Military Subjects: Virtual Battlefields

 

The Campaign in Italy, 1796-97: Arcole, 15-17 November 1796

Virtual Battlefield Tour

By Bill Peterson

 

In November 1796, Austria launched another powerful expedition for the relief of Mantua. While Davidovich’s 18,000-man Tyrol Corps pushed south through the Alps along the Adige valley, FZM Alvintzi with 29,000 men of the Frioul Corps moved westward through Vicenza; the plan called for the two Corps to combine at Verona. These Austrian field forces handily outnumbered the 41,000 available in the Armée d’Italie. Furthermore, the powerful Mantua garrison of 23,000 threatened to break out at any time. Bonaparte was indeed “caught between three fires” (Chandler).

The crisis of the campaign followed Alvintzi’s victory in a head-on clash with the divisions of Masséna and Augereau on 12 November at Caldiero, barely 15 kilometers east of Verona. While the Austrian Frioul Corps prepared for the final push westward to Verona, Bonaparte swung eastward south of the River Adige in a classic “manoeuvre sur les derrières,” threatening Alvintzi’s line of communication through Villanova.

On the night of 14-15 November 1796, the French threw a pontoon bridge over the Adige at Ronco. The terrain before them in the angle north of the confluence of the Rivers Alpone and Adige was singularly uninviting as a battleground, comprising a vast and nearly impassable marsh with movement only practicable on the elevated causeways along the riverbanks. Bonaparte counted on this constricted terrain to prevent the Austrians from effectively deploying their superior numbers.

On 15 November, Augereau’s Division pushed swiftly north along the causeway on the west bank of the Alpone, but was brought to a halt at the bridge of Arcole by the fire of Oberst Brigido’s Croatian Grenzer battalion, supported by two cannon. Generals Lannes and Verdier were wounded, General Verne killed leading unsuccessful charges across the bridge. Augereau, and finally Bonaparte himself, in an episode much celebrated by French painters, braved the enemy’s fire leading vain assaults over the bridge. The Austrians counterattacked; in the confusion of the French retreat Bonaparte fell from the causeway into the swamp and was in danger of drowning or capture. Masséna’s Division, advancing westward along the north bank of the Adige, captured Porcile. At nightfall, the French withdrew to the Ronco bridgehead.

On 16 November, the French advanced along the same lines, without the benefit of surprise, against Austrian forces that had been much reinforced. In a bitter battle of attrition, both sides suffered heavy losses. The French again retired to their bridgehead.

On 17 November, French ambushes and stratagems, plus a column advancing up the east bank of the Alpone late in the day, finally routed the Austrians at both Arcole and Porcile. Alvintzi’s Corps retreated eastward through Vicenza. Davidovitch was pursued back to the Tyrol. By this strategic victory fought under almost impossible tactical conditions, Bonaparte had again turned back superior enemy forces and maintained the siege of Mantua.  

 

 

Click on any thumbnail image for a larger view.

 


 

  1. Memorial column at Arcole, erected in 1810 at the west (French) end of the bridge. This view is looking north, with the Alpone River on the right, and the foothills of the Alps visible in the distance.
  2. Details of the decoration on the memorial column. Note the “fasces” on each side, used by Napoleon (and later by the Italian Fascists) to evoke associations with the Roman Empire.
  3. Latin inscription on Arcole memorial column: NAPOLEONI / GALLICI EXERCITUS DUCI QUOD HEIC / VICTORIAM HOSTIBUS EREPTAM / SIBI NUNQUAM IN POSTERUM DEFECTURAM ASSERVIT / AD NIVEA FATA AC VETERIS GLORIAE SPEM / ITALIA REVOCATA / MENSE DEC / ANNO MDCCCX

    “To Napoleon / commander of the French army / for Victory, here gained over the enemy / and never failing him thereafter / Italy restored / to the level of its ancient glories / December 1810”

  4. Further details of Arcole memorial column.

     


 

 


 

  1. Arc5: Latin inscription on Arcole memorial column: NAPOLEO / ANCIPITEM TRIDUO MARTEM INDIGNATUS / ARREPTO FIXOQUE IN PONTI VEXILLO / ANIMOS SUIS AD PUGNANDUM REDINTEGRAVIT / AUSTRIACOS FRUSTRA OBNITENTES FUDIT / AETERNUM HIS LOCIS NOMEN DEDIT / XV KALEND DEC AN MDCCXCVI

    “Napoleon / indignant at the hesitation of his soldiers / having seized the standard, charged onto the bridge / thus reanimating the courage of his men / defeated the Austrians who fought back in vain / and immortalized the name of this place / 15 November 1796”

  2. The modern bridge at Arcole, built in the same location and in a similar style to the historic wooden bridge. This view is looking northeast from the causeway on the west (French) bank of the Alpone River.
  3. View across the Arcole bridge from west to east, approximately the view seen by the charging French.
  4. The causeway along the west bank of the River Alpone, looking south from near the Arcole bridge. The land on the right, now drained and reclaimed, was in 1796 a nearly impassable marsh. On 15 November 1796 Bonaparte fell from the causeway as the French retreated, and nearly drowned here.

     


 

 

 


 

  1. Old milestone at the west end of the Arcole bridge, showing the directions to ARCOLE (east), RONCO (south), and SAN BONIFACIO (north).
  2. The River Alpone, looking south from the Arcole bridge. Austrian sharpshooters at the left had a clear and nearly point-blank shot at the French advancing along the causeway at right.
  3. The dike along the east (Austrian) bank of the River Alpone, south of the Arcole bridge. Austrian musketeers had nearly perfect shelter here while shooting at the French on the causeway across the river.
  4. Memorial plaque on chapel at east end of Arcole Bridge:

    NAPOLEONE / QUI TRE GIORNI CON DUDDIA SORTE / SI BATTE COLNEMICO /QUI SUL PONTE SUA MANO / INALBERO BANDIERA ANIMATRICE / E RICHIAMO I PRODI SUDDI ALLA VITTORIA / QUI VINSE / LASCIANDA A QUESTI LUOGHI FAMA IMMORTALE

    Napoleon / here for three days in dubious battle / fought the enemy / who on this bridge with his own hand / raised the inspiring flag / and led his gallant subordinates to victory / here he triumphed, bequeathing to this place immortal fame.


 

 

 


 

  1. View looking from east to west across the Arcole bridge, from the approximate position of the Austrian cannon emplaced to sweep the bridge with canister. One wonders how not just Napoleon, but any French survived.
  2. Site of the French pontoon bridge over the Adige River at Ronco, looking south from the north bank. The Ronco church is visible through the trees.
  3. View looking northeast from the causeway near the pontoon bridge at Ronco toward Arcole village, marked by its tall, slender white campanile (bell-tower). In 1796 this farmland was all marsh, and Arcole could only be reached by following the causeway east to the confluence of the Alpone and Adige, then north along the west bank of the Alpone.
  4. Belfiore di Porcile, seen from the causeway looking northwest. Masséna’s Division saw the village from this angle as it approached, and fought over the village on each of the three days of 15-17 November, 1796.  

 


 

 

Placed on the Napoleon Series: September 2001

 

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