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The Napoleon Series > Military Information > Battles

The 1799 Campaign in Italy: Introduction 

By Enrico Acerbi

After the Peace of Campoformio (1797), France had continued to expand; it had established control, as well as satellite republics modelled after the French Republic, in Switzerland and the territory of the Papal State (the pope himself being abducted to France). Austria, Russia, the Ottoman Empire, Portugal, and Naples formed a coalition against France, which was joined by Britain on June 22nd 1799. Napoleon Bonaparte, at that time, was stuck with his army in Egypt. The British fleet, under Lord Nelson, had destroyed the French fleet at Abukir, thus cutting off Napoleon's communication with France.

In Italy and Mediterranean Sea

A Russian fleet occupied the Ionian islands except Corfu, to which the French held on. A Neapolitan army took Rome, but was expelled again soon after. Naples mutinied against the Austrian commander of her own army; the commander surrendered himself to the French, who took Naples, establishing the Pathenopean Republic. This satellite republic, however, was very short-lived, as the French troops were needed in the north and rebels under Cardinal Ruffo di Calabria, supported by the British Navy under Admiral Nelson, expelled the Republicans and the French.

In Northern Italy, the main theatre of operation, the French faced Austrian and Russian forces, the latter commanded by Alexander Suvorov. The coalition forces gained victories at Magnano (April 5th 1799) and Cassano (April 25th-27th 1799). They took Milan and Torino, defeated the French at the Trebbia (June 17-20), and at Novi (August 15th 1799). However French General Massena defeated a Russian force near Zrich (Sept. 26th-27th 1799) and reoccupied Switzerland for France. Czar Paul I. then signed a peace treaty.

The Holland Campaign

A British-Russian force landed unopposed, as the Batavian Navy remained inactive - the Dutch sailors refused to fight against an orange flag (Russia's Czarist flag was orange with a black diagonal cross over it; Prince William of Orange supported the Allies). Yet poor coordination and logistics resulted in their defeat at Bergen aan Zee and Castricum (October 6th 1799). When the coalition force failed in achieving its prime objective - seizing the Dutch fleet - the campaign was aborted; in the Convention of Alkmaar (October 18th 1799}, the withdrawal of the Anglo-Russian force was agreed upon.

Napoleon, without his army, returned to France and staged a coup d'etat on November 9th/10th 1799. Then he changed the French strategy, the war being simplified by Russia not only having withdrawn from the coalition, but an Anglo-Russian rift developing.

Final considerations

The Allies lacked a common strategy. Britain seemed intent on using the Coalition Wars to eliminate the fleets of potential rivals on the world's oceans; Austria and Russia wanted to crush the revolutionary armies instead. British action caused the Russians to withdraw from the coalition. French political leadership had learned from the mistakes of the 1st Coalition War; its generals were only rarely replaced and none ended up under the guillotine.

In 1800, because of the fragility of the coalition, France now clearly established her hegemony over western central Europe (Italy, Switzerland, western Germany, the Netherlands), gaining even Spain as an ally. Russia, now suspicious of British aims, attempted to establish a Baltic alliance (with Prussia, Denmark) which provoked the British to attack Copenhagen (1801); for the time being the emergence of another anti-French alliance was rather unlikely. The Anglo-French rivalry continued, Britain controlling the seas, France the land.

"Activeness is the most important of all attributes of the military
Hurry, Your Excellency! Money is dear;
human life still dearer, but time's dearest of all.

Aleksandr Suvorov

Situation of the Coalition's armies (January - February 1799) in Europe

Corps FML Graf Sztaray



Archduke Charles army



Corps FML Hotze



Tyrol's Arme FML Bellegarde


North Tirol

Etsch Arme GdK Melas


Venice Friaul

Imperial russian Corps GdI A. G. Rozemberg


Brnn (Moravia)

Imperial russian Corps LGen I. I. Hermann



Imperial russian Corps GdK F. I. Nummsen



Imperial russian Corps Prince L.X. de Cond



Total 320,000


Russia was able to organize 4 other reserve armies

Situation of the French Republican Armies (January - February 1799) in Europe

Arme de Batavie Gen. Brune



Arme de Mayence Gen. Bernadotte


Northern Italy

Arme de Naples Gen. MacDonald




Source: table in T. Sheviakov, V. Dzuis "Italianski I Shveizarski Pachody Suvarova 1799, Moskow 2002 ed. Astrel AST.

