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The War of the Second Coalition

Napoleon's Return to Italy and the Battle of Marengo

The remainder of the War of the Second Coalition can be divided into two campaigns – the Italian and the German, both of which were fought by the French against the Austrians. The Italian campaign had its roots in the success with which the Russian army had driven the French out of Italy in 1799 while Napoleon was in Egypt.

In April 1800 the Austrian army under the command of General Melas attacked the French army at Genoa, effectively trapping them, as the French commanded by Massena were also being blockaded by the British navy. In order to rescue a large section of his army and preserve French control over Genoa, Napoleon decided to lead the Army of the Reserve over the Alps in order to attack the Austrian rear. He decided that the crossing should be made via the Saint-Bernard Pass, a risky choice considering the high altitudes and narrow paths that the army would have to navigate.


Between the 15th and the 21st of May 45,000 men and 6,000 cavalry made their way over the pass. By the end of the operation only 6 pieces of artillery had been successfully transported over the pass, the rest were engaged in trying to capture Fort Band, which the remainder of the army had been forced to bypass on the way.


Napoleon entered Milan on the 2nd of June, where he was met with muted enthusiasm. The Army of the Reserve had hoped to trap the Austrians between them and Massena (the French general at Genoa), but Napoleon’s plans were dashed when he learned that Massena had surrendered the city on the 4th June. He decided instead to attack as soon as possible, a decision which led to the Battle of Marengo.

Map of Northern Italy
(Author's Collection)

The Battle of Marengo was fought between 31,500 French soldiers and 34,000 Austrian, but although the numbers were reasonably even the Austrians had far more cavalry and cannon at their disposal. Poor preparation almost lost Napoleon the battle before it had even begun, as he wrongly believed that the Austrians were withdrawing, and so sent two divisions to block their path, reducing the number of French forces available to fight. In fact the Austrians were not withdrawing, and on the 14th of June they attacked. Napoleon believed that this was merely an action to disguise the Austrian defeat, and when he finally realised the truth urgently summoned the divisions back. Under the command of generals Desaix and Lapoype they returned just in time. Napoleon had successfully managed to protect his right flank, but the effort had used up all his reserve troops and his left flank remained in disorder. The French had almost lost the battle.


At 4pm, the Austrian general Melas left the battlefield to rest, leaving general Zach to what should have been a simple task of finishing off the French troops by marching a column of 6000 men through the centre of the battle, destroying the formation of Napoleon’s troops beyond recovery. However, at this point Desaix arrived behind the left French flank, providing reinforcements. The Austrians should still have been victorious, but a lucky shot by a French cannon caused several Austrian ammunition wagons to explode. General Kellermann then took advantage of the confusion to lead a French cavalry charge, while at the same time General Marmont gave the order to fire the cannon at the Austrian troops. The force of the French counter attack meant that by 6pm the previously dominant Austrians were forced into retreat.


The Battle of Marengo was by no means a decisive victory for the French, as the Austrians only lost 5,600 men and had 2,900 taken prisoner – a tiny fraction of their army. However, it successfully discouraged General Melas enough for him to request a suspension of arms and then sign an armistice over the summer of 1800.

Up Next: The German Campaign and Battle of Hohenlinden

Background image: J.M.W. Turner, "Martello Towers near Bexhill, Sussex", 1811, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, from here

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