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

The allies fell back on the intrenched village of Dego


configuration of the ground favoured Bonaparte's plan of driving the Imperialists down the valley of the Bormida in a north-easterly direction; and the natural desire of a beaten general to fall back towards his base of supplies also impelled Beaulieu and Argenteau to retire towards Milan. But that would sever their connections with the Sardinians, whose base of supplies, Turin, lay in a north-westerly direction.

Bonaparte therefore hurled his forces at once against the Austrians and a Sardinian contingent at Millesimo, and defeated them, Augereau's division cutting off the retreat of twelve hundred of their men under Provera. Weakened by this second blow, the allies fell back on the intrenched village of Dego. Their position was of a strength proportionate to its strategic importance; for its loss would completely sever all connection between their two main armies save by devious routes many miles in their rear. They therefore clung desperately to the six mamelons and redoubts which barred the valley and dominated some of the neighbouring heights. Yet such was the superiority of the French in numbers that these positions were speedily turned by Massena, whom Bonaparte again intrusted with the movement on the enemy's flank and rear. A strange event followed. The victors, while pillaging the country for the supplies which Bonaparte's sharpest orders failed to draw from the magazines and stores on the sea-coast, were attacked in the dead of night

by five Austrian battalions that had been ordered up to support their countrymen at Dego. These, after straying among the mountains, found themselves among bands of the marauding French, whom they easily scattered, seizing Dego itself. Apprised of this mishap, Bonaparte hurried up more troops from the rear, and on the 15th recovered the prize which had so nearly been snatched from his grasp. Had Beaulieu at this time thrown all his forces on the French, he might have retrieved his first misfortunes: but foresight and energy were not to be found at the Austrian headquarters: the surprise at Dego was the work of a colonel; and for many years to come the incompetence of their aged commanders was to paralyze the fine fighting qualities of the "white-coats." In three conflicts they had been outmanoeuvred and outnumbered, and drew in their shattered columns to Acqui.

The French commander now led his columns westward against the Sardinians, who had fallen back on their fortified camp at Ceva, in the upper valley of the Tanaro. There they beat off one attack of the French. A check in front of a strongly intrenched position was serious. It might have led to a French disaster, had the Austrians been able to bring aid to their allies. Bonaparte even summoned a council of war to deliberate on the situation. As a rule, a council of war gives timid advice. This one strongly advised a second attack on the camp--a striking proof of the ardour which then nerved the republican generals. Not yet were they _condottieri_ carving out fortunes by their swords: not yet were they the pampered minions of an autocrat, intent primarily on guarding the estates which his favour had bestowed. Timidity was rather the mark of their opponents. When the assault on the intrenchments of Ceva was about to be renewed, the Sardinian forces were discerned filing away westwards. Their general indulged the fond hope of holding the French at bay at several strong natural positions on his march. He was bitterly to rue his error. The French divisions of Serurier and Dommartin closed in on him, drove him from Mondovi, and away towards Turin.

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