Introducing the Revolutionary Wars Orders of Battle

The military art knew an important improvement with the French Revolution wars. After Rvolution had allowed France to reorganize the army on principles of Egalit, concurring in a mutual sharing of military honours and services also with whom was not born noble, the strategy and the tactics evolved, almost logically, in a parallel way with the new thought and the new leaderships, military Officers enclosed, redesigning the ways to fight of XVIII century. Someone, indeed, was very slow to modernize his military institutions. Austria, as an example, succeeded only in few occasions to disengage from the Maria-Theresia's military model; Napoleon in person recognized that Vienna was always in delay of a year, an army and... an idea; therefore it was condemned to lose. In the Revolutionary decade, however, the border between the old way to fight and the new was still much thin one.

In the "Enlightened Century", monarchs mobilized theei Armies splitting them (by divisions) between the Lieutenants to whom the campaign orders were entrusted. However the fundamental unit of that period was the Regiment, the personal property, organized, maintained and paid by its Colonel (the Owner). Not so rare were the possible occurrences when a regiment turned its "back to the battlefield because its Colonel did not appreciate orders that could put in danger his subordinates. To resolve the problem someone tried to create intermediate units between divisions and regiments, by grouping two or more regiments, that could limit the free initiative of colonels and that could better extend the chain of command to the advanced units: so born the Brigades. The system evolution showed also bizarre episodes. One could have been witness of the proliferation of so many brigades, that often ended in brigades formed only by a single regiment, of course commanded by the same colonel chief of the barely present single regiment. The French Revolution also wanted strongly to render visible symbols of a rupture with the past, as happened with the symbolic change of common words, from My Gentleman (Monsieur) that became Citoyen (Citizen), to the numeration of years and the change of the calendar months along with the days of the week. Also the Arme was been involved in the terminologies reform, even if the result was more ideological that practical.

With the practical impossibility to quickly reorganize all military schools of war and their courses, arrived only the change of the military terminology. The regiment, detested symbol of the colonel's feudal power, became Half-brigade (Demi brigade) and the colonel simply was a Chief (Chef-de-brigade). In effects, considering the terminology, someone could think that, having created the half-brigades, the French wanted to give back new dignity to the unit called brigade; however this did not happen. The greatest French military unit remained the Arme (which deserved all needed geographic variant names suggested by the conflict situation), but the fundamental manoeuvre unit was the army (sub)division, equipped with all logistic services and all the materials useful to turn it into an independent group during operations. The division had its General Staff, its support branches (Sappers, Bridging units, Artillery, something similar to a Medical service, Supplies, etc). The division was under command of a Gnral-de-division (he could, during emergencies, have a provisional nomination that is " titre provisoire", a temporary assignment, "in evaluation"). The Division staff had Quartermasters (paying and administration) adjudants-gnraux, and a reserved squad of couriers, aides-de-camp, body guards and military- civil employed personnel.

The denomination of the Divisions could have been fixed (and obviously numerical; i.e. 2e division of the X army) or could have assumed temporary names from the particular geographic situations (Division du Tyrol) or from tactic deployments (Division de droit, right wing; Division of avantgarde - vanguard). Often they took directly the name of the general commander (Division Massna etc). The division General, before the battle (campaign), joined up his Staff in the war council, distributed the subordinate commands assigning battalions and demi-brigades, gave dispositions for cavalry and artillery and often all remained in a merely verbal form. It is apparent that:[i]

1.      the Brigades were volatile military entities, they possessed only a tactical dimension and they were able to change from different formations and commanders (also one for every day of a battle)..

2.      Only after the historical events, could have been written summary tables - today commonly (but incorrectly) defined Orders of battle and that it would be more appropriate to call lists of armed forces or army lists. Commonly they were made by the same Gnral-de-division in his Army Report or by some concerned Officer, reporter of the event.

