The 1799 Campaign in Italy: the 4th Battle of Novi (4 - 6 November 1799)
The Imperial Vanguards Advance
General Compans’ Brigade (of Grenier’s Division, led by François Muller) had had the difficult task of covering the retreat of the division, standing on the Valdigi Crossroads and, after, on the Centallo Road. He had stoutly defended a bridge, allowing the division and the reserve troops to cross the stream and to escape. Compans then camped at Vignolo and there he was attacked by the Austrian vanguard, on November 6, where a French battalion routed in front of an heavy Austrian cavalry charge. Compans, with two chasseurs-a-cheval squadrons, counterattacked and stopped the Austrians.
On November 10, flanked by Richepance, Compans was almost overrun by the whole Austrian vanguard, which had repaired the Vignolo bridge, but his defence was strong enough to allow Richepance’s cavalry to withdraw along the valley’s causeways till Demonte. (The Austrians called the fight the Borgo San Dalmazzo battle). Ott’s and Mittrowsky’s Divisions were ordered to pursue the enemies up to the Grana and Stura Valleys. They, having overrun Caraglio, had met the French at Borgo S. Dalmazzo, where they were hit with artillery fire and forced to retreat again.
The two French rearguard columns split in two branches: Richepance went up the Stura di Demonte valley until Vinadio and later to the Argentera zone. Compans, on November 11 and 12, had other skirmishes (Robilante and Vernante) and then retreated to Limone, col di Tenda and Briga, ending the year under Victor in the defence of the French winter-quarters on the Genoese Riviera.
The Austrians pursued the retreating Championnet’s forces with a new and modern tactical way of combat,[i] by splitting all their troops in the valley into columns, which pushed back the French up to the Alps passes. Championnet, with Lemoine and Victor, recovered in Mondovì, where a strong Austrian attack, carried by Prince Liechtenstein and Mittrowsky, drove them out of the town and forced the three generals to march to the Tanaro Heights (November 13). The French rearguard was attacked at Bagnasco, but it was able to resist, but not for a very long time. It was adequate to allow the main retreating force to reach Garessio, Ormea and Ponte di Nava, all towns, which later would be occupied by the Austrians. Along the Stura valley, General Ott’s vanguard (as said) pushed Richepance’s forces through Demonte towards Les Barricades and the Argentera Mountain, while Lattermann cleared the Maira valley occupying Busca and Dronero. General Elsnitz’s vanguards pursued Grenier until Limone and then to Briga and Tenda. Lastly, Duhesme, was forced by Kaim to quickly reach the Mont Geneve Pass and so the French disappeared from the Piedmont, leaving back only the Coni Garrison, which destiny seemed to have no future.
On the Championnet’s right wing the rearguard task was given to the Chef Roguet, who was ordered, on November 7, to clear the well-known (for him) road to Ormea, through Ceva. The II Battalion of the 33rd Line reached Nolcetto and went down from the Morere Heights through the Cevetta Stream, passed by Sale and stopped in front of the ols piedmontese Pedaggera redoubt. There the Chef-de-Battalion ordered the attack against the trenches at Faja, Bayonne and Testanera, in order to cut the line of communications of the Ceva fortress. Roguet and about 200 French were at the Nolcetto Bridge, while another 4 companies of the 1st Battalion were at Nolcetto with the task of observing the Lesegno road. The rest of the 1st Battalion blocked all the other roads to the fortress waiting the Austrian columns. Otherwise the Imperials did not any pursue in the higher Tanaro Valley and on the 17th of November all the French army began to deploy into their winter-quarters. Roguet left Ceva and reached the St. Bernard of Garessio with his two Battalions. The 33rd was one of the few Demi-Brigades which stood in their winter places, the main part of the others having deserted because of the severe climate, the lack of food and clothes, and a general demoralization.
