Military Subjects: Battles & Campaigns

La Garde a Feu! The Consular Guard at Marengo

By Kevin Kiley

‘The official history of the Battle of Marengo…was published in 1803.  The officers who prepared it used Napoleon’s souped-up Bulletin, Berthier’s original reports, the journal of the army’s chief of topographical engineers, Austrian records, and eyewitness accounts.  Napoleon originally approved it but then ordered a revision to make that cliff-hanger battle appear as if everything had gone according to plan.  All copies of the original report were ordered burned, but one survived in the war Ministry’s files.’

                                                                                    -John R. Elting

‘Retreating infantry passed along the road to Tortona; it seemed as if the whole French line were giving way…But no, here came the grenadiers and chasseurs of the Guard, drums beating, singing ‘On va leur percer le flanc’ to the accompaniment of Guiardel’s bandsmen, as well as the 19th Legere of General Monnier, with Bonaparte leading the lot.  Nine hundred bearskin bonnets formed a square between Lannes and Carra St. Cyr and stopped the Lobkowitz Dragoons in their tracks.  The horse grenadiers, with the light artillery in support, attacked a ‘cloudful of cavalry in battle array’ which was outflanking Murat and the dragoons of Champeaux.  This would protect their retreat…But the infantry of the Guard stood firm.  Without artillery, it braced itself to sustain the shock from the Austrian center.  Harassed, charged three times by enemy cavalry, fired on at a hundred paces by their infantry, this ‘fortress of granite’ surrounding the flag and the wounded ran out of cartridges.  Whereupon Brabant, a grenadier of uncommon strength, took over an abandoned four-pounder and worked it alone for half an hour.  Ensign Aune swept his comrades on.  Then they retreated lest the enemy should reach their headquarters before them.’

                                                                                    -Henry Lachouque

‘La Garde Consulaire a suivi le movement de retraite de Lannes a sa droite; les 800 grenadiers de la Garde Consulaire, avaient recu mission d’arreter les progres de l’armee autrichienne, en attendant l’arrivee des…brigades du General Monnier…Leur contenance fut admirable.’

                                                                                    -Alain Pigeard

'The first man to be king was a fortunate soldier.  Whoever serves his country well has no need of ancestors.'

                                                                    -Voltaire

1330 14 June 1800 near Torre di Garofoli, Liguria, Northern Italy

The veteran infantry of the Consular Guard stood lounging in ranks as the vulgar uproar near the little hamlet of Marengo grew in intensity and rolled slowly towards them.  Officers stood talking among themselves; soldiers smoked their pipes or talked to their section mates.  The senior officers, mounted in front of the two battalions of ‘old sweats’, calmly ignored the growing conflagration, as their weary horses cropped the spring grass and swished their tails against the annoying flies.  The troops, being veterans, knew what was coming.  Fugitives and walking wounded had been passing them from the direction of Marengo for at least two hours.

Out of the gloom, noise, and smoke from Marengo a mounted officer wearing the brassard of an aide-de-camp came pounding up the road.  Sweat-soaked and grime covered, a soiled bandage covering one side of his face under his bicorne, he violently reined in front of the Guard officers, panted a few words, wheeled his horse and started south on the road to Novi.

The officers exchanged knowing looks.  Orders were barked to the company commanders, who in turn grabbed lounging drummers and the long roll of "la Diane" was boomed out by the closest tambour, being picked up and passed down the line.  As if an electric current was turned on, the battalions came immediately to life, grenadiers and chasseurs checked cartridge boxes and bayonets, straightened their massive bearskins, and faced up the road, even the band hustling to take its place in the column.  At the command, En Avant! the column stepped off into what would soon be the mouth of hell.

