Military Subjects: Battles & Campaigns

Marengo 1800 – a Lost Account

The Campaign of 1814: Introduction

By T.E. Crowdy

The battle of Marengo on 14 June 1800 was a pivotal moment in Napoleon’s career. It was his first battle as head of state and very nearly his last. At four o’clock in the afternoon his army was scrambling eastward across the plain of Alessandria being pursued by a victorious, albeit exhausted enemy. However, within two hours victory had been snatched from the jaws of defeat in the most dramatic of comebacks. Desaix lay slain at the head of the incomparable 9th Light Infantry, and Kellermann had ridden into the history books placing the crown of France on Napoleon’s head. Of course, the truth was not quite so simple . . .

Perhaps the most honest account of Marengo was written by one of Berthier’s ADCs, a young subaltern named Maurice Dupin. While in Turin in the weeks immediately after Marengo he described the battle in a letter written to his uncle as only a young man in his early twenties might:

‘Piff, paff, pouf, pow! Forwards! Sound the charge! Retreat! Into battery! We’re lost! Victory! Every man for himself! To the right, to the left, to the middle! Come back, stay, leave, hurry up! Station the howitzer! At the gallop! Head’s down, here comes a ricochet ball … The dead, the wounded, legless, arms taken off, prisoners, baggage, horses, mules, cries of rage, shouts of victory, cries of pain, a devilish dust, hot as hell, effing and blinding, shit, a clatter, a confusion, a magnificent brawl: and there you have, my dear, kind uncle, in a few words, a clear and concise view of the battle of Marengo, from which your nephew has returned safe and sound after having been bowled over, together with his mount, by a passing cannonball, and after having been treated by the Austrians, for fifteen hours, to the fire of thirty pieces of artillery, twenty howitzers, and thirty thousand muskets ...’[1]

The strength of Dupin’s account is that it does not attempt to dissect the battle into its component parts; but instead gives a sense of the overwhelming exhilaration he felt from being in battle. One imagines the many thousands of young men present that day could identify more with this colourful language than the sweeping prose of the bulletin which attempted to make sense of the chaos and to put the events of the day into some coherent order, whether they were completely accurate or not.

The main source book for the French participation in Marengo is Captain de Cugnac’s Campagne de l’armée de reserve en 1800. Published in 1900 on the centenary of the battle, de Cugnac compiled a variety of sources found in memoirs and in manuscripts held in the French army’s archives. While this is an excellent starting point for anyone interested in the battle, it is not an exhaustive record of the accounts.

The pivotal part of the battle was the phase in the early evening when the French regained the initiative. When I first went to Vincennes to study in the archives back in the late 1990s one of the first dossiers I examined was a collection of manuscripts relating to the battle most of which were reproduced by de Cugnac.[2] Inexplicably de Cugnac did not use, or even reference, a letter written by General of Brigade Louis Charles Guénand, commander of the second brigade of Boudet’s division.

Guénand was a professional career officer. Born on 22 August 1755 he was a graduate of the École Militaire and a captain in the Navarre infantry regiment at the time of the French Revolution. Serving in the Army of the North he was promoted to the rank of colonel on 26 October 1792 and then provisionally made brigadier general the following August. At this point politics made a dramatic intervention in his career and promotional prospects. In October 1793 he was denounced as a former noble and forced to resign. He was not reemployed until 14 March 1800 when at the age of 44 he was given a brigade under General Boudet in the Army of the Reserve. After Marengo, Guénand requested a posting to Belgium where he became military commandant for the Dyle area. However soon after taking up the appointment he fell ill, was discharged from the army and then died on 9 May 1803. He went to his grave a disillusioned and dejected man, unable to fathom why his prominent part in the victory at Marengo had seemingly been ignored in all the accounts. The following account sheds light on Guénand’s state of mind after Marengo and, more critically, gives us greater detail on the course of the evening battle:[3]

Note for General Dumas,

I urge General Dumas not to publish his historical essays on the battle of Marengo without having received the notes of General Guénand on this decisive battle, as well as the campaign of Year 8 in Italy.

