Marengo: a battle won

The Battle of Marengo, by Louis-François Lejeune

As the day of 14 June dawned, Melas’s troops were completing their concentration on the Scrivian plain near the village of Marengo. Melas knew his business well. He was old enough to remember the relevant lessons of the Seven Years War and under him the Habsburg army demonstrated that it had lost none of its ability to mislead its opponents. A successful Austrian strategy of disinformation hoodwinked Napoleon completely. Fires were lit to give the impression that Melas was retreating towards Genoa. A number of ‘agents’ and ‘deserters’ found their way to Napoleon with tales of extremely low morale among the Austrian officers. The French pickets barely a few hundred yards away from the Austrian front line heard signs of movement at night but assumed it was the Austrians retreating. Even when the Austrian artillery opened up at dawn Napoleon believed it was simply a diversion to cover their withdrawal.

After an earlier engagement at Montebello, Melas had sent a trusted spy by the name of Toli to report to Napoleon on 11 June that the Austrians were extremely despondent and were only thinking of retreat. Primed deserters reinforced the message, including a prisoner whom Napoleon personally interrogated. This particular deserter was an émigré cavalry officer still wearing his Bourbon decorations, and his tale of Austrian ‘ruin’ was believed by Napoleon with near-disastrous consequences for him. Napoleon was therefore blissfully unaware of the forces deploying against him. He detached two divisions, one to watch the Po crossing, the other, commanded by Desaix, to march towards Novi in case Melas withdrew towards Genoa. The Austrians by then had seen the French dispositions around Marengo and, organising his army into three columns to cross the river Bormida at daybreak on the 14th, Melas promptly attacked with overwhelming force.

At first none of the French piquets could believe what was happening. As the Austrian columns marched out of their bridgehead in front of Alessandria with flags flying and bands playing, it became ominously clear that this was not the expected prelude to an Austrian withdrawal. Surprised and divided, Napoleon’s men were within hours fighting for their lives against a much larger force. Melas throughout showed considerable tactical flair and by 11.30 a.m., with Ott’s division threatening to outflank the French, the Austrian General Staff felt confident their opponent’s centre was about to break.

This battle, so decisive and important for Napoleon, ironically was a small one with barely 60,000 troops committed in total by both sides. By the standards of the later Napoleonic Wars it was a modest affair; ‘one of the smallest battles we ever fought,’ Radetzky recalled, though its political consequences were to be enormous.

Austrian confidence was justified as the grenadier battalions of Splenyi and the Chevauxleger cavalry of the Lobkowitz regiment had both distinguished themselves in the morning during spirited attacks, notwithstanding a murderous fire put up by the French around the village of Marengo which was protected by the Fontanone river. Radetzky suggested a flank attack on the village across one of the streams and Melas ordered Zach to execute it. But in the first sign of that mental and physical weariness which was to have such devastating consequences for the Austrians later that day, Zach, who had been on unbroken night watches for three days, was so exhausted that, having fallen asleep, he could not be roused quickly. It took him, Radetzky recalls, some time to ‘pull himself together and wake up’.

The flank attack finally went in with great elan before noon. At one stage the Jaeger and the grenadiers of the Splenyi regiment crossed the river Fontanone running over the backs of seventeen tough pioneers who formed a human bridge for forty-five minutes. Their success caught Napoleon by surprise and he tried in vain to deploy his guns. Much of his artillery, however, had been held up crossing the Alps thanks to the tenacious defence at Bard by Bernkopf’s men. By two in the afternoon the French centre was broken and Napoleon reluctantly conceded that he would have to fall back if he was to avoid the kind of annihilation he usually reserved for his opponents. Melas, leading a charge of the Kaiser Chevauxlegers personally (with Radetzky at his side), sealed the fate of Napoleon’s centre, which was forced to construct hastily a fighting withdrawal.

The French Consular Guard, Napoleon’s reserve, was committed and demonstrated the value of shock troops. They first fought stubbornly against an attack by Austrian dragoons, before seeing off the grenadiers of Splenyi. Finally surrounded, they formed a hollow square against the Austrian artillery. This ‘granite redoubt’, as Napoleon later called it, bought valuable time, but at great cost. Of the 800-strong Consular Guard more than 300 fell in less than an hour.

