The 1799 Campaign in Italy: The Last Battles & the End of the Directory’s Wars August-December 1799
Championnet’s Attack – Clashes at Beinette Village
From 20 to 27 September, the French continued the bombardment of Fort Bard in the lower Aosta Valley, which was defended by Austrain Captain Bernkopf. Prince Rohan was pushed down the valleys till Sesto Calende by the French General Tharreau’s troops (armée d’Helvétie). Now the menace for Turin came from the north. In order to support Hadik at Ivrea and with the task to push back the French up to the Aosta Mountains, Mélas organized a new unit (a brigade) under the command of General Bussy with the Archduke Joseph Hussars. It was at Turin on September 26, through Carmagnola, and then, together with the Bellegarde Brigade (Kray’s Division), marched north to Ivrea where, on September 29, they were attached to the general Kray and Hadik Corps. This deployment so worried General Malet’s units, they returned in Aosta valley, left Fort Bard free from beisegers, and recovered in the Great St. Bernard zone (as did Tharreau[i] at Domodossola) without any engagement. The calmness of that mountain front, let Mélas recall Kray and his troops to the new Austrian headquarters. In effect, having secured his right and northern flanks, the general-in-chief transferred the main Austrian headquarters to a beautiful “villa” near Fossano, la Trinità, from where it was easier to control Coni and Mondovì.
Championnet had come to the last days of his first month as chief of the army, being hit from much criticism (together with the Paris Directoire). Jomini heavily criticized Championnet’s early plans, considering it would have been better to unite the whole Corps in a single mass of 18000 men and launch them together from Saluzzo, instead of in unuseful little columns guerrilla. This could have been achieved better results, waiting the involvement of the southern divisions of Victor and Lemoine. In order to justify Championnet we can say that he was not yet, at the time, the only commander, dividing the command with Moreau till September 21 and that 18 battalions of his army (with 12 cavalry squadrons) had been engaged, by a Directory’s order, in a “stupid” march in the interior, to refit Massena troops in Switzerland. This was “stupid” because a second, contradictory order redirected those units to Championnet; and this was not agreable for soldiers, marching in the mountains with poor clothing and no food at all.
However Championnet was not a man who resigned so easy. He stood firmly and wanted to reunite the troops in front of Coni, with the exception of St. Cyr, covering Genoa, in order to attack there the Austrians. This plan had no future, however, as the Austrians had had time to fortify the strongpoints around Coni (Fossano, Mondovì, Ceva, Beinette and Castelletto), had concentrated their main army near Morozzo and Brà, between the Stura and Tanaro rivers, leaving Karacsaj’s weak division behind to control the Novi road. On September 25 the two detached divisions to the left wing, but in effect the new army center (Victor and Lemoine with 16000 men) had orders for their troops: the first up to the Corsaglia Valley, the second through Lesegno to Mondovì. The new plan also provided a 3000 men brigade, under General Jean Louis Gaspard Josnet de Laviolais, coming to Coni from the Tenda pass and General Gardanne (a detachment from Laboissière’s Division) supporting the center-right at Millesimo and Castellino. In effect the French army left its camps only on October 2. Duhesme went down the mountains up to Pinerolo (Pignerol), Müller with Richepance did the same up to Saluzzo (Saluces) and, on their right, Victor marched through Frabosa Sottana, Casotto, Battifoglio and Villanova. Lemoine approached the new front marching through Cairo, Millesimo, Bagnasco and Monasterolo. Victor kept the 33rd Demi-Brigade in his vanguard (and this will reveal a fatal destiny for the French veteran unit). The task of the army right wing (St. Cyr with about 16000 men) was to support the main attack with some pressure against Novi and Tortona.
On September 28, General Lemoine reached his new positions together with Gardanne, the first at San Michele, the second at Niella. Championnet on September 30 was at Bagnasco with the headquarters, waiting there news from Victor, who had the task to seize Mondovì. Victor, however, had some resistance at Villanova and the delay allowed the Austrians to reinforce the Mondovì environs (about 6000 men at Breolungi). Championnet, on October 1st, ordered Seras to occupy Vico and, realizing the capture of Mondovì too expensive to perform in order of the few advantages of that position, ordered Grenier to stop his surrounding manoeuver behind the town. The French deployed in almost a defensive way, Victor and Lemoine at the northern side of the first Apennins slopes, Gardanne, as Lemoine’s right, behind to watch the Ceva fortress, Seras at Battifollo linking with Victor by patrols.
