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The 1799 Campaign in Italy

The 1799 Campaign in Italy: General Kray’s Attack (August 15, 1799. 5 a.m.)[i]

By Enrico Acerbi


Put at the head of the Austro-Russian right wing, the Austrian general Kray had to try to gain the heights of Pasturana. This, would allow him to be able to jump onto the rear of the French army. The Russian general Bagration had, as new order, to attack the French army right wing in order to be able to close a pincher and to meet Kray’s Austrian troops. Finally, the center of the Austro-Russian army, personally commanded by Suvorov, had to seize the stronghold of Novi.

The first to move ahead, at dawn, were the squadrons of Major Dobaj (Archduke Joseph Hussars). They overran the weak French infantry outposts, forcing them to retreat into the hills. Before the dawn became more bright, both divisions began to march forward in column formation (half-companies column). The battle started at 5 a.m. [ii]  Ott’s Division advanced its vanguard (the two Ogulin’s Battalions under Major Mamula), while Bellegarde, not having light infantry, organized its vanguard with two Huff’s Battalions. And, as the artillery Reserve in the plain began to bombard the crests behind Novi, the two vanguards engaged the French. The first clash was very hard, the French having deployed a thick skirmisher screen. Major Mamula continued his difficult advance uphill onto a steep slope, followed by the first ranks of Ott’s Division: the Deutschmeisters and the Vukassovich Regiments. They had to go upslope jumping over stonewalls, terraces, and fences, all the while under the enemy musketry.

General Joubert went suddenly near Pasturana, to see what was happening with that strong musketry. During that reconnaissance the young general was hit by a ball and fell dead, slipping down his horse’s flank. The particular versions upon the death of Joubert will be examined shortly.  Lemoine’s Division , which was deployed in the vineyards near the Novi park, during the night, marched forward in columns with the 20th Light Infantry on the left and the Grenadiers of the 34th Line on its right (Seras brigade). They clashed with the  4th (Deutschmeister) and  48th (Vukassovich) Regiments in a bloody exchange of shots. The “Grenzers” vanguard reached a point in which they fortified themselves. Despite the great resistance of the 80th and 34th Line, the 5th Light Demi-Brigade, enfiladed by a battery, withdrew (like done at La Trebbia) leaving a gap into which the Austrian ran; otherwise the terrain gained was only 100 meters of plateau.

Lemoine made every effort to draw back the Austrians, but his only success was to stop them, when they have already reached the top of the slope. The Regiment Huff, followed by the Sztaray and Gyulai units, gained  similar results. Seckendorff advanced one battalion and one squadron along the Lemme Course, to cover the flank and to menace the French. Two Battalions and another squadron were left at Basaluzzo and the last squadron went up by the Lemme bank, reaching Ovada in the French rear, without meeting any French unit. All of Kray’s cavalry marched toward Monticello and tried to get closer to Pasturana, but the rough terrain did not allow any advance. The French line now had been withdrawn onto the second ridge of the Pasturana Plateau.  While Grouchy was rallying his troops, the reserve brigades (Partounneaux and Clauzel) were ordered to advance to Pasturana. The French tried to push back (down from the Plateau) the enemy, between 6 and 7 a.m., but their endeavours were unsuccessful. The 20th Light, almost surrounded, made a stout resistance, but, isolated, was finally overrun by the first Austrian assault and pushed back. The attack by General Kray had produced only a partial success. However the Austrians gained an enormous advantage by killing the French general-in-chief.   

A Hero’s Death

“Dès lors, le général Joubert prit la tête d’une colonne de grenadiers Français et accourut pour arrêter les progrès des Autrichiens. Le général Joubert poussait les siens en avant lorsqu’il tombât frappé, au cœur, par une balle Autrichienne. «Marchez toujours», dit-il en faisant, de la main à ses soldats Français, un signe qui leur indiquait l’ennemi. Ce geste et ces mots furent les derniers du brave général Joubert.”

