Page:EB1911 - Volume 11.djvu/211
FRENCH REVOLUTIONARY WARS
(who indeed so far from volunteering assistance, actually demanded it for himself). Convinced from the paucity of news that Masséna’s army was closely pressed and probably severed from France, and feeling also that the Austrians were deeply committed to their struggle with the Army of Italy, he told Berthier to march with 40,000 men at once by way of the St Bernard unless otherwise advised. Berthier protested that he had only 25,000 effectives, and the equipment and armament was still far from complete—as indeed it remained to the end—but the troops marched, though their very means of existence were precarious from the time of leaving Geneva to the time of reaching Milan, for nothing could extort supplies and money from the sullen Swiss.
Napoleon’s plan of campaign.
At the beginning of May the First Consul learned of the serious plight of the Army of Italy. Masséna with his right wing was shut up in Genoa, Suchet with the left wing driven back to the Var. Meanwhile Moreau had won a preliminary victory at Stokach, and the Army of Reserve had begun its movement to Geneva. With these data the plan of campaign took a clear shape at last—Masséna to resist as long as possible; Suchet to resume the offensive, if he could do so, towards Turin; the Army of Reserve to pass the Alps and to debouch into Piedmont by Aosta; the Army of the Rhine to send a strong force into Italy by the St Gothard. The First Consul left Paris on the 6th of May. Berthier went forward to Geneva, and still farther on the route magazines were established at Villeneuve and St-Pierre. Gradually, and with immense efforts, the leading troops of the long column were passed over the St Bernard, drawing their artillery on sledges, on the 15th and succeeding days. Driving away small posts of the Austrian army, the advance guard entered Aosta on the 16th and Châtillon on the 18th and the alarm was given. Melas, committed as he was to his Riviera campaign, began to look to his right rear, but he was far from suspecting the seriousness of his opponent’s purpose.
Infinitely more dangerous for the French than the small detachment that Melas opposed to them, or even the actual crossing of the pass, was the unexpected stopping power of the little fort of Bard. The advanced guard of the French appeared before it on the 19th, and after three wasted days the infantry managed to find a difficult mountain by-way and to pass round the obstacle. Ivrea was occupied on the 23rd, and Napoleon hoped to assemble the whole army there by the 27th. But except for a few guns that with infinite precautions were smuggled one by one through the streets of Bard, the whole of the artillery, as well as a detachment (under Chabran) to besiege the fort, had to be left behind. Bard surrendered on the 2nd of June, having delayed the infantry of the French army for four days and the artillery for a fortnight.
The military situation in the last week of May, as it presented itself to the First Consul at Ivrea, was this. The Army of Italy under Masséna was closely besieged in Genoa, where provisions were running short, and the population so hostile that the French general placed his field artillery to sweep the streets. But Masséna was no ordinary general, and the First Consul knew that while Masséna lived the garrison would resist to the last extremity. Suchet was defending Nice and the Var by vigorous minor operations. The Army of Reserve, the centre of which had reached at Ivrea the edge of the Italian plains, consisted of four weak army corps under Victor, Duhesme, Lannes and Murat. There were still to be added to this small army of 34,000 effectives, Turreau’s division, which had passed over the Mont Cenis and was now in the valley of the Dora Riparia, Moncey’s corps of the Army of the Rhine, which had at last been extorted from Moreau and was due to pass the St Gothard before the end of May, Chabran’s division left to besiege Bard, and a small force under Béthencourt, which was to cross the Simplon and to descend by Arona (this place proved in the event a second Bard and immobilized Béthencourt until after the decisive battle). Thus it was only the simplest part of Napoleon’s task to concentrate half of his army at Ivrea, and he had yet to bring in the rest. The problem was to reconcile the necessity for time, which he wanted to ensure the maximum force being brought over the Alps, with the necessity for haste, in view of the impending fall of Genoa and the probability that once this conquest was achieved, Melas would bring back his 100,000 men into the Milanese to deal with the Army of Reserve. As early as the 14th of May he had informed Moncey that from Ivrea the Army of Reserve would move on Milan. On the 25th of May, in response to Berthier’s request for guidance, the First Consul ordered Lannes (advanced guard) to push out on the Turin road, “in order to deceive the enemy and to obtain news of Turreau,” and Duhesme’s and Murat’s corps to proceed along the Milan road. On the 27th, after Lannes had on the 26th defeated an Austrian column near Chivasso, the main body was already advancing on Vercelli.
