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The 1799 Campaign in Italy

The 1799 Campaign in Italy: The Armies

By Enrico Acerbi



“The War is pitiless for the peoples
And is awful for who lost it.”


General Scherer

The scene in 1798 changed and became unexpectedly contrary to France, as it had been favourable to it on previous years. At the same moment in which a new war was announced, even more destructive than that just finished, the enthusiasm of the nation, source of the former victories, was extremely deadened by the lack of competence and the faults of the Directory, which did inspire neither confidence nor reliance. The citizens expressed more loathing than enthusiasm for enlistment. France again needed many troops however; and as no one could hope that complements would had reached a sufficient number, they tried to compensate this with the forced “Levée en masse”.

On August 21, 1798 (4 fructidor an VI), by General Jourdan’s motion, (the future Marechal de France was a member of the 500’s Council), the session of Legislative Chamber adopted the measure by which every French male citizen was to be declared a soldier, without exceptions, whenever “la Patrie est en danger” (the Country in danger); in addiction, out this particular case, they stated it was lawful to call at arms a variable amount of young men, age from 20 to 25 years, as mandatory military conscription, when volunteers number fell below the minimal needed to raise military units. This Conscription act regarded all French male fit for age except those married before July 12, 1798 (23 nivose an VII), or male-“widows” with children, Finally the Conscripts were divided into five classes, each  including the conscripts of an year. This Act was formally confirmed on September 15, 1798 (19 fructidor), by the Senate (Conseil des Anciens), and put into execution immediately after.

In 1799, however, these emergency armies did not perform well. France was beaten in Germany under General Jourdan as well as in Italy under Scherer, who was the War Minister, replaced on February 27, the 1799 (9 ventose an VII) at the war department by Mr. Milet-Mureau, an engineer. So defeats beyond the Alps and  the Rhine, the extreme weakening of the French Armies, public displeasure, all together forced the Directory to choose a War Minister able to take care of such great problems, and especially to increase again the national self-reliance. They chose General Bernadotte, who was tired of the French Government’s bad operations, had  refused the army of Italy command. He was named Chief at the War Department, replacing Milet- Mureau, on July 2, 1799 (14 messidor an VII) and this is what he had in armies’ numbers:

Infantry 524,898 men Cavalry 51,055 Foot artillery, horse artillery, pontonniers, sappers, etc. 29,887 Troops “non combatants”employed in France (Gendarmerie, Gardes Nationales etc.) 41,016 Total 449,844

On September 16, 1799 Bernadotte was replaced with Edmond (Louis-Alexis) Dubois de Crancé, général de division and member of the National Assembly and of the Convention. He had no time to act. One month after Bonaparte returned to Paris and on November 9-10, 1799, he became the head of the Government. On November 11, Dubois Crancé lost his place and was substituted by Alexandre Berthier. The New Constitutional Act of December 13 made Bonaparte Chief of Government as First Consul and, from that day, the army found its Chief.

A French Army was composed by a variable number of divisions; but the divisions, instead of being made by troops of the same branch, like War Council had stated in 1788, comprised, in certain proportions, the infantry, the cavalry and artillery together. Their ordinary composition had the following manpower: four half-brigades, each one strong not less than two thousand five hundred men, two regiments of light cavalry or dragoons, sometimes of heavy cavalry, and always two batteries of six ordnance pieces, of which one was horse artillery. It was, on a wide scale, a Corps completely comparable with the Roman legion and, like that, equipped with all accessories in cavalry and materials.

This great tactical essential organization was led by a major general (Général de division), having under his orders two brigade Generals; his Staff was at least composed by an adjudant general, two adjoints, and an engineer  officer (there was also a non-military branch with administration agents, whose direction was entrusted to an “emissaire ordonnateur” or ordinary War Commissary). The “adjoints” and the aide-de-camps formed part of the infantry or cavalry ranks, preserving their commands by their units [2], which had to be led by provisional officers. This behaviour damaged the units’ cohesion and was not useful for that staff officers, who, for the majority, did not leave their staff duties or they did it only whenever promoted to more elevated ranks; also because, from ancient times, favours were abundant among the “genéraux” quarters.

The infantry reserve was generally composed of two brigades and two companies of foot artillery; the cavalry reserve of two to four regiments, with at least an horse artillery company. All the artillery personnel and division’s materials, were supposed to come from a large artillery park, and could unexpectedly return there in total or partially. This park was a kind of travelling arsenal where one could found all things necessary to replace and reinforce the needs of divisional artillery. The howitzers, (eight, twelve, sometimes also sixteen pdrs.), more fit to siege combats, formed batteries of six to twelve pieces of ordnance, known as position batteries; they were always operated by gunners from the park, those remained after having fulfilled all men necessary for the service of the field pieces.

Whatever behaviour, either the defensive or the offensive, one wanted to consider within the active organization of the Republican armies, more than one disadvantage became obvious. Undoubtedly that divisions, formed by troops of all branches of sService (recalling in a smaller scale the same proportions of the whole armies), could act also as independent, isolated, detached, self managing units; however, this system of partial operations, which was indeed typical of those times, was more able to lead to unending wars than to get decisive and prompt results. It constantly exposed some separated parts of the army to be outflanked and beaten, before other friendly units could have the knowledge of what was happening.

