Battle of Marengo
|French Republic||Habsburg Monarchy|
|Commanders and leaders|
Louis Desaix †
|Michael von Melas|
|23,000 rising to 28,000|
15 guns rising to 24 guns
|Casualties and losses|
900 missing or captured
15 guns captured
40 colours captured
The Battle of Marengo was fought on 14 June 1800 between French forces under Napoleon Bonaparte and Austrian forces near the city of Alessandria, in Piedmont, Italy. The French overcame Austrian General Michael von Melas's surprise attack near the end of the day, driving the Austrians out of Italy, and enhancing Napoleon's political position in Paris as First Consul of France in the wake of his coup d’état the previous November.
Surprised by the Austrian advance toward Genoa in mid-April 1800, Bonaparte had hastily led his army over the Alps in mid-May and reached Milan on 2 June. After cutting Melas’s line of communications by crossing the river Po and defeating Feldmarschallleutnant (FML) Peter Karl Ott von Bátorkéz at Montebello on 9 June, the French closed in on the Austrian army, which had massed in Alessandria. Deceived by a local double agent, Bonaparte dispatched large forces to the north and south, but the Austrians launched a surprise attack on 14 June against the main French army under General Louis Alexandre Berthier.
Initially, their two assaults across the Fontanone stream near Marengo village were repelled, and General Jean Lannes reinforced the French right. Bonaparte realised the true position and issued orders at 11:00 am to recall the detachment under Général de Division (GdD) Louis Desaix, while moving his reserve forward. On the Austrian left, Ott’s column had taken Castel Ceriolo, and its advance guard moved south to attack Lannes’s flank. Melas renewed the main assault and the Austrians broke the central French position. By 2:30 pm the French were withdrawing and Austrian dragoons seized the Marengo farm. Bonaparte had by then arrived with the reserve, but Berthier’s troops began to fall back on the main vine belts. Knowing Desaix was approaching, Bonaparte was anxious about a column of Ott’s soldiers marching from the north, so he deployed his Consular Guard infantry to delay it. The French then withdrew steadily eastward toward San Giuliano Vecchio as the Austrians formed a column to follow them in line with Ott’s advance in the northern sector.
Desaix’s arrival around 5:30 pm stabilised the French position as the 9ème Légère (9th Light Infantry) delayed the Austrian advance down the main road and the rest of the army re-formed north of Cascina Grossa. As the pursuing Austrian troops arrived, a mix of musketry and artillery fire concealed the surprise attack of Général de Brigade (GdB) François Étienne de Kellermann’s cavalry, which threw the Austrian pursuit into disordered flight back into Alessandria, having lost about 9,400 killed, wounded, or captured. The French casualties were considerably fewer, but included Desaix. The whole French line chased after them to seal une victoire politique (a political victory) that secured Bonaparte’s grip on power after the coup. It would be followed by a propaganda campaign, which sought to rewrite the battle three times during Napoleon’s rule.
|Torre Garofoli, Napoleon's headquarters before the battle|
The Battle of Marengo was the victory that sealed the success of Napoleon's Italian campaign of 1800 and is best understood in the context of that campaign. By a daring crossing of the Alps with his Army of the Reserve (officially commanded by Louis Alexandre Berthier) in mid-May 1800 almost before the passes were open, Napoleon (who crossed on a mule) had threatened Melas's lines of communications in northern Italy. The French army then seizedMilan on 2 June, followed by Pavia, Piacenza and Stradella, Lombardy, cutting the main Austrian supply route eastward along the south bank of the Po river. Napoleon hoped that Melas's preoccupation with the Siege of Genoa, held by General André Masséna, would prevent the Austrians from responding to his offensive. However, Genoa surrendered on June 4, freeing a large number of Austrians for operations against the French.
On 9 June, General Jean Lannes beat Feldmarschallleutnant Peter Ott in the Battle of Montebello. This caused Napoleon to become overconfident. He became convinced that Melas would not attack, and further, that the Austrian was about to retreat. As other French forces closed from the west and south, the Austrian commander had withdrawn most of his troops from their positions near Niceand Genoa to Alessandria on the main Turin-Mantua road.
