Military Subjects: Battles & Campaigns

The 1799 Campaign in Italy: The Battle of Trebbia -- June 1799 Part II: The Three Day Battle at the Trebbia -- The Second Day and the Prince Liechtenstein’s Cavalry Charge

By Enrico Acerbi

 

Suvorov’s orders for the next day, were the following: “Shvejkowsky’s Division, which has taken the right wing position after Casaliggio, must pass through the Trebbia, sending forward Bagration’s vanguard, advancing through Gossolengo, Caselle and San Rocco, towards the Nure creek. Förster’s Division, deployed from Casaliggio till the Trebbia, must pass the river towards Valera and Pittolo and advance until the Nure, through Castellaro and i Vaccari. The third kolonne Ott had to send the Fröhlich’s Division or the cavalry brigade Liechtenstein on his right, linked with Förster, and must advance towards Piacenza, occupying the city, if left by the enemies, then marching towards the Nure through Mucinasso. The attack will begin at 8 o’clock (note: on the Austrian papers the hour was the 6 a.m.)”.

Fröhlich’s Division – Cavalry Brigade Generalmajor Fürst Johann von Liechtenstein

K.K.  10th Light Dragoons Regiment GdC Joseph Fürst Lobkowitz[1]

4 Sqns

K.K.  8th Light Dragoons Regiment Friedrich Wilhelm Carl Herzog Württemberg –from Tortona           

6 Sqns

Macdonald, suffering because of a violent fever, contined to accuse Moreau of having abandoned him at his destiny, leaving him alone against the whole Coalition Army. The Republicans had about 26000 men, which could be considered fit for combat, and only 28 guns.  Against them were about 42000 Austro-Russians, supported by 62 artillery pieces. However the Armée de Naples Chief wanted to attack, even ending with a glorious death in battle. So Macdonald, who had taken the command provisionally given to Victor, who was also sick, split the forces in three sectors.

French Right Wing – from Sant’Antonio to the river Po   

6800

Brigade Salme and Watrin division

 

Had to advance and encircle the Ott Kolonne

French Center – at Sant’Antonio with Watrin in front of Piacenza           

11000

Divisions Olivier and Montrichard

 

Committed for a strong frontal attack

French Left Wing – from Valera to Gossolengo (HQ) – Commander: Victor      

8500

Divisions Victor (4500), Rusca (2000), and Dąbrowski (2000)

 

Had to pass the Trebbia attacking the Casaliggio line frontally. Dąbrowski had to pass the Trebbia at Rivalta and  to encircle the Russians (Right Wing)

Macdonald was almost sure of a victory, now having two more fresh divisions at his orders, and did not organized any reserve behind his lines.  He consider Watrin’s Division as a strategic reserve, which could be committed where needed, from its central position. The Austro-Russian attack was planned for 8 a.m., but the troops’ fatigue suggested a two hours delay. However, the French right was the first to open fire. At 5 a.m., at dawn, one infantry battalion and some cavalry approached the Austrian lines and opened fire. General Mélas sent there an artillery battery, which opened a deadly canister fire, causing the French to run back until the Trebbia. They stood there, for some hours, watching their opponent move.

4th Reserve Division - Général François Watrin    

4402

   

Light artillery           

33

25th Regiment Chasseurs á Cheval   (3 Sqns) - Chef de brigade François Guerin d'Etoquigny   

284

27th Light Infantry Demi-brigade II battalion (from garrisons in Northern Italy and Rome)

455

62nd Line infantry Demi-Brigade - Chef-de-brigade Claude-Louis Gudin

1526 

78th Line infantry Demi-Brigade - Chef-de-Brigade Pierre-Etienne Petitot

2137

At 5 a.m., Suvorov deployed the Austrian reinforcements, using a new bridge built over the Po, at Parpanese, on June 18, as the IV Battalion  Stuart, which was joined with the other two battalions, come to Italy with Bellegarde. Others came from the Tortona siege

K.K.  IR 18 Line Infantry Regiment Graf Patrick Stuart I, III and IV Battalions

1830 

Commander: Obst Franz Weber von Treuenfels at Verona with his Grenadiers.