At Marengo General Guénand commanded two-thirds of the corps of Desaix, the 30th and 59th [half-brigades of the line].[4] When his brigade arrived on the field, all was lost excepting the small corps of cavalry that was commanded at that moment by Kellermann, composed in the major part by a fraction of the Guard of the Consuls.[5] The advanced-guard and corps of the line were all in such a rout that it was impossible for General Guénand to enter by the road that went to San Giuliano which found itself so encumbered by the fugitives that he had to abandon it to go forwards rapidly, crossing through the fields at this point.

When Desaix said to the 1st Consul: ‘You must resume the battle,’ only the corps of the reserve remained.

General Guénand, who had developed in front of San Giuliano, began the attack of this second battle. Overwhelming all the infantry that it had opposite it, who were entrenched up to their teeth in the vines, which, moreover, were crowned by 35 cannons, taking three flags, nine cannons, we finished off or took prisoner the whole of this infantry, [then] rallied his brigade at the exit of vines to arrange it in its original order in columns by echelon with a few battalions deployed.

He ventured onto the great plain of Alexandria against all the Austrian cavalry supported by the infantry and a formidable artillery, without cannons or cavalry, [and] made an audacious drive, which alone determined Kellermann’s attack on the left flank of Zach’s corps, as well as the withdrawal of the corps of Ott in which a battalion of my brigade was detached and skilfully stuck terror [in them].[6] This is the historical substance of the second battle.

General Guénand who at the beginning of this attack received in the right groin a ball which bent nine, six-franc coins in half and caused a bad bruise, is committed to giving the most important and most authentic details on this great affair. He has received, by order of 1st Consul an infinitely honourable letter from the minister of war on his conduct at the battle of Marengo. He was received on his return to Paris by the 1st Consul in the most flattering manner and Bonaparte concurred verbally that General Guénand was one of those who contributed most to the winning of the battle.

Pressed with questions by Roederer,[7] who marked his amazement to see in the two reports such a small mention of me when he knew the justice I had rendered to the army and the 1st Consul, General Berthier responded:  ‘I admit that Guénand performed marvels, but if I had expanded on his account I would have detracted from the whole of the reserve corps’.[8]

This reply was despairing and proves that the history of this battle still needs to be made. I will provide all the material that you want. I give these here in haste, not having had the time to re-read them.  I asked Combel to pass these to General Dumas by this courier while asking him at the same time for a topographical tracing of the battle of Marengo, because it will singularly assist me in retracing the details that must all belong to history.

Brussels, 30 Brumaire Year 10 (21 November 1801)

[signed] Guénand.


On the reverse of Guénand’s letter we read the following note:

If the general has the time to respond with a word to General Guénand it would oblige me greatly. I shall take care to hand it to him – I observe to my cousin that General Guénand is an excessively commendable man through his quality, talents and is very distinguished.

[Signed] Combel

Guénand included several pieces to justify his claims. The first was a letter to the first consul dated Piacenza, 6 Messidor Year 8 (25 June 1800), just eleven days after the battle.

GUENAND, General of Brigade, Commander of Parmesan and Plaisantin to the First Consul.

I am tormented and unfortunately I can hardly say that Bonaparte noticed me at the battle of Marengo. I am writing this to see if you recall what might be my name, my face and above all my bearing at the moment when I arrived on the field passing through our fugitives to offer you my brigade in the fine order in which you saw it arrive.

Remind yourself, please, my general, that I commanded the 30th and 59th Line. Remind yourself above all that in the name of my brigade that I asked both you and the unfortunate Desaix to attack. Remind yourself of the calm with which I insisted [on this]. You said: ‘order the attack’. I answered by my troops everything would be repaired. Victory could not remain uncertain for long time between Melas and Bonaparte. Two seconds later the order was given which would establish or dash my career.

One hundred paces into the vines a ball struck me in the right groin, mutilating eleven coins, nine écus and two double-Louis, flattened to the thickness of half a line and causing heavy bruising which failed to stop me. At this instance General Boudet arrived.[9] I had soon crossed the vines. All the infantry which I found there was killed, made prisoner or put to flight.

