opposite bank. A narrow bridge, some 200 yards in length and thirty feet wide, was the only means of crossing the turbulent stream. At first the Austrians tried to hold the structure, then attempted to break it down, but the steady fire of the French prevented them from doing so. To cross to the opposite bank was absolutely essential for a decisive action, and Napoleon gave orders that a column of picked men should be sent to seize the bridge. He was told that such an attempt could not possibly succeed. "Impossible!" he is asserted to have cried, "that word is not French!" He started the column. It meant certain death to many, but in warfare men are simply fighting machines controlled by the human dynamo at their head. The troops pressed forward. Those in front fell like leaves in autumn, as the shots from the opposite shore ploughed their ranks. Some of the most daring reached the middle of the bridge only to sink in a lifeless heap under the murderous hail. A retreat seemed inevitable, the bravest wavered.

Napoleon, quick to notice the slightest sign of weakness, again urged his troops forward. Lannes, Massena, and Berthier, threw themselves into the thick of the fight, and shortly afterwards the bridge was carried. The rest was comparatively easy. The Austrian cannon were taken, the infantry which covered them was forced to give way, and the Imperialists again retreated, leaving 300 dead and wounded. It was in very truth a hard-fought field, for the victors lost a greater number of men. Had they been able to follow the retreating army, the triumph would have been complete. Napoleon declared that "it was not till after the terrible passage of the Bridge of Lodi that the idea flashed across my mind that I might become a decisive actor in the political arena. Then arose, for the first time, the spark of great ambition." It was after this battle that the soldiers nicknamed Napoleon "the little corporal." Sebottendorf, who commanded the defeated troops, bent his steps towards Mantua, to which Beaulieu, his superior officer, was also making his way.