The 1799 Campaign in Italy: the Battle of Genola (4 - 5 November 1799)
The First Day at Genola (or the second Fossano battle as called by the French - November 4, 1799) [i]
Championnet’s plan was very ambitious; he thought actually to have enough forces to challenge the enemies in the plains, opponents who seemed in retreat order. After having sent Grenier (or, if preferred, Müller the divisional commander) forward against Savigliano (November 3) in the attempt to encircle the opponent right wing, he stated that: the reinforced division Duhesme had to drive toward Turin, from the Po Valley, in order to cut off the line of communications of the Austrians and the Brà depots; Général-de-brigade Jean Davin, the siege of Lyon hero, who led Grenier’s vanguard had to capture Marene (which Championnet thought as a simple outpost) and to advance toward Cherasco; Victor had the heavier task being the frontal attacker of the main Austrian camp, advancing through Margarita; Lemoine had to surround the Austrians from Mondovì to Bene; finallt St. Cyr had to march against Acqui and Laboissière against Alba.
Championnet, in effect, had made a huge mistake, thinking the Austrians were already in general retreat order, and ordering to Victor to seize Fossano, which he thought free of any Austrian garrison. An absolute lack of field intelligence, in a so short battlefield, was unforgivable.
On November 3, at 7 p.m., Victor’s vanguard deployed in front of Fossano and sent a message to Colonel de Bussy, who commanded the weak town garrison, asking him to surrender. The answer was negative, so the bombardment of Fossano began, while the garrison tried to organize an outer line in front of the houses. It was this moment when Mélas decided to form three attack columns: the first, under FML Ott, starting from Marene, with the task to attack Savigliano, abandoned by the Austrians outpost since 3 p.m., had to push back Grenier pursuing him till Lagnasco, Vottignasco and Valdigi (Levaldigi); the second Kolonne (the weakest) under FML Mittrowsky had to move from San Lorenzo intercepting the road Fossano-Savigliano, supporting the Ott’s attack; the third, under FML Elsnitz had to attack the middle point of the battlefield, the village of Genola. In addition, Gottesheim’s Brigade, with Bussy and his garrison, had to go up along the Stura and harass the rear of the French and had to engage the French in fake attacks against Maddalene and Murazzo until the first two columns would have managed the capture of Savigliano. Whenever the third column had seized Genola, it had to be driven along the Grana creek, threatening the French at Valdigi, eventually waiting for the arrival of the two other columns. If Valdigi could have been taken they had to reach Villafalletto, Centallo and Ronchi, pushing the enemies toward Cuneo. General Lattermann, finally, had to march from Racconigi to Carmagnola with 6 grenadiers Battalion, in order to secure the Turin road. It was a threatening mass of about 34,000 men (included 6000 cavalrymen) who had to walk against Victor and Grenier (around 16,000 men and a good cavalry division).
However, in this battle where both acted as attackers, the problem was: who will first attack?
At 4 a.m. on 4 November, a really dark and cloudy morning, the columns of both armies began to advance and the division Ott was intercepted at Marene. Duhesme left some detachments along the Po near Saluzzo and prepared his advance to Savigliano with 3000 men. The first engagement was at Marene, made with muskets, then followed the artillery bombardment. This time the Austrians had no orders of retreat, so they stood firmly on the ground under a terrible artillery barrage. When Grenier’s Vanguard met the advancing Ott’s column, near Marene, he had no time to fully deploy skirmishers and the battle lines. The fight lasted more than two hours with alternate chances and soon became clear that whoever first received reinforcements would win the battle. So, instead of Duhesme, Mittrowsky arrived from San Lorenzo and hit Grenier’s flank. The French lined waived and the disordered retreating toward Valdigi and Genola, so leaving Savigliano free to be seized by the Austrian winners. Ott left Savigliano occupied by the grenadier Battalion Pers, sent the Auersperg brigade toward Vottignasco and pursued the French along the Valdigi causeway.
In the meanwhile the Austrian Elsnitz column had come out from Fossano hitting Victor, with an heavy bombardment supported by the city-place guns. The 93rd Line and the 105th Line were charged 6 times, by enemy cavalry, but stood firmly in the place. The main Austrian effort was made against Genola, where Victor’s units stood and where some Grenier troops began to recover their lines. General Gottesheim tried to hit Victor’s flank southwards and it soon began a “cavalry nightmare” for the French.
The cavalry charges replaced the musketries and the battlefield became a chaotic puzzle of men belonging to both the opponents. The 3rd and the 17th Light infantry (Grenier) repulsed the enemy charges (cavalry) with fire, but the situation was definitively managed by Generals Mermet and Richepance, who, with their cavalry, countercharged taking over 200 prisoners and 1 gun.