The following is the official account upon the Joubert’s tragical death. Other authors, however, did write other versions about that event. [iii]

“The day after (15 NoA), an hour before the dawn, they heard some rifle shot on the left; it was the first attack of the Austrian hussars, who forced to withdraw the Lemoine’s Tirailleurs. Joubert was in observation with St.Cyr on the Novi heights: he launched his horse in gallop toward the left wing. Then he stopped, observed the movements of the Bellegarde and Ott troops, approaching to attack Lemoine and Grouchy. In that moment the French Tirailleurs withdrew with too much hurry and Joubert, caught by his natural hot nature, jumped himself in the middle of our first fire line, shouting to the soldiers: “En avant! En avant!” There he got a ball directly in the heart and fell immediately dead.[iv] His aides-de-camp brought back the body to St. Cyr, who ordered to keep the corpse in a small building. The new of the Chief’s death was told to the troops only at the end of the day”.

3rd Version (trans. from Mémoires du Général Baron Thiebault – tome III – Paris 1894)

“The circumstances by which General Joubert died had to be cleared, the truth upon which, I am certain, was never told by the historians, but were illustrated with  sentences and melodramatic details almost invented. It happened not bringing forward an attack column, neither jumping in the middle of his Grenadiers crying “Soldats, marchez toujours!”but, while certainly doing well his duty, he died in a less theatrical manner . If I feel the need of remedy upon that event, in these my Mémoirs, it is not only because that was an historical fact, but rather because it is an occasion to notice, to the honest historians, how many mistakes were in the actual books, in the official papers and in all documents written as the time trends and passions allowed. The truth about History will never be found on papers. 

In that times, Joubert had two Chiefs of general Staff: the office one, General Suchet and the other “de bataille” or the Adjudant Préval. The first served for all written documents, the second was the shadow of the General in Chief, slept in his room, and had only a portfolio, carried by an “ordonnance”.When happened, at dawn of that awful Novi battle, they heard some rifle shots, Préval, who was employed to the terrain reconnaissance and to the intelligence of the enemy, almost as in the orders diffusion and in the control of their execution, that Préval, always the first and the last mounted on horse, would have made a reconnaissance to where they heard the shots; so riding along all the line of our outposts, discovered a mound from where we dominated the enemy positions. By the quantity and the depth of the columns, which could be seen by his spyglass, he judged the movements were a prelude to a large battle and though it would be interesting, for the Chief, to judge himself the mass of troops the enemy was to moving ahead. Préval, born with the istinct and the love for  war, ran swiftly, with his horse, to alert Joubert.

The battle was already engaged and our retreating Tirailleurs climbed the mound, on which the enemy fire concentrated; it was then that Joubert arrived there, having understood the importance of the observatory, led by Préval: he was just catching his spyglass, when, hit by a ball in the chest, suddenly died. A very grotesque destiny that to find the death in a command, often refused, which he had once abandoned and then again “forced” to take; and also to die because of the most faithful of his subordinates, who unintentionally had led him to death .

Immediately Préval had orders to carry away the body of Joubert and to hide the new of his death whenever possible. The Adjoutant himself jumped in the middle of the Tirailleurs ranks crying them to advance, in order to avoid someone could know the fatal event. Then he reached Pèrignon giving him the bad new and in succession, Moreau and St. Cyr. The commander in chief was stated to be given to Moreau, with all generals agreeing to this, also if the former Chief could not abandon the center of the line, where the battle now enraged.

The Novi battle, at least, was fought without a general in Chief, without a single direction, without a unique will, which could have maintained the necessary cohesion; without a Chief who could envoy unuseful troops of a sector to another severely threatened. Our army, while well commanded, acted as three different and independent Corps opposing isolated clashes to an enemy army, which made a large battle. So our two Wings were beaten while the center of the line resisted well and won his engagements, while having many unemployed troops, useful for other sectors.”

