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About the March of the French Artillery across the Alps: 1800

About the March of the French Artillery across the Alps: 1800

By Geert van Uythoven

Following some interesting discussion on a Napoleonic forum some time ago which seems to have had a revival recently, about the French crossing of the St. Bernard pass in the Alps in 1800, my eye was immediately caught by the title “Von dem Marsch der französischen Artillerie über die Alpen”, when I read Hoyers, ‘Neues Militairisches Magazin’.[1] Iohann Freidrich Hoyer was a 1st Lieutenant of the Pontoneers in the Saxon army, when he started in 1798 the release of the magazine for his own account, with, as he says himself, ‘historic and scientific contents’. As far as I know, a total of 3 volumes have appeared, each volume composed of eight ‘Stücke’, ‘parts’, which were sold separately, and combined into these three volumes. The last ‘Stück’ appeared in 1805. The contents are very diverse, although Hoyer, being a pontoneer himself, paid much attention to the supporting arms – not just artillery, but also bridges, tents, etc. The above piece appeared in volume 3, 5. Stück (1804), and is translated in German from French, part of an ‘Aide-mémoire’. Although I translated this from the German, I am not the translator referred to in the Notes. He was the individual who translated the ‘Aide-mémoire’ from French into German. I thought the contents interesting enough to translate them into English, although I myself would love to see the whole contents of this memoir.

“Since the changes, that had taken part in the construction of the French artillery since 1765, these are capable of making difficult marches on dangerous roads. First, because the used  of carriage and limber had the advantage that, especially the 4-pdr, including the transported ammunition chest, was able to cross ditches and hollow roads without being hampered. The ammunition caissons and other vehicles were provided with hooks on the sides, and carried shovels with them, with which slopes could be made easily. Secondly, from the carriages, the transoms were bolted to the brackets in such a way, that a carriage, when necessary was easy to separate into pieces, making it possible to carry the parts though the most difficult terrain. The crossing of the big St. Bernard in the eighth year of the Republic, is enough proof of this.

To conquer Italy quickly, the First Consul decided to advance on the Austrians using all passes of the Alps, and to attack them by surprise. At most places, the artillery could cross without much difficulty. It was however commonly believed, that the big St. Bernard would be an obstacle impossible to cross. The pass across this mountain was tight, and not completely reconnoitred, and it was not expedient to execute further reconnaissance or even pioneer work. However, the First Consul knew the artillery, and knew what it could do, and on his orders the difficult march was undertaken. During the first days of Praivial (June), they really crossed the Great St. Bernard.

The General of the Artillery M** designed the order of march, and Brigade General A**, who had to execute this movement, was able to replace the lack of appropriate means with his knowledge and efforts. This lack of means, and the newness of the undertaking, the speed of its execution, were probably the cause that not the usual carefulness was used. We will first see how Brigade general A**behaved himself, and after that make some remarks which possibly could be useful to some one who would have to undertake the same enterprise.

Four to five hundred farmers from the mountains there were divided into companies and incorporated in the transport. The Half Brigades were also used now and then – incorrectly, some soldiers opposed to aiding in carrying artillery equipment. The cannon are a weapon as well as the muskets, and such labour is in now way inferior.

At the village St. Petersburg [Bourg St. Pierre], the artillery was dismantled. The ammunition, all iron parts, were packed in chests, specially made for this occasion at Villeneuve and Orsières, and loaded on to mules. The empty ammunition chests were carried by twenty, the lid by eight men. For the limbers and carriages, trails, poles, wheels, etc., also the necessary amount of men were assigned to carry these. The gun barrels were inserted inside hollow trunks of fir trees. One counted 900 francs for every 4-pdr with its ammunition cart, 1,200 francs for every piece of other sorts of guns. 12-pdrs there were none.

On the other side of the St. Bernard, at the village Estruble [Etroubles], the artillery was put together again. It then moved through the Aosta valley, crossed the Po just beneath Pavia, and was victorious at Marengo.

While putting the artillery together again, the disadvantage of the disparity in shapes came to the surface. This disparity originated from the Revolution, from manufacturing outside the five main arsenals. Initially, this was out of necessity, but later this kind of manufacture should not haven been allowed anymore.

From Genf [Genève, Geneva] the artillery can be moved to Villeneuve on the other side of the lake, over water by using barges within 24 hours when the wind is right, by land over Lausanne in three or four days. The latter road is good but small; some men of the guard of the artillery column should be send forward, to direct all wagons coming from the other direction into the wider parts of the road, in order to prevent any delay. From Genf on already, one should use double horse brackets instead of single brackets, partially to spare the latter ones, partially to bring the horse team better in line, which is much more comfortable on a small and bending road.

Between the small city Villeneuve and the Lake of Geneva on can find a spot, were one can position three to four artillery divisions easily, without damaging anything. However, the ground is somewhat wet, and Villeneuve itself does not provide any aiding material.

From Villeneuve to Martinach [Martigny] are 8 lieu of good road, which can be covered in one day when the weather is fine. If one wants to stay at Bex, one will need two days. Martinach consist of a town and a village, about a quarter of an hour from each other. Between the town and the village, on the left side of the road, there are some fine places to drive up. Indeed, one finds in Martinach more aiding materials then in Villeneuve.

