General Bonaparte Defends His Conquest
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This article was published in Napoleon Magazine Number 5 September 1996
General Bonaparte Defends His Conquest
The Continuing Saga of Napoleon's First Campaign in Italy
This article was published in Stratey & Tactics Magazine,
Number 5and written by Todd Fisher
General Dagobert Sigismond Count Wiirmser was the third Austrian commanding general to be defeated by Napoleon Bonaparte since the latter
took command of the Army of Italy at the end of March 1796. The first to succumb to the 27-year-old Corsican’s forces was General Michael Colli’s
Sardinia—Piedm6ntese army. After knocking Sardinia-Piedmont out of the First Coalition, formally completed by the Armistice of Cherasco, Napoleon turned upon General Johann Peter Beaulieu’s force (the 1796 campaign to the end of August was outlined in issues #2 through #4 of Napoleon magazine).
Beaulieu, hoping to avoid a major battle, had his rearguard overtaken in the famous storming of the bridge at Lodi on 10 May. The 71-year-old
Beaulieu was dismissed after his cordon defense was smashed by the French at Borghetto on 30 May 1796.After this defeat,the Austrian hold on
northern Italy consisted solely of the fortress of Mantua, soon put under siege.
In an astonishingly rapid two month campaign, General Bonaparte took his starving brigades from a thin strip of coastland around Genoa, and led them as they fought their way through the daunting Apennine mountains and onto the fertile plains of northern Italy. Along the way, through an audacity that continues to astonish the student of military history, he neutralized two enemy field armies by dividing them and defeating them in detail. In addition to resupplying his army, his victories placed the lucrative coffers of Milan and Venice at the disposal of an impoverished French Republic. He had, as few leaders have before or since, succeeded in making war pay for war.
Beyond his logistical and battlefield brilliance, Napoleon's political ingenuity surfaced. In what is arguably one of history's most persuasive publicity campaigns, General Bonaparte orchestrated a continuing series of propaganda bulletins aimed not only at his own soldiers but also at the people of France. This included a piece of artwork showing Napoleon leading the charge across the bridge at Lodi, adding heroic embellishment to his factual accomplishments.
Despite these self-promotions, Napoleon would soon prove again that he was a formidable soldier. In July, a new Austrian army under General
Wurmser arrived in the theater with the objective of relieving Mantua and retaking the valuable territories of northern Italy. Once again, Napoleon
utilized a superior central position to defeat a divided opponent at the twin battles of Lonato and Castiglione on 3and 5 August, 1796 [outlined last issue of Napoleon magazine]. The old Austrian hussar Wurmser, who had served the Austrian cause since 1747, now led the retreat north with his portion of the army to the east of Lake Garda. Meanwhile, General Peter Quasdanovitch marched the battered remains of his command and up the west side of the lake and then around the north end to rejoin Wurmser.
In the interim, Napoleon put the fortress of Mantua once more under siege (24 August) and took his main force up the Adige valley 2 September
to face the defeated but still sizable Austrian army. It had been the original intent of Napoleon's superiors in the Directory to have the Army of Italy advance past Trent up the Brenner Pass and move into southern Germany to support the Republic's main field armies under Jourdan and Moreau.
However, as Napoleon moved north on the Austrian position near Roveredo on 3 September, he found that Wurmser had taken most of his army and slipped east trying to move around the French in order to relieve Mantua. Wurmser was in the Brenta valley and heading south toward Verona as Napoleon advanced.
At this point, Napoleon took yet another well-calculated risk. Instead of heading back down the Adige valley trying to outpace Wurmser to Verona, he decided to first crush Quasdanovitch in order to secure the Army of Italy's line of cummunications. Then, he would follow behind W1urmser’s army with the hope of pinning the Austrians against Kilmaine’s garrison at Verona.