Certain aspects of the pivotal Battle of Marengo in 1800 which was so critical to the survival of both Napoleon and France, have recently come into historical contention.  One incident in particular that has been called into doubt is the famous thirty-minute fight of the Consular Guard infantry against odds of three to two on the French right flank. In that famous fight, where it lost 260 out of 800 engaged, and then retreated with the rest of the French army, the Guard, composed of two battalions of grenadiers a pied and one company of chasseurs a pied, the Guard infantry won undying fame, being referred to by Napoleon as the ‘fortress of granite.’ 

This generally accepted account has been brought into doubt for two reasons: first, this version supposedly originated from the Bulletin issued the next day and is considered unreliable by some. Second, there is disputable Austrian evidence that the Guard’s losses in killed, wounded, and ‘missing’ approached 700 out of the 800 or so engaged, and that 400 of these were prisoners.

First, the famous Bulletin should be addressed.  Napoleon never intended the Bulletins as history.  However, as historian John Elting states,

‘Napoleon further stimulated morale with his Order of the Day and his Bulletins, both phrased in clear, ringing, soldierly style.  The first, issued to his troops before a battle or at a decisive point in a campaign, were printed fight talks deliberately designed to arouse and inspire his men.  The Bulletins were after-action reports, directed as much at civilians as at the Grande Armee.  On the whole they were fairly accurate; the Twenty-Ninth Bulletin, issued on his return from Russia, made no bones about the Grande Armee’s immense losses, though it did blame them all on the weather.  But they usually exaggerated enemy losses and understated French casualties; also they sometimes failed to give credit to various officers and units who felt they should have received honorable mention.  In time a soldier who trifled with the truth might be said to lie like a Bulletin.  Napoleon, however, never intended them as history.  During 1814 brother Joseph mutton-headedly released some unfortunately accurate stories as to how Napoleon had been defeating armies that greatly outnumbered him.  Napoleon was furious; he had been doing his best to convince the Allies that the Grande Armee was still several times its actual strength.’

So, while the Bulletins were in part propaganda, they also contained accurate information, undoubtedly when a unit did well, as in the notice of the Guard’s performance at Marengo.  Additionally, in du Cugnac’s work on the Marengo campaign, he specifically stated three reasons where accuracy in reporting might be, and probably was, way off the mark.  The Guard’s performance was not one of these inaccuracies.   Also, there were too many eyewitnesses, which will be quoted and examined further on, who stated that not only did the Guard infantry do well, albeit with heavy losses, but it was formed for the counterattack after Desaix’s arrival.  If the Guard infantry had suffered as heavily as described and only had about one hundred ‘survivors’ after their thirty-minute action, they would have been in no shape to participate further in the action, especially a counterattack.

The earliest Austrian account I could find, that contained in Volume XXIX of the Austrian Military Review of 1823, a second hand source, stated that ‘Frimont arrived, moved like lightning on the rear of the Consular Guard, charged it at the head of four squadrons of hussars…the guard was driven in, broken; the men composing it were nearly all killed or captured and its guns taken.’  There are no references, no eyewitnesses mentioned, and no total losses given.  On the other hand Melas, the Austrian commander at Marengo, does not mention the incident at all in his after action report, which is interesting to say the least.  I submit that a defeated commander would list an apparent ‘victory’ over the personal Guard of the French First Consul as a highlight of the battle for the Austrians in reporting yet another Austrian defeat to his master. 

On the other hand, the memoirs of Jean-Roche Coignet, a grenadier private in the 96th Ligne, and trooper Joseph Petit of the Guard Grenadiers a Cheval, both mention the incident.  Coignet states that initially the Guard moved up behind his division and delivered cartridges to the firing line, an action that that he bluntly states ‘saved our lives.’  Coignet further states that, after the Guard was committed to action ‘our fire redoubled and the Consul appeared…he placed his Guard in line in the center of the army and sent it forward.  They immediately held the line, forming square and marching in battle order.’[1] 