Gouvion Saint Cyr’s Mousetrap at the Fourth Battle of Novi (November 4 - 6, 1799)
While the main armies clashed at Genola, Gouvion St. Cyr maintained his positions from Serravalle, through Novi and Rivalta until Bosco. He had carried 18 siege guns to Serravalle ordering the building of new fixed batteries against the fort. His opponent, FML Kray, had orders to clear the Bormida valley, pushing the French south, towards the mountains. The Fieldmarshal organized a mobile column and went up along the river to its springs, destroying the French bridge along the way. The town of Acqui, seized by the French, was left behind with Major Fulda’s detachment (a division from the 5th Hussars and some Piedmontese provincial militia companies). On November 3, Fulda attacked the town, cleared it from the weak French garrison, and advanced till Terzo. There he crossed the Bormida capturing the French rearguard (2 captains, 5 lieutenants and 309 men); the remnants of the opponents drove to Ponzone.
General Kray could have operated in front of Alexandria from November 2, 1799, but the river Bormida was in flood and it was impossible to cross it. On 3 November, St. Cyr enforced his defensive screen, waiting for the plausible Austrian attack. The Serravalle Fortress, and its Austrian garrison, was blocked with other two guns, the Polish Chasseurs and besieged with the 2nd Battalion of the Legion under Jablonowsky. Dąbrowsky’s Division was sent back to Fresonara, in order to cover the flank of Laboissière. After having ended his Bormida task, Kray, returned to Alexandria. He split his force into three main columns and, in the morning of 4 November, moved ahead, crossing the river Bormida at Marengo approaching the enemy outposts: Fresonara, Gazzi, Pozzolo and Bettole.
The Austrians marched in two main columns: the first drove against Laboissière at Frugarolo, the second marched to Quattro Cascine to attack Watrin, deployed from Pozzolo till Rivalta with the main corps of the division. Suddenly the third Austrian column emerged from San Giuliano and advanced toward Rivalta Scrivia. The effects of these first moves were a general French slow withdrawal. Laboissiére went back joining the Poles at Fresonara. Then Dąbrowsky advanced 4 guns, in order to protect the two divisions, and the French deployed their battle lines. The two opponents opened with artillery but the main Austrian manoeuver appeared soon to be directed against the Scrivia. At this point, St Cyr, worrying about being outflanked on his left, ordered an evening withdrawal to Novi, taking positions on the “old battle” heights, a rough terrain where the powerful Austrian cavalry could not easily manoeuver. There he placed Dąbrowsky’s 4 guns. The Polish general had sent a battalion of the 106th Line to Basaluzzo to watch the Acqui road, then brought his other units behind the town of Novi, while Laboissière was ordered to seize Pasturana.
Before the French began to entrench themselves in more defendable positions, Kray’s attacks continued all day, in the attempt to drive toward the town of Novi. Seeing these hard and difficult efforts, Kray warned the new Acqui garrison (the two De Vins Battalions with the Croatians of Warasdin) ordering them to be ready to march over the Basaluzzo flank. In the meanwhile the French completed the building of the Serravalle batteries, (they would begin a heavy bombardment against the fortress at the next dawn). The night arrived and the Austrians were forced to camp along the Novi road (called the Strada Levata), in three large groups. All through the day, the Austrians had continued their artillery bombardment, without receiving any reply from the French guns. (Dąbrowsky had received two more pieces for his left wing).
At dusk, Watrin had completed his retreat, deploying the troops at Novi, in front of the Poles, from that moment to be considered as a tactical reserve. Dąbrowsky formed his right with the 3rd Line, supported by two guns and one howitzer, at the beginning of the Gavi road, while the Poles and the 106th Line formed the center-left, watching the Francavilla road. The Uhlans were deployed near Pasturana, linking with Laboissère units. Iablonowsky, in the meanwhile, continued his vain bombardment against Serravalle. That night Kray divided his 12,000 men into four columns each headed by 4 guns, ready for the general advance.
