2) Mastering Luck

Is it because they are lucky that [great men] become great? No, but being great,
they have been able to master luck… What is luck?
The ability to exploit accidents.


Having conquered Lombardy and thwarted the Directory’s attempt to clip his wings, Napoleon may well have considered the greater challenges of the campaign to be behind him, but such was not the case. By the end of July 1796, the Austrians had replaced Beaulieu with Dagobert Wurmser, a career soldier of long experience, who advanced southward from Trent, straddling Lake Garda to threaten the French line of communication at Brescia. Moving swiftly, Wurmser seized the initiative with well-coordinated attacks at Verona, La Corona, and Salo, driving the French back and eventually forcing Napoleon to abandon his line on the Adige. Worse still for the French, the enemy seized Brescia, cutting them off from their base at Milan. Fully alive to his predicament, Napoleon abandoned the siege of Mantua to prepare a new line of communications via Cremona and Piacenza.

Meanwhile, rather than press his advantage, Wurmser moved to resupply Mantua, allowing Napoleon a temporary breathing space. Even so, the French position remained extremely precarious, and when on 3 August Wurmser crossed the Mincio and advanced westward, miscommunication within the shaken French command led to the loss of that important town. For a time Napoleon debated whether to undertake a general withdrawal, but with the two wings of the Austrian army within five miles of effecting a crucial linkage, he suddenly decided to attack in both directions at once. In heavy fighting at Castiglione the divisions of Augereau and Kilmaine succeeded in pushing the enemy out of the town, while immediately north, at Lonato, Masséna routed Quasdanovich’s lead division. The next day, 4 August, convinced that Wurmser had failed to cross the Mincio, Quasdanovich withdrew the bulk of his force northward.

In the course of this action, a telling incident occurred when some 2,500 of Quasdanovich’s men were cut off, and, rather than proceed northward, turned south in hopes of linking up with Wurmser’s troops. Entering Lonato late in the evening, they discovered Napoleon and a force of only 1,000 men preparing to bivouac for the night. At this point, an Austrian officer rode forward under a flag of truce, confronted the French commander, and demanded his surrender, at which point Napoleon cooly informed him that the Austrians, not the French, were completely surrounded and that they had just eight minutes to surrender or be overwhelmed. Taken in by the performance, the officer indeed surrendered, giving up his sword to a man with less than half his force.

With Quasdanovich now out of the way, it remained for Napoleon to defeat Wurmser, whose force was drawn up immediately east of Castiglione in a strong defensive position. After turning back a series of probing attacks on 5 August, the Austrians counter-attacked, threatening to flank the French position, but it was at this point that Napoleon’s foresight in responding to the Austrians’ initial success paid off. It will be remembered that, following the fall of Brescia, the French force besieging Mantua had been ordered to cover a new line of communication along the road to Cremona. On the night of 4 August this same division (Fiorello’s) was ordered to advance, and after a hard, all-night march, came up in the rear of Wurmser’s line at Castiglione. Now, instead of rolling up his enemy’s left, Wurmser found his own flank in grave peril and fell back to a line immediately east of the Mincio. Though exhausted and much reduced in number after eight days of nearly continuous fighting and maneuvering, the French nonetheless remained on the offensive, pushing the Austrians out of Peschiera and threatening their line of communication. Thus within the span of two days, the tables had been turned and the pursuers became the pursued. The suddenness of the shift in fortune was enough to give Wurmser second thoughts, and ordering the garrison at Mantua reinforced, the Austrian commander disengaged and retired northward. Having flirted with disaster on several fronts, Napoleon had for the time being prevailed.

As long as Mantua remained in enemy hands, however, his position remained precarious, and now resupplied, the town could be expected to hold out months longer than originally anticipated. Napoleon again laid siege to the stronghold but was not about to stand by, awaiting its capture. Reorganizing and reinforcing his army, he formulated plans for an advance northward in hopes of linking up with Moreau’s Army of the Rhine, which was even then advancing eastward into Tyrol. On the morning of 2 September 1796, the French undertook the next leg of a campaign that had thus far lasted more than five months, scattering an Austrian advance guard at Ala and occupying Roveredo. At Caliano, the Austrians had prepared a strong defense along a narrow front running between the Adige and nearby cliffs, but a massive French frontal assault succeeded in routing them. By the 5th, Napoleon was in Trento, where he learned that Wurmser was again on his way south via Bassano. Leaving one division to secure the approaches to Tyrol, he quickly gave chase, and on 8 September two French divisions fell upon a hastily organized Austrian rear-guard outside Bassano, chasing the fleeing Austrians into the town and defeating them in heavy fighting.

Wurmser, meanwhile, was only ten miles away at Cittadella, where he gathered together the remnants of his command and continued his determined bid to break the siege of Mantua. Racing southward by way of Vicenza and Legnago, he managed to outpace his exhausted pursuers and break into the fortress on the 13th, but he would soon have occasion to rue his success. Two days later, his numbers increased by the addition of the city’s garrison, he attempted a sortie to the east, only to be driven back with losses of some 4,000 men. Subsequent efforts to break the French cordon around the city were likewise defeated, and once again the French siege was reinstated.