K.K.  8th Light Dragoon  Regiment Friedrich Wilhelm Carl Herzog Württemberg –from Tortona

6 Sqns

8th Jäger  Regiment Major General Chubarov – I and II Battalions  – to Bagration        

555

At the fatal hour, 10 a.m., the French moved first. They began to get the “ordre de bataille” along the river bank, while Dąbrowski forded the Trebbia at Rivalta, marching upwards on the slopes, in order to surround the Coalition’s right wing. Many French columns began to pass over the Trebbia, advancing slowly, with cordons of cavalry interposed between the columns. A whole battalion elongated itself in a “tirailleurs” line, on the right bank of the river, in order to support, with musketry and artillery fire, the friendly advance. Each column had a dense chain of skirmisher at their head.

At 10.30 a.m. the Poles came under the fire of the Russian batteries, but the Legion continued to advance. They captured and cleared Rivalta at 11 a.m., while the Russian expellled from the village took cover among the houses of Gazzola, leaving a gap in the line, 1500 meters wide between the left of Bagration and the right of Shvejkowsky, into which ran the Rusca’s Division.  Rusca, had already detached the 55th Demi-brigade with the I Battalion of the 97th line infantry to support the Poles, giving the command of the detachment to Chef Dargoubet (Dagobert?). He had passed the Trebbia at 10 a.m., but was stopped by the fire of Shvejkowsky’s batteries, 14 pieces (mainly 4 pdr. and 8 pdr. guns) which bombarded the thick columns of the French, with the explosions spreading the gravel of the river bed as additional deadly weapons. Soon Rusca’s units were forced to stop their march. They were able to move only after midday, entering the above mentioned gap in the Coalition’s lines. In the meanwhile, the III Battalion of the 55th Line Infantry, led by its Chef Ledru, had left behind the undisturbed Poles, and had reached the village of Tuna. From there, it fell on the flank of the Rozenberg Grenadiers, who were forced to retreat. Prince Constantin, aware of the danger, reformed the line with two battalions of the reserve and closed the breach. 

Victor had made his river passage at 10.20 a.m. but his advance was quickly stopped by the opponent’s skirmishers. Taking frontally Casaliggio with a large column, flanked by the cavalry,[2] in order to link the units with Rusca’s, he had a timid approach to the battle, probably fatigued after three days of continuous fighting. Outflanked by Cossacks  and Russian jägers, they withdrew in a real hurry passing back over the Trebbia. There Victor marched southwards in two columns, under a burning sun, in order to find a more suitable passage point. That “promenade”, under the Russian bombardment, almost caused a complete rout of the fatigued soldiers. So Victor decided to withdraw to more covered positions, practically exiting the battle. At the other side Rozenberg, also on the receiving end of  French artillery fire, stopped on the left bank (at 7.00 p.m. the fire ceased in the Victor’s sector).

The French right, under Olivier, had to advance from 10 a.m. However in these new ivisions there was a definite mood of dissatisfaction, not so far from a mutiny spirit.  It was very difficult to control the 5th Légère, in which the Chef Antoine Chatagnier was doing every effort to reorganize his troops. So Olivier had to wait for Montrichard to move, before beginning his advance. At midday, the French right passed the Trebbia, with Montrichard upset by Olivier’s behaviour and with the Austrian generals Ott and Fröhlich very concerned about how the attack would affect their lunch. Inspite of a strong artillery bombardment, the French right wing advanced, routing the Austrian troops surprised around the field-kitchens. The road to Castel San Giovanni was taken by Montrichard’s column and only the intervention of platoon of the just reorganized Wouwermann Grenadier Battalion, deployed into some ditches, stopped the French advance. On their right Olivier continued to advance, followed by Watrin, in a more extended position who marched until the Po, and was flanked by General Salme’s troops. At 11.30 a.m. the extreme right of the French army accelerated. Maucune, adjudant to Watrin, went forward attacking the Po bank. Jacquelin with the grenadiers of the 62nd Line passed a marsh and engaged the Banater Battalion, forcing them to withdraw and losing their 10 guns.  Behind them was General Salme, riding with an elite patrol of the 19th Chasseurs. Watrin organized all these scattered troops in three columns, with the order to follow the Po and to encircle the enemies. Montrichard turned them towards Campremoldo, with the will to support Victor or Olivier, whenever necessary. His troops were heavily harrased  by the enemy musketry and artillery.

