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

Bonaparte was held to the valley of the Mincio


A

complete and authentic account of this week of confused fighting has never been written. The archives of Vienna have not as yet yielded up all their secrets; and the reputations of so many French officers were over-clouded by this prolonged _melee_ as to render even the victors' accounts vague and inconsistent. The aim of historians everywhere to give a clear and vivid account, and the desire of Napoleonic enthusiasts to represent their hero as always thinking clearly and acting decisively, have fused trusty ores and worthless slag into an alloy which has passed for true metal. But no student of Napoleon's "Correspondence," of the "Memoirs" of Marmont, and of the recitals of Augereau, Dumas, Landrieux, Verdier, Despinois and others, can hope wholly to unravel the complications arising from the almost continuous conflicts that extended over a dozen leagues of hilly country. War is not always dramatic, however much the readers of campaigns may yearn after thrilling narratives. In regard to this third act of the Italian campaign, all that can safely be said is that Bonaparte's intuition to raise the siege of Mantua, in order that he might defeat in detail the relieving armies, bears the imprint of genius: but the execution of this difficult movement was unequal, even at times halting; and the French army was rescued from its difficulties only by the grand fighting qualities of the rank and file, and by the Austrian blunders, which outnumbered those of the republican generals.

style="text-align: justify;">Neither were the results of the Castiglione cycle of battles quite so brilliant as have been represented. Wuermser and Quasdanovich lost in all 17,000 men, it is true: but the former had re-garrisoned and re-victualled Mantua, besides capturing all the French siege-train. Bonaparte's primary aim had been to reduce Mantua, so that he might be free to sweep through Tyrol, join hands with Moreau, and overpower the white-coats in Bavaria. The aim of the Aulic Council and Wuermser had been to relieve Mantua and restore the Hapsburg rule over Lombardy. Neither side had succeeded. But the Austrians could at least point to some successes; and, above all, Mantua was in a better state of defence than when the French first approached its walls: and while Mantua was intact, Bonaparte was held to the valley of the Mincio, and could not deal those lightning blows on the Inn and the Danube which he ever regarded as the climax of the campaign. Viewed on its material side, his position was no better than it was before Wuermser's incursion into the plains of Venetia.[62]

With true Hapsburg tenacity, Francis determined on further efforts for the relief of Mantua. Apart from the promptings of dynastic pride, his reasons for thus obstinately struggling against Alpine gorges, Italian sentiment, and Bonaparte's genius, are wellnigh inscrutable; and military writers have generally condemned this waste of resources on the Brenta, which, if hurled against the French on the Rhine, would have compelled the withdrawal of Bonaparte from Italy for the defence of Lorraine. But the pride of the Emperor Francis brooked no surrender of his Italian possessions, and again Wuermser was spurred on from Vienna to another invasion of Venetia. It would be tedious to give an account of Wuermser's second attempt, which belongs rather to the domain of political fatuity than that of military history. Colonel Graham states that the Austrian rank and file laughed at their generals, and bitterly complained that they were being led to the shambles, while the officers almost openly exclaimed: "We must make peace, for we don't know how to make war." This was again apparent. Bonaparte forestalled their attack. Their divided forces fell an easy prey to Massena, who at Bassano cut Wuermser's force to pieces and sent the _debris_ flying down the valley of the Brenta. Losing most of their artillery, and separated in two chief bands, the Imperialists seemed doomed to surrender: but Wuermser, doubling on his pursuers, made a dash westwards, finally cutting his way to Mantua. There again he vainly endeavoured to make a stand. He was driven from his positions in front of St. Georges and La Favorita, and was shut up in the town itself. This addition to the numbers of the garrison was no increase to its strength; for the fortress, though well provisioned for an ordinary garrison, could not support a prolonged blockade, and the fevers of the early autumn soon began to decimate troops worn out by forced marches and unable to endure the miasma ascending from the marshes of the Mincio.


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