14 June 1800

A portrait by the French painter Jean Antoine Gros (1771-1835) shows a mounted Napoleon Bonaparte with his troops after the Battle of Marengo on 14 June 1800. Although defeat loomed, French reinforcements arrived just as Napoleon was losing hope.

One of the most famous portraits of Napoleon Bonaparte has him mounted on a rearing white horse crossing high in the Alps on his way to a stunning victory over the Austrians at the north Italian town of Marengo in the Po Valley. In reality, he made the journey partly on foot, partly on a more reliable mule, and the triumph at Marengo was so close to turning into a battlefield disaster that the later legend which surrounded it required judicious amendment of many of the facts. The real hero that humid day in Italy was Lieutenant General Louis Desaix, who managed to get his tired men to march back 15 kilometres (10 miles) from where Napoleon had sent them, and to lead them into battle at the last moment against an Austrian enemy so confident that victory had been won that their guard was down. As he charged, Desaix was accidentally shot in the back and killed, leaving the legend of Marengo to the fortunate Napoleon.

The battle brought to an end the war of the Second Coalition, an alliance of Austria, Russia and Britain formed to overturn the conquests of revolutionary France in Italy, Germany and Switzerland. The war hinged on the ability of the Austrian army, commanded by General Michael von Melas and his chief-of-staff, General Anton von Zach, to drive the French out of northern Italy. Melas took 85,000 men on the campaign with the object of besieging the French garrison at Genoa and driving the army of Italy, commanded by General Louis Suchet, back over the frontier into France, to be followed by an Austrian invasion. The plan worked well enough at first. Suchet was pushed into Provence by mid-May while the 5,900 troops in Genoa finally surrendered on 1 June. The problem for Melas was the new French First Consul, Napoleon Bonaparte, who had been appointed in a coup in November 1799 in Paris. His responsibility was to overcome the crisis faced by the military effort to export the revolution to Europe. Napoleon understood how serious the Austrian threat was. The only way to get quickly to northern Italy with the new army he had raised, the so-called Reserve Army, was to cross over the Alps behind the Austrians, cut off their supply route, and leave them trapped between two French forces, one in their rear, one in Genoa.

This panorama of the Battle of Marengo, fought in northern Italy near the River Bormida, was painted by the French soldier-artist Louis-François, Baron de Lejeune (1775-1848), who was present at the battle as an officer of engineers. It shows the arrival of French reinforcements led by Lieutenant General Louis Desaix, who died as he charged the Austrian lines.

Crossing the Alps was a severe challenge. It had to be done over the St Bernard pass, bringing 60,000 men, supplies and heavy guns along the snowy mountain tracks. Napoleon insisted on the risk, since success would place him right behind the Austrian army. Mules struggled along the treacherous paths laden with stores, while 100 soldiers pulled each cannon up the slopes. Yet the whole crossing, which had cost Hannibal heavy losses many centuries before, was undertaken in just three days. Most of the men and equipment made it safely across, and Napoleon moved towards Milan, which a smaller Austrian force then abandoned. Further south, he cut the main road used to move Austrian supplies along the Po Valley. What he did not know was that Genoa had already surrendered and Suchet’s army driven back towards France.

Alerted to his enemy’s movements, Melas turned to face Napoleon, concentrating most of his army of around 30,000 men at Alessandria. His chief-of-staff suggested a ruse to get Napoleon to disperse his forces, allowing the main Austrian army to batter its way along the main supply road and reach safety further east. A spy was sent by the Austrians to inform Napoleon that Melas was hoping to escape northwards towards Milan, in the hope that the French would then move north as well, exposing their flank to an attack from the main Austrian force. Napoleon was unsure how to treat the deception, though the spy reported to Melas and Zach that the ruse had worked. In the end, Napoleon did not move north, but he sent one division northeast to cut off any Austrian attempt at a breakout, and a division commanded by Desaix southwest, towards the Austrian forces that Napoleon assumed were still at Genoa. Napoleon set up camp, uncertain of his options.

On the evening of 13 June, the central French line clashed with a force of Austrians in and around the village of Marengo, close to the main bridge over the River Bormida and a few miles from the Austrian camp. Thanks to the spy, both sides misinterpreted the clash. Napoleon assumed this was Melas’s rearguard, left in place as the Austrians tried to withdraw, while Melas and Zach assumed that it was a small French blocking force, sent to disguise the move of the French army further north. The following morning Melas sent the bulk of his army across the plain from Alessandria, over the Bormida Bridge, and on to Marengo. The rest were sent northeast with Field Marshal Karl Ott von Bártokéz to block what was expected to be the real advance guard of Napoleon’s army. Both sides soon discovered their mistake. A crushing assault on the French line, now weakened by the dispersion of divisions north and south and the reserve held further back by Napoleon, was repulsed with difficulty. Twice more the Austrian force charged forward, both sides taking heavy casualties in bitter fighting. Napoleon at first believed the assault was a mere feint to mask the Austrian retreat and refused his front-line commanders’ request for aid. He finally realized his mistake by mid-morning and sent a despairing note to Desaix, 15 kilometres (10 miles) down the road in Genoa: ‘For God’s sake, come up if you still can.’

Slowly the French army, outgunned by the larger Austrian force, was pushed back from Marengo. At places there were only ten paces between the lines as men fired at point-blank range. Melas ordered a flanking attack on the French left, while Ott’s force, finding that the French army was not advancing from the north, turned back to threaten the French right flank. By 2.30 p.m., after hours of stubborn, blood-soaked fighting, the French abandoned Marengo for a line of vineyards further back; the right wing faced collapse and at 3 p.m. Napoleon ordered the elite Consular Guard to attack Ott and hold back the threat of encirclement. The Guard found themselves isolated and were annihilated, and by late afternoon Napoleon faced a catastrophic defeat. Melas thought he had won and ordered a pause while the army organized for a pursuit. Bruised by two falls earlier in the day, he returned to the Austrian camp, confident of victory.

A short while elapsed while the French waited for the final humiliation when suddenly Desaix arrived to greet Napoleon. Among the many versions of what passed between the two men was one that suited the later Bonaparte legend. ‘I think this is a battle lost,’ Desaix is supposed to have said, to which Napoleon retorted, ‘I think it is a battle won.’ The 6,000 new troops were sent against the tired Austrian line after a brief and unexpected bombardment. Desaix was killed in the first attacks, but the momentum continued. When an Austrian rally threatened, General François Kellermann attacked with 400 cavalry and scattered the threat. Two more hours of bloody combat followed as the disheartened Austrians were pushed back through Marengo and the narrow river crossing. Here hundreds were crushed at the water’s edge or drowned in the river. Unexpectedly, the Austrians now stared defeat in the face. When dusk came, they fell back in a battered line to the Austrian camp. Around 6,500 casualties were suffered by both sides; the French lost 5,000 as prisoners, the Austrians almost 3,000. An armistice was signed and Melas was allowed to retreat eastwards with his surviving army intact. On 2 July, Napoleon returned in triumph to Paris, where his reports on Marengo had already turned a battle he had almost lost into an undeserved monument to his masterful leadership and shrewd battlefield skills..