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Napoleon: The Italian Campaign- Napoleon's First War

Napoleon's Entry into Italy


The New Commander in Chief

Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte

First Impressions

26 year old Napoleon Bonaparte, the newly appointed commander of the French Army in Italy arrived at his headquarters in Nice, France to meet the three generals responsible for licking his new army into shape. It was safe to say, that none of Bonaparte’s generals were particularly enthralled at the prospect of meeting their new superior. The three generals- Andre Massena, Jean Serurier and Pierre Augereau had all risen through the ranks, earning their place via acts of heroism in war; in fact Massena was regarded as the one of the most talented commanders in the army. Whereas Bonaparte had gained his rank through firing cannons at the Parisian mob in order to save the fledgling Revolutionary government. The general impression of Bonaparte was that he was no more than a political upstart. His new bride Josephine had previously been mistress of Paul Barras, a highly influential member of France’s Directory (government).

The three Generals were older and more experienced than Bonaparte, and found it hard to contain their amusement as he proudly showed off a portrait of his new wife. At first glance, one contemporary remarked that he resembled a mathematician rather than a general. However, it did not take long for the little man from Corsica to impose himself, through his presence, dignity, precision and knowledge. The generals were so impressed by this first encounter, that they were all convinced that, at last they had a ‘real captain’. Years later, Andre Massena would observe that as soon as soon as he put his general’s hat on, he seemed to grow two feet taller. He questioned each man about the position of their divisions, their equipment, their morale and how effective each could be. He then proceeded to trace out the course they were to follow, once settled, he announced that he would carry out a personal inspection to assess the fitness of his army, the day after that, the attack would begin.

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A Gang of Thugs

The Army of Italy, now under the command of a little Corsican general were a ragged, disillusioned lot, mostly grumbling about the fact that they hadn’t been paid for weeks, as well as being short on rations and other supplies. The total number of men under Bonaparte’s command was around 63,000, but only 37,600 were available to him. The rest, were sidelined by garrison duty or sickness. However, despite the melancholy that surrounded them, what the army did have was experience, many had served in the old Royal army, the rest were volunteers drawn from several southern French provinces, joining the army in 1792. In fact, just before his arrival, a battalion of the 209th Demibrigade had mutinied, proclaiming in rather simple terms, ‘Money or no soldiers,’ they refused to budge another inch until those demands were met.

Fortunately, French Commissary, Cristoforo Saliceti was able to secure a loan of seven million livres from a Genoese bank to purchase food, around 600 Mules and about five months worth of wheat. A very relieved General Massena was able to pay his men and clothe them properly for the first time in months. The food and clothes were enough to appease the men for now, but when Bonaparte did arrive, it soon became clear that he hadn’t inherited a proper army, but rather a gang of thugs that were forced to live off the locals. Discipline was virtually nonexistent, and often the officers were as drunk as the soldiers.

On the 31st March, two days before the army was due to leave France for their grand march into Italy. Bonaparte addressed his men on the Plate de la Republique in Nice. He told them that, although they had nothing, the territory they were about to enter was rich and could provide them with everything they ever wanted. Later, this declaration would be reworked into a rather famous Italian proclamation: ‘Soldiers! You are hungry and naked. The government owes you much; it can give you nothing. Your patience, the courage you have shown among these rocks are admirable; but they bring you no glory, no brilliant feats reflect upon you. I want to lead you into the most fertile plains on Earth. Rich provinces, great towns will be in your power; there you will find honour, glory and riches’.

Italy in 1796


The War Starts

On this particular occasion, the nations opposing the French were Austria and Piedmont, a province of northern Italy surrounding the city of Turin. For centuries, Italy had been a divided country, split into a number of different independent regions. Piedmont, at that time actually came under the rule of the King of Sardinia, and would remain so until 1861, the year the regions unified and became modern Italy. Napoleon’s Austrian counterpart was an elderly man called Jean Pierre Beaulieu, a strange name for an Austrian. However, there is a perfectly reasonable explanation; Beaulieu was born in an Austrian province called the Austrian Netherlands, today this area is known as the Netherlands and Belgium. In reality, he was Belgian, and was very likely a very good French speaker. He commanded an army of 19,500 men stationed north of Genoa at a place called Alessandria. The other Austrian army consisted of 11,500 men under the command of General Eugen Graf von Argenteau, stationed along a line of outposts stretching from Carcare to Genoa. The Piedmontese compliment consisted of 20,000 men under the command of General Colli; they were stretched out in a line running from Ceva to Cosseria. In turn they were bolstered by a detachment of Austrians. On paper, this coalition army looked formidable and impossible to break through. But the dogged Napoleon began to formulate a plan which involved keeping the Austrians and Piedmontese apart; he was ready to take the war to them.

