Battle of Marengo


Battle of Marengo

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Battle of Marengo
partof=the War of the Second Coalition


caption=Louis-François Lejeune: The Battle of Marengo
date=14 June 1800
place=Spinetta Marengo, Alessandria, Piedmont, present-day Italy
result=French victory
combatant1=flagicon|France French First Republic
combatant2=flagicon|Habsburg Monarchy Habsburg Austria
commander1=flagicon|France Napoleon Bonaparte
flagicon|France Louis Desaix†
flagicon|France Francois Étienne de Kellermann
commander2=flagicon|Habsburg Monarchy Michael von Melas
strength1=28,000,
24 guns
strength2=31,000,
100 guns
casualties1=1,100 killed,
3,600 wounded,
900 missing or captured
casualties2=963 killed,
5,518 wounded,
2,921 captured

In the Battle of Marengo was fought on 14 June 1800 between French forces under Napoleon Bonaparte and Austrian forces near the city of Alessandria, in Piedmont, Italy. The French defeated Austrian General Michael von Melas's surprise attack, driving the Austrians out from 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 Austrians 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 General Louis Desaix. A counter attack led by Desaix, after a brief artillery bombardment, threw back their Austrian pursuers and a cavalry charge by François Etienne de Kellermann [The son of the victor of the Battle of Valmy.] 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. In brief, by a daring crossing of the Alps on a mule [Marengo, Military History Vol. 17 Issue II, pg 63] almost before the passes were open Napoleon had placed himself across Melas's lines of communications in the belief that Melas would be forced to attack him. Melas had not done so. Napoleon became convinced that Melas would not attack, and further that Melas was about to retreat. Napoleon sent strong detachments to block Melas's routes northwards to the Po, and southwards to Genoa. At this point, Melas attacked, and Napoleon found himself at a significant disadvantage for much of the 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). This prevented any rapid development of their attack; the movement began about 6 a.m., but the attack was not fully developed until 9 a.m.

The Austrian advanced guard, a force of 3,300 men under Major General Andreas O'Reilly, pushed 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 Gaspard Gardanne's French infantry (one of two divisions of Claude Victor's corps) deployed in front of the Fontanone stream. On the Austrian left, 7,500 men under General Peter Ott headed for the village of Castel Ceriolo well to the north of the French positions in the mistaken belief that it was French-held. 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 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 Karl Haddick's division at Victor's defenses. When Haddick was killed and his units repulsed, the Austrian commander sent in Conrad Kaim's division. Finally, as the French position was reinforced, Peter Morzin's elite grenadier division was sent in to attack Marengo village. Melas also committed a serious tactical blunder, detaching Nimptsch's brigade of 2,300 hussars to block the corps of Louis Gabriel 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 (Lannes and Murat) had brought their troops up in support of Victor's corps. Jean Lannes' corps (François Watrin's infantry division, Joseph Mainoni's infantry brigade and 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 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. By 11 a.m. Bonaparte was on the battlefield and had sent urgent recalls to his recently detached forces, and summoned up his last reserves.

As they came up, 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. Ott defeated Monnier and forced part 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. 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 small French detachment (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 failed to press hard against the French because Olivier Rivaud's small brigade of French cavalry hovered to the north.

French counter-attack

Shortly before 3 p.m., however, General 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 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, but it is only two o'clock, 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. Auguste Marmont massed the remaining French cannon against the Austrian column as it advanced. Boudet's division advanced in line of brigades against the head of the Austrian column, defeating Francis Saint-Julien's leading Austrian brigade. Zach brought forward 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 sprayed 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 many of his men were taken prisoners. Joachim Murat and Kellermann immediately pounced on the supporting Austrian horsemen and routed them as well. The Austrian cavalry stampeded through the ranks of the units behind, provoking a 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.

Their 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 Alexandria) which led to the Austrians evacuating Northern Italy west of the Ticino River, 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 (3 December 1800) by a French army under 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

References

*cite book|last=Arnold|first= James R.|title=Marengo & Hohenlinden: Napoleon's Rise to Power|publisher=Pen & Sword|year=2005
*cite book|last=Smith|first=D.|title=The Greenhill Napoleonic Wars Data Book|publisher=Greenhill Books|year=1998
*cite journal|title=To Marengo, Battle of 1800|last= Shosenberg|first=James|journal=Military History |date=June 2000|volume= 17 |issue=II

External links

* [http://www.wtj.com/articles/marengo/ The Battle of Marengo - A Bicentennial Review] "An overview of the battle, including short summaries for beginning students and detailed analysis for more serious readers."
* [http://napoleonistyka.atspace.com/FRENCH_ARMY.htm The French Army 1600-1900]
* [http://napoleonistyka.atspace.com/Marengo_battle.htm Consular Guard at Marengo]
* [http://www.simmonsgames.com/research/authors/Cugnac/ArmeeReserve/index.html Gaspar Cugnac, Campaign of the Army of the Reserve in 1800 ] "French scans and OCR(?) complete, English translation for vol 1 only, use French version for the battle proper."
* [http://www.simmonsgames.com/research/authors/Berthier/RelationMarengo/index.html Alex. Berthier, Relation of the Battle of Marengo]


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