Page:EB1911 - Volume 11.djvu/213
FRENCH REVOLUTIONARY WARS
Napoleon’s disposition.connexion, and the construction of a third point of passage midway between the other two, the principal objects of the day’s work. The army now being disseminated between the Alps, the Apennines, the Ticino and the Chiese, it was of vital importance to connect up the various parts into a well-balanced system. But the Napoleon of 1800 solved the problem that lay at the root of his strategy, “concentrate, but be vulnerable nowhere,” in a way that compares unfavourably indeed with the methods of the Napoleon of 1806. Duhesme was still absent at Cremona. Lechi was far away in the Brescia country, Béthencourt detained at Arona. Moncey with about 15,000 men had to cover an area of 40 m. square around Milan, which constituted the original zone of manœuvre, and if Melas chose to break through the flimsy cordon of outposts on this side (the risk of which was the motive for detaching Moncey at all) instead of at the Stradella, it would take Moncey two days to concentrate his force on any battlefield within the area named, and even then he would be outnumbered by two to one. As for the main body at the Stradella, its position was wisely chosen, for the ground was too cramped for the deployment of the superior force that Melas might bring up, but the strategy that set before itself as an object 20,000 men at the decisive point out of 50,000 available, is, to say the least, imperfect. The most serious feature in all this was the injudicious order to Lannes to send forward his advanced guard, and to attack whatever enemy he met with on the road to Voghera. The First Consul, in fact, calculated that Melas could not assemble 20,000 men at Alessandria before the 12th of June, and he told Lannes that if he met the Austrians towards Voghera, they could not be more than 10,000 strong. A later order betrays some anxiety as to the exactitude of these assumptions, warns Lannes not to let himself be surprised, indicates his line of retreat, and, instead of ordering him to advance on Voghera, authorizes him to attack any corps that presented itself at Stradella. But all this came too late. Acting on the earlier order Lannes fought the battle of Montebello on the 9th. ThisMontebello. was a very severe running fight, beginning east of Casteggio and ending at Montebello, in which the French drove the Austrians from several successive positions, and which culminated in a savage fight at close quarters about Montebello itself. The singular feature of the battle is the disproportion between the losses on either side—French, 500 out of 12,000 engaged; Austrians, 2100 killed and wounded and 2100 prisoners out of 14,000. These figures are most conclusive evidence of the intensity of the French military spirit in those days. One of the two divisions (Watrin’s) was indeed a veteran organization, but the other, Chambarlhac’s, was formed of young troops and was the same that, in the march to Dijon, had congratulated itself that only 5% of its men had deserted. On the other side the soldiers fought for “the honour of their arms”—not even with the courage of despair, for they were ignorant of the “strategic barrage” set in front of them by Napoleon, and the loss of their communications had not as yet lessened their daily rations by an ounce.
Meanwhile, Napoleon had issued orders for the main body to stand fast, and for the detachments to take up their definitive covering positions. Duhesme’s corps was directed, from its eastern foray, to Piacenza, to join the main body. Moncey was to provide for the defence of the Ticino line, Lechi to form a “flying camp” in the region of Orzinovi-Brescia and Cremona, and another mixed brigade was to control the Austrians in Pizzighetone and in the citadel of Piacenza. On the other side of the Po, between Piacenza and Montebello, was the main body (Lannes, Murat and part of Victor’s and Duhesme’s corps), and a flank guard was stationed near Pavia, with orders to keep on the right of the army as it advanced (this is the first and only hint of any intention to go westward) and to fall back fighting should Melas come on by the left bank. One division was to be always a day’s march behind the army on the right bank, and a flotilla was to ascend the Po, to facilitate the speedy reinforcement of the flank guard. Farther to the north was a small column on the road Milan-Vercelli. All the protective troops, except the division of the main body detailed as an eventual support for the flank guard, was to be found by Moncey’s corps (which had besides to watch the Austrians in the citadel of Milan) and Chabran’s and Lechi’s weak commands. On this same day Bonaparte tells the Minister of War, Carnot, that Moncey has only brought half the expected reinforcements and that half of these are unreliable. As to the result of the impending contest Napoleon counts greatly upon the union of 18,000 men under Masséna and Suchet to crush Melas against the “strategic barrage” of the Army of Reserve, by one or other bank of the Po, and he seems equally confident of the result in either case. If Genoa had held out three days more, he says, it would have been easy to count the number of Melas’s men who escaped. The exact significance of this last notion is difficult to establish, and all that could be written about it would be merely conjectural. But it is interesting to note that, without admitting it, Napoleon felt that his “barrage” might not stand before the flood. The details of the orders of the 9th to the main body (written before the news of Montebello arrived at headquarters) tend to the closest possible concentration of the main body towards Casteggio, in view of a decisive battle on the 12th or 13th.
But another idea had begun to form itself in his mind. Still believing that Melas would attack him on the Stradella side, and hastening his preparations to meet this, he began to allow for the contingency of Melas giving up or failing in his attempt to re-establish his communication with the Mantovese, and retiring on Genoa, which was now in his hands and could be provisioned and reinforced by sea. On the 10th Napoleon ordered reserve ammunition to be sent from Pavia, giving Serravalle, which is south of Novi, as its probable destination. But this was surmise, and of the facts he knew nothing. Would the enemy move east on the Stradella, north-east on the Ticino or south on Genoa? Such reports as were available indicated no important movements whatever, which happened to be true, but could hardly appear so to the French headquarters. On the 11th, though he thereby forfeited the reinforcements coming up from Duhesme’s corps at Cremona, Napoleon ordered the main body to advance to the Scrivia. Lapoype’s division (the right flank guard), which was observing the Austrian posts towards Casale, was called to the south bank of the Po, the zone around Milan was stripped so bare of troops that there was no escort for the prisoners taken at Montebello, while information sent by Chabran (now moving up from Ivrea) as to the construction of bridges at Casale (this was a feint made by Melas on the 10th) passed unheeded. The crisis was at hand, and, clutching at the reports collected by Lapoype as to the quietude of the Austrians toward Valenza and Casale, Bonaparte and Berthier strained every nerve to bring up more men to the