The 1799 Campaign in Italy: the French Retreat – Battle at Parona
An Impossible Plan
The 27th passed without unremarkably. Only some sporadic attacks occurred in the center of the battlefield, and the Austrians, too much exposed under Verona ’s bastions, returned to the defensive emplacements where they had been deployed by Kray to cover the wing communications. Mountains between the states of Venice and Tyrol did not, until Bassano, offer any practicable road for an army; strangely Scherer, with the majority of his generals, ignored this circumstance. It seems that nobody had a good map of Northern Italy . This ignorance proved lethal for the army.
The general in chief, on the 27th, began to realize that Lecourbe and Dessoles were able to support his left wing from Tyrol, but he was still too inflexible to take the action of crossing the Verona plains with his troops, cutting off the mountains that separated him from Adige valley; it was a dangerous maneuver uncover Mantua and open a Cisalpine door for the Austrians. Moreau, seeing the enemy’s intention to concentrate forces inside Verona , proposed to Scherer to pass the Adige river immediately by the bridges of Pol, and to attack the city before the large mass of the Austrian army could gather. Moreau, indeed, had begun such a movement with the divisions of Victor and Hatry. The extreme hesitancy of the general in chief did not allow Moreau’s plan to be carried out – the only practicable plan in view of the situation of the two armies. Scherer offered much discussion about the maneuver he had proposed, and lost two days to debate of its advantages and disadvantages. Finally, in order to settle the matter, Scherer summoned a council of war on March 29. Many officers, particularly those having made the previous Italian campaign with Bonaparte, were greatly disappointed when the Engineer Colonel Maubert declared the plan, on which the General Staff had worked for some days, as impossible to perform because the only road by which the Army could pass beyond the mountains crossed the center of Verona . (AA.VV. FRANCE MILITAIRE – Histoire des Armées Françaises de Terre et de Mer, Tome III. Paris : Delloye Editeur; 1838).
Plan to Pass the Adige
However all of Scherer’s subordinates wanted to engage the enemy, criticizing the irresolution that had resulted in the loss of so much time after the accomplishments of the 26th. The council of war, having comprehended the gravity of the French mistake of waiting so long, failed to appreciate the possibility of committing a still more serious tactical fault, and decided that the army should attempt a passage of the Adige at Ronco or Albaredo, in spite of being in front of a more numerous enemy and between two large enemy-held fortresses.
On the 29th, Scherer asked Kray for a brief truce of some hours in order to bury the dead still remaining on the battlefield of the 26th. To support the planned passage between Legnago and Verona , two divisions of the left wing had to be put on the march, passing behind the center. Moreau was personally charged with masking this maneuver, with 1,600 men of Victor’s division, with the added task of alarming the enemy passing along the Adige . A bridging crew was sent to Castellara, and Serurier crossed the Adige at Pol in order to mount a diversionary attack to attract Austrian attention.
While Moreau was left nearly alone on the left bank of the river Adige, on March 30, to march along the Trento-Verona road to engage the mass of the enemy forces, the rest of the left wing marched along the Menago creek, in a broad movement hinged on Isola-della-Scala, where Scherer made his headquarters.
Situation on March 30, 1799 – French (Division Sérurier)
Advance Guard Brigade – Chef Luis Gareau (cdr of the Advance Guard and Piedmontese troops)
2 Grenadier Coys approximately 300
2 Eclaireurs Coys of the 29e Légère approximately 300
1st Piedmontese Light Infantry Demi-Brigade – Luis Garreau (2 bns) approximately 600
the 3rd Bn (former Corpo Franco) had run away with many deserters on March 26, at Calmasino
The 1,200-1,500 French troops under Gareau had orders to attack Pescantina at 6:00 AM. After the rout of the line’s center Gareau retreated fighting. The two bridges at Pol were sunk in front of the charging Austrians. Other sources indicate that the bridges were captured intact by Austrian grenadiers.