With the first daylight of 5 November, the right Austrian column crossed Fresonara, the center advanced toward Pozzolo and the left attacked the outpost of Bettole di Novi. Another 300 Austrians, with some cavalry, moved from Tortona till Cassano Spinola, while on the other, right, wing, Major Fulda Hussars patrolled the Orba banks, with the task to catch the opportunity to hit the French in their rear side. During the morning a violent rainfall hit the battlefield, the ground became muddy and a thick fog blocked the sight, impeding the reconnaissance. Cautiously advancing, the Austrians focused the new enemy positions. It was impossible to perform any military operations during the rest of the day and all was delayed to the next morning.
On 6 November, at 10 a.m., Kray ordered the attack on the Novi and Pasturana heights (the same attack as in August 15). The Austrian vanguard (one battalion of the Archduke of Tuscany Regiment with two Erdödy Hussars squadrons) advanced from Pozzolo Formigaro toward Novi. On their left, were 4 Croatian companies of Warasdin, one Bussy squadron with 150 volunteers of the 44th Belgiojoso, led by the Colonel Brentano; on the vanguard’s right advanced two battalions of the Kray Regiment, one Battalion De Vins and two 5th Hussars squadrons. While they were advancing, the French lines were beaten by a strong bombardment from the reserve artillery batteries. On the Austrian right, the skirmishers climbed up the steep slopes and formed a chain on the top in order to launch a simultaneous attack. Those who had reached the top of the plateau now formed three columns, with the two Battalions Kray and 2 De Vins companies on the right (this column was later reinforced with two Fröhlich Infantry Battalions and the rest of the De Vins Regiment under General Hadik’s command.) The central column was formed with two Tuscany infantry Battalions, 3 Bussy squadrons, 2 Erdödy hussars squadrons under Generalmajor Vogelsang and the left, under Colonel Frimont, had the volunteers and the Warasdiner, as told above, with 2nd Tuscany infantry companies and 2 Bussy jäger squadrons. The two Light Infantry Rohan Battalions and 2 squadrons of the 5th Hussars were sent against Pasturana. In the Lemme valley, near Francavilla was sent the infantry light Battalion Munkacsy and another 5th Hussars squadron; all these latter forces were under the command of Colonel Revay.
The battle started at midday. All the Austrian right wing deployed on the Novi plateau in front of the enemies, when the other two columns moved ahead. The Tuscany infantry sent its skirmishers against Novi, advancing in three columns. Hadik and Vogelsang advanced finding all little resistance. On the extreme right, Colonel Revay, was not able to seize Pasturana, where the French seemed more bellicose. General Kray ordered two Fröhlich companies to march in support of the weak Revay troops. Colonel Frimont had advanced slowly and had arrived almost near Serravalle. With the oncoming night the French seemed all in retreat towards Gavi, only the Tuscany infantry having trouble in marching forward.
The French had received orders to defend the positions, but not to die there. They were instructed to perform a slow retreat until they could join Dąbrowsky, deploying Watrin on the right and Laboissière on the left of the weak French-Polish division. In this way, Kray, would have had the feeling of an extreme weakness of the defence. It was a kind of trap, where Kray was the actual mouse.
In effect all happened as the brilliant intuition of St.Cyr had expected it to occur. When the extreme left Austrian column (Frimont) attacked Watrin, he retreated, apparently forcing Laboissière to follow his movement. The French front seemed totally to collapsed and only the Reserve (Dąbrowsky) held in the center. Behind it, the two divisions of the first line were rallying the troops. The Austrian columns converged on the center, in a disordered movement, following their guns and the cavalry patrols. It was in that precise moment that the five St.Cyr’s guns opened fire, crushing the massed Austrians. In the great chaos, which followed the bombardment, the 106th Demi-Brigade counterattacked with its bayonets and pushed back the Austrians, who had had no time to rally. A large breach was open in the center of the Austrian deployment and in it ran the French, widening their front to the wing and cutting the retreat to the outer Austrians columns.
The Austrians fled to Pozzolo pursued by the running Poles. This bloody counterattack cost to the Poles 60 men dead and other 60 wounded, among whom was the Legion Chef Strzalkowski, severely hit by a ball.
