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1796-7: Napoleon in Italy


In early March of 1796, Napoleon Bonaparte was made General in Chief of the Armee d’Italie. At the time he was a fairly obscure general, heightening the importance of this campaign as the first time Napoleon had led a major solo campaign. In spring 1796 the Austrians were the only major power waging war on land against the French, as the British were busy fighting at sea and seeking to expand their colonial interests. The Austrians were primarily focused on  containing French aggression and sought to form a coalition of European powers to combat revolutionary fever across the continent. For the French, the Italian campaign was just one part of the French Revolutionary Wars in which France aimed to pursue their expansionist policies and spread their revolutionary doctrine across Europe, gaining major influence in the process. In light of this, Napoleon sought to conquer the Italian States which would politically and economically benefit France and thereby enhance their status as a great power in Europe.


Bonaparte on the Bridge at Arcole

By Antoine-Jean Gros

The Armee d’Italie had approximately 38,000 men; 30,000 men were readily available whilst 8,000 were posted at various Alpine locations, guarding the borders. Napoleon’s overarching plan at this point was to engage the Austrians and their minor allies in Northern Italy, whilst France’s other divisions would create a huge diversion in Germany, winning the war on that front. With his small army, Napoleon was capable of taking on the Austrian forces, leaving France’s other generals to create a diversion in Germany. The Armee d’Italie was distributed across various Northern Italian locations. To summarise, General Jean-Mathieu-Philibert Serurier’s division was in Garessio, General Augereau at Loana, General’s Massena and Laharpe were between Finale and Savona. The general with the most experience in Italy was Massena, who had been active in the Italian Riviera since 1794 and was commanding two divisions when Napoleon was appointed head of the Armee d’Italie. Serurier was also an experienced general having fought in both the Seven Years War and the Spanish-Portuguese Wars. Augereau, having impressed in previous conflicts of the French Revolutionary Wars, was promoted to lead a division under Napoleon in Italy. The general with the most astounding rise to fame was Laharpe, who was born in Switzerland and fled to join the French army after being suspected by the authorities of pro-French activity. Laharpe was promoted to general of a division in 1795, less than a year before Napoleon took command of the four divisions with which he was going to battle the Austrians.

Napoleon had very few cavalrymen, however, cavalry would have been rendered useless on the mountainous Piedmontese roads anyway. With limited troops and fewer than 30 light artillery pieces, it would be easy to think that the Austrians had a huge advantage over the French, with their 50,000 available troops and more than 200 light artillery pieces. From Coni to Millesimo, 20,000 Piedmontese formed a line protecting and reinforcing General Provera’s liaison corps. The remaining 30,000 Austrian troops were grouped around Novi, with Argenteau’s division holding an important advanced position in the direction of Acqui. The Austrians faced a huge host of problems ranging from geographical handicaps to bickering amongst commanders. The land between Coni and Novi was extremely treacherous with its steep slopes, hindering communication between the different divisions. Other issues included the poor relations between, and the age of, the two most senior leaders, Beaulieu and Colli, who were both over 70 and could not agree on what movements the French would make next.


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