The 1799 Campaign in Italy: The Battle of Trebbia -- June 1799 Part II: The Three Day Battle at the Trebbia -- The First Day
In effect, there were two versions of the Chasteler’s orders with some significant differences; in one the hour of the march depart was 7 o’clock a.m., the other had written 10 a.m. There were also other details:
“Gottesheim avantgarde (Ott) will go through Veratto, will pass the Tidone and will occupy Santimento, Calendasco and La Puglia. It will pass the Trebbia advancing between the Po and Piacenza, then it will find at link on the Nure creek, with Ott. The cavalry will march in divisional order, two divisions in front and one behind, in second line. The Cossacks will take position behind the cavalry and, during the combats, they had to hit the enemy flanks and its back. The Pioneers will follow each column with the pontoons, in order to be ready to use them if required. The “Parole” for the battle will be Collin (Kolin) to remember the victory on June 18, 1757. . .”
All was organized in good detail, however Field marshal Suvorov did not follow the staff central column, preferring to march with the third columns in the left wing.
The First and Bloodiest day: June 18, 1799
The French army passed the night quietly camped 3 kilometers from the Trebbia, on its left bank with Salme at the right, having sent many outposts to the Tidone. They control the San Nicolò bridge. Victor was in the center, Rusca on his left near Gragnano and Dąbrowski on the extreme left at Casaliggio. The Reserve was Watrin’s Division, more a brigade than a division. On the night of June 17-18, Macdonald had a war council in Sant’Antonio in order to explain his plan. It was a simple plan, for it was necessary to wait one day before the attack, when, surely, the three divisions of the rearguard (Watrin, Montrichard, and Olivier) would have reached the main army.
Suvorov’s papers give a good image of the beginning of the operations:
“We have to march for one and an half miles until the Trebbia. We are one and an half miles far from the enemy, 19 or 20 versts, 6 hours of march. The lines have to march speedy. At half to dawn we must be on the departure positions. The march will be by more columns, in ordre de bataille, and, whenever the enemy would threaten to attack us, the unit wil be deployed in lines …. The word “Halt” must be cancelled, I don’t want to hear it. Words to be used are: “Attakirt! Hieb! Stich! Hurray!” or “Tambour and musik!”
The attack, which was to be started at 7 a.m., was delayed by three hours, due to the fatigue of the battle of the previous day. It was supposed to begin at 10 a.m. Nevertheless, two hours before dawn, the Coalition troops had just reached their start positions. The Austrian asked to add the password “Theresia”together with “Kolin”, in order to celebrate their renowned Empress, and had some complaint about the command’s deployments, in particular with the Suvorov’s decision to follow the third column, which was mainly Austrian. Suvorov agreed and decided to follow the first one, together with His Imperial Highness Constantin and (his shadow) general Derfelden.
The French begun the day advancing towards the Tidone and concentrating their artillery in small detachments hidden in the villages. The cavalry, usually at the head of the columns, was kept in the rear, as a Reserve. It is important to note, thus, Tidone and Trebbia (with almost all the rivers, which flowed from the Apennines into the Po, were actually of a rather considerable width, but fordable in summer, in several places, for both the infantry as well as the artillery, with the difference, however, the artillery could operate only with difficulty off the main roads, and cavalry out of the beds of these rivers, because of wood, ditches, channels and vineyards, which bordered the two banks.
Brun, with his detachment of French troops and the 1st Polish Battalion under Konopka, returned by Campremoldo-di-Sopra to the division, covered the left wing of the army. On 18, at dawn, he was in position. The 2nd Polish Battalion and the French cavalry, under Chlopicki, passed the Trebbia and occupied Casaliggio. Victor, on the same day, took the command of the left wing of the army, made up of the divisions of General Charpentiers, Rusca and Dąbrowski. About midday, Dąbrowski had orders to pass the Trebbia, with his division, and to occupy Casaliggio, Tuna and Gazzola. He decided the 8th Demi-brigade, the 1st Polish Battalion and part of the Polish cavalry were to occupy Gazzola; the grenadiers, the chasseurs and the 3rd Battalion, with the remainder of the cavalry under Forestier, with whom was general Dąbrowski, had to occupy Tuna, the 2nd Chlopicki battalion, with the French cavalry, being already in position at Casaliggio. The Polish Division assumed a three columns formation, crossing the Trebbia, in sight of the enemy, where it was more fordable. Some enemy outposts were cleared, but, hardlyhad the Poles arrived in the positions of Tuna and Gazzola, when the Austro-Russian army moved against them. The Avantgarde of Prince Bagration approached cautiously, hidden in some little woods of Acacia trees, when suddenly they engaged the Polish ouposts.