Around 1 p.m. the French right collapsed. Montrichard grouped his troops behind the 5th Legere Demi-Brigade, but waited too long and lost the initiative, while his soldier were heavily harassed by the enemy artillery. While this happened, Prince Liechtenstein gathered his Dragoons and charged. He galloped through the vineyards, jumping over a lot of ditches and violently hit Montrichard on his flank. Olivier’s soldiers, hidden into the channel’s banks, stood firmly, but Montrichard troops were disordered. The 5th Legere, were surpised by the charge, routed and fled back towards the Trebbia. [3] The other troops behind them, followed their avantgarde and retreated in disorder. The Piedmontese Dragoons and Cisalpine Chasseurs were involved in the Liechtenstein’s manoeuver and were overrun by the enemy cavalry. They fought afoot and on horses, with sabres, pistols and even with rocks, collected in the gravel bed of the river. The French were saved by the punctual intervention of the 19th Chasseurs of Bruë, which charged the Austrian Dragoons pursuing the fugitives. So Prince Liechtenstein described his brilliant charge, in a long letter to his wife:

 “The day after, around the 11.30 a.m., while he was at lunch with some Officer and my Aid-de-Champ, we heard the cannons shooting. I took an horse but, after only twenty footsteps, I was in the middle of a chaotic bunch of coaches, men and horses, which were retreating from the line. The chaos was indescribable. I took the Lobkowitz Dragoons and lauched them in the middle of the vineyards and, after having jumped over around 50 ditches, I had the luck to catch the enemies and to attack them by their rear … The enemy positions were covered by trees and bushes; between us extended a sandy terrain, broken by small water channels. There was no time to wait, the enemy in eight minutes could have reached Ott’s camp, and I ordered to charge. The enemies partly fleed away but their guns continued to fire against us, with canisters, while some French cavalry covered their retreat .. I fought there for all the necessary time our infantry needed to reorganize the ranks and to deploy the lines.” (Arch. of H.H. Prince Johann Liechtenstein. Family papers) .  

Olivier did not loose his control and manoeuvered a brigade to face the Russian troops of Förster, advancing by the road side, but was stormed by a rain of cannonballs, which disordered his ranks. He himself had a leg cut off by a cannonball, fainted near Macdonald and was taken away by the “Santé”. Chef Darnaud, of the 30th line, formed a square, stopping for twenty minutes the Russian infantry and allowing the other troops to retreat. Then Darnaud spread his soldiers among the trees and the vineyard engaging a sort of “guerrilla” warfare, while slowly retreating towards the Trebbia, which was reached in the evening. [4] On the French right wing, only Watrin stood on his positions, in front of Calendasco, while Montrichard was routing and Olivier retreating.

Fieldmarshal Suvorov, having realized the Poles’ aims on his right wing, sent against them Bagration’s vanguard, reinforced by a division of Lobkowitz Dragoons; then went to his left wing to support Ott. Grekov and Pasdejev, with the two Lobkowitz squadrons, hit the Poles on both flanks, while the Russian Jägers attacked the column. At 2.00 p.m. Bagration resumed the offensive, counterattacking with the support of his cavalry. The endeavour succeeded, at least, in disordering the entrenched Poles, but with heavy losses. The Poles, profoundly weakened from the morning and previous day, did not sustain the assault; many of them routed and escaped into the hills, pursued by the opponent’s cavalry (they lost a gun, a flag and 400 prisoners). Dąbrowski’s Division, so, was almost annihilated after two days of hard fighting. A curious Polish account overthrew the battle events, stating the Poles as winners, also having them  withdrawn, with the Austro-Russian army in rout. A strange 360° degrees turning view of the facts; the Polish losses, of two days of bloody combats, were real witnesses of somewhat different situation. [5] 

The dangerous advanced positions taken by Rusca were counterattacked in the late afternoon by General Chasteler. He gathered at Casaliggio 2 fresh battalions from Shvejkowsky’s and 3 from the Förster’s Division. With these troop and with the flanking Levenehr Dragoons he assaulted Rusca. The French general did defend at his best for about 20 minutes, but he was forced to go back, towards the Trebbia. It was a slow retreat and only in the evening, Rusca passed the river, leaving the left bank.