The French attack of 4 September was two-pronged. The vanguard of General Vaubois’ division, commanded by the capable General St Hilaire, stormed the bridge at Sarca, while Masséna’s advance elements under General Pigeon overwhelmed Wukassovich in the defile of San Marco. As both Austrian flanks gave way during the engagement, Bonaparte ordered his cavalry under Dubois to charge the fleeing enemy and administer the coup de grace. The pursuit caused an Austrian rout, but General Dubois was killed in the confusion.
The fleeing Austrians passed through Roveredo and halted at the formidable position of Calliano. This pass was a very narrow defile, only about 200 feet wide, further strengthened by the castle of La Pietra, which the Austrians had bolstered with several guns. This position would squeeze any sizable attacking force approaching it, creating a large target. If permitted time to augment their defense, the Austrians might not be extricated without resorting to a veritable siege.
Napoleon recognized the need to attack while the Austrians were still disheartened. His first step was to find a commanding position for his cannon in order to pound the Austrians at the point of attack, including a bombardment of the old castle. As Napoleon's guns were taking their toll, French skirmishers climbed the steep hillside and began to snipe at the outflanked enemy below. When the combined fire was showing its effect, Napoleon sent ward an assault column of nine battalions straight toward the center of the narrow defile; the troops surged forward, densely packed. The first volley of the Austrians nearly dropped the entire front rank of French infantry, but the inspired Republicans continued to shove forward, coming to grips with the Austrians. The castle fell in the first rush and the remaining defense gave way rapidly.
Many demoralized and exhausted Austrians surrendered; others were forced back into their own cavalry. Because the nature of this confined Fighting precluded the easy passage of lines, the retreating troops tended to disorder those behind them, and the rearward momentum that commenced at
the front became infectious. The confused intermixing of retreating infantry with the cavalry held in reserve made both forces virtually useless, and panic evidently ensued among the Austrian ranks. Fifteen cannon were captured during this chaos along with
numerous standards. All Austrian resistance was swept away.
The French then pushed further north, and on 5 September Masséna entered Trent, Wtirmser’s original base of operations. The ?nal Austrian resistance in the area was broken on the morning of 6 September at Lavis, five miles north of Trent, at which point Napoleon took the bulk of his army eastward through the pass entering the Brenta valley, and pursued the unsuspecting Wiirmser Vaubois remained at Trent to cover Davidovich.
Wurmser wrongly believed that Napoleon would take his main army up the Adige River and through the Brenner Pass and link up with the French armies operating in the Danube valley. Hoping to take advantage of the presumed absence of Napoleon, Wurmser dispatched a division under Meszaros to seize Verona, an action which would open the way to the relief of the Austrians bottled-up in Mantua. There he planned to combine with the garrison, and, thus reinforced, he hoped to reassert control over northern Italy.
Napoleon, however, left only a small division under Vaubois to secure the Brenner Pass and then chased down the Austrian rearguard at Primolano, some 30 miles east of Trent. He hoped to catch the Austrians between the Brenta and the Adige rivers, or at least, to force Wurmser to retreat to the northwest and thereby abandon Meszaros.
The lead elements of Napoleon's force, General Augereau’s division, came upon two Austrian battalions, made up mostly of Croats, in a position which might normally be judged unassailable. But the French were flush with victory, reinvigorated with the supplies captured at Trent. Augereau sent forward the 5th Light Regiment deployed as skirmishers backed by three battalions of the 4th Line Infantry Regiment, commanded by future Marshal Jean Lannes, formed in columns.
The assault unhinged the right flank of the Austrians and with perfect timing, Napoleon sent in the 5th Dragoons under General Milhaud. The French cavalry swept around to the rear and cut off the defenders from their line of retreat. Some ?ed while the majority surrendered. By evening the French bivouacked around the town of Cismone, six miles south of Primolano. The French claimed 4,200 prisoners, 12 cannon, and 5 standards.
