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

Sent a courier in hot haste to recall Desaix


Three

routes were open to Melas. The most direct was by way of Tortona and Piacenza along the southern bank of the Po, through the difficult defile of Stradella: or he might retire towards Genoa, across the Apennines, and regain Mantua by a dash across the Modenese: or he might cross the Po at Valenza and the Ticino near Pavia. All these roads had to be watched by the French as they cautiously drew towards their quarry. Bonaparte's first move was to send Murat with a considerable body of troops to seize Piacenza and to occupy the defile of Stradella. These important posts were wrested from the Austrian vanguard; and this success was crowned on June 9th by General Lannes' brilliant victory at Montebello over a superior Austrian force marching from Genoa towards Piacenza, which he drove back towards Alessandria. Smaller bodies of French were meanwhile watching the course of the Ticino, and others seized the magazines of the enemy at Cremona.

After gaining precious news as to Melas' movements from an intercepted despatch, Bonaparte left Milan on June 9th, and proceeded to Stradella. There he waited for news of Suchet and Massena from the side of Savona and Ceva; for their forces, if united, might complete the circle which he was drawing around the Imperialists.[143] He hoped that Massena would have joined Suchet near Savona; but owing to various circumstances, for which Massena was in no wise to blame, their junction was delayed; and Suchet, though pressing

on towards Acqui, was unable to cut off the Austrian retreat on Genoa. Yet he so harassed the corps opposed to him in its retreat from Nice that only about 8,000 Austrians joined Melas from that quarter.[144]

Doubtless, Melas' best course would still have been to make a dash for Genoa and trust to the English ships. But this plan galled the pride of the general, who had culled plenteous laurels in Italy until the approach of Bonaparte threatened to snatch the whole chaplet from his brow. He and his staff sought to restore their drooping fortunes by a bold rush against the ring of foes that were closing around. Never has an effort of this kind so nearly succeeded and yet so wholly failed.

The First Consul, believing that the Austrians were bent solely on flight, advanced from Stradella, where success would have been certain, into the plains of Tortona, whence he could check any move of theirs southwards on Genoa. But now the space which he occupied was so great as to weaken his line at any one point; while his foes had the advantage of the central position.

Bonaparte was also forced to those enveloping tactics which had so often proved fatal to the Austrians four years previously; and this curious reversal of his usual tactics may account for the anxiety which he betrayed as he moved towards Marengo. He had, however, recently been encouraged by the arrival of Desaix from Paris after his return from Egypt. This dashing officer and noble man inspired him with a sincere affection, as was seen by the three hours of eager converse which he held with him on his arrival, as also by his words to Bourrienne: "He is quite an antique character." Desaix with 5,300 troops was now despatched on the night of June 13th towards Genoa to stop the escape of the Austrians in that direction. This eccentric move has been severely criticised: but the facts, as then known by Bonaparte, seemed to show that Melas was about to march on Genoa. The French vanguard under Gardane had in the afternoon easily driven the enemy's front from the village of Marengo; and Gardane had even reported that there was no bridge over the River Bormida by which the enemy could debouch into the plain of Marengo. Marmont, pushing on later in the evening, had discovered that there was at least one well-defended bridge; and when early next morning Gardane's error was known, the First Consul, with a blaze of passion against the offender, sent a courier in hot haste to recall Desaix. Long before he could arrive, the battle of Marengo had begun: and for the greater part of that eventful day, June the 14th, the French had only 18000 men wherewith to oppose the onset of 31,000 Austrians.[145]


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