|My new "Marengo" painting by Keith Rocco|
|Initial table set up with my new TSS 1' x 1' square terrain prior to the game. (Overall table size was 9' x 5')|
|Ibid from the South! Can you guess where Marengo is?|
|And from the North!|
|As I was distracted with setup I forgot to take initial pictures for setup. This is after Austrian moves on turn 1. The Austrian's attack Murat's light cavalry on the Right flank.|
|And come on en masse!|
|Lanne's VI Corps in the center!|
|Desaix's reserves will come on piecemeal throughout the scenario!|
|My tactic was to delay at Marengo as long as possible! So I seized the village prepared to attack across the bridge and hoped Murat's cavalry would help pressure the Austrians who had a mass of cavalry as well.|
|Being unfamiliar with the VP's my opponent goes straight for easy pickings with his cavalry on the Left flank.|
|The objective being the village by the end of the bridge.|
|Hopefully Lanne's can move up to support Victor's Corps?|
|The Austrians attack on Murat fails miserably. For once I had good dice rolls all game. The infantry is routed, the cavalry bounces back and the arty guns are left exposed. Murat takes a casualty for winning the combat.|
|My forces in the center hang on quite well also as we exchange blows along the line. I had assumed the Austrian guns would have taken me out?|
|On the French turn Murat goes for the guns and destroys them!|
|While Victor holds!|
|Lanne's moves up in support along with Napoleon and the Arty reserve way back on the road.|
|After going for the guns Murat is going to go for the cav as well.|
|There's not much I can do about this objective yet!|
|A view from the rear.|
|And of the Arty reserve (Heavy guns)!|
|On turn two the Austrians press on flanking Marengo!|
|And bringing in more troops.|
|Murat had to rout after losing a stand. Hopefully he'll recover?|
|Hurry up Napoleon and the reserves.|
|The combat along the line heats up! Several units become disorderd on both sides, but Victor holds unlike historically.|
|Murat rallies in time and my lucky red dice.|
|A view from the Austrian side as Lanne's comes up and I move Murat's heavy cav to support my (rear) flank by Marengo.|
|By turn 3 or 4 the Austrians take Marengo and pressure my center and Right flanks! I order Victor to fight a delayed withdrawal for time.|
|A closer pic of the action!|
|Murat fled the Left flank (light cav) and secures my middle with the (heavy cav). Best move I make as the heavies will roll nothing but ten's for the rest of the day.|
|By turn 6 Desaix's reserves have come on (center rear) and Murat has attacked the flanking Austrian cav and inf to the rear of Marengo. The Austrian cav retreat and the inf fail to form square. Murat does what he does best!|
The Austrian troops advanced from Alessandria eastwards across the Bormida river by two bridges debouching in a narrow bend of the river (the river being not easily crossed elsewhere). Poor Austrian staff work prevented any rapid development of their attack and the entire army had to file through a narrow bridgehead. The movement began about 6 am with the first shots fired around 8 am, but the attack was not fully developed until 9 am.
The 1,200-man Austrian advance guard, under Colonel (Oberst) Johann Maria Philipp Frimont and a division of 3,300 men under FML O'Reilly, pushed the French outposts back and deployed to become the Austrian right wing, driving the enemy from Pedrabona farm, then heading south to tackle the French at La Stortiglione farm. The Austrian center (about 18,000 under Melas) advanced towards Marengo until halted by GdD Gardanne's French infantry deployed in front of the Fontanone stream. On the Austrian left, 7,500 men under FML Peter Ott waited for the road to clear before heading for the village of Castel Ceriolo well to the north of the French positions. This move threatened either an envelopment of the French right, or a further advance to cut the French line of communication with Milan.
Gardanne's men gave a good account of themselves, holding up the Austrian deployment for a considerable time. When Gardanne's division was exhausted, Victor pulled it back behind the Fontanone and committed his second division under GdD Chambarlhac (this officer soon lost his nerve and fled). The French held Marengo village and the line of the Fontanone until about noon, with both flanks in the air. First, at 8 am, Melas hurled FML Karl Joseph Hadik von Futak's division (four battalions) at Victor's defences, supported by Frimont’s advance guard battery along the stream. Forced into a funnel by the bad ground and Fontanone stream, Hadik’s attack came under fire from two sides and failed, with Hadik being killed. The Austrian commander then committed FMLKonrad Valentin von Kaim's division but this attack was also thwarted by 11 am. Finally, as the French position was reinforced by François Étienne de Kellermann's cavalry and Jean Lannes's formation was on the way, FML Ferdinand Johann von Morzin's elite grenadier division was sent in to attack Marengo village. Melas also committed a serious tactical blunder, detachingGeneralmajor (GM) Nimptsch's brigade of 2,300 hussars and two artillery batteries back over the Bormida bridge to block the corps of General Louis Gabriel Suchet, which was mistakenly reported around 9 am from Acqui Terme to be approaching Alessandria from the south. Besides delaying the crossing of the Austrian left wing, this also meant that, being 30 kilometers away, Nimptsch's brigade would play no part in the battle.