By 3 p.m., seeing the French lines beginning to break, Melas considered the battle won. Marengo was occupied and his grenadiers were triumphantly waving the debris that the French troops had abandoned on the field. French shakos were raised as trophies on the ends of Austrian muskets and bayonets. The units that had poured into Marengo now lost cohesion as they began plundering the abandoned French equipment. They had been fighting without respite for more than six hours.

Their 71-year-old commander, Melas, was also weary. Throughout the battle he had demonstrated an energetic front-line leadership which had been admired by many of the younger Austrian officers. He had taken part in two cavalry charges. Two horses had been shot from beneath him and one of his falls had left his arm severely bruised. As he picked himself up and regarded the battlefield, the General could be forgiven for thinking the battle won. Everywhere he looked, all he could see were the backs of the French infantry carrying out a forced retreat covered by their reserves.

Having been in the saddle for eight hours, and exhausted, he decided to retire from the battle, so he handed over command to his subordinates Kaim and Zach to organise the pursuit. Melas’s orders were clear: they were to destroy as much of the French army as possible with artillery and cavalry before they crossed the river Scrivia. Unfortunately, many of the Austrian generals, seeing their commander abandon the battle presumably to pen a letter to Vienna giving news of a great victory, followed his example.

Melas might be forgiven for underestimating his opponent. Napoleon’s military career lay mostly in the future but the Austrian made the unforgivable error of believing a battle was won when, in reality, it was far from over. It was Torgau all over again, only this time there was no Daun to extricate the Austrians from their fate.

There is no doubt that a determined and energetic pursuit by Zach with his cavalry would have crushed Napoleon before Desaix arrived so dramatically an hour later to turn the tide of battle. But Zach was still exhausted and had been cat-napping yet again when Melas ordered him to take over command. Indeed it was only with the greatest of difficulty that Zach was woken up. His bleary-eyed countenance did not augur well for an energetic pursuit. Meanwhile, rather than let his cavalry and artillery pursue the French, Kaim wasted much time bringing the units in and around Marengo to a semblance of parade ground order. As the Wallis regiment belatedly advanced up the road towards San Giuliano supported by the Liechtenstein Dragoons and artillery, the French began to organise a new line from which to attack the Austrians.

Marengo: a battle lost

While Zach struggled with his exhaustion, on the French side, a youthful, exuberant officer called Desaix, who had been deployed far away from Marengo, had heard the artillery fire of the battle. Immediately, he decided to disobey his orders and march his troops to the sound of the guns. He now arrived to greet Napoleon with the famous words: ‘This battle is completely lost. But there is time to win another.’ As the Austrians slugglishly organised a pursuit column, Desaix reordered his division to attack them. Another young and gifted officer, Kellermann, with barely 400 cuirassiers, charged the leading elements of the Austrian column in the flank with devastating effect just as they were reeling from Desaix’s initial counter-attack. Marshal Marmont recalls in his memoirs how the Austrian grenadiers of the Lattermann regiment were cut to pieces while thousands of Austrian cavalry looked on, seemingly mesmerised and frozen to their position barely a hundred yards distant.

Rarely in military history has a hastily improvised cavalry charge proved more effective. Marmont later said that three minutes earlier and the charge would have been repulsed, while three minutes later it would have come too late and Lattermann’s grenadiers would have broken Desaix’s assault. As Kellerman’s first squadron crashed into the Austrian flank, Desaix fell dead from a musket ball. But he had lived long enough to see the first fruits of his work. When the peaks of the tall Austrian grenadier hats had crested the slight ridge ahead of San Giuliano, the 9th Light Infantry had hurtled towards them with drums beating the pas de charge and with bayonets fixed. At the same time Marmont’s artillery had opened up on them with canister. The effect was dramatic. The grenadiers staggered and fired a volley, and it was Kellerman’s good fortune to strike the grenadiers in the flank ten seconds after they had discharged this volley. Caught in the act of reloading, the grenadiers were defenceless. As the semi-official Austrian account drily noted: ‘This attack, unexpected and executed with surprising swiftness, threw the Austrian infantry into disorder and dispersed it after a short resistance; many men were cut down.’