The march to Milan.
Very few of Napoleon’s acts of generalship have been more criticized than this resolution to march on Milan, which abandoned Genoa to its fate and gave Melas a week’s leisure to assemble his scattered forces. The account of his motives he dictated at St Helena (Nap. Correspondence, v. 30, pp. 375-377), in itself an unconvincing appeal to the rules of strategy as laid down by the theorists—which rules his own practice throughout transcended—gives, when closely examined, some at least of the necessary clues. He says in effect that by advancing directly on Turin he would have “risked a battle against equal forces without an assured line of retreat, Bard being still uncaptured.” It is indeed strange to find Napoleon shrinking before equal forces of the enemy, even if we admit without comment that it was more difficult to pass Bard the second time than the first. The only incentive to go towards Turin was the chance of partial victories over the disconnected Austrian corps that would be met in that direction, and this he deliberately set aside. Having done so, for reasons that will appear in the sequel, he could only defend it by saying in effect that he might have been defeated—which was true, but not the Napoleonic principle of war. Of the alternatives, one was to hasten to Genoa; this in Napoleon’s eyes would have been playing the enemy’s game, for they would have concentrated at Alessandria, facing west “in their natural position.” It is equally obvious that thus the enemy would have played his game, supposing that this was to relieve Genoa, and the implication is that it was not. The third course, which Napoleon took, and in this memorandum defended, gave his army the enemy’s depots at Milan, of which it unquestionably stood in sore need, and the reinforcement of Moncey’s 15,000 men from the Rhine, while at the same time Moncey’s route offered an “assured line of retreat” by the Simplon and the St Gothard. He would in fact make for himself there a “natural position” without forfeiting the advantage of being in Melas’s rear. Once possessed of Milan, Napoleon says, he could have engaged Melas with a light heart and with confidence in the greatest possible results of a victory, whether the Austrians sought to force their way back to the east by the right or the left bank of the Po, and he adds that if the French passed on and concentrated south of the Po there would be no danger to the Milan-St Gothard line of retreat, as this was secured by the rivers Ticino and Sesia. In this last, as we shall see, he is shielding an undeniable mistake, but considering for the moment only the movement to Milan, we are justified in assuming that his object was not the relief of Genoa, but the most thorough defeat of Melas’s field army, to which end, putting all sentiment aside, he treated the hard-pressed Masséna as a “containing force” to keep Melas occupied during the strategical deployment of the Army of Reserve. In the beginning he had told Masséna that he would “disengage” him, even if he had to go as far east as Trent to find a way into Italy. From the first, then, no direct relief was intended, and when, on hearing bad news from the Riviera, he altered his route to the more westerly passes, it was probably because he felt that Masséna’s containing power was almost exhausted, and that the passage and reassembly of the Reserve Army must be brought about in the minimum time and by the shortest way. But the object was still the defeat of Melas, and for this, as the Austrians possessed an enormous numerical superiority, the assembly of all forces, including Moncey’s, was indispensable. One essential condition of this was that the points of passage used should be out of reach of the enemy. The more westerly the passes chosen, the more dangerous was the whole operation—in fact the Mont Cenis column never reached him at all—and though his expressed objections to the St Bernard line seem, as we have said, to be written after the event, to disarm his critics, there is no doubt that at the time he disliked it. It was a pis aller forced upon him by Moreau’s delay and Masséna’s extremity, and from the moment at which he arrived at Milan he did, as a fact, abandon it altogether in favour of the St Gothard. Lastly, so strongly was he impressed with the necessity of completing the deployment of all his forces, that though he found the Austrians on the Turin side much scattered and could justifiably expect a series of rapid
- Only one division of the main body used the Little St Bernard.
- When he made his decision he was unaware that Béthencourt had been held up at Arona.