Petit was apparently an eyewitness, claiming to being only ‘100 paces’ from the scene of the Guard infantry’s fight, and that ‘they formed up in the most orderly manner, in subdivisions, and advanced against the enemy, which they met not a hundred paces from out front.’  The Guard came under artillery fire, the ‘very first [round] which struck them laid down three grenadiers and a fourrier dead…charged three times by the cavalry, fusilladed by the infantry…they surrounded their colors, and their wounded…in a hollow square, exhausted all their cartridges…with slow and regular steps, fell back and joined our astonished ranks.’[2] 

There are other interesting indicators that the Austrian version of the Guard’s action is incorrect. Coignet tells of the capture of a battalion of the 43d Demi-Brigade, being surrounded and taken by Austrian cavalry, an incident suspiciously similar to the description of the Guard’s ‘defeat’ in the Austrian accounts, and that ‘every man of it was captured and taken to Alessandria.’  Losing the equivalent of three French infantry battalions in two separate incidents in exactly the same way in the same battle is just a little too coincidental to have been accurate. 

Coignet also mentions visiting the Guard hospital the evening of the fighting: ‘The wounded of the Guard were stretched on some straw in the courtyard, and amputations were being made.’   This is another indicator that the Guard infantry could not have been overrun and a large number captured.  The ‘hospital’ would have been empty, at least of Guard wounded.  Coignet knew many in the Guard cavalry, and if, as it has been alleged, that he could not have seen the Guard infantry’s action first hand, he undoubtedly would have been told of it by his friends in the Grenadiers a Cheval.

The French after action reports, on the other hand, by various officers present and engaged in the battle frequently mention the Guard, both during and after their famous fight.  Monnier, the commander of the division that fought on the Guard’s right during the Guard’s advance mentions the Guard also participating in the counterattack led by Desaix and his division that won the battle. 

Berthier states in a letter to Napoleon at 2100 the day of the battle that the Guard ‘maintained its position up to the arrival of the Boudet Division under General Desaix.’  Dupont reported that the ‘9th Legere and the Consular Grenadiers performed prodigies of audacity’ in the counterattack.  Adjutant Major Brossier, who kept the Journal of the Armee de la Reserve, stated succinctly that ‘The Grenadiers of the Consular Guard, led by Major Goulez (Soule), were on the right between [Boudet, Monnier, and Grenaud} and those under General Lannes’ during the counterattack.  Berthier also mentions that the Guard withstood three cavalry attacks, so his account tallies with Petit’s. 

It is quite evident that if the Guard had been broken and taken by Austrian cavalry earlier in the battle, they would definitely not have been able to participate in the counterattack with Desaix.

Further evidence of the Guard’s valor and survival as a combat efficient unit comes from the awards given the Guard after the battle.  Bessieres report, signed by him and endorsed by Carnot, the Minister of War, indicates that there were twenty-four awards for valor given the Guard infantry, and eight to the Guard artillery, and eighteen to the Guard cavalry. Further, there were twenty-nine brevets for gallantry given the Guard as a whole for Marengo.  This is a total of seventy-nine awards for a unit of less than 1,300 officers and men.

Napoleon wasn’t in the habit of issuing awards to units that didn’t perform well, especially if there were large numbers of prisoners.  After Marengo he had the commander of a five hundred-man detachment that surrendered court-martialed, stating that ‘Five hundred men commanded by a brave man can cut their way out from anywhere.’   He was undoubtedly thinking of the Guard when he wrote this sentiment, as they did withdraw in order after a heavy casualty rate of over thirty- percent.  It should be noted that this was neither the commander of the battalion of the 43d Ligne that was taken by Austrian cavalry, as described by Coignet, nor the detachment of the 44th Ligne commanded by Dampierre that surrendered on the French left flank late in the action.  This was a detachment that was taken in and around the village of Marengo in the French center.  The total captured in these three incidents generally tallies with Coignet’s total of 1,200 French captured during the fighting.  As Coignet states: ‘On the morning of the 16th, General Melas sent back our prisoners (there were about twelve hundred of them) and this was a great delight to us.’  This clearly leaves little or no room for a large number of prisoners from the Consular Guard.

