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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > Books on military subjects

Marengo 1800: Napoleon's Day of Fate

By David Hollins

Hollins, David. Marengo 1800: Napoleon's Day of Fate. ("Campaign Series," no. 70) Oxford, UK: Osprey, 2000. 122 pages. ISBN# 1855329654. $19.95.

Marengo 1800  cover

The Marengo Game

The battle of Marengo was Napoleon's first great victory as head of state. The battle was 'a near run thing' that was 'full of odd forebodings of Waterloo.' It is also one of the most interesting campaigns of the entire period to study. It was the last battle in which Napoleon and his premier lieutenant, Louis-Charles-Antoine Desaix, whom Napoleon considered 'the best balanced of his lieutenants,' fought together. Marengo 1800 by David Hollins is a new study of a battle that has badly needed a fresh reappraisal. It is the latest volume in the Osprey "Campaign" series, a series that is constantly improving in both accuracy and scholarship. Badly needed or not, however, this volume suffers from some near- fatal shortcomings that lessen its value as both a research tool and a reliable reference.

These errors, with one exception, are subtle and may not be perceived by the casual reader. Louis-Alexandre Berthier, chief of staff of the Army of the Reserve, is characterized as 'another technician' and 'primarily an administrator,' both of which are far from accurate. He is also referred to as a 'geographical engineer' (a title which didn't exist in the French army). This is a misleading translation of Ingenieurs-Geographes, which is more accurately rendered as 'Topographical Engineers.' This points out the importance of having an accurate military dictionary; especially in French, as their military terms are generally not direct translations. Hollins oversimplifies by stating that Napoleon had selected Berthier as his chief of staff for the Armée d'Italiein 1796, when Berthier was already assigned there before Napoleon took command. Napoleon's initial choice was actually a General Duvignau, who refused the assignment. Only then did Napoleon accept Berthier. The author compounds the error by naming Pierre Dupont de L'Etang, of Baylen infamy, as the chief of staff of the Army of the Reserve, which is incorrect. While he may have been de jure chief of staff, as Berthier was initially named de jure commander of the Army of the Reserve, the de facto commander was Napoleon, and the de facto chief of staff was Berthier.

There is also some confusion with common military terms as when units are described as deploying into open order or when skirmishers are described as 'dissolved two battalions into skirmish formation.' This is almost a contradiction in terms, as dissolving denotes a falling or breaking apart instead of changing from one type of formation into another. Occasionally Hollins slips into ambiguity where a little explanation would have gone a long way into making some of his points much clearer. The retreat across the Fontanone creek is described as being made more chaotic because the Austrian cavalrymen tried crossing the stream where it was deeper, but doesn't make it plain to whom it was more chaotic, the Austrians or the French. Another interesting turn of phrase is that regarding the refusal of the French 72nd Ligne to advance, in that Hollins states 'they politely declined.' There are many ways a unit in the middle of the chaos of combat may or may not perform or behave. 'Politely declining' an order to advance in definitely not one of them.

One statement regarding the French infantry and its tactical capabilities I found somewhat puzzling. The 72d Ligne has been credited with its third rank turning to the rear and driving off Austrian cavalry late in the battle without forming square. The author discounts this saying it to be 'impossible through the fourth rank of NCOs and officers.' This demonstrates, in my opinion, a lack of familiarity with the officers' and NCOs' relative positions in relation to the third rank of infantry in line. If they were behind, they could form with the third rank, and, as they were undoubtedly the ones forming the third rank to the rear, get out of the way of the infantrymen. Additionally, they would not form a 'solid' fourth rank, so the question appears moot. If a British infantry regiment could perform this maneuver in Egypt, there is no doubt that a French regiment of this period could perform the same maneuver. Here, a familiarity with the 1791 Règlement would have been most useful.

Regarding casualties at Marengo, the author states that 'their [the French] total casualties exceeded those of the Austrians,' but provides no casualty numbers. The most reliable that I could find were 5,835 casualties for the French and 9,402 for the Austrians. Lastly, the importance of Kellermann's cavalry charge is vastly understated. It, combined with the attack of Boudet's division, was decisive to the success of the French army. Without it, the issue was still in doubt, Desaix or no Desaix. The author also alludes that Kellermann was under Desaix's command in this last French offensive, when he was not. Desaix requested the cavalry support from Napoleon; he didn't order Kellermann into position as stated by the author. Desaix, Kellermann, and Marmont, with whatever artillery support that could be scraped together, worked under the overall direction of Napoleon in this final phase of the battle.

