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

Met him at Roverbella late in the evening of July 30th


had a great influence in restoring

the _morale_ of the French army in the confused and desperate movements which followed may freely be granted. But his claims to have been the main spring of the French movements in those anxious days deserve a brief examination. He asserts that Bonaparte, "devoured by anxieties," met him at Roverbella late in the evening of July 30th, and spoke of retiring beyond the River Po. The official correspondence disproves this assertion. Bonaparte had already given orders to Serurier to retire beyond the Po with his artillery train; but this was obviously an attempt to save it from the advancing Austrians; and the commander had ordered the northern part of the French besieging force to join Augereau between Roverbella and Goito. Augereau further asserts that, after he had roused Bonaparte to the need of a dash to recover Brescia, the commander-in-chief remarked to Berthier, "In that case we must raise the siege of Mantua," which again he (Augereau) vigorously opposed. This second statement is creditable neither to Augereau's accuracy nor to his sagacity. The order for the raising of the siege had been issued, and it was entirely necessary for the concentration of French troops, on which Bonaparte now relied as his only hope against superior force. Had Bonaparte listened to Augereau's advice and persisted still in besieging Mantua, the scattered French forces must have been crushed in detail. Augereau's words are those of a mere fighter, not of a strategist; and the timidity which he ungenerously
attributed to Bonaparte was nothing but the caution which a superior intellect saw to be a necessary prelude to a victorious move.

That the fighting honours of the ensuing days rightly belong to Augereau may be frankly conceded. With forces augmented by the northern part of the besiegers of Mantua, he moved rapidly westwards from the Mincio against Brescia, and rescued it from the vanguard of Quosdanovich (August 1st). On the previous day other Austrian detachments had also, after obstinate conflicts, been worsted near Salo and Lonato. Still, the position was one of great perplexity: for though Massena's division from the Adige was now beginning to come into touch with Bonaparte's chief force, yet the fronts of Wuermser's columns were menacing the French from that side, while the troops of Quosdanovich, hovering about Lonato and Salo, struggled desperately to stretch a guiding hand to their comrades on the Mincio.

Wuermser was now discovering his error. Lured towards Mantua by false reports that the French were still covering the siege, he had marched due south when he ought to have rushed to the rescue of his hard-pressed lieutenant at Brescia. Entering Mantua, he enjoyed a brief spell of triumph, and sent to the Emperor Francis the news of the capture of 40 French cannon in the trenches, and of 139 more on the banks of the Po. But, while he was indulging the fond hope that the French were in full retreat from Italy, came the startling news that they had checked Quosdanovich at Brescia and Salo. Realizing his errors, and determining to retrieve them before all was lost, he at once pushed on his vanguard towards Castiglione, and easily gained that village and its castle from a French detachment commanded by General Valette.

The feeble defence of so important a position threw Bonaparte into one of those transports of fury which occasionally dethroned his better judgment. Meeting Valette at Montechiaro, he promptly degraded him to the ranks, refusing to listen to his plea of having received a written order to retire. A report of General Landrieux asserts that the rage of the commander-in-chief was so extreme as for the time even to impair his determination. The outlook was gloomy. The French seemed about to be hemmed in amidst the broken country between Castiglione, Brescia, and Salo. A sudden attack on the Austrians was obviously the only safe and honourable course. But no one knew precisely their numbers or their position. Uncertainty ever preyed on Bonaparte's ardent imagination. His was a mind that quailed not before visible dangers; but, with all its powers of decisive action, it retained so much of Corsican eeriness as to chafe at the unknown,[58] and to lose for the moment the faculty of forming a vigorous resolution. Like the python, which grips its native rock by the tail in order to gain its full constricting power, so Bonaparte ever needed a groundwork of fact for the due exercise of his mental force.


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