The Army Lists documentation, that is commonly possible to consult in national archives, can roughly be synthesized in two categories: the situations and the reports. The first (Situations) are often detailed documents that list the presences of the effectives, the sanitary state and the pay situation of a day (month for a campaign). They tell which and how many units were ready to the fight or had stood on the battlefield, but they never bring back the chain of command (in every case even if the chain is listed is not totally sure that chain of command was alike during the clash with the enemy). According to the other kind of documents (Report, Prcis etc.), they were produced after the event and often are more reliable revealing details (but the in-depth description also depended on the descriptive ability of the author). In these last relations could appear the true Army Lists and also the orders of battle, not a simple inventory of men and units but the true Ordre de Bataille listing the formations and how they deployed on field.

Also in this case, however, an historical truth, difficult to search, could not be reached. Even if the battle Report referred the Chain of commands, it often omitted to delineate some important details about the cited demi-brigade:

A - the grenadiers (or chasseurs) companies had been removed, merged in an independent battalion under the command of another brigadier;

B - all three of its battalions were not in the same brigade. Often they were one or two in a brigade, while the third (or the other two) was in reserve under another general.

Finally, considering that Situations were produced on several occasions at regular intervals, while after-battle Reports were only single pieces (or more than one but all describing the same event) evident appear the worries that investigators and historians met (and still they meet) on the reconstruction about who was in the battle and how many were those really participating. Even "consecrated fathers" of military history, Clausewitz and Jomini, err in summing up the presences. While passing the years, tactical conditions of chain of the command changed continually as France proceeded with its Empire and improved the archival documentations.

The analysis of the Austrian sources is different because, along many years, several publications described, often in detail, what had happened on the battlefields. The same imperial tactical organization, remarkably more rigid and schematic than the French one, facilitated the reconstruction of the army lists. The Austrians used the formations of Columns (Kolonnen) which followed the roads pattern of the age to manoeuvre. These columns would differed in size and sometimes they were more like divisions, for the force deployed, than brigades. They always retained the same vertical system: at the head were one or two light guns together with an avantguard of elite troops or scouts (they could not be defined light infantry, as by the French, because they did not perform specialized training), one cavalry squadron for the linkage and the protection of the column flanks, the mass of the column (Hauptgruppe) with the other cavalry squadrons and the heavy batteries of reserve artillery. The brigades (Feldbrigaden) were mixed groups of battalions led by a brigadier (Generalmajor) not always performing as that rank had required (few promotions by merits or good service, more were granted in accordance with the genealogic tree to the lesser nobility even with support of some robust money transfer or political blessing). In fact sometimes it happened that the columns in which were inserted the brigades were led by Officers of a rank inferior to whom led the Brigade. The possible occurrence of provisional commands was normal in case of physical illness (mental too) of the superior officers, entrusting the command to Colonels (Oberst or Obristen) commanders of a regiment and sometimes also to lieutenants colonels.

The Army Lists, in this research work, therefore, are the sum of a significant mass of cross matches among different sources, some of the kind of quoted documents, publications, biographies, burial-writings and awards. All the uncertain data have been marked with question marks.


[1] The rule, of course, had its greatest exception in Bonaparte. Napoleon almost always was tempted to override chains of command, sometimes directly distributing the charges and brigade commands. See for example:

Ordre de marche et de bataille Au gnral Massna

Quartier gnral, Lesegno, 3 floral an IV (22 avril 1796)

Le gnral Massna partira avec sa division, son artillerie et sa cavalerie, demain, six heures du matin, pour prendre position le long de la rivire du Pesio, appuyant sa droite sur le Tanaro, et prolongeant sa gauche autant que sa ligne pourra s'tendre. Il se mettra en bataille sur deux lignes en observant la distance ncessaire, de manire que l'espace puisse servir former en colonne serre la moiti de sa division. Ses troupes cheval seront sa gauche. Il aura une avant-garde d'infanterie lgre et de cavalerie qui partira une demi-heure avant, et qui se portera sur Carr ds l'instant qu'il aura clair sa gauche, et que le reste de sa division le suivra une demi-heure de distance. Il restera dans cette position et dans cet ordre de bataille.

Il prendra du biscuit pour le 4 et pour le 5.

Par ordre du gnral en chef"

Placed on the Napoleon Series: November 2006 - September 2009

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