Right from the get go; Napoleon’s objective was to knock the Piedmontese out of the war. He meticulously studied the maps and correctly deduced that the town of Carcare was a chink in the Austrian/Piedmont chain. By concentrating his attack on the weak link, he could split the coalition up and thus enjoy numerical superiority over the isolated foes. He ordered Massena and Augereau to strike at Carcare, but in order to ensure a successful attack, he ordered Serurier to create a diversion around Ormea, so as to divert Colli’s attention. Meanwhile, other French forces would attack Cuneo; another division would attack Sasello before joining up with another division at Voltri.

Napoleon had hoped to get things underway on the 15th April, but his plans were scuppered five days earlier, by virtue of the Austrians deciding to strike first, attacking an isolated French Brigade at Voltri. However, the ageing Beaulieu made a costly blunder, because by attacking first, he had revealed his position, and also revealed that he was incapable of calling for aid from either Argenteau or Colli due to distance. However, despite the initial surprise, the French Brigade were able to complete a successful retreat in the wake of a huge Austrian force. The offensive soon fizzled out.

Despite having his original plans wrecked, Bonaparte elected to ignore the Austrian attack, and instead focused his attention on Argenteau’s force, victory against them, would give the French all the freedom in the world to move against the Piedmontese.

Fight to the Last Man

A scene from the Battle of Montenotte

A scene from the Battle of Montenotte

One of the Most Talented Commanders in the Army

Andre Massena

Andre Massena

The Battle of Montenotte

As dawn broke on the 12th April 1796, the French artillery gunners awoke to a foggy landscape, surrounding the tiny hamlet of Montenotte. Fortunately for them, the fog wasn’t too dense, and was clear within an hour of sunrise. The cannons began pounding the area of the Austrian encampment, from their position, another hamlet called Monte Negino. Argenteau, the Austrian commander quickly realised that he was dealing with a much larger French force than previously anticipated, thus whatever confidence he had, quickly eroded.

Andre Massena quickly observed that the Austrian right flank seemed to show weaknesses worth exploiting, so launched his men to swamp the enemy. Argenteau realised the danger and rode over to relieve the beleaguered right flank with a battalion. Meanwhile, two battalions under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Nesslinger were deployed to make sure the centre held firm, and two more battalions were assigned to strengthen the left flank stationed at Monte Pra. Massena succeeded in smashing through the Austrians defending the right flank, while another French force was able to break the Austrian resistance at Monte Pra, but only after encountering a dogged and stubborn defence from the Austrians. Argenteau realised the hopelessness and ordered a general retreat, with his own battalion providing a courageous rear guard action in order to minimise casualties. The Austrians did manage to fight their way out and make it to Dego, but lost many men, in fact by the time they reached Dego, he only 700 men left, the Austrians also lost their colours, an extremely humiliating thing to happen, as they would no doubt be put on display in Paris. The timing of the Austrian escape was impeccable, barely minutes later; a torrent of blue coated Frenchmen swamped Montenotte. By 9:30am the battle was over; the French combed the battlefield, swiping enemy muskets for their own use and anything else they could find. The battle of Montenotte marked Napoleon’s first victory as a commander, but the war was far from over, the Austrians had been bloodied, but they weren’t prepared to give up yet, they still had strong forces waiting for Napoleon at Dego and Millesimo, that’s where he would strike next...

More to follow:


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Boycott-Brown, Martin,The Road to Rivoli,Cassell & Co, 2001

Dwyer, P, Napoleon- The Path to Power 1769-1799, Bloomsbury Books, 2008

Fiebeger, G. J,The Campaigns of Napoleon Bonaparte of 1796–1797, US Military Academy Printing Office, 1911

Foreman, L & Phillips, E, Napoleon’s Lost Fleet, Discovery Books, 1999

Grant, R.G, Battle, Dorling Kindersley, 2010

Rothenberg, Gunther, The Napoleonic Wars, Cassell, 1999

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on January 27, 2013:

Thank you lions44, glad to be of service. It does seem strange that the Italian Campaign doesn't receive more attention because it was his stunning victory there, that really alerted Europe as to how truly dangerous he was.

CJ Kelly from the PNW on January 27, 2013:

I can safely say I learned something today by reading your article. We always hear about Austerlitz and Waterloo, but his Italian campaign is rarely discussed. Good job.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on February 20, 2012:

Cheers scarytaff. I really appreciate your comment.

Derek James from South Wales on February 20, 2012:

Very well researched JK. A pleasure to read it.

James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on February 19, 2012:

Thanks Christopher, one of my favourite eras in history was the Napoleonic era, so it was a pleasure to write. I'm glad you liked it.

Christopher Antony Meade from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom on February 18, 2012:

Very interesting. I like the comprehensive way you deal with the history. Nothing is left out.

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