At the exit of the vines the terrain offered nothing but an open plain. On our flanks there were some houses where the enemy was taking action with a perfectly served artillery and infantry well under cover. Opposite was a numerous cavalry in the finest order of battle. On debouching, we had gone at least a mile beyond the rest of the line. It was a feat of strength to rally my troops, I succeeded there beyond my hopes and in an instant they were re-established in their original order, in column by echelons mixed with a few battalions deployed. I never had much anxiety about my right for there were several battalions from Monnier’s division who were at grips with the turning wing of Ott.[10]

Despite the very lively fire of the enemy artillery on this point, which battered my right flank, I only directed my attention to the left which found itself very much up in the air by the delay of the movements which had to take place on the main road. I hesitated for a few seconds to go forward, however my party soon began with General Boudet’s consent. I made this amazing push more than half a league ahead of the line, and threw uncertainty and caused the Hungarian grenadiers who were opposed to the 9th Light to wobble.[11] It was at this moment only that Desaix could have ordered that fine charge of the reserve cavalry on the left flank of those same Hungarian grenadiers.[12] Yes my general, I say it from the depth of my soul, it was this audacious and calculated move to which the outcome of the battle is in the great part due.

I do not pretend to diminish by this the merit of the actors of that day, without doubt the most influential of the war and on the destiny of Europe.

My reason confirms the gestures of affection, the promotion which you have marked with the seal of glory; but how is it that a man, the friends of whom you told would be promoted general of division in the field, who has been a brigadier general since the 6 August 1793, that those horrible cannibals held back for five years since his first employment; who freed by his fortune had nothing but a child who he loved more than himself, has abandoned everything for the glory of serving his country under the orders of heroes he admires, did not have a word, a single word, said of him in such circumstances?

Ah! I agree, after the battle I should have placed myself before your eyes instead of strictly staying in bivouac with my troops. I should have known that too great a number of things filled your head - the most capacious which has yet appeared on the face of the world. Maybe also there was too much pride in me having been too long kept aside.

Ah, if I have committed this fault, it will be forgotten by Bonaparte. If as a result of the capable people who are placed between Bonaparte and me, if they have diverted his attention from separating out the leading actors of this great drama, he will permit me to say to him every time: at the battle of Marengo I commanded the 30th and 59th.

Salute, etc.

After this letter, Guénand continued his commentary to Dumas:

The 1st Consul did not give me an answer, but Minister of War Carnot, to whom I sent a copy of the piece took it to the 1st Consul and who read it to him from beginning to end. Bonaparte listened with great attention, interrupting regularly the reading to say: ‘there is no fact, no line, which is not the truth and which does not belong to the history. Write on my behalf to General Guénand a letter of complements in the most honourable terms on his brilliant conduct at the battle of Marengo.’

Here follows a copy of the letter of Minister Carnot.

The Minister of War to General of Brigade Guénand, 12 Vendémiaire Year 9 (4 October 1800).

I pass on to you, citizen general, a letter of the minister of foreign relations which contains honourable testimonies of gratitude and satisfaction on the part of the two seated powers and friends of the republic, on the subject of your conduct in restoring tranquillity in the city of Piacenza in Prairial last.

I am pleased to take advantage of this occasion to inform you that I put before the eyes of the first consul the proofs of signal service that you rendered at the battle of Marengo. The consul who read them perfectly recalled this, has charged me to give witness of his satisfaction.

Receive at the same time the expressions of mine: not only for the acts of bravery you pointed out to the consul on the battle of Marengo, but also on your particular conduct in all circumstances where it was necessary to give proofs of zeal, intelligence and dedication. It will always be with pleasure that I will recall you to the attention of the government when the occasion presents itself.

Could General Dumas have thought, having these pieces of such authenticity, that one could not confide in the veracity of this report? No, he will be grateful to me for my notes; he will judge with all the army, that at Marengo there were on the same day two battles; the one entirely lost and until four o’clock, the rout was so complete that Melas announced himself in Alessandria that the French were lost. Without any sort of resources the other was won and thus, the dispositions for which did not begin until half past three o’clock with a handful of brave men, the most part conscripts having four times their number to fight. I attacked at four o’clock and fought ceaseless until one hour after nightfall. All that they say Desaix did on the right, have the assurance that you do not have need of this fiction. I executed it alone. Desaix had left me as soon as I received the order to attack to go to the left on the side of Musnier with the 9th Light. Kellermann agreed himself at Milan, in being amazed that I had not been promoted, like him, on the battlefield, that without the impetuosity and success of my attack he could never have made the cavalry charge. Oh well! Who can believe neither myself nor my brigade were cited in Berthier’s report; there is a word only in Dupont’s report. This is not the way to write the annuals of history and General Dumas, being as good a historian as a soldier, does me the sole reward that I aspire for; that of the glory which he justly and honourably attaches to the names in his excellent work.