It was about midday and the battle seemed to be favourable to the French side. So Mélas ordered Mittrowsky to advance from the north and to join the fight at Genola. Ott had orders to continue to pursue the retreating Grenier’s units through Valdigi and Centallo advancing his vanguard to attack Savigliano. The 3rd Dragoons Oberst-division, with a squadron of Karacsaj, advanced from Marene, through Cavallermaggiore along the Maira stream to block the Savigliano bridge, in order to hamper the eventual French retreat. The action was supported by the Auersperg Brigade’s troops, which outflanked some French platoons taking 130 prisoners. The rest of the French was unable to rally, because of a charge of the cavalry detachment, led by the Lieutenant Gordon of the 3rd Dragoons. When another French column, of about 300 men, appeared in the cavalry’s rear and being, this surprised force, attacked by the Austrian skirmishers, Gordon had the time to rally, to invert his facing and to charge the opponents taking other 200 prisoners.
Prince Liechtenstein entered the battle with 4 squadrons and hit the French over the Grana bridge. This caused Grenier’s two retreating columns having their back way cut off. The first column went back between the Maira and Grana Creeks, but the second, the stronger, deployed in front of Genola. Mittrowsky, who was pursuing that column, united his forces with Elsnitz, attacking together the frontline at 4 p.m.. The village of Valdigi, already attacked at 2 p.m., became a disordered line, where Grenier’s retreating troops mixed with some of Victor’s units repulsed from Fossano. In fact, Victor, having perceived the new situation, otherwise being still able to resist, resolved it was better to withdraw slowly, abandoning Genola and deploying a new line behind Murazzo, where Gottesheim had attacked in vain all the day. During this last action the Austrian Brigadier, Generalmajor Carl Adorjan, who followed the Elsnitz division, was killed in action by a cannon ball.
In the late afternoon, finally Duhesme arrived onto Savigliano, now menacing the Austrian right flank, but Mélas did not have thought it could have been a great threat also if the Pers grenadiers were to be overrun by the French. The Austrian Chief detached the Sommariva Corps, attached some detachments to it and ordered Lattermann to link together, enforcing the right wing near the town. The Austrians rallied at Marene and waited for Duhesme. The French general arrived with his 3000 men, ordered a short musketry and, realizing the Austrian were too many to fight again, went backwards through Savigliano till Saluzzo. Grenier in the meanwhile had rallied his troops at Centallo and continued his withdrawal until Ronchi where he camped for the night. The remaining French units camped at night at Madonna dell'Olmo, and Murazzo. At dusk also the Austrians had taken their new positions: the right wing at Villafalletto, the center at Centallo and the left at Murazzo. They had won the battle!
With the oncoming night, Championnet began to have a lot of doubts, while asserting the capture of Mondovì and the Austrian withdrawal from the former Murazzo siege camp (siege of Coni) had been, in actual fact, a great success. He wrote to the War minister:
Österreichische Italienische-Armée Genola (3-5
Genola French Order of battle
Armée d’Italie - Chief Commander General Jean Étienne Vachier, called Championnet
Chief of Staff – Général de division Louis Gabriel Suchet [ii]
Général-de-brigade baron Charles-Louis-Dieu Donné Grandjean - Général-de-brigade Pierre Poinsot - Général-de-brigade Jean Louis Gaspard Josnet de Laviolais
Adjudant-général Taskin (Chef-de-Battalion) Adjudant-général Louis Ordonneau
Last Days of the Genola Battle
On the morning of 5 November, General Lemoine moved a weak vanguard toward the Bene houses to perform a reconnaissance. Ott advanced till the Madonna dell'Olmo camp, while Elsnitz did a flank attack occupying Murazzo, allowing the main Austrian army to deploy from that village till Ronchi. Some skirmish combats occurred on the whole front, involving above all the outermost Gottesheim units at the French right wing. The artillery batteries of the Coalition continued to harass the demoralized French. The opponent’s rare musketries did not worry Mélas, who decided to hit again the two battered French divisions on his center-right. General Ott advanced toward Ronchi and Elsnitz against Murazzo. The French, rather fatigued for the previous days battles, defended weakly. Grenier ordered a second retreat and stopped in front of Cuneo, at his old camp at Madonna dell’Olmo, while Victor was withdrawing too. During the Victor’s retreat, his rearguard was cut off by the Austrians, some men gave up (about 400) and other tried to rescue themselves by crossing the Stura, many drowned in the fast moving stream (the Austrians told about 400 men drowned, 1000 men and 100 horses prisoners).
The day after, Lattermann pushed ahead his grenadiers against Duhesme, who was repulsed up in the Maira valley. General Ott pursued the opponents along the Grana valley while general Elsnitz took the Madonna dell’Olmo camp, abandoned by Grenier during the night. Elsnitz passed by Coni dividing his troops in two column and invading the upper Stura valley till Demonte. This action cleared the battlefield eliminating a mass of French wounded and stragglers, who became lost in the withdrawal marches. The Austrian vanguard stopped themselves at Dronero, Cariglio e Vignole, observing the opponents taking new position up onto the mountains. In the plains only Mondovì and Coni remained in French hands.
The French losses at Genola were very heavy: about 6500 men (dead, wounded and prisoners) [vi]. Austrians claimed for 8000 French were put out of combat, of whom 4000 were the prisoners (180 officers captured); captured also 5 guns.
