Building the military base

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© Bob Denton 2014

His political power and status was this resolved back in France, but Napoleon realised he still needed a military victory to secure this position. Fortunately this came early in 1800 at Marengo, near Piedmont in Italy, though he rather inflated its significance to build his reputation.

Napoleon had attached himself to the Army of the Reserve and crossed the Alps in May when many of the passes were not yet open.  The daring manouevre cut through the Austrian army’s lines of supply.

But when in early June the city of Genoa fell to the Austrian commander, Michael von Melas, this meant that he could apply more resource to responding to Napoleon’s advance. There was an Austrian setback when they lost the Battle of Montebello and many suggest that Napoleon exhibited some overconfidence.

The two main groups of the Austrian army arrived at Marengo with 30,000 men and circa 100 cannon, a larger group that Napoleon could muster, just 22,000 and 15 guns. Both armies were poorly supplied, both had disparate weaponry and ammunition. The French forces contained veterans of the army that had quelled the Vendée and others from the disbanded Army of England.

Bonaparte was certainly misled by a double-agent, François Toli, who suggested that the Austrians were headed northward, so that Napoleon spread his forces to halt any such escape.

In fact the Austrians attacked the centre of the French force and had some early success, but then were held for some hours by a French defensive line. The Austrian commander withdrew over 2,000 hussars and two artillery batteries to combat a French advance that wasn’t there, so these resources were lost to the battle. But the Austrians managed to take Marengo.

Napoleon had recalled his units that had been despatched northward and committed his reserve for a counter-attack. The twelve-hour battle turned when the Austrian cavalry were routed and their retreat set off the very weary infantry. They regrouped at Marengo but by the time they withdrew to Alessandria they had lost half of their force with some 6,500 dead or wounded and 8,000 taken prisoner. 

The French too had lost around 5,000 dead or wounded. Napoleon had to return to Paris but his forces negotiated the Convention of Alessandria that saw a general Austrian withdrawal from north-west Italy and a halt to Austrian ambitions in Italy.

Back in Paris the last-minute victory became ever more glorified and no fewer than three official reports during Bonaparte’s reign would make the size of the victory and his role in it more fantastic.

Marengo, Napoleon’s horse – While crossing the Alps, Napoleon had in fact ridden a mule. But in Jacques-Louis David’s famous portrait he is sat astride his Arabian horse. As part of the myth-building following the victory, this horse was renamed as ‘Marengo’.

Marengo would be his mount at Austerlitz, Jena-Auerstedt, Wagram and at Waterloo. The horse was wounded eight times and was eventually captured by the British at Waterloo.

Taken back to England it eventually died at the age of 38 in 1831. Its skeleton was preserved and is still held by Chelsea’s National Army Museum (not the Imperial War Museum). It is minus one hoof that was given to a Guards officers’ club as a snuff box.

Jean Victor Marie Moreau had a distinguished military career and assisted Napoleon in the 18 Brumaire coup.  As a reward for his support he became the commander of the Army of the Rhine where he took Bavaria, then marched on to Vienna. His victory at the Battle of Hohenlinden in December 1800. The success at Marengo and Hohenlinden effectively brought an end to the War of the Second Coalition with the signing of the Treaty of Lunéville in February 1801.

Britain was still at war with France and successfully blockading French ports.  In April 1801 the Russian Tsar Paul I proposed a ‘League of Armed Neutrality’ that would consist of Denmark-Norway, Prussia, Sweden and Russia. His intention was that these states would trade with France. The combined naval force would be formidable with over 120 ships-of-the-line.

The British Navy decided to act before the Baltic thawed, while the Russian and Swedish fleets were still port-bound. They attacked the Danish fleet off Copenhagen who did not get Swedish reinforcements; the Prussian navy was small and thus irrelevant, the Danes and Swedes shore-bound batteries were of more concern.

The British mustered thirty-eight ships of which eight were held in reserve. Seven were bomb ships and two fire ships that could be used to threaten the Danish fleet and the city. The Danish-Norwegians had eighteen ships in their more vulnerable outer line, twenty held in reserve; intriguingly many of those The Danes held in reserve were their more modern ships.

The Battle of Copenhagen was engaged when Nelson took twelve of the shallowest draft ships in to action. Despite their draft three of the British ships ran aground in the early phase of the action. The others in the force came under huge bombardment not just from shore-bound batteries but also from floating batteries that had not been noticed before the engagement.

The Admiral in command was not able to see what was happening but concerned by the grounded ships ordered a retreat to help save Nelson and his force. This is reputedly when Nelson put his telescope to his blind eye and said he could not see the order. He pressed on and reportedly the superior gunnery of the British ships started to have its effect. The Danish ships, manned in part by volunteers with next to no naval experience, began to fall silent.

Both navies had not engaged all of their ships, but a ceasefire was agreed. The British fleet took up position to be able to bombard Copenhagen.

The Danish had lost two ships sunk and one exploded, twelve were captured. Officially they had lost 1,600 to 1,800 men dead, injured or captured, but this did not include the volunteers.

The British had three further ships run ashore from the damage they had sustained, they had lost 250+ dead and circa 700 wounded. They could not muster prize crews so they burned and sank eleven Danish ships and used the twelfth prize, Holsteen, to send the injured home.

The next day Nelson landed in Copenhagen and after meeting with the Crown Prince for two hours an indefinite armistice was agreed. While broader issues were being discussed, under the British guns, the news reached them that Tsar Paul had been assassinated.  The League of Armed Neutrality was now dead in the water, Nelson was appointed as ‘Viscount Nelson of the Nile’.

As early as 1799 Bonaparte had sued for peace with Britain. In 1802 with the Austrians no longer involved and the British exhausted by war there was a meeting held in Amiens. The British negotiator, Marquess Cornwallis, arrived with huge expectation of peace back home.  Napoleon’s negotiators his brother Joseph and a career diplomat, Talleyrand (Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord), were able therefore to play games. They kept changing their stance to put pressure on Cornwallis.

The resultant treaty of Amiens in 1802 involved Spain and the Dutch (as the Batavian Republic) formalised a peace primarily between France and Great Britain but with global impact. Britain recognised the French Republic, relinquished control of the Cape Colony and Dutch West Indies, but were ceded control of Ceylon and Trinidad. France was to withdraw from Naples and the Papal States, Britain was to withdraw from Egypt. Malta was to remain controlled by Britain but the Hospitallers were to be given back control of Gozo and Comino.

The negotiated peace lasted for just a year. This is normally considered to be the end of the French Revolutionary Wars; from 1803 the battles are then considered to be part of the Napoleonic Wars.  This is not a clear distinction as some assume the turning point to be when Napoleon seized control of France in 1799.

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© Bob Denton 2014