This concludes the translation of Guénand’s account of Marengo to General Dumas. Needless to say, not a word of it was used by Dumas in his account of Marengo which eventually appeared in his Précis des Évènements militaires ou Essai historique sur les Campagnes de 1799 à 1814.

The sad fact is, the account of Marengo is far more dramatic when we follow the headlines, i.e. Desaix and Bonaparte held a conference and decided to attack; Marmont’s artillery opened fire; Desaix fell mortally wounded and spoke his last words to Lebrun, the son of a noted politician; the ‘incomparable’ 9th Light revenged him by attacking the Hungarian Grenadiers (actually ‘German’, but never mind), and Kellermann crowned the success with a glorious cavalry charge - all arms were involved and a famous hero of the Republic valiantly slain; what more could a story want?

To have continued the narrative, explaining that after the surrender of Zach’s advanced guard, there was still another four or five hours of hard fighting in order for the French to resume their morning positions, was an unnecessary detail which would have muddied the prose of a dramatic account telling of victory being clutched from the jaws of defeat.

However, the account is useful to us today for a number of reasons. The second battle appears far more chaotic; far more fluid, than standard accounts suggest, with Austrians hidden in the vines, with massed artillery and large formations of cavalry charging into the infantry formations. It shows that Guénand’s arrival had an impact on the action between the 9th Light and Zach’s grenadiers, if only that the arrival of a French brigade on their left threw the grenadiers into confusion just prior to being hit by Kellermann.

Smaller details include the formation employed by Guénand’s brigade: ‘in columns by echelon with a few battalions deployed’. Guénand is typically shown in the ‘mixed order’ formation popularised by Chandler and others to demonstrate the basic tactical French formation. Unusually, Guénand’s brigade was only composed of five battalions as one battalion of the 30th Line was serving with the army of Italy. We can assume by his description, that his battalions were initially formed (right to left) column, line, column, line, column. However, the interesting piece is the description ‘by echelon’. When Guénand gave the order to advance the right hand battalion would have advanced first; typically after one hundred paces, the second battalion would begin to advance, followed in turn by the others with a similar interval between them (the battalions in line formation would have formed closed column in order to pass through broken ground – Guénand confirmed he had to restore his original formation on exiting the vines). Thus Guénand’s brigade would have had a diagonal appearance, the right battalion up to five hundred paces ahead of the left most battalion:

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Another interesting point is the conversation with Kellermann after the battle in Milan, where the two generals, both at brigadier level, appear to have found solace in one another’s company – Kellermann famously being upset at not being promoted after his charge. Guénand’s account corroborates the claim Kellermann was indeed unhappy with what he perceived as a snub.

It also appears Guénand witnessed the famous council of war held by Bonaparte after Desaix’s arrival. He clearly states Desaix ‘told’ the first consul to attack. On hearing this we learn Guénand offered to lead the assault with his brigade.

Another interesting point is Guénand mentions Desaix ordering Kellermann’s charge. In the 1820s Kellermann and Desaix’s ADC at Marengo, Savary waged a veritable war of words on this subject, with Kellermann claiming not to have received an order to charge and that the initiative was solely his.

Perhaps the most important piece of information in the document is ‘where’ the battle took place. Many accounts say the battle occurred in front of San Giuliano; I have always suspected it took place much further forward, level with Cascina Grossa. Guénand says his brigade advanced beyond San Giuliano and then deployed. However, at the point he comes into contact with the grenadier’s fighting the 9th Light, he variously describes himself being a mile or half a league in front of the army. This places the evening battle much further west than the standard accounts allow; it also perhaps explains the reason for the 9th Light receiving the title ‘incomparable’ after the battle. They were already well in advance of the army and fighting alone well before Guénand advanced. Their attack bought Guénand time to deploy his brigade and for the rest of the army to regroup.