The Austrian rout was held back in some by a brave counter-charge by the light cavalry (Jäger zu Pferd of Bussy), under the future Field Marshal Frimont, along the Scrivia, who also covered the retreat toward the original positions in Alexandria. In the center the fleeing infantry of the Tuscany Regiment rallied after Pozzolo and stood firmly, blocking the battlefield. The French left wing was slowed by an extreme movement of General Hadik who sent back the Regiment Kray with one battery to stop the enemy. Laboissière, however, charged himself pushing back the Austrians till Bosco. During this charge the Austrians abandoned 5 of their guns along the way. Night stopped the battle.
For the first time, in 1799 the renowned General Kray had been soundly defeated. This brilliant event, however, was completely overcome by the bad news from Genola. The French lost about 400 men (killed, wounded and missing), while Kray lost 1,000 men (killed, wounded and missing) with 5 guns - four of which were captured by the 106th Line. [ii]
During the retreat, Frimont, had sent two Bussy squadrons, under Major Degenfeld, and the two companies of the 23rd at Serravalle to try to contact the locale commander, Captain Turba. He was able to speak to him and had the guarantee the garrison would resist (having had only 4 men dead). In spite of the battle won, however, St.Cyr decided it was better to seize more defensible positions, abandoning the old line of Bosco and Quattro Cascine and entrenching on the Novi heights. On 10 November Dąbrowsky was ordered to seize Ovada, recalling the Jablonowsky brigade at Serravalle. The movement was made during the night of the 10th and the 11th, as the Austrian outpost always under alarm. The division marched through Basaluzzo, while the artillery had to be sent to Gavi, lacking the possibility to have a secure march during the night. The 3rd Line and the 1st Polish Battalion occupied Silvano and Castelletto (both Orba), with outposts at Capriata. The 106th Line was at Rocca Grimalda with outposts at la Pedaggera, while the Polish Chasseurs were between the two forces, the grenadiers and the 3rd Battalion at Cremolino, the Ulans at Molare, the 2nd Battalion at Tagliolo and the HQs at Ovada. On 15 November, the 3rd Line was recalled to Genoa and the 2nd and 3rd Polish Battalions took its former positions at Silvano and Castelletto.
The situation remained unchanged until 26 November (5 frimaire) when Miollis’ Division (St. Cyr’s right wing) took position on the mountains and when the left wing front changed facing toward Acqui. On 1 December, snow fell in large amounts forcing the French to withdraw the advanced positions. Dąbrowsky withdrew his HQs at Masone, the 106th line was deployed at Morbello, Capanne and Poggio, the Polish Legion at Rossiglione and Campofreddo, the cavalry, with only 100 horses, at Voltri by the sea.
[i] Mélas, Genola report (Kr.A., Italien, 1799, F.A. XI, 89. Original completely and personally handwritten) “… In all these valleys several prisoners were taken, and because the FML Kaim sent off the required Streif-Commandi (patrols) also in the Po valley, everywhere was done a significant damage to the enemy … “.
[ii] As usual the Austrians gave lower numbers. They said they lost 69 men dead, 386 wounded (14 the Officers), 239 prisoners (4 the Officers) and 113 horses (dead or wounded). The Tuscany infantry lost its 3 guns.
[iii] Fieldmarshal Freiherr Ludwig von Vogelsang (born at Bruxelles on 12.12.1748 – died in the Josephstadt fortress in the night 27-28.6.1822). Son of the Luxembourg fortress commander Christian, he entered the service as Officer in the 9 Clerfayt regiment. With the regiment he fought in Germany till 1797, named provisional generalmajor on 16.2.1795 (confirmed on 4.3.1796). The 41 years old generalmajor was named provisional FML on 16.9.1799 (confirmed on 6.3.1800) and attached to the baron Kray General Staff. In 1800 was sent with Ott at the Genua siege. Then led a division participating at the Casteggio ( Montebello) and Marengo battles. In 1801 he was division commander at Hermannstadt (Siebenbürgen) and after (1805) sent again in Italy . Was also owner of the former 47 graf Franz Kinsky and later Feldzeugmeister on 27.5.1809, after his brave behaviour at Aspern.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: August 2009
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