14 June, 1800

Battlefield Guides for Northern Italy

Having confidence in your own abilities is essential to a general. Not fearing your enemies is another.

After his victories over the Austrians and their Allies in 1796, and having just ended a strategically brilliant and perilous crossing of the Alps to surprise his enemies, an over confident Napoleon Bonaparte spread his forces thinly to prevent them escaping.

He neglected, however, to plan for any aggressive movement from the Austrians under the elderly, but competent, General Michael Melas.

This arrogance almost cost him his army as Melas launched an early-morning attack that Bonaparte initially dismissed as a feint but, as his forces came under more pressure, he realised he was in serious trouble.

Despatching riders to recall two divisions he had sent earlier to flank the Austrians when they "retreated", Bonaparte then set about trying to hold off the vastly superior enemy.

After several hours of fighting and with no reserves, Bonaparte's position was parlous and, at about 2pm, the French line began to give way.

The French commander, however, was fortunate and two events occurred that swung the battle in his favour.

Firstly, Melas made the decision to leave the field and left his troops under General Zach.

Secondly, the supremely talented General Louis Desaix had heard the cannons firing and had turned around his divisions and "marched to the sound of the guns".

Arriving back at the field of Marengo he approached Bonaparte and said that while the battle was lost, there was still time to win another.

Launching a counterattack closely supported by a wedge of cannon, Desaix's men threw themselves at the Austrians.

The assault cost Desaix his life, but won the day against the Austrians who broke and fled leaving behind 14,000 casualties. The French suffered 7000.


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