Story of Napoleon - H. F. B. Wheeler

The Italian Campaign


On the 15th May 1796, the conqueror and his troops entered Milan, the Austrians retiring behind the banks of the Mincio, a river inseparably associated with the history of the Roman Empire. He encouraged the soldiers by telling them that they had overwhelmed and dispersed everything which had opposed their progress, that the Republic had ordered fetes  to be given in honour of the victories, and that on their return home "fellow citizens will say of each of you in passing: 'He was a soldier in the Army of Italy!' "He did not minimize the task before them, however, and bluntly asserted that much still remained to be done. "To restore the Capitol (at Rome); to replace there the statues of the heroes who have rendered it immortal; to rouse the Romans from centuries of slavery—such will be the fruit of our victories: they will form an era in history; to you will belong the glory of having changed the face of the most beautiful part of Europe." Such a proclamation was well calculated to inspire the inhabitants with ideas of liberty as well as to encourage soldiers still flushed with victory. The satisfaction of the people at these honied words, however, gave way to consternation when the news was noised abroad that 20,000,000) ?> francs was the price of peace, to say nothing of free supplies for the troops. A futile flicker of resistance was shown by some of the more patriotic folk of Lombardy, who backed their opinions by force and came to blows with the pretended "liberators "at Milan and at Pavia. The retribution which followed swiftly, did not encourage other towns to rise; the Italian national spirit was but a weak thing then. The village of Brescia, although on Venetian and therefore neutral territory, was razed to the ground by fire. Napoleon himself marched on Pavia, which was carried by assault and sacked. Again Beaulieu attempted to check Napoleon, but he might as well have tried to prevent the sun from rising. The Austrians were defeated at Valeggio, Verona was entered by Massena, and Napoleon prepared to lay siege to the well-fortified town of Mantua, the key to Austria and Italy. Fifteen thousand troops were detailed for the purpose in addition to those who were to guard their communications. After compelling the insurrectionists at Milan to surrender, he entered Modena and Bologna, and sent Murat to Leghorn, thus violating the neutral territory of Tuscany.

But Napoleon was not to have it all his own way. The Austrians having revived their drooping spirits, were bent on making a last desperate resistance, and for a time it looked very much as though success would attend their efforts. They discomfited the French on more than one occasion, but instead of concentrating they fell into the fatal error of distributing their forces over a large area, and were thus precluded from striking decisive blows and following up their victories. Napoleon, equally determined, and much more wary, decided on a bold stroke. In order to secure the greatest possible number of troops, he raised the blockade of Mantua, which fortress was entered by Wurmser, Beaulieu's successor, on the 1st August. After having gained a victory at. Lonato Napoleon barely escaped capture. Lie and a garrison of some 1200 men were summoned to surrender by a corps of 4000 Austrians. The envoy, bearing a flag of truce, was led to Napoleon blindfolded, as is the custom. When the bandage was removed the Commander coolly asked him, "What means this insolence?" and added that he was in the middle of the French Army! The envoy was so overcome with fright that he told his superior officer more fiction than fact. Lonato was occupied by French troops, he assured him, and if the corps did not lay down their arms in ten minutes they would be shot. They preferred the less unpleasant expedient. Their feelings, when they discovered the clever trick which had been played on them, can be better imagined than described. On the same day Augereau, after considerable difficulty and much hard fighting, secured the important strategic position of Castiglione.

On the 5th August 1796, Wurmser and Napoleon fought the battle of Medola. A lull followed the retreat of the Imperialists after this action, both sides utilizing the time in repairing or attempting to repair the injuries sustained by them. Napoleon advanced to Verona, and Mantua was relieved by Wurmser. Davidovich, the Austrian commander's colleague, met with defeat near Calliano, and Napoleon was thereby enabled to enter Trent, the capital of the Italian Tyrol. Shortly afterwards Wurmser himself was defeated by Massena near Bassano, Napoleon again having a narrow escape from capture as the Austrians retreated upon Mantua.