With the investment of Wurmser’s force in Mantua, Napoleon achieved another breathing space in which to consolidate his gains, yet the respite would not last long, and his overall situation was still doubtful. Mantua remained the key to northern Italy and its fall was not imminent. If Wurmser’s 25,000 men could be relieved, the French might yet be pushed out of Austrian territory and the Directory’s war of conquest ended. Elsewhere, General Moreau’s campaign on the Danube had become thoroughly stalled, enabling Vienna to redirect fresh men and resources to Italy under Baron Josef Alvintzy. With a main body of 28,000 based in Trieste, Alvintzy was to proceed west, while an additional force of 18,000 under General Davidovich marched south from Tyrol. Their initial objective was Verona, where the two armies were to combine to break the siege on Mantua. Outnumbered on both fronts, the French would be forced onto the defensive.

Getting underway on the last day of October, the two wings of the Austrian army made good progress despite aggressive French resistance, and by the 9th had advanced as far as Mori in the north and Vicenza in the east. At this point, Davidovich showed signs of running out of steam, and Napoleon began concentrating for a strike on Alvintzy. On the 12th an attack on the Austrian advance guard at Caldiero was repulsed with substantial losses, and French morale began to flag. Already outnumbered, Napoleon could ill afford another such encounter, and rather than confront the Austrians head-on he determined to slip around their flank, threaten their supply train, and in the process knock Alvintzy off balance. The ground he chose for the attack was well-suited to the purpose, for the confluence of the Adige and Alpone rivers was surrounded by extensive marshes that could only be crossed via a series of narrow dikes, limiting opportunities for maneuver and thereby obviating the Austrian advantage in numbers.

The ensuing battle lasted three days, during which the French made repeated attempts to capture the town of Arcola, just east of the area of marshy ground and accessible by a single bridge across the Alpone. Taking full advantage of the terrain, Napoleon alternately advanced and withdrew across the network of dikes, striking the enemy at Porcile and Arcola and forcing him to distribute his force across a wide area. On the third day, 17 November, the French threw a trestle bridge across the mouth of the Alpone to engage Alvintzy’s left flank north of Albaredo while a small force of French cavalry (a mere 29 men) slipped around the Austrian line to make a noisy charge in the enemy’s rear. Thoroughly spooked, the Austrians began to give ground and were eventually driven back to Arcola even as an Austrian sortie was being chased back across the Alpone. Assailed in front and flank, Alvintzy ordered a withdrawal to San Bonifacio, and eventually fell back to the Brenta.

Napoleon next turned north once more to confront Davidovich, who had advanced as far as Pastrengo. On the 20th, with the bulk of the French army now advancing against him, the latter fled northward, narrowly escaping disaster at Peri. By concentrating his forces and alternately striking each of the two wings of the Austrian army, Napoleon had once again prevailed against long odds. The moment of crisis had come at Arcola, where the crossing of a narrow wooden causeway secured the victory much as at Lodi. So too, the Battle of Arcola would spawn another episode in the growing legend of the French commander. With time running out on his efforts to cut off the Austrian escape, he attempted to lead a charge in person, seizing a tricolor and starting across the bridge at the head of a small force. In an effort to prevent him, one of his aides grabbed him around the waist and both men tumbled off the bridge into the shallow water, where they became helplessly stuck in the mud. But for the quick response of his staff, Napoleon would have been an easy target for the Austrian counterattack that followed. As it happened, both men were rescued in the nick of time. It was beginning to seem as if Napoleon had mastered luck along with all the other variables of war.

And yet the French situation was still far from secure. Wurmser remained in Mantua and, though driven back, Alvintzy was not yet beaten. In secret negotiations with the Pope, the Austrians were plotting to create a southern front in Italy, and on top of everything else, Napoleon’s own government continued to be suspicious of him. While he had been busy driving Davidovich back upon Trent, an agent of the Directory, General Henri Clarke, was in Brescia on a mission to investigate Napoleon’s conduct and report back to Paris. In the end, however, Clarke’s report would broadly vindicate the young commander’s activities, and on the strength of Clarke’s praise fresh reinforcements were sent east, which Napoleon used to consolidate his position around Verona. In addition, he was able to send a single division to Bologna to discourage any interference from the Pope.

Convinced that the French were moving south in force to invade the Papal States, Alvintzy gathered his forces for another effort to relieve Mantua. In the previous campaign, the Austrian commander had sent Davidovich south from Trent while he drove west for Verona. This time, he switched places with his subordinate, sending two divisions southwest to probe the French line along the lower Adige while he took the bulk of his army along the northern route. The advance began on 7 January, and by the 13th French reports from Rivoli confirmed the general disposition of the enemy troops, at which point Napoleon quickly concentrated his forces against the main attack in the north. Arriving in Rivoli early on the morning of the 14th, he sent Joubert’s division forward to occupy the high ground north of the town, where three enemy columns were on the move from La Corona. Meanwhile, a fourth column under Quasdanovich slipped around the French right flank and, after dispersing an enemy demi-brigade, started uphill directly in rear of Joubert’s line. A hastily deployed battery of fifteen guns brought the attackers to a halt, and a regiment of heavy cavalry sent them reeling back downhill. Their right flank thereby secured, the French now faced a threat on the left from a fifth enemy column at Affi. Proceeding east, the Austrian flanking force gained the heights of Mt. Pipolo, threatening to catch the French in a trap. By this time, however, Napoleon had reinforced Joubert’s isolated division and sent it forward against the main Austrian line, which broke and fled to the north in rout. Eventually surrounded by French reserves, the Austrians on Mt. Pipolo were forced to surrender.