Under this murderous three-arm assault, coordinated to perfection, the rest of the Austrian column recoiled and then appeared frozen to the ground. A young grenadier ensign was bayoneted and his colour seized as his fellow soldiers looked on in amazement, seemingly paralysed. Behind them, one of their artillery wagons exploded. The Wallis regiment then broke and fled while the grenadiers continued to be slaughtered by Kellerman’s Cuirassiers.

More French cavalry arrived and one trooper seized the astounded Zach by the throat. The Liechtenstein Dragoons who should have immediately grasped the opportunity to counter-attack the French cavalry also seemed rooted to the spot by the sudden transformation of events. As some of Kellerman’s horse charged them they simply fled in terror, stampeding the ranks of the Pilati cavalry brigade who were attempting to ride to the rescue of the infantry. They found themselves surrounded by French cavalry reinforcements organised by Murat and galloped away in panic. Until this moment, the Austrian cavalry had still been regarded as the finest in Europe. Their pitiful performance, coming so suddenly at this stage of the battle, would rankle for generations to come. Even Radetzky in the months before his death would dwell on the Austrian cavalry’s failure to support the grenadiers at Marengo. Their action that evening required ‘closer analysis’ (‘es wäre interessant hierueber näheres zu erfahren’).

One of the Austrian accounts underlined this general incomprehension over the behaviour of the Austrian cavalry that day: ‘No one in the main column could understand the flight of the cavalry. The main Austrian formations, broken by the cavalry fleeing through it, began also to give way.’

Certainly, as Kaim attempted to deploy some infantry, the fleeing cavalry spread only panic and disorder. At one stage it looked as if the entire Austrian central column would be annihilated by the pursuing French. Fortunately for the Austrians, six battalions of fresh grenadiers under Weidenfeld were advancing towards the Austrian centre from Marengo. Their action demonstrated that, ably led, these new elite formations of grenadier battalions could perform wonders when grouped in larger tactical units.

Deploying as if on the parade ground, Weidenfeld’s battalions gave a textbook demonstration of a disciplined rearguard action, forming square to repulse Murat’s cavalry while allowing the fleeing central column to find its way back to the Austrian bridgehead. There a captured French officer observed the chaos and confusion: ‘I have witnessed some defeats in the course of my military career but I never saw anything like this.’ In the stampede this officer was thrown nearly 500 paces.

But despite this panic, the Austrians were not annihilated. Napoleon – or rather, Kellerman and Desaix – had won a great victory but they had not crushed the Austrians. French losses were one in four while Austrian losses were one in five. The Austrian losses still amounted to nearly 6,000 wounded and 963 dead. Though General Hadik died of his wounds, none of the other dead officers was of higher rank than captain. The fourteen officer fatalities were unusually low and hinted at the Austrian army’s officer corps having deteriorated in the 1790s.

But the First Consul had got all that he needed: a brilliant success and all the glory with which to ensure the continuation of his rule. Napoleon understandably named his favourite horse Marengo (at Marengo he had been mounted on another favoured steed Styria), and legend insists that his preferred dish was poulet à la Marengo. Melas cannot be faulted, save for giving up command too early. His troops had on the whole fought well for more than nine hours and his tactical disposition was inspired. He had 25 per cent superiority over his opponents when the battle opened. As one historian has noted: ‘It is hard to ask much more from any commander’s strategy.’

At first Melas could not believe what he was told but the abrupt change in fortune brought him rapidly to his senses and the following day he sued for peace at Alessandria, where Napoleon put the seal on the Austrian surrender of Lombardy and all her strong points in Piedmont. The ‘secondary’ theatre had after all furnished a decisive victory.

The details of the battle that reached Vienna caused consternation and anger. Radetzky later recalled that Melas possessed a ‘head which was better than his feet’. Irrespective of how good his head was, Vienna demanded it on a plate. Together with the hapless Zach, Melas was dismissed. The Austrian forces in Italy were placed under the command of Bellegarde.