The Imperialists had now been reinforced and numbered some 60,000 troops. The force at Napoleon's disposal did not exceed 42,000, including the 8000 engaged in watching Mantua, who were therefore not available for more active co-operation at the front. On the 8th October 1796, he confided to the Directory that the situation was critical, that everything was going wrong in Italy, and appealed for further soldiers and more skilful diplomatic measures. The seriousness of his position became particularly evident in the following month, when Napoleon was forced to retreat owing to Vaubois' defeat in Tyrol. He told the soldiers without reserve that he was displeased with them, and even went so far as to say that he would have the standards of two of their regiments emblazoned with the words, "They are no longer of the Army of Italy." At Arcola on the 15th November, the Imperialist and Republican forces contested the ground with feverish and amazing energy, and as at Lodi, Napoleon behaved with conspicuous bravery. He carried a standard half way across the bridge, and was only prevented from proceeding further, amidst a hail of shot, by some grenadiers. Fearing for his life, they compelled him to return to a safer position. As it was, the brave fellows and their commander were pushed into the marsh by a body of the enemy who, taking advantage of the confusion, were crossing from the Austrian side. Napoleon was dragged out of the marsh by his brother Louis and Marmont.

When night closed in upon the armies victory rested with the Austrians. The battle was renewed, however, on the following day, and on the third the tide turned in Napoleon's favour. The repulse had robbed him of some of the sweets of conquest, but his worn-out soldiers knew that they had regained the confidence of their commander, and slept the sleep of the contented as they lay around their bivouac fires.

There is an oft-told story of this period which illustrates the alertness of Napoleon and shows how he could make allowances for human nature on occasions. One of the French sentries was discovered by Napoleon fast asleep at his post. The poor fellow had been harassed by frequent duty, and luckily Napoleon was in a sympathetic mood. He took the soldier's musket and stood patiently by, with tireless eyes, until he awoke. The man's consternation may be imagined when he saw who had been keeping watch in his place. He prepared for the worst, but, to his immense relief, Napoleon forgave him.

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


For two months affairs were at a standstill. Negotiations were begun and ended in a fierce war of words which settled nothing. Meantime fresh troops joined both forces, and when Napoleon became aware that the Austrians were concentrated not far from Rivoli, he was ready to throw the full force of his army upon them, although it was the weaker by nearly 10,000 men. On the 14th January 1797, the awful battle of Rivoli was fought. At the commencement some of the French regiments wavered under the Austrian attack, Massena losing his temper so far as to strike several of the officers with the flat of his sword. While the fate of the day still hung in the balance a division of his troops was brought up, and the enemy found themselves engaged in a very determined manner. But try as they might to overthrow the white-coats, the French could not do so. The position became so desperate at last, that Napoleon had recourse to a stratagem which alone saved his army from disaster. It was all but surrounded by the Imperialists when, pretending that important despatches had just arrived from the seat of Government with reference to proposed negotiations between the conflicting parties, Napoleon sent a flag of truce to General Alvintzy. While Junot talked to the Austrian commander, Napoleon quietly re-arranged his forces. The conference broke up, as Napoleon intended, without result, and soon the combatants were again in action. The day ended in the triumph of the French.

Much remained to be done. Under Napoleon's command many of the weary soldiers were forced to march towards Mantua, in the direction of which Provera was hastening to raise the siege. The keen eyes of a sergeant who was engaged in the homely occupation of chopping wood at Fort George saved that French stronghold, in the early morning of the 15th January 1797. A regiment of the enemy's hussars, dressed somewhat like the French, misled the garrison of Fort George into the belief that they were friends come to their relief. The veteran gave the alarm before the Austrian hussars could make good their entry, and the drawbridge was hauled up and the enemy held in check while reinforcements were approaching. On the following day Napoleon drew near Mantua, and at La Favorita brought the Austrians to battle. Aided by the superb daring of Victor, whose achievements at Toulon have been noticed earlier, he forced Provera and some 6000 men to lay down their arms. It was one of the most brilliant achievements in the whole of this terrible campaign, and a fitting conclusion to the siege of Mantua, which capitulated on the 2nd February. For many a long day the regiment commanded by Victor was know as "The Terrible," a name it richly deserved.