The general account of the campaign and battle are basically correct and well done. Mr. Hollins' viewpoint is generally from the Austrian perspective, which is a nice change. The section on the advance, fight, and retreat of the French Consular Guard infantry, however, is highly inaccurate. The author maintains that the Consular Guard infantry was destroyed by Austrian cavalry at or after 1600 hours. The Guard infantry had advanced with Monnier's division, reaching the battlefield at 1400 hours. Initially employed in carrying cartridges to Victor's exhausted troops, it was later committed on Lannes right, with Monnier committed on their right. The Guard drove off Ott's cavalry, then engaged in a firefight with Ott's infantry, where the Guard was outnumbered three to two. The Guard formed into square, not in line as the author contends, and Ott concentrated artillery and infantry against two sides of the square, forcing them to withdraw after losing 260 out of 800. I have seen no documented evidence they were taken in the rear by Frimont's cavalry as Hollins contends. The Guard's fight was also over by 1500, not 1600, hours and they joined the general retreat of the French Army. If the author of Marengo 1800 has found striking new evidence of this sort, it should have been cited either in the narrative or in the bibliography; for these assertions contradict every other account, both first-hand and reliable secondary ones. As presented, they remain therefore either wild speculation or wishful thinking. Compounding this error, there is no documentary evidence supporting the author's contention that the Guard infantry was overrun and largely captured by the Austrians. This conflicts with primary evidence provided by Captain Coignet and by Trooper Petit of the Grenadiers à Cheval, both of who claimed to have witnessed the action. It also contradicts such reliable historians as Henry Lachouque, John Elting, and James Arnold. Additionally, the premier English language expert on the Austrian Army, Gunther Rothenberg, doesn't mention it in his work on the Archduke Charles and the Austrian Army.

Minor errors in Marengo 1800 include a dearth of information on French casualties, of which there is plenty of reliable information available; and the largely erroneous information on the formation and composition of the troops of the Army of the Reserve, confusing the French generals Molitor and Monnier, as well as the division and corps organization of the Army of the Reserve; and the misleading use of the title "Lieutenant General" for some of the French commanders. The title was used in the Revolutionary, Consular, and Empire periods in the French Army to designate different functions at different times. The use of it in the orders of battle needs to be further explained.

I found the artwork by Christa Hook is singularly lifeless, with the exception of the painting of Melas, Zach, and their spy, which I thought exceptionally well done. Generally speaking, though, there is not a 'whiff of grapeshot' about either this volume or the paintings done for it. What is exceptional about this volume, however, are the photographs of the battlefield and the buildings on it, that couldn't have changed much in the last 200 years. They add a sense of realism to the narrative and greatly aid the reader in imagining this desperate struggle.

The author had an excellent opportunity to present a thoroughly accurate and reliable modern work on Marengo that, in my opinion, would have greatly enhanced the present scholarship on this largely ignored campaign. Instead, overall, he has subtly presented a Francophobe view of the campaign, presenting new evidence that is not fully documented, and hence, unreliable. Hollins' presentation of the Army of the Reserve is poor, and while the overall presentation of the campaign itself is very good, the errors described above detract from the overall impact of the volume, making it a dubious asset at best. It is puzzling why such sources as de Cugnac's Campagne de l'Armée de Reserve en 1800 and his Campagne de Marengo were not used. Both could have been very useful, especially the collection of the 'after action' reports from both armies. A translation of the work is included in Lanza's Marengo Campaign, 1800: Source Book, which was put out by the U. S. Army at Fort Leavenworth.

I would, however, recommend Marengo 1800, if used with care. The Austrian portions are very good, and David Hollins is enthusiastic about his subject. It is not a book for the novice, but one for the experienced enthusiast or historian who will pick up the subtle and not-so-subtle errors in the text. It should be noted that Dave Hollins and I have had several spirited discussions on Marengo in general, and the Consular Guard in particular, and do not agree on many points. However, that disagreement has had no reflection in this review.

Reviewed by Kevin Kiley 6/00

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