With the bulk of the French forces engaged at Rivoli, the larger Austrian strategy called for some 9,000 men under Provera to relieve Wurmser in Mantua. Evading a French covering force at Legnago, Provera crossed the lower Adige, and on the 15th arrived in San Giorgio, on the outskirts of the besieged city. The next day, with the French racing south from Rivoli, Provera managed to get word to Wurmser inside Mantua and the two made a joint attack on the northern end of the French cordon at La Favorita, momentarily breaking the siege. No sooner had the door been opened, however, than French forces converged from the north and east to slam it shut again, forcing Provera to surrender and driving Wurmser back within Mantua. Less than three weeks later, with the death toll in the city mounting to over 20,000, the defenders of Mantua surrendered.

With the defeat of Alvintzy and the fall of Mantua, Napoleon’s reputation soared, and the Directory made due concessions to his triumph. Indeed, having failed to succeed on every other war front, the government in Paris latched onto its one rising star with something like desperation, making Italy the main theater of operations, the Army of the Rhine for once serving a supporting role. Supplied with fresh reinforcements and given a free hand to negotiate a treaty with the Austrians, the 27-year-old general was once again the man of the hour, hero of the French people.

Having pursued the remnants of Alvintzy’s army northward in the aftermath of Rivoli, Napoleon next established a new line running roughly from Trent to Treviso. In February he paid another visit to the Papal States, where he exacted new concessions and indemnities from the Pope, then returned north to plan his advance upon Vienna. By this time, the Austrians had organized yet another army and placed it under the command of Archduke Charles, who, having defeated two of the Republic’s other generals (Jourdan and Moreau), now bore Austria’s hopes that the French might yet be defeated and driven out of Italy. Thoroughly demoralized by its recent defeats, however, the army Charles inherited would take time to rebuild and prepare, and Napoleon was not about to grant it any breathing room. Confronting the Austrian line along the Tagliamento River, he attacked at Codroipo, meeting little resistance. In the mountain passes at Malborghetto, however, the Austrians staged a fierce resistance but were ultimately driven off by the French juggernaut, enabling Masséna’s division to reach Tarvis in time to cut off some 2,000 enemy troops on 25 March.

By 7 April French forces had bludgeoned their way as far as Leoben, 85 miles southwest of the Austrian capital, at which point, far from his base and with no hope of support from Moreau’s army, Napoleon agreed to a truce and began discussions of a peace settlement. Though the army’s proximity to Vienna allowed him to negotiate from strength, the talks would drag on for months, during which time he returned to Milan to administer the territories he had conquered. When the final agreement was signed at Campo Formio on 17 October 1797, France came away with dominion over the entire left bank of the Rhine, the Cisalpine Republic (northern Italy west of the Adige), and the Ionian Islands in the Adriatic. In addition, Napoleon’s conquests had filled France’s coffers with many millions in foreign gold as well as hundreds of treasured works of art.


By any measure, it had been a remarkable campaign, especially when one considers that it was Napoleon’s first experience in army command. In large part his success was attributable to the speed with which he acted, or, more precisely, reacted. Revealing a keen appreciation for the dynamic nature of battle, he had an instinct for deploying his forces in a way to allow for the greatest flexibility to changing circumstances. “One engages, then one sees,” he wrote, emphasizing the commander’s role in responding to events on the battlefield rather than merely following preconceived plans. Possessed of acute powers of concentration, he “saw” the battlefield as few others were able to see it, taking in at a glance the implications of terrain as well as the relative objectives of the combatants. Perhaps most remarkable of all was his ability, once battle was joined, to remain aloof and undistracted in the face of unfolding events, a trait that quickly won the respect and admiration of his fellow soldiers, inspiring confidence by example. Yet the same quality would give rise to larger questions about his character. As General Clarke reported, “General Bonaparte is not without defects. He does not spare his men sufficiently… Sometimes he is hard, impatient, abrupt, or imperious. Often he demands difficult things in too hasty a manner.” For some, Napoleon’s ability to remain calm in the face of terrible events marked him out as a man of rare courage; for others, it pointed to an apparent inability or unwillingness to confront the human costs of battle, an insensitivity that allowed him to cast a cool eye on death and suffering. Indeed, in the years to come many thousands of Frenchmen were to die beneath his impassive gaze.

QUEST FOR EMPIRE: The Napoleonic Wars Text II. LEGEND IN THE MAKING 2) Mastering Luck