Page:EB1911 - Volume 11.djvu/199
ITALY 1793-97] 187
FRENCH REVOLUTIONARY WARS
for himself that he had overrated the effects of Montenotte. Beaulieu, on the other hand, underrated them, treating it as a mishap which was more than counterbalanced by his own success in “cutting off the French from Genoa.” He began to reconstruct his line on the front Dego-Sassello, trusting to Colli to harry the French until the Voltri troops had finished their détour through Acqui and rejoined Argenteau. This, of course, presumed that Argenteau’s troops were intact and Colli’s able to move, which was not the case with either. Not until the afternoon of the 14th did Beaulieu place a few extra battalions at Argenteau’s disposal “to be used only in case of extreme necessity,” and order Vukassovich from the region of Sassello to “make a diversion” against the French right with two battalions.
Thus Argenteau, already shaken, was exposed to destruction. On the 14th, after Provera’s surrender, Masséna and Laharpe, reinforced until they had nearly a two-to-one superiority, stormed Dego and killed or captured 3000 of Argenteau’s 5500 men, the remnant retreating in disorder to Acqui. But nothing was done towards the accomplishment of the purpose of destroying Colli on that day, save that Sérurier and Rusca began to close in to meet the main body between Ceva and Millesimo. Moreover, the victory at Dego had produced its usual results on the wild fighting swarms of the Republicans, who threw themselves like hungry wolves on the little town, without pursuing the beaten enemy or even placing a single outpost on the Acqui road. In this state, during the early hours of the 15th, Vukassovich’s brigade, marching up from Sassello, surprised them, and they broke and fled in an instant. The whole morning had to be spent in rallying them at Cairo, and Bonaparte had for the second time to postpone his union with Sérurier and Rusca, who meanwhile, isolated from one another and from the main army, were groping forward in the mountains. A fresh assault on Dego was ordered, and after very severe fighting, Masséna and Laharpe succeeded late in the evening in retaking it. Vukassovich lost heavily, but retired steadily and in order on Spigno. The killed and wounded numbered probably about 1000 French and 1500 Austrians, out of considerably less than 10,000 engaged on each side—a loss which contrasted very forcibly with those suffered in other battles of the Revolutionary Wars, and by teaching the Army of Italy to bear punishment, imbued it with self-confidence. But again success bred disorder, and there was a second orgy in the houses and streets of Dego which went on till late in the morning and paralysed the whole army.
This was perhaps the crisis of the campaign. Even now it was not certain that the Austrians had been definitively pushed aside, while it was quite clear that Beaulieu’s main body was intact and Colli was still more an unknown quantity. But Napoleon’s intention remained the same, to attack the Piedmontese as quickly and as heavily as possible, Beaulieu being held in check by a containing force under Masséna and Laharpe. The remainder of the army, counting in now Rusca and Sérurier, was to move westward towards Ceva. This disposition, while it illustrates the Napoleonic principle of delivering a heavy blow on the selected target and warding off interference at other points, shows also the difficulty of rightly apportioning the available means between the offensive mass and the defensive system, for, as it turned out, Beaulieu was already sufficiently scared, and thought of nothing but self-defence on the line Acqui-Ovada-Bocchetta, while the French offensive mass was very weak compared with Colli’s unbeaten and now fairly concentrated army about Ceva and Montezemolo.
On the afternoon of the 16th the real advance was begun by Augereau’s division, reinforced by other troops. Rusca joined Augereau towards evening, and Sérurier approached Ceva from the south. Colli’s object was now to spin out time, and having repulsed a weak attack by Augereau, and feeling able to repeat these tactics on each successive spur of the Apennines, he retired in the night to a new position behind the Cursaglia. On the 17th, reassured by the absence of fighting on the Dego side, and by the news that no enemy remained at Sassello, Bonaparte released Masséna from Dego, leaving only Laharpe there, and brought him over towards the right of the main body, which thus on the evening of the 17th formed a long straggling line on both sides of Ceva, Sérurier on the left, écheloned forward, Augereau, Joubert and Rusca in the centre, and Masséna, partly as support, partly as flank guard, on Augereau’s right rear. Sérurier had been bidden to extend well out and to strive to get contact with Masséna, i.e. to encircle the enemy. There was no longer any idea of waiting to besiege Ceva, although the artillery train had been ordered up from the Riviera by the “cannon-road” for eventual use there. Further, the line of supply, as an extra guarantee against interference, was changed from that of Savona-Carcare to that of Loano-Bardinetto. When this was accomplished, four clear days could be reckoned on with certainty in which to deal with Colli.
The latter, still expecting the Austrians to advance to his assistance, had established his corps (not more than 12,000 muskets in all) in the immensely strong positions of the Cursaglia, with a thin line of posts on his left stretching towards Cherasco, whence he could communicate, by a roundabout way, with Acqui. Opposite this position the long straggling line of the French arrived, after many delays due to the weariness of the troops, on the 19th.[P2:. added] A day of irregular fighting followed, everywhere to the advantage of the defenders. Napoleon, fighting against time, ordered a fresh attack on the 20th, and only desisted when it became evident that the army was exhausted, and, in particular, when Sérurier reported frankly that without bread the soldiers would not march. The delay thus imposed, however, enabled him to clear the “cannon-road” of all vehicles, and to bring up the Dego detachment to replace Masséna in the valley of the western Bormida, the latter coming in to the main army. Further, part at any rate of the convoy service was transferred still farther westward to the line Albenga-Garessio-Ceva. Nelson’s fleet, that had so powerfully contributed to force the French inland, was becoming less and less innocuous. If leadership and force of character could overcome internal friction, all the success he had hoped for was now within the young commander’s grasp.
Twenty-four thousand men, for the first time with a due proportion of cavalry and artillery, were now disposed along Colli’s front and beyond his right flank. Colli, outnumbered by two to one and threatened with envelopment, decided once more to retreat, and the Republicans occupied the Cursaglia lines on the morning of the 21st without firing a shot. But Colli halted again at Vico, half-way to Mondovi (in order, it is said, to protect the evacuation of a small magazine he had there), and while he was in this unfavourable situation the pursuers came on with true Republican swiftness, lapped round his flanks and crushed him. A few days later (27th April), the armistice of Cherasco put an end to the campaign before the Austrians moved a single battalion to his assistance.
The “Napoleon touch.”
The interest of the campaign being above all Napoleonic, its moral must be found by discovering the “Napoleon touch” that differentiated it from other Revolutionary campaigns. A great deal is common to all, on both sides. The Austrians and Sardinians worked together at least as effectively as the Austrians, Prussians, British and Dutch in the Netherlands. Revolutionary energy was common to the Army of Italy and to the Army of the North. Why, therefore, when the war dragged on from one campaign to another in the great plains of the Meuse and Rhine countries, did Napoleon bring about so swift a decision in these cramped valleys? The answer is to be found partly in the exigencies of the supply service, but still more in Napoleon’s own personality and the strategy born of it. The first, as we have seen, was at the end of its resources when Beaulieu placed himself across the Genoa road. Action of some sort was the plain alternative to starvation, and at this point Napoleon’s personality intervened. He would have no quarter-rations on the Riviera, but plenty and to spare beyond the mountains. If there were many thousand soldiers who marched unarmed and shoeless in the ranks, it was towards “the Promised Land” that he led them. He looked always to the end, and
- Vukassovich had received Beaulieu’s order to demonstrate with two battalions, and also appeals for help from Argenteau. He therefore brought most of his troops with him.