comment 0

Commanders of L’Armee d’Italie 1796

What follows is a direct lift from Austerlitz’s post on the ( Pakistani defence website), to whom I like to extend my gratitude….


The newly appointed 26-year-old commander in chief of the French Army of Italy arrived at his headquarters in Nice on March 27, 1796.A trio of generals,his would be subordinates -all of them more senior soldiers than him, awaited with smirks to meet this new political appointment who had earned his rank by mowing down the paris mob.First of them to the left,Andre’ Massena -38 years old born in Nice ,former fruit vendor and smuggler.Fond of both women and money but a very capable soldier.With the revolution had rapidly risen through the ranks and was now a soldier with vast practical experience,having won great reknown in the battle of loano a year earlier.Massena was to become One of napoleon’s greatest battlefield marshals and earn the title ‘The dear child of victory’.Massena had met napoleon once briefly earlier at toulon.

Pierre Augereau.A product of the paris slums.The hook nosed braggart had earlier served in both russian and prussian armies and deserted from both.With the revolution he had rapidly risen through the ranks.An ardent republican,adventurer and swordsman he was popular with the soldiers.Not as good as massena,he was nonetheless an able tactician and a determined fighter-especially with his backs to the wall.Another future battlefield marshal.

General Serurier.The senior most of the lot with 34 years in the ex-royal army.A cautious and meticulous commander but not with any great record of battlefield success.A future senatorial marshal.The youthful commander, who according to one contemporary looked more like a mathematician than a general, eagerly showed the portrait of his beautiful new wife, Josephine de Beauharnais, to the amused older soldiers.When he began to discuss the campaign to come, however, their impression of General Napoleon Bonaparte abruptly changed.

Augereau confided to Massena that this ‘little bastard of a General’ frightened him.

”His look froze my blood” – Augereau.

Massena recounted –

”He put on his General’s hat,’ ‘and seemed to have grown two feet. He questioned us on the position of our divisions, on the spirit and effective forces of each corps, prescribed the course we were to follow, announced that he would hold an inspection on the morrow and on the following day attack the enemy.’!

All three divisional generals were impressed by their commander’s energy and commitment to their future success.In a single meeting Bonaparte had imposed his authority on his subordinates by force of personality.

The young general also brought with him a small retinue including the colonel of cavalry -Joachim Murat,who had aided him in putting down the paris mob.A dashing and recklessly brave cavalryman with a superb eye for the charge,but little talent for anything else.Future-brother in law of Napoleon and his marshal of cavalry.The so named ‘First saber of Europe’.Jean Lannes,another future marshall was already serving in the army of italy.

Louis Alexander Berthier.Napoleon’s chief of Staff and future marshal.It was to him to organize and efficiently send out detailed dispatches conforming to napoloen’s orders to all the corps/divisions day in and day out.With a memory and capacity for work near equal to napoleon, he would serve him till 1814 as one of great Chiefs of staffs in history.However he had no aptitude for strategy himself and was found at a loss in napoleon’s absence.

Also present was Auguste Marmont,an artillery specialist and friend of Napoloen.Another future marshal,he would desert him at the end.

Now the general turned to inspect the ‘Army’ he had inherited and begun to understand why none of the 3 senior general had been keen to assume command when the previous overall commander resigned.On paper he had 54,000 men.But 37,000 were fit for service.Rest being sick or deserted.

Morale was low,supplies were short,the soldiers had recieved no pay for years,Most had no proper uniforms,shoes and were in rags,some didn’t even have muskets.Penned up in the ligurian mountains,with the austrians and piedmontese on 2 sides and nelson’s royal navy at their back on the coast ,situation was dire.Cavalry horses were in half rations for half a year,artillery was in short supply -Hunger and neglect had led to a situation where the army was rapidly disintegrating.Taking advantage royalist agents were in the ranks inciting mutiny.2 days before his arrival, young Bonaparte faced a mutiny of the 209th Demibrigade, which refused to move forward, claiming it had no money or shoes.Grasping the gravity of the situation ,bonaparte determined that only a successful offensive could save the army and take it into the plains,out from the barren mountains.As he reviewed his skeptical soldiers he resorted to oratory –

”Soldiers! You are hungry and naked; the Government owes you much but can give you nothing. The patience and courage which you have displayed among these rocks are admirable, but they bring you no glory–not a glimmer falls upon you. I will lead you into the most fertile plains in the world. Rich provinces, opulent towns, all shall be at your disposal; there you will find honor, glory, and riches. Soldiers of Italy! Will you be found wanting in courage or steadfastness?’ –
Napoleon in his First address.
(Note the pragmatic and brutally realistic style of the speech.No babbling on the ‘rights of man’ and liberty as was the norm for the then republican generals.A direct appeal to the soldier’s honour and courage coupled with a cunning and realistic lure to the greed and sense of materialism of the motley group of starving scarecrows.)
He succeeded in winning the soldiers over and instilling hope in them.But to carry out his promise he needed immediate success.Providing for a minimum time of reorganization and re-equipment he quickly dealt with looters and embezzlers,stiffened discipline,secured a loan by bullying the bank of genoa to pay at least some soldiers for the moment as the army of italy -Bonaparte’s soon to be ‘Heroes in rags’ prepared to take the offensive.
Meanwhile,austrian intelligence had also noted the arrival of the young commander and described him as more of a theorist than a general.General Beaulieu,commander of the austrian army caustically remarking -”It would be a pleasure to teach the fundamentals of war to this brat of a Buonaparte”.
An epic campaign was about to begin.



Filed under: Uncategorized

About the Author

Posted by

The wild ramblings of an infamous wit and wargames guru. One of nature's true gentlemen who devotes his time to the care of his two sons, i.e. watching episodes of Peppa Pig together, and recreating great moments of military history using toy soldiers. Currently a leading light in The Collectivo Despertaferres wargames and duelling association who meet regularly at Firestorm Games ( formerly Ali Baba's Carpet Warehouse). Find me also on Facebook "Despertaferres"!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s