The armistice of Alessandria was only a punctuation mark. During the next few months Austria’s army displayed that admirable tenacity which characterised Habsburg forces throughout their struggles with Napoleon and made them his most implacable foe on the Continent. Under Bellegarde, the army in Italy was reinforced to 120,000 men while the forces on the Danube were built up to a nominal and impressive 280,000 men. These were to deal with Moreau, who, with some 100,000 men, was encamped around Munich. Vienna found Napoleon’s peace terms unacceptable and was resolved to continue the war. The strategy involved remaining on the defensive in Italy while attacking Moreau in Bavaria. The Alessandria armistice was a vital breathing space.

Meanwhile enjoying the laurels of Marengo, Napoleon could now afford to give even Moreau orders. He no longer suggested but instructed Moreau to advance on Vienna along the traditional invasion route of the Danube. Macdonald would cover his right flank while Augereau on the Main would protect his left.

But for Moreau to achieve this, he had first to cross the river Inn where the Archduke John, nominally in command of the Austrian army there, enjoyed a strong defensive position. The Archduke John was another of the talented sons of Leopold who had to contend with a far less imaginative brother as Emperor. Unfortunately for the army, unlike the Archduke Charles, the inexperienced 18-year-old John’s gifts did not lie in the military sphere.

Intrigues around the archdukes: the Archduke John

Kray’s army that had faced Moreau had been beaten in a number of inconclusive actions and this was enough for the Emperor Francis and Thugut to request that Kray relinquish command. The obvious candidate for his replacement, the Archduke Charles, dropped out on the grounds that the Emperor, who had earlier resisted calls to place him in command, might be perceived as bowing to something as vulgar as popular pressure. Thugut warned that the appointment of Charles would only underline the mistaken earlier decision not to appoint him. Such were the convoluted thought processes of the court.

Baron Thugut, with ever an eye to the practicalities of the situation if they gave him the chance to ingratiate himself with his master, encouraged these thoughts with his own observation that the Archduke Charles would ‘only demand reinforcements’ which, as they were not available, ‘would only force him to push for peace’. Thugut knew well how to pander to the Emperor’s suspicions and jealousies of his brother. Charles, increasingly frustrated by his attempts at military reform running into the sands, took himself off to Prague, pleading one of his recurring attacks of epilepsy. Charles saw no point in Austria’s armies fighting a war in their present unmodernised condition. He counselled peace and a policy of playing for time to allow Austria to build up her strength.

This eminently wise policy was anathema to Thugut, who was prepared to gamble everything on a conflict with France à l’outrance. Thugut’s own position after Marengo was becoming precarious. His grasp of foreign affairs would pass to Cobenzl, a protégé of Kaunitz who favoured the old Kaunitz policy of seeking an agreement with France, even a Revolutionary France. These tensions proved disastrous not only for Thugut, who was forced to resign in September, but also for Austria. Cobenzl’s Francophile policies would not save him from a similar fate and he was dismissed shortly after Austerlitz in 1805.

Thanks to these petty intrigues, the army found itself in the curious position of not having a titular commander by the end of August 1800. What was needed, Thugut suggested, was a twin-track solution: two commanders. The first should be a de facto commander of enormous experience and proven courage; the second should be an enthusiastic archduke, not too difficult to handle, who would add the aura of the Imperial House to the cause.

Franz von Lauer

For the first candidate Thugut strongly recommended Feldzeugmeister Franz Freiherr von Lauer, a senior officer in the Engineers corps with a long experience of fortification design but little direct exposure to the challenges of command on the battlefield. Lauer had served under Wurmser in the First Coalition War and had been with him when Mantua fell. As a gifted specialist he had even won the coveted Order of Maria Theresa but his service record described him as lacking finesse and possessing a raw and aggressive temperament, which was married to ‘extreme self-regard’. He was also described as lacking that most important of military qualities: decisiveness. If these weaknesses were not enough, another report noticed that his soldiers held him in low esteem. All these personality defects paled into insignificance compared to his loyalty to Thugut, and Lauer’s impeccable connections: his sister was a lady-in-waiting to the influential Queen of Naples.

Thus, as is so often the case despite the apparent triumph of egalitarianism, connections triumphed over ability. To add lustre to this uninspired choice, the Emperor Francis knew there would need to be a figurehead to raise morale after the armies’ earlier defeats, and it could not be himself because the risk of defeat had to be kept at arm’s length from the throne.

