Marengo: 14 June 1800 redux Part II

Situation at the beginning of the French counter-attack

‘The French counter-attack,’ wrote A. G. Macdonnell, ‘was, by chance, one of the most perfectly timed tactical operations by combined infantry, artillery and cavalry in the whole history of warfare.’ First came Marmont’s bombardment with his eighteen guns which lasted for some twenty minutes. Then Desaix went forward with his infantry – he was killed by a bullet in the head while leading his men in the attack – and Marmont, having limbered up four of his guns, was there in support. It was another instance of close cooperation between arms, for in an effort to counter the counter-attack, a battalion of Austrian grenadiers was pressing forward against Desaix’s men, and seeing them but fifty yards ahead, Marmont unlimbered his four pieces and let the advancing closely ranked Austrian grenadiers have four rounds of cannister from each gun fired at point-blank range. To cap it all, just as the Austrians were reeling from this fresh blow and Desaix’s infantrymen were surging forward, young Kellermann came charging in from the flank with his heavy cavalrymen. The enemy broke and fled. ‘A minute earlier,’ said Macdonnell, ‘or three minutes later, and the thing could not have succeeded, but the timing was perfect, and North Italy was recovered in that moment for the French Republic.’

Napoleon’s own part in the battle had been positively undistinguished, yet the victory confirmed his position as First Consul and enabled him to make peace. When Berthier consoled an Austrian officer after the battle, however, by pointing out that his army had been defeated by the greatest general in the world, the reply was that it had been Masséna’s iron hand that had won the battle of Marengo by resisting siege in Genoa. To which might be added – Genoa certainly and chance!

But what if Desaix had not come back? Correlli Barnett is quite clear about it: ‘If Desaix had not returned in time, the resulting defeat would have put an end to his [Napoleon’s] career.’ Evangeline Bruce is equally definite: ‘Bonaparte had gambled his future and almost lost it; had Desaix not arrived in time his career would have ended then.’ Very well, let us hypothesize that chance does not favour him after all, the Austrians win at Marengo, Bonaparte is dismissed from his position as First Consul; what might have happened then? We might consider first what would not have happened, for whatever else might be said about Napoleon, it cannot be denied that he was totally unique. He was a comet shooting through his own generation and many others to come, a man whose imagination, ambition, capacity and sheer magnitude made him stand up peerless among his contemporaries. He was a modern Caesar and bestrode this narrow world like a Colossus. His capacity for work was prodigious. And it was after Marengo that the business of putting France in order really began. It may be doubted whether anyone else would have embarked on quite so radical and comprehensive a programme as he did, but Napoleon held two winning aces. First, he was immensely popular; indeed, the royalist Mathieu Molé observed that with the exception of America’s first President, George Washington, no chief magistrate of a republic had ever been so universally popular. The second ace was power. When Napoleon and Sieyès had discussed what form the Republic’s executive should take, it was Napoleon who got his way. There were to be three Consuls, but only the First Consul would make decisions. Napoleon was therefore able to set about the complete reorganization of France’s internal affairs. Most of his measures were instituted in the two years 1800–1802, the so-called ‘ardent years of the Consulate’. It was then, wrote Evangeline Bruce, that ‘he laid the foundations of all the administrative and fiscal achievements that were to be his real monuments, created the tightly centralized administration that survives in France, much modified, to this day, restructured the judicial and public educational systems, and created the Bank of France’.

His greatest, most enduring achievement was the Civil Code, more renowned as the Code Napoléon. This was essentially a matter of the law. Following the Revolution in 1789 there had been so many decrees, regional codes and rulings by autonomous courts that, as Napoleon himself put it in writing to Talleyrand, France was ‘a nation with three hundred books of laws, yet without laws’. Now the whole matter of law and justice was to be put in order. The Code Napoléon was founded on a number of principles: all were to be equal before the law; there would be an end to feudal rights and duties; property would be inviolable; marriage would be a civil act, not a religious one; there would be freedom of conscience and freedom in choice of work. Without Napoleon, we may take it that all this would not have been done, nor would the Concordat, the pact between Napoleon and the Pope recognizing Roman Catholicism as the official religion of most French people, have been brought about. And then Napoleon was utterly dedicated to work. During the early months and years after becoming First Consul, he would work for sixteen, even eighteen, hours a day, seven days a week. Apart from the time he spent in the Council Chamber at the Tuileries where he presided over the Council of State, much of his day was passed in his study, dictating to his secretary. There, as Vincent Cronin put it:

Napoleon answered letters, issued orders, made minutes on Ministers’ reports, checked budgets, instructed ambassadors, raised troops, moved armies and carried out the thousand and one other duties which fell to the head of government, always totally immersed in the task in front of him, always completing it before going on to the next.

It was this ability to concentrate which was the key to his powerful intellect. At a time when in his own words la carrière ouverte aux talents was there for the taking, Napoleon showed the world how his own quite exceptional talents opened up for him a career of dazzling distinction.

Added to this, of course, was his supreme confidence. In establishing the Code Napoléon, he was sure that it would endure. He was right. It is still the law of France, with some amendments. To make the whole thing work, Napoleon established in each département a new type of official, the prefect, a system of administration still in being today. When we add to all this a new criminal code, a reformed educational system, the Legion of Honour and the building of roads, canals and ports, there seems to be no end to his achievements. Yet there is one more we must look at, without which all the rest might have gone for nothing – creating the Grande Armée: ‘It was to be a real, full-dress, organized, trained fighting machine,’ wrote Macdonnell. ‘Its training ground was to be the north-east coast of France, and its objective was England.’ This was the army which was to be Napoleon’s tool for dominating the affairs of Europe for the next decade, and against which only a small British army under Wellington was able to nibble away in a theatre of war which the by then French Emperor regarded as a side-show. Napoleon’s army was certainly on the grand scale. It was a highly efficient fighting force, as regards both numbers and quality. Organized into seven corps, positioned at Hanover, Utrecht, Flushing-Dunkirk, Boulogne, Montreuil and Brest, it consisted of some 200,000 men. The Corps Commanders, all of whom were destined to become Marshals of the Empire, represented about the most glittering array of military talent that could be gathered together.

