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The Life of Napoleon I (Volume 1 of 2) by Rose

And at the head of the pass the monks of the Hospice of St


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better to hide his purpose, he chose as his first base of operations the city of Dijon, whence he seemed to threaten either the Swabian or the Italian army of his foes. But this was not enough. At the old Burgundian capital he assembled his staff and a few regiments of conscripts in order to mislead the English and Austrian spies; while the fighting battalions were drafted by diverse routes to Geneva or Lausanne. So skilful were these preparations that, in the early days of May, the greater part of his men and stores were near the lake of Geneva, whence they were easily transferred to the upper valley of the Rhone. In order that he might have a methodical, hard-working coadjutor he sent Berthier from the office of the Ministry of War, where he had displayed less ability than Bernadotte, to be commander-in-chief of the "army of reserve." In reality Berthier was, as before in Italy and Egypt, chief of the staff; but he had the titular dignity of commander which the constitution of 1800 forbade the First Consul to assume.

On May 6th Bonaparte left Paris for Geneva, where he felt the pulse of every movement in both campaigns. At that city, on hearing the report of his general of engineers, he decided to take the Great St. Bernard route into Italy, as against the Simplon. With redoubled energy, he now supervised the thousands of details that were needed to insure success: for, while prone to indulging in grandiose schemes, he revelled in the work

which alone could bring them within his grasp: or, as Wellington once remarked, "Nothing was too great or too small for his proboscis." The difficulties of sending a large army over the Great St. Bernard were indeed immense. That pass was chosen because it presented only five leagues of ground impracticable for carriages. But those five leagues tested the utmost powers of the army and of its chiefs. Marmont, who commanded the artillery, had devised the ingenious plan of taking the cannon from their carriages and placing them in the hollowed-out trunks of pine, so that the trunnions fitting into large notches kept them steady during the ascent over the snow and the still more difficult descent.[140] The labour of dragging the guns wore out the peasants; then the troops were invited--a hundred at a time--to take a turn at the ropes, and were exhilarated by martial airs played by the bands, or by bugles and drums sounding the charge at the worst places of the ascent.

The track sometimes ran along narrow ledges where a false step meant death, or where avalanches were to be feared. The elements, however, were propitious, and the losses insignificant. This was due to many causes: the ardour of the troops in an enterprise which appealed to French imagination and roused all their activities; the friendliness of the mountaineers; and the organizing powers of Bonaparte and of his staff; all these may be cited as elements of success. They present a striking contrast to the march of Hannibal's army over one of the western passes of the Alps. His motley host struggled over a long stretch of mountains in the short days of October over unknown paths, in one part swept away by a fall of the cliff, and ever and anon beset by clouds of treacherous Gauls. Seeing that the great Carthaginian's difficulties began long before he reached the Alps, that he was encumbered by elephants, and that his army was composed of diverse races held together only by trust in the prowess of their chief, his exploit was far more wonderful than that of Bonaparte, which, indeed, more nearly resembles the crossing of the St. Bernard by Francis I. in 1515. The difference between the conditions of Hannibal's and Bonaparte's enterprises may partly be measured by the time which they occupied. Whereas Hannibal's march across the Alps lasted fifteen days, three of which were spent in the miseries of a forced halt amidst the snow, the First Consul's forces took but seven days. Whereas the Carthaginian army was weakened by hunger, the French carried their full rations of biscuit; and at the head of the pass the monks of the Hospice of St. Bernard served out the rations of bread, cheese, and wine which the First Consul had forwarded, and which their own generosity now doubled. The hospitable fathers themselves served at the tables set up in front of the Hospice.


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