Stalemate in the center around Marengo
It took Bonaparte (5 kilometers away from Marengo) until about 10 am to recognize that the Austrian activity was not a diversionary attack to cover the anticipated retreat by Melas. His subordinates had brought their troops up in support of Victor's corps. Lannes's corps had deployed on the crucial right flank. GM Friedrich Joseph Anton von Bellegarde’s part of Kaim’s division had crossed the Fontanone north of Marengo and occupied La Barbotta farm. Lannes directed Watrin’s infantry to drive Bellegarde back. They briefly crossed the Fontanone before Austrian reserve guns drove the French back. Kellermann's heavy cavalry brigade and the 8th Dragoons took up a covering position on the left, smashing an attempt by GM Giovanni Pilatti's light dragoon brigade which attempted to cross the steep-sided Fontanone at its southern end to envelop Victor's flank. On the right, GdB Pierre Champeaux was killed trying to stop the progress of Ott's column. A small part of the 6ème Légère (6th Light Infantry) occupied Castel Ceriolo to the north, but soon Ott's lead units took it around 11:30 am and began putting pressure on the French right flank. Ott could not see any sign of the expected main French advance from Sale (to the northeast), so he sent GM Friedrich Heinrich von Gottesheim’s reinforced advance guard to outflank Lannes north of Marengo. By 11 am Bonaparte was on the battlefield. He sent urgent recalls to his recently detached forces and summoned up his last reserves. As they came up, GdD Jean-Charles Monnier's division and the Consular Guard were committed to extend and shore up the French right, rather than to try to hold Marengo where Victor's men were running short of ammunition.
However, Desaix, in charge of the force Bonaparte had detached southwards, had hastened his advance and reached a small road junction north of Cascina Grossa (3 kilometers west of San Giuliano). Shortly before 5:00 pm, he reported to Bonaparte in person with the news that his force (6,000 men and 9 guns of Boudet's division) was not far behind. The story goes that, asked by Bonaparte what he thought of the situation, Desaix replied: "This battle is completely lost. However, there is time to win another."
The French were fast to bring up and deploy the fresh troops in front of San Giuliano, and the Austrians were slow to mount their attack. Boudet and the 9ème Légère were quickly moved on to the exit from the main vine belt, where they surprised the head of Saint-Julien’s column. As the Austrian infantry deployed on the south side of the road, the 9ème Légère conducted a steady withdrawal for 30 minutes back to Desaix’s position. There he had placed GdB Louis Charles de Guénand’s brigade on the north side while most of the remaining French army (Monnier and Lannes) were forming up north from there. The Austrians deployed three artillery batteries on the north side of the road supported by a dragoon regiment. GdB Auguste de Marmont massed the remaining French cannon against the Austrians as they advanced. Boudet's division advanced in line of brigades against the head of the Austrian column, defeating Saint-Julien's leading Austrian brigade. Zach brought forward GM Latterman's grenadier brigade in line and renewed the attack. Faced with a crisis, Napoleon sent Desaix forward again and ordered a cavalry charge requested by Desaix. The 9ème Légère halted to face the main Austrian advance and Marmont's guns blasted the Austrians with grapeshot at close range. Further back, an Austrian ammunition limber exploded. In the temporary heightening of confusion, Lattermann's formation was charged on its left flank by Kellermann's heavy cavalry (ca. 400 men) and disintegrated. At the decisive moment of the battle, Desaix was shot from his horse. Zach and at least 2,000 of his men were taken prisoners.
Murat and Kellermann immediately pounced on the supporting Liechtenstein Dragoons who were too slow to respond and routed them as well. The fleeing Austrian horsemen crashed into the ranks of Pilatti's rattled troopers and carried them away. As the mob of terrified cavalry stampeded past them, the exhausted Austrian infantry of the main body lost heart, provoking a wild rush to the rear. The gun teams fled, pursued by French cavalry, while their whole infantry line advanced westward. The second grenadier brigade under GM Karl Philippi von Weidenfeld and some unpanicked cavalry delayed Boudet’s advance long enough for O’Reilly’s cavalry to return, and together with Frimont, they mounted a last defence around Marengo village as night fell, allowing the Austrian center to reach safety behind the Bormida. Ott with the Austrian left failed to intervene and found his retreat through Castel Ceriolo blocked by French troops advancing northwest from the center, but managed to fight his way back to the Bormida bridgehead.
The Austrians fell back into Alessandria, having lost about half the forces they had committed. The Austrians had lost heavily in the 12 hours of fighting: 15 colours, 40 guns, almost 8,000 taken prisoner, and 6,500 dead or wounded. French casualties (killed and wounded) were on the order of 4,700 and 900 missing or captured, but they retained the battlefield and the strategic initiative. Desaix's body was found among the slain.