The extension of war theatres, the nature and the substance of fights, the operations activities, and especially the numerical force of armies, instead required more connections and a broader distribution of the masses. There was nothing better than this division system for armies strong from thirty to forty thousand men, especially if they cared to join together the totality of the heavy cavalry and some regiments of light cavalry in a special Reserve. But, beyond this numerical limit, it did not appear any more to be appropriate: the “généralissimus” attention would have been too much divided, and the central impulse too difficult to give. The principal great fractions of an army increased by its numerical force, but the various branches had to be combined together, in order to avoid fading of their respective energies.

That way of autonomy, granted to the generals by the Republican forces organization, reduced the action capability of the commander-in-chief, and made more difficult the gathering of whole armies. By the way of that independence those Generals enjoyed, leading Corps apparently raised up only to act on the battlefield, fighting for their personal glory, as one was to expect. With operations never linked together, in a such war system adopted, the development of the general operative plans was often altered, because of the individual own nature to emerge by doing better than the others, refusing to divide the battlefield glory with other friend generals. Thus, although in same events the people representatives did personally take over the operations, the commander-in-chief was other than a “généralissimus” of the whole Force in campaign. This explains why, in such a great conflagration, the large general battles “a la Austerlitz” were rare, but the combats, instead, were frequent. We can tell all this considering also the lack of a commander showing great personality in campaign, as Bonaparte did. But he, unluckily for the French, was in Egypt.

The French Demi-brigade in 1799

The law of the 23 fructidor an VII (September 9, 1799), relating to the personnel of war, fixed the number of the infantry half-brigades at 100. Each half-brigade had to employ 3,231 men, and it was made up of 4 battalions, of which one of garrison (Depot). Each “de bataille” infantry battalion was composed of seven companies, of which one of Grenadiers; the Depot battalion had only six companies. But, according to general Bardin, this was a fake-organization. The “Golpe” of Brumaire an VIII made this law, produced by the Directory, not applied by the new Masters of France.

The Grenadier  companies were formed by:

The Captain, a lieutenant, a sous-lieutenant, a sergeant-major, 4 sergeants, one  fourrier , 8 caporals, 64 grenadiers, 2 drummers.

The Fusilier Company had to be composed of:

The Captain, a lieutenant, a sous-lieutenant, a sergeant-major, 4 sergeants, one fourrier, 8 caporals, 104 fusiliers and 2 drummers.

Every infantry  battalion had (chef de bataillon, adjudant-major and adjudant sous-officier included) 824 men.

The total infantry was  323,100 men.

The Light infantry had a similar organization, while having elite “Eclaireurs” or “Chasseurs à pied” companies instead of the Grenadiers.

After the “Etat militaire de l’an VIII”(published on the last months of 1799), the “de bataille”or “de ligne”line infantry was composed by 110 demi-brigades, each having three battalions. Each battalion had 9 companies (120 men instead of 122), one of which was the Grenadiers (with 71 men instead of 62, for a total of 90), summing up to 1067 men, officers included.

The main variant in the artillery organization was the Act of 5 pluviôse an VI (January 24, 1798) which suppressed the “cannoniers” companies (gunners) attached to the demi-brigades. The practice to gather the guns in larger batteries, however, was already being done since 1796, preferring to avoid the dispersion of guns among the infantry units. This created “de facto” a divisional artillery or an artillery distributed to the brigade by the division commander. In 1799,  the French artillery lacked often the necessary supplies even if they used to employ Piedmontese materials.

About tactics, in Italy, during the 1799, the French abandoned the “Ordre Mixte” deployment (with the 2nd Battalion inn line and the others two in column at the flanks) preferring the employment of the elite coys in the avant-guards, one battalion – some times two – in line (or in the first line) and the others in reserve (in a second line column formation). This depended also by the terrain on which the battles were fought. The Italy’s campaign was indeed an ordinary river-and-bridges campaign with some hills to deploy batteries, but with very few plains in which cavalry could manoeuvre. Also the swampy lands concurred to give a lesser popularity to the formations deployment in lines. For the same reason the “melée” combats occurred more often than average. During the 1799 campaign no new tactics were developed. Sometimes there were some “strange” variant due, as told, to the special occurrence or the land shape. Gouvion-Saint-Cyr told about an example of how to combat against cavalry without using the squares. It happened during the clash at Bosco (called also the 2nd Novi battle on October 16, 1799). There Saint-Cyr had to fight against an Austrian Corps of 4000 infantry and  2000 cavalry   plus 12 artillery pieces. He had only seven infantry battalions and deployed them in a large single line, making them advance “par echelons”, the left wing at the head. The Austrians were repulsed losing 1000 prisoners and 5 guns but the first French echelon was disordered and was forced to rally in platoons to contain the Austrian cavalry.[3]