The Austrians declared 2022 men out of combat (from other source: 174 dead, among whom the general Adorjan and 4 Officers, 1948 wounded among whom 74 Officers, and 225 taken prisoners). This was the last chapter of the French adventure in Italy and only the partial successes of St. Cyr avoided the complete loss of the Ligurian frontline. Fatigue, demoralization, lack of every kind of supplies in a winter time did close the final curtain on an unlucky campaign.
[i] The Jomini’s timeline did the battle begin on 3rd of november. The Austrians, instead, put the first day at Genola on November 4 and the last action on 5th of the month. It seems all the Jomini’s dates were anticipated by one day, maybe for calendar problems.
[ii] Général de division Louis Gabriel Suchet. Future Marshal of France and duke of Albufera da Valencia (Born at Lyon, March 2, 1770 – Died near Marseille, January 3, 1826). He, in 1792, served as volunteer in the national guard cavalry of Lyons, showing good military skills, which secured his rapid promotion. As chef de Battalion he was present at the siege of Toulon in 1793, where he took General O'Hara (O’Meara?) prisoner. He was at Loano in 1795. During the Italian campaign of 1796 he was severely wounded at the battle of Cerea on October 11. In October 1797 he was appointed to the command of a demi-brigade, and his services, under Joubert in the Tirol in that year, and in Switzerland under Brune in 1797-98, were recognized by his promotion to the rank of général de brigade.
He took no part in the Egyptian campaign, but in August was made chief of the staff to Brune, and restored the efficiency and discipline of the army in Italy. In July 1799 he was promoted to général de division and chief of staff to Joubert in Italy. With the death of his Chief (and friend) he remained the armée d’Italie Chief of Staff also under Championnet. In 1800 he was named by Massena to be his second in command. His dexterous resistance with the left wing of Massena's army, contributed to the success of Napoleon's crossing the Alps, which culminated in the battle of Marengo. He took a prominent part in the Italian campaign until the armistice of Treviso.
In the imperial campaigns of 1805 and 1806 he greatly enhanced his reputation at Austerlitz, Saalfeld, Jena, Pultusk and Ostrolenka. He obtained the title of count on March 19, 1808, marrying Mrs. de Saint Joseph, a niece of king Joseph Bonaparte's wife; so, soon afterwards, was ordered to the Peninsula. Here, after taking part in the Siege of Saragossa, he was named commander of the army of Aragon and governor of that province. Beaten by the Spanish at Alcañiz, he sprung back and soundly defeated twice the British, at María on June 14, 1809, and on April 22, 1810 at Lleida.
He was made marshal of France (July 8, 1811). In 1812 he captured Valencia, for which he was rewarded with the ducal victory title (honorary, not attached to an actual fief) of duc d'Albufera da Valencia in 1813. When the tide turned against France, Suchet defended his conquests one by one until compelled to withdraw from Spain, after which he took part in Soult's defensive campaign of 1814. The restored Bourbon king Louis XVIII made him a peer of France but, having commanded one of Napoleon's armies on the Alpine frontier during the Hundred Days, he was deprived of his peerage on July 24, 1815.
[iii]Général Jean Davin –Born at Barratier (Hautes Alpes) on 15 February 1749. Entered the service in the 4th artillery regiment (Grenoble) on November 15, 1766. At the outbreak of the revolution he was sergeant-major. On November 17, 1791 he was elected adjudant-major in the 3rd Battalion of Drome volunteers. General de Brigade on 23 December 1793, after the Lyon events, when he had the task of Superior artillery commander and led also an infantry column, he was in the Pyrénées-Orientales army and then to that of Italie, where he remained unitil 1808, when retired from duty. On July 25, 1799 he was transferred from the Naples army to the Alps under Championnet, having some command in the border forts. He was at Chambery (HQ) on August 1800 and was named commander of Fenestrelle on december 1800. Officer of the Legion d’Honneur on 14 June 1804 he died at Paris on 17 December 1819.
[iv]Chef-de-Brigade Marie-Joseph-Simon-Alexis Vonderwiedt Born: 8 June 1771, Chef-de-Brigade : 5 April 1799, General-de-Brigade: 12 June 1802, Died: 9 August 1802
[v]Chef-de-brigade Pierre-Denis de la Chastre, ex-commandant of the regiment called “de La Châtre”, provisional chef-de-brigade promoted by general Hoche after the Ireland expedition (year V) confirmed as chef-de-brigade and commander of the 47th Line on July 10, 1799. The 47th Line was the first Duhesme’s unit to score a successful clash in the 9 fructidor attack (August 26). Under general Lesuire it attacked and seized Fenestrelle, attached the 500 men of the garrison under artillery Chef Mossel, captured Villaret, and then Pinerolo, ending its march at Perosa (Perouse).
[vi]>As for Digby Smith the French lost 3400 men killed and wounded, 4200 captured and 5 guns. The Austrians lost 2150 killed and wounded, 250 captured and the Generalmajor Adorjan was killed.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: July 2009
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