It was 2 p.m. when the storm arrived. Brun, with his demi-brigade and the 1st Polish Battalion of Konopka, tried to reach Tuna, but found it already occupied and he was obliged to withdraw towards the mountains, leaving a gap in the French line. The detachment, which had occupied Casaliggio, having also been attacked by superior forces, had been withdrawn slowly behind the Trebbia and had taken position there. Thus seeing itself again preceded by the enemy, the men threw themselves towards the Trebbia. The grenadiers and the 3rd Battalion defended there with greatest obstinacy, but, surrounded by the enemy, a great part were made prisoners of war, and the remainder withdrew towards the 2nd Battalion. The chief of the cavalry division, Forestier, Majors Zawadzki and Malachowski, as other officers, were made prisoners by the enemy. General Dąbrowski was almost captured, and, though wounded, he cut through a path at “coups de sabre”.
The unexpected assault of the Polish outposts alarmed the whole French line. Adjudant-général Gauthrin called to arms the two divisions of Victor and Rusca. The danger was real, as 15 enemy columns had passed the Tidone, advancing between the two rivers. They were turning gradually right, so that Gauthrin saw the enemy’s intentions: hit the left wing of the French and surround them, pushing the Republicans towards Piacenza, in a more and more narrow space. After having sent the couriers to Macdonald and other generals, the Adjudant launched the Dragoons of 16th Regiment and the 1st Battalion of the 97th Demi-brigade in a charge against the foremost units of the Austro-Russian right wing, some Russian grenadier battalions. The French counterattacks were more than one, and during these actions died the old colonel of the dragoons, Leblanc.
Rusca and Victor were at least ready to fight and closed the ranks of the battalions on a line that was 3 kilometers wide. Their intervention should have permitted to Gauthrin a little rest, but General Derfelden, leading the Shvejkowsky lines, attacked the French center, causing some disorder. The Russians were blocked thanks to the fire of three batteries. Now it was Rusca’s turn to take the initiative. Under strong musket fire, Calvin rallied the Rusca units and ordered them to charge with bayonets. The Russian infantry wavered, when on the flanks appeared the Cossacks, supported by Austrian heavy cavalry. The intervention of the cavalry allowed Derfelden to rally his shocked troops and to advance on Gragnano, where Rusca’s second line stopped them. A third Russian attack hit the 78th Demi-brigade, which repulsed them.
The Late Afternoon Attacks – the French Center and Right wings
The battle raged against the French center and the right wing from 5 p.m. Victor was slowly repulsed back by the advance of the Förster’s Division . It was an ordered to retreat and was protected by the cavalry, which fougth off several charges by Cossacks and Levenehr Dragoons.
From 2 to 2.30 p.m., Montrichard had arrived at Sant’Antonio, followed by Olivier. They were ordered to take Victor’s former positions. Macdonald sent them immediately forward ordering them to guard the right wing. Right of the Piacenza road, not much happened. Gottesheim’s avantgarde had cleared Santimento and disordered the Salme outposts. Ott had limited his troops in order to control the link with the center column and, observing the Montrichard and Olivier troops which deployed a “pas de course”, thought it more convenient to wait superior orders. Around 5 p.m., Ott was reached by Mélas, who took command of the wing. By 6 p.m., Mélas attacked some French units deployed, in disorder, among the vineyards. The thick vegetation, which had caused the French disorder, became also an impenetrable cover, so much that the Austrian reserve (grenadiers) were sent in to sweep away the Republicans. This episode caused also the French right wing to withdraw. Montrichard deployed on the right bank of the river, where was Olivier since his arrival, finally having some rest after the forced marches ended in a battle. The dusk, which was announcing the night, saw Dąbrowski, shocked and motionless, in Valera, right of the Trebbia. Also General Rusca had been forced back across the river, in search of better positions to defend himself.
When night had fallen, some French grenadiers, in search of revenge, approached an Austrian battalion, camped in 8 ranks of sleeping men. They were resting on piles of grass, completely dressed, when they were awaken by the musketry. Taken by surprise they left the camp in search of covers\. Mélas, having heard the noise, rallied two companies and behind a ravine. Heled them, with drums beating against the raiders. The Austrian Field Marshal was slightly wounded during this advance. So he ask Förster for a support and, when the reinforcements arrived, Mélas formed them in line and repulsed the French until they reached the river. There French Chasseurs à Cheval charged the Austrian flanks and went towards the Russian infantry. Also the guns of both opponents began again to fire. All lines alerted themselves realizing perhaps a new battle was beginning.
At 10.30 p.m., Prince Liechtenstein advanced with his 4 squadrons and countercharged the French cavalry. A close struggle followed, a melée between streams and ditches, which stopped the French advance. For a short time the fire was ceased and the opponents watched each other. At 11 p.m. all abandoned the idea to continue that night battle and returned at their respective camps. The last French movement of the night was the detachment of the 78th Demi-brigade, sent near San Rocco, where recently had camped the last unit of the Naples Army: Watrin’s Division, which had to be reinforced.
So, after the musketry had completely ceased (11 p.m.), in the warm and bright night, Prince Bagration was reinforced with Chubarov’s Jäger, from the siege of Tortona. He silently went ahead, passed the Trebbia, undisturbed, and slipped ahead until Settima where, alone and without orders, he was in fear of becoming isolated. So he gave the order to retreat, at 3 a.m. in full night, in front of the Polish sentinels, who did not shoot at all. Bagration stopped the march in front of Casaliggio, where his soldiers at least could sleep a few.