2nd Line Brigade – Général Jean-Baptiste Meyer
29eDemi-Brigade Légère approximately 1,100
18e Demi-Brigade Légère in Rear-guard approximately 600-800
9e Régiment de Dragons (3 sqns) approximately 350
2nd Piedmontese Dragoon Regiment approximately 300
At Parona, they tried to cover the infantry retreat, under brigadier Maurizio Ignazio Fresia, commander of the Hatry cavalry.
The 5,000-6,000 French troops under Meyer were in the second line, exposed to the Austrian artillery fire from Valpolicella hills. The rout of the brigade resulted in a general rout which was covered by the hussars and Piedmontese dragoons, along with the rearguard formed by the 18e Légère. Two battalions of this unit, the last remaining on the battlefield, were encircled and captured while trying to run up the Adige to cross the river at La Sega (near Rivoli) by boats.
Situation on March 30, 1799 – Austrians (Kray gruppe) approximately 15,000
Brigade – GM Anton Freiherr von Elsnitz
Campo avanzato di Parona
Jäger Korps Freiherr Constantin d’Aspre (? coys)
3rd Grenzregiment Carlstädt-Ogulin Cdr. Freiherr Carl von Letzenyi (1st Bn)
5th Warasdiner-Kreuzer Grenzregiment C.te Major Maretić (2nd Bn)
1st Right Column (Rechts Kolonne) – Col. Freiherr Franz Kottulinsky
K.K. IR 14 Freiherr Wilhelm von Klebek (1st, 2nd & 3rd Bns)
2nd Column (Center) – GM Friedrich Heinrich Freiherr Gottesheim
(Col. Joseph Graf Nimptsch, cdr. of the cavalry)
K.K. IR 59 FML Alexander von Jordis (1st & 2nd Bns)
K.K. 4th Light Dragoon Regiment GM Andreas Frh. von Karacsaj de Vale-Sakam (2 Sqns)
3rd Left Column (Links Kolonne) ( Adige) – Col. Johann Szénássy
K.K. IR 53 (Croat) GM Jovan (Johann) Jellacic Graf de Buzim (1st & 2nd Bns)
K.K. 4th Light Dragoon Regiment GM Andreas Frh. von Karacsaj de Vale-Sakam (2 sqns)
Detachement – FML Paul Kray de Krajowa et Topolya
Advance Guard – GM Franz Joseph Marquis de Lusignan ( ?)
K.K. 5th Hussar Regiment (4 sqns)
K.K. Grenadier Bn Graf Joseph Fiquelmont
K.K. Grenadier Bn Oblt Franz Xavier Weber von Treuenfeld (alias Bn Weber)
K.K. (Hungarian) Grenadier Bn Major Joseph Korherr
The Grenadiers broke the center of Sérurier’s advance against Pol, where two bridges (the old was doubled) were defended only by 100 hussars and 3 guns. They were countercharged by hussars and Piedmontese Dragoons.
Hauptkolonne – FML Paul Kray de Krajowa et Topolya
K.K. IR 43 Graf Anton Thurn-Val Sassina (1st & 2nd Bns)
K.K. IR 39 (Hungarian) Graf Thomas (Támas) Nádasdy (1st & 2nd Bns)
In this battle the Austrians made prisoners of war of: 4 chefs-de-bataillon, 73 officers and NCOs, and 1,100 soldiers. The Imperial forces lost 390 men (dead, wounded or prisoners). During the night the Rivoli plateau was occupied by GM St. Julien’s Austrian brigade. “Les Français perdirent 1,500 hommes dans cette affaire mal engagée, et ou ils combattirent contre un nombre triple d’ennemis.” [Roughly: The French lost 1,500 men in this badly begun affair, and where thy fought against a triple number of enemies.] (AA.VV. FRANCE MILITAIRE – Histoire des Armées Françaises de Terre et de Mer, Tome III. Paris: Delloye Editeur; 1838.)
Placed on the Napoleon Series: May 2007