4th Version (trans. from “Journal des Sciences militaires …” tome XXVII, avril 1832, article  upon the “Mémoires pour servir a l’histoire militaire  .. par le Maréchal Gouvion-St.Cyr”)

“The 15th, at daybreak, the French army left wing was attacked by the enemy right with the largest energy. Joubert, which was near St Cyr, went to his left. By going there, he perceived the movements of the enemy which announced a battle. He advanced onto the infantrymen line to best observe and was almost immediately struck by a bullet, which knocked down him to death. Marshal St. Cyr did no more comment. We think it is appropriate to tell that Joubert was hit by a French ball, a fact which was certain for many years. He was hit in his back, from up to down, while the enemies where, downhill, on the slope. In the same moment he fell dead, one among his aides-de-camp, covered the body with his mantle saying: “La farce est finie!” (Comedy’s finished).”

I personally send a question to the Staff of the Musée Chintreuil of Pont-de-Vaux, where Joubert was born. This is what answered the kind Madame Nelly Catherin of the museum Staff: “Yes, I have heard speaking about this murder by “friendly” fire (“assassinat” français). The day before the battle of Novi, Joubert would have made executed some people, Corsicans, which had been charged for exactions, plunder, rapes … With the first shots of the battle, some Corsicans, would have killed him to avenge their friends executed. It is an hypothesis.”

My personal opinion, the best account to consider would be Thiebault’s story. Officially we can add that Joubert’s body was carefully sent to the rear, embalmed for avoiding the corruption due to hot weather and sent to Paris, as witnesses the report of the Directory session recorded in “Le Moniteur . Séance du 9 fructidor an VII [August 26, 1799] [v]

“Furia Francese”

The immediate intervention of General Moreau, the old Chief of the army, allowed to restore the order and to reunite the troops. In the opposite side, General Kray, during the first phase of his attack, was very surprised by observing the Russian troops of Bagration not marching in battle orders. An aide-de-camp carried a Bagration despatch in which the Prince stated he was waiting a direct order by Suvorov (and someone said Suvorov was asleep in bed!).

The French profited of that inactivity and reinforced the line. St Cyr seized the town of Novi detaching there the Gardanne brigade. Quesnel was sent on the northwestern heights around Novi while, at the left, the link with Laboissière was granted by the Colli brigade. At least Watrin was ordered to abandon the outpost of Bettole and to withdraw till the Laboissière right, seizing the little plateau under the Monte Rotondo slopes. Two Demi-Brigades of the reserve seized the height and the plateau south of Novi, with two cavalry regiments in the same plateau.

They were almost 7.00 a.m., early-morning, when Moreau perceived that the Austro-Russians made rapid advancements on his right, near the Villa Catanietta, seeing his troops withdrawing in a sort of disorder and this was very dangerous for the Republicans because it could have separated the Corps of the general St. Cyr and Perignon. He soon ordered to general Colli, who was on the left extremity of the French right, to send two Battalions in order to revive again the attack, contemporarily he put to march some troops that had already committed. To recover the right, Moreau, ordered to Colli to march westward to attack the division Ott’s left, while Lemoine recovered the sways of his division and soon was ready to counterattack. Lemoine then moved forward hitting the two tired regiments of the Austrian first line (Deutschmeister and Vukassovich). The battle enraged bloody and, finally, the Austrians were forced to leave the 2nd crest of the Pasturana hills, retreating in disorder. They went downhill till the plain where recovered their ranks among the 2nd line units, deployed in line. It was 8.00 AM. Grouchy, having noted the Lemoine’s successful attack, tried to perform a strong counterattack against Bellegarde. The clash was hard also in front of Pasturana, but Bellegarde, after a first retreat, launched another counterattack employing fresh troops of the 2nd line. This definitely blocked the French advance, while Austrians detachments (Sztaray) and patrols harassed the flanks and the rear of Grouchy. A little detachment of Light infantry (“grenzers”) with some Hussars were able to reach the first houses of Pasturana. The Sztaray regiment harshly defended an hill, northwest of Pasturana, building there a stronghold. Some Huff’s detachment remained, rather isolated, in some strongpoint defending with valour their small “islands”. In the meanwhile the Austrian reserve batteries and the Pálffy cavalry did not allow the French of Lemoine to reach the plains. Around midday the battlefield returned quiet.


