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

Ascribed his first disasters to Argenteau


now began to concentrate his forces near Savona. Fortune favoured him even before the campaign commenced. The snows of winter, still lying on the mountains, though thawing on the southern slopes, helped to screen his movements from the enemy's outposts; and the French vanguard pushed along the coastline even as far as Voltri. This movement was designed to coerce the Senate of Genoa into payment of a fine for its acquiescence in the seizure of a French vessel by a British cruiser within its neutral roadstead; but it served to alarm Beaulieu, who, breaking up his cantonments, sent a strong column towards that city. At the time this circumstance greatly annoyed Bonaparte, who had hoped to catch the Imperialists dozing in their winter quarters. Yet it is certain that the hasty move of their left flank towards Voltri largely contributed to that brilliant opening of Bonaparte's campaign, which his admirers have generally regarded as due solely to his genius.[39] For, when Beaulieu had thrust his column into the broken coast district between Genoa and Voltri, he severed it dangerously far from his centre, which marched up the valley of the eastern branch of the Bormida to occupy the passes of the Apennines north of Savona. This, again, was by no means in close touch with the Sardinian allies encamped further to the west in and beyond Ceva. Beaulieu, writing at a later date to Colonel Graham, the English _attache_ at his headquarters, ascribed his first disasters to Argenteau, his lieutenant
at Montenotte, who employed only a third of the forces placed under his command. But division of forces was characteristic of the Austrians in all their operations, and they now gave a fine opportunity to any enterprising opponent who should crush their weak and unsupported centre. In obedience to orders from Vienna, Beaulieu assumed the offensive; but he brought his chief force to bear on the French vanguard at Voltri, which he drove in with some loss. While he was occupying Voltri, the boom of cannon echoing across the mountains warned his outposts that the real campaign was opening in the broken country north of Savona.[40] There the weak Austrian centre had occupied a ridge or plateau above the village of Montenotte, through which ran the road leading to Alessandria and Milan. Argenteau's attack partly succeeded: but the stubborn bravery of a French detachment checked it before the redoubt which commanded the southern prolongation of the heights named Monte-Legino.[41]

Such was the position of affairs when Bonaparte hurried up. On the following day (April 12th), massing the French columns of attack under cover of an early morning mist, he moved them to their positions, so that the first struggling rays of sunlight revealed to the astonished Austrians the presence of an army ready to crush their front and turn their flanks. For a time the Imperialists struggled bravely against the superior forces in their front; but when Massena pressed round their right wing, they gave way and beat a speedy retreat to save themselves from entire capture. Bonaparte took no active share in the battle: he was, very properly, intent on the wider problem of severing the Austrians from their allies, first by the turning movement of Massena, and then by pouring other troops into the gap thus made. In this he entirely succeeded. The radical defects in the Austrian dispositions left them utterly unable to withstand the blows which he now showered upon them. The Sardinians were too far away on the west to help Argenteau in his hour of need: they were in and beyond Ceva, intent on covering the road to Turin: whereas, as Napoleon himself subsequently wrote, they should have been near enough to their allies to form one powerful army, which, at Dego or Montenotte, would have defended both Turin and Milan. "United, the two forces would have been superior to the French army: separated, they were lost."

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