On October 1, a strong French column marched from Villanuova toward Mondovì. The attack against the citadel achieved little. It was well managed by the citadel (the upper part of the town) commander Colonel Ried. The French started to plunder the houses but were attacked by 150 enraged citizens supported by 30 milicians of the Piedmontese provicial regiment of Mondovì. Pushed back in the plains, the French detachment was hit in the rear by a cavalry squadron of Gottesheim’s force. This forced the opponents to return to their Villanuova camp. General Gottesheim then, the following day, advanced his vanguard to Vico(forte), on the Mondovì southern height, in order to control the situation in a better way. Mélas advanced also Loudon’s Brigade (6 grenadier battalions and the Levenehr Dragoons) in order to support Gottesheim. General Loudon deployed his units at Chiusa di Pesio, attacked the French position, easily taking 70 prisoners (with a certain General Guilotte among them ??) but, above all, took a whole ammunition park of about 60000 musket bullets [ii]. On October 3, Loudon withdrew through Beinette until his camp at Magliano. Now, with Gottesheim at Vico, the quickest French way of communication between Lemoine and Victor crossed the village of Beinette, a small group of houses between Cuneo and Mondovì. On October 3, Victor’s vanguard, led by Chef Roguet, entered the free little village and put itself in defence formation.
Championnet advanced on October 8 with about 12000 men against Boves and Peveragno, sending forward patrols to observe the enemy positions. During the morning of the following day the French advanced and seized the former Austrian outposts of Busca and Margarita, now abandoned. They went ahead while the opponent enforced strongly Saluzzo and Savigliano, sending 3 grenadiers Battalions (and the Lobkowitz Dragoons) to help Gottesheim at Morozzo. They engaged the French in some bloody skirmishes (the Austrians lost 179 men dead or wounded, leaving 120 prisoners in the French hands).
FML Kray, returned from Ivrea, gathered a force organized with the Brigades Bussy, Bellegarde and Adorjan at Fossano and marched against Murazzo; his vanguard deployed within Madonna dell’Olmo and Ronchi. There arrived also General Elsnitz, moved from his Centallo camp. The Austrians built a boat-bridge at Montanera, over the Stura (October 12). The main army Corps (Zoph’s, Liechtenstein’s, and Ott’s Divisions) advanced till the new Margarita camp, on October 12, at 6.00 a.m., safely covered by some morain heights and the Brobbio gorge (Breolungi?) at its left wing. Gottesheim deployed in front of the camp, between Brobbio and Beinette, while the Oberst Festenberg had orders to command the outposts from Villanuova till Mondovì and the Deutschmeister Colonel Brixen those from Cherasco (where was an 4 Battalion) till Carrù, along the Ellero and Tanaro banks. Some support troops were behind Santa Maria la Rocca and another one Battalion seized Castelletto Stura. These were the new starting points from where they could engage the large battle Mélas had in mind to do.
The French had 2000 men on the Cuneo road, in the Beinette village, the target of the newt Austrian attack. On October 13, during the night, General Mittrowsky advanced against Beinette, with his 6 Battalions and 4 squadrons, and at 2.00 a.m. the village was occupied. The French retreated in two columns: the first till Chiusa while the second stood in front of Cuneo. During the afternoon, at 2.00 p.m., the French returned to attack the village with other two columns. Beinette was taken, then lost after an Austrian counterattack and strongly defended by the Weber grenadiers with one Battalion of Fürstenberg infantry against the general Poinsot’s brigade; twice the Austrian cavalry charged and cleared the center of the village and twice Poinsot entered it with bayonets. During the last attacks, late in the afternoon, the Austrians were pushed out of the houses but a charge of the 5 Levenehr Dragoons squadrons hit the rear of the little town taking prisoners a colonel, 15 officers and 450 French troopers. With the oncoming night the French had to retreat having left some hundred prisoners in Austrian hands. Now the Margarita camp seemed to be too advanced and too exposed to the danger of being captured. The Austrian made shorter their line and their right wing approached the center. In detail, Mélas decided a further rearrangement of his army: the right wing went all on the right Stura bank, enforcing the Castelletto garrison; the left wing had Morozzo as strongpoint which, like Castelletto, had many guns between the houses. The two villages were also protected with trenches. On October 18, the new “Vorpostenkette” (chain of outposts) started at Centallo and went through Villafalletto and Saluzzo at the north, Tetti di Pesio, Trucchi and Beinette on the other side eastwards, along the Brobbio creek, linking with Mondovì. The right wing was under the FML Kray command, while Gottesheim had the command of the San Biagio line, south of Morozzo on the left wing, at the confluence of the Pesio with the Brobbio creek.
On October 19, the French put the frontline in great alarm. On the left bank of the Stura they advanced in three columns against the Elsnitz lines, on the road of Ronchi, on the great causeway to Centallo and, through Passatore, toward San Benigno. Other smaller detachments marched toward Mondovì and Carrù, while Beinette was again occupied with 2000 men, to whom the Austrians left the doors open. Victor’s Division, therefore, gave thanks to the Austrian vanguard and, on the opposite side, the Deutschmeister Regiment repulsed at Carrù a French attempt to encircle the Austrian left. General Mèlas had in mind to attract the French in a large battle in the plain fields. In accordance with this idea, the Beinette village could have been the trigger of that wide combat. So he ordered the attack against Victor during the October 21 morning, at dawn. For this purpose, General Ott, preceded by Gottesheim, advanced with 10 battalions and 4 cavalry squadrons. In spite of Victor’s hard defence, Beinette fell again in Austrian hands, with the Austrians taking two guns and 530 prisoners, while another 600 French men were out of combat (dead or wounded); the Austrians had only 10 dead and 131 wounded.
