Military Subjects: Battles & Campaigns

The 1799 Campaign in Italy: The Battle of Trebbia -- June 1799 Part II: The Three Day Battle at the Trebbia -- Third Day of the Trebbia – a Missing Army

By Enrico Acerbi

The Armée de Naples left the Trebbia in the following order:

First was the left wing (Victor, Rusca and Dąbrowsky) under Victor’s command, which became the new right wing. Its last company left Gossolengo at half past midnight; the column followed a group of sapper’s group, reached San Giorgio, and passed over the Nure Bridge.

Following was the right wing (now the new left wing), with the remnants of the divisions Montrichard, Watrin and Olivier, in two columns marching through Roncaglia and Ponte Nure under the command of General Watrin. Some cavalry detachments had the task of maintaining the bivouacs fires.

The rearguard was assumed by the 12th Line Demi-Brigade, which cleared Piacenza and moved its trains and baggage, and leaving the local hospitals  full of men wounded. On June 20, the demi-brigade, whose march was slowed by the carriages, was attacked by some Cossacks patrols, which, were outnumbered by the rearguard and they soon retreated.

The Coalition’s chiefs were completely surprised by the French retreat. Their vanguard and the Cossack cleared the terrain between Gossolengo and Piacenza, then the main army advanced. After arriving at San Polo, the army deployed for battle upon viewing San Giorgio di Nure occupied by French troops: Förster in the middle, Bagration on the right and Shvejkowsky on the left. San Giorgio, 13 kilometers  from Piacenza, was a strategic point, defended by the hill and surrounded by the Nure creek, which made an half-circle around its western side. The river, itself, had a 300 meter wide bed and presented the same characteristics of the Tidone River, being only more winding. The San Giorgio bridge (some meters away from the current one) was built of stone and had two houses (cascine) on its right side. A causeway 6 meters high and 400 meters long,  flanked by dense pinetrees, went across the bridge into the village – which had 50 houses that were built around the church and an old medieval castle. Victor, having not had the time to destroy the bridge, had left there the Poles, with three battalions, one cavalry regiment and 6 guns with lots of ammunitions.

S.Giorgio detachment Chef de Brigade Jérôme-Joseph Goris

Artillery and sappers (6 guns battery)

53

17th Line Demi-brigade: Chef de Brigade Jérôme-Joseph Goris

1100

II Infantry Battalion 1st Polish Legion: Chef  Józef Chłopicki

150

Detachment from the 19th Chasseurs-à-Cheval Regiment    

30

The first troops to approach San Giorgio were the Karacsay Dragoons, which, when welcomed with a rain of cannonballs, were disordered and retreated. The Russians deployed their first line with the Chubarov Jäger left of the bridge and other two infantry battalions on the right. Their second line was held by four grenadier battalions. They carried some guns, forming a battery between the two houses, next to the bridge. The first attack was brought by two companies , which crossed the bridge charging but being annihilated by the Polish musketry and gunnery. A third company under the insults Bagration’s staff, which barked at them to advance and hit with sabres those who fell back, met the same fate. At noon, came Fieldmarshal Suvorov. He, very upset as usual, showed the points by which the creek could have been forded. He then formed an attack column with the Rozenberg Grenadiers, the Chubarov Jäger, the Karacsay Dragoons and the Cossacks of his escort and ordered them to advance. They forded the Nure, sinking up to their belts, while being harassed by the enemy musketry. North of the bridge other  troops from Förster’s and Shvejkowsky’s Divisions crossed the river. The village, thus, was attacked by three sides, as the defenders, strangely, were not ready to fight. [1]

In spite of the hard resistance of the 17th Line, almost the whole garrison was forced to give up the arms. The Coalition  troops took as prisoners the whole 17th Line (1100) with two superior officers, 100 Poles, 30 chasseurs with their horses, 1 flag, two pennants, 2 howitzers, and four guns.

The brilliant behaviour of a young artillery adjudant, Antoine Drouot, [2] however allowed Macdonald to reach the Liguria, saving the remnants of his army. 

The Italians Revolt

We don’t know what Suvorov had in mind when, after the contacts with Macdonald were definitively lost, he entered Piacenza and chose the same room utlized by Bonaparte, for his rest. We can imagine he was not so happy, having received an order from Vienna, by which the Austrian Emperor asked him to pause the advance and to send a regiment at Mantua, to support Kray. Many citizens there, knowing the famous Field Marshal was at Scotti palace, gathered under his windows crying “Evviva il vincitore!” (Long live to the Winner!). While there, Suvorov, went to visit the wounded in the Sant’Agostino Church, attending to a very sad job, in the middle of stench and blood. Out of the church, some bourgeois citizens made complaints upon the violent behaviour of the Russians in the city. This was the final spark which enlighted the nervous “Trebbia hero” and (so is related in the private papers of Chevalier Doranovo) he let Piacenza to be pillaged and, more, let the officers hved an orgy with the crying sisters of a local abbey. The day after, Gregorio Cerati, Bishop of Piacenza, visited Suvorov. He found him with bare feet, poorly dressed, eating some fruit. The religious Field Marshal fell on his knees imploring the Bishop’s blessing. The Bishop hesitated, but the Marquis Mandelli said: “But You bless also the animals! Don’t you?”. The Bishop, had come to complain the sacrilege committed against the poor Sisters, many of which had been also wounded or killed, gave his blessing, rather unwillingly.

On June 24, the pillage of the city continued. Some citizen shot at the Russians fron the windows of their houses, which were put in flames, shooters included. Gachot’s description, probably was a little exaggerated, however, the peasants,  former insurgents against the French, began to arm themselves against the Austro-Russians, or more likely anyone that was military, irregardless of what uniform they wore.  This, together with the unbreathable air because of the stench of decaying dead, and the fear of an epidemic, compelled Suvorov to order his immediate return to Alexandria.

There he was reached by the good news of a reinforcement corps under General Rehbinder, who was at Padua, The Austro-Russian army was spread over the Italian territory and no major action was done until July-August.

Summer 1799 – Location of the Austro-Russian in Italy after the Trebbia Battle

Piedmont – camp La Spinetta near Alexandria (Orba creek)

28000

Border Cordon Acqui – Ovada – Novi – Bobbio. Avantgarde Austro-Russian

28000

Piedmont Garrisons Susa – Pinerolo – Savigliano – Fossano - Cherasco

8000

Border garrisons – Aosta valley and St. Bernard – Simplon passes – Higher Valois

12000

Tuscany garrisons

8000

Mantua siege

29000

Alexandria siege

11000

Tortona siege

3500

Various garrisons – 2 Sqns. +

26 Battalions 

Total (100000 infantry, 12000 cavalry)

112.000

Notes 

[1]Thinking the enemies blocked at the bridge, the cavalry had unsaddled their horses, taking some rest, while the Poles had “invaded” the castle canteens chanting and shouting around masses of wine bottles. Only the light infantry was ready to fight.

[1] Lieutenant Antoine Drouot (Nancy January 11, 1774 – dead March 24, 1847) surnamed by Napoleon “the Wise man of the Grande Armée”, was actually Adjudant d’artillerie. He studied at the Application School in Metz, where he was so brilliant to enlist as Second Lieutenant in the 1st foot artillery regiment. He was with the North army at Fleurus and then in Italy. In 1799 he was charged to save the Turin’s artillery and to carry the heavy trains of the Moreau army, from Piedmont to France. He also helped Macdonald to retreat through the Appennins, covering his army with entrenched positions.

Placed on the Napoleon Series: July 2008

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