Meszaros in the mean time stood stymied before Verona. Kilmaine had fortified the city and his thirty guns had been more than enough to throw back the white coated attackers. Dissuaded by his losses, Meszaros called for reinforcements and bridging equipment in order to begin a formal siege. Wurmser received this disappointing request at virtually the same time as news of the disaster to his rearguard. Prudently, he recalled Meszaros to help face the French onslaught bearing down on him from the Brenta valley. Regrettably for Wurmser, Meszaros would arrive too late to be of any assistance.
The battle of Bassano on 8 September started with an assault on the Austrian vanguard of six battalions that were positioned in a gorge bisected by
the Brenta River. These troops were driven back on the main Austrian line, where Wiirmser was astonished to realize that he was being attacked by Napoleon's main force which had not gone north as he had hoped. The Aus trians were tenuously deployed in front of Bassano, with Quasdanovitch on the left
bank of the river in front of the town, and Sebottendorf on the right bank guarding the bridge, held with artillery and grenadiers.
Masséna’s division attacked the right bank, while Augereau’s division hit the left. Both assaults succeeded in putting the Austrians to rout. As the Austrians fell back through the city of Bassano, only the old covered bridge linked the two wings of the Austrian forces. Its possession now represented complete victory for the French. Once again the 4th Line was selected to lead the assault. Colonel Lannes and Masséna, under whom the 4th was temporarily serving, stormed the bridge in the face of a desperate final defense. Despite being wounded, Lannes not only continued to lead his regiment forward, but also, incredibly, he was credited by Napoleon with personally capturing two Austrian standards! In the face of such audacity and courage, the dispirited Austrian resistance collapsed. Quasdanovitch’s force, now severed from the rest of the army, retreated east toward the Piave. Napoleon sent in the cavalry to exploit and crown the success of his infantry, and Murat executed this mission with aplomb. At days end, 6,000 prisoners, 8 colors, 32 cannon, 2 pontoon trains, and over 200 wagons were reported as taken. The pitiful remains of Wiirmser’s once large army of more than 50,000men retreated south to join Meszaros with only 16,000 men under arms (including 3,500 relatively fresh cavalry not employed because of unsuitable terrain for Austrian mounted tactics).
Increasingly desperate, Wurmser gambled that he could break through to relieve Mantua. He moved south, luckily finding the bridge at Legnano undefended, the French detachment having evacuated the position as a result of a false report. Wurmser and the Austrians continued toward Mantua and were successful in a couple of skirmishes when they turned upon their overextended pursuers. By 12 September he had reached Mantua after brushing aside the French covering force.
He intended to collect all but a small garrison and break out, probably in the direction of Sacile. Unfortunately for these plans, his garrison guarding the crossing of the Adige at Legnano capitulated on 13 September. By the afternoon of the 14th, the towns to the north and northeast of Mantua were in
French hands. Once again, the city was effectively besieged.
Wurmser had one advantage, which was that he held the forti?ed téte de pont of Saint—Georges on the primary causeway over the lake and onto the left bank
of the Mincio River. From here he launched his attack of 25,000 men against General Bon's division (Bon had replaced the ailing Augereau on
the 13th). The Austrian dual assaults at Saint-Georges and La Favorita caused relatively heavy casualties to both sides. The Austrians, knowing this was
their best chance to break out of a grim situation, fought with determination.
The French, meanwhile, having taken great care in their dispositions, triumphed in the end when Masséna’s division, centrally positioned and concealed by the nature of the rolling terrain, came up and attacked. Masséna’s men, led in part by Victor, fell upon an Austrian center weakened in response to the ferocity of Bon's attack on the Austrian right flank near Vigol and Castelletto. Acts of sang froid also aided the French cause, such as when the 18th Line
Infantry Regiment coolly checked an Austrian kmrassier attack by firing a steady volley from line (rather than, as many would expect, by forming square). The telling blow was delivered by Marmont leading a battalion of the18th and a provisional grenadier battalion to seize Saint-Georges. The defeated
Austrians retreated over the causeways and inside of the city walls. The victory over Wurmser was now complete. 22,000 total soldiers were trapped inside malaria-riddled Mantua, suffering the effects of hunger and disease (this included the pre—existing garrison).