They consisted of Bernadotte, who, despite his fence-sitting during the 1799 coup and his lack of regard for the First Consul, did at least promise cooperation; Marmont, Napoleon’s friend and artillery expert, who was very earnest, painstaking, concerned with his men’s well-being, and who loved building things; Davout, who was later said to be the only one of the Marshals who really understood what Napoleon’s theory and practice of war was all about; Soult, who was another great builder and an excellent trainer of young officers; Lannes, the courageous leader of so many attacks, who had been the First Consul’s envoy in Portugal to bully England’s oldest ally into neutrality; Ney, the fiery red-headed cavalryman, who worshipped war and battle for their own sake, who studied hard to master infantry tactics, and whose admirable concept of operations was ‘fast marching and straight shooting’; Augereau, swaggering, rough-mouthed and full of intrigue, but a bold man in a tight corner; and the cavalry under Napoleon’s brother-in-law, Murat (he had married Caroline Bonaparte), the most dashing of cavalry commanders, and whose subordinate generals, Lasalle, Colbert, Sainte-Croix and Montbrun, were all young, illustrious, good-looking and rash. Later, Bessières with the Imperial Guard was added to this star-studded community.

Would some Bonaparte substitute have created such a weapon of war? And who might that substitute have been? There was no lack of intrigue against the First Consul even in the early days, enough indeed to satisfy even those arch manipulators of power, Talleyrand and Fouché. Envy was a great breeder of intrigue, and there were plenty of Napoleon’s erstwhile comrades-in-arms who envied him. Some of this envy was cloaked under protestations that the principles of the Republic were not being consolidated. Such men as Sieyès, disgruntled by his own former disappointment, Moreau, Oudinot and St-Cyr, did not understand what it was that Napoleon was striving for: first, the organization of France so that order would replace disorder, proper administration take the place of corrupt practices, and a system of beneficial government would prevail subject to the will of one man; second, Napoleon’s ardent desire to heal old wounds, to bind together conflicting interests and loyalties, in short a programme of reconciliation and stabilization which would fuse the nation into one united France. It was all very well for Augereau and Lannes to make a fuss about the Concordat, and point to the countless number of lives which had been lost ‘to get rid of this nonsense’, but the fact was that the people as a whole enthusiastically welcomed the return of Catholicism after twelve years of State-enforced atheism. Among the ranks of other intriguers and malcontents were Jourdan, Brune, Macdonald and Masséna. Yet, as A. G. Macdonnell pointed out: ‘In all the intriguing against the Consulate it was the attitude of Bernadotte, as in 1799, that was the key to the situation.’ Bernadotte’s ambition was boundless – he did become after all King of Sweden later – but his intrigues with Moreau and Sièyes were not conducted with the discretion and secrecy which such dangerous goings-on demanded, and it was Davout, a devotee of Napoleon and at this time Commander of the Military Police, whose successful espionage uncovered the plot for a coup d’état against Napoleon. Had it come off, we may speculate that it would have been Bernadotte who headed the new Government.

No Emperor Napoleon, then, no plan to invade England, no Austerlitz, no crushing of Prussia at Jena or Russia at Friedland, no Treaty of Tilsit, or aggression in Spain, no Peninsular campaign by Sir John Moore or Wellesley . . . the catalogue stretches on. Instead we may imagine a consolidation of Republican measures, peace-making with England, Talleyrand as Foreign Minister, Fouché still Chief of Police, the other generals bought off with military commands or political posts, no Grande Armée for conquering Europe, but an Army of the Republic for defending France’s frontiers against the hostility of Austria and any allies she could muster. And if by chance it were not Bernadotte who was called upon to rule France, of one thing we may be sure. France would not have reinstated the Bourbons. It took another decade or so of Napoleonic sovereignty to bring about that ill-fated design ‘to call back yesterday, bid time return’.

As it was, however, Marengo had confirmed Bonaparte as First Consul. It would not be long – shortly after the Peace of Amiens was concluded in March 1802 – before Napoleon received an overwhelming vote of confidence from the French people, confirming him as Consul for life. From there it would be an easy leap to become Emperor of the French. As Emperor he was to command the Grande Armée in countless battles. In doing so he would often be mounted on a grey Arab stallion named Marengo. It may seem strange that Napoleon should have called the horse said to be his favourite charger after a battle in which his own part had been so undistinguished. Yet it was the result of the battle, rather than its conduct, which proved to be so significant. On 14 June 1815, when giving the army its Orders of the Day for the morrow, he charged his soldiers to recall the glorious anniversaries of Friedland and Marengo, both fought on that day. There is some controversy as to whether or not Napoleon rode Marengo at the battle of Waterloo. Marengo’s skeleton is on display at the National Army Museum, and the accompanying caption states that the Emperor did ride him. Other sources contend that Marengo was the horse on which Napoleon escaped from the battlefield. Some claim that it was a white mare called Desirée that carried him. Of course, Napoleon would have had more than one charger at hand. The outcome of the battle was certainly not what he desired. Indeed, whichever horse he rode, it availed him nothing at Waterloo.

Leave a Reply