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The Battle of Marengo was fought on 14 June 1800 between French forces under Napoleon Bonaparte and Austrianmarker forces near the city of Alessandriamarker, in Piedmont, Italymarker. The French defeated Austrian General Michael von Melas's surprise attack, driving the Austrians out of Italy, and enhancing Napoleon's political position in Paris.

French forces under Napoleon Bonaparte (newly made First Consul by the Brumaire coup) were attacked by the Austriamarker under General Melas. The French were taken by surprise, and fell back. However, the course of the battle was reversed by the return (in response to an urgent summons from Bonaparte) of previously detached forces under the French Major General Louis Desaix. A counter attack led by Desaix, after a brief artillery bombardment, threw back their Austrian pursuers and a cavalry charge by Brigadier General Fran├žois Etienne de Kellermann completed their defeat. The Austrians fell back into Alessandria, having lost about 9,500 killed, wounded, or captured. The French casualties were considerably fewer, but included Desaix.

Background

The Battle of Marengo was the victory that sealed the success of Napoleon's Italian campaign of 1800 and is best understood in the context of that campaign. By a daring crossing of the Alps almost before the passes were open, Napoleon (who crossed on a mule) had threatened Melas's lines of communications in northern Italy. The French army then seized Milanmarker, Paviamarker and Piacenzamarker, cutting the main Austrian supply route along the south bank of the Po Rivermarker. Napoleon hoped that Melas' preoccupation with the Siege of Genoa would prevent the Austrians from responding to his offensive. But Genoa surrendered on June 4, freeing a large number of Austrians for operations against the French.

On June 9, Maj-General Jean Lannes beat Lieutenant General (Feldmarschall Leutnant) Peter Ott in the Battle of Montebello. This caused Napoleon to become overconfident. He became convinced that Melas would not attack, and further, that the Austrian was about to retreat. Fearing that the Austrian general might try to escape, Napoleon spread his army out in a wide net, sending strong detachments to block Melas' routes northwards to the Po and southwards to Genoa.

Forces

See Marengo Order of Battle.

Austrian attack

The Austrian troops (about 31,000 men and 100 guns) advanced from Alessandria eastwards across the Bormida River by two bridges debouching in a narrow bend of the river (the river being not easily crossed elsewhere). Poor Austrian staff work prevented any rapid development of their attack and the entire army had to file through a narrow bridgehead. The movement began about 6:00 a.m., but the attack was not fully developed until 9:00 a.m.

The 1,200-man Austrian advanced guard, under Colonel (Oberst) Johann Frimont and a division of 3,300 men under Maj-General Andreas O'Reilly, pushed the French outposts back and deployed to become the Austrian right wing. The Austrian center (about 18,000 under Melas) advanced towards Marengo until halted by Maj-General Gaspard Gardanne's French infantry (one of two divisions of Maj-General Claude Victor's corps) deployed in front of the Fontanone stream. On the Austrian left, 7,500 men under Lt-General Peter Ott waited for the road to clear before heading for the village of Castel Ceriolo well to the north of the French positions. This move threatened either an envelopment of the French right, or a further advance to cut the French line of communication with Milan.

Gardanne's men gave a good account of themselves, holding up the Austrian deployment for a considerable time. When Gardanne's division was exhausted, Victor pulled them back behind the Fontenone and committed his second division under Maj-General Jacques Chambarlhac (this officer soon lost his nerve and fled). The French held Marengo village and the line of the Fontanone until about noon, with both flanks in the air. First, Melas hurled Lt-General Karl Haddick's division at Victor's defenses. When Haddick was killed and his units repulsed, the Austrian commander committed Lt-General Conrad Kaim's division. Finally, as the French position was reinforced, Lt-General Peter Morzin's elite grenadier division was sent in to attack Marengo village. Melas also committed a serious tactical blunder, detaching Maj-General Nimptsch's brigade of 2,300 hussars to block the corps of Maj-General Louis Suchet, which was mistakenly reported to be approaching Alessandria from the south.

It took Bonaparte (5 kilometers away from Marengo) until about 10 a.m. to recognize that the Austrian activity was not a diversionary attack to cover the anticipated retreat by Melas. His subordinates had brought their troops up in support of Victor's corps. Lannes' corps (Maj-General Fran├žois Watrin's infantry division, Brig-General Joseph Mainoni's infantry brigade and Brig-General Pierre Champeaux's cavalry brigade) had deployed on the crucial right flank. Kellermann's heavy cavalry brigade and the 8th Dragoons took up a covering position on the left, smashing an attempt by Maj-General Giovanni Pilati's light dragoon brigade to envelop Victor's flank. On the right, Champeaux was killed trying to stop the progress of Ott's column. Soon Ott took Castel Ceriolo and began putting pressure on the French right flank. By 11 a.m. Bonaparte was on the battlefield. He sent urgent recalls to his recently detached forces and summoned up his last reserves.