But who was to be this hapless archduke: the scapegoat for any failure Francis’s army might incur? Francis first approached Archduke Ferdinand, brother of the Empress Ludovika, but Ferdinand wisely refused, having had long experience of court intrigue. Francis then suggested the role might suit the Archduke Josef, who pleaded Hungarian constitutional commitments. One by one, Thugut ticked the archdukes off his list until he reached John. It would after all only be a question of ‘appearances’ (Schein). The ‘real’ command would lie with Lauer.

John was certainly a talented young man and, like his military brother Charles, he was to develop outstanding intellectual gifts but at this stage he was only 18 and had not even completed his basic military training. He had just about mastered how to sit correctly on a horse but his hours were still spent being shouted at on the drill square.

John only realised that he was destined for the army on the Danube at the beginning of September. Unsurprisingly, he was shocked. His astonishment would no doubt have been even greater had he known that he was to be given ‘command’. That detail was still kept secret from him and he fondly imagined he might serve as some unimportant adjutant.

These thoughts were confirmed when John received his orders to join Charles at the front. It is worth noting as another symptom of Habsburg methods in dealings with each other that the Archduke John did not possess even a uniform, or for that matter much more than the odd shirt. Materially and mentally he was unprepared for what was coming. It was winter but luckily his aunt, the Queen of Naples, hearing that her nephew was off to war, sent him some beautiful Neapolitan shirts of exquisite wool and cotton.

Joining the Emperor the two brothers rode together for some days until they reached the Bavarian pilgrimage village of Altötting. Not by a single phrase did the Emperor let slip or imply that he had plans for his brother. It was only two days later that the Emperor summoned John to his presence and gave him a letter outlining his ‘command’. John was dumbstruck but knew where his duty lay. The Kaiser explained painstakingly that the ‘command’ was really about raising the morale of the troops and that the real power of executive command would rest with Lauer. John would obey Lauer to the letter and not question or withhold his signature from any of Lauer’s orders, which would be published as if they hailed from the Archduke. All communication with the Emperor was to run directly and exclusively through Lauer.

In this way Francis was ensuring that should disaster befall his forces not an iota of criticism would fall on him. The Archduke would act as a form of covering fire; a dazzling decoy for the opprobrium that might otherwise have attached itself to the Emperor. And if things went well, then Lauer could always be praised to ensure it did not all go to the young Archduke’s head. Moreover, it would be good to have another archduke competent in military affairs to prevent excessive prestige passing to the Archduke Charles. There are few more revealing episodes than this to illustrate the Habsburgs’ internecine rivalries and the callousness with which members of the family could be sacrificed to the ‘greater good’.

Lauer’s plans were not entirely without merit but their weaknesses soon became apparent. He first decided to abandon the very strong position his forces enjoyed along the Inn and push Moreau back on to the Bavarian Alps. This operation had barely got under way when Lauer changed his mind and decided to give up outflanking Moreau and to attack frontally, despite the fact that Moreau was now digging into a good defensive position near the forest of Hohenlinden.

The Archduke John meanwhile, young, sensitive and insecure and, full of doubts over the ambiguity of his role, had sought the advice of his talented brother Charles. But Charles knew better than to interfere with his elder brother’s plans and simply offered John the following counsel: ‘However difficult and tough your situation is, you must not flinch from it. Remember that the really great man reveals himself when, despite the crisis he finds himself in, he remains always calm and collected’ (‘in keiner Gelegenheit aus der Fassung kommt’).

A few days later, Charles sent some strategic recommendations to John concerning the lie of the land in the Bavarian theatre. But in a confidential letter, which for once did not pass through Lauer’s hands, Charles was at pains to stress that he could not help his younger brother and that his own isolation at court now meant that his advice would always be questioned. ‘Do what you wish with my suggestions but it may be best not to make any use of my letter. It is my desire to serve but not to appear.’

Lauer was convinced that the strong defensive position he had enjoyed on the Inn could now be sacrificed in favour of a more aggressive policy. The Austrians had used the succession of truces which had been declared during the autumn months to reorganise and replenish their forces: volunteer units from Tyrol, insurrection levies from Hungary, an assortment of light troops, all made their way to join Lauer.