“Soldiers, you are hungry and naked; the Republic owes you much, but she has not the means to acquit herself of her debts.”
Continuing Napoleon’s First Campaign,
our selection from Life of Napoleon Bonaparte by Sir Walter Scott published in 1839. The selection is presented in five easy 5 minute installments. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Previously in Napoleon’s First Campaign.
Place: Northern Italy
The forces which Bonaparte had under his command were between fifty and sixty thousand good troops, having, many of them, been brought from the Spanish campaign in consequence of the peace with that country; but very indifferently provided with clothing, and suffering from the hardships they had endured in those mountains, barren and cold regions. The cavalry, in particular, were in very poor order; but the nature of their new field of action not admitting of their being much employed, rendered this of less consequence. The misery of the French army, until these Alpine campaigns were victoriously closed by the armistice of Cherasco, could, according to Bonaparte’s authority, scarce bear description. The officers for several years had received no more than eight livres a month (twenty-pence sterling a week) in name of pay, and staff-officers had not among them a single horse. Berthier preserved, as a curiosity, an order dated on the day of the victory of Albenga, which munificently conferred a gratuity of three louis d’ors upon every general of division. Among the generals to whom this donation was rendered acceptable by their wants were, or might have been, many whose names became afterward the praise and dread of war. Augereau, Masséna, Serrurier, Joubert, Lannes, and Murat, all generals of the first consideration, served under Bonaparte in the Italian campaign.
The plan of crossing the Alps and marching into Italy suited in every respect the ambitious and self-confident character of the General to whom it was now intrusted. It gave him a separate and independent authority, and the power of acting on his own judgment and responsibility; for his countryman Salicetti, the deputy who accompanied him as commissioner of the Government, was not probably much disposed to intrude his opinions. He had been Bonaparte’s patron, and was still his friend. The young General’s mind was made up to the alternative of conquest or ruin, as may be judged from his words to a friend at taking leave of him. “In three months,” he said, “I will be either at Milan or at Paris;” intimating at once his desperate resolution to succeed, and his sense that the disappointment of all his prospects must be the consequence of a failure.
With the same view of animating his followers to ambitious hopes, he addressed the Army of Italy to the following purpose: “Soldiers, you are hungry and naked; the Republic owes you much, but she has not the means to acquit herself of her debts. The patience with which you support your hardships among these barren rocks is admirable, but it cannot procure you glory. I am come to lead you into the most fertile plains that the sun beholds: rich provinces, opulent towns; all shall be at your disposal. Soldiers, with such a prospect before you, can you fail in courage and constancy?” This was showing the deer to the hound when the leash is about to be slipped.
The Austro-Sardinian army, to which Bonaparte was opposed, was commanded by Beaulieu, an Austrian general of great experience and some talent, but no less than seventy-five years old; accustomed all his life to the ancient rules of tactics, and unlikely to suspect, anticipate, or frustrate those plans formed by a genius so fertile as that of Napoleon.
Bonaparte’s plan for entering Italy differed from that of former conquerors and invaders, who had approached that fine country by penetrating or surmounting at some point or other her Alpine barriers. This inventive warrior resolved to attain the same object by turning round the southern extremity of the Alpine range, keeping as close as possible to the shores of the Mediterranean, and passing through the Genoese territory by the narrow pass called the Boccheta, leading around the extremity of the mountains, and betwixt these and the sea. Thus he proposed to penetrate into Italy by the lowest level which the surface of the country presented, which must be of course where the range of the Alps unites with that of the Apennines. The point of junction where these two immense ranges of mountains touch upon each other is at the heights of Mount St. Jacques, above Genoa, where the Alps, running northwestward, ascend to Mont Blanc, their highest peak, and the Appenines, running to the southeast, gradually elevate themselves to Monte Velino, the tallest mountain of the range.
To attain this object of turning the Alps in the manner proposed, it was necessary that Bonaparte should totally change the situation of his army; those occupying a defensive line, running north and south, being to assume an offensive position, extending east and west. Speaking of an army as of a battalion, he was to form into column upon the right of the line which he had hitherto occupied. This was an extremely delicate operation to be undertaken in presence of an active enemy, his superior in numbers; nor was he permitted to execute it uninterrupted.
No sooner did Beaulieu learn that the French General was concentrating his forces, and about to change his position, than he hastened to preserve Genoa, without possession of which, or at least of the adjacent territory, Bonaparte’s scheme of advance could scarce have been accomplished. The Austrian divided his army into three bodies. Colli, at the head of a Sardinian division, he stationed on the extreme right at Ceva; his centre division, under D’Argenteau, having its head at Sasiello, had directions to march on a mountain called Monte Notte, with two villages of the same name, near to which was a strong position at a place called Montelegino, which the French had occupied in order to cover their flank during their march toward the east.