Suvorov came by Ott headquarters, escorted by the Cossacks. He ordered Ott’s Division to advance, headed by two fresh grenadier battalions, flanked by his 200 Cossacks, the Archduke Joseph Hussars and 10 dragoon squadrons (Lobkowitz and Levenehr). The earth trembled under the galloping horses. The avalanche of men, horses and cannonballs overran Watrin, forcing him to reach Cascine on the Po bank.  On the left bank of the great river, Colonel Kinsky, come from Mantua, installed an heavy battery and bombarded the Republicans on the opposite bank. At dusk, Watrin passed back over the Trebbia, which waters were described as red for the blood, leaving 351 prisoners in enemy hands. At 9 p.m., the battle definitevely ended with a complete French defeat.  Victor had the main responsibility of the events together with Dąbrowsky and 5th Légère routs, but the Austro-Russian superiority was the real cause which led to the defeat. 

The Losses

That same evening, Macdonald, not hoping anymore for help from Moreau, frontally threatened by Suvorov and on the flanks by Klenau and Hohenzollern, who, passed again the Po, were heading to Modena, Reggio and Parma, wrote a letter to Pérignon, (which however never reached its recipient). He wrote: “… All the division generals of the army of Naples are wounded, other than two; also wounded are forty and more Officers, adjudants and other generals or Chefs. Several demi-brigades have lost from 30 to 40 Officers. More than 12000 men are out of combat; the soldiers do not have more cartridges; the artillery without ammunition. Not having news neither of general in Chief Moreau, neither of general Lapoype, I must withdraw …”(from Chasteler Papers). Macdonald’s withdrawal began the same night. He left the campfires alight in the bivouacs to trick the enemy and marched away with the favour of the darkness, directed towards the Apennins passes.

The French losses described into Suvorov’s reports were the following: 1400 men, dead and 764 prisoners taken during the action of Bagration and Shvejkowsky against the Poles, Rusca and Victor; 400 dead and 126 prisoners taken by Förster in the attack against Montrichard; 600 men and 553 prisoner taken during the Melas/Ott attacks against Olivier, Watrin and Salme. The Coalition’s army captured 7 guns and 8 flags. General Olivier was severely wounded, having a leg amputated by a cannon shot, only Watrin and Calvin having avoided wounds. [6]

Gachot counted 1600 dead laying on the terrain. The Generals Olivier, Rusca, Salme, Cambray (died after the wounds), the adjudants Grandjean, Sarrazin, Liébault, Blondeau with other 502 Officers and 7183 soldiers wounded, were abandoned at Rocco, Sant’Antonio, Gossolengo, Piacenza and into the two camp hospitals of Combarino, recommended to the Austro-Russians and Parma’s Duke mercy. The Austro-Russian lost 5273 men, out of combat: the Austrians having 10 Officers and 244 soldiers dead, 1816 wounded and 497 missing; they lost also 660 horses. The Russians lost 4 Officers and 675 soldiers dead, one General, 1 Colonel, 2 Majors, 35 Officers and 2041 soldiers wounded for a total of 2759 men out of combat.

Austrian losses after the Trebbia – dead, wounded and missing

(source “KA FA Italien 1799 VI 30 A, Totale” in C.Duffy “Eagles over the Alps”, Emperor’s Press, 1999)

K.K.  IR Nádasdy                     

565

K.K.  IR Mittrowsky                   

198

K.K.  IR Fröhlich                       

348

K.K.  Grenadier Battalion Pertussy                       

106

K.K.  Grenadier Battalion Paar

109

K.K.  Grenadier Battalion Weber

62

K.K.  Grenadier Battalion Morzin

29

K.K.  Grenadier Battalion Wouwermann

102

K.K.  Grenadier Battalion Schiaffinati

37

K.K.  Light Battalion  Mihanovich

260

6th Banater Croats

115

K.K.  Light Dragoons Lobkowitz

107

K.K.  Light Dragoons Levenehr

76

K.K.  Light Dragoons Karacsaj

62

K.K.  Light Dragoons Wurttemberg – they were the reserve of Liechtenstein brigade

2

K.K.  Hussar Regiment Erzherzog Joseph

152

Artillery

64

Totals

2394

Other sources told the Coalition, over the three days of combats, had lost about 6,000 men from all causes. The Austrian lists included the losses sustained during the 20th, amounted to 254 dead, 1,903 wounded and 500 missing, a total of 2,657. The Russian losses were estimated in 681 dead, 2073 wounded, while the missing were unrecorded. Duffy says also that, upon the French losses “The only verifiable figures related to the French losses are those of the 7,183 untransportable wounded found by the allies in Piacenza, and the further 200 in Parma, from which it is fair to assume that with the dead, the transportable wounded and the missing the total could well have reached 12,000”.