So in conclusion, this paper at least grants Guénand his wish of recognition, albeit two hundred years late. Clearly his five infantry battalions were in the thick of the action for a long period of time and they have been overlooked: all the more reason for a full account of Marengo to be written.

Note: I would like to acknowledge my colleague Pierre-Yves Chauvin who photographed and helped transcribe the original manuscript. The translation of the document is mine and, with the usual fair usage provisions, should not be republished without permission.

Notes:

[1] [Translation ©T.E. Crowdy 2013; original text from Albert Le Roy’s Georges Sand et son amis (Paris : P. Ollendorff, 1903) p.7]

[2] See the dossier at S.H.D. MR610.

[3] Note on this translation: the original document gives the impression of being hurriedly written; it is rambling (if not melodramatic), poorly punctuated and proper nouns are often misspelt, i.e. Maringo, for Marengo; Hoot, for Ott; Zaac, for Zach; Dessaix, for Desaix, etc. I have corrected the names and added punctuation where necessary. Where Guénand underlined certain passages, I have retained this emphasis.

[4] Technically speaking, Desaix’s corps also included Monnier’s division. Here Guénand refers only to Boudet’s division, which was detached on the evening of 13 June.

[5] In fact the guard cavalry was under the command of Murat and led by Bessières. The guard cavalry took no part in Kellermann’s attack.

[6] Zach commanded the Austrian advanced guard located on the main Alessandria road, to the left of Guénand’s brigade. Ott commanded a column of Austrian troops which were on the French right flank, marching more or less level with Zach. This body of troops had engaged the infantry of the Consular Guard before Desaix’s arrival.

[7] Pierre Louis Roederer (1754-1835); a noted politician, economist and historian who supported Bonaparte’s ‘Brumaire’ coup in 1799.

[8] Berthier would have had some inkling of Guénand’s actions through Boudet’s report. In his journal of operations we read the following description of the action Guénand’s brigade took part in: ‘My second brigade, composed of the 30th and 59th Half-Brigade and directed by me, drove in with a surprising audacity, strength and speed, the centre of the enemy army and cut it in two. This brigade had to continually defend itself at the same time on its flanks and rear against artillery, musketry and different corps of cavalry. The latter particularly came at the charge several times to attack our rear; but the perfect order of our closed columns in which our battalions remained, although crossing vineyards and other obstacles, not only rendered the attempt of this cavalry useless, but caused it a considerable loss. The resistance of the enemy in certain positions was terrible. One might have amused oneself uselessly trying to drive them away by musketry. Bayonet charges were the only way to drive them away and these were executed with a swiftness and fearlessness without example. Undoubtedly we cannot give enough eulogies to this brigade, partially composed of conscripts who competed in courage and in firmness with the oldest soldiers. In the bayonet charge, two flags were taken, one by citizen Coqueret, captain of grenadiers of the 59th, and the other by citizen Georges Amptil, fusilier and conscript of the 30th Half-Brigade, who pursued and killed he who carried it and seized it in view of a platoon which looked to take it back.’ Translation ©T.E. Crowdy 2013.

[9] At the beginning of the action, Boudet had been with Musnier’s brigade, which was composed of the 9th Light Infantry. After his conference with Bonaparte, Desaix joined Musnier’s brigade and ordered Boudet to rendezvous with Guénand’s brigade and to pierce the enemy centre, breaking it with enough rapidity to separate Zach’s advanced guard with the Austrian left wing under Ott. [See Boudet’s Rapport des marches et opérations de la division Boudet].

[10] Two battalions of the 72nd Line had been left in reserve by General Monnier. These joined Boudet’s forces in the evening counterattack. Presumably they fought on the right of Guénand’s brigade. [See Monnier’s report in de Cugnac].

[11] The 9th Light were already engaged against Zach, on the main road, far in advance of the army.

[12] Guénand speculates here. Desaix was probably dead by the time Guénand intervened.

 

Placed on the Napoleon Series: September 2013

 

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