The Logistics Emergency

The shortage of troops during the 1798 – 1799 cCampaigns went beyond every imagination. There was a total lack of supplies. “La troupe a eu hier le quart et aujourd’hui je n’ai rien de leur donner” wrote a chef-de-brigade on July 24 “j’ai écrit au commissaire, point de réponse. J’ai envoyé dans les villages voisins, mais sans succès, tout a décampe .. les soldat sans pain se livre au pillage … j’ai été hier à Garessio, la troupe y meurt de faim, plusieurs soldats sont malades de faiblesse …” During the same period General Victor said  the soldiers lacked bread and that they were covered with pimples and parasites, on the ground gravely tired, and above all that they lacked all the supplies needed. The discipline was forgotten, also between officers and all raised up to the worst excesses.  Victor wrote also: “Le 16 aôut (the day of the Novi battle) l’armée n’avait puis reçu de vivres depuis quatre jours. Aussi tombait’elle d’inanition et la bataille à été perdu… On voyait une grande partie des soldats couchés au milieu d’une grêle de balles, disant aux officiers que la mort qui les environnait était préférable à des privations continuelles. Deux jours se sont passés sans qu’il aient reçu le moindre secours, si ce n’est quelques onces de légumes secs…” 

The Minister of War, General Bernadotte, wrote (letter of 27 thermidor an VII) that the men charged with the logistic responsibility did not make their duty preferring their profit and playing with the comrades lives. They either did not distribute supplies either did this but with such deteriorated food that was impossible to use it. In 1799, the French army had no help from the Italian people. A long wave of unremitting insurgencies harassed the rear line of communications with Genoa (and France). While the 1796 Bonaparte’s campaign was performed by many agreements with civil authorities, the 1799 saw the age of plunder.

The Cavalry

By 1796 the organization was in anarchy and this condition deteriorated until Napoleon’s return from Egypt. From 1796 until 1799, after the Brumaire “golpe”, the French cavalry had  2 carabiniers regiments, 26 of heavy cavalry, 15 of dragoons, 25 chasseur regiments, and 12 hussars regiments plus the 7e Bis. There were also two irregular formations, five companies of polish “emigré” and the Guides de Napoleon. Starting 1800, under the Consulate, the cavalry consisted of 2 Carabiniers regiments, 25 heavy cavalry regiments, 20 dragoon regiments, 23 regiments of chasseurs and 12 of hussars (however in 1799, 3 of the 13 hussar regiments were converted to dragoons). Cavalry troopers were well paid, so it was more difficult to find horses as remounts than improvised riders.

The average strength of regiment in Italy was between 300 and 500 men. During campaign the numbers decreased. The low numbers were often given as justification for giving them garrison duty. In 1799 there was a severe shortage of horses. The Directory wrote an act to make requisitions in France and in foreign territories. In general the trend was to spare cavalry in combat and to use it for reconnaissance. The first line was often occupied by “friendly” cavalry such as Poles, Piedmontese and Cisalpine. Most often regiments had 3 or 4 squadrons (3 squadrons plus one advanced Depot in Italy).

The Commands

Undoubtedly the Directory political responsibilities were the main cause of the French 1799 disaster in Italy. Even if some eminent trials were celebrated in Paris (i.e. Generals Championnet and Duhesme) condemning bad Government and robberies the French politicians in Paris failed to give confidence in the Republican project to the great part of the Italian people, largely influenced by the Catholic Church and its priests. For their part, Italian Jacobins acted as elite citizens, a new class of cultural nobility, which, as the classical old noblemen, stressed the popular classes causing a new anger to mount up. So the old aristocracy and the priests begun to lead the common citizen resulting in several unpredictable crowds of Insurgents. From 1798 the inner Italian territory became uncontrollable and more police operations restricted the activity of the French two armies. The consequent repression system, which followed the countryside riots, was fatal to the French generals, who passed from the admiration for their victories to resentment caused by their warnings, stamped and glued on the towns’ walls.

Moreover there was a critical indecision in the French higher commands. Good generals and commanders refused the task to lead the Armée d’Italie (Bernadotte and after Joubert), Masséna was taken away for his supposed previous robberies, Championnet was under trial, Bonaparte was in Egypt and Moreau was under stiff Directory control after the inquiry for the Rhine Affair. Directory chose General Schérer for Italy and Macdonald for Naples. The two Chiefs otherwise did not excel in the military art. Schérer was probably too old and too anxious to emulate the Bonaparte 1796 manoeuvres, mainly failing to estimate the exact enemy forces. His major success was the Loano Battle (December 1795) in which his merits today seem to be overestimated, while the real protagonist of the battle was Andre Masséna. Macdonald was a smart divisional commander but seemed to be in difficulties when managing larger amounts of troops and was unable to organize a safe approaching march, without leaving enemies behind his shoulders. He did not have,   good Lieutenants as Bonaparte had had in 1796 (Augereau and Masséna).


[2]Though the bureaucratic destination of the adjudant-generals and that of the adjoints was formally articulated in title VIII of the February 21, 1798 Law, it was observed that very often they appeared in the middle of the battlelines or at the head of the army columns. Only a third of the adjudant-generals had an official rank of “Chef-de-brigade”, while a third of the remaining aides were chef-de-bataillon.

[3] Bernard Coppens,; Alain Pigeard “Hors Série – Tradition magazine» n.19.


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