Notes

[1] The regiment, during the Three Days battle, was led by Prince Liechtenstein and its divisions were under Prince Thurn un Taxis (1), Oberstlieut. Graf Alois Harrach (2), Major Ignaz Molitor (3) and Second Oberst Bernhard Grosser (4). It had some losses: 18 dragoons and 55 horses dead (among these Lieutenants Graf Mensdorff and Königstetten, aide of Prince Liechtenstein; lieut. Unruh died several days after, for the wounds suffered); 86 Dragoons and 114 horses wounded (among these the commander Oberst Prince Thurn und Taxis, Rittmeister Molitor and Rittmeister Prince Ysenburg); 3 men and 3 horses were missing. On the second battleday, a division was attached to the Bagration’s vanguard to restore the cavalry force, weakened during the previous battleday.

[2] “In a mixed column, the infantry, accompanied by its artillery, march at the head; and the cavalry always at the rear. A different arrangement would compromise the whole column in the case of a strong attack on the front, as was proved in the case of the central column of the French forces at the battle of the Trebbia (June 19, 1799).” De la Barre Duparcq, Elements of Military Art and History: Comprising the History and Tactics of the Separate Arms, transl. by George Cullum, Van Nostrand D. 1863, New York.

[3] Chef Chataignier tried to justify the rout: “Suddenly, from a little wood, appeared, by our left, a dense group of enemy cavalry charging. The Chasseurs of the 25th regiment, 150 men of the Olivier division, stood firmly and countercharged, but it was too late. The three Carabiniers coys of the 5th and the grenadiers of the 62th line infantry opened the fire and defended our two guns and one howitzer. I tried to rally my soldiers and I gathered almost 800 men forming the line to counterattack. But it was impossible to stop the enemy cavalry. I formed so a long rank of Tirailleurs fighting with them until the dusk…. I don’t know if I did all what was possible to do, but I think that charge would have been more difficult if Victor had controlled our left side, as he would have to do..” War Archives “Affaires de la Trebia

[4]The terrain was so thick of vines, that it was difficult to see anything.  We opened our way with the bayonets losing 6 Officers (dead), 22 Officers wounded and 300 men, dead or wounded.” War Archive “Darnaud’s report”.

[5] From Chodzko, op. cit. : “The 1st messidor (June 19), all the Gallo-Polish army attacked again the Austro-Russians. The Polish division crossed Trebbia close to Rivalta. It slipped by its line, so that the 2nd battalion was at the head: the mixed battalion made up of grenadiers, chasseurs, and of the 3rd battalion remainder followed; the 2nd and the brigade Calvin formed the rear. The ground, on the other side of the river, not being favourable for the moves of artillery and cavalry, they remained in reserve, to protect an eventual retreat, where necessary. Brun, with his half-brigade and the 1st battalion, covered this movement towards the left. The enemy wanted to dispute the passage of Trebbia, but was driven out at Rivalta. Division made a half-turn on the right, the pivot being this village, and went forward. However, being the interval too large, Dąbrowski took a French demi-brigade, which had not yet completed its movement, and placed it there to cover the troops. By this movement, the deployment became perpendicular to Trebbia and the army.

The attack began “par echelons”; Calvin brigade first, then the Polish legion, and last the French demi-brigade. The enemy was dislodged away from its positions. They drove out it from all the houses and gardens, which it had occupied, without ceasing to pursue. The right wing of the division had already gone beyond Tuna and had joined the Rusca division, which.”

[6] To these numbers must be added the French losses of the third day (combat of San Giorgio – 1029 prisoners) and those of the rearguard fights on June 21 (Ott against the French rearguard – 120 prisoners), with the Veletsky attack against Lapoype near Bobbio (103 prisoners) and finally the Hohenzollern results of the Parma’s occupation (other 200 prisoners). The totale losses (dead) of these action were utter 500 men. For the Russians the French wounded found at Piacenza and Parma were 7383, the total of Frenchmen out of combat was not less than 2500-3000 (counting the dead ones) and, considering also 4500 prisoners of war, we can realize the Macdonalds’ army reduced by about 15000-16000 men, which left a number of about 10000 men surviving fit to combat.

Placed on the Napoleon Series: July 2008

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