[i] Many authors, following the Gachot’s account, told the battle began during the night. Kray troops began their movements at 1 AM (August 15) and engaged the Austrians around the 3.20 AM. A report of the Chef of the 34th Demi-Brigade so described the moves on that bright full moonlight night: “Lemoine ordered us to take position at the Seras left, this last a very good position, large enough to accomodate also the Garreau troops. We stood in a location full of vines, ravines and woods. Our manoeuver seemed done to suggest to the enemy to profit of an open door. The 5th Light infantry, the 80th and 34th line, spent the night in a location where 4 men could not move together. My troop lived, through five days, with a quarter-ration, someone with the half quarter and others with no food.” Gachot said the movement of the 34th Line determined Kray to form his three attack columns and to begin the approach movement by 1 AM. The first Kray’s attacks lasted till the 6.00 AM when a pause was necessary, in order to rally the troops. The 5 o’clock is the Jomini (and Austrian) version.

[ii] As told, there were some differences between the sources about the exact time the battle began. St. Cyr noted the first clash (Hussars) before the dawn, Pèrignon (and Jomini) confirmed the 5 AM hours, the Index of Maria-Theresia awards (telling about Colonel Révay) gave a time between 5 and 6 AM, when the first cannons sounds came from Pozzolo Formigaro.

[iii] There was also an Austrian truth about Joubert’s death. The Austrian corporal Strakate of the 4th Line infantry had noted a young French general observing the battlefield of the French left wing. Strakate took eleven men with him and advanced, concealed among trees and bushes. Having deployed his men behind some trees, the Deutschmeister Corporal ordered to fire and the Austrian rifles shot at the French general, who fell from his horse. Later the Austrian patrol was made aware the enemy general killed was the Supreme French commander, Joubert. Finally there was also a Croatian truth in this who-killed-him race. They told a soldier (gemeine), but above all a sniper (Scharfschütze) of an Oguliner Battalion, named Vučić, shot a wel directed bullet directly in the Joubert’s chest.

[iv] For Marco Galandra and Marco Baratto (“Le baionette sagge”) Joubert was observing the battlefield near a “cascina” called “la Spaziosa” (“la maison blanche” for the French) with spyglasses, when a bullet, probably fired by a rifle barreled weapon, hit him in the chest fracturing a rib. The death was not immediate but three hours later, in the palace of Marquis Durazzo at Novi, after a long agony. The Sant’Andrea Parish files recorded the death as occurred at 9 AM.

[v] “The session was opened with the correspondance reading. An extraordinary dispatch by general Suchet, chief of the General Staff of the armée d’Italie, related to the Directory about a bloody battle having occurred in the Novi plains, the last 28 thermidor, in which our troops, while being very inferior in numbers than the Russian army, reinforced by the Austrians, formerly engaged at Mantua, did wonders of valour, but where the Glory was obtained paying with the general Joubert’s death, who having had run to animate a bayonet’s charge was hit on the right part of the chest by a ball which pierced his hearth. The dispatch itself emphasized also that the body of that young hero, stolen to his Homeland in the better years of his youth, had been embalmed and was being carried to Paris with a religious care.”

List of the acts: message to the two Councils, written act envoyed to the newspaper le Rédacteur, Letter of condolence to the widow of the general Joubert, script of Lagarde, answer to the President of Directory signed Montholon-Joubert:

“In this moment it’s above my forces to explain the devotion and my deep reconnoissance to the Directory. It will become without limits indeed, if the Directory wants to remind itself that there is a conscript in the army of Italy, his brother, the only the war has not stolen to my unfortunate husband. My confidence in your kindness, citizen president, as in the Directory justice, give me the strength to trust eternally in the Republic’s first magistrates as they surely will continue to honour my misfortune that is irretrievable beyond any power”. (AF III 623, plaquette 4419, pièces 36-39 et 43-44).