cannot condemn the Vienna authorities unless it be first proved that they grossly exaggerated the possible results of Bonaparte’s threatened irruption. And if their capacity for judging the political situation be admitted, it naturally follows that their object was to preserve Mantua at all costs—which object Wurmser, though invariably defeated in action, did in fact accomplish.
When Masséna entered Trent on the morning of the 5th of September, Napoleon became aware that the force in his front was a mere detachment, and news soon came in that Wurmser was in the Val Sugana about Primolano and at Bassano. This move he supposed to be intended to cover Trieste, being influenced by his own hopes of advancing in that direction, and underestimating the importance, to the Austrians, of preserving Mantua. He therefore informed the Directory that he could not proceed with the Tirol scheme, and spent one more day in driving Davidovich well away from Trent. Then, leaving Vaubois to watch him, Napoleon marched Augereau and Masséna, with a rapidity he scarcely ever surpassed, into the Val Sugana. Wurmser’s rearguard was attacked and defeated again and again, and Wurmser himself felt compelled to stand and fight, in the hope of checking the pursuit before going forward into the plains. Half his army had already reached Montebello on the Verona road, and with the rear half he posted himself at Bassano, where on the 8th he was attacked and defeated with heavy losses. Then began a strategic pursuit or general chase, and in this the mobility of the French should have finished the work so well begun by their tactics.
But Napoleon directed the pursuers so as to cut off Wurmser from Trieste, not from Mantua. Masséna followed up the Austrians to Vicenza, while Augereau hurried towards Padua, and it was not until late on the 9th that Bonaparte realized that his opponent was heading for Mantua via Legnago. On the 10th Masséna crossed the Adige at Ronco, while Augereau from Padua reached Montagnara. Sahuguet from Mantua and Kilmaine from Verona joined forces at Castellaro on the 11th, with orders to interpose between Wurmser and the fortress. Wurmser meantime had halted for a day at Legnago, to restore order, and had then resumed his march. It was almost too late, for in the evening, after having to push aside the head of Masséna’s column at Cerea, he had only reached Nogara, some miles short of Castellaro, and close upon his rear was Augereau, who reached Legnago that night. On the 12th, eluding Sahuguet by a detour to the southward, he reached Mantua, with all the columns of the French, weary as most of them were, in hot pursuit. After an attempt to keep the open field, defeated in a general action on the 15th, the relieving force was merged in the garrison, now some 28,000 in all. So ended the episode of Bassano, the most brilliant feature of which as usual was the marching power of the French infantry. This time it sufficed to redeem even strategical misconceptions and misdirections. Between the 5th and the 11th, besides fighting three actions, Masséna had marched 100 m. and Augereau 114.
Feldzeugmeister Alvintzi was now appointed to command a new army of relief. This time the mere distribution of the troops imposed a concentric advance of separate columns, for practically the whole of the fresh forces available were in Carniola, the Military Frontier, &c., while Davidovich was still in Tirol. Alvintzi’s intention was to assemble his new army (29,000) in Friuli, and to move on Bassano, which was to be occupied on the 4th of November. Meantime Davidovich (18,000) was to capture Trent, and the two columns were to connect by the Val Sugana. All being well, Alvintzi and Davidovich, still separate, were then to converge on the Adige between Verona and Legnago. Wurmser was to co-operate by vigorous sorties. At this time Napoleon’s protective system was as follows: Kilmaine (9000) investing Mantua, Vaubois (10,000) at Trent, and Masséna (9000) at Bassano and Treviso, Augereau (9000) and Macquard (3000) at Verona and Villafranca constituting, for the first time in these operations, important mobile reserves. Hearing of Alvintzi’s approach in good time, he meant first to drive back Davidovich, then with Augereau, Masséna, Macquard and 3000 of Vaubois’s force to fall upon Alvintzi, who, he calculated, would at this stage have reached Bassano, and finally to send back a large force through the Val Sugana to attack Davidovich. This plan practically failed.
Instead of advancing, Vaubois was driven steadily backward. By the 6th, Davidovich had fought his way almost to Roveredo, and Alvintzi had reached Bassano and was there successfully repelling the attacks of Masséna and Augereau. That night Napoleon drew back to Vicenza. On the 7th Davidovich drove in Vaubois to Corona and Rivoli, and Alvintzi came within 5 m. of Vicenza. Napoleon watched carefully for an opportunity to strike out, and on the 8th massed his troops closely around the central point of Verona. On the 9th, to give himself air, he ordered Masséna to join Vaubois, and to drive back Davidovich at all costs. But before this order was executed, reports came in to the effect that Davidovich had suspended his advance. The 10th and 11th were spent by both sides in relative inaction, the French waiting on events and opportunities, the Austrians resting after their prolonged exertions. Then, on the afternoon of the 11th, being informed that Alvintzi was approaching, Napoleon decided to attack him. On the 12th the advanced guard of Alvintzi’s army was furiously assailed in the position of Caldiero. But the troops in rear came up rapidly, and by 4 P.M. the French were defeated all along the line and in retreat on Verona. Napoleon’s situation was now indeed precarious. He was on “interior lines,” it is true, but he had neither the force nor the space necessary for the delivery of rapid radial blows. Alvintzi was in superior numbers, as the battle of Caldiero had proved, and at any moment Davidovich, who had twice Vaubois’s force, might advance to the attack of Rivoli. The reserves had proved insufficient, and Kilmaine had to be called up from Mantua, which was thus for the third time freed from the blockaders. Again the alternatives were retreat, in whatever order was possible to Republican armies, and beating the nearest enemy at any sacrifice. Napoleon chose the latter, though it was not until the evening of the 14th that he actually issued the fateful order.
The Austrians, too, had selected the 15th as the date of their final advance on Verona, Davidovich from the north, Alvintzi via Zevio from the south. But Napoleon was no longer there; leaving Vaubois to hold Davidovich as best he might, and posting only 3000 men in Verona, he had collected the rest of his small army between Albaro and Ronco. His plan seems to have been to cross the Adige well in rear of the Austrians, to march north on to the Verona-Vicenza highway, and there, supplying himself from their convoys, to fight to the last. On the 15th he had written to the Directory, “The weakness and the exhaustion of the army causes me to fear the worst. We are perhaps on the eve of losing Italy.” In this extremity of danger the troops passed the Adige in three columns near Ronco and Albaredo, and marched forward along the dikes, with deep marshes and pools on either hand. If Napoleon’s intention was to reach the dry open ground of S. Bonifacio in rear of the Austrians, it was not realized, for the Austrian army, instead of being at the gates of Verona, was still between Caldiero and S. Bonifacio, heading, as we know, for Zevio. Thus Alvintzi was able, easily and swiftly, to wheel to the south.
The battle of Arcola almost defies description. The first day passed in a series of resultless encounters between the heads of the columns as they met on the dikes. In the evening Bonaparte withdrew over the Adige, expecting at every moment to be summoned to Vaubois’s aid. But Davidovich remained inactive, and on the 16th the French again crossed the river. Masséna from Ronco advanced on Porcile, driving the Austrians along the causeway thither, but on the side of Arcola, Alvintzi had deployed a considerable part of his forces on the edge of the marshes, within musket shot of the causeway by which Bonaparte and Augereau had to pass, along the Austrian front, to reach the bridge of Arcola. In these circumstances the second day’s battle was more murderous and no more decisive than the first, and again the French retreated to Ronco. But Davidovich again stood still, and with incredible obstinacy Bonaparte ordered a third assault for the 17th, using