He never used his spurs or knees to make his horse gallop, but always applied his whip

Sunday, May 19th, 2024

Napoleon by Andrew RobertsNapoleon relied a good deal on intelligence in his campaigns, Andrew Roberts explains (in Napoleon: A Life), which he insisted on analyzing personally rather than getting through staff officers:

Methods of gaining intelligence included interrogating deserters and prisoners, sending out cavalry patrols, and even dressing soldiers as farm labourers after having taken the real labourers’ wives hostage. Napoleon was conscious of the way that spies and officers on scouting missions could mistake corps for detachments and vice versa and often repeated what they had heard from ‘panic-stricken or surprised people’ rather than what they had witnessed. His orders for his intelligence officers were: ‘To reconnoitre accurately defiles and fords of every description. To provide guides that may be depended upon. To interrogate the priest and the postmaster. To establish rapidly a good understanding with the inhabitants. To send out spies. To intercept public and private letters … In short, to be able to answer every question of the general-in-chief when he arrives at the head of the army.’


He himself then moved continually between Brescia, Castelnuovo, Desenzano, Roverbella, Castiglione, Goito and Peschiera, taking his mobile headquarters to wherever gave him the best idea of the way the campaign was progressing. This constant activity in the often severe heat led to his losing five horses to exhaustion in quick succession. One of his Polish aides-de-camp, Dezydery Adam Chlapowski, recalled that he ‘never used his spurs or knees to make his horse gallop, but always applied his whip’.


The Austrians pushed on boldly and took Rivoli. ‘We shall recover tomorrow, or afterwards, what you have lost today,’ Napoleon reassured Masséna. ‘Nothing is lost while courage remains.’ On July 30, however, in an operation known as the ‘Surprise of Brescia’, the Austrians captured Brescia’s garrison and hospitals with only three killed and eleven wounded. The sick included Murat (who had caught venereal disease from a Madame Rugat), Lannes and Kellermann’s brilliant cavalryman son, François-Étienne. Josephine, who had gone to Brescia from Milan at Napoleon’s request as he had considered the city safely behind the lines, was nearly captured, prompting Napoleon to swear, ‘Wurmser shall pay dearly for those tears.’

‘We’ve suffered some setbacks,’ Napoleon acknowledged to the Directory, while sending all non-essential equipment to the rear.


His order to Augereau to retreat to Roverbella read: ‘Every moment is precious … The enemy has broken through our line at three places: he is master of the important points of Corona and Rivoli … You will see that our communications with Milan and Verona have been cut. Await new orders at Roverbella; I will go there in person.’


Ending the siege of Mantua involved abandoning no fewer than 179 cannon and mortars that couldn’t be removed, and dumping their ammunition in the lakes. It pained Napoleon to do this, but he knew that decisive victories in the field, not fortresses, were the key to modern warfare. ‘Whatever happens, and however much it costs, we must sleep in Brescia tomorrow,’ he told Masséna.


When Sauret’s men complained they were hungry, Napoleon told them they could find food in the enemy camp.


On the morning of August 4, Napoleon was at Lonato with only 1,200 men when more than 3,000 lost Austrians, who had been cut off from Quasdanovich’s command, suddenly blundered into the town. Napoleon calmly informed their parlementaire (officer sent to parley) that his ‘whole army’ was present, and that ‘If in eight minutes his division had not laid down its arms, I would not spare a man.’ He supported this ruse by issuing orders to Berthier about grenadier and artillery units that Berthier knew were entirely bogus. The Austrians only discovered once they had surrendered and been disarmed that there were no French forces nearby, and that they could have captured Napoleon with ease.


  1. Phileas Frogg says:

    Audacity is a fickle currency. One day she can purchase you the impossible, and the next a hangman’s noose.

    There’s really no telling which.

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