A master of maintaining and building morale, an appreciative Napoleon showered awards and promotions upon the deserving French soldiers. But General Bonaparte and his exhausted army would have but a short respite to bask in the glow of this brilliant phase of the campaign. All too soon, the Army of Italy would be called to face yet another Austrian army, this one assembled under General Josef Alvintzy, which would arrive on the scene in November. Despite defeating three armies in less than six months, Napoleon and his soldiers would have to find the fortitude to face a fourth Austrian army, and the most daunting part of the Italian campaign of 1796-97 remained ahead.
Louis André Bon: French general of the French Revolutionary Wars, best known for his participation in the 1798 French invasion of Egypt.
Born:25 October 1758, Romans-sur-Isère in Dauphiné
Died:May 19, 1799, Saint-Jean-d'Acre
This article was published in Western Horse Magazine,
Written by LTC Wilma W. Shortz
"A Different Kind of History"
Two Riders, Two Horses, One Battle
ON JUNE 18, 1815, the famous Battle of Waterloo brought together two famous opponents—Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington. It was said to be
“perhaps the most terrible cavalry battle in history,” leaving 45,000 dead or wounded men on the battlefield and 15,000 dead horses.
The Battle of Waterloo changed the map of Europe and ended Napoleon’s attempt to regain his empire. It left the World with at least two contributions.
The saying, “meet one’s Waterloo” means to suffer a crushing defeat. Additionally, a certain type of kneelength boot is known today as the “Wellington.”
The mounts of Napoleon and Wellington also enjoy a bit of fame. They were both veterans of many previous battles and were both destined to live long after Waterloo.
Napoleon’s horse, Marengo, was a white Arabian who had been imported as a six-year-old from Egypt. He is said to be descended from the prominent El Naseri stud. Napoleon had first ridden him in the battle of Marengo where, at the last minute, a cavalry charge had overwhelmed the Austrians. Impressed with his mount’s conduct under fire, Napoleon named the little white Arab after the victory.
BATTLE IN HIS BLOOD
Wellington’s horse, Copenhagen, was a handsome chestnut stallion with a distinguished pedigree. The battlefields figured greatly in his heritage. His dam, Lady Catherine, had been ridden by General Grosvenor when he stormed the city of Copenhagen. At the time, Lady Catherine was in foal to Meteor, who was a son of Eclipse. Concerned for her safety, General Grosvenor sent the mare back to England to foal. Not long after the city of Copenhagen surrendered to the British, in 1808, Grosvenor’s battle mare produced a bright chestnut colt. The foal was named in honor of the British victory.
Wellington paid 400 guineas for the four-year-old stallion in 1812. The equivalent of $2,000 was a considerable price for horse?esh at that time. The horse was never to change hands again. Wellington rode Copenhagen throughout the remainder of the Peninsular Campaign, using him for hunting as well. Through centuries of mounted warfare, most generals and kings have ridden white horses in battle. The leaders needed to be visible on the battle?eld so that their men could follow them or, if necessary, rush to protect them. It was also a general’s custom to ride along his front line before battle, giving orders and encouragement
to his troops. Seeing their leader on a spirited white horse had a stirring effect on the men.
By the time Waterloo occurred in 1815, muskets and cannons were prevalent on the battlefield. While many generals chose not to make themselves such a tempting target, Napoleon continued to ride a white horse.
CHANGING HORSES FREQUENTLY
Napoleon had over 60 white or lightgray horses—Arabians and Barbs,who were specially schooled to remainsteady under battle conditions. The general’s favorites were Marengo, Ali,Jaffa, Austerlitz, and Marie. He is said to have ridden 19 horses to their death in battle and had many more wounded. The Master of the horse, who always rode just behind Napoleon in battle, was prepared to give his horse to Napoleon whenever it was needed. Napoleon was a hard rider and nearly always rode at a gallop. For this reason, he frequently changed horses during combat.