Another point of contention comes from the Bulletin of 15 June, and the reports that apparently generated from it.  There are two ‘official’ reports on the Battle of Marengo written by Colonel Vallongue, of the Depot de Guerre, later serving with the Grand Quartier-General Imperiale in the 1805 campaign.  The first, issued in 1803, used the ‘souped-up’ bulletin, Austrian after action reports of the action, and interviews with surviving veterans, as well as maps prepared by the Topographical Engineers.  Initially approved, and quite accurate, verifying the Guard’s fight and conduct, it was later ordered destroyed and officially rewritten. 

The obviously harried Colonel Vallongue complied, producing the corrected version in 1805 (which was again fiddled with by Napoleon on St. Helena).   Interestingly, one copy of the 1803 report was saved by a clerk, supposedly found under a desk blotter, and that has been used to give us a generally accurate account of the battle, and the Guard’s heroic 30 minute stand by Henry Lachouque (who states the Bulletin and the 1805 report are incorrect).    It should be noted here that the Guard’s action was never in contention by Napoleon in the rewrites he ordered on Marengo, but the actions of Monnier’s division on the French far right flank were the objects of the Emperor’s concern. 

In January 2000, hearing this new controversy first brewing in historical backwaters, I asked John Elting about the Guard’s famous thirty-minute fight, and the Austrian accounts of its heavy losses, especially in captured.  He emphatically told me that the Austrian accounts were inaccurate, and that the traditional account of the action was correct, the Guard withdrawing in good order, losing a third of its number.  He was also somewhat mystified why the Austrian accounts were being believed in total.  Another very capable historian informed me that Austrian records were full of ‘traps and pitfalls’ for the unwary historian and careless researcher, and he had used the Austrian archives in Vienna.  David Chandler has stated on Marengo:

‘The passage of time can play tricks with men’s memories; and, even when participants wrote down their impressions soon after the battle, it must be recognized that the vast majority of them could have possessed only the haziest of ideas about what took place a small distance away form their own narrow and smoke-obscured sectors.  Similarly, it is a well-known fact that two neighboring eyewitnesses of the same historical phenomenon will rarely agree on all the details of what both observed at close quarters.   From the mass of depositions assembled by the Depot de Guerre in the years immediately after the battle, however, and the many detailed analyses that have been made by generations of distinguished military historians over the last century and a half, it is possible to paint a credible picture of the events of the battle of Marengo.’

In conclusion, the two pieces of evidence that clearly stand out to render the Austrian accounts either mistaken or exaggerated, in my opinion, are Melas’ after action report, and Coignet’s relating the capture of a battalion of the 43d Demi-brigade by Austrian cavalry in the center.  Additionally, there are just too many eyewitnesses that saw the Consular Guard infantry in action after the action in which they were allegedly destroyed.  Colonel Vallongue’s original report on the action can be considered authentic and accurate, as was his method of reporting.  Lastly, the entries in the Journal of the Army of the Reserve by Adjutant Major Brossier can also be considered authentic, for he had no axe to grind or anything to cover up.  If he did, it certainly has not come to light.

Finally, it is up to the reader, enthusiast, and historian to do, hopefully, two things:

1. Take nothing at face value; check and recheck your sources

2. hit the books and do your own research for that is the most satisfying and, hopefully, the most accurate.  ‘First, one must see…’

 

Notes

[1] Recently, there has been some doubt thrown on the memoirs of Captain Coignet, in that it was intimated that he took his information from Thiers, which I find personally both interesting and also something of a reach, historically.  This is the only time I have ever seen Coignet questioned for authenticity and credible historians have both used Coignet frequently and his memoirs are still considered reliable.  

[2] Petit, as well as Coignet, both come off as credible, in my opinion.  Petit mainly for the reason that his memoir includes the action of the Guard cavalry, which is somewhat similar to Eugene Beauharnais, who was commanding the Guard Chasseurs a Cheval in the battle.  This, I submit, is another indicator of the reliability of the memoir.

 

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