We have them now

Sunday, June 16th, 2024

Napoleon by Andrew RobertsNapoleon arrived at 2 a.m. on Saturday, January 14 1797, Andrew Roberts explains (in Napoleon: A Life), at the plateau above the gorges of Rivoli, which would be the key deciding place — the point d’appui or Schwerpunkt — of the coming battle:

It was a clear, very cold, brightly moonlit night and he interpreted the number and positions of the campfires as meaning that the Marquis de Lusignan, an energetic, Spanish-born Austrian general, was too far off to engage until mid-morning. He knew the area intimately, having ridden across it often over the previous four months. If he could retain the Osteria gorge and the slope containing the chapel of San Marco on the eastern side of the battlefield, he believed he could hold off the main attack relatively easily. He needed to let Masséna’s division rest and to buy time for Rey to arrive, so he decided on a spoiling attack to concentrate Alvinczi’s attention. Joubert was ordered to march back onto the Rivoli plateau and send one brigade to Osteria before attacking in the centre, covered by all the French guns on the plateau. Meanwhile Masséna was told to send one brigade to hold Lusignan off for as long as possible.


11 a.m. Lusignan had arrived with 5,000 men. He had driven off Masséna’s detached brigade, and penetrated deep into the French left-rear near Affi, preventing any reinforcements from arriving. Napoleon was only just holding his centre, was under huge pressure on his right flank and Lusignan had turned his left. He had only one brigade in reserve and Rey was still an hour away. When the news arrived that Lusignan had got behind him, staff officers looked anxiously at the preternaturally calm Napoleon, who simply remarked: ‘We have them now.’


When the dense Austrian columns, covered by artillery, assailed the gorge and reached the plateau, they were struck by French artillery firing canister shot into their close ranks from all sides, then bayonet-charged by an infantry column, and then attacked by all the French cavalry available. As they recoiled into the gorge, a lucky shot hit an ammunition wagon — all the more devastating in the narrow space — whereupon Quasdanovich ordered the attack aborted.

Napoleon immediately shifted his own attack to the centre, where the Austrians had next to no artillery or cavalry. Having gained the plateau at great cost, all three Austrian columns were driven off it. Lusignan was checked on his arrival on the battlefield, just as Rey suddenly appeared to his rear.


Since the campaign had begun a year earlier, Napoleon had crossed the Apennines and the Alps, defeated a Sardinian army and no fewer than six Austrian armies, and killed, wounded or captured 120,000 Austrian soldiers. All this he had done before his twenty-eighth birthday. Eighteen months earlier he had been an unknown, moody soldier writing essays on suicide; now he was famous across Europe, having defeated mighty Austria, wrung peace treaties from the Pope and the kings of Piedmont and Naples, abolished the medieval dukedom of Modena, and defeated in every conceivable set of military circumstances most of Austria’s most celebrated generals — Beaulieu, Wurmser, Provera, Quasdanovich, Alvinczi, Davidovich — and outwitted the Archduke Charles.

Napoleon had fought against Austrian forces that were invariably superior in number, but which he had often outnumbered on the field of battle thanks to his repeated strategy of the central position. A profound study of the history and geography of Italy before he ever set foot there had proved extremely helpful, as had his willingness to experiment with others’ ideas, most notably the bataillon carré and the ordre mixte, and his minute calculations of logistics, for which his prodigious memory was invaluable. Because he kept his divisions within one day’s march of each other, he was able to concentrate them for battle and, once joined, he showed great calmness under pressure.

The fact that the Army of Italy was in a position to fight at all, considering the privations from which it was suffering when Napoleon took over its command, was another testament to his energy and organizational abilities. His leadership qualities — acting with harshness when he thought it deserved, but bestowing high praise on other occasions — produced the esprit de corps so necessary to victory. ‘In war,’ he was to say in 1808, ‘moral factors account for three-quarters of the whole; relative material strength accounts for only one-quarter.’


Of course he was hugely helped by the fact that the Austrians kept sending septuagenarian commanders against him who continually split their forces and moved at around half the speed of the French.

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