Unlike Napoleon, Wellington rode Copenhagen throughout the battle, as well as before and after it. The fiery chestnut stallion had tremendous stamina, seeming never to tire. Many tales were told of his endurance; what he did at Waterloo proved it. Marengo’s height of 14.1 hands suited Napoleon’s short and stocky stature well. Like all the general-turned Emperor’ s horses, Marengo was trained to be easy-gaited for the long marches that were such a part of Napoleon’s
campaigns. The light grey stallion carried the Emperor through many battles and was with the Russian Expedition of 1812 which ended in the retreat from Moscow. Historians estimate that Marengo travelled a lifetime total of 50,000 miles.
Marengo was not sent to share Napoleon’s exile on the Isle of Elba, rather, Napoleon regained him from the royal stables upon his return to France. The emperor rode him for eight hours in the first part of the battle of Waterloo. At the time, the diminutive Arab was 22 years old.
During the battle that raged all that day, Marengo sustained a slight wound in his left hip. It was his eighth wound in action. The Emperor changed mounts
and node another of his favorites, a white charger named Marie. After his defeat, Napoleon fled to Paris while Marengo was left behind to be captured by the
On the day before the Battle of Waterloo, Wellington rode Copenhagen nearly 60 miles to confer with his generals and his Prussian allies and to visit his troops.
Wellington wrote that he got on his horse’s back before 10 o’clock in the morning. “I never drew bit and he never had a morsel in his mouth till
eight that night. The poor beast I, myself, saw stabled and fed in the village of Waterloo.”
In the early morning, Wellington mounted his horse again and rode him through the entire battle. On June 18, 1815, the pair clocked over 17 hours of riding in battle.
Referring to Wellington, an eyewitness wrote: “He was everywhere . . . the eye could tum in no direction that it did not perceive him, either at hand or
at a distance; galloping to charge the enemy, or darting across the field to issue orders.” At 10 o’clock that night, a victorious Wellington dismounted to embrace Prince Blucher, the Prussian commander. Then he slowly rode back to his own quarters.
The long day was apparently not hard enough for Copenhagen, who for all his virtues, retained his characteristic bad temperament. When Wellington dismounted, Copenhagen lashed out with his feet and almost caught his master. The next day, after carrying Wellington to Brussels, Copenhagen, he kicked out again, managing to break loose and galloped through the city before being caught.
Copenhagen surely merited Wellington’s description of him, which was spoken many years later: “There may have been many faster horses and no doubt there were many handsomer, but for bottom and endurance, I never saw his fellow.”
A PEACEFUL ENDING
With the coming of peace, Marengo was brought to England and used in race horse breeding. None of his progeny achieved any success, which is not surprising considering his small size. His skeleton, minus one hoof, was put in the National Army Museum at Sandhurst. The hoof was made into a snuff' box and was presented to the officers of the Brigade of Guards.
Peace also brought comfortable retirement for Copenhagen. The British government rewarded the Duke of Wellington with a 7,000-acre estate called Strathfield Saye in Hampshire. It was there that Copenhagen spent the remainder of his life. As he grew older, the stallion became somewhat more manageable and Wellington allowed a few friends to ride him. Apparently, he did not pass muster as a lady’s mount. One female of the time noted, “He was a most unpleasant horse to ride.”
Copenhagen sired some foals and continued to be an object of interest and affection. Wellington’s wife and daughter-in-law had bracelets and pins woven from his mane and tail hair. When Copenhagen died in 1836, he was buried with military honors on Wellington’s estate. The horse’s marble tombstone carries this inscription from the commemorative poem “Epitaph” written for him by R.D. Egerton:
The charger ridden by the Duke of Wellington the entire day of the Battle of Waterloo. Born 1808, died 1836... God’s humbler instrument, though meaner clay, Should share the glory of that glorious day.