Napoleon, aided by Joubert and Massena, followed rapidly on the heels of the residue of the defeated army and gave it no rest. Pope Pius VI. having made himself objectionable by stirring up strife, the Commander-in-chief turned towards Florence preparatory to marching on Rome. The latter, however, became unnecessary, as a humiliating peace was signed at Tolentino on the 19th February 1797, by the terms of which the Pope was compelled to pay 30,000,000 francs, and to cede a considerable portion of territory, and various valuable works of art. The French, moreover, gained certain military and maritime advantages.

The contest with Austria continued to occupy the French, the Imperialists now being under the command of the Archduke Charles, the Emperor's brother. Finding himself in an awkward situation, Napoleon agreed to a suspension of hostilities, and preliminaries of peace were signed at Leoben on the 18th April, 1797, preparatory to the Treaty of Campo Formio on the 17th October. Dr J. Holland Rose thus summarizes the terms of the latter: "Austria ceded to the French Republic her Belgic provinces. Of the once extensive Venetian possessions France gained the Ionian Isles, while Austria acquired Istria, Dalmatia, the districts at the mouth of the Cattaro, the city of Venice, and the mainland of Venetia as far west as Lake Garda, the Adige, and the lower part of the River Po. The Hapsburgs recognised the independence of the now enlarged Cis-alpine Republic. . . . The Emperor ceded to the dispossessed Duke of Modena the territory of Breisgau on the east of the Rhine."

Having so successfully played the parts of conqueror and diplomatist Napoleon went to Rastatt. One might have imagined that the journey was the triumphal progress of an Emperor. Feted by townsfolk and cheered by peasants as he went, the enthusiasm expressed might well have turned his head but that Napoleon had learnt his lessons in the hard school of experience. Bourrienne remarked on the admiration shown, that it must be delightful to be so greeted. "Bah!" Napoleon replied with disgust, "this same unthinking crowd, under a slight change of circumstances, would follow me just as eagerly to the scaffold." The Reign of Terror and his intimacy with the younger Robespierre were too recent for their moral to be forgotten. From Rastatt he proceeded to Paris.

It is fortunate that a contemporary, who saw Napoleon at this time, has committed his observations to paper. "I beheld with deep interest and extreme attention that extraordinary man," he writes, "who has performed such great deeds, and about whom there is something which seems to indicate that his career is not yet terminated. I found him much like his portraits, small in stature, thin, pale, with an air of fatigue, but not, as has been reported, in ill-health. He appeared to me to listen with more abstraction than interest, as if occupied rather with what he was thinking of, than with what was said to him. There is great intelligence in his countenance, along with an expression of habitual meditation, which reveals nothing of what is passing within. In that thinking head, in that daring mind, it is impossible not to suppose that some designs are engendering which will have their influence on the destinies of Europe."

The magnificent reception accorded to Napoleon by the Directory in the Luxembourg on the 10th December 1797 surpassed all others. Madame de Stael, that witty woman whom Napoleon detested because of her meddling in politics, tells us that "Bonaparte arrived, dressed very simply, followed by his aides-de-camp, all taller than himself, but nearly bent by the respect which they displayed to him. M. de Talleyrand, in presenting Bonaparte to the Directory, called him 'the Liberator of Italy, and the Pacificator of the Continent.' He assured them that 'General Bonaparte detested luxury and splendour, the miserable ambition of vulgar souls, and he loved the poems of Ossian particularly, because they detach us from the earth.' "Napoleon, who had a keen sense of the dramatic, knew very well that the plainer he dressed on such an occasion the more conspicuous he would be in a crowd of such magnificence. One sentence of his short but telling speech is worthy of notice: "From the peace you have just concluded," he said, "dates the era of representative governments." In a certain sense this was true, notwithstanding that his own despotism was destined to have its day.

Napoleon was now given command of the so-called Army of England, which the Government fondly hoped would plant its standards on the banks of the Thames. The general soon dispelled this delusion. The time was not yet come for his gigantic preparations to subdue "perfidious Albion." The glamour of the East beckoned him. "All great fame comes from that quarter," he told Bourrienne. An expedition to Egypt and the restoration of French rule in India were more to his liking at the moment and offered more possibilities of enhanced fame. Not slow to read the signs of the times, and knowing the Directors were jealous of his reputation, Napoleon felt that an absence from France might have the desired effect of showing how very useful he was to the Republic.