Already close from Martinach the road is steep and small. Soon one reaches some bridges, crossing several brooks and ravines. These bridges are so unsettled, that they have to be inspected before one can use them. This road has very sharp turns, which are very dangerous at several places. The road itself consists of trunks driven into the mountain-slope, close to each other. Again one has to send forward men of the guard forward, about one hundred fifty to two hundred toises in front of the artillery column, to direct all wagons and even loaded mules coming from the other direction into the passing bays, in order to prevent any delays, or even to prevent the danger of plunging in the ravines. This road is seven lieus to St. Petersburg. The entrances and exits of the villages are not less dangerous, because the roads are very steep there and the pavement very bad. During the good seasons, one can cover this distance of seven miles in one day; if one wants to stay in Orsières overnight, laying over half way of the road to St. Petersburg, one needs two days. This road could be improved and made much easier without costing much.

Before the village St. Petersburg one finds mainly on the right, but also on the left, a level height, with enough space to collect the artillery and to dismantle it, which necessarily will have to be done here. One could however, when leaving fourteen days earlier and using another thousand labourers, advance another two miles from St. Petersburg with the wagons, but at that particular spot there is no place to drive up the artillery. The road however would become easier, because in the state it is right now, it can only be used by using sleds, while one will already find snow in this part of the country.

One could also, at during June, clear the roads in these snow covered parts of the country using labourers. Using heavy, with plans resoled sleds, it is maybe possible to transport the whole artillery through the snow by using these sleds.

The  limbers, used for moving the 4-pdrs and 8-pdrs, and even more can be stated of those for the mountain artillery, which can be utilised for this purpose, and they were indeed used from two miles before St. Petersburg, were the snow begins. Although the rut of the limbers is relatively small, it was thought better to insert the gun-barrels inside hollow trunks of fir trees, to drag them forward in this way. However, at places were there was no snow, the wood was at places completely grinded through by the rocks, and while the gun-barrels often turned inside the trunks, they were damaged at several places. Probably it would be better if the gun-barrels would be placed between two half trunks of fir, held together by strings. One has to leave the front part of this cylinder very long, to prevent it to be grinded through to easily. This method to transport the guns is far better then the drags and limbers.

Before the ammunition caissons are dismantled, all the parts of one and the same caisson has to be marked with a specific number, and all the iron parts, after being removed, have to be gathered in chests marked with the same number. All parts of a certain wagon has to be transported together, every one guarded by an NCO and some men, separated from other wagons, to prevent any mixing up. Every NCO has to receive a detailed specification of his part of the convoy, and being made responsible for it.

Of the mountain guns the gun-carriage, separated from its axle, can be loaded on the limber completely.[2]  For convenience, it is also possible to remove the bolts holding together both walls of the gun carriage and to fix these again together very close to each other. In this way, the gun carriage can drive up the road until the first snow is encountered. There, one can create sledges of two roughly cut pieces of fir wood, cut round at the bottom, and fixed to each other at the same distance both walls of the gun carriage are. Placed on such a sledge, the gun carriage can make good progress in the snow. The limber shall have to follow empty, in order to reload both walls on the soil again.

From the walls of the gun carriages, which were being carried, some were dragged and became completely useless because of this.

The caissons itself of the ammunition caissons were because of their length the most difficult to transport. Of course they were emptied, and as already told carried by men, but this was a dangerous procedure for the men as well as for the caisson itself.

Loaded on mountain limbers these caissons, because of the height of the axles, were too high, and therefore in danger of overturning easily and crashing into a ravine. In addition, because of the length of the caisson and the unequal road, the end side hits the ground and is seriously damaged. The latter could be remedied by fixing a piece of wood to the end bottom side of the caisson, but the first disadvantage cannot be remedied.

To transport the caissons one had first provided another means. Instead of the real axles, smaller ones would be used, which on both sides would only have enough strength to fix the wheels, and the front side would be loaded on the limber of mountain 8-pdrs. However, this means was not used, because the necessary tools, prepared at Auxonne, did not arrive at the right time.

The ammunition wagons[3] are much more convenient to transport: they were expected from Paris, but arrived too late.

The chapel on the St. Bernard, at the side of the road, lies at 2,400 toises above sea level. Form here to Italy, the mountain sides are very steep, and when using sledges or limbers, one has to be very careful that no accident happens.

At the village Estruble, the artillery is put together again. One could also do this at St. Remy, lying an hour closer, as both villages lack aiding materials.

To transport fifty guns including the necessary ammunition the way as described, one need at St. Petersburg a half company, at Estruble a whole company of labourers, beside a proportional amount of field smiths.”


[1] Iohann Friedrich Hoyer, “Neues Militarische Magazin, historischen und scheintifischen inhalts” (Leipzig 1798-1805).

[2] Remark of the translator: Allan has tried to design this limber in such a way, that it can be used as a sledge to be pulled. Of those manufactured at Auxonne, the bottom has been made with smooth corners in such a way that, when snow is encountered, only the wheels have to be taken off to use the limber as a sledge.

[3] Remark of the translator: The French use two kinds of wagons to transport the ammunition: ‘Caisson à munition’, ammunition caissons, and ‘charette-caisson’, ammunition wagons. The Aide-memoir contains a detailed description of both kind of wagons.