As they came up, Maj-General Jean-Charles Monnier's division and the Consular Guard were committed to extend and shore up the French right, rather than to try to hold Marengo where Victor's men were running short of ammunition. At about 2 p.m. the French attacked Castel Ceriolo. Aided by Frimont, Ott defeated Monnier and forced two-thirds of his command to retreat to the northeast. About the same time, Marengo fell to the Austrians, forcing Napoleon's men into a general retreat.

The French fell back c. 3 km and attempted to regroup to hold the village of San Giuliano. With the French outnumbered (nominally 23,000 troops and 16 guns) and driven from their best defensive position, the battle was as good as won by the Austrians. Melas, who was slightly wounded, and 70, handed over command to his chief-of-staff, General Anton Zach and Kaim. The Austrian center formed into a massive pursuit column in order to chase the French off the battlefield. On the Austrian right flank, O'Reilly wasted time hunting down a 300-man French detachment led by Achille Dampierre (which was finally captured) and moved southeast. This took his troops out of supporting distance from the Austrian main body. On the Austrian left, Ott hesitated to press hard against the French because Brig-General Jean Rivaud's small brigade of French cavalry hovered to the north.

French counter-attack

Shortly before 3 p.m., however, Desaix, in charge of the force Bonaparte had detached southwards reported to Bonaparte in person with the news that his force (5,000 men and 8 guns of Maj-General Jean Boudet's division) was not far behind. The story goes that, asked by Bonaparte what he thought of the situation, Desaix replied,
This battle is completely lost.
However, there is time to win another.


The French were fast to bring up and deploy the fresh troops in front of San Giuliano, and the Austrians were slow to mount their attack. Brig-General Auguste Marmont massed the remaining French cannon against the Austrians as they advanced. Boudet's division advanced in line of brigades against the head of the Austrian column, defeating Maj-General Francis Saint-Julien's leading Austrian brigade. Zach brought forward Maj-General Franz Lattermann's grenadier brigade in line and renewed the attack. Faced with a crisis, Napoleon sent Desaix forward again and ordered a cavalry charge. Marmont's guns blasted the Austrians with grapeshot at close range. Further back, an Austrian ammunition limber exploded. In the temporary heightening of confusion Lattermann's formation was charged on its left flank by Kellermann's heavy cavalry (ca. 400 men) and disintegrated. Zach and at least 2,000 of his men were taken prisoners.

Joachim Murat and Kellermann immediately pounced on the supporting Liechtenstein Dragoons and routed them as well. The fleeing Austrian horsemen crashed into the ranks of Pilati's rattled troopers and carried them away. As the mob of terrified cavalry stampeded past them, the Austrian infantry of the main body lost heart, provoking a wild rush to the rear. Covered by the second grenadier brigade and some unpanicked cavalry, the Austrian center reached safety in flight behind the Bormida with the French in pursuit.

The wings under Ott and O'Reilly withdrew in good order, but the Austrians had lost heavily in the 12 hours of fighting: 15 colours, 40 guns, almost 3,000 taken prisoner, and 6,000 dead or wounded. French casualties (killed and wounded) were on the order of 4,700 and 900 missing or captured, but they retained the battlefield and the strategic initiative. Desaix's body was found among the slain.

Consequences

Within 24 hours of the battle, Melas entered into negotiations (the Convention of Alessandria) which led to the Austrians evacuating Northern Italy west of the Ticino Rivermarker, and suspending military operations in Italy. Bonaparte's position as First Consul was strengthened by the successful outcome of the battle and the preceding campaign. Austria, however, remained at war with France until their forces north of the Alps were defeated at the Battle of Hohenlinden on December 3 by a French army under Maj-General Jean Moreau.

Miscellany

  • A famous dish of braised chicken with onions and mushrooms in a wine and tomato sauce called Chicken Marengo is named after this battle. Local lore says it was cooked on the battlefield by Napoleon's personal chef using all the ingredients he could find in those adventurous circumstances.
  • Sardou's play La Tosca, and Puccini's opera Tosca based on it, are set against the events of this time. In Puccini's opera, arrangements are made to sing a Te Deum (and for Tosca herself to sing at a gala evening) to celebrate Bonaparte's "defeat" at Marengo, news of which arrives in Act 1. In Act 2, the true situation (namely, that Napoleon has won) becomes apparent.


Footnotes

  1. The son of the victor of the Battle of Valmy.
  2. Marengo, Military History Vol. 17 Issue II, pg 63
  3. Arnold, p 146
  4. Arnold, p 149
  5. Arnold, p 151
  6. Arnold, p 158
  7. Arnold, p 162
  8. Arnold, p 160
  9. Arnold, p 173
  10. Chandler, p 269
  11. Arnold, p 177-180
  12. Arnold, p 180-181


References

  • Chandler, David. Dictionary of the Napoleonic Wars. New York: Macmillan, 1979. ISBN 0-02-523670-9


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