The French Forces
Who won and who lost that afternoon battle? The opposite armies, at the end of the day, occupied the same positions of the previous night (as in Miliutin), except for the advanced French outposts and their control of the bridges. The French were not aware of a defeat (the 78th Demi-brigade had high morale having captured one gun, some Cossacks lances, and 300 prisoners) and continued to hope they soon could hear Moreau’s drums.
Therefore the Austro-Russian had mastered the territory between the rivers, but they did not arrive at the Nure Creek, as their plans called for. General Suvorov was very upset by this event and unkindly reproved Melas for having marched too slow on the left. However, on that afternoon sunny and hot, like Italy often appears in June, the winner was Prince Bagration, a mixture of intelligent bravery, commando-like actions, and initiative. He disordered the whole French left wing with the strong support of the Cossacks, among which distinuished himself Colonel Grekov. He also determined that afternoon’s loser (or, better, losers): the Poles, protagonists in a series of confused decisions, which could have caused the French army to be encircled. They lost, in that unlucky day, 603 men, prisoners to Bagration, having also about 500 dead. During the attack by Shvejkowsky against Victor and Rusca, the French lost 800-1000 dead or wounded, losing also 300 prisoners. The attacks led by Förster and Mélas against Salme and Montrichard caused the loss of 1300 French (dead or wounded) and 760 prisoners. For the Republicans, it was the bloodiest day of the Trebbia battles.
 Chasteler de Courcelles, Papers, pag. 100 and following. The annotations upon artillery were noted on the margins of the Russian original of the Chasteler Dispatch. It was also marked the first and second column they had to be both under Rozenberg, while the third under Melas.
 As about the French deployment, explained by Gachot (by Archive de Guerre papers), Miliutin gave another situation. As told by the Russian historian, the main group of the French army was deployed on the right bank of the Trebbia River, leaving only Dąbrowsky as avantgarde at Casaliggio and Gragnano, with Salme controlling the river’s bridge at San Nicolò. This second account seems more realistic for an expert commander, as Victor was, who certainly did not want to camp in open countryside with a large river bend on his flanks. Gachot’s account is more suitable for the optimist and (sometimes) rash Macdonald, who did want to approach the enemy at short distance. The general, however, had decided to wait for his three rearguard divisions, so there was no necessity to deploy in an advanced position. We leave these doubts to the reader.
 Polkovnik Petr Matvejevich Grekov. Was born in 1762 in a village called Starocherkassy (died on Feb. 3, 1817). Awards: St.George's Cross of 3rd Class, St.Ann’s medal 1st-class with diamonds, St.Vladimir 2-nd award, Maltese Crosses (3, two foreign; a cross for Izmail); a gold sabre « for bravery » with diamonds. Born from a noblemen family of the Don army. He entered the service in the Cossack on 1784, in 1785 was, as younger officer, promoted to the rank of “horunzhego”. From 1788 to 1791 was at war against the Turk, at the battles of Bendery, Kaushanach, Akkerman, Machin, took part in the storm of Izmail and for his merit became captain. In 1792 and 1794 battled against the Poles, was wounded in the left hand by a bullet, and, for ahving captured some enemy guns received the St.George's award of 4th Class. For valour in fights, he was named twice second and , the, first Major. In 1799 Grekov had the rank of the colonel, leading a Cossack pulk, fought in Italy and Switzerland against the French and received some awards. From 1808 to 1811 he was again at war against the Turks. In 1811, at Ruwuke, entered the battle with four pulk, repulsing successfully an enemy attack directed to the rear of the Russian army, obtaining the St.George's award of 3rd Class.
For the successful fight at Turtuka he was promoted, on January 13, 1812, to general-major. In 1812 he led about ten Cossack pulk of the Danube army at Ljubol, Brest, Kajdanov, Borisov. There he received a bullet wound in the head, fighting against the French, on November 19, 1812, at Chatajebicha and for this he was awarded with the St. Ann’s Medal of 1st Class. For a while he was convalescent, but having restored forces, took part in many other battles against the napoleonic armies. In 1813 he distinguished himself at Leipzig, where his Cossacks captured 22 guns. In 1814 he granted an active participation to the capture of Nemur, in the battle at Fer-Champenois and finished his war under the Paris walls. He died in the town of Djachkino, in the Donetsk district of the Don Army, precisely in the village of Kamienska, after having visited general Karpov.
 At 1 p.m., Bagration arrived in front of Casaliggio. He left his troops to take some breath before the action, which began at 2 PM hours. The Russian avantgarde attacked frontally, while Grekov and Pasdejev hit the Poles on their left flank shouting “Prag! Prag! Smrt Polskowoj!”, in orde to remember them the bloody assault of Prague. In that first clash, Dąbrowski lost 2 guns, one flag and over 600 prisoners. (source. Miliutin).
Placed on the Napoleon Series: June 2008
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