During the same day, Gardanne’s Brigade, and part of Lemoine’s Division, now linked with Victor at Peveragno and seizing the heights around Mondovì, attacked Villanuova (today Villanova di Mondovì). At dusk the village was still defended by the brave Rittmeister (captain) Vecsey [iv], who taking advantage from the darkness was able to disengage his cavalry, recovering to San Biagio. Ths caused Mélas to organize a new brigade, under command of the vanguard leader Colonel Brixen and formed by 5 battalions, sending it to defend the road coming from Villanuova and Monastero, from where the French could approach too close the Mondovì citadel. The French had concentrated 3000 men and 11 guns around Villanuova, other 1500 men were at San Michele, 600 at Briaglia and 500 at Bagnasco, rather surrounding the fortified town. Nevertheless all remained calm until the 25th of October, with only some French enforcements around Mondovì, to which commander, Colonel Ried, was sent a letter of surrender. During this events General Brixen and his 5 battalions had deployed at Breo, Crassone and Pian della Valle, from where he could try to attack Vico, while another Austrian brigade under Count Auersperg (6 battalions and 2 Archduke John Dragoons squadrons) had marched (October 26) from the Montanera camp, north of Castelletto Stura, toward Carrù, at the extreme left wing. The following day Auersperg entered the village of Niella, where a French detachment of 400 men were entrenched on an hilltop. After leaving there two battalions to clear the enemy outpost, the Austrians drove directly to San Michele, near Lesegno and found the Lemoine reserve troops, a the defensive line formed by the Demi-Brigades 5th Light, 34th Line and 74th Line which was repeatedly attacked. The final attack drove back the French toward Vico, but the incoming night hampered the pursue (Lemoine lost 28 dead, 148 wounded and 386 prisoners). In the meanwhile Brixen made an attack from the north and forced the French to retreat, but destiny soon changed and the Austrians were pursued until the first Mondovì entrenchments (400 Austrians were made prisoners, among whom were 6 officers). Brixen lost 31 men dead, of his regiment, and other 49 were taken prisoners by the French.
Now there were all the premises which could drive the two armies toward a large battle, all were united and linked and too close each together. After that moment, the river Stura plain, in front of Cuneo, became a daily battlefield, where Mélas, in spite of his central position, which allowed him to beat every French force separately, kept a careful attitude, maybe worrying about a French advance from Switzerland to his rear.
In October, then, in order to enforce the northern defences, the Austrians merged also together some weak battalions at Turin, remnants of the previous operations and created a totally new regiment: the K.K. 63 (in 1809 it will be renamed 55) entitled to the Archduke Franz Joseph (a future Emperor) and formed by Belgian (Wallonian) troops:
After the middle days of October, the snow begun to fall on the mountains, the roads becoming rough and muddy, Championnet had to decide what could have been the better decision to take. The simplest could have been the retreat to the Riviera hoping for a better supplying organization for the tired troops (something was changing at Paris) but this would have left alone Coni (Cuneo) with his garrison. The second possible decision was to engage a large battle with the Austrians, enforcing, after a victory, the plains occupation in order to pass there the winter; and this was a risk. The French army did not have great morale nor sufficient means to survive an hard winter. In this second option, however, it would have been better to engage the right wing (St. Cyr) against Novi and let Watrin with Laboissière and Lemoine to hit the Austrian left flank from Alba and Acqui. The weak Austrian force (which fought at the Bosco battle on October 24) could have not resisted to a similar attack, would probably have lost Tortona and Alessandria, menacing all the way of communication between Piedmont and Lombardy. To hit the main Austrian army in the Coni plains, in every case, seemed the last option to take, above all for the Austrian superiority in cavalry and guns. Championnet chose the latter and this was his final ruin.
[i] Général Jean Victor Tharreau (or Thareau) (1867-1812) An infantry division general, dead because of suffered wounds. In 1794 was general brigadier (April 2) and Chief o staff at the Ardennes army. In the periodo 1796-1799 led an infantry division in the Rhine army. In 1799 acted as brigade commander in the Danube army until April 20, when he was definitevely promoted to the rank of division general. In 1809 commanded the 2nd division on infantry grenadiers in the II Corps (army of Germany). Participated in the 1812 camapign where he was wounded, dying some time later.
[ii]A detail which, if confirmed by French accounts, would reveal an absolute lack of prudence (military competence?) of general Victor Perrin. As for the author, this seems an impossible event, as generally the ammunitions parks were positioned in the rear lines, in particular when living times of deep shortage of materials.
[iii] Jomini refers the 38th demi-brigade as part of the Poinsot brigade, but that unit was in Switzerland.
[iv]Cavalry captain Vécsey will die at the 27 october battle, called of the Stura, and, having distinguished by the capture of about 200 French, got the name of Vécsey von Villanuova.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: May 2009
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